Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Wandering the Streets of Istanbul: Active Recovery

Flags line the streets and above for Republic Day, October 29th

For the last 10 weeks or so, Istanbul has been on my mind.  It was my final destination for the European portion of my trip.  I’ve been twice and so I wasn’t dying to see anything particular, for me, it was merely a means to an end!  Therefore, since I entered Turkey ahead of schedule, I decided I would like to spend my time exploring some of the rural areas along the Marmara Sea rather than Istanbul.

I’m not a “big city” type of person.  Barcelona is a “small” big city and manageable, but Istanbul is huge, it spans two continents, and is linked by ferries and immense bridges. The thought of navigating this city on a bike gave me nightmares prior to arriving.  Although Genova and Tirana prepared me well, finding my way through Istanbul was no easy task.  I got off the ferry Monday at noon from Yalova, in Yenikapi, and had to make my way over to the Galata Bridge, cross it, and ride up the Bosphorus to Ortakoy, where I was to leave my bike for my school visit in a day.  Looking back, at this moment, I should have been celebrating my arrival to my destination, the closing of my Europe route. But navigating the streets of Istanbul and the logistics of where to leave my bike and how to arrive at the school visits occupied my thoughts.  The route to school was only about 12 kilometers, but the ride took me a good hour and a half!

Kebabs galore

Istanbul is like an enormous Tirana.  There are traffic lights, but they aren’t always obeyed, motor scooters weave in and out, cars accelerate quickly and always have the right away, and pedestrians cross streets whenever and wherever they please.  Throw in no shoulders on the roads and crowded sidewalks, and you begin to wonder why Istanbul is the destination for so many bike tourers, when it is such an unfriendly bike city! By the time I reached the school and left my bike off, I had little desire to go out and battle the world again and sightsee.  I was a bit over-stimulated by all the sights and sounds and used that afternoon to research some logistics and update my website. The next morning, I continued to work in the morning and left at about noon to start to explore the city.  Like I said, I didn’t have anything planned for the day.  I wanted to explore the Ortakoy neighborhood where I was staying, walk down to Taksim Square, and see where the day took me.  Prior to my arrival, I thought I would treat myself to a Hamam while in Istanbul.  In my previous visits to the city, I hadn’t, and if 5,612 kilometers isn’t worthy of a Turkish Bath, then I don’t know what is!  However, I couldn’t be bothered to research a Hamam on the internet and try to find it, I preferred a mindless day of sightseeing. 
Police out in full force

Proud Turks

I walked for a good two hours, through the streets making my way down to Taksim Square.  I had to see for myself what was going on at this infamous location today.  I happened to arrive in Istanbul on Republic Day, the 29th of October, and this year was the 90th anniversary of the republic, so it was a big deal! Turks are awfully proud of their country, but this week even more so with the national holiday.  But with the recent protests and unrest, police were out in full force all over the city! There were busloads of them stationed every 50 meters with huge guns, plastic barriers, and tear gas devices.  They were prepared for any sort of rioting.

At this point in my day, I was pretty content with my decision to sight seeing and meander, having no specific plans.  Istanbul is a great city to wander.  It is vibrant, chaotic, and boisterous, yet engaging and friendly.  For being a national holiday, every store, cafe, and restaurant was open, bursting with people.  I sampled more of the same foods and a few different items, eating my last baklava, dried fruits, trying one of their delicious stuffed baked potatoes with a yogurt drink. 

I worked my way down to the Galata Bridge and wouldn’t you know, I stumbled upon a Hamam for ladies.  I believe this wasn’t a coincidence, but rather fate! I didn’t think twice, I entered, looked at the price list, and paid for the full service Hamam, which included a bath, scrub, massage, and soap massage.  I usually don’t treat myself to these types of things, but this was a special occasion—a 5,216 kilometer special occasion.

The Hamam was such an impromptu situation that I hadn’t brought a change of clothes, bathing suit, or toiletries.  There is no time for modesty when you’ve got the opportunity to go to a Turkish Bath.  But you see, I don’t even go to the beach in Barcelona because all the women are so beautifully tanned and then there is me, with brown and white bike markings!  Today though, I could have cared less.  The thought of getting bathed and scrubbed and having a massage sent tears of joy to my eyes.  

For a split second I was worried they wouldn’t have conditioner or hair gel to tame my curly afro afterwards, but heck, that didn’t even stop me!  I entered the bath after a women took my hand and showed me through the door.  I wasn’t really sure what to do because there were women getting bathed, women bathing themselves, and some just sitting and relaxing.  This was all new to me, I don’t even go to saunas,….I just really don’t to well with the whole sitting still thing. 

For the first 5 or 10 minutes I just observed trying to figure out how it all worked. As I waited for my turn, I sat in the baths and watched the Turkish women bathe other clients.  I wondered which poor lady was going to have to bathe me.  I’d probably get an extra scrub down because they might think my tan lines are dirt.  I was getting so excited to get bathed and clean, you can’t even imagine!

Thumbs up to this Hamam for ladies

When my turn came, again a lady took me by the hand over to the warm stone where I laid.  I thought they escorted you by hand because of the language barrier, but it is actually for the slippery floor!  It didn’t really matter that the lady giving me a bath didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Turkish because they just pat your bum to turn over, and take your hand to walk you to and from the water.  I felt like I needed to excuse myself with my awful tan lines and so I said the usual “biciklet” and made the pedaling actions and she smiled,….I don’t really know if she got it, but she did do a good job scrubbing, especially in all those hard to reach places.  I’ve done pretty well for being able to shower almost every night on my trip, but when someone else bathes you, it’s almost like you feel sterilized afterwards.  In fact, I probably could have used a second full service Hamam just to make sure I was really clean, but that will have to wait for Asia, where, although they don’t have the baths or spa’s necessarily, they have incredibly cheap massages!

Bomb squad getting ready

To my surprise the sun was still out when I finished and so I continued walking the streets of the more modern part of Istanbul.  Like I said police, were everywhere, but soon I stumbled upon a location that was taped off.  There was a police van and a man getting dressed in an astronaut-like outfit, and from what I was observing, it looked like the bomb squad had been called in due to a bomb threat.  Funny thing is, the entire taped off area was only about 50 meters long and 10 wide, so if it was indeed a bomb, they weren’t worried it was a big one!  I had never seen so much heavily duty and serious police gear.  This guy seemed to know what he was doing because I didn’t stick around long enough to watch, but as I started walking away I heard a small explosion, a bit of silence, and then noise and life continued as normal.  I guess he was able to detonate it safely.

Just after hitting up the typical souvenir stores to buy post cards, I came across a young women in the road with one pannier on a road bike and some gear on top of the back rack. She didn’t look Turkish, but she also wasn’t very loaded down with weight so I asked her in English if she was a bike courier or a tour cyclist.  To my surprise, there wandering the streets of Istanbul, I met the first solo cyclist I have ever seen, Liz.  I know we weren’t really out riding on the road, but to randomly bump into each other on the streets of a city inhabited by 13.5 million people plus tourists is pretty amazing!  And what is even more fascinating is that we have the same bike, just rigged differently, and both started in Spain. Liz had gone from Santander, Spain to Istanbul and was just hanging out until her flight on the weekend.  Just as if we had found each other on the road riding, we pulled off to the side and chatted to share experiences. 

To finish off my afternoon, I walked down to the spice market, a sight that never gets old, no matter how many times you visit.  I awe at the way the stalls display the Turkish Delight, dried fruit, and spices.  There is an art to their presentation of food that fortunately makes you just want to look and not actually buy anything, as to not disturb the beautiful display.  I had my afternoon snack sampling sweets at the different stalls, and washed it down with more tea, which is probably why I’m still writing my blog post and not sleeping!

The fireworks were great, but the people taking pictures and videos with the mobiles were even more amusing

I made my way back up the Bosphorus river to the neighborhood I’m staying in time to see a spectacular firework display to celebrate Republic Day.  Walking, wandering, and exploring; it was the perfect way to spend a rest day in Istanbul.  Tomorrow I have a school visit in the morning and then I fly out the following afternoon.  I know I could have made better time of my stay in Istanbul, or even stayed longer, but I have a feeling I’ll be back.  I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of Turkey and all that this country offers in terms of outdoor tourism. I’ll find a good excuse to come back!

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