I seem to remember being extraordinarily proud of myself when, at a tender age of seven, I not only knew where Constantinople was, but I was also able to spell it.
Such elation, however, was short-lived when searching Collin’s World Gazetteer for the battleground of much of my early history lessons – in its place there appeared to be a square blob of a city that wasn’t even the capital of this large, rectangular country somewhere to the south of Europe.
Whatever its current invention, there is no doubt that Istanbul is one of the truly great cities of the world, and a worthy stopover on the now-legendary Rhoute. Dripping in history, saturated with fabulous architecture, boasting some awe-inspiring views across the Bosphorus and home to the best cuisine on my journey so far (this side of the Tian Shan, that is – there are still very, very few contenders for the tremendous gongbao jiding in China), the city appears to have everything.
It is also the only city I have come across over the past few months that I feel can really lay claim to being both Asian and European at the same time, as dandied as that sounds. Almost as soon as I left China, claims were being made that [insert Central Asian country] was the ‘bridge between Europe and Asia’, or the ‘real Eurasia’, a ‘meeting point between the two continents’ etc. Just half a day’s drive from the Chinese border, Almaty certain felt very European – as did Tashkent, Bishkek, or much of the Caucasus.
However, instead of being an island of European civilisation on the steppes, or in the middle of the desert, Istanbul seems ferociously proud of its mongrel heritage, and feels both Asian and European in equal measure. I certainly didn’t get that impression from anywhere I’ve travelled through since the beginning of May.
The ol’ wallet has certainly been taking a sound beating, in the way only Europe knows how to dish out. Twenty lira a pop for most of the main sights (and there was me whinging about five dollars at The Registan in Samarkand!) certainly adds up, and seeking refuge in a shot of strong Turkish coffee will set you back another five. Get any more adventurous and you’ll be scurrying to the ATMs before the real spending starts in the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar or in the hundreds of boutiques hidden among the city streets flogging carpets, jewellery, Turkish Delight, tea of all flavours, nargile pipes and all manner of tourist tat.
Incidentally, this is also the first occasion on the Rhoute that I have really encountered mass tourism – and it now comes as a real shock. At the time, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva in Uzbekistan seemed almost insufferable, but at least once the ageing French tour group had passed through the mosque, you had the place to yourself. I suppose anything would seem a tad crowded after two weeks on a horse, living in tents made out of sheep.
No such chance in Istanbul, where throngs of tourists are regularly assaulted by similarly-sized armies of touts for restaurants, cafes, shops, markets, hamams etc. There’s always someone looking to take a good few Euro off you – and in multiple languages as well – which jars somewhat with the experience of the rest of Turkey and further east.
Instead of being pleased to stumble across a tourist, share a glass of tea and chat banally for a while, this inquisitiveness and hospitality is based solely on the final transaction. No interest in my carpet? Then no interest in you, Sir.
Compare that to my ol’ buddy Rachid in Baku who couldn’t care less about selling me a carpet, and just wanted to talk about football, or whether there’s a need for carpet-sellers in the UK.
Anyhow – it is a real treat to be able to speak English and indulge in some of the more luxurious aspects of the city.
Obviously, my return to Europe needed to be marked in suitable style, thus a slap-up feast and Cuban cigars at the Ciragan Palace was the order of the day – in full black tie, naturally dahhhling. (Obviously this is a common occurrence for those researching Central Asian trade routes – but on this occasion it happened to coincide with the conclusion of Mark’s trip overland from Beijing, big congratulations to him).