Saturday, March 31, 2007

ISTANBUL | Just back from Topaki

Hullos! Just came back from a tour of the Topaki Palace - did a tour of the harem of the palace, which is not as lavish as I've expected. The guide pointed out of the the misconception of the harem - harem simply meant "place forbidden to men without Sultan" - so it's not the hotpit of lust and debauchery we were led to believe by over-imaginative Orientalists. A lot of the harem ladies served the noble ladies, and some of them were allowed to marry Ottoman court officials if they wish.

Here's the cool bit: Retirement age for the harem ladies was 30 - whereby they will then be given a pension, and allowed to leave service. Actually, this sounds really good.

The highlight of the tour is actually the treasures of the Ottoman empire - in particular the holy relics of the Prophet Mohammad. No photo-taking were allowed, so sorry - no picture to upload. There was a cleric chanting the Koran in the exhibition room as we toured - in an orderly and respectful fashion - the exhibits. There was the sword of Mohammad, his bow, the banner of the army campaigning Allah's cause. These are the artifacts used in historic battles for Islam, and they are all there in the room. There was also a footprint impression of Mohammed on stone. In a way, it's like being in the same room with the cross of Calvary.

I'm maxed out on museum visits today. Will be heading downtown later, Beyoglu, which is where the hip places are.

Just a few observations in case anyone wants to visit Istanbul - and you should if you want to - don't let the naysayers stop you. You only live once, and as long as you are careful and sensible, you will be just fine. A lot of backpackers around, and we're all trying to figure things out on our own. But tourists will definitely be accosted by a lot of shopkeepers, trying to solicit business. They're just trying to make a living, so we usually just try to be civil but move briskly on.

But the things around Istanbul are more expensive than the other parts of Turkey. In Selcuk, a glass of Turkish tea cost 0.50 YTL (YTL = new Turkish lira), but it could be anything from 2.00-3.00 YTL in Istanbul. And 5.00 YTL for a glass of fresh orange juice! (I need the vitamin C) I exchanged 300.00 USD for 411.00 YTL, so that may give you an idea of the exchange rate. All transactions can be done in Turkish currency - and tickets are paid for in YTL only. Some travel guides give us the impression you can only use Euros or US dollars. Not true at all.

The food here is not spicy at all - which was not what I was expecting. In need of spicer fare, we went to an Indian restaurant this afternoon. For the vegetarian, you will survive - although probably on a lot of carbs. So the Atkins diet is OUT. For vegans, there's yoghurt and cheese in many of the Turkish dishes, so that may be a problem. And the lamb doners - they smell really good and they make for good (and cheaper) meals if you are on the go.

Great thing about my hostel - the people here are nice - there's always someone who speaks English and so far, not too noisy. But may be worse around April when the tourist season peaks.

Oh, and there's a Istanbul film festival here right now, so film bluffs that we are, we're hoping to catch a few movies. But subtitles are in Turkish. Ha!

I feel like I'm a travel scout for anyone interested in coming here.

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