The world famous Hagia Sofia.

My arrival into Istanbul from Plovdiv showed me just how far I've come with regard to traveling; things that terrified me early on in my trip simply rolled off my shoulders. Every time I arrive into a new country there is a flurry of activity, strange new customs, and numerous unknowns that I have to problem solve around until I finally arrive at my next hostel. Ironically, what I am beginning to understand about traveling is that the more issues and unknowns I face, the more entertaining traveling is for me. I know this strategy tends to backfire on me from time to time, but even then at least I have a story.

Really the only thing I don't want is to die.

The seven-hour bus ride to Istanbul from Plovdiv was the most enjoyable trip I’ve taken on a bus so far. For 40 Lev (~$25) I had one of the largest, comfiest seats I’ve ever seen on a bus complete with a touch screen TV loaded full of movies (that I never heard of), music (that I didn’t understand) and games (that were horribly outdated), but it didn’t matter, I was living like a king! The time passed quickly and I even tough I heard terrible stories about crossing into Turkey didn't have a single issue at the border.

View of downtown Istanbul at night.

After my experiences in Ukraine, I'm terrified of missing my stop, so when I felt I was close enough the central bus station in Istanbul, Büyük Otogar, I hopped out just to be safe. The moment the bus pulled away I realized I had no idea where I was, but I remember reading the Büyük Otogar terminal was several stories tall so I began walking toward the biggest building I could find and hoped for the best. It was barely 6:00 pm, but the sky was pitch black and I navigated down a dark street crammed full of buses assuming it would lead to the maintenance area below the bus terminal. While the pungent aroma of diesel fuel and urine that permeated the air was repulsive, it meant I was at least on the right track.

While it sounds unbelievably childish, my arrival to Istanbul had all the making of a level from an old Star Wars video game I use to play as a kid called Bounty Hunter. While there was no shooting or jumping off tall buildings, my "level" began with me being dropped off in the maintenance area of a structure in some strange/foreign land and my goal was to get into town. My “objectives” were 1) find an entrance into the Büyük Otogar, 2) get to the top of the complex, 3) acquire some Turkish Liras, and 4) locate the metro into the city. Now…. Go!

The famous Blue Mosque in the center of Istanbul.

And since I don't understand Turkish, "Büyük Otogar" even looks and sounds like a made up name you hear in a video game.

I eventually located an entrance to the Büyük Otogar but quickly found myself in what appeared to be a deserted, run-down market. Down in the concrete bowels of the bus terminal, the scene was grim and melancholy. Rows of closed shops lined the sides of the dilapidated walkways and were crammed right next to each other in the claustrophobic space. As I walked around, I saw various unknown liquids trickling down from the ceiling, heard the rumbling of large mechanical equipment vibrating behind the thick reinforced walls, felt the cold air pass through the dingy space like a wind tunnel, and smelled the omnipresent scent of urine that still wafted through my nostrils. The few shops still open were full of spare bus parts hanging from the ceiling like peaking ducks in a Chinese restaurant, but sprawling labyrinth of shops was basically deserted; only reinforcing the creepy ambiance. As I made my way through I kept expecting someone to jump out from around the nearest corner to attack me.

My imagination sometimes gets the better of me.

The Basilica Cistern kinda like the bus station on cleaner and nicer. 

Even though I was technically in the Büyük Otogar, I was far from the main pedestrian areas. I needed to make my way up the structure, but the only stairs I found lead to dead ends. After a number of failed attempts, I started to think I'd stumbled into an MC Escher painting by mistake. The vendors could tell I was clearly lost even though I attempted to look as if I knew where I was going. Thankfully, I finally stumbled across a stairway that took me to the top of the complex where I finally caught a breath of fresh air.

Success, Objective 2 Completed!

The top of Büyük Otogar is a giant circular asphalt road surrounded by dozens of cramped ticket offices with illuminated billboards, neon signs, and bored locals sipping tea by the front doors. It didn’t take long to figure out where the Metro station was thanks to a giant sign in the middle of the open space, but I still needed cash. Since I couldn't read Turkish, I walked around in search of a shop with a symbol of any major currency on it.

The last few days have been complete washouts (which is why I have no entry for Plovdiv), and right as I began my search for an ATM it began pouring rain. The locals, sensing the impending storm, all moved into the shelter of their small shops while taxi drivers called out to me if I wanted a ride. I understand the solicitation was harmless, but their shouts and whistles felt very much like catcalls.

The perpetual chaos of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

Nothing beats the feeling of being a down-and-out hooker working the local bus station in the rain to brighten your spirits.

I trudged my way through the crowds of heckling businessmen and the ever-worsening storm when out of nowhere giant speakers began broadcasting the muezzin's evening adhan (call to prayer). The loud, crackling voice that emanated from the enormous loudspeakers was deafening and completely drowned out the noise of the world around me. I will never forget the novelty of listening to my first call to prayer and being entranced by the singer's impressive vibrato, the strange tempo of the chat, the high-pitched notes, and the completely new language. The experience is difficult to explain, but I have never felt like such a misplaced foreigner in my entire life. At that moment, I truly came to understand just how far away from home I was and the realization engendered a simultaneous feeling of concern (because I had no idea what the hell was going on) and excitement. Even with the catcalls and the cold rain, I couldn’t help but smile; I was finally reached a completely new city with a genuinely different culture than my own! This moment would have terrified me just a mere five months ago, yet there I was having the time of my life.

How times have changes.

The interior of the Hagia Sofia.

I eventually found a semi-reputable ATM and was able to withdraw 100 Lira so I could take the metro into town. Naturally, the damn machine spit out two 50 Lira bills that the token machines in the Metro conveniently don’t accept. I talked with four different kebab shop owners trying to change one of my bills before one finally agreed to help, but the moment I entered the subway station I felt right at home. Regardless of where I go, whether it is NYC or Istanbul, every subway looks basically the same. In my case, this was the first familiar thing I saw all evening.

Objective 4 Complete.

The city of Istanbul is teeming with activity and feels like a more congested version of New York City (if you can imagine). The entire ride into town, I was mesmerized by the scene outside my window. Hundreds of small shops lined the streets equipped with flashing fluorescent lights, LEDs, and neon signs selling every kind of trinket humanly imaginable. The torrent of people flowing through the city streets all spoke yet another new, indecipherable language and the roads were crammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Istanbul is an absolute madhouse, but instead of being overwhelmed, I was endlessly fascinated by the flurry of activity around me. How on earth is it possible that so much can change - the language, currency, culture, people, activity, and atmosphere - with just a short bus ride from Bulgaria to Turkey? Regardless of how many times it happens to me, I still can't wrap my head around it.

The streets of central Istanbul at dusk.

Once in the city, I made my way through a local park and from the trees rose numerous, towering minarets from the nearby Sultan Ahmed Mosque and the world-renowned Hagia Sophia. I geeked out the instant I laid eyes on the famous Hagia Sophia; if only my old high school art history teacher, Mr. Mandivel, could see me now. Instantly a torrent of completely useless facts about the building came rushing back to me (why the hell I remember them I’ll never know) and I literally let out a small “eek!” as I walked past the gargantuan structure like a five-year-old girl. The beautiful domes were illuminated from below and even though building has stood for almost 1,500 years, the Hagia Sofia still impresses all those who gaze upon it for the first time.

As I approached my hostel the smell of double apple hookah, lamb kebabs grilling on an open fire, and locally brewed tea filled the air. I can’t stop grinning. I can’t believe I’ve finally made it to Istanbul! Short of my visit to Kiev, this now marks the furthest east I have ever ventured in my lifetime. I have no idea what’s in store for me, but damn if I’m not looking forward to seeing what my new “home” has to show me. 

Welcome to Turkey!