December 22, 2008

Istanbul Arrival, Mass Transit Mayhem
Istanbul, Turkey

Arriving in Istanbul was getting a violently strong, welcomed, slap to the face.

WHAP!! Wake Up!

After several months, the lazy gray fog of winter in Eastern Europe had lulled us into a bit a trance. We knew that we were under-stimulated, but it took the jolt of our arrival in Turkey to really make us realize how bland our city experiences had been for far too many weeks.

It was organized chaos—a near-overwhelming blur of people, language, food, spices, color, and merchandise stimulated every bodily sense. Tatiana and I looked at each other and smiled, the same thought painted across both our faces: Finally.

Finally, we felt alive again. We felt lost and confused and rejuvenated all at the same time. Our spirits refilled with the sudden rush of a radically different change in culture, and the notion of being knocked off balance by such a thing.

We were happy, and rather baffled…

Our bus had supposedly deposited us at the city's primary bus depot, but it looked like we were in more of a parking garage than anything. Adding to the confusion were half of the passengers who remained on the bus as it drove off. Shouldn't this have been the final destination? Where the hell are we? Where's the pedestrian exit?

We'd lost track of our other passengers as they collected their bags from under the bus and disappeared into the merchandise-lined alleys of a subterranean bazaar.

A subway train flew past behind us. We could see the platform—the place I needed to take us—but there was no access. Between us and them was thick concrete wall with a few elongated portholes.

I'd done some light research on how to get to our new CouchSurfing hostess, Neşe, the evening prior. She'd given some pretty vague directions over the instant messenger, and I'd done my best to fill in the gaps ahead of time so we didn't have to improvise too much after 12 hours of travel on a sleepless night (we had to wake up so early to leave Bulgaria that I just didn't bother going to bed).

Neşe (pronounced naySHAY) was located in the Üsküdar district of Istanbul. It'd take two subway rides and a ferry to reach her. We still had quite a bit of inner-city travel ahead of us.

The Bosporus

Did you know that Istanbul was halved by a strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara? Don't worry if you didn't—for some reason my terribly ignorant self didn't know either.

The Bosporus forms the boundary between the European part (Thrace) of Turkey and its Asian part (Anatolia), and as it turns out, such verbiage (referring to 'European' or 'Asian' sides) is deeply engrained in the way people communicate and talk about the city.

The exact cause for the formation of the Bosporus remains the subject of vigorous debate among geologists. Thousands of years ago, the Black Sea became disconnected from the Aegean Sea. One recent theory contends that the Bosporus was formed about 5600 BCE when the rising waters of the Mediterranean/Sea of Marmara breached through to the Black Sea, which at the time (according to the theory) was a low-lying body of fresh water.

Some have argued that the resulting massive flooding of the inhabited and probably farmed northern shores of the Black Sea is thought to be the historic basis for the flood stories found in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in the Bible in Book of Genesis. On the other hand, there is also evidence for a flood of water going in the opposite direction, from the Black Sea into the Sea of Marmara around 7000 or 8000 BCE.

Getting to Üsküdar

The clock was ticking. We needed to be in position to meet up with Neşe by 8:00, and it was already 6:30-something by the time we climbed up the unlabeled, anonymous set of stairs outside to the cold, dark, raining apex of the structure. I needed to get local currency from the ATM, and to get us on that subway.

Back inside, amidst a jumble of shimmering wares, iced seafood and sizzling meat, we discovered an information booth. The English-speaking staffer got us orientated on the cash machine and the entrance to the subway with far less effort than it actually took to reach these places, located at opposite ends from each other through the distracting bazaar.

Totally confused at the protocol to enter the subway (both where and how to get a ticket or token came off as a rather esoteric process), I finally forked over some cash to a man in a booth whose job seemed to involve such things. I was quite pleased when he gave no resistance to breaking the large note the ATM had dispensed to me.

He returned to me a bunch of notes and coins, and I somehow got the impression that I was supposed to use these to purchase something out of a machine. What I didn't notice was that a pair of tokens—known as a jetons in these parts—was mixed in there with my first exposure to their currency.

A friendly guard saw the confusion and quickly helped us out, providing us with a little pocket subway map in the process.

I'd pulled up a subway/light rail schematic of the city last night and saw the transfer point. It looked simple enough on the screen (and again on the little map in my hand), but the reality of the thing was far from it.

Accustomed to underground subway transfers in large metropolitan areas, I expected that we'd walk a tunnel of some sort and just hop on the east-bound line that'd take us to the ferry docks. This was certainly not the case.

Firstly, there's no tunnel. In fact, the type of train is totally different. The red line that we rode was a subterranean subway, whereas the purple line is actually an aboveground light rail that zips long the streets.

Second, there are no signs, and the walk is unexpectedly far. In the dark and rain we would've been totally screwed if it weren't for a pretty young girl (from one of those nearly-unpronounceable-astan countries to the east, freshly married to a Turk) who approached us and offered to walk us there (before we even thought of venturing out of the subway station).

This girl was a real lifesaver, and even paid for us at the turnstile when we had to repay to board the light rail.

It was closing in on 8:00, and we still had the ferry to catch. We said goodbye to the helpful young woman as we disembarked and hustled as fast as we could in the frigid rain towards the trio of ferry docks. Yet another pair of jetons purchased for the ride across the Bosporus (Istanbul: -1 point for incompatible tokens for subway and boat travel), and we were on our way.

The mass transit isn't cheap in this city. Each ride costs us $1/person, which adds up real quick when you need to take two or three different modes of inner-city transport to reach a destination.

It was at least a quarter after eight by the time we'd jumped off the ferry and located our poorly sheltered rendezvous point. Neşe wasn't there, and we gave her another 20 minutes before we started approaching people near the ATMs if we could use their mobile to call her up.

We discovered that she was still en route to us, and finally appeared sometime around 8:50.

We were exhausted, and it was raining, but Neşe said that she needed to get some things from a supermarket half way between the docks and her house—so Tatiana's offer to pay for a taxi ride was tossed out.

It was a full 16-something hours of travel between the time we'd left the house in Bulgaria with our arrival at Neşe's. We really didn't know what to expect of her place, but it's friendly space with a cozy private bedroom she uses for her guests.

She whipped us up some (frozen, store-bought) traditional Turkish ravioli, served in the popular style: with a large dollop of plain yogurt and some spicy oil drizzled on top. It was very tasty stuff.

We're exhausted and relieved our day is at an end, but even more so, we're happy to finally in Turkey.


The United States


February 21st, 2009

Hey Craig, am enjoying following your travels. Reading this post I am curious about how you and Tatiana manage to carry 2 packs and a baby! How do you divide the load?
It's very inspiring that you are traveling with a baby. I've met a lot of traveling parents during my adventures and am always impressed with how laid back and at ease they are. Hope I can do it one day when I have a kid.


Craig |

February 21st, 2009

Howdy Leslie — thanks for reading along!

Well, I'm still using the same backpack that I have been for a while now (you can see it, and what's inside here), and Tatiana's carrying a huge 80liter pack (compared to my 50l) that I keep getting her to try and lighten, but carries all of her stuff and Aidric's clothing inside it.

Unfortunately, I've had to add a smaller (35l?) 'frontpack' to the baggage to carry all of the cooking, toys, bottles, and foodstuffs that we need to support Aidric.

So, if you can imagine it… we've got this tough little Latina carrying Aidric in a harness on her front, with her heavy backpack on her back. Then me with my primary pack, plus the support supplies on my front. …plus we're often carrying a bag of diapers with us because it's too expensive to buy much less than a 50-pack.

It's a lot of stuff. Having a family along with me is a far cry from just walking around with a single small pack on my back.

The United States


February 21st, 2009

I found the mismatched tokens of Istanbul transit equally strange. Because I was staying in the Old Town section the entire time and walked almost everywhere else or took only direct transit routes, I never felt the need to seek out the Akbil pass either though.

When on the European side (I assume you at least spent some time there), how many shoe shine brushes were "dropped" near or in front of you? We had a total of four in a five day period! Can't imagine what it's like outside of winter.


Craig |

February 22nd, 2009

Erik, believe it or not, we didn't experience the 'shoeshine scam' once during our time in Istanbul (three-something weeks)!

It helped a lot that we we always living outside the tourist bubble, only venturing into it from time to time.

Somehow, I also knew of the scam before we even arrived. Don't ask me how… maybe I stumbled across this page:

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