Can East meet West, or about Turkey, which unites Asia and Europe. Part One: Meeting with the Bosporus

On the shores of the Bosporus, photo by Alexey Soloviev, BSNews

Editor of Tourism Section of BSNews

«Never ever I’ve been to the Bosporus»

They say that West is West, and East is East and never the twain shall meet. My recent trip to Turkey made ​​me to change my attitude to this phrase. Thus, our journey to the country, 3% of which is located in Europe and the rest 97% in Asia, starts in Ukraine, the biggest European country, i.e. entirely located on the European continent.

We leave from the airport of Simferopol, reputed as the southern air gate of Ukraine and the second airport of the country by volume of passenger traffic after Boryspil, the airport of the capital city of Kiev. In 2010 the volume of passenger traffic at Simferopol airport amounted to 845 thousand passengers, while in the Soviet times in 1990 it used to welcome about 6 million passengers every year as one of the largest airports of then USSR.

Looking at the modern Simferopol airport, I remembered me seeing off the delegation of French winemakers from Cahors in 2003. As I asked them whether they liked the Crimea or not I heard a lot of praising words about the beauty of the peninsula. But, when being loyal to the journalist’s habit of mine, my next question was what actually they did not like here, then I got the answer – the airport in Simferopol.

Several years passed, and here, by us, the airport was reconstructed. Though it is not clear, whether the Frenchmen of Cahors would ever learn about this quiet joy of ours or not, as for the unknown reason they never fly back to us any more...

But if they ever decide to fly back, then they would realize that Turkish airlines still remain to be one of the few foreign airlines flying to Simferopol airport. So you can get to the Crimea from Istanbul airport thanks to the Turkish national airline within about 1 hour and 40 minutes covering a distance of 600 kilometers.

It seems that there in Turkey they have long ago realized that it is not enough to have in your possession just natural beauty and infrastructure, but there is a strong need to deliver your consumer to the tourist destinations quickly and with comfort.

Therefore, already in 1990’s the Turkish airlines went through challenging privatization, just several years ago there was its next stage and the result is – certain part of its shares is still owned by the state, while the other part is in private hands.

By mid-1980’s the airline had 30 aircrafts and used to carry about 3 million passengers a year, offering flights to a little more than 30 foreign and Turkish airports. Now, more than 140 aircrafts of Turkish airlines transport almost 30 million passengers a year and fly to over 170 airports all over the world (about 40 airports in Turkey and 130 airports in more than 70 countries (25 of them are airports in the former Soviet Union, 6 out of them in Ukraine).

Up to date it is the third best airline of Europe and the best in southern Europe, and its numerous aircraft fleet is one of the newest in Europe (average aircraft is just a little bit over 6 years old). Turkish airlines already has four stars, and expects to receive another one in 2011 to become the first five-star airline of Europe (so far, there are only 6 of them in the whole world). In 2010, its revenues increased by 39% and reached the $ 5 billion mark.

Thus, here in Simferopol, the journey to the east starts with the western services of really high level. Entering the spacious cabin of the aircraft and smiling back to the greeting us slim flight attendant, I remembered that I read somewhere that in 2010 Turkish airlines warned in advance and then removed from the flights more than 20 employees, including several flight attendants. They were all sent to lose weight during the six months' unpaid leave.

Realizing that the first impression of the country very often starts to build up from the image of its airline, which is often perceived as representative of the country or even as its ambassador abroad, the flag carrier Turkish airlines can not allow to be careless neither about small points in services, nor in overall image.

As we sit in the comfortable armchairs the airline magazine SkyLife immediately attracts the attention. It successfully supports image of both the country and the airline. Well printed, with a lot of photos and maps, reference material and excellent articles and stories about life in Turkey and other topics, as well. One of the small articles, which I was reading as we gained the altitude and flew over the Black Sea, I remember particularly well. It was about the common urgent problem of the region: in the past few decades, the Black Sea has lost about 80% of their fish stocks due to pollution and overfishing.

But we might write more about this another time, as now the city lights of Istanbul are shimmering down below and in a while we land at the Ataturk International Airport. In the Asian part of the city there is another International Airport - Sabiha Gökçen, but our plane lands at the largest metropolitan airport. This huge complex of 4 terminals is located in the European part of the city.

Even passing glance at the airport display board makes it clear that the 9th busiest airport in Europe handles simultaneously a large number of flights, but one can hardly notice any trace of line anywhere.

We get our luggage promptly delivered from the aircraft and a few minutes later right here at the airport smiling immigration officer glues visas into our passports.

Thus, half an hour after the arrival, our bus is already on the way to the historic center of Istanbul, covering the 24 kilometers distance from the airport to the hotels reserved for delegates of the 52nd World Congress of FIJET (World Federation of Travel Journalists & Writers, BSNews note).

The 52nd World Congress of FIJET at Conrad Istanbul Hotel, photo by Alexey Soloviev, BSNews

Experienced tour operators once told me that planning your trip to Istanbul, it is better to make inquires about your hotel and check its reviews in Internet, as they believe, that stars of some Turkish hotels can mean just prime location in the heart of the city, but not the comfort of its rooms and facilities. I had no chance to experience whether it is true or not as Conrad Istanbul Hotel, where part of the delegates was accommodated and where the main functions of the 52nd World Congress of FIJET took place, does not give any grounds to doubt about its 5 star rating.

In the whole world there are only about 30 exquisite hotels run by the Hilton Hotels chain with special brand Conrad Hotels & Resorts named after Conrad Hilton, the founder of the Hilton Hotels Corporation, and their hotel in Istanbul is a perfect place to experience luxurious combination of traditional oriental hospitality of the East and the top rank standards of services of the West.

For our Congress the hotel has provided both small halls for meetings of the Board of Directors and a beautiful Grand Hall, which comfortably accommodated 250 tourist journalists and writers from over 20 countries, as well as their numerous guests, during Gala Opening Ceremony of the Congress and its General Assembly. Beautifully decorated main hall of the Conrad Istanbul Hotel emphasized significance and importance of the speech of the President of FIJET Tijani Haddad featuring the analysis of actual situation in the world tourism industry.

The FIJET President Tijani Haddad delivers his speech, photo by Alexey Soloviev, BSNews

The representatives of the mass media and tourist industry of Egypt, Panama, Turkey and other countries also took floor at the Congress and availability of modern equipment in the hall helped speakers from each country to illustrate their messages on their countries’ tourist potential with audio-visual presentation. The speech of Secretary of State of Ministry of Regional Development and Tourism of Romania Eugen Curteanu was particularly interesting and he informed that his country will host the 53rd Congress of FIJET.

The work of 52nd World Congress of FIJET proved that Conrad Istanbul Hotel is really perfect place to convene international business meetings and its prestigious award «Turkey's Leading Business Hotel» is just extra confirmation of this fact. Conrad Istanbul Hotel is built on the slope of the European shore of the Bosporus Strait in the historic part of Istanbul, and its infrastructure and location are convenient for both leisure and the city insight tours.

On foot or by car one can easily get from the hotel to city's major attractions, or without leaving hotel can admire the breathtaking views of the legendary Strait and other sights just sitting in its 14th floor Summit Bar.

Great views from the rooms are worth mentioning as well. Anyway, in my, overlooking the Bosporus, room it was possible at night to enjoy simultaneously the comfort of its facilities and the view of the famous bridge of Bogaziki (Boğaziçi Köprüsü) with very impressive pulsating and changing multicolored illumination.

Dolmabahce Palace and Conrad Istanbul Hotel, photo by Alexey Soloviev, BSNews

But one thing is to look at the Bosporus even from the window of luxury hotel, yet another is to see its most interesting sights during the magnificent boat ride. Thanks to the boat tour, organized by our hospitable Turkish colleagues, I, who visited Istanbul so many times, realized that in reality, like in the famous verse of Russian poet Sergey Yesenin, «never ever I’ve been to the Bosporus» before.

It is only, when the ship reaches the middle of the strait, then its grandeur and significance becomes overwhelmingly clear and here comes the feeling: meeting with the Bosporus has finally taken place. You are on the upper deck and the strait with depth from 27 to 120 meters is just below you, while all around you there is the huge metropolis with population estimated from 12 to 17 million, spanning along the whole length of the strait for more than 30 kilometers on both the European and Asian shores of the Bosporus.

As you marvel at how remarkably the outlines of both shores match each other, you get better idea and prove to the fact that about 7500-5000 years ago, at the end of the last glacial period, massive melting of ice and snow increased levels of the giant inland freshwater lake and salty Mediterranean Sea. Then from both sides a powerful stream of water for several days, crushing down everything on their way, was slashing the land into two continents, and, thus, was simultaneously forming a strait, through which the salty waters of the Mediterranean gushed into the freshwater lake, converting it gradually into the salty Black Sea.

It is really some sort of mystique that when you sail up the Bosporus, it is extremely difficult to understand whether you are now in Asia or in Europe, as well as to guess water of what sea, the Mediterranean, Marmara or Black one like «light blue fire sways» around you, paraphrasing the words from the famous S. Yesenin’s poem.

The Bosporus ”sways like light blue fire”, photo by Alexey Soloviev, BSNews

Peering into the turquoise waters, one can recall another unique, I would say, mystical feature of the Bosporus, which sometimes gives it a name the «river of time». The flow velocity in some places of the strait can reach 13 km/h, but the layer of water in its middle is relatively motionless as the infinity of time.

The upper layer flows from north to south i.e. from the Black Sea to the Sea of ​​Marmara, the bottom one - from south to north i.e. from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, thus, in reverse directions – like time with its past and future.

Our ship continues to cut the waves and the past with its ancient oriental palaces and mosques and the future with its western ultramodern, millions of dollars worth skyscrapers and villas interchange in front of your eyes.

Modern Istanbul: mosque and skyscrapers, photo by Alexey Soloviev, BSNews

Villas on the shores of the Bosporus , photo by Alexey Soloviev, BSNews

They say that in Turkey east and west are already so close to each other that they gradually strive to reunite completely: every year the Asian shore of the Bosporus moves five centimeters closer towards European one.

But, without waiting for nature to unite Europe and Asia again, the Turks decided to achieve the same with the help of Western technology. So, right before us: symbols of modern Turkey and Istanbul - the famous ultramodern bridges across ancient Bosporus.

On October 29, 1973 country celebrated 50-year anniversary of the Turkish Republic with opening of the Boğaziçi Köprüsü bridge (the Turkish word Köprüsü means bridge while Boğaziçi is the Turkish name of the Bosphorus, which means an internal strait, BSNews note).

View of the Bosporus and Bogazici Koprusu bridge, photo by Alexey Soloviev, BSNews

It was the first bridge to link east and west, and both parts of the country's largest metropolis. You really appreciate its amazing size, as you sail under and look up at the bridge: the height of its pylons is up to 165 meters above the water level, the total length of bridge is 1560 meters, width – 33 meters, the length of main span is 1074 meters. The clearance of the bridge from sea level is 64 m (210 ft), which is enough for passage of any ocean-going vessel.

Looking at the grandeur of the bridge from the boat, you can emotionlessly accept the figure of 200 million dollars spent on its construction, but the data that 35 engineers and 400 workers had been building it since February 20, 1970 for just about three years evokes genuine amazement and respect. Originally the bridge was opened to pedestrians, but after several suicide attempts, passage for pedestrians is, unfortunately, closed. Nowadays about 200 000 units of transportation means cross the bridge daily, carrying about 600 000 passengers.

The second bridge over the Bosporus, located five kilometers from the first one is called the Fatih Köprüsü and is closed to pedestrians as well. They started to construct it in 1985 and opened on May 29, 1988 to commemorate the other date: 535-anniversary of the conquest of the city by Fatih Sultan Mehmed (hence the name of the bridge (Fatih – Conqueror, Köprüsü – Bridge, BSNews note). Its length – 1510 meters, the same distance 64 m to water level, width of 39 m. The Fatih Bridge was built by Japanese construction workers ($130 ml.). Every day, the bridge is crossed by over 150 000 transportation units, carrying about 500 000 passengers.

The site for its construction was chosen not by chance. In preparation for the siege and capture of Constantinople, the Turks built two fortresses right there, where the Bosporus, which maximum width can reach more than 3 kilometers, is narrowing to about 750 meters.

In 1393 the fortress Anadolu Hisar, known now as the oldest Turkish structure in the vicinity of Istanbul, came into being on the Asian side. In 1452 the opposite European shore saw construction of the Rumeli Hisari fortress and the narrowest place of the strategic strait was eloquently nicknamed the «Throat Cutter».

Right here by the Rumeli Hisari fortress there is the nominal border line, dividing the Bosporus into Upper: from the castle to the Black Sea and Lower Bosporus – from Rumeli Hisari to the Sea of ​​Marmara.

But even before emergence of the Turks and their fortresses at this narrowest point of the Strait it was famous for the fact that about 2,5 thousand years ago troops of the Persian King Darius (about 700 000 persons) constructed here the very first, then floating bridge over the Bosporus within very short period of time and crossed the strait from Asia to Europe. And long before them, about 3500 years ago the area was visited by the Cretans, considered to be the founders of seafaring in the Mediterranean.

And though now a huge city spreads itself on both shores, and the Strait, called in modern Turkey the Marmara Boğazı (the Strait of Marmara), Istanbul Boğazı (Istanbul Strait), Karadeniz Boğazı (Black Sea Strait), but mostly Bogazici, i.e. the Inner Strait, still the Bosporus (Greek for «cow-ford», BSNews note), its ancient name, by which it is known all around the world, still raises memories of the remote past.

According to the ancient myth about beautiful Io, the mistress of Zeus, who changed her into a white cow, and the jealous Hera, who revealed this trick and send the merciless flies to haunt her rival, exactly in the waters of the strait Io found her rescue from pesky insects, and then waded through and discovered a safe place to hide.

And later, around VII-VIII centuries BC, Greeks, paving the sea trade route through the Bosporus into the Black Sea to connect the east and west, will discover at the Bosporus the area, which would help them to make ​​their journey a lot safer. But about it and its connection with modern Istanbul, you can read in the next article titled «Meeting with the Byzantine Empire».

To be continued