Tripping in Istanbul

The landlady calls us over for dinner at her place. We will be staying in her apartment in Istiklal street for 4 days. The dinner is grilled fish, Samosa and salads served outdoors next to the pool. We meet T at dinner, who we invite to join us at club Raina – we had seen the club in the morning during the boat ride of the Bosphorus, and which the tour guide called the hippest club of Istanbul. We are glad for his company. He is studying in UK, and has come home for a vacation.

Istanbul Skyline

Istanbul Skyline

As we try to enter the club, the bouncers bounce us off saying there is a private party going on – I guess it has to do with the scruffy clothes that we were all in, by the Clubs standards that is. The girls with us turn on their charm and talk their way in along with us. T is in demand the moment we step in. A girl who he knows from his school days, takes him away to her group of friends who have come here to celebrate a bachelorette party. As we order our Raki and Efes and settle down, the real players at the club start to arrive on their yatches through the private a docking port of the club.


T is back and looks a bit shocked from his experience. The Girl whose bachelorette party this is, is looking for a guy to sleep with- any guy that she likes tonite. Her friends are randomly getting men for her to choose from. T is shocked as much as all of us are and says that maybe he has been away for too long and thngs in Turkey have changed. He is single and looking to mingle, but is totally put off by the girl and her plans for him. There are hot women all around, a lot of Russians, and not all of them are there for just because of good Turkish club music. And not all the guys there share the same moral qualms as our T. Exhibitionists abound and the club helps them to bring it all out – they would light a sparkler on any table that orders a Champaign, and they wont mind all the scantily clad and shapely women dancing on tables. Nothing about the evening even hints at this being a country with 99.8% Muslim population, though this lack of diversitiy does not sit well with a country that boasts itself of being a Parliamentary representative democracy.

Istiklal Steet - Istanbul

Istiklal Steet - the party street

Istiklal street where we are staying, is about 20 min away from Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) and Haghia Sophia, and  may as well have been 2000 years apart. History is pouring out of every corner of Istanbul and a lot of it is quite well preserved even as the country has developed and is now knocking on the doors of EU to be let in. A stroll down Istiklal street makes you a part of this melting pot of people from the gene pool of caucuses, the Arabs, the Asians and European – though they are all Turks now. The women look pretty, and the men look strong and self assured – the compulsory 15 month army tour of duty has everything to do with it. Hot pants and Hijab are choices that people are free to make, and there are a lot more of the former. As it gets late in the night, the shopping district turns into  a giant pub street, with each pub competing with the other on the loudness of its music. Sipping your drink in the streetside bars, you get used to the overlapping sound of club beats, Turkish live rock, and some really bad rendition of classic rock . But life seems feels good.


Recovering from the hangover we take a tour of Istanbul on the Bosphorus. Looking at the sea front houses with their private yatches, I realize my ambition isn’t ambitious enough. Six of the top 50 richest people in the world apparently have a river facing house here. I feel bad about the loss of such open spaces to private ownership though. The Massive bridge connecting the European to Asian side is quite a symbol of Rise of Turkey, though for the people there it is seen as the expensive alternative to travel at a cost of the 4 Turkish Lira toll charge.


Water front houses on the Bosphorus

Water front houses on the Bosphorus

Control of these waters is what has shaped the destiny of Turkey in so many ways. It sparked off the cold war after the WW2, with Russia keen to gain control over it since this is their only access to warm waters for them, and which the west soon realised and which led to the faceoff of the ideologies. The forts along the river bank indicate a history from the roman times when control of this river meant a control over a huge share of trade global trade. It all looks too peaceful and beautiful to be the reason for all this conflict.


The guide we hire to show us Haghia Sophia is a retired school teacher. His objectivity about history evaporates quickly as he realises that we aren’t from the west and nor are we Christians. He begins telling us to be distrustful of the west and their machinations and how they will stab anyone in the back. The rest of the history of the mosque and of Turky is colored by his own subjective lense. I am sure this is not what he was taught in his tour guide accreditation program, but his version of stories are a lot more engaging, and I am sure this is what a large number of Turks feel too. Probably this is the feeling left over after the end of world war 1 when turkey sided with Germany, and lost and was almost broken up by the Allies. He wants to know why we don’t have kids, and then advises to have them soon while complaining that his son is 37 and still not married and he is so worried. He duly gets the woman to touch some marble slabs and then tells them that this guarantees twins. My wife isn’t too kicked with getting tricked into having babies like this and also not particularly amused by his sexist streak, but we all enjoy his company anyway. Blue mosque lets us down compared to the visually rich and dramatic Haghia Sophia.


Luck and location has as much to do with the ascent as much as the hardworking Turks. Apparently, kids in school across Turkey start their school day with a pledge ‘ I am a Turk , I am honest, I am industrious’. Turkey being at the centre of coldwar got a lot of material and in-kind help from Britain and the USA. Entrepreneurs from Greece and Armenia and the Jews were forced out of the country on various pretexts which i am sure also gave Turkey a windfall in the confiscated money (part of the reason for such a high Muslim percentage). Turkeys calculated timing of joining the world war two, which it delayed right towards the end when the outcome was mostly decided, gave Turky access to UN founding members and thus greater influence in the new world order and much greater autonomy on it’s own affairs than they earlier had. This also gave turkey entry into NATO and helped modernize a weak ill-equipped army, though it still dosent get the full respect of many European countries as they feel that Turky didn’t do enough in WW2.


Turky is clearly where India will be in another 5-10 years. If I thought that India has bad relations with all it’s neighbours, turkey makes our situation seem positively congenial. A Russia with its lust for bosphorus, Greeks with whome it has fought 2 wars and the Cyprus issue continues to torture their relationship, Armenia which is seething in anger at Turkey not being brought to book for the alleged ‘genocide’ in which anywhere between 50,000 to 1.5mn Armenians were massacred,  Europe that is forever suspicious of a Muslim nation. Siding with Germany in world war one didnt help it much either. In India we get our German visa in 1 day, and for a Turk it takes upto a month! Clearly European union isn’t going to happen anytime soon.


The following night there are more pubs and more bar hopping. T joins us again and take us to some really cool bars. This time he is with another pal who has just returned from his compulsory tour of Duty of 6 months. He would have been in it for 15 months if he wasn’t a university graduate. He clearly hasn’t fully recovered from his Army training camp and is bitter about it. I wonder what it does to a country where every guy has been through the same rigorous army training – it has the power to rescript the entire nation into a single mindset… both powerful and dangerous.  There are two more girls with them both from their college days. We pub hop, girls drop out, new friends join in, drinks keep flowing, we lose track of time.

As the sun comes up and we head home to pick our bags and catch the flight to Cappadocia, sleeping all the way to the land of cave hotels and hot air Balloons and the secret underground cities and the Swirling Dervishes…

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  1. Mayank says:

    Looks like you had a lot of fun. Great post Rahul, i loved the thoughful mix of history and your take on what Turkey is today. *one my travel wish list*

  2. Abhishek Joshi says:

    i enjoy ur blog am writing this comment with great fear that it would lead to a response such as am glad u like it ( a smiley at the end wud kill me) ………questions

    how do we foster debate ……………. i read this because it takes me back to our chats ………… i can see shades of that how do u make this into a conversation
    is flow the key to stickiness is flow critical or is it hygiene in the way writers write……read the diary of a bad year ………..can ra one review and turkey form the same story by just simply picking paragraphs and alternating ……..sounds stupid try it again read the diary ……shud i read this cos i care for ur opinion ? there has to be more ….

    • RB says:

      Ok, so did try your suggestion, and the worlds dont quite mix well, even on the blog. SRK is the smart one here, he has us figured out, he knows what we will pay for (even if we dont like it) he will come back and pull off another of this con-jobs and we will all line up again, only just a little more imperceptibly cynical. Tripping in Turkey is quite a different space … its real, genuine, dosent quite care for what you may like or dislike, it is just the way it is… make what you can of it… more interactive and engaging than any faceoff of Ra1 or G1

  3. Abhishek Joshi says:

    i agree. Baby Esha.

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