Avoiding Istanbul’s Fake Tour Guides
Real tour guides can bring historical sites like the Blue Mosque in Istanbul alive. But fake guides can be a real pest and can end up costing you money. Here’s what you need to know to spot the difference.
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I was standing at the bottom of the park in Istanbul’s Sultanahmed district, looking at one of her most famous landmarks, the Blue Mosque. The real name of this massive mosque is Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It features six minarets and eight domes and was built between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I. It got its nickname, Blue Mosque, because of the blue painted upper level of the interior and the colour of the thousands of hand-painted Iznik tiles that decorate the lower level.
The tiles feature 50 different tulip designs as well as flowers, trees and animals. Each time I visit, I discover new decorations, marble carvings and designs in the tiles. As I stood admiring the beautiful building, I heard a voice in English say, “This is the Blue Mosque.” I thought, You don’t say. Talk about stating the obvious! Normally, I would just have ignored the man, but somehow I was intrigued to hear his entire spiel and to find out where this stupid opening would lead.
“Entrance is over there,” he pointed. “Blue Mosque very beautiful. Like you, lady.” Ahh, I thought, now it gets really interesting. ‘
“I show you. What’s your name? Where are you from?”
Just for the hell of it I said, “My name is Tatjana. I’m from Russia.” He broke out in a broad grin.
“Oh, Moscow,” he exclaimed. “My brother live in Moscow.”
Sure, guy. From previous experience I know that you can mention any capital or city of the world, and these guys will either have been there or have a brother, cousin or close friend living there even if they don’t have a clue where it is.
Then, he got down to business. “I know history. I’m a student. I show you special places in mosque. Only 50 lira for you beautiful lady. Then I invite you tea.”
“I don’t want to visit the mosque,” I said.
“Noooo??? But please come have tea.”
“Just down Divan Yoglu. My brother have carpet shop. Beautiful. I show you. Make very special price just for you.”
And here you have the classic example of how these bogus, self-appointed “tour guides” operate. If you are foolish enough to pay for a tour — for which they are not licensed — you’ll be dragged into a carpet shop or leather shop or jewelers afterwards and it’s difficult to extricate yourself.
Sometimes, tour guides can really add value by telling you things about the destination that you would otherwise not know, and bring the history and significance alive. But how do you know if a tour guide is the real thing; and how do you deal with the pests? Here are my top tips.
1. Look for an official tour guide.
Official tour guides do not operate in the streets. They are licensed and wear an identification badge clearly visible around their neck. They can be found close to or inside the entrance of the respective sites and they wait to be approached, rather than touting their services themselves.
2. Do not engage in a lengthy conversation like I did.
These guys can be very persistent, they will walk along with you, tug on your sleeve and generally be a pest. I only extricated myself quickly because I speak Turkish and sent him on his way. Funnily enough, although he tried to con me, he was outraged when he found that I wasn’t Russian at all.
3. If someone is really bothering you, look for the tourist police or regular police.
A word of praise for the Turkish police is in order. They are very vigilant, particularly where foreign women in the company of Turkish men are concerned. A friend of mine went with her Turkish fiancé to visit the Blue Mosque and they were approached by a man who identified himself as an undercover policeman. He wanted to know if she knew her companion, if he had chatted her up in the mosque and tried to sell her something or take her to a shop. She could put his mind at ease, but was very grateful for his concern.
Of course, the police can’t be everywhere, so beware no matter if you are male or female, travelling on your own or in a group. Scams lurk everywhere.