A Day in Istanbul with Mr. Czengis
Originally published on photographytricks.com
“Are you enjoying that snail?” she asks me condescendingly. It’s 3 in the morning and I’m bent over, staring blankly at a gastropod, undeniably the most fascinating thing in my immediate vicinity at the time. Our group guide had caught me in this fixation on the snail because I hadn’t slept in 20 hours, and I wasn’t to be able to for another 24. We were headed to Istanbul during Ramadan.
From the Bulgarian side of the Black Sea our little party had departed via the tiny bus reserved for day trippers. I will lay something out here: I do not typically go on “day trips.” In my humble opinion, it is one of the worst ways to travel, as it so far removes you from the true spirit of the place. By day-tripping you are robbing yourself of a cultural experience and replacing it with something artificial.
Yet I digress. It wasn’t my job to complain, but to take pictures. I had agreed to go, and I was going to make the most of it.
It’s three hours from Sozopol, Bulgaria, to the Turkish border, then half an hour of sleepily moving through customs and having photography equipment inspected, and then another two hours into Istanbul, if you’re lucky. Sometimes it’s three. We were lucky. Except that there wasn’t a chance of sleeping on the little bus. I’ve slept in trees that were more comfortable. So I occupied my time by staring out the window, enchanted by the parade of seemingly never ending stars.
Half an hour before arriving, our tour guide announced that soon we would have the pleasure of meeting Mr. Czengis (pronounced “Jengis”), who is supposedly the best English-speaking tour guide in Istanbul. Mr. Czengis was 84, and also known for losing tourists on street corners because they couldn’t keep up with the man’s walking pace.
My curiosity was piqued. He sounded like a character.
Our chariot dropped us off at the Hippodrome, depositing us into the waiting attentions of Mr. Czengis. After allowing a quick restroom stop for the weary travelers, he took off, speed-walking through the district carrying his red binder high over his head. Within five minutes he had already lost someone: the unfortunate target of an overeager travel guide salesman.
When we recovered this poor, confused group member, we sped off again. We were headed toward the first of the most famous landmarks in the “City of the World’s Desire” — the Blue Mosque.
I won’t bore you with the details — Lonely Planet is more than willing to fill that void — but it has a dress code, which you should obey and be content with, because every minute inside is rapturous. The building is just lovely.
On this whimsical tour of the world’s second largest city, we also raced through the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Basilica Cistern within the span of three hours before making our way to lunch at the last stop on the Orient Express. Mr. Czengis, being the sensational guide that he was, had shown us all of the main sections of the Palace, even though the day trippers had only paid to see the main galleries. He had also arranged to pay for tour headphones — another fee which had not been accounted for.
This miscommunication made him very upset with our group — so much so that he no longer wanted to be our guide. Things suddenly became highly uncomfortable.
All through lunch in the Orient Express Restaurant, which was completely empty except for us (courtesy of Ramadan), the guide argued with the group organizers.
“You should pay,” the guide said.
“It wasn’t for us to know,” the organizers said.
I nibbled on bread and tried to enjoy the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s masterwork. This course of action became impossible in time, so I took leave of my table and headed outside to the platform — a most welcome sight. No wonder it has become the stuff of legend.
Eventually a truce was made between Mr. Czengis and his loyal followers, and I could go back inside. He agreed that he would pay for the headphones and the day trippers would take care of everything else.
With these technicalities worked out, we once again had a guide, and fortunately for us, everything from that moment forward became infinitely more pleasant.
The Bosphorus Straight and (Sorta) Grand Bazaar
How vast a city Istanbul is! Spanning two continents, it’s the gateway from one side of the world to the other. And the absolute best way to see it is by water. We were fortunate enough to do so, and thanks to copious amounts of Turkish tea I was starting to feel considerably better.
After all we had done in the last few hours — a veritable smorgasbord of ancient sites including golden candlesticks the size of fourth-graders — we still, almost unbelievably, had time for one more stop. Mr. Czengis, who had been such a chatterbox at the beginning of the journey, was starting to wind down, and took us to a small café with a “bazaar” close by. I only call it a bazaar because that’s what the sign said. It was actually a row of adjacent shops with textiles and souvenirs and eager shop owners. I gave into temptation for Turkish Delight before going to join our guide in the café for some of the much-needed-caffeine-rich good stuff.
”Coffee should be as black as hell, as strong as death, and as sweet as love” – Turkish Proverb
Would I do it again? Yes, but not this way, even though dear Mr. Czengis made the whole adventure extremely entertaining (both intentionally and unintentionally). A city as extraordinary as Istanbul (not Constantinople) shouldn’t be spent entirely in palaces and Eastern Orthodox cathedrals–turned–Roman Catholic cathedrals–turned–mosques–turned–museums.
Although they’re lovely, really.