I am exhausted (and a little broke) after a day in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. After a hardy hostel breakfast (three black olives, one slice of tomato, a knob of cucumber, a square of fetta, some sour cherry conserve and boiled egg), I set off with nothing but my wallet, walking shoes, a bottle of water and determination to buy.
It was not what I was expecting. The famed touts and crowds and sweat and hard sale were much milder than I imagined. I wandered slowly, leisurely (with at least 30cm space around me at all times) and had polite, patient conversations with stall owners. Even with warnings of carpet salesmen ringing in my ears, I found myself sitting on a stool in a textile shop, surrounded by walls of beautifully patterned fabrics, drinking apple tea and learning about the origins of Ottoman weaves. The experience was worth every Turkish lira that I’m sure I paid above the best price.
I was also surprised to find the bazaar was so modern and established: hardly the cobbled, rickety, eclectic structure I imagined. New walls and stone floors frame the remains of older painted roofs. There are ATMs and toilets. Cafes and benches are strategically placed to help tired shoppers recoup for a second round. There are even English translations of common product names.
As expected though, I found most tourists stuck to the more modern looking isles where prices are higher and and goods are shinier. Resigning to the inevitable state of lost, I wandered aimlessly, abandoning all pathetic attempts to keep a sense of direction. Eventually I found my way to a small cafe selling lentil soup, stuffed capsicums and Turkish coffee to the nearby salesmen (and lost tourist) for only 10TL. Edging the cafe court were wholesale textile shops (heaven on earth) where I didn’t have to bargain hard to purchase cushion covers cheaper than I had imagined possible.
That said, for all the tourist raving about cheap shopping, Istanbul is a lot more pricey than I anticipated. Filling the demands of a healthy tourist economy, Istanbul has inflated prices according to proximity to Saltanahmet (the Old City and sight-seeing centre). Even the bargaining was more restrictive than I’ve found in other bartering-based cultures. While I aimed for 50% of the staring price, many sellers would not budge and were happy for me to walk away.
As for wandering the alleys and hole-in-the-walls shops as a single female, I have not yet even come close to feeling threatened. In my experience, Turkish men are respectful, polite (kind of like a protective uncle) or cheeky, harmless young flirts – nothing more. Anyone more persistent than the regular tout can be palmed off with a smile, a ‘no thank you’ and an assertive stride; or, if particularly annoying, just shoot them a quick ‘don’t mess with me’ glare and stroll merrily on your way.