It’s late--around one in the morning--when we pass into Turkey. A couple hours later we stop at a rest area where Turkish teenagers dressed in collared white shirts are running tea to tables and calling to the kitchen. A couple hours later, and we are entering the large bus station in the northwest of town, too late to get a hostel but too early to actually do anything.
We call an Uber, he texts back in Turkish and doesn’t move an inch for 5 minutes. We cancel the Uber and hail a cab, where this driver also only speaks Turkish. We show him a Google map where the “24-hour” Dervish Cafe is situated. He drives and drops us off nearby when we realized we only had Euro. We offer to pay in that currency, which upsets the man greatly. We get yelled at and pay him 10 Euro, then walk down a pedestrian walk to the cafe which is, we now realize, a small stand in a park that is most definitely not open for 24 hours a day. I find a back up cafe across the park, which appears to also be closed, and we wander up and down the street until we finally come to a restaurant with seating upstairs.
We order some egg-like dishes from the menu, and I am irritated at being tired, being yelled at, and being lost before sundown in a strange country. Everything I had heard, in recent years, about Turkey has been negative: Increasingly autocratic regime, that silences journalists and the media, and tries to take human rights from non-ethnic Turks in the country and LGBT people in the nation. In Istanbul, it is hard to get this impression, as much of the city is comprised of immigrants, cosmopolitan young people, and tourists, but the country does feel somewhat conservative, militaristic, and uncomfortable at times. National flags appear in much larger quantities than in any other country I have been in, and camo-clad men with assault rifles can be found in most public parks and bazaars during peak business hours. Granted, the same could be said for Grand Central Station, but the impression I feel in Turkey was much less friendly.
In the restaurant, the food arrives and looks tragic, My egg skillet has a quarter inch of water as the bottom, and the mixed eggs and vegetables look more like what could be found below a kitchen sink after a morning of making omelets than the omelets themselves. My father’s eggs, in what we assumed must have been the local style from various menu pictures thereafter, were half-cooked, leaving a crispy bottom layer with a raw scrambled egg puddle in the middle. They gave us bread, which I happily ate while I picked at my breakfast.
From there, we walked through the cold and windy streets near the Grand Bazaar, an entire district not unlike most Chinatowns but, of course, Turkish. From there we went to the indoor Spice Bazaar, an overwhelming experience of smells and tastes, where one would go to buy Halvah, Turkish Delight, Saffron or practically anything food-related. It was only then that we actually went into the Grand Bazaar, a much larger structure with likely hundreds of vendors selling nearly everything, from antiques to bed sheets to tea. We looped back to our hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, stopping by the Blue Mosque on the way and crashing at our hotel after a small vase-like glass of apple-flavored Turkish tea.
When we awoke, we were ready for dinner, but did not wish to go too far in the cold, so we walked to a restaurant with live music across the street from our hotel. We ordered a salad, a mixed grill and, by accident, a ton of dumplings that we couldn’t finish. We walked around the neighborhood more that night, getting lost to fill the time, and inquired at a travel agency about flights to Moldova, hoping we could extend our trip by two countries. Unfortunately, we did not buy the tickets fast enough and the tickets were sold.
The following morning, we ate at the hotel’s buffet and continued our sightseeing by purchasing tickets to the Hagia Sofia. While the arabesques and architecture of the basilica-turned-mosque were not unlike any of those we had already seen, the history of this more than millenium-old building that represented so many different religious populations (Byzantine Christian, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Islam) and still survived is incredible.
Next, we decided to go to the Asian side of Istanbul because, of course, 10 countries is not enough, and it was integral that we also added a bonus continent as well. We struggled to find the proper bus or ferry to take us across, so we got an Uber to Kadikoy, Istanbul’s Brooklyn. After seeing the minimal tourist spots in this part of the town, but taking in the surprisingly affordability (5 lira, or under a dollar for a chicken sandwich!) of Kadikoy, we sat down at a cafe for a couple desserts and a tea. There, we booked our hostel for the night, which was only a five minute walk from the tea shop and was a reasonable $15 per bed. The Hush Lounge, as opposed to the downtown Hush Moda, had a cool hippie-feel with a very friendly group of semi-residents (as is the case in many hostels) who were living there in exchange for working a few days a week. Two of the residents were Iranian expats who were staying at the hostel because they didn’t wish to return home. They saw more opportunity in Istanbul, though one of them, Kate, came off as strongly anti-government. She was eager to have the “Trump Talk” with a couple of real-life Americans, giving her opinion and basking in our affirmations, as I have found is custom when wandering. “I pity him,” “I hate him,” “I think he has some good ideas but doesn’t execute them well.” All are valid enough answers for people who have never set foot in the the United States, and I am happy to nod until the conversation turns to a less vomitous subject. Regardless, the environment is welcoming and we end up doing shots of tequila with the hospitable hostellieres and playing backgammon for much of the evening. For dinner we have pide, a Turkish pizza-like invention.
The next morning, we eat the hostel breakfast of bread, eggs, and fruit, and get on an early train to the bus station. From there, we catch a bus that goes the entire way to Sofia, Bulgaria and begin to relax. The bus comes with a screen featuring games, Turkish TV and film, and an entire library of playlists burned from some Turkish man’s iPod. If you like 2010’s best Turkish pop, and a Top 40 playlist that includes three spoken word Leonard Cohen tracks, plus a file named “FamousBlueRaincoat.mp3” that doesn’t work, then you’ll have more than enough to listen to over the course of your 10-hour drive from Istanbul to Sofia. The border crossing, despite being the only bus, takes awhile and we are on our way.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.