September 5-7, 2016: The centerpiece of this year’s trip was a two week tour of Uzbekistan, starting in Tashkent. Getting to Tashkent from London, I discovered, would require a change of planes. I usually book my own air directly with the relevant airline, but this time I thought it safer to have the tour company, MIR, do it, so I had back up in case anything went wrong. But MIR’s initial suggestion had me changing planes in Moscow and arriving in Tashkent at 2:30 am. Turned out that if I wanted to arrive in Tashkent in daylight I would need to fly Uzbekistan Airlines, not Turkish, as MIR seemed to prefer, and would need to at least overnight between planes.
Stopping off in Riga was an attractive idea, but would put me into Tashkent three days early. Baku intrigued me, but I thought I would need an expensive visa (I later discovered that a transit visa might have worked). That left Istanbul, a city I have enjoyed visiting in the past, but in a country currently suffering political and security issues. Still, I figured that if I booked the rather nice WOW airport hotel I had used when in transit to Georgia, I could always hang out there in the event of serious trouble.
The trouble, of course, duly arrived in the form of the airport bombing in June, and the abortive coup in July, but fortunately I didn’t get to Istanbul until these were well over. There were a great many more very large Turkish flags flying than I remembered from past visits, and the crowds in Sultanahmet were much diminished (although the carpet sellers were still active), but my visit was unaffected. I did keep my reservation at the airport hotel, where I found myself staying in the five star property instead of the four star next door I thought I had booked, and I did eat dinner there both nights, but that was because I needed to get up early two mornings running.
While the WOW hotels are very convenient for the airport – one stop on the metro or a short shuttle ride – getting to central Istanbul by public transport takes an hour, and I had been invited to breakfast near Taksim Square by a long time Fodor’s poster. But early rising was a small price to pay for the time I spent with the charming and cultured OC and his equally charming and cultured wife, not to mention their adorable grandson. In addition, breakfast was delicious – I still remember the chestnut honey – and the apartment had a killer view of the Bosphorus. OC’s wife and grandson were headed for the couple’s other base in Izmir, and kindly dropped me off at my morning sightseeing objective, Dolmabahce Palace.
Dolmabahce was built for the 31st Sultan in the mid 1800s, after he decided Topkapi was too old-fashioned and uncomfortable. The cost of the ornate, baroque edifice was so great that it contributed to the Ottoman Empire’s default in 1875. Later the palace became the summer home of Kemal Ataturk, and he died in the palace on November 10, 1938. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized this when I set out to visit on November 10, 2009, and the crowds were so big I decided to try later. Later had now arrived, but while the crowds were indeed much diminished, the size of the groups shuttled through the building was still too large for enjoyable sightseeing, and the rooms were almost oppressively ornate. I had a better time eating lunch in their cafe, although the views of the Bosphorus easily outshone the food.
I spent the afternoon enjoying still more views of the Bosphorus, this time on a cruise. I had done a Bosphorus cruise back in 1998, and taken the ferry to the Princes’ Islands in 2006, but more recently I had stayed on land. The day was fine, and the banks were lined with interesting buildings. I sat back and let the sights flow past me. The boat was actually a water version of a hop-on, hop-off, bus, but it was late enough in the day I just stayed on.
Afterwards I took a tram to Sultanahmet to pay my respects to one of my favorite buildings, the Blue Mosque. I didn’t go inside this time, just admired the beautiful exterior. Stopping off for coffee afterwards was a mistake, though, as I headed back to my airport hotel during the rush hour.
Next morning I took the airport shuttle to the terminal to board my flight. Tashkent was next!