30 August 2009: Had running nose a few days before the trip and on the verge of getting fever. Not such a good idea in this day and age. However, I was recommended a a lifesaver tablet - Actifed to handle the runny nose, with a pleasant side effect where it knocks you out cold. Took it 30mins before the flight and I was sleeping all the way. Had to wake up in Dubai, thanks to the landing, but was asleep again once we took off.
0805hrs: Arrived at Istanbul IST, early in the morning. As I was able to sleep all the way, even with the time difference, I was all full of energy and can't wait to start the day. I've got a small little backpack in the cargo hold, so waiting at the conveyor belt number 3 for my lone backpack to emerge. Not too much time to take in whatever atmosphere is here at the airport, I'm just thinking about checking into a hotel, get a nice shower and then start wandering around Sultanahmet.
0839hrs: Arranged for a hotel pickup since I'm not in the mood to take a taxi. While waiting for the car to arrive, was able to chat with the caretaker over a cup of tea. This is my first cup of authentic Turkish tea made by a Turk, and it tastes like any ol standard Lipton tea left to brew for a long time so that it is thick.
The trip from the airport to Sultanahmet is quite scenic in itself. I have been going through the satellite maps of the route a few times, and I could tell which road the driver was taking. The view over the Sea of Marmara with what looks like oil tankers from the Balkans are just confirmation that I'm finally here. I don't get to see too many large ULCCs here, perhaps because it has to squeeze through the small-ish Bosphorus straits.
1113hrs: I have been out of the hotel for some time now, and having tea with Cengiz the carpet seller. Quite obvious he is taking his time to gain my trust and sell me a carpet or two. I was not too glad to have to oblige. If I'm short of time, I'd rather spend it moving around the city rather than chat about life, China, and women. While in there, I dreamt up my solution in the future: I will stick in my ipod ear buds so that I can ignore future carpet sellers without offending them. Anyway, if that is the sale tactic, I don't think they would be offended.
Once out of the shop, I have to quickly parse together all the parameters for the day, what to do now and what to put off to another day. The sun is out, the sky is blue, and eventually the plan on day 1 would be to handle Topkapi Palace first and after that Sultanahmet Mosque next. The Aya Sofia can wait for another day, where I plan to spend at least half a day. As it is indoor (i.e. large building) I can do it even when the weather is not that great.
1152hrs: Strolling into Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi). Entrance fee is 20TL. I have no idea how much that is, and it feels cheap as the number is small. But I am aware that the new Turkish Lira is very very close to the US Dollar. Even small bottles of mineral water here feels cheap at 1TL at tourist areas, and 0.5TL in more conventional shops.
First stop at the palace is the Harem. An additional ticket is required. The Courtyard of the Harem Eunuchs is quite interesting. Blue tiles from Iznik are everywhere and Islamic calligraphy surround the courtyard. Apparently this place was renovated in 1665 after a fire.
Didn't know that the main entrance of the Harem started inside the building. It opens into a courtyard, with a modern fire hydrant in the middle. Makes sense that the eunuchs live outside the Harem! Then again, if the eunuchs were castrated, then there is no harm that they hang around the harem! Anyway, the entrance is small, enough for a double door and greeted by two large mirrors.
After a few alleyways, you notice that this harem is lighted not with lamps, even with all the small dark alleyways. There are light shafts in the shape of hexagons topped with glass providing natural lighting. Again, all walls lined with motif tiles, I need to get one of those Iznik tiles for souvenir. They look nice in vibrant blue. The Queen Mother's room has a nice dome covered in motifs, and chandelier hanging down from it. Some dodgy mannequins complete the look. They look like they used to adorn the display of a departmental store.
I've never intended to turn this blog into a page out of a Lonely Planet guide, so I shall refrain from describing every single second, if I can help it. But it is not everyday someone has a mobile phone blogging away while in the midst of visiting a historical place.
1316hrs: Resting after going through half of the Harem. This place is huge and plenty of rooms to go through if you take your time. While at the courtyard of the Sultan's Favourites (wondering favourite what), the noontime prayer is in full swing. Here, part of the Bosphorus and Anatolia is visible, and so are the sounds coming from all the mosques in the city. Good that I have my audio recorder with me, and I'm recording it right now, while checking out the details that are all around me.
1358hrs: At the Topkapi Palace treasury after visiting the Sultan's clothes. There are a couple of museums in the palace ground. Most are worth the entrance ticket itself. The current one is where the display of the royal wardrobe are kept. They are mostly still in very good condition, with the usual intricate patterns and stitching. The other worthwhile museum is the one where the religious relics from Mecca is kept. There are relics of items that I would never have thought existed: Moses' walking stick, Prophet Muhammad's sword, beard, tooth and so on. I've not really listed down everything in there, not when google will tell you. While in there, a live quran reading session was going on. While recording it up, a security guard came over to check what I had with me. Obviously they have never seen a recording device so large with a twin big condenser microphone, but after checking it, I was cleared to record the ambient sound in the museum. I find the style of background music here interesting.
1628hrs: I have spent almost the whole day at the Palace so far. Since the day is still bright, I'll do Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) next. Good that I was there right at the time of a prayer session, and right before that, they had regular public sermon and Quran recital, mainly because of the current Ramadan season. This Mosque looks very impressive. No issue hanging around the inside of the mosque and resting. I like the idea of mosques where anyone can enter and take refuge from the hot weather outside. Ottoman mosque architectures have large main halls with minimal columns, so it is not only cool inside, but also airy. And this is the first time I heard of the architect Mimar Sinan. Little did I know, I'll get to see a lot more of his work in the days and weeks to come.
1715hrs: Ok, last stop for today, the Basillica Cistern. Summary: Septic Tank. Ok, a more accurate summary: underground water tank. A LARGE water tank. Stairs will bring you down underground to the cavern proper. The interior of the cistern is huge, but to keep the cozy atmosphere, they turn off the lights (I'm sure they have large floodlights for the maintenance crews) and have red accent lights on instead along with ambient music in the background. Its damp in here, and you can feel it. This is one of those times where I wish I had a Nikon D3. To shoot the interiors hand held, ISO3200 would be require, at least. Maybe more. The railings are not too stable to shoot a second or so in shutter speed. There are water in there, not too deep it seems, and wooden walking path leading (after a long walk) to a dry area where carved column of 2 Medusa's head can be found. Guide books will mention this for sure, since everyone knows to walk over here. Very nice cistern. I like.
But it is close to closing time when I'm done with this place. Time to look for dinner and recover for the next day.
Continue to Day 2...