17-23 January 2014 #690

The Istanbul Stopover

A day or two in Istanbul lets you relive pages from Turkish history, and provides a break between Asia and Europe.
Tsering Dolker Gurung in ISTANBUL

A day is never enough to explore a city, but when you have an overnight layover between flights it’ll have to do. At least it is better than spending all that time in the malls that modern airport terminals have come to resemble.

Compared to all the other places that airlines serving Kathmandu offer layovers, Istanbul is one where it is worth taking a city tour. Turkish Airlines which began its operations in Nepal last September, is offering passengers with more than six-hour layovers in international connecting flights a free city tour.


If your stopover is longer, you can also book an overnight stay, a day tour of Istanbul’s sights which include the famous mosques, the Bosphorus and the Spice Market. Each corner of Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmet Square is decked in history. On one side, you have an Egyptian obelisk from the time when Istanbul was Constantinople, on the other are prime jewels of the Ottoman Empire, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, the church-turned mosque.

Unlike most heritage sites around the world which are either ruins or have ceased to function as living monuments, the ones in Istanbul continue to serve their original purpose. The sites are visited in equal numbers by both Christian Orthodox and Muslim worshippers, as well as tourists.



Originally a Roman-era church and later converted into a mosque during Ottoman rule, Hagia Sophia today serves as a museum like its neighbour, the Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years.  But an even greater attraction of Istanbul is the Bosphorus, that narrow and strategic waterway separating Asia from Europe, and the best way to get a feel of the channel is to take a cruise either to the Dardenelles or the Black Sea, or both. The other attraction is the Grand Bazar, which would be Kolkata’s New Market multiplied 100 times. With more than 3,000 shops selling everything from precious stones to baklava, it is literally a shopper’s paradise. The Spice Market down the hill is a sensory delight. Turkish shopkeepers are not aggressive, and even when they are making a sales pitch, they do it with a sense of humour. But avoid street vendors offering you a Chanel Mademoiselle for $10, though.

When the bus is ready to take you back to the airport, take a sip of local chai (it’s a Turkish word) or some of the strong local coffee to prepare you for the next leg of your long flight.

In transit

When Turkey went through an economic crisis in 2001, its state carrier cut expenses and dropped loss-making routes to survive. In the following years, the government invited private companies to invest and Turkey’s flag carrier has grown in ten years to become the fourth-largest airline in the world.

Turkey took advantage of its strategic location astride Europe and Asia to turn Istanbul into a stopover hub for international passengers. Over 20 per cent of Turkish’s passengers come and go through Asia. Most passengers from Kathmandu connect in Istanbul to their onward destinations. So, if you have a 24-hour layover, and a Turkish visa, you can enjoy a day wandering between Europe and Asia.

Between east and west

No matter how often you have heard about Istanbul being the city that straddles two continents, it is still a pleasant surprise to be in a megapolis with an Asian heart and a European mind. You are constantly reminded of the intermingling of the two: the outgoing hospitality, easy confidence, spices and food from the east, check-to-jowl with the efficiency, orderliness and cosmopolitanism of the west.

For a Kathmandulay, it is a compliment to be mistaken for an Istanbullu on Galatas Bridge and being asked for directions. And on the hill of mosques, there are a surprising number of people who look like cousins or aunts back home. The street signs and stray bits of conversation from passersby contain words that have a familiar ring.

On the pedestrianised Istiklal Street, a bookshop is called Insaan Kitap. A shop making rubber stamps advertises the prices of its Hazir Haraf. The newspapers are called Zaman or Duniya. There are the names of foods (badam, halwa, kofta, kebab, sabji, sakkhar), legal terminology (adalat, hazir, zamanat, yaniki) military terms (dushman, barood, chaku, durbin, maidan, tope) and everyday words (awaz, jabaf, dost, hawa, kalam) which came to Nepali from Turkish via Urdu. The word for airport is Havaalani. In fact, even the word ‘Urdu’ has Turkic origin and means ‘army camp’.

Istanbul Memories and the City

Orhan Pamuk (translated)

Faber and Faber, 205

348 pages


The best way for visitors to immerse themselves in Istanbul’s rich culture, history and lifestyle is not to read Lonely Planet but grab Orhan Pamuk’s autobiographical Istanbul Memories and the City. Pamuk is a Nobel laureate and the most internationally known Turkish writer. While many find his novels too intricate and disturbing, they have as common themes the adjustments Turkey has made to fit between east and west. However, his non-fiction book on the city he grew up in gives an outsider an insider’s view of Istanbul’s past and present, putting a transit visitor’s fleeting passage through it in perspective and context.

A lot of us in Nepal from joint families will find familiarity in Pamuk’s childhood in an eight-storey apartment with his extended clan living on different floors. Every neighbourhood street, every neighbour, shop or café has a memory that is linked to Turkey’s turbulent past, as the city was buffeted by waves of history from the Byzantine era, the Mongol invasion, through the imperial Ottomon period, Kemal Atatürk’s secularist campaign right down to the present day where two bridges and a new tunnel now cross from Asia to Europe over and under the Bosporus. Pamuk tells the story of his life and his country through the heartbeat of a city he never left.

Pamuk writes: 'The city into which I was born was poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been in its two-thousand-year history. For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy. I’ve spent my life either battling with this melancholy, or (like all Istanbullus) making it my own.’

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