It's official. I'm in Europe. Somehow and for some reason i've made it across Turkey in a week and ready to move further west and north.
I was in Diyarbakir which was a Kurdish city in Turkey where people would happily try and teach you some Kurdish words and has been home to many demonstrations and problems in the past between Kurdish movements and Turkish law enforcement. There were armed police in the streets and at the bus station making their presence felt but everybody seemed happy enough. The back streets of Diyarbakir old town were a knot of alleyways with kids playing on cold stone cobbles amongst the litter and women barking down to the children below from balconies as the sun crept between buildings and the call to prayer rang out from the mosques. Nobody paid me any attention at all as i sauntered around taking pictures.
I stayed in what i thought was a cheap hotel and i guess it was but it was also a kind of brothel. Three fat ugly women would loll around on a sofa in the cramped corridor waiting, smoking cigarettes and sipping tea all day until an old man would come in and they'd disappear to a room for while. Thankfully they never bothered me but the whole place had no windows and was painted bright green and pink in a way that gave you a headache if you stayed inside too long.
There were always two sides to Diyarbakir. The main streets were modern and clean full of shops and restaurants, the back streets were cramped messy and noisy. The old city was encased in walls and buildings that were centuries old as the new city sprawled outwards in dull apartment blocks. But then i've realised that most of Turkey seems this way - always pulling in different directions. Black Sea versus Mediterranean. Street side kebabs versus upmarket restaurants. Mosques cry out with the call to prayer five times a day versus bars and nightclubs pumping out beer and beats all weekend. Western cities versus Middle Eastern villages. Five star hotels versus green and pink brothels. Europe versus Asia. Summer beaches versus winter skiing. Sand deserts versus green farms. Ancient history versus an uncertain future. Every country has it's contrasts but Turkey seems to take it to another level. And then there's Istanbul.
Guess what? There are two sides to Istanbul. On one side sits Asian Istanbul and the other side of the river sits European Istanbul. The bus from Diyarbakir (a 22 hour over-night bum numbing journey) crossed from the blue skies of Asia over a large suspension bridge. A few hundred metres into European Istanbul and the skies darkened, the clouds thickened and it started hammering down with rain. "Europe in November," i thought, "It's been a while. I remember this."
Istanbul is one of those cities that draws you in with its physical size, depth of history and breadth of potential and quickly breaks down every preconception you had about the place and then rebuilds that image just as fast and spits you out the other side knowing that you won't look at things in quite the same way again. It is head spinning. Istanbul, along with the rest of Turkey, is way more European than i thought it would be, both the people, the buildings and the culture. The history of the place shouts at you through the massive mosques and the Grand Bazzar but the future burns bright as well with women matching Adidas with head scarves and the trams, boats and metro buzzing people through the chaotic traffic. I could stay here for a long time and it would still feel fresh and new. If you get bored in Istanbul you're probably dead.
I really wanted to experience two main things from Turkey; a football game (ticked that one in Trabzon) and a bath. I went to a Turkish bath with Zaka, a German guy who, by coincidence, lives not far from where i grew up in my home city in Leeds, and Ali, the owner of the guesthouse i'm staying in. The Turkish bath was a round marble room with a large slab in the middle, sinks and taps on the walls and steam drifting everywhere. The full Turkish bath experience, so Ali told me, consisted of sitting in a sauna and sweating for as long as you can and then a large hairy man about the sıze of a telephone box scrubs you with a rough cloth. I was embarrassed by the amount of dead skin that came off me. I can only guess at how much crap came of my back after carrying my life on it for a few months. Then i laid down on the huge marbel slab in the middle of the place and was "massaged" by the same guy. He kneaded my aching muscles in a way that made me yelp in a similar way to that of a small girl finding a spider. At one point i was laying on my back and the telephone box man was squeezing my arm as if he were trying to strangle a snake. "Me...Muhammed," he said and then he gestured at me.
"Italia?" He took both my arms crossed them over my chest and put all his weight on my elbows, slowly pushing my arms in opposite directions.
"Leeds United. You?" He took my left arm, tried to pull the hand off my wrist and then proceeded to try and pull each finger from my hand. His eyes grew wider for a second and he drew his head a little closer to mine and with a big grin said,
Once the massage/kneading was finished Muhammed was kind enough to wash my body and head, rinse me and send me back to the sauna after which he wrapped me in three towels and then served me tea on some sofas. My body felt elastic and the cleanest and squeakiest it has ever been.
Unfortunately i won't be going back because i'm leaving on a bus tomorrow night to Bulgaria and then onto Hungary. I'm city-hopping and friend-meeting almost all my way back to England. It's almost finished. Only one more month.