ISTANBUL - DAY 1
10 September 2013
Before we left Davis, I wanted to cancel our extension to Istanbul when I realized that we would be missing a family wedding, that everyone would be there but us and that we would be missing one of those fun Sykes family gatherings. I even suggested to Walt that we cancel the extension and fly home early, but he was adamant that we continue on to Istanbul. How glad I am that he was smarter about this than I was! Where would I ever have the chance to visit this marvelous city again, if not now?
I can't believe how many people I know or have met, or have heard from on Facebook who have been here and unanimously they tell me how much they loved Istanbul. Now I understand.
Our day started, stumbling around our cramped cabin trying to put the finishing touches on packing. I was sad to be leaving the Viking Lomonosov and not really sure what lay ahead of me, but at least we would be able to walk across the room without tripping over each other. I was not going to miss that!
On our ride to the airport, I saw lots of babushka ladies on the sidewalk with tree branches sweeping the streets. It's odd that there is such pride in keeping the street in front of your house clean, but nobody cleans up the building itself. It's how this whole country seems to be maintained. The big stuff doesn't get done, but the little stuff does. Maybe the men are in charge of the big stuff. Alla says the only thing "legal" in Ukraine is political corruption, so maybe that's the reason. I don't know, but it sure seems prevalent throughout the country.
We got to the tiny airport (at least it seemed tiny) and sat for half an hour or so before they started checking folks in. I can't believe how this worked and marveled it worked at all. They let you into security two people at a time. You stand in line at what looks like a regular room door, then two people go in, do the security check thing, and then as they are loading your stuff (no removal of shoes) onto the xray machine, two more can come in. Remembering the long snaking lines of crowds at any other airport I have visited, I don't know how this ever works. But it does.
We were eventually on Turkish Air and winging our way to Istanbul. I was able to get a picture of the coastline as we approached the airport.
Oddly, I noticed as the plane was landing that the cabin stewards had not gone through to make sure that our tray tables were up and chairs in the upright position. John, across the aisle, was working on his tray table all the way to the ground. It did not cut him in half as the plane landed. Turkish Air says it's the leading airline in Europe. Hmmm...
We made it through customs, again another extremely easy process, and met our guide, Ibi (short for Ibrahim), who rounded us all up like sheep and led us outside to wait for the bus. It's warmer here than it was in Ukraine, but not oppressively so.
I love Ibi already. He seems like a very nice guy, speaks great English, and he's buying some batteries for me so I don't have to go searching. He also offered us several optional excursions, if we were interested. One was for last night to a fish market for a fresh fish dinner, then a tour on the Bosphorus today on our own private boat after our scheduled city tour, dinner at a "meat restaurant" tonight, and another excursion that I've forgotten after our scheduled tour tomorrow. We decided to do them all, because our time here is so short and this seems the best way to see the highlights by someone who knows them all.
Our ride in from the airport was about 45 minutes and just looking at the scenery makes you realize you aren't in Kansas any more, Toto. More mosques than you can shake a stick at (or photograph from a fast-moving bus!)
First impression of Istanbul is that it is such a HUGE contrast with most of what we saw of Ukraine. There is a life, a vibrancy and a caring for the city here. I don't think once we left Kiev I saw a single building that had been painted in the last 30 years. Sometimes you would see half a building looking fresh, new, inhabited, while the other half was in tatters, with broken windows. Here the old (very old) contrasts with the new, but all has a sense of pride about it, and everything is crisply painted.
I didn't see a single statue of Lenin and the statues of men I did see were wearing turbans.
There seemed to be banners hanging across the streets literally everywhere and I found out later that this is for an upcoming folk festival hosted jointly by South Korea and Turkey. It makes a very festive welcoming, as they are literally all over the place.
The picture also gives you an idea of what traffic is like here!
We are at the Conrad Istanbul, which is a magnificent hotel. We are on the 7th (of 14) floors and when Walt opened the door to this room, where our Viking cabin could probably fit in the bathroom and we saw the amazing view out the window, it was a jaw-dropping moment.
We had 3 hours before we were meeting Ibi (22 of the 40 of us on this extension). Walt took a short nap and then had to get out and walk around the streets. I wrote yesterday's entry (after some difficulties getting onto the internet, which required one visit to our room and on trip down to the desk with my computer) and then took a shower and washed some underwear. A rather mundane start to our time here, but the "decompress and spread out finally" aspect was worth it.
When I stepped out of the shower and grabbed a towel, I remembered that I was in Istanbul, the land of the Turkish towel. My towel was large enough to wrap around myself (and when was the last time THAT happened?), was snowy white and so thick it almost felt like a carpet. I want a set of towels!
At 6 our group met in the lobby and Ibi took us to the smaller bus he had and we drove for about half an hour through city traffic out to a fish market street, a small alley way off the main drag which seemed to be one fish restaurant after another--it is across the street from the sea and lots of open air markets selling fresh fish.
Ibi led us to one restaurant, Okyanus, and we all sat at tables outside
while we ate our way through a first course of about 12 different sorts of cold fish dishes (I even ate seaweed), then a "warm" course of fried calamari and some delicious pastry thing of cheese and spinach. The chef brought out two fish--a sea bass and another fish I never did get the name of, for us to each make our main course choice. (Gee...on the ship, they just gave us a menu for us to pick our main course!)
Musicians came to play for us.
A young boy selling first fezzes and then dolls came by several times, hoping to make a sale.
Nearby an ice cream vendor kept manipulating mounds of ice cream, waving them around in the air (I was reminded of an Amazing Race episode!), a weather-beaten old man sat across the road polishing shoes, a birthday party paraded in front of us, the guest of honor (a young girl) wearing a golden crown, a family with a burqua-covered mother walked by, motorcyclists wended their way through all the foot traffic, miraculously not hitting anybody, and a guy selling either books or DVDs (I couldn't read which) tried to get us to buy his stuff. It was all very festive, delicious and fun. And when it was finished, Ibi took us across the street to see some of the fish stalls from where our dinner came.
Afterwards, we came back home again through the darkened city, marveling at all the beautiful lights. (No good shots from the moving bus, alas!)
We were very glad that we had chosen the optional excursion for dinner, otherwise we might have ended up at McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut or Burger King, all of which are walking distance from our hotel.
Today we tour Topkapi palace. I trust I
will not have to enter through a skylight. (Those who have seen the
movie of the same name will understand.)
PHOTO OF THE DAY
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This is entry #4913