Steven and I went to Istanbul for 4 days last weekend. Luckily we managed to dodge the whole volcanic ash chaos on the way back, but unfortunately my flight from London was cancelled and I had to get a train. Not such a big deal compared to being stuck somewhere and having to pay for a hotel!

Istanbul was really amazing, and was much more Western and developed than I thought it would be. I had this idea it would be really poor and have lots of beggars (I was imagining it like Cairo with lots of children coming up to you and begging for money) and be polluted and dirty. The total opposite in fact – a really clean, beautiful city with lovely people (if a little too eager to help you part with money for gifts and food..!). Istanbul has hardly any graffiti or street rubbish, and has lovely flower arrangements in all the bits of greenery around the place. The rubbish collection people seem to work 24/7, we saw a rubbish collector work at about 10pm, and two hours after seeing a pile of rubbish in a ridiculously cobbled and crazy street it was all gone. I feel a bit bad for having such a low opinion to start with, it’s certainly much better looked after than Paris or London ever would be.

I really loved the East meets West atmosphere. It looks just like a European city with a very modern tramline and western style houses and roads, but gets transformed when the traditional Islamic call to prayer fills the air. It happens 5 times a day (Annoyingly for me at about 4 or 5am, which woke me up almost every night) and sounds so beautiful. Arabic is such a lovely language, and the place feels so very Middle Eastern during. Some of the traditional musical instruments they play on the streets also sound very Arabian, and I kept thinking of my brief visit to Cairo. Of course there is a massive amount of mosques – you can’t escape the wonderful minarets that poke up through the skyline everywhere. The insides are wonderful, so decadent. Some of them really reminded me of Catholic churches. Really ornate stained glass windows, really high ceilings and lots and lots of gold.

One thing Steven and I were a little worried about was the smoking ban in Turkey that had come into full effect in July 2009. Since 70% of Turkish men smoke and the Internet warned that a lot of places just totally ignored the ban, we were unsure whether we’d get any smoke-free dinners. In fact we were proved wrong again! Our hotel manager seemed very anti-smoking with a resounding “GOOD!” when we said we didn’t smoke at check-in. I noticed 5 non-smoking signs before we even got to our room door, where we got greeted by another non-smoking sign on our TV. All the restaurants we ate in had the signs on the front doors and no ashtrays were anywhere to be seen. Perhaps in the non-touristy parts of town in the quiet, local cafes and pubs they don’t take it seriously, but in the centre of town the Turks take it very seriously indeed.

One thing I didn’t like was Turkey’s censorship of the internet. They blocked the whole of YouTube because of a video suggesting that the founder of modem Turkey, Ataturk, was gay. It’s actually illegal in Turkey to criticize Ataturk or Turkey, so they decided to block the entire site rather than particular videos. Seems a little extreme in my opinion!

One thing that got me was just how huge the place was. Wikipedia says it’s the 5th biggest city in the world, and the population is anywhere between 12 million and 19 million. It’s just enormous!! Below are a couple of my favourite shots. I took a ridiculous 306 photos in 3 and a half days, and needless to say, most of them are a bit rubbish.

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