Istanbul Pt. 1: The Arrival

My arrival in Europe was far less momentous than I had hoped. In my head, I imagined getting on the ferry on the Asian side of Istanbul, and watching the shores of Europe approach as I felt the craziness of Asia slide off my shoulders into the Bosporus.

What I got was something a little less than that.

Instead, I awoke alone in the back of the night bus from Sinop to the driver kicking my leg and saying, “Out, out. Istanbul.” When I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and managed to get my updated location on my map, I saw that I was already in Europe.

So much for the grand entrance.

I stumbled out of the bus into the massive Istanbul otogar and found my backpack already on the pavement. Huge elevated roads ran overhead to the main artery of Turkey’s bus system, an elevated platform of bus line offices arranged in a huge hexagon. In the center of the hexagon was an island of restaurants and shops that enclosed the elevators that ran beneath to the Marmaray, part of Istanbul’s subway system.

Staircases in all corners of the otogar led up to the platform. Now that I was in Istanbul and in need of transport to Kadikoy — the neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosporus where my friend I was meeting lived — I had to face the money issue I created for myself in Sinop. My bank transfer wouldn’t be complete for another three days, and I had only the change in my pocket.

However, there was one thing I did have — the cash I squeezed from the Bank of China in Beijing, and from a black market hawker in Kashgar. For the third time since leaving China, I thanked my past self for having the foresight and persistence to get as much USD as possible before embarking.

Now that I’m writing this, I don’t remember why I knew to go to a gold seller to exchange money, but I did. It’d probably be obvious to anyone more well-traveled than me, which at the time, would be most people I had met thus far.

Anyway, I gave a gold seller a 100 bill, and he gave me 500 Turkish Lira. That’s about 80 Lira short, and when I pointed out that fact, he snatched back the Lira he had given me and waved his hands for me to leave. Since the clock was ticking on meeting my friend, I rolled my eyes and took my discount.

That guy earned my only fuck you of Turkey. I hope he feels bad.

But now I had enough money for a legitimate meal for the first time in a couple days, and I went for a huge kebab in the bus terminal before doing anything else.

Continent Crossing

I was having a hard time figuring out exactly what I needed to do to get an IstanbulKart, the all-around pass for Istanbul’s public transit. Everything in the kiosk was in Turkish. Luckily, I had one surefire way to get it figured out; the traveler’s ace-in-the-hole — standing and looking confused until a good Samaritan came to bail me out.

And that’s exactly what happened. With the combined overt confusion of myself and a West African guy who was having the same issue I was, we got a friendly Turkish commuter to show us the way in no more than two minutes.

Armed with my freshly-charged IstanbulKart, I paid my fare and took the long escalator down to the immaculately clean Marmaray line. I had an address in the Kadikoy neighborhood I was aiming for, so all I had to do was squeeze myself and my bigass backpack onto the train and force my way through the crowd off again once I had traveled under the Bosporus to the Asian side of Istanbul.

But I should probably explain why I keep saying, “Asian side” and “European side.” For those of you who don’t know, Istanbul sits on the banks of the Bosporus, straddling the line between Europe and Asia. The Bosporus Strait is one of the natural borders that separates the two continents, and as a result Istanbul has been one of the cultural centers of the world — and an incredibly important strategic location — for as long as it has existed.

Because the Bosporus cuts Istanbul almost perfectly in two, crossing back and forth is a daily reality for anyone living near the center. It’s not a tourist thing. The Bosporus ferry runs on a tight schedule and it’s included in the IstanbulKart, so it’s another avenue of public transit in Istanbul.

As someone who grew up in a city whose public transit was a questionable bus system (COTA wya), the fact that a boat running between Europe and Asia is a regular part of the commute for many an Istanbul-ite blew my mind. I think it’s so cool. I crossed back and forth every day just because I could.

The First Sunset

When I got to my hostel in Kadikoy, I was sufficiently exhausted. It had been a long walk from the train station. It was an even longer road from my last restful day in Georgia. I dropped my backpack and fell into my bed to listen to the gulls squawk outside the window. Not long after, the building across the narrow street began to wash in an orange glow. My legs dragged my reluctant self out of bed and down the several flights of stairs so I could take in the first of several Istanbul sunsets.

And I’m glad I did, because I hadn’t yet internalized how interesting Istanbul was. It has that big city vibe that I love. And no wonder, Istanbul is huge — 15 million!

Self-Conscious in Kadikoy

Kadikoy is a neighborhood on the Asian side, right on the banks of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara (the namesake of the Marmaray, the sub-Bosporus train). It’s a hip and trendy, mostly young neighborhood packed with coffee shops and bars, surprisingly. Throughout the last few months in the Muslim world, I wasn’t used to bars being a regular thing. Even in secular Azerbaijan, most bars were populated by sad-looking Western oil expats. Drinking is generally just not accepted in Muslim culture.

But in a historical melting pot like Istanbul, certain rules get bent. Especially in places like Kadikoy and the adjacent Moda neighborhood, where the progressive young Istanbul-ites flock. But even more surprising to me was how cool people were.

When I met for breakfast with my two friends who lived in Kadikoy, I asked them if it was obvious I wasn’t Turkish. At the time, I was referring to the sheer ethnic diversity of the place. They conceded that maybe I could fit in more in the Black Sea region near the Caucasus (with the other Caucasians), but knew right away I couldn’t be Turkish by my clothes. I asked what they meant and they just laughed and gestured to all of me. I was sitting there in my torn jeans and the nicest shirt I had, a tattered blue Patagonia knockoff I bought in Kathmandu. My shoes were stained and blacked with the dirt and grime of 3,000 miles.

When I looked around me, everyone looked like they could be in a magazine. On the streets walking around, everyone looked much cooler than I’ve ever aspired to be. Turkish people are cool. Of course, there was nothing pretentious or obnoxious or anything external to make me feel self-conscious. There was no pretense to Istanbul in that way. The people are just cool!

To prepare me for a night on the town in Moda, they brought me to a vintage store and I bought one nice shirt, which became my uniform for the rest of my time in the Coolness Capital of the World (in my opinion, anyway).

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