Five and a half months of continuous travel takes its toll on any backpacker. While I’ve slowed down my travel schedule to make my lifestyle more sustainable, eventually the constant moving was bound to catch up with me. Many people back home think it’s absurd I need a "vacation from my vacation,” but the reality of the matter is that long-term travel is far more tiring than you'd expect. While travel is absolutely thrilling, it boils down to a lot of logistics planning. Since no two days are ever the same, I am forced to constantly pay attention to my surroundings, figure out solutions to a variety of novel issues on a daily basis, and adjust my short term plans based on a never-ending array of unexpected changes. Thankfully, my three weeks in Istanbul was a return to a “normal” life that I’d long since forgotten and gave me the chance to explore the city at my leisure.
Being the crossroads of the world, Istanbul was on my radar early on as a city I wanted to spend more time in than usual. Unlike most cities I've visited or heard about, people repeatedly told me I could easily spend weeks in Istanbul and still not see everything, so I figured it would be a great city to settle down in for a while. Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis and cultural mecca of the world that really is the connecting link between the Western and Eastern worlds. For me, Istanbul stands as the symbolic edge of the world. Even with all of my travel, I’ve never once stepped foot on the Asian continent, but from my hostel patio in the city center I see this unknown territory just across the Bosphorus strait.
It's strange to think, but every city I visit after Istanbul will be the furthest east I’ve ever traveled.
I have absolutely no idea where to begin with a city as grand as Istanbul. Just looking at a map is an intimidating experience as the town is a complete jumble of windy, erratic streets the go on endlessly in every direction. The center of town is a complete mess of people going in every which way and the rules of the road are merely guidelines. As I wander the streets, I have to simultaneously watch out for cars, trams, mopeds, as well as other people who I could potentially crash into. The torrent of people, machines, and small carts coursing through the streets at all hours of the day reminds me of a more hectic version of Manhattan. Most people I imagine would be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of activity and perpetual craziness, but for me, I’m in my element - this is where I belong.
We’ll see how well this holds up when I finally make it to India.
From a tourist's perspective, Istanbul is divided up four main regions: Fatih, Beyoğlu, Üsküdar, and Kadıköy. The first two comprise the “European side” of Istanbul while the later two lie on the “Asian side” across the Bosphorus Strait (map for reference). The older part of Istanbul in the Fatih District is a densely packed city crammed into the small Sarayburnu peninsula jutting out into the Bosphorus strait and Sea of Marmara. There are countless shops lining the sides of every single street complete with signage that would induce an epileptic fit even in the best of us and crowds of tourists, beggars, performers, and vendors all pack together on the narrow walkways. All around me is a myriad of smells ranging from the familiar rotating vertical spits of fatty meat for kebabs to the gentle aromatic scent of the Turkish tea and bakeries selling treats. While many people I know would detest the perpetual feeling of claustrophobia, it is thrilling to get lost in the vast array of smells and people. The whole experience is a delight for the senses, but can be a lot to take in especially with the street vendors vying for your attention.
“My friend, my friend, come here, I make very good price… just for you."
While exciting, the Fatih area is beyond touristy and horribly expensive. For example, most places in the area will sell a basic Kebab for somewhere in the neighborhood of ₺14 (~$6), but you can get the same thing for roughly ₺3 (~$1.40) if you just spend a bit of time exploring the outskirts of the city further up the peninsula. If you are buying anything in (or around) the Grand Bazaar, the price is easily tripled or quadrupled for any tourist, so if your bargaining skills are underdeveloped (like mine) you are sure to get ripped off.
Thankfully even if you do get ripped off its only a few dollars, so it's not the end of the world.
In the middle of this swirl of people, smells, and lights sit the two most famous landmarks of the region, the Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka the Blue Mosque). These giant domed buildings are completely mesmerizing especially after the seemingly endless procession of cathedrals I’ve seen thus far on my trip. Slender minarets surround each of the buildings and poke high into the air contrasting sharply from the rounded domes behemoths next door. These minarets are visible from almost everywhere on the peninsula and five times a day the adhan (call to prayer) is chanted from enormous speakers mounted on each of the towers. From up close, the sound is deafening, and when the dozens of mosques chant at the same time, the noise can be heard for miles.
Regardless of where I go in the city, the call to prayer always serves as a reminder of where I am in the world. While I don’t drop what I’m doing to go pray, every time I hear the adhan, it triggers a moment of self-reflection. It is remarkable, however, how quickly the call to prayer turned from novel, strange event in my life to a horribly annoying background noise within just a couple of weeks. Five times a day hundreds of speakers mounted on the dozens of minarets across the city broadcast the thunderous chant. The singing lasts for several minutes and every time the muezzin (singer) pauses to take a breath you think, “Is it over?” just before the high-pitched squeal pierces the air once again. This goes on for five minutes or so… five times a day… EVERY DAY!
...and the first chant starts bright and early around 5:00 am!
North of Fatih just across the Galata Bridge lies the Beyoğlu District. A small step away from the madness of the old town, this is where the Galata Tower and Taksim Square are located. Between these two landmarks along İstiklal Avenue is where you’ll find Western shops such as H&M, Gap, etc. and serves as the center of nightlife in Istanbul. An endless stream of people course through the street at all hours of the day, rain or shine, but be warned, while Istanbul is cheap by western standards, alcohol is not. As a result of high taxes and the fact that most of the local Muslim population doesn’t drink, a half liter of beer will run you the same price as back home - about ₺10 (~$5).
Even with all of the excitement of the old town and the Taksim area, the outskirts of Istanbul on the European Side have much to offer and are far quieter than their rambunctious counterparts in town. In addition to being far cheaper, you can see more of the daily life of the local population. I wandered around the northwestern part of the peninsula, where the erratic city streets are lined with tranquil mom and pop shops, small cafes with locals playing card games while gossiping about their day, and hundreds of apartments in every direction as far as the eye can see. Here the local population lives a slower-paced life and English was rarely spoken.
One thing that always stands out to me in this region of the world is the difference between how men and women are treated in society. Generally, women appear to be treated well (at least from my very limited perspective), but everywhere I go it is strange to see so many covered up all the time. It conflicts heavily with my own beliefs/upbringing and I find the double standard women are held to in this region of the world unsettling. I am aware that it is a difference in cultures and the issue is only in my head, but as an example, it is difficult to accept that in a mosque women are segregated from men, required to pray in the back of the building behind by a barrier, and even forced to use a separate entrance.
And it doesn’t help when high-ranking politicians say things like this about women.
Based on what I hear from many solo female travelers, it's “normal" to be harassed (both verbally and physically) by men on the streets when they walk around without a man next to them. Moreover, it is disappointing to find out that women's best option when a strange man tries to flirt with them is to claim they have a boyfriend or husband. By itself this statement is nothing unusual, women in the western world frequently use this as an excuse, but it's sad to see that men here will not accept when a single woman is simply not interested in them. The worst part is that usually the local guy will only back off when the woman says she has a boyfriend/husband (whether fictitious or not) out of respect for the other man - not the woman herself - as if there were some sort of ownership and the potential suitor doesn't want to offend the boyfriend/husband.
While people think I'm crazy for traveling across the world by myself, I have a tremendous amount of respect for solo female travelers trekking through regions like this.
You all have my respect.
Like all large cities, Istanbul has it’s pros and cons. I’ve heard varying stories from people over the years about their experiences, and I’ll admit that my own perspective is skewed substantially simply because I’m male. To my surprise, I was even mistaken as a local a few times! While I don’t understand how such a thing is possible, I was likely harassed less because of it. My introduction to Istanbul was fascinating to say the least and while cities such as New York or London tout themselves as being diverse cities of the world, Istanbul is not only older but remarkably diverse simply thanks to its physically located between two great civilizations. No other city can come close to the wonders of Istanbul.