Friday, October 24, 2014

Istanbul for Beginners 01: Getting There

[NB: This is part of a series on my visit to Istanbul. For other posts, please see the prefatory note.]

I was not meant to go to Istanbul. Not originally, that is. Back then I was a grad student at NUS. Their research scholars policy extended to funding one international conference a year. The SLS Conference, certainly one of the more prestigious events for law scholars, had accepted my abstract. It was to be held in London that year, which is where I thought I was headed. But then I got into a little problem with my supervisor, and the wonderful lady decided send me, and CC to the Vice-Dean, a mail containing some highly suggestive and misleading remarks about a dissertation chapter I was supposed to complete. As a matter of fact I had completed that chapter, and to the supervisor's satisfaction at that. I was the one who felt there was something vital I had missed out conceptually.  So I withdrew what I had turned in, and asked for a little time to revise it. It took me fifteen days of tense, chaotic brooding, but I did managed to crack the puzzle in the end, and the insights so gained proved pretty fundamental. By that time, though, the damage was done, and my funding application duly turned down. Ironically, these new ideas were what I wanted to present at SLS.

Even though I managed to set the record straight with the Vice-Dean the next time I met him in person, the episode left me absolutely livid. So much so that I vowed not to apply for conference funding ever again as long as I remained in Singapore. My friend Saiful thought it was a silly thing to do. He empathised with my feelings, yes, but why not avail of something that was mine by right? So what should I do, I asked, go ahead and present at a top-tier international conference insights I know are substantial, but which the supervisor can only scoff at? That's when he had a most interesting idea: why don't I seek out some conference, any obscure conference, being held at a place I've always wanted to visit? A little googling revealed a conference on terrorism to be held at one of Istanbul's lesser universities. I was reading Orhan Pamuk's book on the city at that time. Moreover, terrorism law had been one of my optional courses, and the term paper I had written for it could be comfortably recycled for this conference. Things began to fall into place automatically. This time my application sailed through most smoothly: I have no idea what the Vice-Dean told her, but my supervisor gave her consent in record time.

(Not entirely, though. She did one more little dirty on me. I had applied for three days' extra leave. She chose not to respond to the request one way or the other, which meant, thanks to the applicable rules, that I forfeited those three leaves without ever getting to know if they had been approved or not. I smelt a rat somewhere. My instincts told me extending the trip might not be a good idea. So I decided to return on the originally scheduled date. Sure enough, within hours of my landing I got a mail from her about something or the other. I responded within minutes, making it a point to say I was heavily jetlagged, which is why I couldn't come down to the campus. I don't know if she ran my mail through a reverse-DNS checkup. I sure hope she did; it would have reassured her no end.)

Anyways, once the approval came through the rest was easy. The only catch was, I had to arrange (and pay for) my own accommodation. This I managed online at minimum expense; I opted for a dormitory bed for fifteen Euros a night. Slightly steep, this Istanbul Paris Hotel and Hostel, but located in the heart of the Old City, extended walking distance from the conference venue, pretty close to the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, and they threw in a buffet breakfast for free. The University took care of the conference fees and, most crucially, the airfare. NUS had a delightful policy of reimbursing only SQ (i.e. Singapore Airlines) flights. Given that it was and remains one of the best airlines around, I certainly didn't have any problem with that. I did face a minor hiccup over my blazer, which I had outgrown by several inches around the midriff. Buying a new one from Singapore was never an option: the readymades were badly cut and ill-fitting, and bespoke tailoring was too expensive to contemplate. So one Saturday I went over to Johor Baru in Malaysia, located a tailor there, struck a deal with him, and returned the following Saturday to pick it up. I goofed a little on the material: in my haste I chose some sort of polyesterish stuff; when I went to pick it up I learnt I could have got Italian lambswool for just a hundred Ringgit more. That apart, my preparations proceeded with the utmost smoothness. Even the Turkish visa was processed in about three days.

Since this was an SQ flight, I got to experience at first hand the swanky new Terminal 3 at Changi. I loved the whole experience, couldn't get enough of it. Especially the planes parked right outside the departure lounge, across the plate-glass windows. In the plane another surprise awaited me. Though the flight was reasonably full, the other two seats on my row remained unoccupied, at least till the stopover at Dubai. Which meant I could simply lift up the armrests and stretch out across all three seats. I still didn't get much sleep, though. Even after about six or seven assorted drinks, I could only manage a thin, intermittent snooze in the last two hours of the Singapore-Dubai leg. Maybe the drinks they serve on planes are smaller than regular ones. That's the only explanation I have for remaining awake, and stone cold sober, even with all that beer, wine, CampariIrish Cream, and indifferent Cognac sloshing about inside me. I did say assorted, right? I meant it.

Given SQ's reputation, I expected the food to be several notches above the sludge they serve on other airlines. In this I was not disappointed exactly, but that's about all that can be said for it. They served us grilled chicken, sauteed veg, mash, a dinner roll, some salad - standard stuff, mostly nourishing, reasonably tasty and, well, humdrum. Breakfast the next morning was nicer, if equally conventional. I got some sort of sausage (lamb, most likely), a couple of bull's eye eggs, apart from the usual accoutrements like baked beans, a roll, coffee, orange juice and all.

Dubai Airport was much as I had expected it - opulent, at times to the point of garishness. I tried to get myself some food, but then they told me even if I paid in Euros they will return the change in their local currency. One more incident: I was taking some pictures of a watch outlet displaying a huge poster of Aishwarya Rai (which suggested where a significant chunk of the shop's clientele came from). This officious security guard immediately stalked up to me and told me not to take pictures. I was drowsy and tired for lack of sleep, which is why I decided not to create a shindig. Otherwise I'd have cheerfully asked to see the manager and, if it came to that, even file a complaint.

I did manage some sleep after Dubai, even though the seats next to mine were occupied. I woke up to a most spectacular dawn, which slowly gave way to the loveliest cloudscaped morning. In the brilliant sunshine, and against the deep mystic blue sky you get only at high altitudes, the vista was nothing short of magical. I could spot plains, forested clumps, rocky outcrops, windswept dunes. An enchanted land, a secret land, real, manifest, but which we humans were condemned to view only at a distance, from behind plate glass. And if by some stratagem, say a parachute, we contrived to reach out to the land, the closer we came to it the more the magic would dispel, the more porous, flawed, insubstantial our senses would perceive it to be. And then the land would shroud us in thick, sticky, opaque, white blindness and, before we knew what was happening, summarily eject us from its domain. After that of course the magic would reassert itself. Again the land would appear solid, real, but this time above us, unattainable because we cannot fly up.

Arrival at Istanbul was very smooth. I found myself outside the airport almost before I knew it. The weather was surprisingly chilly and drizzly, especially for late April. I was glad I had invested in a warm jacket before coming here; it stood me in good stead throughout my trip, and continues to do so even today, five years on. Getting to my hotel didn't pose much of a problem either. Some helpful soul advised me to take the Havaş bus to Aksaray (good value for money at five Euros), then take the tram to Çemberlitaş. I enjoyed the drive to Aksaray, very picturesque it was, with the city ramparts on my left and the Sea of Marmara to my right.

Akasaray was a learning experience. About currency rates, particularly. Now that Italy had joined the Euro, Turkey must be the only country whose currency is called Lira. Some time ago, the government decided to revamp the heavily devalued Lira. They created a new currency called YTL or Yeni Türk Lirasi (New Turkish Lira), each one of them worth 100,000 old ones. This brought about some sort 1:2 parity with the Euro. So when the Havaş guy glibly asked me for either ten Liras or five Euros, I thought this was the exchange rate generally. Ah, but then at Aksaray I found several foreign exchange shops offering as much as YTL 2.20 a Euro. (Later on, when I went to the more touristy places, I found rates there did not exceed 2.14. A useful trick, this: to figure out tourist-traps, keep a lookout for what currency traders offer.)

By this time the weather had got to me. I darted into a joint called Arjantin Piliç. As is now common the world over, the placemats had some popular items listed out, replete with pictures. That is how I figured out all steaks are called Biftek in Turkey: chicken steak is called Piliç Biftek, for example. (So chicken is called Piliç, except when it is called Tavuk. Go figure.) I wasn't interested in steaks. Nor in the chicken, lamb, quail and other meats set up for roasting on a variety of horizontal and vertical spits. What I wanted was soup, lots of soup, çorba they called it. And what wonderful soup it was! - thick, creamy, and flavoursome. It came with a basket of Turkish bread, warm, soft, and encrusted with sunflower seeds.  A hearty welcome to the loveliest city ever.


Bruce Tutcher said...

the eastern vikings (Varangians) called the city "Midgaard" (middle city) for good reason. It was and is an entrepôt for the entire known world.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Thanks for the comment, Bruce. I agree it's been the entrepot for the known world for thousands of years. And continues to do so even now, certainly as a cultural entrepot. Another thing I found interesting when I went there is that it acts as a commercial entrepot for several former Soviet Socialist Republics. TO appreciate this you need only look at the vast numbers of cheap flights to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Moldova and all being offered.

Karen Tutcher Austin said...

I enjoyed your article. Istanbul was a magical place to me, and the people were wonderful.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Many thanks for the comment Karen. I too found the city magical, every bit of it. Plan to write more on the city, especially the food. Do stay tuned.