Istanbul is easily one of my favourite cities, its one I have no qualms about visiting continually, visa permitting. So, when I found out that Turkish Airlines provides free Istanbul city tours, full with food and transportation for all Turkish airlines passengers transiting through Istanbul for 6 hours or over, I was thrilled! I left Abuja, somewhat teary eyed to be leaving Nigeria, it had become home and I was going to dearly miss my friends. But, I also knew I would be visiting Istanbul on the way to my other home, so I was excited.
So here is how it works for Bangladeshi passport holders, you cannot enter Turkey unless you either have a valid Turkish Visa or alternatively, you can purchase E-Visas online if you have a valid Schengen, Ireland, UK, Canada or USA visa and will be allowed on the merit of that. Having acquired a multiple entry Schengen visa in Abuja, I applied for the e-Visa online prior to my departure, carried a print out of it to the immigration counter with my valid passport. The immigration process was extremely smooth and took 7 minutes in total. When you head out after baggage control and customs, you will find the Turkish Airlines counter located on the right hand side of the terminal, sandwiched between Cafe Nero and Starbucks. Please note that, while they do not allow prior booking of the tours, the tours may still be fully booked by the time you get there. I wanted to take the 9 am tours but when i got to the counter at 8:45, the tour was already fully booked by people who got there before me. I was then booked on the 12 noon tour.
The tour itself was absolutely wonderful and I really must hand it upto Turkish airlines for this lovely experience. I attended the afternoon tour which started at 12 sharp from Starbucks. They guided us to a bus which took us to a lovely part of Sultanahmet, here they have the Turkish airlines office for us to store out luggage while we take this tour of the city. They served us a lovely 3 course lunch with vegetarian, chicken and beef options in a restaurant called Tamara, before taking us on a tour of the Hippodrome of Constantinople also known as Sultanahmet Square. Here the tour guide explained in detail to us about the entire square and the different architectural gems from different periods of history the square had lived through. Initially, the Hippodrome was actually built as a chariot area, with chariot races that took place. The original name of the area was Constantopole and it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, before the Ottoman era. This square and the surrounding areas is rich in history, hosting the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace among others.
We briefly saw the Blue mosque, but it was closed for renovation. I have however, been to the blue mosque before, so you can see the pictures attached. The mosque itself is not blue from the outside, but the inside We proceeded to the Hagia Sofia and learnt that the Hagia Sofia is a historically religious spot. Before being converted to a Museum in the 1900s, this spot hosted 3 churches and 1 mosques which were built, rebuilt, decayed and converted. The remains of some of the old churches can be seen next to the museum now. Inside the Hagia Sofia, you will see some incredible works of Art which are a mixture of Islamic and Christian influence. There were paintings that are so intricate that one might think God herself has painted them and they are over lapped with other paintings from other eras. When Hagia Sofia was converted from a church to a mosque, some of the paintings of Jesus and Mary were painted over and bigger arabic scripts adorned the walls. At present however, the museum has preserved elements of both of these things that make the structure so unique. The tour itself ended at 4:30, we had 10 minutes to shop and then after collecting our luggage were on our way to the airport.
Turkish airlines had an estimated 68.6 million passengers in 2018, many of them are from countries like mine, transiting through Istanbul, which are not allowed e-visa or visa on arrival without one of the visa mentioned above. And many, spend up to 18 hours in transit in an airport with little or no access to internet, limited entertainment options and no compensation for this time lost. It comes down to the value of people’s time. Those from countries like mine are not considered to be worth compensation.
Ultimately, in spite of Turkey’s somewhat lax visa regulations, it is still prejudiced towards citizens of certain countries, mine included. Unless, of course, they are privileged like myself and have access to resources, upbringing, travel history etc to be able to acquire a secondary visa that merits entry and therefore access to this tour. In my experience, I have taken many different airlines, travelling so many different routes, but this has been the only airline that offers a free tour of the city! I absolutely loved this opportunity, but wish this was available for those who would not be able to afford this trip otherwise. It would have been a unique experience for many who have never been to a country for the sole purpose of tourism and I am hoping one day, Turkey will allow those people to experience this.
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Maliha (Mia) Fairooz is a 27-year-old Bangladeshi solo traveller, who has travelled to 83 countries, on a Bangladeshi passport. Through her blog www.whereareyoufr0m.com, she shares her experience of travelling as a brown, Muslim, Bangladeshi woman while simultaneously encouraging a culture of travel amongst Bangladeshi youth.
Maliha Fairooz is a 28-year-old Bangladeshi solo traveler, who has travelled to 86 countries, on a Bangladeshi passport. Through her blog www.maliharoundtheworld.com she shares her experience of travelling as a brown, Muslim, Bangladeshi woman while simultaneously encouraging a culture of travel amongst Bangladeshi youth.