Istanbul by foot

*note: this is a rather long entry, but well worth the entertainment factor… grab a cup of coffee or a snack and enjoy.

I have travelled into many towns, by many different means, but my arrival in Istanbul is noteworthy.

I was supposed to get picked up by my crazy friend in a taxi and drive with him and a friend to Istanbul, but somehow we didn’t connect, which left me sitting on the steps of my hotel wondering where I should go midafternoon.

I had already booked a hotel in Istanbul and was looking forward to it, plus I was dreading another night in the carnival like atmosphere of Sunny Beach, so I decided I must get to Istanbul, somehow, some way.

I tried looking for a bus, but almost every travel agent shop was closed for lunch, which apparently means from 12pm until 3 or 4pm in Bulgaria, and so I decided to find a taxi.

I found one, for $400 (which, when discounting that I had already booked a hotel for $150/night which was non-refundable, plus I’d have to book a new hotel in Sunny Beach, for approx $100… plus a bus would have cost me between $50-$100 anyway, so it made economical sense, plus personal happiness sense to pay $400 for a 5 hour taxi ride) and jumped in. The ride was longer than expected, and hotter than expected including the time it took for my taxi driver to find his passport and go to some office to get his ‘green card’ stamped.

The border crossing into Turkey 2 hours later was typical. At least 8 people (4 on the Bulgaria side, 4 on the Turkey side) must have looked at my passport… Each of them would look at it (barely) then tell us to go see someone else… they wouldn’t tell us exactly who and would vaguely point in a direction, after which we would have to meander around a huge bureaucratic maze, upon which we would regularly walk up to someone either playing solitaire on their Windows 98 computer, or eating their lunch, who wouldn’t even look us in the eye as they would point in another vague direction, passing us off to the next disgusting bureaucrat… this went on for about an hour, after which my views on government and the whores that work for them were yet again realized (on that note, here is another interesting article by a guy who I respect more the more I find out about him, Doug Casey on that topic: http://www.escapeartist.com/efam14/clearing_customs.html.

We ended up paying 50 euros for a visa (read: theft by government) and then had to pay another 50 euros to another guy (read: theft by government prostitute) and then we finally got through.

We got back into the taxi… his a/c wasn’t working well, and he didn’t have tinted windows, so after 2 more hours of the kind of driving where I would have to constantly point out to him that he was crossing the dividing line, or about to drive into the ditch, my jetlag started kicking in again, and I decided, if I am going to die in a taxi going to Turkey, so be it… not to mention, quite possibly, a fitting end!

I passed out in the back seat.

My taxi driver shook me awake some time later. I awoke in a puddle of my own sweat to him saying something like, “Istanbul. We here now�.

Before I had fallen asleep we were driving through beautiful, serene countryside… fresh air and blue sky the entire away. After clearing my eyes, my view was something that made me do a double take.

I didn’t know anything about Istanbul before I got there, but I was about to get a quick lesson. As I propped myself up and shook off the cobwebs, my senses were overwhelmed by a massive traffic jam, grass that had turned brown from pollution and the sounds of cars honking and street hawkers selling what appeared to be pretzels on a pole… it appeared to be a neverending sprawl of humanity, cars and haze.

My taxi driver told me that if he were to go through the toll booth ahead and actually drive into Istanbul, he would have to spend the next 6 hours trying to get out, which I understood completely given the view… he then drove around an exit and dropped me on the other side of the road, telling me I should cross back across the 30 lanes of 100mph+ traffic and enter Istanbul and find a taxi there to take me the rest of the way to a hotel.

I have seen crazy traffic before… I’ve waltzed through Bangkok traffic… I’ve easily traversed huge, chaotic traffic circles in Shenzhen, China, back before they had traffic lights… but maybe it was just because I was recently awoken and disoriented, this particular highway had me feeling like a 13 year old girl on her first date.

My taxi driver sensed my hesitation and stated, “don’t worry, just put your hand up, they will stop for you,� and then gave me a loving nudge forward.

I thought, “well, what other choice do I really have,� and decided to give it a shot. Oncoming traffic was coming at warp speeds, but I trusted my Bulgarian taxi driver and raised my hand, which, of course, had no effect.

I quickly entered into a life and death game of Turkish frogger and stumbled my way through… car mirrors were breaking off on my backpack and my hands and elbows bounced off a few buses, but after about a minute or two I had made it across, much to the amusement to the many men who were inexplicably just standing at the side of the road having a leisurely conversation with each other.

My next realization was that there were no taxis anywhere. The highway was lined with razor-wire fence, which made me wonder why… was that to keep people out, or in? I found a hole in the fence at one point and squeezed through, into what appeared to be some sort of barrio/slum.

Some kids were happily playing football amongst the dust and dirt while others were playing with garbage. From a distant tower, ear-bleeding muslem propaganda chanting was deafening, but these denizens had obviously grown used to the droning. Fittingly, as I looked up into the darkening sky, a crescent moon, exactly the shape of the flag of Turkey, glowed through the haze, making me reflect on the fact that as uncomfortable as the last few hours have been, I am definitely getting a taste for the true life of Turkey, which you would never get on any tourist excursion.

I spent at least an hour walking through a maze of ghetto streets and markets, to which I took note that, yet again, every time I see people in complete poverty they seem 100 times happier than anyone I know with money. And speaking of money, much like them, I was penniless at the moment… I thought back to my ATM withdrawal in Sunny Beach, and my thought that, “I better not take out more Bulgarian Lev than I need as I probably can’t exchange it in Turkey… and I am sure I’ll easily find an ATM there, so no need to exchange any money here into Turkish Lira or Euros� as being not one of my better speculations.

I had given every penny I had to the Bulgarian taxi driver, who actually ended up paying the extra 50 euros himself to pay off the Turkish government for me as I didn’t even have that… so as I walked through the streets, parched from my long drive in the intense heat, I looked with great envy at some of the kids eating watermelon… my throat was as dry as the Saharan desert and unhelped by the dust and pollution in the air. My tongue felt like sandpaper.

Finally I found a taxi, and then spent another hour making our way through sprawling Istanbul and finally found my hotel.

A shower and a bottle of water hadn’t felt that good in a long time!

And so ended my adventure getting to Istanbul and began my adventure in Istanbul.

The one thing I noticed very quickly here is that everyone seems very talkative. Everywhere I go, everyone is attempting to engage in conversations with me.

I have since realized that about half of them are trying to talk to me because they want something from me… either to sell me, or get from me, or get me to go somewhere. However, the other half just seem to be overtly friendly, curious, nice people.

Not being an overly talkative, outgoing person, it made me miss the anonymity of Asia… but yet, it was kind of nice to be engaged, on an almost constant basis, with all the residents of the city… this is definitely a unique place, I’ve never been anywhere like here.

I went out to a number of clubs in Istanbul… the Taksim Square/Beyoglu area is packed with hundreds of thousands of people… but it’s not really my style… think Granville Street in Vancouver… loud, seedy, obnoxious.

I then took off to the beautiful discos on the shore. Places named Reina and Sorte. The crowds there were opposite to the people in Taksim… everyone there was trying as hard as possible to look rich and glamorous.

I do have to say, that these discos were some of the coolest, nicest discos I have been to in terms of design and style. Overlooking the ocean, they were almost completely open air (my favorite!) with top of the line sound and lighting systems and a cool layout, with numerous restaurants actually encompassed in the facility, with numerous people still dining well after midnight and then blending into the disco itself. It even had a small dock right at the back of the disco, which gave me the idea that if I were to open my own disco, it would be amazing to have a dock connected to it where a few big yachts could tie up and become part of the disco for the night!

I then moved on to a few other places… everywhere I went someone was trying to rip me off. I ended up becoming friends with some sort of mobster guys and their girlfriends… they had initially tried to rip me off, but once I told them that I would kill them or die trying, they took a liking to my spunk and took me around… They drove me around to a few places for a bit and that is the last I remember…

I awoke at 5pm to the ringing of my phone… it was my Thai girlfriend. I miss Thailand so much.

I thought about it and figured that I had already done a weeks worth (if not more… a life’s worth maybe?) of things in Istanbul in only my first 8 hours… I then looked for the next flight out to Bangkok… there is a direct flight that leaves at 11pm on Turkish Air (only 4 hours from now)… I just booked it.

It’s time to go home.