Leaving Istanbul was a trial. We got way too close to a knife fight down by the docks, then froze in a train car which wasn’t the one we’d expected.
To get to the Haydarpasa train station for the trip to Cappadocia we had to take a ferry near sundown. Great timing, because the evening light casting the minarets of Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque was unforgettable. Just getting to the ferry was something I won’t forget for a while.
Because traffic was gridlocked the driver let us off about 300 metres from the ferry pier. No problem, because we were travelling light. As we made our way dockside just passing the bow of an enormous cruise ship we came upon a thicket of fisherman side-by-side like you see lined up on the Galata bridge. I’m dragging our one roller-suitcase and the little red-haired girl is behind me with K, when all of a sudden I see off to my right this man get up, walk over and with a loud smack, kick this other man who was sitting down right in the head!
He’s yelling and screaming at him and going after him, but some others pull him off, only to have him go at the guy again, this time fetching a knife from a box and making like he’s going to stab him to death. He’s so enraged! I turn around and shout at K to get themselves away from them, because they were close by, and it still wasn’t over. After they’d stopped him from knifing the guy he picked up a paving stone and was going to either throw it or bash the guy’s head in if, again, the others hadn’t wrestled him to the ground.
The train trip was also memorable, but also for all the wrong reasons. I have this theory about the worst train we were on back then, the one where we had to share the beds and that man started to pray to mecca before sunrise: It was 30 years old and hadn’t been maintained much. The train the three of us took to Cappadocia was also at least 30 years old and hadn’t been maintained much, so in that way, I felt everything was the way it should be, right down to the problem we had when boarding. Another flashback! I wrote in my journal we had a major hassle boarding the train at Haydarpasa back then, too.
The Istanbul travel agency I booked the tickets through – the Turkish State Railway’s online booking system is hopeless – promised that by buying a fourth ticket we’d be getting a private compartment all to ourselves with couchette beds, bedding and pillows. Great! But when we got there the conductor directed us to the shabby old car into a six-person compartment already occupied by a man who must have been at least six-foot-six and yes, looked like he was an early riser, if you know what I mean.
So we were very polite not to make it look like we didn’t want his company, but we asked the conductor if he could find us a private room, which he thankfully did. Too bad it was freezing cold. Not only was the heater on the fritz, there was no bedding! Sorry-no-blanket-no-pillow was all they could tell us. I did go back to the agency and received a refund once we returned to Istanbul, but it was a pretty cold night.
I thought the little red-haired girl would whine and complain, but she was really good about it. “You know,” she said as she wrapped another of our jackets around her, “it’s really quite cozy the three of us in here.”
We woke up near Ankara and I immediately realised we were going to run out of food soon. We hadn’t packed much becuase they also told us there was a snack bar, but there was nothing at all to buy on the train. I soon figured out the best way to get food was to hop off during a station stop, so I did that once in the morning, but by noon we were starting to run low again.
Another flashback: We’ve been on this train for 13 hours already, it’s running late and there’s no way we’re going to make our arrival time before dark as planned, and while stopped at a station suddenly realise we’ve been in this ramshackle farming town for 20 minutes and there’s no sign we’re moving anytime soon, so I say, screw it. I’m going to go and buy us something to eat. So I leave the train and start looking. Again… do you remember how in nearly every little town there were shop windows that looked like they hadn’t been touched in months or years, the display boxes faded and dusty and the wares strewn with dead flies? Nothing much has changed in these little towns.
And that’s also a good thing, because in my search for something to keep us going the extra few hours we were going to need before Kayseri, I came upon a bakery. Wonderful! I’d left my camera behind, otherwise I’d be showing you the most amazing brick oven, half-oval-shaped door in front of which were stacked four-high about 50 pide bread, each more than a metre long, two proud bakers standing at either side holding long, wooden paddles. I pointed to some flatbread over on the side and paid something like 10 cents each for three nice chunky ones. I wish I could have lingered, but was worried the train might start to pull away, so paid and left. But in that brief moment I felt like I was getting a small snapshot of daily life that I’d otherwise never seen had we not been in the train.
As much as you see from afar from the train, you see a lot of life close up. Like the wrinkled and bent old man with teeth of tobacco-brown almond sticks who boarded the train at a whistle stop carrying a steaming kettle of tea, selling up and down the cars to earn a few lira. We bought a couple of glasses and he was on his way, but a while later came back to sit with us, just opened the door and plunked himself down and started chatting away, asking us where we were going and telling us how late we’d be, asking for a cigarette we didn’t have to give, smiling at the little red-haired girl and saying her hair was beautiful – all in pantomime of course. He disembarked a few miles down the line and gave us a wave as we passed.
We’d also have missed the stark emptiness of the landscape, the fall colours of poplar and birch as the train wended through narrow valleys, the enormous wide sweep of beige and blue as we crossed the plain, herds of sheep or goat tended by shepherds on donkeys, sheep dogs, itinerant farm workers clustered around bags of produce, camped out at the side of fields in huge tents covered in cloth or plastic, naked kids and dogs running around.
Part seven in a series. Part six is here, part five – underneath Istanbul; part four: the Blue Mosque smells like cheesy feet; part three: Sleepwalking through Turkey – was I even there? Part two: Istanbul memoir, and part one – the intro.