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What I did in a seven hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey.

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On Wednesday, November 12, I flew from Taipei to Lviv. Taiwan to Ukraine is an (obviously) uncommon route, so there are no direct flights. My 29 hour travel time: Taipei to Shanghai, to Istanbul, and finally to Lviv. Flying sucks, but the seven hour layover in Istanbul was memorable.

But first, unnecessary backstory!

The layover in Shanghai was cumbersome. I had to go through immigration because my connecting flight was in a different terminal. Inefficiency at its finest. Those who stood in my line had the unfortunate luck of waiting 15 minutes for the immigration officer to finally let me pass.

“Where’s your boarding pass? Where are you headed? Why are you going to Ukraine? Aren’t they at war? What business do you have there? Can you smile for me? Please wait for me to get my superior.” An Asian guy with an American passport, flying from Taipei, on his way to Ukraine through Istanbul. The miss-match in passport photo (buzz-cut, without glasses) did not contribute. I had them on red alert, Jason Bourne style.

They finally let me through with a one-day temporary visa. I re-checked my luggage, waited two more useless hours in the airport, and off to Istanbul!

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Upon landing in Istanbul at about 5am, I got access to an airport lounge. Nice ambiance, mediocre food, and horrible WiFi for the price of 40 Euros. The connecting flight to Ukraine was at 12:30pm. Airports suck, must get out.

My two travel companions took a different flight to Ukraine and had arrived in Istanbul two hours earlier. They let me know to take the taxi to the Four Seasons Hotel in Bosphorus. The US may need to improve on a lot of things, but hassle-free travel with a powerful passport is one great perk. Visa on arrival for 30 days with no questions asked for only 25 Euros.

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I admired the Sea of Marmara en route to the hotel, flabbergasted at the thought of being in the heart of the historical Byzantium; the heart of what was once Constantinople. The history books described the city as the perfect strategic stronghold: surrounded by water from three angles, a natural defensive moat. Amazing to see this, one thousand years later.

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What was equally astonishing to see were the hundreds of ships along the coast. In the end, transportation via massive ships is still the most efficient method of supplying demand, especially when this route connected the Mediterranean Sea to six countries. Istanbul really does connect East to West.

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I skipped out on AP European History, so my knowledge of Istanbul is still limited to the Byzantine Empire. I had no idea which building was the Hagia Sofia. Many buildings looked like it, and I felt no shame jumping from the left window to the right to take photos of anything that looked cool – which was everything.

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Some duke, archbishop or VIP person used to live here – something like that according to my Ukrainian companion. Ukrainians frequently vacation to Istanbul, so his knowledge one-ups mine.

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Finally arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel. The Euros I withdrew were no good for the taxi driver – why the airport ATM withdrew in Euros is beyond me. Why I failed to Google Turkish currency prior to arriving at Istanbul is also beyond me.

We had breakfast outdoors on the waterfront, overlooking a canal that’s bore historical significance for a thousand years.

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This is what a five-star hotel breakfast looks like.

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My knowledge of bread, pastries, and honey is too limited to appreciate the variety here.

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Fresh air.

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Fresh view.

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Fresh Turkish Tea. The lady in the background made us fresh-out-the-oven Lahmacun, or Turkish pizza.

At 10:30am, we hailed a cab to take us back to the airport. We asked the driver to take us to Hagia Sophia for a quick stop, but the guy unfortunately spoke no English and thought we were merely asking if it nearby (which it was, five minutes away). Turkey is not very English-speaking friendly, which is still hard for me to grasp. I was reminded that the world does not only revolve around English.

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Let’s just pretend that I saw it.

I’d love to come back and explore this place in greater detail, perhaps for 4-6 days. Some time in the future, perhaps!

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