August 28th: Arriving in Istanbul...by plane! Turkey
They say the jewel of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, straddles East and West with unparalleled panache... but the brutal motorway, sweeping from the airport to the city centre, undermines any romantic notions we might have aspired to. Hounded by a ceaseless stream of traffic, I'm hardly in the best of moods. Such a leap from Middle Asia to Europe, traversing land that might have taken months on a bicycle, in a matter of hours by plane. I feel as though it's severed the continuity that I'd tried to maintain for so many months on this long journey. But such is life... and the journey goes on!
We're soon settled in an anonymous dorm room, in backpacker-ville of the Old City, Sultanamet. Surveying the scene around us underlines how far we are from Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek's calm, Soviet boulevards have been replaced by winding, cobbled backstreets that brim with cafes, restaurants and well heeled backpackers. Every other traveller seems loud, brash, bronzed and Australian. It's the cultural shock of tourism that strikes me more than anything else. Circling beneath the domes of Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, buses unload Versace Italian tourists into the sculpted gardens. Spotlessly trendy cafes play the summer hits. Turkish carpets tempt behind vast panes of shop windows. I pass a slick, touristy bazar without a second glance. Inverted snobbery? Maybe, but in my scruffy T shirt, I'm clearly not carpet-tout material in any case. Prices, to our Asian accustomed months, seem extortionate.
But as my mind readapted to the realities of such an abrupt arrival, I begin to see Istanbul for what it really is, unclouded by my own insecurities of closing in on home. A fantastically mesmerising city, awash with the hustle and bustle of the 21st century, melded with a rich history spanning hundreds of years. The urban sprawl, the life, past and present, the confusion. Amongst this impersonal turmoil there's a sense of individuality that gels a city together. The Turks seem a hospitable people, and I glean a sense of kindness from everyone, as we stop for directions or sample a kebab, briefly watching these lives unfold. Like a Middle Eastern Hong Kong, this frenzy exists on the sea as much as the streets; the Bosphorus, the strait dividing Europe and Asia, churns with a clutter of boats.
Away from the Old City and its sense of artificiality preserved cobbled alleyways, a more real sense of disrepair pervades. Scruffiness, original crumbling walls, and shifty eyes that watch our movements. And as much as I crave both the freedom of the mountains and the sea, I enjoy the realism of city life. Watching street kids slip around town, businessmen chatter into cellphones, and cafe owners, leaning nonchalantly in doorways, eye the passing girls.
We scour the shops for delights we can't afford to buy, and saunter around Taxim, home to trendy bars and designer shops. Despite our semi-gradual return to the West, I can understand the culture shock that hits travellers on their return home from pilgrimages to India; a sense of sickened curiosity at the blatant consumerism that abounds. That said, it's a state that's easy to slip into, as we chance upon a cool jazz shop where enthusiasts bob to music, never missing a beat. It's been a while since I've set eyes on such a collection, and I take the opportunity to listen to Paco de Lucia rumbas and Miles Davis' soundtrack to the classy French thriller 'Lift to the Scaffold.'
But its the profusion of mosques that create a truly unique dimension to Istanbul. Minarets protectively pierce the sky like giant needles, marking out these squat layers of domes, closer to Allah than anything else around. Looming amongst a tangle of backstreets, there's a timelessness about them. Steeped in history or Dune-like visions of the future? We stop on a bridge to absorb this scene through the dusty, early evening air that preludes a sunset; long shadows and clear faces. Despite the frantic taxis and polluting buses that hurtle by, the cluster of fisherman who peer over its edges lend this space a sense of calm.
Before us, mosque domes and their minarets make shapely contours to the silhouetted, golden skyline. Over the background din of traffic, azans waft from all around, calling the faithful to prayer. These strained, melancholic words add an almost tangible sensation to what we see, a feeling I've only sensed in Muslim countries. They evoke images in my mind; I can picture the opening scene from Alan Parker's harrowing portrayal of life in Turkey's prisons, Midnight Express. I remember the smuggler's face, terrified, a bead of sweat slipping down his brow. The overweight airport guard, lazy eyes, unhurriedly scrutinising the other. A soundtrack that oozes tension, a beat that mimics the nervous acceleration heartbeat, crescendoing to the synthesized stabs of capture.
Then night falls and we're back to our own reality. It's a far cry from Turkish jails, further still from the emptiness of the Kyrgyz plains. Here in Istanbul, we've moved on once more, and tomorrow is another day.