Monday, April 7, 2014

Around the world: Istanbul

I love to travel. Ofcourse it's not the transportation itself that I think is great, but seeing other places, other countries and other cultures is what's fascinating me. There are many good memories connected to visiting interesting places and I would like to share them so I can maybe inspire others to travel and discover the world aswell.

The first place I want to talk about is the only city that lies on two continents, Europe and Asia, Istanbul. It is a huge city with a population of about 14 million people (2012) and still growing. The home of Turkeys three most popular and successful soccer teams has much to offer and after 4 visits now, I still feel that I havn't nearly seen everything. I believe that you can only get the true experience of a place if you speak the same language as  the people living there. Since my Turkish is limited to a beginners level it might take alot more practice and some more visits for me.

Being from a state capital, one of the bigger cities in Germany, I always thought I am used to city life. Istanbul tought me otherwise. The sheer amount of people and traffic combined is very impressive, if not intimidating. At first I had a really hard time getting used to being one in a big crowd no matter where I go. This especially struck me when using public transportation. For every trip to a destination out of walking distance a  significant delay due to traffic jams can be expected, especially during rush hour. A much more efficient and frequently used way of transportation is using a taxi. They are much more affordable than in Germany or the United States and due to a higher tolerance of breaking traffic laws they are also much faster. In general turkish drivers seem to see traffic laws as more of a guideline than a rule, which took some time for me to get used to since Germans tend to follow rules just because they are rules and there needs to be order at all cost. Having mastered the art of transportation in Istanbul I was  ready to discover the remains of Constantinople and everything that the modern city Istanbul has to offer.

Turkey being a muslim country also meant some cultural differences that were new to me and were very interesting to see. The most obvious difference is the so called Adhân, an invitation to prayer, comparable to a church bell ringing, that can be heard five times a day in the entire city via speakers. For someone without any experience or knowledge about the muslim religion the arabic songs can seem very strange. Also not every woman in Istanbul is wearing a head cover. From what I could observe the majority of women seemeed to not wear one. Ofcourse that was just my impression and could have to do with Istanbul being a modern and very diverse city. As to other cultural differences I only noticed a couple small ones but I only took notice of them at the time and can't recall them now. One that stayed on my mind though is that people eating a snack like crackers next to you in the bus for example tend to offer to share it as good manner. I usually declined politely but I like that custom.

Turkish cuisine in general is quite delicious. In Germany you can find a Döner shop at every corner, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The streets of Istanbul are full of restaurants or street vendors selling a great variety of turkish food specialities just waiting to be dined upon. A selection of my favorite dishes includes the following: Köfte, Kumpir, Kumru, Iskender Kebab, Lahmacun, kisir, künefe and many more. Also very interesting is that a turkish breakfast typically consists of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, butter / kaymak (a kind of sweet dairy butter), jelly, honey and bread or simit (a bread ring topped with sesame or other seeds) aswell as tea and coffee. Especially the olives for breakfast part was an interesting new concept for me.

Beside the gastronomic delights and wonderful cafes and tea houses, there are many old and very interesting buldings to visit in Istanbul. There are palaces to admire, great mosks to visit and boat tours on the Marmara Sea to take.

The most glorious of the mosks is the famous Hagia Sophia that used to be a christian church in the East Roman Empire and was made a mosk after the city had been conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Therefore influences of both religions can be found there. This very impressive structure can be found in the center of touristic activities along with a number of other landmarks like the German Fountain an old roman cystern or the Obelisk of Theodosius.

Other sights are better enjoyed at night. Istanbul has the habit of enchanting marvelous buildings with a wonderful display of light. Examples of this are the Galata Tower, the Bosporus Bridge or simply the skyline of the city itself.

But not only sightseeing can be enjoyed at night but Istanbul also has a flourishing night life. It doesnt matter if you go to the bars and small night clubs around Taksim Square and on Istiklal Street or if you go to the noble night clubs at the sea shore next to the Bosporus Bridge, you can always find a good time in Istanbul because the city never sleeps. Though one shouldn't be surprised to also hear a variety of turkish songs in clubs with everybody singing along. Those songs usually sounded sad to me, but that might be caused by the slightly different way of turkish singing and the unfamiliar tunes. Also it didn't help that I didn't understand a thing.

It was a great experience and very interesting to see the balance of ancient buildings and modern city. But this balance also had its toll. Being german I am used to flat land and pavement and streets that are perfectly good cared for. In a large city like Istanbul this is simply not possible. Furthermore the land that the city is built on is far away from flat but hills and steep angles dominate the area. As a result I regularly tripped and sometimes almost fell since not everything was perfectly straight and I was walking not anticipating sudden dents in the ground or pavement stones sticking up a little bit.

All in all I very much like Istanbul (more and more every time I visit) and I doubt that I have seen all it has to offer. It is always worth a trip because there is still so much to discover.

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