Turkey – Istanbul

I’d always wanted to go to Turkey and nearly talked my buddy (and often travel partner) Greg into going to Turkey instead of Italy in 2011. Thankfully, he resisted because Italy was AMAZING (more on that later at some point). But I was convinced that Turkey had to be my second stop in Europe and 2013 was the year for it.

Took me a while to convince Mansoor and Greg (old friends from school) that Turkey was a good idea. Objections ranged from Greg’s “am too afraid to go a Muslim country” to Mansoor’s “Turkey is unsafe because of the Syrian border situation”. Throw in a career crisis or two and the trip nearly didn’t happen. But after a couple of sessions of blood and tears, we finally booked flights for the night of Thursday, October 31st with a return flight booked for Sunday, November 10th. The plan was to spend 3.5 days in Istanbul and the rest in Selcuk (a small town about an hour from Izmir) which would be our base for the remainder of the trip.

There is something about the day of the flight that makes me almost delirious. I just love going to the airport to catch a flight out of Toronto. Not because I don’t love Toronto – I do. But the idea of getting away from home, from work, turning off my work Blackberry sounds like heaven. That subway and bus ride to the airport tends to be the high point of my trips.

This time I took the day of the flight off even though it was a late night flight. I just couldn’t handle another day at work given that I was taking a proper vacation after 2 long years. In the evening, Greg and I took the subway and hopped on the airport shuttle at Islington. Mansoor met us at the airport. Checking in was a breeze and we were soon sitting in the departure lounge with plenty of time to kill. I don’t fly well mainly because I can never sleep on the plane. So, going to the gym and running my legs ragged before the flight turned out to be a terrible idea given my inability to sleep a wink. Regardless, I somehow survived the flight.

We landed in Istanbul around 5 PM the next day which was a Friday and headed for public transit. In true cheapskate fashion, we had looked into private transfer services & cabs but decided they were too expensive for our cheap blood. We were staying at the Hatay Hotel in the tourist district and according to Greg & Mansoor, getting there was pretty straightforward. I tend to do 95% of the high level planning (when to go, where to go, where to stay, how long to stay in which city, what sites to see, etc) but the micro-details of how to actually get to places for some reason always gets left to Greg or Mansoor. So, we figured how to get to the neighborhood but being the intellectual giants we are, none of us looked up how to get to the actual hotel.

Anyway, we collected our luggage and hopped on to the train. The subway connects directly to the airport which was convenient.

The first ride into a new city is always exciting. I remember taking the train from the airport in Rome to the city and being mesmerized by the sights. Italy seemed like a cross between Pakistan and North America. Istanbul reminded me even more of Lahore as the tram rolled through the shopping district. Or maybe I’ve been away from Pakistan for so long that any place that isn’t North America reminds me of Pakistan. We took in the sights of the city for about an hour before reaching Sirkeci which was our stop.

We got off and realized we had no idea where we were and where the hotel was. None of the streets were named or numbered. Mansoor walked over to a transit employee to ask for help. The gentleman didn’t wanna have anything to do with us which was interesting. After standing around with our luggage for 10 minutes like morons, we picked a direction and started walking. We were quickly reminded we were not in North America when we nearly got run over as the traffic signal changed. Pretty action packed start and we’d only been in the city proper for 15 minutes.

Anyway, we started dragging our luggage with no clue of where we were going. We ducked into a random street hoping to find someone who might point the way to our hotel but saw no one. Unbelievably, turns out we were in the right street and found the hotel after a small walk. I say unbelievably because good things like that never happen to us (or maybe me). The first time we went to Rome, I had detailed directions on how to get to our accommodation and it took us only 1.5 hours of walking around in circles before we found the place and that too by sheer luck. But I suppose that is one of the joys of travel.

As we checked in, the reception dude gave us a low down on where we were at in the city and where the landmarks for. Just as he finished his spiel and we turned to head for the room, he pulled out a sleazy brochure for a belly dance show featuring a very attractive, barely clad lady caught mid gyration and highly recommended that we go to this particular show. I’m not sure what gave him the vibe that we were the kind of guys who would be into that but we were quite amused and couldn’t stop laughing. Amidst the laughter, we made for the room. The room was quite sparse. It was supposed to have 3 beds. Instead it had one real bed, one fold out couch and one fold out chair. I was the first to enter the room. So, naturally I grabbed the good bed and left Mansoor & Greg to fight over the scraps.

After a small break, we headed back down and asked the reception dude for food recommendations. The guy recommended a place called Pasazade. I’d read about the restaurant – it was a fancy sit down place which served fancy Ottoman cuisine. I suggested that we look for a more authentic, humble experience on the first night of the trip. The guys agreed and we ventured out.

Even though we were in tourist central, things were pretty dead. Probably had to do with the fact that we were there in November (though the weather all through our trip was absolutely fantastic – maybe we lucked out). There were tons of restaurants in the area but I tend be very wary of places that have pictures of the food on their menus which nearly all of them did. The prices also seemed nowhere close the bargain I had imagined they would be. I had an image in my head of 5 TL shawarma sandwich feasts. So, far nothing we’d seen was less than 25 TL per person. Even more interestingly, the “managers” at the restaurants were very aggressive in trying to get you to stop at their establishment. Even the waiters in Rome weren’t this aggressive. We also found the reception guy’s recommended Pasazade. It looked like a very classy joint with lots of rich, white people seated inside. We decided to save it for another night and keep looking.

Eventually we made our way back to the main street near the tram stop and stopped at a very busy dessert place called Hafiz Mustafa. We asked one of the waiters for a recommendation and he suggested we try a place called Kasap Osman. The name clicked because I’d read about this place in a Guardian article which mentioned it as one of the top kebab places in the city. I soon had the guys sold on this place and we found it easily after a short walk.

The place seemed pretty run down. But we refused to get worried. The owner had posted pictures of celebrities who had patronized his business. Among them was one Mr. Russell Crowe. If this place was good enough for General Maximus Decimus Meridius, it was good enough for us.

We expected a kebab feast at super cheap prices thanks to the Guardian review. The cheap part went for a six when the waiter brought us menus. Regardless, we had been walking for too long and hadn’t eaten in way too long to look for another place. So, we ordered the biggest dish on the menu which was a mixed kebab plate. We were famished and launched into the food. At first, it seemed pretty good but as the food started getting cold, the meat started to taste more and more like rubber. When we couldn’t get the rubber down any more, we asked for the bill and noticed that there was a mysterious 10 TL charge in there which none of us recognized. We asked the waiter who explained that it was a tax which mysteriously came to an even 10 TL. Seemed like a very happy coincidence. We were too tired to fight the weasel. So, we paid the ~125 TL bill (no tip for the weasel) and left wondering how this place was supposed to be one of the top kebab joints in the city.

Still haven’t solved that mystery but I did read about people simply naming their places after top food places to trick tourists who wouldn’t know where the real and original place was. For example, we saw tons of Hafiz Mustafa shops in the city. So, I’m still not sure if we ended up at a counterfeit Kasap Osman though I do remember seeing Osman’s picture in front of the shop which I recognized from his profile in the Guardian.

Before turning in for the night, we went to have a quick look at the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia. The two monuments looked absolutely stunning under the moonlight. Once back at the hotel, I couldn’t sleep due to the time zone change. Turned on my blackberry out of boredom, read a couple of work emails, immediately got depressed and shut it down for the rest of the trip.

There is something very exciting about settling into a new city and getting used to the sights and sounds. Even more fun was watching Greg get startled every time the azaan started. He asked us what the muezzin was saying and I politely explained that he was exhorting us to kill non-believers like Greg. He turned a little whiter than usual.

The Turkey adventure was off to a great start except for the food misstep (a misstep that would be repeated many times on this trip).

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