back to istanbul, that insane bus terminal & crazy turkish encounters

Sunday, August 1: I wake up on the bus and find, much to my surprise, that the bus is on a huge ferry, crossing a mysterious body of water.   This ferry is packed with buses, and many of the passengers have disembarked and are standing at the railing of the ferry, watching the lavender and pink sunrise.  This is quite a delightful surprise.  I get off the bus as well, and look out over the water, wonder what body of water it is.

on the ferry crossing to istanbul

on the ferry crossing to istanbul

Later, when we are back on the bus and rolling, the bus waiter comes around with drinks: coffee, juice, water.  I ask how long till we arrive in Istanbul.  He says 8:00.  I weigh the risks.  One hour.  Can I drink some juice maybe, and be safe till we arrive?  I decide yes, I can handle it.

They’re right.  In one hour, we are at the Istanbul bus station.  But!  How could I have forgotten what a nightmare this place is?  We sit, tens of coaches, on the ramps leading up to the top-level of the terminal, where passengers are dropped.  It is 8 a.m., and we are here, but we’re not.  We’re trapped; I’m a prisoner on this bus and I have to pee.  We are going nowhere.  Nowhere!!  Idling, spewing exhaust, staring at other sufferers on the buses next door; they’re so close I could touch their faces if there was not glass in between.  They look miserable too… or am I just reading my misery into their faces?  I’m thinking if I can’t hold it, what can I do?  What are my options?  Can I jump off the bus and squat between the buses, in plain sight?  Or run up to the littered grassy hill and pee, with no bushes or trees or even tall grasses for cover?  Or, hmmm, maybe I can steal one of the plastic juice cups, squat down between the seats and pee into the cup.  Hey, I’m a pro at peeing into cups; I’ve been doing it all my life in doctors’ offices.  Or, I could get off the bus and walk up the ramps faster than the buses will move, but how will I ever find my suitcase that now sits so unattainable in the underbelly of the bus?  In this beehive terminal, how would I ever find my bus?

sunrise on the ferry

sunrise on the ferry

So.  I sit, suffering, panicking, sweating, shifting left and right, crossing and uncrossing my legs, trying to find the best position that will least likely allow an accident.  I wonder if I’m in such a panic just because I know I can’t go.  Am I causing a panic in myself just because I know it’s impossible?

Finally, after an eternity, we get to the top and are released.  We get our bags.  But, alas, the only WCs are down several flights of stairs and I have this two-ton bag of mine!  A grizzled Turkish man beckons for me to follow him and I do, to a held-luggage room.  They’ll hold my bag for a couple of lira while I run down the stairs to use the restroom.  Whew!

So far, on all my bus trips, I’ve had someone to meet me, someone with my name on a placard.  But now my tours are over, and I’m on my own.  I’ve arranged this final bit of Istanbul on my own.  I make my way to the metro, where again I have to carry my bag down multiple flights of stairs. I ride the metro till I switch to the tram.  On the tram, I take  a seat midway between the two doors.  At each successive stop, I watch as the tram gets increasingly packed.  I hope these people will get off before the Sultanahmet stop, but that’s too much to hope for.   More and more people pack in.  I realize I have no plan of action to get to the door carrying my bulky suitcase and two bags.  I stand 2 stops before I’m due to get off and inch my way to the door, people parting like the slow red sea.  Miraculously, when my stop comes, people stand clear; they’re looking out for me; they’re easing my way.  I make it off.

the emma saray boutique hotel

the emma saray boutique hotel

I lug my suitcase clacking and bumping over the cobblestone streets of the old town searching for my hotel, the Emma Saray.  It’s much further afield than the Big Apple Hostel.  It’s hot and I’m beat, sticky, irritable & exhausted.  About 45 minutes later, I’m at the Emma Saray and I use their computer in the stifling lobby until my room is ready and I can finally take a shower.

Ah, water!  On this trip, I have come to appreciate, adore, even worship that most elemental of things: water.  The room is air-conditioned. 🙂  I jump in the shower, linger a long time.  Since the morning before, I have been lounging in the sun covered in sunscreen, swimming in the salty Aegean, donning my comfy, but dirty, traveling clothes.  I’ve been accumulating layers of sweat and salt on my body.  By the time I take this shower, it is a blessing, a treasure, worth more than silver or emeralds or diamonds.

After my shower, I head out to the streets of Sultanahmet.  I stop for lunch at Buhara 93, a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves, that just happens to be on my way to the Hippodrome.  I eat the yummiest doner kebabs, after eating a hot puffy bread right out of the oven that looks like a pillow.  It’s delicious.  After eating, I continue on up the hill to the Hippodrome.  I intend to go to Taksim again, back to a shop called Mavi, to buy some shorts and some cargo pants.  All my clothes are filthy now, especially my white shorts and the navy cargo pants that I’ve worn almost daily.  They’re covered in dust from all my hiking through Cappadocia.

At the Hippodrome, a dark, brooding guy falls into step with me and strikes up the typical conversation.  His name is Genghis, like Genghis Khan, he tells me, and he has the bulky body typical of guys you imagine from Kazakhstan or one of the old Soviet -bloc countries.  He says, hello.  Where are you from?  I’m not a tour guide; I just want to speak to you.  I just want a friend.   He asks if I’d like to sit in an outdoor cafe and we do, we sit at that cafe and he buys me a mango juice and himself a tea, and he smokes while he stares at me with piercing eyes.  He’s very intense.  He asks me about myself, Are you married?  Why don’t you have a boyfriend? He says he’s not married, he’s around 30 years old.  He tells me I’m very attractive and he keeps staring intently at me.  I’ve never seen anyone with such an intense gaze.

Yada, yada, yada.  There’s a long story that goes along with this man, and that post will follow this one, but it is not for the weak-hearted and thus will be protected.  Anyway, skip ahead.   After a long while, and after buying a carpet that I certainly didn’t need and didn’t even want, Genghis walks me to my hotel, where I drop the carpet, and he arranges to meet me at the Egyptian obelisk at 10:00 that night.  We part ways, and I head back up toward Sultanahmet.  The tram is not working for some reason, so I share a taxi with another man; I then take the funicular back to Taksim. There,  I buy the shorts and cargo pants I intended to buy.  I decide to stop in at the little restaurant where I ate before, but the whole restaurant is being gutted and apparently renovated.  There’s not a soul in sight. I make my way back down the steep cobblestone streets intending to take the tram, now operational, but it’s so hot, I opt for a taxi instead.

wine, me & sebahattin

wine, me & sebahattin

I shower again at the Emma Saray and head out to a fish restaurant I saw on my way.  When I get there, it’s closed for renovation, and a random guy on the street recommends a fish restaurant called Balikçi Sabahattin.  Though the setting is quite lovely, on a large outdoor patio in a side street of no special interest, the sea bass is mediocre and outrageously expensive.  I am also underwhelmed by the service.  Maybe because I am a single woman, I’m not sure, I get ignored and have to go out of my way to get the waiter’s attention.  When I leave I am disgusted with myself for staying even after seeing the ridiculous prices on the menu.  I ask to speak to the owner on my way out and I tell him that this was the worst dining experience I’ve had in all of Turkey.   He shrugs.  I am not impressed.

I decide to stop by Harun’s shop.  If nothing else, I told him I would buy a lamp from him and some plates.  I also know he will be good entertainment with his charm & humor.  This time, instead of two young French guys, there are two older South African guys sitting at his little table out front.  They are all having a jolly good time.  Harun is surprised to see me and asks why I never came back the next day when I promised I would.  I told him it was because of the way he turned his back on me and walked away after our long walk.  He gives me a reason for this, but I forget it now.  I have a seat at the little table and we all chat in a companionable group.  Harun is still flirting with me.  I say that I told him I would be back to buy the lamp from him, so here I am.  He asks if I will come back at midnight after his shop closes.  I say sure, I’ll be back.

me with sebahattin at his restaurant

me with sebahattin at his restaurant

I leave Harun’s shop and I’m supposed to meet Genghis at 10:00 but it’s still too early for that.  As I walk up the hill around the corner from Harun’s shop, I am lured once again into a restaurant by a cute guy wearing a purple shirt with a big diagonal stripe across it.  He has the palest green eyes I have ever seen.  He introduces himself as Sebahattin (he pronounces it Sebastian), and he’s around 30 and Kurdish.  I order a glass of wine and talk to Sebahattin while he’s working.  He keeps taking breaks and sitting down to talk with me.  He smokes and I join him.  He asks me if I’m married.  I tell him the story.  I ask if he has a girlfriend.  He says he did but they broke up. (I don’t think this is really true. I think she is very much still present.)  He says she’s from España.  She loves him very much but they argue constantly because she wants him to visit him in Spain, but he can’t get the visa.  She is very upset with him; he’s sad, but what can he do?  He says he’s not that sad; if he really loved her, he would do what’s necessary to get to her, right?  So he says.  I enjoy his company very much.  But I tell him I have to leave.  I have to meet someone I met earlier in the day.  I don’t really think Genghis will show up, but I will walk up to meet him in case he does.

Since I have been enjoying Sebahattin, I am late to meet Genghis at the Egyptian Obelisk.  I am surprised that even though I’m late, he is there waiting.  We walk up to a little bench and sit, but he is very distracted.  And obviously depressed.  He gets a phone call.  He asks if I can meet him outside of my hotel at 11:30.  By now it’s 10:30.  He wants to go for an hour to meet a friend who can give him some money.  He doesn’t have a cent, and he’s worried, I can tell.  He’s very down and sad and my heart breaks for him.  I say, No.  I think it’s best if we don’t meet tonight because you’re distracted and depressed.  I think it’s better tomorrow, if you’d like to meet tomorrow night.  He says, I can meet you at 11:30 tonight, or I can meet you tomorrow at 9:00 at the Egyptian Obelisk.  Tomorrow will be my last night in Istanbul, I tell him. I agree to meet him. We part ways.

stopping for wine at sebahattin's restaurant

stopping for wine at sebahattin’s restaurant

I go back to Sebahattin’s restaurant.  We talk more, flirt.  He’s a hard worker; he keeps jumping up to do his luring.  He’s good at enticing people in.  He is thin but tough, very tightly wound.  He keeps popping up and running to wait on the few customers, or he jumps up when he sees anyone approaching on the street.  He asks if I can come by tonight at 1:30 when the restaurant closes.  I tell him I already promised to meet Harun at midnight.  He knows Harun and doesn’t think much of him.  I tell him the story about Harun from last week.  I say I don’t really know much about him.  Sebahattin brings me another glass of wine on the house.  I can’t finish it; I tell him I have to leave to meet Harun.

I go to Harun’s shop and the South Africans are still there.  They’ve been there for hours!  This is how charming Harun is; they’re all having a grand time, laughing and storytelling.  Harun is packing up the shop.  When we finally leave, it’s late and what happens with Harun, when all is said and done, is nothing.  After we part ways, I think of going back to Sebahattin’s restaurant, but I’m too tired and have had too much wine already.  I go to my hotel room and sleep.

loving atatürk in the new district: taksim square, istiklal street, galata tower and the dreaded overnight bus

Sunday, July 25: I fall in love with Atatürk today.  I read about him in Rick Steves’ Istanbul as I travel to Taksim Square, where I see his statue, and here’s what I find:  His name was Mustafa Kemal but the Turks called him Atatürk: literally “father of the Turks” but in the context it stands for “Grand Turk.”  He defended Turkey from invaders during WWI and saved Turkey from the chopping block after the war.  He was a war hero, but not only that, he had a vision of what he wanted modern-day Turkey to be.  He wanted a European-style democracy.  In less than 10 years, he aligned Turkey with the West, separated religion and state, adopted the Western calendar, decreed that Turks should have surnames, changed the alphabet to Roman letters from Arabic script, abolished the sultanate and caliphate and polygamy, emancipated women and outlawed the fez and the veil.  He died at 9:05 on November 10, 1938 and each year all of Turkey observes a moment of silence on this day.

I am so moved by his story that I actually get all choked up and cry as I read this, while I am riding the crowded tram!

Tomb of Sultan Ahmet the First

Tomb of Sultan Ahmet the First

Before my journey to Taksim, I eat my last breakfast on the terrace of the Big Apple with Jessica and her mom.  After, I walk up through Sultanahmet Park and stop into the Tomb of Sultan Ahmet the First (1590-1617), who ascended to the imperial throne at age 13.  His greatest achievement was the building of the Blue Mosque, completed in 1616. He died of typhoid fever a year later at age 27.  He rests here with a dozen or so children.

the Han Restaurant, where I resolve to eat when I return to Istanbul

the Han Restaurant, where I resolve to eat when I return to Istanbul

Walking to the tram I come across a really cool Turkish restaurant called the Han, where I take pictures.  I resolve that I will eat here when I return to Istanbul on Saturday, July 31.  Tonight I cannot eat here as I will be taking the dreaded overnight bus to Cappadocia.

Taksim in the New District:

Off the tram and on to the funicular, up the hill to Taksim Square.  On the funicular I strike up a conversation with a nice Turkish family.  I tell them I LOVE Turkey, that I am teaching English in Korea, that I hope to teach in Turkey next year.  The husband gives me his email address and tells me he might be able to help me with this quest.  I am grateful.

Taksim Park

Taksim Park

Off the funicular, I am totally confused as streets are branching off in every direction.  I ask about Taksim Park, where I wander about for a bit.  Then I find the square with the Republic Monument, the statue of  Atatürk.  On one side of the 1928 statue is the military hero; on the other he is depicted as Turkey’s first president.

The Republic Monument at Taksim Square - Ataturk as President

The Republic Monument at Taksim Square – Ataturk as President

As I leave the statue and head toward Istiklal Street, I am shocked to see Tomomi, my Japanese friend who explored Dubai with me!!  We give each other a hug.  He is rushing to the airport to catch his flight home to Estonia.  I say what are the chances in a strange city the size of Istanbul that we would run into each other like this?  Sometimes it is such a small world.

I have come to Istiklal Street mainly to shop.  I am looking for some white capris; I have never been able to find any in Korea or at home in the U.S.  The only thing I buy is a pair of charcoal gray cargo pants.  After the long walk down the street, I stop for lunch at a lovely restaurant where I have an eggplant (they call it aubergine) kebab.  The restaurant manager and the head waiter talk to me in broken English, asking about my trip, where I am from.  They are very sweet.  This is just one of many times where I am eating and I think I am going to be lonely, but I’m not.  I have great company!

Galata Tower:

I continue to meander down the steep hill and stop at the Galata Tower.  This 205-foot-tall stone tower built by the Genoese dates from the mid-14th century.

Galata Tower in the New District

Galata Tower in the New District

It’s been used over the years as a fire tower, a barracks, a dungeon, and a launch pad for testing human flight.  I stand in line to go up to the elevator and think I will die of the heat.  Sometimes, in these situations, in close quarters where the air is at dead standstill, I have panic attacks.  I try to imagine myself somewhere else.  The elevator is hot as well.  Finally we are released and go out to the balcony of the tower.  The view of Istanbul is phenomenal.

The view from Galata Tower

The view from Galata Tower

I can see everything: the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, Asian Istanbul, the Sea of Marmara.  It’s amazing!  I enjoy as long as I can, dreading the trip back down (I have seen the lines going back down the elevators!).

veiw south from galata tower across the golden horn to sultanahmet

veiw south from galata tower across the golden horn to sultanahmet

The dreaded overnight bus:

I take the tram back to the Big Apple and though I’ve already checked out, they let me use a shower.  I change into my comfy “traveling clothes” and head for Turista Travel, where I am to catch a shuttle to the Istanbul bus terminal for my first overnight bus to Cappadocia.

On the shuttle, I meet an Italian girl named Marinella, who is an environmental researcher in Milan.  She says you do this kind of work for passion, not for money.  I say, oh well, as long as you can afford to travel, that’s what’s important, right?  She agrees.

me at the top of the galata tower

me at the top of the galata tower

We are in the shuttle heading into the bus terminal and we’re at a dead standstill.  There are two lanes of buses, heading up these huge convoluted ramps.  There are multitudes of buses!  Marinella tells me that according to the Lonely Planet, the Istanbul Bus Terminal is the largest bus terminal in the world, or at least in Europe.  I can believe it.  I have never seen anything like it.  Korea has an extensive bus system, but it is nothing like this!  We sit there for nearly an hour, in the queue up the ramps to catch our overnight bus.  Luckily Turista has built in enough time.

these shoes are made for walkin' ~ but i'm taking the overnight bus...

these shoes are made for walkin’ ~ but i’m taking the overnight bus…

I have the Lonely Planet Turkey Guide, but I can’t find this information to confirm it. I do a Google search but I find the largest bus terminal is the Preston Bus Station in Lancashire, England, though it’s about to be pulled down.  But I read in Tom Brosnahan’s turkeytravelplanner.com that this bus terminal, known as Büyük Otogar, has 168 ticket offices and gates, its own Metro station, shops, restaurants, hotel, police station, clinic and mosque.  Anyway.  It’s the biggest bus terminal I have ever seen!

In one of the lower parking levels, which we can see as we are going up the ramp, I point out to Marinella a guy in some black bikini briefs, changing his clothes from his bag in the bus cargo hold.  He is naked except for these briefs, but he proceeds to get dressed: button up shirt, nice trousers, tie, socks, shoes.  We sit on this ramp so long that we see him get dressed start to finish!

When we arrive at the top deck of the terminal, it is mass confusion.  We are to get on the Suha bus line.  None of us knows how the bus system works.  Do they have toilets on board?  No, we find out they don’t.  How often do they stop?  We can’t find out.  We all run up to Suha’s shabby and closet-sized office and climb 3 flights of stairs to use the squat toilets.  I have no idea what to expect.

The seats are relatively comfortable, though not as large as the seats on the Korean buses.   Once I settle in the very front right hand seat, and the bus begins its journey, we are served water, juice or soda by a bus attendant (like a flight attendant) pushing a cart.  I’m afraid to drink because I have no idea how long it will be before we stop.  It turns out there is no worry, because for the first two hours or so, we make too many stops to count.  I guess we are stopping at every bus station on the outskirts of Istanbul for this inland trip.  I write in my journal for a while and then settle into an uncomfortable and fitful sleep.

In the two seats directly across the aisle from me are a Muslim mother wearing a colorful headscarf and her three very young children.  How will these children do on this bus trip, crammed as the four of them are, on these two seats?   It is beyond me….

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