Ayhan and İsmail on the subway from the airport
Breezing through the modern and efficient visa and passport control and into the baggage claim terminal, it hit me that I was going to experience some reverse culture shock with the "westernized" world after traveling in Central Asia for two and a half months. I was also surprised when my name was called from a wall of people who were waiting for friends and family. My host, İsmail, and his friend Ayhan met me at the airport--no small feat since Atatürk airport is in the western suburbs on the European side and İsmail lives in the eastern suburbs on the Asian side, but it was a pleasant surprise that would only improve with amazing hospitality. It was about 2½ hours to get from the airport, not including a 30-minute stop at a restaurant for my first official Turkish meal: dürüm
(kebab wrapped in pita bread), salad and a sample of sucuk
, a curry-tasting kind of sausage.
Haydarpaşa train station from the Eminönu ferry
I also tried a drink called şalgam suyu
, which was described as "red carrot juice" but tasted like beet juice. It was not exactly the flavor I was in the mood for, but at least I was trying new things.
İsmail lives in Maltepe, which is one of İstanbul's many municipalities. As most people are aware, İstanbul is the largest city in two continents, a fact that when witnessing the sheer vastness of the city is not hard to believe. When we arrived at his flat, I was greeted by a sparkling clean tile floor, stylish IKEA couch, a modern kitchen and a spiffy bathroom that had a *gasp* washing machine. After a much-needed, normal shower, I started laundry and settled down to chat for awhile to discuss the weekend's plan of events.
On Saturday morning we woke up and Ayhan, who had also stayed the night because his flat was too far away, cooked a delicious breakfast of menemen (scrambled eggs with meat, peppers and white cheese) with fresh bread, cheese, olives, organic honey and a sweet yellow tomato jam.
Inside the Yeni Camii
It was delicious! We began our busy day by taking a train (light rail) from near İsmail's to the end of the line, a large German-built train station called Haydarpaşa. From there we boarded a ferry to Eminönü, the main ferry port for a concentration of most of the city's attractions. A large mosque called Yeni Camii (New Mosque) greeted us after the pleasant 20-minute ride. Apparently it was older than many of İstanbul's other mosques but the name had stuck. We wandered uphill on cobbled streets past throngs of shoppers and busy merchants. There was a distinct European feel to the area, and of course we were technically on the European side. We walked through the Mısır Çarşı bazaar where I purchased some spices to take back, including Turkish saffron and cardamom. Next we got lost inside the gigantic Kapalı Çarşı, or Grand Bazaar, with its many stalls selling everything from gold and silk to belly-dancing costumes and leather shoes.
Inside the Kapalı Çarşı
It was a bit overwhelming and over-the-top, so I didn't want to buy anything, but it was interesting to see.
Our next stop was Sultanahmet, where the famous Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque and Topkapı Palace are located. It had been eleven years since I briefly wandered through this neighborhood with my Peace Corps trainee colleagues-to-be on our way to Tashkent. To the side of the Blue Mosque were some ancient obelisks that had survived thousands of years of wars, weather and tourists. We entered the Blue Mosque after removing our shoes and I recalled the vastness of the place. Even though it was busy with tourists and worshippers alike, there was a peaceful harmony that coexisted between the two seemingly disparate groups. We had walked awhile already that day so after the mosque we took a breather next to a simitçı (vendor of a pretzel-like bread ring with sesame seeeds, found all over Turkey).
Tranquil Blue Mosque
The Aya Sofya was in plain view but I would visit that another day alone. After our rest we walked for about 40 minutes along the water's edge, watching fishermen reel in their catch while ubiquitous cats looked on, hoping to score a morsel themselves. We paused again at Gülhane-Saray Burnu where I found a large statue and a towering Turkish flag for an essential photo. An added bonus was that the weather was beautiful and mild all day, probably in the mid-60s.
Because it was getting later and we were hungry, we decided to take a taxi across the Golden Horn to the bustling neighborhood known as Taksim. Along the main strip there we ate at a cafeteria called Borsa, where I had dolma (stuffed grape leaves), lentil soup and vegetables. I bought a small Turkish phrasebook at a bookstore and then we went to have my first cup of Turkish coffee at a little cafe called Palyaço (clown).
The Blue Mosque and late afternoon sky
The coffee was in a small espresso cup and contained a lot of grounds at the bottom but was tasty and a much needed burst of energy after all the walking. The plan for the evening was to go to a hamam, or traditional Turkish bath, and because Ayhan lived near one we decided to stay at his house for the night. From Taksim we walked to Beşiktaş to catch another ferry across to the Asian side municipality of Üsküdar and on to Ayhan's house. First we walked through a colorful market displaying fruits, vegetables, fish and meats. Especially the fish were noticeable because of the bright lights shining down on their silvery scales. Ayhan bought some tangerines, simit and açma (simit with sucuk and cheese) so I could try them. At his flat I met Ayhan's brother Aydın and we snacked for awhile before heading off to the hamam.
Enjoying türk kahvesı at Palyaço
At Ağa Hamam we each went into a small room and changed into a linen cloth that we wore for the duration of the bath experience. We then entered a warm anteroom and then a very hot room that was the main bathing area. Instead of a pool of water, there were bathing stations in each corner that contained a marble platform to sit and a kurna
(water basin) and a pail to wash with. In the center of the room is a hexagonal hot stone platform called a göbek taş
, which is extremely hot. After washing my hair with a fragrant soap and dousing cool water over my body for relief from the intense heat, I attempted to bake myself for a few minutes on the stone before having to step into the anteroom for some fresh-by-comparison air.
Night fish market in Üsküdar
If that wasn't enough, we went into a sauna room that was hotter yet, but I only remained for about five minutes. After the sauna, Ayhan and I took our turns getting scrubbed down with a kese
(scouring mit) that took layers of Central Asian dirt and dead skin off. We then went back to the hot room and finished washing. We could have hired someone to wash us, and I saw an old man getting soaped up in the anteroom, but I had had enough heat and wasn't quite ready for a public scrubbing so we finished up. It was quite relaxing once we were done and out of the heat. We ended the evening by going back through Beşiktaş to Ortaköy and tried a kumpir
, which was the best loaded baked potato I'd ever had. I got to choose my own toppings and mine had cheese, butter, olive paste, red cabbage, kısır
(bulgur wheat with spices), peas and corn.
New friends after a long day, at the Ortaköy pier
We sat on a dockside terrace looking out over the Bosphorus and enjoyed our potatoes after a long and busy but wonderful day!