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23 hours in Istanbul airport

By on Dec 18, 2012 in Travel | 2 comments

There are a few things you need to know if you’re flying Turkish Airlines via Istanbul and have to spend 23 hours there. If you have a transit layover longer than 10 hours due to their schedule, they provide you a free stay at Istanbul airport hotel. The ‘their schedule’ part is the important bit, because it means you’re not entitled to a free hotel if there’s an alternative flight for their connecting leg which has a gap of less than 10 hours for the layover. (I was hoping that someone at their transit desk wouldn’t know the distinction well enough or give me a room anyway, but no luck.) Turkish Airlines also offer a free tour of Istanbul at specific times during the day. This is an excellent way of eking out more out of your layover. You do need to pay for tourist visa though as you’ll have to pass through passport control landside. You could also try paying to get lounge access at Istanbul airport – if you don’t have free access to one already, that is. (HSBC card holders are particularly in luck as any HSBC Premier card gets them lounge access. Any other HSBC card holders can get access for 50 Turkish lira.) Failing everything, you can always sleep like a hobo. *** I often used to buy used or “one-off read” books when travelling. Most hip hostels offer some kind of book exchange; this is where I tend to pick them up. And thus started a ritual – inspired by Paul Carr’s The Upgrade: whenever I’m at an airport or a train station or just at a café when I happen to finish reading these one-off books, I leave them behind with a short review. The rationale is that a book that would otherwise have stagnated on my shelf gets a new life and keeps another traveller company. I like sticking around to see who picks the book up. (Mea culpa, I can be creepy.) It’s fun to note how much time each book takes to be picked because people do judge a book by its cover. Most passengers at an airport are in a hurry anyway and don’t like to pick up books which don’t immediately scream out “this is an easy read!”. What I’ve found works best is to leave it behind at a Starbucks or similarly ‘upmarket’ coffee chain; presumably because people stopping by at a cafe have time to kill. It’s also a question of logistics: if you leave it behind in a restaurant instead, books left behind are sure to be cleared away by waiters. Some books are harder to get picked up than others. The one in the photo above (Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston – a used book that I bought from a friend when I was in Singapore) was a particularly tough one. Interesting books get looked at regardless. Less striking ones…I can only assume passers-by think it’s being used to reserve a table. Sometimes I need to leave a note outside the book too saying that it can be picked up for free. I leave behind my Twitter handle on those reviews too. I hope to hear back from someone who’s picked up my books some day. And I hope they pass it on when they finish too. Now that I own a Kindle, I hardly ever buy paper books. I’ve slowly been giving away my entire book collection: either by gifting it to friends or by leaving it behind in public places like this. *** I missed my first flight ever, this weekend when flying back to Delhi. My flight was at 1050, I woke up at 0920. I felt incredibly helpless and frustrated that this happened because I overslept, due to medication that knocks me out as a side effect. I don’t know why I spent £45 on a taxi to take me from Guildford to Gatwick; there was no way I was going to make the flight. The woman at Turkish Airlines counter was quite helpful when I explained my situation to her. While I looked for alternative flights online, she checked on their system for how much it would cost to rebook on a different date. I’d bought my tickets at an incredibly cheap promotional price of £400 round-trip from London to Delhi, way back in August. And the news was bad: I’d have to spend £530 to pay for the fare difference if I wanted to fly the next day. I almost didn’t take it. I haven’t been back to Delhi for two years because to me it boils down to simple economics: given the choice of spending £600-800 on return tickets to Delhi, or spending the same amount cumulatively going on a holiday elsewhere, I’d rather take the holiday. I’d rather take a new experience over an old one. I’ve discussed this need I feel to constantly somewhere else often with my therapist. At the root of what I’ve been trying to get to is why do I want to avoid going back to Delhi? I spent a sizeable chunk of my life there and despite the ties I have to the place, I don’t find myself drawn back. I don’t know the answer why – and now with a missed flight I found myself with a solid excuse to bail on the trip. I really didn’t want...

Day #4: Hot Air Balloons and Fairy Chimneys

By on Sep 11, 2012 in Travel | 2 comments

First on my agenda today was a hot air balloon ride. I’ll come around to why it’s said that if you ever want to splurge on a hot air balloon ride, Cappadocia is the place to do it. I was in two minds about this. All operators in Lonely Planet listed their prices at 180-250 Euros, certainly not what I wanted to spend. Apparently this is because all the ‘reputable’ balloon tour operators have banded together and reached an agreement to offer only one balloon ride a day for safety reasons, since winds become more unstable as the day wears on. Shadier tour operators do more than one flight a day and can thus offer cheaper prices. To be honest, I wasn’t that concerned about safety. For all that matters, I’d have been perfectly happy with a farmer’s cousin filling up a jute bag with air using a kerosene stove as long as it meant I got a hot air balloon ride out of it. So when my hostel owner – who, by the way, mosies off every winter to Thailand and whom I was exchanging SE Asia backpacking stories with – said he had an underhand deal with one particular balloon operator to offer the flight at 125 Euros, I jumped at it. I knew the prices wouldn’t be any better at any of the other shadier operators, and here I was getting hooked up with one without too much effort. It’s still a lot of money – this item is sure to stand out as one of the biggest expenses of this trip – but You Only Live Once. I was picked up in the morning (more like woken-up-after-sleeping-through-alarm-and-had-to-dress-up-in-three-minutes-to-leave) by my balloon tour operator and taken to their offices for breakfast. The sky was dotted with hot air balloons. They looked like such graceful creatures, slow-moving whales of the sky. There are about fifteen balloon operators in this region and their numbers are evident when you look up at dawn. Must be a good business to get into. We were then taken to our launch site by van. This was the second flight of the day for my balloon operator so we waited for the balloon to empty out, replacing the occupants one-by-one to balance out the weight distribution. In all, there were twenty people in our own party. Hot air balloon take sequences have safety briefings too. Landing is the hardest part, as the basket hits the ground running so to speak, and we were briefed on what our brace position should be as we landed. Take-off is exciting – these four propane burners open up full throttle and spew hot air, and the balloon canvas slowly fills up and goes firm. And then ever so slightly, you drift away from the ground. Our pilot was Rodrigues, a jovial Portuguese who’s bald and thus wears this silly afro wig to keep his head warm when flying. He started flying hot air balloons in November 1992, so he’s been doing this for about 20 years now. His first season in Turkey was in 2006-2007, following which he worked in Tanzania’s Serengeti. He moved back to flying in Turkey after that stint because he enjoys a much better social life in Turkey than out in Africa’s bush plains. He’s done five seasons of ballooning in Turkey, including this one. The flight was kinda middling throughout. Our maximum altitude with respect to launch point was 30 metres and top speed during the flight 12 km/hr. We simply didn’t get the favourable winds that we needed to safely go higher up than that. At one point, out basket brushed against tree tops and there was a noticeable nervous hush in the crowd as the pilot joked it off as the wicker basket’s bottom being wiped clean now. We flew low over a couple of valleys that surround Goreme, Uchisar, and Avanos. Looming power transmission cables signalled a premature end for our flight for safety reasons; the scheduled flying time of one hour was cut short to forty minutes. Landing wasn’t as scary as I imagined it would be as there was a crew on ground to tip the basket right using rope tackles. Fittingly, for the underwhelming flight, we landed in a field of manure. There was a champagne toast – well, technically Turkish sparkling wine – (orange juice for those who don’t drink) afterwards since it’s a custom to do so after hot air balloon flights. Legend has it that the first hot air balloon fliers knew they would probably be met with pitchforks when they landed in some farmer’s field. Indeed they were – but a toast of champagne shared with them had the pitchfork-wielding farmers mollified. They really go a step extra to stroke your ego, giving you a signed flight certificate from the pilot too. So I got taking a hot air balloon ride off my bucket list – but if you’re visiting Cappadocia and want some advice, here’s what I have to say: pay the difference and go for one of the more reputable operators, which only do a single flight earlier in the morning. It was evident just looking at them that they could safely climb to a higher altitude, and thus afford you better views. *** I put Goreme on my itinerary because of this fairly unique kind of rock formation that you...

Day #3: Living In A Cave

By on Sep 10, 2012 in Travel | 0 comments

Parting thoughts from Ankara… Throughout Ankara’s metro system, there are no ads on the display advertising boards. All that you can see are posters with this one eye shown, in the same purple-pink hue. Not sure what’s that supposed to mean. There don’t seem be any trash bins I see on the streets. Instead, there are cleaners or huge trash trucks quietly sweeping away the detritus whether I was walking down streets in the afternoon or at midnight. There was one cleaner wearing a huge bag twice his height and width, solely chucking in empty plastic bottles into it (recycling?). The whole keep-the-city-clean strategy here seems to be “people will throw trash anywhere anywhen, so let’s clean up after them!” In the rush hour morning traffic, I saw many office workers wearing ripped jeans. Boy, they must have a relaxed office wear attitude here or what! Then again, perhaps they all work at Levi’s. Another nugget I heard at the hostel: pharmacies in Ankara have among themselves decided to keep their stores open in turns, so that each locale has at least one pharmacy open any of the 24 hours in a day. Now that is a some sense of civic duty! Did I mention how fashionable people here are?! I mean seriously, they all look so blissful and look like those people who can dress nattily without any effort. I wonder whether there’s a culling strategy in place to off the lame dressers in secluded part of the town. *** My next destination was Cappadocia. I want to talk more about it, but I think that pictures I plan to get tomorrow is what will really do it justice. Getting there involved a five-hour bus journey from Ankara. On the way, we stopped at this one place that was right next to a salt lake on the highway. This salt lake stretched out for as far as the eye could see! I couldn’t help thinking what a good place this might be for speed racing. If you haven’t heard of it, the flat tracks of a salt lake offer the best places for setting land speed records, case in point being salt lakes in Utah where many of the world’s land speed records have been set. I arrived in Goreme (pronounced as go-ray-muh), a sleepy little village town late afternoon. By this time, most of the attractions were closed so there wasn’t much to do for me except relax. My hostel here is a cave hostel: my bed is literally carved into a hunk of rock! This funky hostel doesn’t cost the earth either: I spent $15 for a night in the dorm room, with wi-fi access everywhere and a pool that I spent most of the rest of the day, lounging in a deck chair, reading and swilling back drinks while listening to Two Door Cinema Club’s latest album Beacon. This is the life. Restaurant owners in sleepy towns like this work hard to earn their keep and impress you. You can get good quantities of food for half the price you might pay in Istanbul and they are so eager for your business in the limp season like it is now in September that they act pretty much like your personal butlers. I wouldn’t be surprised if I asked for a painted green puppy along with my order of food and they’d arrange for it. I ate at Comlek Restaurant, right outside my hostel. Nice terrace view. I was intrigued by the display stand outside for testi kebaps. I’d heard of this: it’s a chicken or a beef dish slow-cooked inside a pot, and then broken ceremonially at your table when it’s served to you. Sadly, for the 15 lira price I was paying for my tuvac testi (chicken testi kebap), they weren’t going to break the pot open for me – merely break a foil covering the pot. So much for being a personal butler. On the upside, the food was really good. Slow-cooking inside the pot makes the meat really tender. I washed it down with ayran, a yoghurt drink not unlike an Indian lassi, except its much thicker. For dessert, I had a kunefe – which is shredded wheat pastry stuck together with thick sugar syrup and cheese. The crunchiness of the shredded and fried wheat goes nicely with the thick sugar. I knew I’d blown my calorie count for the day and wouldn’t need to eat dinner that night. Headed back into town late evening after a nap, and it all looked decidedly empty. There was definitely a nip in the air. I’m liking this living-in-a-cave business, given that I have wi-fi and a round-the-clock hot water supply. Sleepy towns like this are excellent for rest and recuperation. And while the people living here must be happy with their lives, I cannot imagine myself ever living in such a place. I was raised as city rat than a country mouse, and I eventually start craving for the frenetic life that only big cities can offer. Perhaps that’s why I really love cities like London, Hong Kong, Singapore because they give me a life much like what I grew up with in...

Day #2: Ankara

By on Sep 9, 2012 in Travel | 2 comments

Most of this post was written before I heard news today that my granddad died yesterday. He was 99. I wish I could say that he’d want me to troop on with the trip. He did, after all, fight in Burma during World War II in the Royal Indian Air Force and whatnot. But I didn’t know him that well, and I wish I did. We’d all known for a while that this was bound to happen sooner or later as he was in bad health. In fact, I don’t even know how it happened. Getting this kind of news when you’re travelling is the worst. I’d wanted to be there for his funeral when it happened, and now I can’t. May he rest in peace. I’m not going to rewrite what I had already written, so there may be a disconnect in tone from this preface to the rest of the entry. What I’ll try to continue doing is to keep writing to keep my mind off things, and try to explore every opportunity on this trip possible because I never know when, if ever, I’ll be back in all these places. *** I got an early start today morning, skipping the free breakfast at my hostel (the horror!). I’d spent some time last night after writing the previous blog entry trying to figure out how to use metro, light rail, and train systems to get to Istanbul’s main otogar – the bus station – without much success. From every way that I looked at it, it seemed impossible. And yet…they simply couldn’t leave a part of town disconnected like that, could they? I arrived just in time at Taksim Square to find a bus intended for Otogar. So began the slow dance of how to pay for buses in strange cities where you and the driver don’t speak the same language: you sloooooooooowly take one coin at a time out of your wallet (do this sloooooooowly), show it to the driver, and rinse-and-repeat until he tells you to stop. I was in luck that Istanbul’s notoriously nasty traffic was light early morning. To imagine Istanbul’s Otogar, think of a huge arena of buildings arranged roughly in a circle with offices for three-to-four dozen bus companies, some signs for which I spied multiple times in this ring. Where do you even begin in this madness! Bauhaus the ethic of this place is definitely not, yet I spied a sign far in the distance proclaiming…the skyline…to be so? Perhaps it’s a museum. I should explore this later. I plunged straight in at the bus company office I was closest to and started asking timings for when their next bus would be leaving. The journey from Istanbul to Ankara takes about seven hours by bus and even leaving at 8am, I was only realistically giving myself half a day there. What I was more concerned about is that the monument I wanted to visit Ankara for in the first place closed at 5pm. I had to get there before that. I passed on a few operators since they all seemed to have buses leaving at 9am or later, but then found one that was leaving in a few minutes. They were nice enough to let me on that even though they weren’t selling tickets any more for it, and I was on my way. Turkey is a large country, and for inter-city travel buses hold the mainstay. The surprising fact – and this is repeated often – is that travelling by bus is actually faster than travelling by train in Turkey, although perhaps that might change in the future as I believe a high-speed rail line is in construction between Istanbul and Ankara. The other thing about bus travel in Turkey is that because the journeys are long, bus companies go out of their way to make it comfortable. Sample this: my bus had two drivers (a main driver, and a standby driver who switched places every few hours), and three other staff on board who were almost like airline stewards. They had snazzy uniforms and came by your seat handing out drinks and cookies every few hours. As the only foreigner on-board, the stewardess kept giving me extra cookies which I would then smuggle onwards to two kids sitting in front of me, subject to the glare of stern looks from their mums. Each seat has its own seatback TV which could access sixteen channels – including a camera feed from the back of the bus bizarrely rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise for some reason – and neatly stowed-away headsets to plug-in to your seatback monitor. I didn’t understand much of the TV channels, which were all in Turkish, but I watched this one Turkish sitcom for a while which had a girl talking to a genie in the mirror in a men’s toilet (there were urinals in the background) who kept pulling out a landline phone receiver out of his pocket and talking into it, while the girl waited smilingly and patiently. It was insane enough that I wanted to continue watching it. Sleep got the better of me, and I reclined back to nap the rest of my journey. Except…for this one bit of excitement. We had stopped for one of our usual go for a piss / a walk stops at one of those typical bus rest...

Day #1: Istanbul

By on Sep 9, 2012 in Travel | 4 comments

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...