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26 | Ankara to Istanbul Turkey

25 - 29 May (Sat - Wed)


Departed the Black Sea and travelled south toward the capital. Ankara was disappointing, really. Istanbul however, is absolutely vibrating with energy although the tourist touts are exhausting. Nevertheless, Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, and the Grand Bazaar each offer insight into the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires, which established the foundation for the Republic of Turkiye. The Bosporus Straits is so dramatic in its beauty.

Spotty on the Blink

First up, Spotty - my geo-tracking device and travelling companion - which allows me to tell family and friends that I have arrived safely or that I am about to depart or more - has died a simple death.

Battery operated but only on lithium or NIMH batteries - the latter I have never heard of before. Miwa kindly gave me back-up lithium batteries that I installed while travelling the Caspian Sea but their power has been fully consumed. One would think it a simple matter of going to most any store and buying lithium batteries but alas... I purchased new batteries in Ankara and they did not revive Spotty - carbon-zinc is not lithium. So, I began my quest for the very rare lithium battery.

I looked all over Istanbul and most recently Sofia. Who would have thought that a battery found simply everywhere in Australia is not part of the power-landscape in Turkey and Eastern Europe. Alas, again... Perhaps I may not be able to bring Spotty back to life until I arrive in Italy.

Welcome to Ankara

Back to the adventure: I had not planned to stop in Ankara (although I had always wanted to visit Turkey’s capital) when preparing for my EurAsia adventure, and so I did not have adequate information when making Ankara travel decisions. A hotel near the central train station seemed like a good idea, as I did not expect to stay long. I ended up on the wrong-side of the tracks unfortunately, as the neighbourhood on the other side of the station was far more attractive.

Bugday Hotel - my Ankara home - is on a busy street across from a sports stadium with a park several blocks away. My neighbourhood was a commercial thoroughfare with no soul.

Bugday - Yes Bugday - is a curious word when presented in English. Google Translate says it means "wheat" in Turkish. Hotel Wheat - perhaps you must to be a local to understand. It was a pleasant business hotel with beautiful views of the city from the 7th floor rooftop that was enjoyed during breakfast.

Historically, Istanbul has been the seat of government that eventually became Turkey but Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - the father of contemporary Turkey - chose Ankara as the Turkish capital in 1923. Ankara is centrally located within Turkey and appears to have developed through planning rather than organically. It reminded me of Canberra but on a much larger scale.

My first stop was the train station to buy a ticket to Istanbul for the next day. I learned that many people travel during Ramadan, and all the Istanbul seats for the following day were sold. OK so I remain in Ankara for two nights and depart on Monday.

Exploring Ankara

Mostly wandered around Saturday evening to gain a feeling for this national capital. I visited The Republic Museum, the following morning, which was once the national assembly building or congress that includes a presidential office along with offices for other high-level officials. Decisions made in this building almost 100 years ago define Turkey today.

Down the street from my hotel is the Kocatepe Mosque, which is just massive. Had to get a picture but the only way to secure a clear shot was to walk out onto a medium strip at a busy intersection (see picture of mosque with a street). As I was taking my picture a police car stopped, blocking traffic, and a policeman asked where I was from. I thought - Oh' no, here we go again - and when I replied he said they were pleased that an Australian is visiting Turkey, wished me well and drove-off. Well that was a pleasant surprise especially considering the troubled relations that recently developed between the Islamic world and New Zealand/Australia.

It felt good to be back on a train Monday morning after all that I had learned about the Turkish bus system. I travelled only by buses from Tbilisi Georgia to Ankara Turkey. What an experience…

Welcome to Istanbul and Hotel Empress Zoe

My third visit to Istanbul. Miwa and I first visited in 2005, as I was invited to conduct a one-week international negotiation seminar at Sabanchi University - near Istanbul. In planning the current visit, I thought that I need not spend so much time in Istanbul as I had seen the sights before. So wrong - Istanbul is so beautiful and there is so much to see and do. I regret I did not schedule more time for Istanbul.

I had not previously stayed in Sultanahmet, which was the capital during the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Seemed like a good idea. My hotel was named after Empress Zoe who ruled with Emperor Constantine IX in the 11th Century. I actually found a mosaic in Aya Sofya with the Emperor on the left, the Empress on the right and Christ in the middle (see picture). The inscription said they were donating funds to the cathedral.

Aya Sofya is perhaps the most important building in all of Turkey. Built by the Christians as the world's largest cathedral in the 3rd Century and then converted into a Mosque in the 14th Century when the Ottoman's conquered Istanbul. The Turkish Cabinet, led by President Ataturk (see picture), converted Aya Sofya into a museum and it opened to the public in 1935. It is a building for every religion.

But, back to Hotel Zoe. It was one of the most interesting hotels I have stayed in during my EurAsia adventure. The hotel includes five very old but well-maintained buildings that surround a garden. My 4th floor room - up a tight marble circular stairway - had a small outdoor space that allowed me to sit and enjoy views of the Bosporus Straits and look down on what was once a Turkish bath, which is now derelict. I was told that current law only allows the building to be maintained as a bath and so there are no plans to renovate this large stone structure. The derelict baths border on one side of the most pleasant hotel garden where breakfast is served. It was so charming. Landscape planning by a horde-of-angels.

Curiously, I was one of the few males at the hotel, as it seemed to attract middle-aged and older Western woman, primarily, but then how often is a hotel named after an obscure female ruler. October was typical. Yes, October Brown, 50-something woman from Toronto who I met at the breakfast garden one morning. I told her I had never met anyone named October and complimented her parent's creativity. The response was a bit sideways, which forced me to reconsider the complement extender to her parents. I asked how SHE ever came-up with such a name? She did not respond directly to that either and so I am left to wonder how she ended-up with such a clever first name. So many months to choose from, I said, and we agreed that October is a wonderful month.

Exploring Istanbul

Hotel Empress Zoe was less than 10 minutes from Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The Grand Bazaar, and the Bosporus Straits. Other major attractions were only a little further away (see pictures). The guy with a gun who was paying way too much attention to his smartphone was supposed to be looking for trouble at The Grand Bazaar.

It was very hot - for May - during my Istanbul visit so I took to wearing shorts and flip-flops once again. More than one tout said: hey Aussie. I guess I did look Australian - dressed so casually. The touts were like flies and very talented in engaging people. I tried to use humour but that did not push them away so I had to become mean, which made me feel unhappy. Eventually I found an effective strategy to manage my engagement with the 100+ touts that bothered me every single day.

When approached, I would say in perfect English: I'm sorry I don't have very much English - and I would say no more. The contradiction threw them off-balance and they rarely had a come-back. Only one said: so, what language do you speak. I said nothing...

My Aussie uniform did require some adjustments when entering mosques, as knees - both female and male - must be covered. I don't know why. At every mosque entrance they kindly offered something like a skirt to wear. See my picture with my yellow skirt inside the Blue Mosque.

I also wore one of these Islamic skirts when attending Wednesday afternoon prayer service at the massive, but less famous, Nuruosmaniye Camii Mosque - built in 1755.

You may recall that I did not dare enter the Friday Mosque in Turkistan Kazakhstan when invited a month ago, but there were no other foreigners. In Istanbul several other foreigners also attended pray service that day. Foreigners were invited to enter through the Woman's Entrance. It was fascinating to see 500+ Islamic men and maybe 20 women engaged in prayer service. I wanted to take a picture, as a souvenir, of that moment but felt it highly disrespectful so I could not.

I did take a souvenir away from the Blue Mosque. There were free copies of the Quran in 20 different languages including English near the exit. I certainly do not need to carry another book on this adventure and I doubt I will ever read it, as I no longer appreciate organised religion in any form. I thought, however, that I should have a copy of this book in my library given its historic and contemporary significance. It now sits at the bottom of my black bag.

I visited the Bosporus Straits at night and wanted to visit during the day and take the public ferry but I ran out of time - there is just too much in this city to see and do. But the thought made me reflect back almost 15 years ago when Miwa and I first visited Istanbul. We spent half a day riding a ferry - made for locals not tourists - to the very last stop. There was a small cafe and we had lunch. My map indicated that the Black Sea was not far away and so I left Miwa and walked a km or more up a hill. And at the top, looking down the other side was THE Black Sea. I was enthralled at the time... I guess that moment inspired the route I took through Turkey this month.

I will happily return to Istanbul - and stay longer. It is a magnificent city.

Turkey to Bulgaria by Train

Halkali, the international train station, is an hour outside of Istanbul, but my train ticket included a bus from Sultanahmet to the station. How nice. My train to Sofia offered a cabin with two bunks a sink and a large table - space I had to myself.

The train conductor got us up - perhaps 50-60 passengers - at 3.00AM and marched us out of the train and into a waiting area. An entire room of dazed people - it was quite a sight - as we waited for Turkish immigration to conduct exit procedures.

Back on the train and across the border into Bulgaria where Immigration officials entered the train and collect passports. Thirty minutes later they distributed our stamped passports and I went back to sleep...zzzzzzz.

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