Commuting between Asia and London is something that takes up my time every month. Living in a coastal town in Vietnam, connecting flights sometimes work, sometimes they don’t, and I try to avoid tedious overnight flights to allow my body to adjust easily. In order to make the journey a pleasure I mix it up and try different routes and stopovers now and then to spice it up.
On a recent trip I decided to drop down in Istanbul. Leaving London I hop a late afternoon flight arriving in Istanbul in time for dinner and allow myself 30 hours transit before the inevitable early morning departure when Istanbul’s international terminal is heaving.
I’m thinking I’ll arrive, check in to the hotel and get a good night’s sleep, enjoy a relaxing day and then continue my journey. Transit if you stay at the airport is free however if you leave the airport, a pay on entry visa is required. Grabbing my bags I head out to the taxi rank and if ever there was an advertisement for the benefits of Uber or Grab then this is it! I was a relative Uber novice, where pickups from airports are concerned, however after this experience I am now a pro! Ads plastered on walls in Kuala Lumpur airport recently reminded me that they were just a tap away. And given the driver was waiting as I left the building, I cannot imagine life without them now.
At Istanbul airport meters will not be turned on in any circumstance and after weary flights and questionable inflight meals, haggling for a ride is the last thing travellers wish to do. You know that audible sigh you let out when you’re at the markets and the price starts way above the price you know it should be? As residents of Asia we consider ourselves locals as far a market prices are concerned and immediately cut the price by 80% and then start the bargaining process. Well forget that. Drivers here pump up the prices to, let’s say you could pay off their mortgages with one ride. After much frustration and half a dozen attempts with different drivers, I managed to source an acceptable fare and we’re off.
I have shown the driver the address and map on my phone. Traffic is backed up and we detour and backtrack until I see the lit sign of my hotel. It’s on the other side of the road and it takes 20 minutes to navigate the freeway and alleys to get back to it … Something’s not right. Checking my map I realise we are at the right hotel, wrong location. So the fun starts.
Walking through the archway into the grounds of the mosque the size and grandeur are incredible
I get my bags and head into the foyer as the driver follows me in. The hotel staff are incredible and it transpires that from this one it is easier to get to the airport the following day. They graciously contact the other hotel and transfer my booking to them at the same price. I use Accor Hotels everywhere, and this is why.
Their service and customer relationships, especially when on property are outstanding. Accommodation sorted the taxi driver demands more than the negotiated fare as it took him longer to get here than he had anticipated. No wonder as we’ve travelled further to the wrong hotel! I’ll leave this here. Dinner and a glass of wine or two and anger and frustration has turned to ambivalence and acceptance. I have all day tomorrow so I grab the hotel area map and plan the day.
This is one of those times where everything happens for a reason. This hotel is perfectly located to explore the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. There is a complimentary shuttle which takes 15 minutes and drops you in the centre of one of the most incredible spots to explore the history and culture of Istanbul. This is a result and now I’m grateful. This hotel will be my stopover of choice.
Walking up the steps towards the blue domes and towering minarets The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and Hagia Sophia are separated by gardens and a large pedestrian square which allow photo ops from every angle. Walking through the archway into the grounds of the mosque the size and grandeur are incredible. Hand painted blue tiles cling to the walls surrounding men as they kneel after the call to prayer. It’s an honour to be welcomed inside and non Muslims are expected to show respect and stay behind the roped off areas reserved for the local faithful.
Crossing the square to Hagia Sophia I secure the services of a guide and bypass the line to head inside. This is a stunning building that has transformed from church to mosque to museum. A shining example of how different cultures can contribute to the emergence of developing nations. Inside golden domes reflect the light entering through stained glass windows, Arabic inscriptions hang on huge round medallions and crypts protected by carved marble bodies tell a story of the ages and piece together history. A monument to Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
In the square the sun reflects and illuminates both buildings as I enjoy delicious flatbread, pide with minced beef. Simple flavours and delicate spices better than any pizza you’ll ever eat.
The grand bazaar is nearby and is an assault on the senses. One of the oldest markets in the world where over 4000 shops spill out into the alleys weaving in and out through the arches. It’s all undercover and be prepared to get lost. Glittering lanterns, silks and cloth in every colour imaginable and sparkling gold are surrounded by the aromas of spices, cuisine and coffee. This is the perfect spot to sip Turkish coffee. Unlike espresso where filters hold the grains at bay, Turkish coffee is served from a pot so the coffee needs to rest in the cup before drinking. Its strong and delicious. Fortune favours the brave if you choose not to add sugar. I’m brave! To get out of this maze it’s advisable to remember the number of door through which you entered, or leave it to chance and exit allowing the city to guide you on your way.
Having visited three of the must see Istanbul landmarks my appetite is spiked and I’m making notes for another stopover, to explore other parts of this incredible city, where east (Asia) meets west (Europe) as they sit on each side of the Bosphorus River.
Back at the hotel there’s time for a nap. The journey to the airport takes 20 minutes. The meter is on …
Neil Brook will try anything once and agrees with the bizarre foods motto, if it looks good eat it! He now calls Vietnam home and is looking forward to discovering more of Asia, making the most of this opportunity. A regular contributor to the Aussie travel site The Big Bus Tour and Travel Guide he enjoys sharing his experiences, endeavouring to create a fresh perspective as he travels the globe.
@treadingtheglobe I www.treadingtheglobe.com