Turkey

Cats. Mosques, which were once churches. Ice-cream. Baths. Döner [meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie]. Aesthetics and symmetry: both on buildings and of people. Istanbul/Constantinople is, even today: at the crossroads. From bumping into Syrian families who have made Turkey their home to witnessing probably one of the only places in the world where right next to a Byzantine mosaic of Jesus and Mary does one find the biggest calligraphic tile work of the holiest of Islam [read more here].
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The first few hours in this city have been just been so promising!
The Bahaus hostel, off Akbiyik Caddesi (right behind the Blue Mosque smack in the heart of Sultanahmet, the Blue Mosque by night and the Pervetniyal Valide Sultan Camii at Aksaray, the terminus metro station before you hop onto a tram to Sultanahmet

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Photo credits: Rohit Tipnis
Day 2
Men— traditionally, do not sing. They do not show brotherly camaraderie on the streets. They do not walk arm in arm. They do not embrace gentleness. They don’t cook or get involved in the arts— pottery, or otherwise. Well, not here. Here, grooming for men is a full-time job. Gelled hair, perfectly manicured beards, and tight-fitting clothes. A culture that has never demonised homosexuality, but rather embraced it. Where sensuous is not a taboo, but an embellishment to life. Where hamams [Turkish baths—Turkish customs used to dictate that mothers-in-law would take their prospective daughters-in-law to inspect whether what ‘their son was getting was of best quality!’ ] and harems [domestic spaces reserved only for women and their close male relatives in a Muslim home, but often a place for learning, the arts and housing for the sultan or king’s concubines] were the centre of life: to such an extreme that even statecraft was often directed by the women and eunuchs hidden away from public gaze in the Ottoman era [read this enlightening article on the intrigues of the harems!] Where one of the most famous singers is a trans woman: Bülent Ersoy. Where there is no state religion. A cosmopolitan mix of languages and beliefs, mingling along the busy and narrow bazaar streets. Culture flows in all directions here. Turkey gives as much as it takes in and absorbs.
Istiklal Avenue is always buzzing with life: live street performances, a 2-km boulevard of shops and scintillating people watching, a pomegranate juice seller and his colourful wares
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Post-my-return
Just when I was making peace with my own version of hüzün (heart-aching longing) for Istanbul, the bell rings and I have this thoughtful gift in my hands. I can’t explain to you how much this affects me emotionally. The past week has just been yearning that freedom of being born anew, in a strange land, amongst strangers. And yet embracing that sense of not belonging to conjure spontaneous memories, emotions, and attachment to the city. I can’t put my finger on it: was it the thrill of late night adventures with gay abandon, was it stepping into a Turkish friend’s life and being smothered by his two adorable cats all night, was it wandering through narrow streets to the din of Turkish-dubbed Indian soap operas and the Sunday thrill of cafés chock-a-block with football fans? I don’t know. All I do know is I feel deep melancholy: for what was never mine and what can never be mine.
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Rumi and Pamuk make for a very melancholic combination on rainy winter afternoons

Making up for the melancholy with çay, and Cihangir cats


Places to visit:
    • The usual(check-in-the-box, but pretty cool minus the tourists and Instagram hashtags)
      • Topkapı Saraı (palace)
      • Dolmabahçe Saraı (palace)
      • Gülhane Parkı (park)
      • Emirgan Parkı (park)
      • Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia)
      • Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camisi)
      • Süleymaniye Camisi (mosque)
      • Rustem Pahsa mosque
      • Chora Church
      • Saint Antuan Church
      • Aya Irini Church
      • Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)
      • Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)
      • Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşı)
      • Walk along the Galata bridge
    • Museums and art galleries
      • İstanbul Modern (Istanbul Museum of Modern Art)
      • Pera Museum
      • Istanbul Archaeology Museum (attached to the Topkapı Saraı)
      • Kariye Museum
      • Anadoluhisarı (Anatolian castle)
      • Antikacılar Sokağı (antique shops street at Kadiköy)
      • Energy Museum at Santralistanbul
      • Arter Art Gallery
    • Day breaks and towns
      • Çengelköy
      • Beykoz
      • Balat (Merdivenli Yokuş, Kiremit Street)
      • Princess Islands
    • Lively streets/evening scenes
      • İstiklal Caddesi (street)
      • Taksim Square
      • Water cruise to Asia, walk along Bosphorus: Karaköy to Kadiköy/ Üsküdar (take the ferry from near Dolmabahçe Palace, see the Kiz Kulesior or Maiden’s Tower and Haydarpaşa Garı or station on your way and probably feed the seagulls some simit!)
      • Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam (Turkish bathhouse)
    • Cool neighbourhoods
      • Sapphire Terrace (observation terrace)
      • Cinaralti Café (in Beyoğlu, just because Orhan Pamuk loved/frequented  the place!)
      • Nişantaşı (the Bandra a.k.a high street, of Istanbul)
      • Cihangir (for cats)
    • Panoramic views
      • Galata Kulesi (tower)
      • Büyük Valide Han(a secret rooftop view to the whole of Istanbul, probably closed now— or requires some shady dealing to get in!)
      • Pierre Loti Tepesi (hill)
      • Çamlıca Tepesi (hill)
      • Fatih Korusu (hill)
  • Nightlife:
    • Beyoğlu: Istiklal street, Nevizade Street, Asmalimescit Street
    • Pub crawl: Tower Pub, Istanbul (11 pm)
  • Eat and drink:
    • Ayran [salty yoghurt— a lot like chaas in India]
    • Sheesha and çay (Turkish tea) at Mimar Sinan Terrace Café
    • Manti [Turkish dumplings with ground meat, onions, spices, and yes, you guessed that right, more yoghurt!]
    • Menemen [scrambled eggs with tomato, onions and chilies—but which come in a hundred varieties!] at Karaköy
    • Fish at Balik Pasari (Istiklal)
    • Salep [especially at Kadiköy]: an invigorating aphrodisiac, and a speciality of the winters. Derived from the Arabic for ‘fox’s testicles’, this warm drink made from tulips is a must!
    • Simit[sesaame-encrusted bread rings—sold at almost every street corner!]
    • Balik ekmek[fish in bread] at Eminönü
    • Kokoreç [only for the brave-hearted— lamb intestines wrapped around grilled sweetbread, heart, lungs or kidneys]
    • 70-cm kebabs rolls at Zurna Dürüm
    • Dessert[and there’s a lot where that came from, and if you’re confused—just walk into a Madostore and pick where your wandering eyes land!]
      • Kunefe[sweet cheese pastry] from Safa
      • Steaks at Nusr-et (Grand Bazaar)
      • Börek[baked, filled pastries]
      • Lokma[dough in sweet syrup: my Turkish friends argue this is so much like the churro, that there are Instagram pages dedicated to the debate!]
      • Nişantaşı Cookshop and order Nutella, strawberry, banana Magnolia
      • Kumpir (Turkish baked potato) and waffle in Ortaköy

                       Sarma/dolma and ice-cream in the super-touristy Sultanahmet

(left-to-right from the top-left corner) Wet burgers at Taksim Square, fire-clay-pot chicken stew in Cappadocia, chocolate heaven near Istanbul University at Fatih (Süleymaniye Çikolatacısı— with interiors to die for and a cute little card with snippets of poetry from the who’s who of Turkish literature lore), simit and fresh pomegranates near Dolmabahçe Saraı, kunefe at the Mado at İstiklal Caddesi, desserts at Kadıköy, more dessert at The CoffTea Shop near Gülhane Parkı, manti at the Sedef at Sultanahmet, balik ekmek at Kadiköy and a farewell Turkish ice-cream (replete with all their fun tricks) at the Atatürk airport

  • Music:
    • Barış Manço, Cem Karaca, Nil Karaibrahimgil, Model, Zeki Muren, Tarkan, Bülent Ersoy, Aşkın Nur Yengi- Yabani

Quick hacks:

  • Local transport: get the Istanbul metro card for TY10. Every journey costs TY2.5, so you need to travel only 4 times to break even! Also works for the Karaköy-Kadiköy/Üsküdar (European to Asian part of Istanbul) ferry for ~3,50TY
  • SIM card: avoid the tactic of being forced down expensive SIM cards. I used a local friend’s recommendation to get the Türk Telekom SIM for 9GB, 30-day validity for TY120 (a charming smile helps!)

  • Hostel: Bahaus Guesthouse– well tucked into the historical neighbourhood €12/night and a wonderful spread at breakfast. Connectivity: Sultanahmet tram station to Aksarai metro station to Otogar metro station
  • Overnight bus to Cappadocia: 7 p.m.- 11 a.m. (because it snowed heavily the previous night). Cost: TY 100 (one way)- includes a short snack in the bus and you just try food at the stopovers-they’re delicious and affordable!

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Daily Expenses [conversion using 1USD = 5TY as of December, 2018]

  • Meals (food)
    • Breakfast (included in the hostel daily rate of EUR12/day)
    • Lunch: TY25-35 
    • Dinner: TY25-35
  • Transportation: 5 metro tickets cost TY25 or the Istanbul Kart costs TY10 and each trip costs TY2.5 (I used about 4 tickets/day)
  • Entry tickets: most monuments like the Hagia Sophia/Topkapı Saraı cost TY60/person, others like the Basilica Cistern cost TY20/person (I visited about 2-3 monuments/day)
  • Overall: about TY200-220/day or USD40-45/day

One-time expenses

  • Hostel at EUR12/night or TY585
  • Bus to Cappadocia (to-and-fro) for TY200 (TY100 each way)
  • Souvenirs cost TY150 (such as a hand-made Rumi painting), TY100 for 900g of Turkish delights at the Grand Bazaar (but can vary highly depending on when you yield in the bargaining process!), TY100 for a beautiful shawl I bought for my mother from the Grand Bazaar
  • SIM card for TY120
  • [Optional] Cappadocia balloon-rides which cost a bomb [upwards of EUR120/person (it’s somehow higher in the off-season) for 45 minutes, AND you have to wake up at like 4 a.m.!]

Apart from the flight tickets (extremely dependent on when you book, but always use skyscanner.com), a relatively low-budget 8-day trip cost me ~USD400 or about USD50/day


For someone with a much longer time-frame in mind, here is a comprehensive to-do list from a dear Jordanian friend I met at the hostel (accomplished finisher of the ‘Can You Make It Redbull‘ challenge!)

  • Sapphire Terrace for a 360-degree view of Istanbul
  • Eat midye at Beşiktaş Midyeci Ahmet

Entertainment

  • Ritim (hip-hop club)
  • Riddim (hip-hop club)
  • Kiki (techno/electro club)
  • Floor (electro club)
  • Citizen (old Kasette)
  • Pixie (techno/electro club)
  • Klein (techno/electric club)
  • Eski Beyrut (hip-hop club)
  • Glizli Bahçe (club/bar)
  • Roxy (electro)
  • Masquerade (hip-hop)
  • MiniMüzikhol (techno/electro club)
  • Beat (hip-hop)
  • 360 club
  • Mama (techno/electro club)
  • Arkaoda (bar/club)
  • Mite (pub/club)
  • Joker No. 19 (pub)
  • Arkadoda (pub)
  • Chez Moi (pub/club)
  • Rea
  • Hypnos Hall
  • Suma Beach (only in summer)
  • Kafes (only in summer)
  • Freya
  • Odin
  • Craft Beer
  • Vogue Restaurant and Bar
  • Peyote
  • Kapi (bar) — Karaköy
  • Han (café) — Karaköy

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