Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Learning the Turkish ways

Our four days here is fast drawing to a close just as we are beginning to learn the local ways. We have even learnt how to say "no thank you" in Turkish ('Hayir tesekur e derim' or in English pronunciation 'Higher Tea-Sugar-a-dream') which has become a necessary evil as we are constantly being approached with "excuse me, can I just show you....?" or "yes please" or "you are American, English, Australian?" etc which is the precursor to showing you a  Turkish carpet, leather goods, pashmina, perfume or luring you into a restaurant in the hope that you will spend a few Turkish Lira!
We have learnt that 'calls to prayer' seem to take place about six times a day starting at 5.15am and finishing about 10.40pm. The chant (or call to prayer which is electronically recorded these days to save all that walking to the top of a minaret) lasts about 5 minutes and gives people about 15mins warning so they can make it to the mosque on time. We have seen lots of men running to the nearest mosque to pray but no women. Although the call is loud it doesn't seem to wake us in the mornings.
We have also noticed lots of cats everywhere, even a few tiny kittens, and they are usually very skinny and seem to live on the streets sometimes scrawling at each other for their own territory. Dogs are thin too but they do seem to belong to people.
Saturday 9 June
On Saturday we queued up for the Blue Mosque so called because of the blue and white tiles which cover the interior walls. It is one of the world's most famous religious buildings and was built in 1609-16. Istanbul has several huge mosques but this is definitely the most picturesque.
Blue Mosque
Our next visit was to the Galata Tower which dates back to the 6th century. It is 60m high and is topped by a conical tower. We caught a lift for about 45 floors and then had to walk up a very very narrow winding staircase to the top for a breathtaking view over the city from the narrow balcony around the top.
Views from the Galata Tower

We next took a ride on the funicular (tram) to the end of the line at Taksim Square. We stopped here for a while to walk down the hill past the main shopping street which is quite modern and to the Basilica Underground Cistern, a most unusual tourist attraction and totally worth a visit. Again it required negotiating lots of narrow steps (the Turks love their winding staircases) but it was quite an amazing structure. It was built in 532 to meet the growing demands of the palace. The cistern's roof is held up by 336 columns each over 8m high. In one corner there are two heads of Medusa, one on its side and one upside down thought to mark a shrine to the water nymphs!
Medusa's head!
By now we were tired and hungry so we opted for an early dinner of meatballs in a little restaurant near the Galata Tower.
Sunday was another full-on day and we started it with a run, yes, we truly finally ran in Istanbul. It was a little daunting appearing in public in a singlet and running shorts. Mr B did offer me a t-shirt to cover up but it was stinking hot and I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and tried not to make eye contact with any of the male species.I did feel a bit self-conscious running through the streets where Turkish men sit outside their shops and you can feel their eyes probing as you run past. However, once we had reached the waterside I felt a little better although one fisherman just about brought his line right out of the water as he swung round to stare. There were a few runners down there but only one girl and she had leggings covering her knees although she was wearing a singlet top. It is a different world here. We arrived back at the hotel totally dripping and managed a few more stares when we entered the lobby!
Total distance: 8km
After a refreshing shower and breakfast we headed for Haghia Sophia (or Ayasofya in Turkish) which means "church of total wisdom". It is more than 1400 years old. It was built as a Christian Church but in the 15th century it was converted into a mosque. It was truly magnificent and the mosaics were gorgeous. It took us nearly 3 hours to walk through every room and gallery.
Part of Interior of Haghia Sophia

Intricate ceramic tile work

One of the magnificent ceilings

Haghia Sophia
We were already footsore and weary but there were more sights to see so after a short rest eating a banana and drinking water, we walked around the corner to the Topkapi Palace.
This was truly amazing. We paid extra to visit the harem with all its interesting boudoirs and history. In the main palace there was a circumcision room, fabulous emeralds and gold including a 65carat diamond (so huge) and some  artefacts attributed to the prophet Mohammed which created a huge pushy queue of head covered locals who were desperate to see the many studded swords and stones.
We enjoyed walking through the beautiful gardens here too and by the time we had covered the majority of the palace and its grounds another 3 hours had slipped by and our poor feet were burning!
This time we enjoyed dinner in our local area served by a disgruntled spruker who had hoped to entice us to have a much larger meal than we had! Goodness, we didn't even have a glass of wine as we were just ready to head home for some sleep!
Monday - our last full day in Istanbul
Today we decided to cruise the Bosphorus, a very different and far more relaxing way to see the sights. It was quite surreal to cross under the bridge which separates Europe from Asia. Apparently a marathon takes place here - the Eurasian Marathon - which has taken place since the bridge was built in 1973. The Bosphorus is the channel flowing between Europe and Asia. It is really, really blue and the many mosques, castles and palaces on the hillsides made for a very scenic tour. After a couple of hours we arrived at Anadolou Kavadgi where we had a three hour break before returning on the other side of the Bosphorus. 
Views on th Bosphorus

Seafood lunch
It wasn't a big port and was absolutely full of seafood restaurants and of course the locals rely on these cruise boats to boost their economy. It didn't take long before we were seated at a seafood restaurant overlooking the water and being served quite delicious fish (served whole), calamari, mussels, fresh sardines and salad and a glass of wine to wash it down. 
Mr B enjoying lunch

We wandered round the seaport after lunch buying the prereqisite fridge magnet, then headed back to the boat for our return trip. The round trip took six hours including the three hour break but it was a great way to spend another hot day.
Once back on shore we walked back to the Grand Bazaar to buy some more Turkish Delight then we risked buying some kebabs at a roadside cafe and headed back to our hotel. 
In the morning we need to repack our bags before catching a shuttle to the airport and collecting our hire car before facing the extremely daunting idea of driving through the Turkish traffic as we head for Cappodocia. 
Turkish drivers are crazy, spending a lot of time honking their horns and ignoring pedestrians. The footpaths here are very narrow and half covered with shop wares which requires lots of walking on the roads and crossing the roads is taking your life in your hands every time you step off the curb.Being a driver here will be an experience indeed!

Cats just seem to wander the streets and not belong to anyone

Monday, June 11, 2012

From Singapore to London and on to Istanbul! Hot to cold and back to the heat!

This has been quite a week. We did have our run in Singapore and in fact managed an 8km course round the streets and past the Children's Olympic Park. It was hot and we were very glad to finish! One thing we noticed in Singapore was the incredible amount of roadworks absolutely everywhere somewhat spoiling the landscape. I did forget to mention that when on our bus tour we saw the Raffles City Tower which is 73 floors high and this is the venue for an annual marathon where competitors run all the way to the top. Hmmm, that doesn't sound like much fun!
On Saturday 2 June we visted the Jurong Bird Park which was really pleasant and totally amazing - loved the owls.

After a full day there we took a bus to the Night Safari which operates next to the Singapore Zoo but only opens at night. Inside we had an open train ride all round the complex to give us a close look at the lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, zebras, wolves, rhinos etc and later we walked round to have another look from a different angle. We even managed to watch a hungry tiger at feeding time with only a thin sheet of glass between us.
On our last day we visited a Mosque where a very enthusiastic guide was determined to convert us although he really was interesting to talk to. He explained that he only had one wife although it was quite acceptable for Muslims to have up to three wives providing they were all treated exactly the same way and loved equally. He also explained that the reason the men have separate areas to the women for prayer is so that the men are not distracted from their prayers by the sight of the women bowed in prayer - all very fascinating stuff:)
Mosques have no seats as muslims all kneel on the ground to pray. They are called to prayer several times a day and must leave what they are doing to go to the Mosque to pray.
Of course a visit to Singapore would not be complete without a visit to the famous Raffles Hotel where we ordered a very expensive but very refreshing Singapore Sling!

Singapore Sling at Raffles
We had an upgrade to Premium Economy on the Singapore to London leg and really loved the extra leg room and wider seats.  We felt far less tired upon arrival.  We stayed at Mr B's cousin's house in Epsom; they have a spare bedroom in the attic on the second floor which tests out the legs! The weather in London was pretty miserable after the heat of Singapore - only managed to reach 13 and it was wet and windy. We could almost have been at home on a Canberra late autumn day!
We hired a new Fiat Cinquecento, just to see what it was like - we used to have one 40 odd years ago - seemed very small but in fact it's quite roomy inside for two plus luggage, and quite a smooth grown up car to drive. It had 'stop start' which turns off the engine whenever you are at traffic lights - a handy feature once you get used to the idea but a bit embarrassing when you stall at the lights!
In our few days in London we went up to town one day to revisit a few old haunts, such as Oxford Street, Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Notting Hill where we worked in the 70's. This has changed somewhat and we couldn't find the wine bar which we used to frequent. The Windsor Castle Pub however is still going strong and is as quaint as ever. We also picked up some cheap seats for the theatre and we chose to see Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.  The plot was threadbare but the singing was great and there was much slitting of throats with very realistic blood spurts (at least they looked good from the Gods)! We haven't been tempted to eat meat pies since and it's a good thing Mr B no longer requires the services of a barber!
We caught up with a few friends in London, which was loads of fun, including meeting up with a friend from the days we worked in London in the early 70s - 38 years since we last met up, and it was lovely to engage in a bit of 'do you remember ....?'  .

Then - 1974 - that's Mr B with the long black hair and me with the short reddish hair in the denim! Jean in the bottom photo with Mr B. We went on a trip to France one weekend as you do!

Now - 38 years later! Strewth and Jean

Jean, Mr B, Strewth
We also managed a couple of runs while in the UK, both of them about 7.5km. We found a couple of lovely routes, one was decidedly undulating heading to Epsom Downs and round the race course and golf course. Parts of the run was on a lovely trail overhung by trees and everywhere was ever so green. On our second run we were caught in light showers and our shoes were decidedly muddy from the sloshiness underfoot but it was so good to run.

We are now in Istanbul. The temperature is several degrees warmer than London and we are finding it a busy, exciting and fascinating city. Our arrival didn't get off to a good start as we were charged $60 each for a visa at the airport which seems particularly aimed at Australians as it is only $20 for other countries and indeed NZ passport holders don't require a visa at all. If only our previous passports hadn't been stolen last year! When we queried the cost we were told "We don't like Australians" which went down like a lead balloon when a tad tired and just off a four hour flight at midnight. However, since then the locals have been mainly helpful and pleasant.

We are staying in the Sultan Hotel here, the same name as our hotel in Singapore but no connection, just coincidence. It is only six months old but it is a very small room, in fact the entire hotel only consists of ten rooms, all of which are up steep windy stairs. It was a bit daunting hauling the suitcases up these stairs but fortunately the poor young man at reception had waited up for us and lugged my bag up for me. It was after 1.30am before we arrived at the hotel as the cab driver managed to become lost, there being several hotels by the name of Sultan!

Friday was our first full day here and after the hotel breakfast, which gives choices of bread, cheese slices, various types of cold meat, apricot nectar, perculated coffee or tea, some sort of sugary cereal which we avoid, nuts, hard boiled eggs and yoghurt, we explored the area starting with the Grand Bazaar. Here a very friendly local insisted on taking us to his "shop" of rugs to meet his family and discuss all things Australian. We were introduced to his brother who made me sit down to try Turkish tea and then his daughter was brought in to meet us and we were shown various photos of family members taken with well known celebrities. Of course he has a shop in Sydney too. We did manage to escape eventually but Mr B admonished me for being too friendly and in danger of being sucked in!! They did however supply us with a map of the bazaar which proved to be quite helpful and we will endeavour to return to the bazaar before we leave.

Next stop was the Spice Market, another large bustling marketplace living up to its name of lots of spices and nuts. We bought a mixture of fresh Turkish Delight and some plump dried apricots to keep us going! It was a very hot sticky day but we did a big explore stopping for our first Turkish lunch at a roadside bar. We checked out the mosques, shops, local cobbled streets and interesting little alleyways and sussed out everything we want to see in the next few days here. In the evening we ate kebabs at a restaurant seated next to Aussies from Newcastle who were just leaving but filled us in on a few more things to add to our list of things to do. On our other side we met Pakistanis who had been living in Texas since 1982. There are a large number of tourists here. In fact it is a hive of activity and very busy and alive from late morning to late evening. We noticed that the evenings cool down after the sun goes down which is decidedly pleasant after the stickiness of the day.

This man heaving a trolley of goods up the hill is a typical sight

Street seller selling bagels

Exploring the streets - woman in full burka

Local streets
 To be continued on next blog entry!

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Many Faces of Singapore

Something tells me that we will not be going to sleep early tonight. There are some birthday celebrations happening very loudly outside our window in the hotel courtyard and there is no sign of the noise abating. Last night there was a large group of women only from the French Association (some very stunning ones too much to Mr B's delight) but they were finished and quiet soon after 10pm. Tonight is obviously different so I may as well write up today's blog as sleep will not be forthcoming any time soon. We had our free cocktail at the bar earlier in the evening and perused the drinks menu with interest. One fancy bottle of champagne cost $1,960 - hmmm! We did notice one young girl carrying a bottle of bubbly back to her table in an ice bucket but maybe it was the $78 bottle which was the cheapest on the menu!
This morning we used the remainder of our 24hour open air bus ticket by taking a proper trip to China Town. We had only passed it by yesterday but today we walked through all the little laneways and had a good look. Right in the middle of Chinatown was a Tintin Shop. As Tintin has always appealed to Mr B he really enjoyed checking it out. There was an open air marketplace and although we didn't buy anything we had a lot of fun browsing.
Here we also visited the Buddha Tooth Relic, a beautiful Buddhist Temple. I attired myself in a shawl and long skirt which was supplied upon entry and we walked in barefoot. We were struck by the incredible opulence of this temple. There was so much gold and wealth within the temple and it was stunningly beautiful. There were many worshippers there kneeling in prayer or meditating on prayer mats or on benches in the temple. Individual buddhas were everywhere. The actual Buddha Tooth Relic is in a golden shrine called a stupa and this was enclosed in glass along with all its opulent surroundings. Photos were not allowed of this part of the temple.
Our next trip was by underground train to Harbourside Shopping Complex to catch a train to Sentosa Island. We did spend a little time in the amazing shopping centre but eventually found the entrance to the cable car which travels high in the sky across to Sentosa. I am terrified of heights but I was determined to experience this ride and I really loved it. The views were fantastic and I felt a real high (no pun intended) being up there hanging by a wire looking down on cruise ships and smaller boats below, Sentosa Island in the distance and all the cable cars coming towards us in the air. It was fantastic. 
We stopped at Sentosa Island to eat lunch and walk through the grounds and enjoy the scenery including watching a pretty bride and her groom having their photos taken.
Back to the station to catch the train back to the hotel, a quick shower, our cocktail in the foyer and then we headed out for a western style meal which we really enjoyed for a change. We have eaten chicken, duck and pork with rice for lunch and dinner over the past couple of days and felt like we needed a change. We have passed by several times the very popular restaurant on the corner called the Fish Head Steamboat. Tomorrow we may head back to Little India to try an Indian meal. Tomorrow we may also go for a run! It's just a matter of finding a suitable place and leaving early enough to avoid the intense heat.
Buddhist Temple

Prayer Wheel

Singapore Orchids

Cable car coming in the other direction

One view through the window

Bird life at Sentosa

Friday, June 01, 2012

Sweltering in The Sultan!

Here we are in Singapore staying in a brand new hotel called The Sultan which is in fact an old building renovated. It's very fresh and clean but the bathroom is so tiny that two people can't fit in there at once and the air conditioning doesn't seem to work in that small area. The only mirror is beside the shower so when I attempt to put on makeup it just drips off me in the heat - delightful I know!

We had a fairly uneventful flight from Melbourne to Singapore. We were in one of those new A380s and it was smooth flight although they obviously haven't provided any extra leg room.

On one side of me sat Iris, unmarried and without children, who has been travelling alone for 50 years. What an interesting life she has had! Iris is a staunch Royalist and proudly showed me a photo which had been in the newspaper of her reaching out and touching Prince Charles hand with Lady Di beside him. She has travelled to so many interesting countries and had so many interesting stories to keep me entertained. Iris also explained to me that one night in her youth she went to bed as usual and when she woke up she had completely lost her hearing. After several tests the doctors announced that she had suffered from sudden onset deafness and she has never regained her hearing. Having said that Iris wears hearing aids in both ears and manages very well. We had a completely normal conversation and she could hear the babies crying on the plane. She really was an amazing lady and was so excited to be travelling to London again on the occasion of the Queen's 60th jubilee. She is away for two months and doesn't plan to leave London until she sees the Queen. After that she is visiting cousins in England and may pop over to Italy or elsewhere in Europe for a week or so. 

I did manage to watch two movies during the flight although I was a bit distracted by Iris who had been encouraged to try rum for the first time and was feeling very excited and naughty about such an event! I loved Warhorse which I missed seeing at the theatre. It moved me to tears however so it was good to have a giggle with Iris later.

I have a vivid memory of our last visit to Singapore in 1973. We were on our way to London for our overseas experience (OE) and had travelled by ship as far as Singapore. In the last few days on the boat a number of passengers including me managed to succumb to food poisoning and I also remember a very painful injection in my backside to prevent me throwing up! When I stepped from the boat onto the shore in Singapore I almost passed out from the intense heat and I also remember feeling totally ill from the strong smell of street foods as we did the touristy things. They were not good memories.

When Mr B and I stepped out of the Singapore airport late last night it all came back to me - the intense humidity was like walking into a steam room. Wow, it was hot and I was wearing too many clothes even though I was carrying my jacket and had already stripped down to a t-shirt and wore only lightweight long pants.

Today Mr B and I caught one of those hop on hop off open air double decker buses and had an explore. We walked along Arab Street in which every shop sells either rolls and rolls of Chinese silks and other gorgeous materials or carpets and mats. We also checked out Little India, China Town and Orchard Road. When we set out in the morning a lot of shops were closed but later everywhere was buzzing and alive with many interesting sights and smells. On the back of a cleaning contractor's truck was a large sign "AWOL and illegal dishwashers forbidden." It took a minute to realise that the dishwashers referred to were not the mechanical variety!

We have been enjoying some yummy Chinese food and also partook in the most delicious icecream creation from Coldstone Icecreamery which I think may be in parts of Oz. Watching it being created was half the fun. He flattened a blob of icecream on a board, chopped the apples etc, rolled it in a ball and tossed it in the air catching it in the paper cup. I chose apple pie, cinnamon and cookie crumble with a caramel sauce and served in a chocolate waffle cone. I definitely need to run!

In the evening we squeezed through the Bugis Street Markets and it definitely WAS a squeeze. Wall to wall people had the same idea and it was difficult to venture near the stalls but we managed and it was a fascinating place, When we came through to the open air it was still busy. The city certainly was buzzing at night and we were encouraged to come in and try the delicious smelling foods. We settled for a noodle place and enjoyed a tasty meal and the best iced honey and lemon tea - so refreshing on a hot night.
City of contrasts

Indian Temple inside

Indian temple roof