The Blue Mosque - Sultan Ahmet Mosqe - Istanbul | Backpacking Turkey

Experiencing Istanbul through Ruins and People | Backpacking Turkey (Part 6)


As my plane landed in Istanbul I had a whole new appreciation for Turkey.  What initially felt like a risk, a danger, coming to a country bordering war zones with ongoing bad relations with the US, ended up being welcoming, complex, and rich with culture and history. 

Now that I had landed in Istanbul, the largest city in the country and former Roman capital, I was hoping for more of the same.

Walking out of the airport on the Asia side with everything written in Turkish was confusing for about 10 seconds.  As I sat there looking confused, staring at my phone a young guy walks up and says, “you’re heading to the other side right?”

I nodded yes

“Ok, just head over to that bus,” he said pointing, “the bus driver will help you.  Enjoy your trip.” 

Then, he walked off.  In total, my entire trip was like this. I have to admit, I have never required assistance from so many people to find my way, but every Turk I met was either polite or helpful.  Not a single one that I can remember was rude or ripped me off.  I may have been lucky, but I think this goes to show that in the end, we’re all more alike than different, and what shows in the media about any place (or people) should be taken with a large grain of salt.

After an hour and a half of a bus ride, to a train, to a bus, and a final walk, I was finally at my hotel.  Feeling a little burnt out and it being just before sunset, I followed my routine of going for a run and a workout to reset things.

Istanbul:  It’s all about the people

The light jog along the waterfront was refreshing, but more so because of the views than the activity.

Couples young and old sat on the park benches lining the waterfront, watching the sunset and chatting with people, strangers or not, as they walked by.  The bold ones were jumping off rocks and swimming in the Sea of Marmara.  On the large rocks and concrete blocks in the water, families and groups of teens were spread out on blankets having picnics sharing bottles of soda, olives, cheeses, and veggies. 

Even better, as I passed each group jogging, once they made eye contact, they always smiled.

After a mile of jogging, I arrived at one of my favorite sites to see traveling.  An outdoor gym.

Pull up bars, dip bars, monkey bars, and a few contraptions to enhance your workout.  Its an excellent idea, having a free, public, for social place to exercise in the outdoors, and every place I go that has them, they’re always heavily used.  In Quito, in Medellin, even elsewhere in Turkey.  The people are always welcoming and enjoyable.  Here, in Istanbul though, a more interesting turn of events took place.

My Istanbul Hosts:  The Strongest Kids I’ve Known

As I setup the portable suspension trainer, my Optimus, that I take everywhere and started exercising, two little boys showed up.  They were 7 and 8.

Whenever I dropped the Suspension Trainer between my sets of exercises, they looked on, interested, so I invited them to give it a go.  They did and loved it.  After a few sets of switching off, them and me, they started following along with my workout.  Push-ups, pull-ups, squats, all of that.

It was nice.  I could see they had WAY too much energy so we finished off with a smoker of burpees and calisthenics.  They damn near passed as they sat down in the grass with me – but they were smiling and having fun.

As we sat there recovering, they spoke in broken English, very good for their age, and I recognized their accent, so I asked them in Arabic where they were from.

“Iraq.  We’re refugees.”

These little guys had fled with families about a year before.  Think about that.  7 and 8.  These guys were born around 2010, 7 years after the war started.  They were born into war and destruction.  It was all they knew before fleeing to Turkey.

They struck me as oddly healthy, and composed.  Their confidence was remarkable for their ages.  It wasn’t the confidence or demeanor that many children have, that comes from not realizing that there is anything in the world to fear or worry about.  Their confidence came from awareness.  They were alert, their sentences had wisdom, and it was like talking to someone 10 years older. 

As we sat there in the grass, chatting about whatever they wanted because they told me I couldn’t leave yet, a siren went off and the loud bang of a car’s tailpipe backfiring happened simultaneously.  The older reached out his hand quickly and touched the arm of the younger as they traded a glance – not glance of fear just a mutual agreement that everything was fine.  And it happened so quickly it was almost imperceptible.  It didn’t even disrupt the conversation.

“Life is good here,” the older one said.  “We’re safe here.  See these? I made them myself.” 

He pointed at the Nikes on his feet.

Everyday these little guys showed up to work at 8AM, no later because they were happy to have their jobs, and worked making shoes until 7PM at night.  Each night, they walked over to this gym together to get in a workout.  That, at the ages of 7 and 8, was life for them.

Sometimes I wonder how the cards of luck were dealt so differently between myself and little fellas like them…or anyone.  Sometimes I question how children and people can be so strong, powering through what life has given them in  a way that has such a fire and commitment.  Sometimes I question how deserved this, and they deserved that.  The answer is they didn’t deserve that.  They just decided to play the cards they were dealt as best they could.  At 7 and 8 years old.  I admit, it’s difficult for me to understand anything beyond that.

“Ok, we have to go.  We have work tomorrow, but can you come and train us again?” The little one said.

“I’ll be here tomorrow,” I said with a smile as they walked off together.

Experiences like this always break my heart.  I’m always left thinking in the end, “what else can I do?”  I’ve realized over time that I can help a few, but my time, resources, and energy are finite so I can only help a handful deeply.  However, I can always smile.  I can always converse.  I can always be compassionate.  I can always take the time to connect with another human being, in a park, over a couple sodas and a bag of chips after a workout.  As small as it seems, the most basic thing I think we can do, and the most beneficial thing, is to connect at least. 

I absolutely do feel a “moral stalemate” on this one though.

Ruins Buried Beneath my Cup of Coffee

The following day brought lighter experiences and interesting surprises. 

The Hagia Sofia, once an Orthodox Church reclaimed by the Turks as a mosque and then declared to be neutral was an exotic and exciting site. When it was constructed, the church was an engineering marvel and one of the largest buildings in the world. 

Now, inside it is beautiful and grand adorned with a clear mix of Christian and Islamic architecture and art.

Directly facing the Hagia Sofia, across a large courtyard of green and tulips sits another house of worship – the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. 

It was amazing to see this physical contrast representing the cultural contrast of Istanbul being part Asian and part European.

The highlight of my day though unexpectedly took place at café called Palatium.

I was sitting and enjoying my coffee when I looked down at the floor and realized…it was glass. There was something below.  I wandered over to a staircase I failed to notice before and down as I realized the entire coffee shop was built on ruins.

When the coffee shop and restaurant was being constructed, the team discovered the remains of a Roman palace as they were laying the foundations.  Instead of scrapping plans for the restaurant & café or destroying the ruins, they decided to keep both, excavating the ruins and building the restaurant above.

Today, you can grab a coffee or smoke a hookah at Palatium then wander back to the stairs and walk through an old Roman palace.  It’s a great experience I recommend if you’re in town.

Travelers: Always a desire to leave…but always a desire to stay…

As always when I travel, my most impactful experiences are usually from one of two types of situations: experiencing landscapes or interacting with people.  The landscapes of Cappadocia were a unique point in my travels, and chatting with the little Iraqi boys in Istanbul hit a chord as well, but I still hadn’t connected with many Turks in more than a brief conversation.  Lucky for me, whenever I sit down to try and work (or write) a conversation always comes in to disrupt me…and give me what I’ve been missing.

I just ordered a Turkish coffee, essentially coffee flavored jet fuel with the grains at the bottom of the glass (to discourage quick consumption, when a 25-year-old Turkish guy stopped me.

He first wanted to know where I was from.

The US. 

He then wanted to know why I decided to visit Turkey. 

Because it is the intersection point of the east and west, thousands of years of history are buried in Turkey (literally and figuratively), and I wanted to form my own opinion about a controversial place.

He smiled and said, “thank you for coming.  I’ve seen in the news stories about Trump, and things that are said about Turkey, and the conflict between our president and yours.  But, we [in Turkey] know what it’s like to have a leader that doesn’t represent all of us with his actions.  He represents a few, but he does damage to the rest of us…so when I see Trump I didn’t assume this was all Americans, just like I hoped people don’t assume Turkish people are all what Erdogan represents.”

He continued, “I do hope to travel like you one day and learn for myself what people and cultures around the world are like, when the perception isn’t manipulated by the media.”

I was impressed by this guy.  His eloquence in English, considering he had never left Turkey, and his candor, considering I couldn’t even access Wikipedia because it was blocked in Turkey (FYI, most VPN’s won’t work in Turkey because of reasons I’ll let you figure out).

After that opener, I decided to stay for another coffee and get to know this guy.

He was the manager of the café I was at, which was owned by his uncle in the US.  He was saving his money for something, he wasn’t sure what, but it was either for education or to open a business.  And he really loved Turkey.  He didn’t love Turkey in an unquestioning patriotic sense, he liked its landscapes and the people and its food and it’s traditions and his family.

This guy loved Turkey so much that, with the economy and political situation being so bad he felt an obligation to stay and do something.  Even if his “something” was to just learn how to manage a business (at this coffee shop) and build one later while talking with foreigners trying to help them understand what Turkey is really like, when not viewed within the context of Erdogan’s influence.

He actually had a standing offer from his uncle to go to the US and attend college while running a business there.

“Why don’t you go? The news seems sour but the US a great place.  There are lots of opportunities if you’re willing to work hard.  The university education is very good too if you choose the right field,” I said.

“I’m pretty certain I will, but I can’t right now.  It wouldn’t feel right leaving Turkey in a condition like this.”

Fair enough.

With that, I found out what Turks are like.

Just like me.  Just like you.  Just like anyone.


With that, my adventure in Turkey came to a close. A place that I was worried about terrorist attacks and political unrest, but in reality the only danger I faced was missing my flight to stay, eat, chat, and explore the beaches along the coast.

This brief experience, wandering Anatolia and beyond, reminded me that there will always be the perception of risk in travel anywhere, which we should always be aware of – but – give into it and let that fear stop you, and you forgo some of the greatest adventures possible. The best adventures you’ll have in life will be hiding in the places people tell you not to go. Turkey was one of the experiences for me. Rich. Engaging. Pleasant.

Such a light adventure was perfectly timed, easing my worries as my next travels would take me on to another bucket list location – the Middle East. Visiting the Pyramids of Egypt, exploring the Lost City of Petra and Wadi Rum, and walking the streets of Beirut during my 10 days in the Middle East.

As rich as my experience in Turkey and Istanbul was, I didn’t nearly get to see everything.  If you’re planning to go, read my 10 Day Turkey Itinerary filled with everything I did and loved, and all of the things I wish I had done as well

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *