Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mongolia | Turkey | Istanbul | Sultanahmet

I awoke at my regular time and after the usual orisons settled into the southeast tea nook of my Studiolum. Just the day before I had received a shipment of this Spring’s harvest of Imperial Mojiang Golden Bud Yunnan Black Tea and was looking forward to trying it again. All went well as I sipped the first two bowls. The tea was fresh and young, all knees and elbows, sassy without being impertinent. Notes of chocolate, tobacco, malt, and, if I am not mistaken, a hint of pachouli flared up and then drifted away. During my third bowl, however, my tea drinking revelry was interrupted by a somber note of unease which had insidiously crept into my mind stream. By the time I finished the bowl I was overtaken by a fissiparous existential crisis which finally congealed into one simple question: “What the heck am I doing here?”

Why was I sitting on this carpet, in this apartment in Zaisan Tolgoi, a suburb of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia? What concatenation of circumstances had led me be this exact spot as opposed to say, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, Urumqi, in Xinjiang Province China, or Istanbul? More to the point, what was keeping me here? I had just finished publishing three books and had seen them into distribution. I had a new project planned but had not really started on it yet. Where would I actually like to be right now if I was not to sitting on this carpet drinking Golden Bud Yunnan tea in Zaisan Tolgoi? As if in answer to my question the image of Sunset Across the Golden Horn in Istanbul floated up before my eyes.

It was the third week of May and would no doubt be hot in Istanbul, and the tourist season, when the city was jammed with out-of-towners, was already in full swing. Not the best time to visit the city, but still . . . On impulse I checked the the Turkish Airlines website and discovered that there was a flight leaving Beijing for Istanbul that night at 11:55 and there were still seats in the Comfort section. I checked the Mongolian Airlines site and found out that quite fortuitously there was a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing leaving at 6:00 pm and arriving at 7:55, with seats still available. I bought a ticket to Beijing on Mongolian Airlines and then went back and bought a ticket to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. I then went to the website of the Kervan Guesthouse in Istanbul and to my surprise discovered that they had rooms available the next night, or at least that is what the website said. I immediately booked a room for two nights. The Kervan Guesthouse, where I had stayed several times before, had almost doubled its prices since the last time I stayed there, but I thought I would make at least make sure I had accommodations for the first two nights and then try to find a cheaper place.

I watered my plants and explained to them in Plant Language that I would be gone for awhile but that I would make arrangements for someone to come and check on them in my absence. I assured them that there was nothing to worry about. They seemed to take it in stride, but with plants you never know. They tend to hold in their feelings. I threw a change of clothes into a small portmanteau and added a copy of of John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice to read in Istanbul. As you surely know, the history of Venice is inextricably connected to the history of Istanbul. I kept checking my email throughout the day, but did not receive a confirmation of my reservation at the Kervan Guesthouse. This as a bit disconcerting, but I figured I would straighten out the matter I arrived in Istanbul. At 3:30 in the afternoon I took a bus into town and caught a cab at the airport. The plane left right on time at 6:00. 

The plane landed on time in Beijing but then took over thirty minutes to taxi to the terminal in the enormous Beijing airport. By 8:30 I was the International transit lounge, which was surprisingly quiet at this time of night. Apart from a couple of bars, the only place I could find open was a Starbucks. I settled in with a latte and The History of Venice. The Istanbul flight began boarding at 11:00 and left exactly on time at 11:55.

I have flown this route several times but always at night, which is a shame because the plane follows roughly the route of the old Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul. It would be extremely interesting to view this panorama from the air during the daytime. West of Beijing the plane flies right over Hohhot, in what is now the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia; then further westward we pass through the Zungarian Depression, with the Tian Shan Mountains off to the left; then over the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang Province; then over the Northern Spurs of the Tian Shan, passing over the city of Ili and the Ili Basin; then over the basin of the Syr Darya and the ancient city of Otrar, trashed by Chingis Khan and his boys in 1219 and now only ruins; then right over the northern shore of the Aral Sea; then over the northern part of the Caspian Sea; then over the Caucasus Mountains, home of Circassian Beauties; then over the city of Tiflis, capital of the country of Georgia, then along the southern shore of the Black Sea and on into Istanbul. 

The plane arrived at in Istanbul Airport at 4:30 and by 5:00 I was out of immigration. It was still dark outside and I really did not want to get to downtown Istanbul before daylight, so I found the only place that was open outside of immigration—another Starbucks—and drank coffee until the sun came up. Then I caught the Metro Train to the Sultanahmet district.
Hagia Sophia (the Church of Divine Wisdom), later the Ayasofia Mosque, was build by the 530s a.d. by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and dedicated on December 26, 537. It is now a museum. 
The Sultanahmed district of Istanbul, centered around the huge square between Ayasophia and Sultanahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is not the commercial or business center of Istanbul, but it might qualify as the spiritual heart of the city and is certainly the center of the city’s immense tourism business, and the iconic Ayasofia and Blue Mosque which anchor the area are two of the most recognizable tourist attractions in the world. Yet while Istanbul now boasts of a population of over 20 million, at 6 o’clock in the morning the square was totally deserted, without a single soul in sight. I walked over to the Blue Mosque, the courtyard of which is open all night, and finally spotted one person sleeping on a park bench. He was rather too well dressed to be homeless, and might have just been some hapless husband whose wife had booted him out for the night. The courtyard of Sultanahmed Mosque was deserted and eerily quiet. I sat down on the stone steps and chanted the mantra of Green Tara, the Protectress of Travelers. Fortunately there was no one there to accuse me of shirk
The Blue Mosque, built by Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I between 1609 and 1616. It is still an active mosque.
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque (Enlargement for a mes)
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque (Enlargement for a mes). 
 Soon after the first trickle of early morning worshippers began arriving at the Blue Mosque I walked back over to the Kervan Guesthouse. Still no answer at the door. So I strolled up Divan Yolu, the main street leading to Beyazit Square. By now I was looking for some morning refreshment, but nothing seemed to be open. I noticed a Starbucks on the right side of the street but it too was closed. I walked up Divan Yolu to the turnoff to Vezir Han Street and walked around the small square looking for a tea shop. Still nothing. In the middle of the square stood the Column of Constantine, dedicated on May 11, 330 a.d. by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine in honor of the new capital of the Byzantine Empire. The city became known as Constantinople, after Constantine himself, and later Istanbul.
Column of Constantine
Walking back along Divan Yolu I noticed that the Starbucks had opened it doors, still apparently the only open place on the street, so I wandered in for a latte. This was my third Starbucks in the last twenty-four hours. Is the success of these international chains due at least in part to the fact that they are simply keep longer hours than any other places? A half hour later I walked back down the street to the Kervan Guesthouse. Still no answer to the bell, but a man who was just opening the restaurant next door informed me that the Kervan Guesthouse was closed for repairs. They were not taking any guests. Apparently that was why they had not answered my email. I had slept only a few winks on the plane and by now was pretty much exhausted, but still lugging my portmanteau I set out in search of another place to stay. I soon discovered that the city was jammed with tourists, most of them apparently still asleep. I tried a dozen places before I found a fleabag hotel on a side street which had a tiny room on the sixth floor. But it was not available until noon. So I stashed my portmanteau with the receptionist and went back out into the streets.