Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Further East

The train to Istanbul was fantastic. Although it was quite small, and it seemed like the there were a lot of shady people waiting for the train, our compartment was nice, and we shared it with a couple from Paris. Whenever I am on a train, I think of the Polar Express, which reminds me of my childhood and Christmas. It makes me want to sip some hot chocolate, but the worst part of the train was that it was too hot, and that probably would not have helped.
I left the station at exactly 20:01, the train stopped for about 1 minute and we had to all scramble on, so the sun was setting soon into our trip. It was fantastic to watch the sun set behind the Bulgarian mountains, and the lull of the train, which I love, soon put us into a deep sleep.
At 2 o’clock, I woke up to a sharp rapping on my door. It was the passport control, which I expected, so I gave the lady my passport. After about a half an hour she gave me my passport back and we passed the Bulgarian border. However, passport control was not over. After another half an hour train ride, we arrived at the Turkey border. Everyone had to leave the train, and we had to get in lines to get visas depending on what country we were from. For some reason, the French and the Germans did not have to pay for a visa, but I had to pay 15 Euros for a visa, and my Belgian friend had to pay 10. The numbers seemed sporadic, but I think they charged the most to those who could pay the most. I found out later that the Canadians had to pay 40 Euros. So I guess I shouldn’t complain. The process seemed really disorganized, and we didn’t leave the border until 5 AM. That’s right, border control took 3 hours. I went back to sleep afterward, and when I woke up, the scenery had changed.
Although it wasn’t completely different, Turkey looked dryer and flatter. At first, the country was not exciting, but as we got closer and closer to the city, the landscape became quite interesting. There were a lot of suburban developments, but they were colorful and gorgeous. It took quite some time to get into the center of Istanbul, but I was shocked by how beautiful the city was. I never knew how big Istanbul was, but I’ve heard that it is quite wide and the population is gigantic. It was quite a trek to go from the train station to the hostel, but the sights were fantastic. Our hostel is really near to both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, and our street is full of other hostels. It is like a smaller international world, and it is quite fascinating.
My hostel is a good price, about 13 dollars a night, and I have some interesting roommates. There is an Australian, a Korean, a Romanian, and some Canadians. The hostel isn’t the cleanest, but it is a nice place to sleep. If it wasn’t for the heat, it would be quite comfortable, but the heat is getting quite oppressive.
After Marjan and I settled in, we went for a quick lunch. The food is similar to Bulgarian, but I’m sure there are differences that I will notice later. I had a delicious salad, the best I’ve had in Europe, for only about 3 US Dollars. After lunch we headed to our first national monument: the Hagia Sophia. Although it has been a church and a mosque in its long history, it is now a very beautiful museum. I learned about the history of the site, and then toured the building. It is massive, and I couldn’t get over how it was built in only six years. It creates a beautiful sky-line, especially since it is right across from the Blue Mosque.

Afterwards, Marjan and I walked to the Grand Bazaar, which is the biggest covered market I have ever seen. Everything is gorgeous and brilliant colors, and it was unlike anything I have seen in my life. I could spend hours buying many souvenirs and presents, but I had no money. If I ever go to Istanbul again as my sole destination, I am sure to buy a lot of textiles, clothing, and jewelry.
The behavior of the shop-keepers also surprised me. I had expected them to be rude, and not like the number of foreigners. However, they were all very helpful, and didn’t mind that I was just looking or that I wasn’t interested in their goods. They just wanted to show us their wares, and didn’t push them on us. It was refreshing, and a pleasant surprise. In fact, the entire city surprised me. It is a lot more Western than I thought it would be, and it feels like it would be a more appropriate member of the European Union than Bulgaria or Romania. The city is quite cosmopolitan, clean and it feels very safe. The architecture is beautiful, and it is great to hear the call to prayers throughout the day. Even though it is a predominately Muslim state, they respect the way I dress and I feel like I am safe as a Christian. It seems like it would be a great place to study abroad.
The one thing that bothers me, however, is the way they treat my travel friend Marjan. She was dressed as a typical European, and every man would check her out. Often, they would also have a lewd comment, and it was quite annoying. Sometimes, I pretended I was her boyfriend to try to make it stop, but that didn’t seem to help either. I think the difference in culture comes from the fact that hardly any women are out on the streets. Mostly men are working at the shops, and the few Turkish women we see tend to be wearing hjabs, and when men see women that are less covered, they get excited. Buy covering up Turkish women, it is almost a self-fulfilled prophecy; women that aren’t covered up bring out the worst in men.
Regardless of its faults, the city is fascinating, enormous, and I won’t be able to see everything that I want to in three short days; that being said, I should probably get off my computer.

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