Travel in Russia – The Planes, Trains & Automobiles Edition

Moscow is grittier. St. Petersburg is more refined. Getting there and getting around poses some unique challenges.

Going to Russia – Flying Aeroflub

First, I made the frugal but brave decision to fly Aeroflot – they had the cheapest ticket I could find at the time.

At first I couldn’t check in online, as the Aeroflot site was under repair and a few weeks past the deadline for when those repairs were supposed to finish. Scrolling to the bottom of the page though, I found a link that allowed me to choose my seat and print a boarding pass. An Aeroflot attendant ripped it up at the airport, and issued me a new pass. Same seat, so I was content.

Got on the plane, only to find that the entertainment system was broken. No movies, no games, no map of our progress for 12 hours. My seat mate, who flies Aeroflot regularly, told me this happens a lot. Bring an ipad. He didn’t have anything, so we took turns playing Angry Birds on mine. Apropos, no?

Caution: Icebergs lure drunk passengers practically into your lap. Don't fly Aeroflot.

Caution: Icebergs lure drunk passengers practically into your lap. Don’t fly Aeroflot.

Food was ok, except for the iceberg lettuce salad and French dressing, which I haven’t seen served since the fall of the Communist regime. The chocolate mousse-like dessert was pretty tasty.  The orange mousse-like dessert was tastier.

The return flight was better, though the plane landed two hours later than scheduled. No problem checking in, watched a few movies, and the food was better. No French dressing.  The only other problem was the drunk passengers passing around shots – one of whom kept wanting to lean over our seats to look out the window.

Going Cross Country, or Just Across Town – Trains & Subways

Getting lost in either city is a given, especially when your phone dies halfway through the day and you lose Google Maps. The main problem in that scenario is in reading the street signs, since the Russian alphabet is a form of Cyrrillic.

A Green Line Station in Moscow. I believe this one was used for Communist Party events and as a bomb shelter.

A Green Line Station in Moscow. I believe this one was used for Communist Party events and as a bomb shelter.

For example, the nearest metro station to my hotel in Moscow was the Dynamo station named for Dynamo Stadium, written in Russian like this: Дина́мо. That doesn’t look too bad, does it?

Don’t get too confident though. The only metro station where you can connect with the Aeroexpress Train to Sheremetyevo Airport is Belorussky Station, which looks like this: Белорусский вокзал. ­­How are you supposed to figure something like that out?

Thankfully, a female police officer took pity on me and pointed me in the right direction after watching me study a map in blank confusion for a good 10 minutes.

By the way, Belorussky Station is on the Green Line, at the intersection of the Brown City Circle line. You’ll have to leave the subway station and walk around it to find the entrance for the Aeroexpress Train ticketing.

Russian literacy challenges for Westerners aside though, the subway stations in both Moscow and St. Petersburg are very easy to navigate. Better yet, you can hop lines all day on one pass, if you don’t ever emerge from the underground, for about US$1. Which is good if you’re perpetually lost.

Moscow uses a disposable smart card, which you can load up with one trip or multiple trips. St. Petersburg stations use tokens, which will be replaced with smart cards soon. Buy your trips at the ticket windows or via vending machines in the stations.

Subway stations in Moscow are filled with murals, statues, ceiling paintings...

Subway stations in Moscow are decorated with murals, statues, ceiling paintings. Didn’t notice the same in St. Petersburg, but also didn’t use the subway as much.

On the escalators into and out of the metro stations, stand on the right, and pass on the left. If you stand still on the left, someone will inevitably and not very gently nudge you out of their way.

The Moscow subway stations post maps strictly in Russian, until you get on the trains, which have maps labeled in both Russian and in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). St. Petersburg stations have maps written both ways in the stations and on the trains. Street signs in the Burg are also written both ways, though the IPA is in a much smaller font.

The subway stations in Moscow are works of art. Some of them held Communist Party meetings in the middle of the last century. Most of them are decorated from stone, marble and fixtures of beautiful churches destroyed by the Communists. If I had more time, definitely would have spent an afternoon train-hopping.

Long Distance Rail in Russia

I tried buying rail tickets to and from St. Petersburg online, through the Russian Railways website. Unfortunately, I couldn’t complete my transactions, which meant buying tickets at the last minute.

This forced me into first class on a Sapsan Train, which I loved. The attendant was fluent in English, brought me the Moscow Times in English, offered me American coffee instead of tea. It’s the only way to go, especially since it’s only a four hour trip.

Wikipedia says the Sapsan lines are Russian Railways' only profitable train service.  Considering the crowds, I find that unlikely, but who knows?

Wikipedia says the Sapsan lines are Russian Railways’ only profitable train service. Considering the crowds, I find that unlikely, but who knows?

Returning to Moscow on an 8 hour sleeper train though, I was forced into a “couchette.” Moral of the story? Buy tickets a few days in advance, and take the high speed Sapsan.

One other tip:  Google Translator helped me buy my return ticket. I just handed the agent my phone in which I typed First Class cabin, sleeper train, time, date and destination.  The agent seemed appreciative of my efforts, preferring that to trying to communicate via hand gestures through a bulletproof glass window. Too bad there were no first class sleepers left.

Getting Around by Car

Russian drivers are a bit crazy, but not in the same way as drivers in Rome or New Delhi. Russian drivers seem much more orderly, but they think nothing of pulling up onto a sidewalk and parking their cars on them, especially in Moscow. But then again, check this out:

 

 

Moscow River on the left, Kremlin on the right, with a small taste of Moscow traffic weaving in between.

Moscow River on the left, Kremlin on the right, with a small taste of Moscow traffic weaving in between.

I also watched three cars pull a u-turn from the middle of a gridlocked intersection…a feat I would not have wanted to attempt. Luckily, I wasn’t driving anywhere.  Traffic jams looked pretty bad, even by L.A. and NY standards.

Moscow is full of unlicensed taxi drivers. Just stick out your hand, someone will pull over, and the two of you negotiate destination and price. If you’re walking, they will pull up next to you and ask if you want a taxi. Traveling alone, I didn’t want to try it. Just say “nyet” and keep walking.

Licensed taxis look almost the same as Western taxis, except that there are no meters. I suggest getting a price quote before starting out.

That worked every time except once, when the driver quoted 200 rubles, but then told me it was 2,000 at my destination. He claimed language barriers. But considering he lowered the price to 1, 500 and then 1,000 when I told him I didn’t have the cash, I’m pretty sure I still got robbed. This happened in St. Petersburg. Maybe write down the figure to get confirmation before starting? Better yet, ask the concierge or front desk agents at your hotel to call a taxi for you, and to get a price quote.

Getting Around in Russia, Overall

1. When possible, book tickets in advance. Train tickets however, are nonrefundable, so make sure you ‘re sure of your plans.

2. Translator apps  and body language are your friends. When asking directions it helps to plug your questions into a translator, or to simply pull up a photo of the museum or destination you are trying to find. Add a questioning facial expression and you’re generally understood.

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Mono Lake | Finding Tranquility in Half-Baked Calcium Carbonate

Who knew a million year old, salt lake without an outlet could seep into your soul like a halcyon balm?

Just reading about the alkalai flies inhabiting the shores, I wouldn’t have thought Mono Lake could provide such peace. But it did. And the flies won’t bother you—they’re too busy feasting on other things.

So if you’re anywhere near Mammoth Lakes (which is only about 30 miles south of Mono Lake), the entrance to Tioga Pass/SR 120 on your way into or out of Yosemite (about 13 miles north) or chasing ghosts in Bodie (about 25 miles northeast), you MUST take time to walk the South Tufa Trail at Mono Lake.

The Visitor’s Center, which is closer to the town of Lee Vining, is full of interesting information about the formation of the lake, the ecology, the history, etc. But even the signs there will tell you to get back in the car and head for the South Tufa.

There’s an access road a few miles further south from the Visitor’s Center off US 395.  State Road 120 west will take you west, young man…it’s the Tioga Pass Road to Yosemite. State Road 120 East is the access road you’ll be looking for. You’ll soon see signs for the Mono Lake tufa and shore.

This hike to the tufa is easy—it’s all flat. Yes, you can take your grandma.

Great Towering Tufa | Mono-nificent Sights

Tufa TrailMono Lake is about 65 square miles in area and less than 60 feet deep in most spots (though one spot measures 159 feet deep). It is one of the oldest lakes in North America, and it is three times as salty as the Pacific.

You’ll see evidence of ancient volcanoes when you visit…the islands in the middle of the lake as well as the Mono Craters around the lake are all remnants of volcanic eruptions.

Tufa forms underwater when calcium from underwater springs mixes with carbonates in the lake water.

Watery Wildlife

This is not a fishing lake, since the water is too alkaline to support our gilled friends. However, trillions of brine shrimp live here, billions of alkalai flies feed on the algae, and millions of birds migrate and nest here, feeding on flies,  shrimp and each other.

Believe it or not, the flies are kind of cool. First you’ll notice that the shores of Mono Lake are black by the water. It isn’t until you step towards the edge and a black, buzzing blanket lifts and resettles with every step you take, that you realize the you’re not looking at sediment, but at billions of insects.

The flies lift and settle about a foot away from you, not wanting to be parted from their algae dinners for very long. The buzz is incredible. The seabirds waddling the beach as you walk are amusing – beaks open, they skim for flies as the blanket lifts, with your every step. Instant, easy grazing for the fowl.

Mono Lake’s Alkalai Flies may be the only flies on earth that won’t annoy you.

Many of these birds nested on the islands, until the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting fresh water streams from the Sierras, and the lowered level of Mono Lake turned the islands into peninsulas, which created land bridges for bird and egg-eating predators.

Mono Lake restoration and conservation began in the late 90s. The water level still hasn’t reached it’s old depth, before the draining off of fresh water. But the ecology is reviving.

Summer in Mammoth Lakes – A One Day Tour

I had planned on seeing a lot more of Mammoth Lakes than I actually did. Unfortunately, my flight from Los Angeles had to turn back – a severe thunderstorm prevented us from landing, and I wasn’t able to book another flight back until two days later.

Take heart if you’d rather fly than drive though – a flight attendant told us that that was only the second time in her 22 year career in which her plane had to fly back to its point of origin.

Mammoth Village – The Adventure Begins

The great thing about Mammoth Lakes is that there are free shuttle services just about everywhere. However, I opted to take the Reds Meadow Shuttle, which cost $7/adult.

The Reds Meadow shuttle has stops at hiking trails leading to Devil’s Postpile, Minaret Falls, Rainbow Falls, etc.  There are 10 stops for this shuttle, and passengers can freely hop on and off to their hearts content.

So hike a bit, sightsee, then hop back on the bus for a little break.

The Reds Meadow Shuttle is about five miles from town and if you want to see Devil’s Postpile, you have to take it if you’re visiting between June and October. There are a few exceptions for private vehicle access, but the shuttle keeps down traffic on the one lane road, thus protecting both the fragile environment, and lollygagging tourists driving on unfamiliar mountain roads.

Besides, you’ll have more fun as a passenger – the shuttle driver will point out various landmarks and mountain peaks and you can devote all of your attention to the scenery rather than navigating steep hairpin turns.

To get to the Reds Meadow Shuttle, continue along the 203/Main Street and make a right on CA-203/Minaret Road. Stay on Minaret approximately five miles.

You’ll emerge from the woods and see cars parked along the roadsides – these spaces are free. As you get closer to the scenic gondola, rock-climbing wall, etc. you’ll find parking lots where an attendant will collect $10 per car. Go early if you want free parking.

Devil’s Postpile a Rock of the Tectonic Ages

Devil's Postpile a Towering Rack of BasaltWhat is Devil’s Postpile? It’s a national monument established in 1911, a Mammoth Lakes tourist Mecca, and a geologist’s prime example of ancient, columnar basalt.

It’s what’s left of a lava lake estimated to be about 400 feet deep. As the lava cooled, it contracted and cracked, forming the vertical columns. Freezing and thawing cycles over the centuries have sheered off the columns, creating the basalt pillars we see strewn on the ground below.

Signs around the monument instruct you to keep off the rocks – presumably for the same reason you shouldn’t run with scissors. Though I think I’d worry about rattlesnakes too.

Rainbow Falls a Killer Trek for Non-Hikers

The hike to Devil’s Postpile is fairly easy. The trail to Rainbow Falls can be quite another story. Supposedly, this walk is only 2.5 miles from the shuttle stop but it can get pretty steep in some areas.

On my way down I spotted a woman on the trail returning from the Falls on crutches. Then I noticed she was missing a leg. Her group had stopped for a breath, and just as I was passing heard her rally, “Let’s go! The sooner we get to the top, the sooner we can have a beer!” And off she clumped along, her friends surrounding her like a protective posse.

Now who wouldn’t find that inspiring?

Rainbow Falls crashes down about 100 feet, but it had shed its rainbow by the time I got to it. There’s a scenic overlook above the falls where you can watch the massive movement of water and ponder the courage of the crazy souls swimming in the pool at the bottom.

From this overlook you can take a steeper path further down and join the swimmers if you like. I debated. Then I debated some more. Then a few raindrops fell and I took it as a sign from the universe that I should head back to the shuttle.

On the return path, the trail branches off. The path on the left was the trail by which I came: slightly challenging, more or less uphill, but not too bad. The upper trail on the right had a sign for some kind of general store and camping area. I opted for the new trail, which nearly killed me because it was much steeper.

A quarter of the way through it, I was cursing the woman on crutches and all of her beer-guzzling friends.

At the halfway point I figured a knee replacement was in my immediate future, and I had visions of suffocating to death as I could NOT catch my breath. I took many breaks and made it back to the shuttle reeking of sweat and gasping like a fish. You granola groupies would love it.

Ansel Adams Wilderness Razed by Fire

Ansel Adams Wilderness, Mammoth LakesIf nothing else, the trail to Rainbow Falls and the Falls themselves are visually worth the aggravation. I can see why Ansel Adams was so smitten by his muse. But I have to warn you, you’ll see a lot of downed trees everywhere along the Reds Meadow shuttle road, and when you stumble across Adams’ Wilderness you’ll find even more.

The burned stumps and leveled trunks are victims of a forest fire that blazed in 1992. You’ll spot some new growth, but the devastating fire really took a toll on the landscape.

And that concludes my one day tour of Mammoth Lakes. I loved it, though my knees are still berating me.

Next up: a trip to Mono Lake, home of surreal beauty, a soul-soothing stroll, and billions and billions of curious little flies.

From Cannes Film Fest to Frankfurt part 1

(WoW co-founder Malayna Dawn met this guest blogger when they were both interning at KROQ-FM in Los Angeles!)

By Tracey Adlai

A few years ago I discovered that attending the most prestigious film festival in the world, Festival de Cannes, was free (with accreditation) and ever since, I’ve been on a mission to make the Cote d’Azur my playground for one week every May.

Festival de Cannes - photo by Tracey Adlai

There are several different levels of accreditation, mostly reserved for film professionals, but one is dedicated to granting screening access to everyday film lovers.

To read more about how to apply to attend the Festival de Cannes, check out my article for The Valley Film Festival.

In the past, my travel partners and I were able to find roundtrip air AND comfortably share a standard suite at MMV Cannes-Mandelieu Resort, for 6 nights, for about $1,000 USD each.  No joke.

With the rising cost of airfare, and, well, the rising cost of everything else, I lost my cohorts and didn’t travel abroad in 2010. I vowed then and there to never rely on having a travel partner again.

PLOTTING A SOLO ADVENTURE

Like most people, I have a full-time job, side projects, financial responsibilities, family obligations, etc. and carving out the time and saving the money to travel requires planning and research.

Once I received my Cannes accreditation in February, I started pricing airfare. Even 3+ months out, there was nothing under $1,200 USD.  That wasn’t a bad price. It was an OK price. If money wasn’t tight, and if I didn’t know better deals were to be had, I would’ve have booked it. Instead, I played the variable pricing airline game and waited until I could find a flight, including all taxes and fees, in the $800 USD range. I used Kayak.com to track and compare airfare – it’s one of my favorite travel sites and one I trust because they don’t handle third party bookings.

Fortunately, the cost of staying at MMV Cannes-Mandelieu  hadn’t changed (approx €130/ $190 per night). Sure it was costly for one person, but I justified the expense by being familiar with the surrounding area; I knew where the supermarket, ATM, and best croissants were. Plus, having access to the free shuttle to/from the festival offset potential cab fare. (The hotel is approx 4 miles from the center of the festival.)

After a month of watching airfare go up, I got nervous about the rising cost of my 6 days in paradise. Suddenly I had an “a-ha!” moment – I remembered that I had air miles! Since I was dipping into my reserve, I added a week to my vacation, and decided to make this a true holiday by exploring other parts of Europe.

My original idea was to fly into Paris, spend a few days in the City of Lights, take a train to the South of France, attend the Festival de Cannes, and via another train to Rome, end my trip amongst historical ruins. It was the just the vacation I wanted.

USING AIR MILES

As I waited for the extra week of vacation to be approved, Paris and Rome were no longer available options using air miles. What was left? GenevaZurich, Frankfurt and Venice.

A week into daydreaming about each destination and having my friends on Facebook chime in, I decided to start my adventure in Geneva, Switzerland and end it in Frankfurt, Germany. Air miles were cashed in and about $120 USD in taxes and fees were paid. (Yes, you still need to pay fees and taxes. Fees are tacked on for every leg of the flight and vary by airport and country. If you’re flexible, click around and see which destination has the lowest.)

Geneva - photo by Tracey Adlai

My adventure was scheduled to begin in Geneva on Tuesday, May 10. Because the Festival de Cannes has fixed dates, and I prefer to attend the first week to connect with filmmakers and industry professionals in town for premiers, I knew that I needed to travel south by Friday, May 13, or Saturday, May 14th. Given that I needed to spend 4 to 5 days in Cannes, I was free to explore starting May 18th, as long as I was in Frankfurt on May 24th to return to the U.S.

Now that I knew when and where I was arriving and departing from, it was time to fill in the blanks!

(to be continued in a future WoW post! Stay tuned….)

 

Traveling Istanbul – Top 3 Must Sees

Hello, Travel Friends!

We’re back to talking about Istanbul, my favorite city in the whole world, thus far. I think it’s the ever-evolving history of it that is most fascinating for me. And here are simply some things that absolutely cannot be missed if you’re in Istanbul, even if you’re there for just one day.

 

Hagia Sophia Istanbul - Christian art restoration.

Archaeologists slowly revealing hidden art, covered over by the Ottomans in the 15th century.

 

#1. Hagia Sophia

The locals spell it Aya Sofya, and it has been standing since the Byzantine period, through earthquakes, political change and religious reformations. Who knows how much longer it will survive? One giant ground shaking and it can all wind up a pile of rubble tomorrow.

Not that I truly believe that. I have a feeling the old girl will be around for a few more centuries at least. Still…one never knows.

When I was there in 2006, archaeologists were uncovering all of the old, Christian art which had been painted over by the Ottomans in the 1400s as they converted it into a mosque. You’ll probably get to see a lot more than I did.

TIP: Hire a local guide hanging around the entrances – you’ll get interesting bits of information as you walk around. I picked the oldest one of the bunch: a charming, sweet man who kept pulling my leg the whole tour, to see if I would believe every single thing he said. Luckily, he had a tell: a slight twitch of the lips and a glint in the eye. I THINK I always knew when he was joking!

#2. Turkish Bath

The second thing you must see (and do) is a hamam. Yes, go get a Turkish bath.

The attendees will scrub you down to the deepest layer of skin, removing dirt you had no idea you’d been carrying around for years. Then they’ll anoint you in lotion and by the time you’re finished you’ll feel like a new-born baby.

Seriously, after the rough scrubbing part of it, I felt like a very small child being given a bath by my mother. All I wanted to do was sleep for several hours…and I did.

TIP: My guidebook at the time said that the natives go naked at the hamams. My guidebook lied. All of the other women (Turkish and Tourists) kept their panties on, so bring a pair you don’t mind getting wet, and then bring another pair to change into afterwards. Unless you like walking around in wet panties.

 

 

Jewelry area at Istanbul Grand Bazaar.

The Grand Bazaar Istanbul jewelry section, but where are all of the women?

#3. Shop & Talk

The third thing on the MUST DO list is the Grand Bazaar, grand-daddy of all souks of the world. It’s massive, and you’ll probably get a little lost wandering the halls. Don’t panic, it will be worth it. And you’ll notice that the Grand Bazaar is divided up in sections, the gold sellers in one, textiles in another, etc. etc.

Anyway, it wasn’t the size and the great selection of shoes that most impressed me. It was the people doing business there, many of whom invited me to have a cup of tea and chat. Some of them just wanted to practice their English and others were truly interested in American lifestyles. Either way, I was content to be social, even though I practically exploded my bladder in the process.

This was how I found out about the required army service for young Turks, and how most of the natives serve the green apple tea to the tourists, but drink plain tea themselves.

TIP: Istanbulis don’t really like to talk politics with the tourists.

Anyway, aside from great conversations, I also wound up with a fantastic new purse, some souvenir items, and a fabulous pair of shoes. No problem mixing business and pleasure in the Grand Bazaar. Be prepared to bargain and be prepared to walk away from the goods if you’re not getting the price you want. You’ll figure it out.

Dodging Istanbul Carpet Salesmen & Conquering Fears of Traveling Alone Part 2

 

 

Many Istanbul carpets for sale.

This 200 year old Turkish carpet costs thousands...

 

Ahhh, the Istanbul carpet salesmen. They are a pain in the butt and they are EVERYWHERE.  And they have insidious ways of getting you into their stores, as you shall soon see.

Turkish carpets are gorgeous, and there are many styles and traditions wrapped up in the weave. But they can also cost hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of dollars, so they’re not really in my budget. Somehow I wound up with two of them.

Why? Because of the damn carpet salesman, that’s why! Oh, and I’m sure my over-willingness to “be nice” had something to do with it too. Turns out there are some common sense tactics you can employ to avoid the situation altogether. I wish I knew before I went to Istanbul!

Here’s how they’ll approach you:

  1. “Good Morning! You are an American, are you not? What state are you from?” A friendly conversation ensues, followed by an invitation to have a cup of tea in the store. Tends to happen as you’re passing by a storefront.
  2. When sightseeing, watch out for the guys offering helpful information: “Do you know why the Blue Mosque has six minarets?” This helpful native proceeded to tell me a convoluted story about the Turkish word for six, “alti” getting mixed up with the word for gold, “altin”. And so poor Sultan Ahmed I had his orders misconstrued and the Blue Mosque wound up with six, tiled minarets instead of four gold ones. Apparently having six is presumptuous, because the mosque in Mecca has seven. (Wouldn’t four gold ones be just as audacious?)   Anyway, I wound up with a carpet, because this guy was just so darn helpful and informative, I couldn’t say no to stopping in at his cousin’s store. And what’s even more amazing is that the cousin with the store laughed when I asked him about the six vs. gold story. So. Sometimes you get good information. Other times you get a new carpet.
  3. Watch out for hidden stops on guided tours. Yep, I signed up for a tour of the city with a cruise down the Bosporus. The tour was informative and well worth the money, but it also included a stop at a high-end carpet store. Thankfully I was able to truthfully say I had already purchased two carpets and was not interested in a third. Whew!

 

No escape from Istanbul carpet salesmen...not even on the Bosporus tour.

You'll need the Fortress of Europe to protect you from circling Istanbul carpet salesmen!

 

Ok, so what have I learned about dodging the carpet salesmen? Don’t be so damn smiley and approachable. If you don’t make eye contact with anyone your vacation budget will fare a lot better.

Most of the residents and shop owners in Istanbul are pretty friendly…but they also want your business.  Once I learned how to walk down the street without looking like a “mark” no one bothered to approach me again.

In my next blog I’ll tell you about the fabulous time I had at the Grand Bazaar—spending and socializing on MY terms…

Istanbul – Conquering Fears of Traveling Alone Part 1

 

Istanbul - Fairly safe for women traveling alone.

Istanbul carpet weaver at her loom.

 

“Where are you going so early?”

It was only 7:30 in the morning and I hadn’t eaten breakfast or had any coffee yet. It was also my first day in Istanbul and I was still jet lagged after arriving at my hotel around 1 a.m. But I was too excited to sleep.

So needless to say, I was a bit surprised to be addressed directly, and in perfect English.

I looked over to see an Istanbuli man hosing down the sidewalk in front of his restaurant.

“I’m going to the Haghia Sophia,” I said.

“But it is not open yet. Nothing is open yet, it’s too early. You should go after ten.”

I thanked him, and we continued to chat, while I kept wondering where he learned to speak English so fluently.  Finding out that so many Istanbul residents are actually very fluent in English and a number of other languages wasn’t my first pleasant surprise.

My first pleasant surprise occurred the night before, when I realized my hotel did not send the van to pick me up from the airport. Ok…maybe that wasn’t really a surprise, and maybe it wasn’t so pleasant either. And though I tried calling the hotel, no one was answering the front desk phone after midnight.

All I could do was walk outside and ask a taxi driver how much it would cost to get to my hotel in Sultanahmet—or Old Istanbul. He quoted me a price of 26 Turkish lira. I jumped in the cab, and off we went.

 

Old Istanbul - The Blue Mosque in the Sultanahmet District

Blue Mosque in the morning, in Old Istanbul.

 

I tried paying attention to where we were going, but it was impossible. And I was amazed by how many people I saw lounging around having picnics in the parks by candlelight.

After about 30 minutes of driving around and getting mentally lost I figured if I hadn’t been kidnapped by then, I wasn’t going to be. So I settled back and let the man drive. He hadn’t said a word since we started off.

Finally, we wound up in a very different part of the city. You could tell by how narrow the roads got, and we were suddenly making steeper climbs here and there, with a few hairpin turns thrown in for good measure. There were a lot of old stone buildings too – the first signs that we were now in Old Istanbul.

My driver stopped to converse in Turkish, with a man on the street. I get a little neurotic when I’m sleep deprived, and so thoughts of Ottoman prisons entered my head, as I imagined the conversation, “Hey how much you want for this white girl? She’s American.”

Then he turned to me and asked for the address of the hotel again. I nearly jumped out of my seat. But it turns out he was just lost—and the streets in Old Istanbul are not clearly marked. Twice more he asked for direction, and eventually we arrived.

So what did this little drive into Old Istanbul cost me? There was no meter in the cab, another thing that was vaguely worrying me during the ride. So I handed the man 30 TYL, thinking a 4 lira tip would be sufficient. He handed me some change, which I tried to refuse, telling him I wanted to tip him. But he insisted I take the money. When I counted it later, he had actually returned 7 TYL which meant he only charged 23 – making him the most honest cab driver without a pay meter I had ever encountered!

Good things were going to happen in Turkey…I could tell. I considered yelling at the front desk clerk about the “no show” shuttle service when I checked in, but who am I kidding? I’m not that confrontational.

Tip: Not much is open before 9 a.m. in Sultanahmet. But those who want pictures of the city without crowds of people in them should definitely take advantage of those early hours.