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July 4th 2014
Published: July 9th 2014
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The Egnatio odos runs from Thess.. about 40 K to the border with Turkey and as you get near the border the road feels like a WWII leftover… good thing we have a sturdy vehicle. The border was the toughest one we have encountered yet. The Greeks are not enamored of the Turks and vice versa so they take it out on the crossers.

We had heard that the crossing can take 4 hours but it only took us 1…probably because we are Americans. We almost made it in 20 minutes but the 3rd gate we went through, the guy must have forgotten to tell us our insurance was not any good there because the German rental company had checked the wrong box. So as we got to the last booth the guy pointed at us and said “you go back”, ”go back”, go back”. Since we got the point the 1st time we turned around and went back. 54 Euros and 35 minutes later we had special insurance and we were let go.

The road to Istanbul follows the coast of the Sea of Marmara. It is and exquisite coast line with fields of sunflowers and small villages. Wish we could say the same for the highway. It is basically a series of ruts and potholes with some flat pavement in between. We drove very slow while Turks passed us at breakneck speed, sometimes almost flying in the air because of the bumps or holes. Amazing!

As we neared Istanbul, we began to get better roads and awful traffic. When Mike was here in 1960 the city had about 1 million inhabitants. Now it has 18.5 million with estimates as high as 20M. Who knows, but crowded it is and driving was once again a wild west show.

We found a small camping park on the corner of the Bosporus and the Black sea. It was in a lovely little town called Kylios, an area now populated by retirees. Nice homes, small restaurants everywhere and a bus service to the metro and then the metro (subway) to Istanbul. Sounds easy huh? Not. No one spoke English at the camping area and no one spoke any other European language either. The owner, an old fella with a cane, would answer all our questions, even when translated to Turk with one statement. Puffing up his chest and pointing his cane he would say “auto bus and Metro”. Not how much, where or how long or when the busses ran. We got lucky to have a camping neighbor from Germany who had figured out the system a couple of days before. We picked his brain, ate kabobs for dinner, bought a huge fresh baked Ramadan bread from the local baker and then tried to figure out the best way to see Istanbul with limited time.

We found an interesting tour. It is called Circle Istanbul and it is not your normal 20+ people crammed in to a bus for 6 hours. It left from the old city at 0830 and finished at 2200. The purpose of the tour was to introduce visitors to the myriad cultures, neighborhoods, living conditions and politics of the city. All food, local street and water transport, a Turkish bath, and a seafood dinner in a traditional restaurant were included. So was at least 6 k of walking. We could never have done this on our own and we liked the idea of not shuffling off on a tour bus full of Americans and Europeans. So we booked it for the next day.

Got up at 0500, quick coffee, shower and off to catch the bus. No tickets since you cannot buy one. to dumb tourists. 1 hour and 45 minutes by bus, subway and taxi we arrived at the place to meet our guide. His name is Poulat and he is a kick. 38 years old, an experienced guide and willing to talk all about life in Istanbul…including religion, politics and the future, we found him not just a good guide but becoming a close friend.

With only 2 other tourists (a Canadian Grandma and her granddaughter) we were off to visit the Asian side of the city 1st, a relatively upscale and growing place with coffee and hooka places everywhere. We visited the largest fish market in Istanbul, drank traditional Turkish coffee and talked about the city’s rapid growth. The trip on the ferry was great for Mike as he had been here in 1960 and could see but not believe the changes. His ship had anchored off shore and he remembered the anchorage place but not much else. What had once been a rural view of the Asian shoreline was now completely full of commercial buildings, hotels and private villa size houses. Some of the old shoreline buildings were still there but were now surrounded by new and flashy places. In 1960 there were no bridges because the only one that did exist burned down. Now there are 3 and one more on the way.

We spent the day moving from one part of the city to another, Muslim areas where burkhas and “socially correct” headwear are the style, old local markets where we sampled fresh melons. Baklava, spicy meats and a huge baked potato filled with all sorts of stuff (see photo), and Gelato, to very poor neighborhoods right next to expensive and expansive villas of the rich. It was a photographers dream and we have over 300 photos to prove it.

The day ended with a Turkish bath that Mike liked (Katy will write about her experience later) and dinner in the center of the city. Poulat’s wife, “Candy”, (easier to say than her real name) joined us and we had a great meal and a great time. We left just in time to catch the last subway but missed the last bus to Kylios. A 30 minute taxi ride fixed that and we fell into bed at 0200. What a day!

The second day started later…actually much later and we were able to find our way to Haiga Sophia Mosque/church /museum, the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar….all without a tour bus. The photos should speak for themselves.

Our impressions of this incredible city are mixed with awe at the architecture (Ottoman to flashy neeuvo), variety of cultures in one place and fear that it is changing, and not for the best. Turkey, because of Ataturk is officially secular. No religion dominates. Education, science, the arts and literature are long standing traditions and people of many different religions and cultures have coexisted for a long time. But that is changing. Where open signs of religion (such as Burkhas) were banned legally there is now a government supported and encouraged wearing of those traditional outfits. And it is not just the dress. There are very fundamentalist Muslim movements to get Haiga Sophia changed back to a mosque. The government is led by Erdogan, a man who is not well educated but a powerful politician with the backing of the religious right. When we asked where this change was headed, we learned that it was going the way of a caliphate if it can be pulled off. The recent demonstrations that took place in Taksim square by the young, liberal and educated folks was quashed brutally and rapidly. Police are stationed everywhere as “rapid response if the Presidential Palace is attacked” but in reality it is there to stop dissent. And it has. Young men driving at night are stopped by police and checked for arms etc. just because they are young men. When we asked our guide how he would deal with this he had 2 things to say. He and his wife are holding off having children because he doesn’t want his kids to grow up as “robots with no brains”. And, they are planning to move out of Turkey after she finishes her professional exams. When we asked how, in a city that seems so accepting on the surface and with a history of coexistence could this government be elected, the response was chilling. ‘mix ignorance, with fundamentalism and poverty and you have the perfect time bomb. Add just a bit of fear mongering with a promise of a better life and you have a powerful political movement.’ Scary and sad! This was once a show place of tolerance and now one of distrust and fear.

And the issues with Syria, Iraq and Iran are not helping this boiling stew to cool off. We fear that we will see more disruption and decent into chaos or worse. While we enjoyed and love the history, architecture, food, traditions and variety of culture, we fear the end of all that if the ultra conservative folks get their way. The same could be said of our country if we are not vigilant and assertive …or more.

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