“The traffic here is the worst in the world,” uttered my taxi driver. While getting into his taxi outside the metro station, I was careful to point towards the meter. But the driver smiled back saying “Please pay me whatever you feel is correct.” That eventually meant 50 percent more than the metered fare. While driving through the maze of streets inside Kumkapi, he points outside, “Arabs, you see all Arabs have come here”. On reaching our hotel, we found the Kurdish owner of our hotel, along with all the Kurdish people living in that lane, is noisily rejoicing. For the first time the Kurdish party has gained substantial seats in the parliament, making it potentially influential in the Government.
Despite all these gloom, Istanbul does not appear to have many problems at all. There may be political skirmishes, economic discontent and an internal war lingering with the Kurds and in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. Other than distressed refugees, the city is also now the hotbed and the gateway city for Western backed Islamic militants and intelligence operatives. But, despite the city’s current predicament, even the poorest of the city’s icons like its shoe-shiners are always smiling, while hustling for customers.
Change, however is perceptible in small things. If you visit the famous Blue Mosque, chances are volunteers would invite you to attend a short presentation on Islamic religion, followed by free refreshment as a further inducement. We had an excellent introduction to that great religion in about an hour. In this turbulent time major Islamic country seek moral leadership over Islamic people. But then there are dissenters within, as just the day we left there was a major bomb explosion right on the Sultanahmet Square, a popular tourist place in Istanbul.
Most touristic however is the Grand Bazaar. This ancient Bazaar isseparated in to different specialist sections and has some corners where you really get exquisite products not available anywhere else in the world. But the place is also a tourist trap. Every day, wealthy tourists continue to fall prey to the suave carpet sellers and antique sellers of the Grand Bazaar, where glittering wears and bright lights shine from the window of every shop. Most tourists don’t know that 200 meters away, in the Kumkapi area, you would get the high class ladies garments and top leather goods in attractive prices. Further down, at Yankapi area one would get those Turkish carpets and other beautiful local handicrafts at half the cost.
In the commercial district of Taksim, the pedestrianised Tuenel is similar to shopping precincts in many West European countries. But, here again, that Asian lust for life and colour, make it a different experience, with people and street musicians. Watching the ancient tram, often with a young boy or girl taking a free ride on the back, would warm your heart. On the other hand, the Mid-European cafes and designer boutiques are more reminiscent of Paris than Istanbul. Close to the Tuenel, Galata Tower offers brilliant view of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. From the top, Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the AyaSofya and the Mosque beckon the visitor to Istanbul’s history and its wealth. Then when you walk down up to the shore of the Bosporus, walking down the Golden Horn Bridge we see a dense line of local anglers fishing on the mouth of the Golden Horn., an idyllic picture of the lazy place of life in Istanbul.
The city fits perfectly with Asia’s exoticism; its smells, faces, music and life. And, nowhere it is better exemplified that its Spice Bazaar, located on the vortex of an intersection facing the Golden Horn and near a big mosque. Some of the more glamourous shops sell imported caviar, beef and other goods but most of the stores are packed full of jars of apple tea, saffron, turmeric, aniseed and hundreds of different spices.
Istanbul’s food is usually wholesome, occasionally exotic and always abundant and cheap. In Taksim, Tumel, Istiklal Caddesi, Kapila Karsi and around the Grand Mosque are places where you would get many small cafes and restaurants offering vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. And, myriad food vendors on the street are to be found everywhere.
Any time of the day, most often visible on the road are bread hawkers and their little red street carts, or the fellows selling roasted chestnuts, charred corn cobs, pineapple on a steak and freshly squeezed citrus juice for a couple of liras. You can help yourself to unlimited Salad to add to your Chicken roll at 6 TRY. At Eminueu harbour area, you will get delicious and now famous “Fish Bread” sold from rocking boats with barbeques frying fresh fish as fast as they can. Devour that or one of the locally-adored baked potatoes, while watching many ships and boats criss-crossing the water. Even upscale restaurants offering best decor and gourmet meals like say 360 Istanbul in Taksim offer good value meal at 10-15 Euro, while you are enjoying panoramic views of the Old Town and Marmara coast.
For vegetarians, there are quite a few eggplant and capsicum based vegetarian dishes. Try local butter-milk named Ayran, sold in sealed plastic cups. Anytime of the day one can enjoy a well-earned bowl of slightly sticky Turkish Ice cream from many small kiosks weher occasionally the enthusiastic vendor picks and swirl the entire Ice cream on a stick to show how sticky it is . Istanbul’s Baklavas are world famous and varieties are mind boggling. Borec, kind of patties with fillings of cheese, meats and vegetables, are another very interesting food option – on the go.
And, all taxi drivers are not the same. Last day when we were in a hurry, our taxi driver, not only phoned our hotel to know exact location, but devised the shortest route to reach quickly and charged us exactly by the meter.