A Travellerspoint blog

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to the Airport


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Our flight was at 3, but the new Istanbul airport was far from town. We struggled over options. The new Metro does not reach our neighborhood, so we opted for simple, a taxi, which usually takes 45 minutes. The bus could take an hour and a half.

Our driver picked us up at the door a few minutes later, a well-dressed young man eager to load our luggage and get started. He honked his way through the first intersection, inserted himself in the line of cars going down the hill, and managed to jump out in front of the tram without damage. He yelled out his window at other taxi drivers. He gestured, changed gears and surged ahead of buses, leaned into curves on the ramps, and wove his way back and forth through cars on the bridge. He did not wait at the lights patiently. Our first driver from the airport was not so enthusiastic.

Once out of town, on the expressway, he maintained a steady 140 kilometers per hour, passing buses and taxis in their leisurely ride to the airport. When the speed limit dropped from 110 to 80, he obliged and dropped his speed to 110. We almost screeched to a halt at the airport after honking a taxi blocking his way to the curbside. We made it in 30 minutes, a little out of breath. Our luggage was out of the taxi, and he was gone before we could thank him.

The airport was an airport with a little more security. The flight was good, on a moose of a plane. We were accompanied by the Mongolian Horse Academy in their black riding boots, black jodhpurs, brimmed hats, and green jackets. They laughed and talked and played on their iPhones.

At Dulles, we found our car and then, within a few minutes, on the road. Driving back, Cindy and I talked about Kazakhstan, how it was complicated, exotic yet not really foreign, a place we would gladly visit again.

It was a push to get home, but we had dogs waiting at camp. We knew they would want us to pick them up first thing in the morning.

Posted by Deuxenvacances 20:29 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Karaköy by Boat and Tram


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After breakfast, we headed down the hill through the throng of people, threading through traffic to the ferry terminals. There are three terminals side by side. The sidewalk is wide, with room for vendors, benches, and children to play. Men sit along the water fishing.

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We boarded our ferry for a quick ride across the Bosphorus Strait, a fast-moving body of icy water racing from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Ferries race around, crossing each other's paths, almost sliding up docks. Lumbering between the ferries are freighters either loaded down or riding high. Fishing boats add to the mix. It is a place busy with enthusiasm.

We arrived on the Asian side of Istanbul, in the neighborhood of Karakoy. The port area is busy with food sellers and other vendors. Since we are in the midst of the Turkish elections, there was a booth set up for the opposition, a very quiet booth, and a blaring massive LED screen of the current president, Erdogan. His booth was far more prominent and guarded by police. There are police with shields and some with automatic weapons. They are prepared for demonstrations.

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With some interest in finding a toilet, we headed up the hill, looking for the bazaar. We found a small mosque. Mosques always have public toilets. They sometimes charge a nominal fee. This one was three Turkish Lira which is about 15 cents.

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We found a street of fishmongers but nothing more. We both searched on our phones and were directed to another neighborhood. Once we arrived, it was clearly wrong. We stopped at a coffee shop, bought drinks, and used their WiFi. A dog lay on the sidewalk, one of the many street dogs we have seen, large Anatolian dogs, a bit dirty, well fed, ambling around neighborhoods, almost as many as cats. This dog had an ear tag. That indicates they are registered, neutered, and maybe even vaccinated. People feed the cats and dogs.

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With new information from the internet, we returned to the fishmongers (an 8,000-step detour) to find the remainder of the bazaar. We were in search of Turkish towels, which Vicki had supplied. These are not terry but simple woven cotton towels with braided fringes on the end. After Turkish pizza, we found our towels and returned to the ferry.

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We had purchased an Istanbulkart, the public transportation card we used to cross on the ferry. Cindy thought we needed to add money. While we were trying to navigate the machine, a young man came up, maybe 12, and said, "Excuse me, English?". He reached over and changed the machine to English. They said, "I show you." The machine only took cash, and I had only a 200 lira note. We had enough to get back, but Cindy was uncertain. The boy said, "Here, put in here." I added 200 lira (about $10) to our card. Once completed, the boy turned to us, "Please, I am hungry." I gave him all the change in my pocket, maybe 10 lire. We had way more than we needed on the card, the trip over only cost 25 lire, and we still had a balance of 25 lire. We made it back and took a nap.

Cindy wanted to visit Galata Tower, back on the Karakoy side of the Bosphorus. Not only was traffic an issue in Istanbul but the trams were packed. We didn't understand the map. My phone indicated the tram would pass near our hotel and cross the bridge.

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We had plenty of money on our public transportation card, so we walked down to the stop, figured out where to stand, then dove into the packed tram car. Tram lumbered off, honking its horn as traffic stopped when taxis blocked the way. We reached the bridge and were across in seconds. We got off at the first stop. Walking up the hill, we passed a woman going through the garbage for food. A little boy play nearby. Cindy bought her a sandwich.
Unsure where to go, I spied an interesting street climbing up the hill. It was a good guess because we were at the foot of the tower by the time we were out of breath.

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The Galant Tower is another good marker for Istanbul. It was built as the Christea Turris, the tower of Christ, in 1348 when Istanbul was a colony of Genoa. It was part of a larger fortification, but they were destroyed by the Ottomans in the 1400s. High on a hill and over 200 feet high, it gives an impressive view of the city. I am not particularly fond of high heights, so I chose not to go out on the balcony surrounding the top floor. I was perfectly happy admiring the view through the crowds.

We threaded a different way down the hill, through a daytime commercial area, but in the evening was a series of steel roll-down doors embellished with graffiti. Another robed woman was digging through the garbage, two dirty teenage boys were playing with a stick and ball, and a very dirty young girl, maybe seven or eight, sat on the sidewalk, her black hair flying as she tried to play a mouth piano. Cindy and I are so well aware we do not understand poverty in Turkey. Cindy thought they may be Syrian refugees, but I considered they may also be Roma or some permanent underclass. It is hard to know, but that shouldn't block compassion or a sandwich.

Emboldened with our new skill with the tram, we quickly returned to our neighborhood, grabbed a late supper, and soon home, tired. A day of 18,000 steps.

Posted by Deuxenvacances 20:01 Archived in Turkey Tagged turkey istanbul karakoy Comments (0)

Topkapı Palace and the Grand Bazaar


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Our hotel provided breakfast. Walking down the marble stairs, we could see that it was very similar to Hotel Agan, where we usually stay, bowls and bowls of olives, baskets of bread, plates of cheese, slices of meat which is too much like American bologna, jams, boiled eggs, salads, fruit, tea, and coffee. We were the only English speakers. There were ten tables, each with two or three adults, a family, or one with teenage boys. At one table were three older women in flowing dresses and head scarves. One was bent over with age, and the wrinkles in her face collected around her eyes and mouth. She tore off small pieces of baguette and dipped them in jam. All the while, her eyes jumped to any sound, any conversation, sudden movements. She studied each new thing, then returned to studying her bread, maybe a little cheese, an olive. She worked in details.

We headed out early to Topkapı Palace, or the Sultan's Palace, a large museum in the faith district near our hotel. We walked through a park with winding walkways and fountains. Just a few hundred yards away are Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Palace was built around 1460 and to 1856, served as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire. It was also the primary residence of its sultan. There are a series of walled courtyards. People were already lined up to buy tickets.

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A few buildings stand alone, like the main throne room or the library. Other buildings are incorporated into the wall structure, leaving the interior of the courtyard park-like. I stopped to photograph the gardeners. They seemed to appreciate the attention.

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We toured the kitchen, the treasury, the audience chamber, the harem, the courtyard of the eunuchs, etc. The Palace houses holy relics like the dress of Mohammad's granddaughter, Mohammad's sandals, the staff of Moses, the sword of David, and hairs from Mohammad's beard. Among the relics, a cleric chanted the Koran in the inner room.

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As we toured, crowds continued to pour in, kids ran around the park, and parents called out to come back. Lines grew, and doorways became jammed. We left.

We found a small cafeteria in a determined search for a toilet. There were no tourists and the few that looked turned around. We grabbed a tray, made selections, and went to a table. People studied us as we ate. The owner offered us tea at the end of the meal. He bowed, "Thank you."

After a nap, we headed to the Grand Bazaar, built around 1500 and one of the world's largest and oldest covered markets. There are 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. Only the cats and the men running around with small trays of tea seem to know their way. Each intersection is like the last. The place smells of spices, incense, and centuries. Cindy was tempted by some icons in the antique area, and I was tempted by two-foot-high brass candlesticks over 200 years old. Life is short, with few great opportunities, but Cindy dragged me away.

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We finally made it to one of the many openings to the bazaar. We stumbled around in another narrow street of shops, but there was sky overhead. We found our old restaurant from the past two trips. They said they remembered us, but I am not sure.

We threaded our way home. A perfect day.

Posted by Deuxenvacances 11:24 Archived in Turkey Tagged palace grand istanbul bazaar topkapi Comments (0)

Flight to Istanbul


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Flying to Kazakhstan is not simple. It’s a long flight, 14 hours, with a brief stop in Istanbul to change planes, and it seems planes only arrive in Astana at 2 in the morning. To leave Kazakhstan, our flight from Almaty to Istanbul left at 6:30 AM, so we had to be in the taxi at 3:30.

Arriving in a new country and a new language is a little simpler. You arrive at the door and are herded through customs and luggage pickup. Leaving is more complicated. You have to figure out which line to be in, which gate, and what the hell they are saying on the public address system. Almaty airport has Gate 1 and 2, but Gates 3,4, and 5 are combined. There was no overhead board giving arrivals and departures. We made it through check-in and to our Gate but couldn’t figure out where to board. People were boarding through the door, the same entry for Gates 4 and 5. We had noticed a tall young man at Checkin. His mother had straightened his shirt and took his picture. At Customs, she followed him, took his photograph, and blew kisses. He looked like a university student. As we followed others to the door, he said, “I think we are not boarding. This is another flight.”

We couldn’t understand his name, but he was headed to Virginia to work in hospitality for the summer, Williamsburg. He wanted to improve his English. We talked a little about our time in Kazakhstan. We gave him our contact information and suggested he come to visit.

The flight to Istanbul was five hours. We planned to stay a few days in Istanbul to break up the long flight home and because we love Istanbul. We had reservations at the same hotel we had visited twice before.

At the hotel, with a lobby packed full of suitcases and young students all wearing jackets with Malaysia on the back, the clerk informed us our reservations were for September, not May. Oh crap, I confused this with another trip. The hotel was full, but a quick call and he had a place to stay around the corner.

After dropping off our bags and eating lunch, we headed toward Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. We followed the tram tracks up the hill and again noticed the cats that seemed everywhere. There are bowls of food set out in front of stores and houses.

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There was a crowd when we arrived at the top of the hill and a long line to Hagia Sophia. We headed to the Blue Mosque but did not go in, just sat in the courtyard and admired the wonder of it all. Even with all the crowds, we love Istanbul.

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We threaded our way back down the hill, ate a light supper, and called it a day.

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Posted by Deuxenvacances 13:52 Archived in Turkey Tagged istanbul hagia_sophia Comments (0)

A Celebration of Kazakhstan


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For our last day in Almaty, we headed to the metro under a grey sky threatening to rain. While short, we heard the metro was beautiful. The Soviets began construction but stopped with Independence in 1991. The new Kazakhstan government mothballed the work until funds were available. The metro opened in 2011 and is now an 11-stop, 8-mile, colorful, artistic, and efficient system. An additional line is planned.

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We emerged at the Kazakh State Circus, a round Soviet-era building housing regular circus performances. We didn’t go for a show but to admire the little bit tired building and view the neighborhood, this one a standard wide busy commercial street, high-rises, events spaces, and small shops at the street level of either residential or business buildings.

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People sat on benches, and kids played in a small park on one side of the Circus while others lined up for a modest-sized amusement park on the other. There were the expected doner, ice cream, and souvenir shops lining one side of the parking lot.

We began walking back up the tree-lined street to the next metro stop. The sidewalk on our side of the street was lined with trees on both sides, and the buildings were set back, giving it a park-like feel. The other side of the street was treeless.

We stopped for lunch at Korean Street Food, a compact shop filled with what appeared to be a hoard of Korean school girls and university students. There was a lot of giggling from the staff as we struggled through the menu, more from all the choices because they had an English menu. They were clear they did not serve pork or dog.

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It began to rain. We took the metro back to our neighborhood. After a nap, we headed out in the rain in a cab to the blue-roofed Central State Museum of Kazakhstan. Traffic was bad, and progress slow. As cars honked and our wipers slapped, the driver kept tying into Google Translate, “How are you?” “Where are you from?” “I am from Uzbekistan.” We traded messages back and forth while keeping an eye on cars, buses, motorbikes, and crosswalks.

We dashed through the rain to the museum, a large Soviet building, a pleasing three-story building of vertical columns. We arrived on Night of Museums on May 18, dedicated to International Museum Day. The main hall, an open three-story space of wide staircases and balconies, was busy with people. On the wings, artists worked at easels painting the likeness of various suited mannequins. We went through security and up five steps to the main area. A stage was set up. To the right at a table, a man in a heavy felt jacket and metal helmet stood at a table of wooden weapons. His son was in a course cloth costume. When I asked if I could take a picture, he said, “Sure,” in perfect American English. From Kazakhstan, he lived in New Jersey for seven years.

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We explored the museum and studied exhibits on the various ethnic groups transported to Kazakhstan by Stalin. It was a brutal time, many died, but the Kazakh people welcomed the refugees. Kazakhstan seemed to be the dumping ground of the USSR. I bought a bracelet from students at a university studying traditional metalwork. At 6:00, the program began. Dignitaries arrived. Photographers squatted down to take pictures, and then the performances started. Traditional music was followed by a pop singer. The dancers were graceful and dramatic after giggling and playing on the sidelines. Once the show turned to awards and speeches, we left. Since the rain had stopped, we walked the mile to our neighborhood and then sat in a bar for a beer and a sandwich.

Our last evening in Kazakhstan and it was very nice.

We walked home and packed.

Posted by Deuxenvacances 04:46 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

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