Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Trip to Istanbul

I just got back from an amazing trip to Istanbul, and as you might expect, I took a LOT of pictures (about 500). They're all up on Flickr if you want to see them, but since I know most of you (except my parents) will click through only a page or two before getting bored, here's a short selection of my favorite photos that I took. These aren't necessarily the best ones, but I tried to select shots that would quickly show you everything I did and highlight some of the more interesting bits.

The Blue Mosque, which was within walking distance of my hotel.

The Hagia Sophia, also within walking distance of the hotel. These two photos were taken on the same day, a few hours apart. Istanbul was often cloudy in the morning and sunny by noon.

My pathetic attempts at capturing just how enormous the Hagia Sophia is.

I thought that this light was very tasteful and blended well with the surrounding architecture.

This is probably one of the least intelligent things I have seen a parent do with his child. Yes, this is on the second floor, 40-50 feet up.

Now over to the Blue Mosque (which is only bluish on the inside).

Two interior shots for awe inspiration purposes.

And then onto the Basilica Cistern. The scary lighting got old after a while.

But I did quite like the Medusa head that had been repurposed as the base of a column.

On my meanderings through the west side of the Old City, I stumbled onto a pedestrian underpass that was also an enormous bike market.

The Suleymaniye Mosque, which apparently inspired the Blue Mosque.

The interior of the Suleymaniye Mosque. Not as flowery as the Blue Mosque, but I like this one a lot too.

This is the (overpriced) Spice Bazaar. I ended up finding spices at a nice place across the river for much cheaper.

How many Turks can you spot? That's why it's overpriced.

The tiny (but free!) Istanbul Railway Museum, tucked into a single room in the train station near the Spice Bazaar.

The very pleasant park next to Topkapi Palace.

The church, not mosque, inside the palace grounds.

Some tiling on the walls of Topkapi Palace

The library in Topkapi Palace. I think I would be happy if my house had only one room as long as it looked like this.

The War on Terror commemorative chess set! Complete with twin towers as castles. Hilarious...except not.

There are a LOT of cats in Istanbul, and they basically own the place, as this one demonstrated.

On a whim, I decided to visit the Prince's Islands instead of viewing yet another very old Ottoman palace. That was probably the best decision I made during the whole trip.

The heavy machinery at the port on the Asian side of Istanbul.

Exiting the harbor.

The boat ride is about an hour long, so feeding the gulls is a favorite pastime.

Wish I could have stopped at that island.

On the main island, Büyükada, there isn't really anything to do except rent a bike and ride along this road overlooking the ocean. Which is fine by me.

A sailboat near the shore on Büyükada.

There were a lot of nice houses on the island, but I thought this one was particularly cute.

Not all the houses were in good condition though.

I was a little creeped out by the shoes lying in the courtyard of this abandoned house.

Departing Büyükada in the late afternoon.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bicycle commuting in Georgia

I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time talking about my bicycling background; if you know me, you know that I cycle practically everywhere, and Tbilisi is not an exception. However, the reaction by Georgians and expats alike when they see me using a bike as transportation is usually something along the lines of "Wow, you're brave! It must be pretty dangerous out there, huh?"

This is a common reaction because drivers in Tbilisi are widely acknowledged to be crazy--Georgian machismo combined with lax traffic enforcement leads to dangerous speeding, aggressive tailing, games of Chicken, and lots of accidents. In six months in Georgia, I've personally witnessed two rear-end collisions, had the city bus I was riding in scrape the side of a taxi, and driven or walked past three multi-vehicle high-speed accidents. Not the biggest sample size, of course, but I'm pretty sure the statistics support me on this one.

Despite this, I actually feel pretty safe riding my bike around Tbilisi, for a few reasons.

The first reason is simply experience: I've ridden thousands of total miles on dense, high-traffic streets in Chicago, and while Chicago is a very bike-friendly city by American standards, it has its fair share of crazy drivers. Knowing how traffic flows, and how to position yourself in the road is a key part of safe city cycling (I suggest The Art of Cycling to anyone who wants to learn more about city riding; I haven't read it, but based on the review, it sounds comprehensive and agrees with pretty much everything I would teach a beginning city cyclist).

The second reason is novelty: There are plenty of cyclists in Tbilisi, but they tend to fall into two categories. One group is teenage boys who ride bikes in order to look cool. They generally ride hideous bicycles that are apparently designed to look like monster trucks, with lots of superfluous shock absorbers and needlessly massive (and heavy!) tubing arranged in the most aggressive-looking way possible. These guys basically ride around on the sidewalk, weaving through pedestrians and generally being idiots. The other group are recreational riders, who use their bikes for sports, like mountain biking, or touring through Georgia's gorgeous mountain roads.

However, there are precious few people who use bicycles as transportation, on city streets, on a daily basis. In an American city, this is generally a bad thing. When American motorists aren't used to looking for cyclists, they're more likely to hit them, because cyclists appear in different places than cars do. However, in Tbilisi I find that the rarity of bicycles on the road is actually a good thing. The drivers here are aggressive, but they're also attentive--all the chaos here forces you to be alert when you drive. Drivers here are more likely to see cyclists because they're watching the whole road, and when they do see you, the novelty really helps--drivers generally freak out a little bit when they see a bicycle, and will give you space in a way that they don't in Chicago where awareness of bicycles is higher.

The final reason is the lack of animosity. In most American cities, there is a certain group of drivers who actively resent the encroachment of cyclists onto "their" roads. These guys will deliberately make cyclists' lives miserable, simply for being on the road. They will cut in front of you, honk their horns to try and scare you, or spray you with windshield cleaning fluid (I'm not the kind of cyclist to key someone's car or bash their windows with a U-lock, but I was pretty close with the windshield wiper guy). I think that this attitude is only possible because American roads are so pleasant to drive on and American drivers so law-abiding--in Tbilisi, the average driver has to contend with so many things getting in their way that anyone who flew into a frothing rage at the slightest infringement on "their" patch of pavement would get arrested instantly. Once again, chaos makes for safer biking--rather than an "intruder" into the automobile's rightful domain, drivers view cyclists as simply another obstacle to be avoided.

I wouldn't recommend street cycling in Tbilisi to everyone -- it is often chaotic, and it's challenging to do safely. But that's true about every city I've ever cycled in, so if you're an avid bicycle commuter already, Tbilisi's not so different.