Backpacking on a shoestring budget is stressful, tiring and sometimes downright rough. But it also forces you to be resourceful and creative, and overall I feel like it’s only made me a better traveler. One of the ways we tried to save money this trip was by couchsurfing. We’ve hosted couchsurfers in our home in Sydney, but staying with Özgur was our first experience of surfing ourselves, at least with strangers. Friends expressed concerns about our safety when I told them of our plan, but I wasn’t particularly worried. It seemed unlikely that someone would invest the time to chat to us and befriend us on Facebook, only to then try and take on both of us at once to – do what exactly? If he wanted to hurt us, he’d left a pretty obvious online trail. If he wanted to steal from us, he would do so in the knowledge that we had very little money or possessions on us. There’s just as much risk of having your stuff nicked in most guesthouses and hostels, and in those scenarios the other guests are by and large anonymous, and can leave without a trace – something that’s a lot harder to do when you’re hosting people in your own home. If I was travelling by myself I would probably be far less trusting, and I do admit though that both Özgur and the guy we’d arranged to couchsurf with in Bursa – Emre – were so friendly and eager to host us that it triggered warning bells for me initially. I soon realised that they were just demonstrating the hospitality that Turkey is so famous for, a level of hospitality that I have not seen anywhere else in my travels to date (although from all accounts, Iran is pretty awesome in this area too!). Couchsurfing proved to be not only economical, but also offered a much more personal way to engage with the city.
A second way we try to save money is by eating as cheaply as possible – a heartbreaking endeavour in a country like Turkey. By day 5 we had yet to eat a proper Turkish breakfast, or a proper breakfast at all, which is a small tragedy when you like eating breakfast as much as I do. We woke up on Thursday morning tired and sore from the 16 hour day we’d had the day before, and quickly came to the mutual decision that we should just take it easy, starting the day off with a big breakfast in the highly recommended Van Kahvaltı Evi cafe (which actually serves Kurdish breakfasts, as it’s run by Kurds and is named after the Kurdish town of Van which is famous for its breakfasts), followed by a few hours at the Istanbul Modern. Özgur wanted to take us to the Princes Islands in the afternoon, but he wasn’t able to get out of work early like he’d planned, so we decided to go to Topkapi Palace instead. We had also resolved to force Özgur to let us take him out for a nice dinner, since he’d evaded all our attempts so far. In other words, we were going to be a little bourgeois; brunch, modern art, Ottoman nobility and a fancy dinner somewhere in town.
Another way we save money is by catching public transport everywhere. After some mucking around trying to find the right bus stop, we were finally on a bus headed to Karaköy, from where we would walk to the cafe in Cihangir. We had experienced Karaköy for the first time late last night, trying to get from the Karaköy tram stop to Şişli metro after dinner with my friend Lisa from Sydney. There is a tünel that connects the two, but recalling having heard that Karaköy is full of interesting alleys and cafes I persuaded Will to walk. Maybe it was the part we chose to walk, or the fact that we got terribly lost, or that it was night and most of the streetlights were blown out, but it was actually quite scary. We saw no cafes or restaurants; just a lot of rundown utility stores, many of them closed or boarded up, and alleys full of houses that we would have mistaken for deserted if the bags of rubbish out front hadn’t indicated otherwise. We hardly saw a single human soul in that hour.
In daylight Karaköy was much less threatening, though still not particularly appealing. We walked the 2km to the cafe as quickly as our tender feet would take us. Once we had left Karaköy and started heading uphill the landscape became much more cheery.
The cafe is small but airy, and the service is fast. For 20 lira you get alllllll of this. I was disappointed by the lack of sujuk, but I can’t say it stopped me from eating til my belly and bladder were ready to burst (did I mention the unlimited çay?).
Afterwards we waddled back down to the Modern. Instead of walking back down the way we came, we decided to try a different route that looked like it cut through a park on my map. Little did I know that to cut through the park would effectively mean jumping down a 20m drop to the street below. It did offer stunning views of the Bosphorus, however, although that’s not hard to come by in Istanbul – one of the benefits of such a steep, hilly city, and one that sometimes outweighs the long pant-inducing hikes uphill. The neglected park clashed with the beautiful view, rubbish adorning the yellowed grass and bushes. Kids running up the play equipment were startled by the homeless people sleeping on them. A group of people drinking under the trees asked me to take a photograph of them, and posed when I obliged.
We eventually managed to find our way down to the waterfront, where we stopped briefly to take in the lovely Kılıç Ali Paşa mosque complex.
The Istanbul Modern is a must-see in my opinion. We spent over 2 hours there, and if we hadn’t agreed to meet Will’s sister Lal and her boyfriend Amshu at Topkapi Palace at 3, we could have easily spent another hour or two exploring its many incredible exhibitions. The fact that it was air conditioned, we could check our bags, and they accepted our student cards for discounted entry helped too.
Unsurprisingly, Topkapi had changed little since the last time I’d visited. To me Topkapi doesn’t really feel like a palace, perhaps because it’s always so populated with tourists. It feels more like a big park with pretty buildings, and I can’t help but feel surprised that the grounds aren’t covered with people having picnics in the shade of the trees.
We stopped by Hagia Sofia on the way out of Sultanahmet, as it was looking particularly pretty that day.
We raced home, but it was still well after 8pm by the time we got back. We’d decided to catch a bus, underestimating how bad traffic can be around Taksim now that it was no longer shut off from public transport. As we passed Gezi Park the woman sitting in front of us turned around and pointed at the park, and then clenched her hands into fists and beat them against one another, to indicate clashes between police and protestors. We were in the apartment for just long enough to wash our hands before we were off again, this time with Özgur in tow. I wanted to eat ali nazik somewhere; Özgur could’t think of a place that served it, as it’s a very traditional dish, but he suddenly remembered an Ottoman restaurant on İstiklal Caddesi that he thought could have it. They didn’t, but they had a whole bunch of other amazing dishes including slow cooked lamb shoulder. We ordered our mains, and then Özgur talked to the waiter in Turkish and all of a sudden we had three unexpected entrees in front of us – imam bayildi, a range of different dolma, and a vegetable dish with artichoke, carrots and potatoes. That night, Will discovered that he liked artichoke. Özgur barely touched his food, but Will and I hoed into it. The meal cost more than the total we’d spent on food in the past five days, but it was exceptionally good.
After we finished eating we waited around for Ayşegül, another couchsurfer I’d been in contact with. We’d been trying to meet up for the past few days, and now, on our last night in Istanbul, we finally did. She brought along a guy called Peter from Seattle, and it turned out that he’d spent some time in Central Asia. We chatted for a while before leaving the restaurant in search of a dessert place that was still open at 10.45pm. Given that most of the retail stores along İstiklal Caddesi were open and the avenue was packed with people, I thought it would be an easy feat. Ayşegül and Özgur were less optimistic, but I was worried they might suggest we go to a bar instead so even though I had no room left in my stomach whatsoever, I insisted we find a dessert cafe. In the end, we were so engrossed in conversation (me with Ayşegül about living in Australia, Will with Peter about Central Asian history) that we’d walked the length of the avenue before we realised we hadn’t seen a single cafe that was open. By now it was close to midnight and Ayşegül wanted to head home because she had work the next day, so we walked all the way back down to Taksim square. Özgur was mostly silent during this whole time, and Will and I felt bad for not making more of an effort to include him in our conversations. We apologised, but Özgur just laughed and said that he enjoyed listening, and Will and Peter’s conversation about Central Asia had been the most intellectual discussion he’d ever heard in English. Which is pretty high praise, I reckon.