Sunday, February 04, 2007

Transportation in Turkey

I thought that I'd focus on the transportation, as we experienced it, in Turkey, with all the associated stories. After all, it sort of felt that a lot of what we did in Turkey was get transported from one place to another, in spite of doing our best to try concentrate on the eastern part of Turkey.

Turkey is about 1000 miles west to east and about 300 miles north to south. It's slightly bigger than the US state of Texas.

We (Ed, my high school era buddy and fantastic traveling partner, and I) flew from our respective abodes to Washington Dulles airport, met there, and continued on to Frankfurt, Germany, and then on to Istanbul, Turkey. There, we high-tailed it to the domestic terminal to book a flight to Trabzon. Unfortunately, most of the flights during the day were already booked, so we wound up having to get a flight in the early evening, thus, pretty much wiping out a potential day for exploration in our destination. And, the flight was late. They told us about it in Turkish and English. But, arrive we did, into Trabzon, a big town in the eastern part of Turkey, up on the Black Sea. We flew in the dark, and could see the city lights dotting the coastline, with evidence of mountains behind, and the Black Sea on our left. We wondered where they could put an airport in such terrain, but eventually, a wide area next to the sea opened up, and the long runway appeared.

When we got out into the airport, all we saw were about 4 car rental agencies, and crowds of people. Eegads - no "information"? We were counting on this to find a hotel!!! We had already decided which one we wanted to stay in, by using the Lonely Planet guide that was our other constant traveling companion, we just wanted help in calling them. Ed had the brilliant idea of talking to one of the rental car people "does someone here speak English?" (We knew that knowing how to count or to say "hello" were not enough at this point to even pretend to try Turkish.) Immediately, someone held up a finger or hand and told us to wait a moment, and went running away. We weren't quite sure what was happening, but, eventually, a guy came and started speaking English to us - they'd found the one guy that everyone knew spoke English to help us! We told him our troubles, and he agreed to phone the hotel. But, he said that he couldn't get through. I asked why would that be, and he said that, well, it was raining, so maybe the power or phone lines were down "it's far away," he said. So, I was wondering, again, oh dear, what do we do? Ed said, "Well, we need a hotel, what do YOU suggest?" He was perfectly willing to go to this guy's cousin's hotel or whatever, since we needed a place. It'd been something like a day and a half since we'd last slept, and so getting squared away SOMEwhere seemed the most important thing. The guy thought a while, and then suggested something - "and it must be ok, because English people and German people - they've stayed there" and it was in our price range. I can't remember if he called them or not, I think not, because he was so sure that they would have a spot. Then he took us outside to tell the taxi coordinator where we needed to go. So, this was a guy that was supposed to be attending to his own car rental business, helping us this whole time. We were very grateful. The hotel wasn't very far away, and it turned out to be fine, except, of course, for the smoke that seemed to drift everywhere. . .

We slept until we heard the Esam, the call to prayer, at the mosque right next door to the hotel, at something like 4:30am.

We wanted to see a castle ruin that was supposed to be fairly nearby, went in search of a bus to get there, and finally gave up and went into a posh-looking hotel to find out where the bus station was. We told the woman where we wanted to go, and she asked us to please follow this man, whom she'd been talking to - it was her father. He would take us there. He told us that we'd have to go to another town, Goreme, and then back to the town that we really wanted to go to, to see the ruin. (This part was done with pen and paper, as he didn't speak English.) We followed him the quarter mile or so to the bus station. We were impressed that he took us so far, to get us where we wanted to go. He told the bus driver where we were headed and they rounded us up into a van-type vehicle, called a Dolmush. We rode this all the way to Goreme, some 60 kms or so, at a fairly slow speed, stopping and dropping off and picking up people all along the way. We couldn’t quite tell how they knew where to pick people up, since sometimes it appeared to us to be in the middle of nowhere.

In Goreme, we started to ask about our true destination. We were told that it was near Trabzon, the place we'd just left! This town did not seem to have any hotels (that was the first thing that I asked for, since I wanted to use a bathroom, and hotels tend to be handy for that). But, no, no hotel. Did we speak German? Only a bit. Were we Italian? No. American. Ah, Americans. Smiles all around. Big crowd all around us. We asked for Turkish coffee for Ed, since we'd heard all about that, before coming here. "Ok, ok," they motioned us to sit down, the crowd was still there, and then, finally, a young man came up to us and started speaking in English. He translated for us, and for the crowd. We established that yes, the place that we wanted to go was really near Trabzon, and that meant another bus ride back. Meanwhile, he took us to a bathroom. And then Ed wanted to go up into the tower of a mosque, and so the young man took us to his mosque. We had to wait for the keys to the tower, and while we waited I bought a scarf to put over my head for mosque visits, having not brought any with me. We saw the tower, and the mosque, and then we were invited to have tea across the street. So far, the only thing we paid for was the scarf. The young man was quite pleased that he was getting this opportunity to practice his English, and we plied him with all of the questions that we had come up with, so far. Eventually, he put us into a dolmush going back toward Trabzon. The sun was setting at 4:30pm around here (early November), and so we decided that we just wanted to get back to the hotel as it was just too dark.

On the Dolmush, there was typically a bench seat in front, and 2 3-seater benches, and one higher-set 4 seater bench in the back. And maybe another individual seat on the side. When there were more people than could fit in the seats, no problem, they would pull out a stool, and someone would sit on that, in the aisle. Oh - too many for even that? Ok, just stand here, next to the door. At one point in our ride, all of the floor space was taken, and there were 3 young men squeezed together standing, bent over, right next to the door. No discounts for them. . . But the 60 km ride was only about 3 US dollars, and their ride, even less, as they didn't go as far. When we got fairly near to Trabzon, an older man started to talk to us. We asked him how he would suggest that we get to our hotel, and he knew just the right little dolmush to take us there - less than 1 dollar (we'd assumed that we'd take a taxi, which would have been more than 10 dollars). He walked out of the dolmush with us, and flagged down another, told the man where we wanted to go, and went on his way. Such hospitality!!!

The next day we wanted to move on. We had our idea of what we'd do, and then we went down to discuss it with the hotel proprietor. He asked us a whole bunch of questions, and finally told us that he suggested a different plan - that we should go to a town called Ayder, and hire a guide and go for a hike, there.  He told us how to get a bus, there. First, take a small bus to the station, and from the station, take a big bus. We took another inexpensive dolmush - telling them where we were headed, and when they dropped us off on the street, they motioned to where we should go. We weren't quite clear, and asked some people at a nearby bus-stop, and they motioned to the same place. We went down to the place they'd motioned to, and realized that it was the building that housed the ticket offices of many bus companies. We kept stating our destination, and people steered us to one bus company. We went on a medium-sized bus (click on pictures to see the enlarged size):

This took us to a town that was still 17km away from our destination. The bus driver indicated that we should get out, take out all of our stuff, and wait. We were left at the edge of town. After about 5 minutes or so, he came back, came running out to us, and gave us part of the money we'd given him for the whole trip, and motioned that someone else would come to whom we should give the money. We trusted that someone would come and take us the rest of the way. Meanwhile, we took pictures of our surroundings. This is our "street corner" with all our stuff, and a sign that indicates the way to our destination, Ayder:

And this is what we had to look at:

Eventually, someone came running over to us, and indicated that we should get into another dolmush, with a load of hay on the top and a whole bunch of schoolgirls piled in, and a couple of older adults. We went on our way, and dropped schoolgirls off all along the way, in the mountains. The houses were similar to this, the roads, one lane, and carved into the steep mountain terrain (this was our dolmush, by the way - just looks like a van):

By this time, all the school girls were gone, and the driver helped another man remove all the hay from the roof. The Dolmush seemed to be the central life-blood of the surrounding mountains - ferrying school children, adults, and their stuff. The ride took us almost the entire day, but ended at the doorstep of our hotel.

Getting out 2 days later, we took the same Dolmush, with the same driver. When he went to pick up all the school children, in a circuit in the mountains, they dropped us, and other adults, off at a building and motioned us to stay, but not to take our bags off of the dolmush, returning, later, minus the school children, and picked us up, again. When we got near the exit of the canyon, the driver called out "my friend!" and the name of one of the towns. We wanted to go in the other direction, but had assumed that we'd have to go back to the big town a bit in the wrong direction, but we yelled out the name of our destination. This enlivened the driver, he pulled out in the direction of the big city, but then stopped on the side of the road, and indicated that we should get out. We were puzzled - here? In the middle of nowhere? And he came running around to the side, and pointed across the 2 lane highway - a medium-sized bus!!!! Headed into the direction we wanted to go! The Dolmush driver repeated the name of an intermediate town, and then our destination. So few words. Such a lot of meaning. . . We went to another bus station, and to another bus.

Later in the trip, leaving the city of Van, in the very east of Turkey, we went on our first big bus. These buses were the size of a USA Greyhound bus, but without any toilets on them. We were given seat numbers. Getting out of Van - there were only 2 seats left, and they didn't offer them to us until we kept asking if there was ANY way to get on the 9am bus out of Van, and after I'd gone to all of the other bus companies in the area. The 2 seats left were not together, which is why it took so long for anyone to offer them to us. When they did, we took them without hesitation! They knew the sex of the passengers - and told me that I would be sitting next to a woman. This didn't strike me as odd until writing this. . .

There were 2 stewards who "managed" the passengers. They would provide water, tea, or, sometimes, a carbonated beverage during the trip, and little refreshments, like a little cake, or some cookies. After eating the refreshment, and at other times, the stewards would come around dousing everyone's hands (if they wished) with some "refreshing" liquid - this was sometimes a cologne (which I did not like at all, and was extremely difficult to wash off) and sometimes a pleasant-smelling lemon water. People would rub it all over their hands, and sometimes all over their face, neck, and hair.

The stewards would make sure that no one used their cell phones, as cell phone usage was forbidden on the bus (except for the bus driver - just like smoking - forbidden to the passengers, but most bus drivers smoked while driving, much to our dismay). The stewards would reprimand the passenger, and would also take the phone and speak to the caller. The one guy always did so with a smile on his face, and would cause discussion among the passengers.

Another job of the stewards was to make sure that the passengers stayed seated. We discovered this when I went back to talk to Ed, and was therefore standing in the aisle. We were surprised at how strict they were on these big buses.

The big buses didn't stop as often as the little buses. They would stop at least once an hour at some place where we could run out and go to a bathroom (it would typically cost a little less than 1/2 dollar to use the facilities). And every several hours we would stop at a place where we could eat a hot meal. These places were incredibly efficient. They were cafeteria style, but would invariably have someone running over to our table to give us the requisite (free) bread, if it wasn't already included as part of the walk through the line. Our fellow passengers would tell us how long we had to eat. The following is a picture of one of these buses parked outside one of the buildings in which we ate:

And every time the bus would stop, everyone would pour off the bus in order to have a cigarette. Going from Van to Malatya, they had plenty of extra opportunities, as we were stopped some 5 times for paper checks by soldiers. Ed and I would have to give our passports, and others would have to give their national IDs, EXCEPT for one gentleman and I believe it was his wife. For some reason, they would ask the man for his document, and he would say something to them, and they would move on. The soldiers would take away our documents, and, after we got going, again, the stewards would return all the documents to the passengers. A couple of times the soldiers would check some of the luggage, and once the soldiers checked everything that was on board the bus. I have no idea what they were looking for. The bus schedules seemed to take these checkpoints into consideration, since where-ever we went, they seemed to leave on time.

When we arrived in Malatya, it appeared that we were dropped in middle of the street, which Ed didn't care for, and, as I was exitting the bus, I managed to fall, striking my shin on the curb as I went down. This discombobulated me. A guy was asking if we needed a taxi. I was thinking that we were a mere 300 ft from our destination, which I judged to be in one direction. But everyone was pointing in the other direction. Something was wrong (besides my hurting shin). Finally, I actually listened to the people - they were trying to be helpful - if we didn't want to take their taxi, it was ok, but they could tell that we had no clue where we were. I think that we finally asked if there was a dolmush into the center of town. They pointed across the street (many lanes) - and look - there it was! They made sure that it didn't leave until we got on. I think that Ed and I were talking to each other in English saying something like "now, we just need to figure out when to get off." A young man turned around, told us that he could speak English, and asked us which hotel we were going to. We told him, and he offered to take us there - it was pretty much on the way for him. He told us when to get off, and then we started walking to our destination. It was dark, and some of the roads were narrow and fairly deserted. The young man told us he was an electrical engineer going to the University, there. He winded his way until, behold, there was our hotel. However, he didn't just walk away, he went in to make sure that we had a room. It turned out that there were no rooms available (a first on our entire trip!), so he discussed with the person, and asked us if it was ok to go to another hotel down the street. Yes, of course. He took us there, made sure that they had room, and only then left. Soooooooo very helpful! I don't know how we could have found our hotel with out this young man's help.

Frequently, we would have to change buses - either from a big bus to another bus or dolmush before we attained our destination. Whenever that would happen, the person would repeat our destination, and then motion us to wait, and then would usher us onto the next vehicle. They seemed to take so much care to make sure that we reached our destination. They would use passengers to translate if there were any who could speak English. We always made our destination (excepting that first day to Goreme, which we are sure was just a mistake).

One time, we entered a bus station, and asked for our destination, I think it was Bolu, and the guy got excited and had us run after him out to where all of the buses were, and then had us follow him into the parking lot - Ed kept asking me "does this seem right to you?" and I just countered with "everyone has gotten us to our destination, before, right?" (forgetting about our first day). Finally, though, I noticed that there was a big bus parked on the highway - the man was flagging down that bus for us, saving us hours of waiting for the next bus.

A final comment: I can't remember where, but there was one place where the bus terminal looked just like an airport. It was abosolutely enormous! Unfortunately, they only stayed there a moment, so I couldn't go outside to take a picture, so you have to look through the bus window to get an inkling of just how enormous this place was: