Yerebatan Sarnıcı, Istanbul

Finding Peace Underground at the Basilica Cistern

Needless to say, my relationship with Istanbul is not going well. It is very cold and rainy; something I didn’t prepare for. This morning when I woke up and looked out the window, I knew that it was not going to be a good sightseeing day. Looking for options that were inside, rather than out, I took the opportunity to visit the underground Yerebatan Sarayı, or Basilica Cistern, an old underground water reservoir.

A cool chill hits you as you enter and walk down the steps to where you are met with ancient Roman columns and pools of water. An ethereal soundtrack played throughout the site and in conjunction with the sounds of the dripping water, it evoked a magical experience. It was quiet and peaceful under there, despite the hordes of tourists.

Medusa Head inside the Basilica Cistern

Besides the mysterious Medusa heads there is not much to see there, but I wanted to hang a bit longer, because it was the most peace I’ve felt being in Istanbul so far. And so I lingered for about half an hour and decided it was time to go.

By the time I exited the Cistern, the weather looked like it was clearing up and that the sun may even make an appearance. I was not going to lose this opportunity to travel into the modern part of the city and check out the main shopping street of Istiklal Caddesi. Besides, I had enough of a feel of the old part of the city it’s time to see something new and get away from tourist-trap hell.

I bought a jeton (token) at the Sultanahmet metro stop and took the metro to the Karaköy stop. From there, I had to take another smaller tram from the Tünel station, which is just what it sounds like – a tunnel that the tram creeps up to the top of Istiklal Caddesi. Yes, I said top – the main street is located on one of the seven hills of Istanbul and I don’t do hills if I don’t have to, as far as walking goes!

When I exited the Tünel station, I felt like I’d reached the land of civilization. I was surrounded by modern shops with super cheap clothes, cafes that serve espresso (and don’t charge 9TL!), and a variety of dining options. Now, this is what I’m talking about!

I also gratefully found a Starbucks. Due to lack of real coffee (the Nescafe just wasn’t cutting it) and the withdrawal that comes along with it, I had been floating around Istanbul as if in a dream, in a mental haze, not really feeling present where I was.

When I first caught a glimpse of that green and white signage that registered familiarity within my caffeine-deprived brain, I had to focus to make sure what I was seeing wasn’t a mirage. Then all at once, it was as if the clouds parted from the depths of my foggy mind and the sun beamed a giant halo of light down upon the storefront to reveal this sanctuary of make-your-toes-curl coffee with real caffeine; my mental gasoline. The coffee gods had heard my prayer after all!

I ordered a double espresso and downed it in three sips. The caffeine rush hit me instantly and with each gulp more and more of the cognitive cobwebs were being cleared away. I felt alive again and my mood even picked up. Living off of Nescafe these past few days, I almost forgot what it felt like to be alert and have clarity of mind.

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I took a right down a small side-street filled with fruit and vegetable vendors. I didn’t get very far when a man approached me, and started speaking to me in Turkish. “I am sorry, I do not speak Turkish.” “OH!” he said, surprised – the same reaction as Ahmet. (I guess I look Turkish!) He invited me to have tea with him outside of his restaurant while he touted passers by trying to get them to sit down and eat.

While I drank my tea, I observed this phenomena from the outside. I watched him run the same “Hello, where are you from?” and “Would you like to sit down and have a drink?” spiel that I experienced in Sultanahmet. When he was ignored, he remained indifferent and moved on to the next one. Like a scavenger. It seemed like a running program that touts everywhere must have learned at tout-school or something. They were all the same.

I watched for a while and ended up having two teas and a cigarette. Soon it was getting dark out and I wanted to make sure I found my way back to the guesthouse. I thanked him for the tea and was on my way.  I decided I would walk back instead of tram it. This way, I’d get to see a new part of Istanbul. As I made my way back towards Sultanahmet, I trudged down a steep hill and past the Galata Tower and down to the Galata Bridge.

Istanbul

It was nice, in the evening, but very cold. And as usual, I was hungry! I saw a bunch of people eating near the boats under the bridge and so I took a walk to find out what was up. Not much except a bunch of fish and Kebab trucks. And so, once again, I caved in and bought a döner chicken kebab that came with a free bottle of Ayran, the national Turkish lightly salted yogurt drink.

I had the kebab wrapped to-go so I could eat it at the hotel. When I got off the metro at the Sultanahmet tram stop, I saw a young boy grilling corn on the cob and picked one up to go with my sandwich, figuring I’d eat mostly the corn and the least bit of chicken. I couldn’t wait to dig into my food when I got back to the hotel and started dogging the corn. It was absolutely disgusting. It tasted old, like it had been sitting for a few hours or so. Plus it was charred, which is what originally enticed me, but doesn’t taste so good after it’s been sitting. The kebab was worse than the corn. There was one measly line of chicken, a few shreds of lettuce and tomato and no sauce!

I ended up throwing most of it away and chugging the Ayran, hoping it would coat my stomach and ease the hunger pains. It was my first experience with Ayran, and I must say it is not that bad. It tastes like liquid cottage cheese and much better if kept cold.

I really have to figure something out with the food situation. I’m starving.

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