26.05.2010 - 09.06.2010 25 °C
Another long blog, but it was an awesome city and had some good times...
I arrived in Istanbul (not Constantinople) on a sunny morning after an overnight bus from Selçuk. The first thing I noticed about the city, was how vast it was. Once the bus had reached the edge of the city, I thought it was just a matter of minutes before we stopped at the otogar (bus station)... but it was about an hour later before we finally arrived at the huge station on the west of the city - though admittedly traffic was bad but we did cover a lot of ground.
Everything I'd heard about it seemed true, that is, it's East meets West and there's lots going on, the architecture, the life and the harbour skyline was turly impressive. It was busy, but it felt safe and generally very clean and modern looking.
I took the subway and a tram from the otogar to Sultanahment, the historical and touristy part of Istanbul where I was staying (in a not-so cheap hostel).
All in all, I spent quite a few days doing the "sight-seeing thing" in old Istanbul (Sultanahmet). One of the first sight-seeing spots I stumbled upon in Istanbul, was the Hippodrome of Constaniople near the Blue Mosque. Once upon a time it was an arena for chariot races and other entertainment, but nowdays it looks like a modest public park containing a few monuments. One of these monuments was the Obelisk of Pharaoh Tuthmose III which was originally located in the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt. I actually remember reading about it when I was at that temple back in February. It was built some 3,500 years ago and in AD 390, Emperor Thedosius stole it and erected it in the center of the Hippodrome. But then this obelisk is only one of the vast number of ancient monuments or statues that have been stolen from Egypt over the centuries. Since the time I was in Instanbul, I've come across several more precious Egyptian artifacts in museums and squares all over Europe - I'd be a little angry if I was Egyptian.
Obelisk of Tuthmose III (foreground) and Column of Constantine (background) in Hippodrome of Constantinople, Istanbul
After the Hippodrome, it was a quick stroll next door to the Blue Mosque, which to my surprise, had no admission fees. It was of course, very crowded - actually since the Blue Mosque is adjacent to Haya Sophia, the entire area in between the two mosques was always buzzing with tourists.
The legendary Blue Mosque
Internal courtyard of the Blue Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque
I liked the Blue Mosque, the huge internal columns and the stained glass windows were a marvel to look at, but I personally liked Hagia Sophia better. Hagia Sophia wasn't as pretty as the Blue Mosque from the outside (at least during the day it wasn't) but the interior was a little more impressive. This is probably because it was first a cathedral, then later a mosque. So far I've found that mosque's tend to be more of a monolithic rectangles inside with fancy domes and minarets (towers) on the outside, whereas cathedrals are just as fancy outdoors, but the insides are generally more intricate.
The world famous Hagia Sophia, which is directly opposite the Blue Mosque
Inside Hagia Sophia
Main hall and dome ceiling of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Gold Mosaic Panel of Christian figures in Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia at night - which to me looked much better than in daylight
After that I went to the Basilica Cistern only a short distance from Hagia Sophia. It is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns (water resevoirs) that lie beneath Istanbul. It was built in the 6th Century AD during Emperor Justinian's time. It's basically a huge underground chamber measuring approx 138 by 65 meters whose roof is supported by 336 marble columns. Little walkways suspended above about 1 foot of water guide you around some of the marble columns which are lit up by glowing orange lights. The cistern is easily missed because of its relatively hidden entrance and I only went there because another traveller recommended it to me (I'd skimmed over it in my Lonely Planet). I have to admit that it was quite impressive and I enjoyed it more because I didn't know what to expect.
Columns of the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahment, Istanbul
Only a small part of the huge area covered by the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Upside down Medusa head at base of supporting column at the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
A tram in the suburub of Sultanahmet (Old Istanbul)
A Whirling Dervish in Sultanahmet
Gardens in Topkapı Palace which is next to Haya Sophia
After my main sightseeing was over, it was time for some fun. Basically since the time before I left New Zealand, my hope was that I'd get to go to at least one Formula 1 Grand Prix race somewhere in the world. As it turned out, the race in Istanbul coincided with my journey perfectly.
I was also in luck because the Turkish GP is one of the least attended races of the year and I'd have no trouble getting tickets for it (for most of the other races the tickets are sold out well in advance). I didn't even have to book tickets over the internet, I just turned up at the ticket office at the race track to get mine and it only cost a mere 70 TL (NZ$ 70) for a general admission ticket.
For anyone that doesn't know much about Formula 1 GP racing, each event is held over an entire weekend, Friday to Sunday. On the Friday they do a couple of practice sessions, then on the Saturday they do another practice session followed by a qualifying session. It is at the qualifying session where they determine which place on the starting grid they will start the big race on the Sunday. I decided to skip the Friday practice sessions, but I did go on the Saturday and, of course, the Sunday.
As I was having breakfast at the hostel early on the Saturday morning before heading out to the race track, I happened to meet an Australian guy, Ryan, who was also going to the Grand Prix. We decided to team up and go together which turned out great because I think it turned out to be more fun than going alone, plus the fact that he was even more into Formula 1 than I was. Actually, I'd never met anyone who knew Formula 1 the way he did. He knew details about drivers, teams and past races that probably most of the sport's commentators don't know or can't remember. I mean, he was really a bonafide Formula 1 geek. I say that in the nicest way of course because I'm proud to call myself an F1 geek too.
So we set off on one of the special buses that the city puts on that take spectators to the track from stops in the main suburbs of Istanbul. The track is not really in the city, but more towards the west on the outskirts so the bus took about an hour and a half to get there. As we were walking from the bus to the ticket office, we met and started talking to three Brits, two sisters and their dad, who were huge Formula 1 fans. We all got general admission tickets which technically only allowed us to enter the grassy areas in between the seated grand stands, of which there were several dotted around the track.
Ryan and I sat on one of the grassy hills for the practice session and there we met up with the English family again. This is the first time I ever got to hear an F1 engine live and it didn't disappoint. I knew I was definitely going to need my ear plugs come race day. After the practice session, there was a break for an hour so Ryan and I together with the Brits, decided to head over to the gate of one of the grand stands where they also sold food. I forget how much I paid for a hot dog and a couple of beers, but it was nothing short of extortion at around four times the amount you'd pay in the city! After food, we all decided to try our luck and enter one of the grand stands because security looked pretty sparse and we'd heard they didn't care too much where you sat on the Saturday anyway. It wasn't the main grandstand on the straight where the start-finish line was, but it was a stand on turn 8, which is part of the course where there were a series of really fast corners and there was even a large video screen in front of it (I say large but it was actually quite small and difficult to see). At least we'd know what was going on with the big screen because at the first place we sat, you had no idea what times the drivers were setting around the track, let alone whether someone had an accident or something. Fortunately we got in to the grandstand quite easily and we had a good viewing position for the entire qualifying session.
Michael Schumacher during qualifing, Turkish F1 GP, Istanbul
So Michael Schumacher isn't doing so well this year (the first in his big comeback after three years of retirement) but at least I got to see him racing. Not that he's my favorite driver at all, in fact, he's done some pretty controversial things in his time like allegedly running other drivers off the road and blocking others during qualifying, but at seven times the world champion nobody can deny that he's still a legend of the sport.
After qualifying, it was back on the bus back to Istanbul. Ryan and I hunted for some dinner in Taksim, which is on the northern (European) part of Istanbul and is definitely one of the busiest. After dinner we wandered around the area for a while before heading back to the hostel to have an early night before heading back to the race track early the next morning.
Me and Ryan after dinner in busy Taksim - there's one particular area of Taksim that is just street after street full of bars and restaurants
Ryan and I decided to team up for the trip to the race track once again so after breakfast the next morning we were off! Since we'd been successful in getting in to one of the minor grandstands the previous day, we half joked about trying our luck with the main grandstand in front of the pit-straight. To be honest, I didn't rate our chances very highly, but I happened to be with the perfect person for such a caper. Once we arrived, we scoped out all the entrances to the main grandstand (there were about five different gates leading to different sections) and we saw that each gate had around four or five different officials. They were checking tickets, searching bags and putting arm bands on people's wrists. At this point I lost all hope of sneaking in and started to walk away from the grandstand. But before I'd even taken a step, I turned around and found Ryan was already deep inside the nearest gate area and he was looking at me motioning for me to come over. I walked in straight after him, smiled at one of the girls and stuck my arm out so she could place a band around my wrist, she didn't even batter an eye lid and kindly complied. It turned out we had walked in at the absolute perfect time when three of the officials were distracted as they checked other people's bags and in the confusion combined with our cheeky confidence, the other two officials must have thought our tickets had already been checked and just let us in! We couldn't believe our luck and once we'd climbed up the stairs and entered the grandstand it was high-fives all round. As it happens, we had not only snuck into the main grandstand, it was the Platinum section right in front of the start-finish line and with a perfect view of a huge TV screen. After the race I checked the internet and discovered tickets to this area cost 660 TL (yep, that's NZ$660!) and we got in with our paltry 70 TL general admission passes - needless to say we were chuffed.
Eventually the grandstand filled up considerably and we had to move a couple of times when people turned up to claim their seats, but we still ended up with excellent seats because the grandstand wasn't absolutely full to capacity (probably because it was too expensive for the average Turkish GP fan).
Me (left), Ryan (right) waiting for race to start from Main Grandstand
I don't usually buy souvenirs or merchendise, but this was a special occasion. In the photo above I'm wearing a Sebastian Vettel T-shirt, he's German and is my favourite driver. Ryan, being an Aussie, is of course a fan of Mark Webber so he's got a Webber T-shirt on. As it happens Webber and Vettel are team mates in the Red Bull team. In a way I'm kind of glad there isn't a Kiwi driver in F1 because I get to choose a driver to support based on ability and personality rather than for patriotic reasons.
Race about to start
Video of the actual start of the Turkish F1 GP - You couldn't not wear ear-plugs from the grand stand, you would seriously go deaf after only a couple of laps.
Sebastian Vettel crossing the start line at the Turkish F1 Grand Prix during the race
Unfortunately, the Turkish GP was a disaster for the Red Bull team and Sebastian Vettel in particular because about half way through the race, Vettel tried to pass his own team mate (Webber) and they collided with eachother resulting in a huge accident. Worst of all was that before the crash Webber was running in first place and Vettel was coming second. Unfortunately this resulted in Vettel crashing out of the race completely and Webber got a puncture which eventually saw him finish the race in third place. Ryan and I of course debated who was at fault and although it was disappointing, it didn't bother me too much because I was just glad to be there, especially being lucky enough to be on the main grandstand.
The winners podium after the Turkish Grand Prix - Jensen Button (2nd place), Lewis Hamilton (1st place) and Webber (3rd place)
The hoardes of people streaming out of the Turkish F1 Grand Prix
A couple of days after the race, I arranged to meet up with Ayşegül for a coffee in Taksim. As I mentioned in my Olympos blog, she worked as a marshal at the Grand Prix and we'd kept in contact via email before I got to Istanbul but she'd been too busy before and during the race weekend to catch up. It turns out she was posted at the part of the track where I would have been sitting had we not snuck in to the main grandstand. Even funnier was that during a break before the race she put up a sign with my name on it so I could find her, but of course I wasn't there to see it - though she did get lots of people in the crowd yelling, "I'm Josh! I'm Josh".
Ayşegül and I having Turkish coffee in Taksim
I didn't have any definite plans on where to go after Istanbul and I was enjoying the city so much I decided to stay a while longer. Instead of staying in Sultanahment, I moved to another hostel in Taksim where it wasn't so touristy - still increadibly busy though. I spent my remaining days in Istanbul, hanging out with Ayşegül around Taksim and sheltering from the rain which arrived with a vengeance for a couple of days.
The incredibly busy Istiklal Caddesi in Taksim, Istanbul
Restaurants under Galata Bridge and Yeni (new) Mosque in background - We went to one of the restaurants here where Ayşegül introduced me to balik-ekmek (fish sandwich) which is a traditional Turkish meal
I happened to be in Istanbul while the controversial boarding of the lead boat in the Gaza aid flotilla by Israeli Commandos. This raid resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists. The day it happened I saw lots of young men walking around wearing bandanas and carrying what looked like Palestinian flags, but I didn't know what it was all about. The next evening, Ayşegül and I walked through Taksim Square to find a huge protest group. It wasn't violent or anything and in fact it looked organised with a small stage and microphones. Needless to say, the Turkish government was also not amused by what happened and would have supported the protestors.
Protest rally against Israel at Taksim Square the day after the incident
I really liked Istanbul and I already know I'll be back there one day, but eventually I had to leave the city or I would not get to see other parts of Turkey, in particular Gallipoli, which is as close as it comes to a pilgrimage destination for a Kiwi (which is not saying much). Ayşegül, was on holiday and she herself had been travelling around Turkey so I asked her if she wanted to come with me and show me around the western coast of Turkey. She agreed and early one afternoon we were on a bus on the way to Çanakkale, a decent sized town near the Gallipoli Peninsula ...but that's the subject of another blog.
Stray Cat hostel ...looks like the word got out
Until the next installment...