Sunday, October 11, 2009

Istanbul – Bazaar’s

From the massive Grand Bazaar and quiet Arasta Bazaar to the aroma filled Spice Bazaar above, we had such a good time wandering around the busy narrow streets containing the bazaars. As you could imagine you could buy anything and seeing it all was fun. Of the bazaars we visited my favorite was the Spice Bazaar where the mounds of spices and turkish delights were fascinating. Just outside it there was also a huge outdoor "pet shop" where you could scoop out your pet food from one of the some 30 varieties just like would the spices, along with buying your live game bird for dinner that evening.

The most interesting item for sale we saw had to be in the "witch doctor section" where they were selling LEECHES in big plastic jugs half full of water! I guess people just rock up and take home a bag full of leeches to treat themselves. Weird!

While exploring the Spice Bazaar we decided to buy some Turkish delights to take back to friends and coworkers. At these bazaars the name of the game is negotiating. We stopped in at one stall selling loads of spices out front and Turkish delights inside. Getting to know the salesman, I quickly made friends. When you want something in Istanbul everybody is your friend especially once they realized you are actually interested in purchasing something.

Talking to him he let us sample just about everything. This shop and many others like it have big cases of honeycomb literally right out of the hive ready for sale. It’s not like going to your local super market and picking up a jar of honey. Here you buy the comb full of honey. Its sort of like buying cheese at a deli, you just say how much you want and they cut it off for you and package it up.

Knowing we couldn’t really take any with us I asked for just a taste. After a strange look the the guy said, “Nobody ever asked for that before, but why not”. So he cut us both off a piece to try. You basically just chew out the pure sweet honey goodness and spit out the wax. Score - one giant sugar rush!

In the end, he gave us what seemed like a good deal on Turkish delights. I was able to negotiate him down to almost half the original price. Happy as could be, we left with 1.5kg of Turkish delights sealed up ready for a flight back to the UK.

Our last morning, Steph decided she wanted to have a Turkish bath. I passed on the experience but here’s her morning experience in her own words:

“I left the hotel quite early, around 7am, and made my way a few stops on the tram to find one of the more popular bath houses. The Turkish bath is a combo of sweatin’ it out in an intensely hot domed room and then having a massage/bath scrubbing from one of the bath attendants. I was one of the first people there with only one other bather in the hot room (another tourist – from England). So, we both had the little chat of “do you know how this works?” and since neither of us did, it was quite entertaining to see her go first! They take a little scrubby mitt and a mass amount of suds (I’m talking mounds (!) of silky suds all over you while you’re laying down) and scrub/massage you head to toe. Then, they take you over to one of the marble sinks, you sit on a low marble ledge and they even lather up your hair and dump buckets of hot water over you. At that moment, I felt very much like a muddy dog getting washed in the backyard – not the most posh spa-like experience – more utilitarian. But hey, it was fun. I did get a proper scrub down, sweated it out as much as I could stand in the hot room (laying on hot marble can only be tolerated for so long before you feel like you will melt and become a puddle in the floor!), and I even had a dip in the hot tub. The bath house was very pretty – the hot room being all marble – floor to dome, with little archways that lead in to the little rooms where you have your hair washing. The actual baths (large hot tubs) vary across bath houses but this one was quite modern. They also have a lounge where you can relax in your robe afterward having a fruit juice, a chai or a nap. Also, as pretty as I thought it was, they say that the men’s sides of the bath houses are always so much nicer. Oh yeah, there are two sides – one for ladies and one for men. All in all, it was a neat experience!”

Finally, to wrap up Istanbul I wanted to tell everybody how much we enjoyed our time there. It was such a fantastic mix of Europe and Asia. It is as raw as it is civilized. It’s a city that can satisfy all sorts of travel desires. From unscripted Asian experience to get of your comfort zone to European city style historic site touring and comforts. If you are looking for some place different and exciting you should give a strong look to Istanbul and Turkey.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Istanbul - Carpet Buying Experience

Carpets, carpets, and more carpets. A trip to Istanbul is not complete unless you have a carpet buying experience which isn't hard to come by even if you weren’t looking to buy a carpet. Let me tell you about our experience.

It was our first morning. We slept in a bit but then set out to explore. We were in the Hippodrome near the Blue Mosque having stopped to look at our map to figure out if we were on the correct road. A well dressed man in khakis and a polo shirt (with an embroidered South Carolina logo) was walking by with a young lady and he said “Do you know where you are going?”. Even though we said yes, we did, we somehow found ourselves in a conversation with them, mostly due to his American accent. He was out with his niece, in town for Ramadan, and he is an exporter – he sells big, expensive carpets in the US in Florida. Since he mentioned he was a carpet exporter we started asking about carpets and where we should go if we were interested. He made it clear that he only did exporting so we saw his advice as unbiased. One thing led to another and he said he could get one of his employees to teach us a few things about carpets.

Before we knew it we were being escorted by his niece (he had to go meet a friend) just a couple blocks away to a house with his and his wife’s name painted in a flowery sign above the door. Quaint, right?

Walking in, the place was like a museum, with old masks, cloaks, rugs, etc everywhere! They had stacks of folded carpets down every hall, most stacks at least 6 feet tall. The employee took us to a room and laid out several carpets and said can we pick the 2 real carpets out of the 8 he presented. We picked one of them. He then proceeded to go through each carpet explaining how we could tell it was a not 100% genuine. He also took a lighter to the wool carpet to show us that it doesn’t burn (burning wool smells like burning hair, by the way – it doesn’t burn but it stinks!).

So after the lovely little demo, which we could tell was well rehearsed, he started showing us some of their carpets. They make most themselves in Turkey but also buy a few from places like Iran. Another guy showed up and started helping show us their carpets, unfolding the 8x10 rugs one by one starting a massive pile in the middle of the room. Undoubtedly, there were a couple that we really liked. When they had about 25 rugs unfolded and stacked in the floor, they started taking them away, asking what we thought of it. They were selling us a carpet! Narrowing the stack down to the couple we were interested in! The afternoon had morphed from a “have my friend teach you about carpets” to “the original guy coming back and starting to talk price saying he doesn’t normally sell directly to individuals”.

To wrap up this long story, we did not get back to London with a carpet. For starters, the nice carpets are very expensive. Our favorite is the one pictured above.

In hindsight, we were so impressed with the casual way that he “picked us up” on the street. It seemed a truly chance meeting and casual conversation that led to a 3 hour carpet buying experience! We didn’t feel like we were targeted until afterward when we trying to piece together exactly what had just happened. And we realized how he actually gathered lots of info about us in our “casual conversation” – information that let him know we could be potential buyers. In the end, that was the biggest swindling we had ever been a part of and we didn’t even know it until afterward!

I actually googled “carpet buying experiences in Istanbul” when we got home and I found one person’s blog who said they were in the Blue Mosque area and someone asked “Do you know where you are going”! Simple words – non-intrusive, polite, casual – but the key phrase to say “you’ve been targeted!”

(We’ve got his business card, in case YOU are interested! They do make lovely carpets – we do think he is a legit business – I googled him too. He is recommended by a couple tourism guides as “appointment required”. His spiel about not normally selling to individuals is a fib to make you feel like you have a rare opportunity in front of you, but his carpets are beautiful and appear quite high quality. If we were to buy a carpet in the future, we might go back to him, although fully aware the next time!)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Istanbul – Roof Tops and Ramadan

I could go on for days about the sights in Istanbul. The Aya Sofia – an old church turned mosque turned museum, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque better known as the Blue Mosque, the many bazaars, the palace… they were all so incredible to see and shouldn't be missed. As strange as it may sound I instead want to talk about the roof tops of Istanbul. You can find roof top terraces in the form of restaurants, caf├ęs or bars all over Istanbul. Sitting out in the warm summer evenings, with a sea breeze blowing, made enjoying the views of Istanbul and the Bosphorus so memorable. Looking out at both Europe and Asia was such a thrill.

One afternoon we sat and watched the sun go down, on a roof terrace of course, where we met an entertaining fellow named Mario. He was a British guy working in Istanbul and a life long traveler. This was his local. He is playing a friendly game of backgammon in the background of the photo. After talking for a few hours we joined him for an ice cream at his favorite shop followed up by a Turkey history lesson over a late night tea – commonly referred to as a ‘chai’.

Now, before researching Istanbul I had always heard of Turkish coffee and after visiting Istanbul I’m not sure why. Although I did have a Turkish coffee, the people seem to rarely drink it opting instead for a ‘chai’ tea. It is a strong tea served everywhere in odd hourglass-shaped glasses. Everybody drinks it throughout the day and besides being good to drink, it is cheap. We found it to be a great excuse to stop and relax while touring around.

One thing we didn’t realize before arrival was that we’d be there during Ramadan, the Muslim religious month for fasting from dawn to dusk. There were big crowds on hand to celebrate Ramadan and a festival-like atmosphere set up around the blue mosque. We hung out here one evening and took in the sights and sounds, even sampling some interesting Turkish treats.

Hearing the last call to prayer for the day, we decided to cap off the evening by following all of the prayer goers into the Blue Mosque. Shoes off and Steph's arms and shoulders covered, we made our way into the mosque. What a site! The walls and ceiling were covered in blue mosaic tiles, with massive round columns supporting the huge dome. The huge carpeted prayer area was lit up by large low hanging chandeliers. After being ushered into the visitors section we sat and watched as they prayed signaling the end to their day.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Istanbul - A rough start

The trip to Istanbul, our first to the Asian Continent, didn't get off to the best start. We knew ahead of time we had to buy a visa on arrival and took enough British Pounds to do so, opting for our normal technique of getting local currency after landing from an ATM. At the front of the line in passport control a Turkish man asked for our passports and said 40 dollars please. Thinking it was a translation issue we slid our pounds through the window at which point he looked up holding our passports shaking his head saying we must pay in US Dollars or Turkish Lira. So to make a long story shorter, we could not pay in British Pounds like most of the rest of the passengers on the plane because we had American passports. For some reason you can only pay with your country's currency or in lira. We had neither. On a side note, with negotiations in progress to join the EU, Turkey may want to think about fixing this policy.

Leaving Steph by herself and handing over my passport to security, I was escorted out of passport control to an ATM to get cash. This shouldn’t have been a problem but my card didn't work due to a “Card read error”. With no other option I headed to the dreaded money exchange window and swapped my pounds for lira.

Escorted back to passport control we again tried to buy Turkish visas only to be a few lira short due to the fees from the money exchange. Are you kidding me! Luckily another traveler, a Canadian girl, had the same problem and lent us the money to buy our visa's to get through passport control.

Finally allowed to enter Turkey we tried Steph's ATM card but it failed too. The same card read error. This was starting to get old until a bit of persistence paid off when we tried the last machine on the other end of the airport that happily accepted our card and gave us much needed Turkish Lira. Whew!

Outside the airport we found a shuttle and soon were at the Asian shore waiting on a ferry to take us to the Sultanahmet District on the European side of Istanbul. The ferry ride treated us with some fantastic views of the sights to come. In fact we were so smitten taking photos from the ferry's top deck that the ferry pulled into our stop and then left again before we could get off! Again, are you kidding?! I’m not sure what to say here but I guess we were totally off our game with the airport fiasco and now this.

After scampering down to the lower deck and trying to communicate with the boatmen, we found out our ferry was jumping over to the other side (the other European side only 2 minutes across the river, not back to the Asian side which is a half hour away), then coming straight back - good news. Now that we were watching the ferry stop process, we quickly realized they only do a slightly prolonged touch-and-go. All of the commuter ferries have a huge tire on the front allowing them to slowly bump into the dock long enough for people to quickly jump on or off. They don’t always stop and dock. Lesson learned.

Back to try again, we jumped off the boat to a fairly hectic scene. In the heat of the day, sun blazing down, taking it all in was great. People everywhere hustling to get on and off ferries, busses honking, trams dinging past on the nearby bridge, taxis in the background honking and zooming past, people selling anything and everything all supported by the sea traffic’s engine hum, arrival horn blasts and resulting waves crashing into the sea wall. It was a brilliant welcome to vibrant Istanbul.

Through all of the commotion we noticed about 3 or 4 boats lined up, all very ornate, rocking heavily in the surf and all serving fresh fish sandwiches. How could we pass this up? (Plus, we had heard about them thanks to good 'ol Rick Steves) Stepping up and placing an order, I watched the grill man, below take a piece of fish off the grill, stick it in a crusty roll, cover it with lettuce and onions, douse it with lemon juice and hand it over to me in trade for a couple lira (less than a pound!). Verdict: not too bad. Would pass on the onions if we did it again.

All was now going well. We were sitting and enjoying our fish but then I noticed out of the corner of my eye a young boy running up to the table selling something, which turned out to be tissues. I instinctively grabbed one of my bags and pulled it closer. Well this offended him. He angrily said “NO NO NO” and shook his finger at me proceeding to yell in Turkish to all his friends doing the same. It was just a reaction; I didn’t think he was trying to steal it. Sorry young Turkish boy, us visitors can sure cause a fuss!

One thing to know is that Istanbul has a very low crime rate. It is a very peaceful city and we never felt threatened or endangered in all of the crowds and chaos that is Istanbul.

Fish sandwiches eaten, we then dropped our bags at the hotel and re-grouped from our rougher-than-normal arrival and headed out to soak up more sights and sounds.

Istanbul Photos