Monday, April 23, 2012

How About a Change of Scene?

Note: This blog entry will be very, very long. 

I know this blog is supposed to be about life in China. But what's life in a country without a trip outside the country?

I went to Turkey for my birthday. I went with a list of sights my cousin had done with a friend of his in 10 days with the goal of completing all those things in 3.5 days. Mission accomplished. And then some.

After work on Saturday, I took the train to Shanghai to go to the airport for my 1:40am flight. It supposedly took off around 2, but I slept through take-off and most of the flight. After a layover in Moscow, I arrived in Istanbul around 12:45pm on Sunday. My cousin, Marshall, met me at the airport, and took me on the scenic route to my hostel. We saw a fountain the Germans gave the Turks, which they had to build, so it cost them a ton of money; pillars from the Hippdrome (the ancient racetrack that was connected to the Imperial Palace of the Ottoman Empire and now forms the courtyard between the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque) and the Imperial Palace; and the Hagia Sofia (I-ya-sofia). 

The Hagia Sofia is a church that was built by a sultan during the 1500s and it was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire. It is awesomely huge (fact stolen from the Internet: the Statue of Liberty can fit inside with room to spare) and incredibly beautiful. There are mosaics of Christian images and signs in Arabic for prayer, a coronation corner, and much more. Marshall showed me the mosaic of the emperor whose face was changed 3 times as the church was being built (it took so long to build the building, there were 3 emperors) and a Viking's signature, and the wishing hole. Incredible. From there, we went to get my first real Turkish meal - Iskender. Iskender is meat on flat bread with a tomato sauce and yogurt to dip in. It was delicious. We walked up a giant hill to the Galata Tower, but the line to get to the top was longer than we wanted to wait, so we continued on to a synagogue and wandered Istiklal Caddesi (the main street downtown), had some Turkish coffee (so strong and gross), and played backgammon at his favorite hookah bar.

Monday was the big day. I had the free breakfast at the rooftop bar of my hostel - fabulous views by the way - and got ready for the day. On my way out, I met a very nice girl from Morocco, Ines, and we decided to explore together. We started our day at the Blue Mosque (Sultanhamet), a large and imposing mosque across from the Hagia Sofia next to our hostel. Gorgeous. 

Then we stopped at the Basilica Cistern, an underground cistern that was used to collect water during the empires (sorry, I don't know my history of that region as well as I should). One neat thing Marshall had explained was that the pillars all look different, kind of like they had recycled various parts of other pillars to build these. The base of 2 of the pillars were Medusa heads - one sideways, one upside down. No real reason why. Very cool. 

Next we walked across the Galata Bridge, where we saw people fishing. And we climbed the giant hill and went to the top of Galata Tower, were we saw incredible 360 degree views of the city. Istanbul is a city on 2 continents, so we looked over Europe and Asia. And then we got on a boat to Asia. 

We only stopped on the Asian side long enough to buy a boat ticket to the Prince's Islands, where we spent the majority of the afternoon. Prince's Islands are called that because that is where crown princes were sent so they wouldn't kill each other to be crowned sultan. We went to the largest of the islands, Buyukada, had lunch and explored the very expensive looking neighborhood. There are supposedly wild horses on the island, but we didn't get to the right part, though we did see horse drawn carriages. The whole thing was incredibly beautiful. We eventually headed back to the European side and made our way to the Cemberlatis Hamam. 

A hamam is a Turkish bath. You go, take a shower using a bowl in a fountain, then lay on a towel on a hot marble slab until a large Turkish woman (or man, I presume, if you're male), scrapes off your dead skin with a loofa glove. Then you receive a bubble wash, which was really cool because there was a towel-like thing that when dipped in water and shaken turned into a bubble-pillow thing. So cool. After you're rinsed, you go sit in a warm indoor pool. Ines and I decided to splurge on the oil massage too, so then we went for that, which was much more relaxing than Chinese massage. I stole a towel before we went to dinner and a very happy sleep. Ines also gave me a necklace she had from Morocco for my birthday, which I thought was extraordinarily generous of her. I felt slightly guilty accepting it, so I treated to dinner.

Tuesday got off to a bit of a late start. And it got even later after I had to wait in line for a half hour at Dolmabahce (Dole-ma-bah-chee) Palace. Word of advice: Dolmabahce was not on my original sight-seeing list; it had been recommended by a Turkish woman Ines and I had met on the boat the previous day. It is expensive (for Turkish sights), and requires guided tours, and you have to wait around a lot. So I recommend going with an organized tour group (they get priority) or first thing in the morning so you don't waste as much of your day; or skip it. It is very beautiful and ornate, but you barely explore 1/10 of the rooms, and the only super-interesting part of the Harem is that you get to see the room where Ataturk (founder of modern Turkey) died. (He had a short bed with a bedspread that looked like a Turkish flag - there; saved you a trip.) And of course, no pictures allowed in the whole thing. 

From there I headed over to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Which, despite the name, has more than just spices. It has candies, sweets, jewelry and other touristy things to buy. I bought some Turkish apple tea that Marshall had gotten me hooked on. (It's not the same.) Then I stumbled into the Grand Bazaar, which is huger than huge. It covers over 10,000 square meters. The covered portion has been around since the 15th century. As not much of a shopper, I was completely overwhelmed by the number of shops and people and I found my out as quickly as possible. I passed by Istanbul University and  arrived at Sulemaniye (sue-le-mon-ee) Mosque. 

I don't know why, but I liked Sulemaniye Mosque better than the Blue Mosque. It is gorgeous, and they provided real scarves at the door if you needed one instead of pieces of cloth. It was also less crowded. I recommend both. Then again, there are lots of other mosques to visit too...

From there, I made a quick stop back at the hostel before catching a bus to meet Marshall at his university for dinner with his friends (2 he met while traveling in Georgia - as in formerly of Russia) and a boat party on the Bosporus to celebrate the end of midterms. Key phrase: a boat party on the Bosporus straits. Between Europe and Asia. At night. We floated past a castle, under a bridge, and we think we saw a dolphin. The stars eventually came out. It was wonderful, to say the least. 

*Addendum - before we got on the boat, we had dinner, a drink, and a waffle. A waffle, though, is not just a waffle. It is like a make your own sundae bar, but instead of ice cream the toppings go on a waffle. Yum!

Finally, it was Wednesday, my last day in Turkey. I got another late start, but spent the morning exploring the Turkey Archaeological Museums. Yes, plural. There is one building of ancient civilizations with the usual museum artifacts - coins, weapons, hieroglyphics, statues, etc; a pavilion of mosaics and pottery; and the third largest building built to house the many sarcophogai found in Sorin, somewhere in that region. Pretty interesting. I enjoyed it. 

Then lunch with Marshall, Leslie, and Bernard (his friends from the previous night) and exploration of the Topkapi (Toe-pa-cop-ee) Palace, which is where all the sultans lived before Dolmabahce was built. It's huge. And much more interesting to explore than Dolmabahce, in a much more leisurely way. Cooler artifacts, too. Unfortunately, we were a little too leisurely and didn't make it in to see the Harem, which are the private rooms of the sultans, but we looked at the book in the gift shop. 

We split up - Leslie and Bernard went to meet another friend of theirs, and Marshall took me to Cemberlatis (chem-burr-lah-tiss) - the burnt column. It once held a statue of Constantine, which was knocked down by a hurricane, later replaced by a cross, which removed by the Ottomans, and later the column was burnt by a fire. If you look at it from a certain angle, it looks like it's wobbling and about to fall down, but you can be sure from it's history that you're safe. 

Finally, I went to see a performance of Whirling Dervishes. A dervish is like a Muslim friar; someone on a spiritual path. They wear big hats and long white robes and whirling dervishes is a ceremony (and now a tourist attraction) where they spin in circles from a symbolic state of non-existence to one of existence. The music and spinning is extremely calming and mesmerizing. In the introduction they wish the audience a "peaceful spectacle". 

After that, I picked up my bag from the hostel and met with Marshall for some final non-Chinese foods. We took the Tunel - an underground train to get up the hill by Galata Tower - and walked along Istiklal to get some food souvenirs for my co-workers. Then we had a food parade to finish as much of Marshall's suggested food list as we could before I had to leave for my flight. 

I flew/slept through Thursday and arrived in Nanjing to go to work on Friday. It was a wonderfully fantastic week!

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