on journey: south korea > dubai > turkey

Two long days of travel from Daeugu, South Korea to Istanbul, Turkey.  My attempt to pack light meets with failure once again.  I lug my suitcase five blocks to the Daegu metro on Wednesday morning.  On the train, three Korean young ladies chat cozily.  One is fingering the long red-dyed hair of another.  When I step off metro at Dongdaegu, I am startled by screaming and yelling.  The girls are pulling each others’ hair and hitting and slapping each other, screeching like wild monkeys.  The Koreans on the platform are shocked into inaction.  Finally two Korean men and a woman intervene and break them up.  These girls are as dangerously violent as any men I’ve ever seen.  I have NEVER seen this kind of behavior here; Koreans are usually so passive and reserved!

Onward.  I catch the bus to Incheon.  Four and a half hours through tri-color Korea: deep green, beige, and black.  Green grass & trees, beige concrete skyscraper apartment buildings, and the black hair of all Koreans (oh, except that red-head and we saw what happened to her!).  It hits me that what I so miss while living in Korea is color and diversity.  So happy to be escaping, though only briefly.

At Incheon, I immediately catch the airport-free shuttle to Cargo Terminal A, where I am to pick up the package Mike mailed me from home in Virginia.  A wild goose chase: hours of traipsing across huge expanses of asphalt from warehouse to warehouse in the middle of nowhere, sun pounding down, me drenched in salty slime.  Why, why, why am I doing this??   I pay Customs 72,000 won, stuff the package contents into my already overstuffed suitcase, and catch the shuttle back to the airport where I wait three more hours for my flight at 11:55 pm.

FLY EMIRATES.  All through the World Cup games, I was enticed by the Emirates ads on the periphery of the field.  I board the double-decker airbus that could only be an Emirates over-the-top offering.  Not so great for us bottom-floor economy passengers.  The seats are tight and uncomfortable for overnight sleeping.  But a surreal experience at first: a perfumed mist blowing into the cabin from above the storage compartments, a mesmerizing tinkling tune playing.  Designed to put one into sleep mode, I think.  A fitful night of sleeping beside a Korean mother and daughter.  We arrive in Dubai at 3:45 a.m.  I have 10 hours to kill in Dubai.

10 hours in Dubai… Enough to last a lifetime

At the Dubai airport, I find myself bedraggled and sticky; all attempts to clean myself up meet with failure.  I try to exchange my Korean won for Turkish lira but they only have on hand 65 lira.  I try to exchange for dinars, which I am able to do at an exorbitant price.  I ask about dollars and they want to give me a measly $200 for 380,000 Won!!  Should be more like $330.  I keep my Korean Won in hopes of getting a better rate in Turkey.


Elevator banks at the Dubai airport

I ask three different people what time metro opens; I get three different answers. The airport is huge and gleaming and empty. Cavernous. Finally, I am standing at the information desk, asking about the Dubai city tour. A Japanese guy is standing beside me. The Arab woman tells us the city tour doesn’t start till noon, but I must be back at the airport by noon for my 2:30 p.m. flight to Turkey. The Japanese guy tells me he must catch the same flight to Turkey. The woman asks if we will see the city together (the Japanese guy and me). We look at each other. I say to him, what do you think? It might be a good idea, unless of course you want to go alone. We both shrug. He says sure, we can go out together. We both agree it will be nice to have some company to venture out into the strange city.

He introduces himself as Tomomi.  He’s an architect and lives in Estonia.  We get on the metro at 6 a.m. and head for Burj Al Arab, the tallest hotel in the world.  As we sit on metro, I ask a bunch of questions and I find out that he went to Estonia for a girlfriend.  The relationship didn’t work out over the long-term.  He is returning from a month-long vacation in Australia, where he has gone diving and other assorted things with a friend.  Now he is going to Turkey for 4 days to visit another friend and attend a wedding. He tells me he has a 5-year-old daughter who he takes to school each day and he sees one day of each weekend.  The mother is not the original girlfriend who he followed to Estonia.  He shows me an adorable picture of the girl.


Tomomi, a Japanese guy who lives in Estonia

The metro is air-conditioned, but I can feel the heat emanating from outside.  We have a clear flat view of the city as we ride above-ground.  All desert, sand-color everything.  Heat rising.  It is apparently 104 degrees Fahrenheit.  Or more.

We take a taxi from Mall of the Emirates metro stop to the Burj Al Arab.  It’s a nice setting, palm trees and greenery around, but they won’t allow us in unless we have a reservation at the hotel restaurant.  We take our pictures from outside the gate.  It looks like a ship, sails filled with wind.

We walk several blocks to Jumeirah Medinat, a modern recreation of a traditional bazaar.  It is hot and deserted; it is only 8 a.m. and it doesn’t open till 9:00.  Another lovely setting, but a dead place.  We wander about in the hot silence.  Where is the chaos and the liveliness of a real Arab bazaar?  It all seems like a fake version of the real thing.  It’s like a person with no substance, no character.


Jumeirah Medinat


lantern at Jumeirah Medinat


Jumeirah Medinat

We take the metro directly to the Dubai Mall, where we see the aquarium, the fountain, and fancy pastries, and try our best cool off.


Aquarium at Dubai Mall


fancy pastries

Also, the entrance to Burj Khalifi, the tallest building in the world is in the mall, but they want 100 dinars to go to the 124th floor and it doesn’t open till 10:00 a.m.  We satisfy ourselves by walking back into the street and looking at Burj Khalifi from the outside.



Burj Khalifi

By now, it is only 9:00.  I have an iced coffee that costs a fortune and we wander about the mall, checking out the huge aquarium and then wandering into the Gold Souk when it finally opens.  All I want to know is: Where are all the people??  There is no one anywhere!

We take a taxi then to Bastakiya, where traditional courtyard houses can be found.  The heat is unbearable and it is totally deserted.  We see only two backpackers walking through.  They look as miserable as we are.  We happen upon a little courtyard art gallery, air-conditioned (??), or somehow cooler anyway.  We linger there, poke around, sit on a bench, take a few photos.  We see mainly decorative tiles, tiles with Arabic script, a pretty tree with coral flowers.

We flag down a taxi to get to metro. We get ripped off, but we’re too tired to argue. Back on metro, back to the airport. Like everyone else, we stay encapsulated in our air-conditioned vehicles, grabbing any iota of cool relief.

The ~4 hour flight to Turkey is dandy.  I sit beside a Turkish couple who are living in Johannesburg, South Africa.  He works for Coca-Cola and she works for Proctor & Gamble.  They are traveling to Turkey for four days for a wedding.  They say this is the wedding season in Turkey and if you take a boat down the Bosphorus at night, you can see celebrations and fireworks all along the shore.  The guy is keen on the Istanbul Archeological Museum.  He says it is full of history, which he elaborates on in great detail.  After our chat, I watch the movie Valentine’s Day, but I fall asleep before the end.  After my long wild goose chase through the cargo terminals in Seoul and my traipsing through Dubai, I feel filthy.  I can’t wait to arrive at the Big Apple Hostel for a shower…. 🙂

I arrive in Istanbul at around 6 p.m. on July 22. The currency exchange windows at Ataturk airport don’t want my Korean won, of which I have brought 380,000, for any amount.  This frustrates me beyond belief; I was told by my Korean friends that Korea and Turkey are best of friends because of Turkey’s participation in the Korean War in 1950.

Also, in the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea, Turkey and Korea had a friendly soccer match; though Turkey beat Korea in the third place match 3-2, apparently there was a great show of respect by the Turkish team for the Koreans.  The Koreans have not forgotten this… have the Turkish people?  Or is the Korean won really that worthless?  Isn’t Korea, after all, the 13th largest economy in the world now?  Oh well, for the rest of my trip, I am forced to carry around my worthless 380,000 won and use my U.S. debit card (because despite Nongyhup Bank’s assurance I would be able to use my Korean debit card ~ with its Cirrus logo ~ in Turkey, no ATM machine would accept it!).  Thank God I went to Cargo Terminal A at Incheon to pick up my package from home with my new U.S. debit card!!

This is the first time in my life I am met at the airport by someone holding up a placard with my name on it!  I feel so special!!  Haha… actually I had arranged with the Big Apple Hostel to have a pickup from the airport.  The ride to Sultanahmet is lovely, along the Bosphorus, with views of the heavy cargo ship traffic.  I love immediately the colorful homes, all terra-cottas, greens, corals, yellows.


driving into Istanbul from the airport

In the Sultanahmet area, we drive over bumpy cobblestones and I am all agape, looking at the stores and the beautiful things in the windows and on the streets.  Colorful lamps, handbags with Ottoman and Byzantine designs, Turkish carpets.  Ceramic tiles and plates.  The ubiquitous evil eyes.

Up and down steep hills and finally I am dropped at the Big Apple Hostel, where I am to stay for three nights. I check in and go to my room on the second floor, a room with three bunk beds, for six people. Luckily there is no one there, so I am able to shower and lie down for a bit in peace. But eventually two sisters come in from Canada. They are shocked to see me, I can tell; taken aback by my age and maybe worried about sharing a room with me. I try to put them at ease, chit-chat. I ask them about Istanbul, about where they’re from, tell them where I’m from. Then three more girls from Tunisia, Egypt and Austria come in; they are attending an Anatolia Congress for Leadership and Entrepreneurship.

I put on my knit dress that feels like a nightgown(!) and go out to explore.

July 21-22, 2010