A Travellerspoint blog

Istanbul Insanity

Exploring the city on two continents

sunny 22 °C

Hello all!

I've spent a very full 4 days exploring Istanbul. What an amazing, diverse city!

My first day here I got in around 6pm, didn't really sleep on the plane much and was kind of out of it. My hostel has a rooftop terrace bar so I had a beer with some Aussies and then went to bed. Unfortunately I only slept a few hours...stupid jet lag!

On Monday I explored some of the sights in the area of my hostel, Sultanahmet. It's a very old part of Istanbul, with cobblestone streets and old bazaars (one bazaar is in the old stables that the Romans used!) My first stop was Topkapi Palace, a huge, ornate palace used by Ottoman Sultans. I didn't have the greatest luck though; within minutes of arriving I was caught in a torrential downpour that lasted for at least an hour. I bought an overpriced umbrella but decided to head out, it was just too wet at the Palace.

My next stop was the Basilica Cistern, an underground hall built by the Roman's in the 6th century. It was very eerie and cool, and a nice escape from the rain! When I came back above ground it had stopped raining, so I headed to the Blue Mosque, Istanbul's most famous mosque. It's absolutely gorgeous inside and out, with beautiful, intricately tiled ceilings. It was so peaceful.

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

After all that sight seeing (and a yummy sesame roll for snack) I headed back to the hostel and crashed for a few hours. I spent the evening on the roof with a bunch of people listening to music and drinking Turkish beer.

Tuesday my plan was to quickly head to the Aya Sofia, the one major sight I couldn't see Monday because it's closed Mondays, but when I got to the square I found it swarming with police and black Mercedes. A nice old Turkish man told me that the President of China was visiting, but they thought he was coming the day after so nothing was ready for him! He then took me to his shop (no one ever gives information here without offering to take you to their shop!) He made me try on a bunch of scarves before I was able to get away. After that I headed with two Aussie girls, Nicola and Josie, to the bazaars! We walked to the Grand bazaar, which is massive. We spent around 3 hours there looking at everything there is to buy (I have to come back to this city just for the shopping) and bargaining with some of the shop keepers. Turkish bargaining is actually very nice; it's customary for the shop keeper to offer you a seat and a cup of tea before you start. I didn't go overboard but bought a few good things. Somehow in all the chaos and people in the bazaar I managed to meet someone who is from Ghana! He was so happy to hear that I'm going back and gave me his card. SMALL world!

After lunch we jumped on the tram and headed to the spice bazaar. It's by the Bosphorus and smaller than the grand bazaar but had just as many people in it. Most of the shops sold spices, nuts, dried fruit, many kinds of tea, and tons of Turkish delight. We all bought too much but I'm sure it'll come in handy on the long flights I have ahead of me!

Spices at the Spice Bazaar

Spices at the Spice Bazaar

Wednesday I went with Josie, Nicola, Yan from Australia and Justine from France to the Prince's Islands which are on the Bosphorus (the straight between Europe and Asia that connects the Black Sea to the Aegean.) It was a nice two hour ferry ride with stops on the Asian side of the city and a few other islands. The island was really cool - there are no cars allowed so everyone walks, bikes, or takes a horse-drawn carriage. We opted for the carriage and took it to the bottom of the big hill on the island. After a somewhat strenuous 20 minute climb (I haven't really done much physical activity since getting here so it felt strenuous!) we reached the top, with amazing views of the Bosphorus and Istanbul in the distance, and an orthodox monastery that was 1000 years old (which is pretty recent for Istanbul!) After a picnic lunch at the top of the island, we made our way down and had some ice cream before heading back to Istanbul. Since I was technically in Asia, as of Friday I'll have been on 4 continents in one week!!

Wednesday evening we had quite an adventure. After several underwhelming dinners near our hostel we decided to try a Lonely Planet recommended place for some good Turkish food. We had to take the tram and then jump on the underground funicular train to a cute, bohemian part of the Beyoğlu area of Istanbul. It was such a cool little area, full of really good shops, very posh bars, and young, fashionable Istanbullus. We definitely felt out of place in our backpacker clothes!

We set out to find the restaurant, using the map in the Lonely Planet, and very quickly got very lost. No one knew the street name we were looking for, and only major streets even have names, so we wandered around the alleyways for 45 minutes asking directions and getting different answers every time. We didn't mind though, it was a great way to see the neighbourhood! But then 2 of us went into a shop to ask for directions for the seventh time and somehow we lost Yan! She had wandered a bit further down the road to take pictures and somehow in the crowds she had lost us. We spent 30 minutes trying to find her - we went back up the road to the main square, checked the funicular station, even went further down the road to see if we could find her but no luck. The streets here are so narrow and confusing that it's so easy to get lost. Finally, when we'd given up hope of ever finding our restaurant or Yan, we stumbled upon the restaurant!

It was a tiny, clean Lokanta, where they have a bunch of different dishes prepared and you choose five of them. The chef/owner didn't speak much English so we just guessed and pointed to what looked good, and it ended up being the best meal I've had here, and the best meal I've had in a long time! I had spicy rice cooked with tomatoes, a cold couscous salad with lots of dill, this lovely creamy spinach with what I think was feta topped with yogurt sauce, chickpeas cooked with tomatoes and spices, and a cold black eyed pea salad with dill. All of it was served with lovely bread. It was AMAZING! If you are ever in Istanbul you have to go to this restaurant!

Amazing Turkish dinner

Amazing Turkish dinner

We left the restaurant very full and content and went into a massive shop selling Turkish delight in more flavours than we thought possible. We all got some dessert and fresh squeezed orange juice and then walked the long way to the tram station, past the Galata tower and over the Galata bridge. It was a lovely night, and the best part was that when we got back to the hostel, Yan had also made it back safely!

Today I finally made it to the Aya Sofia, and it was definitely worth the effort. It was built in the 6th century by the Romans and used as an Orthodox Church, and during the Ottoman era it was converted to a mosque. It's absolutely massive, and some of the beautiful Roman paintings on the archways and ceilings are still preserved. It was so beautiful!

I'm spending the rest of the day doing a bit more shopping and just hanging around my hostel at a cafe. Even though I've been here for four days I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what Istanbul has to offer. This is the kind of city I'll have to come back to for even longer (and of course to buy more things!)

I'm excited to get my feet back on African soil tomorrow and start the next part of my adventure!

Full album of Istanbul pictures:

Posted by meggiep 03:38 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Here I go again!

My bag is packed, my hostel is booked, and tomorrow I get on a plane headed to Istanbul. I'm excited to be back on the road and seeing the world. I feel very different from little 22 year old meg who set out for 9 months of worldwide adventuring, but I hope I'll find that same openness and excitement that I felt the first time I put on my backpack and stepped off a plane.

Here's a map of where I'm headed this time around, hope you'll all follow my travels and send me lots of updates from home!

Posted by meggiep 15:28 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

The end (for now!)

Punjab and Delhi, India; London, England

Namaste everyone,

Well, after 8 1/2 months, 24 flights, 15 countries and a crazy amount of kilometers traveled, my massive adventure has come to an end.

The last days we spent in India were amazing. Ash and Kristin were headed to the Punjab, a largely Sikh farming state just north of Delhi, and my plan had been to go to Agra to finally see the Taj, but I decided that since the Taj isn't going anywhere, I'd rather spend my last days in India with great people.

We stayed with an absolutely amazing Sikh family who are friends with Ash's mom. They welcomed us into their house, fed us amazing, food, and even gave us some money when we left - this hospitality is the REAL India! Their two kids, Priya and Prince, were adorable - Prince was very shy, but Priya had such a wonderful spirit - she's only 10 but immediately took over my camera for the day and took tons of pictures of us. She is SO smart, told me that she wants to do EVERY career, and that she doesn't want to get married because in India when you get married you have to take care of the house and you can't have a job! That kid is definitely going places...

We spent our two days there biking around the farmlands. Ash and I got into a VERY minor motorcycle accident (don't worry mum!) but otherwise we had an incredible, relaxing time, chatting with the family, playing with the kids, trying on Punjabi dresses and showing off my sari, and helping the grandmother make roti and paratha. Our bus ride back to Delhi was quite an adventure though - we took a public bus since it was a third of the cost of the deluxe bus, and were all sleeping when we were woken up by the bus swerving almost off the highway. The bus pulled over, a truck pulled in front, and all the men on the bus got off to yell at the driver of the truck. Apparently there had been a minor accident and the people on the bus were blaming the truck driver. Anyway, the bus sped off, only to have the (obviously drunk) truck driver swerve in front of us and chase us down the highway! We pulled over again, the truck driver got out with a giant stick, and a fight ensued...luckily the police arrived quickly and we made it safely to Delhi!

I'm now in London at my friend's house, having been to a western grocery store and taken in the quiet, clean London streets. It's such a surreal feeling to be back in this world. I find I'm already missing the chaos of India!

  • **

The past few weeks I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the last 8 1/2 months and everything I've experienced. I spent over a year planning this trip, figuring out where to go, what to do there, and how to take on a trip of this size. As I planned, I imagined myself having fun in all these places, meeting people, and somehow 'figuring out my life'. Travel for me, before I started this trip, simply involved going to new places and seeing new things.

But of course, this trip has been so much more than just seeing sights and meeting people. I've learned things about myself - that I can handle just about anything, no matter how dirty, uncomfortable, or sad, that I have the greatest, most supportive parents in the world, and exactly what I need to keep myself sane. I've learned that plans always change and that usually the change turns out to be more fun than the original plan. I've learned that even the worst problems seem more manageable after a hot shower and a good meal. I've discovered things about places I never thought I'd visit, like Kashmir; that these places, although steeped in conflict and instability, are at their core so similar to where we live. I've been lucky enough to meet people from far flung corners of the world, people who through their sincerity, hospitality, and genuine kindness have broken down stereotypes that I had. I've met fellow travelers of all ages and all stages in life, people who I would never have connected with had I not ventured out my door.

It's these fellow travelers who have made my trip the amazing experience it's been. Misadventures, and I've had many of them, are so easy to handle when shared with someone else. I always know, even when things are really bad, that eventually I'll have a great time laughing about it with other travelers. I think when you travel, you are the best version of yourself - open to new people, new points of view, new experiences. I hope that I'll be able to keep this openness as I venture back home and back to real life.

I'm now trying to get myself back into that 'real life' mode, a world where you aren't always meeting new people and hearing new viewpoints. I know that I'm a traveler now and always will be. I thought, before I left on this trip, that I'd see the world and then move on with my life, but I know now that I'm a traveler for good.

While in the UK for the next three weeks I'm just going to be visiting friends, so I won't be blogging since it will be pretty boring. It's been an amazing, life-changing adventure and It's been great to share it with people I love. I'm signing off for now, but don't worry, I have a feeling I'll be traveling again very soon :)

Last round of pictures, from Dharamsala, Kashmir, Punjab and Delhi:

Love you all!

Posted by meggiep 10:10 Comments (0)

On top of the world

Dharamsala and Kashmir, India

Hello everyone!

Wow, what an amazing week I've had. I've spent it in two very different areas of the Himalayas - Dharamsala, which is like a little piece of Tibet in India, and Kashmir, which feels more like Pakistan or Afghanistan than India.

Ash and I headed up to Dharamsala last week after our few days in Delhi. We had to take an overnight bus there, and were lead to the bus by a man who had to take us on a long walk and on two different trains just to get there! It took us two hours from when we left with the man to when the bus actually started moving. Ash and I were stuck in the back, on seats that didn't recline, for the very long and very bumpy ride.

We arrived in Dharamsala early in the morning to pouring rain - the first rain I've seen since December 3rd in Nairobi! We headed to the guesthouse where two of Ash's friends were staying - Robin and Kristin, both fellow Canadians. After having a quick breakfast with them we spent most of the day sleeping - we were far too tired and it was far too miserable out to do anything else!

Luckily the next morning was sunny and beautiful. Dharamsala is perched on a mountain side, surrounded by Himalayan peaks. It's the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, so there are burgundy-clad monks and Tibetans everywhere. It felt so different to the rest of India! In the morning we hiked up the mountain side a bit, taking in the fresh air and incredible views of the valley. We came across a little Tibetan school where we hung out with the kids for awhile and Ash played soccer with them. After saying goodbye to Robin, who had to head back to Delhi to get back home, we went to the main Tibetan temple. The Dalai Lama is currently giving a lecture on certain Buddhist mantras, so we sat outside the temple with hundreds of others (mostly Tibetans) listening to his lecture (mostly chanting) and watched as he left the temple and walked to his house. He looks just the same as he does in all the pictures - a beaming, happy man.

It was really interesting being in a place filled with Tibetan refugees- that night there was a candle light vigile because there have recently been several arrests and crackdowns on gatherings in Tibet by the Chinese government. It was sad - China is essentially killing the Tibetan culture, but also hopeful - the Tibetan community in Dharmasala is keeping their culture alive. It was a beautiful, peaceful place to be.

The next day our real adventure started - the journey to Kashmir. We took a long, bumpy bus to Jammu, the winter capital of the Jammu-Kashmir state. The Jammu region is very stable as it's mostly Hindu, but Kashmir has for years been unstable. It's mostly Muslim, very similar to Pakistan in terms of religion and culture. During partition half of the region was given to India, and the other half to Pakistan. Kashmiris speak their own language (Kashmiri) and want their own country, separate from Pakistan and India.

Jammu was pretty boring and we just spent the night before grabbing another 12 hour bus to Srinagar, the summer capital of the region. The bus ride was long but beautiful, winding through the Himalayas. We were stopped a few times at checkpoints and once for about half an hour because the road was blocked due to landslides, but otherwise it was pretty uneventful. We arrived in the dark, and were accosted by touts before the bus even stopped - apparently people at the last rest stop saw us on the bus (we were the only foreigners) and called ahead to their friends in Srinagar so they would know we were coming. We had made friends with a lovely woman on the bus and she told us to go with one of them since he was trustworthy. We walked through the dark, past many soldiers with massive guns and lots of barbed wire, to a cute little houseboat owned by a lovely Muslim family. Mohammed, a sweet old man who was insistent on making us very comfortable, his wife Ranu, and their son Yousef were so welcoming and kind. The houseboat normally costs 10 times what we paid, but since it's low season and Kashmir hasn't had many tourists lately, we got an amazing price. Yousef, who is around my age, is one of the happiest people I've ever met and was lovely to hang out with and chat (he also loved to play our music really loud and dance to it!) Ranu cooked us amazing food and Mohammed made us really feel at home. It was cold, but each morning and night he stocked the wood stove in our room and put a fire under the hot water tank so we could have hot showers!

Srinagar is absolutely beautiful. It's a valley, based around Dal Lake, surrounded by snow-capped Himalayas. You really feel like you're right at the top of the world, and you pretty much are - the mountains surrounding the city are among the tallest in the world. We spent our first day being guided around by Rafiq, our jolly rickshaw driver. We saw many many gardens and quite a few mosques. Kristin and I had to wear head scarves at times, and we got lots of stares as some of the only foreign tourists around, but people were very friendly. We met two men from Jammu at a restaurant at lunch, and ended up having dinner with them that night!

It's also a sad city - the buildings are very run down, some damaged from gun fights, others from the earthquake that hit the region in 2005. The poverty here is different than the rest of India - there, there's a feeling of resilience, of the sheer will to survive, but in Kashmir everything feels run down, as if after 60 years of fighting the people are resigned to an unstable life. There is a massive army presence and we saw more guns than I think I've ever seen in my life, and there are piles of barbed wire and check points throughout the city.

The next day we hung out by Dal Lake, the main lake of the city. We took a shikara ride, which is like a small gondola, around the lake, seeing the floating gardens and markets. We watched the sun set on the lake and had dinner with more Kashmiri friends we had made during the day.

Yesterday we got up bright and early and took a share-jeep to Gulmarg, Kashmir's main ski resort. It's a crazy little place - it looks and feels like any ski resort, but is quintessentially Indian - all day we were followed by people wanting to rent us skis, sleds, or get us into their restaurants! We took a gondola up the mountain and had an amazing cup of chai looking down on the ski resort and out to the massive peaks.

This morning, after saying goodbye to Mohammed and his family, we headed to the airport. I've never seen such security! Our rickshaw had to drop us off at the gate, 3 km from the airport entrance. We had our bags scanned and were patted down, and then had to take a bus to the airport entrance. Once again our bags were scanned and we were patted down. After checking our bags we were put through the security process once again (although the ladies patting me down were lovely - one of them pinched my cheek and told me I was beautiful!) My carry-on bag was completely emptied, and then we had to go outside to claim our checked baggage before it would be put on the flight. After having our bags scanned once again, we were finally able to board. I've never felt so safe getting on a plane - there's no way anyone could sneak anything through that security!

Tonight, after getting settled in Delhi, we headed to the Muslim area of the city to check out a Sufi music performance - basically Islamic gospel music. It was crazy just getting there - after a rickshaw ride to the area, we had to walk down a tangle of narrow alleyways packed with people, don our head scarves and remove our shoes. The performance was incredible, and Kristin and I got to meet a wonderful Afghani woman who works in Holland for a Canadian NGO! Very cool.

Tomorrow I was going to head to Agra to check out the Taj Mahal, but instead I've decided to go with Ash and Kristin to Ash's uncle's farm in Punjab. I've decided that the Taj isn't going anywhere, but I want to spend my last days in India with people I love!!

Can't believe it's almost all over...what an amazing 9 months it's been.

Pictures to come once I'm back in Delhi on Saturday
love meg

Posted by meggiep 08:42 Comments (0)

Happy Holi!!

Varanasi, India

Hai Holi everyone!!!

Holi is the Hindu festival of colours, and it's absolutely insane! Getting here, however was another story...

On the train ride here from Calcutta, I was groped TWICE while I was sleeping. I was so traumatized I couldn't sleep the rest of the night...it was pretty awful. And then...I got sick. Really really sick, almost as sick as I was in Laos. Coming into town I had to walk to my hotel from the main road, since Varanasi is just tiny alleyways that aren't big enough for a rickshaw, and the walk seemed like it took forever...I finally got her, and spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in bed, horribly sick. I even had to get a doctor to come, because I wasn't getting better and I was getting really dehydrated...but I got better in time for Holi, which was amazing!!!

I woke up today to find out that the Canadians beat the US in the final hockey game of the Olympics, giving us more gold medals than ANY other country EVER in the winter olympics, so I knew it was going to be a good day! Holi is celebrated by running around in the streets getting pelted with colours - people throw powdered colour, mix the powders with water and shoot them out of water guns, throw water balloons filled with colours from the rooftops, and even drop buckets of coloured water from the roofs! Right at breakfast the fun began - at our rooftop restaurant we were suddenly under attack by a group of kids on a roof near by (kids spend Holi running along the rooftops, throwing colour down on people below, since it's too dangerous for children to be on the streets...) anyway the battle was on and soon we were throwing balloons and squirting them with colour as well!

Soon we decided to go out into the streets, where the real craziness is. Holi is one of the only times that Indians drink (they're generally not big drinkers) and so the streets are filled with drunken men and young kids just waiting to drench you in colour. We went in a large group, with lots of boys, since some Indian men get a bit grabby (something I am all too aware of!) and so it was good to have a big group for protection. We wandered through the little alleways until we got to the ghats, where the attacks began! One man, his hands COVERED in pink dye, grabbed my face and just rubbed the dye all over it, as I screamed! Kids were shooting us with the colour-filled water guns and balloons were thrown from the roof tops; we weren't unarmed though, and we fought back! After about half an hour of this craziness we headed back, to find the rooftop restaurant at our hotel was in full-on Holi mode! We joined in battles with kids on the roofs around us.

I had to spend about half an hour in the shower scrubbing at my face to get the pink off, and my shirt is totally ruined (but in good way!) but it was so fun! All day we've heard Hindi music being blasted from the streets and our rooftop restaurant, and now that the colour-fight part of the celebration is over, the sky has filled with kites flown by kids as they wait for the night time parties!

So glad I was feeling better FINALLY for this huge party!!! It's the first time since Thursday that I've eaten solid foods so I'm very happy.

And of course SO HAPPY CANADA WON!!! GO CANADA!!!!
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pictures of Calcutta and Holi:


Posted by meggiep 01:44 Comments (0)

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