There’s nothing quite like dragging a bag through a deserted street in Istanbul after a night without sleep and then hearing the muezzin start chanting from a set of creaky speakers. The sun was about to come up, the sound was ricocheting off the walls. We had no idea where we were, everything was closed and one wondered who the prayer calls were even for – they seemed to just evaporate into the cold morning air.
I had never been to an Muslim country before, and Istanbul probably qualifies as Islam Light. While they had managed to build an impressive array of mosques at every available street corner, the religion did not strike me as the least bit dominating. Far from it: The Turks knew precisely how to give tourists what they wanted, and proudly displayed up to five different types of “Turkish Viagra” at the public market. Signs next to the product bore the encouraging messages “No sleep!” or “Five times a night”, hastily scribbled on the signs. To emphasize the overall theme, salesmen would shout “you lucky man!” whenever Anika and I walked by.
The insanity did not stop there, however. Istanbul as a whole made me scratch my head in wonder, since much of it did not seem to make any apparent sense. First, there was the contrast between a glossy airport and the run-down neighborhoods a couple minutes from the main attractions: A burned-out car stood upon a heap of trash, superimposed before the silhouette of yet another epic mosque. Entire sections of the city consisted of rows of shops selling the exact same product: Areas with shops selling nothing but pots and pans (often featuring leopard prints!), tunnels full of the exact same clothing. You’d think the competition would drive them apart, but salesmen instead stood together and chatted over skinny glasses of tea at every hour of the day.
The challenge quickly arose to finding parts of the city where nobody calls you “my friend” in an attempt to sell counterfeit watches. Considering the relative chaos of Istanbul’s streets and our lack of a map, we just began walking, took hundreds of steps up from an area that looked like it should be in communist Russia and finally emerged in the middle of something that actually felt genuine. Little did we know that our explorations would turn into a 20 km march through the city: Whenever I was ready to break down, Anika would spot another place on the horizon she wanted to see and so we walked, munching freshly roasted almonds and stumbling from one chaotic neighborhood of shops and restaurants into the next.
In retrospect I am not entirely sure what I expected from Istanbul, yet I kept looking for clues to confirm some image of the city. It is huge but seemed smaller than I had pictured, since each neighborhood was something else. When we finally took the ferry over to Asian side on our last day, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the daunting task of seeing another metropolis. What we did find were incredibly friendly people, a ton of good food and a bar with Turkish coffee, right at the Bosphorus. Despite of it being late November, we sat outside in the sun among the tea-drinking locals that did not seem to mind the company of tall, blonde Northern Europeans. I guess that was when it finally came together.