Istanbul Details

back to Istanbul 2010

Gridlock: it's not just for rush hour anymore, it's a way of life! If you ever visit Istanbul, do not rent a car. Use the tram (it has its own right-of-way in most places) or the Metro, or the boats. I actually had good luck with the cabs: quite inexpensive by Toronto standards, and it would seem you're charged by distance rather than time ...

Why, you may ask, are there bollards every six feet all along the edge of almost every major street? That's easy: the Turkish driver, left to his own devices, will park on the sidewalk. And occasionally drive on it. This is because there's nowhere to park. And, as mentioned above, not a lot of places to drive.

My hotel room was wonderfully quiet, right up until 5 AM, at which time the call to prayer goes out from the Blue/Sultan Ahmet Mosque a couple blocks away. This wake-up call is pretty much inevitable anywhere in Turkey, and in most of the Muslim world. There are five calls-to-prayer per day, the last of which is around 8 PM. It's most jarring and/or amusing when you're between two or three mosques because all the minarets are singing out at once, but they're out of sync and out of tune with each other ... As a tourist, the biggest side effect (other than rolling over and going back to sleep at 5 AM) is that you know you now have to wait half an hour before you can go back into the mosques.

At one point I saw something interesting in a corner store fridge: "fermented carrot juice." WTF?! It was dark purple, and I thought "I can't do it." But the next day I sat down in a small doner shop and they had the stuff. And I remembered one of the tenets of traveling: you will rarely regret doing something, but you're very likely to regret not doing something. So I bought it. By the way, it's *spicy* Fermented Carrot Juice. It tastes like ... imagine they tossed a carrot, a beet, and a horseradish in a juicer. That's about right. I can't say I'd recommend it, but I can tell people I tried it.

I can also tell people I tried Ayran, which is pretty much the national drink of Turkey: very dilute salted yogurt. If you've ever had a salt lassi, you know what it's like. I always prefered my lassis sweet so I'm not too keen on the stuff, but the Turks drink it by the gallon.

As in many places, there are vendors on the streets selling food. What they sell here are simit ("see-meet," essentially a slightly large thin bagel) (tried them), roast chesnuts (tried them ... several times), sahlep (a drink sold mostly at night and only during the winter, wikipedia - good to know the name may have come for the Arabic expression for "fox testicles") (tried it), and roast corn. I can vouch for the simit and chesnuts as genuinely Turkish: they're sold all over the city regardless of whether or not there are tourists.

Tea is served very strong in tiny tulip-shaped glasses - almost inevitably with sugar, which is needed to overcome the bitterness brought on by the sheer strength of the tea. Definitely the social beverage of choice.

Their coffee is made with the grounds in, and is very strong. Fortunately, the cups are only slightly larger than those for the tea. Strangely, it's not generally served in the morning, but I was a little afraid to drink it much past noon because otherwise I wouldn't sleep until the next morning.

While technically I was still in Europe, I was also only a few hundred meters from Asia. And the tourist areas definitely reminded me of Asia as there were hawkers everywhere. Like India, labour seems to be relatively cheap - any commercial endeavour seems to have twice as many people involved as I'd expect. Public buses have two people: a driver, and a guy doing fares. A mid-size restaurant will have a dozen wait-staff.

The currency is the Turkish Lira. Up until a year ago or so it was the "New Turkish Lira," as the Old Turkish Lira had gone into a deflationary death spiral so that the bills all had multiple zeroes on them. No more: 1.50 TL = $1 CAN, 2 TL = 1 euro (at least in March of 2010). I love the 10 TL note, which has some hard math on it: . The bills are reasonably attractive, and have all the modern security features built in.

Speaking of which ... Ataturk is everywhere. He was the founder of the modern Turkish republic, and his image - painted, sculpted, photographed - is everywhere. He's on every coin and bill, just as the Queen is on all currency in Canada.

The Turkish Air Force flew the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (and possibly the Canadair CF-104, which was closely related) even after most of the rest of the world had given up on it. As a result, there are at least a couple on display in Istanbul: one at the Military Museum, and the other at the Rahmi Koç Museum (a very entertaining technology museum). That brought back some memories for me, because it was a particularly notorious plane. Evidently (according to Wikipedia) Canada lost 50% of its CF-104s to accidents! I had known the nickname it had acquired in Canada (and apparently Germany as well): "Widowmaker." But in its colourful career it was also called "missile with a man in it" (it's small and very fast), "flying coffin," and "Erdnagel" - the official German military term for a tent peg. It also led to the German joke "How do you get your own F-104?" "Buy a piece of land and wait for one to drop on it!" 
by giles