The bus departed from Göreme in Cappadocia at 7pm and arrived at Istanbul in the early morning. This was the longest bus route I took in my Middle East trip, but itwasn't painful at all. Turkey has an excellent long-distance bus system. Competition among lots of bus companies apparently helps keep the quality of service high
They serve beverage or bottled water and sometimes snacks on board, and they have rest stops every few hours. On this trip I also had an interesting conversation with a Canadian student sitting next to me. He had been on the road by himself for three months, starting from Hong Kong, going north to China and Russia, and then back down to the Middle East. There were also two groups of Hong Kong tourists on the bus; it was the first time in the trip that I had met people from home.
The bus didn't go directly to the touristic Sultanahmet area, but a connection bus was already waiting for us. Two major landmarks in Sultanahmet are Aya Sofya (St. Sofia's Church) and the Blue Mosque, facing each other. The vast Aya Sofya, dated from the Byzantine times, have been used both as a church and as a mosque in the past, and currently it's basically a museum. The Blue Mosque isn't blue in the exterior; the blue refers to the decoration inside. Every evening at 9pm at the mosque, there is an impressive light-and-sound show that shouldn't be missed
Another must-see is the Topkali Palace, where the sultans (emperors) of the Ottoman Empire lived. Particularly interesting is the Harem, the forbidden part of the palace. You have to be accompanied by a guide to visit the Harem, but unfortunately we didn't get much from the guide because of her strong accent. As a Chinese, I was astonished to see the huge collection of Chinese potteries in Topkali: If I remember right, there are over two thousand pieces. But I have to confess that I much prefer Turkish potteries. They are more colorful than the Chinese ones, which are more often than not blue in color
There are many more interesting museums in the area, which I won't try to exhaust here. The Archaeology Museum and the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum are among my favorite. But many museums take turns to close during the week, so plan accordingly.
For the ultimate shopping experience, you have to try the covered bazaar, the largest of its kind in the world. A trouble with shopping there is that, it takes some time to figure your way out when you want to leave. As in most Asian markets, bargaining is a must. And whether you like it or not, as a foreigner you will get all the attention you want to get, plus some more. If you feel the hospitality/hassle you get on street is enough, you probably don't want to stay in the bazaar for long.
I felt lost and exhausted on my first day in Istanbul, not physically but mentally. Perhaps I was a little homesick, but a bigger problem was in fact my constant desire to take good scenic pictures. It just put lots of burden (and weight too) on me, and I didn't feel like I was a "normal" tourist. While I loved that, I wished to be carefree at times. So one day I decided to leave all my serious photo equipment in my hotel room, and went out with only a compact camera. It worked. I was recharged with more energy. I was also happey to run into Richard and Mimi for the third time in the country. They were like old friends, and pointed me to some interesting places they had been to.
Orignally staying at a budget hotel (Hippodrome Hotel) for a couple days, I decided I could no longer tolerate the rate and moved to the excellent youth hostel near Aya Sophia. There I bumped into the two Californian college girls I met in Konya They had been on a shoestring for the entire trip. I mean, even though things in Turkey are inexpensive, touring the country for two weeks with only US$200 per person is quite impressive.
I spent an afternoon with them strolling on the busy street Divan Yolu.
I thought I had been getting enough attention but obviously (and not surprisingly) these two American young ladies beat me. (By the way, the people on the street who constantly stop tourists, for either hospitality or hard sell, are invariably male.
Women in Turkey are not supposed to be outspoken, and it's unthinkable that they'd actively talk to a tourist.) In that afternoon, among other places, we went to a tea garden that Richard and Mimi recommended to me. It's not a tourist spot, but instead is a place for the locals to enjoy tea and water-pipe smoking leisurely. Beautifully made, the pipes are about three feet tall and stand on the floor.
Our stay in Istanbul culminated in visiting a Turkish bath (hama) that evening. Visiting public baths is part of Turks' daily life and is not any indecent business. Men and women bathed in separate halls which are laid with marble (but I heard that the women's hall is less ornate). In addition to bathing, you can also ask for massage. I made a mistake of praising my masseur's work before he finished. Imagine you're almost naked and in the hands of a 300-pound man who continuously asks you for tips.
This concluded our trips in Turkey. On the next day, the girls headed back home, and I flew to Tel Aviv in Israel