Europe | Istanbul, Turkey
1 Lira (TL) = 20p
After 12 months in Australia and a month in Vietnam, Jenny and I decided to spend a little while in Istanbul, Turkey to break up our journey home. We had booked flight a few months ago through Skyscanner from Sydney – Vietnam – Turkey. Our route would take us from Vietnam – Kuala Lumpur (5hr wait) – Tehran, Iran (5hr wait) – Istanbul, however it didn’t quite go to plan.
Having done lots of research on the internet as to rules on connecting flights in Iran it became evident that we would need a visa even though we weren’t leaving the airport. We found out that you can get a “transit visa” on arrival, meaning you sit in a room for the 5 hours and aren’t allowed to leave. This would apparently be free but when we flew to Kuala Lumpur and tried to check in to our flight to Iran, we were not allowed to check-in. They, Air Asia, said that because they are a budget airline they do not allow people, other than Australians and Kiwis, to get a transit visa on arrival and so you must get one from the embassy before departure.
After several hours of angry phone calls home and decision making time, we felt the only option was to book a new, direct flight from KL – Istanbul. This ended up costing us £400 each but meant we would still have 5 days in Turkey.
When we finally landed in Istanbul it had been nearly 25 hours since we left Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, a journey that should really of only taken 12-13 if done better. We then had to buy a 90 day tourist visa for €25 each.
Many lessons were learnt in this experience and the main one was not to book multiple flights through companies like “Kiwi.com” because they will not be connecting flights and you may have to collect bags, go through passport control, get a visa, check back in and go through security again. Their algorithms just combine the cheapest flights and book multiple single tickets. Another lesson is to read up about visa requirements for a country and what certain budget airline’s rules are.
After landing at 5:30am, being extremely tired and not having sim cards for uber we reluctantly got a taxi. We agreed on a price (150tl/£30) and were taken to our accommodation by 7am after some directional confusion from the driver.
We checked in to Ada Homes for our 5 night stay and went straight to sleep. Jenny had got a couple of hours on our 11 hour flight but I, as always, hadn’t slept a wink. We slept til about 2pm and then went for a quick explore of the local area. The apartment was small but perfect.
We walked to Taksim square along an extremely long pedestrianised road that was filled with shops. It definitely felt like we were back in Europe, that’s for sure. Cold breeze and I didn’t feel tall anymore. After a Starbucks we walked the other way along the shopping street and came across the Galata Tower. Having read that the queue is usually massive we decided to go up as it was only about 20m long. It cost 25tl/£5 each but was worth it for the sunset view.
On our 2nd day we had a more action packed plan. First, we walked passed the Galata Tower and over the Bosphorus River to the Egyptian Spice bazaar. A large, colourful display of herbs, spices and all sorts of other food types From here we slowly wandered through the busy streets to the Grand Bazaar, one of the top ten largest covered markets in the world. It wasn’t really what we were expecting really, as most of the “stalls” were actual shops so it was more like a shopping mall than a market. Still, interesting to look around all of the shiny objects.
Continuing on, we headed for the Basilica Cistern. On the way we stopped for lunch in a little self-service café where we had lentil soup and baklava (a turkish pastry desert) for 25tl which was lovely. Just round the corner was, what I thought was, the Basilica Cistern. We queued for 10 minutes or so and it wasn’t we had paid 40tl each and I looked at the ticket that we realised this was actually The Hagia Sophia. We were going to go there too so it didn’t matter really. The Hagia Sophia was built in the year 530 and has been a mosque, a church, the largest cathedral in the world and now finally a museum. It was a very large building with lots of history inside, but I feel the atmosphere was ruined by all of the renovation works going on. Round every corner would be scaffolding or someone using a drill – bit of a shame really.
We decided to give the Basilica Cistern a miss and headed for The Blue Mosque/Sultan Ahmed Mosque which was just across the park. This was a free attraction as it is still a functioning place of worship where you must remove shoes and women must be covered from head to toe.
Today was a completely lazy day. I phoned home as it was mother’s birthday and they were off to Belfast to see The Killers. We went to the shop for food for dinner and that was the only time we left the house.
On our fourth day we got up a little earlier. First, we walked to The Photographer’s Gallery which was a very small display of a local photographer. It was free and the exhibition was just 2 small rooms filled with black and white photos from around Turkey. Some were good, some I didn’t like. I think we spent about 30 minutes here before we headed to the Modern Art Museum. At the Modern Art Museum we paid 25tl entry and slowly wandered around the exhibitions for about an hour or so. Just like most modern art that I go to see, a lot of it was very strange and I assume you must have to be an artist to understand a lot of them. However, some things do interest me and so I usually make a point of visiting a city’s Modern Art Museum,
Another semi lazy day, going out in the early afternoon to finish off our Christmas shopping and we went out for lunch which was nice.
British Airways to London Heathrow and then to Edinburgh. Because we flew from Turkey to the UK there is a new law against carrying laptops, iPads, kindles etc in your hand luggage. We had to re-pack at the check-in desk and say goodbye to my music/ipad and then when you get on the plane they say “please put you laptop bags under the seat in front of you”… is that a joke? Anyway we got home eventually and surprised our families in Stonehaven. Everyone's reaction seemed to be something like..."Why are you here? What happened? Is everything okay?!"
In summary then, Istanbul is a beautiful city with lots of culture and interesting buildings and it is fairly cheap when compared to the UK. However, I couldn’t help but get a very unfriendly vibe from the people and around every corner was a young policeman holding a machine gun and bulletproof vest. Almost every shop had metal detectors, Starbucks had security and in our entire time here I never heard the English language. There was evidently lots of political unrest that we were unaware of at the time. I’m sure, under better circumstances, it is a lovely place to visit and is bustling with tourists, but when we went it was just a bit odd and tense.