I have been spoiled.
Traveling through Russia in the offseason and through many places in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus that don’t attract large numbers of tourists in the first place has spoiled me.
I forgot what it is like to push through crowds and to hear American and Australian accents at every turn.
I forgot what Middle Eastern countries can be like, with touts trying to get your attention as you walk by, hissing “hey lady” and “yes, please” – even following you down the street to try to cajole you into visiting their shop.
I forgot that the simple act of someone giving you directions will likely result in them trying to sell you a scarf or carpet or spices.
This is why my first couple days in Istanbul brought a different kind of culture shock – the shock of being back in a primary tourist destination – a destination that attracts as many as 1 million visitors every month.
After staying in nearly empty hostels for the last eight months, the Agora Guesthouse, my home in the historic district of Sultanahmet, was nearly sold out, packed full of Aussies and Kiwis in Turkey for ANZAC Day. Walking through the streets of the old city, my frustration grew steadily as I got stuck behind meandering elderly folks or groups of teenagers blocking the narrow sidewalks. And I did my best to stare straight ahead and not react as tout after tout leaned into me, pushing their restaurant, tour or carpet shop.
I forgot what it was like to wait in line.
When I headed to Topkapi Palace first thing on a Monday morning, I joined the back of a line so long that I could barely see the entrance to the Palace itself. My wait began at 9:07 a.m. and I finally walked through the gates at 9:54. I can’t remember the last time I waited 45 minutes to get into anything – and then I had to hop in another line to visit the Harem. As I read my guidebook’s description of the Harem as being less crowded than the rest of the Palace, I cringed because it was pretty darn crowded.
Sure enough, as soon as I emerged from the Harem and set off to explore the rest of the Palace, I was swarmed by people left and right. Taking people-less photos was nearly impossible and I felt hurried as I walked through the parts of the Palace I was even able to enter. I didn’t even bother to visit the Treasury because it meant waiting in yet another line and I didn’t have the patience. I just wanted to get away.
Granted, there were some perks to being back in tourist central.
Nearly everyone spoke at least some English, something I hadn’t enjoyed since I left Chicago back in August. Additionally, the tourist infrastructure was superior, with higher quality hostels, numerous public toilets, frequent signage and tourist information booths.
Aside from the tourists and touts, I really enjoyed Istanbul. Its prime setting on the Bosphorous and Sea of Marmara, together with its vast historical sites, makes it my kind of city. I loved the buzz of Istiklal Street and Taksim Square, which, while crowded, felt just slightly less touristy. And I relished heading over to the much more relaxed Asian side one day for lunch with Akila and Patrick of The Road Forks. When I return to Istanbul (and I am sure I will), I will likely try to avoid Sultanahmet altogether.
So as much as I loved Istanbul, after one week I was ready to head east – to places like Amasya, Trabzon and Kars – and back to a world of no crowds, no lines and yes, even no English.