How did we end up on a train trundling through Turkey’s Anatolian Plateau in late October? There were certainly no other tourists…
Scott was turning 40 and we wanted to mark it with a trip. An adventure. So we watched the 62nd Eurovision Song Contest in May to help us make up our minds where to go. There were three categories to help us choose. And we both wore outfits.
1. Who we thought would actually win according to Eurovision judges;
2. Who we thought was the best and should really win but probably wouldn’t;
3. Which acts made their country look like somewhere we really should go.
The third list ended up with 5 contenders including Hungary and Azerbaijan. But in the end we agreed on Armenia for Artsvik’s heady mix of exotic, sweet and cool.
You can watch the entry here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g373Libigw8
Incidentally, our categories 1 and 2 were amazingly, for Eurovision, the same. But that’s another story…
Never ones to shy from boats and trains if there was enough time, we decided to fly to Istanbul and then go by train as far as we could. As far as we could was a place called Kars, which means Snow in Turkish. It was the last stop on the line and we would soon discover why the train was so empty.
We had planned to stay in Istanbul for a couple of nights so we could do a bit of sightseeing and make the most of perfect autumn temperatures, on our way to the journey east. It is a lovely 21 degrees and the impossible heat of the late summer is over by late October. We had realised on the bus in Berlin that we needed a tourist visa for Turkey and had hurriedly managed to buy them on our phones before the plane. I think it is more a tourist tax to be honest – they want 20 euros or dollars or 15 online. So we arrived in Istanbul and sailed through security into a cab. Scott got his first taste of unscrupulous cab drivers as we were driven in a roundabout tour of the city instead of to where we were going. He is such a sweet guy that he was most encouraging of the taxi driver pointing out the sights, and grinning. He grinned back and they had a great time. I was whispering furiously from the back that we were going the wrong way. Some time later and at double the price, we arrived at our accommodation.
I had lived in Istanbul many years before when I was starting out as an English language teacher. Back then I was paid in millions of Turkish Lira. In fact I think my salary was 5 million. The only time, to date, I can call myself a millionaire. We used to play poker with cheap vodka and real money. I think 30,000 was about 5 pence. These days Turkish Lira are more sensible, and we had downloaded a great little currency exchange app as we were going to be in three different countries, each with a different currency. Having said that, we arrived in Turkey with no money at all. Word of warning, do not assume that once you pass security in Tegel Airport in Berlin, that there will be anything more than a large shed and a vending machine. So we had no Euros and no Turkish Lira either. There were ATM’s in the airport of course. None of the three countries are keen to exchange anything other than euros or dollars, and sniff at anything else, so budgeting isn’t easy. Don’t be like us, take some Euros.
We found a cheap little room on Air BnB before we left. It was in the area called Balat north of Eminonu and the tourist area, but still on the western side. It was a rundown higgeldy piggeldy maze of steep streets and crumbling houses patrolled by stray cats. ‘Authentic’ a guide book would say. I liked the room even though it was damp. The doors and walls and floorboards were all brightly painted in primary colours and the hot water was scalding. The call to prayer would drift in whilst we were showering or just before, and somehow it was a call to shower in my mind. Standing in the steamy room, the otherworldly, eeie voice wailing in supplication, made my ablutions feel mystical.
We only had a day in Istanbul and it was 25 years since I had lived there, and I didn’t remember much about the city. And what thought I remembered was about the life my 22 year old self had lived as opposed to the city itself. Of course coming back at 48, did not necessarily mean I would wander home drunk in the middle of night, stopping at the chicken and rice man. Of course I was unlikely these days to be worth selling for an undisclosed amount, and I certainly wasn’t going to live in ‘free’ accommodation that the language school offered to all teachers, with no windows and scurrying cockroaches.
So we went to the blue mosque and the grand bazaar and on a ferry across the Bosphorus. Outside the Blue Mosque there was lots of information on boards about Islam. To my shame, I realised I knew very little about the origins of the faith. I had read Rumi. Somehow due to the ‘war on terror’ of past decades, and the demonising and stigmatising of Islam by the west, I had foolishly believed it was in some way different from Christianity. You know, a different ‘one true god’… and a big fight over which one was the true one. But it seems not. According to the boards with family trees on and lots of names of lots of men begetting lots of other men and so on…they all came from Adam, and the issue seemed to be, well, just different prophets. But all the same god – the SAME ONE! What on earth are all these wars about then!!!??? Feeling relieved that I was a buddhist, I donned my scarf, and allowed myself to relax into the pristine and humbling aura of this incredible building. I love that because anthropomorphism is forbidden, exquisite decorative skill has been the expressive focus and takes the breath away. No ‘people’ in big sandals to worry about like in Rome. We breathed in and took photos of the swirling blues and delicate pinks and arching tiles. My feet sunk into the deep piled carpet and everywhere I looked was delicious understated gentle decoration. But compounded, the experience was indeed, holy. We stood, necks craned.
The room at the back of this vast prayer space where men and boys worshipped, was for the women who wanted to pray. It was next to the dusty shoe shelves, where there were a few old tissues and empty plastic bags. But somehow I didn’t mind. It had a beautiful door and I wished I could go in and pray too.
We had a lunch and a beer nearby. At that time I still hadn’t consciously made the link between Islam and alcohol, so drank my beer blissfully unaware it would be the last for several days…
The grand bazaar in Istanbul is indeed grand. It is a village of passageways with arching roofs and little shops and stalls. As we wandered through it looking at all the lamps and carved wooden boxes and Turkish tea glasses and jewellery and tourist tat… I tried to imagine it in the old days before Easyjet. It still maintains that exoticism of the middle east, of spices, and coloured glass and strange pointed shoes. I asked if I could see a flamboyant looking kaftan that was hanging on a string of colourful robes far above my head. The kaftan was lifted down on the end of a pole. It was solid with a century of dust, but not in a good way – I hadn’t unearthed some ancient handmade antique. It was just dirty. When I had lived in Istanbul before, I had bought a woven kilim shoulder bag from the bazaar. The man had told me that it was made on a loom by old women in the far east of the country, using hand spun and dyed wool and their own long hair. I didn’t know if this were true but I bought it and carried it for years. When it was too old to use anymore, and began to fall apart, I noticed that there were indeed clumps of hair poking out from the seams. But buying something today did not tempt me, and I was too busy playing with my new pocket camera to fumble in the money belt, now full of Turkish Lira.
Walking down from Sultanahmet to the water, we decided to go to the train station to get tickets to Ankara the following day, from where we were getting our sleeper train to eastern Turkey. We needed a knife and a bottle opener for the elaborate 26 hour picnic I was planning for our private sleeper cabin. We got completely stuck in thick crowds of people in the myraid lanes sprawling down the hill towards the ferry terminal – jammed with underwear, hardware, linens and toiletries. It seemed we had coincided with the local shopping hour. It took a long time to get through those crowds, and we didn’t succeed in any purchases as it began to get rather claustrophobic. At the train station we were attempting to make ourselves understood through a mixture of hand gestures and pictures, when an old man stepped in to help us. When he found we lived in Berlin, he rattled off all the areas in the city where Turks lived in quick succession and then asked for our tickets to Ankara for us. We had not brought our passports which were placed in a not to forget place in the brightly painted room. We’d have to attempt to get train tickets for the popular ‘high-speed’ train online. Hmmm.
The afternoon was waning so we took a ferry across the Bosphorus to get some air and enjoy the approaching dusk. The man at the station had tried to sell us a travel card for 10 Euros as apparently we couldn’t travel on public transport without one. Not true – there are still little clattery tokens for the ferries. It is one of the joys of Istanbul, the ferries that crisscross from Europe to Asia, opening up vistas of minarets (Scott insisted on calling them Minion-ettes) and wheeling seagulls. The call to prayer as the sun goes down echoes around and drifts across the sea. We got off the ferry at Uskudar which is a bustling area I remembered I had lived in, when I had moved out of the cockroach pink and yellow ‘accommodation’. The main thing I remember about the flat I had moved into with Kevin, another teacher (later to become my husband), was that we were evicted one night by the landlady and her two large brothers. Our crime? We had not had enough parties – she had let us rent the apartment only because we were British and she assumed there would be international parties and wild times. We were just too boring…
We stayed in Uskudar long enough to buy two small cucumbers, some sheepsmilk cheese and a tub of halva as the building blocks of the feast for the train. The supermarket was crowded with people going home, so I thought it best to wait and buy the rest of the feast at a ‘supermarket on the way to Ankara or in Ankara or…'(bad decision).
The lovely romantic dinner we had planned to toast Scott’s birthday that evening, was not that lovely or romantic really. On his actual birthday, we had been floored by hangovers and trying to pack the smallest rucksacks to cover three countries and three seasons. I pride myself on my small bags. Then I ask Scott to carry my pillow and back brace in his. We ended up late and wandered around Balat looking for restaurants using Tripadvisor. Wherever it advised, didn’t seem to exist or wasn’t open. I was starving, and getting low blood sugar. We sat down outside a little cafe which, it transpired, on our asking for a menu, only sold kebab. Two choices of animal. Being vegetarian, in some residential neighbourhood on a Monday night at 11 p.m., I had to be happy with turkish tea in those little glasses and a small biscuit. Scott tucked into his mountain of meat and sat chewing in front of me. The limited menu was made up for by the smiles of the large family who jointly and noisily cooked the kebab, and watching local people pop into the shop opposite for cigarettes in their flipflops. On the way home we stopped and bought some baklava, dug out some english teabags from the picnic area of Scott’s rucksack, and climbed up the winding staircase to the roof terrace to lie down, look at the city lights and listen to the sounds of the night.
We had managed to buy train tickets online for the inappropriately named high-speed train to Ankara. We had already bought our tickets online for the equally aspirationally-named Dogu Express to the Anatolian Plateau town of Kars. Even with a private sleeper cabin, the fare had been less than 50 Euros for a 1170 kilometre journey. Scott was particularity excited as he had never been in a sleeper train before, and being a northerner, the low cost made it all the more satisfying. So now we just had to get to Pendik, some town on the outskirts of Istanbul, to the specially-built high-speed train terminal. The journey to this terminal took a half hour walk in the rain, sliding on cobblestones to the morning call to prayer at sunrise, a metro, a tram, an underground tram beneath the Bosphorus, another metro and a mile or so of walking. We had no internet signal and the GPS was intermittent, so it’s amazing we made it. We bought some sesame bread hoops to chew on instead of breakfast. The special terminal was in an underground arcade like one from a seventies suburb, selling cheap socks and plastic goods. It was situated unconvincingly at one end in a dark corner, but had a long queue of customers with enormous bags, and even a security check-in and men in official caps. We found our seats, and relaxed on the first leg of our journey east as we trundled off. I watched the lamp posts, and half built apartment blocks from the window. Then I was suddenly aware, that at no point in the traipse across the city had the magic supermarket with delicious fresh produce and a light french wine, been seen. The 26 hour picnic was in jeopardy – our only hope was Ankara.