Coming in to Istanbul, there was a haze over the hills, sea and city. Large, stark stacks of apartment blocks stood on bare hills, emerging from the haze. The train actually passed a very new looking seaside park, complete with brightly-coloured plastic playground equipment. This contrasted with the stray kittens mewing on top of tin sheds and what seemed to be plastic drink-crate sorting yards nestled between the tracks and the remains of the Palace walls.
The train slid into Selcirk station with zero fanfare: there weren’t even any taxi drivers on hand, probably because only because about 15 people got off the train, and most were locals. The train did deliver us right into the centre of the city, which meant only a very short walk up to Sultahnmet to collect my pre-booked ticket to Tehran.
Istanbul, historically, geographically, spiritually, is a real intersection of east and west. I got this impression so strongly last time I visited – it really was my gateway to Europe as I spent time here en-route to Karlskrona in 2005 (photos from that visit are here and here). This time, wandering around during the day during what must be the low-season, what I noticed more were the shining glass-fronted fashion stores, newly-opened mini-marts announcing ‘European-style service’, and how clean and well-signed the bazaar was. Quite a change, and perhaps for the worse? Although I wasn’t complaining about the increase in commercialism if it was the driver behind providing free WiFi in the park at Sultahnment.
My main joy for the day was the friendly banter with the staff at Tu-rista agency, and dipping into as many mosques as possible to soak up the quiet and reverent atmosphere and incredible architecture.
And of course, my last stop before heading across to the Asian side at the alleys of nuts, sweets and dried fruit. It’s recommended you take your own food and water for the duration of the train and I felt well-prepared:
1.25 kg of various packages of peanuts, mixed nuts, and mixed dried fruit.
750g of several varieties of Turkish Delights
4L of water
12 flatbreads (to go with my small ration of Vegemite)
4 muesli bars
500g of tinned spinach and rice dolmades
[Apart from the Turkish delight and dolmades, I think this is my pretty standard fare no matter where I am travelling in the world. I just can’t get past flatbreads (tortillas or otherwise) for packing ease, being long-lasting, and how well they go with Vegemite.]
Once ferried across to the Asian side of the Bosphorous, I had one last ‘turkish delight’. Wandering the streets back from the port and train station seeking dinner, the energy of the city had really picked up with everyone eating, shopping and jumping on the various buses to take them home. The highlight of this little wander was walking past some magical cafes where no-one seems to be drinking or eating, just smoking and gambling.
On one small block, within a 75m radius, I found eight of these cafes. I actually walked past seven without noticing them, but then saw the last and smiled. Here is the Turkish equivalent of the pub, where men (no women) sat around in a smokey haze, drinking tea, talking rubbish (presumably) and gambling. Because they have nothing to sell, no customers to attract, no signage, and barely any lighting it is so easy to walk past all of them and not notice, even though they are the busiest places by far. I had too much respect for the atmosphere to take any photos.
And then, onto the train from the large waterfront station. I arrived about 45 minutes early, and got settled in to a couchette all to myself. Rather than sit and wait for it to move, I went and did some push-ups and sit-ups on the empty platform. Although I still realise this is probably a bit strange, it seems a good use of time to me, and I don’t think anyone else really cares. Once back on board and the train did start moving, a surge of fear and excitement bolted through me – I really was heading beyond Europe, am sure I have forgotten something important, and realised there is no (easy) way back. ‘Onwards to adventure and the Iranian border!’ I thought as I giggled nervously….
Some photos of the subsequent trip are below, and many more in my Picasa gallery here.