‘I could die for him’: In Erdogan’s old Istanbul neighbourhood, loyalties run deep

from our special correspondent in Istanbul, Turkey – In the Kasimpasa neighbourhood of Istanbul where he grew up, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s former neighbours describe a generous young man who was already destined for a bright future. With the future of Turkey at stake in the upcoming presidential election, they are eager to explain why the incumbent deserves another five years on the job. 

On a hill in Kasimpasa, a working-class Istanbul neighbourhood overlooking the Golden Horn estuary, sits a nondescript building, its fading façade sprouting a few satellite dishes. There’s not much to say about 34 Piyale Mumhanesi Street, except that Recep Tayyip Erdogan lived here, and this is the neighbourhood from which he launched his political career.  

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s childhood home at 34 Piyale Mumhanesi Street. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

“He lived here before he became president,” says Semiha Karaoglupacal, owner of the grocery store across the street. “He used to come to the store to shop. Every morning, before he left for work, he would say hello.” At the time, the narrow store belonged to Karaoglupacal’s father. She worked here every day after school.  

Like many residents, Karaoglupacal has never left Kasimpasa. This neighbourhood was once home to shipyard workers who lived along the coast. That’s what brought Ahmet Erdogan, a sea captain and father of Recep Tayyip, to Kasimpasa after the family left their native Rize on the eastern Black Sea coast.  

Erdogan senior was a pious and severe figure, according to numerous biographers. Discipline and a rigorous adherence to the values and precepts of Islam were the central themes of the Turkish president’s childhood. After attending the local primary school, “Tayyip”, as he’s fondly known in his childhood circles, attended a religious vocational high school.  

The exterior of the apartment building in which Erdogan lived in Kasimpasa, Istanbul.
The exterior of the apartment building in which Erdogan lived in Kasimpasa, Istanbul. © Sam Ball / France 24

As a teenager, Erdogan earned pocket money selling simits, the round, sesame-encrusted bread that can be found on every street corner in Turkey. 

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan was always charitable. He used to buy things to give to children, and on Fridays, he would distribute money to them,” recalled Karaoglupacal.

‘We are proud of him’  

Once a gritty neighbourhood, Kasimpasa changed after Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, according to Karaoglupacal. “It was renovated. We are doing well now,” she explains with a smile. 

>> Read more : Tempest in a teashop: Turks bitterly divided in Erdogan stronghold ahead of presidential vote

Polls may show a close race in the lead-up to the May 14 Turkish presidential election, but in this neighbourhood, there’s an unquestionable favourite. “We are proud of him, proud of what he has become,” the owner of the grocery store says. “We love him because he is one of us.”  

Semiha Karaoglupacal runs the grocery store across the street from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's childhood home in Kasimpasa, Istanbul.
Semiha Karaoglupacal runs the grocery store across the street from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s childhood home in Kasimpasa, Istanbul. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

It’s a sentiment echoed by most Erdogan supporters who oppose the country’s secular elites, identify with his modest origins and admire his achievements. Erdogan, for them, is a man who speaks the language of the street, a true popular hero. 

“He was born for this [position],” says Karaoglupacal, adjusting her veil. “He is not afraid of anyone, except God. He is a true Muslim,” she maintains. “If people are good Muslims, they should support him. With our prayers, he will be victorious. Nothing will stop him.”  

Outside the little store, a street vendor buying and selling a variety of items bellows his sales pitch in the residential neighbourhood. The vendor pauses, waiting patiently. But in vain. There are no takers. On this hot afternoon, there aren’t many people on the streets.  

The lack of customers sees Gonul glued to her cell phone. She runs the hair salon on the ground floor of the building where the president lived.

“I have seen Erdogan a few times when he was mayor of Istanbul, but also when he was a member of the government. He came to visit us in Kasimpasa. He would simply say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ He is close to the people,” she declares, waving her phone for emphasis.  

Gonul runs a hair salon in Kasimpasa, Istanbul.
Gonul runs a hair salon in Kasimpasa, Istanbul. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

A resident of the neighborhood for 27 years, Gonul even lived in the Erdogan family’s old apartment at one stage. “One day, he knocked on the door. I didn’t expect to see Erdogan when I opened the door. I wanted to kiss his hand because it is a sign of respect for elders, but he didn’t want it. He’s a good human being and I respect him as a president.” 

‘Nothing but football’ 

Inside the building where Erdogan lived, it’s perfectly still. The stairwell is still in its original state. Huseyin Ustunbas, 72, lives on the fifth floor, just above the apartment where the Erdogan family once lived. 

Today, he is the only resident who knows the president personally. The kindly septuagenarian is used to receiving visits from foreign journalists and he’s happy to open the door to his large apartment. 

Huseyin Ustunbas lives just above the apartment where the Erdogan family once lived in Kasimpasa, Istanbul.
Huseyin Ustunbas lives just above the apartment where the Erdogan family once lived in Kasimpasa, Istanbul. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

Sitting on his living room sofa, he spins out anecdotes about “Tayyip”, as he affectionately calls his former neighbour. “He only thought about football, nothing but football, ” recalls Ustunbas.  

As a teenager, Erdogan attended an Imam Hatip school, one of many such religious schools founded in Turkey after traditional madrassas were abolished. The schools were primarily aimed at training government-employed imams as well as providing a means to further education for children of pious Muslim families.  

The teenage Erdogan also managed to frequent Kasimpasa’s football clubs: Erokspor, Camialti and IETT. His classmates nicknamed him “Imam Beckenbauer” after his idol, German footballer Franz Beckenbauer. “His father didn’t like him playing, so he would sneak his cleats and go for his matches,” says Ustunbas, noting that Erdogan’s father prevented him from taking up professional football.  

The apartment is dotted with family photos. But one, in particular, has a prominent spot, framed and hung on the wall above the sofa where Ustunbas is seated. It shows the Ustunbas family – his wife, who passed away in 2018, his daughter and grandson – standing next to Erdogan and his wife, Emine.  

“Sometimes he (Erdogan) suddenly feels like coming back to the neighbourhood. He doesn’t plan it in advance,” says the retiree. “That day, I was shopping when I got a call that the president was here,” he says, indicating the photograph. “He asked the photographer to take this picture as a souvenir of his visit. I told him we would never get a chance to see it. The next day, it was dropped off at my house.” 

A framed photograph of the Ustunbas family with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and First Lady Emine Erdogan.
A framed photograph of the Ustunbas family with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and First Lady Emine Erdogan. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

Ustunbas describes the simplicity of the kid next door who rose to the pinnacle of power. “We are friends. Our children played and grew up together. Bilal (Erdogan’s son) is the same age as my son. Their house was like ours. Nowadays, because of the security, we can’t approach him as easily, but if he sees us, he stops to talk. He doesn’t like it when his bodyguards prevent people from approaching.”  

‘He will win this election’ 

The old man regrets that he no longer has his photo albums to display since they are with his daughter now. He has only two souvenirs left, which he hastens to fetch from the sideboard: invitations to the weddings of Esra and Burak, two of Erdogan’s other children. Ustunbas recounts how he found himself not far from guests like former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the king of Jordan. “When he came to greet us, many wondered who we were and why he was talking to us.” 

Huseyin Ustunbas proudly displays the invitations to the weddings of President Erdogan's children, Esra and Burak.
Huseyin Ustunbas proudly displays the invitations to the weddings of President Erdogan’s children, Esra and Burak. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

Erdogan has displayed generosity with his neighbours over the years, including those who are critical of “Tayyip”, notes Ustunbas. “He was already called ‘reis’ (chief or president) when he was young. He was very active; he did so many things to help people in this neighbourhood,” he recalls. “My wife died of cancer. She needed chemotherapy but we couldn’t find the money for the treatment. We called Bilal because [Erdogan’s] adviser was not answering us. After that, we were able to go to the hospital for free. The adviser was dismissed.” 

The devotion is total, and it comes with certainty. “He will win this election. In the previous election, the situation was the same. Foreign journalists asked us the same questions. There were economic problems. He won. We expect him to win 51 to 53% of the vote in the first round.”  

As for Erdogan’s critics, he brushes them off with a wave of his hand. “Don’t listen to those who are against him. I know him. I know what he’s like. I could die for him. I would give my life for him.” 

(This is a translation of the original in French.) 

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I asked ChatGPT to help me plan a vacation. Here’s what happened next

Some people love travel planning.

But I am not one of those people.

So the idea that artificial intelligence chatbots, such as ChatGPT and Bing, can research travel destinations and create itineraries is intriguing.

But I’m skeptical too.

Do recommendations just scratch the surface — for example, suggesting that I see the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Or can they recommend lesser-known restaurants and handle specific hotel requests too?

The answer is: yes and no — at least for ChatGPT.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t test Bing. When I tried to access it, I was put on a waiting list. The website said I could “get ahead in the line” if I set Microsoft defaults on my computer and scanned a QR code to install the Bing app. I did both. I’m still waiting.

ChatGPT was easier. I went to the developer’s website, clicked on the word “ChatGPT,” registered for an account — and started chatting.

‘Can you help me plan a beach trip?’

“Of course!” replied ChatGPT. But first, I needed to tell it about my interests, budget and how long I planned to be away.

I’m looking for a week-long beach trip in mid-March to spend time with my family, with no set budget, I typed.

“Sounds like a wonderful idea!” it replied, before recommending Hawaii, the Caribbean — specifically the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic — Florida and Costa Rica, along with details about the weather and popular attractions for each.

Nice. But I live in Singapore, I said.

“I see!” it exclaimed. (ChatGPT loves exclamation points.) In that case, Bali, Indonesia; Langkawi, Malaysia; and Phuket and Krabi in Thailand were better choices.

ChatGPT is nothing if not apologetic.

Cost estimates for each hotel were more accurate. But ChatGPT couldn’t show photographs of the hotels or help book them — although it did provide ample instructions on how to do both.

By road or by rail?

Flights

ChatGPT can name airlines that connect cities, but it can’t give current flight information or help book flights.  

It wasn’t able to tell me the cheapest fare — or any fare — from London to New York this spring because it doesn’t “have access to real-time pricing information,” it said.

In fact, ChatGPT data ends at September 2021; it doesn’t “know” anything that’s happened since.

However, the bot could answer which month the London-to-New York route is usually the cheapest, which it said is “January and February, or during the shoulder season months of March and November.”

As for the best airline in the world, it said: “As an AI language model, I cannot have personal preferences or opinions.” But it went on to name the top five airlines named to Skytrax’s “World’s Top 100 Airlines” in 2021.

The list wasn’t correct.

The list provided by ChatGPT appears to be Skytrax’s airline ranking from 2019 instead.  

“Where should I eat?”

Specific questions

I had many more questions for ChatGPT, such as:

“How should I spend five days in South Africa?”
“Which chateaux accept visitors in Bordeaux?”
“If I only have one day in London, what should I do?”
“Which rides have the longest lines at Disney World?”

But before I could, my screen said “Access denied” alongside an “error code 1020” message.

This error may be caused by overloaded servers or by exceeding the daily limit, according to the tech website Stealth Optional. Either way, all of my previous chats were inaccessible, a huge negative for travelers in the middle of the planning process.

A new window didn’t fix the problem, but opening one in “incognito mode” did. Once in, I clicked on “Upgrade to Plus,” which showed that the free plan is available when demand is low, but for $20 per month, the “Plus plan” gives access to ChatGPT all the time, faster responses and priority to use new features.

With access again, I quickly asked about wait times on Disney World rides, a subject which I had spoken to luxury travel advisor Jonathan Alder of Jonathan’s Travels about last week. Alder lives close to the park and has lost count of how many times he’s visited, he said. Yet, only one of their answers — Epcot’s “Frozen Ever After” — overlapped.

ChatGPT mentioned that FastPass and Genie+ can reduce wait times at Disney World, which is partly right. The company phased out its “skip the line” virtual queue FastPass program when it introduced Genie+ in the fall of 2021.

The takeaway

ChatGPT is fast, chatty and feels like you’re interacting with a human. I found myself responding with unnecessary pleasantries — “Ok, sure” and “Thank you” — out of habit.

I could see how it could save travelers’ time, especially if they are looking for an overview or are at the early stages of planning.

But information will need to be current, of course — and bugs and error messages, which I faced several times in addition to the “1020” message mentioned above — will need to be fixed.

OpenAI states that the current ChatGPT version “is a free research preview.” It also says the system may “occasionally generate incorrect or misleading information” and that it’s “not intended to give advice.”

When I asked it about its travel planning abilities, it said it “can assist with many aspects of travel planning” but that it may not be able to “provide personalized advice based on your unique circumstances.”

My verdict: Travel agents’ jobs are secure for the time being.

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Two companies have luxury trains called the ‘Orient Express.’ Here are the differences


The “Orient Express” has been called the “king of trains” and the “train of kings.”

Royalty, writers, actors and spies have ridden the original route between Paris and Istanbul, which started in the late 19th century.

Author Agatha Christie described the Orient Express as “the train of my dreams.” She set a bestselling murder mystery novel on its carriages, and fictional spy James Bond rode it in the movie “From Russia With Love.”

Travelers might think of the Orient Express as a single luxurious train, but there have in fact been quite a few over the years, with many routes and owners.

Soon, people will be able to choose to take a ride on several trains using the Orient Express moniker, by two competing companies, the LVMH-owned luxury travel company Belmond and the French hospitality multinational Accor.

Both have original carriages which date to the late 1800s. But they differ in how they’re designed, where they travel and how long they’ve been in operation — one for decades and the other set to launch in 2024.

History behind the ‘Orient Express’

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express will launch eight new suites in June 2023.

Belmond

A few years later, the train was renamed the Orient Express and began traveling to Istanbul, then known as Constantinople. Travelers flocked to the train’s modern technology and luxurious silver cutlery and silk sheets.

Soon, Nagelmackers’ firm started to build more upscale trains for other European routes, including one that ran through the then-new Simplon Tunnel, which connects Switzerland to Italy, as well as the “Arlberg-Orient-Express,” operating between Calais, France, and Budapest, Hungary.

By the 1970s, the original Orient Express trains had made their last journeys, and the carriages fell into disrepair.

But in the 1980s, two businessmen undertook separate endeavors to revive them.

James Sherwood, an American, spent a reported $31 million acquiring and restoring enough carriages to form the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express,” now owned by Belmond. (To add to the confusion, Sherwood also added hotels to his travel group, calling them Orient-Express Hotels. He renamed the company to Belmond in 2014.)

Swiss tour operator Albert Glatt began a service between Zurich and Istanbul, known as the “Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express,” which is now owned by Accor.

The ‘Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’

The “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” has been operating since 1982. The train is made of original restored carriages that Gary Franklin, vice president of Belmond’s trains and cruises, called “works of art.”

“This train comes imbued with so much history,” he said. “The carriages are beautiful.”

As for Accor’s plans to launch a train also called the Orient Express,” Franklin said, “We’re the ones that have been doing it for 40 years, and I think we take it as a huge compliment that people are … seeing how well we’re doing with that.”

A one-night trip on the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” starts from £2,920 ($3,292) per person.

Belmond

Belmond has a one-off licensing deal to use the Orient Express name on its Venice Simplon train, Franklin confirmed, while Accor has the rights to the brand as a whole.

The “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” will operate winter journeys for the first time this December, visiting Paris, Venice, Vienna and Florence, encouraging guests to visit the Christmas markets in those cities.

And next June, new suites are opening on the train, which come with private bathrooms, a steward, kimonos and slippers.

A one-night journey will cost from £5,500 ($6,135) per person in the new suites, which are one step below the train’s most luxurious category — the Grand Suites — which come with private dining, heated floors and “free-flowing” champagne, according to the website.

A suite on the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.”

Belmond

Tickets for around half of the new suites have already been bought, and Grand Suites (about $9,600 per night) are almost sold out, Franklin said.

The ‘Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express’

A few years after Glatt put his train back on the rails, it was again left derelict.

Fast forward to 2015 and French rail company SNCF — which then owned the rights to the Orient Express name — commissioned researcher Arthur Mettetal to find the train.

“We had a beautiful brand, but no cars,” Guillaume de Saint Lager, now vice president of Orient Express at Accor, told CNBC. “We knew there was this complete train, but we didn’t know where it was.”

Using Google Maps and Google 3D, Mettetal located 17 of the original cars on the Poland-Belarus border.

Carriages from the “Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express,” found derelict on the Poland-Belarus border, are being restored by the French hotel group Accor.

Maxime d’Angeac | Martin Darzacq | Accor

The bar car on the “Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express” will feature a bar with a glass counter, a tribute to French designer Rene Lalique.

Maxime d’Angeac | Martin Darzacq | Accor

Much of the interior — including original marquetry, or decorated wood — was intact, said de Saint Lager.

A detailed restoration is now underway, with architect Maxime d’Angeac hired to design the interiors. His brief was to “have a kind of fantasy of what could be Art Deco,” d’Angeac told CNBC by phone. He said he had a significant collection of the train’s original drawings and models.

Original glass Lalique lamps, in the shape of a flower, will light the train’s corridors, while other original elements from the rediscovered train will also be incorporated, such as suitcase racks and door handles.

A corridor on the “Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express” features original glass Lalique flower lamps.

Maxime d’Angeac | Martin Darzacq | Accor

The bar car will feature call buttons for champagne and service, while the dining car will have a mirrored ceiling as well as a glass wall to the kitchen, so guests can see the chef.

Sleeping suites will feature leather walls, embroidered headboards and en suite marble bathrooms. De Saint Lager described it as a “cruise train,” where guests can alight at lesser-known places (routes and prices are yet to be announced).

Passengers will soon be able to stay at “Orient Express” hotels, too, the first of which will launch in Rome in 2024, according to Accor’s website.

The Orient Express ‘La Dolce Vita’

Accor has more plans to use the Orient Express name. It’s also developing six “La Dolce Vita” trains that will run through 14 regions in Italy as well as neighboring countries, with aims to have 10 Orient Express hotels by 2030.

A rendering of the “Orient Express La Dolce Vita,” which will connect Rome to cities like Paris, Istanbul and Split.

Dimorestudio | Accor

These trains will pay tribute to an era different from the Venice Simplon or the Nostalgie-Istanbul trains.

“La Dolce Vita” — which translates as “the sweet life” — refers to Federico Fellini’s 1960 movie, as well as to a sense of Italian glamour and pleasure. The trains are designed to embody “the Italian art of living and all its beautiful traditions,” according to an online post by interiors company Dimorestudio, which is working on the project.

The trains will have 18 suites, 12 deluxe cabins and an “honour suite.” Most will leave from Rome’s Termini station, where passengers will have access to a lounge before departure, and will travel around 16,000 kilometers (about 10,000 miles) of railway lines, with stops at lesser-known Italian destinations.

A rendering of a bedroom suite on the “Orient Express La Dolce Vita,” showing the train’s 1960s-style decor.

Dimorestudio | Accor

Along with the Orient Express La Minerva Hotel in Rome, Accor will also open the Orient Express Venice Hotel in 2024 in a restored palace. In addition, Accor has plans to launch an Orient Express hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Those trains are also set to be launched in 2024, according to a company representative.

— CNBC’s Monica Pitrelli contributed to this report.



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