Monday, 26 November 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 5 - Starting West

Istanbul, 26th November 2012.

After stopping at the glorious Blue Mosque I go nearby to the Basilica Cistern, a large underground chamber constructed in the 6th century. Inside a walkway takes you on a gentle lap through the ordered forest of stone columns, below me in the clear water a few fish glide past. The chamber echoes with the splashes and drips of water, orange lights illuminate each pillar gently, reflecting sharply in the shallow and gently rippling water. The atmosphere is pleasantly quiet and humid, the steady repeating pattern of columns offers a simple beauty. What I like most about the cistern is that unlike the other sites in Istanbul this wasn't intended to impress people or deities, it was designed purely to be functional, but it has still become a beautiful space.
I eat lunch at a cafe behind the New Mosque, ordering a filled pita and a glass of sweet tea. My order is repeatedly relayed between all six waiters before one of them actually pours my tea. All the patrons are sat on small chairs around wooden tables with the occasional stray cat wandering between their legs and meowing hopefully. People come and go from the Spice Bazaar; other tourists wander by, some self assuredly toting cameras with huge lenses, others gathered around a map, turning it this way and that, pointing at different buildings and then back to the map. Sitting on one of tables is a middle aged turkish man who has a thick black moustache and his two friends. He's gesticulating wildly and talking with passion about something that's clearly annoying him. His friends chuckle in response and wave their hands at him soothingly.

After lunch I meet Norman again and we take a ferry the short distance across the Bosphorus to Üsküdar on the Asian side. We're looking for the Florence Nightingale museum, which is apparently near the large Selimiye Barracks. We cross the street leading from the ferry pier and wander through a small, but lively market, then on through some quieter housing areas before appearing at a large road junction. The roads are all running through a graveyard which is broken into little islands of graves, each island protected by a low white stone wall, separating the roads as they split, join and cross each other. Norman spots a small brown sign pointing out the Nightingale museum, so we follow that towards the barracks.

As we approach the barracks military policemen are keeping the main road clear by stopping cars on the side roads. Ahead of us, waiting in the middle of the closed street, are two unimogs. On either side stand people watching the vehicles, some holding large old black and white portrait photos. We wander a short way behind the crowd and see a small band followed by a unit of conscripts in parade uniform holding rifles. The conscripts are all very young and thin, with slightly oversized plastic helmets, holding their rifles at rest, but glancing very self-consciously at the people watching from the pavement.

A sudden shout brings the band to life and they start playing a very slow dirge, the conscripts snap to attention. The procession then marches slowly to the parked unimogs; behind them another off-road vehicle appears, pulling a gun carriage on which two Turkish flag covered coffins lie. After a short distance the combined procession stops, the band disperses and then re-assembles on the side of the road facing the unimogs. Two guards of honour appear, take the coffins from the gun carriage and place each in the back of a unimog, which then drive off as the band strikes up a slow march. After the march is finished the units break up and wander casually back past the guard posts into the barracks.

Walking up to the barracks there is no sign of the Nightingale museum. At the entrance we get nothing but stern looks from the guards and assuming the entrance is somewhere else we wander around the edge of the large compound, but see nothing other than a well built fence1. By now it's late afternoon, so Norman and I walk the short distance to the Harem ferry pier. The pier is behind a huge open bus interchange where overland services to the rest of Eastern Turkey start and stop. The ferry takes us back to the old city, playing a giant game of Frogger with the larger merchant ships that cruise up and down.

On my way back to the hostel I visit one of the many shops in the Spice Bazaar and buy a collection of sweets for my coming journey, including a large chunk of bright red pistachio studded turkish delight so tough that even the sweet seller struggles to cut through it.

After collecting my luggage I eat dinner in a restaurant sympathetic to someone carrying a sixty litre rucksack and then make my way to Sirkeci station, the starting point of my journey west. Currently, due to long term railway works, the usual night train to Sofia is being replaced by a bus as far as the boarder town of Kapikule. I find the bus waiting outside, a thin moustached man, who I assume is the driver, is standing next to the open baggage compartment of the coach smoking. I ask him 'Sofia?' and he nods and points from my rucksack to the baggage space.

I get on the bus, find a seat and wait. A few friends and colleagues of the smoking driver arrive; two in turkish train uniforms and a huge broad shouldered man who looks like a weight lifter, wearing a leather jack that is barely able to stretch over his biceps.

After I've been waiting five minutes the driver comes into the bus, sorts out a few things by the coffee urn in the middle, then still holding what looks like a small soap bottle asks "Toi-wait?".
"Toilet?" I respond, "I'm ok, I don't need the toilet".
He tries again smiling, "Toi-wait" and waves towards the station building behind me.
"To wait?" I try, "Should I wait in the station?".
He continues to smile, nods his head and waves again with his open palm at the building, "Toi-wait".
"Ok, I'll wait in the station" I say and wave at the station with my left hand. As soon as I bring my open palm back to towards me, he lifts the plastic bottle and squirts into my palm a splash of liquid that smells strongly of slightly putrid lavender, he smiles at me, turns, and walks away. I look at my left hand in confusion as the lavender liquid starts to evaporate, then I rub my hands together and on the headrest in front of me in a vain effort to get rid of it.

With both my hands stinking of lavender I go to the station and pay one lira to use the bathroom I didn't need in an effort to wash the perfume off. After five minutes I've managed to remove the immediate shock smell, but for the next three days every time I raise a drink to my mouth I can smell lavender.

In the waiting room, huddled around the radiator are four well built bulgarian ladies chatting and joking with each other. One of the train guards comes in saying the bus is leaving, so we get on, followed by the guards, an older bald gentleman with glasses, the moustached perfume dispenser and to, my surprise the weight lifter, who turns out to be our driver and just manages to squeeze himself behind the bus' steering wheel.

The bus door closes with a hiss and then, without any ceremony, the weight lifter guides the bus confidently into the late night traffic.

After a few hours of driving on a motorway we stop at a service station, remarkable only for its similarity to every other service station I have ever been in. After we return to the bus to continue our journey the perfume dispenser walks up and down, offering passengers a splash of perfume; I politely decline with a shake of my head and a look, which hopefully gives the impression that I'm ok, and don't need anymore today, or for the next month, but thank you anyway. To my shock the bespectacled man accepts the offer, receives some perfume gratefully into his outstretched palms, then wipes it across his hands and his face.

Another couple of hours later and we're driving through a dense fog, the lamppost lights appearing only as regular orange glowing patches. Slowly I notice that the right-hand lane is full of parked lorries. Our speed drops a little as we move along the only open lane on the motorway, stuck behind a slower lorry with its warning lights flashing. I wonder what problem is causing the queue. We continue like this for half an hour, then our driver slows and unexpectedly turns right between two parked lorries into what looks like an unlit building site. The weight lifter doesn't appear worried and steadily drives us over rough gravel tracks parallel to the motorway. Over the wall separating us from the road I see a large roof which I assume is a border customs building. Our driver appears to be trying to sneak us into Bulgaria under the cover of the fog, taking a secret off-road back route, as we pass between some sleeping apartment blocks. Then, suddenly, we emerge in the car park of Kapikul Station.

The station building is a solid concrete box with a platform behind it, anything beyond that is hidden in the fog. Our luggage is x-rayed in a separate small building standing next to the platform, then all six of us have our passports stamped. The bulgarian ladies place their luggage, large plastic bags, near the edge of the platform and wander over to a small window in an adjacent building that says Duty Free. It's currently one in the morning and I sit with my rucksack in the chill waiting room eating some of the sweets I bought earlier.

Eventually the train appears out of the fog and into the fuzzy orange glow of the station's lights. As the trains stops, at two o'clock in the morning on the Turkish/Bulgarian boarder, out pours a large troupe of Japanese people, mostly teenagers; some of them carry guitars and some carry small amplifiers. The lone lady on the x-ray machine suddenly looks very unimpressed. I suspect groups of Japanese tourists are a constant of travelling; like the presence of single middle-class backpackers with Lonely Planet guidebooks worrying if they are cool enough, even though there's no-one watching them to judge.

The bulgarian ladies get on the train, look through all the sleeper compartments and then choose their preferred seats. I get on and pick an empty compartment, double checking first that my carriage says Sofia. One of the Turkish guards from the bus comes past and sells me the upgrade to the sleeper and hands me some bedding. At three o'clock the train starts to move slowly and we trundle out of the lights of the station and into the dark fog. I lie down and go to sleep in the gently rocking compartment which is mysteriously starting to smell of lavender.

1 - I have since learnt that apparently the museum can only be visited by faxing your details and preferred appointment time 48 hours in advance.