This is a tale of how I successfully broke all the rules in the travel advisory, and lived to tell the tale of a tear-gassing and a close encounter with a riot policeman. It’s also the high point of the long series of disasters that was my Turkish trip – starting with booking the ticket for the wrong month, and finishing with my shoes falling apart late on Monday evening – with 4 weeks of my round-the-world trip still to go …

Check for riot police and water cannon tanks in your hotel BEFORE travelling!

Check for riot police and water cannon tanks in your hotel BEFORE travelling!

I am on a round-the-world trip in which I am making three stops for work-related training: a week in Konstanz, 2 days in Switzerland, 10 days in London and a week in Seattle. Each training trip is a week apart, but to return to Japan between each trip would be both ludicrously exhausting and ludicrously expensive, and since I haven’t had any time off in a year it seemed like a good idea to fill the in-between weeks with holidays. The first of these is three days in Istanbul. My trip here is so stupidly unplanned that I a) booked my ticket from Zurich for the wrong month (and had to rebook when I got to the airport!) and b) didn’t check the political situation in Turkey. When I booked my hotel I found myself thinking “Taksim square – sounds really familiar” but I didn’t bother to check, and so didn’t discover that protesters have been targeting Taksim square since May last year.

It's just not cricket!

It’s just not cricket!

So I arrived at Taksim square after an enlightening taxi ride, dumped my stuff and went out for dinner. Returning from dinner, I was near my hotel door (like, literally) when my throat started burning and my eyes watering. Now, in Tokyo we sometimes have these things that I call “Shibuya moments” – you can be standing at a very sophisticated part of town, surrounded by classically sophisticated Japanese people, and suddenly be overwhelmed by this huge stench as if the universe had farted on you. So my first thought was “is this the Istanbul version of a Shibuya moment? Because if so they really need some environmental planning laws!” But then my rudimentary knowledge of chemistry kicked in and I thought “no, that’s impossible!” Then my rudimentary knowledge of Europe kicked in, and I thought – “tear gas! … football riot!” The last football riot I saw (in London) was very entertaining – watching arseholes having their arsehole bitten off by dogs is hugely entertaining. So, naturally, I headed towards what I thought was a football riot.

You have one second to reach Minimum Safe Distance!

You have one second to reach Minimum Safe Distance!

My investigation led me into a long shopping street called Istiklal, and I soon realized that this was not a football riot, and it was serious. For starters, there were a royal crapton of riot police. Every side street entering Istiklal was blocked by a single phalanx, and there were probably 100 at the top of the street (near my hotel!) where I first smelt the tear gas. In addition, they had turned up with more equipment than you would usually need outside of the South Korean riots of the 1980s (or Ukraine of the week before) – Armoured Personnel Carriers and a handful of water tanks, plus every policeman had a gas mask and every five or so had a rubber bullet gun. Furthermore, their buses were guarded by men armed with uzis or some kind of even bigger automatic rifle (being Australian, I’m not really familiar with this stuff).

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

Mostly everything was calm, and remarkably everyone was just wandering around doing their shopping, ignoring the whole thing. But every now and then you could hear this loud banging, and get a whiff of the tear gas (with immediate coughing and eye pain, just from the merest tendrils of the stuff!) And down the far end of the street there was a definite growing tension, and the sound of chanting. I found myself next to two young women who explained that this was a rally against some kind of nasty new internet censorship law (in which the government would get access to your browser history!), and part of a long-running campaign against authoritarianism that had begun last May and so far had seen six protesters die. I didn’t find out more though because as they were telling me this, a beer bottle came sailing sedately through the air and shattered on a nearby riot policeman’s helmet. At this point everyone started running, including the two girls I had been talking to (who had been at previous demos), and I opted for discretion over valour and ducked around a corner. At this point nothing bad had happened to me or anyone else I had seen.

These men endorse Bjork's approach to papparazzi

These men endorse Bjork’s approach to papparazzi

From here I did a bit of exploring and emerged in a new alleyway facing onto Istiklal. There was a wall of riot police between me and the main street and they didn’t seem interested in letting anyone through, so I stayed in the alley and took a photo. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a lone riot policeman behind me, and turned around to hear him yelling at me and advancing rapidly towards me, baton in one hand and attitude in the other. By now everyone was strung out on the tension, and this guy had probably just been in a fight, he wasn’t impressed by my little 7000 yen camera. I backed up with my arms spread and said clearly and slowly “I’m sorry, I don’t speak any Turkish,” and that immediately calmed him down but he was still fuming – he started yelling at me in the international language of “fuck off” (fortunately now obviously not intending to cave my head in) and I decided to take his sage advice. I probably should have taken, earlier, the advice of my embassy and not hung around large and aggressive gatherings, but hey … so far so good, right?

Not a romantic mist

Not a romantic mist

So now I found myself in another alley, and slightly lost. I wandered around briefly and found a group of people standing at the end of  a street, watching some guy firing a flare gun at the riot police. I guessed this wasn’t going to end well for anyone involved and moved on. I soon found another street that seemed more peaceful, and I was trying to find out how to move back towards my hotel when a group came around the corner, in hot debate with a couple of riot cops. As I watched, these cops grabbed a guy in the group and started wrestling with him, and everyone in the street screamed and started running at the same time. When in Rome, and all that – I headed off with them. I didn’t have much time to see what was going on, but the afflicted guy seemed like one of the gypsy-type characters who hang around the square, one of his assailants was unslinging a plastic bullet gun, and as I headed around the corner I heard a loud bang. My guess is that chap – who seemed entirely innocent – is currently nursing a deep and unpleasant bruise.

An essential truce

An essential truce

From here I ran around a corner to discover another street filled with tear gas, fortunately far enough away that again I only got its outlying tendrils – and again developed stinging eyes and a rapid cough. That stuff is nasty, and the excitement was rapidly becoming warying. Things also seemed to be heating up, and I had the impression that the cops were going to start getting indiscriminate, so I ducked into a nearby pub. Here I found football and beer, and whiled away a pleasant 45 minutes watching Galatasaray win their game. Because Turkish soccer is quite violent the second half had 10 minutes of injury time, so I ducked out after five. On the street I found the above scene, of riot police gathered at the nearby cafe to watch the last five minutes of the game. Only in Europe …

So, I’ve confirmed that you can safely ignore all your government’s travel advisories. Or, more likely, I was very lucky. That first encounter with the riot policeman could have been a holiday-spoiling (not to mention life-spoiling) moment, and I really shouldn’t have gone sniffing out trouble. I get the impression that this campaign against corruption is a pretty reasonable thing, and the goals of the demonstrators generally laudable. But regardless of who is right on whatever issues beset Turkey (and I think there may be many) I hope that it gets resolved soon, without further loss of life (or interruptions of football viewing). My impression is that Turkey has a rocky but ultimately peaceful and successful future waiting for it. I hope these riots turn out to be a positive influence on that future…

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