Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mongolia | Turkey | Istanbul |Sultanahmet

The Third of The Nine-Nines began on January 9. According to Mongolian folklore the Nine-Nines are nine periods of nine days each, each period characterized by a certain type of winter weather. The Nine-Nines begin on the Winter Solstice, which in Mongolia this year occurred on December 22. The third Nine-Nine is known as Gurvan Ükhrii Ever Khöldönö, “When the Horns of Three Year-Old Cows Freeze”. This period is supposed to be colder than the First and the Second of the Nine Nines The coldest period is traditionally the Fourth Nine-Nine, which this year begins on January 18. This is Dönön Ükhiin Ever Khöldöne— “The Time When Four Year-Old Cows’ Horns Freeze”. On the morning of January 12 the temperature at sunrise was –38º F., presumably cold enough to freeze the horns of three year-old cows. Now I am as big a fan of cold weather as the next guy—probably more so than most—but this was getting cold. It suddenly struck me that at the moment I had no real pressing business in Ulaanbaatar and that all things considered it might not be a bad idea to retreat to warmer climes. It was already too late to catch the January 12 flight to Istanbul, but a quick peek on the internet revealed that seats were available on the January 14 flight. 

Usually when I visit Istanbul I stay in a hotel out in the Topkapi district by the Theodosian Land Walls, about two miles from Sultanahmet, the historical center of the city. Although tourists do wander out to see the Land Walls few stay in the area, and the hotels are generally a lot cheaper than in the Sultanahmet tourist area. January is not the most popular month for tourists in Istanbul under the best of conditions, however, and recently a number of events have dealt body blows to Turkey’s tourism industry in general. The current feud between Turkey and Russia over the downing of a Russian fighter plane has drastically cut the number of Russian tourists and small time traders visiting Turkey, and a number of deadly terrorist attacks in Ankara, Istanbul, and elsewhere in Turkey has scared off even more potential visitors. As a result, I soon learned as I scanned the internet, the price of rooms in many Istanbul hotels had fallen by half or some cases even by two-thirds. Oddly enough the admittedly humble hotel where I usually stay in Topkapi had not lowered it prices at all. It doesn’t really cater to tourists—most guests are down-at-the-heels people in from the Turkish countryside, penny-ante Russian traders, and furtive gay couples shacking up for the night—and was therefore not affected by the downdraft in tourism. I checked one fairly up-scale tourist hotel just a stone’s throw from Sultanahmet Square, the heart of the Sultanahmet area, and discovered that rooms that usually went for $70 or $80 a night were now available for $28, actually a little less than the cost of the fleabag out in Topkapi. I booked a room for four nights. 

That evening I was editing photos on the desktop computer in my Scriptorium when a small New York Times news notification tab appeared on the right side of the screen: “Istanbul Hit By Suspected Suicide Bomber”. Clicking on the link, I discovered a one-paragraph breaking news blurb about a bombing in Sultanahmet Square. Details were sparse, but it appeared that there were numerous fatalities and most of them appeared to be foreign tourists. I switched to Daily Sabbah, an on-line English language Turkish newspaper. At first it too had only a one paragraph blurb. I followed the story as it broke during the rest of the evening, eventually learning that ten people had been killed and at least two dozen injured. Most the dead were apparently German tourists. The suicide bomber was reportedly connected to ISIS. The bombing at taken place right by the so-called Theodosian Column in the middle of Sultanahmet Square. I figured it was about 1000 feet from the hotel for which I had made reservations just that morning. I could not help but wondering, somewhat cynically, what this latest event would do to the prices of hotel rooms in the Sultanahmet area. Had I booked too soon?

At daybreak on the morning of January 14 it was a fairly balmy—for Ulaanbaatar—minus 18ºF. The Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul pulled away from the terminal at 10:18 and then sat at the end of the runway for a few minutes before taking off exactly on time at 10:30. Four hours later we landed for a scheduled stop in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.  After an hour and twenty minutes in Bishkek’s notoriously dreary transit lounge we departed for the five and half hour leg of the flight to Istanbul. The entire flight from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul covers 5742 miles. 
 View just after taking off from Ulaanbaatar, with the Tuul River valley in the upper left (click on photos for enlargements).
 View over western Mongolia
 View of the Tian Shan east of Bishkek
 Approaching Istanbul, with the southern end of the Bosphorus Strait, left center. The Sea of the Marmara is at the stop with the tip of the Asian continent top left. The Golden Horn extends from bottom right to the Bosphorus Strait.
 Another view of the legendary Golden Horn 
The Theodosian Land Wall, built during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450), running from bottom left to upper right, with the Sea of Marmara at top.
The plane landed twelve minutes early at 3:38 p.m. local time. I had only one carry-on bag and breezed through the Turkish Airlines Priority immigration line. It took me about ten minutes to get to the airport train and it left two minutes after I boarded. Although it was a peak time the train was only half-full. Usually it is standing room only. At the Zeytinburnu station I switched to the M1 metro line going to the Sultanahmet area. It was maybe one-third full. Again, it should have been packed to the gills at this hour of the day. I actually got a seat, I think for the first time ever on the two dozen or more times I have take the metro to downtown from the airport. Whether the paucity of passengers had anything to do with the terrorist attack is unclear. Dusk is falling when I got off at the Sultanahmet station, a couple hundred yards from the Theodosian Column where the bombing had taken place. The touts are out as usual in front of the restaurants along Divan Yolu, the main tourist street running through the area, but there are few customers. What people are on the street seem to be scurrying elsewhere. I hurried off to my hotel in the shadow of Hagia Sophia, the immense church—later a mosque and now a museum—built in the sixth century.

“So what’s new?” asks the proprietor, a Kurdish man in his early thirties who remembers me from my previous visits. “Sound like all the news is happening here,” I reply. “Yea, you mean the bomber,” he replies. “We’re screwed,” he adds, “totally fucking screwed.” Although his English has several noticeable lacunae, he does seem to have a grasp of terse idioms. “A lot of people were scared away before, now this . . . We’ve had a shitload of cancellations . . . you are the only person here now . . . We fighting  the Syrians, we’re fighting the fucking Russians, we’re fighting with everyone. But hey, you got problems too, what about this fucking Trump guy? He want to keep Muslims out of the USA?” I tell him that although I am an American citizen I have not been in the States for over ten years and don’t bother much with American politics. “You’re smart,” he says, “stay the fuck out of politics.”