Thursday, June 21, 2012

12-Hour Transit In Istanbul

The trip to Ukraine was planned a year ago when a dear friend offered help for the visa process and a place to stay in Ukraine. She lives there, and to keep things confidential, let's just call her Amr. At first, there were four people planning to go to that country in April 2012. A few months leading to that month, one resigned and could not get leave for the next six months and two worked in the same division so only one of them could go, but then both decided not to go. 

That left me as the only person who could go.

At first I was a bit reluctant to go alone. But after having such a hard time at the office, I thought,"Oh well, it's a good opportunity to have a breather and let things be." I asked Amr if it was okay if I came in June (instead of April), during the Euro Cup, because man, I really need vacation. She said it was okay. So did the craziest thing ever and booked the round trip tickets.

It turned out that Kiev is a rare destination because not all airlines fly to that city, although it is located in Europe. If you think that put me down, it even fueled my desire to go there. After some searching, I found that KLM, Air France, Lufthansa, Emirates and Turkish Airlines do have regular flights to the capital of Ukraine.

So I listed several requirements to cut down the options.

(1) Price >> It immediately eliminated Air France and Lufthansa from the list.
(2) Number of transits >> KLM flies to Amsterdam before going to Kiev (which I find ridiculous because why do I have to fly to the Western Europe first when I actually want to go to Eastern Europe?) and Emirates makes transits in Dubai and Moscow before landing in Kiev (even more ridiculous because then I would have to apply for a transit visa to Russia).
(3) Gimmicks >> I found that I could pick the seats during the booking of Turkish Airlines. And did you know that if you fly with Turkish Airlines and have more than 6-hour layover in Istanbul, you can get free breakfast, lunch and a tour around the city? Btw, this is not a sponsored post, I just found out myself.  

Since I've been wanting to see what Istanbul looks like, that made Turkish Airlines won the place *blows out trumpets*. So I opted for a 12-hour transit in Istanbul:). Now I'm wondering if we could have a week of transit there. Hmm. Hahaha.

If you can pick your seat for free, you'd better pick the first line in every seating group for it has more space for your legs.

Dinner in the air

My plane departed from Jakarta on June 6 and made a quick stop in Singapore before heading to Istanbul. I arrived in the capital of Turkey at around 6 a.m. I paid US$ 25 for the visa-on-arrival and then walked past the passport control to the Hotel Desk. I registered for the tour and was told to wait until 9 a.m. I walked to the nearby Starbucks and met an Indonesian man, who offered to buy me a cup of tea.

He seemed nice so I said okay. He wanted to join the tour, which should take place between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. but since he had to depart at 2 p.m. he decided to tour the city on his own. He said that he now held German nationality and that he had worked for a German company for more than two decades.

Then he started to tell personal stories, about his divorce, his children who lived in another town and started to ask personal questions, like "How many children do you have?" I'm still single but these kinds of questions are usually the icebergs of more annoying questions. The lucky thing was a man started to call names for the tour and my name was on the list. So I politely excused myself and ran to join the tour.

We were ushered to a shuttle bus. During the bus ride, the man sitting next to me talked to the driver in Turkish and they all laughed. I raised my eyebrows and wondered what they were laughing about, were they talking about me? (I can be overly sensitive after 10-hour flight). But I was not the only person in the bus feeling that way. When the bus reached the restaurant, a man of African descent, a Japanese girl and I sat on one table and the first question we said was,"What were they talking in the bus?" Then the three of us laughed and we just bonded together as English-speaking people.

The African guy, Gregory, was actually a Swiss national. He worked in NYC as a nurse and was going back to Geneva for a holiday. The Japanese girl, Yuka, was flying from Georgia and would continue to Japan. The man sitting next to me in the shuttle bus was actually an Iraqi, but he spoke Turkish language well. Besides us, there some 20 more people coming from other corners in the world joining the tour.

A Turkish breakfast

We had a Turkish breakfast, consisting of cheese, bread, meat, and eggs. I asked Gregory if we still had time to go to the toilet. "Don't worry, I won't leave without you," he said while taking another slice of bread. Aww, that's a very sweet thing to say to a person you just met.

After the toilet break, we still had to wait for the bus, which finally appeared around 11 a.m. Geez, I guess having a free tour means we had to up with the tardiness. Our guide was a middle age woman, who always called us with "My dearly guests", a reference that would send Gregory into a giggling.

"My dearly guests, we are now starting the TourIstanbul. As you can see, Turkey is located in both Europe and Asia. We are now in Istanbul, on the European side of Turkey," the guide began.

The first object we visited was the Hippodrome, where Constantine's Obelisk, Theodosius's Obelisk, Serpentine column and German fountain stood in one line. The guide told us to carry our belongings with us, but since I only carried one backpack (no luggage! I was so impressed with myself), I decided to store it at the bus's luggage area (the backpack was way to heavy to lug around). The bus driver could not speak English, but he understood my request and put my backpack in the luggage area.

The guide was not happy to see what I was doing. She said that we might be using a different bus to go to airport. Gregory looked at my worried face and asked,"But you keep the passport and money with you, right?" Yeah, definitely. (You know what? In the end, we did use the same bus to depart to the airport. The guide was just trying to scare me off.)  

When the guide was explaining, the Iraqi guy pointed at something else and walked to the side. Then the guide snapped at him,"Where are you going? You should not walk away from me. We should stay together as a group." I didn't who were more surprised, the Iraqi guy or us. Gregory and I were laughing about it as we walked behind the group.

"She sounded so pissed off, didn't she? It was as if she said,'Where do you think you're going?'" Gregory said.
"I know! She reminded me of my kindergarten teacher," I said.
"Yeah! I felt the same way," he said.

Approaching Hagia Sophia

We got in for free. Thank you, Turkish Airlines:)

We entered Hagia Sophia Museum, a former church turned into mosque turned into a museum. The guide gave us 20 minutes to explore the place so we all went our own way. Yuka met another Japanese and went around with him, but Gregory and I stayed together. I guess we stuck together because we just had similar sense of humor.

Interior view of the dome


View from the Upper Gallery. Double wow.

We decided to explore the Upper Gallery. The view from above was lovely and we kinda forgot time. When we reached the meeting point, no one was there. Panic! But then the guide came around to find us.

The next stop was Basilica Cistern, some kind of water storage. Again, the guide told us to reach the meeting point in 20 minutes. Gregory and I met with Yuka and the Japanese guy (Ryohei) and we walked as the foursome. When we reached the meeting point (I believed we were the first one to come there), the guide already put on a sour facial expression and told Gregory and I,"You guys are always late." I pointed to other tour members behind our backs and said,"No, we're not. There are other people behind us."

Inside Basilica Cistern. Please forgive my inability for taking low-light photograph


Just a few minutes after I said those words, a tour member from South Africa tapped my shoulder and said,"Hey, we're going to take pictures in Turkish traditional costume over there. Could you tell the guide to wait for us?" Trying to muster my laughter, I said,"Err, I think you should tell the guide yourself." Gregory just could not help laughing to hear our conversation,"Now, look who is always late!" I exploded into laughter too. Surprisingly, the guide permitted them to take pictures. 

The costume for the picture

From Basilica Cistern, we walked back to our bus (which was not changed into another bus and I found my backpack was still safe inside the bus's luggage area). But Gregory stopped for a few minute to buy a Turkish hat. When we reached the bus, the guide counted the tour members and tried to remember who was missing. I saw Gregory walking to the bus with his new hat, so I tapped the guide and pointed to Gregory,"Don't worry, he's already here." The guide exclaimed,"Always late! Always late!" Then he told Gregory to enter from the back door.

Then we had lunch. The tour guide said,"There are two menus in this restaurant. But I would suggest you to have the Turkish doner. Yes? You agree?" Then she decided for herself,"So this table over here order Turkish doner." Gregory and I just laughed about it for we found the guide a bit amusing.

Turkish people are very modest when they're advertising their products. Probably? Why don't they use 'definitely'? :)


I thought these were the main course, but they're only appetizer.

Turkish doner that deserves a special mention! Delicious!

The tour participants. We look like one big happy family:)

The South African tourists (of Caucasian descent) sat in front of us and seeing how relaxed Gregory and I joked around, they asked if we were together. Euh, no, I said, we just met on this tour. The two lovely South African ladies flew from Johannesburg to Venice. Wow, isn't this kind of tour interesting? You get to meet people flying from other parts of the world.

Anyway, the Turkish doner was very delicious! But the South African ladies, Yuka, Ryohei, Gregory and I had to cut the tour and go back to airport at 2 p.m. to catch our flights. We hopped on the bus, the guide called our names, counted the people in the bus and found there were two people not in the list.

"There are only 20 people in this list. How come I have 22 people in the bus? Who are not on this list?" she asked.
"Why don't you ask those two guys sitting in the front? You didn't call their names," Gregory said.

The guide turned her head to the two tour members and asked the time of their flights. It turned out that their flights were 9 p.m. So they could still join the tour. "So what are you guys doing here? Get off the bus," the guide said.

Oh man, that was so far the funniest thing ever!

The guide stood in front of us and hoped that we enjoyed the tour. She also apologized if she said and did something wrong.We all clapped our hands and said,"Thank you!" Aww, that's sweet, eh? All is forgiven and forgotten. But I believe the words of "My dearly guests" will always bring smiles to my face for years to come:).

So we went back to airport. As I passed the metal detector, I turned around to say goodbye to Yuka, Ryohei and Gregory but there was only Gregory.

"When is your flight?" he asked.
"Three hours from now. I'm going to send postcards for my friends before going in," I said.
"Ok, I'll accompany you to the post office. Hey, why don't you come to the Business Lounge as my dearly guest?" he said.
"Hahaha. Yeah, sure, my dearly host!" I said.

So after I sent the postcards, I went to the Business Lounge with him. I've been to the Business Lounge in Singapore's Changi airport, but dude, the lounge in Istanbul was beyond my expectation. It has foods, drinks, wide screen TVs, a pool table, a reading room (seriously!), Internet-connected iMacs, beds and showers. Wow. I sure be happy to be the dearly guest :).

And that wrapped my visit to Istanbul.  So far it had been a wonderful time with wonderful people.

Have a great day!

Istanbul, I'll be back for sure:)


  1. It sounds like you had a wonderful time in Istanbul. It is also great that you give advice to your readers about certain things such as choosing airlines etc. I think this is important as your trip can be made much easier if you do this. By the way, it is unusual that they use probably rather than definately. From a marketing perspective, most want to say that their product is better than their competitors. Also would you like to visit other parts of Turkey in the future? i.e Anatolia, Ankara etc.Sorry for the long comment.

  2. hi loz dee,
    thanks for visiting. yes, i'd love to visit other parts of turkey in the future. have you been to turkey? which city do you recommend?