To be honest, I didnt know much about Turkey until I planned a trip and started researching. My knowledge was limited to the text-book essays on Mustafa Kamal and Pak-Turkey friendship, which I thought is matter of the past but I was proved wrong, grossly wrong. (This deserves a lot more detail, so more on this in the next part) The first striking observation when researching for a trip to Turkey was the enormous growth of the tourism industry and noticeably visible professionalism of tourism ministry and tour agents. With this professionalism and intelligent marketing, Turkey attracts to the extent of becoming irresistibly tempting.
There is not one, but many websites which I referred to when planning my trip and can confidently say that the official website of Turkish Tourism i.e. Go Turkey is the most straight forward. When it came to flying into the country, I booked the EasyJet tickets from London Gatwick to Sabiha Gökçen Istanbul Istanbuls Asian-side airport named after worlds first female combat pilot who was one of the eight adopted children of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk.
The Pakistani passport holders with a UK, US or Schengen visa are eligible to get an on-spot visa on arrival in Turkey provided they supply some required documents. My first encounter with a Turk was at the Visa Desk at the airport and this is where I started feeling at home. As I entered the room, the I-AM-THE-DON visa guy threw another desis passport on the table saying, Ok, youre going back on the next flight…. Just dont argue with me, do as I say or I am sending you back on next flight. He was arrogantly denying the Kashmiri guys claim that he is eligible to get a visa-on-arrival paying the regular 10Euro fee but the THE DON wont agree saying, You dont have a UK visa on your passport, what you have is a permanent residence permit. Show me the visa. Who on earth would tell him that when UK visa gives you permission to stay in the UK on probationary basis, its a permanent residence permit which allows you to stay as a citizen indefinitely. Although he was completely ignorant and being a silly idiot lacking common sense but was adamant to exercise his authority rudely. Later, the matter was resolved on payment of 100 Euro as the visa fee. Rings bells? If it doesnt, you need to visit any sarkari daftar.
Not as busy as the Atuturk Airport which is closer to city centre located in European part of Istanbul – Sabiha Gökçen airport is some 50 KM from the SultanAhmet district; the default home to tourists. Traffic in Istanbul is a nightmare in rush hours and thus it took us around an hour and a half to get to our hotel on the private shuttle service. Although Ataturk airport is much better connected through public transport to the city, its not tough even for a first-time visitor to get to city from Sabiha Gökçen avoiding expensive taxis which cost around 45-50 Euro. Transportation in the city is fairly easy, modern, comfortable, well managed and quick. There are trams, underground trains, metro, buses, over ground rail and cabs. The network is managed quite well as to allow locals and tourists alike to get to any part of the city from anywhere fairly easily.Shuttle services (10 Euro pp) and public transport (3-4 Euro pp) is available at airport exit to get to the city. (Click for map)
Istanbuls landscape is marked with Ottoman styled tomb-ed mosques. From the airport to the centre of the city and beyond no matter where you are; you would be able to see one or more of those mosques. The exit from the airport and area around isnt much different from what one can see in Lahore; so is the long road on Asian side leading towards the Ataturk bridge which resembles Lahores Ferozpur road home decor, lighting arrangement, ceramics and all that kind of multi-storeyed shops on both sides of this six lane road with walk-over-head bridges. And then, you start getting glimpses of Bosphorus bridge; beautifully hanging between Europe and Asia for a distance of 1.5 KM. The few minutes one spends travelling on the bridge over the blue Bosphorus waters is an experience in itself you are neither in Asia, nor Europe but can see Asia on the back and Europe on the other side.
SultanAhemt district is home to Istanbuls favourite tourist destinations namely Hagia Sophia, Sultanahemt mosque, Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, Gulhane Park, Divan Yolu (the main street) and Istanbul University. All these are located in an area of only one square mile around the Sultanahmet tram station. This cute tram wandering around the city all time of the day with its amusing ringing bells is the first thing which amused me in the city. The easiest way to explore the town, without getting lost, is to follow the tram way from Eminonu to Istanbul University on foot thats all what you would want to see in this area. A walk on the Dival Yolu is the first thing one should do after arriving in the city as it lets you pass all these places with traditional restaurants, cafes, tea-stalls, carpet shops, ceramic and lighting arrangement shops and handicraft shops on both sides of the road. Sitting on one the benches at Beyaz?t square with all the historic beauties around you with people of all colors and races chattering is a lifetime experience. Sirkeci station where Europes rail network comes to halt is just two stops away an easy 10 minutes walk and gateway to Eminonu and Spice Bazaar. Most tourists on a short stay would not go anywhere outside this area but trust me Istanbul is a lot more. It is unfair to see just one side of Istanbul and make an impression the hustle and bustle of Istaklal street, the crowd at Taksim square, the cruises at Kabatash, the high rises of Istanbuls financial district Levant, the panoramic view of Constantinople from Galata tower, the cruises to Princess’ Islands, the home of Ottomon government palace Be?ikta? and the Asian Istanbul on other side of Bosphorus bridge all adds to the richness of this beautiful city one falls in love with.
Whether you’re in the traditional Dival Yolu, modern Taksim area of anywhere else in the city – you won’t be too far from a mosque, a pub, a (traditional Turkish) tea stall/cafe or a Kestane thayla. It was at Gulhane tram station where I was enjoying my cup of hot Turkish tea when a group of young men dispersed – half of them responded to the azaan-e-Maghrib and entered the mosque while the rest entered the pub on the other side of the road. Sometime later, all of them got together and headed wherever they were going – no questions asked, no eyes raised.
The role of women in society was quite evident; one could see them almost everywhere around – in banks, as shopkeepers, in security, at receptions, as cruise staff, everywhere on the airports, tourism agents etc. In terms of dressing, I could not find a single burqa clad woman but almost as many wear a head-scarf as those who don’t. One could find women dressed in jeans and T-shirts, skirts or abayas whatever you could imagine but this is all well accepted and none stares at someone wearing a skirt, a sleeveless shirt with no head scarf or the one wearing a head-to-toe abaya. Presence of so many pubs and mosques alike with both functional and attracting equal number of people and then the acceptance of all type of dressing points towards the culture of individual freedom people of Istanbul consider so dear.
The city offers you an amazing variety in food. The general impression about Turkish food is being Kebab centric – wrong, completely wrong. When you will find an amazing variety of meat dishes on the menus, many of which are Kebab or BBQ based, but the food is so rich and diverse that you will find plenty of mouth watering and unique dishes. For instances, Aubergine is used as a main part of many dishes just like you will find potato in Pakistan. Aubergine stuffed with cheese, tomato and beef or it being grilled with Kebas or served with Yogurt and bread is all too different. The soups are amazingly good too, specially those lentil based ones. Vegetarians won’t be disappointed as I was tempted to see the very colorful variety of vegetarian food available quite easily around town, which when tried was found to be beyond delicious.
In terms of sweets, Turkish delights offer as much variety as one could find in Indian/Pakistani sweets. So many colours and tastes that one can not even think of trying them all – actually I thought of doing that but failed miserably as I could not even keep a count of various types and flavours.
Istanbul has left unforgettable imprints and they are going to stay forever with me. There can be no words to share the beauty of this city. If I could ever get a chance, this is the city I would like to go and live some part of my life in.
Istanbul is magic.