I was apprehensive of getting deported or worse the moment I landed at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. You see, for Indian passport holders who have an existing US, UK, or Schengen visa, Turkey offers a 30-day visa-on-arrival. That’s all the official rules say. Posts from other Indian travellers on Internet forums suggested that they got scrutinised a lot. One personal experience in particular, from author-journalist Sidin Vadukut was that when he tried to get the same visa-on-arrival, the immigration authorities wanted to see hotel bookings for the whole duration of his stay AND scrutinised those thoroughly, making him wait hours before relenting. (In his words, “India’s soft superpower bullshit is not working, bro!”)
I didn’t have a plan as to what itinerary I’d be following and I didn’t want to lock down hostel bookings for the duration. So I did something very shady: I booked a hostel for my first night in Istanbul, took the confirmation they sent me, and edited the HTML file of the booking to say the booking was for the duration of my stay.
Indians don’t even get their visas in the same counter for Western travellers. I walked to the fag-end of the airport, to reach the counter that said “SOUTH AFRICANS, SUB-SAHARAN AFRICANS, INDIANS, PAKISTANIS, AND BANGLADESHIS JOIN THIS QUEUE FOR VISA”. Sure enough, there were downtrodden-looking African men sleeping on benches nearby and two sleepy police officers at a counter. I went to them, they perfunctorily looked at my documents, and handed me a slip of paper to show to the visa officer. I kinda assumed that my destiny was to wait with the African posse until a special visa officer showed up for us, so I slumped down on the floor and started reading Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, all the while grumbling about the cruel unjustness of it all.
I won’t lie. I was shit scared. Mentally, I was kicking myself in the butt for not taking out the hostel’s phone number in the booking confirmation. What if the visa officer called to check? I’d taken a very risky gamble here. Would I be deported? Cavity searched? Jail time? It was 3am at night and I wouldn’t even be able to get help from my embassy until many hours later if it came to this. THAT would be some story, even if fucked up my trip.
Turns out, I needn’t have worried. After a while one of the police officers came over and asked me why I was waiting, because I could just go and show my slip of paper to the visa officer for gora people. Stunned, I did go there, and after mispronouncing the Turkish for “thank you” to three different immigration officers I was on my way out with a visa in less than 10 minutes. I could have saved myself a lot of heartburn in hindsight.
I used to think that getting accosted by taxi drivers the moment you step out of an airport / train station is purely an Indian thing. No, it happens everywhere else too. Just that taxi drivers in India are way more insistent and have no concept of personal space bounds. The moment you step out of a train station, ten of them surround you and pepper you with questions of where you want to go. My dad did this funny thing that he’d look on dead straight pretending they weren’t there and then finally pick the last one remaining. Anyway, so the staring dead ahead trick works even if there’s a single taxi driver lazily calling out to you.
I took the airport bus into downtown Istanbul. It was 5am, and yet, I was surprised to see so many restaurants and cafes open and buzzing with customers! Many places claim it’s a “city that never sleeps” but I think of the places that I have been to so far, only Hong Kong / Macau and perhaps Istanbul can legitimately claim that. After half an hour of customary stumbling around, I found my hostel – a six-floor operation on top of a Domino’s Pizza.
The reception was manned by a hostel staff – Malik, a Nigerian lad who studied medicine in Kiev (Ukraine) and has been stuck in Istanbul as a stateless person for eight months working at the hostel after his family village got bombed in northern Nigeria and many of his personal documents got burned down in his house, and it turned out that the passport he had been fake (he didn’t know that) – and Yassin, Turkish guy from Ankara, just back from parting in Istanbul Beygolu nightclub district, who’s lived for years in Germany and is now going to Cairo to study economics with three of his friends from similar backgrounds. Both were knocking back Efes and chatting, and I joined them while my reservation was sorted out.
See, that’s the thing I love about hostels. You just meet such an eclectic range of people from the oddest set of personal backgrounds! It’s a very charming and intoxicating atmosphere, any hostel you go to, and thanks to its owners / operators each has its own unique signature. You also end up with the most random conversations. For instance, apparently Kiev is full of Indian students studying medicine. Who woulda thought of that! You never hear about these things in, say, the news you know.
I also asked Malik whether kiev (the food) comes from Kiev (the city). As it turns out, no, it comes from Odessa in Turkey.
Later, a Belgian girl came in and Malik remarked that he’d never seen her alone. She replied that she did check in alone and was flying back home today. Then began a painful hitting-on session with Malik trying to get her Facebook details (“Pleeeeeeeeease? Not many single girls check-in here.”) which didn’t result in success because of a fairly innovative excuse as to why her profile name couldn’t be searched on Facebook then-and-there (“Oh, I can’t find the accented characters. Goodnight!”)
This ‘mystery’ of why she hadn’t been seen alone somewhat cleared up when she returned in the afternoon, arms around what I assume is a Turkish version of a hunk. While she chatted with the receptionist about checking out, the guy shifted uncomfortably on his foot and looked around everywhere. Said gentleman was seen exiting the building half an hour later, so perhaps the last fuck of the holiday season didn’t go that well.
To be honest, I still wasn’t feeling any better today. I spent about twelve hours sleeping, woke up at 7pm. Which, in hindsight, was a bad move as naturally the hostel had emptied out by then. I didn’t feel like leaving my bed but I hadn’t felt like eating for more than a day and the hunger was hitting me hard by now. My hostel is located close to Taksim Square in Istanbul’s Beygolu district, where there’s this massive street called Istiklal Caddesi which is the hub of nightlife activity for Istanbul.
…and I completely missed it. Really, it starts right outside my hostel and I walked right on the opposite direction. You know when you take a wrong turn and just keep going on because you have invested so much time into it. Yeah. That happened.
Istanbul has an old funicular tram system that runs for a small stretch from Taksim Square to Karakoy [EDIT: apparently, the tram system is a lot larger than that], which traverses the length of Istiklal Caddesi. Back on track, I found going with the flow is what I should have done in the first place. Istiklal Caddesi is a massive neon-lit street of shops, a surprising number of tattoo parlours, cinemas, bars, clubs, restaurants, cafes – you name it, it has it. And it was absolutely packed with fashionable Istanbullus. Really, it’s hard to describe the mob of humanity that you meet there.
The thing about Turkish people is that they are very indistinguishable from white people. (Not being racist. Asian people stand out – and there weren’t any of those tourists I saw either.) I mean, you’re walking down that street and you think “Ah! So many tourists!” and then you walk closer past the people you think are tourists and they’re talking in Turkish. I wonder where all the real tourists were hiding because for such a supposedly hotspot for tourists, I only saw small bunches of them.
What I wanted to do was to take the tram to Karakoy and then walk from there to Galata Bridge, where I’d been recommended you can find the freshest fish sandwiches – think a Turkish Filet-o-Fish burger – served right off the boat by fishermen. The tram itself is a sight to behold. I don’t know whether this was a special occasion, but when the tram I was supposed to take pulled in, there was a second open-air carriage right behind it with a live band! The passenger carriage was old-school: wooden, tiny seats, cramped…and full of Turkish people signing and dancing along to the band. As the tram slowly made its way down the street, with the driver furiously ringing a bell to get passersby on the street to clear the way for him, people on the street joined in singing and dancing too. That atmosphere cheered me up a bit.
I got off at the last stop for the tram, saw a sign that read “Galata” and assumed it meant the bridge so I started walking in that direction. After a while, I ended up at fortification which turns out to be Galata Tower. There isn’t particularly anything Lonely Planet says about this place so I don’t have much to relay. Unfortunately, for my quest of a fish sandwich, my map also told me that I was way off the mark.
While Galata Tower itself was unspectacular – with the exception that it seemed like a well-fortified, well, tower – but for seem reason it seems to be a favourite place to hang out for Istanbul yuppies. There wasn’t even walking space left with alfresco restaurants all around it, and when those spaces seemed exhausted, there were dozens of youngins sitting down and enjoying beers on a hilly bit surrounding the tower. It looked like Ground Zero for the Istanbul hipster scene, going by the number of checked shirts and skinny jeans I saw.
I didn’t feel like doing much after my fish sandwich prospects had slipped away. I briefly even considered eating at a McDonald’s – which I consider to be rock-bottom in travelling terms. I walked back Istiklal Caddesi, and I think I need to come back here again when I’m in a better mood. There are bookstores, record shops, and art shops that look really inviting and I’d definitely enjoy hanging out here any other day.
What also blows your mind are the variety and skill of street performers there. On the walk back, there was a solo violinist chick, a full jazz band, a lone ten-year-old kid blowing a plastic trumpet, and – this was my favourite simply for being so unique – a guy playing a homemade Theremin! The performance was quite different from playing a normal Theremin because it seemed the equipment was rigged to play in a different way.
You’ve got to hand it to the Turks for making great dessert. I tried out finn sutlac – baked rice pudding – and it reminded me Thai sticky rice pudding, except for this one had a burnt caramelised coating on top.
I headed back to my hostel because I wasn’t feeling up for more pointless trudging around. All I saw were Turks everwhere on the main street. Although Beyoglu is supposed to have nice cafes and bars, I was lost without my copy of Lonely Planet – and I certainly wasn’t going to a club named ‘Crabs’. The hostel’s not that bad – it has a rooftop café/bar that looks out to Galata Bridge – my arch nemesis for the day – and I zoned out there watching Animal Planet. Man has that channel changed since I last watched it years ago. It has a childish new logo, and the show on was ‘Shark Feeding Frenzy’ – which consisted of a sunburnt man, presumably Australian, frying onion rings on a stove on his boat and throwing in bags of tuna blood / stuffed turkeys tied to a rope / lowering a mannequin in a shark cage and then presumably going “Crikey mate!” when a lone shark turned up on each occasion. I can only assume that’s what he said because the channel was muted.
I’m starting to think this hostel might be a dead place to hang out. Yes, the staff are nice and it’s by far the cheapest place on HostelWorld. And to be fair, it’s actually not that bad at all. Just that…it’s a bit out-of-the-way from where the scene is happening. It’s 3am now and I’ve hardly seen anyone leave or go, so all the supposed party-goers I may have missed out on meeting earlier may also possibly be non-existent.
My original plan was to spend another day properly exploring Istanbul, and then take overnight buses in the next two days: from Istanbul to Ankara, and then from Ankara to Goreme. I’ve been looking this up online now and it seems like there are no overnight buses from Ankara to Goreme, so change of plans are in order. I’m leaving early morning today for Ankara, spending the night there, and then catching an early morning bus to Goreme. The upside is that I get to sleep in actual beds, not cramped in a bus seat, but it also throws me slightly off budget as I’d been planning to save up a bit by taking overnight buses.
I want to do a circuit of rest of central and Aegean Turkey, and then arrive back a couple of days before my flight back from Istanbul. Will have to explore this city properly then.