This story actually begins the week before my trip to Gallipoli, at the tail end of a whirlwind 4-week tour of Europe in Spring 2010. This very trip culminated in my being stranded in Brussels then Amsterdam the week prior due to a volcano eruption, and it left me wondering if I was going to make my flight from London to Istanbul for the Anzac Day Service in Gallipoli, Turkey.

Spoiler alert: I did make it, but only by a whisper.

I was living in Leeds, England at the time and I eventually got in on Thursday night and I went straight to the pub (The Eldon) to meet my friends I hadn’t seen in a couple of weeks. On Friday I unpacked, went to class, repacked, back to The Eldon, then caught a train back down to London from Leeds at 8:40 pm, arriving at 12:30 am for out 6:30 flight. The things you do as a poor student!

Beautiful buildings along the Bosphorus

The tour begins: A day in Istanbul

My friend and I – let’s just call her Kayt – arrived in Istanbul around midday and met our tour guide at the airport. We were taken to our hostel, where we were given our yellow Fanatics paraphernalia and were taken on a tour of the Blue Mosque, via the Aya Sofia.

The Blue Mosque is an incredibly large and ornate place of worship for Muslims. It gets its name from the thousands of blue tiles on the roof inside it. I was actually quite amazed that we were allowed to take photos freely in there. Not surprisingly though we had to take our shoes off and girls cover their shoulders.

Blue Mosque Courtyard Istanbul
The Blue Mosque

It seemed weird to me that active mosques such as this can be such major tourist attractions with a constant stream of visitors, yet there are locals in there, on the floor in worship. I’d think we’d be at least a little distracting. I guess it helps that they have their own cordoned-off space.

Kayt and I were pretty wrecked after our night of little to no sleep in the airport, so we had a break in the Park between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia. We couldn’t have picked a better spot, it’s beautiful in there: the greenest grass, gorgeous flowers and ponds with fountains. Best of all it had free Wi-Fi – a ‘gift’ from the council.

Aya Sofia Istanbul Turkey from Sultanahmet Park
Aya Sofia from Sultanahmet Park

The journey: Anzac Day in Gallipoli

At about 6 pm we boarded the bus with all our stuff ready for a 6-hour journey to the beaches of Gallipoli. We got there about 12:30 am and looked for somewhere to set up camp to wait for the sunrise. This was hard, since, we were one of the last buses to arrive and most people were sleeping, a collective blanket covering all the grass.

To pass the time we went to get some food from the vendors and damn, that was a hilarious experience. Imagine a row of food stalls, filled with Turks all yelling at you to buy their food. One guy in particular kept it real simple. His marketing strategy was just to keep yelling ‘CHICKEN KEBAB, CHICKEN KEBAB’ over and over again. I actually laughed out loud.

Sunrise at Gallipoli for Anzac Day

We eventually found a spot in the bleachers by probably 1:30 am and listened to some podcasts to pass the time. We made friends with some old ladies who gave us an Anzac biscuit to share. There were Anzac related videos on the screen shown intermittently and soon enough the sun was ready to rise over the Dardanelles for the beginning of the Anzac Day dawn service. A traditional memorial for a battle fought hard during the first World War.

It included lots of reflective speeches, hymns, Anzac-related poems and of course finished with The Last Post, 2 minutes’ silence and the national anthems of Australia, New Zealand and Turkey. The Turkish national anthem is so cool, its uplifting inspiring and genuinely makes you think like you can punch anyone.

Letter from Emporer Ataturk to Mothers of Australian Soldiers

It was really nice to see that there is no hostility between nations who fought as enemies, since they both recognise they were just following orders. There’s even a big stone monument with a carved excerpt from a letter written to the mothers of Australian servicemen from Emperor Ataturk saying he forgives them. It was very touching.

After the service, we met up with my cousins and began our trek up the mountain to Lone Pine for the Australian service. Along the way, you pass Anzac Cove and a raft of cemeteries, one of which the Aussies played a game of cricket on to act as a diversion for the Turks on the day they retreated.

Memorial at Anzac Cove Gallipoli

The walk to Lone Pine was a 3.1 km uphill trek and the day was starting to get quite warm after a very chilly night. We began to shed our layers and were rapidly running out of room for them all.

The Australian Service began at 10 am and involved more Anzac related speeches and remembrances including one by Quentin Bryce – then Governor General of Australia. After the laying of wreaths, QB did a lap of the stands saying hi to people and as she reached ours, one of the Fanatics tour leaders presented her with a green and gold Fanatics beanie, but she wouldn’t put it on.

Anzac Monument at Lone Pine, Gallipoli Turkey

We milled around after the service a little more, taking photos and basking in the unique atmosphere before setting off on the 3.2km trek up to Chanuk Bair, which was where the New Zealand service was held, and where our coach would pick us up. On the way up we saw original trenches, the Turkish 57th Regiment Memorial and the Nek.

The Nek battlefield Gallipoli Turkey

The Nek is an open field where the Anzac soldiers were basically sent on a suicide mission. It’s where the movie Gallipoli finishes in that horrific scene with Mel Gibson’s torso being ripped apart. It’s incredible to see, the space between the two nation’s trenches is only the size of a tennis court and there must have been hundreds of corpses spread over it at the time.

Just down from the Nek we had a photo stop overlooking the space where the service was this morning and the ‘Sphinx’ – the rock formation at the peak of the mountain.

Looking down at the Sphinx at Gallipoli - us

A close call

The rest of the trek up to Chanuk Bair was an absolute nightmare. By now the heat of the day was in full swing, I had my jacket slung inside my shoulder strap because it wouldn’t fit in my backpack. My backpack itself was insanely heavy, weighed down with everything I brought to Turkey, and I’d had about 3 hours sleep in the past 60, all of which were on an airport bench.

The road seemed endless.

Trench at Gallipoli, Turkey
A preserved trench along the way

I eventually got to Chanuk Bair and found some people I recognised. I learnt that since our coach was last to arrive, we wouldn’t be leaving for a few hours. So I laid down with a shirt over my face and had a nap.

A few hours later I am woken by someone asking me if I have missed my bus. It certainly looks like it because most people have left including the people I was sitting with. Kayt was also asleep and we raced down to the buses. We literally just caught our bus as it was taking off. Never in doubt right?

The tour concludes: a ride up the Bosphorus

One 6-hour bus ride later we arrive back in Istanbul absolutely destroyed. By now it’s about 9 pm, rooftop drinks at the hostel were happening so we tried to do the social thing but it just wasn’t happening for us. Bed time was mandatory. We had reached our limit and led to probably the best sleep I have ever had, and probably ever will have.

A palace along the Bosphorus, back in Istanbul

After a hefty sleep in, Kayt and I made our way down to the Bosphorus for a look around. Some sketchy guy offered us ‘rides up the river’, which I hoped to God was not a euphemism. It was pretty cheap so we jumped in his windowless van, which thankfully took us to a boat that would cruise us down the river.

A mosque along the Bosphorus5

Along the Bosphorus, we passed plenty of unknown, yet beautiful buildings and after about 45 minutes we were told we were having a half hour break so get off and go have an explore. ‘Hmmm,’ we wondered, ‘are we going to be able to get back to the city?’ Maybe we did in fact only pay for a ride up the river. We poked around a little street and entertained ourselves on an outside gym until the boat hopefully arrived.

Mercifully, it did.

When we were back on dry land we had some lunch (a kebab of course) outside the Grand Bazaar before doing a tiny bit of shopping. The Grand Bazaar is absolutely stunning, and one of my favourite things in Istanbul. We explored for hours, our route a continuous loop, and decided that the constant hassle from vendors would be entertaining rather than irritating.

Grand Bazaar Istanbul Turkey

There was jewellery, shirts, scarves, shisha pipes, candles and so much more. I bought a Galatasaray Jersey, (as Socceroo Harry Kewell played for them at the time) and some delicious banana tea. I would have bought more stuff but I was restricted to an already overflowing backpack. If I’d had the money at the time I probably would have considered posting some home with someone like TNT.

Having not had enough market shopping, later that afternoon we walked through the Spice Bazaar, which was more of the same but was specifically spices and Turkish delight. Since my backpack was already overloaded I decided not to buy any… ha yeah right! I bought half a kilo of the stuff. I figured I’d just figure it out at the airport in typical Aussie ‘She’ll be right’ fashion. (Spoiler alert, it was fine.)

Spices for sale at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar

If the Grand Bazaar was a highlight, the Spice Bazaar was a close second. The Galatasaray jersey was a big hit with plenty of locals commenting on it, giving me a discount (or at least telling me so), yelling out ‘Harry Kewell’, ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’, or telling me how much Galatasaray suck.

The best thing was the creative ways they think of to get you to buy stuff. Because all the shops are pretty much the same they start using humour to get your attention. One guy just yelled out ‘spend your money here!’ and another shop had a sign that says ‘This shop is recommended by Obama.’ Actually, it was hard to tell if they were being genuine or having a laugh.

I think the Anzac Day dawn service at Gallipoli is something that all Australians should do once. Not only was it incredibly moving to see the battlefields of a major battle from WWI,  but a humbling place to pay our respects to the thousands that lost their lives fighting.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

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Anzac Day in Gallipoli Memorial service at Lone Pine battlefieldThe Blue Mosuqe and the Sultanahmet park, Istanbul, TurkeyThe Blue Mosque courtyard, Istanbul, Turkey