My friend tells me the tourist population exceeds in Istanbul the entire human population of New Zealand. I only say “human” because sheep have feelings too, and we all know that if you piss them off that they turn you into a zombie.
The first thing I noticed was the sheer size of the city. The pilot announced there were some thunderstorms near the airport so we would have to circle the city a few times until it was safe to land and, well, fuck me sideways. I was glued to the window thinking “I have to find my hostel in there” as I struggled to see the end of the metropolis.
We landed without electrocution, and I ambled my way to border control. Turkey is one of the places where somebody of my dual nationality has benefits – a Brit needs a temporary visa of sorts, but a Kiwi enters for absolutely nothing. That said, the border control officer asked the guy sitting next to him if New Zealand was a real country. I guess we really have fallen over the waterfall at the end of the world. Maybe I’m being followed by rocks.
My beautiful friend Semra, whom I will meet in Ankara, has given me a big list of suggestions of things to see and do in Istanbul, and also a list of things to put in my mouth. From my short time here, here’s a list of things to do for those who want to experience Istanbul like a culturally oblivious backpacker with an identity crisis;
Jump the barrier – On the metro I smiled at another backpacker who stood opposite me. She smiled back, so I poked out my tongue. She giggled, and then unfortunately I had to get off. At this point, I realised I had fucked up the ticket system as everybody seamlessly passed through a barrier which may as well have been screaming “FOREIGNER ALERT” as it denied me an easy exit. My first experience of Turkish hospitality came as a bearded fellow asked me what was wrong, and I told him I was a dumb tourist and he buzzed me through using his travel card, insisting that I didn’t pay him back, and then lead me to the tram and told me where I would need to get off before wishing me a wonderful evening.
Experience the hospitality – While there are some Turks who will truly try to take advantage of the tourists here to make money, the majority of the people will really go out of their way to help you and to make you feel happy. They can be quite forward which is a little alienating at first, but after a while you realise it’s quite normal to talk to the guy sitting next to you on the ferry, or for people to be giving you tea, or to be offering to take you to the nearest whore house for some top quality prostitutes. Don’t panic, I naturally declined; my collection of dead prostitutes is already large enough and I don’t think a dead body will weigh less than my allocated 8kg of luggage.
Get changed on the steps of the Blue Mosque – for a cold weather human, Istanbul can be pretty warm, but the muslims find it disrespectful if you enter their places of worship in just your shorts. If you want to fully immerse yourself in the culture, make sure you have the correct clothes to enter the mosques and be prepared for some funny looks as you strip back down to your hippie shorts in very public places. By all means, it’s worth it. The interior decoration is so detailed and beautiful and you can people watch for hours.
Turn up to a palace to find out it’s closed for the day – not everything is open every day of the week, and sometimes it’s not so obvious and some attractions might be closed on a Monday or Thursday. This has happened three times to me now, and I really should have learned to look up the opening hours before I show up…
Drag a Russian around half the city – it’s always fun to force people to use their feet when all they want is a relaxing cup of çay. Apparently I partake in “extreme tourism”, whatever that entails (I MUST DO EVERYTHING! TRY AND STOP ME).
Have your breakfast stolen by cats – the cats in Istanbul are not so much strays, they’re almost like pets of the entire city. They’re everywhere, doing cat things, and harmoniously co-existing with the humans. That said, if you’re eating meat for breakfast, they will persistently annoy you until they see the opportunity to run off with your sausage into the nearest alley. Eating has become a stressful activity for me…
Fight with a dog – like the cats, the dogs in Istanbul are very tame and rather wonderful. Most of them love attention, and it’s very important to roll around in the dirt with them and then to high five them when prompted, much to the pleasure of onlooking American tourists.
Play sardines at the top of the Galata tower – the view here is stunning, so much so that it has unsurprisingly become a popular attraction. The space at the top is very diminished however, and you will be struggling to breathe as you watch all the tiny people below you thinking about their next döner.
Put Turkish nuts in your mouth – oh my god, Baklava, I will be having sexual dreams about you for many years to come. Semra recommends Güllüoglu in Karaköy. Tom was riding a unicorn to Pleasure town here.
Put Turkish meat in your mouth – if you like it spicy, there’s adana. If you’re a raging German, there’s döner. If you like balls in your mouth, there’s köfte. The food here is fantastic, and you must learn to become deeply intimate with it.
Flirt with the locals – blowing kisses at pretty ladies standing in the bridge from the ferry as you stand next to your new friends who still amazingly believe you’re not a weirdo is a great way to see the city and also to ensure that they are no longer under false pretences about your lack of sanity.
Narrowly avoid a scam – if somebody drops a brush on the street in front of you, leave it there, and don’t say anything. If you so much as lift a finger, they will be shining your shoes and insistently demanding money before you can say “I think it’s about time we found ourselves a Balik Ekmek”.
Be laughed at by school children – “hello! Hehehe. How are you? Hehehe.” I didn’t know that English was such a hilarious language. Next time I’ll teach them the Haka.
Fall in love – Turkish coffee is alright, it’s better than Greek coffee in my professional raging-hipster-do-you-know-what-the-fuck-a-cortado-even-is opinion, but there are absolutely some beautiful baristas who can channel the essence of 72 virgin angels into texturing your flat white. Coffee induced erections are imminent for those who seek proper caffeine.
Istanbul is a bright and vibrant city, bursting with chaos and life, dripping in culture and history and hiding a plethora of tiny alleyways and restaurants to explore. It’s well worth a short break if you have the chance. I’m now off to watch the sunset.