Thursday, July 8, 2010

Flight home and... Canada?

Security was questionable at the Istanbul airport for our flight home to Chicago. On our way through security, something looked suspicious in our bag, so they had us take them over to a table for search, then left us alone with them for 5 minutes or so before returning to actually do the search. Nice one.

Then our transatlantic flight ran out of gas and we got diverted to Toronto (making an even 20 foreign countries on the trip). It was crazy hot. The woman sitting across the aisle from Josh passed out from the heat and we took off with her laid across a set of seats with an oxygen mask on and people fanning her trying to help her cool down. She did seem to fully recover by the time we got to Chicago, but I was troubled by the treatment she got.

We were fortunate enough to be re-booked on another flight to Portland that same evening, and while we didn't actually need to hurry to catch it, we found ourselves running hand-in-hand through the airport just because we were so happy to be back in the United States and overflowing with energy. O'Hare airport has never looked so good. We arrived in Portland only about 4 hours late and Mary's parents were there to greet us. Our checked luggage didn't make it until the next day... the first and only leg of the journey where it failed to keep up with us.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Istanbul - New District

On our final day in Istanbul, we visited a more modern district of the city, across the Golden Horn (an inlet from the Bosporus) from the more historic areas. Modern Turkey is a lot like modern anywhere else. We followed the Rick Steve's tour up and down Istiklal Street. There's actually a trolley that runs the distance of the street, but it's actually slower than walking, by and large, especially if there are crowds.

Here we took advantage of a few Turkish signatures foods: Turkish delight (locum), Turkish Ice Cream (very sticky and thick), simit (bagel-shaped bread covered in sesame seeds), and helva (ground sesames, flour, and sugar). Only the last we didn't particularly care for.

There is a lot of 20th century architecture here, and a lot of European influence. This part of Istanbul leaned more toward Europe, and most of the European consulates are or were here. Most of all, this is a shopping street, and it looks a lot like other shopping streets, albeit with a Turkish twist.

We also passed by (several times) Galata tower, an old 219 feet high tower standing tall above the surrounding shops. It's supposed to have a great view over the Golden Horn, and fantastic views of the historic district, but we didn't go up.

Unfortunately, our final day was somewhat low energy, and we had a lot of last minute shopping to do. The whole trip was long, draining, and exciting. We had a great time, but were ready to go home.

From Istanbul

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Istanbul - Grand Bazaar, Mausoleums, Spice Market

Today was truly what a "Europe Through the Back Door" day is supposed to be about. While I love Rick Steves travel philosophy, all too often I've been really disappointed with the content of his guidebooks. Why? I think mainly because he's, like, the number one Europe travel writer in the USA, which means everybody and their brother is trying to squeeze through the same little tiny back door at the same time. This is evidently not the case (at least not yet) with his Istanbul guidebook.

We spent the day doing the Old Town Back Streets self-guided walking tour (not as convenient reading it as the audio ones he has for Italy are, but still good). The first stop was a lovely cemetery and mausoleum. I thought I'd seen enough of this stuff on this trip already, but they decorate them up differently here. Lovely!

From Istanbul


From Istanbul


Then we saw the old column that is all that is left of the old Roman Forum.

From Istanbul


And then it was lunch and the Grand Bazaar. We weren't really expecting much of the Grand Bazaar, having read that it's become very touristy, with jewelry shops and souvenir stalls having displaced a lot of the sellers. With locals mostly preferring to shop across the Golden Horn in the New District., and with high rents having forced out most of the workshops. However, it was still really cool to be in the old bazaar building and to see and hear it all. In one section there were a bunch of guys standing around yelling into cell phones (it sounded like there was a fight going on), who are evidently the currency exchange. We dropped in at one recommended jewelry shop where we were invited upstairs to see the craftsmen at work. One was putting some final touches on a solitaire ring, and another seemed to be stringing together settings for something, an eternity ring perhaps? We didn't have our camera out for most of it as it is recommended that you keep your valuables out of sight and close to your skin in here.

From Istanbul


The best part was the gold smith we were directed to. One particular guy who apparently doesn't speak any English, and doesn't want any payment, but loves to show his craft off to tourists. When we arrived and were invited in he was placing a crucible on the fire and getting it all very hot. When it was ready, he put in a bunch of scrap gold (old jewelry mostly), and as that melted he added more. After a while he added a bunch of white powder, stirred it up, then seemed to remove a glob of the white powder. Then he poured the gold into a mould. After a minute, he cooled it in a couple of water baths, then polished it, then handed it to me to hold for a minute before it went to his customer. Seriously. Just like on TV. It was like 2 inches by 2 inches by 1 inch, and was really heavy. He said it was 18 kt. We asked how much that much gold was worth, but like I said above, he doesn't speak English. There was evidently more gold to be rendered than he could do at once (or maybe his customer wanted two pieces), so we got to see the process a second time. This piece of gold was smaller.

From Istanbul


From Istanbul


His next customer had some bent up silver wire which he put through a tool with a couple wheels and a bunch of grooves many times to make it into nice straight wire of a smaller gage and longer length.

From Istanbul


After this he wanted to see our book (we guessed: he was making a book-opening gesture with his hands and seemed pleased when we showed him the Rick Steves cover on our iPod Touch), then suggested that we get tea at the little teashop across the alley from his shop, and watch the backgammon game outside. I guess he must have paid for our tea because the teashop owner refused payment from us. They play backgammon really fast here, maybe 4x faster than Josh and I play. And we play pretty fast. It reminded me of watching Grant and Adam playing speed chess at Mudd.

I didn't see this part, but evidently one of the guys made some gestures to Josh at me that seemed to be about me being pretty, followed up a big thumbs up. We got this from the guy selling tram tokens the other day too. And here I thought I was the only woman in the city who wasn't some exotic beauty. Or maybe it's just that I let my hair and elbows show...

From the Grand Bazaar, we moved on to a couple mosques that were kind of small and unimpressive compared to the Blue Mosque yesterday. And a third that was supposed to be very nice and we had a really hard time finding, but turned out to be closed for renovations.

Finally we went to the Spice Bazaar, which is kind of like a smaller version of the Grand Bazaar that specializes in spices... and generally in selling stuff to tourists of a more home and bath variety. We also stopped to pick up some souvenirs. After all, we'll be going home very soon!

From Istanbul


Josh thought I looked so good in the scarf that he had to try it on. Doesn't he look like a man who isn't afraid of anything?

From Istanbul

Monday, July 5, 2010

Istanbul - Cistern, Palace, Harem

Cistern
We started the day with a visit to the underground cistern in the old town of Istanbul. It was built in the 6th century AD and is as big as two football fields. However, it fell out of use when the pipes clogged, and people forgot about it. However, they did notice that the wells in this part of town were more successful. Anyway, it's this huge dimly lit cavern full of recycled Roman columns of a variety of designs. Since the columns are all different sizes round and height, they used blocks underneath to make them all the same height. Two of the lower blocks are carved Medusa heads. Some people think the Medusa heads are there to ward off evil spirits. Others think they were conveniently sized.

From Istanbul


Apparently, until recently, it was still at least half full of water, so the only way to visit it was by boat, which sounds pretty awesome. They have (mostly) drained it and installed catwalks over the water. Although there's not a lot to it other than endless underground columns disappearing into black water, the atmosphere is great down there even with a modest crowd. It feels like some rather wet Hall of the Mountain King. It showed up in the Bond film "From Russia With Love", so you might have already seen it.

From Istanbul


Topkap─▒ Palace

Next we took lunch and moved on to the Topkapi Palace, the main residence of the Sultan and governmental headquarters of the Ottoman Empire. This was certainly one of the more unique palaces we saw in our journeys, yet in other ways we felt like we'd seen it all already. Istanbul is the city that spans Europe and Asia. It is where East and West come together, and the Ottoman Empire was top dog regionally for a long time. At once we were reminded both of the Indian palaces from the beginning of our trip, the Chinese palaces from the middle of our trip, and the European palaces we'd most recently seen, with a huge amount of lovely Islamic calligraphy throughout. Unfortunately, about half of the exhibits were closed, including a lot of the ones we were most interested in, like the Kitchens and Armory. The Treasury was nice but crowded. We saw one of the biggest diamonds in the world: 86-carats.

The Hall of Holy Relics was a bit odd. They had all manner of things from Mecca, and a bunch of everyday items that supposedly belonged to religious figures: Muhammad's sandals, Moses' staff, etc. And they had many visitors who certainly seemed to believe in the authenticity of the items.

There was also a whole tulip room from the tulip mania period in Europe.

From Istanbul


From Istanbul


Harem
The harem isn't what we Westerners expect when we think of a harem. While there were a lot of women in the harem, the sexual relations of the sultan were strictly regulated by ... his mother. This is to make sure that there aren't too many heirs to compete so that the succession isn't a terrible mess. Apparently it worked fairly well, as the family dynasty lasted a long time. As a place, the Harem is the set of rooms that the Sultan, his mother, his (up to four) wives, consorts, princes, and all the associated staff lived. The quarters are of course, extremely lavish, as you would expect from a dominant world power. Common in the quarters is a blue glaze ceramic that was produced in ─░znik. They make for a nice wall decorations. The layout of the rooms is interesting, as it places the princes well away from the consorts, and the queen mother between the sultan and the wives. The only men allowed in (other than those of royal blood) were doctors. That's a large part of why there is so much misinformation regarding harems in Western culture; the foreigners weren't allowed in and apparently their speculation was a little off the mark. The harem is beautiful, and well worth a visit.

From Istanbul


From Istanbul


From Istanbul

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Istanbul - Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Monuments, Museum

Our first stop of the day was the Hagia Sophia, which is a fantastic old building that was first one of the greatest cathedrals of all time (completed in 537), then one of the greatest mosques of all time (converted in 1453), and is now a grand museum (since 1935). As such, it is in wonderful condition for its age. Plus, it's a marvelous work of architecture. It's like a pantheon built atop a bunch of partial pantheons. And for all the crowds, it is moving to see such wonderful Christian and Muslim art displayed side-by-side. Hopefully someday this will no longer be a mark of uniqueness.

From Istanbul


Before heading in, we stopped to look at the 18th century Ottoman fountain for pre-prayer ablution.

From Istanbul


Here is the main "donation mosaic" showing Constantine presenting a model of Constantinople and Justinian presenting a model of the Hagia Sophia to Mary and Baby Jesus. There were others of this nature throughout.

From Istanbul


I seem to be facing Mecca.

From Istanbul


Next we went to the Blue Mosque, which is just a couple blocks away across a park. The Blue Mosque was built in the 1600s by Sultan Ahmet, and is very similar architecturally to the Hagia Sophia. However, it's always been a mosque, and they'd worked a lot of the architecture kinks out in the intervening millennium, so the dome has never collapsed and there are more windows. The decor is also completely different: all red, white, and blue tiles and mosaics rather than dark marble. Although the Blue Mosque is slightly smaller than the Hagia Sophia, the light colors made it feel bigger.

From Istanbul


From Istanbul


After the mosque, we walked along the park that used to be the Hippodrome, or old racetrack. In the park, once surrounded by the Hippodrome, are a number of interesting monuments. As you can see Istanbul is quite a crossroads.

There was a fountain given to Turkey by Germany.

An Egyptian Obelisk with a Turkish foundation showing, among other things, the Obelisk being erected on this spot. Cool, eh?

From Istanbul


The Column of Constantine, which was actually made in Turkey, but is now just a brick obelisk because the bronze plating was stolen during the crusades.

A triple serpent column looted from Delphi (the heads disappeared just 300 years ago). You can see the Column of Constantine in the background.

From Istanbul


And finally this area also used to have 4 beautiful bronze horses. They were looted during the crusades and we saw them at San Marco in Venice. They are thought to have come from Greece originally.

Our final stop was the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum where we saw many beautiful things.

Lots of Koran holders like this one.

From Istanbul


Some beautiful calligraphy. This is the sultan's signature.

From Istanbul


And, of course, carpets.

From Istanbul


The museum also had a fantastic view of the Blue Mosque with the Egyptian Obelisk in the foreground.

From Istanbul


Downstairs were exhibits on various nomadic peoples of Turkey. It looked pretty interesting, but we were dead tired and about out of time.

From Istanbul

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Lost Day

So you know that overnight bus to Cappadocia I mentioned? It was supposed to leave at 11:30pm. At 11:30 they told us that it had broken down and would be two hours late, arriving at 1:30. Again at 1:00 we asked for the ETA and were again told 1:30. After struggling to stay awake until 1:30 we were informed that they actually hadn't fixed the bus yet and to expect it at 3:30. The Turkish fellow passenger we'd been talking with evidently gave up on it and went home upon getting this news. We thought that sounded pretty smart, since we had no faith that the bus would actually show up at 3:30. By this point, of course, it was far too late to catch a different overnight bus anywhere.

We debated what to do for a bit and eventually decided that since everywhere else we really wanted to go was at least 10 hours away by bus, we'd basically lost the entire next day, thus making the trip out to Cappadocia not so feasible (out of time). So we insisted on a refund for our ticket, which took a good long bit of arguing with them, then booked ourselves on the latest bus to Istanbul that would arrive during daylight hours, then checked into an overpriced hotel that the bus station folk directed us to. All this ended up taking us until after 3:00, so maybe we should have waited for our original bus, but who knows of it was really going to show up at 3:30?

The 10-hour bus ride to Istanbul was not as miserable as we expected. It was a comfortable "techno" bus with little TV things at each seat like on the intercontinental flights (unfortunately everything was in Turkish), and WiFi. Also appropriately timed food/bathroom stops and snack service. Had there been power for keeping stuff charged, we could have made much more progress on catching up on the blog, but it was nice to be able to book our hostel in Istanbul and download enough podcasts to keep myself in interesting radio programs most of the trip.

The bus system in Turkey does have a very good reputation for comfortable buses (definitely were that), and running on time, so apparently we just got really unlucky.

From Istanbul

Friday, July 2, 2010

Pamukkale - More Travertine

And today we have... more travertine! We took an early bus to Pamukkale where we left our luggage and went to see the travertine pools, ruin of Herapolis, and the Antique pool.

From Pamukkale


First were the travertines. Back in the day (when all the promotional photos were taken, and when Rick Steves was there with his camera crew), the pools were all open and full of people. Over the years, there's been a lot of damage to them, largely algae growth. Not sure how much of this is due to large numbers of people in the pools, since I normally associate excessive algae growth with phosphates. Anyway, now most of the travertine pools are off limits, and most of the water has been diverted in the hope that sunlight and dryness will bleach them white again. While not as beautiful in as the old photos, the formations are still incredible, and some do still hold water.

From Pamukkale


From Pamukkale


To allow visitors a similar experience of swimming in the pools, some concrete pools have been constructed along the road leading up through the natural pools. Incredibly, this isn't such a fake experience as you might imagine. The "fake" pools are overflowing with the same mineral-rich water, have the same fine mud bottom, and most astonishing, the travertine is growing off the concrete, at what we guess to be a very fast rate. So maybe these pools aren't so inauthentic after all. Is it really a fake pearl if you purposely put the sand in the oyster?

After hiking up the travertines hillside we wandered along to the right-hand side looking for better views of the travertines, with no luck. Then we found our way to the Antique Pool. This was portrayed to us as something fairly authentic where the old ruins had flooded and were now used as a swimming pool where you get to swim among the ancient fluted columns like you were at Atlantis or something. Well, that's not really what it seemed like. Closer inspection said it was $16 to swim in a skuzzy and overcrowded pool. In water that was reported to be basically as hot as the baking air. With fluted columns covered in green algae. It would have been a cool thing to have said we'd done, but other than that, it didn't look all that appealing.

From Pamukkale


Up next we hiked up to the top of the 12,000 seat amphitheater. This is probably the very nicest old amphitheater we've seen with a largely intact back wall with a good bit of decorative work on it.

From Pamukkale


We followed that by exploring the views out over the travertines going the other way from where we came up. These were better, and we also found a pool (not natural) where we could put our feet in for a few minutes to cool down.

Further along we found a bunch of overgrown travertine that looks like it hasn't had water flowing over it in quit a while. Yet evidently not a hugely long time, as it appears to have formed around a plastic bottle.

From Pamukkale


And there was also a huge travertine wall with a giant hole in it, evidently not having held water in a very long time indeed.

From Pamukkale


Also an old cemetery. Cool, eh?

From Pamukkale


For one final stop before getting into the fake travertine pools, we went out on the point of land right near where we came up the travertines. We hadn't seen anyone out there so it didn't seem promising, but we'd booked ourselves on an 11:30 PM bus, so we had lots of time. And WOW, were we ever glad we did! These pools were spectacular and full of the loveliest blue water! Further around we were able to get a much better angle on the pools we'd seen on the way up, with no people in the way to boot. I think this place would have been truly breathtaking with all the pools full.

From Pamukkale


From Pamukkale


We went swimming next, well, more like wading. It was fun.

From Pamukkale


Since we still had lots of time, we deciding to try hiking up to the monument they built to St. Philip, to see it's unique octagonal shape and good views. We evidently took a wrong turn since we didn't find it, but we did find some nice views anyway.

We then went to a nice dinner. Kabobs and pizza, yum! Now we are at the bus station waiting for our overnight bus to our next destination (well, most of the way, we have to change at 5 or 6 am since we booked too late to be on the direct bus). It's gonna be a long night, I fear. Hopefully smelling good is not a requirement for riding the bus here...

From Pamukkale