"Instanbul is fucking mental" my brother said with a big grin and a glint in his eye. We were catching up over skype and talking about my up and coming trip to Istanbul. I was feeling pretty ill prepared for a place that sounded a bit monstrous.
"One thing worth knowing is you need a travel card , that will work on the metro and the tram system over there" this was definitely sound advice. I later found out the card also covers the boat crossing over the bosphorous a 'must do' if you visit.
" Also you'll hear this whuuuuuaaaaaa which you'll first think is a siren but its actually the call to prayer". I had never experienced such a thing in my life, I felt curious and a little wary about this.
So my trip to Istanbul had been booked months ago, originally a meetup with a woman I met in Portugal , so originally a potential romantic endeavour. This then got downgraded as she met someone else but atleast we would hang out as friends. Then business issues meant she had to cancel the trip altogether.
Now my only companion and guide for the big scary Turkish city would no longer be joining me. I started to feel a bit reserved about the trip , at some points even considering cancellation.
But I had got the plane tickets cheap, had told many people about it and I knew after portugal I wanted to do more travelling so why not experience travelling solo in a place like Istanbul , it is not exactly on the cusp of civiliation or entirely within my comfort zone, a negative could be plussed out by the positives.
That night before I had 2 hours sleep, I was mostly worried about missing my early morning flight to Frankfurt. I couldn't imagine anything worse than not going to Istanbul especially as I had considered cancelling , it would be like giving into my lazy/fearful sub conscious.
Just before I do something pretty big , like some kind of signficant change is about to happen in my life I start to see all those familiar things around me differently. The train station walk for the airport flyer is a very well walked path for me but at that time it felt more menacing, forboding, pretty much beccause in my head the oncoming Istanbul was both.
But I stuck it out , walked through the cold lonesome streets, waited at the quiet train station at 4:50am for the bus service to the airport, a few other travellers had joined me.
while sat on that heated bus I flicked through my phone unable to use the internet and too restless to focus on a book.
What had I let myself in for? Why did I book a holiday to meet someone I couldn't guarantee would make the trip , why didn't I book a hostel where I would meet people instead of opting to stay in the original apartment that had been booked when there would have been 2 of us!? Was it going to be lonely? Was the city going to be like crazy markets straight from an old Indiana Jones movie with me getting mobbed by toothless market tradesmen trying to con the white devil into buying a rug.
Once through airport security and a seemingly endless pathway that leads through loads of duty free outlets I made it into the main bar and restaurant area at Bristo lairport which was chock-full of boozed up Welsh. It was so surreal to be sharing the airport with all these rugger fans acting like it was early evening, atleast at that time and level of alcohol consumption they were jovial.
From there it was coffee / pastry / book read and much glancing at the departures notice. Airports can be pretty boring.
When it came time to board the plane I followed the empty corridors into a rather nice lounge with hardly anyone else waiting.
"Everyone must be taking their sweet time" I thought expecting a rammed early flight.
Then we boarded and the 12 (12!) of us sat on that cosey little Lufthansa plane.
The flight wasn't anything too special, I did opt not to sit in my allocated chair next to an attractive German lady as it felt werid when there were 15 empty seats in front of me. I decided a snooze was way more important than conversation with a beautiful stranger.
Frankfurt airport was OK , nice enough to wander around for a couple hours. I am sure I could have done some sightseeing in actual Frankfurt but I didn't dare miss my connecting flight. The next plane was bigger and packed out although I still got a spare chair next to me, seperating me from a German chap who was nice enough to talk too. I was still in English mode finding it novel that all the announcements were now in German first. One passenger hadn't turned up and so their luggage needed to be removed for security reasons setting us back around 30 minutes. I felt a bit disgruntled. Flying used to make me very uneasy but now I feel excitment as the plane picks up speed then subtly lifts up before that obvious tilt as you,your fellow passengers and of course the plane gain altitude. I slept a bit , I ate pasta, read some of MeatSpace having finished my Danny Wallace book and kept sweeping through a little guide book borrowed from the library with a lovely fabric woven cover. Istanbul sounded immense, the guide book, last booked out in 2011 might have been a few years old but the many attactions it listed couldn't have surely changed. It was staggering how much it said there was to do , I knew I was never going to take full advantage of such a mammoth sized city in the short time I had of two full days. When I snoozed I did allow myself to fantasise about the possibilities of romance with an exotic Turkish woman, then for a time someone a lot closer to home (I didn't want to overthink about her as I felt I might jinx things) , really it was just an effort to bolster my cracked ego :) After around 3 hours we touched down and things didn't look all that different, seasoned travellers had previously told me airports look like airports all around the world and I am starting to agree. Having said that the distant city looked big, epic tower blocks loomed in the distance, so many stories within those structures, a whole new world out there defiant and untouched by any of my actions. At passport control a very pissed off policeman stamped my passport , I felt he would rather be stamping someone to death , maybe me! , rather than be sat there scanning people's passport documents. Atuturk is a big old airport and it must have taken around 20 minutes to leave and get down to the metro station bound for Taksim square. Once outside things just felt different, mostly because people looked different. I was now officially a foreigner. I was standing outside Aturturk airport having a vape feeling and probably looking very European. A young turk approached and said something in his native toungue with an angry look in his eyes which I translated as ' Do you want to buy some proper cigarettes' , I just waved my hands in front of me in that universal sign of 'no thanks'. Down in the metro station I had a short struggle to top-up my travel card kindly given to me by my brothers girlfriend then having got to grips with the metro map , realising where I needed to change I got on a pretty clean metro train. I must say Istanbul's public transport system is extremely efficient. A fair few stops later I was on a tram counting down 27 ( yes 27! ) stops until I could take a huge elevator like system to Taksim metro station my final destination for the evening. On that tram I tried to watch as much of the passing scenery as possible. I guess most notably the long streets of plush shops with not a single bar in sight. Was Istanbul really a dry city?! Friends had said I really should enjoy a beer there but was that going to be possible? Would it offend the locals? Restaurants whizzed by with exceptional interiors, women sat dining wearing hijabs while men in chefs hats rushed around in the open kitchens tending to their night's orders. The journey took around an hour and a half and when I walked out into Taksim square I felt some relief and a new anxiety that I had to find the place called Taksim Istanbul Apartment. On the directions printed off from booking.com they had said head to the cartoon hotel, surely a spelling mistake but lo and behold in huge red neon lettering the exact words hung high in the sky. The cartoon hotel was big and glorious, certainly seemed it as I passed it by taking a left down a steep busy road before turning down on the second left finding myself in one of the worst looking neighbourhoods I have ever dared venture. The accomodation had been booked through booking.com , a suggestion by my Russian friend and it had seemed reasonable. It wasn't the highest rated but it was pretty cheap and right by Taksim Square so easy to find. I felt a bit worried walking down that street expecting the shark eyed youths to quickly multiply and start asking some very awkward questions, but nothing of the sort happened. I think at worst they asked if I wanted some weed in Turkish as I passed by. Not far from the turning was my building , down some steps I found myself in the office greeted by some young and pretty friendly people. So it turned out I was in a Kurdish neighbourhood, not the most minted of people I gather and certainly not the best treated globally, the surrounding area I think indicative of this.
I paid for my first night, handed over my passport, chatted with a lovely giggly Hungarian girl ( who really helped as she could translate between the Kurdish staff and myself ) who I couldn't always understand, not because her English was poor but simply because she was sooo giggly, then got given my keys and was taken up to my room. Four flights later I was in the flat and stepping into my room. The kitchen was pretty well kitted out although I didn't think I would be using it all that much,I was espeically correct on that one. The room was OK , the furniture a bit shabby but not terrible, it wasn't through neglect. The bed was OK although slightly uncomfortable with some springs poking into my body when I lay down, the blankets were bad as they were really thin and Instanbul was , to my surprise, freezing cold. I charged my phone for a bit and wondered what to do with myself but I knew the answer , go out and look around! I couldn't sit in that room reading a book waiting for a full iphone charge, I needed to explore! I had two full days ahead of me then I would be travelling home again , it really wasn't long.
I went back out into Taksim square, wandering around taking in the sights and slowly adjusting to crossing roads and watching for the trams and mopeds that shared the walkways, the latter with way less consideration for anyones safety. There were quite a few kebab shops with those familiar huge meat loaves turning on a vertical spit, it was strange as it was so familiar, the weather and kebab shops.
I think I hadn't been out for too long but I decided to call it a night and head back, get some sleep then follow the travel advice my friend had given me to take in some of the sights the next day.
It was drizzly , so I paced back with my hood up, walking back through the apartments neighbourhood not far from the building I passed a guy seated in a doorway who suddenly shot up as I passed.
'Oi you, oi stop , stop!' he hissed walking toward me.
'Ahhh fuck' I thought
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