After a lot of prodding, I booked tickets from London to Hyderabad. The cheapest route, I identified was from London to Mumbai, with a break at Istanbul in both directions, and then a separate ticket from Mumbai to Hyderabad.
Upward route was a chaos. I booked the tickets thinking the flight in London is at 10:30 and in Istanbul at 4:00 without considering the two hour loss because of time zone difference. I had nice night time views of Belgrade, Skopje and Sofia. When I reached Istanbul, I was told three different informations by three different officials at the airport – One told Indians need not require a transit visa, one told Indians are not allowed onto Turkish soil, final, the police officer who should grant the permission told without a Turkish Visa, I cannot proceed. As it looks, all of them are wrong. The consequence of that is I had to sleep for five or six hours to compensate my sleep loss in the night as well as a means to pass time.
After getting up, I was acquainted with a Libyan diplomat, who works for Ministry of Culture. He asked me many things regarding Hinduism as a curious ignorant and we chatted Bombay topics, finally coming to an agreement that Tate Modern is the worst museum in London. He said he would prefer foreigners as friends outside his country as his country is full of Libyans and that is the easiest way of understanding cultures. He also said, if he is an Indian looking and if he is reasonable and if he is a Muslim, then take it for granted, he is an Indian. But if he is not at all reasonable, then he is a Pakistani. No clue why.
After some time, I bought some Turkish Delight, which is similar to Karachi (or Bombay) Halwa and damn good to eat and a few books. A few observations here, they put stickers on the books to overprice them and it’s very hard to call from the airport. You need to take a caller card and how long you may talk, it works only once immaterial of the balance left in the card. Also, buying a sim card is pointless. No shop person is going to give you the correct exchange rate if you pay in anything other than Turkish Liras. There are no general stores. The implication – you cannot brush if you forgot your toothbrush or toothpaste. Also, no shopkeeper will accept foreign currency in coins.
Tour complete. Caught the flight to Mumbai having good views of Istanbul, Ankara, Baquba and Dubai, Dubai through the clouds and a few oil wells in Iraq/Iran/Kuwait border area. Reached Mumbai, had to prepone the flight due to the long gap and reached home finally. After that, it’s the regular story back home – relatives, friends, loans and marriage proposals. The time was such short that I bought none of the things which were asked of me and the sweets from Mumbai airport itself.
In the return route, I reached the international area by 9 in the night and had to wait till 6:30 for the flight since it was delayed. Boarded the flight and slept the whole time except for meals breaks and a few snaps of the snow capped mountains of Iran. At the destination, the flight was delayed due to heavy air traffic. It roamed all over Anatolia, took a great arc from the Sea of Marmara into the Black Sea and finally reached Istanbul after a two hour delay.
This time, I was issued a visa, but there is no way one can know this unless by experience. When I posted the query over rejection of my visa to both Indian and Turkish Consulates of UK, one didn’t reply (guess who) and the other referred to a non-existential piece of information on a webpage. The procedure is as below –
You should have a valid US or UK or Schengen Visa. Go to the passport control area from the side and wait for a police officer to turn up. This is near the visa issue centre for Indians and some other countries, which is separate from the rest. Give the passport with the Visa page open. Assuming the police officer is reasonable, he directs you to the visa office with a slip containing the details for payment. Pay the amount. You will get a receipt of payment which will be only in Euros or Dollars only. Show it again to the police officer. He will issue a visa to you. Once all this is done, get into the passport control queues and then move out of the airport.
Better keep some 200 Lira with you when you get out of the airport. The main area to proceed is to the Sultanahmet area which is the Ottoman City centre. Take this as a base and then explore from there. A few guidelines – have a guidebook and a map with you beforehand. Do not entertain any guides. It’s not worth it. Buy only one jeton and buy them as and when you want them. I will come to them in a while.
After asking a few guards, I reached the metro station for the airport. Here entry is controlled by something called jetons. They are small red tokens which act as a sort of tickets. There are vending machines for them which will give you the balance amount in one Lira coins only. So, don’t put large denominations into the machines. One jeton is for one travel, immaterial of the distance. As it looks, it works both for trains and trams. Get into the train for Askary and get down at Askary. From there, you need to go to a parallel lane to go to the Tram station by name Yousufpasha and catch a tram to Sultanahmet. I haven’t got any clue how you can ask for directions as people are generally ignorant of anything except Turkish.
This is not what I did. There’s a metro station Tokapi-something. I thought that’s the correct stop and got down, which it is not. I went down again to catch a train to Askary. After reaching there and after asking the correct direction, I got into a bus going to Bayazit, knowing that it’s enroute Sultanahmet. I simply got into a crowded bus. I don’t know if I should pay for the ticket, which I haven’t. I got down beside a magnificient mosque, a bookseller caught up with me and sold me a book and a map at a reduced price, which in itself is exorbitant. Again the sticker business. After selling, he made me feed some pigeons with two plates of wheat at 3 Lira, took a few photographs of me and directed me to Sulemaniya Mosque. I entered into a restricted area for directions and the tensed guards directed me in the correct direction. I reached the mosque finally. It was colossal from outside and magnificent inside. You should not wear your footwear inside any of the mosques. You should remove them and carry them with you in a polyethylene cover. I got a few photos of me taken, came outside, took a few photos of the Bosphorous at the area where Golden Horn meets the straits from the backyard of the Mosque. By then itself, my time to turn back to the airport. I took a taxi to Tokapi palace after making the driver, who is of my age and knows nothing except Turkish. The Turkish name is Tokapi Serai. The taxi costed 13 Lira. I was sitting beside the driver and was snapping photos continually of the alleys, Bosphorous, Marmara and what ever I can find. He slowed down to show me a tower, which I believe is Galata.
The last leg of the route goes through the walled city. The walls are still standing even after a thousand years. It’s a narrow alleyway with the Blue Mosque on one side and the wall on the other. I got down near the palace. Immediately, a bookseller caught me. I told no to books. He then decided to be my guide. He took me first to the Blue Mosque, named so because of the prominence of the colour and told me the story of it. It was built for some Sultan, it contains four colossal marble pillars, six minarets signifying it’s prominence, a grand praying area on a side for the ladies of the Harem with a very huge capacity. It seems the colours initially used were red, blue and white, and green was added later. Hagia Sophia stands exactly opposite to it. On the way out of the Mosque, there are some chains hung in Y shape from the arch. This is used as a camel deterrent. One thing I understood is all mosques look the same both from outside and from inside and for me, being a non-Muslim, it doesn’t make sense for me to look into every of them. Select the top two, go inside and rest all, take the photos from outside. It’s more than sufficient. Due to lack of time, I saw Hagia Sophia and Tokapi palace from outside and made my guide take a few photos of mine. If ever I get a chance to come to Istanbul again, I should complete from where I left.
Now comes the time for settlements. He asked 150, I gave 60. That itself was not worth the amount as his behaviour later showed. He personally guided me to the tram station and gave explicit instructions how to go to the airport.
Thinking I was late, I reached the airport well ahead and then boarded my flight after two security checks, which were nothing but a formality. The flight started an hour late. Journey commences and a special vegetarian meal for me in the flight, the same as the one I was given in the upward route.