Day 1 in Turkey. Arriving in Istanbul after a red-eye (albeit only two-hour) flight from Krasnodar, our mood was a little low. We’d been stung a hefty 17,000 rubles (about 350 AUD) for our extra suitcase (27kg) and were feeling the effects of the start of sleep deprivation. Nevertheless, we were keen to start our new adventure and marched boldly off the airplane towards Immigration. The queue was huge, running past the gates and down the corridor towards the passenger entrance from the runway. I knew that I needed a visa for Turkey as I’d opted not to purchase one online, but I didn’t know where to get it.
There was a small counter with VISA written above it but there were also sheets of A4 paper sticky-taped around it with information about business visas…and the people lining up didn’t fit my stereotype of the average tourist. So, I shrugged and kept going, assuming that you must just purchase the visa at the immigration desk (retrospective face palm).
We joined the queue, full of people from a myriad of different countries. Some were waving beautiful green passports from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, heatedly discussing…something. Some women stood quietly, adorned with beautifully patterned headscarves or full burkhas and nikabs, rocking small children to sleep. I started to feel slightly self-conscious about my tight leggings and bare shoulders, but quickly remembered that I wasn’t the first Australian tourist to visit Istanbul and wasn’t at all special enough to attract the attention I had naively imagined I might.
We waited for about 30 minutes before reaching the immigration desk where I was told in no uncertain terms that I did, in fact, need to get a visa at the appointed visa desk that was located to the side of the queueing area. I turned around and saw hundreds of hot and impatient people staring back at me. To the visa desk I go!
Benefits of Having a Russian Passport
My husband, with his lovely red Russian passport, didn’t need a visa and was free to enter Turkey without me. Of course, he didn’t. He moved off to the side of the beginning of the main queue where people split off into 5 smaller queues for each passport control desk and waited for me. I scrambled my way out of the line, horrified by the fact that it had now almost doubled in size, and slipped under the barrier before making my way over to the visa desk. Within two minutes a polite Turk had taken my $70 (American Dollars) and stuck a nice little sticker in the back of my passport indicating that I was free to enter the country. No stamp. No forms. No details about where I was staying. A simple exchange. Your money for my sticker. Easy peasy.
But now the dreaded line. I looked longingly at my husband, who started signalling for me to slip under the barriers and join him at the beginning of the queue. I looked from him to the large line of screaming children and sweaty tourists and back again. Would my conscience allow me to queue jump? I was helped with my decision by an airport worker (wheelchair operator) who noticed my dilemma and subtly waved me under the barrier to my husband. And just like that I was back in!
In a matter of minutes, we had passed immigration (no questions, just a simple passport check), grabbed our bags that were riding on the conveyer belt just beyond immigration and were deciding how to get from the airport to our hotel.
Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport Taxi
We are budget tourists who are willing to walk for 30 minutes to find a no-commission ATM so this was an important decision for us.
Having researched how to deal with taxi drivers in Turkey, we knew to agree on prices before the journey, pay attention to exactly how much you give them and, most importantly, haggle!
We stepped out of the airport and were met with flock of drivers, each one calling ‘Taxi’ over and over again. The very first man who approached us was dressed reasonably professionally (we had been told that this factor can help distinguish the dodgy from the non-dodgy), spoke English and offered us a taxi to our hotel for 25 Lira. A reasonable rate, we decided, not really understanding how much we should be paying. The man grabbed my heavy suitcase and led us through the maze of traffic to a small stand in the pick-up area where we paid the fare in advance. Turkish families were waiting for loved ones, sometimes with more than 5 people crammed into a sedan. Everyone was honking. And our very first Turkish mosque was visible from the road.
The driver led us further away, into a carpark where we waited for our taxi. I didn’t really understand why we had to wait there for our taxi. There were plenty of free, yellow taxis on the road we’d just come from. Why were we waiting in some far-away car park? Surely this man wasn’t going to rob us in broad daylight with people around everywhere. What’s the deal?
We exchanged a few awkward questions with him about where we were from and whether or not we had kids and then our taxi pulled up. Well. Not exactly a taxi, but more of a 10-seat minivan with a suave driver – gelled hair, ironed pants and white shirt and polished, black leather shoes.
Slightly wary but consoled by the fact that we had already paid our fare and would soon be at our hotel, we boarded the taxi and started to get excited!
First Impressions of Istanbul
Soon enough we were on the highway, driving through green fields before entering the real city. Huge, colourful apartment buildings with super-flashy designs popped up on both sides, flanked by smaller, older private houses in shades of orange, white and red. Everything was so pretty, so old and modern all at the same time. Every 30 seconds a new, enormous, regal mosque appeared. This was the Asian side. We entered a tunnel that took us under Bosphorus and over to the part of the city where we would be living, and emerged into a region with no skyscrapers, no modernity but loads of character. The gorgeous blue sea lapped at the shore to the left of us. We were nearly home.
Just then, I noticed a sticker on the inside of the taxi cab. It read “Istanbul VIP taxis”. I smirked quietly to myself and then pointed it out to Pasha. We had unknowingly ordered ourselves a VIP taxi. The budget travellers who thought they knew how to navigate the Turkish taxi system had ordered themselves a VIP taxi from the airport. The seats were really comfy though…