Istanbul – a City Divided

I spent a week in Istanbul – resting, organising and sightseeing whilst there. The city is so big, with so much going on – even spending a week there I only scratched the surface of the city – that I thought it deserved a whole post to itself. 

The Istanbul skyline

I was fortunate to have two very friendly hosts during my time there – Jennifer, who will also volunteer on the Trans Caucasian Trail building this summer, is an American Journalist who has been in Istanbul for 9 years; and Jacob, a manic and highly entertaining American teaching English and also a very talented bass player, who plays in Afrobeat and Garage rock bands. Both live up near Taksim square, the beating heart of secular Istanbul and scene of the protests of 2013. By all accounts it has sadly lost its soul now from the corresponding crackdown, nevertheless I enjoyed the bars, shops and cafes down the side streets just off the square. 

Keeping Busy

After days in the saddle, it’s easy to arrive in a city and just not do anything, basking in the opportunity to put your feet up and eat. I’ve been guilty of this already, however in Istanbul I made the effort to get out and about and get a feel for what the city is really like. 

In terms of touristy sites, I visted the incomparable Hagia Sophia, the ornate Blue Mosque and the tranquil Suleymaniye and Sehzade Mosques. I got lost in the Grand Bazaar and as well as Dolmabahçe palace, I skirted around Topkapi and scaled the Gelata Tower, which provided commanding views of the whole urban sprawl.

A Cathedral, then a Mosque and now a Museum. The Hagia Sophia.

It was hanging out with Jacob and his friends that I had the most fun though. First night I joined him at an open Jam session at a cafe near Taksim Square. The musicians there were very talented and I enjoyed the improvised grooves until 4 in the morning. The next day, we spent hanging out at Kadikoy, on the Asian side of the Bosphorous. This area is now considered the ‘cool’ part of Istanbul, filling the void that Taksim’s detireoration has left. We sat in the parks along the banks of the river, soaking up the late afternoon and evening sun with beers, a guitar and a frisbee. 

My host Jake gets his groove on

Spot the tourist
Turkey is a real mix of ethinicities, so I was half hoping with my unkept beard and slightly tanned skin, I might start to fit in. Clearly not though, as whilst I was walking along the Bosphorous shoreline I was well and truly had…

It was early evening and I was passing a workman on his way home when he dropped his brush, so being the good citizen that I am I shouted after him to let him know. I was glad I had done, as he seemed relieved, wearing a “Thanks, I need that to earn a living!” look on his face. He then motioned across and squats down to start giving me a shoe shine, I presumed as a way of thanks. I was wearing trainers, which really didn’t need a polish and I’m not sure the stuff he had would actually polish a shoe but hey, if he’s that keen to do it I won’t stop him, I thought. Of course, once he has hold of my foot then the diatribe in perfect English starts about his son who is sick and needs money, all the while whilst he “polishes” my shoes. At the end, ten Turkish Lira was what he asked for, I gave him three and walked off chuckling at how easily I was taken in and promising myself not to be so gullible again.

Asian Beaucracy
It wasn’t all play in Istanbul. I’m not in the Shengen Zone anymore, so part of my time was spent on that most abhorrent of activities – planning ahead. I need visas for pretty much every country hereafter which means tedious application forms, dashing from consulate to consulate and, worst of all, trying to predict exactly where and when I’ll be months down the line. Turkmenistan, for example will grant you a specific date 5 day visa. Max. Nigh on impossible to predict. I guessed the dates, dashed round the embassies across every which way in Istanbul, then celebrated with a well earned beer as I can now only wait whilst the forms churn through the labryinth of central Asian Beaucracy.

Time to go

There is a magic to Istanbul that seems to keep people there longer than planned. A youthful energy that mixes well with the general chaos and busyness of the city. However Turks and ex-pats alike agree the city is changing, for the worse, and it is slowly losing its magic as the rise of conservative Islam takes hold. I would highly recommend a visit though, perhaps sooner rather than later…

The Two Towers – 1. Maiden Tower

The Two Towers – 2. Gelata Tower

Interior of Hagia Sophia – Byzantine Mosaics mix with Islamic ‘wheels’

Blue Mosque, bluer sky

Views from the Gelata Tower – the sparkling Bosphorous river cuts Istanbul into two. Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque square off on the banks opposite, whilst Topkapi Palace hides from the sun among the cool trees.

One thought on “Istanbul – a City Divided

  1. Hi Josh,
    Great to read your account of Istanbul as it is one of my favourite cities . It is all that you say it is. Lots of surprises and amazing architecture. Make the most of it.


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