Bristol, November 23rd 2012.
You have to start somewhere and for me it is Bristol Temple Meads Station and the eleven o’clock to London Paddington.
A clear November sky lets a low and yellow sun give the countryside a slumbering fuzzy glow, inviting the start of hibernation. The recent heavy rain has resulted in flooding, causing the Avon to be lost in wide, smooth brown lakes that run under hedgerows and across fields; in Bath the river is almost touching the undersides of the bridges.
On the train I triple check the blue plastic wallet that is my solution to a ticketless world; not wanting to rely solely on my phone I’ve gathered printouts of ticket collection numbers, reservation references, maps to hostels and other assorted useful printouts. Perhaps just having the tickets would be easier.
After changing onto the Heathrow Express under the vaulted victorian roof of Paddington station I arrive at Heathrow Terminal 5. Unlike the curves of Paddington’s roof the square sections of T5’s facade make you feel as if you are inside a huge cage or tank. The scaled-up support pillars, large glass panes and oversized bolts let you believe that outside somewhere is a giant, with an airport shaped vivarium of people scurrying around on different levels like an ant’s nest. Not carrying leaves or sugar to each other but bags of clothes and duty free in one side and out the other, following the yellow signs and in the footsteps of those queuing before them.
Through the grid of the facade I watch the short day end, the long shadows cast by aircraft, boarding ramps and scurrying ground handling vehicles cutting across each other. By the time we line up on the runway only a low glow is left in the western sky. After take off we circle left and head east into the comfort of the oncoming night. To my left, hanging in a line, seemingly stationary above the glowing weave of London, are the bright white landing lights of incoming aircraft.
The flight covers the three thousand plus kilometres of my route in under four hours, something I will spend fourteen days doing on the return journey. While the flight is fast, it reveals nothing of the countries below but an occasional neon web, which is why I have chosen to do the return journey at ground level. We continue to speed east and I eat the surprisingly passable inflight curry in a praying mantis position, elbows in and cutlery pointing sharply down, to prevent injuring my neighbour.
Landing and arrival in Ataturk airport are reassuringly mundane and interchangeable with any other airport in the world. Before immigration signs list the countries which need visas. Some countries have been crossed out over time, covered with masking tape or bits of paper. I assume as their relationships with Turkey have improved they are removed from the ’naughty list’ and their citizens are granted visa free entry.
Baggage collection happily goes without a problem, always a mercy worth remembering, and as I head for the exit into the arrivals hall a queue begins to form. Ahead of me waiting family members are squeezing through the doors and past the arriving passengers to find and help relatives with their bags. Once I’m through the doors the arrival hall is packed with families and groups waiting; a loud roar of happy and expectant chatter filling the air. Getting through the crowd is difficult, with groups of security guards struggling to hold open a few thin channels between excited families to let passengers out.
Past the crowd I take the metro and then the tram to the old Sultanahmet district. Near the airport, while self consciously balancing my giant rucksack on the floor in front of me, I see the large shadows and bright signs of out-of-town shopping centres and megastores drift by in the night. As we get closer to the old city, the streets begin to shrink and the buildings become lower. The tram passes through an archway in the ancient defensive walls that mark the boundary of old Constantinople, with its orange under-lighting and massive scale the wall retains an imposing presence. Once inside the walls buildings are much more tightly packed, the shops and storefronts smaller but still open late at night.
After a short walk from the tram stop I find my hostel and check in. The third floor bunk room is simple; four sets of bunk beds and a small table in the middle. One bunk is already occupied by a neat broad shouldered Palestinian doctor. As I unpack we chat and he explains that he’s in Istanbul to learn German so he can get a visa and move to Germany with his family. While looking for longer term accommodation he’s staying in the youth hostel; he studied medicine in Turkey and so can work here while studying.
He has only just arrived from Palestine, leaving his wife and three young children behind while he studies. He speaks with a friendly seriousness and is inquisitive about my life and plans. I casually comment that he seems to have put up with a lot in his life, difficulties which I am lucky to have avoided. He shrugs and asks if I believe in God. I give an answer as wooly and confused as my conclusions on the subject.
He smiles sympathetically and says God is the reason to be optimistic about the future and that it is worth working for. If you believe in a positive future you have to believe in God. The Arabic expression “Insha’Allah” means ‘God Willing’ and is said when talking about any future plans, to remind you that nothing can happen without God’s consent. The doctor smiles again with a look of quiet resolve underscoring that he’s working hard on a better future for his family and then lies down to sleep.
A four hour plane journey can take you a long way. For me Istanbul is the furthest extent of my journey, the end of the west and the start of the east; for others it is the start of the west.