First of all, while technically Istanbul splits between Europe and Asia, I would actually say that it is neither. It definitely does not feel like a European or Asian city. Rather, Istanbul is definitely Middle Eastern. A lot of this comes from the fact that Istanbul is predominantly a Muslim country and therefore that dictates much of their culture and way of life. This was by far the most different city that I have ever been to in my life, and I'd say for the first time I probably felt a bit of culture shock. Our entire Berlin program was able to go all-expenses-paid thanks to a very generous donor, so we had a phenomenal time being there as a group of 32 students.
We arrived in Istanbul at about 3 o'clock local time and immediately took a bus from the airport to a boat tour on the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus is the dividing line for the city of Istanbul and Europe and Asia, so technically I guess I've been to Asia now since we were on both sides of the strait, although I'm not really going to count this. The boat tour was awesome because we got there in time to see the city in dailylight and then had awesome nighttime views of the city and Bosphorus bridge at night. It was definitetely a great welcome to the city. Later that night we had a phenomenal meal at at government owned resteraunt on the river. The Turkish government owns many of their own restaurants and provides extrememly nice food at a cheap price so that the lower class can enjoy a nice meal. For instance, we had an extremely good 5 course meal for a total of 900 lira (450 euro) and that was for 4o people. Basically, for 10 euro you could have a meal that in the States at a nice restaurant you would pay minimum 40-50 usd. After the meal we transfered to our hotel which was on one of the nicest streets in Istanbul (one with the lights in the photo album) - also a big plus because we were in the main nightlife district.
While in Istanbul, we had several academic discussions with members of the Turkish government, local professors, and presidents of local companies. These were on Monday and Tuesday, and in between we did some sightseeing as well. Most of the talks were usually bland and fairly uninteresting, but a few were pretty good. Then again, I was there for the sightseeing and was not necessarily interested in an academic discussion. Sightseeing: on Saturday we went to the Blue Mosque, and then Sunday went to the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar. The mosques were cool to see just because I have never been in a mosque before, but even though they are extremely historic, they were just another thing to see for me and weren't really anything too special. That being said, the Grand Bazaar was awesome and was my sightseeing highlight of the trip. The Grand Bazaar has everything from silk cloths to pottery, carpet to clothing, etc. You can literally find almost anything in the Grand Bazaar. Never pay anything more than about 60% though - you are expected to barter with the store owners and therefore can get things for very cheap. For instance, I bought a Fenerbahce (local club team) scarf that was marked at 15 lira for 8 lira, meaning I only paid 4 euros for it. It's also pretty hilarious to get into a heated bartering match with the store owners as they are all saying "for you my friend, best price." If you take your time and look around between stores, all the prices are the same.
Random things about Istanbul: police. The police walk down the streets with semi-automatic weapons on their waist. I did not have the nerve to make eye contact with them. Traffic: insane. Traffic will not stop for you and drivers will willingly hit you without thinking twice about it. Also, drivers are complete assholes - sorry for the colorful language but they are. They do not wait, will honk at about a rate of 10x a minute, and make hand gestures constantly to other automobiles. The city is also a major traffic jam - there is no room to drive and millions of cars with seemingly no order fly around the streets. Candy: Turkish candy is pretty good and apparently famous (don't know about this but most people seemed to think so). Anyway, I liked it. Sufi ceremony: we went to a Sufi ceremony and I can honestly say it was one of the most painful 2-hour experiences of my life. First of all, Sufism is apparently a religion, although I would argue otherwise. Upon entering the place of worship, women and men are seperated; women have to sit upstairs and men sit on the main floor. I definitely felt very awkward with the seperation and was fairly mad about the gender segregation (freakin modernize and move into the 21st century people!). Sorry, I honestly hated the Sufi ceremony. Anyway, about 12 guys in white cloaks come out into the room and spin in circles for 2 hours while in an adjancent room a group of old men play drums to make so called "music." There's literally nothing more to it - you just watch these men almost puke from spinning in circles for 2 hours. Leaving the ceremony was probably one of the greatest moments in my life.
Overall, I had a great time in Istanbul. It was awesome to have such a large group there not to mention we had all expenses paid. It's hard to comment on Istanbul nightlife since we were there on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights, but we definitely made the most of what we had. (Random hilarious moment: after a night that saw Joe smoking a cigarette while swinging from the pole in the club [he looked like Popeye the Sailor], we leave at 5 in the morning and on our walk home find Jonah wondering the streets of Istanbul like a homeless man. After trying to find his way home for over an hour, we take him with us where he purchases a french fry sandwich which to this day he still swears was the most delicious thing he has ever eaten). While it was a great experience, Istanbul is definitely a place that I could never live in and don't care to ever return to. It's hard to state my exact feelings on the city because I actually didn't really like the city much at all, but since I was there with such a good group I had a great time. So, I guess I'm saying it was a great trip but not a great city. Anyway, Istanbul was a good time but not recommended to anyone thinking of travelling there. But then again that's just my opinion.
Pictures are posted on the "The Photo Collection" page from January.