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Constant Istanbul

By Mike Peters | China Daily | Updated: 2012-02-20 13:55

Constant Istanbul

The Bosporus waterway divides Istanbul's European and Asian sectors, offering stunning vistas at sunrise and sunset. Provided to China Daily

Constant Istanbul

The large red field and the size of this rug, 3.6x4.2 feet, suggests that it might have been exported to Europe where aristocrats and wealthy merchants used them as table covers as early as the 15th century.

Constant Istanbul

Sidewalk fruit sellers turn fresh pomegranates into refreshing juice. Mike Peters / China Daily

History, architecture and great shopping have kept travelers coming to this dynamic city for centuries, Mike Peters reports.

The very name of the country launches a slide show of the mind. Turkey means stunning architecture, centuries-old mosques, savory food, piquant coffee, and the azure-blue waters of the Bosporus - the picture-postcard waterway that separates Europe from Asia in the very heart of Istanbul.

On each of my visits to the city, I have made a sunset cruise on the water the grand finale of the trip. If your time is short, you can join the throng on a ferry pier and glide across with several hundred new friends, a mix of tourists and commuters.

For an up-close and personal look, though, take a trip by small boat. Start by wandering the waterfront fish markets - a feast for the senses in every way - and work your way along the docks.

You can bargain with the crews - especially if you're in a group that will fill four or more seats on these charter motorboats. If your lucky, you'll find someone like "Captain Kadir", a lively young fellow who chatted knowledgeably about what we were seeing on two passing continents while his uncle brewed strong, sweet tea in the galley below.

A lot of the boats here are family businesses, and they can make a pretty day on the Bosporus linger in your mind forever.

The city's 360-degree view, and Turkey's long standing as a bridge between cultures, will be in the spotlight this weekend as China's Vice President Xi Jinping wraps up his current foreign trip with a stop here.

"No other city can claim to be a capital of three empires (Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman)," says Turkey's ambassador to China, Murat Salim Esenli.

Eight thousand years of history give Istanbul a powerful sense of itself and visitors a sense of awe. The city prides itself on a low-slung skyline that lets you see ancient wonders from a distance, including the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, the largest church in Christendom in Roman times (later the Aya Sofia mosque, now a museum).

If history and culture aren't your thing, there is shopping at the Grand Bazaar, the "largest marketplace in the world" with more than 4,000 vendors.

The surrounding Sultanahmet district is the heart of the old city, where you'll find an Egyptian market with a spice selection that will overwhelm your senses, street vendors who can't wait to serve you fresh pomegranate juice, and a few too many touts selling rugs.

(Each one will recite a version of this as you pass: "My uncle, who is a master rug maker and the only one who ties the knots properly, is brewing tea right now if you will only come this way, please...")

Being wary of these hawkers is a good idea, but don't dismiss them out of hand. If you don't know a kilim from a Kleenex, say that you don't want to waste their time since you are "only looking". The response will be: "NO PROBLEM!"

Then you can while away a pleasant hour over apple tea as "uncle" shouts at this boy or that to bring another three (or six) rugs, which will be slapped down at your feet rapid-fire for you to examine. You'll sip gently and hear why you should only buy rugs that are double (or single) knotted, why Turkish rugs are better than imitations, why irregularities in the weaving prove a rug is made by hand and not machine, and lots more.

Keep reminding your new friends that you are only looking but so interested to learn. Rugs will get pulled tight, danced on and brushed with the flame of a cigarette lighter to demonstrate that they are genuine - and tough. The vendors will try to sell you something at the end anyway, of course, but with firm politeness you can part friends.

Constant Istanbul

Food? The ubiquitous doner kebabi is mouth-watering, fresh-grilled by veteran street vendors all over the city. The desserts are to die for - not just the signature baklava prepared with different nuts and honeys but also Sigara boregi, dondurma (ice cream), revani (a sweet pastry made with semolina), halva, Sutlak (a Turkish style rice pudding) and many others. And while Starbucks beckons here like in every tourist center, find a Turkish coffee to sip with the sweet of your choice.

Sports fans may be intrigued (or appalled) by Turkish wrestling - go to nearby Edirne in early June if you want to oil up and compete in this good-natured national competition.

A more accessible recreation is the Turkish bath. Guidebooks and hotel concierges can help you avoid the seedy ones. The hamam experience, as the traditional bath is known locally, starts with relaxing in "the warm room", heated by a continuous flow of hot, dry air that prompts the bather to perspire freely. Next comes an even hotter room before bathers go on to splash themselves with cold water. After a full body wash and a massage, bathers relax for a while in "the cooling-room". Even if you've never done this before, it quickly becomes pure comfort zone.

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