Throwing misconceptions out the window in Istanbul

This past weekend I took a side trip to Istanbul with three other Remotes.

Istanbul is a city I would recommend everyone go to. Its tough with all the terror attacks there recently and I feel bad for the locals there as tourism has gone down as a result of this. As we have seen in the last few weeks, terror attacks can happen anywhere at anytime so it is tough to know where is “safe” nowadays. That being said, I felt 100% safe in Istanbul the entire time I was there. Doing some research when I got back, I realized I stayed within a five minute drive of where some of the previous attacks where but then again I worked 2 blocks away from where the Charleston attack was. It is never a good feeling and keeps you on your toes but I am glad I was able to experience Istanbul during a peaceful weekend.

Now Istanbul is a very unique city as it is the only city that stretches into two continents, Europe and Asia. It is divided by a bay and set into three sections. The furthest south and to the west side of the river is the Old Town. North of that across the bridge is the New Town. Over to the east of the river is the Asia side. All three sections are very different and I like how water separates them since having a city by the water is always better than one without. We stayed in a hotel a few miles from the New Town section of the city. Our area was a neighborhood called Besiktas with cool restaurants and bars within walking distance.

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Istanbul is a city with tons of history as it was the biggest city in the world for about a thousand years. It was the capital of the Roman Empire and Ottoman Empire, two of the biggest in history. It has buildings built in the 500s that are still intact today. It has the one of the largest churches, turned mosque, turned UNESCO heritage site in the world in the Haiga Sophia. It has one of the most impressive mosques I have ever seen in the Blue Mosque and even though they are a five minute walk from each other, were built one thousand years apart. It has the most impressive palace I have every seen and the first and (at some point) biggest indoor market in the world in the Grand Bazaar. All of these sites made for an amazing 72 hours but getting there was something I wouldn’t necessarily recommend.

When we booked the trip, we decided to opt for the night train. It seemed great; direct straight from Sofia, around 50 Euros, we would save money on a hotel for that night and be able to sleep for the whole time. We left Thursday night at 9pm and didn’t arrive at our hotel until, wait for it, 12pm the next day! Yes, 15 hours for me but just a few sentences for you. On the train, two of us shared a cabin with 2 bunk beds in each. For the first few hours we played cards and hungout and decided to go to sleep around midnight-1am. Right as were are falling asleep, we get woken up and asked for our passports. Back to bed but 15 minute later we are awoken again to get our passports stamped at border control. It’s 3-330am and we are standing in line at the Turkish border with our passports and visas. No one seems to be in a rush so we are out there a while. We finally get back on board and back to bed. 20 minutes later, we are awoken again for our passports. 10 minutes after this, we get our passports back. So within a few hour period, we are woken up 4-5 times and have to stand in line for 30-45 minutes all between the hours of 3-5am. When we finally get back to bed we think we will be in Istanbul around 7am, but we don’t arrive until around 930am. Then we hop on a bus for 45 minutes then try to find wifi and an ATM so that we can take an uber/cab to our hotel. And finally at noon, 15 hours later we get to our hotel. Now I don’t want you to feel bad for me, I mean I got to go to Istanbul, but just wanted to provide some color on how we got there. The night train back on Sunday night was the same story as well.

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So we finally arrive at our hotel, eat a quick breakfast and take a nap. Our fist stop is the Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus side of the city and within walking distance of our hotel. This Palace is right next to the water and was home to the Sultan for a few hundred years. It was used as administrative offices when Turkey became a Republic in 1931. This was by far the most exquisite and impressive palaces I have seen. From the location looking out to perfect blue water, to the massive main Palace to the surrounding buildings and gardens it was definitely one of the coolest things I have seen. The main tour was through the Palace but we were not allowed to take pictures inside, unfortunately. The Palace had something like 250 rooms in it and it was over the top in every way. Gold plated ceilings, crystal chandeliers from London, marble from Italy, room after room, this palace had it all. We were able to walk through many of the rooms and at the end into the main reception/prayer/gathering room. This was maybe the biggest room I had ever seen with ceilings seemingly one hundred feet high. The ceiling was adorned with amazing tile mosaics and the sheer enormity of it was amazing. The columns were as big as the tree trunks from the redwood forest it seemed like. The chandelier weighed four tons and is one of the biggest in the world! Looking at it, it makes you wonder how it was built. Construction started in 1843 and only took thirteen years to build. It also cost a cool $1.5 billion in today’s money.

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After the palace we went to find a cold drink and ended up a bar near our hotel. We got a few beers and ordered the chicken wings. We have been on a search for good buffalo chicken wings the entire trip and order them almost anytime they are on the menu. Unfortunately, I still haven’t found any that even closely rival my favorite from back home but I am still on the hunt. We hung out for a bit and then ate dinner at a local beer hall where we had chicken wings again and mac and cheese covered hot dogs. Sometimes you just want what you want and don’t necessarily bother to seek out the local dishes. When you have a few days in a place you know you’ll get to those local meals eventually.

After this we hit Taksim square which is where a lot of the nightlife in Istanbul is. There is a main long street where tons of people walk through with shops, restaurants and ice cream vendors surrounding. There are lights hanging from the tops of the buildings, Turkish flags everywhere, the sounds of many different languages and it is exactly the type of vibe we are looking for on this night. One of the local traditions is getting ice cream from a vendor and our friend Yun was the first to try. The ice cream is almost chewy and the ice cream vendor takes it out of these long cylindrical barrels with a long pole rather than a scoop. Because the ice cream has a different consistency, it stays on the “scoop” a lot easier than ice cream we are used to. Because of this, the vendors mess with you and have a whole routine of holding the ice cream near you but quickly taking it away as soon as you go to grab it. This routine takes a legitimate five minutes with tons of different “ice cream scoop tricks” that make it a lot more fun to watch than to participate in. Either way, it was a nice stop on our way to our destination. A fellow remote told us about his favorite Irish pub and told us we absolutely had to go there. We look it up on our phones, walk to it but can’t find the entrance. We believe it is on the floor or two above us so we walk up and down the stairs knocking on doors trying to find the entrance. After we wake up an older lady living in one of the apartments upstairs by knocking on her door, we cut our losses and head out. A few bars and drinks later we headed home having a successful first night.

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Day 2 was all about the sightseeing since it was supposed to rain on the third day. We woke up early and headed to the free walking tour in the old town. The tour started right between Istanbul’s main attractions, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. We learned about the history of the buildings, the different empires that ruled over Istanbul and how the government became a more modern republic in the early twentieth century. The tour was informational but we didn’t get to go into any of the buildings so after lunch we decided to head into both of the famous mosques.

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We entered the Blue Mosque first and it was an immaculate scene on the inside. It is basically one massive room with beautiful mosaics covering the rounded arches of the roof. These mosaics are all made up on individual painted tiles which make everything more impressive. Looking up at the ceiling many stories overhead, I wonder how they constructed these massive buildings 1500-1000 years ago. It seems to me that even today we don’t build anything as grand or impressive with all the technology we now have. It really brings you back into the time of these people where these huge religious buildings were the main projects of the ruler at the time. He who built the biggest temple/mosque/church was seen as the best and I think they all kind of competed for this crown. It is still a functioning mosque so locals go there to pray while the tourists walked along the outside and it is closed to the public for a few hours a day for this reason as well.

We left the Blue Mosque and headed over the Hagia Sophia which was first constructed in 537 AD. It is crazy to think that a building this grand was built over 1,500 years ago. This was the world’s largest cathedral for over a thousand years and served as the crown jewel for the city. It is interesting to note that it was not always a mosque. It was first built as a Christian church by the Romans and wasn’t converted to a mosque until the Ottoman Empire took over the city about one thousand years later. During recent renovations, they are realizing that the Ottomans covered all of the religious figures on the walls with plaster to put their mosaics up and some of these original figures are now being uncovered. There are parts where you see crosses or faces uncovered on the wall next to other spots with the mosaics still covering the images behind. It was an amazing site just walking through it and I’m glad we went into both buildings.

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After the mosques we walked up to the Grand Bazaar which was the world’s biggest indoor market for some time. It reminded me a lot of the markets in Morocco but a build less busy and hectic. There were tons of shops with clothes, huge mountains of spices, turkish delights and countless other trinkets. Luckily, I wasn’t in the market for any of this so I didn’t get hassled too much by the shop owners. That night, we went on a bar crawl and got to see a few more of the local Istanbul bars. Before the bar crawl, I got my traditional turkish meal of minced meat on a skewer with rice and vegetables.

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Day three was all about heading to Asia, the east side of Istanbul. A friend we were with knew some local Turkish people from a college classmate and so we had brunch with them while they waited for their flight to NYC. After this, we hopped on the ferry and headed east to Asia. It was like any other fairy and the trip only took about ten minutes but it was cool checking another continent off my list even if I was only there for an hour or so. After one drink we headed back, went bowling to kill sometime before our train to head back to Bulgaria. Another 12 hour train ride and we were back in Sofia. Next time I’m flying.

Istanbul was an amazing revelation to me. It struck down all my misconceptions of the city even if they were based on some merit. It was vibrant, the people were nice, the food was great and diverse and the sunsets were amazing. The history of the mosques and the city itself was extremely interesting and I realized how easily we glance over these things in history class growing up. It has been amazing going to so many places and getting able to see and touch history I have read about in the past. It is almost more rewarding to learn the story from the local’s perspectives as we certainly are taught a US point of view to many things. I knew a bit about the Ottoman Empire and have certainly heard of the Romans before but seeing the Hagia Sophia that was a Christian Roman church and then a Muslim Ottoman mosque really helped me bridge the gap between the two empires. It is hard to fathom what a city really looked like a thousand or more years ago and to have these structures still standing is quite incredible. I am really glad I was able to experience Istanbul and would definitely recommend it to visit!

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