As a frequent traveler, I have heard a lot about the supremacy of Turkish Airlines’ Lounge Istanbul at the Ataturk Intenrational Airport as one of, if not the BEST airline lounge in the world.
So after a week traveling with 10 wonderful strangers, I was able to transfer 80,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points (that I acquired having the Chase Sapphire Preferred card) to become 80,000 United Miles so I could book 2 free first class (Turkish Airlines’ first class is actually called “business class” and there’s no higher level) flights from Tunis to Istanbul and from Istanbul to NYC on Turkish Airlines. Other than being excited for the flight experiences themselves, I was actually more excited this time to finally get access to the venerable lounge in Istanbul.
Getting through Tunis-Carthage International Airport was a relative breeze so I was on my Turkish Airlines flight from Tunis to Istanbul within minutes of arriving at the airport.
While waiting for takeoff, they handed hot towels and took my order from the menu below:
And at about 10 minutes after takeoff, I was served with a selection of cheeses and bread spreads. FYI, on business class they let you watch movies on the stowaway video screens even as you’re taking off and landing!
After I was done with the cheeses, they were quickly swapped with a satisfying vegetable omelette.
We landed at IST (Ataturk International) airport about 2 hours later, where I went through another round of security to get to the international transfer area. The lounge is so big you’ll notice it immediately.
No check-in needed! Just scan your flight ticket in at their turnstiles.
Once your inside, it could take you up to half an hour to explore the entire place, which covers nearly 6000 square meters. There’s a reason why they call this lounge “bigger than some airports.”
With 2 wide floors of entertainment, this massive space houses a movie theater, public lockers, virtual mini-golf, a kids playroom with a slide, popcorn machines, pretzel stations, about 20+ standalone kitchens serving all types of international cuisine, limitless and unlimited drinks of all types, and tons and tons of Turkish pastries.
Need a place to sit? Not a problem here; this place can seat up to 1,200 travelers:
I could post up more photos, but they’ll just spoil the surprise and/or make you more jealous. There’s just so much more to see here that I could go on about endlessly. Unfortunately, I had to leave early knowing that it was going to be a shitshow going through extra rounds of security given that we were no longer allowed to have laptops, tablets, cameras or other large electronic devices in our carry-on luggage onboard the flight (read the news lately?).
This whole new process took about 30 minutes (it would’ve been much more if I weren’t in first/business class!) where they checked your flight tickets, asked you a few questions about your vacation, then opened up all your carry-on bags to look for said electronic devices. Once they found them you had to declare each one, shut them all down, and they’ll itemize each one before placing them in bubble wrap and placing each of them in hard suitcases. They then give you a tag for each device with which you can get these electronics back after the flight.
Then it was off to my flight.
The first/business class seating isn’t in a clamshell type but more of the standard 3 per grouping where those assigned to the middle seats may have an issue getting to the aisle. Still, they all can turn into flatbeds.
The footrests open up to store belongings:
Then they pass out these great Denon headphones to use during the flight.
There’s also the amenities kit, which although is in a nice leather FURLA bag, the contents are pretty standard (or am I getting more spoiled now?):
Their first/business class are also known for their in-flight dining with an extensive menu of drinks and food.
A chef comes out to take your requests ahead so he can cook it to order:
And then the ceremonious multi-course meal began:
They even give you a fake candlelight to give the impression that you’re having a candlelight dinner to yourself.
Their bathrooms are no joke either:
They’ll make your bed for you if you want to go to sleep, but I chose to stay up to readjust my circadian rhythm:
If you need a laptop to work with but had to check it in earlier, they can provide laptops for you to use during the flight. That said, their wifi was pretty fast for in-flight internet.
About 2 hours before landing, they begin to serve their light breakfast:
After about 11 hours in the sky, we promptly landed at JFK airport and I was the first one out the door. After getting through passport control with Global Entry, I waited for about 30 minutes at baggage claims before they were able to deliver me back my laptop, camera, and iPad from their cargo hold. Just don’t lose your tags that they give you before you board!
- At time of posting in Istanbul, Turkey, it was 25 °C -
Humidity: 64% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy
Meet Ahmet! He’s 7 months old and just too cute.
His mother (in the background) rigged up a camera battery charger for me from another type of charger. Brilliant! And amazing in a touristy area where most people will just try to sell you a charger for way too much.
We finish off Istanbul with a relaxing day of sightseeing. After beginning our day at the Turkish Baths with a thorough scrubdown and massage, we hopped on a metro:
…where we ended up near the Spice Market and the New Mosque.
Right by the Galata Bridge on the Sultanhmet (the southern district with the Hagia Sopgia, Blue Mosque, etc.) side, we had Istanbul’s version of “street food” by chowing down a fish sandwich procured from one of the many fish boats docked by the harbor. It was only 4L. Highly recommended.
Then for 12L we took a very nice cruise up along the Bosphorous River, which is the official dividing line between Europe and Asia.
After the cruise, we got off and explored the last of the Sultanhmet area by the river. And rather than the endless clothing, antique, and jewelry shops of the Grand Bazaar, we were invited to endless clothing, antique, jewelry, food, and spice shops at the Spice Market.
Afterwards we took a stroll down the harbor to catch a ferry over into Kadıköy, the Asia (Eastern) side of Istanbul, for dinner. Upon disembarking we were greeted with a handful of panhandlers selling roses and small souvenirs. My friend, Nikhil, remarked: “guess this is a sign we’re really on the Asia side now.”
And this was when I realized that despite the millions of people living in all the other parts of Istanbul, I had barely encountered any evidence of homelessness in the main parts of the city, let alone vagrants merely loitering on a sidewalk. It was if they didn’t exist or were all hidden somewhere by the government. Unlike when I arrived into Manila, Philippines at the exact same time last year, there was not one person who came up to me begging for money. The only sign of real poverty and homelessness was when I ventured out into the outskirts of Istanbul, such as while at the international bus station and at rest stops on the way to and from Cappadocia. Is this simple evidence of gentrifying in the way that homelessness is merely pushed off to the side (which seems to be the trend in large tourist cities all over the world) and the suburbs? Or has Istanbul legitimately found a way to tackle a hot-button issue and homelessness is really on the decline?
Don’t get me wrong, there was a fair share of young children selling napkins, flowers and breath mints to us on the street throughout our time in Istanbul, but they acted and dressed as if they were doing their summer jobs instead of children who really needed the money to put food on the table. In other words, when we said no, they merely shrugged and walked over to the next potential customer. But I’m used to people sticking it out to the very end. I asked: was it because they were really not that poor and just doing it as a summer job (like selling lemonade at a lemonade stand)? or is it simply a reflection of a different kind of attitude among Turkish people?
Just food for thought.
It was very nice to catch such a splendid sunset before dinner.
Afterwards we took the ferry back to Galata where we ended with an early night back home.
I'll miss you, Istanbul.
Tomorrow: Beirut, Lebanon!
- At time of posting in Istanbul, it was 22 °C -
Humidity: 78% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy
There are very few moments in life where you stop to think, and forget to start again…
We knew we only had 2 days in Istanbul, so upon our 6am arrival into the Bus Terminal (from our 12 hour overnight bus from Cappadocia) we got a little antsy as they kept us waiting for the free shuttle service that would take us to where we were staying. Their advertised “free shuttle” really means “free-I’ll keep you waiting around until the bus is full, even if it takes 1-2 hours.” By the time we we were ready, it was already 10am. 4 hours wasted. But it wouldn’t be in vain.
We took a cab (20L from Taksim area) to the’ former home of the Ottoman sultans, the Topkapi Palace, in the old city of Istanbul, where we spent 20L to gain admission and an extra 15L to see their impressive mini-city known as the harem. The harem is where the all the concubines and eunichs lived, and the museum spun quite an approvingly positive impression of the practice where each sultan kept over 160 wives to himself…to “sustain the future and well being of his people.”
After Topkapi Palace we headed over fora double-headliner of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque (free admission) is an actual mosque unlike the Hagia Sophia (which was a Catholic church that became a mosque that then became a museum), which allows it to be free to the public.
The Blue Mosque
Couldn’t leave without…
Then Hagia Sophia (15 Liras admission), which as you saw from the first picture in this entry, is
one of the most glorious buildings in the world. Its massive pillars lie within the walls, making them invisible and thus giving the illusion of the massive dome being completely unsupported. Words cannot describe the beauty of this place…
This mosaic above was the cover of my 9th grade history book. 9 years later I finally find out where it was taken from.
We then walked over past the Hippodrome and the Sultan’s Tombs (a quiet respite from all the madness outside) into the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is this labyrinth of over 4,000 shops that will keep a shopaholic preoccupied for DAYS (i’m looking at some of you).
Unfortunately, I found it more like a “themed mall” than an actual city market or community souk. Think “Prada”, “Club Monaco”, “Omega Watches”, “Louis Vutton” style stores (with glass panes even!) situated next to some open-air (i.e. more legitimate looking) merchants. The juxtaposition was a little jarring. It was as if seeing all your favorite “mom and pop” coffee shops and family stores being gentrified for the sake of promoting European style tourism.
After shopping around, we walked north up to Suleymaniye Camii, the largest mosque complex in Istanbul. Although not as spectacular as the Blue Mosque or the Hagia Sophia, we were one of the very few tourists around, which finally allowed for rare moments of serenity.
This picture speaks a lot to me: a practicing Muslim girl reflects behind a barrier that won't let females (visitors or Muslims) in. Meanwhile, her male counterparts are busy socializing in the front, while tourist males are free to walk around in that area as well.
Afterwards we headed back and underwent a NIGHTMARE of trying to make it for dinner:
- Took a 20L cab ride back up to the other side of the city so we could change.
- The security guards, for the first time ever, wouldn’t give us the key to our place for “security reasons.”
- Tried calling our friend, who for the first time ever, couldn’t pick up because she was at work.
- After half an hour of waiting we took a 20L cab ride back down to Taksim Sq. to meet Sonya, Nihil and Karde (another one of my friends from college, living in Istanbul) for dinner.
- Karde, Sonya and Nikhil never show up.
- After half an hour of waiting, we went into a Starbucks to get wireless so we could skype them.
- Had to buy a drink.
- Realized that I needed a Turkish cell phone to get an SMS txt msg with a password to gain access to Starbuck’s wireless.
- Used the barista’s cell phone instead.
- Unfortunately the password required Turkish letters (the “i’s” and “o’s”), which is not compatible with my U.S. netbook keyboard.
- Used another barista’s cell phone that gave a password with American letters.
- Called Karde via Skype, but the signal, for the first time ever, was so bad I couldn’t hear her.
- Called Karde 4 more times and luckily managed to get one word out of her: “OTTO”
- Took a guess and figured “OTTO” was the name of the restaurant, so looked it up Google Maps.
- Found an “OTTO Restaurant” 1.3km away, so hailed a cab and showed our driver the map.
- He couldn’t understand it (WTF), so we had him call Karde on his cell phone.
- Finding out a few min later he couldn’t drive us directly there due to “traffic problem”, he drops us off earlier than expected and tells us to walk there.
- We ask about 6 people for directions, half of them who understood us. After a series of left-left-right-left-right-I think I was playing Mortal Kombat 2-walkabouts in a confusing (but beautiful) alleyway of restaurants, we finally found Karde.
After an amazing dinner, Karde took us to this really really nice rooftop bar that’s appropriately named Up Lounge…
And despite the harrowing evening of trying to reach Karde without a cell phone, I’d say the views we were rewarded with at the end of the night was quite worth it:
If you liked what you’ve seen here, check out more of our pictures of Istanbul here.
- At time of posting in Istanbul, it was 22 °C -
Humidity: 69% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy
That photo above gives you an idea of what pollution is like in Istanbul…
I guess the newer sign is the one on the right, while the older sign is…the one on the left.
- At time of posting in Istanbul, it was 22 °C -
Humidity: 73% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny with a few clouds
2 hours after my 13 hour flight from LA, I boarded a 12 hour overnight bus with Calvin to Cappadocia. It was like 11am pacific time when I got on the bus; I was well rested and wide awake. This was going to be a long ride for me. But much as I was dreading it, in the end it didn’t turn out so bad.
Between the small naps I took, I saw a lot of Turkey’s countryside and got to think in silence as everyone else slept. Most of this ride was in the dark, so I could only make out a few buildings and cities in the landscape by their lights, but as we passed by some gas stations and buildings closer to the roads, I got to see for the first time, the architecture and infrastructure of Turkey.
Most of the gas stations are the same as in the US. Valero, Shell, bp. Most of the apartments have the same basic construction. 3 floors, symmetric, multi family homes on a floor. The differences were in the details: the use of colors on their buildings, the geometric patterns in the brickwork and the iron railings, the use of commas instead of periods to denote the gas prices (which were lower than LA’s prices), and the thinner and shorter overhanging streetlamps. When working on roads, they don’t just block off a lane, they redirect that whole side of traffic to the opposite side of the divider and work on the whole section of the first side. I thought about these differences and what that meant about their daily culture. Then I realized I didn’t have much of a basis for my theories. If only I was an anthropology major.
As dawn broke and the drivers stopped to have their 5th cigarette break, I got out to stretch and smell the air. We had reached rural country. Eastern Turkey is beautiful. Between the rolling green hills and the fields of wheat, there are picturesque small villages with red clay roofs. Some of the farms standing out in the distance, remind me of a Hopper painting. The colors are muted and blended. Looking out at them in the soft windy dawn, I felt a sensation of calm with a tinge of loneliness. The crows screeched and it sounded familiar. Fleet Foxes seems an appropriate music choice on my ipod.
By the time we arrived to Cappadocia’s bizzare “moonscape” , I was finally tired. Never has it felt so good to sleep on a bed.