It has now been over a year since I came back from my 5 months travel across Eurasia, a journey I have milked endlessly for this blog. Now I have saved up enough money to actually go on a holiday again, so look forward to another splurge of travel writing for two weeks…
Is it a normal Friday? I wake up around the time I normally do. I wave to my housemate as he goes out to work and I have the same breakfast. But sitting in the corner of my bedroom is a backpack, full of clothes and supplies for the next two weeks.
Just as I am feeling relaxed and ready for a holiday, I realise that there is laundry still not yet done. I throw the clothes in the washing machine for a half an hour spin. Drag them out and hang them over several radiators. Get the heating on. Time is ticking away till I need to have left.
Sod it. I just stuff the drier clothes in my bag and put the dampest ones on: they can dry out as I walk.
Gatwick turns out to be easier to get to than I thought, even without the expensive express. I guess this is the first time since I lived in London that I have gone to an airport. Despite it being over a year since I last flew, it appears I still remember how to do the airport thing: 15 minutes from arrival I am through check in, security and I have found an uncomfortable seat in departures. Now I have too much time. The delayed flight doesn’t help. So far, it has all been rather mechanical, like I am going on a business trip or a routine: I guess there is too much to organise to get excited about where I am going.
It is only around 2 hours into the flight that it finally really hits me just where I am going. We are flying past Vienna, Austria, the city the Ottoman Empire never managed to conquer. But what makes that notable right now, is that the second half of my flight is all over former Ottoman territories. That Turkish empire had a huge reach, both east and west. Now I am flying to its heartland and successor: Turkey. This will be my 5th time in the country, but two of those were just to Istanbul.
I am already in Turkish hands though, not just obvious because of the airline name, but by the tea. This is my first Çay of the holiday, albeit an airline, plastic version of it. There is a faint aroma of Prit-stick about it. But Çay it is. (Pronounced almost the same as Indian ‘Chai’, it has the same linguistic root)
So keen am I, to escape the confines of the airport, for today at least, that I run outside without so much as a glance at the tourist information desk. This costs me dearly: Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport is not on the city’s metro, nor is there a simple shuttle bus into the centre. Instead, the exit to the airport is thronged with Taxis, private bus companies and queues of people waiting for something. After the pristine calm of the airport, this night scene of honking horns, racing taxis and shouting people has the feel of a battlefield. Going back inside means going through security again (Turkish airports have a bag scanner at the front doors), so I ask a guy in a kind of uniform.
‘Take coach to Taksim’ he says
‘Is there a shuttle bus to metro?’ I ask hopefully, perhaps lessening my time in one of the crowded coaches I can see coming and going.
‘Metro?’ he looks at me, then nods sternly, ‘take coach to Taksim, then get metro’.
Given that I have no better information, I stand in the longest queue for the coach to Taksim. I start to wonder if the guys who run the coaches pay people to stand around in uniform and recommend them. The map indicates that the nearest metro stop is not all that far away and given Istanbul’s notorious traffic, I want to get on it as soon as possible. As the queue inches forwards, I see a little local bus with Kadikoy on it. I know that this is a metro stop. Not the closest, but better than Taksim. I duely piss off the bus driver by giving him a 50 lira note for an 8 lira journey and find a place to stand on this standing room only bus. Much less stylish than the coaches, I feel a lot more comfortable here: everyone is speaking Turkish (except a German and American chatting in the corner) and everyone is just trying to get somewhere. There is none of that false holiday glamour which infects airports and airport transfers all over the world.
Some way into the trip, a middle aged couple get on at the back of the bus. The driver is at the front and there are no ticket machines further back, so I assume they are faire dodging. A moment later though, the man fishes a bus pass out of his pocket and passes it to the man in front. Without a word between them, the pass is passed up the full bus, from person to person, till it is handed over to the driver.
He shouts down the bus in Turkish, probably something along the lines of ‘Two passengers?’ because the man who has just got on shouts back, ‘Evet’ and there are two bleeps, then the pass comes back down the bus and the man puts it away. It is strangely trusting and yet delightfully normal.
I hop off the bus at Pendik and finally join the metro. Luckily for Londoners like me, every metro service in the world is based, in some way, on the London Underground. Working out the ticket machines and getting down onto the track is no bother and I am swept into the city centre where I change for the only trans-continental sub-aqua train in the world: the Marmaray Line. This is still a marvel to me: an underwater train across an earthquake fault line. It is viewed with indifference by the locals who use it.
Now I am in the centre of historic Istanbul. It is not about modern engineering triumphs here, but some of the most beautiful architecture of the last 2,000 years. It is nearly 11pm now, so it is a bit late to appreciate it. Instead, I dash to the hostel I have booked. I last stayed here four and a half years ago, but it has not changed, I walk straight in and over to reception around the back. It would be nice if the staff recognise me, but I’m not holding out hope, instead, a bald and bearded man glares at me:
‘If you come back in 15 minutes, you’ll be his problem, not mine’, he prods his finger at a hovering colleague. Then his laughs, ‘just kidding, give me a second to sort this lot out and I’ll be with you’.
The guy has a soft Turkish accent, but evidently has been around backpackers for many years. That is how you run a hostel reception. As he shows me through the corridors to the dormitory, he remarks on the aroma.
‘Smells like shit in here. It really shouldn’t. Fucking old people, they should all be shot.’ I think he is joking.
The dorm is stifling and hot, full of snoring men and the bed is tiny, noisy and hard. The time is now nearly midnight, but my body clock says it is not yet time for bed. I have to be up early and I actually quite hungry. I am in for quite an uncomfortable night.
I must be backpacking again.
Istanbul: the centre of the world, the crossroad of civilisations and home to wonders of the ancient and medieval world. I have about 45 minutes to appreciate it this morning before I have to go. And that is only because I woke up earlier than planned. It is 7.15am and there is a fog hanging over the city. The street of hostels is silent, but for a solitary moving car. The range of eclectic building styles, from medieval wooden structures to corrugated iron boxes, makes the street an interesting sight. I wander up to the historic centre, where the sun is just rising to illuminate the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Sultanahmet square is always pretty, except really early in the morning before the litter pickers have been around. I am arriving just as these guys finish the job by going in waders into the fountain to remove the rubbish of the previous day. Around the fountain there are trees with their own little patches of earth, as part of the neatly arranged cobbles that mark out the area between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I sneak a few photos of those early risers, tidying the place up. There are one or two other tourists and soon we are joined by residents returning from morning prayers. The only things that spoil the scene are the large police barriers to control crowds and the lumbering riot control truck, sitting in the corner, its engine running. That thing is basically a tank and it feels wrong to have it in such a pretty place.
That’s all I have time for, I have to wolf down a lot of a Turkish breakfast and then I am on a mini bus off to the airport again. I don’t like travelling like this and frankly that is all it has been so far: travelling. I haven’t really stopped and looked at anything. The flight is quite a bit shorter though, so by 1.30pm I am in Trabzon, my first proper destination, and I can finally slow down.
But first… I am due one of my customary epic hikes. I dash directly out of the airport again, but this time I have a plan: through the car park, across the motorway and off up the hill to the apartment I am staying in. Trabzon does not really do hostels, it is not a tourist location like that and hotels tend to be on the expensive side, for businessmen. As a result airbnbs and similar are the cheapest accommodation for travellers. The place I have found is up quite a hill, through a large housing estate on a slant. I am off the tourist trail and away from the affluent centre of Turkey: this much is obvious. Where there are pavements, they are cracked and broken, the road surface is patchy and uneven and I have to watch my feet. The place is not untidy, just careworn. The shops around sell things people need, not what people my dream about. The air is cool, but the direct sunlight warms me up rapidly and by the time I reach the apartment I am exhausted. And the building is firmly locked. I knock and walk up and down, but that doesn’t seem to help. Two girls walk up to me and talk to me in Turkish. I look baffled at them
‘Only English’, I say, ‘or Deutsch’, I add, on the off chance.
‘English!’ one of them brightens up, as if my nationality helps, ‘Hello!’, she says. Then they walk off with no further comment. I make a call to the number I was given for the room and that appears to be the answer: I speak to a friendly Turkish man who is on his way.
It turns out that he owns the entire building and rents out all the rooms, but since there is no-one else here and I want a single room, I am on the top floor in the room next to him. Never mind that half the lights in the stairwell don’t work, he will get that fixed. Meanwhile, don’t trip in the pitch dark. He briefs me on the cosy room and then has to dash, but I stop him with the most important questions: how do I get places and, crucially, how do I get back?
In the smaller cities of Turkey, there are no metros, there are no trams and there are not even local buses. There are the Dolmuş (Doll-mush). These are minbuses, barely larger than taxis, who belt around set routes (although I’m not sure who sets them) and pick up and drop off anyone anywhere. They are not taxis, they follow fixed paths and have capped faires and you are always lift sharing: they literally won’t leave till the driver has enough passengers. The major downside is that they show relatively little information on where they are going, and if you speak no Turkish, it is pretty hard to know what the hell you are going. The advantage of Dolmuş is that they are very regular and very cheap. With instructions on how to get back, I am happy to venture out into the unknown.
The first place I must go on one of these minibuses is the ‘Meydan’, the central plaza and the hub of the Dolmuş system. I grip my phone tightly and watch as we progress in the right direction, praying that I have got the right minibus. These tiny diesel beasts must be contributing to most of the pollution on the planet: they belch out black smoke as they accelerate at terrifying speed, then promptly stop for traffic lights before accelerating again. At least we cover the 6 kilometres really fast.
I arrive in a bustling square, a mess of layers, covered in trees and people, all watched over by a statue of Attaturk. It is rather overwhelming, not least because I can tell no tourists come here. Nothing is written in English, everyone here is local and I feel totally like an outsider. Not that anyone treats me like one, every shop I walk near, I get spoken to in Turkish and several times I have to apologise for not speaking their language. Being as culturally inquisitive as I am, I sit on a step and eat some crisps. I am really hungry. Someone else is hungry, or just saw some tasty crisps, because a child wanders over to me and says something commanding in Turkish. This is the second time today and I really don’t know how to react.
‘Sorry, only English’, I get a blank look, ‘do you want some crisps?’, still nothing. I proffer the bag in her direction; crisps are grabbed. In a moment of great hygiene, or something, when she drop one of them, she picks it up and gives it back to me. It occurs to me that she might be a beggar, but then she walks off back to a parent and some friends and they share a laugh that is a little too loud for me not to hear. I might be being bullied, but I can’t tell, so I go in search of a museum.
I find the museum. It is closed for renovation.
The centre of Trabzon is slightly historical, in that it has tightly packed streets and lots of tiny shops, but there are very few old buildings and the stores are all very modern. I see numerous McDonald’s and preferable Turkish alternatives which look no more healthy, as well as local and international clothing stuff. For someone who likes looking at random historical things, it is a little bit underwhelming for such an historically important city. Trabzon was the last city of the Roman Empire, by some definitions, finally falling to the Ottomans as late as 1461. I sort of expected a huge citadel or something.
However, as a human being, it is nice to see other people with high standards of living. This is not poverty tourism, as most people here seem to be doing alright. I loop back around to the square and decide to have a kebab. Actually, I have a Kofte, a special Trabzon one, I am informed. I find the restaurant with the English speaking waiter and he talks me through the menu. So starved of intelligent conversation since I left home yesterday morning, I am willing to chat about menu choices to listen to something that isn’t: ‘here is you room/flight/food’. We do talk about the language though, naturally:
‘I learn English at local school here. It is very good’ he explains to me
‘Are there a lot of English speakers around here?’ I ask, since I have not encountered any of them.
‘Yes. Yes. Very good English’
‘I thought many Turks speak German?’ I ask in hope.
‘Yes’, he replies nodding, ‘but they are all in Germany’
I have been effectively vegetarian for the last few months, so it is a little odd to be having meat, but I decided before I came to allow myself the odd local dish if it seemed appropriate. The Kofta is nice, but the highlight is what follows: my first proper Çay in Turkey. Sipped from a little glass cup, overlooking the square, as the sun goes down. It is just about perfect. Çay is served in little glasses, only about 100ml, with no handle but boiling hot. This makes it hard to drink. They have it with no milk and it is stewed for so long it is very bitter. Many Turks have it with a lot of sugar. I prefer it without. The Turks drink loads of the stuff, usually while smoking outside.
The English speaking waiter gives me instructions on how to get the Dolmuş back to my room, so I manage to squeeze on one and get back to the city outskirts and to my room without a headache.
Ultimately though, this has been a trial by fire today. In a city where there are no tourist information offices (that I found), few English speakers and no simple metro map to follow, I have been lost. In London I have got so used to understanding what is going on around me and how the systems work. It is quite a shock to be back somewhere where I don’t know the rules. It is quite exciting, but nonetheless, I am having to relearn the skills of asking people for help and waiting before diving headlong into things.
The square central is so much more empty this morning and so rather than there being queues of people waiting for Dolmuş, there are queues of Dolmuş waiting for people: they don’t go until they are full enough to be worth making a trip. I dash around the various lines, in this very unattractive part of the city under a flyover, trying to find the one to Maçka. There are dozens of place names and destinations, but none of them seem right. And then I spot a larger Dolmuş heading down a hill, with the right destination. In the spirit of a good backpacking holiday, I sprint after it, almost falling head-over-heels down the steep road. It turns out that longer distance trips start from a little hidden place away from the centre, but crucially nearer the main road. How anyone who isn’t local is supposed to work this out, I have no idea.
Like anything not state owned, journeys have to make a profit for the driver and when I get on the Dolmuş for Maçka and Sumela, I find out this is the argument being made. I, and the three young Turkish guys at the back, want to go to Sumela, but it is twice as far and no-one else wants to go there. But where there’s a will (or rather, money) there is a way. Of the three guys, the one best at English approaches me:
‘You go Sumela?’ he asks, pointing at me, ‘you go Sumela,’ he repeats, now pointing at himself and his friends. ‘Pay on alti lira’. There is then a hurried exchange between them, ‘sixteen lira’. So the driver is paid and it makes it worth the trip for him. This makes it a lot easier for me too, as I don’t have to change in Maçka. As we drive, the three guys introduce themselves:
‘I, Melih’, the first one says. It sounds like Milly, which makes it easy to remember, ‘I am from Izmir’. I know that place too. Excellent! The other two introduce themselves as well, but I haven’t the ear for Turkish names and so since neither are Suliman or Mehmet, I quickly forget them. They are from Elazig and Adana respectively though and all three are students on their holiday. The drive into the mountains is increasingly spectacular. Right out of Trabzon it gets very vertical, with snow already visible on distant peaks. Tall evergreen trees line the steep walls and the road, despite cutting through a lot of rock, winds alarmingly.
Sumela basecamp appears. It is a little log cabin by a stream and such is the dramatic change in climate, it looks quite Swiss. Nearby, amongst the trees, is a small waterfall which the guys want to drink from and then take a selfie with. They are only four years between us, but these twenty-one year olds make me feel ancient. They literally cannot see anything without taking a selfie, or three, with it. That being said, their determination to make conversation is admirable. We stop in a cafe for a Çay and chat.
‘What part of university?’ Melih asks me, ‘I teacher, you artist’. I don’t feel like correcting their use of the word ‘you’, it would take too long. I have worked out what they mean though:
‘I study History and Economics’, the third guy discovers Google translate to help explain the words I have just said. He is studying political science, so now we are all covered. I could also mention, at this point, that I finished at university nearly four years ago, but pretending to still be a student is so much easier for conversation. They get through two Çay and two cigarettes each as we struggle through more details of our lives.
They are taking it really easy and I soon discover why. The way up to Sumela Monastery, the whole reason for coming here, is shut. The foot access is closed and the whole building is still under restoration (my guide book said it’d be sorted by early 2017). However, a short hike up the road and I can see it far up the cliff face; it looks impossible.
Clinging to a high mountainside, Sumela Monastery is just astounding. In that Byzantine way, it looks a little like it might be from the 1930’s: semi-ornate, semi-budget. But of course, it was built originally 1,500 years ago and was last upgraded 700 years ago. If you have an image of a grand, ancient, mountainside retreat, hidden amongst trees on a sheer cliff face, this is it.
But that is all I am seeing of it today. The Dolmuş is waiting to take us back to Trabzon. I get woken up in Maçka. Once again, someone has to make money, so the driver wants to wait around for more people to fill his bus up. Melih and his friends take me to a cafe to pass the time and I am given Sütlaç: a creamy dessert in a clay bowl. Selfies with Sütlaç are also necessary. Back in Trabzon, we get out of one Dolmuş and I am shoved onto another. If you have friends who speak Turkish, they can get you on the right bus faster than you can blink. But they are going elsewhere. The guys were kind of fun to travel with, except for the cigarette smoke; much more laid back than me, with a constant friendliness. But we have to make a hurried goodbye.
Ayasofya is the Turkish spelling of Hagia Sophia, the name of a number of former and current churches everywhere they copied Constantinople. Trabzon has its own Ayasofya, but this one is a little bit of an argument. I approach it from being dumped on the side of the main road. The sun is setting behind me, so it looks properly stunning. A 13th century Byzantine church by design, it looks more Eastern than I’ve seen, even in Turkey. My guidebook tells me it is Armenian in style. An octagonal ‘dome’ is set across the cross formation and nearby is a tower, built only a 100 years later, but looking 1,000 years less sophisticated, with rough cut stone and a wonky roof. After the Ottoman conquest, it was made a mosque and after Turkish independence it became a museum. This is common across Turkey, as mixed legacies are a cause for controversy. However, this Ayasofya was bought by a religious group back in 2013 and they have tried to turn it back into a mosque. A court declared this illegal, so now it stands as half and half. In fact, just as I approach it, I hear the Call to Prayer, so I let the locals pray and have some food instead.
This leads to my great discovery of Kaygana. A local speciality, it is half way between an omelette and a crepe/pancake. As I eat through it, I really can’t tell which one it is, but it tastes amazing. I also have more Çay. Because why not. Breaking me out of my relaxed mood is the realisation that it is mother’s day back home, so I take advantage of free international roaming (recently bought in by the EU) to call my parents and wish my mum well. Prayers over, I look inside the Ayasofya, and it is very oddly divided. The single set of double doors have a dividing line down the middle. To the right there is carpet and you have to take your shoes off: it is a mosque. To the left, there is no carpet and you can walk into it as a museum. The Christian frescos adorn one end, isolated by a sheet from the mosque, where a few people are in silent prayer. The structure of this ancient building is, like so many Byzantine buildings, remarkable. Plaster covers up concrete and brick layers, all fairly ordinary since the 18th century, but not common in the 13th, except in the Byzantine empire, where they largely retained the Roman methods of construction.
The following morning, I head straight for the Otogar (main bus station), trying to figure out how I can get to Cappadocia tomorrow and Rize today. The front of the building is just a series of shops and takeaways and inside is not all that much better. Concrete floor, dirty windows looking out onto a dusty forecourt and a string of small boutique-like ticket selling desks to all kinds of destinations. Not even expecting anyone to understand my English, I resort to trying to say the name of the place I am going tomorrow: Erzincan. This has no accents or anything, so I think I am in the clear. But no. After several baffled looks by people who approach me to offer help, I point at the place name on one of the signs on the side of one of the desks.
‘You say: “Err-zee-jan”’, the current man who is trying to help explains. ‘Go over there’ he points to a completely different desk, which, unlike the current one, doesn’t say Erzincan anywhere on it. At this desk, I ask for Err-zee-jan and it is like magic:
‘Today or tomorrow?’ is the first question they ask. I am so relieved I didn’t have to try and explain at length that I wanted to go tomorrow.
‘Passport’, he takes my passport, puts it down and then walks off. I look around, slightly baffled. This is a guy who doesn’t give a damn. A colleague walks up and finishes the transaction, so I have a bus out of here tomorrow. Next in the challenge for not giving a damn, is the ticket seller for the buses to Rize, my destination today.
‘Can I buy a ticket to Rize please?’ I ask, as politely as possible. She looks at me like I have crawled out of a swamp:
‘Eleven thirty’ she says. Then starts serving the next person. I wait politely till he is finished.
‘How many lira?’ I ask again, holding a 20 note in case she didn’t understand that I wanted to purchase a ticket, not just enquire.
‘Twelve’, she replies, then promptly stops paying attention again.
‘Can I buy?’, I stress a bit more, pushing exactly 12 lira in her direction.
She sighs, writes out a ticket then points out the door behind me.
‘Bus there leaves at eleven thirty’, end of conversation.
I could be annoyed, but actually I am kind of happy that these ticket vendors don’t care about me. It means that me, and by extension, all tourists, do not dominate their lives. I am just an inconvenience and they have no need to suck up to me or anyone else. This is a good thing. Although they could be a little more polite to someone so obviously out of his depth.
The journey to Rize is rather uncomfortable. The bus is fine, but I am on the south side of the bus as it goes along the coast, so I get the full benefit of the sun’s glare with none of the sea breeze. Plus, a huge Turkish man sits next to me, despite the space in the rest of the bus, and proceeds to manspread for the full hour and a half.
Rize gives a much nicer first impression than Trabzon. There is no grimy industrial shipyard, instead having something approaching a park on the sea front, albeit cut off from the rest of the city by the motorway. When engineers were building the motorway network, they obviously decided that the line of least resistance was to build along the coastline, as the interior of Turkey is so mountainous. This means that every seaside city has a motorway cutting across what could otherwise be the prettiest part of town. Other than this, I immediately notice that it is a more conservative place than even Trabzon, which is a world away from liberal Istanbul. This is the actual city where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is from. Almost all the women I see wear headscarves and even the men are modestly dressed. Rather than banners of Attaturk, there are pictures of Erdoğan everywhere.
Rize is built into a mountainside, so to get to anything, you have to walk up. Using tiny paths and steps from back alleys, I navigate my way toward Rize castle. Like just about everything in Turkey, Rize castle was first built by Justinian, presumably as a base against the potential invading Persian armies from Armenia. Now, buildings cluster around it so closely that I’d have no idea how near I am to it, if I hadn’t been looking at a map. I follow the signs as they appear, but two ladies outside a local mosque do a fantastic mime, letting me know that this entrance is locked and I need to walk around the hill to get in. The castle is a building site. Half of it is roped off by workers with wheelbarrows and cement, replacing old bricks and repaving paths. The only impression I get of the castle are sheer walls, as by the time I am close enough to see it, I am right in front of it and once I am in it, I can’t see it. I’d wondered why there were no good photos of it online, I find out it is because it is impossible to get a good view of it. Nonetheless, at the top there is a cafe and they serve Çay, so I am sorted. Their food selection is a bit naff, all western, so I go for Pizza, as if you have to have western food, might as well go big on the cheese.
Back down the hill and up another one, is the Tea gardens. Rize is the heart of the Turkish tea industry. Between every bloc of flats, perched on a hillside, are rows of tea plants. It is one of the greenest cities I have ever seen, as everywhere they are growing Çay. The Tea Gardens are at the heart of it. Having had far too much of the stuff over the last couple of days, I actually find one more too much, but I appreciate tasting what fresh Çay is like, from the people who grow it. The gardens themselves is a sort of mini-park, a grove of trees (that do not grow tea), making it a very pleasant place to relax and sip your hot beverage.
On the way back to the Otogar, I walk through the seaside park. There is a lovely breeze and I hear the afternoon call to prayer. It is a lovely moment of serenity. Other people are walking around me, going for walks and chatting with friends. One man, with a fantastic moustache, comes up to me and asks me something in Turkish, I reply with my, now customary, phrase:
‘Ah’ he says, ‘Where are you from?’
‘London, England’ I reply. So far this is like a dozen conversations I have had, so I smile and continue walking, but this man follows me.
‘Why are you here?’ he asks. I assume he means this less pointedly than he said.
‘Holiday. I am a tourist.’ I smile again, hoping that is what he wanted to know. Apparently not, he calls over to a young couple and confirms that the man can speak some English, as he now translates for the moustachioed man:
‘Are you single?’, this has taken quite a turn. In the confusion I forget that neither of the men might have meant it in the way an English speaker might, so I reply slightly defensively:
‘Yes. Why to do ask?’ There is a quick exchange between the two.
‘He is Police’, the young man says and the moustachioed man pulls out his wallet and shows his ID. Handily, the Turkish for Police is ‘Polis’
‘Where are you going?’ he asks, through our translator. This has got slightly scary fast, so this time I answer with more detail than he probably wanted:
‘Back down the coast, over the bridge, to the Otogar and then on the bus back to Trabzon, where I am staying.’ I deliver this all in one go.
The policeman picks up the key word: Trabzon.
‘You are going to Trabzon. Okay. Have a nice day’ and that is it. I thank the impromptu translator and walk off a little faster than I probably should have.