By James Chow

Protected: Istanbul, Turkey (P.2)

Note: This is the second part of a two-part travel log for my trip to Istanbul. For part one please click here.

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Before I proceed to talk about the great Topkapi Palace, which itself it is a mega museum, let me quickly mention that Istanbul has a number of really interesting museums to offer.

Gems like the Calligraphy Museum, the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, the Mosaics Museum, and the Chora Church Museum showcase the rich history and culture of this fascinating land.

Some museums that we managed to visit and and were particularly intrigued by include the tiny but unique Carpet Museum, and the spectacular Archaeological Museum.

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The Carpet Museum showcased original Islamic prayer rugs from the Ottoman era. The Anatolian region has historically seen the creation of some of the finest prayer rugs in the world, and this place had a collection of rugs coming from the golden age of Islamic imperial history.

The Archaeological Museum features an impressive neo-Greek architecture facade, probably to highlight the museum’s most prized collection – the majestic Alexander the Great Sarcophagus!

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While the 4th century B.C. sarcophagus did not actually belong to the Alexander the Great, it does depict him in several epic battles in vivid and intricate detail. I am not a relief expert, but the sarcophagus was so magnificent and well-preserved that I did end up standing there admiring its details for quite some time! 

No doubt the most outstanding of all Ottoman buildings in Istanbul is the Topkapi Palace – the subject of so many late medieval and Renaissance period songs and literature.

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Complete with the majestic Imperial Gate, three enormous courtyards, royal chambers, high towers, and perhaps the most famous harem in the world – this was the imperial residence of the many Ottoman emperors and heart of the Ottoman empire for four centuries.

We entered the castle through the Imperial Gate, which was guarded by palace guards and formidable members of the Turkish military. Mark you – this palace is no longer occupied and functions as only a museum, but the incredibly precious items kept in here warranty very tight security.

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Passing though the Imperial Gate we arrived at the First Courtyard, the largest and outermost of the four. The Imperial Mint was in this courtyard, as was the Hagia Irene!

Built by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the Hagia Irene is actually the first church built in Constantinople and one of the few still remaining today and have not been converted to a mosque since the Ottomans conquered the city.

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Entering the second courtyard, we saw several more buildings but did not enter all of them. We did check out the Imperial Council, a building in the second courtyard where the senior ministers and the Grand Vizier, collectively equivalent to today’s Cabinet I suppose, held meetings.

For some reason I really love the title ‘Grand Vizier’ and I don’t really know why. Somehow they remind me of the two in the Arabian Nights story as well as Disney’s Aladdin movie. Smile 

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In the third courtyard sat the Private Audience Room, where the Sultan met up with his ministers and subjects. Also in this courtyard was the Imperial Treasury, where we visitors formed a long line to go through the various treasure and jewels that the empire had secured from around the world during its golden era. Money

Perhaps the two most fascinating buildings in this courtyard were the Imperial Harem and the Privy Chamber. Let’s talk about these two.

The Imperial Harem is probably the most famous Islamic Harem in the world.

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We have all heard a lot of tales from the Imperial Ottoman Harem, having been the set of many classical literature and tales from the Islamic world. This was the most private area of the palace where the Sultan’s mother, children and obviously concubines and wives live with their countless servants and eunuchs. I could imagine massive gossiping, rivalry and politics having flourished in this area during those days.

The area was huge and lavishly decorated with Iznik tiles which gave it an unquestionably Ottoman style.

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Centuries ago, the Harem was extremely heavily guarded and only slave girls and eunuchs were allowed to perform services to the ladies housed inside.

Interestingly, the Ottoman eunuchs were made up of two ‘types’ – the white eunuchs (that were only partially castrated, I don’t know how) and the black eunuchs – that got their genitals entirely chopped off. 

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However, unlike the Chief White Eunuch who was somewhat merely a royal gatekeeper, the Chief Black Eunuch wielded tremendous influence in the imperial court.

Also in the Harem were the apartments of the princes, where the Crown Prince and other princes lived before they reached adulthood.

These apartments were sometimes called the Golden Cages, literally because the princes lived in confinement and in some form of house arrest by the guards. This was apparently to protect the reigning Sultan from any possible challenges to the throne by a potential successor. 

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The other fascinating, perhaps the most fascinating building in the palace area was the Privy Chamber which contains some tremendously important items that people from all over the world make pilgrimages to Istanbul just to see them!

These are the Sacred Trusts that contain some of the most sacred relics in the Islamic World.

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The relics, many of which were brought to the capital of the Ottoman Empire after the defeat of the Abbasid Caliphate, include items once belonged to biblical characters like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David and John.

These legendary items carried names that sounded like Diablo III legendary items – David’s Sword, Moses’s Staff, Abraham’s Pot, Joseph’s turban etc! Probably all adds holy damage. Nyah-Nyah

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But perhaps the items that drew most Muslim pilgrims to this palace were the Islamic sacred relics like the Prophet Muhammad’s own tooth, hair from his beard, his seal and autographed letter, and some of his weapons.

The keys to the Kaaba in Mecca as well as the casing of the Black Stone were also here. Also, the Prophet’s mantle and banner which played a significant role in the history of Islamic wars and politics, was also kept here. 

I noticed a lot of Malaysian Muslims were there in the long queue heading into the Audience Chamber where the most sacred Islamic relics were held, probably on a pilgrimage tour. There was also a continuous soothing recital of the Quran by a man in the room. Naturally photography was prohibited so here’s one from the internet:

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I don’t know how authentic these items are but personally I’m not so convinced. The sword is claimed to have belonged to King David, and a staff that belonged to Moses (the one who parted the Red Sea?)… I find it quite preposterous how these ancient artefacts looked so… modern and intact.

But genuine or not, apparently a lot of pilgrims believed so – the Malaysian group in front of me were almost literally fainting in excitement. The were ooog-ing and gasping at every item and chattering hysterically that the guards had to forcefully ask them to move on and not hold the line of dozens of other visitors waiting behind.

We ended our tour at the Palace’s final courtyard facing the magnificent Sea of Marmara and had some snacks.

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I should also mention that the Palace had a huge imperial rose garden now turned into a public park called Gulhane park. During the orchid season, this place is usually full of beautiful and colourful orchids!

We had taken a stroll in this garden the day before our visit into Topkapi Palace and it was really huge and we were kind of exhausted traversing it and back.

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Hmm I might have spent a bit too long writing about Topkapi Palace so let me just talk about something else.

One fine afternoon we decided to traverse the historic Galata Bridge, which crosses the ‘Golden Horn’ – a very important river into the Bosphorus in the heard of Istanbul.

The Galata Bridge is in Eminonu, and is the one of the main places to catch a Bosphorus cruise from Europe to Asia in a couple of hours. Naturally it was very much crowded by tourists, but there were also a lot of local activities happening!

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Leonardo da Vinci actually came up with the first design for a bridge across the Golden Horn for the Ottoman Empire, but the proposal was apparently rejected by the Sultan. Michelangelo was also invited to design a bridge but he refused.

This was one of main districts where merchants and sailors lived and traded goods during the old times. Today, the bridge has two levels. While cars, trams and pedestrians traverse it on the upper level, a lively marketplace can be found on the lower level.

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The upper level was filled with people fishing off the Golden Horn. Lots of locals brought a stool, a rod and a container to store their catch and started reeling from the edge of the sides of the bridge.

The place seemed pretty good for fishing, with us witnessing catches almost continuously on at least one of the many rods lined up on the bridge. 

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The bridge had a great view of the city of Galata on one side, and the old city of Istanbul on the other. The afternoon was windy and we enjoyed our stroll across the channel.

The ‘fish sandwich’ was a favourite snack on both sides of the bridge! It consisted of a freshly grilled fish wrapped in a bun with vegetables and sauce, and it cost just 5 Turkish Liras!

This quickly became our favourite and we frequently came back to Eminonu to get some fish sandwich throughout our trip!

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We also spent the afternoon wandering the streets of Galata in search of the Galata tower which always hovered over the rooftops of the rows of houses of this beautiful neighbourhood.

There were visibly less tourists on this side of the channel. There were more ‘common looking’ sundry shops, bike repair shops, laundry services etc. and everything felt more Turkish than the English-signposted streets in Eminonu.

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By late afternoon, we reached the Galata Tower. It was surrounded by several bistros and souvenir shops but this was kinda expected as the tower was a pretty famous sight after all!

The Galata Tower was part of a medieval citadel belonging to the banking-savvy Republic of Genoa which has since been defeated and annexed in the early nineteenth century.

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We ascended the tower through a flight of narrow and winding stairs and when we reached the top, we were greeted with a brilliant panorama of the city!

This was where the Genoese nobility watched over to the city of Constantinople and the magnificent Hagia Sophia must have dominated the skyline back then. Today, the Golden Horn is busy with ferries and the city across the channel bustling with commerce, tourism and construction.

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After getting back to the Old City, we visited the famous bazaars in Istanbul!

The Grand Bazaar needs no introduction. This world famous and purportedly oldest covered market in the world is five centuries old and was the heart of the Ottoman trading empire.

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Inside was a maze of stalls with traders selling goods of every kind – jewellery, carpets, spices, apparel, books, antiques and everything that you would expect from a historical bazaar. Obviously, in modern days people don’t trade donkeys and slaves anymore, but fortunately I did not see much ‘modern’ items either – electrical stuff, mobile phone stores – nope! Smile Still has a very ‘bazaar’ feel to it!

The stalls were generally grouped according to trade and the walkways were absolutely immense and confusing. It is very likely (and a great experience nonetheless) to get lost in this bazaar wandering through the interior.

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Being a tourist attraction nowadays, I think local people do not shop in the Grand Bazaar that often anymore. Scattered across the market streets were also an unfortunate amount of tourist-targeted souvenir shops with bloated price tags .

Nonetheless, the sheer variety of items on sale here – from Turkish mosaic lamps to hookah water pipes – makes this place well worth the visit!

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The other bazaar that is very much worth mentioning is the Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar.

Needless to say, this is the centre of the Turkish spice trade, with an incredible amount of spices on sale in every store. The spice were laid out in colourful piles in front of shops along with an assortment of nuts, dried fruits and other ingredients.

I did not know that spice alone could look so tempting to buy. To my untrained eye, it was almost impossible to tell one spice from another. They all looked like mounds of coloured sand identifiable only by reading their labels!

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We had no plans at all to buy any spice (like, what for?) but the place was quite an eye opener. Smile

We did want to buy some good Turkish Delights back to Malaysia and there was this highly reviewed store called Malatya Pazari – located right in the Spice Bazaar!

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The brightly lit store was unmistakably popular – with hoards of people viewing and selecting from their goods.

It looked like the candy store of your childhood dreams, and the selection of Turkish Delights here was staggering.

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The store assistants were remarkable. Probably trained to handle mobs of tourists, they responded to our questions about the types and flavours in a very efficient and no-nonsense manner. They were polite but not desperate to please. Their job was to attend to each customer, answer questions, and conduct the sale as quickly as possible – all without seeming pushy or dismissive. I found it very impressive.

They were also able to pick the flavours that you want from the jars and very quickly arrange them into neat rows in a beautiful box. Just look at my box below – this photo was taken back in Malaysia after 10 hours of flight tumbling around in my check-in luggage!

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Before I end this entry – let me just mention that perhaps the most enjoyable parts of this trip were the random walks around the city in the afternoon. Armed with only a map, we walked away from the main tourist area of Sultanahmet into the somewhat more local areas.

We enjoyed the sights from the impressive student district of Istanbul University…

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… to the quiet alleys in the neighbourhood.

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We also found the majestic Valens Aquaduct, a Roman construction back in the 4th century which provided water supply to Constantinople and was used by the Byzantines and the Ottomans before modern methods became available.

It was impressive because it was so very well preserved and spans magnificently across a six-lane motorway, with cars passing right through the many arches under it.

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I would love to write more about Istanbul but now I need to move on and write about Ephesus, which was our next destination in Turkey!

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By James Chow

Protected: Istanbul, Turkey (P.1)

Another spontaneous trip in May– this time to Turkey!

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Unlike last month’s impromptu trip to Yogyakarta which had been planned mere days ahead, this trip to Istanbul was decided two weeks ahead!

This trip was actually my brother’s idea. He had a two-week break while transitioning between departments in the hospital and offered to pay for my flight tickets.

Who in their right mind would say no to that!? Open-mouthed smile So I took a week off work and along with the Labour Day and Wesak public holidays, got some 12 days away from office!

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Late April/early May is still arguably the best time to visit Turkey because the weather hovered consistently around a comfortable 13-18°C. At night, the temperature occasionally drops to around 10°C but was still completely acceptable. Smile

Now the people: I wouldn’t place the Turkish people among the most polite or friendliest people I’ve met. In fact, compared to my experiences elsewhere in Europe, I’m afraid they might generally fare among the lowest.

However, I did meet the friendliest and kindest person EVER in the form of my incredible host – Rifat!

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I must say – this guy is unbelievable! We stayed in a studio apartment of his and even prior to our arrival, he had been working hard to ensure our smooth arrival! We were a bit lost in the narrow streets of Istanbul and it was thanks to his patient guidance that we found his place safe and sound!

Once we‘d arrived (and then every single time we stepped into the living lobby throughout our stay), he shook our hands enthusiastically, insisted we sit down to have some tea, and chatted eagerly with us! Suffice to say Rifat gave us a tremendous amount of help and advice throughout our trip!

Now, the city:

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Istanbul is one of the few cities in the world that spanned across two continents. The narrow Bosphorus strait snakes through the centre of the city, dividing it into the European side and the Asian side.

Most of the attractions are on the European side, but one could simply cross over to Asia by taking a ferry or driving across the Bosphorus bridge.

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Istanbul is also a city full of history and culture. Founded as the Ancient Greek city Byzantium, it later became the capital of the Roman Empire and renamed Constantinople. The world centre of Orthodox Christianity eventually fell to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, who renamed it Istanbul.

So the myriad of cultures and rich history has left the city with a unique identity, its historical monuments a fusion of Greek, Roman, and Islamic architecture.

Today, one thing does dominate the skyline – mosques.

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More mosques.

If the number and grandeur of mosques were the measure of how pious you were, Malaysia is out-Islamic-ed by Turkey any day.

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Mosques everywhere!

In fact, there were so many mosques that by during prayer times, it was quite an interesting experience to stand in the city square and just listen to the Muslim call to prayer (Azan) being recited on loudspeakers from mosques in every direction.

Sometimes, (not sure of this was intentional) the Azan recitals were perfectly coordinated and the verses follow each other like a synchronised duet!

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Naturally, the most famous building of all was the Hagia Sophia!

Another of Civ 5’s world wonders, the Hagia Sophia was one of the places that I had been very keen to visit since I knew I was coming to Istanbul!

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The hugely impressive former Byzantine church was built in the 6th century. It was to be for 1000 years the largest indoor space in the world. For centuries, kings and commoners alike from all across the Christian world flocked to this legendary basilica in the heart of the east Roman empire.

However, after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 15th century, the basilica was converted into a mosque, which was equally impressive. Today, the secular government of Turkey has converted the structure into a museum, which cost 25TL (around 10 euros) to enter.

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We were fortunate to have purchased the Istanbul museum card for 85TL each which allowed us to bypass the excruciatingly long queue outside the Hagia Sophia. Without the card, I’m sure we would have wasted an hour or so just to get to the ticketing counter!

The card granted us access to almost all of the tourist attractions in Istanbul for 3 days. It was well worth the money.

Check out the gigantic dome of the Hagia Sophia from the inside, designed to give the illusion that it is floating on top if you stood directly beneath it.

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Lots of Christian relics, statues, and mosaics were removed or covered after the church has been converted into a mosque.

Some of them are still visible today, like this famous mosaic of the Deesis of Christ:

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There were lots of things to been seen and discovered in the various sections of the church, including a section dedicated to Islamic calligraphy.

We also found the tomb of Enrico Dandolo, the Venetian Doge! If you do not know him, you are not a fan of Civ 5. Smile

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There was also a stone slab on the upper gallery where some Viking dude called Halvdan carved his name in the 9th century.

The ancient carving has become a tourist attraction and is protected by a layer of glass.

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Some smartass dude called Ibrahim or whatever from the 21st century also vandalised the stone slab by carving his name beside the 9th century Viking inscription.

Needless to say, there was no protective layer of glass and no one was interested in them. Well, maybe in another 1000 years these could become legendary!

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Across the beautifully decorated garden in front of the Hagia Sophia was the Blue Mosque of Istanbul, a.k.a. the Sultanahmet Mosque (first mosque pic above).

Unlike the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still a fully functioning mosque. It still calls for prayer five times a day during which it is closed to tourists. If you are a Muslim and wants to participate in prayer, however, you will be allowed in.

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As a functioning mosque, entrance is naturally free of charge. Women had to wear headscarves and we had to take off our shoes and wrap them in plastic bags provided and carry them along, which was a little annoying.

As travellers, our shoes were neither the cleanest nor the most fragrant of garments. The same goes with our socks. So to have an enclosed area with hundreds of tourists walking around in their sweat-soaked socks with their freshly-worn shoes on their hands – was not pleasant.

The interior of the mosque was splendid, though.

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It was probably the most crowded mosque that we had visited in Turkey (note: the Hagia Sophia is a museum) and outside prayer hours, tourists outnumber worshippers probably 50:1.

The prayer area was restricted to tourists but anyone intending to actually pray may enter.

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Apart from mosques, Istanbul had a lot of other historical attractions to offer as well!

The Hippodrome of Constantinople, the very centre of the capital of the ancient Byzantine Empire, was once a massive open-air venue for social events and politics. Today, all that is left are several monuments such as the Obelisk of Thutmose III, built at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor in 1490 BC and transported to Constantinople in 390 AD:

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And perhaps the most well-known monument: the Serpent Column (below), brought in by Emperor Constantine from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Ancient Greece. It is astonishing how these monuments (especially the Obelisk, has survived thousands of years of history)!

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Another awesome place to visit was the Basalica Cistern!

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This massive underground cistern was constructed in the 6th Century to provide emergency water supply to the city.

It was dark, eerie and damp. There were fish swimming in the water and some sections were particularly dark. We walked on the wooden walkway snaking around the pillars, observing the spooky atmosphere.

This place (minus the water) looked like the Mines of Moria from LoTR. And I guess this is where you encounter the Balrog of Morgoth Disappointed smile:

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At the other end of the cistern was a very curious sight: two of the innermost pillars had very different bases compared to the other hundreds of ordinary pillars in the cistern.

These two pillars had Medusa’s heads as bases! One was oriented sideways and the other was inverted:

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There is absolutely no data or historical record on why a Medusa’s head was chosen or where they came from. No one also knew for sure why there were not placed upright.

But some historians suggest that the were inverted/oriented sideways to minimize the power of Medusa’s gaze – which according to legend would turn any beholder to stone.

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Now that I look back at this photo I have no idea why its eyes glow with a devilish red. Probably some camera effect. I hope. Disappointed smile

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I can see at this point that this entry will need to be split into two parts. So let me just write a few general comments on the city before ending this entry.

Istanbul was full of cats! They are everywhere!

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Not only that, the cats were somehow very well-mannered. The way the sat, the way they surveyed the people around them… were all very… aristocratic. I don’t know why.

Also, we had lots of Kebab in Turkey, because… this was Turkey! Smile

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Of course, we did not ONLY have Kebab… there were lots of other great local dishes as well!

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And being in the Anatolian region where the hookah mechanism was perfected (not invented – that was in Persia) meant I needed to smoke up.

We found this awesome little cafe tucked along an iconic alley behind the Hagia Sophia. This alley was very beautiful during the day – tree-lined and cobbled street – and very peaceful at night.

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The cafe was delightfully lit with candles and Turkish lamps and had comfortable cushions for you to just chill and smoke your pipe.

We had this Apple flavoured hookah (or Nargile here) and some nice Moroccan tea.

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We basically sat there for a couple of hours and just chilling and talking. Along the way, a cat came by and just climbed onto my lap and stayed there until we left!

Now sitting there with a water pipe petting a cat on my lap felt like I was some Persian royalty. Now all I needed was half a dozen of sexy girls around me and that will be perfect… hmm. Thinking smile

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Next up – more sights around Istanbul and the legendary Topkapi Palace – where many ultra-holy relics (including Moses’s Staff and Muhammad’s Sword) were kept!

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By James Chow

Protected: Disney’s Pixar in Concert

Disney was an integral part of my childhood and still remains a cherished part of my life.

So when Disney’s subsidiary Pixar threw a concert with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra just five minutes’ drive from my office, I’d be damned before I missed it!

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The MPO production is the 7th stop of a worldwide series of concerts held from Adelaide to Vancouver by Pixar.

I had spotted the event on the MPO 2014/15 season calendar last year, but I wasn’t sure at that time if I was still going to be around by this time of the year. Since I am currently pretty much stuck in Malaysia for the time being – I got the chance to attend this!

Currently being single, this was the first time I attended a concert on my own.

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I reached KLCC a little late but the show was utterly fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable! The music was arranged such that each number tells the story of an entire Pixar film in under 10 minutes.

There was a visual display that showed highlights of each film and the music was played in perfect sync with storyline in the video.

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Many great memories resurfaced: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo… It was heartwarming and even the newer ones stirred my emotions. I particularly loved the music of A Bug’s Life and Brave. Needless to say, many people cried during the Wall-E and particularly, Up, Sections.

I felt a little bit out of place because it seemed that guys are inherently not interested in this stuff? I noted that 70% of the audience were girls, and the occasional guy was likely accompanied by a female companion anyway. But why??? Isn’t this stuff part of almost everyone’s childhood? What did you guys watch when you were little?

I met this girl Wei Ping who was occupying the seat next to me and was also there on her own. In the end it turned out that she knew Alvin, my classmate back in university as well! What a small world. Smile

Anyway, I really do hope that MPO keeps ‘em coming. Perhaps a full classical Disney concert next year? Fingers crossed…

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