Backpacker confession… we have never been to South East Asia. Most of you reading at this point probably don’t know how blasphemous that statement is, but trust me, in the backpacker world not having been to Asia (specifically South East Asia) is like a San Diegan who has never been to the beach. While we still have not been to the backpacker motherland of South East Asia, we did make it to the continent of Asia while we were in Turkey, with our first few hours on our newest continent occurring as a day trip from the European side of Istanbul, where most visitors spend the entirety of their stay.
The Asian side of Istanbul is only a short ferry ride across the Bosporus and we had been told it has a very different feel to it. More local, less touristy. Sounded great. Well… I mean I guess technically it felt a little more local since there were far less tourists wandering around, but if you walk a few blocks from the main tourist streets in any city it will always feel a lot more local. But basically it had the same crowded, bustling, kinda dirty city feel as the European side.
Maybe we were expecting too much, but we had read and heard about it being like transported to a totally different city, one that is like magic and off the beaten path and different and blah blah blah. It wasn’t horrible or anything, but we got the same feeling as we had walking through the local neighborhood we were staying in, so the “something special” factor just wasn’t there for us.
I have no other pictures of the Asian side. I wasn’t even inspired enough to take out my camera.
Feeling completely uninspired by our day trip, we scrapped the rest of our plans for our Asian adventure (which wasn’t hard since “walking around the Asian side of Istanbul” basically summed them up) and headed back to the European side to finish our short stay as the guidebooks had intended, filled with Turkish merchants overcharging white cruise ship day trippers for trinkets that would end up at the bottom of their grandchildren’s junk drawer. To the bazaar we went!
Knowing that we would be coming back to Istanbul to do some shopping at the end of the trip, our walk through the Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar was really more of a reconnaissance mission for future purchases, although we did buy enough dried fruit to last us a few bus rides.
Since we had cut our Asia-day extremely short, we had some time after our grand non-shopping adventure to take a sweaty and miserable walk up an intimidatingly large hill (strangely lined with stores that only sold pots and pans and kitchen appliances) to the Suliemanye Mosque. We arrived just in time for the call to prayer (when the mosques are closed to non-Muslims), but our timing ended up being a blessing in disguise since it gave us a chance to observe all the different people showing up to pray.
Walking around Istanbul it is not easy to forget that you are in a Muslim country. Many women are fully covered, the call to prayer sounds loudly throughout the city and mosques are everywhere you look. But despite a prevalence of long pants on men and headscarves and ankle length skirts on women, there are many, many Turkish Muslims dressing a lot less conservatively, especially in Istanbul.
When walking through the younger, hipper neighborhoods (like the one near the University) it is impossible to distinguish who is a practicing Muslim and who is not based on their clothing. Beyond that, it is often difficult to distinguish young tourists from young Turkish locals based on the length of their skirts alone. Istanbul is still far more conservative than say, Los Angeles, and you will not see booty shorts and low cut tops on very many Turkish women, but jeans, summer dresses and sleeveless tops are not uncommon. Dressing well seemed to be very important in Turkey and there are tons of extremely attractive Turkish men and women who would fit in just fine in any fashion capital in the world.
Nowhere was the wide disparity in conservatism more obvious than at the entrance of the mosque, where women in heels and pencil skirts came to pray alongside their fully covered female co-workers. I loved seeing the modern, professional women putting on the long skirts and head scarves provided by the mosque that I assumed were available because of non-Muslim tourists. It had never occurred to me that the beautiful women on the metro wearing that cute summer dress would be kneeing in prayer later in the day. How narrow-minded is that?
When the prayer ended we were allowed to enter the mosque. Shoes come off, knees and shoulders (and heads if you are a woman) need to be covered and a respectful silence is expected. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that these beautiful buildings are not there for us as tourists to snap a few pictures and leave, they are places where people find their peace and solace and they need to be respected.
With our final bit of sightseeing/ culture soaking finished we headed back to our Airbnb to grab our bags and eat a delicious kebab dinner on Istiklal street before making our way to the gargantuan Istanbul bus station to catch our overnight bus headed for the destination we were possibly most looking forward to… Cappadocia!!