Istanbul – almost in Turkey

I was last in Istanbul in the 1990s, apart from changing planes on my way home from Georgia, so I was expecting some changes. In fact, a friend who visits every few years told me that the rate of infrastructure improvement had been even greater in the last decade or so, so I was expecting really big changes… To be honest, I’m not sure how much has really changed. Yes, there are three suspension bridges across the Bosphorus (only one visible from the city) and tunnels under it, and metro lines (one with a station on a new bridge above the Golden Horn), but in other respects the city doesn’t seem to me to have been transformed – which is good and bad.

French-built trams passing putside the Sublime Porte

As Caesar might have said, All Byzantium is divided into three parts – simplifying hugely, there’s Sultanahmet, the touristy area south of the Golden Horn (or Haliç), where all the Roman ruins and the greatest mosques are; there’s Beyoğlu, the area north of the Golden Horn, traditionally home to foreigners and their business interests and now the arts and nightlife area; and there’s Üsküdar and Kadiköy on the Asian shore, which are purely Turkish and mellow (I stayed a couple of nights there and enjoyed it). And then there are all the suburbs, where up to 18 million people live, but actually no-one mentions them. Sultanhamet, it has to be said, has been transformed, with many roads traffic-free, a modern tramway crossing the Galata Bridge and going right past all the main sights, and with innumerable hordes of tourists. Get to Haghia Sophia by 09.00 unless you want to queue for an hour, just like in Paris and Florence. It is in fact pretty well managed – yes, the touristy restaurants are expensive, yes, there are lots of Hello-where-you-from? ‘guides’ trying to get your business, but they are very much confined to this area of the city. In the evenings this area is actually quieter than it was, with many backpackers and other tourists now staying in Taksim and elsewhere.

I was pleasantly surprised to see ring-necked parakeets in this area, just like the ones that enliven London and Surrey nowadays. Istanbul is full of hooded crows too; however, the most enjoyable birding is from the ferries, where you’ll see Yelkouan shearwaters (once thought to be the same as the Balearic shearwaters in the western Med, but now identified as a separate species) – they seem to nest to the south in the Sea of Marmara but commute along the Bosphorus to feed in the Black Sea. There are plenty of cormorants too, and alpine swifts.

A couple of months ago I found myself in a house with a television and took the chance to watch From Russia with Love, the Bond movie that’s set in Istanbul and on the Orient Express towards Trieste. In one scene Bond is taken down into ‘Constantine’s reservoir’ beneath the Russian consulate, which they can spy on through a former submarine periscope – this is actually the Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarnici, built in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian (the film-makers presumably thought no-one would have heard of Justinian, or that there was a more obvious link between Constantine and the city of Constantinople). It covers 9,800 square metres (with 336 columns with proper carved capitals, just like a church), but was not measured properly until World War I, when a folding boat was borrowed from a German submarine. Open to tourists since 1987, it’s dark and crowded, but well worth a visit. (Naturally Bond stayed at the ‘Kristal Palas on the heights of Pera’ with its ‘old rope-and-gravity lift’ – a thinly disguised version of the Pera Palace, recently restored to its Orient Express glory but still with its marvellous old lift.) I’d also suggest dropping down to the old waterfront to see the Little Haghia Sophia church, built by Justinian I and Theodora from 527, a church with a dome 17m across that was probably a prototype for its big brother up the hill (which makes it the city’s oldest surviving Byzantine monument) and also for the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It’s now a mosque but is easy to visit, beyond the basic requirement to dress decently and leave your shoes outside. And just inside the Topkapı Palace grounds, the Haghia Irene church is now open to visitors – it was second in size only to Haghia Sophia, but it’s much smaller and there’s nothing much to see inside (Haghia Sophia means Holy Wisdom and Haghia Irene means Holy Peace, but of course you knew that).

Across the Golden Horn, the Beyoğlu district is now known for the contemporary art galleries opening here (particularly in Karaköy, formerly known as Galata); this was the European quarter (originally known as Pera, meaning Across [the Golden Horn] in Greek), home to the Byzantine city’s large Greek population and then to embassies and foreign banks. I went to SALT Galata (mainly a library and café, a victory of style and marketing over substance) and the Yapikredi Kültür Sanat Yayincilik (good modern galleries above a bookshop) and also the Taksim Sanat Galerisi, an institutional exhibition space in the Taksim Square metro station – they’re ok, but it all still seems a bit provincial and insular. Overall, Istanbul is not really the world city it claims to be – signs, websites and indeed people are all a bit monolingual, and clear addresses and directions are a foreign concept – be sure to plan ahead online. It may well make sense to buy the Museum Pass, but you won’t be given a leaflet or a list of the sites for which it’s valid – even so, you can cover the cost just on the major Sultanahmet sites. On the other hand quite a few monuments are closed for restoration, which puts the city in the mainstream of European capitals.

Maybe the opening of Istanbul Modern (a Tate Modern wannabe), now under construction in Tophane alongside the big new GalataPort cruise terminal, will change things; if you go there, do pop across the road to see what’s on at the Tophane-i Amire Culture and Art Centre (run by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University), an art gallery in a fifteenth-century cannon foundry.

Further up the hill in Beyoğlu is Taksim, a pretty anonymous modern area that is strangely popular with both Turks and many backpackers – yes, there’s a lively bar scene, but it’s really a bit of a rugby scrum and could be just about anywhere in the world (which may be part of the attraction). I’m told it’s changed fast since large numbers of migrants arrived from Syria and Iraq.

Food and drink

Happily, international restaurant/café chains have had very little impact here. My vegan food correspondent reports that he is a bit disappointed by the way veganism was trendy for about six months in 2018 but is now fading away; still, almost every eatery will have vegan options. The quintessential street food is nohutlu pilav, buttery rice with chickpeas (and optional chicken, hot peppers and ketchup), and I also saw a lot of mussels stuffed with rice being sold by street vendors. The beer is dull as dishwater – at least Gara Guzu (Black Sheep, in a local dialect – it should be Kara Kuzu) is trying, with its very adequate IPA, amber, red, black and blonde beers, but almost no-one seems to have heard of it. At least this is one place in the world where I can’t really sneer at hookah (nargileh) cafés as they are as authentic here as anywhere else. (It has to be noted, however, that the Turks don’t smoke cigarettes nearly as much as they did, which is a great blessing.)

Transport update

I arrived with Pegasus, the Turkish low-cost airline that flies from London Stansted (and, from July 2019, Manchester) to Sabiha Gokcen, Istanbul’s second airport, on the Asian side of the city. You might say that it’s its third airport, as Atatürk, the main international airport since 1953, was replaced in April 2019 by the new Istanbul Airport, the world’s largest with a capacity of 100 million passengers per year (and eventually double that) – but in September 2019 the new Beijing airport will open, also with a capacity of 100 million/year. My friend describes it as ‘mahoosive’ but well laid out; the rail link won’t open until late 2019 (continuing to Halkalı in 2020) but city buses go there and the new airport taxis are pretty good, he says.

Halkalı, 27km west of the city centre, is also the western terminal of the Marmaray Corridor, another major transport project completed in 2019 – a rail tunnel beneath the Bosphorus now links the two suburban lines along the coast of the Sea of Maramara, creating a 77km route that will bind the city’s two halves more closely together. Despite this, a road tunnel (opened in 2016) and the bridges, there’s still an unfeasibly large number of ferries jockeying for space as they link various points on the two shores – and a ferry ride remains one of the quintessential Istanbul experiences.

The Istanbul Kart is a rechargeable smart card that’s valid for travel on the city’s buses, trams, trains, metro, ferries and funiculars; it gives a 40% discount on fares, but there doesn’t seem to be a daily cap, unlike in London. It’s invaluable, but I struggled with the ticket machines which can refuse to take coins or give change for notes and fails to switch to English (likewise the website).

Political shenanigans

Turkey has a despicable government and leader, but one can’t blame Istanbul for that; the city, which generates 55% of Turkey’s exports, 60% of its imports and 16% of its jobs, stands for open and liberal attitudes against the authoritarian Islamism of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey since 2014. Born in Istanbul, he rose to public notice as the city’s mayor (1994-8) before becoming prime minister then president. The so-called coup attempt of July 2016 led to over 50,000 arrests and over 160,000 people losing their jobs, with the free media, academia and civil society being virtually closed down (Turkey no longer has any interest in joining the EU, whatever Johnson and Farage say, preferring links with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Russia instead).

Local elections in March 2019 were held against a background of economic recession and 20% inflation, but Erdoğan claimed the elections were about the country’s ‘survival’ and portrayed the opposition as ‘enemies of the state’. His AKP won 51% of the vote nationally but lost the cities of Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul – in Istanbul the almost unknown Ekrem İmamoğlu (running against a former prime minister) was leading by just 0.28% when the government stopped the count with 1% of ballot boxes still to be opened. Seventeen days later the government seemed to concede when İmamoğlu was allowed to take over the mayor’s office (although Erdoğan refused to shake his hand at an official function in Ankara). However, in May the government announced that the election in Istanbul would be run again on 23 June, supposedly because some electoral officials were not civil servants, some result papers had not been signed and tens of thousands of civil servants, sacked following the 2016 coup, should not have been allowed to vote; İmamoğlu was removed from office and the currency fell by more than 3%.

The increasingly dictatorial Erdoğan is determined to regain Istanbul, even doing the previously unthinkable and being vaguely nice to the Kurds to win a few votes from them. In which context I was delighted to see in April 2019 that France and Italy had finally recognised the Armenian genocide – the state’s attitude to this and to the Kurds has always been blatantly racist. Another friend is currently visiting Ani, the amazing ruined Armenian city just on the Turkish side of the border, and reports that the word ‘Armenian’ simply doesn’t appear on the information boards there.

In Istanbul the opposition seems unlikely to risk mass protests or a boycott of the re-run election, as the government would simply brand them as terrorists and arrest as many as possible; riot police and water cannon were stationed all over the city anyway when I was there in late April. With luck Erdoğan will turn out to have miscalculated and his actions will give İmamoğlu a more decisive victory in June – I will post a brief update here.

[24/6/19 – I’m glad to say that the re-run went very well for İmamoğlu, who took 54% of the vote, despite a barrage of AKP propaganda, and  is now established as mayor of Istanbul. Erdoğan’s aura of invincibility has definitely cracked, and there’s a sense that even his own party members are looking ahead to national elections and a post-Erdoğan era.]  

Bangkok – street food still on the streets?

Travelling through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam a couple of months ago, we found plenty of Western backpackers travelling there – just as I did in Thailand a few decades ago. But it seems that now they barely linger in Thailand, above all because it’s got so expensive (likewise Malaysia). It’s in many ways a developed country now, but rather than offering more jobs to Thai people, it seems that most hotels are staffed by Burmese, who are cheaper and appear to speak reasonable English. In fact, because it’s no longer a cheap destination, there are now reports of so-called begpackers, travellers busking, selling handmade bracelets and asking for money to allow them to continue their trip – this is causing some bad feeling and is certainly pretty tasteless behaviour in what is still not a wealthy country.

This being the case, it seems amazing that the government (a military junta which came to power in a coup in 2014, let’s not forget is planning to destroy one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist attractions. Not a temple or palace, but the city’s street food culture. Even Singapore, which is far more expensive and definitely a developed country with the appropriate concern for health and hygiene, has food courts and hawker centres everywhere, immensely popular both with locals and tourists. In Bangkok, about 40% of residents eat street food daily, while foreign media such as CNN and Lonely Planet consistently name Bangkok’s street food as the world’s best. The junta seems to be driven largely by a military love of order and tidiness (and the generals presumably eat elsewhere), but it’s also being driven by developers desperate to gentrify the city’s most popular neighbourhoods. Another aspect is that the owners of convenience store franchises (such as 7-Eleven) want independent grocery stores and stalls driven out of business, while restaurants resent competition from stalls that don’t pay rent or tax.

Well, that’s what a flurry of recent articles in the travel pages have been been telling us. Then came a slight correction, as locals reported that in fact the apocalypse had not happened. Some overcrowded pavements have been cleared of stoves and stools, but vendors on private property, such as the forecourts of shops and hotels, can remain in business, as can any mobile food carts; and there are various covered markets anyway. It does seem that in 2016 the city administration evicted nearly 15,000 vendors from 39 public areas, and formerly busy markets such as Saphan Lek, Pak Khlong Talat (the flower market) and the On Nut night market are greatly reduced or have even closed; in April 2017 food stalls were cleared from the busy Thong Lor and Ekkamai Roads, officially known respectively as Sol 55 and 63 off Sukhumvit Road. Supposedly Yaowarat Road (Bangkok’s famous, frenetic Chinatown) and Khao San Road (backpacker central) are next in line for tidying up. In typically Thai style, the authorities have not yet made it clear what they’re up to – there are reports, for instance, that the vendors will be allowed on the footpaths of Yaowarat after 7pm.

It seems that there was a clean-up of corruption after the military takeover, but now the usual bribe-based relationships are being reestablished, so most street stalls will survive as long as they pay off the local cops. There’s no doubt that, even though the Asian Tiger days are gone, the city is gentrifying and developers are seeking to make big profits. Huge air-conditioned malls (very popular with the new middle classes) are springing up everywhere, while the city’s few public green spaces are vanishing. Many of the new malls are in the Sukhumvit Road area, where much of the property is owned by large companies linked to the military and the royal family.

There’s a fairly minor reaction against this, so some newer ‘community malls’ are smaller and actually incorporate some green space, usually on the roof! Rather than full-blast air-con there may be light mist sprays to cool shoppers, or just old-style overhead fans. Many Bangkok residents spend much of their free time in malls, so these newer ones have bars and cafés which put on live music and other events, such as cookery workshops. They even have food courts, which offer a partial solution to the problems faced by the street food scene, but many more are needed across the city. They are unashamedly aimed at the new middle-class Thais and expatriates (in fact security guards keep out the poorer people who just want to cool off for a moment) and don’t have vegetable stalls, pharmacies and other everyday shops needed by local residents – but they do include pizza and Chinese food outlets. These people have maids who do the everyday food shopping, after all. The most striking is probably The Commons, in the expensive upmarket area of Thonglor (near the Thong Lo Skytrain station on Sukhumvit Road); others include K Village, SeenSpace and Rain Hill, all near Sukhumvit Road.

Other alternatives are appearing – when the long-established Soi Sukhumvit 38 food market, in alley (sol) 38 off Sukhumvit Road, closed, many of its traders relocated to a space underneath a nearby apartment block. Nearby, there’s a good food court on the top floor of Terminal 21, at the Asok BTS (Skytrain) station (and near the Sukhumvit MRT station), which is clean and cheap but also very busy at times. There are good reports of the vibrant new Rod Fai night market in Ratchada, which has a bit of a Thai-hipster feel to it, with food served from converted VW vans – but it’s a long way east of the centre, and the Skytrain system (at Soi Srinagarindra 51, Nong Bon, Prawet). There are also some interesting alternative food outlets appearing – for instance Holey, on Sol Sukhumvit 31, produces superb breads, pastries and sandwiches for when you can’t face any more rice.

The big picture

The big picture is that a record 33 million tourists visited Thailand in 2016, and tourism revenues were 18% higher than in 2015 – this was largely thanks to over eight million visitors from China, which is flooding all its neighbouring countries with large numbers of tourists. In 1960 Thailand saw just 81,000 tourists, very wealthy or very adventurous (and often both). Since then there’s been a huge boom in tourism, mainly to the beaches and islands of southern Thailand, and a huge amount of environmental damage, including deforestation, pollution and the loss of natural ecosystems. And a huge and blatant (if illegal) sex industry has also developed.

In 1997, when the Thai economy was near collapse, with mass unemployment and food shortages, the king called for a more balanced and sustainable approach to economic development, which led to moves towards a sustainable tourism policy. More recently, the government has urged the tourism industry (which accounts for nearly 10% of GDP) to focus on attracting ‘quality’ visitors, ie lower numbers of higher-spending visitors who would in theory value Thailand’s natural and cultural treasures more than the mass beach tourists. Maybe something will come of this, but at the moment there are few signs of real change. Over the last twenty years about 60 environmental activists have been murdered while campaigning against industrial pollution, over-development and deforestation, and the police and the junta have not been in any hurry to find those to blame.

I was not particularly surprised to read that the same story is playing itself out in Beijing too. The city’s historic alleyways, the hutongs, are being taken over by modern shops and cafés, most notoriously in the boho-arty area of Nan Luo Gu Xiang which was transformed in the space of a couple of years into a venue for groups of tourists gulping down soft drinks and ice cream, while being told it was a delightfully arty area. But this is happening because the city’s bureaucrats neither know nor care about pleasantly untidy arty quarters but just want the place tidied up and ‘modernised’. What is most striking in Beijing is the speed with which demolitions occur, with no notice apparently being given other than a pile of bricks appearing on the street overnight. Cheap bars, shops and noodle bars are then cleared away and soon there’s another shopping mall, just like the ones in Bangkok and indeed anywhere in the world.

 Getting about

I walked a lot in Bangkok – I was very aware that the historic centre (Krung Rattanakosin or Rattanaksosin Island) is actually rather isolated, to the west of the areas served by the Skytrain (BTS) and metro (MRT)  – see Transitbangkok. These serve the slightly newer areas where most of the hotels, restaurants and shops can be found, but the only true tourist sight there is Jim

Thompson’s House (see photo), near the National Stadium station. The Silom Line is shorter but more useful for tourists – running from the southwestern suburbs to Saphan Taksin (Taksin Bridge, by the river between the Oriental and Shangri-La hotels; the place to catch river boats), Sala Daeng/Silom (near Patpong, with its bars and night market, and Lumphini Park) and Siam (another massive mall), terminating at the National Stadium – while the Sukhumvit Line links the shopping opportunities: from the southeastern suburbs it runs to Asok and Nana (both on Sukhumvit Rd), Chitlom (at the Erawan shrine), Siam (for another mall) and then turns north past the so-called Victory Monument (it wasn’t much of a victory) to end up at Mo Chit, near the weekend market in Chatuchak Park. The Erawan shrine, interestingly, is not Buddhist but Hindu, dedicated to Brahma (Phra Phrom) but with minor shrines to Lakshmi, Trimurti, Ganesh, Indra and Narayana within a stone’s throw, and it’s hugely popular and important to the Thais – a throwback to Southeast Asia’s ancient Hindu history, touched on in my posts on Malaysia and Cambodia.

The MRT metro is a single underground line from the Hua Lamphong railway station, near Chinatown (to the east of the historic centre), to Silom and Lumphini then north via Asok/ Sukhumvit to Phetchaburi (near the Airport Express Link’s Makkasan terminal) to Chatuchak Park and Bang Sue. There are oh so predictable plans (see my post on Tangier for what happens when public transport is run by people who don’t use public transport) to close the central railway station (to allow re-development, of course) and build a new one out at Bang Sue, so that everyone will have to change to the metro or (if with baggage) taxis. Speaking of taxis – they have meters, make sure the driver uses it. And motorcycle taxis can be fun, as long as you’re given a helmet – they certainly beat the jams.

There are buses into the historic centre (Krung Rattanakosin), which are cheap and welcoming in their way, but few drivers (or passengers) speak English and all signs, on the buses and the stops, are in Thai only. The best way to get to at least the edge of the historic centre (to visit the Royal Palace and so on) is by boat – there are fast, frequent, cheap and dramatic boats (see above) along the Saen Saeb canal (khlong), parallel to Sukhumvit Road, picking up for instance by Jim Thompson’s House and terminating at the Pha Fah Lilat bridge (‘Pan Farrrr’), near the Golden Mount and Mahakan Fort in the attractive Bang Lamphu district – from here it’s not too much of a hike to the royal palace area. There’s talk of introducing a similar service on the river that surrounds Rattanaksosin Island, from Hua Lamphong (the railway station) to Pha Fah and round to the Phra Sumen fort, but who knows if it’ll ever happen?

There’s a good range of reasonably well-known and tourist-friendly boats along the Chao Phraya river, on the west side of the centre. There are no fewer than 32 ferries across the river (just glorified rafts, really, charging 3 Baht), of which the most useful links Wat Pho with Tha Tien Pier (for the Wat Arun temple); there are river taxis, and there are the frequent river boats. The fastest lines (Green and Yellow) operate Monday to Friday peaks only (every 15 to 30 minutes; 13-30 Baht), so you’ll probably have to take the Orange line (every 5-20min, 0600-1900 daily) which charges a flat 15 Baht, or the local line (Mon-Fri 0600-1830, every 20min; 10-20 Baht), which has no colour coding – they both call at every pier. The Green line heads north as far as Pak Kret pier on Koh Kret island, where you can rent clapped-out bikes and follow the marked cycle loop through banana plantations and sleepy little villages; at the end, have a beer by the river at the excellent Chit Beer microbrewery. The Blue line are tourist boats, which have a guide and stop wherever you want, but don’t offer benefit much otherwise.

In 1983 I used Don Muang airport, by the main rail line north of the city; nowadays there’s the modern Suvanarbhumi (‘soo one a poom’) airport, served by a purpose-built express rail link[link] that almost reaches the Ratchaprarop shopping district but doesn’t actually connect with the Skytrain or metro – but to my surprise I actually found myself catching the A1 bus from Mo Chit BTS station (across the road from the Chatuchak Park MRT station) to Don Muang for my flight out.