10th – 16th March 2014
Week 29 of our travels, and it’s time to move on from India, this fascinating, colourful, frustrating, proud and crazy country.
Another side of Delhi
We transfer over from the comfortable welcome of Greater Noida, to the keen hospitality of a couchsurfing host – Manmeet – who installs us in his guesthouse in Rajouri Gardens – a mixed use suburb of Delhi. In the narrow streets around us beats the heart of the Delhi marble industry. From the workshops in these parts: spectacular inlaid marble masterpieces, shrines and modern kitchens take shape. Only a street or two further, and we’re in well heeled suburbia – small shops and market streets, green squares and gardens to provide space for the three- to five-storey apartments gleaming with chrome steel railings and yet more marble on their broad balconies.
A block or two away a cluster of shopping malls offer homage to the middle-class aspirations of fashion, food and cinema. Over it all, on a massive concrete overpass, the neat, efficient Delhi Metro whirs on its way to the city centre, while workmen nearby extend the line south down the ring road.
Manmeet, ably assisted by his brother Mandir, are exploring couch surfing as hosts for the first time. We Sabretroothed Chickens therefore have a responsibility to show them it can be an interesting and mutually beneficial experience for both ‘surfers’ and ‘hosts’. As experienced couch surfers, we can definitely vouch for these guys as hosts. We were introduced to their sister at her nearby house (Prunella was thrilled to settle her one month old baby), and taken to a local park with an excellent playground and handy local ice-cream.
One evening we were privileged to be invited to the family house some 15km away, where we shared a few drinks, a delicious dinner and some great conversation. Now on our last week in India, we are still touched by the welcome and friendliness of the people.
Tying up loose ends
We also took the opportunity to collect some school work posted to us care of the New Delhi GPO. It took a couple of hours, and two different though closely located post offices, but the bureaucracy that has so frustrated us in the past showed it can succeed in delivering when called upon. A form, two passports, inviting myself into a manual mail sorting room and an ‘interivew’ with an assistant junior deputy functionary, eventually yielded the small package we were looking for.
The same afternoon we visited the sprawling Gaffar Market area, which among other things boasts several blocks devoted to selling new and used mobile phones and their components – including a ‘new’ and surprisingly effective battery for Graham’s ancient 3 year old HTC phone…
Our final flourish in India was a visit to the Mughal Gardens, an immaculately maintained set of formal gardens deep within the Presidential Estate in the heart of New Delhi. Actually designed by British planner Sir Edward Luytens in the early twentieth century as part of his plan for the (former) Viceroy’s palace, it is still a popular place for the month or so it is open to the public in February and March.
On the wings again…
On Thursday 13th March, we boarded a taxi which whisked us to Delhi’s Indira Ghandi International Airport, and, perhaps fittingly, six or seven passport checks later, we boarded our flight to Doha and onward to Istanbul.
The last few weeks, enjoyable as they had been, had really given us the feeling that we were ready to move on from India. As stated, it wasn’t about the people, or the magnificent cultural heritage, or the food, or anything in particular, but the sheer grinding effort of travelling this vast and teeming country.
The dirt under the fingernails, the incessant blaring of car and motorbike horns, the streets where small children on foot must mingle with heavy vehicles. The water, dearth of showers and dust that covers: All these things add up, layer by layer, to a weariness which can be held at bay by a delicious meal and warm hospitality but we have been on the road for nearly seven months, and our year is wandering along.
Our flight to Turkey was smooth and efficient, stopping in the gleamingly generic Persian Gulf Doha airport for four hours, and then resuming its sun-chasing westward itinerary. This passage was swiftly done: there was barely a peep from the boys as they sat, bellies full, glued to the in-flight entertainment systems they are not used to on our usually enforced budget airlines.
As our Airbus swooped on short finals over the runway at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, we could look down and see Turkey up close. Not merely the European shore, but a road where drivers stuck to their lanes, used their headlights and didn’t gratuitously use their horns. In other words, another world.
We found our digs in Beyoglu, in a quiet suburb of the ‘new’ part of Istanbul across the Golden Horn from the walled city. We found it using airbnb, for us our first experience of this system.
…back to Asia for the afternoon
Our excitement or relief at arriving in Turkey, as well as a three and a half hour time difference with India, had us up and out early. We strolled the Istiklal Caddesi the pedestrians street that runs from Taksim Square through the upmarket shops of Galatasary, and down the other side toward the grey-blue waters of the Bosphorus. We stopped and sighed and sipped on Turkish coffee – hot and bitter and black. The air was cool and crisp, and people in this part of town are dressed in dark wintry colours and hurry to their office jobs. Eventually we descended to where the narrow streets of Karakoy abut the open, busy waters.
We figuratively plunged in – buying an Istanbulkart and loading it up with lira for the inexpensive ferry trip to Kadikoy on the Asian shore. There we sipped tea, watched the seagulls and basked in our good fortune and revelling in the cheap panyer tost (cheese toast) hungrily devoured by the boys.
The ferry ploughed back again, like its counterparts dodging the bulk carriers that navigate the famous waterway, and soon we were tying up opposite the minarets and winter-bare trees on the Topikapi palace.
Roast chestnuts, sesame encrusted simit (Turkish bagels) filled us, as much with familiarity as with anything else. We wandered under the Galata Bridge and found a small corner of shoreline where street vendors grill fish and serve them up with salad in a chunk of bread. As the sun went down over the European shore, we marvelled that we had moved on, and how comfortably this city fits like a warm overcoat over jaded travellers from the east, as it has for two thousand years.
Ups and downs
Another day, another walk through this magnificent city. A bus takes us to Aksaray, then another along to the Grand Bazaar. We snap away with cameras, wide eyed like many a traveller. Turkey’s definitely more expensive than anywhere we’ve travelled so far, and we have taken to bringing a home made lunch of bread, cheese and sliced meat sandwiches. For now, this simple fare, leavened with snacks along the way, is enough: we haven’t seen let alone eaten so much cheese since our brief and passionate dalliance with the stuff in Varanasi, and aided with dripping baklava our belts are going to start reversing their six months of tightening before long.
We emerge from a side street and into the touristic jungle of Sultanahmet, where the Aya Sofya Museum and the Suleymanye Mosque (Blue Mosque) overlook more ancient monuments like two grown old ladies. In the foreground are one or two trinkets collected along the city’s history: a bronze column of twisted serpents from ancient Greece, an Egyptian obelisk and a Roman column. These would look cobbled together in any other place, but this is Istanbul’s hippodrome, and they have been here a long long time.
The Blue Mosque’s marbled interior soars away like the call of the muezzin from a minaret. We lingered for a while, marvelling at the interior and watching the flow of tourists, among whom the more devout get on with their prayers – it is little different from any of the great cathedrals of the world. Stepping outside and along the street we observe a carpet weaver at work in a shop window, and hear voices in many languages. In a shop window, a canny salesman has lined up a whole set of Aussie football team caps – and they catch our eye. He steps forward, but we chuckle and move on.
Here our dreamy run in Istanbul comes to a screeching halt: reaching into her pocket for her trusty Canon point-n-shoot camera, Prunella discovers an empty space. A quick search of bags: it’s gone. Last seen at the Blue Mosque, we hurry back before it closes for evening prayers. The burly guards on the door admit Graham in for a quick, ultimately unsuccessful scan of the vicinity. Saddened, we leave a number at the small booth near the exit, and wander disconsolately home…
The camera contains a couple of weeks’ worth of memories, always the worst thing to lose. Many of the scenes are also captured, albeit from a different angle, by Graham, so all is not lost. We are determined not to let this episode spoil our time in the city. It’s bad: but we can’t let it defeat us.
Picking ourselves up
Next morning, we head out, yet again, this time into a wet and windy spring morning. Our first target is an interesting looking borek bakery down a side street in Galata. It meets our expectations, and we leave suitably filled with the layers of sometimes cheesy sometimes sweet pastry. From there, our plan involves the excellent tram across and back to Sultanahmet, this time to visit the Aya Sofya museum.
Perhaps the most symbolic of all of central Istanbul’s sights, the Aya Sofya was started by the Romans, embellished by the Byzantines, flourished by the Ottomans and finally opened as a museum during the Turkish republic. Orthodox mosaics stare down at the Islamic prayer vestibule of Sultans, the grave of a Venetian Doge lies across the gallery from graffiti left in runes by a Viking tourist. This place sums up the incredible history of the place, and still there is little trace of the earlier Greco-Roman heritage in this building.
We are lifted once more. We return to our accommodation via a classic bufe (cafe), where we slurp down bean casserole on rice, and nibble on sweet baklava while the waiters lovingly tease Felix. Istanbul’s giving us ups and downs, but while we descend once more to the station at the foot of the 140 year old funicular, we realise our spirits have risen – this week has gifted us once more that most precious of traveller resources – the passion to see, hear, taste, smell and touch more of this fascinating and complicated planet.