At 9 o'clock in the morning of our departure day, we finally get our last visas from DHL. Just in time to hurry to the airport and into the plane to Istanbul, Turkey. What a dramatic start of our Silk Road Journey, which we have been planning for some 6 months now. Getting the different visas (Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgizstan, Kazakhstan and China) proved indeed to be a nightmare.
Istanbul, the starting point of our Silk Route Journey then reveals all its oriental charm of a pulsating metropolitan city. Innumerable mosques with their minarets, which are rising high into the sky, dominate the skyline. We stay in a hotel right between the blue mosque and the Hagia Sofia. The taxi driver from the airport was kind enough to drive us to the hotel upon request of cheap accommodation. In fact, the rooms start at USD 125 per night and we finally negotiate a price of USD 40 per night for a smaller adjoining room, with view of the blue mosque. Negotiation of prices even in hotels is quite common as we find out later!
The Topkapi palace, however, has already lost much of its glamour from the times of the Sultans (until 1923 Turkey was a sultanate). Only the emeralds and diamonds (up to 84 carat) exhibited in the palace do show the past wealth.
After having put our feet on the streets of Istanbul, sales people, dealers, and children immediately follow us. Hiding in an Internet café proves to be the wrong solution, as we first have to go across a carpet shop. The carpet shop owner speaks German very well and invites us for a cup of tea while talking about the art and craftsmanship of carpet making. So, instead of browsing the Internet, we learn a lot about the history of the Turkish carpets and kelims, the motives and techniques used. The carpet dealer also has relations with Switzerland, as every other dealer we meet. Speaking of motives, we learn that the most important ones are the five Muslim virtues: the confession to God, the following of the Ramadan, the pilgrimage to Mecca, donations to the ones in need, and the prayer to Allah five times a day. The latter is brought to our attention more often than we like. Every three hours, the muezzin at the nearby mosque fills the air with his melodic and penetrating voice. In the age of electronics, the voice comes from a loud speaker, which is set to maximum volume. As our hotel is placed in the middle of several mosques, we witness the competition of each to overcome the other in loudness of its prayer, which, to our delight, results in an incomprehensible haul lasting for a few minutes. In fact, during the prayer, all other sources of music are switched off in order to listen to Allah's voice. We take it calmly, however, advise any travelers to Istanbul and other cities to take this into account when booking hotel rooms.
Our hotel is located above the famous Cistern cathedral, which was built by the Romans in the 6th century and afterwards sunk into the soil to be used as a cistern. The remnants (360 columns and large halls) of it can be visited some 20 meters under the earth. The main attraction of the site seems to be monstrous carps swimming in the Cistern Water. We wonder whether this might be a good or bad sign for the water to be used for drinking purposes.
Walking alone in the streets of Istanbul is especially challenging for women. Hardly 5 minutes alone, Petra is already besieged by several men, whispering 'most beautiful girl', 'you have such wonderful hair', and inviting her to drinks or dinners and alike. Nobody talks to me like this, of course, the only ones interested in me as a man are the carpet dealers and shop owners.