Istanbul: To walk with the world

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Years ago, a rather dramatic friend of mine who used to work as a travel reporter sent me this random question via email: “I had just managed to hear 7 different languages spoken in no less than a minute,” he asked, “where was I and what was I doing?

I answered hastily that he was at an international airport in North America where I knew he was stationed. And knowing his temperament, I assumed that he had just had gotten into fight with a customs officer over something mundane. The “seven languages” he heard, I guessed, were from the lynch mob that formed behind him for causing such an inconvenience.

“Sometimes I wonder how you’re still alive,” I remember writing in jest.

When he replied to me no less than a few minutes later, he told me that it was a good try, but I was wrong. Apparently, the man was in Turkey and was simply smoking at a back alley near his hotel. He neglected to tell me where in the country he was exactly, but I assumed he was in the first city foreigners tend to visit when they go there: Istanbul.

“Well at least you got that right,” he replied. Not that this was a great achievement of any sort. It was, after all, way too easy to guess that.

Istanbul, after all, is arguably the most famous city of Turkey. Its popularity is such that I’ve actually heard people— including a long-time manager of a local travel magazine—mistakenly insisting that this transcontinental metropolis remains to be the nation’s capital. A factual error, of course; that mantle goes to Ankara which is an hour of plane ride away. But if you are from a foreign land and you wish to go to Ankara—or anywhere else in Turkey for that matter—you would usually have to stop by Istanbul by virtue of its status as the country’s gateway. This pretty much explains two things: the city’s fact-smearing reputation among laymen and how anyone can just smoke at one of its back alleys and manage to hear seven different languages spoken in less than a minute.

“Turkey receives millions of tourists annually,” a local tour guide, Mehmet Ozkan, told me, “so technically Istanbul gets millions of tourists annually.” I was among the millions to visit it this year. I arrived at Istanbul Ataturk Airport via Turkish Airlines and it didn’t take long for me to get a glimpse of its status as Turkey’s most popular city. Between the tarmac and the baggage counter, I heard at least one British-sounding man.

Meanwhile, it didn’t take long to hear at least four different languages— American English, Mandarin, Korean and, of course, Turkish—and those, of course, were just the languages that I could recognize. Including the ones that I couldn’t, I would say I heard about a dozen. Naturally, this aural experience came complimented by what I saw next: a Korean couple and a group of Chinese tourists funneling through the halls of the airport. Deeper into the airport, I had managed to see nearly every skin tone, facial feature, and physical trait I’ve encountered working as a travel reporter for the last seven years—and all it took was less than an hour.

Indeed, a great part of the world comes here in Istanbul. And as I walked through the city, it appears that a great part of it also stays. Having spent some time in it, it didn’t become difficult for me to understand why.

Spraw of Surprises 

Geographically, Istanbul sprawls over two continents separated by the Bosphorus Strait—one side belongs to Europe and the other belongs to Asia. Demographically, it houses these days a great number of locals, ethnic minorities and foreign nationals, thereby allowing its population to reach an estimate of over 14 million by 2014. Essentially, it is one of the most populated cities in the world.

So what does this mean to me? A lot of traffic, I assumed. After seeing the almost panicking host of people just outside the Ataturk Airport, I assumed that I would be in for a long drive going to my hotel.

Fortunately for me, I was wrong. The somewhat 24-kilometer drive from the Yesilköy area to Sisli, the location of my hotel, was a smooth journey that taught me the first thing I need to know about Istanbul: you can expect it to surprise you every so often.

Like many locations I’ve visited in the past, I’ve had numerous assumptions about the city based on preparatory readings, but a number of them were proven to be inaccurate. For instance, I read that it’s a city with a predominantly Muslim population and, true enough, my journey to the hotel saw quite a number of mosques. There are over 3,000 of them, actually. Some of them appear to be the centerpieces of hilly landscapes surrounded by a clutter of houses and buildings. That being said, I was surprised to find a number of women roaming the city dressed in modern, mostly stylish clothing. I had expected to see a lot of them heavily covered but that didn’t appear to be the case.

I also assumed that given its density and its status as a highly populated metropolis, its streets are forever busy. Not in my side of Sisli. I was booked to stay at Hilton Bomonti, and upon my arrival at the hotel, this side of Istanbul seemed laidback and almost suburban if not for the contingent of lofty towers hovering over its roads. This part of Sisli has the bearing of a business district on a holiday and, again, I made the mistake of assuming something. Perhaps, I thought, Istanbul is not as highly populated and manic as my readings suggested.

It certainly seemed that way an hour later. After dropping off my things at the hotel, I went to Taksim Square for dinner. I was warned by the hotel concierge that it would be very crowded there that evening so I braced myself for what should be an eventful trip. Lo and behold, what met me at the end of my journey was a commercial district that seemed to be in the troughs of its lean hours. Alleyways leading to the center of the square were thoroughly lit and the establishments flanking them, mostly restaurants and shops, did have a number of customersin attendance. But it wasn’t as busy as I expected. Deeper into the square, the Pietro Canonica’s Monument of the Republic was surrounded by pedestrians and bystanders, but it still felt too spacious for a popular tourist destination in a supposedly crowded city populated city.

Naturally, my assumption was once again proven wrong. Istanbul is heavily populated. It’s just that a great number of its population was somewhere else that evening. And no, I didn’t have to look for that place to see the crowd. That crowd headed towards me.

It started with a murmur, the iceberg tip of a chant echoing in from one of the streets leading to the square. What followed were drumbeats, growing louder and louder. Beside a line of vendors in seemingly makeshift stalls, I noticed a large group of Istanbul is a Turkish delight thanks partly to its capacity as a culinary destination. police officers suddenly in formation. And  soon enough, their presence was made relevant when a large and exceedingly boisterous crowd began flooding toward the square.

Galatasaray. I saw a lot of that word written in the chaos I suddenly found myself in. It was plastered on t-shirts with the colors orange and red, and on flags some of the people waved around, on arms, necks and faces of several rambunctious youths. It was also on the banners carried by children who climbed a nearby scaffolding to get a good view of what was going on.

“Football is a big sport here,” Ozkan would tell me days later when I met him in Cappadocia. “And Galatasaray is a popular team.” Their recent win apparently gained them their 20th Turkish title and the rally was held in celebration of that.

When I finally got out of the crowd and into one of the diners beside the street, I remember catching my breath. I remember fervently checking my pockets to see if I had lost something. I also remember looking up to see a gentleman staring at me from across the room, visibly amused by how flustered I was. With that smile on his face, he may as well be a personification of the city, one wordlessly telling me to never underestimate it again.

A cause for convergence

During my first morning at the city, its gloves came off. No more pretensions or projections of what it might be but isn’t. It is one of the most famous cities in the world and it took every chance it got to show me that.

In 2014, Istanbul managed to net 11.82 million tourists. This makes it the city with the highest number of arrivals that year besting its top competitor, the resort city of Antalya. Recently, the Turkish government implemented changes to further improve its seaside offerings, but one cannot simply assume that Istanbul would lose its place at the apex of the country’s tourism—not after seeing what I saw.

At the municipality of Fatih, which lies just above the Sea of Marmara, people of various nationalities covered the streets. Often tailing a person wearing a red-strapped ID, visibly tagging them as a licensed tour guide, they would aim cameras and gawk zealously at whichever corner of the city they were in.

“Tourism has always been an important part of the city,” said local tour guide Gungor Ugur, and a quick passage through its major roads explains as to why. Istanbul, as a city, is flamboyant, a rambunctious masterpiece crafted on an undulating landscape by pivotal conquests, human ingenuity and time. Three major powers—the Romans, the Byzantines and the Ottomans—have turned it into their capital at least once. The Silk Road and its attendant cultural implications, meanwhile, have brought to its streets influences from different parts of the world. And as a result, you cannot pass through the main routes of Istanbul without catching sight of some scene-stealing sight.

Among the grandest of them is the Blue Mosque, the legacy of Sultan Ahmet I who wished to reassert Ottoman power in the city. Named as such for the blue iznik tiles adorning its walls, the massive structure was completed in 1616. It remains solid today partly due to the architectural brilliance that made it nigh resistant to the earthquake damages that can hit the city due to the fault line of Marmara.

No more than a few seconds since I ventured into its halls, the place impressed upon me the kind of minds that ruled over this city, the big-thinking, barely fettered attitudes that can not only dream of such earthly grandeur but realize it to its fullest. It also impressed upon me that no matter who you are or where you come from, it is not difficult to find something interesting in the legacies of those who do not believe in what you do.

In the main hall of the mosque, people from various nations cramped in the limited space provided for visitors. I could hear from a distance a group of Japanese tourists, and I turned to find them squeezing themselves together to fit the view of a camera held by their guide. Not far from them, African backpackers were talking to an American sounding man about the mosque’s high ceiling and how it must be “such a bitch to clean.”

Convergence—this is something everpresent in Istanbul, something that accounts for the city’s splendor. It is also responsible for creating what I personally believe as the greatest treasure of the city.

Not far from the Blue Mosque, just past a lengthy park stands Hagia Sophia. Oftentimes, Istanbul is celebrated for its amalgamations and Hagia Sophia is one of the main reasons for that. Originally, this was a Byzantine patriarchal basilica when the city was known as Constantinople. Because of its status and its purpose, the interiors of the place were richly decorated with religious mosaics, some representing Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. However, after the Ottoman Turks took over, the building was converted into a mosque, its mosaics, due to Islam’s ban on representational imagery, covered with plaster. Islamic insignias were also installed within the interiors.

These days, Hagia Sophia, now a museum, stands as a representation for both religions. Recent restorative works done in its interiors have unveiled the Christian mosaics, allowing them to co-exist with symbols common to the Islamic faith. And the marriage creates an impressive visual experience.

When I visited Hagia Sophia, the place was undergoing renovations. Scaffoldings rising over its grand halls hardly contributed to its somewhat otherworldly aesthetic. But people were there nonetheless— lots of people.

The crowds of both Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, however, pale in comparison to the horde of the next place I visited.

The sales pitch

“I am from Malaysia. I am here because I want something interesting, and if I give this place a chance, I will find it.” At least that’s according to a man I met in Fatih. He yelled this to me as I passed by his shop at the Grand Bazaar.

“You will not make a mistake!” he yelled.

But he sure did. And he wasn’t the only one. Having spent nearly an hour walking around the bazaar, I have had my fair share of such profiling. One man claimed that he knew what I needed since apparently I was from Vietnam, while the other told me that what he was selling could not be found where I was from (which was apparently India). There was one man who got it right. He looked at me, claimed that he loved the Philippines, and that I would love the beautiful carpet he was selling.

“It will look good in your house,” he said.

Now these people knew what my house looked like. I was at awe. This, of course, is not the only entrepreneurial tactic I experienced in the bazaar. Deeper into the area, a man came up to me saying that he liked my t-shirt, that he wanted to know where I got it so that he could buy one for his son.

“Do you have a son?” he also asked. I answered in the negative, and he responded by saying I made good life choices since I was still young. He added that I should keep doing that and that I should start by taking a look at what he had in his store.

“You won’t regret it,” he said. I believed him, but my time was running out.

I do understand, however, the highly assertive and at times amusingly creative sales tactics of the people in the Grand Bazaar. It is, after all, the largest establishment of its kind in the city. Ugur told me that in it, there are over 4,000 shops selling various items and an estimate of 20,000 to 25,000 people working in the place. The sheer size of their immediate competition, I assume, is the reason behind such insistence.

It should be of note, however, that from the looks of things, there are enough to go around for all the stores in the Grand Bazaar. It has a number of entrances surrounding its peripheries and in the hour I’ve stayed there, I have yet to see one without a massive group of people flowing into it.

“Combined with the number of people selling here,” Ugur said, “this may very well be the most populated place in the city.”

But why? What could account for such popularity?

Perhaps it’s the location. Sprawling over a sizeable land in the heart of Fatih, it can be conveniently reached from major tourist attractions like Hagia Sophia. It is also located near public trams which, in turn, can lead to other parts of the city. It could also be because of the variety offered. From food items to clothing, from jewelry to random souvenirs, the Grand Bazaar offers a large assortment of choices for potential customers. I assume that history plays a role too. More than just a place of commerce, this establishment has been around since the 1730s. People have been trading everything— even gossip—in its walls for years. Personally, I just like how vibrant it is, how dynamic and zestful the people are whether they’re selling or buying something.

Location, variety, history and life. Walking around the bazaar until I could find a quiet corner to simply watch and take it in, I realized that this is more or less a microcosm of Istanbul itself. The city is of many offerings and they come summarized in this crowded place.

I grabbed my phone to check the time. Upon seeing that I am close to being late for my next engagement, I began to walk out. It took me no more than 5 minutes to reach the exit, but before I could, I felt like I had already seen a great part of the world walking beside me.

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