Friday, October 31, 2008

The fierce Turks

One of the things that made Turkey special, without doubt, was the fact that they were some of the friendliest and warmest people that I have ever met.

They were extremely helpful whenever we asked them anything. In case a person didn't know English or couldn't answer our query then he or she would go and call someone else who could. They would really go out of the way to be helpful. There were times when people came and stopped us and pointed out that one of our bags were open. Then there were a couple of times when there were people who came and asked us whether we were lost and needed help in navigating the local transport.

Especially memorable was the elderly gentleman who saw us at the Taksim Metro ticket counter, thought we were lost, and insisted on guiding us on how to reach our destination, Topkapi Palace. He was very earnest so I couldn't break it him that we knew the drill by then. So we just played along. He had a very kind looking face and got off abruptly before we could thank him. I tried to click him from inside the train for memory. Not that I will ever forget him.

Then there was an old lady near our second hotel who was selling lace handkerchiefs. Kainaz felt she reminded her off of Mamma and took a photograph with her. She later bought a handkerchief and the old granny kept beaming and kept repeating 'merci, ciao, terrekezen(thank you in Turkish).

They were quite sporting too. There was a 'Turkish ice cream seller' at Goreme park in Cappadocia. He saw me taking a picture and insisted on doing a flourish with the ice cream so that we could get a good picture.

Have you ever had a hotel owner literally feeding you? Well, there was this kindly, avuncular, gent who insisted on feeding ravioli with a spoon to Kainaz in his restaurant. He also told her to mix chilly flakes and salata (a local salad spice) in the ravioli and was clearly keen to ensure that she enjoyed her meal in his restaurant... or should I say house. The board behind had letters of appreciation from people all over the world. I was not surprised to see so many and added my own too.

And of course there was this young man at Starbucks who did not understand my order of cikolata (chocolate) frappuccino at first. When he realised this, he was so upset about it that he came and gave me a free one. I struck gold through our little 'lost in translation' tableux as cicolata frappuccino was the most heavenly drink that I had ever had.

There were so many more. The earnest poster seller in windy Taksim Square, the enterprising maitre d at the Museam hotel, the cheerful young man from our travel agency at Istanbul, the friendly shop keepers in the spice market...I love Turkey!!!

From the caves of Cappadocia

One problem in the run up to the Turkey trip was the pronouncing the name of the places! I kept tripping over names such as Galipoli, Ephesus, Pergemum, Kusadasi, Anatolia, Cappadocia, Pammukale, Izmir as I would read out from the Lonely Planet Book to Kainaz every night while planning the trip. It didn’t help that most of us in India didn’t know much about Turkey. At least I didn’t

We zeroed down to Istanbul, Cappadocia and Ephesus/ Izmir before the trip. This was largely thanks to our travel agent, Dilber. She suggested that we skip Anatolia given it’s a sea side resort and given that we were more into history. We then wanted to choose between Izmir and Cappadocia as the inbound flight rates were messing up our budgets. That is when she suggested go ahead with Cappadocia as she knew people who had really liked it. She also suggested the staying in a Cave hotel. We then found out about, and fell in love with, The Museum Hotel.

There was one problem. The cost actually went up compared to our original three city plan. I sat and weighed bankruptcy on one hand and an apparently surreal holiday on the other. Kainaz stepped in and said that she would pay for the Cappadocia part of the trip as an anniversary gift to me.

We moved on to Cappadocia after 3 days at Istanbul. We landed at the one horse airport of (with stinking loos) Kayseri. I got the first glimpse of the mountains as we drove down and my face fell open in wonder. And that’s how it remained for the three days that we were there.

Our hotel, Museum Hotel, was straight out of Discovery Travel and Living’s amazing hotels. Our room was fashioned out of a cave, we had our own Jacuzzi (!), a window which looked onto the most amazing rock formations and gourmet.

We had dinners where the waiters and maitre d’s were in tuxedos and every dinner was a candle light one with the most tempting looking, artistically styled, gourmet dishes.

Our room was called the ‘dovecote’ or ‘Guvencilik’ after the pigeon coves which were found in the cave and had been preserved while fashioning the room. Each room had its own name and theme. The Museum hotel was very tastefully done and got its name from the various artifacts which the owner had collected and displayed.

The curios included a gentleman, called Isa, who manned the front desk. He didn’t seem to have any answer to any of our questions on how to operate the Jacuzzi or whether the local hamam was any good. Each question would be met by a polite, perplexed look. Very different from the lively and enterprising restaurant staff there.

All in all, the Museum Hotel, was indeed a special anniversary gift for me.

As was Cappadocia! The terrain which was sculpted by volcanoes centuries back and had amazing rock formations was breath taking. The mountain rocks were shaped into mushrooms, camels, parent and child formations, couples dancing, ‘fairy chimneys’ and whatever else your imagination fancied. It out of a lotus eater’s fantasy. As we walked through the multi coloured valley in the cool, crisp mountain air, I thought ‘could we really be here?’, ‘could we be here in this magical land? Can someone pinch me and tell me that it’s not a dream? This was so removed from anything we had seen in real life. A 70 mm experience if there was one.

It was not just the natural beauty which was breath taking. There were the marvels of early man. There were churches from the time of the apostles, built two thousand years back, fashioned out of caves, decorated with frescos made out of pigeon droppings and grape juice. There were the pigeon valleys where alcoves were fashioned by people centuries back to attract pigeons to gather the precious droppings. I always feel a shiver up my spine when I am by ancient ruins as I try to imagine life as it was then. And here the shivers were on an an overdrive. The achievements of people so many centuries were awe inspiring and humbling.

The cave churches and houses were fascinating. However, the underground city of the pre Christian, Hitites was something else. The Hitites, and later the early Christians, used to burrow in into this underworld cities when their enemies would attack. They would surface out three to five months later.

You had to bend double through short passages and then come to a floor where there were various remains of ancient flour mills, grape crushing vessels, grain storage ares and so on.

Three to five minutes was all I lasted! The memory of my recent MRI was still raw and I felt claustrophobic and requested our guide to take us out. Kainaz went in, though like a rabbit, through the short passages and into the 4 levels. The group we were sight seeing with adopted her and took it upon them to look after her after I scooted out. She maintains that she was not ruffled at all. I am quite sure that she enjoyed being babied though. She said that it was an amazing experience inside.

What can I say? I like the blue sky. I met other people who came out after one or two levels and we formed a mini support group of our own while waiting for the others to come out! It didn’t help that our hotel room was in a cave. I must admit that I was a bit uneasy at night

Kainaz and I are not fond of packaged tours. Visions of a fixed itinerary, guides with whistles, Indian food, pesky fellow travelers with whom you have to make polite conversation have kept us away from packaged tours. We do take ‘seat in coach’ sight seeing options while travelling and we had our best experience so far at Cappadocia.

We had the same earnest guide, Dida, for both days. Her calling in life seemed to be to save creatures in distress. She once stopped our bus to move a turtle that had strayed onto the road to safety. And of course she stopped her tour in the middle of the underground city to take my out when I had a panic attack.

Our driver was a friendly man too unlike the grouchy, old rougue who picked us up for the first two Istanbul tours. .

We had this lovely mix of fellow travelers in our Cappadocia sight seeing tour. There four, ever smiling, elderly, Australians who were as energetic as mountain goats despite having reached after a grueling trip of Egypt. We had two honeymooning couples. One from Japan. Another was a Pakistani couple settled in the US. The Japanese lady was a hair dresser and I got a professional opinion from her on Kainaz’s Toni and Guy perm. The Pakistani couple wanted some Istanbul restaurant tips. I launched into a discourse on the street food there. Kainaz berated me saying that we would probably want something posh on their honeymoon. How was I to know? I was on my seventh wedding anniversary after all.

Then there were these two Mexican guys from the US. One of them would keep making the other take photographs of him in all sorts of poses. He would then inspect the photos and ask for retakes if they didn’t meet his approval.

A lone Japanese gentleman joined the group on the second day. For some reason Kainaz felt sorry for him and decided to take him under her wings. Whenever we got off at a place our mother hen would ask him if he wanted a photograph of himself on his camera. She would then take the camera from him and give it to me to click him. He would politely agree. Later in the day when this happened to the n’th time he sidled up to me and explained that he had left his battery charger in Japan and wondered whether his camera would last the rest of the trip. That’s when the coin dropped. I realized that in his polite, Japanese, way he was telling me, “ask this crazy lady to leave me and my camera alone!”

The two days that we spent with this group was good fun as we got to know each other and became friends. In between we even got entertained by Kainaz who was asked to demonstrate her pottery skills in a ceramic shop.

(PS The gentleman with the grey specs is the one who was trying to save his camera from Kainaz)

Apart from the ceramic shop, we also went to a a carpet shop and an onyx factory. Unfortunately such tourist traps eat into sight seeing trips the world over. We did buy a lovely black Onyx urn for Mamma from there.

I guess everything fell into place with this group. As people we got along well. Everyone was friendly and cheerful without being too prying. We were together for two days and then went our own ways. Within the two days we headed to our own hotels in the evenings and get enough time by ourselves. And we were all doing what we wanted. Kainaz and I were on a lazy croc, two city holiday. There were some who were bent on taking on as many new sights and discoveries and possible. And of course the honeymooners who were getting to know each other while exploring new places.

We definitely had the most amazing experience at Cappadocia. It primed us up for our second shot at Istanbul. I must admit that we were quite happy to get back to a big city after three days in the wilderness.

At the risk of a horrible pun…Cappadocia rocks!

Though whenever I think of Cappadocia I won't forget the yelps of help of 'Cutlet', the tiny brown coloured stray puppy who had broken its foot. I wish I could have done something for it.

Traveler notes:
- Our local travel agent in Turkey did the Cappadocia part through a company called ‘Agra Tours’. They were quite good and efficient
- Even if you like travelling alone, you would need a sightseeing tour to see places at Cappadocia as it is a large province and not a town. There were some who were driving by themselves though. I guess you would need time for that
- We skipped the balloon rides which are a speciality there. We gave it a miss as it was 170 (!) euros per person for an hour AND you had to get up at four (!) in the morning. Those who went up though raved about it. You go up in a balloon and fly over the Cappadocian terrain for an hour. At the end you get a certificate and a champagne toast

- Cappadocia involves a lot of walking so carry comfortable shoes
- If you stay at the Museum Hotel, pay more for the deluxe rooms as the regular ones are not pure cave rooms.
- While the Museum Hotel is on an expensive side, you must stay in a cave hotel if you go to Cappadocia. The cave hotel theme is quite popular now and a net search will throw up some cheaper options too. Check whether the room has a window though as it could get a bit claustrophobic otherwise

A Tale of two cities: Istanbul and Kolkata

I must confess I did not know much about Turkey or Istanbul before I went there.

A colleague suggested that I take Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Istanbul - Memories and the city’ just before I left.

I hadn’t heard of Orhan Pamuk before. He is a Turkish writer who won the Nobel Prize in literature recently. I bought the book from Crossword and started reading it at the airport.

Frankly I couldn’t relate to what he had written as I began to explore Istanbul. He had written about the filth, sense of melancholy (huzun), poverty, ruined buildings, drab clothes and pained faces.

The Istanbul that I saw (Taksim and Sultanhmet) were the same areas that he had grown up in and written about. What I saw was a city full of vibrant people, walking purposefully, often dressed like super models. I saw elegant, restored buildings. We saw well preserved and well lit up monuments. People who were bright and friendly, hardly depressed or repressed. Roads were clean and yet had a character unlike antiseptic Singapore.

Towards the end of the book Pamuk reveals his first heart break. That made sense. That could have coloured his mind and his world view. We often remember cities through our memories.

Pamuk’s argument was that the Turk’s more or less lorded over the world under the Ottomans. They did not take well to their fall from power after the Ottoman empire collapsed and the Republic was set up. He also wrote about how, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, led a Westernisation drive for them to move away from the past.
Istanbul must have seen some big changes in recent years as it was quite different from the Istanbul of the fifties to the seventies that Pamuk writes about. Perhaps the Euro Cup which they hosted helped. The government must have led this drive. One could sense the government everywhere in forms of uniformed policemen with machine guns, police vans patrolling the roads or even the mechanized road cleaners.

This set me thinking about my home city of Kolkata. Kolkata was called Calcutta and was the capital of India in the first part of the British rule. Most of the early thinkers, politicians, businessmen, cinema celebrities, writers, poets, most of India's Nobel prize winners, the best academic institutions et al were from here.

Then the capital shifted to Delhi in the beginiing of the twentieth century. Later Kolkata was swamped with refugees from Bangladesh twice (1947, 1970) – during the partition and during Bangladesh’s independence movement. The communists won the local elections and have ruled the state for more than thirty years now. The city buckled under the pressure and just caved in. Despair, ruins, poverty, meleancholy were the order of the day. Since then the city seemed to live more on its past glory and seemed to turn its face away from its ugly present. People would speak longingly of the British. The British prime minister, John Major’s visit in the nineties was seen as its route to deliverance. That didn’t happen of course and other Indian cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore left Calcutta behind in terms of liveliness and growth.

Then, like Ataturk propounded in his Westernisation drive, Kolkata too seemed to turn its back on its past in a desperate attempt to ape cities like Mumbai. That was roughly when I left the city (1998).

I see quite a resurgence when I go home to Kolkata these days – splendid flyovers, spurt of Bengali restaurants with Bengali food no longer being considered uncool, new housing properties, an acceptance of Bengali culture with clothes like kurtas in traditional designs, Bengali rock bands and so on getting popular.

Yet the differences are not as stark as what I saw in Istanbul now verus what Pamuk had written about it. I wonder what that sort of transformation would take… enlightened citizens? Administrative will? Or is it something more dramatic ?!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A tale of two cities: New and old Istanbul

The two main areas of Istanbul, Sutanahmet and Taksim, best reflect the multiple identities of Istanbul. They bring alive its unique mix of the old and the new.

We stayed in two hotels in the Taksim area. Taksim square and the road which emanates from it, Istiklal Cadesi, ends in the Beyoglu area. Our first hotel, the stately Marmara Istanbul, was bang on Taksim Square. The second one, the hip Marmara Pera, was at the Beyoglu end.

One could call this the ‘new’ face of Istanbul. Istiklal is a sort of a walking street which is lined with old buildings which one associate with 19th and early 20th century Europe. These buildings had been converted into fancy shops (clothes, books, antiques, shoes) which housed most international brands.

Kainaz took advantage of the cold to make me buy her some nice European looking stuff such as a woolen cap and a light blue trench coat. The styles were different from what you get here. Apparently she had to dress up for coffee! The irony is that I had bought the most ridiculously expensive jacket in the history of jackets from Ed Hardy as an anniversary gift but the annicersary (22nd October) was right at the end of the trip. I couldn't have her becoming an ice maiden before that could I after 7 years of sticking together through years of counting the change.

Istikal Padesi had a range of eateries - Mac Donalds, Starbucks, Burger King, etc and local kebab, kofte, piaz, delis, doner (Turkish shwarma) & oil dreched burger stalls and fancy restaurants including those in Cisek Pasaji, a very elegantly restored flower market.

There were some grand churches and an ambling tram reminiscient of late 19th century Europe.

The street was crowded late into the night with hip, smartly dressed young Istanbullus walking purposefully. It is a young and lively place and fitted into our image of Western Europe. A number of cities in the world have these ‘be there or be square’ places. The ones which come to mind are Colaba in Mumbai, Park Street in Calcutta, Sukhomvit in Bangkok and Thamel in Kathmandu and, very losely, Baga at Goa.

The Taksim area was home to Kainaz and me for 6 days and was clearly our preferred part of the city. I loved the wonderful mix of modernity in a classical shell

Orhan Pamuk, in his book, Istanbul, refers to Taksim and Beyoglu as places where the Greek, Jew and Christian minorities of Istanbul used to live. This probably explains the West European feel to the area. He also says that the houses here were ransacked during riots in the 1950s. My guess is that the government must have restored this area since then. If they have, then it is a wonderful example, which I wish could be done in India. They look very different from the filth, poverty and ruins which Pamuk writes about. The change, obviously, is dramatic since then.

The other key area is the old city or the Sultanahmet area. In fact this seemed to be the preferred base of most tourists that we met. It had most of the ‘must sees’ of Istanbul within walking distance.

You first come across the Haghia (pronounced Aia) Sophia which was built by King Justinian. It was apparently the principle Church of Christianity when Constantinople was the centre of the Christian world. This was later converted into a mosque when the Ottomans took over and you see Arabic inscriptions inside the church. Haghia Sophia was converted into a Museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic in the middle of the twentieth century. I felt that this was a nice solution to the religious impasse between the Christians who built the Church and the Muslim majority who occupied it over the centuries.

I wonder if anyone in India would come up with such an enlightened solution for the Babri Masijid Ram Janmabhoomi complex. This could turn this area of religious dispute into a monument for the world to admire.

Close to the Haghia Sophia is the Topkapi Palace. This is where the Ottoman Sultans used to live and rule the world. It is a huge complex built over 4 courts (areas). Kainaz had decided that we should explore the palace ourselves with the help of the Lonely Planet which her colleague Shushobhan had lent us to discover Turkey with. We decided on this was after we felt that we were quite rushed by the tour guides in most of the other places and could not really take in the atmosphere. I was a bit sceptical about the absence of guide but must admit that she made the right decision.

Well we ended up spending a full day here walking from court to court, awestruck by the Sultan’s reception room, the library, the huge, huge Royal kitchen, the treasury which had a throne which Nadir Shah had taken from India and the 86 carat Spoonmaker’s diamond which nearly blinded one with its brilliance.

We then bought another ticket to go to the harem and spent an hour there lost in the inner world of the sultan. We looked at the empty rooms and windows and wondered about what must have happened behind its closed walls. I am sure they must have a lot of interesting stories of the sultans and his favourite women. I wonder who ruled whom. But most have taken some skill to manage them.

In between all this we had a lovely lunch at the very posh, hundred year old, Konyali restaurant (estd 1907) in the Topkapi palace complex. It was a classy, fine dining experience which we enjoyed by the Bosporus. Loved the lamb goulash. We shared a main dish with fries, tea and ayran (butter milk). It was too expensive to order 2 dishes or wine! But that's what happens if you gate crash into the Sultan's party.

If we had gone in a guided tour then they would have crunched all of this into an hour. Well, as they say, the wife is always right.

The Blue Mosque, which was built by the Ottoman Sultans to over shadow the Haghia Sultan, is synonymous with Istanbul. This is a marvel in medieval architecture with its imposing dome and delicate mosaic work. Inside the mosque there was a lovely, red carpet which was heavenly to walk on. The mosque was meant to inspire awe... and it did!

In between the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia you come across what the tourist books describe as the ‘Hippodrome’ where chariot races used to happen. I was looking forward to seeing a Coliseum like structure out of the Gladiator or Asterix comics. Actually it is a regular metalled road with an ancient column. A bit disappointing to say the least.

What’s not disappointing is the 500 year old underground cistern, the Yerebetan Sarnici or the Basilico Cistern. This was restored in the 1990s. This is not a part of standard tours. Kainaz chanced upon it while reading the Lonely Planet in a café in the Grand Bazaar. We were quite awestruck when we went there. It was an experience straight out of Indiana Jones. You go down a regular looking staircase and come onto a huge hall like area which is the water reservoir. There are a line of pillars with a couple of them having two heads of Medusa. The atmosphere is very different. It is wet and cool with water dripping from the ceiling. The tasteful, soft lighting adds to the magic in the air. You can even see fish swimming in the water as you make your way through the walkways. There was a tiny café there where we stopped to have a cup of coffee. This reservoir used to supply water to Istanbul centuries back.

Soon after the Blue Mosque and the Yerebetan Sarnic you come to another 500 year old marvel, the Grand Bazar. This was a bazaar set up by the Sultans for people to trade. It is divided into various sections such as those for carpets, porcielen, antiques, etc. This is quite an interesting Bazar to look at with its ornate columns and ceilings. It gives you a feeling of the past far away from the glass and chrome malls today. Haggling is common here. We were called into a carpet shop, where we sipped some apple tea, saw many carpets and then firmly said no and left. It is fairly genteel and well organized. You don’t feel pressured unlike what people claim about the market in Cairo. One good place to eat here is the Pedeliza restaurant which we discovered thanks to the Lonely Planet book.

What to buy? Here’s a commonly known secret. Take in the atmosphere in the Grand Bazar and then head to what I call the ‘good bazar’ for shopping. This is the Spice Market or the Egyptian market which is a couple of tram stations away from Sultanahmet. It is less grand, has fewer shops, but has the same stuff as the Grand Bazar at half the price and is about 400 years old. The tram station for this is Eminonu. The Bosporus cruise starts from here too so you can always check it after the cruise. We did most of our souvenir shopping – tee shirts, apple teas, spices, dry fruits, evil eye trinkets – from here. The salesman are quite friendly, they push their stuff but aren't overbearing. We might a friendly young man called Jeman whom we bought most of our stuff from.

Close to the Grand Bazar is the Cimerlati Hamam allegedly designed by Sinan, the architect who designed the Blue mosque. More on that later but it is definitely avoidable unless you are a masochist. I am still too shaken by it to write about our harrowing experience there. Both Kainaz and I needed some stiff vodkas to recover from it that night.

As you see, most of the tourist spots – Haghia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Yerebatan Sarnici, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazar - are within walking distance of each other at Sultanhamet which is also known as the ‘old city’. There are a number of restaurants and hotels there. As I said earlier, most people we met were staying there.

However, the ‘new city’, the Taksim area seems more like a modern city. What I would recommend is to stay at Taksim. Go over to Sultanahmet to take in the sights and then come back and walk the streets of Istiklal and Beyoglu from Taksim in the evening.

So here you have a quick overview of Istanbul. It is almost as if it is a tale of two cities – the modern, buzzing, European Taksim and the Ottoman palaces and Occidental, medieval, majesty of Sultanahmet. Why choose between the two? After all you can get the best of both the worlds at Istanbul.

Notes :
1. The two, Taksim and Sultanahmet, are fairly well connected by public transport. You go by an underground metro from Taksim to the next stop, Kabbatas. Here you buy another ticket or Jeton and take the tram to Sultanahmet Station. The same works while returning. The locals are very helpful and they help you out if you think you are lost. That’s how we came upon this route. Each way takes half an hour and a round trip costs 5.6 Liras or 3 Euros or about Rs 180 per person. A taxi would take much more. The trains and trams are crowded by are a cake walk for anyone who has travelled on Indian trains or buses.

2. The only toursity place which is slightly away from Sultanahmet is the Dolmabahace place. This is the ‘modern’ palace where the Sultans lived post the 18th century. You can only go here with a tour group which, in a hurried 45 minute round ,shows you the opulence of the palace including the world’s largest chandelier. Turkish Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk, in his book ‘Istanbul’ says that he used to sneak kisses with his first love and muse. here. I wonder whether that’s why years later you now need to go with an organised group and can’t walk around by yourself.

3. Some indicative prices of things mentioned:
- Dolmabahace tour/ Blues Mosque + Haghia Sofia/ Topkapi Palace – each half day tour costs about 52 USD per person
- Entrance to Yerabatan Sarnici is about 20 Turkish Lira or 10 Euros per person
- Entrance to Topkapi Palace (should be done without a tour) is about 20 Lira/ 10 Euro pp and the entrance to the Harem is another 15 Lira/ 8 Euros pp
- Hamam (hamam+ soap+ oil massage) – 80 Liras/ 40 Euros pp down the drain. This price fluctuates and was higher the next day. This is also the only place in Turkey where tips are openly solicited
- Turkey tee shirt – 20 Lira/ 10 euro in Grand bazaar. 10 Lira/ 5 Euro in the Spice market. 8 Liras after bargaining.

- 100 g apple tea: 1 lira after bargaining when bought in bulk in the Egyptian market

- Pedalisa lunch for 2: 20 -25 liras, 12 euros

- Konyali lunch: 50 liras, 25 euros - skimpy lunch - sharing main course, no alcohol and so on. They have sandwich counter which is cheaper.
- Kofte piyaz deli lunch for 2 - 15 liras, 8 Euros
-- Cisek Pidesi dinner lunch with vodka, no dessert - around 35 liras (17 euros)

- Roadside hamburger - 4 liras or 2 euros

- Starbucks cappuccino - 4.5 liras or 3 euros for small (tall) Gloria's was a couple of Liras more
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