Sunday, 10 July 2011
What stop signs say in Turkey:
Sunday, 10 July 2011
What stop signs say in Turkey:
Sunday, 10 July 2011
So when I was in Istanbul, I wanted to see the Black Sea. Would it actually be black? This is what I wondered. Istanbul straddles both an isthmus and a straight; the straight is called the Bosphorus, and it links the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. When I was in Istanbul I was couchsurfing with my friend Christina, and she lived about an our from the city center, but also some distance from the Black Sea. In order to get there, some public transportation would be required – a bus ride; disembarkation at the correct stop; a 10-minute ferry ride across the Bosphorus, and a climb up to a castle on the Asian side, from which the Black Sea would reputedly be clearly visible. A challenge, certainly, but one I felt I could master.
After all, I wanted to see the blackness of the Sea.
Getting on the right bus first meant climbing down a very, very steep hill. Christina shares a flat just behind Boğaziçi Üniversitesi, which is one of the most prestigious universities in Turkey. The most direct way to get down passes through the campus; there are steep paths and stairs and cobbled streets, all winding their way steeply downward. In fact it’s so steep that it can be rather hard on the knees, but once you reach the bottom (after 15 minutes if you’re reckless), you’re beside the Bosphorus. And the Bosphorus itself is lined with fishermen, endless fishermen. If you pass by at the right time, at dusk, they may even be frying up some of their day’s catch to eat. People stroll the broad sidewalk and vendors sell corn on the cob and little cups of chai. And there you’ll find boats from all over the world – some large, some small: two-seater speedboats from as far away as Delaware, Copenhagen, and London. And there’s the Bosphorus itself, a different shade of blue each day, gently choppy, filled with massive tankers traveling back and forth from the oil fields of Central Asia, container ships, ferries, tour boats, and pleasure boats.
The bus was 25E, and it wound its way along the coastline, sometimes pulling ahead of the tanker I was keeping time with, sometimes falling behind. I got off at the right stop and started looking for the ferry I was to board. I started looking left – and that was my mistake. Because the ferry stop was just to the right, *behind* the bus stop, a few steps back toward the way we’d come. In walking to the left – further onward – it would take me another hour to reach another port of call. But along the way, this was the view:
You could do worse. When I hoped on the ferry it wasn’t like the other ferries I’d taken over to Asia; it was wooden and old, like an old steamboat. And filled with people speaking familiar languages, like English, which was also different. This is the view looking back toward Europe:
And this was the view towards Asia, and the Castle I intended to climb:
Meanwhile, this was the view towards the Black Sea:
Where we landed was filled with restaurants and tourist trinket shops: clearly I wasn’t the first person to wonder about the Black Sea. Up I climbed through hills so steep that my feet were often above my head. You knew you were close to the top, though, when you found restaurants again – this time with terraced views and even more expensive menus. By the time I reached the top, I was panting like a dog, sweating like a leprechaun, and looking out at this:
The Black Sea, not so black after all. In the other direction, you could see the office towers of Istanbul:
When I reached the bottom again, I had to wait an hour for the ferry – the real ferry, not the all-day Bosphorus tour ship that I’d accidentally hitched a ride on earlier. If I wanted to ride THAT (and I didn’t) it would cost me $10, a ferry token to cross cost about $1. So I spent my time in one of the tourist-trap restaurants, reading about budgeting and eating a delicious meal of whitefish with fresh tomato and onion and arugula. One the ferry ride over, I took one last look towards the Black Sea:
If only those two tankers would collide, maybe a part – a very small part – of the Black Sea would be black, like it’s supposed to be.
Wednesday, 6 July 2011
A quick photo from Istanbul:
Juvenile, I know, but I can’t help it.
Wednesday, 6 July 2011
“But what about the train trip itself,” you may ask. How much did THAT rock?” Well, it was pretty cool, I’ll admit. These were my sleeping quarters:
Ahh, reminds me of India! I love the Indian trains and missed the 30-hour train trip from Chennai to Bhopal that I’d been planning on taking this trip. Yes, I was somewhat looking forward to that. This compartment wasn’t a sleeper; it’s second-class, called a “couchette.” Apparently it lacks some of the amenities of a first-class sleeper – maybe air conditioning? A private wash-basin? Fewer beds, certainly; I think first-class sleepers hold either three or four. Regardless; this was fine, fine! Just like India, except different: In India the compartment would be full, with five other people. Here it was empty: I had the entire space to myself. I still took the top bunk, like I always do – it’s a habit from India that serves two purposes: first, people are less likely to steal the valuables you carry up there with you (i.e. everything aside from my non-rolly, very heavy suitcase, which you’d have to be dumb as a rock to try stealing; it’s locked anyway). Second, you can sleep as long as you like, because while the middle bunks are taken down so that people can sit on the lower bunks, the top ones remain. Neither reason for sleeping up top pertained in this case, but I did so anyway.
What a treat!
Most of my waking hours were spent reading about budgeting. I’m now half-done with that painfully boring textbook (I assistant-teach the course next term) and I can’t wait to be finished with it. The other portion was spent looking out the window and munching on cucumbers.
That, and going through endless passport/ticket turmoil. During the day, it didn’t matter so much when people wanted to re-check and re-re-check your ticket, or check your passport when you crossed the border. However the first border we crossed was the one from Turkey into Bulgaria, and that was at 4 AM. In that case, we all had to exit the train, cross some train tracks, and wait in a very slow line for an hour until our passports were checked. These are the tracks we had to cross, just in case you’re curious:
So, up at 4 AM, back to sleep at 5 AM, right? Au contraire. Then there were the passport checks – two consecutively – aboard the train. Then my ticket was re-checked. Then customs came in and asked if I had anything to declare. I swear, this song-and-dance didn’t end until 7 AM. Don’t they realize I’m an American, privileged, and therefore immune from these kinds of checks? My word – or the very fact of my presence, words unsaid – should inspire implicit trust and confidence.
Okay, fine, maybe not, but I DO wish I’d had the chance to sleep.
Friday, 1 July 2011
Today, July 1st, was the first day I began to feel like myself again. First a gastrointestinal infection robbed me of my ability to eat, and then a common cold eliminated my ability to taste. Most recently, an inflammation of my tonsils has made it difficult for me to swallow (or talk very much). Now, at last, the three plagues standing between me and the good food I’d like to eat have started to pass. And I even have the energy to go out and do what I want to do.
What I wanted to do today was to see the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, the two religious and architectural masterpieces of Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque is about 400 years old, built near Hagia Sophia and with the ambition of rivaling the latter’s glory. It has six minarets and is known as the “Blue” Mosque because of the extensive blue-colored tiles (more than 20,000, all handmade) which adorn its interior.
The first photo is from wikipedia, but the rest are mine:
Despite being a massive tourist attraction, the mosque is still a functioning place of worship – though not the kind I’d want to frequent, with crowds of frenetic tourists and flashbulbs going off.
A glimpse at one of the columns upholding the roof. My guess is that it would take 12 people to fully encircle one.
And a last look, this time a blurry one at all the tiles inside.
The Hagia Sophia obviously has a much longer and more illustrious history. The third version is the one that now stands; it was completed in 537, so it’s nearly 1500 years old – older than most empires, and its history intersects with some of the most famous and most important empires in history – the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire (a continuation of the first under a different name), the Ottoman Empire. Justinian built it and most likely stood inside it, and later Byzantine Emperors were coronated inside it. It served as the principal mosque of Istanbul – and the Ottoman Empire – for more than 500 years, and that AFTER it was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years, and one of the most important – the place, for example, where the Great Schism between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholicism Christianity began. And its place in the history of architecture is no less impressive, considered one of the most revolutionary buildings ever built.
That said, its history has also been marked by setbacks. The first Hagia Sophia, dedicated in 360, was burnt down in rioting following the exile of the Patriarch of Constantinople in 404, who’d made enemies with the wrong people (namely, the Empress). A second version didn’t last much longer; it also burned, along with half the city, when Justinian was nearly overthrown (if you want to know more, you can read all about it here). Parts of the second remain, uncovered in excavations that were quickly halted lest they disturb the existing Hagia Sophia. These remnants are displayed in situ just outside the entrance:
The third Hagia Sophia itself had difficulty, this time because of its massive dome. It collapsed in an earthquake in 558, after prior earthquakes in 557 and 553 had riven it with cracks. But the earthquakes weren’t really responsible for its collapse, which may have happened eventually anyway, thanks to the design of the dome itself. When it was rebuilt, the height of the dome was elevated 30 feet (it was too flat before) and lighter building materials were used. Here’s what the dome looks like now, from the inside:
And here’s what the rest of it looks like, from the inside:
If you’re wondering what architectural wonder this is, it isn’t. It’s just a cat, though granted one which seems to enjoy the limelight. Istanbul is absolutely filled – crammed full – of stray cats, incidentally, and has its fair share of dogs too. Some are plump, overfed, and have obviously worked out how to exploit the system (maybe thanks to their brawn or guile). Others are thin, scrawny, and look at you piteously. This seems to be the former variety.
Just in case you were wondering where all those Byzantine Emperors were coronated, this is the place. You can’t walk on it. You’re not an Emperor.
Hagia Sophia just completed a year of restoration work, in which it was wrapped in scaffolding. Now it’s “restored” but – let’s face it – still very old. For a building, it’s been through a lot, and for all its fabled beauty, I didn’t find it all that beautiful. Mostly, the place looks tired. Not that I mind – I came for the history; to stand in the place of history, and in that respect it did not disappoint.