We came from sunny Dubai, expecting a mild-ish winter from the ancient city of Istanbul. Turkey’s a part of the Middle East, right? Near the Mediterranean? We were met with snow and ice at midnight when we landed on the Asian side of the city. I think the cold weather took everyone by surprise, even the locals. Someone told us that it was a storm coming down from Russia. On top of that, our plan to sleep in the airport to save money was dashed by the fact that arriving passengers cannot access the lounges.
Side note: we also flew over Iraq, so that was interesting. Not Syria though, which I noted. This is about as close to Iraq as I’ll ever get as an American. Very interesting.
Jordan and I spent a tense hour calling hostels and trying to see if the ferry operated 24 hours. It didn’t. We spent around $18 on a taxi to get us to a hostel in Pendik, about 8 km from the airport (we overpaid). The hotel and breakfast was $70, including tax. Not really a part of the budget, but by then it was almost 3 a.m. and we had to sleep somewhere. When we arrived, I told the clerk (which spoke little English) that I had called 20 minutes ago asking about a room, and now we were here and wanted it.
“But there is no room,” he told me, looking very upset that we were making him work.
“I called and asked about it. You said yes,” I told him slowly but firmly, because I know even less Turkish.
“It is not free anymore,” he said.
“I called just 20 minutes ago,” I told him.
We stared each other down for a few seconds, then he said, “okay,” and turned around and pulled a key out of the room boxes. “Here is a room.”
The room was ready, clean, and the heater already going when we climbed the stairs to it.
We slept in our pajamas and jackets. I kept a scarf around my head, and we slept well. The next morning we had to get to the European side. It was snowing and windy again, probably 20 degrees F, and the front desk clerk (a nice, helpful woman now) said that the ferries were probably closed in this weather.
In case anyone needs to know how to get from the southern Asian side to Sultanahmet district without a ferry:
- Get taxis (or walk) to Kartal station. This is the end of the pink line.
- You can buy tickets at machines in the metro station. We purchased red, plastic tokens for 4 lira apiece, worth one trip.
- Head toward Kadikoy.
- Take it 14 stops to Ayrılık çeşmesi, one stop before Kadikoy
- This is an intersection with the black line. Go upstairs to an aboveground metro train and head toward Kazlıçeşme.
- Get off at Serkeci. This is near historic Istanbul, just south of the opening of the Golden Horn.
- From there you can get a taxi for around $10 to a hotel in the Sultanahmet district or get on the tram (the blue line on the metro map) and go toward Bağcılar. Only go two stops, to the Sultanahmet station. If you continue two more stops to Beyazıt-Kapalıçarşı, you will reach the Grand Bazaar. A tram ticket/token will cost another 4 lira.
We checked into our hostel (another hole-in-the-wall place the taxi had a hard time finding) and immediately put our pajamas on underneath our clothes. I wore a hijab as well as a scarf under my coat, and Jordan put on two of my scarves as well. We set out to find gloves at the Grand Bazaar.
One of the oldest markets in the world still operating, it is the largest covered bazaar with 61 streets. We got lost. But that’s okay, because you’re not really exploring all the shops (silk, handmade rugs, lamps, leather, cafes, spices, and anything else you could imagine) if you can remember where you came in.
The first market that morphed into the Grand Bazaar was built in 1455ish by Sultan Mehmet II, just two years after the Ottoman conquest over Constantinople. It has changed very little in appearance since the 18th century. I haggled over a scarf there (he started at 40, I started at 20, and I got it for 20 lira), we drank hot chocolate, and then went back to check out Sultanahmet square.
The Hagia Sofia (or Aya Sofya in Turkish) is right there, across the street from the Blue Mosque and down the square from the ancient Hippodrome. The Blue Mosque as just as impressive to Jordan as the Hagia Sofia (at least from the outside).
This is perhaps because of its six minarets. When first constructed, the six minarets caused a controversy because it had the same number as the mosque in Mecca. Usually, princes were allowed to build mosques with three minarets, and only sultans could built mosques with four. But Sultan Ahmed I went ahead and built the mosque (called blue for the blue tiles on the ceiling inside, as pictured below), from 1609-1616. He finally fixed the problem by paying for a seventh minaret in Mecca to be built.
When we first walked through, it was the time of ezan, or the call to prayer. There are easily three mosques and the Hagia Sofia in hearing distance, and it was very loud when they all went off, a few seconds apart from one another. The prayer echoed across the square to neighboring buildings, and I almost had to cover my ears from the noise.
Jordan and I decided to purchase another bus tour to better see the city, so despite the cold (the bus wasn’t heated) we attempted to get some good photos.
This is the entrance to the Dolmabahçe Palace, which was an administrative center for the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century.
We crossed the Bosphorus (the strait that separates Europe from Asia) and reentered Asia. It also connects the Black Sea (up north) to the Marmara Sea (which you can see in the photo, in the distance). Scholars’ best guess for the origin of the word “Bosphorus” is an old Greek word for “cow crossing” or something similar. The legendary founder of Byzantium, named Byzas, was said to be the grandson of Zeus and a woman who had been turned into a cow. Byzantium was colonized by Greeks around 637 B.C.
We stopped at Beylebeyi Palace, which was closed. So we huddled in the gardens until the bus came to pick us back up 30 minutes later. Beylebeyi means “lord of lords” and it was a summer palace for the Ottomans in the late 19th century.
We did very little after completing part of the tour, for it was still snowing and windy and growing dark. Jordan finally managed to buy some gloves and we found our way back to our hostel. The radiator wasn’t working and there were cracks under the doors, so we slept in our clothing, coats, and scarves to stay warm. But we are in Istanbul, so one day the memories of shivering at bus stops will fade away and all we’ll be left with is the grandness of the mosques and the sun glinting across the Marmara Sea.