Friday, July 15, 2011

Istanbul Diaries

This is my second visit to Istanbul, and one thing I've learnt so far is that deja vu is not quite a reliable guide as one would like it to be. On one hand, it can trigger memories of places your hands rested, streets you once walked, sites you once saw or things you had done. However, it is not sufficiently useful in helping us make sense of the things we see before us even if we've seen them before.

There is always that little thing called 'context' that changes everything: it gives us a prism through which what we see acquires new perspectives, colours and dimensions. Sometimes these are not new and could have been there all along but somehow missed our attention.

My last trip to Istanbul was not that great. It's true that I was fascinated by the sights (who wouldn't) but I had a miserable experience at the airport: didnt get picked up by the hotel and so after four hours I managed to reach the hotel on my own, got conned by a south Asian, and something went wrong with my handycam.

Well, that was then.

This time I decided to put all the miserable experience that took place back behind me and once again take a plunge into the streets of Istanbul -- and in the process, discover what I may have missed out during my last visit.

I suppose, things did begin on a bad note and so my perceptions got blurred. Thankfully, this time I ensured the airport transfer was in order and as soon as I came out of the customs I saw a young man holding a card with my name on it. It turned out he was extremely pleasant and talkative but - as he explained - his Arabic was a lot better than his English. His company assumed that I was an Arab since I was travelling from Bahrain.

It was a rather long drive from the airport to Sultanahmet and the heavy traffic didn't help matters at all. In between, my temporary guide told me that the Asian side is a lot greener than the European side. "Lots of buildings buildings in European side," he told me. It seemed like a never ending stream of traffic but it enabled me to see a bit of what I was going to experience in the next few days.

If one has to categorise the main differences between last time and now, I guess, technology will be one of them. Last time the camera I used had to be loaded with a film and so I had to carefully ration what I wanted to photograph and what best to avoid. Hence, the handycam was useful to 'shoot' the rest of the scenes. Digital photography has changed everything, and once you combine that with Photoshop... a tourist is definitely in a much safer landscape as far as photography or 'capturing memories on film' is concerned.

Istiklal Avenue was another pleasant surprise. It was colourful and vibrant back then, and I do remember getting warmly excited about the place but nothing prepared me for what I saw this time. There was incredible energy all around, the kind one can find in parties or get togethers. Music on the streets, colourful graffiti, artshows, outdoor cafes, shops with huge discounts, bookshops... it was a little like being in London's Leiceister Square but with a mild orientalist twist.

I would have to say 'mild' because there's a heady mixture of both the Oriental and the Occidental that one could see co-existing on the streets. Women in hejab walking next to couples who are cuddling or in some cases girls in hejab holding hands of their male partners. This would be a scene that would be quite normal in other western capitals but to see it here was a bit of a surprise.

And yes, surprise would be a wrong word to use because Istanbul sits on the edge between Europe and Asia... not just geographically but culturally and politically as well.

I was told that the festive feel of Istiklal Avenue was a conscious decision taken around five or six years ago when Istabul vied to be declared Europe's culture capital, and apparently, got that designation. However, preparing the road for that designation took a lot of planning and preparation, and the final result is a street that one must not avoid whenever one visits Istanbul.

Apparently, this move has been good for the tourists because it has become extremely tourist friendly... in other words, opened up means to explore the city on one's own if one wants or take up guided tours if one chooses (you can either book for a group or hire a guide if you are on your own). You'll see these licensed guides walking around with their license as a badge.

Obviously, tourist friendly also means the possibility of being taken for a ride and I suppose there are risks aplenty. If one asks for a place that serves a decent kebab, the hotel receptionist is more likely to suggest a friend's restaurant than ask you to check the most authentic. However, there are ways to skip this route: one is, of course, the tried and 'tasted' route of going all out and entering any place that one likes or, better still, take hold of a backpackers guidebook... and you'll be in for a pleasant surprise. I discovered the most amazing Jewish Armenian restaurant off Istiklal Avenue using this route.

Then, of course, there are some restaurants that one has to visit because of where they are located: the Galata Tower restaurant should not be missed because of the great view of Istanbul, and ofcourse, the cafe in Topkapi offers the best view of Istanbul. In fact, the cafe is situated close to where the Sultan would sit to admire the Bosphorus.

Eating in the Topkapi cafe gives us a view of the Asian side, and just the thought of the history and the wars and the conflicts that took place here are enough to get any history buff interested.

The other thing that I noticed this time around was the ease of transportation. Earlier I used the taxi and since I was there for only two days or so, it didnt matter much. But because this time I was on an extended stay, I found out that the public transport is quite helpful in many ways. There's the metro that has very limited stops but the tramway is excellent since it meanders through some of the most 'necessary' stops in Istanbul.

One has to buy a card for 6 TL and then top it up as one goes. You can use the card in the trams, metros and if I'm not mistaken buses as well. In a way it's best to combine all modes of transport together to really enjoy oneself.

The best mode is, of course, walking. It will give you a better feel of the place than just sitting in a tram or a taxi. However, make sure you got good walking shoes and lot of energy especially if you are doing a bit of history in Sultanahmet and the Old City. Apparently, Istanbul is a hilly city -- seven hills or so, am told, but need to check. Now what this means is that there are lots of slopes and the roads are all cobbled up -- great for horses, perhaps, great for photography, great to look at, but quite exhausting if one has to walk up and down the cobbled streets.

Of course, there's always the great Turkish cuisine to make up for lost energy.

And finally, I found most people quite friendly, hospitable and warm... this was something I missed out last time because, I suppose, I wasnt paying attention. And this, in my opinion, was the biggest thing that I missed.

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