January 3, 2009

Top 4 Grand Bazaar Tourist Mistakes
Istanbul, Turkey

Probably the best way to describe the Grand Bazaar is to quote Mark Twain:

We went to the grand Bazaar in Stamboul, of course, and I shall not describe it further than to say it is a monstrous hive of little shops—thousands, I should say—all under one roof, and cut up into innumerable little blocks by narrow streets which are arched overhead.

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar (or Covered Bazaar) is one of the largest covered markets in the world. With more than 58 streets, over 1,200 shops and between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily, it's a bustling, well-known city attraction for tourists seeking jewelry, pottery, spice, carpet shops, and/or a good laugh.

Many of the stalls in the bazaar are grouped by type of goods, with special areas for leather coats, gold jewelry and the like. The bazaar contains two bedestens (domed masonry structures built for storage and safe keeping), the first of which was constructed between 1455 and 1461 by the order of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. The bazaar was vastly enlarged in the 16th century, during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and in 1894 underwent a major restoration following an earthquake. [Wikipedia]

In the area on an errand, the family and I decided spent some time in the exceedingly popular structure. Although the vast majority of the shops are for tourists, locals shop here as well, lending a welcomed (though particularly diminutive) dose of authenticity.

Mistake 1: Ignoring the Threats

Pickpockets: In any crowded place such as a bus, tram, Metro, market, entrance to a busy place—anywhere where people are packed close together, guard your bag, wallet, camera, jewelry, wrist watch, and anything else of value.

Bag-slashers: They get behind or beside you in a crowded place, slash your bag or pocket with a razor blade and collect your valuables. You don't see or feel a thing. Defense: keep your bag in front of you where you can see it, not behind you.

Bag-snatchers: Often young boys, they'll lunge past you, grabbing your bag on the way. The defense is pretty simple: when in a crowded place, wear your bag strap across your chest and hold your bag close. This wouldn't stop a determined thief, of course, but the point is that the thief is not after your bag, he's after the easiest bag. By holding yours firmly, you remove yourself from the 'easy' category. He'll probably look elsewhere for a mark.

Mistake 2: Interacting with the Touts

A tout is person who solicits business importunately. Simply put, they're aggressive shopkeepers and hustlers trying to make a sale.

Rampant the world over, dealing with touts is something that any long-term traveler should come to peace with early into his or her journey. Unfortunately for the tourists in the Grand Bazaar, they're typically not travel-hardened or street-savvy people who've dealt with personalities far worse than those found within the sprawling structure.

I couldn't help but laugh and feel a slight sense of pity for all the people around me getting snared into unwanted conversations with shopkeepers:

(scene: tourist idling, sipping on a beverage, waiting for his wife)

Tout: Sir! Sir! I have many beautiful scarves here. Come and take a look. Excellent quality—handmade.

Tourist: No, that's ok. Thank you, though.

(shopkeeper leaves shop and approaches the idling man)

Tout: Where are you from? There are many colors and it's quite affordable. They pack very small and make wonderful gifts. Just feel the quality…

…and so it went, on and on and on, even after wife appeared. Finally, the wife gave the husband a look and she walked off. This gave the man a reason to politely excuse himself from the shop keeper with a chuckle about catching up to her.

This is all about energy management. I know it's hard, but ignore people. You can't have a conversation if you don't react or pay attention to people vying for your time. It only takes a fraction of a second to not turn your head when a tout shouts out to you. On the street, in the bazaar, it doesn't matter.

I know it's hard to repress your good manners to acknowledge people who speak to you, but it's a different game in these parts. Trust me, no one's feelings are going to get hurt when walk past without saying a word, or stand there and idle in silence with your back turned.

Learn to ignore, and save yourself the grief.

Mistake 3: Revealing Your Country of Origin

Belly dance apparel

Telling a storekeeper your actual nationality if you're from a 'prosperous country' (such as USA, Italy, UK, etc) is the kiss of death in a market. Oh, you may think it's because they want to talk to you in your native language—because many of these storekeepers have amazing multi-lingual skills—or quote you prices in euros or dollars or sterling pounds, but the reality is that they're sizing up the size of your bank account.

Prices are always going to be outrageously exaggerated in the places like the Grand Bazaar, but you're really shooting yourself in the foot when you say "I'm from Texas" or "Berlin" or "Milan". You're screwed.

Someone like Tatiana comes up and says "Peru" and instantly gets an opening price that's 1/3 the amount just quoted to the tourist from France.

Where was I from in the Grand Bazaar? I was from Argentina, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama… Who cares? Pick a country and have fun with it. Use the same tactic everywhere you buy things that require negotiation or safety (like taxis).

Mistake 4: Buying Stuff

The Grand Bazaar is more the tourist attraction than a shopping place. Everything is wildly overpriced, even after you get done haggling and your 'special discount, just for you'.

Although the concentration of stores and convenience are hard to beat, there are myriad stores and streets around the Grand Bazaar that only receive a small fraction of the visitors too intimidated to actually walk out of the structure and into the alleyways. Without the need to ratchet up prices to pay for rented space, this is where the locals are shopping. This is where you need to shop.

Comments:

The United States

Anil

March 3rd, 2009

But the bargaining can be the best part!

Turkey

Craig | travelvice.com

March 3rd, 2009

Make no mistake, you should be bargaining everywhere, for almost everything. At the hotel or hostel, ask what the weekly rate even if you don't plan to stay a week. At the markets, use your best judgment and pay what you think is fair.

The problem with the Grand Bazaar is that the shopkeepers aren't motivated to make a reduced sale when some tourist is just going to come along and buy it at an inflated price. Placing yourself in a market where you can get a fair price from people interested in moving their merchandise is paramount to getting a good deal.

The United Kingdom

Jack - eyeflare travel

March 3rd, 2009

Tourist-trap or not, I loved the Grand Bazaar for the ambience. I visited round the same time of year as you, and the few bum-bagged North Americans were easy to ignore along with the touts.

Good tip about the side streets too, especially if you're buying silver or leather (for which Istanbul is well known), that's where to go for good prices and keener shop keepers.

The United States

Bob L

March 3rd, 2009

My favorite thing to see at these shops was actually just outside the bazaar. They were designer labels. Not cloths with designer labels, the labels themselves. In big rolls. Want to make a batch of Levi's, buy the labels and sew them on. Done.

Bob L

The United States

Erik

March 3rd, 2009

Eh. The bazaar was ok. I know it's interesting simply due to its sheer size but I wasn't exactly enthralled. Coupled with my girlfriend's not too unwarranted fears of dense crowds, I was more concerned for her well being than I was glancing around much. I wanted to find saffron but didn't know where to begin looking for the good stuff, not the low quality garbage pushed on tourists. We too had a better time wandering shops in the alleys nearby as well as those just off the well worn tourist paths.

As far as tourist traps go, I did enjoy the underground cistern. Though maybe it isn't worth the few YTL, it was still an interesting place to spend 10 minutes looking around.

In general though, the best part of our adventures is the food. We love all kinds of tasty things not often found, if ever, inside the North American borders. And I love an entire geographic region that eats lots of plain yoghurt!

Turkey

Craig | travelvice.com

March 3rd, 2009

Nail on the head about the yogurt Erik — 99% of it here is plain, natural and unsweetened. This is great, as that's what we give to Aidric every day. (sometimes difficult to find or decipher sugar-free yogurt in foreign scripts/languages)

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