The first evening on the bus was great fun, like being guests at a mobile party. Taped music played with everyone clapping and singing along, guys would come up to the front and tell jokes and stories into the Kapitain’s microphone, and there was even a quiz. Of course we couldn’t understand a word of what was being said but there was a kind of happy holiday atmosphere that was infectious. By one o’clock in the morning, just as everyone had quietened down and were slipping into sleep, we pulled off the road and all the passengers disembarked. We joined the crowd and entered a large restaurant. It was apparently dinner time. The Kapitain invited us to eat with him and had a tray of kebabs brought to the table. Because of the language problem we had great difficulty in explaining that we didn’t eat meat and thought, from his stony expression, that we might have offended him, that we were refusing his hospitality. But not at all. He simply took us into the kitchen, said something to the head cook, and returned to his table. The cook (irritated at being ordered about in his own kitchen no doubt) took us on such a lightning tour of all the steaming pots of food that it was impossible to know what was in each one and, playing safe, we eventually chose a plate of pilaf with salad and yoghurt. Above us on the wall was an enormous monochrome print of Kemal Ataturk looking all the world like Count Dracula. We were to see the same picture everywhere we went in our short stay in Turkey
Neither Janette nor I managed much sleep that night. The seats were comfortable enough but it was quite cold. Janette was feeling queasy, perhaps the salad from the previous night, who knows how clean the water was that it was washed in? We would be more careful in future, I thought. In the morning we stopped for an early lunch and graciously turned down the Kapitain’s offer of a meal but did join him for chai. The way that everyone stared at us you wouldn’t think that this was a well-traveled route for young westerners, (it appeared that most people traveled on the overland buses from Europe rather than on local transport). When we walked into the restaurant the conversation died down and all eyes were on us as if we’d just beamed down from another planet but, despite their obvious surprise, everyone was friendly and welcoming.
This service station/truck-stop/restaurant had the absolute worst, stinking, overflowing-with-shit, hole in the ground, outside toilet I have ever had the misfortune to use in all my life, then and now. I’d thought that the toilet in Yugoslavia was bad but this one beat it hands down. The smell still haunts me over thirty years later. Returning to the bus the Kapitain insisted that we sit at the front where there was more room to stretch out our legs and he could keep us supplied with king-size Marlboroughs rather than the cheap local Samsuns we had been smoking.
Sometime in the early hours of the next morning we passed through Ankara, of which I only have a half awake, fleeting recollection of city lights and modern buildings. Throughout the next day we followed the central route, E23, across Turkey through Sivas and Erzincan, the scenery becoming more barren and rugged the further east we traveled. The people we passed looked very poor, their houses little more than stone shacks with mud floors. There were no tractors or mechanised farm machinery and whole families looked to be working in the fields. The small towns were simply clusters of squat buildings huddled together against the extremes of weather annually experienced in eastern Turkey. At the next rest stop we were once again invited to eat with the driver and, as before, we made our choice from the kitchen, where the workers appeared delighted to have us check out all the bubbling pots of food. We ate butter beans in garlic tomato sauce with rice and salad, (obviously not having learned our lesson on the salad front). We desperately tried to get across to the Kapitain how grateful we were, not just for the meal but for the hospitality he had shown two unworldly foreign strangers on the entire trip. We had no Turkish and he had no English but he nodded, his face expressionless as ever, as if to say, ‘It’s no big deal, this is how we treat guests in Turkey’.
We had expected the 700 mile journey from Istanbul to take much longer but we reached Erzerum at 8pm after twenty-six hours traveling. Our bags were offloaded and we said our goodbyes. The Turkish for goodbye is ‘Gule Gule’, which translates as ‘Smiling, Smiling’, which is kind of nice.
Standing in the cold bus station, wondering which way to go to find a room for the night, a small boy who spoke reasonable English approached us and offered to take us to a hotel. The Hotel Asya charged us 20Turkish Lira each, (about £1.20 for the two us) for, what we were told was, a double room with heater, telephone and hot shower. I couldn’t find a telephone, (not that we had anyone to call here in Erzerum, a place in the world that few people had even heard of) but there was a large radiator and the windows were crudely double-glazed. In the shower room were three cubicles, the first had a shower but no water came from it, only a metallic clunking sound when the tap was turned on, the second had no shower or plumbing of any kind and the third contained a huge oil drum. We used the washbasin and managed to get off most of the grime in a sad trickle of lukewarm water. The room was clean and warm (Erzerum is located on a high plateau, 5760 feet above sea level, and was most definitely chilly). Exhausted, I fell asleep in the middle of a conversation with Janette.
First thing in the morning the communal bathroom was full of young soldiers cleaning their teeth and loudly hawking up unhealthy amounts of phlegm into the washbasins. I hurriedly splashed my face, cleaned my teeth and left them to it. I had chronic diarrhoea but a couple of Lomotil tablets bunged me up enough for us to be on our way. The plan was straightforward. Change enough money to get us to the border at Bazargan and be in Iran before nightfall. A guy at the hotel gave us directions to the bank where we topped up our Turkish Lira. Then, on our way to the bus station, we were accosted by a fast-talking, crazy-looking guy with wild, bloodshot eyes, a five-day beard and no front teeth. In broken English he asked us where we were going and, before we had time to think about what was happening, had hustled us into an already overloaded beaten up minibus. The ride was very uncomfortable and, on arrival in Agri, about half way to the Iranian border, we were told that this was the end of the line. Feeling a mixture of bemusement and irritation we stood in the dusty street with our bags as passing Kurdish locals stared at us suspiciously. The place felt like a bandit town. You could have made a fantastic Kurdish spaghetti western there. It had that hopeless, vaguely hostile, end of the line feel to it. Almost immediately two men approached, asked if we wanted to go to the border and dragged us off to sit on a bench in a ramshackle wooden hut full of men, all of whom looked like dangerous criminals. After a time a converted Transit van pulled up and we were loaded on, along with fourteen guys plus a three or four year old child who sat on the drivers lap. The journey immediately began badly, with the driver reversing the van into the path of a passing truck and smashing one of its rear indicators. This was a bit worrying, and the route, along narrow, winding mountain roads at high speed, although incredibly spectacular visually, was bloody terrifying, packed in as tight as we were. Coming down on to a stark, treeless plain the driver brought the vehicle to a halt outside Dogubayazit, a small Kurdish town famous only for smuggling and being the nearest inhabited place to the border. I was glad to get out. Damn it… I was glad to be still alive.
Still not at the border and feeling somewhat ripped-off for the second time that day we sat at the side of the road and looked into the distance at Mt Ararat, Turkey’s highest mountain, partially shrouded in cloud. Within minutes we were picked up by a silent soldier in a roomy saloon car who drove us the final twenty two miles, past the long line of trucks waiting to cross into Iran, through an arched gateway and into the walled border post of Bazargan. Passing from the Turkish to the Iranian side was done quickly and easily. Passport control and customs were efficient, courteous and heavily armed. We changed some money, bought a cheap tourist map of Iran and drank chai in the restaurant whilst pondering the best way to move on. As the evening was drawing in we decided that the best thing to do would be to stay the night in the nearest town and set out again first thing in the morning. A rather suspect looking taxi driver who’d obviously been hanging around waiting for us to finish our tea offered his services and dropped us, at what he said was a hotel, in Maku, a couple of miles down the road. The place was first and foremost a restaurant but with a few bedrooms at the back. The room door didn’t lock, the washbasin was in the corridor in view of the diners and the toilets were outside and pretty rank but the owner was friendly and the beds were clean. We ate in the dining room, drank chai and went to bed exhausted again.