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Discovering the Wholesale district – the other side to the Grand Bazaar

I met Onur one Sunday afternoon at the artist’s markets in Ortakoy, a Bosphorus-side, bohemian village in Istanbul. After marvelling at his handmade jewellery and expressing my interest to bring it back to Australia, he offered to show me the wholesaling district of Istanbul – the elusive and intimidating backstreets between the Kapali Carsi (The Grand Bazaar) and the Spice Market.

We meet the following day at the entrance to the Spice Market. It’s pouring with rain in Istanbul and the puddles are seeping through my shoes. Even though it’s only 4pm, the tall buildings and narrow alleys act together to hide the last remaining light of autumn.

Instead of entering (which is just for tourists), we take a side alley cluttered with Turkish coffee pots, fish frying pans, broom heads and coloured, plastic rubbish bins, and are immediately halted with greetings of “Kardesim, Abicim, my friend, my brother.” Onur is almost famous around here, and I find myself perched on a plastic stool amongst shelves of tea sets and cooking pots and a strong, over-sugared Turkish coffee is pressed into my hands as the boys talk animatedly like old friends. As always, I have one sip too many and finish my coffee with a mouthful of muddy grounds.

We can’t get very far along the path before we’re stopped again. This time it’s for the tormenting cries of “Hey Onur, who’s the girl?!” A quick çay in a wholesale bead store, loaded to the brim with turquoise and amethyst, and we’re on our way.

We’re walking away from the Spice Market now, heading up the hill. Onur points out the leeches for sale, clear plastic containers full of them. It’s difficult to walk and talk to Onur at the same time as Istanbul’s working class pushes between us, forcing us both to hop up onto the footpath, or dodge bosomy women blocking the street dragging garbage bags full of clothing and bedding.

Onur is a business man. He is only 21 and has a stake in a jewellery business and a pashmina business, both of which send him to the US and Asia, and make him a lot of money. He takes me to his modest pashmina outlet, from where he wholesales around the world. I step one foot into his shop, which is enough to send an ominously high pile of plastic-wrapped scarves sliding to the ground. At $3.50 a pop, I wonder if the 100% silk label on the corner of a burnt orange shawl is correct. “Oh Rosie, everyone knows they’re fake. The Chinese think they can get away with anything.”

He also takes me to his jewellery studio in a hidden corner of the Grand Bazaar, where he expertly guides me through yet more bowls of turquoise, myriad gems and various silver and gold settings.

It’s dark now and we need a rest. Which calls, of course, for another glass of çay. Onur takes a swift left into a passageway beside an old mosque. Tall headstones inscribed with Arabic script are at all angles in the garden beside us. We emerge at Corlulu Ali Pasa nargile garden – an oasis of calm on the fringe of the Grand Bazaar. Once a medrese, a school for the teaching of islam, this courtyard is now a popular café for smoking waterpipe, or nargile. This is a local haunt for university students and professors from the nearby Istanbul University.

Double apple-flavoured tobacco is placed in our elaborate glass pipe, with steaming hot coals on the top. (Stay tuned for a blog post about nargile). Onur and I chatted about uni, business and our respective cultures.

Leaving this incredible hidden gem of a café, I began the journey home by tram and ferry across the Bosphorus, with a new wealth of Istanbul secrets. I lived in Istanbul for almost 2 years, and have visited many times before and since this, and will never tire of the hidden places, new discoveries and great friendships made here!