Cities / Towns Visited: 16
Countries Visited: 8
Steps Taken Today: 21,133
Steps Taken Around the World: 812,321
So our final day in Turkey dawned, and we awoke, albeit quite reluctantly as we hadn’t recovered from the no sleep of ANZAC day, before heading down for a pretty dismal hostel breakfast. The meagre spread was made up of stale bread, overripe tomatoes, dry cucumber (yes somehow that’s possible), feta, and tea from a machine, which I ended up finding a bug in. Assuming that the day could only improve from this point, and wanting to actually visit some of the sights of Istanbul before departing in the afternoon, the four of us, my partner and I, my brother and his friend, ventured out into the city.
Weaving our way through the crowds of people and down a few side streets we found ourselves at the Grand Bazaar; a massive indoor marketplace, which has been running since the 1400’s. I’m assuming it’s changed somewhat since then, but the interior architecture still speaks of older times, with flaking paint in decorative patterns on the ceiling, and a rather higgledy piggledy layout, you could almost imagine the shouts of medieval Turks, spruiking their wares, shouting over one another before trading goods for livestock or gold. Now it’s somewhat more civilised, and more aimed at tourists, with stall after stall of leather goods, name brand fakes, jewellery, fine Turkish scarves, and an unnecessarily large number of rugs (don’t really understand that one myself, how many rugs do people really need, and how many tourists are buying them and shipping them home? Surely it’s not a sustainable business model). None of these things were really of interest to us, but still we wandered through the rabbit warren of vendors, trying (if rather half heartedly) to entice us to purchase their goods. Eventually though, we did stumble into a store offering a large array of flavoured Turkish delights, and with the shopkeeper more than willing to give us samples and talk us through them we walked out having purchased six rolls to share between us; traditional with pistachios, pineapple with dried pineapple and hazelnuts, orange with hazelnuts, blackberry with hazelnut cream, chocolate brownie with hazelnuts, and traditional with pistachio and dried pomegranate. As we weaved our way through further, we walked past a stall with a doner kebab, being turned by hand in front of a wood fire, how could we resist. We bought some meat, and deciding that we would go and find some pide, we found any exit we could, as there was no way we were finding the one we entered from, before re-orientating ourselves on the exterior.
Thus the hunt for bread began, but we soon came to realise that we were in a tourist region, and this seemingly meant that there was no bakeries to be found. Surely there must be locals who live around who need to buy bread, but alas we came up short. Eventually we asked around a few restaurants before finding one willing to sell us a few rolls, and pleased with our success, we scurried off and quickly found a place in the shade to tuck into our mouthwatering meat.
After the last morsel was devoured, we headed off to find the Topkapi Palace, the former royal residence of the old monarchy. After passing through the heavily guarded gates we were delivered into a beautiful garden, soft grass, and shady trees abounded, and we seized the opportunity to lounge on the grass and taste a couple of our previously acquired sweet treats. They were heavenly, and we were certainly in a happy place when we stood up to continue the adventure. Entrance to the palace seemed a little pricey, and as we didn’t feel like being crammed in a museum with a million other tourists, after the last few days of minibus excitement, even to see old Ottoman empire artefacts, we circled back round and exited. Besides, we had somewhere better in mind.
After a short queue and a much more affordable entrance fee, we walked down the stairs into the dark, cold, and damp of the Basilica Cistern. An ancient cistern from Roman times which used to provide water to the city above. As your eyes begin to adjust to the dim light, you are greeted with the stunning view of pillar after pillar lit by warm golden lights, and although you can hear water, and feel it’s presence in the air, the walkways are raised as to keep your feet dry. We walked until we reached the end of the room, where we found a spout spurting the tapped ground water into a pool. Beside this stood two of the oldest original pillars of the site. Both placed on top of base stones made from Medusa head carved stones, repurposed from some other buildings at the time of construction. They are unsure as to where exactly they originated, but they still display the snake hair, and stone cold stare of the famous temptress. Thoroughly impressed with the cistern, and grateful that it had provided brief relief from the searing midday heat, we emerged back to street level.
Our next stop would be the Blue Mosque. Now the interior is currently closed as they are doing some maintenance and renovation, but you are still able to walk around the exterior, and wander through the courtyard which leads to the entrance of the beautiful building. The gardens are tranquil and peaceful, and the courtyard has many large boards which help explain the Muslim faith to people like me who have never really been taught about it. I found it fascinating and I am glad I had the opportunity to learn about their culture and traditions. Now I was one of those people who was forced to do religious education at my public primary school, something I still can’t understand, and I remember thinking, even then, that we should be learning about all of the religions, and the histories of them, so that we may better understand our fellow humans, and create a more tolerant and accepting society. Instead we were only taught about Christianity, and were reprimanded should we dare question its beliefs or stories. It was at that point, at around age 10 or 11 that I realised that I couldn’t believe in a God who wouldn’t allow free thinking or questioning of his existence. I now live happily in the knowledge that science can answer most of my questions, and I’m more than content to live with a little mystery of our existence where it cannot yet be explained or measured. I turned to science because it is willing to admit that it’s wrong, it’s willing to change its beliefs when given evidence. In saying this, I have much love for those who find solace and joy in their religious beliefs, and I openly understand religion’s purpose and potential for good. In the end, if it helps you get through the day, and you’re not hurting anyone, believe as you will. I left the mosque with a greater understanding and a more open heart, and for that I am grateful.
As we passed out the back gate of the holy grounds, we were dispensed onto a thoroughfare, in which a large obelisk stood. It has stood here for almost 1500 years, after having been moved here by a roman emperor, back when they ruled. Much like the one’s we saw in London and Paris, it’s origins are Egyptian, and with its ancient hieroglyphics still easily visible, and it’s stone shining brightly in the sun, it was a beautiful sight to end our exploration with.
We wandered wistfully back to the hostel, and shared one last drink together before dividing up the remaining Turkish delight, saying our farewells for now, then jumping into a taxi; we had a flight to catch. Another death defying taxi ride, one in which neither my partner, I, nor the driver had functioning seatbelts, and we reached the airport in no time. It was a rather painless run through security, and a short flight, before we finally touched down in our eighth country; Switzerland.
We checked into our airport hotel just near Zurich, and promptly collapsed into bed, the exhaustion of the whirlwind tour of Turkey catching up to us. Tomorrow would be a travel day, and we didn’t have to check out of the hotel until midday, so it was with pleasure we settled in for an alarm free sleep. As I wound down mentally I thought about the last five days. I hadn’t known what to expect when I landed in Istanbul. The media would have you believe that it is a dangerous place to visit, mainly due to its border with Syria (which is a thousand kilometres from the capital), and the bombing at the airport a couple of years ago (although they seem not to paint such a harsh picture of countries like France, or Germany, or England, who have all had their own attacks). Those intolerant xenophobes amongst us would have you believe that as a woman I would have a terrible time, or be at risk of assault if I didn’t cover up or wear a headscarf. I am here to tell you that it’s all nonsense. I’d love to know how many people spreading these lies have actually visited this ancient and beautiful city. At no point during our trip did I feel uncomfortable or unsafe. I dressed respectfully, and ensured my shoulders and knees were covered, but I saw plenty a tourist in less, and they were never treated poorly. I walked around with my partner and brother, but I saw plenty of lone women who were never victimised or hassled. There were a few more hijabs and burqas than I am used to, but I saw a large portion of Turkish women with their heads uncovered. This is an international city, that understands that that was are all different. Sure, there will always be people who have bad experiences, but there are plenty of cities you can be a victim of a terror attack in, and there are sleazy and misogynistic men the world over, who will assault you whether you’re scantily clad or covered from head to toe (this is because they are simply terrible people and it has nothing to do with their heritage or religion). You can’t live your life in a bubble because something might happen, or someone else had a bad experience. Do not paint a whole country with the brushstrokes of a few abhorrent people. Be sensible and aware of your surroundings, sure, but you should do that everywhere. Do not be afraid of the world, or of its people; do not let a few bad apples spoil the batch. Explore this big wide world, experience its cultures, learn about its people, only then will we have any chance to dispel the fear and hatred that poisons our world.