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Sightseeing and Shopping in Istanbul

I had a bit of a sleep-in this morning. Even my three roommates getting up early didn’t disturb me from sleeping until 10:30am. After a shower I had a chat with the hostel staff where to go best for sightseeing, money exchange and shopping. While doing so the leader of my trip from Istanbul to Beijing appeared. His name is Jason and he is supposed to be the leader who works for Dragoman the longest which is six years. The co-driver / mechanic will be Sam, a guy I have met previously in Manaus. At this time Sam had just finished a trip in South America and since then had some time off.

Since I missed the pre-departure meeting last night Jason gave me a talk on what to expect the following weeks. I actually missed the pre-departure meeting on purpose since I wanted to have two days back home (instead of one) and I have been to Istanbul before. Jason seems to be a very detail loving guy. When I arrived last night in the hostel I already saw his “Welcome to your Dragoman trip” sheet of paper but in addition to it there was another sheet full of rules on how he expects us to behave on the truck, e.g. daily seat rotation or sleeping bags shouldn’t be part of the main luggage but separate. I found it a bit weird to make all these rules in writing even before you have joint a trip and have met your leader but everybody has his own style.

Talking to Jason over a delicious Turkish apple tea was kind of fun. He’s a very positive, enthusiastic, straight talking person and really seems to care how the people on his trip are feeling to give them the best possible experience. Probably these are all characteristics which make a good tour leader.

When going back to my room to get ready for the city I ran into Emilie who will travel with me over the next months. While I will be leaving the trip in Beijing, she will continue even further to Ulan Bator. Emilie is from Australia and roughly in my age. While I arrived in Istanbul last night, Emilie is already here since four days because she is obtaining some of her visas in Istanbul.

Around lunch time I went for a walk around the city to visit the main sites of Istanbul. The Orient Hostel, where we are staying in, is right in the heart of Istanbul which made it the perfect starting point for a walking tour. My first stop was the Hagia Sophia which used to be a mosque and is nowadays a museum. Especially impressive are the dome, the mosaics and the candelabra lightening the room.

Next I wanted to visit the Blue Mosque but it was prayer time so I wasn’t allowed to go in. Therefore, I decided to visit the Grand Bazaar and return at a later point in time. On the way to the bazaar I met a Turkish guy owning an antique shop. He didn’t try to sell me anything but was just interested in me and wanted to talk to me. I spend maybe 20-30min chilling-out and talking to him before I continued for the Grand Bazaar.

I actually went to the bazaar not just to have a look around but also to buy a manteaux and a headscarf which all women are required to wear in Iran. A manteaux is a loose-fitting trench coat and there were a number of shops selling them. I just went into one of the shops and asked for an outfit which makes me adjust to the locals and the lady in the shop showed me a number of different manteaux and helped me to try them on. I ended-up buying two of them and then I continued to a shop across the street selling headscarves. Here I didn’t chose the ones with the most beautiful pattern but two simple ones which can easily be put on without the help of needles. Two outfits should do it for a roughly two weeks stay in Iran.

I’m really looking forward to experience how it is to be covered up at all times while being in Iran. I have visited many Muslim countries before (Egypt, Sudan, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Oman, etc.) but in all these countries wearing loose-fitting clothes was fully sufficient. But with Iran it’s different because they make you actually wear a headscarf and you will be refused entry into the country if not doing so. I even needed to submit a picture of me wearing a headscarf when I applied for the Iranian visa.

After I finished shopping I had a look around on the Grand Bazaar which is supposed to be one of the largest covered markets in the world. The market also attracts lots of tourist and therefore the prices aren’t the cheapest when they identify you being a foreigner. And of course you are more or less expected to negotiate which I also did when buying the two manteaux. But what actually was very good here were the exchange rates so if you need to change some money the Grand Bazaar is the place to go to.

On the way back to the Blue Mosque I walked by a number of stalls selling Kebab and fruit juices which is what I had for a late lunch. When trying to get into the Blue Mosque I was required to cover my arms and wear a headscarf. So my new manteaux outfit became handy and I quickly put it on before entering the mosque. In comparison to the Hagia Sophia the Blue Mosque isn’t a museum and still used as a mosque. Therefore, you are requested to dress respectfully and take off your shoes which isn’t the case in the Hagia Sophia. There are also certain areas in the mosque which you aren’t allowed to enter probably because they are used for praying. On the other side you aren’t required to pay an entrance fee. So if you are short on time and budget come here. From the inside the Blue Mosque locks comparable to the Hagia Sophia. The main differences are the blue mosaics which give the mosque its name and the red carpet covering the ground.

After being back at the hostel I spent the evening chilling out in the bar attached to it. Here I met some local guys I had a chat with. Everybody here in Istanbul seems to be very friendly and I really enjoyed my time here even when it was very short. At 11pm people started to celebrate a birthday and I noticed I have forgotten to adjust the time on my watch and it’s actually midnight.

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