Istanbul, Constantinople or Byzantium! The stunning and diverse gate to the Near East.
Another time I sit in the night bus and am woken up because of an upcoming border crossing. At the Bulgarian-Turkish border I leave now thus Europe to Near East, as one used to say. Well, geographically I am still on the European part of Turkey. This time we go to the passport control together with our luggage. The young Turkish border official seems to be very tired, while we are standing there waiting, he takes a drag on his cigarette standing outside, apparently not very eager to do his job. He goes to his counter, wipes his face with both palms to get rid of his tiredness and starts checking our documents and then stamps the visas in our passports. The baggage checkers curiously ask me if I am going camping because of my gear. I nod at them, try to explain that I am a mountaineer and smile at them rather sleepy and tired. We get back on the bus and continue towards the Bosphorus to Istanbul, where Europe and Asia meet, where the Mediterranean Sea is separated from the Black Sea, where exchanges between two great cultures have always taken place and where the eastern center of the Roman Empire, called Constantinople once stood. In short, it is a very important crossroads of history and civilizations and not just a city on a seashore. It is still very early in the morning, circa 06:00, when I get off the bus. I put my big backpack on the floor and try to sort and stow everything to some extent so that I am ready to explore the city and get going. After a while of sorting and repacking, when I shoulder my backpack I notice I'm missing my glacier goggles. "Not again I think to myself", because I have already once left the same model in Slovakia, after I had climbed the Gerlachspitze via the Martin Route Solo. I tell the four Frenchmen who wanted to go to the center of town together with me to leave without me, because I have to find the bus driver so that he unlocks the bus for me. I look around the area and wait near the bus to see if the driver comes back. So I sit there and wait and soon an hour passes when I get the flash of inspiration that the bus driver might be lying in the bus sleeping and I'm waiting in vain for him to come back. So I knock on the door of the bus and I'm pretty sure that the bus driver, totally tired from the long ride, is already slumbering inside. And so it was, I woke up the poor tired driver and he opened the door for me and let me into the bus when I let him know that I had forgotten something. I walk down the narrow aisle to my seat and find my glasses lying on the floor below the seat. They must have fallen off while I was sleeping. I'm glad I found my glacier glasses again and didn't lose them a second time. I walk around a bit haphazardly to find the entrance to the metro "Otogar istasyonu" at the bus station. When I finally find it, I immediately buy an Istanbulcard at the ticket machine and load it with 50 Lira, the equivalent of about 3€, because I will certainly spend a longer time in this city. The subway seems to me in the first moment not really modern and looks after a favorable Turkish engineering achievement, which seems to be pragmatic, purpose-bound nature. I always notice this when the mechanics and technology are not hidden for aesthetic reasons and the handling seems rather crude and functional and not so much user-friendly. Why do I worry about such mundane things? I'm not really sure, it just catches my eye and I think about it, perhaps hoping to gain some insight into the mind and nature of the society and people I'm newly acquainted with. This is also how I pattern the people in the subway. I look the inhabitants of the city in the face, in the eyes, try to assign their phenotype, analyze their posture, their expression and finally also how they give themselves, how they dress and try to make me from it a rhyme, who these people are and what moves them. Of course, this is not possible through a single observation from the outside, yet our mind constantly tries to classify and categorize things that it perceives. At first glance, I think I see Mongolian, Turkmen, and Far Asian features in the faces. In some I see more dominant Arab features, but it is an undefined indeterminate mixture of these two and most likely many more genetic influences over the last centuries. I recognize some facial features of people of Turkish origin living in Germany. Especially the far Asian one with the slightly almond-shaped eyes and light, soft skin catches my eye. After a few stations, I leave the subway and go upstairs to change to the bus. I stand at the bus stop and repeat T32 and T89 in my mind. These are not Terminator models or type designations, but the bus lines I need to take to get closer to my destination, the Wasabi Hostel near Taksim Square. There I am on this huge four to five lane road with traffic pressing slowly but steadily into the center of the city in front of me and what feels like 100 buses with various numbers and letter combinations from E22 to Y89 coming by. "Strange traffic system" I think to myself, but apparently it works better or worse. After a long wait, finally a bus comes with one of the two number combinations that seem almost arbitrary to me. Fortunately, I still fit with my huge backpack into the yellow vehicle with the number T32 and ride together with the many employed citizens of Istanbul, who are on their way to work, into the center. Together with many other vehicles we push our way through the crowded streets with the destination Taksim Square. Then the urban jungle suddenly opens up as we drive toward the bridge that spans this branch of the Bosphorus in a sweeping arc. It is the so-called Golden Horn, which flows into the mighty Bosphorus. Suddenly a view opens up to me into the heart of the city on all sides, like a gigantic rising tribune is the 15.5 million inhabitants city, around the river courses grown, gigantic this accumulation of humans at this history-steeped and strategically important place between Europe and Asia Minor. The former eastern center of the known world called Constantinople and the heart of the Ottoman Empire. I am overwhelmed by the sight. So enormous, so gigantic, unmanageable, grown wildly over time and almost irrationally huge. We humans are truly wondrous, extraordinary and strange beings. What we accomplish, what we create and how we decide to live, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes consciously, is simply fascinating and sometimes almost disturbing. Speechless by this sight, there is nothing left for me but to perceive it, to accept it and to accept it. What exactly I think about it, does not open up to me yet and this sight I will still process in the coming days. But it triggers amazement in me, I can say that with certainty. The bus crosses the bridge and we dive again between the high buildings of the big city. It goes up a winding road until it enters the Taksim Tunnel. I leave the bus in the tunnel and climb the nearest steps and see many homeless people lying in the tunnel and on the stairways while they are still sleeping. I continue to climb up and find myself in a large square at Taksim Meydani and behind me stands beautifully in the morning sun the Taksim Cami Mosque. I shoot a picture of this moment and send morning greetings from Istanbul to the "home". I walk further up the hill and feel the city gradually waking up. This city also seemed to have just had an eventful, exhilarating and eventful night. I continue walking, taking in the bustle of activity around me that morning, and after a kilometer of walking, I come to a small side street on the left side of the main road that descends steeply down the mountain. A little further down I turn right around the corner into another alley and stand in front of the hostel I am looking for.
I stand at 09:00 in the morning in front of the Wabi Sabi Hostel and enter the double door into the modern entrance area of the hostel. I introduce myself at the reception.
One can check me in only at 14 o'clock, because my room or my bed is still occupied. However, I am offered that I can already store my luggage in the "Luggage Room" and then feel free and equipped with the Wifi password in the hostel like at home. The hostel is designed very modern. A combination of white and anthracite forms the design basis. Strong neon color accents in the form of lines, lettering, symbols or room numbers accentuate the spatial environment and furnishings. It is a modern, young style with a lounge-like character that invites everyone to hang out.
The whole hostel is rather compact and cleverly designed. I take the elevator and press the button with the number 6 "Rooftop, Bar, Restaurant". I excitedly go up to see the highlight of the hostel, due to which I selected it in advance online at Hostelworld. The glass elevator door opens and a large wide window front with wide, sunny view over the city and roofs of Istanbul welcomes me to the terrace.
Everywhere hostel guests sit and talk animatedly, while they still sit at breakfast. I hear many, almost accent-free English conversations, which immediately give me an international flair. The atmosphere is extremely relaxed and chill, which is underlined by the lounge music at a moderate volume.
I immediately feel at home and friendly, welcoming looks and gestures of the guests welcome me up here as a newcomer and one of them. I find a seat at a high table in the rear unroofed area of the terrace and sit on a stool while I look over the rooftops of Istanbul and the warm sun beams gently in my face, a light breeze blowing through my dark, curly and somewhat disheveled hair.
I sit there contentedly sipping a traditional Turkish black tea and let the view and atmosphere take effect on me. I grab my cell phone and video chat my esteemed colleagues back home, who are currently sitting in the office at work, because I promised them I would call them from Istanbul next time. I spend the whole day up here slowly decelerating. I have finally arrived and can consolidate something here in this city. Organize things, regulate, repair, prepare, live cheaply and plan through my further travel destinations in a relaxed way. After a while I fall asleep on a sofa on the terrace without noticing. After two and a half hours, I wake up and realize it's already after 4pm. I go down to the front desk, a bit rescheduled, and check in. I'm in room 32 on the third floor in bed number 4. It's a small compact 4-bed room split between two double bunk beds with a narrow corridor between them. I'll be sleeping here mostly and otherwise spending my time in the city and on the hostel's terrace. I stow the contents of my backpack somehow half with system in my locker and then go just outside the door around the corner in a small supermarket to buy me a few care items, such as toothpaste, shower gel, deodorant, etc.. Then I went back to the hostel and jumped immediately under the shower, which I desperately needed.
After I had everything reasonably in order, sorted and regulated, I noticed that I was getting hungry. So I went out the door again and walk curiously through the streets and alleys in search of a typical Turkish dinner. I pass some wonderfully fragrant stores, which immediately draw me in to their entrance and arouse my curiosity.
It smells wonderfully of all kinds of herbs, teas and spices and natural sponges hang from the ceiling. On the right side of this store, glass shelves hold various nuts, dates and other dried fruits of all kinds.
I look further and discover two stores away a patisserie with delicious-looking fruit tarts and many other sweet delicacies in rolled form, as they are apparently common in the Orient.
On both sides of the alley are various stores, such as a beauty salon, a barber, various snack bars and restaurants, fruit stands and quite a few more. I sit down in a restaurant that appeals to me called Kebapci Celal.
It smells and steams wonderfully as I pass it and the owner at the grill behind the counter and his son smile invitingly at me. I order grilled lamb with Turkish rice, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and lovely spices. It is served along with a sautéed pepperoni and tomato, and thin, toasty pita bread. I sit there contentedly and start eating, I keep pausing, looking around and letting the ambience of this narrow little alley in the middle of this huge metropolis take effect on me.
I sharpen my senses and perception and begin to absorb the stimuli of the environment. The scent is a mixture of everything that happens on the street here. Next to it sweet scents from the beauty salon, because the women here all wear these sweet scents. The smell of fruit from the fruit stand diagonally on the other side, as well as from the vegetable store and the seared meat from the grill from the restaurant rise to my nose.
Sometimes, though rarely, you can smell sewage in the streets or packaged garbage that has been put down to be picked up.
The tomatoes and onions served to me are dressed with intense herbs.
The roundish rice in front of me has a delicious and indescribable, almost sweet taste. One hears light oriental music echoing through the streets. The male voice is distinctive, as it appears in traditional Turkish chants. And again and again cars and scooters pass by. The pita bread is deliciously spiced and also has a sweet note, although it seems to be heartily spiced.
One can easily taste the charcoal over which the bread was toasted, but this does not detract from the flavor, only making it all the more exciting.
It is very tasty and an exciting journey for the senses. I am very pleased with my dinner and look at the chef sitting in his store, looking back at me, his eyes asking if I like it. I nod, smile, and non-verbally signal to him that it's good. He lowers his head slightly, places both hands on his chest, and gestures his thanks for my appreciation. I can feel my mouth getting slightly spicy after eating the hot peppers and the well-seasoned salad. Have you ever heard how sautéed peppers, hot peppers, tomatoes or eggplants taste? It's quite a heavenly taste when it's sautéed with the right spices and oil. But it has to be really hot, almost blackened when sautéed. Only when it is almost burnt, very special flavors develop. Istanbul is already very exciting for me on the first day. I already know the oriental, Arab world from my visits to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. But here, at least in the city, it is somewhat different. It seems more civilized and modern. It is cleaner than in the other countries and somehow better organized. not good, but better. Also, the misery does not seem as enormous as I have seen in the other countries. Well satiated, I let the moment continue to work on me and I am overcome by an insanely great feeling from my innermost. I realize at this moment that I am one of about 15.5 million people in this city. Somehow I enjoy my anonymity and this moment. I watch the spectacle and while I sit there, punctually as always, five times a day, the singing of the muezzin begins, calling for prayer and his voice echoes through the alleys. With enthusiasm I sit there and listen to the moment, even if this singing is nothing earth-shatteringly new for me, I feel the described combination in a small side street in Istanbul as extremely exciting. At the same time I feel that my condition is different. I am not a visitor, not a vacationer or only here temporarily and then go back home to my routines and habits. No, it feels as if I am a small part of a large collective, as if I am at home here at this moment on this spot of earth and a part of the whole. It feels as if I am free, detached in the world, another, a citizen of the world, and I belong to the species "human" like everyone else.
Day 15 /15th September 2022
That day I slept almost until 11 o'clock to recharge my batteries. I go after the shower on the roof terrace, the center of activity in this hostel and have breakfast merrily on the terrace in the sun and the light wind.
For breakfast I have tomatoes, cucumbers, eggs, olives, cheese, sausage, homemade apricots and cherry jam, as well as various sweet pastries, rolls with sesame seeds, cereals of all kinds, yogurt, coffee and black tea. I spend almost the entire rest of the day on the terrace and write.
Drink water, lemonade and take my multivitamin tablet dissolved in water and my vegan B12, D3 dietary supplement to me and write diligently on my book. Meanwhile, the hotel staff is cleaning the terrace around me and my hand keeps gliding over the paper.
I see new guests coming and going and see them chilling. In the evening I meet Paul & Ivan from Ireland and have a lively chat with them about Ireland, Germany, Europe and the UK. We go together in the evening to the same restaurant of the previous evening, eat and have a good time together. Afterwards we spend the evening with loud DJ music on the terrace, where I talk with Ezzy from San Francisco, the hostel staff and other guests from all over the world.
Quite reasonably we decide to let the evening end after a beer. I do without the so-called pub crawl and go to bed in time.
Day 16 / 16th September 2022
On the morning of September 16, 2022, I am awakened by the soft sunlight shining through the large window into our bedchamber. Slightly sleepy, but well rested, I carefully climb down the ladder of my bed and try not to wake the other three boys, who are still asleep. They must have had a long night, because they didn't get back from the bar tour until sometime around 4 or 5 in the morning and were still asleep. I sneak out of the room and shuffle, a little tired, to the bathroom across the hall on our floor and jump in the shower. After the shower, I'm awake and fit and reach for the super warm towel I hung on the towel warmer earlier. An insanely great feeling, such a warm towel after a cold shower! I climb the marble stairs to the roof terrace, where I am again greeted by a great panorama and the infinitely beautiful, gentle and peaceful morning sun. Ezzy, Paul and a few other hotel residents are already sitting together at the table having breakfast. I grab a plate with rolls and a cup of wonderfully fragrant black coffee and sit down with them. Ezzy had bought Turkish honey for breakfast shortly before and offered me some. Having never in my life eaten honey straight from the comb, I was extremely curious and gratefully accepted his offer.
I cut the sweet hexagonal honeycombs and carefully spread them on my bun. It tasted very sweet, was extremely sticky and had an intense, floral flavor.
After breakfast, I decided to do a little organizational stuff before I allow myself to jump into the fun and explore the city. As I already mentioned, I have chosen Istanbul as my advanced starting and organizational point for my further travel planning, as I can easily reach my further destinations from here, because after Istanbul I plan to travel through Georgia to the Russian part of the Caucasus to climb the 5672 meter high Elbrus, the highest mountain in Russia and at the same time, as the Caucasus geographically still belongs to Europe, Europe's highest mountain and thus another one of the seven Summits. However, in order to do this in these uncertain times of war, I have to make appropriate preparations to obtain a 30-day visa for Russia. This process is not very easy, because the visa is issued to me by the Russian embassy in Leipzig. For this, I have to send my passport, proof of insurance and many other details by DHL Express and hope that everything works smoothly. In addition, I ask my former landlords to send me my glacier equipment by mail to Istanbul. In short, so that the trip can continue well and without complications afterwards, I still have to take care of some organizational things.
Meanwhile, I occasionally treat myself to a hot cup of freshly brewed Turkish coffee.
I love the taste of Turkish coffee, it is intense in a special way because the coffee is ground into powder beforehand and the water is brewed directly together with the coffee. The coffee grounds stay in the cup while you drink it. That's why you have to decide beforehand whether you want to drink your coffee with or without sugar, so you don't have to stir everything afterwards. While I sit there so well-behaved and take care of my further travel planning and organizational, I see a great slogan in a picture frame on the wall and have to smile slightly.
Pretty apt for my current situation, I think to myself. I don't regret my decision to quit my job and thus reject a career for a moment, because I feel more liberated than I have ever felt in 35 years. I can do exactly what my heart desires at any time, and that's exactly what I'm doing. I don't have to force myself to do something that is not my nature and causes an inner rejection in me. Funny that I mention this very thing while I'm dealing with boring organizational stuff. Well, it doesn't work without organization after all. After I've pretty much taken care of everything, I shut the laptop and stow my "mobile office" in my room. I had noticed in the morning, when I looked in the mirror after the shower, that my beard and my hair have already become a bit long and I therefore look a bit wild. So I decide without further ado to visit the barber around the corner so that he gives me a proper shave and cuts my hair a little shorter so that I no longer look quite so wild.
A visit to an Arab or Turkish barber is always an experience. These people understand their craft through and through. There is nothing like a clean and traditional blade shave. The soap is lathered by hand through a shaving brush and applied evenly to the beard, leaving the stubble and skin quite soft and smooth and the blade glides better along the contours of the face. Concentrated and careful, it tightens the neck on the chin and the face of each skin area with each movement of the blade. Without leaving any residue and without hurting the skin, it skillfully guides the sharp blade over any bumps or wrinkles, if you already have any. In addition, he sharpens all contours at the hairline and finally delivers a perfect result. Finally, he rubs his hands with a stimulatingly scented and high-percentage aftershave and spreads it on the freshly shaved areas of my face to disinfect everything and prevent inflammation. If desired, some barbers in the Orient also remove the nose and / or ear hair with alcohol and fire or correct the eyebrows with a thin thread.
Now that I look more or less like a civilized being again, I take the liberty of exploring the city.
Ezzy and Paul, who almost did not recognize me, intercept me in the lobby and ask me if I would like to have lunch with them. Bird-free and flexible as I am, I tell the two "of course" and we go off together in the direction of Taksim Square.
Ezzy said to us he had read about a very authentic and typical Turkish restaurant or snack, which he would like to visit together with us. Paul and I have no objections, on the contrary, as a traveler you are always happy when you get a good recommendation or idea from other travelers or locals, because the offer is just incredibly large that you sometimes have the feeling of being overwhelmed by the abundance and you do not know exactly what to orient yourself. In addition, the word "good" is really in the eye of the beholder. For example, Roman Abramovich's daughter probably has a very different idea of what "good" is than I do. This small, somewhat run-down, but authentic Turkish restaurant where the locals go to eat is much more to my taste than a chic, upscale, overpriced, touristy and inauthentic five-star restaurant.
Basically, the way it works is that you tell the chef behind the counter what you'd like and he makes you bowls of it accordingly.
We all order something different and each try from the other to get the maximum taste experience. I recommend to the two boys that they absolutely must try the Turkish and Arabic rice, respectively, because in my opinion that's the best rice there is. Ezzy pops a pill beforehand to help with his lactose intolerance and is ready to go. We try everything from potatoes to baked zucchini, sautéed eggplant, various meat dishes in different sauces. Of course, bread and a cup of ayran must not be missing. Of course, at the end there must be a dessert, if one is already in Istanbul. So I persuade the two of them to climb down the stairs of the restaurant with me again to examine the selection. Everyone finds what they are looking for and we have the sweet oriental delicacies and coffee brought to us.
I opt for Kadayif with a pistachio topping. These are sweet, fine threads of dough.
I don't remember exactly what Ezzy had ordered, but it was some kind of souffle. Extremely well satiated, we make our way back to the Wabi Sabi Hostel. We take an alternate route so that we don't walk down the boring main street paved with tourist hotspots and see a bit more of the narrow and steep uphill alleys that are home to Istanbul's local residents. It's much more exciting to see how local people live and what their reality is. To hear from them how they are doing, what are their thoughts and views on various issues and what are their wishes, fears, worries, hardships, hopes and dreams.
After walking for a while, we arrive back at the lobby of the hostel. A cat has made itself comfortable on one of the sofas and sleeps peacefully on the gray cushions, while sometimes hostel guests join it.
The cats in Istanbul are a funny phenomenon in themselves. Almost like a parallel society that lives with the people in this metropolis. They are virtually everywhere and are mostly very friendly provided by the people of Istanbul with enough food and comfortable places to sleep =).
Also this evening, of course, we seek out the center of the action and head to the roof terrace to spend the rest of the evening up there together. Just as we get up there, we witness a wonderful spectacle of our sun. The fiery hot and permanent fusion reactor called sun, which exists for about 4.5 billion years and regularly rises like clockwork since the earth exists day by day in the east on our horizon, yes this life-giving miracle is just about to set and immerses the entire city in an orange golden light and you get the impression as if you pull a comet-like tail behind you, wärhend you quiet and dramatic at the same time behind the horizon in the west sinking. Thereby the hot burning plasma ball, which permanently fuses hydrogen into helium, hands over the city to the long and eventful night of the Orient.
Ezzy and Paul both have to go to bed very early, because their flight back to San Francisco and Ireland leaves very early in the morning and they have to leave for the airport already at 04:00. Their lives, daily routines, jobs and commitments call to them and so they have to end their trip here at this point to continue it another time in another country if their free time account allows it. Of course, we exchange our contacts with each other and say goodbye to each other. No sooner have I said goodbye to them than I get into conversation with three guys who, independently of each other, have all newly arrived at the hostel today. We sit at one of the high tables on the roof terrace and talk while the DJ slowly gets going. One of them is Fassil from India, who has his own business providing software and programming services. The other is Georgio from Colombia. He runs an online platform for local photographers and clients looking for a photographer in their area. The third is Kai from Germany. He is still very young and just finished school, as far as I remember. We get along extremely well right away and have a lively conversation. After a while we find out that we love playing chess, so we don't hesitate for long and start a few games. We nibble our snacks on the side, the guys drink beer, and we have a great evening together.
To my disappointment, I have to realize that I am not nearly as good at chess as I once thought and have to admit defeat to Fassil and Georgio. At 10 pm, one of the hostel employees surprisingly gives a small stand-up comedy performance.
After the show, it's already after 11pm and I head to my room to get a cap of sleep, because tomorrow I want to do a few things, such as send my visa application and passport via DHL Express, write for a few hours and then explore the city and the sights on the European side.