Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rubber Stamp - Story 1 (without horror)

EZ and I had heard so many horror stories about travellers being denied VISA's into China, getting turned away at the border, having books such as Lonely Planet China confiscated by officials, that we were ready for anything when we began the process of getting our tourist Visas. Information on the government of Canada website led us to believe that travellers can only get their tourist Visa from a Chinese embassy in their native land. This was also false. We got ours at the Chinese Embassy in Singapore and the process could not have been smoother. Anticipating a lengthy bureaucratic process we went to the embassy on our first full day in Singapore. Within 48 hours I had a one-month multi-entry sticker on page sixteen of my passport. One day early. Independently getting your Chinese VISA should not be an issue, but, I'd still love to hear some more of those horror stories.

Visa's in hand, the next 'challenge' was the border crossing. We had slowly made our way through all of South-East Asia, took the night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, avoided the throng of taxis headed to Sapa and made our way toward the Vietnam-Chinese border. Leaving Vietnam turned out to be a bit of a hassle. The border guards held onto EZ's passport for about a half-hour. We were directed to stand aside and wait. Over and over they looked at their computer monitors then up at us, silently skulking in the corner. Eventually EZ got it back, without incident. We were leaving their country after all, so why did they care? Who knows.

(The bridge between Vietnam and China.)

We walked across the bridge to China and the big moment had arrived. Our precious books were cleverly wrapped up and hidden inside our dirty laundry. Anticipating the worse but putting on a positive face, we confidently walked through the sliding glass doors and inside the customs building. We were greeted by a friendly official who gave us a form to fill out. Then we were greeted by another friendly official who instructed us where to put our backpacks. He also guided us to the customs clerk who greeted us with a cordial smile. While he was going over our documentation we noticed in front of him a tiny box that had buttons with images of very sad faces and a variety of happy faces. We were expected to 'grade' the performance of the border official by pushing the face that most represented our feeling about the experience. Efficiently the customs guard stamped us through and discreetly hinted toward the tiny box. Immediately I pushed the button with the happiest face, he smiled and we were on our way!

The first place we wanted to visit in China was the Yuanyang rice terraces so we walked to the Hekou bus terminal. We did not know that once you cross the border into China the clocks go ahead one hour. Lollygagging around the terminal we would have missed our bus had it not been for a kind Dutch couple who were also going our way. Thank you Hans and Ilona. I guess it all works out in the end, though, when it comes to my next story, the jury is still out on that...

In addition to, this posting is also featured as a part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Carnival. Every two weeks one of Lonely Planet's favorite bloggers becomes the editor of a series of postings all centred around the same theme. This weeks editor is Georgia at and her declared theme is "Rubber Stamp". Featured will be funny stories of border crossings, passport nightmares, baggage handlers, run-ins with the police, confiscated cameras, etc. So visit on June 21 to read what the Blogsherpas came up with.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Slowhand & Fireworks on the Boğaz

Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, both formerly of the rock super-group, Blind Faith, closed out their European Tour at Istanbul's Kurucesme Arena. The tickets were a gift from my lovely wife and we were both really excited to finally see the master play on the banks of the Bosphorus Straight. But first, we had to get there and lucky for us their was a direct boat set up by the municipality that went from our neighbourhood in Uskudar to the venue in Kurucesme. How convenient it was to be dropped off 25 feet from the stage.

I had heard from friends that at 65, God, AKA Slowhand, AKA Eric Clapton, was perhaps starting to show signs of aging. If this is so, I didn't notice. He may move a little slower, and a couple of the songs may have decreased in tempo (eg: Crossroads) but he hasn't lost a step. The crisp bluesy notes rang true from his USA Custom Fender Stratocaster. Here is a man who does not hide behind effects. Sticking to the set list, Clapton and Winwood let their instruments do the talking, only briefly pausing to say "thank you" between songs.

Midway through Midland Manic a fireworks display surprised the crowd, as well as the band. One of the party boats floating by produced a display that lasted well into the next song, my personal favourite, Crossroads. Undeterred, the band continued the jam throughout the explosions. Each spectacle accompanied the other perfectly and it was an unbelievable 7 minutes.

Other memorable moments from the concert included the crowd singing softly along to the chorus of Layla (unplugged), Winwood's sweet solo on the Hammond Organ during a slowed down cover of Voodoo Chile, the crowd shouting the final "Cocaine!" in the song aptly named Cocaine and Dear Mr. Fantasy as the encore.

The show ended and we began to make our way to the boat. We were extremely happy with the show and I was ecstatic at finally being able to see one of my childhood idols.

Monday, June 7, 2010

2010 World Cup in my back yard: Istanbul


Over the past 10 years The Turkish national football team has enjoyed its greatest triumphs on the international stage. In the 2002 World Cup Turkey made it to the semi-finals where a 1–0 defeat against eventual tournament winners, Brazil, forced Turkey into the third place match where they won the bronze medal after a 3–2 victory over South Korea. In the 2008 Euro Turkey again made it to the semi-finals, this time against Germany. With just 14 outfield players available as a result of injuries and suspensions, Turkey scored first and were 2–2 in the last minute of the match, until Germany scored a third goal in the last few seconds thus eliminating the Turks.

With the increased profile that the 2008 Euro delivered, expectations were high for another fine result at the 2010 World Cup (June 11-July 11) in South Africa. Unfortunately Turkey had a mixed qualifying campaign and missed out on a play-off berth.

While pride in their national team may have diminished as a result of Turkey’s absence from the tournament, rest assured local interest in the beautiful game has not waned. So, if you are looking for a hot spot here in Istanbul to watch the tournament, we can point you in the right direction. We have found some great spots on either side of the Bosphorus, where, depending on your budget, you can hoot, holler and act like a hooligan in support of your favourite squad. The establishments mentioned in this feature do not charge an entrance fee to watch the games. Reserve your table(s) ahead of time and enjoy the matches.


The North Shield Pub - Sultanahment
A popular chain of English style pubs for tourists and expats alike is The North Shield Pub, of which Istanbul lays claim to five franchises (in Ataşehir, Baçheşehir, Yeşilköy, Sultanahmet and Fındıkzade). The Sultanahmet location is a few paces from the Gulhane tram stop and is the perfect venue to come watch the Final after a day of sightseeing. Once inside, you will have your choice of nine 36-inch television screens to glue your eyes too. A unique space in the pub is up the four steps underneath the “Napoli” scarf. There you will find an intimate room with space for eight (though Pub Manager, Zafer, says they have squeezed fifteen patrons up there for the biggest matches) to sit on comfy couches and watch the game on the TV that hangs above the mantle. Be sure to call ahead to reserve this space.

10-satellites pull in game feeds from all over the world allowing guests to choose the language they would like to hear the match broadcast in. Free Wi-fi will also allow you to check-in with friends online during the game.

During The World Cup a new menu will be added, including Turkish mezza’s. Zafer encourages guests to try the Lamb Skewer/şiş kebap (19.50 TL) and the Sultan Kebab (25 TL). He generously adds that a free coffee and dessert follows dinner. Beer prices/0.5L are 8.50 TL for Efes, 10 TL for Gusta and 11TL for Miller.

The North Shield Pub - Sultanahmet
(0212) 527-0931
Ebussuud Caddesi No:2 Sultanahmet
Open every day from 11.00-02.00

The Irish Centre
Located in the heart of Beyoğlu, at the intersection of Nevizade Sokak and Balo Sokak, The Irish Centre offers two full floors of football fanaticism. In 2008, this family-run bar was voted by a national newspaper as the #1 place to watch a football match in Istanbul.

Popular Irish music will be turned down in favour of the final World Cup matches. Most of the televisions are on the second floor. At the back of the bar a projector screen will be pulled down in front of the stage. This screen can also be seen from a perch on the second floor.

Hailing his bar as the only authentic and truly Irish Bar in Istanbul, owner Eamon, highly recommends the Fish & Chips (17.50 TL) with a 0.5L Efes (8.50 TL), and, if there is no match, Sundays at 10pm you can stop by to watch him perform traditional Irish folk tunes. Sláinte!

The Irish Centre
İstiklal Cad. Balo Sok. No: 26 Beyoğlu
Open every day from 12.00-02.00


Ekvator Cafe
Located in Beyoglu, just a few blocks from Taksim Square, the Ekvator Café is a 3-storey gem. During weekdays in the summer beer is 3 TL and we are told that this special will be offered during the World Cup. Traditionally guests will grab a beer and fries at the bar then head to one of the 12 LCD screens, 3 plasma-screens, or 3 projectors. No matter where you sit you won’t miss a single second. The crowd here is mostly younger foreigners and locals. Ekvator offers a great atmosphere without causing you to break your budget. Take a break from kebaps to try the mostly Mexican and South American cuisine, consisting of nachos (13 TL), fajitas (18-22 TL) and quesadillas (15 TL). The colourful website gives you a good taste of what the Ekvator Café is all about. Salud!

Ekvator Cafe
(0212) 243 97 42
Küçükparmakkapı Sokak 7, Beyoğlu
Open every day from 09.00-02.00.


If you prefer the local experience, the watering holes close to the stadiums are excellent and affordable choices for the most hardcore fans.

Mackolik Complex
The white and cream coloured Ottoman mansion near the west side of Fenerbahçe Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium in Kadikoy, offers a 100% local experience. With 7 satellites beaming to 20 screens throughout the facility, this renovated mansion is designed for those wanting a stadium-quality experience.
If you want to take a smoke break or watch the game outside, there is space enough for 120 in the garden patio. Co-owner, Erdem, recommends the massive Mackolik Burger w/ Salad and Fries (16 TL), or the Meatballs w/Eggplant (16 TL).

At Mackolik the spirit of the locals will make you feel like you are truly at the game. To fully understand the communal passion exhibited for the local sports clubs, Erdem also recommends the experience of watching a Turkcell Lig 1 match at Mackolik.

Mackolik Complex
(0216) 338 65 55
Şefik Bey Sokak 1, Kadıköy
Open every day from 09.00-02.00.

There are also a plethora of sports bars and cafés all along and off of Bağdat Caddesi, the long thoroughfare that runs through the municipality of Kadikoy.

A favourite hang out for residents, Yerfıstığı (Peanuts) is located on Iskele Street just off of Bagdad Caddesi. Yerfıstığı has 9 plasma, 4 42-inch and 5 40-inch screens, making it the preferred sports watching venue in the neighbourhood. After a certain hour they will not hold your reservation, so try not to be late.

A unique feature of the bar resembles a tradition held in many American sports bars. Peanuts (hence the name Yerfıstığı) are provided and guests are encouraged to drop the shells on the ground. Try the Sigara Böreği (cheesy filo rolls) and Börek (traditional filo pastry). They also serve Schnitzel , hamburgers , chicken wings , chicken kebabs and köfte (meatballs). The Hot Appetizer plate is 10 TL.

(0216) 355 18 95
İskele Caddesi 23, Caddebostan
Open weekends from 10.00-04.00, weekdays from 10.00-03.00.


When you start the search for a perfect place to watch the big game, going to a hotel doesn’t immediately spring to mind. However, there are comfortable lodges in Istanbul that boast sporting establishments catering to higher-end clients and business travelers.

Hilton Sports Bar
If your preference is to watch the World Cup Finals in five-star quality then The Hilton Worldwide Istanbul’s Sports Bar is for you. For this event Executive Chef Andreas Scheuregger has prepared a special selection of thematic dishes such as ‘Penalty’ (Hilton Burger), ‘Free Kick’ (Club Sandwich, 24 TL) and ‘Side Line’ (Caesar Salad, 25 TL). Sink into a sofa to watch the game with a beer and light snack. At halftime you can enjoy the perfect view of the Bosphorus.

Hilton Istanbul
Cumhuriyet Caddesi, Harbiye-Istanbul

There is no shortage of places to chill-out and watch football in Istanbul. The city will have hundreds of kitschy hole-in-the-wall eateries, Kuafor’s (Barber Shops) and public spaces packed tight with locals, watching intently and screaming passionately, with every turn in the action, at tiny 13-inch tube television sets. You would need a volume of books to sum up the locales to watch a football match in this town. Nevertheless, we trust that this feature delivered an understanding that while Turkey may not be represented in the 2010 World Cup, the games will still resonate and be enjoyed all over Istanbul. The World Cup is an international and cross-cultural event of joy and celebration and we hope that by watching the matches here in Istanbul it will add to the memories of your time spent here.

N.B. In addition to, this piece is extended to feature 7 additional locales in the July issue of Time Out: Istanbul