One of the perks of my job is that is occasionally involves travel. I guess I’m lucky because so many Americans don’t get to visit other countries, and I appreciate that. And although I would not call myself an exotic tourist, I have been able to visit several countries and meet people from all over the world. One of the things Jeff and I hope to be able to do in retirement (if that ever comes) is to continue travelling. As you read this post (if you can make it through the whole thing, don’t forget to have a look at my photographs.
In early February, I had an opportunity to visit the Asian continent for the first time. While I never really had thought of it as being Asia, technically it is. My skills in geography aren’t stellar by any means, and so when the trip came up, I had to do some research. I have to say I was a bit excited about this new destination.
I traveled from Minneapolis to Amsterdam to Istanbul to Antalya, where I had a week of meetings. The flight connections were good, but it was still a long “day” of travel. I left the house at noon on Saturday and arrived at the hotel in Antalya at about 6:30pm the next day. But I did arrive safely and we had planned an extra day for time zone adjustment. The weather was quite nice, especially compared to the Minnesota winter I had left. My coworkers and I took advantage of that to tour the Old Town part of the city. The photos I’ve posted of the harbor with the brilliant blue water are from Antalya.
Our hosts treated us very well during the week of meetings and I must say it was a pleasure to meet some very nice people again. It was interesting, though, when on our own, how I was often mistaken for German. Sure, I know I’ve got a significant bit of German heritage, but I also learned that Turkey is a popular destination for German tourists. Clearly not appearing to be native, it was logical to assume I might be German.
After the week concluded, I was to head to meetings in….you said it…Germany for the next week. but I couldn’t let a visit to Turkey go by without seeing Istanbul. Certainly I had been through the airport on the way down, but I wanted to see the city. So, I flew from Antalya to Istanbul on Friday night. After a cab ride, flight, and 50km shuttle ride, I found myself in Taksim Square, the center of activity.
Although it was a bit chilly (there was snow on the ground in shady spots) when I arrived, I awoke on Saturday to a gorgeous, sunny day, perfect for striking out on foot. I bought a 5 lira tourist map and planned my day over breakfast. By 10:30 I was striking out, camera in hand, to see what there was to see in the city.
I walked down Istiklal street, which is a pedestrian walking mall, lined with shops and restaurants and having a streetcar-like trolley to the Galata Tower. I didn’t realize when I saw it on the map, but it was possible to go up in the tower. From it’s exterior observation catwalk, I got some amazing views (and photos) of the very densely packed city. I could see the famous Bosphorous separating the European and Asian sides of the hilly city. Not only does Turkey the country sit on two continents, the city of Istanbul itself does!
From the Tower, I meandered further downhill to the Galata bridge crossing the Golden Horn. The bridge was filled with pedestrians and fisherman, and later I would discover under the bridge there were many shops and restaurants. I crossed the bridge to the Sultanahmet (or is that Sultan Ahmet) area of the city, where most of the touristy things could be found. After walking through a pedestrian tunnel under the street, I found myself in front of the famous Spice Market (although I didn’t realize it at the time 🙂 )
I continued to walk following the light rail tracks toward my intended destination, and instead stumbled first into Gulhane Park before finding myself in front of the Basilica Cistern. This underground water “tank” was an amazing place to visit, and I spent quite a bit of time and took quite a few photos inside.
After emerging from the Cistern, I crossed the street to enter Hagia Sophia. Along with the Cistern, this was probably the most amazing place I visited. Please read the linked Wikipedia article for more details. But I simply must say that the scale and grandeur of the place were awe-inspiring. The amazing attention to detail present in every little piece, from the mosaics to the metal work, to the shear immensity of the structure itself. Simply breathtaking!
I next ventured through a small park over to the Blue Mosque, which although quite large and beautiful itself, didn’t quite compare to Hagia Sophia. Since it is still an active Mosque, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to linger or make myself too assertive inside. I quickly and quietly made a few photographs and exited.
Next stop: The Grand Bazaar. Just a short walk from the Mosque, I found myself at one of the entrances of the Grand Bazaar. Had I known what I was going to get myself into, I may have thought twice before entering! I didn’t even realize until after the fact that I had only snapped one photo of the gate I entered and another of one of the main covered streets inside. I then quickly became overwhelmed with the number of shops and stalls. Although it’s pretty well organized, it’s still an intimidating place, and in my opinion, makes the Mall of America look like child’s play.
After wandering around for a while, I found myself lingering near a shop selling inlaid backgammon sets. Now it was time to practice my negotiating skills! I don’t think I did too badly, and I did find a board that I just had to have. The only problem was that I didn’t have the cash in my pocket. So the shopkeeper wrapped up the board and walked me to the nearest ATM. Isn’t technology convenient? Once settled up, I let him talk me into taking a look at one of his other shops…carpets.
He dropped me off and before I knew it, I was invited inside, behind the facade and asked if I wanted any tea. I thought I made it clear right off that I would be happy to look, but had no plans to purchase. But before I knew it, the hard sell was on. I played ball a little bit, but tried not to be too leading. I knew the one big no-no was to settle on a price and then walk away. So when I agreed to look at a kilim made of silk for possible use of a table runner, it seemed as though the real bargaining began. For me, the special price of $850 US, not the normal price of $1,350 US. Sure it was beautiful, but I didn’t really want to buy anything, and certainly had not budgeted for that amount. I wasn’t even sure what I had spent (in US Dollars) on the backgammon board! So I said again that I wasn’t planning to make a purchase and I certainly hadn’t budgeted for that amount. And here’s where I made my fatal mistake.
“Well what can you spend today?” he said. I came out with a number that I thought to be much to low for that piece. He hemmed and he hawed, and asked me to come up to around $500. He offered some other possibilities, but I kept saying No. He started to talk in stories about the “luck” of getting the first sale of the day and how it’s better to make the first sale to set the tone for the rest of the day.
By now, it was nearing about 4:00pm, and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I’m feeling a little trapped on my own behind the closed doors of this shop, I don’t want to make a purchase and I’m running dangerously low on blood sugar. It was time to stand up and start to leave. And that’s when it happened…he actually came down on that $13,500 kilim to my absurdly low $300! As I continued to walk to the door, I could see the anger on his face. He couldn’t believe that I said no. After all, I had told him I would spend $300. And now that’s what he offered. He was incredulous, and I was nauseous! I walked out the door as quickly as I could and walked around the next corner I could find. Fortunately, I found myself near a small restaurant, so I found a table and sat down for some late lunch.
I don’t now if it was the excitement of the experience, or my low blood sugar, but I was shaking. I calmed down while I waited for my food and by the time it was finished, I felt much better. But then it was time to leave the market. I didn’t track myself that well on my way to the backgammon shop, but was then lead through the narrow streets to the ATM and then directly to the carpet shop, form where I fled also not paying attention. Suffice it to say, I had a bit of trouble finding my way out of the market!
Fortunately, however, I emerged and although unsure at first, headed in the right direction to return to the light rail line for a ride back to the Spice Market. Sometimes I’m very thankful that I have a reasonable set of skills and intuition for navigation! While I was eating I had taken another look at my map, and that’s when I realized that I had already been near the Spice Bazaar. So now it was easy to return. I entered and headed for the first shop that looked like it had a good selection of quality spices, and that vacuum packed them to order. I was helped by a very nice employee (not high pressure at all) and ended up with 5 grams of Iranian Saffron threads and 100grams each of ground cumin and coriander.
My to-do’s were complete! I decided to cross the Galata bridge on foot, and then picked up the light rail line again, then the underground funicular back to Taksim Square. I returned to my hotel about 6:30 pm after a long but wonderful day! The only remaining challenge was to figure out how to pack the backgammon board in my luggage. And THAT is a tale for another day.
Sunday morning I rose early to check out and catch the 7:30am shuttle back to the airport on the Asia side for my flight to Germany. My meetings continued for another three days before I got to return home.