September 20, 2014
It is evening. I blink through bleary eyes as a hazy, shimmering skyline emerges: tinged pink in the setting sun, and monstrous.
Istanbul is not high-rise; the only things you’ll see peaking (peeking?) above the slanted rooftops are the hordes of elegant minarets. But it is a sprawling city. While the central areas are tightly-packed clusters of hills, roads and shops, the outskirts are less dense, but go on for miles. We could see the skyline for an hour before we finally got to the bus station, and even that was a twenty-minute taxi ride from the centre.
We had a surprisingly comfortable eight-hour bus journey – complete with complimentary snacks, hot drinks and TV – from Bourgas, Bulgaria, using Turkish travel company Metro. We emerged onto Istanbul’s taxi ranks tightly sprung, braced to avoid the multitude of men hollering “TAXI” at us (the Turkish word is “taksi”, so it made little difference who they were shouting at).
We could not have prepared ourselves for the torrent of noise, cars and the blast of the adhān from mosques all across the city – it was a deafening cacophony. After finding a less dodgy-looking vehicle, we were driven through streets of cars manned by drivers who can only be described as manic. I felt that this must be the closest I’d ever come to getting a taste of India. London is so sanitary by comparison: our taxi driver swerved to cross lanes, yelled exchanges with fellow drivers through the open windows, and subjected our ears to a near-constant blast of his horn; he irritably dodged beggars as they meandered perilously between taxis (it was mostly taxis). There seemed no lanes, no rules, that anyone adhered to.
We were dropped at Taksim Square, only to realise our guest house was not going to be easy to find. İstiklal Avenue, or “Independence Street” is a massive pedestrian walkway which ultimately led us to our destination – it was literally heaving with people, it being a Friday night. I’ve never seen anywhere so busy in my life. We wandered for over an hour with our backpacks, taking in the smells of late-night food stands, the contagiously jovial atmosphere, and the sheer madness of it all. Eventually we stumbled upon it on a scraggy little street and fell into our beds on the fourth floor.
The next day, we visited the main markets in the Faith district. Now the markets here are an absolute assault on the senses. Entering a covered area, the first thing I hear is the chaotic call of birds – rounding the corner, I’m greeted to the sound and sight of a hundred different species of wild birds, flapping in overcrowded cages. There are African grey parrots, budgies, love birds, doves; and not only this, but many other animals besides. A box of ducklings meeps at my feet; chicks and bantams peck and cheep in another. A cage holding tiny fluffy baby rabbits and a few minute guinea pigs is getting lots of attention from children, while dazzling hoards of tropical fish flit around in enormous, elaborate tanks. Some “goldfish bowls” are for sale, the size of a child’s breakfast beaker, which I’m a little dubious about. Add to all this the pigeons flapping about, stealing grain from the open packs of bird feed, and I feel I’ve stepped into a jungle where all the animals have become confused and ended up in the same territory.
Further on, there is a second assault in the form of spices and their divine scents. I’m in aromatic Arcadia as I wander around, reeled in by expert stall-holders. There are mountains of coloured cashmere and silken scarves woven from a deliciously rich blend of fabrics, while jewellery glitters from corner stores and Aladdin’s lamps of all shapes and sizes wink warmly overhead. Piles of soft shag rugs tempt the fingers to touch, and elaborate Turkish Delight in many variations oozes juicily in sumptuous stacks.
It’s all quite overwhelming, and conducted in a crazed, street-selling manner which leaves someone like me a-fluster as I try to avoid eye contact, lest I be too polite to decline whatever wondrous gift is bestowed upon me, my fumbling tourist’s fingers knowing I don’t want to part with my Lira even as I hand over the cash. I’m having pashminas wrapped around my neck before I can say no and find myself almost roped in simply by the skill of these suave, savvy salesmen. There’s just too much here for me to love.
We visit the Asian side of Istanbul one day, and it’s definitely worth it. Compared with its European counterpart across the sea, it’s cool, calm and colourful, with many cafés which are much quieter than Sultanahmed’s or Taksim’s – this is where I’d want to live. We were generally less harassed by street vendors, and it was an altogether gentler experience.
And so this is where the journey comes to an end: one month of spectacular sightseeing, absorbing of culture and escape from Normalcy. How does one re-enter the old life? It fades from view so quickly. It seems this perennial question haunts me; how easy it is to forget, and then feel so down upon the prospect of return. “RETURN”, like an ominous chain dragging you back to your kennel. The kennel isn’t so bad, really; it just smells of you, and you eat the food you’re given when it’s given, and all you can see is the walled garden outside.