I’m not a back-packer, and unless you are actually going to go trekking, it’s a crazy way of carrying your possessions, in a heavy shoulder slumping container that screws up your clothes, forces you to delve for needed objects, and doubles the space you take up so every time you turn round, you bowl over some passer by or knock down a display of postcards. I stay in cities or towns and use public transport and taxis, so a bag on wheels is the easiest thing to lug around. But I do carry a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide with their advice on how to use the public transport system. From Istanbul airport I had taken the light railway and a tram to get me to my hotel. It was cheap, even after I’d wasted money on getting out extra tokens because of the difficulties of understanding the machines, and with help from Turks, both officials and commuters, I got my luggage through the turnstiles. Now, heading to Syria, I caught the tram and the ferry to Haydarpasa Station. I‘d learned how the trams operate and only wasted one token for the ferry since it looked like a coin instead of being a plastic disc. (When I struggle with foreign public transport systems, I think of explaining to visitors to Edinburgh about the various bus companies whose buses are of similar appearance and use identical bus numbers.)
The ferry was a commuter ferry, and as I leaned against the railing to view the lights reflecting in the Bosphorus, the railing sagged and swung rather frighteningly. We approached the spectacular Haydarpasa Station whose tall facade is on the docks, and I viewed it while the ferry bloke threw down a couple of rough wooden pallets for disembarking, then yelped, as the boat took off again - I’d missed getting off. However, I figured the boat would come back again shortly, which it did, and I was early as the train left at midnight.
Haydarpasa Station (I didn't take this photograph)
Haydarpasa Station is very grand with a high interior of arches and painted ceilings. It was built by the Kaiser for a proposed Berlin to Baghdad railway in the period of German and Turkish rapprochement before World War I. It is more handsome than St Pancras but sadly hardly used at all. A railway station should bustle but in this one there were only five trains leaving in the evening, and it felt chilly and deserted. I was one of the few in the waiting room, drinking tea while one bloke was stretched across seats snoring his head off.
Interior of station (nor this one)
You could board the train at 11pm. I got into my Pullman carriage with seats that turned into bunks, a small sink for washing and a fridge. I fell asleep and when I woke we were well inland trundling through a heavy frost that was evaporating into mist. It was very luxurious lying in a bed watching the sun come up and the landscape go by, and then to leave the carriage and go the restaurant car. It made me feel like Graham Greene. (Cost of ticket, 55 euros).
From the train
The landscape wasn’t striking and at that time of the year, late autumn, there was not much growing except for heaps of turnips or some other root crop, and grain and orchards that had mostly been harvested. The land is cultivated in strips by guys on small tractors and women in groups hoeing, or, as the day warmed up, sitting in the shade having lunch. Turkey is a big country, and there were many miles of this kind of thing. So during the daylight, I swanked from my cabin to the restaurant car and back again to my cabin for a snooze, if I wanted it, or to read DeLillo‘s Libra. At about 5pm the landscape grew hillier and more like Scotland, then it was dark. The train was supposed to get to its terminus, Adana, at 6:30, but we kept on going through the night and through towns that were unidentifiable. We’d come to the edge of a city, I’d get my luggage and make to the door, but it was not Adana. By then I was fidgetting with impatience to get off . Finally at 9:30 we arrived I found a taxi to take me to my hotel. The taxi driver said my choice of hotel was “no good” but he no doubt had ulterior motives because it was perfectly adequate, in fact luxurious by my budget standards. But I only slept a few hours in the big comfortable bed as I was up at 6 the next morning. Another taxi took me to the bus station for the next leg of the journey.
Turkey has an excellent bus system, and so there are always a dozen or so buses leaving at any one time from the lively bus stations, the otogars. I had bread and soup at a café and then caught the 7:15 bus to Antakya (cost about £7 for a three hour trip). On the bus, which was comfortable and air-conditioned, I was given a cup of tea, water and cologne for washing my hands. We drove through Mediterranean scenery of citruses and olives, with fortresses on the hills until we got to Antakya. There a bloke from a bus company sorted out that I wanted to go to “Halep” (Aleppo) (cost about £4). There were other buses going to Beirut and I felt I was finally in the romantic east. This bus station had a good locanta (cafeteria with basic dishes that are kept hot) and I had a dish of aubergines and meat and tomato flavoured rice, which were very tasty. It is one of the pleasures of Turkey that everywhere including at working men’s cafes you can get fresh-tasting, healthy food at a low price.
There were about six middle aged and elderly men on the bus. As we climbed to the Syrian border we passed a great line of lorries, about 150 of them parked along the road. We stopped at what I thought was the Syrian immigration point but in fact it was some procedure for exiting Turkey. They got us out of the bus and we stood on the road in the hot sun while a couple of uniformed officials in booths looked at our passports and checked us on a computer. Like everyone I hate to lose hold of my passport, and these officials casually flipped my passport from one to another in a disrespectful way. I didn’t know why we were being stopped, and my fellow passengers couldn’t explain it to me - the fact that we were on the road rather than in some building suggested an out of routine checkpoint. An elderly Jordanian gentleman though insisted I go ahead of him in the queue and seemed to be keeping a fatherly eye on me.
My passport was then tossed over to another official not in a booth but sitting at a desk on a traffic island. He asked me a question or two and then gave me a market research form to fill in - how long I’d been in Turkey, how much I’d spent etc. I avoid market researchers usually but he held my passport as a hostage so I filled it in and then got my passport back,
So the bus proceeded a little further and we were now at the Syrian border and in a proper immigration building. I’d got a visa before I left (£30) so it didn’t take that long for another lot of notably handsome fellows with fine eyes to chuck my passport from one to another and then return it well stamped. Now we passengers were hanging around, trying to locate which bus was ours, where the driver had gone, where the other passengers had gone and so on, keeping each other in sight as one island in a charterless sea of parked buses and general milling around . The driver had disappeared. The other passengers went to the duty free to buy cigarettes. After some time the driver returned and opened up the bus, so I got on board, while one of others also got on board, but only to pick up his luggage with mutterings and annoyed sounds and then to go off. A couple of others left as well, presumably to get on to another bus or a taxi ahead. I sat in a clueless fog, the two passengers who were left had almost no English so couldn’t explain what was going on but gave me some of the water kept on the bus and otherwise by their manner indicated some sympathy and bonding at the delay and the disappearance of the other passengers, the elderly gentleman really trying very hard to speak to me in his six words of English. If we’d had photos of our families in our wallets, we would have shown them to each other.
The hold up was because the Syrians were checking the luggage on all the vehicles. Finally they came to our bus and a genial soldier in camouflage gear had a quick look in the cases. One of the passengers made some quip, and the soldier embraced him. So evidently we were not under suspicion and after only one more examination of passports could leave the border having been there for nearly 2 hours. We drove down past the 200 lorries parked up on the other side. We were in Syria, and the faces of the Al-Assads, father and son, started appearing on giant billboards, none of them defaced, sadly.
At the Aleppo bus station, which was at the edge of city, the bus driver found me a taxi driver and the passengers and he stood around and nodded as I stumbled out the name of the place I was going to, so with a halting “goodbye” in Arabic which I’d been practising, I left them and was driven to my hotel in Aleppo.