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A Kenyan in Istanbul: Show Me The Lira!

A 17th floor view of Turkey from the Barbaros Area. 
I haven't been to Lamu, which is said to be the oldest city, existing from 1,400 AD. But I have been to an older city, Istanbul, or Constantinople, a Biblical Times city that dates to the year 685 Before Christ. You may go like wow, but it is a relatively young city, compared to neighbouring Athens in Greece, which dates back to a cool 11,000 years Before Christ.

Flying from Nairobi, you'll be on Turkish Airlines, yes, that one that has a football advert featuring Messi and Kobe trying to impress a kid on the plane. One thing though, the flight takes off at quarter to 4 am, and it lands back at 2 am.

Leather seats with curved leather headsets in
Turkish Boeing 737-800ER
It's 6 hours non-stop to Istanbul, and you will be probably in the newer Boeing 737-800 ER. They do have comfortable leather seats, with a curved leather headrest. The meals too are good in aeroplane standards. The flight gets to Istanbul at 10 am, and you do not have to adjust your watch as the city is in the same timezone as Nairobi.

Approaching Ataturk airport, you will notice that Istanbul is quite a large city. The approach to the airport will see you having a close view of Skyscrapers in the range of 20 floors and above. Again, you will notice that the sea cutting across the city is quite busy.

The "sea" itself is a natural waterway linking two seas, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean sea, and is referred to as the Bosphorous. It is a shorter and an all-year-round path from Russia and some former Soviet countries into Europe, through the Mediterranean sea. You will come to notice that Istanbul is both in Europe and Asia, with the  Bosphorous forming a boundary between the two.

Now you will come to notice that Istanbul is a large city, insanely huge. The population of the city is  13.8 million, or a third of Kenya's population, or four times the population of Nairobi. The size of the city is more than 5,300 kilometres squared, or to put it plainly, just under 10 times the size of Nairobi. The population makes it the second largest city by population after Shanghai's 17.8 million people. Area wise , Istanbul again comes second after China's Tianjin, whose 11 million people occupy 7, 400 kilometres squared.

Multi-storey buildings such as this are common in Turkey, with its 13 million people
To visualize the size of the city, think of it as a city stretching from Mlolongo, along Mombasa road, all the way to Naivasha, then spanning a width all the way to Thika.

The Nairobi CBD between Moi Avenue and Kenyatta Avenue would be just one of several business districts in Istanbul.

Even with such proportions, the city itself is more efficient than Nairobi - most buildings seem to start at 10 floors, upwards. In Nairobi, most buildings would top out under four floors.

They speak Turkish in Istanbul, and a little English - you will find a number of English speakers here and there, but they aren't as many. You will also understand some Turkish, given that it seems to borrow words from Arabic, which Kiswahili also borrows from. For example, they will ask you to give them a dakik, and stating that they smoke a lot of sigara is an understatement. They smoke everywhere, and in every street, and every minute.

Their airport is busy, but again, seeing it's Turkish's base, they probably got us in at peak hour, when all flights arrive to allow connecting flights in the next hour or two. It's still bigger than what we have here, and busier, and functional.

Immigration may have some long lines, as most flights will be arriving then, but it does move quickly - again, note that the long line breaks into smaller lines at the counter, and some will be slow moving, given that people travel in families, or groups. The lone traveller queues are the faster ones. Some pretty lady, whose age was hard to tell, but couldn't possibly be 30, stamped my passport.

Getting Around

One of the many buses that ply Istanbul. 

The trip from the airport to the hotel,located near Besiktas, about 1 kilometre from the Bosphorous was quite eye-opening. For such a large and populous city, traffic surprisingly moves, and there are no delays. Again, the traffic lights here are better coordinated - if you drive at some speed about 50 kilometres per hour in the urban roads, you will clear sectors of lights where all the lights will be green. This alone must contribute to the moving traffic.

Also, the road are well done, with wide highways leading from one point to another, complete with overpasses and underpasses at junctions.

A tram in Istanbul
There also exists a tram, or a train that runs regular trips between some busy areas. This exists alongside an organised bus system, which however needs a smartcard to use. The taxis are metered, and will cost you about KSh. 150 per kilometre. It is advised you have a map to avoid the driver taking you in circles to make more. In addition, make sure to have coins, the taxi drivers strangle never seem to have change in coins, and will pocket anything under 5 Lira (KSh. 220). The taxis are mostly Fiats, while buses range from Man to Isuzu.

A tram I took cost about KSh. 150 from one end to another, though charged the same amount across all stops.


I did try my hand at shopping, but emerged empty handed, more so from my notoriety as a bargain shopper, and again from the difficult nature of Turkish shopkeepers. Shopping districts include Besiktas, where you can find a Nike shop, and also other shops selling perfumes, or clothing such as gomlek(shirts) and even antique items.

One thing though, Istanbul looks like it is the capital of knockoffs, with designer imitations of everything from Polo to Burberry, down to Burberry scarves and gumboots. This will often have a higher price than non-imitation designs. The same applies for perfumes.

As mentioned earlier, English speakers are few, and that will be your biggest shopping problem. You will find 3 Turks in a shop, and the English speaking one will give you a separate price in Lira, while the other two will give you different prices in Lira and in US dollars for the same item. I'm not sure if they accept dollars, but you may get away with using a merchant card (Visa or MasterCard). Again, I did not have the patience to negotiate based on the different prices given.

Some shops will however sell items with listed prices, or have English speaking shopkeepers.

Tokens used to access trams in Istanbul
All in all, a good gomlek will cost you TL 40 (KSh. 1,720) , or even TL 80 (KSh. 3,500). You can however find poorer quality shirts for TL 20 (KSh. 800). These are not far off from what you would get in Nairobi stalls, and neither are the prices far off either.

A little researching online seems to imply that European tourists, with their higher income, have spoilt the Turks. It's not like it used to be. For starters, I barely came across any carpet store in my shopping, and I'm told those who do have to do with Chinese carpets.

The moon rises across the Bosphorous Strait, The image is taken in Europe, overlooking
Asia across the strait
Do not accept any offers from strangers to show you around, or to join them for a drink or food at some other club. They will either take you to a shop where the shopkeeper will add their cut to your price, or  you will end up in a scam as I will detail later. Also, if someone refers you to a shop, and the shopkeeper asks who referred you, they will often get a cut, footed by you.

Sight Seeing

One thing that Istanbul is quite good at is sight seeing. There are lots of sights, and places, as you would expect in a city that has been here for 2,700 years.

You can start with the Bosphorous Strait, which provides a sight for ship watching, with strange ships, including those that have tankers on them, cruise ships and more.

Then you can take a tram from Kabatas to Sultan Ahmet. As mentioned earlier, trams cost TL 3 on this route (KSh. 150). Alight from here and it's a short walk to the Hagia Sophia.

Decorations that give the Blue Mosque its name
The Hagia Sophia dates to about 1 millennium after Constantinople was established, about 567 AD. The museum first served as an Orthodox Church, before later transforming to a Catholic church, and later on, after being abandoned for a number of years, became the main mosque in the city. This it served until the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (The Blue Mosque) superseded it in stature. It still continued as a Mosque until the beginning of the 20th century, when it retired to its current status as a museum.

Hagia Sophia does contain both Christian Mosaics and Muslim art, though the Christian Mosaic are restored after they were plastered over when the building became a mosque. Most of these mosaics are therefore incomplete.

A partly restored Christian Mosaic at the Hagia Sophia.
Such mosaics were plastered over when the building became a Mosque.
Entry into the Hagia Sophia is TL 25 (KSh. 1,000). By 2012, The Hagia Sophia was receiving 2.9 million visitors annually in 2010, thus raking in about KSh. 3 billion in revenues every year! There's a long queue to get in, but it does move faster. There will be guides who offer to get you in faster if you pay about thrice the price (I think through pre-bought tickets), but that isn't necessary.

Christian Mosaics and Islamic
Inscriptions at the Hagia Sophia
Around the same area is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque. The building was build in the 1600s to replace the Hagia Sophia. Controversy then, was that the planned 6 minarets (towers) of the Mosque were too many - it would be blasphemy to build a mosque with more minarets than the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which then had 5 minarets. At the time, most mosque had a maximum of four minarets. The minarets were where criers stood to make the prayer call.

But then, 2 minarets were added to the Grand Mosque. Some say that the Sultan at Istanbul sent his engineers to Mecca to add the number of minarets there. Either way, with the Grand Mosque now having more Minarets, the Blue Mosque could now be constructed with six minarets.

The mosque picks its name from the blue floral pattern inside, alongside pinkish or violetish and gold patterns - you may think the decoration as more similar to China cutlery.

While the mosque is open to all, ladies have to cover their hair, and also have ankle length dressing and have their arms covered - well, you get the drill. It is also closed at times for a few hours, such as on the particular Friday, it was closed between midday and 1430 hrs to allow for midday prayers.

Entry to the mosque is free, but carry along a polythene bag in which to carry your shoes in once inside the mosque. I also recommend that you carry some cash with you to donate to the mosque, for its maintenance and upkeep. They accept Lira alongside Dollars and Euros.

Shopping Part 2

A shoe retailing at about KSh. 1,500 to KSh. 2,000
Once done with the two, you may decide to visit other attractions - you can search for more attractions online or download the Triposo map alongside the Turkey data file for a guide.

Also, you can explore shopping, but again it may bound to be disappointing. For shopping, just follow the tram line to the Laleli area and all the way to Aksaray  Along the way is a bazaar, which is also fine for shopping, but will get you higher prices due to higher tourist presence.

Part of Istanbul
The further you get away from the SultanAhmet area, the lesser the tourists, but prices don't seem to change that much. The area between Laleli and Aksaray is a also more of a wholesale area - if you are buying a shirt, you will have to buy a single pattern in between three and six sizes or/and six pieces. The prices as I mentioned earlier will be way off, probably requiring negotiation with a barely-English speaking retailer.

Around Aksaray, you will find more of retail shops, but also more of poor Chinese quality items. The items around Laleli go all the way to higher quality ones.
Turkey does have a gigantic flag, and some traffic too, on the left
There's and underground mall at Aksaray that will offer both worlds, more of a clothing supermarket. You can choose to head here if buying in retail was your intention.

Also, as you get to Aksaray, you will spot more and more Africans, especially West Africans and even more especially Nigerians. I did see bales of clothing being bundled into a truck, all labelled Lagos,Nigeria.

Kenyan retailers also do buy a lot in Turkey, a guy at the airport, probably Turkish, greeted me in Swahili and handed me a card indicating they do logistics (shipping) to Nairobi from Turkey. You will also probably run into him, or his partners at Ataturk.

Also at Aksaray, are a number of hotels which looked more affordable to me, especially if you are a small trader. You may want to do your due diligence on the same though.

You can catch the tram back to Kabatas from Aksaray, or any other of the tram stations for the same KSh. 150.

I did take a bus from Kabatas, but only because some kind lady paid my bus fare with her card, since being a foreigner, I didn't have a bus card.

Eating Out

My favourite, the shawarma sandwich
Travelling on a shoestring budget, I didn't try much of Istanbul's eateries. Again, I fell in love with the Shawarma Sandwich, which a number of restaurants will offer at TL 3 or less (KSh. 150). It consists of chicken shawarma (beef TL 5/KSh. 200) with vegetables, chips which are placed in a sliced bun. It is quite heavenly, and I wonder why it is not common in Nairobi. You can have it with lemonade, soup or milk. Lemonade will be sold for TL 2 or TL 1.5 and is usually sold off some containers.

I did try some restaurant around Yildiz Posta Caddesi (see map - The food was affordable (TL 13/KSh. 700) and had a variety of some rolled rice, various pastas, chicken and peas stew. I would recommend it, if you can find it at the corner of the given location above.

For beer, you can try their Efes Pilsener. Or Carlsberg.

The shawarma joints are all over Istanbul though.

Night clubs and villains

A plastic recycler ferries his wares across Istanbul
I had one night to go out, which I did not. Well, I did attempt.

First, my nearest club, the Discorium, was not opening till midnight, and only for a private party, and one needed to call to reserve a spot, and also to pay about TL 30 to get in, and to be a couple - the couple rule seems to be surprisingly common in lots of countries.

I got a recommendation to try out Club Quba around the Taksim Area, where you will also find lots of other clubs. I hooked up with a Sierra Leonean, and we grabbed a cab to the Taksim Area.

The Taksim Square has been the site of protests this year. It is an open area, surrounded by shops, and with small hills in it. Here, you will find the police, who every other minute will pass by in a busload, or in an anti-riot water truck.  Children play in the background, with some lights, while hawkers line their wares, keeping a wary eye for the police, sometimes sprinting with their wares, just likey would do in Nairobi.

We checked out a number of clubs, including Kiss & Fly, another popular club. Most of them demand an entry fee of between TL 20 to TL 30 (KSh. 1,200), and may offer a complimentary drink alongside the fee, or not. They also did indicate that beers are about TL 16(KSh. 700) in most clubs.
One of the bridges linking Europe and Asia on the
other side

We were on our way to Quba when some guy approached us and offered to show us some "nice places". I was not enthusiastic, given that I had read that such guys often get a cut, and their cut will be bundled on your charges. My friend however said there was no harm, and off we went.

He took us down an alley, and up to some empty club, where some skimpily dressed ladies around a pole looked relieve to see us, as if we were there to rescue them from the boredom in the small empty club.

We declined, and the guy again, offered to show is another club, despite my insistence that we continue with our mission.  My friend wanted to see the other club, and off we went, further down the alley, and up to another club. It looked like the first one he had shown us, seats to the back and along one wall, a platform with skimpily dressed ladies.

Another Mosaic depicting Jesus and one of the emperors of Constantinople.
Later, the city was ruled by Sultans. 
This time round, our guide took a seat on a seat, set against the wall and that went around the circular table and against the wall. He invited us to join him, again to my discomfort, but my friend obliged, and I joined them. Some two ladies then came and sandwiched us, on either side of the three of us.

Inside the Hagia Sophia
The slimmer Chinese-looking one sat next to my friend, and the plumper one sat next to me. They both said they were Russians.  I really wasn't cordial to the one next to me - I wasn't looking to entertain people on my bill. My guide chided me for my unbecoming behaviour to the lady, and asked me to emulate my friend, who was having a conversation with Miss Chinese. Plump lady said that probably I liked my ladies black, rather than white, hence my behaviour.

All this time, my homely West African friend had accepted the ladies request for a drink. Even before we had ordered, 3 'colas' were placed before us, and the ladies were served some pale, cheap looking wine in some sort-of-fancy bottle in a bucket with ice. I declined to take my drink, even as my guide insisted that it was "only cola". I insisted I had not ordered anything.

For some reason, my friend insisted that I drink, he would pay, but I refused. I'm not exactly a fan of soda and its ingredients, preferring natural beer instead. I had peaked at the menu, and had noticed that our colas were billed at TL 40. The high price of drinks in this city was something peculiar - probably, being a Muslim dominated country, the Turks don't drink as much.

We then asked for the bill, which to my surprise, was presented in a flash, as if they had anticipated our asking. Even more shocking, was the TL 1,000 bill presented (KSh. 43,000). The pale, cheap drink the ladies had been imbibing was a cool TL 250 per bottle.

The queue outside the Hagia Sophia,
part of the annual 3 million visitors to the museum 
We paid the amount of cash that we had, TL 70. The barman then approached my friend, and started roughing him up, going through his pocket, shouting "Show me the Lira! Show me!" The English words were crammed and uttered in a manner that showed the person often repeated the words, in a threatening manner. My friend calmed them, and offered to empty his pockets, rather than have the bartender roughly shoving his arms into the gentleman in a manner that threatened to pull the pockets from their seams.

A ship plies  The Bosphorous, with Asia in the background
They even checked the kangaroo-pouch-like pocket in his traditional Western African gown. There he had his smartphone, which I can seem to remember if it was a Galaxy S4 or Xperia Z. The barman appeared to consider the phone as collateral, before seemingly dismissing the notion.

The only other items of interest were dollar bills in 1s, 10s and 20s.

Then it was my turn.

"Show me the Lira! Show me!" demanded the barman, as his gaunt frame almost lifted me off the ground by my pockets. I offered to empty my pockets,  insisting I had no Lira on me. My guide then helped in frisking me. from my pocket, I drew lots of KSh. 500 notes, with a TL 100 in between. The blue note probably got lost  in the green of the KSh. 500 notes.

One of  the Bosphorous suspension bridges
Spotting none of the much-sought Lira, they opted for the about $150 I had in cash.  This they added to the amount my friend had, before we were  ushered into the welcoming streets.

Such a well perpetuated scam, that preys on your good will, innocence and trust of others.

I then headed to a jewellery shop, to ask where I could find some police officers, despite my friend insisting that we should head to our hotels. It is then he told me that Miss Chinese had asked why we had gone to that club, and told him that we would be robbed.

A view of traffic in Turkey
Luckily, they spoke English at the shop, and pointed me to a guy who was seated at the corner of the street. He accompanied me, and translated to the officer as I narrated what had happened. The officer directed us to a police station down the street, he couldn't leave his position, probably placed there to monitor the going on around Taksim Square.

Some other guy who was eavesdropping approached us. He told us not to go to the police station, he would refund our cash. He dashed into a shop, then returned with $460.

He then escorted us some distance to where we could find cabs, before demanding $20 facilitation fee, of which I gave him a bill with Andrew Jackson on one side.

The driver in the yellow cab confirmed our dollars were genuine, he scratched them with a blunt tip, and it left a mark. They did smell real to me.

For comparison, also see a write up on Istanbul from one of my friends by clicking this link. 


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