Middle East Trip: Istanbul – En Route & Arrival

This article is part 13 of 17 in the series Middle East Trip

29-31 December 2011

Sharjah: Worst Airport

Being in transit at Sharjah Airport for 30+ hours without any hotel rooms booked is not something I would advise anyone to do. But I have no other better choice. I gotta do it. Due to my Egyptian visa being rejected, I had to buy additional Air Arabia flight tickets from Tehran to Istanbul and Istanbul to Amman (Jordan). This was not anticipated at all and it was definitely not included in my budget. With only 450 euros left in my pocket and no bank accounts, credit cards, or anything to back me up, I am worried that I won’t have enough money by the time I reach Jerusalem. I still have two more weeks to go and unfortunately, my trip will end in Jordan — one of the most expensive countries in the Middle East.

Initially, I thought that I could just find a quiet corner at the airport and a comfy seat to sleep. But to my horror, the airport is super crowded. It is one of the worst airports and one of the smallest ones I have ever been to. The prayer room is not only crowded with people taking some naps, but it is also being occupied by cockroaches that roam the room. It is really filthy. After few hours of trying to sleep in the waiting room, I completely give up. I know that I’ve reached my limit. Screw the budget, I need to sleep! I quickly go to the Airport Hotel and pay for a 6-hours bed in a 6-beds dorm. A dorm inside a hotel — such a weird combination, huh?

Arriving in Istanbul

Exhausted is the only word I can say about myself as soon as the plane has touched down at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen Airport. I did manage to sleep for a few hours, but it wasn’t enough. All I want to do now is to rush to the visa and immigration section, take my luggage, hop on the last bus to the city, find my hostel that I already booked, and have a proper sleep. The visa on arrival process is smooth sailing — to my surprise. The immigration officer does not ask me a lot of questions. I just need to fill in the application form, pay 25 euros, and the visa is stamped in my passport. Alhamdulillah!

I’ve been waiting for almost an hour at the baggage claim area, waiting for my blue 55L North Face backpack, but it’s nowhere to be found. I wait patiently until the carousel comes to a complete stop — that’s the time when I realise that something is going wrong. I quickly walk to the Lost Baggage section, looking worried and frustrated. The responsible Turkish officers do not speak good English, which makes me feel even more frustrated. They are very nice though, telling me to calm down and offering me to sit, and giving me a cup of nice Turkish tea to drink. Almost 30 minutes later, the Turkish officer tells me that the luggage is still in Sharjah Airport and he is trying to locate my luggage there. He gives me the office address of Air Arabia in Istanbul and tells me to contact the office in a few days or so.

It’s almost 12 AM now and I’m running out of time. I quickly run to the bus counter and I’m faced with another disappointment: the last bus has just left the terminal. I try to see other tourists who may still be in the airport — hoping that I can share a ride with them. Unfortunately, all of them have left the airport. I’m left with only one mode of transport, which is a shuttle (mini) bus, costing more than doubled compared to the public bus. For a second, I am thinking of sleeping in the airport and go to the city the next morning. But I’m feeling terribly tired and I just need a good proper sleep, so I can at least meet my host tomorrow in a better condition than I am now. With hesitation, I take the shuttle bus to the hostel, which is located within a walking distance from the Grand Bazaar and Hagia Sophia.

Culture Shock

With my backpack being lost and with little hope of finding it, I am feeling a little demotivated to do anything when I wake up in the morning. I stay in bed until it’s time for me to check out. For the first time since I embarked on this trip two weeks ago, I am not excited to explore any parts of the city.

When I finally walk out of the small alley where my hostel is located towards the huge Sultanahmet square, I start to feel a bit of a culture shock. Big groups of tourists with their tour leaders are scattering everywhere. Souvenirs and shops intended to trap tourists are all over the place. Cafes and restaurants are filled with nothing but foreigners. I am shocked and feeling disoriented. I am not used to seeing so many tourists in one place. I keep on telling myself that I am no longer in Iran anymore. I am no longer that rare species of human whom everyone is curious about. I am just like any other tourist that can be approached not because people want to converse with me and curious about where I am from, rather because I am expected to spend my money and buy their stuff.

The Blue Mosque

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. I need to be very careful of every single cent I am spending from now on. I walk towards Hagia Sophia, a museum which was built as a church and then turned into a mosque. I’ve been to this beautiful museum before when I came here with my family in the 90’s. I am contemplating whether or not I should go there again. As soon as I saw the long queues, it doesn’t take me too long to get out of the complex. I am not keen on queuing; let alone entering into a crowded museum. So I keep on walking until I find the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, otherwise known as the Blue Mosque. I sit in the female section of the prayer hall, trying to find tranquillity that I’ve been longing for while waiting for the call to prayer. The good thing is that tourists are only allowed to be in a restricted space of the mosque — so at least I get my “own” space.

Blue MosqueBlue MosqueThe interior dome of Blue Mosque

I stay at the mosque for a while after the prayer finishes, then I decided to go to the train station of Sirkeci, which is located not too far from the mosque. I don’t have any specific plans in Istanbul for the next 8 days, but I’ve been eyeing for Konya, the city of the famous Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi. I check the price of the train and I am quickly taken aback by the price. With only a few hundred euros left, I don’t think it’s a wise idea to go anywhere but to stay in Istanbul. I still need to buy some clothes, pants, and a small bag for my hope in finding my backpack is getting slim. I sigh and walk away.

Wondering Around

I cross the Golden Horn via Galata Bridge, admiring the view of mosques of different sizes scattered around the city. Istanbul is indeed a beautiful city — if only there are fewer people here. I walk to the Taksim Square to see if I can find cheap trousers and thankfully, as it is the end of the year, many shops are on sale. After finding a good deal, I quickly walk back towards Galata Bridge to Yeni Cami (New Mosque) in Eminönü district. My host, Halime, agrees to meet me here after she finishes her work. Apparently, her office is near the Galata Tower, located on the other side of the city.

As I wait in front of the mosque for Halime to show up, I catch a glimpse of an old Turkish lady with a headscarf walking towards the mosque’s square, carrying a plastic bag. A group of street dogs follow her with excitement. She stops in the middle of the square and feeds these dogs with foods taken out of her plastic bag. Looking at the interaction between her and these dogs, it seems that she comes here rather often to feed them. Such a rare thing to see this in a middle of a big city like Istanbul.

After waiting for around 30 minutes, I finally meet Halime, a Turkish girl who is about my age and is working as a developer/programmer. We take a bus to her house in a hilly district called Kağıthane. Halime lives with her two younger sisters in this 3-bedroom apartment. She is kind enough to lend me her towel and pyjamas as I don’t have any spare clothes. She even let me borrow her clothes so that I can wash mine. She is my life saver 😉

Tomorrow will be another day of exploring Istanbul and meeting some locals and fellow travellers.

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