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BandA’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 13 Nov 2003

Location: Istanbul, Turkey

MapEACH DAY A LEAP INTO THE UNKNOWN

ESCORTED BY GUARDIAN ANGELS


Bernadette and Anthony (B&A of course!)


Preamble
As you know we usually give our diary a title so, after the first morning when we heard the bomb blast in Istanbul, we decided we really were leaping into the unknown. Our trip confirmed this view but, as the days went on, we found a strong contender for the title. As you will see we found a series of “good angels” who appeared whenever we looked like facing a problem, so we felt the trip could equally have been called “Escorted by Guardian Angels”.

Our Theology assignments were due on November 13 so, some months earlier, we chose that day to set off on our latest travels. As you may recall in November 2002 we headed off to East and Central Africa. This time we decided to head for the Middle East. The counties chosen were Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan—and Bulgaria as an afterthought.


Map showing the counties we visited and neighbouring countries.

Many people have asked us why we chose these countries, especially at a time when so many people are worried about the threat of terrorists. Well, we had several reasons. Firstly (apart from A’s visit to Turkey in 1996) all were new to us. Secondly travelling in developing countries is always cheaper so this itinerary suited our budget. Thirdly we thought that if there were going to be any danger from Muslim extremist terrorists we would be safer in a Muslim country than in England, France or the US. Finally, our daughter Jacky, her husband Ali and their three children were visiting Ali’s family in Turkey so it was a good opportunity to visit the family and have their help as interpreters.

Initially our planned itinerary was to fly to Istanbul and then go via Gallipoli direct to Ali’s village, Çavuskoy, on about November 17. However, shortly before leaving, Jacky advised us that at the end of Ramadan, November 25, there would be three days of festival and this would be a good time to visit and join in the family celebrations in the village. In addition, if we were travelling further afield in Turkey around the festival time, buses would either be overbooked or not running at all. Accordingly we decided it would be a good idea to detour to Bulgaria for four days after visiting Istanbul, and then head for Çavuskoy in time for the festival.

So much for an introduction!

The Flight
Thursday Nov 13, 2003

Tracy and Stephen were kind enough to drive us out to Tullamarine (Melbourne Airport). Some weeks earlier A had contacted Emirates (the airline with whom we were flying) to see if we could be allocated the seat behind the emergency exit so that he would have more room for his long legs and also so we would avoid the inconvenience of climbing over people or being climbed over. They said they could not promise but would pass on this request. On checking in we drew the booking clerk’s attention to this and were pleased to hear him say: “Yes, those seats have been assigned to you”. However, when we boarded the plane we found we were nowhere near the emergency exit! Despite this we enjoyed the flight.

Arrangements on the Emirates’ planes are excellent. Every seat has its own TV screen with a controlling handset and a touch screen menu. There was the choice of about ten audio channels, 10 video channels (including views of what was in front and below the plane) and 10 computer games. The handset control was also a mobile phone and you could ring anywhere in the world at a cost of $7 per minute. There was also a fax machine on board for those who needed it. We both (especially A) found one of the computer games very addictive so the flights passed very quickly with the games, plus four hours or more sleep. This was a first for B who found the footrest greatly added to her comfort and made sleep possible. The stewards were excellent and came from many countries, so interpreters were readily available in English, French, Spanish, Swahili, Malay and Arabic. All announcements were in Arabic and English.

On the 8-hour flight to Singapore we saw nothing of Central Australia as it was dark. After arriving at Singapore at 0400 we had a one-hour refuelling stopover before heading on to Dubai (United Arab Emirates).
Dubai
Friday November 14

Here we were scheduled to change flights for the next leg of our trip to Istanbul but unfortunately we had a nine-hour wait for this connection! Fortunately they gave us meal vouchers for breakfast and lunch, as our flight didn’t depart till 1400. We had brought a pack of cards with us (and a steward, seeing B playing patience, gave her 2 new packs) so this helped pass the time. It is interesting how trusting people are with regard to their luggage. On more than one occasion fellow passengers asked us to keep an eye on their luggage while they went for a walk or to the toilet, etc.

Dubai airport is probably the most magnificent airport in the world and very busy. It is huge but, despite this, they are in the process of building another major addition to it. We saw a surprising number of Indian and Pakistani travellers, probably because they were part of the workforce in Dubai. They are recruited to do the work that is considered beneath the dignity of the locals.

Most of the female travellers were completely covered from head to foot. However, in most cases, the shapeless outer garments have been replaced by high fashion and well-cut garments that revealed beautiful embroidered long frocks beneath. The veils too ranged from sexy/attractive lacy headscarves which revealed beautiful coiffures to complete coverage of the head except for the eyeholes. The Asian Muslim women were the ones in traditional shapeless dress. Interestingly the stewardesses on the plane and other airline officials did not have headscarves.

At one stage, B became very interested in a group sitting beside her. This consisted of three Asian Muslim women and, every so often, an Asian man came up and fussed around. The women, aged 25-50, did not communicate with each other and didn’t seem particularly interested in him. On one occasion he summoned the youngest and walked off while she followed him 3 paces behind. Wondering about their relationships to each other helped fill in the 9 hours.

Another form of entertainment was watching the electric “people movers” ferrying passengers from one end of the terminal to another. Most carried 3 passengers plus luggage and moved silently along the highly polished marble floors. Different drivers used different intensities of beeps to alert pedestrians. Males used the loudest beeps! There was constant movement but the huge multistorey complex was really very quiet.

We were on a “balcony” that ran along both sides of the building and provided seating, services such as a Post Office and toilets, and entry to the departure lounges. If we looked over the side we could see the shopping complex below. If we looked up we could see the tops of the palm trees (artificial but so realistic B had to touch them to confirm this) which were based on the floor below. The lights too were spectacular – some were like flaming torches. This effect was created by fans blowing flame coloured silk above the torch shaped base.

Of course we wandered around the shopping complex, which sold mainly alcohol, gold jewellery, and clothing. One newsagent type store had a set of mobiles flying from the roof. Only one was motionless—a fat flying cow! She kept struggling to fly but kept failing. We were delighted to see her happily flying when we returned 6 weeks later!

From what we saw from the air, Dubai was a very prosperous city with wide boulevards very well lit at night. We read that Dubai has an average of only 65 mm of rain per year. One wonders from where they get their water – and food. As we continued our flight we saw large areas of snow-covered mountains over eastern Turkey.

Istanbul

About 1800 we arrived at Istanbul in the dark. Official time in all the countries we visited was two-hour ahead of GMT, though solar time would have been three hours ahead. Consequently the sun rose early and dark arrived about 1600 when the sun set. This was especially true as we travelled eastward.

As planned, we obtained our Turkish visa on arrival but had to pay only US$20 rather than the Euro20 we had been told by the Turkish Consulate in Melbourne.

The first thing we needed was some local Turkish money. The first ATM gave A a kindly greeting but refused to disgorge any money. Fortunately there was a second one nearby which was more generous. Since the exchange rate was 1,015,000 Turkish Lira to the AUD we found we were now multimillionaires. The next step was to purchase a phone card so we could ring Tracy and Jacky as well as our Servas Host who had indicated he would meet us when we arrived at Taksim, a square in the heart of Istanbul. The purchase was easy but its use less so. When we went to use it we were told that there were two sorts of phones and two sorts of cards. We had the type which suited the “modern” card phones, but unfortunately we found during the next few weeks there were very few “modern” phones and we should have purchased the “old” phone card. Fortunately this time there was also one of the “modern” phones handy. What was not so good was that we were unable to contact Tracy or Jacky to let them know we had arrived safely. Apparently you cannot use Telecard facilities from a public phone and we left out or put in an extra “0” when calling Jacky. Moreover our Servas contact, Ohan, was not answering his mobile phone and the “landline” number he gave us was the home of his mother who knew nothing about our expected arrival. Our only option was to take a bus into Taksim where we would try to ring him again.

So we went out of the airport to catch the next bus into Taksim but just as we were getting on the bus B discovered she had left her handbag where we had been ringing up. A dashed back to retrieve it before someone else did, only to find that the door we had come through was a one way door so he had to go back through security to enter the airport again. This naturally involved a time delay but fortunately the bag was still patiently waiting where we had left it. By this time however the bus into Taksim had gone but another left in half an hour.

Taksim is the biggest square in Istanbul but, believe it or not, we were unable to find a telephone anywhere in the vicinity. Eventually A went into a hotel and asked the receptionist if he would try to call our contact for us. This he very readily did. (The bad news was that the call cost us $7 but the good news was that he was able to contact our man who would collect us in 15 minutes.) All this time B had been waiting in the dark and cold with all our packs in a bus shelter some distance away. By some miraculous radar A found her and took her to wait in the warm hotel lobby while A waited on at the curb for our host.

Eventually he arrived and took us to his car which he had parked up some steps in Taksim, much to the displeasure of a police officer. Ohan, on his part, was rather upset at being challenged and explained that he should have diplomatic immunity, as he was the honorary Consul for Benin and the Assistant Ghanaian Consul. We later found out that he was also an Honorary Parking Officer!

Ohan drove us to his home which, like 99.9% of other homes in Istanbul, was in a high-rise apartment block where we met his very friendly cat, Şekar, Sugar. Ohan is not married and is an engineering consultant in the mining industry with a special interest in coal. He is also a very keen traveller, having travelled to 185 countries, has written a number of books on travel, and conducts a regular travel radio session. However, his orderly life had been rather disturbed lately by a death threat from some unknown source and vandalism on his car by scratching the duco from front to rear.

After brief introductions he took us out to a hotel, some distance away, where he parked on the footpath. There we met one of his friends in the Coal Mining Industry who had also parked on the footpath. It was an old hotel and upstairs in a room full of portraits of Attaturk and windows that looked out on to the Bosphorus, a lovely mellow atmosphere. There, we had a plate of soup and a saffron desert.

We could not help but be impressed by the very congested but nonetheless orderly traffic. It was interesting that most traffic lights had a timer count-down indicating how many seconds before the lights would change. Nevertheless, we agreed that our computerised lights in Victoria are the best we have seen anywhere in Australia or overseas.

Saturday November 15

This morning we had a well-deserved sleep in but shortly after we awoke at 0920 we heard a big bang. Have you ever heard a bomb go off? Despite lack of experience we rightly recognized it as a bomb blast. We soon heard from Ohan that it was at a nearby synagogue where ten people were killed.

Ohan was a very kind host but apparently he doesn’t usually have breakfast so provided none for us. Fortunately had a few provisions left over from the plane trip.

We had decided to wander round Istanbul today so Ohan drove us to a nearby (1 km) bus stop whence a bus should take us to the old part of Istanbul. This was the first of many occasions when a “good angel” in the shape of a young lady who had good English, told us which bus to catch and where to alight, Eriodne Meydani. The conductor; on this bus, seemed to be a young boy about 15 years old. On arrival, we first made enquiries about a boat trip up the Bosphorus but, as we were too late for the regular service, decided to do the trip the next day. The cost of this six-hour trip on a large public boat was $6.60 each but a very persistent boat owner wanted to take us for a one-hour trip for $35! Needless to say we declined the offer.

We then headed for the famous “Covered Bazaar” but, on the way, passed through the so-called “Egyptian Market”. This was an open market with literally hundreds of stalls selling anything and everything. One thing that struck us here for the first time, and many times hereafter, was that all the stallholders and virtually all the shoppers were men. The “Covered Bazaar” was certainly very fascinating, but, especially at this early stage of our holiday, not tempting. We did however stop in a little café and have a welcome plate of soup and plenty of gratis Turkish bread, supplemented later by a couple of bananas.

Next stop was the famous Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Sultans for many centuries. Here we saw many portraits, costumes worn by the royal family, silver and gold plate, etc. What we enjoyed most were: the beautiful grounds, an extensive view of the Bosphorus, and the unusual kitchens with their beehive-like chimneys. We had planned to visit the famous Sancta Sophia (Hagia Sophia) Mosque and the nearby Blue Mosque but by the time we had finished in the Palace, we were too late.

We made a few enquiries as to where we should catch a homeward bus and again were helped by another Turkish Angel – this time a male carpet seller . It was about 1630 which was almost time for the end of fasting during Ramadan, and he informed us that there would be no buses running for the next hour as all the drivers and conductors would be having their end-of-fasting meal. Accordingly he suggested we come along to his shop and have a drink of tea (or apple tea if we preferred) while we were waiting. Being an “experienced Turkish traveller” A was inclined to politely turn down the “hospitable” offer but B thought it was worth the experience. Once in the shop we met all our angel’s business partners one of whom was engaged to an Australian girl. One by one the guys disappeared to have something to eat (not surprising as they had been fasting all day!) but one always remained with us as host. To our surprise they did not use any high-pressure sales tactics or for that matter low pressure ones. They said they were not interested in selling to us but just to make us feel at home. “If you know anyone coming to Istanbul you could give them our address”.

After about an hour we were directed to where a bus should take us back to Taksim whence we could get the Metro back homewards. There were numerous buses at the bus stops and we were very confused as to which would be our departure point. Once again we found two kindly angels (middle-aged women) who took us under their wings and directed us to the bus when it arrived, quite a distance from where we, and everyone else, were expecting it.

On arriving back at Taksim we felt rather at home having got to know the square quite well the night before. We also decided we had graduated in the art of crossing the road as a pedestrian. There were no such things as pedestrian crossing but the technique was simple: you start walking and keep walking and trusting that the numerous cars heading for you will divert or slow down sufficiently for you to get across safely. We also thought we were very clever as we always tried to ensure that we crossed with a local.

At Taksim we had a reasonable meal at a restaurant and then caught the Metro. To our delight we found the right sort of public phone at the station and were able to ring both Jackie and Tracy to let them know that we were safe, in the light of the terrorist bombing. Tracy knew nothing of it, so had not been worried. She did, however, have news for us. The day had been a scorcher in Victoria and there had been bush fires around Hill End including one on Tanjam that had come through from the neighbour to the North.

We had a map of the metro and a map of how to get home from the metro but we were not sure which station would be the closest. Once again a helpful fellow traveller solved our problem for us and with the aid of Ohan’s map our taxi driver eventually found the apartment block. Once there, again with difficulty, we managed to open the right doors (Ohan had given us a key) and enter much to the delight of Şekar.

After Ohan came home, at about 10pm, he took us out to another restaurant and, on the way, picked up a lady friend, Eser Eken . Her family were large landowners near Gelibolu and she lived there halftime. When she heard we were heading there the following weekend she invited us to call in as we passed through—which we later did. More about that later.

Again we travelled a long way to a simple wooden restaurant. Again Ohan parked in a prohibited area and ignored all protests from a number of taxi cab drivers waiting in that area. Once in the café we drank Milk Arrowroot topped with cinnamon and talked with Ohan and Eser. She was a very interesting lady, not least because of her interest in Gallipoli. Her home was on the seafront at Gelibolu, the Turkish town of Gallipoli, not to be confused with the battle area some distance away. Each day for 15 years she has walked along the “beach” (not sand but rocks and pebbles) and hunted for broken pieces of china from the ships wrecked in World War 1. Over the years the prevailing currents have carried these through the narrow channel of the Dardanelles and washed them on to the beach. She finally decided to turn these into a peace effort and made them into a large mosaic dove, which was displayed on 25th April 2003 as part of the Anzac Day Celebrations. In addition, she had a number of T-shirts made, showing a dove surrounded by the words Gallipoli and Çanakkale, A Time for War …A Time for Peace. She kindly presented us with four of these.


Sunday November 16

Today we were to sail up the Bosphorus, the narrow stretch of water which separates European Turkey from Asian Turkey, Thrace from Anatolia. We set out fairly early to catch the 1030 boat. Now that we were getting to know the local geography we walked to the bus stop to which Ohan had driven us the previous day. This gave us the opportunity to see more closely how people lived because, although we were in an incredibly steep and hilly area of apartment blocks, there were also some very poor freestanding homes. One of these, which looked rather like a falling down wooden garden shed, was bravely decorated with a well cared for garden and flowerpots on the path, and even on the steps leading down to the house.

The boat was fairly large, holding some 200 passengers most of whom would have been Sunday holidaymakers. It was not a very clean boat and all the notices, written and spoken, were in Turkish despite the fact that it catered for tourists. We found a window seat where we had some protection from a glass window in front but also fresh air to help dispel the ubiquitous cigarette fumes. We also had a good view of the city and some of its historic buildings along the seafront. The road on the other side of the buildings was the route we usually travelled so now we were seeing these same buildings from the other side. From the boat we could appreciate their grandeur, some of which had been beautifully restored. Even those that were derelict whispered of former days of glory and, from the distance, hid their scars.



One of the beautiful buildings on the shores of the Bosphorus

Our journey took us under two large suspension bridges (which made Westgate Bridge look like a baby), past many new and attractive homes in the wealthier suburbs, and alongside much shipping which included some very large tankers. Finally, in the distance, we saw a ruined castle on a hill above a fishing village, Anadolu Kavagi. This was our final port so we were given a two and a half hour stop before our return. As we can’t resist hills, after a delicious fresh fish dinner, we climbed up to the Byzantine castle, which had been restored in 1350 CE. There were cows cropping the green grass, the walls were high and beautifully crafted of stone, there was a coat of arms over one entry, and the view of the coastline was spectacular. No wonder they had built a castle there!

By the time we returned to Istanbul it was again too late to visit the two great mosques that we missed yesterday, but we did have the joy of seeing Hagia Sophia in the glow of the setting sun. Just like a postcard! The previous day A had torn his trousers (fortunately he had a spare pair) so we were lucky to find quite a good pair that fitted him for $10. This was quite difficult and necessitated many visits to the fitting rooms. In addition, Turkish shops don’t cater all that well for long legs although they do sell the trousers with the hems unfinished.

We had great fun trying to find the bus back the way we had come in the morning. Not surprisingly it left from quite a different place and we weren’t even sure of what number bus it was. Once again however another “Good Angel” came to the rescue and we finally found ourselves on the right bus heading for home. We were impressed, or even embarrassed, that both males and females offered to give up their seas for us on the bus. (It must be B’s grey hair!) Our next problem was to know where to get off.

We had planned to take Ohan out to dinner this evening but we had not mentioned it to him. Unfortunately when we got home (to Şhekar’s delight again) he was not there and we had no idea what time he would be back. We waited an hour or so and were rather worried about what we would have for tea. There were no restaurants or cafes nearby, and there was hardly any food in the house. About 2130 Ohan rang to say he would be home about 2230. Fortunately we managed to find some eggs in the fridge and bread so we didn’t go to bed hungry. Ohan had been giving his regular Travel Talk on the radio. After he came home he arranged for us to have a word on the phone with Evren Atvur, the National Secretary of Servas in Turkey.


Monday November 17

Today we were to head for Varna in Bulgaria. Ohan had found out for us where, when and how much the bus would be. It left at 0900 so we had to make an early start, leaving before Ohan got up. When we had just about finished packing, B noticed A had left his new green trousers behind so we hurriedly stuffed them into the pack—only to find a few days later that A now had two pairs of green trousers. We had “stolen” a pair of Ohan’s!

On Ohan’s advice we took a taxi to the Metro at Aksary, then a train to the bus station, which was well out of town. Once again we met a good “angel” on the train who made sure we got off at the right station, helped us with our packs and showed us where station 169 was situated. Fortunately Ohan had found out for us that our bus went from “station” 169; you can get an idea of how big the bus depot was.

It was about a 4-hour bus trip in a North-westerly direction to the Bulgarian border. Fortunately recent legislation had been introduced forbidding smoking on buses- except for the driver and the conductor! This applied in all the countries we visited and only occasionally was it disregarded.

Some of the impressions on this first venture into the countryside were the good roads, the high level of smog even in the country, the amount of plastic bags and other rubbish blowing round the countryside, the almost complete absence of fences, (though where there were fences they tended to be 2m high chain wire fences more for security than to restrict stock), the fact that even in the country, homes were mainly in high-rise apartment blocks, and the presence of numerous half built apartments, factories, etc. It would seem that with mega inflation the best place to invest money is in buildings – even if they bring in no revenue - because they hold their value, unlike money in the bank.