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Istanbul: crossing cultural bridges

Straddling Asia and Europe, Istanbul has made at least one Hongkonger feel at home while giving cities further west a run for their money. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

The Outlying Islands ferry is crowded for a Monday afternoon. Schoolchildren race around the upper deck dodging elderly women with shopping trolleys and commuters who have clocked off for the day. Mainland Chinese tourists lean against the rails to photograph the receding city skyline and restless waterborne traffic.

We could be heading to Cheung Chau or Lamma but this is Turkey and I'm bound for the island of Heybeliada, or "Hey Belinda!" as the American tourist sitting next to me pronounces it.

 

HYPERACTIVE ISTANBUL is undergoing a transformation. The economy is booming and, in 2011, the city was described as the fastest growing on Earth. Construction cranes jostle with minarets for aerial supremacy; power dressers bark urgently into mobile phones and the cost of living has reached parity with parts of Western Europe. There was a time when Turkey begged to join the European Union. Now the EU begs Turkey.

In common with Hong Kong, you're never far away from water in Istanbul. Boats relentlessly criss-cross the Bosphorus and the first challenge for a visitor is working out which goes where. Eminönü, Kadıköy and Üsküdar hint at adventure and exotic possibility but those double dots above the vowels make asking for directions to the piers something of a lottery.

Most popular among tourists are the passenger ships that shuttle between Europe and Asia in a matter of minutes. There aren't too many intercontinental ferries left in the world - even fewer that cost only three lira (HK$13).

Istanbul also offers plenty for those who are happier on dry land. Sightseers could easily spend their entire stay in the Sultanahmet district. Start at Hagia Sophia, once the largest church in the Christian world; reincarnated in the 15th century as a mosque and now a museum. Next, sample Ottoman opulence at the Topkapi Palace, then haggle your heart out in the Grand Bazaar and spice market.

Holidaymakers aren't segregated from the faithful inside the legendary Blue Mosque and it's strange having worshippers fall at your feet as you wander around taking holiday snaps.

After a while though, Sultanahmet ("pssst, my cousin has a carpet shop") begins to lose its allure and it's time to move on.

Skip the tram and walk across Galata Bridge towards Beyoglu. The views are sublime. Fishermen cast their hooks hopefully into the dark waters of the Golden Horn and touts cajole passers-by into pausing at restaurants that line the underside of the bridge.

Continue to the medieval Galata Tower, with its panoramic vistas of Old Istanbul, which are especially dramatic at dusk. A few minutes away is the hip neighbourhood of Tünel, Turkey's Lan Kwai Fong. Bars with single word names such as Snog, Ugly and LaLa draw a trendy crowd who tolerate eye-watering prices that reflect soaring rental rates.

The city formerly known as Constantinople is a great place for grazing. Instead of wasting precious sightseeing time on long sit-down lunches, head to the nearest büfe. These ubiquitous convenience stores are an Istanbul institution and excel in fare such as kebabs, toasted sandwiches and freshly squeezed fruit juice.

Wherever people gather, vendors sell freshly baked simit (sesame-coated bread rings) for a couple of coins and it's almost compulsory to sample at least one balik ekmek (fish sandwich) from the boats bobbing alongside Galata Bridge. Round off your moving feast with a square or two of sticky sweet baklava pastry and you'll be ready for more pavement pounding.

When I stop by, the boatmen aren't busy and we're soon discussing the relative merits of local football teams Galatasaray and Fenerbahce in broken English. It's never easy getting Turkish men off the subject of the beautiful game but move the conversation on to the nose-diving Greek economy and you'll have a flotilla of newfound friends in no time. My third fish sandwich comes with the compliments of the captain.

Sometimes, though, you need a break from the city - even one as fascinating as Istanbul. The Prince Islands, named for the members of the royal family who were exiled there during the Byzantine era, have long been a destination of choice for Istanbullu. Ferries stop at four islands and it's possible to break your journey to explore each - timetable permitting.

The spring weather is chilly and a biting wind whips off the Sea of Marmara. "Cold Turkey," suggests the American tourist. After 90 minutes and no improvement in his one-liners, we arrive at "Hey Belinda". It's low-key and Lamma-like.

Seafood restaurants cluster around the pier, attracting a mix of locals and tourists. Wizened men sit in cafes chain-smoking through endless games of backgammon and a property agent explains that island prices are spiralling skywards. The broad streets are mercifully free of motorised traffic - horse and cart are the transport of choice here.

Heybeliada is gearing up for a busy summer and those who make a living from tourism are preparing for the season. Youths attack pansiyons with paint brushes and souvenir-shop owners arrange and rearrange their wares. Even the horse and cart drivers are smartening up, adding a touch of spit and polish to their rigs.

The onslaught begins in mid-June and now is the calm before the storm. I ask a woman returning from the market how many people live on the island.

"Maybe 3,000," she estimates. "But there are about a million in the summer. Well, it seems like it."

The salty air and exposure to the elements take a toll on Heybeliada homes. For every modern villa there are half a dozen weather-gnarled wooden mansions that look like a cross between Herman Munster's house and the Bates Motel.

Some of the older, more decrepit properties are being renovated; further evidence that the Turkish economy is on the up. And regardless of the state of disrepair, each building sports a satellite dish - an indication of how the islanders balance an Amish-style existence with the occasional nod to the 21st century.

Rather like Heybeliada itself, I lose all track of time and miss my ferry back to the future. The next boat leaves in three hours. Perhaps I'll have that long sit-down meal after all.

 

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