Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour. Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour.
I have always thought that you could tell a city by its smell and its sound, not so anymore.
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul - Bob Perry
It has been 40 years since I first set foot in Istanbul and whilst I accept that is a long time I fully anticipated that both sound and smell would bring back memories of a city struggling to fully become the tourist mecca it should be. Well I can honestly say it's made it but the sounds and smells haven't.
Istanbul is the first stop for me on a trip that I roughly calculated would be 30,000km in 30 days. From Toronto to Istanbul to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan or as ElderTreks calls it the "5 Stans". Flying from Toronto or from some of the more major cities direct to Istanbul is no longer a hassle. Turkish Airlines provides non stop service from, and I'm going from memory here; Toronto, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. I am most impressed with the level of service they provided. On time, which for me is a biggy, meal and beverage service beyond what you are going to get on US or Canadian airlines folks and non stop. Ok you arrive late afternoon in time for a small dinner, a couple of beers and bedtime. Wake up the next morning to the Muezzins call as I did.
Istanbul has really, really changed. The Sultanahmet area near to Topkapi Palace which, for me was a slightly decaying area of Ottoman houses is now the "Plaka" on steroids. Literally hundreds of small "butik" hotels (and no I have not spelt that wrong), mostly having between 15 to 25 rooms in the decaying Ottoman houses that are now renovated. Restaurants and bars along every narrow cobblestoned street. My hotel the Amiral (yes I'm giving shameless plugs here), was just in front of the Blue Mosque and within 10 minutes of Agia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. Now walking in Istanbul may only take 10 minutes, but that could be straight up. I've forgotten that this is a city of hills, good workout for anyone.
I spent the day walking from the hotel to Taksim Square and back via almost all the hotels that ElderTreks uses in Istanbul over what is mostly cobbled streets. Talk about tired legs the next day. Had a beautiful lunch with our agent Berna and one of our guides, Gulin, looking over the Goldern Horn talking about how Istanbul was and now is. The Sultanahmet area comes alive at night with lights and, I'm sorry to say, tourist traps. Just like everywhere else the prices within this area reflect the tourist rather than the local, you could spend $30 on something that the next day you see in a small local restaurant for $3, but hey, tell me a city that isn't like that now.
The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul - Bob Perry
The next day I wandered into the Grand Bazaar to see how it has changed, but a tip: go early, after 12 it is a mass of people. The bazaar has now become, I think, the copycat capital of the world. Everything from Ray Ban sunglasses to Prada handbags can be had for a fraction of the real price. It's a shame they are copies but what can you do? The gold stores however are just as I remembered, as I was early people were cleaning the windows to make sure that every gleam and glitter would be seen. Then time to make my way back to the hotel for the transfer to the airport for the flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Five more hours of flying and another 4 hour time change.