Istanbul has grown tremendously. A whole slew of high-rise buildings has been thrown up in a new business district in the north of the city, thoroughly changing the skyline in that direction.
The grand bridge over the Bosphorus – did you know it’s the 4th-longest suspension bridge in the world? – still looks austere and functional by day, but at night it’s now ablaze with colour, ever-changing hues of pink, purple, red and orange, switching colour in rhythmic timing like a huge neon sign swishing in a concave sweep literally from one continent to the other.
Those with money definitely have it to burn. One Saturday night we were watching the bridge’s light show from the window of our friends’ place in Cihangar when there began a succession of fireworks displays, each lasting a good 10 minutes. Birthday parties, stuff to impress friends with.
There were times, though, where I thought I must have been sleepwalking the whole month so long ago, because I seemed to be experiencing for the very first time so much of daily life that hits you full in the face.
How could I have forgotten so much of it? Was that call to prayer really so loud? Was the first blast of the day really that early, and, in their cacophonous wailings, did they all seem to be trying to outdo one another?
I realise there are now 70 million in the country instead of 40, 16 million now crowding Istanbul, but do you remember seeing great throngs of people around the mosques for Friday prayers? The mosques were overflowing on Friday, the faithful spilling out into the courtyards and onto sidewalks, each with his own rug and facing Mecca, the passersby walking respectfully around them.
Were there really that many cats walking around the city? There are cats EVERYWHERE in Istanbul, some gathered in groups of 30 or 40, and dogs too – usually lying around sleeping. You sometimes see little piles of fresh meat or kibbles-n-bits left out for them, though strangely, there’s very little in the way of scat on the sidewalks. Don’t recall dogs or cats at all back then, nor did I mention them in my journal.
I don’t recall seeing the aqueducts at all.
The trams in Istanbul are now as new and modern as anything you’re likely to find in Zurich or Amsterdam, and they’re pretty crammed in the downtown area at any time of the day. I don’t even remember seeing trams back then, though there must have been, because they’ve preserved two lines from the olden days.
One sweet and charming old rattletrap that reminded me of San Francisco streetcars runs the entire length of Istiklal Avenue from Tünel to Taksim Square, squeezed full, often with kids hanging on the side. The other line has new equipment but runs – believe it or not – on the oldest underground stretch of rail in the world after that of London – an inclined railway built in the 1860s. It costs 40 cents and takes you from near the foot of the north end of the Galata bridge up to the south end of the old tram’s line.
I wish back then we’d explored a little more beyond the realm of the Sultanahmet side, but unfortunately we didn’t get over to Beyoglu at all except – if my journal is anything to go by – one night when we went out with a couple of Istanbullus to a bar for some dancing and singing. The traditional stuff, not karaoke, and put on by and for locals, not tourists. I remember having a lot of fun that evening.
Third in a series.