06 April 2010

Urban Hiking on the Homefront

I am captivated by wanderlust, there's no doubt about it. You, in all likelihood know just as well as I do what a blessing and a curse it is to be a wanderluster. I'm not in too much debt after college, and to keep it that way, I only travel when I've got all the cash I need for the trip saved up just for that purpose. So what will us grounded travelers do, feeling trapped by the sedentary life, choked by the sessile feeling of simply being in one place too long?

Urban Hiking is what I call the thing most of us do when we travel. We explore urban landscapes on foot, all day, days on end, til we simply can take no more. When I cannot travel, but feel the overwhelming need to wander, I go for an urban hike, in my home town. I am from Portland, so urban hiking is easy. I strap on my Chacos and backpack and hit the streets. I recommend seeking out neighborhoods unfamiliar yet interesting. Look up some tips on the web, or use twitter to find events or pub crawls downtown. I know what you're thinking, but trust me, it's really not lame. I've lived in Portland for 25 years and there are countless places I've never seen but should.

Act like you do when you're away: carry a map, ask strangers for directions. Bring your camera and take some photos. Walk into an unfamiliar cafe and grab a pastry. Eat street food. Be as unbiased as you can, and you will get a lot out of your adventure without ever leaving town.

If this is still completely uninteresting to you, I have one final suggestion which may help quench your wanderlust: host a couchsurfer and urban hike with them!

05 April 2010

Kabobs and Sheesha: Istanbul on a Budget

A rare and pleasing collision of modernity and antiquity, Istanbul is a place where the lingering scent of sheesha and kabob in the morning means last night was an amazing night. The city itself is a massive force to be reckoned with; divided in half by the Bosphorous Straight, which acts like an immense river connecting the Marmara with the Black Sea. Getting to know such a behemoth is no easy task, just ask the more than 12.8 million residents who call the former Constantinople their home. And although it may pose a challenge, this bridge between continents is worth the effort to explore, a beyond fabulous destination that can easily be seen on a skimpy backpacker’s budget.

Getting to Istanbul will be your first challenge, not that flights from around the world don’t frequent the city’s international airport. It just isn’t what I call cheap. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, flights to Europe never come cheap, so I decided to make it excruciatingly long and painful to save myself a couple hundred dollars. I scoured www.kayak.com for several months, watching ticket prices fluctuate and eventually plummet from $1200 to $600 one cold rainy night at my computer. To be clear, this was not a direct flight, but rather an alternative I took that coincided well with my personal travel plans. This ridiculously cheap flight was from Portland, Oregon, to the London Heathrow airport. It came complete with two flight changes, one in Chicago, and the other in Manchester. But how could I complain? I was getting across the pond in mid June for $600! I stayed one night in London and took off for Istanbul at 7am the next morning. I had purchased a one-way ticket that cost about $150. Three days and four flights later, getting a deal like that to Turkey couldn’t be much sweeter than $750.

Arriving in Istanbul you will notice there are basically two hip spots to call home, Sultanahment and Taksim. The former boasts every historical landmark every guidebook recommends seeing on your trip, while the latter features a commercial shopping center and a raging nightlife. Here you make your choice, do I go easy on the feet sight-seeing, or take the tram to the sights in exchange for a short stumble home each night? Your priorities are important because these two neighborhoods are on opposite sides of town, and as mentioned before, Istanbul ain’t no village.

If you choose the Sultanahmet area, as I did, you won’t be disappointed by the nightlife, you’ll just be hard pressed to find a good disco to shake your tail at later on. There are a few key streets (especially Akbıyık Caddesi) that backpackers tend to stick to where they can find hostels, sheesha bars, and markets for their sundries. The tramline will take you directly from the airport to Sultanahment. You will need to purchase a visa upon your arrival for about USD 20.

Using www.hostelworld.com I found a narrow, 4 story gem in Sultanahment called “Bahaus Hostel” for around $20/night. The staff were extremely helpful (as are most Turkish people, you’ll find no shortage of “guides” on the street) and the hostel not only provided a delicious, authentic Turkish breakfast, and a big screen TV (especially for soccer games) but my favorite feature; the rooftop bar and lounge, with views of the Boshphorous and homemade kabobs for about 5 Lira (~$3.50).

You’ll need three to four days at the very least to get all the sights in while in Istanbul. I spent 7 nights and still feel slightly deprived… return trip? You betcha. Must see sights in the Sultanahment area include: Aya Sofia museum, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cisterns, Grand and Spice Bazaars, Topkapi Palace, Hammam (bath house), and a Bosphorous boat ride. The first three suggestions can be seen all in one day, the two Bazaars can be seen in a day, you will likely need a full day to view the Topkapi Palace (especially to include the Harem), and finally your boat tour day could be capped off by a relaxing hammam scrub down in the evening.

So how much is this all gonna cost you? And what about food? Before you run for the hills by the sight of my to-do list, remember two things: the Lira is slightly less than the dollar so you are instantly saving money, and two, Istanbul has a deep history. Spending time not only in the museums and historical sites, but wandering the streets and haggling with vendors may entice you to stay even longer, just as I did.

Undoubtedly, your most expensive adventure will be the Hammam. Many people may not be comfortable with the idea of a naked, full body scrub down, but, if you have the slightest inkling, I highly recommend it. Many hostels offer a Hammam deal, about 40 Lira (everything included). I declined and went for the special 300-year-old “1000 Places to See Before You Die” Hammam called Cagaloglu. The bathhouse was a stunning marble dome with hexagonal ceiling windows and Roman columns. I was treated like a queen; with a total bill around 80 Lira.

Other pricey adventures are the Topkapi Palace, Bosphorous boat ride, Aya Sofia, and Basilica Cisterns. Entrance fees fall between 5-15 Lira each. The Bazaars (and mosques) do not have entrance fees, but you may find yourself purchasing scarves and Turkish delight (absolutely delicious – beware of the nuts if you have allergies).

Although many of the museums have fixed prices, when it comes to a boat ride down the Bosphorous, prices become wide ranging as there are several different boat companies, many offer tours, but most act as a ferry system for locals. Use the ferry system if you can, it is much cheaper, and will allow you to see multiple ports within the Straight.

As for the other neighborhood of Taksim, it is good for a Saturday night adventure to the discos. Women should stick with at least one other person, preferably a man that she knows and trusts. It is not particularly dangerous, but Turkish men, especially the type that frequent the clubs, are flirtatious at minimum, aggressive at worst.

Some final tips for all you Istanbul-goers… dress more conservatively than you would at home. It can be painfully hot in the summers, so skirts and cropped pants are acceptable, but please never go out in anything above the knee, ladies you are just asking for trouble. Shoulders and arms should be covered as best possible. My backpack was delayed in Heathrow for 5 days and all I had was the tank top I arrived in. It wasn’t the best choice, but it worked fine. It is a cultural norm to be covered up, and so by showing your skin you are showing disrespect. I once saw a young woman try to get into the Blue Mosque in a tube dress and stilettos… she was turned away. Women should also bring or buy a scarf. If you plan on visiting any mosques, which you definitely should, you must be able to cover your hair entirely.

Finally, one traveling to Istanbul should do so with an open mind, as with anywhere you go. Turkish people are known for their generosity and hospitality, and they want to keep it that way. Most people who approach you on the street and offer help actually do want to help you, they are not looking for money. Street vendors and carpet dealers would love to talk your ear off, you should let them! You can learn a lot about family history and Turkish culture just by listening for a minutes.