Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Visa Run: take 2 or Istanbul for free

Last weekend Matt and I went to Istanbul on our second visa run ever, the first being Korea, of course. Basically, all we had to do was leave the EU, and then come back.  Sounds so simple, right?  Of course not.  We were flying out on Saturday morning at 10, so, naturally, Matt being who he is, and me being who I am, we were at the airport a good 2 and a half hours early, just to be prepared.  And, in our defense, it was probably a good thing we were so early, because an hour into our adventure, we ran into some "very serious" problems.  First off, the line for check in was ridiculously long (and we shouldn't have been in it anyway, but because we still can't take liquids in carry-ons, we were) and so we amused ourselves by playing I spy and counting the ridiculous amounts of luggage these Turks were carrying.  Is that racist?  I don't feel like it is, because I've never really heard stories of Turkish people with crazy amounts of luggage, but if it is, I apologize.  They over-packed.  All of them.  End of story.  After about a 45 minute wait, we were on our way through passport control, just trying to leave the country, for God's sake, and of course we got delayed again. Apparently, the law in Germany is as such that you cannot be in the country for more than 90 days.  Period.  In fact, the way they were acting, they were surprised we were even still alive after 90 days.  Apparently most people just self-destruct on the 91st day.  So, honestly, we weren't trying to break the law.  We (and by we I mean Matt) sincerely thought (and by sincerely thought I mean, we didn't research it at all) we could be in the country for 3 months or 90 days, and didn't think about the fact that it doesn't always match up.  So here we are, in passport control, being told very politely, several times, that we can only be in the country for 90 days, but it was our 93rd day.  What do we do about this problem?  It seemed there was no solution.  After deliberating for a few minutes, our very polite German airport security officer told us he must write us a citation because we were 3 days over (because you can only be in Germany for 90 days, you see?  It's annoying, isn't it?) Now, this citation, as far as we could tell, would have no effect on our travels, we wouldn't have to pay a fine, and it wouldn't stop us from re-entering the country. So as far as we were concerned, bring it on. Somewhere in there he asked us if we had been in Germany the whole time, and thinking it was an EU rule, and not just a German one, we said yes. So after deliberating for a while, he escorted us back to the security office, and on the way, we told him we had been to Austria twice since we've been here, if that made any difference.  Well, this just astounded him.  I thought he might fall over.  He said, well, I don't understand, because when I asked you, you said you'd only stayed in Germany.  So we tried to explain it to him, but his only response was, well, only 90 days, and you are here for 93.... Anyway, he took us back to his office to talk to his peeps, and we had to sit in this tiny little "interrogation room" with 2 benches, no windows, and a somewhat scary man waiting for his judgement as well.  We sat in there for some time, when finally another man came and started asking us questions, like, do you not understand the 90 day rule, and why have you not told us you went to Austria before... how did you get there? By train.  Where did you go?  Vienna and Salzburg.  What route did you take?  Through Linz (this one I didn't know, but Matt figured it out).  So where is your hotel reservation?  We didn't bring it (didn't think we'd be interrogated by the German police did we) but we have a copy on our computer.  Well, where is your laptop? We didn't bring it.  Well, isn't that convenient?  No, it obviously isn't.  The whole time, this guy is rolling his eyes, squinting at us, and shaking his head.  Finally he said, "is this the truth?" And we said, yes.  He shook his head and glared at us some more, and then he let his "good cop" friend come back in and tell us it was okay, that we could leave.  Before handing us our passports, he gravely reminded us, again, of the 90 day rule, and next time we needed to leave before 90 days.  We got it.  Oh, and that scary man who was sitting next to me in the holding cell?  Some security officers had to come in and escort him away... hope he really was guilty of what he was accused of, but I'm not so sure.  
Anyway, so we made it to our gate, and then we made it to Istanbul Saturday afternoon, and checked into our rather nice hotel.  The thing that's so amazing about visa runs is this: it's free.  It's totally free!  We get to leave the country, and go somewhere awesome, within reason, and UOP will pay for it!  And for our hotel, and for our food!  So it's pretty much a win-win.  Actually, we had to pay for our hotel because UOP won't pay for two hotels at once, and we still had the room in Germany, so we just paid for the Istanbul hotel because it was cheaper.  So then went down to the Grand Bazaar, which is this huge, well, bazaar, where they sell everything from knock-off t-shirts and shoes to really cool cultural stuff like lamps, rugs, jewelry and wall hangings.  This place was huge! Naturally there were hundreds of people yelling at us... do you need new jeans?  Do you need lamp? We didn't buy anything there because we were too intimidated and didn't know even a starter price for any of this stuff and we didn't want to get blind sighted... and for good reason. We are really bad bargainers and even worse at saying no... in China we paid $20 for paper hats at the Great Wall.  Paper.  We're awful.  Sunday we got up early and went first and foremost to the Hagia Sophia, which was incredible.  It is all self-guided, and a lot of the information is written in English, so you really don't need one of those guides who try to poach you on your way in.  It really is just an amazing piece of architecture, not to mention all the history.  It was the most important Christian church for like 900 years, from the 4th century, until in the 15th century someone took over and transformed it into a mosque, and covered up all the unbelievable tile mosaics on the walls and ceilings.  They have been renovating it and uncovering the Christian elements since the 1930s, I think. I'll have to post some pictures, because there just really is no way to describe how beautiful the mosaics are. Across the street is the Islamic answer to the Sophia, the Blue Mosque.  It is quite an impressive sight itself, and I think it was built maybe in the 1600s?  We went into the courtyard there, but there were all these signs that said women needed to wear long skirts and head coverings, and naturally I wasn't, so we thought it was safer to stay out. Also, the line was huge, and that may have deterred us a little.  From there we went to the Underground Cistern to the palace, which I guess is this old water holding tank from forever ago, and it has all of these stone columns running through it.  There are two in the very back that sit on top of two Medusa heads, and no one has ever figured out why they are there.  One is upside down, and one is sideways.  Again, they don't know the reason for this, but they do think it was intentional.  It's all very mysterious.  After this, we went walking around trying to find this huge bridge, but got lost, and then went shopping... I knew it was a bad idea.  We went into this shop to look at these little ceramic plates, and we got cornered and the salesman was just so amazing and friendly, and he said "There is a saying in Turkey that if you have a cup of tea together, you will be friends for 40 years." James had told me about this tea drinking, and what it can lead to, but I thought, no, I can enjoy my cup of tea and not be persuaded by this man's salesman charms.  But I was.  He showed us so many beautiful rugs, all hand woven antique rugs, of different sizes, shapes and textures.  He finally zoned in on one we really liked, and we asked the price, and lo and behold, it was $800.  On "sale".  We were flabbergasted.  This thing was smaller than a coffee table!  It was gorgeous, but not $800 gorgeous.  We told him we couldn't afford it, and he said, well, you tell me what you can afford, and we will see if we can meet in the middle.  So, we said, we don't want to offend you, but we can't spend more than about $100.  And we thought that was the end of it.  But no, he simply smiled, put the rug away, and got out another rug, a "college student rug" he called it, and said he could give it to us for $350.  Anyway, we struggled and kept trying to walk out, because, let's face it, we didn't even want a rug, we don't even have a house!  In any case, we talked him down to $140, without really trying, and finally we gave in.  See how bad we are?  We should not be allowed to shop in these countries!  Anyway, we're pretty happy about it, and it is beautiful, it's wool, and hand made, and I know we couldn't get it for that much in the U.S., and we didn't really have a choice, did we?  I mean, the guy came over and took both of our hands and said "Listen to me, from the bottom of my heart, I can give this to you for $140, and I am making almost no profit off this, but I know you are nice people, and you have friends, and I will give you business cards and you will send me your friends so I will get business." From the bottom of his heart!  So we did, and he made us feel really good about ourselves... which is their way, i guess.  He should win a metal.  I have never been so sold on something I didn't want before.  It was surreal!  So now we have a Turkish rug sitting on our hotel floor, and after we leave here it will sit on our boxes in our storage room.  Good purchase.  
So, that's about it.  Oh, and the hotel in Istanbul had 8 English channels, and we watched every single one of them.  For hours.  And upon our return into Germany, we didn't have problems entering, but we did have to wait in line for an hour and a half to get through immigration.  Not the best.  But still, free trip.  

1 comment:

  1. I love the rug story. I'm not surprised though. You are very gullible (and persuadable {sp?}). That would be a good anecdote for a travel mag or something like that if you expand on it.