Istanbul’s THY Lounge is Amazing

I arrived in Istanbul in relatively steamy heat. The hot summer sun even at 4:30 seems to penetrate everything.

With 4 hours to go prior to my flight to CDG (yes, it’s wonderful to overshoot your destination by more than three hours only to turn back a few hours later).

But, because Star Alliance Gold affords you access to ALL the international lounges, I found myself at the end of the hall in the magical Turkish Airlines lounge, fully equipped with a movie theater, Playstations, a child’s play corner, tons of cush seating, a fully functional espresso bar with desserts, two fully stocked beverage kingdoms, two chefs on hand, and copious amounts of pizzas, dishes and treats. Of course, free wifi is a given.

 

If this place was open 24 hours, I may never get a hotel. Why did I never come here before?!

Istanbul for the second time

Sitting on the plane to Belgrade, I catch myself looking down at my visa. Surely that’s not right. Surely…my entrance stamp says the 18th? No today is the 18th. My exit stamp says the 18th. But what…is…that…number? The 13th? No, not possible. How is it that the days just glide by like this?

Ahhh, the 16th. I entered on the 16th. How was it only the 16th?!? I feel like I’ve been here for a week.

Or perhaps it’s just the combined deja vu of this being round 2.

**

Feb. 16:

I arrive in Istanbul again after the 10-hour flight from EWR, which always seems to fly by watching back to back movies. I swear I love long flights sometimes because it’s an opportunity for the mind to go quiet. No interuptions. No phone calls. No connections. I’ll be sad the day wifi becomes commonplace and free. The airplane is my sanctuary, and one day it’ll be gone. Perhaps that’s why I’m so addicted to going anywhere, any place. I’ll do anything to force myself to disconnect.

Alongside a couple and a man who is en route to Dubai after a weekend in Istanbul, we quickly gather liras from the Citibank ATM (among many in a row at the airport) and head to the metro. I vaguely remember taking it with An-an almost precisely two years ago and knew that Sultanahmed would bring me to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, and a transfer would take me across the Bosphorus by tram to Beyoglu, from the Galata Tower to Kabatas. I’ve always felt safer on metros. No traffic. No surprises.

Leaning up against the window is also deja vu, and stepping out into the street at Karakoy, the air is crisp, the sky cloudy and the traffic thick. This is how I remember the city, although staying in Sultanahmed last time really helped ramp up the beauty/exotic factor.

We take a cab from Karakoy, where I am to drop off my new friend at his hotel–the Mermera Palace. I cringe visibly. I have yet to have a positive experience with taxis, thinking back to when An-an and I took one from Kabatas to the W hotel and were taken around for 40 minutes and charged nearly $50 only to find the drive should have been about 5 minutes.

When the cab finally pulls up to the Mermera, it is 40 minutes later and we have gone  from Karakoy to Taksim three separate times. The driver apparently also pulls the 50/5 switch on my friend [when my friend gave him 50 liras for the 45 lira cab drive, the driver switched the 50 with a 5 and insisted he was not paid]. My friend ends up paying 95 liras when it’s said and done. What can he do? One word against another.

IST-NAV and ATV’ing through Cappadoccia

An-an tells me she spent half an hour waking me up. I have no recollection. We hastily pack our things and jump into the cab t go to the airport. It’s a slightly hazy day, and we’re still woozy from the night before.

I am concerned about timing but when we arrive at the airport, we realize the flight is at 9:50, not 9. We chill, feeling mostly miserable until it’s time to board and sleep.

We are... Turkish Airlines
We are… Turkish Airlines

Deplaned!
Deplaned!

 

Cappadocia is warm, a balmy 60 degrees and sunny when we land. The terrain is certainly different, not quite mountainous but rocky and hilly. A warm breeze blows past us.

I’m still not feeling altogether stellar, but we find our way to the tiny Nevsehir airport, and sure enough, on the other side of a short conveyer belt spitting out suitcases, there is a Turkish man holding a sign that reads “Lisa Xia”. It’s so smooth I can hardly believe it.

Expecting a full load, I am surprised to board the shuttle and find that it is only An-an and I and one other Japanese man. If you asked me again in 24 hours, I would tell you that I thought the only people who visited Cappadocia were Asian tourists.

The drive is a short 25 minutes, and we are captivated by the door and window openings on the stones outside that signify that these rocks are indeed homes. Whizzing by small towns along the way, we try to snap pictures of caves flashing by, convincing the driver to stop only once so we can snap up some more. We knew what we would be expecting to see, but it’s still rather unreal when you see it. It’s unlike any terrain I’ve witnessed.

The town of Goreme is quaint and cute, a long cobblestone main road that leaves us right at the door of Rock Valley. I knew it wasn’t exactly a cave—it isn’t at all—but the “Pansion” [did they all just spell it wrong collectively?] looks cozy. An-an has never stayed in a hostel before and I had warned her ahead of time we would be roughing it. I am secretly nervous that she’ll be grossed out by the dorm room. If you feel uncomfortable, we can switch and upgrade, I say.

The reception is manned by multiple Turkisk men, with others relaxing in the den sipping on apple tea. It’s hard to tell who works here, who’s just hanging out and who’s a tourist. There is a tall Turkish boy sitting behind the desk, clacking away on his Facebook. “Ummm.. checking in?”

An older man greets us, with a charming smile that’s just slightly toothy. The interspersed grey hairs give away his age. I think he’s about 50 perhaps.

Welcome girls, he says, and gives us the key  to room 5.

Can we do ATVs, I ask rather quickly. We had seen a line of them rolling in, and conjuring up  images of Costa Rica, I instantly want in.

Yes, he says. I will make a call. There is a tour that leaves maybe at 2:45; it is 45 liras. You go for about two hours.

I glance at the clock quickly. Ok perfect. We’ll settle in, maybe walk around a little bit and we’ll come back.

Ok, he says. 2:45.

Yea, yea, it’ll be fine.

We lug our suitcases up a rickety flight of stairs that almost reminds me of a ladder more so than stairs.

I’m afraid to think about you and these stairs when you’re drunk, An-an tells me.

There is no one in our room when we go in. It’s cozy, stacked with six single beds. I’m secretly happy that for her first hostel experience, these aren’t bunk beds.

It’s 2:25 by the time we set  ourselves ready to check out the town. We’ll be back, we yell to the reception. We’re just going to walk around.

Are you sure?

I think they’re surprised that we don’t want to sit and relax. Americans are always in such a hurry; it doesn’t make sense sometimes  in Arabic countries—or otherwise—when people really appreciate the time to breathe.

It’s a little cold when we step foot outside, but certainly not the 32 degrees we had expected it to be (that weather.com had suggested). The streets are rather quiet, some of the storefronts closed or dark. An occasional old man walks slowly, white hair tucked under a biker’s cap, hands curled behind a hunched back. It’s an image out of a photo book.

The road slants down slightly, and we balance on the chunky square stones, snapping photos of the houses. There is small playground in the middle of the street, paint chipping in a hideous shade of pink. Yet the draw of the swing set is such that we both stop to strike a pose.

Walking past the store fronts, there are displays of jewelry and headdresses. I try one on for fun, wrapping the sides around my head.
How much? I ask the store owner.

10 liras, he replies.

No, no, too expensive, I say. Not that 10 liras is all that much, but I do feel like he’s ripping me off and I really have no interest in buying this hat.

An-an is looking for an evil eye piece of jewelry, so we walk into another store front further down the line where the owner brings out his array of silver rings. He offers us apple tea—like Morocco and their mint tea.

An-an tries on six or seven rings  while the owner inquires into where we are from and if we are students.

No, I work in consulting, An-an says.

I know that she wants to dispel the notion that we are young students by affirming her prestigious role in corporate America—she wants this store owner to be impressed—but I want to kick her. Surely now knowing that we had jobs, our faces as young students would instantly turn into dollar signs in the eye of the shop owner. We had money, and he knew it.

How much is this one, she asks.

Placing the ring onto an electronic scale and taking out the calculator—as if it were some sort of science–he announces grandiosely: 180 liras. Special price for Chicago girls.

Fortunately we have Chinese on our side.

It’s very expensive, An-an whispers to me. I didn’t think it would be that much.

He thinks you have money, it’s over, I say.

That’s expensive, she says to him. Can it be lower?

It’s not just the silver and materials you pay for, he says. You know. It is the design that is very special. Each one is made by hand, and the money is for the designer.

I roll my eyes. $100 for sterling silver ring with CZ and glass stuck to it with cheap glue.

Ok, well we’re going to go to an ATM and look around some more. We may be back, I say.

Ok girls, he says, smiling warmly with hospitality. I can’t figure out if he’s being genuine or how much one of those things should be.

Looking down at my phone, I’m instantly aware that it’s 2:41. Shit, we gotta go back, I say to An-an.  We hastily leave the store and start again uphill back to the pansion. Halfway up we get moderately disoriented only to find the pink playground again.

The guy is there waiting for us with a car to drive us to the ATV place. Great, we say, hopping in, only to find that the car drives us right back to where we started walking from—four blocks away.

There is a string of ATVs waiting for us and after paying a short  Turkish man with piercing blue eyes and a scraggly beard, we join the 4 other Asian tourists (and 2 Turkish girls) onto the ATVs. Two guys from our hostel are coming as well and I’m reminded of the stories of Moroccan men who try to charm their way into foreign women’s lives in efforts to get married and be rescued from the country. What has become of me and my suspicion?

The ride is cool at first. Fortunately, unlike the ATVs in CR, these do not have manual gears to kick. Hit this to accelerate, and use the left hand for back brake, right hand for front brake, the guy on the motorcycle tells us. Easy.

Then we’re on our own, across the gravel roads, onto the dirt roads. We make three pit stops to take photos of the landscape along the way. Our guides point out the Red Valley, Love’s Valley, and small towns that dot the road.

Climbing atop a land rock structure, we make note that some of the cave formations resemble circumcised male genitalia.

They look like wieners, I say.

Following our third stop on the ATVs, at a small, lone picnic table sitting at the edge of a valley looking down, we begin to feel the droplets of rain.

The light pitter of water soon grows stronger and the wind begins to pick up.

Shit, I really think it’s raining. It’s really cold.

We all feel a bit battered and one of our guides moves to turn our ATVs around to head for home. I pop my helmet on and hop onto to the machine. I am wearing the sweatshirt of one of our guides, and I can feel the water start to seep through the cloth.

Oh shit shit shit.

My engine goes with a start, and as we start our way down the hill, the freezing rain begins to pelt down. Rain spitting down onto my ungloved hands, wind whipping at my knuckles, I am in hell.

As we pick up speed, I notice looking back that part of our party is missing. It’s no use now turning back because our train of four ATVs are speeding on forward, and there is no possibility that I’ll actually have anything to benefit by turning back.

By now, my hands are so cold that I have jammed them as little balled fists into the sleeves of my sweatshirt. I am pushing the accelerator with my fist with no immediate access t to the brakes. I just hope there won’t be an occasion to need to brake.

The rain feels like knives now, penetrating into my thin sweatpants. I can feel every droplet ripping at my skin, and I wonder how long it would be before I could potentially damage my skin permanently. I hunch over, folding my body, trying to use my torso to protect my legs from further onslaught. It kind of works.

Looking out at the road, my helmet is so fogged up that I can’t quite tell where I’m going. But, if the alternative is having freezing rain whipping at my face, I’d rather have partial vision.

We only stop once on the road back to wait for the other crew. I’m almost angry that we’re waiting and freezing. The Turkish guide jumps off his ATV and runs to me, rubbing my hands in his and giving me a slight hand and back massage. I’m a little skeeved—his rubbing on my hands actually is more painful than it is warming—and the back massage reminds me of Nour.

It’s a straight shot afterwards back to the ATV rental place. As we turn the corner, I can see Goreme down the valley at a distance almost too far for comfort. Knowing that we still have such a distance to go and feeling as cold as I do, there is a fleeting moment when I think that I won’t be able to make it.

When we’re finally back at the ATV rental shop, I hop inside to warm myself by the stove. Shivering, my dude hands me a cigarette. I really don’t want to smoke it but I don’t want to be rude, so I take it.

The Turk with the bright blue eyes chats to me about Erciyes.

We’re trying to go tomorrow, I say, but we’re not sure yet how we’re going to get there.

He re-confirms my notion that we’ll need to take a bus to Kayseri, and then from Kayseri take a dolmus to Mt. Erciyes.

It’s different for me, he says, because you know, when I go, I take my private transport. In fact, I was just there three days ago.

Oh yea, and it’s good?

He smiles. It’s good.

I’m itching to have a glass of wine and perhaps get out of my wet clothes. I’m comfortable, albeit a bit tired.

My dude tells me he’s going to take me back to Rock Valley.

No I’d rather just wait here for An-an to come back, I say.

No, blue eyes tells me, I just got a SMS. They had to stop to seek shelter. They found a cave or something. When they come back, they’ll go straight to Rock Valley.  I wonder if they are trying to separate us on purpose.

When’s the storm going to stop? I ask.

I don’t know, do you want me to ask God?

Yes, I say, can you please send him an SMS?

Haha yes, he says, picking up his phone. It rings.

Is it God calling?

My dude gestures for me to go back to Rock Valley and so I hesitantly get up to go. Outside, it is still raining, and I don’t know why he feels compelled to take me. He’s not doing me any favors; I’d rather stay in the warm tour office until the rain stops.

He’s got his mind made, although he stops to pick me up a bottle of wine, gesturing something about 7:30 and making drinking gestures. I’m very confused, although receiving gifts feels like an invest to me—something he feels he can put in first to swindle more out of me later. I’m not sure what the situation is, and I certainly can’t understand him. He makes “sh!” gestures at me and again with the bottle of wine.

Once back, I try to relax. I don’t even have the strength in me to peel off my wet pants.

Deniz, the woman who I had been emailing with, introduces herself.  She is a jovial woman, in her forties or fifties perhaps, who exudes a very motherly and warm disposition.

It’s always so nice to put a face the name, she says. How are you enjoying Goreme?

It’s lovely, I saym although a bit cold. She helps explain the lay of the land.

An-an comes into the room 20 minutes later, make-up dripping, looking cold. Can we hamam?now?

Deniz lets out a hearty laugh.

Can we hamam now? I love it.

She leaves to get us vouchers. I can’t tell if she’s friendly to be friendly or if she’s getting a cut. Maybe something in between both.

Feb 19-20, 2011: Istanbul

Things got off a little slower than expected; I guess that’s to be expected.Because Ilan (a guy I’ve conversed with over asmallworld) texts me and warns me about Istanbul taffiic, we decide to take the Metro into town. It’s convenient, and gauging by the map, we need to get off somewhere by the end  of the T1 line to get to the W Hotel.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the booth is only in Turkish, but we fondle around a minute with the machine to figure out how to buy three tokens at 1.75 lira per token, as the Turkey Travel Planner suggests.

The light rail gets busy then empties—a woman actually tells us we need to get off at Kabasi because it’s the end of the line. We pass the Hagia Sofia and landmarks in the old town, as well as so many kebab places lining the streets that my mouth waters. I cannot wait to come back to Istanbul and stay in the Old Town. Street food has my name on it.

When we get off, we quickly flag down a cab who wastes no time ripping us off. We pay 50 lira to go essentially to go a distance that should have been five blocks. I kick myself for not being more diligent. I’m sure in an effort to swindle us again, the driver leaves us his phone number. The hotel advises us to call him and bring him back and they’ll deal with it when he actually arrives. An-an tries, but we ultimately give up. Unworthy effort.

An-an’s Starwood points get us upgraded at the W, into a 2-bed suite that we never actually sleep in. The room is trendy, with a small outdor courtyard and rosy lighting. I warn her that this is much, much nicer than anywhere else we’ll stay during the trip.

Can you rough it, I ask. I’m actually concerned.

Yea, she says. I’m laid back and down. I’ve just never done it before.

Idris, an asw contact advises us to go to Bebek Balikcisi for dinner instead of Poseiden, and since Gohkan (another asw contact) had advised Poseiden would likely cost us 100 euros a person, we decide Bebek Balikcisi is the good call.

I am slightly disappointed by the emptiness when we walk in but quickly realize that most of the patrons are sitting in the back at the tables along the Bosphorus, shielded by glass. We are ecstatic when they show us a table right alongiside the river. It’s so beautiful and mesmerizing, I can’t help but to smile. I even forget that the taxi only cost us 17 lira—and we were in the taxi for much longer going to Bebek than it should have taken. For what it’s worth, at least we’re comfortable with the metro now.

The guys at the table next to us are smoking sweet smelling cigars, and not missing a beat, An-an asks what they are puffing on. They don’t hesitate to offer us two of our own, saistsfying my urge to smoke.

A bottle of wine for 75 lira, an order of sea bass and grilled calamari with butter sauce leaves us happily satiated. Efem meets us at the restaurant—albeit briefly—and we head to Lucca, where an older dude based in D.C. buys us drinks.

Itching to club, we take a cab to Reina—much more our scene. We hang out with a group of guys wh turn out to be 20, At least they’re to hang out with for a drink, and we’re invited to hang out at the owner’s table for another.

Around 2:30, we feel like it’s time to head back to the W. The scene is dying, but someone gets us another round. Or maybe I’m already too drunk…

Drinks at the W

Although a group invites us to go to another diner, we decide to stay put, hanging ut with a guy who is also staying at the W. We order breakfast: a burger, pizza and salad, and watch Sex in the City 2 on-demand: a perfect end to the night.