Sunday, September 30

Turkey-Iran, Day Six: Sailing, Driving, Flying

Although we were scheduled to disembark the boat at around noon, we docked much earlier. This wasn't necessarily a bad idea, as it allowed us to head for Kas in good time, stopping at a few beaches on the road there.

After checking and settling in at our hotel, half of the group set off for a spot of paragliding. It was my first time doing it and although there was no doubt how exhilarating it was, it was quite a pricey 20 minutes or so. It's one to file under "splurge" I suppose and I don't regret trying it out.

After a well deserved seafood lunch, the rest of the day was spent loitering in Kas, having coffees and visiting a hamam (the start of yet another habit on this trip).

Saturday, September 29

Turkey-Iran, Day Five: On The Mediterranean Sea

Although I've been lucky enough to sail more than a few times, I'm still not bored of the whole thing. From on boarding, to getting used to a cramped toilet to the obligatory jumping off into the sea... the whole experience never gets old.

That said our boat, The Blue Pearl, never really left the coast and although staying overnight will be novel I can't help but feel we would have been better served with a full day's trip instead. A few of us crossed to land to chill at a beach resort, but other than that the time was spent just enjoying each other's company, shooting breeze and playing board games.

Friday, September 28

Turkey-Iran, Day Four: And Then There Were Ten

For Friday prayers we headed to Ortakoy. This was a little village-type area long subsumed into Istanbul proper, but which served as a lovely little distraction while waiting for our evening flight out of Istanbul.

Mosque #14: Ortakoy Mosque

Again, the mosque here was familiar but distinct enough to have its own vibe and character. It was very pink and even had a late British Georgian style going on. I didn't understand much of the khutba, but it was a nice place to congregate all the same.

After a rushed lunch we high tailed it to the airport to catch our flight to Dalaman, and then taxi onward to Fethiye. This was the start of the more social leg of the journey as various parties from across country and even the world came to join us in this small corner of Turkey.

Dinner was at a fish market followed by coffees on the sea front, and it was a grand start to the festivities to come.

Thursday, September 27

Turkey-Iran, Day Three: Mopping Up

Since yesterday was so successful, we (since I had company today) decided to have a bit of a lazy start as we headed to Eyup for the alleged tomb of a Companion of the Prophet. We took the scenic route, that is by taking the bus and boat - I'm still surprised by just how cheap public transport is here in Istanbul.

Mosque #8: Eyup Sultan

Although some (if not all) of the mosques yesterday had accompanying tombs and shrines, that of Eyup was by far the most significant so far, and more of a taste of the gnostic flavour of Islam enjoyed in these parts. It was actually the start of yet another theme of the trip.

Taking the cable car up to Pierre Loti was worth it, if only for the stroll back down through the graveyard. Since we were on such a roll with public transport, we then took a bus in the direction of our next stop, the Chora Museum.

Mosque #9: Mihrimah Sultan

On the way we stumbled across the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque. By this point I was familiar enough with Turkish mosques to begin noticing the subtle differences between them all, otherwise lost in the deceptive ubiquity of the typical "block and dome" design they all seem to have. The Mihrimah for instance seems very square and butch - neat and concise even - with the inside being fresh and sterile. Apparently built for a princess, I dare say that it did have a feminine vibe.

If you're a fan of mosaics, the Chora Museum is the one place to go. I'm pretty sure someone who actively researched the pictographs and murals would have been able to spend a few hours in there, but for me it was a matter of seeing the pretty pictures and moving on.

After lunch we walked along the Theodosian Walls, sucking up the significance of what used to be the impenetrable border of Constantinople. We then headed East to explore Fatih.

Mosque #10: Yavuz Sultan

Although usually left out on most Mosque Crawls, the Yavuz Sultan is well worth a quick visit. It's one of the larger places of worship in the city, and in fact features quite heavily in the Istanbul skyline. Its higher than average station allows for some great northerly views too, but the main draw for me was the serenity of the place. It had a peace that the more prominent mosques seem to have lost in their popularity.

We passed through the Jewish Quarter on the way to the riverbank as we headed to the Church of St Stephen of the Bulgars. Again, this was more a place of curiosity than popular interest but I'm glad I got to see the gothic Iron made church. The inside was also well worth the quick visit.

Mosque #11: Fatih Mosque

Fatih was easily one of my most favourite mosques I had seen so far. Perhaps it was its relative isolation from the tourist trail, or maybe its "medium large" size gave it more stature than it had. A friend commented that the locality was relatively practising which meant that Fatih was well frequented and served (more so than even the Blue Mosque). Whatever it was, I was glad we got to offer the afternoon prayer there in congregation to get a real feel of what the place was about - particularly as we were also honored to offer two funeral prayers afterwards.

Mosque #12: Prince Mosque

We ducked into the Prince Mosque on the way to the Grand Bazaar. Another medium mosque this seemed a little less frequented than its central location suggested, and it felt well kept and even neat as a result.

Passing through Beyazit Square, we tried (unsuccessfully) to sneak into Istanbul University. Apparently long gone are the days where places of education had open doors, and our lack of ID meant resulted in denied entry. So instead we visited the Grand Bazaar, which was a bit of a disappointment in comparison to the Spice Bazaar from yesterday.

Mosque #13: Suleymaniye Mosque

Sunset brought us to The Suleymaniye, the second, if not the most, recognisable mosque in Istanbul. In fact it felt like more of a complex than a mosque and I can imagine much more than congregational prayer happening there. It was a great way to end my final day of touring.

And that was it - I has seen all the points of interest that I wanted to visit as a tourist. My feelings of being underwhelmed after my first day weren't totally shaken off, but I did come to realise that Istanbul really is more than a bunch of sights. The company I had today as well as a more "domestic" list of sights and longer city walks made today a lot more enjoyable. That said, I do feel a little liberated now that I can enjoy Istanbul socially rather than just as a tourist.

My dinner for instance was a fabulous steak and burger with a mixture of old and new, local and global friends. In many ways the trip had actually just begun.

Wednesday, September 26

Turkey-Iran, Day Two: Blitzing Istanbul

Coming from Etiler my early start was foiled by traffic on my way to catch the T1 into Sultanahmet, the place with the highest density of sights. This proved to be a blessing in disguise as it led to a change in plan which brought me instead to the Galata Tower. Not only did this mean not having to return to Galata, but the view from the top of the tower enabled me to get a real sense of the physical geography of the area. I now had a mental map (along with that provided by Google) of how the Bosphoros carved its way through the city as well as the relative directions and distances to the next stops on my list.

Since I was already in the area, my next stop was the Mevlevi House to the north of the tower. I'll be honest with you - this was only of interest since it was included in the Istanbul Museum Card I was planning on getting, except I was disappointed to discover that they weren't actually issued at that site (meaning I would have to pay an extra entrance fee). That said, it was a pretty decent visit and a useful introduction to the the more Sufi aspects of Islamic practise in the region. The hall (where the dervishes would whirl) was especially mystical.

Taking the novel Tunel to Kadakoy, I then begun the real walking of the day. Crossing the Galata Bridge the main destination was The Topkapi Palace but I took the opportunity to visit a few smaller sights on the way. The Spice Bazaar was novel enough - between the smells and the aesthetics you could easily have been taken back a few centuries if so desired. The remaining couple of sights were the start of what would pretty much become the theme of not only my time in Istanbul but that of my whole holiday.

Mosque #1: New Mosque
Mosque #2: Rustem Pasha

The New Mosque was under heavy refurbishment (unfortunately another theme for the trip) so I was only able to view it from outside. The Rustem Pasha was novel in that it was situated on top of a series of markets and catacombs - trying to find my way up was a mini magical adventure all on its own as I passed through secret passages and doorways to the stairs that took me up to the prayer hall proper.

After a quick passing by the Sirkeci or Orient Express Station, I had finally reached Topkapi Palace. This proved to be quite the time sink, with a total of 2.5 hours having been spent there. It wasn't the perfect experience either with the Harem (charged separately) being grossly overrated and long lines to see the collection of Prophetic relics acquired during the Ottoman era.

Now armed with my Museum Pass, I headed to the complex of Archaeological Museums. I spent an hour taking in all three of the sub-museums there - the collection of sarcophagi in the main Archaeology Museum was the clear attraction but the Ancient Oriental Artifact and Tiled Kiosk museums were also worth the look, particularly for the Egyptian Hittite peace treaty in the former.

On the way out of the museums I happened across an art exhibition called "Land of Dreams - Troy". This was a quick and unanticipated win and had some genuinely interesting pieces of modern art themed around Troy.

I then backtracked a bit back to the History of Science Museum, a half hour visit of what could have been bordering on Islamic propaganda if it wasn't so nerdy. Although most of the installations were replicas the museum was genuinely educational and provided a decent amount of insight into the advancement of science caused during the various Islamic empires.

Mosque #3: Aya Irene

Cutting back to Topkapi I visited the Aya Irene, situated on the palace grounds. This was until recently closed to visitors, but any excitement I held was quickly put to rest after discovering how derelict the place was. Although it was clearly a place of Christian worship I'm not sure if it was ever a mosque, but I've listed it anyway just in case.

Aside from the Topkapi, the real headlining tourist attraction is of course the Aya Sofia. Since it was closing a bit later on, I decided to hit the Basilica Cistern first, something I had heard about a lot before coming here. Somewhat interesting, if a bit dark, I don't think anyone would really need to spend more than the 20 minutes I did there unless they really had an imagination to feed.

Mosque #4: Aya Sofia

And so I finally arrived at the Aya Sofia, the single place that everyone would rave about after their return from Istanbul. And I have to admit, of all the places I have seen today the Aya Sofia disappointed the least. Magnificent, intimidating and cavernous its presence was clearly due to more than its size.

It was now late in the day, so I quickly blitzed the nearby Mosaic and Turkish and Islamic Arts Museums before they each closed. I wouldn't describe either as unmissable but the latter at least had some interesting things to see. The next item on my list wasn't far - in fact it was just across the Hippodrome.

Mosque #5: The Blue Mosque

Having arrived a fair amount of time before sunset, I took the opportunity to offer my day prayers and then chill out waiting for Maghrib. It was pretty much the only real down time I had today and was much appreciated. Praying in congregation was also an experience in itself, a feeling that was borne out of the history of the place as well as the people and even my own unfamiliarity with the land.

Mosque #6: Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque
Mosque #7: Little Hagia Mosque

After dark I visited two more mosques, both of which were a little off the beaten path. The Little Hagia Sophia in particular was a charming little place of worship, especially on the inside. Near to both of these was the last on my list for today: The Bukoleon Palace, a ruin of sorts which yet demonstrated its previous stature.

As I headed to Taksim for dinner, I managed to make a friend who accompanied me to dinner around the busy and neon district of Istiklal. The square itself was also a quick win, as I recalled all the times it would have been mentioned in the news for the protests it hosted.

As a measure of today's success (or failure perhaps) I came away with around 500 photos during my time out and about. I've been a tourist long enough to know how to optimise and be efficient when doing the sights of a city, and all those lessons paid off in my bid to consume all that Istanbul had to offer in the two days that I had. Of course being alone also helped, in terms of maintaining both focus and walking speed.

Overall it was a great day in terms of achievement but I can't quite shake the feeling of being underwhelmed with Istanbul so far. It could of course have been by approach - it's certainly a town that rewards a more casual approach - but I also sense the feeling that it can easily be oversold by those who might have a bias for Islamic tourism. It's probably a mixture of both, but I'll probably have a better idea of how I feel when I conclude my tour of the city tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 25

Turkey-Iran, Day One: The Trip Eleven Years In The Making

This trip was always going to be slightly more special than others I have taken: less so for the actual destinations themselves but more due the context in which it lives... a context that started 11 years ago.

A friend and I wanted to go away on a bit of an epic adventure. Since we were both relatively well travelled (him more than me), we picked a selection of countries neither of us had had much experience with. The rough outline was to start in Istanbul, drive in a south-westerly direction (possibly cutting into Syria which was peaceful at the time), cross over into Iran and then journey South from there, possibly sailing over the Persian Gulf into Dubai from where we would catch a flight home. The whole thing would have taken 3-4 weeks, and as I said before, would have been epic.

To cut a long story short around 30 days before we were due to leave, my friend announced that he was getting married. In six weeks time. "We can still go on this trip," he explained, "but it would really be helpful if we could postpone it". Of course by "postpone" he meant "cancel", but I was happy for him and took my consolation prize of three weeks in Australia (where he was getting married) instead - a trip that still remains one of my favorites. But still in the intervening 11 years a trip to just Istanbul or even the wider Turkey just didn't feel like it would be worth it - not without the same epic context this previously planned trip had. I found myself avoiding the whole place.

So it is with an equal feeling of destiny and closure that I'm now starting a journey that will take me through Istanbul and wider Turkey and then to Iran with the special bonus of passing through Baku in Azerbaijan. The transits are mainly by plane, and I'll also be travelling with different people during different legs so it's not quite the same, but I'll take it given my age and decreasing interest in travelling altogether.

The Turkey leg is an excuse for a 10+ group of international friends based in the UK and South Africa to hang out, but since I was the only member of the group to have never been Istanbul I decided to fly in a few days earlier than the rest, in order to blitz the city that seems to have so much to offer a tourist. My flight in was via Sabiha Gokcen, the budget of the two airports serving Istanbul. It's further and more difficult to use, as I experiences first had as I exited the terminal to investigate buses, only to realise that there was no ATMs out there and no cards taken for bus fare. Oops. I was canny enough to already have a transit card (given to me by a cousin), but the lone 5tl note I loaded on it still had me 0.50tl short and the bus driver was not in a charitable mood at all.

Luckily a fellow Brit from my flight was generous enough to pay the bus fare for me, something which I took as a sign of things to come. Istanbul already seems to be the kind of place where things just seem to work out.

Wednesday, September 19

Film: Searching Click for more info

I actually really enjoyed 2014's Unfriended. During a time of too much teen-slashing-for-the-sake-of-it it effectively used self placed restrictions collectively called "screenlife" - the telling of a story from the 2.5th (?) person view of a videocap of a computer - to bring a new sense of dread, lack of control and scary times.

So it made sense that I'd be interested in Searching, the latest take on the technique. This time we have a thriller, something that I thought would make its job a bit more difficult. Just how novel can someone's browsing habits be if you no longer have access to a creative use of screen corruption and ghost keypresses?

Well it turns out it can actually be quite novel indeed. Searching was really good and a success, both as a thriller and in terms of storytelling. This is something I'm struggling with because if the same plot was typically presented it wouldn't have been that great (some of it was actually quite cheap). Similarly the screenlife cheated a bit at times too - when you have access to breaking news live streams and every passer by's candid footage you're pretty much able to frame anything you want.

The genius is mainly in the breadth and depth of the world building - something presented as naturally and organic to anyone who has their own computer desktop. For example a shot with an email we're supposed to read will also have plenty of material in the background telling us about the world in which a character is living. This tool is taken to great heights in the movie; I expect future viewings to reveal plenty more moments of head slapping realisation and easter eggs.

Everything put together left such a compelling whole that the problems seen when dissecting it all but disappear. Totally recommended.

Wednesday, September 12

Film: The Predator Click for more info

In many ways The Predator is a complete success. It's violent enough, vulgar enough and even manages to trace its humour back to the '87 classic. For many of us who hold the original in such high esteem the job has been done.

This fanservice seems to have come at a cost though - there are also enough plot holes, continuity errors and leaps of faith requested of the audience to make this, standing alone, a bad film. It's almost as if the budget had run out somewhere in the last third of the movie. It's a shame because it didn't have to be this way, but on the other hand promising in that it shows the magic of the 80's can be recreated 30 years later, and it's not no longer given that the franchises of the past are doomed to fail in this millennial world.

Overall though I enjoyed The Predator and recommend it.