Country 7: Turkey – April 2006

22 April – Istanbul
Accommodation: Hotel Eris, Istanbul

After my short stay in London and seeing nothing but the hostel and whatever I could from my Tube ride, I was back to Heathrow for a third visit already, and all set for my flight to Turkey. This was a strange flight as I was travelling for 4 hours but going over 2 time zones and ultimately losing 2 hours in the process, but staying in Europe. Istanbul airport was an interesting experience. Seeing this was the Anzac period, there were Aussies and Kiwis arriving from everywhere and all at the same time. All of us had to line up to pay for our visa on arrival which meant hundreds of us were lining up at only three open service windows all to get the same thing. Some people needed to line up at the ATM because they had no Euros or British Pounds on them to pay the tax so this added to the chaos. It took around 30 to 45 minutes to get that over with and then another 15 minutes at passport control before getting through to baggage claim, where our bags had surprisingly already beaten us to the conveyor belt. Then when I got out at arrivals I had to find someone from my tour holding a sign not knowing whether my travel agent had booked me an airport shuttle through my tour company or not. I found a tour representative who told me they had a full bus and I wasn’t on their list (so my travel agent didn’t book it) and I had to find my own way to my hotel. Lovely.

Luckily I found an Aussie couple with the same dilemma so we shared a taxi to our hotels, although I didn’t know which hotel I was going to. I was well organised for this one ay! After we got out of the airport our taxi driver reached 120km/hour in about 5 seconds with traffic around him! Most of the trip was stop suddenly then speed up again to 80km/hr or so then stop again. Then at one point we had to stop and merge 4 lanes into 2, and there were no lane markers on the road! At one traffic jam stop he started chatting to another cabbie who had big dents in his taxi, which left me wondering just how safe taxis were in this city! That was some excitement right there. Eventually we got to the tourist district and got stuck in a huge traffic jam 500 metres from our hotel, so we had to get out and walk. The couple in my taxi found their hotel but I found out I wasn’t booked in there. After some enquiries I figured out I was down the road and around the corner in a quieter area. So I checked in, they checked in, and by this time it was late afternoon so the three of us met up again and went to see some quick sites and relax. Firstly we had a short meal, a good stale diet of Turkish kebabs. Then I had my first glimpse of large Turkish mosques and they looked pretty special.

Just down from the mosque area we found an open air café and ordered some fruit flavoured tea and the boyfriend in the couple ordered one of those huge metre-high smoking pipes with fruit flavoured tobacco inside. Every ten minutes or so an attendant would come to add hot coals to the bottom of the pipes to keep the tobacco warm for smoking. It was all part of a new cultural experience for me and I liked it. I tried a bit of the fruity tobacco and it was pretty smooth but I’ve never been too excited about smoking and didn’t think much else of it. That was pretty much my day really, apart from heading back to my room. Everything in my hotel was pretty bizarre. The foyer was tiny, the lift was only big enough to hold 2 or 3 people, the shower was only just big enough to stand in and had a section for sitting down, and there were about 10 TV channels all in Turkish so I had to watch pictures and guess what was happening. One show didn’t need translation though. To me it looked like some sort of Turkish Dance Idol where guys and girls would have a dance-off, and then there were phone numbers for viewers to call on the bottom of the screen to vote for their favourite dancer. Funnily enough the girl wearing the least clothes and the guy with the big arm muscles won. I figured after that it was time to sleep.

23 April – Istanbul
Accommodation: Hotel Eris, Istanbul

My hotel had breakfast included so after a morning shower I headed up to the breakfast room. It was a bit unusual. Along with the usual bread and jam and juice and coffee, I found ham, salami, cucumber, tomato, hard boiled eggs, and some weird paste thing which I left alone. I tell you what, that coffee was mighty strong! Two of those and I was buzzing! I sat down at any old table and found two girls doing the same tour as me so we had a good chat and they eventually left to get ready to go out. I agreed to meet up with the Aussie couple I met yesterday for a wander around the city that morning, but I had to check in with my Anzac tour group first and this took half an hour longer than I expected. So by the time I went to meet the Aussie couple they were gone, and I never did see them again. I felt weird about walking around alone but I figured I had no choice so that’s what I did.
So I wandered up the main street not really knowing where to go and feeling a bit cautious and I came to the Sultanahmet Mosque (or Blue Mosque) which seemed to be the most popular one there, so I took a photo from the outside then went inside the square to take a photo. I took a fair few steps back to capture it all in and this Turkish guy says to me “hello, where are you from?” and I said Australia, then he said “you can buy this book for one Australian coin” and without thinking I’m like ok that sounds reasonable. So I open up my wallet without thinking and this other dude steps up next to him and both guys grab notes from my wallet and I’m thinking what are these guys doing so I start pulling them back then they both grab them and run away leaving me with this book on Istanbul and I’m like what just happened? I was in a bit of shock and disbelief and I just stood there dumbfounded for a minute. Before I realised what happened the two guys were gone and I felt a bit vulnerable so I wanted to go sit down somewhere safe. I went back to the hotel foyer and felt pretty weird for a while. I told someone what happened and they happened to be tour guides for my tour, and they said that’s definitely something to watch out for because they can strike at any time. I wish I’d known this earlier. It was only the equivalent of about AU$50 anyway so it wasn’t going to cripple me. The two girls from breakfast were there and said hi so I told them by story too and they said “that’s terrible! do you want to walk around with us for a while then?” so I did and felt better walking around and talking to some Aussies for a while. I found out they were on my Anzac tour also so that was a bonus. So we wandered around for a bit and I followed them around while they did some street shopping (in the really touristy areas there are people trying to sell you all sorts of crap and are talking and shouting at you constantly trying to get your attention) and I just observed them looking at assorted trashy souvenirs and clothes and things. I saw shirts with misspelt lettering like ‘Philadelfia’ and ‘Abercombie & Fich’ on them. Yes, counterfeiting is rife here, and no you won’t be selling those clothes to anyone who can read English at a primary school level.
Our day ended with a scheduled tour meeting back at the hotel where about 30 to 40 of us all crammed into this little room to be briefed about our Anzac tour. Then our tour guide offered to take us all out to an inexpensive restaurant and I think everyone in the group came. Just outside the restaurant there were a lot of rowdy Turkish guys staring at a TV, then they cheered and a few guys started running around on the street stopping cars. Football match! Local side Galatasaray had just scored a goal! This was good for a laugh. So we passed them and went into the restaurant. This place had a huge menu with lots of different types of Turkish food (mostly different types of kebabs) and local beer, and it was all really cheap! One person asked for one of those smoking pipe things with fruity tobacco, and then someone saw raki on the menu. “What’s raki?” the girl asked the tour guide. He said something like “have you ever had ouzo? it’s the Turkish version of that, you have it with water”. So this bunch of booze-happy Aussies just had to try this new type of alcohol. Then word got out that it was my birthday in a few days after I mentioned it to one person, so people are like “let’s buy him some raki!” and I was like nooo I don’t want to be the centre of attention, or at least not at this point. I was a bit buggered and not in the mood to drink (strange for me, I know) so I finished my meal and beer and left the rowdy bunch to their drinkies and I went off to bed.

24 April – Istanbul, Kabatepe, Cannakale, Gallipoli
Accommodation: Anzac Cove in sleeping bags, Gallipoli

Our group of just over 30 Aussies and one Kiwi girl (with a hundred other tours with Aussies and Kiwis how unlucky can she get? haha) met up in the hotel foyer that morning and piled onto the bus. Along the way our tour guide gave us some Turkish history and talked to us about Istanbul and the people who live there (12 million of them!) then told us a bit about what we’d be doing on our tour, then most people either had a chat to each other or slept. I stuck some music in my ears. Just going through the city centre to the outskirts of Istanbul I couldn’t believe the gigantic number of slums packed in one after the other on the side of the freeway. Our tour guide told us a lot of immigrants come to Istanbul hoping to make a living there but most end up in these slums worse off than when they started. It was all a bit sad really and it made me appreciate the fact I grew up in Australia. Another thing I noticed was an abundance of Turkish flags hanging out of windows, attached to sides of buildings, flying from flagpoles. There was a big sense of patriotism here. In the USA it feels like a statement of arrogance and dominance (I’m not trying to generalise or make assumptions about all Americans but that’s one view these days) but in Turkey it feels like a showing of hope and resilience against hardships. As we got away from the bustling city we passed several small dusty yet modest towns, and eventually we stopped at a service station for a break and encountered our first squat toilets. Welcome to Eastern Europe. I figured it was only a day and a half away from civilisation so I didn’t make use of the facilities. I felt sorry for the girls. Something like 10 Anzac bus tours had stopped at the same time so there was a swarm of 20-something Aussies and Kiwis rushing to get some snacks or bottles of drink and it was just a shambles. Further down the road our next stop was more quiet as only one other bus group was with us. Being told we couldn’t take alcohol to Anzac Cove some people bought some beer at this pit stop to consume solely on the bus. One guy bought a 6-pack just because he found out he could get a free Anzac Day beer shirt with it. We saw a guy on another tour who was already drunk and stumbling by about 5pm. I figured my next beer would be back in Istanbul.

Finally we reached our first Anzac-related stop, the Kabatepe monument. We had half an hour here and the lineup to get inside the main monument was huge so we opted not to go in and just took photos of the outside monuments. People were selling average souvenirs in the bus parking area, and someone was charging 50 Kurus (cents) to use the toilet and I was a bit desperate, but inside I found a toilet seat, no squatting! I gladly made use of it.

Along the way we hit several other small monuments, the New Zealand monument, the Lone Pine monument for the Aussies where apparently in a one-day ceasefire both the Turks and Anzacs buried around 3000 of their dead in one mass grave, we saw trenches, we took photos, and we were enthralled. Then the afternoon was rolling to a close and we stopped off at Anzac Cove. After taking our belongings with us we were told there was a security search for alcohol. That’s fair enough but I thought it was a bit extreme. The security checks were split up into two sections for girls and guys, and for some reason the girls’ line took much longer than the guys’ one.

We got through security and made it to Anzac Cove with a couple of hours of sunlight left in the day. We were stretched out on the grass, seating was all around us, two large TV screens were on either side of us, and the treacherous cliffs that the Anzacs attempted to climb over were behind us. We were standing on history. After an hour or so of social chatter and observing thousands of people around us the show started. Bands playing old style music, war documentaries, and live interviews from Andrew Denton who had made the long trek over with the Governor-General. It all seemed much more relevant actually being on the place where the massacre went down.

Gradually the night wore on, it got colder, we rugged up, we took photos and chatted, we tried to sleep under all the noise from other people, occasionally another bus load would enter and we would be forced to move further up the hill to fit them in and become more squashed and unable to find a comfortable place to stretch out, and if you got more than 2 or 3 hours of sleep you could count yourself lucky.

It certainly was an experience I’d never forget. I guess we were partly finding out how hard it was for the troops to sleep in between fighting against each other, and while we weren’t in anywhere near the same danger as the Anzacs and only spent one night there instead of up to 9 months as some did 91 years ago and could never understand the terrible hardships these people went through with no end in sight, at least we partly knew how they had to live through all the noise and freezing conditions.

25 April – Gallipoli, Istanbul
Accommodation: Hotel Eris, Istanbul

2am, finally I fell asleep after numerous attempts to do so after constantly being woken up by other people’s noise, sleeping with my head resting on my hand as a pillow, earplugs in my ears to block the sound, and somehow finding a place to stretch out my legs. Then came 5am, the dawn service. We all stood as one as the sun was coming over the horizon, and for the first time everyone fell silent. I’d been to Anzac dawn services before but none were as eerie and felt as real as this one. I mean I was standing on the point where 91 years to the minute the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps had arrived on the very land I was standing on, and most of them were never to leave. It felt like it went on forever and then it was over and it was time for us to leave.

We had a few hours to wait until the Australian service at the Lone Pine monument was to commence, so we slowly made our way back to the bus and waited in a line of over a hundred buses all making their way out of the Anzac Cove area. We all sat in seats watching the service by the Australian Governor-General and several members of our army. Then the lone Kiwi on our tour made it up to the New Zealand service with considerably less seats than the Aussie one. After getting around 3 hours of sleep in the last 30 hours a lot of us chose to skip the NZ service and take a snooze on the bus. After the services were over we took our long bus trip back to Istanbul. It was a pretty quiet trip back with most if not all of the bus catching up on some lost sleep. Still, I was pretty satisfied I was part of it. 5 to 6 hours and a toilet stop later, we were back in the city.
We took a breather in our hotel rooms and met up again in the hotel foyer ready to chow down on a few more kebabs. Technically at this point it was my birthday in Australia so I guess it was my birthday dinner. Most of the tour came out and we sat down at another restaurant and had local Efes beers all round (except for only a few non-drinkers), took lots of photos, had some good chats, some tasty food, and had a good night. Some were leaving the next morning so this was our last moment together, so we swapped email addresses and gradually all went to bed.

26 April – Istanbul
Accommodation: Hotel Eris, Istanbul

Ok, we can call it my birthday now. A group of about 8 of us who were still left met up in the foyer and decided to walk around the city for a while to see whatever sights we could find. Eventually we headed down to the river, the official border between Europe and Asia, to see if we could get a guided boat ride seeing it was a nice sunny day. This guy offered us 240 Lira to take us up and down the river for 2 hours with a stop on the Asian side. One of the guys in our group bartered it down to 160 Lira. Nice work! So the boat guide took us away from all the crowds to this slightly rundown open air motorised two-storey boat. It felt a bit dodgy and I was wondering whether he was going to take us somewhere and point a gun at us demanding we give him all our money and cameras, but this is how things are done in this part of the world and it all turned out well. Nice smooth boat ride, relaxing under the sun, lots of nice sights, large bridges, and all for around AU$20 each, even with a lunch stop for a kebab in between.
One last thing to do together was to check out Istanbul’s hostel and backpacker scene. Some people were moving out of the hotel into a hostel so we stayed there after they checked in for a meal, and then the rooftop bar. After all, it was still my birthday. A few beers sitting around and table for a good chat turned into a few more and it got pretty fun. One girl in the group, Naomi, asked me where I was travelling to next and I mentioned amongst other places that I was going to Stockholm and she said I could stay with her and her boyfriend in Stockholm if I wanted to, so I thought this was great so I took up the opportunity. Eventually the upstairs bar closed for the night and we were all told to either go home or head to the downstairs bar. Well, the night was still young! On the way down the steps I somehow ran into this girl who was also having a birthday on the same day albeit 3 years apart, so we she heard this she gave me a birthday kiss. Yay! That’s all the action I got though. Anyway, downstairs a few people were blind drunk but we didn’t mind and we had a few more. Then Naomi offered to buy me some raki. I figured why not it’s my birthday, but she couldn’t finish hers so I had the majority of 2 shots in 30 seconds. I can’t seem to remember much of what happened after that but I do remember someone putting me into a taxi and waking up the next day in my hotel room. Oh well, sometimes you can’t have a good night if you remember all of it!

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