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Our first sight of Istanbul was the Bosphorus Bridge (pictured below). We had seen the iconic bridge that connects Asia and Europe only in photographs. It was a surreal feeling looking at it as our plane descended upon the country that had witnessed a failed coup attempt just 72 hours ago. The second thing we saw was the port of Istanbul where hundreds of cargo ships had docked for the day. And then there were the minarets, all of which looked alike to the tourist’s eye. (ALSO SEE 15 spectacular photos of Turkey that will spark your wanderlust) Also Read - Trending News Today April 23, 2020: Spiderman Could Not Sit And Watch Elderly Self-Isolate in Turkey so HERE's What Antalya's Peter Parker is Doing Amid COVID-19 | Watch
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The failed coup had made international headlines and Istanbul resembled a war-zone, if only for a few hours. From the plane window Istanbul looked peaceful. But there was no telling how things would be on ground. We’d been hearing conflicting reports. A friend who calls Istanbul home had told me in no uncertain terms that traveling to Turkey was a terrible idea. Our parents were frantically calling up from Mumbai asking us to cancel the Turkey leg of our journey.
Simultaneously, there were others who told us that things had returned to normal. A former colleague who has connections in the diplomatic community assured me that it was safe to travel to Istanbul. Meanwhile, we were glued on to the Twitter accounts of the Indian Embassy in Turkey and that of Sushma Swaraj.
When you travel as a couple you do tend to become more cautious about the places you visit and we didn’t want to jeopardize what had so far been a great holiday. We were in Prague when we heard that US had resumed air traffic to Turkey. And so we decided to follow our instincts and got on to that flight.
It was 1 pm on July 19, just three days after the coup attempt was foiled, when we landed at Ataturk International Airport (pictured above). As it turned out, we weren’t the only ones who had refused to heed all warnings; there were hundreds, indeed thousands others who had flown into Istanbul despite the events that had unfolded just days before. In fact, the flight we took (from Prague) was full!
The first thing we noticed after getting out of the airport was the heavy military presence around the airport. This wasn’t surprising because less than a month ago the airport witnessed a terrorist attack that killed 45 people and injured over 230 others. As we drove away from the airport, the military presence thinned gradually. So much so that by the time we reached Karakoy (pictured above), Istanbul’s commercial district, there were almost no soldiers at all! What we did see though were Turkish flags… lots of them. Almost everyone walking on the road was carrying one, every corner, every building, every other car had one too. Even the minarets of the Blue Mosque had the Turkish flag fluttering.
While this is not peak tourist season in Turkey, hotels usually have 60-75 per cent occupancy. But the hotel we checked into had all of two guests: us! The owner was upset with the coup. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, he said. The June airport bombings had spooked most of his prospective customers and the coup had managed to spook the remaining ones. He couldn’t stop thanking us for not cancelling on him. Since he didn’t have anyone else to entertain, he took it upon himself to tell us how to get around Istanbul. He pulled out a map and pointed us to places we should visit. Then he told us something that we didn’t believe the first time we heard it: we wouldn’t have to spend a single lira getting around if we took public transport! As it turned out the President, in order to appease the citizens, announced that all modes of transport in Istanbul — trams, buses, ferries and metro — would be free till July 20!
First a VIP treatment at the hotel, now free rides all over the city, this leg was turning out to be a dream-come-true! Trams and buses were crowded; obviously the locals were making the most of the free rides. Even at 9.30 pm the trams were running full. If we hadn’t read about it, we would have never known there was an attempted coup d’etat just 72 hours ago!
The first time we saw soldiers in the main city was at the Grand Bazaar (pictured above). A handful of them guarded the various entrances of the 15th century market and even fewer policemen patrolled the many streets. Barring the many flags, it was business as usual at the bazaar. The traders haggled with us, refusing to give in to our demands for a discount… the situation was that normal!
Despite the coup, Istanbul was everything we had imagined it to be: colorful, crowded and chaotic. Scenes of people sitting at roadside cafes sipping local Turkish tea, foreign exchange dealers shouting out rates to brokers on mobile phones, the humdrum of business being conducted in the ancient market
it was everything we had seen in the movies and more. If the coup had disrupted life, it was only for a day (or even lesser).
Later that night, we stepped out of the hotel to buy some clothes (the airline had misplaced our luggage) and at the advice of my hotel manager we headed down to Taksim Square (pictured above) where an unexpected sight greeted me. Close to 500 people had gathered at the square in what seemed like an impromptu music concert. People were singing songs, dancing and waving their national flag. It was one big party and we just became part of it. This was a country that was just recovering from a terrorist attack, a coup in a manner that we had never seen before. The sea of humanity that welcomed us, made us feel part of something larger than ourselves.
The next day, we took the flight to Nevsehir airport, the closest to Cappadocia (pictured below), the historical region known for its ballooning. We checked into a hotel that had converted the natural caves into rooms. As in Istanbul, we had the pick of the rooms and we checked into the best one!
Even though normalcy had returned to the country and its capital, tourism was clearly affected. The attack and the coup had driven tourists away from Turkey. For a country that had become the sexy new destination for the young and the restless only a couple of years ago, this was clearly a blow. (ALSO READ Amazing natural wonders of the world: Goreme in Turkey)
Almost everyone we spoke to was angry about the coup — some even suggested that it was the President that had engineered it — because it was affecting the business. They blamed the media for making brouhaha about the coup. We could see why they were upset. Everywhere we looked around locals were going about their business like nothing had happened. But there were almost no tourists. Reality was far different from what we had made of the situation. Perception made all the difference and today Turkey was being made out to be a war-torn country which it wasn’t.
Here we were at Cappadocia, getting into a balloon that typically accommodates 25 people with just ten other passengers for company. On a good day in Cappadocia there are about 70-80 balloons in the air. We counted no more than a couple of dozen.
When we returned to Istanbul, we discovered that the President had extended the free transportation offer to July 25. Needless to say we made the most of it. We checked the Blue Mosque (pictured above, the Hagia Sophia, Galata Tower and Topkapi palace from our list. We shopped, we did everything we were supposed to do and more and we didn’t spend anything on local transport. (DON’T MISS Turkey and nine other countries that issue e-visas for Indians)
As we took the metro — our last free ride — to the airport, we watched the city pass by. The beautiful, ancient buildings looked back at us, making it even more difficult for us to leave.
Sure it was fun — to be treated like a VIP, to have the best of the rooms to yourselves, to be driven around the city for no extra cost and zoom past queues at places that would usually be very, very crowded. But it also felt wrong because people’s livelihoods were at stake. We had spent just a few days in Turkey and all we had were fond memories, of people welcoming us warmly, guiding us to our destinations, even insisting on escorting us to ensure we reached safely… and expecting nothing in return.
There have been several conspiracy theories about the coup — some suggest that America was involved — but none of them will ever make up for the loss of that balloon pilot or that hotel owner or indeed even the taxi driver who sets out at the break of dawn to make a lira or two.
Photographs: Shutterstock and Getty Images