Istanbul's wonders and a bit on Pamukkale

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September 4th 2018
Published: September 4th 2018
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Turkey, December 2012 - January 2013

Day 1

We have arrived, probably yesterday evening? I’m writing this based on my handwritten notes in 2018, five years later so…

The first full day goes by wandering around Old Town, hoods of Sultan Ahmed mosque or Blue Mosque as it’s also known as. This area is quite touristy but necessary to appreciate the heritage and history.

We end up visiting Blue Mosque twice because the visiting hours are unknown to us. Suppose checking timetables prior to visiting wouldn’t be such a bad idea. It is closed for prayers in between as it is still functioning as a mosque and not just as a tourist attraction. It has continued serving as a mosque from the beginning of 17th century. Details and the building itself is fascinating.

Hagia Sofia is impossible – we decide not to queue in the rain. Learn more on Hagia Sofia

In the evening we take a super cheap cruise down Bosphorus and back – interesting angle to see the sights. When we head out, the sun is about to set and it’s all lovely. On our way back it becomes dark and the boat transforms into a party disco boat. Do check before hand if that doesn’t sound like your thing. Istanbul Insider provides more info on the cruise operators:

We have expensive dinner which is not amazing and a few drinks to finish the evening.

Day 2

Local transport is cheap and ridiculously easy to understand. Don’t think we got lost once, although we used trams, ferries and buses. There’s one thing I wasn’t prepared to with regard to public transport. Avoid crowds! There is a possibility of grinding and groping. This type of sexual harassment doesn’t just happen to foreign ladies, I’ve been told. So stand next to walls or cover yourself with bags etc. or just wait until the next train, or the train after that... Trams operate frequently enough.

Aside the unfortunate and unnecessary experiences on the tram, the day promised many good things to us as well. We visited underground water tank, Yerebatan Sarnıcı. It is also known as the Basilica Cistern. Apparently there are hundred of these underground cisterns in Istanbul and this is the largest one. We see Medusa’s head and 300 columns. The atmosphere is eerie. It’s dark, and the columns are lit for an atmospheric effect. Lots of tourists, lots of them taking lots of pictures. Possibly because it’s raining today, and a dark, underground water tank is the obvious choice in these conditions. Architectural wonder if there ever was one. Well, obviously in the league of underground water tanks. Ancient times, good times. Although this has been simply means of containing and distributing water you still see the Corinthian decorations.

Next we pay a visit uptown to the new part of Istanbul. We have yet to discover many things in this city before heading to Pamukkale, and our main goal in life as of yesterday morning is to see first hand sema procedure and familiarise ourselves with Sufi philosophy. Hence, a respectful visit to the cat community living in Mevleta Vihanesi is in order. We ask about the performances, as they probably are more like performances than religious ceremonies when one is charged 20 euros. We are hoping to get advice on what is the most authentic option but do not find out anything.

Day 3

New Year’s Eve is upon us.

And the end of the week! It is Sunday today. This evening we’re taking the night bus to Pamukkale, which is 6 hours south of Istanbul. Straight down. And the return tickets cost about 50 euros.

There’s a specific reason for this. We’re both drunkards and we’ve seen the New Year’s Eve through champagne glasses about a million times, never being able to meet everyone you plan, never being invited to the best parties or no desire to shove ourselves into cramped night clubs. Spirituality is the key word come this New Year 2013. That’s the whole point, re-birth, new light blah blah blah. 2012 was rough.

After waking up we head to Otogar (bus station) to get tickets and to make sure all is in order. Staff and the random old men are all very friendly and hospitable, like so many of the Turks we come across. We’re a bit puzzled where to go in the station, but saying “Pamukkale?” out loud helps us out a little bit. Somebody tries to explain where we want to go, and we don’t understand any of this. Perhaps a ninety year old geezer takes our massive suit case and runs upstairs faster than, say, Flash Gordon.

We find the right ticket booth and they take care of our luggage unofficially. No actual storage space in the bus station I’m afraid.

A small kiosk serves us delightful Turkish coffee and tost. For some reason Turks love toasted bread with salami, gherkin and cheese for breakfast. Grilled cheese, essentially. You’ll get it anywhere. Kids working with their father in the kiosk/diner are about 13, and we see them in the kiosk about 15 hours later when we come back to catch our night bus.

Near Topikapi metro station are some ruins of a castle and city walls that my travel companion wants to photograph through and through. Based on extinguished fire and amounts of rubbish we deduct homeless people crowd this piece of land - guarding the gates of the town?

We pass by an interesting looking, beautiful building which is a Christian Church at closer inspection. We’re interested in looking at the inside, just for the sake of comparison. However, we are startled as we’re about to enter - seems that there’s a Sunday school in procession. But, as seems to be customary to Turks, we are welcome in to watch the Sunday school pupils learning a long litany of some sorts. We are waved in “come on, come on.”

We get hungry in a ridiculous location - no restaurants to speak of, until we find three eateries in a row. Lots of Turkish families are out and about. Also eating. The three diners serve essentially the same dish - köfte, salad, bread, and yoghurt/bubbly water drink. People come and go. My vegetarian travel companion is not happy about the state of affairs but this is what we have.

We walk around and see Panorama 1453 - we have no idea what this building is. Didn’t catch our attention, if it was mentioned in tourist guides. Many Turks are queueing in front of the museum, and we are wondering if it’s a public holiday or just a Sunday in general. Loads of Turkish people seem to be working near enough around the clock seven days a week. We are not used to such dedication, as back home we slackers only do about 37,5 hrs a week as stated in the law. Obviously doesn’t apply to all trades. Us Finns would be senseless after a week if we’d have to work here.

We see graveyards. Which I have already blogged about.

There is just so much time to spend before the night bus takes off and we haven’t exactly made plans. We head back to central Istanbul and try to get into the Grand Bazaar, which has conveniently closed. We wander around the area and soon enough start spotting a bizarre phenomenon. This is a commercial district, loads of wholesale stores and shops. But all of the streets are categorised based on what the stores on the given street sell. For example, all of the bathroom and kitchen tap sellers are next to each other. Button outlets are all next to each other. Would you care to buy some string with your buttons? Oh no, we don’t have that. But the string of string shops are just down the road. I buy Kohl, eyeliner from… chemist.

Two beers later we are ready to head back to the bus station.

Day 4, Monday - Pamukkale

Coach journey from Istanbul to Denizli sets us back 55 TL, so money wise visiting Pamukkale is reasonable even from Istanbul. Coach itself is fairly modern and comfortable. Next we take a Dolmus (local public transport - minibus) to Pamukkale, that costs 3 TL.

We are staying at Artemis Yoruk Hotel, twin room with en-suite bathroom and shower costs 53 TL. The room is right by the central swimming pool, and I’m tempted to dive in. I might get weird looks as it is December after all.

We eat lunch/dinner at a restaurant called Mustafa’s, which was recommended by Lonely Planet. This is the first plate of falafel we managed to find, and the delicious meal sets us back 12 TL. The man who probably is Mustafa does funny impressions on different nationalities. We also find out he was in a relationship with a Finn, a woman called Katariina Kurki. Do we know her? Not that we know of.

The New Year’s Eve is not a hell of a party for us but that’s exactly what us mentally deranged people looked forward to. We rest at the hotel, I keep reading Ahmet Umit’s The Dervish Gate. The novel is about Rumi & Shams-i Tabriz (Seyfullah, Allah’s sword.) Well, it is about Sufi mysticism as well, but there are clever layers of murder mystery and time/space vortex derails.

Day 5, Tuesday - Pamukkale

It is the first of January, 2013. A whole new year is upon us.

I’m not a believer, not even agnostic. However, I’m slightly interested and slightly not completely against psychogeography. If you know what I mean. I first came across this phenomenon by reading Ian Sinclair and the like. What makes it particularly fascinating is the fact that all these icons who explore the psychology of a certain geographical terrain travel by foot. This is what we’re about to do as we’re headed to climb a mountain and walk around a necropolis.

New Year’s Day is the beginning of something new, spiritually if not really any different from the day after it. A lot of people also consider it starting afresh, hence the abundance of people giving up smoking, drinking and eating and in general all those things they’ve consumed in excess pre- and during Christmas. I digress.

I didn’t per se seek anything mystic about this journey, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt starting 2013 refreshed and in a place with possible magic powers according to ancient civilization and beautiful, breathtaking scenery surrounding interesting ancient ruins. We’ve seen the hunger and embarrassment 1st of January so many times before - when I was proposed a trip to Turkey around this time my answer was a firm why not.

Now then. We wanted to see Istanbul, but also life outside a major megalopolis.

Which is pretty close to what Pamukkale was.

Wikipedia told me afterwards that Pamukkale is Turkish for cotton castle. It is based in southwestern Turkey and it attracts quite a bit of visitors annually. One of the reasons for that are the thermal springs (which obviously make you ten years younger magically) and the Hierapolis on top of the cotton castle or limestone if you prefer.

So, 1st of January, 2012, about to climb and see travertines, Hierapolis and Necropolis for ourselves.

The ticket booth is right at the foot of the hill, and there are several entrances. You can choose to drive up behind the whole thing and enter from there as well, but we preferred a little walk up hill.

You have to climb barefoot up the hill, which takes around half an hour with sufficient amounts of photography breaks. Why barefoot? The hill is of limestone, water flows downhill and so the shape endlessly changes. You can see different patterns walking up. Suppose shoes would not only mess up the hill but your basic Chuck Taylor All Stars would be very slippery and cause damage to general health and well-being. Slippery slope.

Travertines and the thermal springs are unlike anything else I’ve seen thus far. Apparently you’re not allowed to bathe or dip your feet in anymore, unlike at the time we visited. There was a guard that will whistle if you’re about to enter somewhere forbidden or hazardous.

The area where ancient ruins are is huge and Necropolis made my inner goth happy.

There is a cafeteria and a hot spring antique pool, in which you can swim for 30 TL. It’s fairly quiet in the heated pool (36°C). Possibly because people are not into swimming in winter even though the water would be a dazzling 36°C.

Afterwards we chilled at the cafeteria by the pool, had Turkish coffee and fed stray dogs with white bread (all we had). Not essentially the best and/or nutritious option but I felt like giving the community something back. There are loadsa stray dogs up the hill, around the ruins. (As there is around Istanbul, more about that later). I was so happy as an ex-dog owner to pet them. No flees that I noticed. The last dog we fed with bread walked us all the way back to the beginning of downhill.

“You take good care now, this is as far as I go.” it said and we were off. I suppose its’ jurisdiction ended there. A mother and 6 puppies entertained a group of Japanese visitors when we began sliding downhill at sunset (not easy at all to move when there is no daylight, mind).

We met more dogs and a man called Ibrahim at the bus stop. He tells us that the dogs not neutered, some vets do it for free to solve the problem. Vaccinated dogs are ear marked, FYI. In general people are not that bothered about dogs. Ibrahim at the bus stop asks me if I’m taking the dog with me - the one I was petting at the time. “Is it possible? Am I allowed?” I ask my travel companion. The answer is not affirmative.

Before we climbed, we wanted to get bus tickets in advance. Metro bus company has an office in Pamukkale, and we entered around ten. The door was unlocked, but no one was there except a guard dog, who didn’t perceive us as a threat, but even he was unable to sell tickets. In the office. Of course it was the after match of a world-wide party-hard night, but nevertheless we were puzzled and highly amused. Later on in the evening we managed to get a hold of someone, and our journey back began.

Day 6

…however, I wouldn’t describe myself as fresh as a daisy the following morning. So begins the second part of our time in Istanbul. For the rest of the time, we are not staying at the hostel or any such accommodation anymore, but at my friends’ house in Üsküdar.

We arrived in the morning, and obviously had to wait patiently until the Turkish office hours are finished. My friends are both lawyers who have got extra boost from the fact that they have worked and studied English in London where we met the first time. My friends and I worked as waiters back in the day. My friends got married when they moved back to Istanbul and are living rental. (800euros a month, two bedroom flat)

Anyway, before entering their lovely and hospitable home, we are left to our own devices.

We spend the day by:

eating lunch in a low profile, probably chain-lunch-restaurant where I look like an idiot because I don’t have a clue what you’re supposed to do. I choose something from the glass display, and the patient cafeteria worker asks me and points at things “will you want pilaff etc”We walk in the new district, which is hills and Independence Street, modern shops and stores, lovely little places, quirky shops and even a second hand shop. We have a beer at a blues bar (just after lunch time) and behold, what novelty awaits us: you’re allowed to smoke in here!!!!We also wander into a restorer’s work shop. He welcomes us in, as per usual for the Turkish mentality, even though this is clearly just a space where he works and not a tourist attraction. He doesn’t really speak English to us and we don’t really know what to say expect “tea-sugar-dream” when we leave. He points things and show some of his more delicate projects and we can’t help but stare things at awe and wonder how such craftsmanship still exists in the modern, let’s-dispose-the-shit-out-of-everything world.

I left the Dervish Gate in the coach so we buy a new copy because I really, really want to finish this book.

To get to the Asian side of Istanbul, you take a ferry from Eminömi to Üsküdar and meet our friend at the ferry harbour. From there, we take a bus to Ilkiz’s and Cenk’s house, which is honky-dory and in a quiet side street, residential area, near a school.

All of us are exhausted, we from wandering around and Ilkiz from being a top-notch professional. We have a chance to catch up a little bit and make plans. Hammam, and we hear from Cenk that he has been invited to an art exhibition opening the following day. The art gallery centre is in Hangman’s place (area’s name roughly translated) but I have blogged about the exhibition elsewhere.

Day 7

We slept very, very long. After all, the sleep deprived bus journeys and mountain air - bah - had taken its toll. We try to figure out how to make Turkish coffee without much success. Here you can find instructions.

After a slow morning, we head to a nearby bakery where you can also sit down and eat. We order pide (potato, kind of bread. very greasy and very tasty) and apple tea.

There is something picturesque about a row of fishermen at Üsküdar ferry harbour. Pink jelly-fish swoosh about in the sea. Hardly noticeable but once the pink cotton candy swimming underneath the surface catches your attention you begin to notice that they come aplenty. Bosphor Bay is the place to be.

We take a ferry to Iskeleci and from there to Eminömi. Topkapi Palace and its garden are on the cultural attraction menu today.

Today we finally managed to enter Grand Bazar, which is a covered set of narrow alleys and stalls/small shops. All sorts of things to take home with: coffee, spices, leather goods, icons, trinkets, arts & crafts… teas as well! we bought jasmine, rose and pomegranate.

After a long day we want to grab a few Efes beers by the Bosphorus Bay (near the ferry harbour just in case). We see a boy that has been beaten up. Real bad. He’s one of those many, many kids who are on the street selling tissue paper. We give him money because we have no idea what else to do. Two men - random by-passers, students if you ask me - tell us “you need to go suddenly”, we need to split quickly. This is what we do but obviously you start wondering what else is there. Maybe the boy hasn’t sold enough tissue bags a day? Maybe people need to feel more sorry for him, the person/parent has thought and thus made him look more sympathetic with a whip.

We go home concerned and feeling helpless.

Day 8

After midday we are heading towards galleries and a museum of art at the area Cenk called Hangman’s hill or lane or something along those lines.

We pass by in an area north of Kabatas literally a hundred-strong police force. Armed with machine guns. Initially we think that this may be a committee visiting a football game, as we’ve heard these events are more violent sometimes than hooliganism in Europe. Oh well.

Later we recount this to our hosts, who explain after figuring out whereabouts we were, that there are demonstrations at the university campuses - anywhere else, things would get ugly. And so they did, eventually when the demonstrations expanded off-campus.

Plus afterwards we met up with Ilkiz (Cenk was with us at the exhibition) and headed for a few drinks to an art studio space around this Hangman area in the new town. There are about 10 of us, the Turkish hosts are all bohemian, 20-30 year old artistic types. They play guitars and various instruments, I manage to record some. There’s also so much food that you can’t see the table and its surface underneath all the dishes, each one looking more delicious than the other. We drink a few beers and smoke. This studio, we hear, used to be a place where they made Jewish headstones.

There is a locally famous stand-up comedian and an author whose names I have lost even though I wrote them down. His friend translates literature, and he asks us what we think of Pentti Saarikoski. Finns always swell up with pride when somebody knows even the slightest fact about our culture. I was happy that evening, my friends.

Day 9

A walk with Ilkiz around Uskudar. We have interesting conversations on politics.

“This country is divided into two.” When our hostess returned to her home country from London, religious party’s support was up to 40%! (MISSING)She couldn’t believe it - she was from a supposedly secular country, crafted carefully by Ataturk which she speaks fondly of.

Even when we have this conversation Ilkiz keeps her voice down and we wouldn’t dream of pressuring her to answer our questions. Constant glances over shoulder - what kind of people are standing around. Just a few polite “really?” here and there. Yet the young professional lady from a fairly conservative background is agitated and animated when she speaks.

I feel privileged because I have learned of the situation through word-of-mouth. Yet I feel compelled to immediately put this new material into use, whereupon lies the problem with this genre - how much are we allowed to use other people’s opinions when we don’t go about the town telling that if this conversation turns out to be interesting I shall use it in a creative non-fiction.

We brush off the politics and move into lighter subjects. We eat in a trendy café called Betty Blue - lentil soup. The bill comes in a Betty Blue video casette case. I find this so endearing that I decide this is the best food all week.

Day 10

In the morning we head to hammam. Again with the spirituality – are we washing away sins?

This hammam is in Üsküdar, near Ilkiz’s and Cenk’s house. Ilkiz loves hammam, but has never been to this particular one. It was established in 1640, and it is in the old gypsy area, Ilkiz tells us. Women enter from Bayam entrance. Everyone else, i.e. men, use the other one. Just a helpful little tip there. Perhaps more historical hammams in the old town cost more, this one is 22 TL for just bathing and 37 TL with massage. You pay when you leave. Includes a soda water you sip afterwards (I felt like fainting afterwards, that’s your low blood pressure in the heat talking) but a helpful lady poured cold water on my face.

Luckily we had a local friend to guide us through this purification rite. There was another Eastern European girl by herself who eventually gathered herself and asked us for advice too.

• First, enter a chamber with beds. All clothes off except pants. Wrap yourself into a square textile.Then into the actual bath. You start running hot water and sit next to a pipe. You take a bowl, and you ladle hot water over yourself. Taps are usually at the sidesThere is also a sauna, you can go and sit thereIf you want a scrub and a massage, there is a circular area and in the middle masseuse ladies will rub you. They’ll call you and you work it from there.With an oven mitten – after you have burnt your skin with the almost boiling water – you scrub off dead skin.Then you shampoo (we brought own products)And you’re off to drink your lemonade/soda water.

We found even this strangely similar to Finnish sauna routine. Hot, wash, out & a refreshing beverage. Same old, same old. Just the structure is different and the tools differ.

We get dressed and pay. Upstairs we hear some singing. Ilkiz tells us this is a hen party. Traditionally hen parties come here to bridal hammam - wash their selves, and mother-in-law massages and washes the bride-to-be. Then there’s food, dancing and singing. Another interestin tid-bits: mothers come to hammams not only to get rid of dead skin but to scout girls for their sons, our localite tells us. Awww and creepy at the same time.

I haven’t taken any notes what we did in the evening but we must have had something to eat somewhere the very least? Oh yes, if my memory serves me right, Ilkiz and Cent went to a family dinner. We, on the other hand, find ourselves in a restaurant that is like a diner, old men, communal table, bright lights, TV on in the background and everyone is watching it… Plus you can smoke and drink. Hoorah. We order loads of bits and it’s just too much - albeit delicious. I wish I had marked the name down.

DAY 11

Turkish Star Wars is on TV!

Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam. Never heard of this although I have spent years in the popular cult field and in close collaboration with geeks of all shapes and forms.

Cenk makes us beautiful brunch while we try to understand the meaning on TV screen. Cheese, boiled eggs and bagels with seeds on top! How much j’adore.

Ilkiz’s younger and bubbly sister has stayed over, and we have a little chat with her. Well, she was reading for an exam but only half-heartedly. I forget what she studied. Her hair is dyed red, and she says her sisters keep telling her that “you need to look more professional.”

Ilkiz has left very early to her home town Ankara to say goodbye to her old teacher.Again, it seems odd from my perspective at least to stay in touch with someone who used to teach you in primary or secondary school, let alone visit the said teacher at their deathbed. This particular teacher has made an impression on Ilkiz, we don’t really have the chance to go into further details.

We bid farewells to our lovely hosts and Ilkiz’s sister leaves at the same time with us. She negotiates us manicures from a nail salon near their house. We thank her and get our nails done.

We have tried to arrange places at Sufi sema, a traditional dance/sacred ritual. Initially we really, really wanted to book places from the monastery where Rumi himself practised, but that was full. The next place also looks “authentic”, it’s in the old town in an actual monastery. We manage to book tickets from there, but it’s cancelled after all. We find out because we have coffee in an atmospheric café right next to it, and somebody tells us.

Oh well. We look up a tourist info that directs us to a very commercial show at Hodja-Pasa. No photography. The other places allowed photographs in those long-winded and dramatic guidelines emails we received.

The actual sema is astonishing. and we forget the commercial theatre environment. For example there’s a theatre bar and a group of school kids who’d be anywhere in the world except here.

I have stated numerous times that I am not a believer or a mysticist of any kind. I approach life with Zen attitude when I remember, other times I’m a c***. However, this made a lasting impression on me and Sufi mysticism is another way of life which I read of and find astonishingly beautiful. But I feel like a phoney because God doesn’t live in my heart as Sufism kind of expects.

BUT even when I got back home I found myself at peace with the world and all the failures and bad memories of last year had been washed away from my shoulders. I blame the travelling rather than being channelled with divine grace, although they say sema dancers are antennas between mortals and the divine.

The rest of the evening we spend by buying meaningless jewelry, fezis and cakes. Sums up the whole trip neatly.


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