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.

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Trip 2010: arrival in Turkey and the first two days

Tuesday 6 April

After a tortuous journey to Heathrow Airport (everything that could go wrong did) it was such a relief to be on the aeroplane that i barely noticed it taking off.  The meal was the usual Turkish-Cuisine-As-Recreated-By-A-Race-Of-Androids but airline food has its own particular magic. Perhaps it lies simply in the wonder of the fact that we are eating in the sky or perhaps it’s down to the mysterious allure of the little tin foil covered plastic pots in which it’s served. Four hours or so later and we were there – well, theoretically; but of course there was the ordeal that is Atatürk Airport to negotiate first. Once again i managed to choose the queue containing the dreaded Person-With-A-Problem-With-Their-Passport, although thankfully whatever the problem was it was soon resolved.

Grabbing my luggage (yes, it was there!) i made my way to the Metro Station, trusting (hoping?) that i would instinctively remember how to get to Sultanahmet. Half way there though it dawned on me that it would be better to change at a station called Zeytinburnu rather than the one i’d changed when i’d come last year. Near miss number one: i almost got on a train going the wrong way. Thankfully, two Turkish men guessed where i was going (to the area where all the foreigners go!) and guided me to the right platform.

I found the hotel itself without too much trouble. It was more upmarket than the hostel i’d stayed at the year before but less friendly. I guess you can’t have it all.

Wednesday 7 April

Awoke and realised i was in Turkey! After breakfast (this was the only day i managed to beat the Germans to the buffet) i first had to recharge my phone. Bizarrely my room had no power outlet so i had to sit in the main reception area and wait. As soon as it was done, i set out to reorient myself. I walked down towards Eminönü, following the tram line, and crossed Galata Bridge. It was a lot colder than when i’d been in the city the year before. I made my way to Beyoğlu and withdrew some cash – i’d brought only 25 TL with me. Then, after a stop at a cafe i set off to look for the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. What a mission it turned out to be! I found my way down to the main road along the Bosphorus without problem but then couldn’t locate the Museum. Where the map seemed to be saying it should be there was nothing. An old Turkish man insisted it was inside the university building a bit further on. This seemed doubtful but i went there anyway. The security guards (Turkish universities are obviously tough places!) looked at my guidebook and shook their heads, pointing further along the road.

A building near the museum of modern art

Finally i found it the Museum. I was relieved but also, irrationally, angry. I felt somehow as if someone had been playing a game with me. Inside it was – truth be told – very much like modern art museums the world over: all white walls and glass. Most of the paintings on the main floor did little for me, although i did marvel at the pretentiousness with which they were described. Downstairs however i found the work of Erol Akyavaş* (1932-1999). His work fuses Islamic calligraphy with modern art and is stunning. The one i found most interesting seemed to incorporate views of a wall. The paintings of Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu were also interesting; he used lots of brown and the finished works often resembled calligraphy (in case it isn’t obvious by now: i love calligraphy). Finally, in an exhibition of photography i found a fantastic and grotestque (or fantastically grotesque if you like) panel of photographs by a Russian photographer called Petr Lovigin: masks, wheelchairs, cows, sheep, kites and fishing rods.

When the Museum closed i made my way back up to Beyoğlu to meet my friend Ö. We met last year when i was walking in the south of Turkey and apart from a brief email exchange we’d had no contact since so i was a bit nervous. Would we even recognise one another? In fact, i did recognise him but i was astounded to see how different he looked in his business suit. Somehow it was as though i’d expected him to show up in the shorts and t-shirt he’d been wearing when i’d last seen him. He led me through a maze of back streets to a small cafe where we ate and then we walked about the city chatting. We finally parted company at eleven o’clock. He had a two hour journey back home, which he’d have to repeat the next morning to get to work.

Thursday 8 April

Finally BF Day had dawned – the day on which i was finally to meet my my internet buddies, B and F. After breakfast i took up my post outside the hotel wondering how i would recognise B when she arrived and how she would recognise me. Soon a beautiful lady in a bright pink coat appeared. Instinctively i thought to myself: “This is her”, but as my instincts are far from infallible and i had no idea how i would extricate myself from the situation if she turned out to be some random Turkish woman (who in accordance with the Law of Sod would of course not be able to speak English) i stayed where  i was – even when she started looking about uncertainly. Sultanahmet is Tourist Central; Turks rarely seem to venture to the district unless they work there, but still… maybe she was here to meet someone else. I briefly imagined hordes of British tourists all meeting up with internet buddies for the first time. Only when i saw her dial a number and heard my mobile ring in my pocket did i know i was right: this was B.

Tiled wall in Topkapι Palace

She too had guessed i was the person she was looking for but like me wasn’t quite confident enough to take the plunge and approach me.  When my phone started to ring she rushed forward to greet me. It was an amazing moment, meeting after a year’s correspondence. F was going to be late because at the last minute someone had called and asked him to write out 200 wedding invitations (apparently his calligraphic skill is legendary amongst his friends). In the meantime – after buying my train ticket to Thessaloniki – B and I repaired to a cafe near the Haghia Sophia where we chatted over tea warmed by a heater which one of the waiters pulled up close to us. Predictably her English was much better than she’d suggested; it only made me feel worse about my lack of Turkish. She gave me a CD by a musician called Stephan Micus as a present. I’ll have to wait till i get home to listen to it though.

Topkapι Palace corridor

When F appeared we drank more tea (my kind of country!) and then headed over to the Topkapı Palace Museum to check out some Ottoman history. The most interesting part of the museum was the harem – not the steamy sauna of Western imagination, but instead the living quarters of the Sultan and his family. The tiles which decorate the walls are pretty spectacular: shades of blue, turquoise and red in flower-like patterns. F told me that the tiles are extremely expensive to make; enough for a wall would cost thousands and thousands of pounds. The red dye is especially costly. As F pointed out it, it stands out from the rest of the tile;  if you run your hand over the top, you can feel the bumps it creates. I preferred the turquoise colour though.

Topkapι Palace - another view

Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent in cafes: eating, drinking and chatting. Eventually B had to leave us (sadly). F and I took the tramway and funicular railway to Beyoğlu, where he showed me the best places to buy English language books. I found a book called Living Poets of Turkey, which has some excellent poems in it and a collection of Nazim Hikmet‘s poetry in English translation. F also pointed out some novels to me. I hope to go back to the shop to buy them when i return to Istanbul at the end of my trip; i didn’t want to carry them across Greece**. Later we went to a restaurant where we talked about everything under the sun (he is one of the rare people on this earth who can talk as much as me!) till it dawned on us that we were the last people left in the building and that the staff were waiting to close up. All in all, a great day!

* Unfortunately, i was unable to find a link to a page with a good selection of his artwork. This one at least has plenty of information about the artist himself.
** As it was, i had to leave the book of engravings and photographs that F gave me as a present with the staff at the hotel in Istanbul. I have to hope they’ll hand it over when i return!

Aeroplanes and television: how they change our world

I was thinking the other day about our internal geographies and the changing relationship these have with the world. In particular, i was musing on the effect of modern forms of transport – and to a lesser extent the effect of the modern media. A few centuries ago most people would have spent almost all their lives in one location which they’d have known very well indeed; their knowledge would have faded away gradually as they moved from this ‘centre of the universe’ until they reached the boundaries of the known.

Of course it wouldn’t have been quite that simple. There would be little irregularities – market towns they made a special journey to perhaps or pilgrimage sites – and there would have existed a vague map of other places too: lands mentioned in the Bible for example (i’m thinking of people in Britain as my example), cities from which luxury items came, the lands of myth and legend.

Still, it was a very different situation to today. Nowadays a person may live in one small district of a town, and know the way to and the location of a shopping complex on the edge of town and a few other locations but be otherwise ignorant of much of the place in which they live. They may commute by train every day passing from one small area of ‘known world’ to another, the one in which they work, through a desert of meaningless place names. How many of us have felt panic when our train breaks down en route and we’re turfed out at some station ‘in the middle of nowhere’? Even when the middle of nowhere is often the middle of somewhere, some district of the city we just don’t happen to know?

But trains have only a mild effect compared to aeroplanes. Consider for a moment those people with holiday homes in Spain or Portugal – or even Florida. Each year they migrate hundreds of miles to these places, even if only for a little while. At both ends of the journey they know precisely where they are. Those two small areas, so distant from one another, are next to one another in their internal geography. One goes from one to the other. The space in between, those miles of sea and land which they fly over, has no reality for them. Indeed, modern planes fly so high that for much of the trip travellers don’t even see the places over which they’re moving.

It’s very strange when you stop to think about it. I live maybe fifty or sixty miles from France. There are people just that distance from me living lives in towns i never see and can’t name. I never go there. Why? Well, in part – and quite a big part – because there’s no quick or easy way to get there. Far easier to get a plane to the other side of Europe or even beyond. The other reason i don’t go is because i imagine i’ve already seen these towns – or more accurately that being so close to me they can’t be sufficiently different from what i already know to make the journey worthwhile. Yet as a child even the south of England seemed like a foreign country. The first time i visited London (as a fourteen year old) i was awed and disoriented – far more so than when i later visited Istanbul or even Dhaka in fact.

It’s all about exposure. And that brings me to the other way in which places can come to feel too familiar to be worth bothering about: the constant exposure to images of them in the media. This is probably why i’ve never visited America. Why go to it and when it comes to me practically every time i turn on the telly? Of course that’s only a little sliver of America, but then, thinking about it, i’ve only ever seen a little sliver of my own country. Still, the illusion of familiarity takes root. The Internet only worsens this. You spend hours chatting to people on another continent, on the other side of the ocean. You live in your global village of far-flung contacts separated only by meaningless ‘uninhabited’ hyperspace.

One day i suppose we’ll be living in ‘virtual worlds’ spread across different planets, perhaps different galaxies. Imagine.