Trip 2010: Last day in Istanbul (for now)… and the night train

Friday 9 April

My last day (for the time being) in Istanbul and i was lumbered with a backpack! Only afterwards did i realise i could have left it in a locker at the railway station. I started my day by trying to book my hotel rooms in Greece via the hotel computer. This was difficult as some sites wouldn’t work properly but i eventually got a room sorted out for Thessaloniki, which was the most important place to have accommodation, given that i would be arriving there sometime the next morning.

Afterwards i headed to Gülhane Park where i read for a while and then began the unpleasant business of phoning hotels in Xanthi and Alexandroupoli (having abandoned my hope of visiting Edirne as the journey looks too convoluted). A shame but i will get there one day. The first hotel i phoned was full but after that, to my relief, i had no problems and within a quarter of an hour i had all the necessary reservations made – and was feeling the usual embarrassment at the anxiety that making phone calls causes me.

Gülhane Park - 2010 April 9

I went to a cafe to recover – the same one i’d visited the day before with B. Alas, without her presence the waiters were nowhere near as attentive and left me to shiver. In the afternoon i decided to tackle the Archaeology Museum, which – thanks be to God! – had a cloakroom where i could leave my rucksack. The museum has three parts but i spent so much time wandering about the stelae and sarcophagi in the main building (assuming that the museum would stay open till six o’clock) that i ended up not seeing the other two (the museum in fact shut at quarter to five). Another time.

I found the information panels nearly as interesting as the exhibits themselves: a great emphasis seemed to placed on “the Anatolians” whilst the Greek contribution was subtly downplayed. I recalled reading last year, when i was preparing for the Lycian Way, that the Greeks claim the Lycians were a Greek civilisation while Turkish historians describe them simply as speaking an Indo-European language. The truth of the situation, whatever it is, seems to me less interesting than the way in which it’s contested – the way that past and present interact.

Istanbul Archaeology Museums (courtyard)

As i’ve said, i ran out of time. Of the things i got to see the clay tablets with their ancient inscriptions were among the most interesting. Unlike graves these felt personal; you could almost imagine the scribe marking the clay. I found the way in which proto-alphabetic and cuneiform writing systems seemed to co-exist fascinating. We tend to assume the former supplanted the other as it was introduced, being to our eyes so obviously superior, but it seems that wasn’t the case. Even more moving were the ‘door’ graves, gravestones which were decorated to resemble doors, which would provide entry into the next world for the deceased person. This type of grave marker was typical of poorer people, whose families couldn’t afford elaborate tombs and the inscriptions were usually simple statements of affection. Sometimes there was also a reference to the untimeliness of the death. No dates however as far as i could see – but how did people date events then except in reference to their ruler?

When i left the museum the old man in charge of the cloakroom insisted on helping with my backpack. Bless him. I tried to dissuade him, worrying that, given the weight of the thing, he’d put his back out but he smiled and ignored me. Once outside i was at a loss to know what to do with myself as there were still hours before my train departed and the streets were, if anything, even busier than they had been earlier in the day. The mere thought of boarding a tram brought on waves of claustrophobia.

Sirkeci Railway Station

In the end i hung about the area, buying myself a fish sandwich and a cup of tea. It was cold and when i went to Sirkeci (the railway station) the only place with any heating was the waiting room. I divided my time between trying to keep warm in there and taking photographs: the station is quaint and lovely; you feel as if you’ve stepped into an old novel. A mad Irishman arrived. He began to engage an invisible companion in a heated debate, although i couldn’t work out what he and ‘his friend’ were arguing about. Later, when we were boarding the train he turned up on the platform with his bags. I began to wonder if he was travelling with us but he stayed on the platform muttering and occasionally shouting. He was still there when we left. Perhaps he’s always there.

The train itself was small (just four carriages) but comfortable. I found myself sharing with a young Turkish man (the only Turk on the train as far as i could see). I never learnt his name but he politely explained that he worked for a trade union and had a business meeting in Thessaloniki. He spent the evening typing away on his laptop while i looked out of the window at the suburbs and small towns we were passing through and wondered what the border crossing would be like.

Plaque on the Istanbul to Thessaloniki night train

I was also trying very hard not to think about water as i had just half a bottle to last me more than 12 hours. All that time waiting for the train and only at the last minute had it occurred to me i would need something to drink – and of course i discovered i had nothing smaller than a 50 Lira note which none of the station’s stallholders would change.

Finally, my roommate finished his typing and we pulled down the bunks. These were surprisingly comfortable but i made the mistake of choosing the top one. Not only did the rungs of the ladder cut into my feet as i climbed it because they were angled, but being the cackhanded individual i am, i kept kicking the ladder over. I think the Turkish trade union official got very tired of me. He soon fell asleep however and i was left awake, listening to the train rattling its way to Greece. I was too excited to sleep.

Boarding the night train

At the border we first stopped on the Turkish side at a place called Uzunköprü where a man came on board and took our passports away to be checked. We didn’t even have to get out of bed! We just handed him them from our bunks. My roommate was the exception: he had to go across to one of the buildings on the opposite platform and get a visa. It seemed odd that it was the one person native to the country we were in who needed a visa, but the rest of us all seemed to be EU nationals. Later another man came and announced he was from ‘baggage control’ (all customs announcements were in English). We did need to get up for this as we were required to open our luggage ourselves. It was all over and done with quickly however.

Pythio Railway Station (from Wikipedia)

On the Greek side (Pythio*) a similar process involving Greek officials occurred, except this time instead of ‘baggage control’ we had ‘customs’ and, as no-one had anything to declare, this was even more of a non-event. The Greeks were in fact the most charming customs officials i’ve ever encountered. They were both young men – perhaps new to the job? – and apologised for disturbing our sleep. Customs officials – apologise!?

And then it was done and we were on our way again… through Greece!

* The photo of Pythio Railway Station shown above is from Wikipedia. It was the early hours of the morning when we passed through it so i couldn’t really take a photo.

Last year’s trip to Turkey

I’m off to Turkey again next week. When i went last year for the first time i hadn’t yet started this blog, but i did record my impressions in a series of emails to friends. I thought i’d edit them a bit and present them here, so people can see what a wonderful time i had. Hopefully, it will be just as good this year – but without the face masks!

The first email was sent on the evening of Saturday 9 May, the day after my arrival:

I arrived as per schedule yesterday and, along with all my fellow travellers, was met by face masks and thermal scanners at Istanbul airport. I made my way to my hotel via the metro and tram systems, dodging “helpful” locals who wanted me to know that i’d much prefer their establishment. Exhausted by this accomplishment i then collapsed on my bed (after sending the obligatory “hello, i’ve survived” text to friends and family, those with mobiles anyway).

Today i journeyed over to the Golden Horn to buy my digital map and then took the ferry over to Üsküdar, changing continents as i did so! I followed instructions passed on to me by an Iranian-American doctor i’ve been chatting to on Twitter and found my way to a little artsy café, tucked away on a back street in an area called Kuzguncuk. It was only a 15 minute walk from the ferry terminal but there wasn’t a tourist to be seen. The food was great but even better was not being hassled or scammed, which is what happens in the cafés round here in Sultanahmet (the historic and therefore the tourist quarter).

I came back via Topkapı Park where i befriended a cat which was being hassled by a Turkish toddler. It was a poor skinny little mite and i would have liked to have fed it but i didn’t have any meat or cheese on me. One of the things i don’t like about Istanbul is the treatment of animals. I’ve seen three or four half starved stray dogs since i got here, standing around looking like they don’t know what they’re doing in the world. The stray cats look a bit healthier and are treated with a bit more kindness but not with much more understanding. To be fair though, this is the first predominately Muslim country where i’ve seen people with pet dogs and those animals do look well cared for as do the much more commonly seen pet cats.

Istanbul itself is a stunningly beautiful city. At times you feel like you’ve wandered onto a film set, it’s just too exotic and spectacular. Apart from the mosques with their minarets there are the rows of beautiful old houses, typically painted shades of ochre, the surprisingly numerous parks and the Bosphorus which is a strange blend of sea and river (i can see it from where i’m sitting in the hotel). Of course, there are slums too, but even those look better in the sunshine.

The people themselves are a strange blend of traditional and modern. It’s most noticeable in the women. You see girls that could be from London or New York and others that are are scarfed and clad in long coats. Obviously you can see the same dichotomy in the UK but those are mostly second generation immigrants. On the surface, at least, everyone seems to coexist happily enough.

Tomorrow i will probably explore the European side of Istanbul. If i can overcome my horror of crowds i might even visit one of the famous sights such as the Blue Mosque or the Topkapı Museum. And then on Monday i’m hoping to either go on the Bosphorus cruise or go on a cruise to the islands.

Tuesday morning of course i move on to Fethiye and the Lycian Way…

It’s a shame there wasn’t able to find time to write another email during my time in Istanbul because on this first day i was really just adjusting to the shock of being in a new city, a new country; but after that i was too busy exploring. Reconstructing the next few days from memory, two places stand out: the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I stood for the best part of twenty minutes leaning on a great stone wall on the upper level of the Haghia Sophia. It had been worn smooth, that wall; and my mind filled with awe at the thought of the number of people that would have taken – thousands of them. I felt surrounded by ghosts. Mind you, i also felt surrounded by cameras: all around me i could hear and see their flashes going off, as people photographed the famous Byzantine mosaics.

Sultanahmet, Istanbul - 2009 May 9

It was quieter in the Blue Mosque (thankfully). I remember being captivated by the intricate patterns of the decorations and pleased to find i could read some of the Arabic inscriptions. Even more than the Haghia Sophia the mosque radiated tranquillity and serenity. Mind you, unlike the Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still a place of worship – still alive, if you like. Coming out, i was depressed at how few people made a donation to the man on the door; and even more depressed to hear a group of blue-rinsed American women discussing “how many mosques” it’s necessary to see in Istanbul before you can say that you’ve “done them”.

A lane in Kuzguncuk - 2009 April 9

I had no intention of trying to ‘do the mosques’ or any other kind of building. With only one full day left in Istanbul i didn’t want to spend my time indoors. Instead i went on a boat trip along the Bosphorus which turned out to be a magical (if rather windy) experience. At at the far end we disembarked and followed a (not very well marked out) path to the ruins of a castle , accompanied by a friendly local dog.

Dolmabahce Palace seen from the Bosphorus - 2009 May

The next day i wandered around the modern centre of Istanbul, Beyoğlu (which i preferred to Sultanahmet), before heading off to the airport. There i sat all night in the waiting area (gazed at with suspicion by a group of Turkish pilgrims) so that i wouldn’t miss my onward flight to Dalaman Airport. I was off to the south and the next part of my trip: a walk along part of the famous Lycian Way. A few days later (15 May 2009), i sent the following update:

I am now in a backpackers’ hostel called George House in Faralya, a small village one day’s walk into the Lycian Way. I originally planned to stay here for no more than two nights but it’s such a wonderful place i have decided to stay one extra day.

That’s not the only reason actually: the fact is the Lycian Way is hard going! Most of the paths are scree rather than mud based, which means that the ground often slips under your feet. Moreover, the paths are rarely level: you are either being taken high into the mountains (in the morning) or back down towards sea-level (in the afternoon). Think Mt Snowdon – and this is the ‘easy bit’! Add to that the weight of the pack (and i kept mine relatively light) and the heat of the sun and you soon start to feel exhausted. Spectacular scenery though and at one point i came across a herd of horses wandering around by themselves in a copse.

Back to the hostel: what makes it so special? Well, it’s a simple place but the owners are very friendly and hospitable, providing free Turkish tea all day long, delicious breakfasts and evening meals and on one occasion spontaneously producing a cake that one of the ladies in the family had baked. The hostel is perched up high on a cliff above a tiny strip of land called the Butterfly Valley. You feel miles above the world here. There’s a lovely swimming pool (which hardly anyone but me seems to use) and breathtaking views of the sheer cliffs on the other side of the valley. There is a path from the hostel down to the beach but it’s extremely steep and at one point you have to use ropes to lower yourself down. As a result i confess i’ve just not bothered. The best thing about the hostel though is it’s one of those places where people actually talk to one another – not just in the sense of chitchat but also conversations of depth about issues such as art, politics, religion, literature, philosophy… you name it!

Amongst the other guests at the moment there’s a deeply thoughtful young Turkish man, an Argentine-Canadian engineer (and would-be photojournalist) and a very eccentric Czech architect/photographer, who is obsessed with European culture and the dangers of Islam. A young German couple have just left: they were philosophy graduates and very serious. Up until yesterday we also had a Taiwanese teenager touring Turkey by himself. He was a quirky boy, in many ways older than his years, and his attempts to learn Turkish from the Turkish man via his heavily accented Chinese English were quite comical.

Finally, we have Brian, an Australian in his 50s of ‘independent means’. He lives in Turkey and is trying to develop new walking paths in this area. Brian is a real character: dramatic and intelligent, gossipy and mysterious, industrious and laid back. We discussed Kate Clow, the creator of the Lycian Way. He has a number of criticisms to make of her, the most serious being that she mapped much of the trail along routes that had been identified as sites for potential new roads. As these roads are built the picturesque goat tracks are replaced with wider bulldozed lanes and then, inevitably, asphalt roads. This explains why to my surprise the first half of the goat track i followed on Wednesday showed up on the digital map that my GPS uses: the map makers include planned roads as well as ones already built. Bryan feels that the Lycian Way is doomed as a long distance path for this reason, but he also thinks there are many other tracks which could be joined together as walks, tracks which do not lie on routes intended to be converted into roads and which should therefore remain inviolate for much longer.

I may go for a (backpackless!) walk today from here to Kabak, the next place along the Way and then come back here tonight. Then i can skip the Kabak leg of the trail tomorrow and move straight on to the next leg. There are regular dolmuşes (minibuses) so getting to Kabak shouldn’t be a problem. Alternatively i may just swim in the pool and sit around reading my book, a novel by a Turkish writer called O.Z. Livaneli called ‘Bliss’. I bought it in İstanbul, despite strong resolutions not to burden myself with anything more to carry. Well, what do you expect me to do when i find myself in a street with four or five bookshops!? I don’t regret it in any case as it’s turned out to be a great read. I will probably leave it here when i finish it to supplement the meagre selection of English language books in the hostel library. Either the Germans are far more generous in donating books or the English language books are more popular and so get taken more often.

In fact, far from going on a ‘backpackless’ day walk to Kabak so that i could skip it, i went on as far as Kabak and then no further. The heat was overpowering and the next section of the path sounded rather uninspiring; the real reason i went no further though was because i’d fallen in love with George House and wanted to return.

About half way between Faralya and Kabak

George House

Horse in a copse on the way to Faralya (from Ovacık)

Tree with a Lycian Way waymark

Yellow and gold wildflowers near Faralya

Purple wildflowers

The sea was blue!

On Tuesday 19 May i emailed my friends:

I’m back in George House in Faralya after 3 nights in Kabak where i investigated the coastal trail and swam in a deserted crystal clear cove (giant flat boulders beneath turquoise seas). In many ways though the best bit was the walk to and from Kabak. The path climbs up and then follows a ridge most of the way before descending at the other end. The profusion of different wild flowers up there is startling and there are turtles/tortoises. We met one during our walk back this morning and he rather reluctantly condescended to be photographed before lumbering off into the undergrowth. Kabak itself is also beautiful. The hostel where i stayed (The Olive Garden) is perched up high above the bay and the view is glorious, particularly first thing in the morning.

Tomorrow i will travel to Kaş (via Fethiye). I’ve got two days there before i have to travel back to Fethiye and then (alas!) back home.

My trip to Kaş, a pretty town on the south coast, turned out to be quite an experience in itself, as i wrote after my arrival:

Arrived in Kaş yesterday afternoon after an unexpectedly wonderful day – despite intermittent heavy rain. After spending my final few hours at George House discussing languages, mapping and the journey of life with Brian the Australian and Öner the Turk i reluctantly took my leave and headed up to the main road to wait for the dolmuş to Fethiye.

While i was waiting a Turkish family (man, woman, little girl) came past in their car and stopped to ask about the route to Butterfly Valley. They asked me where i was headed and offered me a lift. We passed the journey with the parents demonstrating how much English their 3 year old daughter already knew before she eventually fell asleep. When we got to Fethiye they commented that they might as well carry on since it was still raining and in the end they took me all the way to Kaş (stopping at places like Patara Beach on the way), where they insisted on buying me dinner. Now that’s what i call hospitality! They were very interesting people too, not least because Sylvia, the wife, is a member of the Armenian minority. We had some very interesting discussions about the way Turkey is headed and also about Turkish films and literature; they were very pleased that i knew anything about these things as it’s not their usual experience of foreign tourists.

Anyway, i’ve signed up for a boat tour today and then i want to go back to the bookshop i found yesterday down a little side street. I bought a Turkish novel in translation (albeit not a very good translation) and i’d like to buy some more. I won’t be doing any more trekking now so the weight of the books isn’t a problem.

I note that by this point i was signing myself off ‘the Turkish Adventurer’! The boat trip was more interesting than i expected it to be, in large part because of the conversations i mention below:

I’m back at the hotel now following my boat trip round Kekova island: interesting, but more for the conversations than the ruins. Somehow, outside of Time Team, remains of ancient buildings soon start to blur into one another: this is a Lycian wall because their stone architecture was influenced by the techniques they used to carve wood; whereas this one is Roman because the wall is built from stone blocks and this one is Byzantine because it’s built from bricks. By the time we arrived at the Ottoman Era i was lost and, if i’m honest, bored.

We were meant to be able to swim as well but the relatively cool weather and rain put everyone off except one Turkish couple. Mind you, apart from me, a Turkish family (the afore-mentioned couple plus their young son & a set of grandparents) and a French-Canadian couple the other people on the trip were all elderly Germans, members of a watercolour club. Once we got out of the harbour they got out their painting kits and began working in earnest. No conversation was possible.

Conversation was possible however with the French-Canadian couple, Alain and Marie. They were lovely people, retired teachers who now enjoy travelling the world. We talked about how they feel about being Canadian: Marie said that in Canada she identifies herself as Quebecois, not French-Canadian but is nevertheless not a Quebec Nationalist. When she travels abroad she does identify as French-Canadian, largely because she doesn’t think many people would know what Quebecois means, but also because she is proud of the positive reputation that Canada has: liberal, tolerant, inclusive.

I also had some great conversations with Dilek, our guide, a funkily fashionable girl: purple cargo pants, pink nail polish, long henna tinted locks. She lived in London for 5 years and misses it. People complain about London when they live there, she says, but it has something distinctive and eclectic about it which you find yourself craving when you leave. I said she’s probably right but i still want to leave!

We also talked about Turkish attitudes to travel and cultural diversity. She confirmed what i’d read – that it’s expensive for Turkish people to travel abroad: passports are expensive and they have to pay a tax to leave Turkey on top of the expense of the visa for the destination country. And that’s assuming they can get the visa. At least three separate people have told me they’ve been refused visas for Britain and these are educated people looking to visit as tourists, not would-be dole artists.

She said that the problem goes deeper than that however: the intense propagation of Turkish national identity has tended to make people both inward-looking and wary of diverging from the norm in any way. Some people actually take a pride in the fact that they have no desire to travel outside Turkey. She advised me to visit İzmir, which she says is the most modern and forward-looking city in Turkey, much more so than İstanbul. Mind you, she does come from İzmir…

After more conversation about Turkish novels in translation, the pros and cons of commuting and her forthcoming 3 month trip to Guatemala to learn Spanish we returned to Kaş and the hotel. Then i set off to re-find the bookshop i’d discovered the previous day. This was easier said than done. For a small town Kaş has a lot of nooks and crannies. Eventually i did find the shop and bought two more Turkish novels in translation – and was rewarded by a joyful smile from the owner. I don’t think she sells a lot of those books.

Tomorrow, as i think i’ve already said, i have to return to Fethiye. I can’t believe that will be my last day! Tonight though i am going to pretend i’m staying here forever. And, more immediately, eat the dessert the waiter has just brought me.

That was the last email i wrote during my trip. The next day i took a (very comfortable) bus back to Fethiye, which i realised almost instantaneously was not a place i wanted to spend any time in. After lunch, i caught a bus to Dalaman Airport, which was even less inviting, and ended up travelling to Istanbul a day early after changing my ticket. I spent the night in the airport. My final memories of Turkey are of wandering aimlessly about the stacks of Turkish Delight piled high for tourists seeking last minute presents. No matter, it was a great holiday. Here’s hoping this year’s will be just as good. I leave you with this picture of Ollie, Turkey’s greatest dog and a resident of the Olive Garden guesthouse in Kabak:

Ollie, possibly the friendliest dog in Turkey


If the aliens ever find my socks

What is it with socks? No matter how many pairs I buy I can never find two that belong together. Each morning i am to be found performing the same desperate routine: find sock, search for similar, pull out likely candidate, compare, contrast, abandon, repeat. And repeat. And repeat.*

An alien archaeologist, on discovering them, would probably conclude that I had made a special collection of odd socks (‘possibly for ritual purposes’) or else that ‘the inhabitant of this dwelling was almost certainly one-legged.’

As indeed I sometimes wish I was. Or at least ‘odd-legged.’

* And yes, I do know it’s my own fault for not pairing them up before I put them away.