It was 13 hours overnight from Sofia to Istanbul and I had a sleeper car all to myself. I’m getting better at sleeping on trains despite the noise, the shaking, the frequent jerky stops, and the repeated visits by border guards and ticket agents.
Turkey requires a visa for Americans to enter but it can be obtained at the border. The night train from Sofia arrives at the Turkish border around 3am. Unfortunately the knock on my door from the steward did not translate to “Time to get up. Please get off the train and go to the visa window. Pay them for the visa stamp and then get in the second unmarked line to have your passport validated.” So I stayed tucked in my bunk.
About 30 minutes later a border guard opened my door and asked for my passport. I handed it to him and he flipped through it, obviously not finding what he was looking for. “Stamp, Stamp!” he said. Groggy from the couple hours of sleep I’d been able to catch I looked at him probably much like someone on drugs. Sensing this he told me to follow him and rushed me out to the visa window. I presented the passport, paid for the visa sticker, and then he grabbed the passport and walked away calling “Bradley! Quickly!” as he walked. So I followed. He jumped to the front of the second line and handed the passport to the man behind the window. What happened next is kind of a blur. A few one word questions were asked and apparently I provided the right one word answers as he stamped my passport and handed it back to me. I walked back to the train and a very few moments later we were underway. I’m not really sure how close I came to watching my luggage make its way to Istanbul without me.
Rolling into Istanbul at 8am the sun had risen a little. Enough to cast angular morning light on everything below it. I could already tell I wasn’t in “Europe” any more. The minarets from the Mosques stood tall and foreign in the post-dawn and the many domes stood in sharp contrast to the square ugliness of the post-Soviet architecture. Istanbul has some 3000 mosques and nowhere near as many churches. At this point I’m a little churched-out to be honest. I’ve been looking forward to this. Something more “foreign” less “European” for a little while. American culture has borrowed so heavily from Western European cultures and vice versa that, while each country is unique and has its own long heritage, there is some sameness to them after two months. This is something even more apparent by traveling overland. You are able to see the gradual blending of cultures. The architecture and infrastructure make a slow transition from one dominance to another around the borders. You can even hear a slow change in the language as passengers get off and on at the stops around a border. The language, or dialect, as I have no idea what anyone is saying, changes as well. The sounds are different.
Turkey is different. Built on a different set of cultures (Greek/Arab/Persian) and being located more in Asia than Europe it has proved culturally more resistant to choosing a side and has built a unique blend of the two, a wonderfully tolerant and secular blend of the two. Thanks to Ataturk (president from 1923-1938) and his sweeping reforms Turkey has grown into a politically stable, economically viable, better educated state.
I got to my hostel run by a group of Kurdish brothers and dropped off my bags and wandered map-less out into the streets. I walked the narrow cobblestone streets taking no particular route, maybe following foot traffic in hopes they knew where they were going, and found my way to what I thought was a magnificent set of mosques. I would later find out that one of them was actually formerly a Christian church and the other is the famous Blue Mosque. Getting directions to an ATM later I would be told “It’s up by the Blue Mosque” and would have to display my ignorance by asking “Which one is the Blue Mosque?” Here’s why. The Blue Mosque isn’t blue on the outside; it’s blue on the inside!
I did no sight seeing that day other than what I saw on my walk. I just took in the hundreds of shops and cafes and restaurants. All so very different from anywhere I’d been this far. In the restaurants I found something I’d been missing on this travel… SPICE! The majority of European food I’ve sampled thus far has been terribly bland. Here everything is punched up with a healthy dose of spice and sauce and flavor! I’ve sampled a wide variety of Turkish staples and have been pleasantly impressed each time. The shops offered a wonderful variety of crafts. Carpets, ceramics, instruments, clothes, hats, and much more. Of course, with no prices. I’ve bought very few souvenirs on this trip so far and I immediately thought “Turkey is going to be expensive!”
And it would be…
The next day I took more time than I should have getting out of bed. I had a singular goal of the day. Get to the Syrian Consulate and apply for a visa. It was the last day of Ramadan and the next 3 days would be the holiday of Ede meaning there would be no chance for me to apply again if I didn’t make it in time.
Something the taxi driver decided to tell me on the ride to the consulate: Ramadan ends and thus Ede begins, at noon on the last day. Thus it would probably be closed. He was right. All the doors were shut and I’d missed my opportunity to apply until Ede was over 3 days later. He patiently waited for me to come back out of the building and then took me back to nearly where I’d begun. This being my first taxi ride in haggle-land I did a poor job of setting expectations and this round trip ended up costing me about $60.
I had him drop me off at the Grand Bazaar, handed over my poorly negotiated pound of flesh, and walked into the fray.
The Grand Bazaar is a spectacular bit of chaos. It is the largest covered bazaar in the world and is full to overflowing with shops, products, and people. The Turkish salespeople are incredibly persistent and crafty. They know your language, your country, state, city, weather, and will use all of it to get you into a conversation, once they’ve got you on the hook they use that to ply on your sense of respect, manners, and emotions. Not all mind you, but the vast majority I’ve come into contact with. Carpet salesmen are the most persistent. I’ll admit I’m vulnerable to respect-tactics. “Please, sit with me, drink my apple tea, won’t you be polite?” I didn’t buy anything, but I did get sucked into a long uncomfortable discussion in the back of a carpet shop.
It took only once. Now I lie. I got enough information from that one meeting, and a little internet research later on, to put together a convincing enough set of stories to diffuse most attempts.
“Would you look at my carpets sir?”
“I’ve already got two”
“But you don’t have a
“Yes, sorry, I have that and a
“Well then you need a leather jacket!” (this is always the fall back position.)
“Sorry, it is against my beliefs to wear leather”
Or avoid the whole transaction by smiling, putting up my hand and ignoring the five or six more “Excuse me” attempts. That does not always work.
I also got burned early on with what I saw as a simple transaction. I wanted to get a beard trimmer to keep the bristles under control so I found a shop outside the bazaar and chose a clipper package, negotiated a price, and made my way back to the hostel only to discover that I had indeed purchased the clippers, but had not received the power adaptor or any of the accessories… and so it grows.
How it is that the marketplace works with this open knowledge that they are going to try and take advantage of you, either on price or quality, is still lost on me. I can only think that you must also come to the table ready to do so, thus creating a level playing field. Honor among thieves and all that… In the end it may actually be more “honest” with this knowledge. Compared to the ubiquitous “sale” signs in western retail shops where they take some percentage off their heavily marked up prices to move product. Here everything is on sale depending on how good you are at the game.
The next few days the weather I’d been running away from caught up with me. I’d seen the trees changing color from the train windows and had some vague notion that autumn was chasing me but I had yet to feel the bite. It rained for 3 days and temperatures dropped to the mid 50’s. Other than a few outings to eat or drink, I stayed close to the hostel and read or played on the Internet.
Monday I was able to try again for my Syrian visa. Everyone from the hostel was wishing me luck as they’d all heard the same things I had. Americans will have a rough time of it.
I arrived at the small room in the Syrian Consulate for visa applications and filled out the English form, got my photo ready, and walked up to the window. The woman behind the counter smiled pleasantly and said hello. I said hello and pushed my completed paperwork through the small hole in the window and smiled. She looked down at the cover of the passport and her smile faded. “Ahh, American…” It was a tone of concern. “I’m very sorry, we cannot issue you a visa from here. You must get it from Washington DC.”
“Really? Is there nothing we can do?” I said, conjuring my best lost-puppy look.
“I could send this to Syria, but it could stay there for a month and still be declined” she offered.
“What about the border? Could I try there?”
And do it goes. No Syria for me, and thus no Jordan or Lebanon. While I’m sure it is some slight relief to Summer and my Parents that I won’t be crossing Syria, and I knew this could happen, it’s still a bummer. I’m still investigating other routes, and while they might be off the table for this trip, I will visit this region, for me it’s a necessity.
After the answer from the Syrian Consulate, I moved forward booking the rest of my Turkey tour. I’m headed to the middle of the country to explore the Cappadocian region and then to the South to hang out on the Mediterranean Coast for a week, where I will hopefully be able to hide from winter a little longer.
More on Istanbul and Turkey to come…