Monday, March 21, 2016

[ISTANBUL] Virgin Mary Dome Ceiling Selfie

It was Eurowings Check-In Counter Phuket 2.0. The guy told me that they would have to call Turkish immigration first to confirm if my visa was valid or not. In my head, I thought this guy must be shitting me. You mean to tell me that if my flight was close to midnight and offices have already closed in Turkey, you wouldn’t let me board just because of your baseless suspicion that I, to quote him, “might have FORGED” my visa. Screw this, right? And so I had to wear my most sinister bitch face for an hour or so.

But those Moroccans were a really nice bunch. He carefully explained to me how an Iraqi national boarded the same flight the day prior, presented a similar eVisa, landed in Turkey, and got sent back to Casablanca because they eventually found out that his visa was fake. Because the immigration officer in Istanbul would be so fucking clueless to distinguish what is real and what is not, right? Why do such people even bother? He told me that he hoped I understood that he was just doing his job.

Toning down my bitch face one notch, I also told him, in a still agit manner, that I also hoped he understood me, because this kind of useless hassle almost always happens to me at low-cost airline counters. He said it’s not because they were low-cost. I told him I couldn’t care less by raising one eyebrow. In the end, they let me check in after an hour or so, and all’s well that ends well after a few pleasantries in Darija were exchanged. Wow, at least I knew my two months in Morocco weren’t in vain.

The flight took a little over four hours. A main tourist area in Taksim was bombed the day before I left for Istanbul, and my Airbnb host was quick to warn me that things are not pleasant as of the moment. Landing at Sabiha on the Asian side close to midnight could be a real pain but because the Havatas buses to Taksim operate until 1 AM, it’s not much of a problem unless you don’t have TYR 14 (~PHP 245). The bus dropped us off at Taksim half past one and I had to find a resto or a bar that could rescue me from hunger.

My first impression of Istanbul has been really pleasant. There was an area with skyscrapers and fancy hotels which reminded me a bit of Hong Kong. And then there were streets going uphill and lined up with shops which got me reminiscing my time in Seoul. I told myself that I wouldn’t have problems living here given what I’ve seen so far. Did I mention that they seem to love Burger King? I mean, among all the western fast food chains present here, Burger King seems to be, well, king.

Finding your Airbnb place at two in the morning can prove to be quite of a challenge but it also gives you a sneak peek of the city’s underbelly. Nothing really bad happened to me on the way and Beyoglu area where I’m staying is a quiet neighborhood full of cats chilling on top of cars like a boss. The architecture has been very modern European so far, while a smattering of domes and minarets from many of the city’s mosques are always visible from a distance. After locating my Airbnb place, it was time to call it a night.

Strolling the next day started late after lunch. I’m not really in a rush to see all of Turkey. Technically, I am just transiting here for two days and I don’t really like traveling a la Amazing Race anymore. I took a walk at Cihangir and found a beautiful cliff overlooking the Bosphorus during the first five minutes of my leisurely stroll. I thought to myself, wow, this looks promising. True enough, it was. I found the tram station but I had to eat something first before heading to Sultanahmet so I walked a bit more.

After having some good pasta in a chill bar, I wondered if I should take the tram or walk. I decided to walk, and so should you. The Bosphorus was not so far away from my starting point and that river is just teeming with activity, not to mention the awesome views that will greet you before, during, and after crossing it. Seeing Sultanahmet from the other side is also a sight to behold, what with the many domes and minarets dotting its skyline. I wonder if those are lit in the evening. It should be awesome if so.

I would have chilled at the Bosphorus, except that I didn’t really want to literally do so. I already have sore throat from the sudden change of weather. But it was still full of tourists and locals alike despite the really cold breeze. There were old men fishing, tourists taking selfies, an endless number of ships, and those food carts that sell sweet pastries for TYR 1 (~PHP 17.50). If you want a Bosphorus cruise, it will eat up an hour and a half of your time and set you back TYR 12 (~PHP 210) which is really not that bad.

I decided to walk all the way to Sultanahmet. This is not that hard to do because you can just follow the tram. The good thing about this decision is that I was able to see more of the locale and observe the locals as they went about their daily activities. I guess what I really like about Istanbul is that there’s truth to its claims that it’s the gateway to both Asia and Europe. The mix gives off this unique kind of vibe, this ambiguity that confuses you a bit, but in a good way. This is probably Eurasia at its best.

If you want to go the tourist route, then T1’s Sultanahmet station is the only name that you should remember. Upon alighting there, you’ll immediately see the Blue Mosque which is just right across the park from the Hagia Sophia. The Topkapi Palace is almost one tram station away but can also be easily reached on foot. Since I did not ride the tram, it was the other way around for me. It being already 4 PM, I knew that I only had time for one of those three, because they are all huge. I chose Hagia Sophia.

Once a Christian Basilica, then an imperial mosque, this incredible piece of Byzantine architecture is now a museum and is probably in contention with Sultanahmet as Istanbul’s most popular tourist draw. But as most people who have been to both would say, and as I might realize tomorrow, the Blue Mosque is impressive mainly from the outside, while the Hagia Sophia hides its splendor indoors. The bad news is that you have to pay TYR 30 (~PHP 525) to see it. Trust me on this, it’s worth it.

First things first. Last admission is at 4 PM. Last entry to the upper gallery, which is a must, is at 4:15 PM. Oh yes, you should see the upper gallery. That, for me, was the highlight of the tour. And so, what mystery is waiting for you upstairs? Well, you get to see the Blue Mosque from a higher vantage point from one of the windows. You get to see the dome ceilings a little bit closer. But what I liked most were the mosaics on those ceilings and walls, many of which date back to the 12th or 13th century. Wow, really.

The frescoes are mostly Christian so expect a lot of Jesus and Virgin Mary selfies. What little Islamic influence that seems to be left is characterized by Arabic writings on giant flat boards hanging from the ceiling. In case you didn’t know, this structure bore witness to many atrocities in the past, given Istanbul’s (un)enviable position straddling Europe and Asia. Countless wars have been waged here through the ages and the Hagia Sophia that stands today is actually the latest version.

But this does not deduct anything from the overall grandeur of the place. Expect to look up a lot to get that elusive photo. Perhaps it was the play of lights that made it quite difficult for me to get good shots. I could only imagine the awesome pictures a stronger camera could capture. The place closes at 5 PM; the upper chamber, 4:45 PM. There was also an announcement that they will be closing down every Monday starting May 5 or something. Adjust your plans accordingly.

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