Saturday 7 March 2015


Istanbul is quite some way away from Wanstead, but with very little happening on the bird front this winter, and the Laughing Gull safely on the list, what better than a quick trip away to somewhere I've wanted to explore for a long time. Of course Turkey is so much more varied than Istanbul, and I'd like to venture much further afield, but I am time poor and quite unable to do something like that at the moment. It's a vast country, with incredible diversity of both people and habitat. But for a weekend Istanbul gives at least a flavour, and is very easy to get to. I left work early afternoon on Friday, schlepped over to Heathrow and was hailing a taxi at Ataturk airport by around 10pm in Turkey, a taxi that took me along the Bosphorous and past some amazing mosques. A deep sleep and then the excitement of a new place to see. 

The Blue Mosque. With Panther.

Hagia Sofia

I had chosen to base myself in Sultanahmet, which I guess is what 99% of tourists do. So I found myself looking at the Hagia Sofia by eight in the morning as the city was getting going. It didn't take long to get hassled of course, but I knew it was coming, and they were pleasant about it. The aim of course is to get you to come to their brother's/cousin's/uncle's/friend's shop, there to sell you a hugely overpriced 'Turkish' carpet that has been recently imported from China. I deftly sidestepped all their attentions and spent the morning happily wandering around seeing some incredible architecture. I visited the Blue Mosque which was stunning, if let down by the whiff of a thousand tourist socks an hour, and then the Hagia Sofia a little later which was literally monumental, standing over the centuries as a church and a mosque, and now as a museum. I spent easily a few hours in here admiring the different aspects, as well as people-watching, which was sometimes as interesting as the building itself, particularly this remarkable craze for selfies. Why would you want a photo of you in front of everything? A small panther I can understand.....

From the hip! Possibly the most awesome "selfie candid" I have ever taken.

In the afternoon I hit the Grand Bazaar. The shopkeepers here were of the hard-sell school, but I was having none of it, and plenty of smiles kept me on my way as I trekked through the heaving maze of spice, precious metal, lamps and carpets. It's something I've meant to do in Marrakech as well but have always turned my back on the city and headed to the mountains and the deserts. Next time maybe I'll build in a day. I spent an hour or so in the Bazaar, and emerged with all my possesions intact, and then spend the rest of the day wandering around other areas, including visiting the carpet museum which has some amazing (and not Chinese!) carpets from the centuries. Some are mere fragments now, but the work is incredible. I'm a bit partial to a nice carpet, and it's a great shame that for the most part the places where weaving still happens are not really places that it would be wise to visit at the moment. I'd imagine that Iran would be pretty safe, but it's still low down the list at the moment.

In the evening I went out to a restaurant which offered a Turkish show as you ate, groups of dancers from various parts of the country performing traditional numbers for western dollars, and of course belly dancing. I'd never seen this before, but it really is belly dancing, shaking, shimmering, gyrating, ridiculous muscle control. I've got the belly of course, but none of the skill in controlling it.... 

The next morning I went for a stroll by the shore and looked at Asia. I didn't have the time to cross over, but I enjoyed the harbour a great deal. Like all great cities near water, it becomes central to the way the place works. Just like Hong Kong ferries plied back and forth, tourist sight-seeing boats chugged along, and real ships - tankers and freight carriers - stayed out in the middle taking a direct line to the Black Sea. Sunday morning on Galata Bridge is fishing time, and I spent ages on the bridge watching this social activity take place, seemingly without a fish being caught. It could be that fish are completely secondary, and it's more of a place to go chat, smoke and pass the time - a bit like birding can sometime be. Tea-sellers moved up and down the bridge, paralleled by Sandwich Terns and Gulls over the water.

Right, time for shopping. Having avoided spending a dime the previous day and instead taken notes of where the genuine merchants were I went back to just two shops. In one I bought an old Kilim from Western Anatolia, a small dowry square with spider motifs in blues, reds and whites, and in the other I bought some incredibly fluffy cotton towels and a throw. Job done, I enjoyed a kebab and some tea while watching the world go by, and then went back to the airport. 

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