This travel blogging lark is actually quite hard. I’m conscious it is all too easy for any post to turn into a list of “and then I did this, and then I ate that…. etc etc.” so I end up putting off writing posts in the hope something dramatically interesting will happen. It also takes up a lot of time just to write the things, and trying to upload and publish them over dodgy wi-fi connections can make it even more difficult and time consuming. This at any rate is my excuse for not having posted any updates in two weeks. Its also because, having arrived in Istanbul I have found myself pretty much full on occupied with going around visiting the many different historical sites and markets around the city which has left little time for putting together another post. However when planning my trip, Istanbul always appeared to be the first major milestone in my journey to Tokyo so despite the lack of anything dramatically interesting (or repeatable at any rate) happening, I was determined to find some opportunity to put together a few words on this fascinating city, as well as to give a more general update on how my onwards travel plans are evolving. Its just been a case of finding the time…
Writing this today though I find myself resting up, popping ibuprofen to combat a swollen knee and nursing cuts and stings on my feet and toes, (all the result of an ill-advised decision to take a swim in a rather rocky area of the sea.) And whilst this is painful I can at least be grateful that the silver-lining is that I can concentrate on finally writing this blog post. (I suppose given that there was an absence of swimwear for this dip in the ocean the other silver-lining would be that all the cuts and bruises are confined to below the knee…)
So lets deal with Istanbul first. I have been here over a week and I feel I have barely scratched the surface. The skyline, dotted with minarets from which the calls to prayer echo around (with the wind blowing in the right direction you can here them floating over from the Asian side,) is instantly evocative. The historical sights, generally at least, do not disappoint, both in terms of scale, size and age. Whilst the Hagia Sophia might have a fair amount of scaffolding, and is sometimes compared unfavourably to the perhaps more aesthetically pleasing Blue Mosque opposite it, nothing can take away from the thrill (to a geeky historian at least) of being in a building in which the rulers of two of histories most powerful empires regularly found themselves in for well over a thousand years. It oozes history, and its age really is incredible. When a Viking soldier in the service of the Byzantium Emperor carved, around the 10th Century, runic graffiti into the marble railings of the upper level, the building was already 3-400 years old. When the Blue Mosque was completed opposite it by the Ottomans in the 17th Century, it was over 1,000 years old and today it is not far off its 1,500 year old anniversary. And so for these reasons I was able to forgive a the presence of scaffolding inside one half of the building.
Other particularly fascinating sites, asides from the beautiful interiors of the numerous mosques dotted around the city (my top tip, visit them in the evening (outside of prayer times of course) to avoid the crowds, particularly at the Blue Mosque) are the Basilica Cistern, a large damp colonnaded underground space, once intended to help secure the cities water supplies during a siege, that is now, thanks to lower water levels and liberal use of uplights, great fun to wander around. Also worth a visit is the Chora Museum, a much smaller church, later mosque, close to the huge ancient city walls in which are persevered some remarkably beautiful mosaics in much better condition that those in the Hagia Sophia and yet with a fraction of the crowds. There’s even a Aquaduct running across a busy street that you can climb up, although to anyone on the ground it will look like you are about to commit suicide…
The area around Taksim with its many shops, restaurants and bars is also worth visiting several times to try to absorb some of its atmosphere, especially at night (and take in the water cannons that appear to have become a regular fixture of the place.) The nearby Dolmabahçe Palace, decorated in an extravagant European style in the 19th Century can help provide a break from endless blue tiles of other Ottoman buildings, although the no photography rule does require a certain amount of “James Bondesq” camera work to record any mementos of the rather rushed tours on offer there.
And of course, going to Istanbul with out taking one of the many ferries running around the city or over to the Asian side would be missing out great views at a fraction of the price of the tourist laden cruises on offer from seemingly every other person you pass outside the Blue Mosque. Indeed staring out across the sea taking in the shear number of ships moving in and around each other, from ferries, to tiny fishing vessels to massive container ships and bulk tankers to, even, a submarine, is a great way to relax after a busy day exploring.
Istanbul is so fascinating and with so much going on that I’ve even managed for the most part to get over my mass tourism aversion syndrome and put up with the fact that I have to share many of these sights and experiences with coach loads of pensioners lucky enough to be able to retire before the world decided their pension schemes were thoroughly unsustainable. The one exception to this would have to be the Topkaki Palace. This is a huge site, and does, I will admit, contain several fascinating exhibits on things ranging from weapons and armour to holy relics and to an enormous diamond, although a complete photo ban in these exhibits (understandable for the relics) is irritating, i can perhaps forgive it, given the frequent demonstrations I have seen on my trip of peoples inabilty to work out how to turn the flash off on their cameras. However the size of the museum, and the simply huge number of people there, means that you feel like you are always queuing for something, frequently without being entirely sure what it is you are queueing for and never, ever, feeling able to absorb some of what you are seeing at your own pace. I can’t recommend a visit and if you are under time constraints in any trip to Turkey I would definitely recommend skipping it. It’s simple not an enjoyable experience and will just leave you feeling drained and frustrated.
Assuming that I recover the ability to walk tomorrow without the need for heavy limping, I will move on from Istanbul to explore more of Turkey, heading first to Izmir to see the ruins at Ephesus before moving further East. It seems that a general update on my route and travel plans at this point might be useful for people wondering where I’m going as there has been changes since I left the UK. My trip will no longer be taking me through Iran, as unfortunately for me, they changed their Visa rules just after I applied making it impossible to get a Visa for independent travellers on a British Passport. I have instead been looking at other routes into Central Asia, and whilst there is still the chance I might settle on a different route, my best bet currently feels like travelling to Azerbaijan via Georgia and waiting for the irregular ferry service into Kazakhstan from which with a bit of luck and a fair wind, I should be able to get a train connection into Uzbekistan and return to my original route, although I suspect this is the road less taken for good reason….
I’m also at this stage giving some serious consideration into spending an extended period of time in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan in order to try my hand at studying Russian. A month or two is likely to give me no more than the most basic knowledge of this difficult language but should at least do me in good stead for my hopeful return journey back to the UK through Russia, as well as any future return journeys to the Central Asian republics. Afterwards, China, South East Asia, and then ferries on to Korea and Japan will hopefully follow, before I look to start on my way home.
It has taken me far longer to travel through Europe than I expected, but I have seen some amazing sights and met some great people on the way, and if I continue to do that, then I will be happy to fall behind further on my time-scales and make more changes to my schedule, but you can at least be assured that I do have a plan, even if I don’t always end up following it…