Soon after our wedding, my husband had a two week business trip to Toronto. We had planned I'd go visit my family in Dubai during those two weeks and tickets etc. were all sorted out. It was the evening before our flight to Dubai (his connecting to Toronto) and he comes home with three options for me: "my trip is going to be a month long now, so you have 3 options, either you spend a month in Dubai or you spend 2 weeks in Dubai and 2 weeks in Lahore (where my grandparents and two siblings are) or you could accompany me on the business trip." Without much thinking, the newly wed bride plunged at the offer of being with her husband (and I have to admit somewhere deep down the inherent traveler in me was excited about the new destination). Last minute, the only available flight we found for me was with Turkish airlines so we had to travel the long 14 hour journey separately! (he was already booked on emirates)
The journey had a 7 hour stop over in Istanbul so I decided I would try my best to get a transit visa and get out of the airport. Seven hours of sitting at the airport before and after two long flights would have been a physical and psychological disaster for the adventurer living in me. So I tried and luckily managed to get the transit stamp. Not knowing much about the city and location of the main tourist attractions, I went looking for the tourist helpdesk at the airport. They advised me that I should take a taxi (worth 70 Turkish liras, one way!) and get to the other end of the city which could take an hour. When I asked them what the tube (metro) would take, they said 1.75 Turkish Liras - the decision was simple: I wasn't going to listen to the travel desk anymore. So I got a map of the city from them and went straight in the direction of the subway. The map showed me a picture of the Blue Mosque (built in 1606), one of the most famous tourist attractions of Istanbul . I showed that to the subway staff and asked them what route would take me there.
It was still 6am in the morning when I boarded the tube. I plugged my ipod into my ears and chose a seat next to the window. We quickly came over ground and I could see the suburbs of the city in the dawning light. This was March and still very cold for Turkey so everyone was packed in long coats, gloves, headgears and muflers. Luckily I was dressed for Toronto so I was well equipped for Turkey too.
I managed to change subways correctly and got off at the station closest to the Blue Mosque. On my way, I saw many mosques that looked exactly like the Blue Mosque (that I had seen in pictures) and I wondered if I had already missed it. To add to my confusion, when I stepped out at the correct station, I could see three similar mosques again! It was freezing cold and foggy - I walked along a bit trying to figure out which mosque I should audit first. It was 7am now - streets were still quite deserted. Only one breakfast stall on the pathway was to be seen. I went to him as I was a bit hungry myself and bought myself some traditional turkish cheese filled bread. Nice fellow he was - he noticed I was a tourist and let me pay a discounted rate when I fiddled with my bag looking for more change. Hunger was solved, but it was still too cold, too cold for my apparently very warm clothes. I found a cafe open, perhaps the only cafe open at 7am in the morning - the Pudding Shop. They had wireless internet and I was carrying my travel buddy - my laptop! So I quickly connected, ordered a latte and spent some time checking emails, updating friends and family etc. By 8am, the chill had worn out and the sun was brighter. I decided it was time to do what I had originally come here to do - look for the Blue mosque! I went into one Mosque, saw all around, inside and outer courtyard - it was beautiful. It looked like the blue mosque, but I wasn't sure if it really was. So I went ahead to the next mosque and there I read a very different name to the mosque outside its gate and came out again looking for "the mosque". So I asked someone on my way, which of the three was actually the Blue Mosque, which I later learnt was also called the "Sultanahmet Camii Mosque". He pointed at the one I had entered first, so although I had seen it, I went inside again to give it the due respect and detailed observation, now that I knew it WAS the blue mosque :). Spent some good time, took a few pictures with the help of friendly looking strangers roaming around willing to patiently click while I posed like a typical tourist. I was satisfied, I had done justice to all the hassle of getting the transit visa and risking my way out of the airport. I walked about but since it was early morning, most shops were closed and I decided to return back to the airport in good time.
I got the same opportunity on my way back from Toronto. This time I made it to the ctiy at around 6pm, much more confident and knowing my way around. It was a perfect time to join the evening rush and glow of the tourist areas. I decided to check out the famous 'Grand Bazaar' this time. This a popular shopping area with traditional turkish shops selling handwoven carpets, bags, clothes, wall hangings and what not. The turkish lights are beautiful - multi-coloured and very delicate in glass and wrought iron. I had some interesting exchanges with the shop keepers - some thought I was Iranian and others Egyptian but whoever I was, it was a way to lure me into buying their prized products.
I thoroughly enjoyed my walk all across the bazaar and infact I walked long enough to get to the Blue Mosque again. Istanbul, rightly known as the city of mosques, has a mosque of equal grandeur at literally every ten steps. The most beautiful part of the evening was the call (azaan) for the maghrib prayer. Suddenly all the mosques started the azaan and the city seemed to have risen above the ground in this beautiful synchornised echo. All the pedestrians and shopkeepers started walking towards their closest mosque (quite a choice they had). I also joined the congregational prayers at one of these mosques. The ladies area was upstairs and I happened to be only one out there but I actually enjoyed the combination of privacy in my area and being part of the group of people praying downstairs.
Later I grabbed the traditional Turkish 'Donor kebab' and walked across the colourful bazaar, enjoying the walk in the comfortably cold weather (this time of the day as compared to the chilly early morning on my last transit).
I happened to engage in conversation with a couple of Turks who were curious where I was from. When I told them I was from Pakistan, to my surprise they were extremely warm and pleasant and said "oh brother country, brother country" in sincere joy! Pakistanis today seldom get that kind of a response towards their identity and so I was touched. One of them who I met outside the mosque asked me if I could teach him names of the 5 prayers in Arabic, since he only knew them in Turkish. That was a pleasant sweet exchange of knowledge and he repeated the five in Arabic to make sure he remembered as I told them. Another two Turks I met in the cafe were discussing the recent upheaval in Middle East and were interested in my views on it. I also met an Afghan/Turk shop keeper who had lived sometime in Pakistan and managed to speak a little bit of Urdu. And so a truly Turkish evening it was!