The seedy side of Istanbul

Turkey isn’t all mosques and markets or comfy long-distance buses. It may come as a surprise that prostitution is legal in this predominantly Muslim country and drugs, while illegal, are a brisk business. Like any big city, there are nice neighborhoods and sketchy ones in Istanbul, and most tourists will rarely stumble into the areas with bad reputations, but some are within stumbling distance of Istanbul’s hot spots. I stumbled into several of the most notorious areas recently and was surprised at what I saw.

Tarlabaşı Bulvarı stretches southwest of Taksim Square (Istanbul’s answer to Times Square), just above the busy pedestrian shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi, and forms the border of the largely immigrant neighborhood of Tarlabaşı. Look in any guidebook or ask a local and they’ll warn you about petty crime, transsexual prostitutes, and drug dealing, particularly at night. By day, the neighborhood is full of crumbling buildings, hanging laundry, and children playing in the street. At best, you could call it atmospheric “real Istanbul” and at worst, a rundown and poor area. One Friday night I found myself in a lively bar with a few friends just behind Tarlabaşı’s main drag, where the beer was cheap, atmosphere friendly, and the women were actually men. A street vendor outside was so amused to see an actual woman that he gave me a free sample of çiğ köfte, a sort of Turkish street version of steak tartare. It felt oddly appropriate to snack on raw meat while chatting with Moldovian pre-op lady boys.

On the other side of the Golden Horn, Aksaray isn’t a popular area for sightseeing, but the tram line runs right through it, connecting with the Metro line to the airport. For expats, it’s a necessary pilgramage to make each year to apply for or renew your residence permit. One Sunday afternoon after a failed visit to the nearby Horhor Bit Pazari antique market (closed Sunday), I sat drinking tea at a cafe when I became aware of the fact that every man was staring at me. It turns out this is because nearly all of the non-Turkish women in Aksaray are prostitutes, mostly from Eastern Europe, and many of the area “night clubs” are fronts for brothels or bars that may charge you several hundred dollars for the privilege of drinking with a lady. I wandered up a side street in broad daylight full of night clubs and hotels and noticed every table lined with over made-up women sipping cocktails and looking damaged. The experience was so uncomfortable that I considered breaking into a sprint so I could get off the street faster, but I was not approached or solicited.

While these neighborhoods might not be added to the tourist trail anytime soon, they show another side of a very complicated and ever-changing city. Gentrification is moving in and soon Tarlabaşı could be the next trendy “Soho of Istanbul.” As in any major metropolitan city when you find yourself on the wrong side of the tracks, caution and common sense should prevail. Stay calm, stay in well lit areas, and try to get the hell out of Dodge as fast you can. Though you may find that the places with the worst reputations are over-exaggerated and that sometimes a busy street in the day can be scarier than a dangerous nightspot.