Solo in Istanbul, Turkey

Tucked in a side alley just off istikal cadassi, one of the most popular avenues in Istanbul, is an authentic Turkish coffee shop. I’ve heard they serve the best traditional coffee in the city, evident from the locals-only crowd. When I approached, all eyes turned on me, the lone Asian girl in a quiet alley.

“Merhaba!” The young server called out to me. I was immediately put at ease as he welcomed me into the cosy space where an old grandpa toiled over the stove, continuously stirring a copper pot filled with deep black nectar. This was clearly a 2-man show, the coffee made upon order and served in a porcelain cup no bigger than a Chinese teacup.  I ordered my coffee “orta” (medium sweet) and took a seat, excited about my first dose of Turkish coffee. After the first sip, I was momentarily buzzed. This is unlike any other coffee I’ve tasted.

Istikal Cadassi, modern Istanbul’s most popular shopping avenue.
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The thick, grainy texture of turkish coffee is an acquired taste.

“good? Japan? China?” the middle-aged man next to me grinned. Before I could answer, he told me about the correct ways of drinking Turkish coffee, how less is more and not to drink the coffee grinds, that I am sitting in a shop with a long history and all the coffee trivia I needed to know. He also held out his phone and showed me a photograph of his beautiful wife and 2 young children. Such is the type of Turkish hospitality I’ve experienced so far, a far cry from what the sensationalised headlines might tell you these days.

I had some initial reservations about coming to Istanbul alone, before A joins me and we continue with our climbing plans in Antalya. After all, the country shares its southern border with war-torn Syria and the ISIS-controlled state of Mosul. It is also a predominantly muslim country and of course, the internet abound with generalisations of muslim states and how “dangerous” they are in recent times. Generalisations.

Walking down the colourful streets of Istanbul, all I can see are tourists snapping photo after photo of her majestic skyline and well-preserved monuments. Also, since it was a Friday, I bore witness to the entire city shrouded in a serenity of Friday Prayer rituals. The streets of Istanbul are as safe and as ‘dangerous’ as anywhere else I’ve been. Other than numerous touts wanting to sell me Persian carpets and eager shop owners trying to entice me with a sample of turkish delight, I felt comfortable and safe in the capital.

The Hagia Sofia mosque turned museum was a church under Roman rule, converted to a mosque under the Ottomans.
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Friday prayer rituals for the muslims on the streets of the historic center.

Despite SIngapore being a melting pot of religions, I realised that in all my life back home, I have never stepped into a mosque. And I wonder if all mosques are bestowed with such intricate motifs and carvings because the interiors of the Blue mosque as well as the famed Hagia Sofia are true architectural beauties.

One of my favourite places include the Spice Bazaar (much better than the Grand Bazaar) housing numerous spice merchants, many are decades old family-run businesses which existed since the beginnings of the regional spice trade.  The assortment of spices and preserves gives you a hint of the exotic flavours in the local cuisine.

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I also treated myself to a very relaxing traditional hamam – turkish bath, heated marble slab, soap massage, the works.

Turkey is a breath of fresh air and a huge contrast to the neighbouring cities I’ve visited in Western Europe. It possesses a mystical quality, almost akin to the exotic orient (and I am Asian!) that we are so familiar with as depicted in books and movies. It is one of those places brimming with history and culture, but also quick to catch on the modernisation bandwagon. The ubiquitous Starbucks and H&M stores dotted among a landscape of ancient palaces and mosques appear almost jarring and disconcerting.

A arrives tomorrow and next week, we will abandon this city for some climbing in Geyikbayiri. Onward to the great turkish outdoors, hello to village goats and sheep!

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