For me, the name had always conjured up images of an exotic land, far away. It almost seemed to cross some threshold between reality and fairy tale; somewhere that existed, but was impossible to access, or maybe just somewhere I myself would never visit. I was unfamiliar with imagery of the city, but the name brought me visions of bustling bazaars, chaotic streets, and centuries of historic architecture. Although I had no way to know it at the time, in the end it turns out that my imagination had in fact done a decent job populating the city in my mind, given my lack of information about the fabled city.
I ended up in Istanbul on somewhat of a whim. I had just finished a cycle tour which had begun in Oslo two months prior with my friend Hamilton, and we were now staying in Zagreb, Croatia, ready to part ways. Hamilton was cycling west to France before flying home to Canada, and I was heading to Asia to meet up with my girlfriend Vivyanne in Bangkok, and continuing my adventure from there. I had packed up my bike and shipped it to a friend, leaving me three weeks to find my way to Bangkok. Looking for somewhere to catch a flight out of, it only took one look at the map for my eye to be drawn to Istanbul, and with that, my decision was made.
I booked a flight out of Istanbul and then spent two weeks picking my way through the Balkans, not always sure I would make it to Istanbul on time for my flight, given the convoluted network of train and bus routes snaking across the region. I knew that Istanbul was a city that would demand some time to experience properly, and so had planned a week to delve into its mysteries.
I arrived late on a bus from Thessaloniki, a trip that had taken all day, but had been otherwise uneventful. I had experienced a bit of a shock when the bus pulled over at a rest stop after crossing the border, and when I went to use the bathroom found nothing but a long row of squat toilets, not something I had been expecting here, only a few kilometers from the Greek border, and still technically on the European continent.
Leaving the bus station I was awed at the sheer number of long distance busses that filled the station. Dozens if not hundreds of busses were pulling in and out, dropping off or picking up passengers. It was overwhelming. I bumbled around the mega-station until I found a shuttle that would take me to the Taksim Square area, from where I would need to find a cab to Besiktas, where my hosts lived.
It was after 10:00pm when I got to Taksim Square. I tried an ATM to pull out some Liras, but my card appeared to be blocked. Even after travelling for the past three months through more than ten countries, apparently my bank still saw this unexpected entrance into Turkey as suspicious. I tried a couple more nearby ATMs. No luck. I had five Euros left over from Greece, and so I flagged down a taxi and hoped he would accept the money for the short ride, which to my relief he did.
By 10:30 I was standing outside of my host, Deniz' apartment building. It was old, had a slight feeling of decay to it, there were homeless dogs wandering the streets, one curled up in an empty cardboard box for the night. I buzzed, and then made my way up to the third floor flat in which he lived along with two roommates. As I raised my hand to knock, the door was opened, and I was met by three university aged guys, all apparently quite eager – and curious – to meet me.
All three were of a dark complexion with jet black hair. Deniz was up front, shorter than the others and sporting a spectacular moustache. He quickly introduced me to his two roommates, Caglar, who had a warm, round, curious face, and another who's name I couldn't remember even if I had been able to pronounce it at the time. He was obviously the “cool” guy in the group, he sported a somewhat disinterested expression while at the same time remaining very obviously curious about this foreign guest. His English was poor in comparison to Deniz and Caglar's. We attempted a few conversations over my week there, all of which left both of us feeling somewhat uncomfortable and frustrated at our inability to communicate freely. Even with the other two, the accents were hard for me to understand and I was embarrassed at how many times I needed to ask for clarification on something they had just said.
Despite being a university student studying engineering, over the next week Deniz found plenty of time to show me around the city - by accidentally sleeping until noon or later every day. Caglar, apparently more of a morning person - at least when compared to Deniz - joined us periodically as we visited local tea shops, restaurants, museums and mosques.
At the famous Blue Mosque, a staff member stopped me as we were about to enter. Deniz had a few quick words with him in Turkish and we then proceeded inside. Apparently the staff had assumed – correctly – that I was not a muslim and was therefor going to bar my entry into the mosque based upon the fact. Deniz told me he had stepped in and assured the staff member that I was in fact a muslim, and that I had every right to enter. I wasn't sure how I felt about this turn of events, I was uneasy at the fact that I was intruding in a place that perhaps I shouldn't be, but I was honored that my new friend had so quickly jumped to my defence. The mosque itself was incredible in it's ornate decoration, and I quickly forgot my guilt in the glittering splendour of the place.
My time in the city was split almost evenly between being guided around the city by Deniz and Caglar, and exploring the neighborhoods on my own, and I was grateful for both. Through my guides I was able to glean some insight into the long and complex history of both the city and country. But being residents, they moved at a quick pace, rarely pausing long enough to soak in the grandeur that surrounded us. On my own I was able to take my time, explore back streets and alleyways, and follow my curiosity where it lead me. On my own I was also able to stop and take photographs without rushing, feeling like I was holding up the group.
Istanbul is probably the most interesting city photographically I've ever visited. It's immensely walkable, and there seems to be something interesting at every corner. The architecture is overwhelming, the people engaging, vibrant markets and shops spring up seemingly out of nowhere, and the whole city is imbued with a feeling of frontier-ism. In walking the streets the transition between cultures and continents is apparent, and the feeling is intoxicating, instantly finding it's way to the core of your bones.
One of my favourite moments occurred while walking the back streets on the perimeter of the massive covered market. After reaching the fringes of the market, I found myself in a courtyard, surrounded on four sides by two-storey buildings. From the outside I had seen some locals hanging out on the rooftops of the building, and I was curious to see if I could find a way up myself. The inner walls were open to the courtyard, with crumbling sets of stairs connecting the floors. I made my way to the top floor, peering into the dim shops and backrooms I passed. At the end of the loop, I found myself facing a large metal doorway. It was chained shut, but a crack between the door and the frame revealed stairs on the other side, leading upward. It was apparent that this was the way to the rooftop, but it was equally apparent that with the lock in place, there was no way I was getting up there.
Just as I turned to leave, a tired looking old man seemed to dissolve out of the shadows with a key ring in his hand. Unspeaking, he pointed up in the direction of the door. I nodded. He pulled a 2 Lira coin out of his pocket and held up two fingers. Getting the hint I pulled some coins amounting to 2 Lira out of my pocket and handed them to him. He limped over to the door and unlocked the chain which guarded it. I thanked him before passing through the doorway and heading up the stairs.
On the rooftop I had a panoramic view of the city. Though the complex itself wasn't very tall, neither were many of the surrounding buildings, allowing me to gaze far off into every direction. The roof itself was a mess of junk and construction materials. With every step I was wary of stepping in the wrong spot and having the roof collapse beneath me.
From my perch I could view the skyline of the city in every direction, the Golden Horn, Galata Towner, Blue Mosque and more. By venturing to the edge I could peer down into the narrow alleyway beneath and observe the merchants hawking their wares, joking, and conversing with one another. The area beneath me was not one frequented by tourists or foreigners, and it was fascinating for me to watch the comings and goings and interactions of the locals, the life, that played out beneath my perch. It was soothing, insightful, and mesmerizing.
As the sun set behind the Blue Mosque, I sat by the fountains and reflected on the experience of the afternoon. So many possibilities are opened up to us through curiosity and an intrepid spirit. It's something I've tried to incorporate into my life at home and something I place far more value on since travelling, and I think the benefits over the course of our lives of this type of thinking are immeasurable.
Emboldened by my afternoon experience, I scouted the area as the light faded for another rooftop vantage. I spotted a hotel with a patio on top, asked at the lobby, and was let up to the top floor deck which overlooked both the Blue Mosque, and the equally spectacular Hagia Sophia mosque/museum. From the patio I watched the last of the light sink below the horizon, and the minarets light up.
The evening prayers rang out through the now dark streets as I overlooked the city and it's monuments. The day had truly been a turning point for me, showing me that with a little poking around and asking for access to otherwise inaccessible areas, it was possible not only to get some beautiful images, but to have some unforgettable experiences. Later, I exited the hotel and set off down the alley back to Deniz' place, my head buzzing, relishing in what I had learned that day, and eager to face new challenges and opportunities in Asia.
What's the best thing you've stumbled upon while travelling? Has your camera ever allowed you access to a place you might not have been allowed into otherwise? I'd love to hear your stories of curiosity and exploration in the comments!
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