Entry Info

As you probably know, Israel has serious diplomatic problems with the neighbouring countries and if you have a certain evidence of entering Israel, some Muslim countries such as Syria and Lebanon wouldn't allow you to enter their territory. (So far, you can enter Jordan and Egypt WITH an Israeli stamp on your passport as they formally established diplomatic relationships)

As I mentioned at the previous entry about Amman, the backpackers travelling around this area have two options to avoid this problem; asking "no stamp" at the Israeli passport control and taking the risk of a lengthy interrogation OR going to Syria and Lebanon beforehand and submitting the passport without reluctance. I chose latter as the troubles for the "No stamp" process would bother me although most travellers prefer the former. Besides, it would be funny to have an Israeli stamp next to the Syrian one.

As Israel is exposed to the threat of terrorism, the severe security check began even before the boarding process at Istanbul airport. When I was queuing for the check-in counter, two Israeli officers started a passport inspection with some questions. And one of the officer's hands became completely motionless when he checked my passport. Indeed I had pages of stamps of Syria and Lebanon which are officially at war with Israel. Besides, they look glum with the other Arabic letters such as Egypt and UAE.

After this, they totally changed their attitude and questioned me about every detail starting from my purpose of the trip, family structure, occupation, how I managed to save up such a large amount of money for the trip and the like. I just answered the questions as I hadn't done anything wrong but due to the delay caused by this inspection, I had no time to stay at the airport lounge. The flight time was only 2 hours which was shorter than the whole procedure at the airport. As Turkey faces Israel over the Mediterranean, it's very close in fact.

At the Tel Aviv airport's passport control, literaly the final gate of Israel, I presented my passport without any hesitation. However, the officer became motionless again when she was checking the other stamps. After some exemplary questions, she picked up her headset and started talking. After a little while the other officer came and I was instructed to follow him. Well, it seemed like I was sent to the special room for suspected people. Besides, my passport was still in the officer's hand at the gate. Though it's a special room, the space looked like a waiting room separated by a partition from the main area and some people were already nervously sitting on the hard chairs which are very typical at airports.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there was wi-fi available at the area and I could kill my time by tweeting my situation in real time (on reflection, I wonder they might have censored my network traffics) but after waiting and waiting my name was not called at all. It looked like it all depended on the officers' judgment who is to be picked up. I noticed some people who came after me were called immediately but some had been waiting since before my arrival. Although a few people demonstrated their irritation, I tried to be calm but expose a little anxiety. Anyway, in the worst case, I could've been expelled from the country but it would've become a part of my funny travel talk likewise the other accidents.

After 2 hours or so, finally my name was called and a beautiful female officer took me to her office for the private interrogation. Some of my friends had told me before, Israel government intentionally choose beautiful people for the personnel who have chances to contact with foreigners and I suppose it could be true from this experience. Sitting in a tiny room, a beautiful lady was asking me a lot of private question. What a bizarre situation it was.

The questions were basically the same as the ones at the departure gate of the Istanbul airport for double check. Anyway I have no reason to tell any lies and just answered the question again. But her attitude was so cute and cunning. For the reason of the trip to Syria, I answered "I'm travelling around the world at the moment and interested in the culture of this area. But some countries such as Syria would refuse me if I had the Israeli stamp. So I decided to go there before Israel." and she commented "Oh, I didn't know that" with a mean smile. How come she was acting so sadistically yet enchantingly? "Well, Israel is a good country because you can enter with the Syrian stamp?" YES, absolutely.

After all, the interrogation finished in 15 minutes and she handed me my passport with a sheet of paper saying "Ok, you can go. Bring this paper to the passport control." It was an indulgence; just passing the sheet of paper I finally entered Israel. But I realised a very important fact that I hadn't gotten the stamp on my passport. I'd heard it would be possible to ask "no stamp" at the airport. But I hadn't had the faintest idea of applying it for me. I rather wanted to get the one though, it was for the best; I'll be able to travel to the other Muslim countries later.

Entry Info

2nd (Sat)
Oct 2010

[day138] My Life in Istanbul

My Life in IstanbulFor us, who had journeyed up North from Egypt, Istanbul is no longer a city in the Middle East. Well paved roads, modern buildings and young girls exposing their bare skins. After entering Turkey, getting alcoholic beverages became much easier as well. Many restaurants are fully licensed and there are so many bars and liquor shops everywhere. What's more, I found a funny poster on the wall of a bar at Istanbul. ( Although I hardly found any restaurants serving pork, this city was very different from the countries being under strict Muslim rules.

My Life in IstanbulOn the other hand, people who travelled from Europe always insisted Istanbul is no longer a city in Europe. Pillars of huge mosques' spires, people smoking water pipes and playing board games at open air cafes, markets, stalls, distinctive foods like Kebab. Their facial features are also bit different from the ones of European. Speaking so, which part does Istanbul belong? I would suggest Istanbul is Istanbul; this city deserves to be the only one not belonging to anywhere.

As I stayed 2 weeks, I had enough time to walk around quite a few places. Not too being enthusiastic about tourism, I just strolled around the local streets and occasionally photographed some interesting subjects. Not gripping myself as a tourist, I liked the calm and relaxing life as if I were a local. Window shopping and watching a soccer game at a sports bar were fine for me.

My Life in IstanbulMy favourite spot in Istanbul was Galata Bridge which connects the down town and the old historic area. When I visited there at dusk, I could see many seagulls hovering on the wind with the gradient background of orange to indigo and it somehow looked exquisitely melancholic. What's more, the sun set over the mosque across the ocean. Also it was a good idea to have dinner at a restaurant under the bridge, observing the nightscape reflecting on the surface of the Golden Horn. Although the restaurants there are bit pricier than the ones in the other areas, you can actually find some reasonable places if you carefully check the menu.

My Life in IstanbulWell, I actually mentioned this before; among Japanese people, Turkish food is regarded as one of the most phenomenal foods of the world and I suppose it's true. In fact the food in Gyoreme was so tasty. Besides the traditional Turkish food, Istanbul has a rich selection of seafood as the city has a big harbour and I was elated at eating juicy grilled fish when we had a farewell dinner with Shin and Tomoko. It was positively surprising that I could eat such delicious grilled fish outside Japan though my budget didn't allow me to eat it every day as seafood was a rather more expensive food than the ordinary foods like Kebabs. If I'd been the richest person, I could've tried lobsters, oysters and other gorgeous menus too. Maybe next time.

My Life in IstanbulWhat's more, I must mention about the freshly baked Turkish breads. Most restaurants gave us the breads free when we ordered one dish at least and the breads were absolutely delicious. No exception here. All of them were soft but springy. After Turkey, I have travelled to a lot of countries which claim to have delicious breads but for my preference, Turkish bread is the absolute best. A bowl of salad with dipping sauce was my typical healthy choice. The bread with the dipping sauce went very well with the local beer.

In terms of the attraction in Turkey, the Hamam(Turkish bath) should be the top. After being impressed with it at Damascus, I tried it on every occasion at Hama and Gyoreme and for the memorial last, I decided to go to the local traditional one with Shin. Lying on the steam heated marble, we found the beads of sweats broke out with the weariness of the trip from whole our body. What's more, the most notable treatment here was the peeling. A hairy muscular Turkish guy intensely scrubbed our body and made us moan deeply. Although it appears so weird in writing, this massage was so painful yet energising. An astonishing amount of dirt peeled off from my body and the texture of the skin became as smooth as a baby's bottom.

My Life in IstanbulBesides, I have to emphasize this; we were in Turkey where we can drink alcohol. Although the Hamam didn't have any alcoholic beverages as it's a kind of traditional facility, we firmly resisted the temptation for the soft drinks and set out on the journey seeking for golden ale. After all, drinking a Turkish national brand, Efes Draft in the afternoon was so delightful.

Anyhow, such a comfortable city Istanbul was! The prices were not too expensive. People were very kind. The internet connection was just fine. Even though the shop keepers hustled sometimes, they are not as annoying as the guys in Egypt. Therefore, I could get away from it all on the last destination of the Middle East. Actually, the next destination is still in the Middle East but it's a totally different world. Finally, I was going to Israel.

Entry Info

As I mentioned at the beginning of the previous entry, Istanbul is the meeting point of Asia and Europe. In other words, it's the city where all travellers on the Eurasia circuit get together. Because of this locality, there are many cheap hostels running and the more hostels that open the more they compete; eventually, the quality of hostels soars high. In fact, at hostelworld you can find many hostels which got more than 85points with the reviews. In my experience, if the hostel has more than 85points, they don't fail me. But there are too many nicely reviewed hostels to check out. Therefore, using Istanbul as a prime example, I'd like to describe my way how to choose hostels which meet my taste.

At the very first, I don't mind staying in dormitory rooms. Ideally, I prefer a 4 bed dorm room as it's quieter than the bigger rooms but it depends on the price of the rooms. What's more, a very important feature of the dorm room is that I give my top priority to sleeping in the mixed (both sexes) room. Mind you, I don't intend to chat up any beautiful girls. I hardly find attractive girls in the dorm rooms anyway. The reason why I choose the mixed dorm is, to avoid the men snoring so badly. You know some people are just as terrible as noise pollution. They even void my ear plugs. In contrast, most ladies are very quiet at night and I can sleep comfortably in the same room.

Ratings are probably the most informative factors. I usually start with checking about "Staff" value because I believe staff are the core to characterise the hostel. Although hostels can't compete with the decent hotels for their materialistic features such as the buildings and facilities for the cost issue, they can improve their soft services by their own hospitality. As I wrote before, such as Niras at Bangkok, Yashin's at Gyoreme, some people at nice hostel were very kind and willing to help travellers. In a way, they are the concierges for backpackers. Though they are quite frank and friendly, their kindness are on a par with the personal services from 5 star hotels.

Next point is, "Cleanness". You might think that cheap hostels cannot be clean but unexpectedly there are quite a few spotlessly clean hostels. Some hostels have dedicated cleaning staff who sweep the floor all day long. Luxury and cleanness are totally different; a simple room with bunk beds is comfortable enough providing the room is cleaned carefully. Maybe you should accept the cleaning lady entering your room in the late morning even if you are sleeping. It's much better than the messy room left from the cleaning schedule.

"Location" really depends on the city. If the city is small and everything is within a walking distance, it would be great to have the hostel in the central area. On the other hand, if the city requires using public transport all the time, not sticking to the location makes the choices wider and more valuable. For instance about Istanbul which is divided into the downtown and old city, I booked 2 hostels, each of them are nicely located in their own area.

Last but not least about the ratings, for me "Fun" should be low. Do you think it's strange to prefer lowly rated hostels? It's because of the clientele. Unlike Asian budget travellers, a significant number of Western travellers are crazy about drinking out and they are always talking about night clubs and pubs at the cities. The hostels which got high "Fun" rate are usually so called party hostels where the party animals congregate and sometimes staff lead their travellers to their local pubs. However, binge drinking and making noise are not my taste at all. In order to avoid this kind of people, I would often choose the less "Fun" hostel. As a result, I met some nice people who enjoy travelling itself and it was my pleasure to talk with them with some alcohol.

The reviews are just for extra information. I usually don't care about good reviews but bad reviews should be of concern. There are kind of inevitable accidents such as overbooking and broken something and I don't mind about them. However, if you find any security incidents happening often recently, you should consider using the hostel very carefully.

In terms of prices, I don't really care. Basically, the dorm rooms from hostelworld are reasonable enough. As you might have already understood my character, I'd rather choose a better hostel with some extra charge than stay at the cheapest yet dingy hostel. As a "first class backpacker", I'd like to stay at first class hostels.

Considering all of the factors above, the hostels I choose to stay at Istanbul is Chambers of Boheme and Agora Hostel. If you check out hostelworld, you'll see these hostels perfectly match my criteria. The hostels actually hit my spot and I can't state which is better.

Located off the street of the main shopping street Istiqlal downtown, is Chambers of Boheme; a Bohemian design boutique hostel as the name indicates. The ground and first floor are used as a stylish café and their breakfast included nicely brewed coffee from the café. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to bring our own food, I liked sitting on a classic sofa at the café and using my PC.

Agora hostel at the old city area boasts their ocean view terrace at the top floor. The breakfast buffet consists not only the basic foods such as bread, cereal, and egg but some rare foods for budget hostels like a variety of hams and homemade brownies. Besides, the area has many other hostels as well as some reasonable restaurants and I didn't find it difficul to eat out well.

Even though we say dorm rooms at budget hostels in a single word, there are actually so many types around the world, weird Japanese hostels, party hostels, boutique hostels etc. I recommend you check with yourself about your preference and follow the basic rules. In addition to this, it's sometimes interesting to stay at places different from your taste. Especially, after Istanbul, I mean Europe is the hottest area of hostels. I suppose even just browsing hostelworld and looking for hostels would be a great fun.

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