What are the odds for sitting on an international flight by Turkish Airlines with fantastic food of mixed east-west aroma flanked by one Iraqi gentleman and one Iranian lady (who amusingly knew each other’s nationality but never talked)? Well, not big at all, but that did happen to me, so I deem myself very lucky. A pretty delightful closure for my first ever trip to the exquisitely rich Istanbul full of historic charm and grandeur. Istanbul had been high on my list of must-go places in the world. Since it’s hard for me to take time off work in the spring, which is supposedly the best season to visit Turkey, and its climate is mild enough for winter trips, I decided to travel there during the week prior to Christmas. That is, before the European vacationers descend in drones during the Christmas holiday, which usually drives up the prices for hotels, etc. as well.
Fountains Between Mosques
After landing at dusk and clumsily navigating the local ATMs and the metro ticketing machine (with scant English instructions), without mentioning several transfers on the public transit system and yes, incredibly warm and hospitable locals (mostly with gestures though), I stepped off the tram in the well-known Sultanahmet; and…I was seriously surprised by the first thing I saw in front of me – Burger King. More than a bit disappointed, I walked towards the direction of the hotel (given by the all helpful locals at the station). Immediately, I felt engulfed by several indescribably marvelous wonders: the call to prayers, a semi-musical otherworldly chanting emanating from afar; the majestic silhouette of two mosques with their well-lit, resplendent minarets set against the thickening darkness; and, the dazzlingly colorful dancing fountains in the middle of a giant square in between the two mosques. Totally in awe, I stopped walking, trying to take in the grand and exotic atmosphere.
Vowing to return in the daylight, I continued on, zigzagging along several winding streets, before finally finding the petite yet quaint and enchanting family-run Sphendon Hotel. Once again, my stubborn preference for boutique hotels with unique character over big chain hotels, didn’t fail me. The deco, the rooftop deck, the garden view from the breakfast room, the cute gadgets in the tiny bathroom, and even the lamp and small area rug in the bedroom charmed me. An attentive staff, always ready to help and make small talk, served a variety of carefully prepared foods at breakfast.
Interior of Hagia Sophia
Over the next several days, I was nearly overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of what there was to see and do in Istanbul: the impressive, almost ritual dinners of distinctive Turkish style (loved the hanging figs, unique Turkish ambient, and rose tea in the exquisite tea cup) in Old Town’s traditional restaurants; the tasting of Turkish coffee at Sark Kahvesi, that traditional coffeehouse and Istanbul institution filled with signs of heritage, especially from the Ottoman era, inside the Grand Bazaar; the treat of a thoughtful guided tour of Hagia Sophia and subsequently a cup of warm, delicious and much-needed Salep by a knowledgeable and generous local college student; the legendary and utterly splendid Pera Palace Hotel best known for its association with the Orient Express in the 1920s and an iconic reminder of Istanbul’s historically being at the cross-roads between Orient and Occident; the unbelievable chance encounter with a Mandarin-speaking Uyghur who used to live in Xinjiang, China on the street to the Spice Market; interesting conversations at a traditional Turkish bath with three friendly women who now live in Istanbul after migrating from Tajikistan; the day-long Bosphorus cruise that traces Istanbul’s massive grandeur and glorious past; the unforgettably soulful whirling dervish experience; and the ultimate treat of observing up close the sacred ceremony of Islamic prayers of pious Muslims at the Blue Mosque after being granted an exceptional invitation of access (due to my all curious yet sincere questions) while the conventional rule would have completely blocked me from this experience. The list can go on a lot longer.
And of course there are the local people, with their incredible warmth, kindness, and being so sincere, gracious, and down to earth (with little materialistic tinge except perhaps those somewhat annoying market vendors), not arrogant nor diffident. Memories from my trip about this genuinely loving, kind and considerate people abound and will long stay with me. Absolution is perhaps interpreted in various ways by different people in today’s world; yet it’s deeply moving to me, which helps explain the more spiritual side of this lovely people. Rick Stevens certainly wasn’t biased when he noted Turkish people are probably his favorite people on earth.
The juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, East and West, and the co-existence of different historic periods and diverse religions and ethnicities (most vividly manifest in the city’s architecture, including along Istiklal Street in the New District) deeply fascinated me. As the intersections of Asia and Europe, where multiple trends, ideals, cultures as well as goods have always converged in history, probably more than anything else the strategic location of this magnificent and open-minded city have made its people who they are. No wonder Napoleon once said, “If our whole world would be one country, then Istanbul would be its capital!”
Just as I had expected, I didn’t exhaust all the must-see and must-do on my list during this first trip. Yet, I’ve got plenty of lasting memories to savor and treasure. As I was looking out to the sea from the hotel terrace at the crack of dawn on my last day in the city, and as I said thank you to a wheel-chair bound yet extremely thoughtful old Turkish gentleman who, on my way to the airport, tried his best to remind me it’s time to transfer to another subway even though he doesn’t speak English, I felt sad to say goodbye and I knew I will be traveling back to this stunning world city someday, if only to experience the unparalleled warm hospitality, generosity and infectious spirituality of its people.
Photos by Ting Wang