The sunrise in Istanbul was a particularly bright shade of crimson with hints of mauve and ochre on the morning of Saturday #67. At least that’s what several people told me at 10:30 a.m. when I arrived at the $6 all-you-can eat breakfast buffet in the hostel’s rooftop bar/cafe. I had been in the same space only about six hours earlier when a three-piece jazz band played until the wee hours.
After a nice ‘light’ breakfast of huevos rancheros, sesame bagels, assorted local cheeses, fresh fruit, fresh squeezed orange juice, and a mug of the rocket fuel that Turks call coffee (all this for six bucks at #bunk), one of my hostel mates and I set out for the Grand Bazaar. We agreed that we’d walk as far as the Galata Bridge, split up for the day, then meet later in the evening at the James Joyce Pub where I would continue my education into all things rugby.
We walked through Taksim Square which was packed with tourists, college kids, young couples, families, buskers, punks and seniors feeding the pigeons. West of Taksim we braved even larger crowds on Istiklal Caddesi (a very popular pedestrian mall) before cutting through a maze of narrow, cobblestone streets until we came to the 12th century Galata Tower and eventually the famous Galata Bridge at the Golden Horn’s junction with the Bosphorus.
When looking up the correct spelling of ‘Galata’ I came across this reference on Wikipedia: “The first recorded bridge over the Golden Horn in Istanbul was built during the reign of Justinian the Great in the 6th century.” I thought I’d toss that in for the benefit of my Canadian friends who undoubtedly know which bridge builder I’m favouring in the current Canadian election.
After checking out the food stalls, fishmongers and permanent restaurants located under the bridge, and the dozen or so ferries that operate along that section of the Bospherous, we crossed under a busy road and emerged at the entrance to the New Mosque or Yeni Cami (pronounced yeni jami). I’ve seen my fair share of mosques in the last few months so Eugene and I decided to go our separate ways and meet at the pub at seven bells.
The streets around the mosque and the nearby Spice Market were almost impassable so I made a last minute decision to save the Spice Market for another day and concentrate on the Grand Bazaar further up the hill.
I’m limiting my souvenir purchases these days to one embroidered patch and one or two beads per country. One of these days I’ll figure out how to sew the patches on my backpack and the beads will be used in a conversation-starter of a necklace that I plan to wear to Burning Man in 2016 (and likely only to Burning Man in 2016). Locals tell me that if suitable beads and patches are to be found in Istanbul, they’ll be at the Grand Bazaar.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the joint: “The Grand Bazaar (Turkish: Kapalıçarşı, meaning ‘Covered Bazaar’; also Büyük Çarşı, meaning ‘Grand Bazaar’) in Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. In 2014, it was listed No.1 among world’s most-visited tourist attractions with 91.2 million annual visitors.”
On one of the busy streets just outside the bazaar I came across three shops that sell nothing but embroidered patches. Another store stocked military, police and nautical hats with embroidered patches. Within minutes I found exactly what I was looking for and paid 4 Turkish Lira or $1.74 CAD. That’s one-third of what I’ve paid for similar patches in most countries.
Once inside the Grand Bazaar I spent several hours walking aimlessly, taking the odd photo, and generally soaking up the atmosphere. I couldn’t resist stopping for a coffee at a business called FesCafe. With few exceptions, vendors at the bazaar sell a single line of merchandise and they’re grouped accordingly. There are plenty of vendors selling fridge magnets, cell phone cases, jewellery, rugs, baklava, and Turkish Delight, as expected, but I also found merchants specializing in grommets and grommet punches, buttons for winter coats, buttons for dresses, brass buckles, silver buckles, paper, cigarette lighters, fountain pens, scrub brushes, and even one that sold nothing but pencil sharpeners.
I had a long chat with Rashid (above) who operates a jewellery and bead business within the market. His family’s roots are in Turkmenistan but he was born in Pakistan. The family has also lived in Afghanistan, having fled war and unstable regimes each time. Since landing in Istanbul in 2010, Rashid has taught himself Turkish and absolutely perfect English. He’s now conversant in eight languages — and eking out a living by selling beads and jewellery. We had a good discussion about sourcing product, wholesaling, retailing, his rising cost of doing business with eBay, PayPal and Etsy, the economy and the dwindling tourist traffic in Istanbul. I ended up leaving with five small glass beads, two clay whistles from Afghanistan and some insight into the day-to-day life of a merchant in the world’s largest covered bazaar.
After three glasses of chai with Rashid, I begrudgingly consulted a map and developed a plan for the rest of the afternoon. I didn’t find too many items that were particularly unique – at least not like the offerings at the market in Ulaanbaatar where I found ready-to-assemble yurts, giant rolls of yak felt, wooden saddles, and the antique market in Beijing where I roamed 50 acres of world class fakes, forgeries and blatant knock-offs – but there was no shortage of stuff to look at. With just seven hours, I know that I saw a mere fraction of what’s on offer at the Grand Bazaar.
On the way to the pub I stopped under the Galata Bridge for a pan-fried perch sandwich and some free wifi. Two e-mails stood out. Family and friends were checking to see if I was okay “in light of the tragedy in Ankara.” I didn’t know what they were referring to so I checked Facebook to see if others had the same concern. I scrolled through the usual cat videos and montages of Donald Trump’s hair but I didn’t find anything about Turkey. In fact, there were surprisingly few new postings. I chalked that up to the time difference between Turkey and Canada and headed over to CBC.ca.
“Deadly bombing at peace rally in Turkish capital” read the headline. Canada’s public broadcaster was reporting that 86 had died that afternoon in Ankara, another 186 sustained serious injuries, and the death toll was certain to climb.
As the young waiter fumbled for change in what were undoubtedly the world’s deepest pockets, I asked if he had heard about the tragedy. He had not. A manager, sensing there was an issue with my bill, asked what the problem was. The waiter asked the manager if he had heard about what happened in Ankara.
“Yeah, fourteen protesters were killed,” he said in a tone dripping with contempt. “Protesters. Troublemakers. They probably deserved it.”
I debated whether I should show him the CBC report. He clearly didn’t grasp the details or magnitude of what was being called “the worst terrorist attack in Turkish history.” The report also said that the Turkish government had slowed or even shut down many social media outlets and limited TV coverage of the tragedy. No wonder I wasn’t getting new posts on Facebook, the waiter was seriously misinformed and others at the bazaar seemed to be blissfully unaware of what was going on in their nation’s capital.
As I walked toward Taksim Square, along the jam-packed Istiklal Caddesi, I realized that I was in the area of Istanbul that would likely be the most susceptible to a terrorist attack. I had spent the previous two weeks hanging out in Taksim Square, visiting the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, Apple Stores in two of the city’s busiest and glitziest malls, riding the subway to the Canadian consulate, and now elbowing my way through massive crowds at the Grand Bazaar and surrounding streets. Talk about hot zones!
If I remain in Istanbul until my new passport is ready next Monday, I could easily avoid trains, buses, markets and crowded commuter terminals. Avoiding the subway will be an inconvenience but it’s possible. In fact, with a great rooftop cafe and bar, there’s no pressing reason to leave the hostel for the next five days. And if military and/or police helicopters continue to hover over the rooftop terrace — as they did on Sunday — I could just stay in my room all day. Hell, I could stay in BED all day.
Is that an overreaction? Rational people would agree that it is, but few would claim that Istanbul is the safest place on the planet right now. According to former Torontonian and now Istanbul-based author Joanne Thomas Yaccato, “694 people have died from political violence in Turkey since the June 7 national election produced a hung parliament.” Yesterday it was reported that government forces had fired tear gas at mourners who brought flowers to the bomb site on Sunday. In a follow-up post on Facebook, Joanne summed up the mood in the country: “Strikes, boycotts, marches and demonstrations…The Turks are seriously pissed.”
So, what do I do? Go hide in the mountains? Pull the covers over my head? I hate to sound flippant in the face of a very serious situation, but neither will I let the threat of violence ruin my time in a phenomenal city like Istanbul. I’ve made up my mind; I’m going to carry on as planned. I might even head back to the Grand Bazaar later this afternoon.