A Travellerspoint blog

Kars to Batumi

This was the one segment that I could not get all the details sorted for before I left: information I had found was very vague. I am including precise details at the end for anyone wanting to make this journey who stumbles across this post.

In Kars, I walk a bit out of town to buy my bus ticket to Hopa, just south of the Georgian border on the Black Sea. I change hotels to be closer to where I buy the ticket, as that's where they tell me to be. When I get there, I am picked up in a minivan and taken to the main Kars bus station, which is just down the street from my original hotel. I have been given seat #3 and I see on the driver's list there is no-one in #4 - so I have the front two seats to myself - the side windows of the bus are grimy but the windscreen at least is pretty good. Leaving town, we pass some sort of agricultural market - lots of little trucks overwhelmed by huge stacks of hay or sacks of whatever they grow around here, plus cattle. This fellow has either made a successful purchase or is a disappointed seller.
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The journey has three quite distinct phases. The first is the steady ascent out of Kars, so that the landscape is made entirely white with snow. There are a few villages strung along the road but no real sign of any ski activity - the slopes might not be sufficiently slopey for that sort of thing. There are times when the road itself is barely discernable, but the driver, a calm-looking man probably about my age, keeps up a steady pace of between 80 and 100 km/hr - even when the speed limit is clearly 50 - and every so often lights up a smoke.
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As in most parts of the world, when we get to a village or town, there is a sign to say so. It is a novelty for me to see that as we leave, they use the same sign, but with a read line through it, as if that place has been cancelled.

The second phase starts when we hit the crest - maybe 50 km out of Kars and up about 2,500 metres: suddenly the snow is gone, and we follow a steep-sided gorge - the river here is dammed three times, so gets to be quite significant, but I have not been able to find out its name.
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We stop for a lunch break - there is nothing except a service station and two ramshackle cafes - one evidently run by the bus company. I have no idea what they sell or how long we'll stop for, so just have some tea - the couple in the seats beside me have been kind enough to give me some simit - bread which comes in a 6 inch hoop, maybe half an inch diameter, and is often called Turkish pretzel. But then the food arrives for the people who did know what to do, and it looks and smells delicious - chunks of lamb cooked on an open fire in something like a pizza oven, a simple salad and flat bread. Hmm - missed a trick there. I go study the river.
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The third stage is where the contour of the land is simply too aggressive to allow the road to progress: there has been a massive investment in bridges and tunnels - I lost count of the tunnels at about 30, with the longest being 2 km. I do not see much point in photos of tunnels, so have little to show for this part of the trip - here's a bridge!
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It is 260 km, but we take around 6 hours, getting in to Hopa a bit after 4:00. THere is not much to be said about Hopa - it has the normal assortment of shops, although, curiously, the road provides a significant barrier between them and the Black Sea. I spend quite a long time going up the street and then back down past my hotel to the bus station. The internet had said the minivans don't go from the bus station, but from a hard to spot bus stop at an unspecified location - I think I'll ask at the station where that might be, but cannot make myself understood. It is dinner time, so I go for a pizza - it has to be the worst one ever, nothing about it is right. The staff are very nice, however, and I am dining in, so I can't really abandon it and gamely eat the whole thing. It really needs beer, but this is a Muslim establishment.

I get back to the hotel and notice a minivan parked at the door, with the words "Hopa" and "Sarp" on the windscreen, then a little stall basically making it clear that this is where the minivan to the border goes from. A fellow accosts me to find out what I am up to - despite everything I see, he says I must go to the bus station, and he comes into the hotel with me to talk to the fellow behind the desk: it is a con. I see him at the border the next day with his taxi. As with every place I have stayed, the hotel gives me breakfast but, unlike any other, this one gives me a sixth floor view of the Black Sea as I eat it.
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I then stroll out the front door, jump in the waiting minivan and it leaves immediately. Other people have said that at Sarp, there are many people taking a leisurely tea on the beach before leaving Turkey - but they must be people who get stuck in a queue somewhere. We enter a tunnel and then, bang, the border is right there - no beach-side tea shops to be seen. I do find a wee cafe by going the other way, and think I interrupt the staff's own meal by asking for tea, but I've decided I am not leaving Turkey without one last dose, because who knows what is on the other side!
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The fellow signing me out is very jovial - has a go at pronouncing my name and chats a bit before stamping me through. There is a makeshift corrugated steel passage way and another bang! and Georgia is in front of you.
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This officer is much more wary, questions me about my plans, insists I'll be staying for two weeks even though I show I don't leave for nearly a month, brings in a superior to have a confab - a bit nerve-wracking, but the superior doesn't see the problem and I'm in. There's even an ATM in the immigration hall. I catch another minivan and within about 40 minutes, I'm in my hotel swigging on Georgian beer.
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Details for travel Kars to Batumi

First step: Kars to Hopa. There is one bus a day, run by Yeşil Artvin, leaving at 10:30, cost is 80 lira. It leaves from Kars Köy Otobüsleri Terminalı (Yusufpaşa Mahallesi, Küçük Kazım Bey Cd. No:2), where the bus company has an office - the fare can be paid here by credit card. Dogu Kars is a local bus company which sells tickets (cash only) and will take you from their office to the bus station.
Second step: Hopa to Sarp (border town on Turkish side) - minivans leave from outside the Cihan Hotel, Sahil Cad. No:74 Hopa. There is no schedule, just as they fill, but they run into the night so there is no need to stay in Hopa. I did spot a ramshackle bus in Hope bus station with Sarp as its destination.
I have no idea how long it might take to get through: I had no waiting at all, but this was mid-December.
Sarpi to Batumi - there is a bunch of taxis, a minivan service and an actual city bus service into Batumi - but this seemed to require a card, and I did not see anywhere to get one, just a top up machine at the bus stop.

Posted by NZBarry 13:18 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Kars

1 °C

Kars is a fairly small city, around 75,000 people, in the far East of Turkey - just over 40 km from the border with Armenia but, thanks to the political tensions here, to get to that place just across the border in Armenia (Kharkov) involves a 260 km detour through Georgia. The train trip here is the last thing I have booked in advance, so from now I can move as slowly or quickly as I want.

I once knew quite a bit about Kars, thanks to reading Orhan Pamuk's novel set there, called Snow. The only two memories retained from the novel are of its sloping streets and, yes, snow - the name Kars is a reference to snow. A Guardian reviewer of the book had this to say about the city:

a remote and dilapidated city in eastern Anatolia famed less for its mournful relics of Armenian civilisation and Russian imperial rule than for its spectacularly awful weather

He does not mention the great cheese and honey made here or their tendency to eat geese. Ever the contrarian, I really enjoy my stay in Kars, to the point that I extend it by a day. Sure, there's not much to the town - it is centred on a few streets, with no fancy features. In fact the most notable buildings are notable for their lack of warmth - cold, grey stone buildings are scattered all round the place. Almost all are no more than two stories high - this was the Russians' doing, to give the sun a chance to thaw out the streets. I thought I had a number of photos but there are just a couple, both in the same street as my hotel.
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There are a few other buildings that catch my eye as I walk around - this Police Station seemed to have a lock-up affixed to its outside, but after watching for a while it turns out to be a sentry-box from which a Policeman watches us.
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Naturally, there are various mosques
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There is a University - Kafkas - and I take the 3 km walk out of town to have a look at it: it is sort of impressive in that it looks very new and shiny, but does not make for a great photo or even provide an inviting space to walk around. Instead, I cross the road and have a tea with a ridiculously decadent chocolate concoction - sorry, it looks so great I eat it without making any record of it. Of course, the major tourist attraction is Kars Castle (or Citadel) which is right behind my hotel.
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As I go in, there are a couple of guys in what look like soldier uniforms - I prepare to edge past them but notice that they are just taking selfies. A bit later, they're asking a couple of girls to take their photos.
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The exterior walls of the castle remain but much is missing. I am quite surprised to ascend to its highest point to find there are no barriers or warnings of any sort. Despite the cold, I like hanging out up here - it provides a great vantage over the town and to the north and, when it does get a bit chilly, there's a tea shop to escape to. I am not sure whether it is intentional, but it strikes me as particularly appropriate that Queen is playing from a music kiosk in the castle.
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Returning to ground level, there is a historic stone bridge, first built in the 1500's and then rebuilt in 1715 when it was taken out by a flood. There are several baths (hamami) nearby - no doubt they take the water from the river: there is no sign of life in any of them.
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I have no idea what's going on in the last photo when I take it but subsequent research shows that they are the busts of troubadours ("Aşık") - there is a strong local tradition of singers. Apparently, there was another batch of busts of them somewhere else in the city (as well as a monument to Humanity) but in December 2012, they came under attack from unknown assailants and had to be removed.

I don't know if these cabinets are refrigerated or they just rely on the natural coldness of the weather (certainly, when I have beer and juice to chill, I just put it out the window), but it is common to see glass cabinets like this one all round town.
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By far my favourite place in Kars is Craft Coffee No 74 - as their Instagram feed shows, it is where all the fashionable and best looking people of Kars go. I go in twice for coffee, spending quite a bit of time there, and go again for dinner. The space is very interesting and, while the coffee is not the greatest, they give two cookies with each tea. Plus there are seats on swings! It is even claimed to be open 24 hours, so I could have gone there when I got in so late. The cafe is normally pretty busy, but by going in strategically, I am able to get some good photos without disturbing other people . The staff are outstanding - there is one waitress who serves me several time. The last time I am here, I work out she is talking about me with a couple of her mates: as I leave, she has them take a photo of us. I have to get one too:sadly, it does not do justice to her vivacity or beauty.
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On my last day, I get a bit lost, trying to find the place to buy my bus ticket. I walk a fair way out of town, with the bus company office showing up on google maps, but not in reality when I get there. Instead, there's a food place, with a photo of a brilliant looking meal - vibrant peppers, luscious chicken, startlingly green beans and the like. I go in and point at the picture, but a lot gets lost in translation - the only commonality is that the dish has chicken, but it is a kind of stew with rice. Very tasty, and in fact very similar to something I used to eat when I lived in Auckland, just not what I expect. There are three older gents, all at their separate tables, having quite a heated conversation (it seems to be the Turkish way - they raise their voices, speak really aggressively, to the point that in other cultures I'd be expecting a fistfight but here, they smile and hug or pat each others' shoulder). They try to include me in the conversation but even when I can translate New Zealand to Turkish, they don;t seem to know where it is.

My last meal is just as random: I'd seen a restaurant up on the 6th floor of a building, so thought I'd eat there to take in the view. The place turns out to be more of a club, with a couple of troubadours singing away, and very dark. They do have food, but the menu is in Turkish only - I just choose something they have said is chicken: again, tasty, but I really do not know what it is.

As for the weather, I have to say it is not that bad - some snow did fall while I was there, and it rained a bit, but the sun came out and the temperature does not go much below zero. [Writing this a couple of weeks later, the temperature is -17.]
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Posted by NZBarry 12:59 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Ankara to Kars - the Doğu Ekspresi

snow -2 °C

Ever since I saw someone post a video of their trip on this train, the Doğu Ekspresi (or Eastern Express) on Youtube, I wanted to be on it. It runs for 1,300 kilometres from Ankara to Kars: spolier - it is not an express. It makes many stops (47 allegedly) and is not fast at the best of times. When I booked, it was scheduled to take almost exactly 24 hours (55 km/hr), but I think the schedule has been changed to make it more like 28 hours. Second spoiler: my trip takes 31 hours (42 km/hr).

Apparently, the ideal way is to get a sleeper, but there are not very many of them and they get block booked by tour group operators. There are stories on the net of people sitting anxiously at their computers as the bookings open, and doing their best to score a bed. I decide to deal with the enemy, and get a travel agent which has something of a reputation for making the block bookings to get me a bed. I am somehow forgetful, however, and it turns out the bookings are well and truly open by the time I get them onboard - they report there is nothing doing. No matter - there are plenty of seats and they are dirt cheap - $13! - so I just make my own booking. The travel agent, wanting to earn its pound of flesh, then proudly announce they have bought me two seats on the train - not side by side so I can kind of lie down, no, they're much smarter than that - two opposing seats so I can put my luggage on one. No matter that there is a perfectly good luggage rack or that the seat is right beside the very noisy door. The seat I organised for myself is much nicer, and even had a working electricity outlet to keep my phone charged.

For some reason, Turkish rail are a bit coy about letting us see the loco in Ankara station and it is not until we make a stop next morning that I get a proper look at how long this train is - I am in about the middle.large_IMG_0128.JPGlarge_IMG_0129.JPGlarge_IMG_0142.JPGlarge_IMG_0143.JPGlarge_IMG_0141.JPG

Here's the obligatory shot of the front of the train as it rounds a corner.
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The train leaves on time to the minute, and I can see Ankara pass by, although of course it is already dark. By about midnight, I am feeling really pleased about this trip - there is something magical about a slow train making its way through the night, the turns it makes, the wonder at what is passing by without me knowing and the wonder at what will be revealed in the morning. I make a couple of trips to the dining car, for tea, for a change of scene, to read, even to get the laptop out and to write. At one point, a young face looks over my laptop to ask where I am from: he is part of a group of seven University students from Istanbul, trainee pilots, on the way to Kars for a holiday. Surprisingly, there are three Universities in Istanbul which train pilots: I do not think to ask which one they attend. They are a very good-humoured group, but English is difficult for them so we do not spend the night talking.

Instead, I have a very good sleep, and awake to find that nothing is happening: the train is stopped in a very small village. Nothing happens for about three hours: I do not know this, so when I go into the shop, and the shopkeeper gestures that I should sit by his fire and drink tea, I think that I must return to the train. Eventually, we move on and I can get a good look at this part of the world.
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For quite some time, we follow a small river through what becomes quite a steep-sided gorge.
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I am intrigued by that last photo - the narrow road carved out of the rock: when was it last used? How far does it go? It is evident that it is not in use, as there are sections where the cliff has collapsed, but it looks like it would have been a hair-raising journey for those who did use it.

Along the tracks, there are various stations and the occasional town to be seen.
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I occupy myself with the occasional doze, a wander through the train to see who is using my other seats or back to the cafe car for tea, keeping a watchful eye on the word outside or reading - Elif Batumen's The Idiot when there's light or Mick Herron's Slow Horses (on my tablet) when there's not. It is a great journey to take so when six p.m. rolls around and it is clear we are nowhere near Kars, I am not concerned. By about ten, however, I start to wonder what I am going to eat. I bought a foot long wafer biscuit thing at the store when we were stopped., but it is long gone The cafe car closed - at least I had the feeling we were all ushered out so they could do so - but then I see the group of trainee pilots go in, so I follow. Ah - success! A nice plate of kofte, rice, cucumber and succulent tomatoes.

The last hour is actually a lot of fun: there is a family with three young boys in my carriage - the boys get adopted by the trainee pilots, and they play all sorts of games and there's lots of chat going on - I don't understand any of it, but enjoy watching.

Finally, a bit after 1:00, we pull into Kars station - there are a couple of musicians there putting on a bit of a performance and the normal range of taxis and the like looking for people to collect, despite the hour. I have the direction to my hotel all mapped out on my phone, so walk it. It is a little eerie, being so late and so cold - not a sign of life apart from a couple of blokes wandering the street and a dog scavenging in a rubbish skip. Certainly no shops open to give me a warming tea or a lamb kebab. Even my hotel is deserted and all locked up when I get there, despite the promise of 24 hour check in. This is a little disconcerting - I wander back and forth a little, perhaps utter a slightly wrathful word or two, certainly a wrathful rap on the door with the only metallic object I have - my cellphone. It survives, luckily, and there is a sudden movement within.
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Posted by NZBarry 14:00 Archived in Turkey Comments (2)

Off to Ankara

snow 1 °C
View Georgian Adventure on NZBarry's travel map.

There is a plan, that may happen one day, of joining Istanbul and Baku by a high speed train link. It may take some time to come to fruition: at present, it is not even possible to leave Istanbul by train at all, let alone a high speed one. The line has been laid between Kars (in the east of Turkey) and Baku, and the trains to run on it were obtained more than a year ago but the current prediction is that they will not run until late 2019. So the only bit of the high speed line operating is from a station at the end of Istanbul's metro (Pendik) to Ankara, and the train does indeed get up to 250 km/hr. Like many of the metro stations, Pendik station has a number of exits so I am a bit befuddled as to which I am to take. Luckily, a woman starts laughing at me and can eventually explain it is because I look like Santa Claus. Despite her laughter, she is kind enough to take me to the correct exit and point me in the right direction for the 1 km walk to the train station. There, after a quick tea, I go through security very similar to airport security to the train. It is a pretty standard looking thing and the trip is through quite pleasant countryside, with touches of snow.
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The last photo confuses me: out in the middle of nowhere, we would come across collections of highrise buildings, no doubt housing, but with no apparent industry nearby and a fair way from the railway line, so a bit awkward as dormitory towns. Some way through the journey, I read a tweet saying that a train just like the one I am on has crashed into a pillar near Ankara, with several fatalities. I am not sure how it might affect my journey: it turns out that the last 30 km are by bus. Downtown Ankara doesn't do very much for me - there's a mosque near the station, city hall and two blokes who want me to take their photo - although they can't speak a word of English and my Turkish only goes as far as çay, so it is a short encounter.
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Luckily I had booked a place away from downtown, in old Ankara, which happens to be quite a walk uphill in icy conditions, through a maze of tiny streets. It is worth it, however, and I resolve to not leave the hotel at all that day - there's a bar and a restaurant underneath it. I have not made a habit of taking photos of the places i stay in, but this place is special - it is called Divan Çukurhan and the building has quite a history. It was builtin the 16th century as an Ottoman caravanserai - an inn with a market in its courtyard. Sadly, it was virtually destroyed by fire in the 1950's, rebuilt after a fashion but then abandoned. It has only recently been rebuilt, albeit in a modernised fashion. It has a nice bar area, a wonderful library and a business nook.
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Service is a bit odd: the bar was said to operate 24 hours a day, but when I go for a beer, the fellow doesn't seem to know his business. Efes is the major Turkish beer, and it comes in a couple of styles - asking for an Efes Pilsner seems to impose a task beyond his abilities - eventually another fellow shows up with a tray of beers and leaves me to fend for myself (I am not even asked to pay for it). The restaurant, however, is tremendous - big windows all round giving a great view over Ankara - there are too many people for me to attempt a photo. Back in my room, the bathroom is more glam than my house and as big as my office.
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The hotel is directly opposite the entrance to the citadel - very little remains apart from the walls. The inside is now taken up with housing and a few shops.
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There are a couple of interesting streets near the hotel - one runs along the ridge and has several tea shops, cafes and the like. One cafe is above an antique shop, but I do not realise this, so go in to the antique shop and take a seat at one of the (antique) tables. The shopkeeper must have this happen quite a lot, as he points to the lift - the cafe is quaint and run by a sweet old couple: he wants me to sit by the fire since it is so cold out.
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I have another odd tea-related experience: I see an interesting looking tea shop with some street art and a large collection of soft drink, so pop in and ask for a çay. They have to bring it in from a shop across the street so, later on, when it is time for another, I decide to go to the source - a very old looking shop. Yes, they have tea, but have to go across the road for the sugar.
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The other interesting street twists its way down the hill, eventually to the station, so I go for a walk - more tea shops and cafes, and lots of little shops. I am a bit tea-d out by now so don't stop until I get to the station - the map says there is a shopping mall there and I have yet to visit a Turkish shopping mall. I'd say the map is a bit aspirational!
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There is a food court, with some more terrible coffee and a lot of kebab places, but I also spot my favourite American fried chicken chain so I necessarily indulge.
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Posted by NZBarry 12:57 Archived in Turkey Tagged ankara Comments (0)

Istanbul - Topkapi Palace

rain 10 °C
View Georgian Adventure on NZBarry's travel map.

The Ottoman Empire was a big deal, taking out the Byzantines and conquering Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) in the mid 14th century. At its peak, it controlled huge parts of Europe (as far west as Hungary) and bits of the Middle East, Asia and Africa as well. I am not sure when the Hapsburgs retook what we now know of as Hungary, but just today I read a wee story which is just fabulous enough to be true. The Ottomomans adopted a crescent moon as a symbol, for use on battle flags etc. When they were repulsed by the Hungarians, as a way of giving them the finger, the Hungarians developed a crescent-shaped bakery product called the Kifli - which the French adopted and called the croissant. I have no idea how true this is: my source is a character in Elif Batuman's The Idiot.

Anyway, within a few years of the conquest of Constantinople Mehmed the Conqueror decided he wanted to build a HQ there, called Topkapi Palace. It was thus the centre of power of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th to the end of the 17th century. Most of it is still standing, so of course I pay a visit. The main entrances look like the real thing - I go in the first and out the second:
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There are lots of buildings I can't really identify, but there are several pavilions built off what seemed to be the main palace. In 1640 Sultan Ibrahim had a special one built for the purpose of having his various sons circumcised - I am not sure why divans were built in!
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Another Sultan had a pavilion built to house his turbans, of a similar size. A summer pavilion was built in the 1640's to celebrate the fall of Baghdad - at one stage it was used as the library for the Privy Chamber - the Council of Vizers
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All of the contents of the Council room have been removed, but the walls and ceilings are nicely decorated
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There is another, central, library which looks like a good place to have hung out
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I get told off by the guards but manage one usable photo of the ceiling in the palace kitchen
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The next photos are just some I took as I wandered around, of things I liked the look of without necessarily knowing their function
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After emerging from the Palace, which must be one of the biggest tourist drawcards in Istanbul, I am surprised to find a kebab shop at the entrance doing a roaring trade, with everyone inside looking like locals, and uniformed wait staff - called Sultanahmet Köftecisi. It is bloody good - crunchy charcoal lamb, beautifully crusty bread, tasty tomatoes, a nice vibe.

Here are three photos of things that catch my eye - traffic control here is a bit more vigorous than back home, this University looks like it is falling on hard times and the mosque looks wonderful at night.
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After a bit of a nap, it is time to start the evening - I catch the metro across to Kadıköy which various bloggers etc have mentioned as the next cool place in Istanbul. When I arrive, I think it has already done its dash - there are a couple of streets devoted to restaurants, all featuring a bloke who pounces on me as soon as I pause to try to find out their menu, and all seeming to have very similar menus. Not my scene at all. But a venture out of the centre into smaller side streets, and suddenly I get the feeling that I should not have left this until I am tired or my last night. There are many little shops selling boutiquey things, trendy food places selling posh burgers and the like, old fashioned tea shops where old men congregate to play backgammon and catch up on the day's events with their mates, bookshops, coffeeshops... I stop in at one of the tea shops and have my very first çay (chai) - black tea in a curved glass with a cube of sugar. I'm hooked!
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The flavour is a bit more robust than Choysa, and the hint of sweetness makes all the difference. I also find a combined bookshop and coffeeshop, so stop in - I think for cake and a cappucino, but am presented with a short black.

I venture back into the restaurant quadrant - I didn't come to Turkey to eat burgers - but the crowds have built up to the point I find this area unpleasant, just too many people for me to feel comfortable. I wander fruitlessly and catch the metro back to my hotel: I am obviously a bit fed up, as I even shout at a bloke trying to strike up a random conversation in the street. Eventually I spot an open air restaurant where I see chickens spinning on the spit: it turns out I do want familiar food after all.
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Posted by NZBarry 11:40 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

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