So there we were in ancient Sultanahmet with its unfamiliar smells and sounds and that exotic skyline of domes and minarets silhouetted against the evening sky. Directly in front of us was the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia and, right across the road from where the bus had stopped, the famed traveler’s meeting place, the Pudding Shop on Divan Yolu. At last we felt like we were really in the East. But, after three days and nights on the (not so Magic) bus from Amsterdam I was exhausted and seriously cranky. Even so, it felt strangely exciting to be in Turkey.
We avoided the rush to the Tourist Hotel next to the Blue Mosque and checked into the Gulhane Cinar, a shabby but cheap hotel in a dirty, cobbled backstreet. The place had an infamous history amongst low-budget travelers. Before the U.S. had put pressure on Turkey to tighten up its drug laws the Gulhane had a reputation as a rendezvous for dopers, junkies and international shoestring vagabonds. We dumped our bags in the shabby, second floor room and took advantage of the dangerous-looking, gasoline-fired shower downstairs on the ground floor, where I had to yell at the guys from reception when I caught them spying on Janette through a peephole in the door.
With 36 hours of traveling grime removed we hit the wood-smoke scented, brightly-lit, bustling, night streets to find food. We seemed to be quite an attraction, everywhere we went people would stop and stare or say hello. Unable to find anything obviously vegetarian we stuck with the street vendors, buying a couple of apples and a bag of hot roasted chestnuts. In good spirits we walked slowly along the dirty streets back to the hotel, mysteriously followed by a ragged crippled guy dragging his leg. We could hear him scraping along behind as if in a scene from some horror movie. Somewhere near the Blue Mosque we thought we’d lost him but were both too scared to turn and look. We made it back to the Gulhane and I was asleep as soon as my head hit the bed.
Awakened by the muezzin’s call to prayer echoing back and forth across the city from the various mosques, we slowly roused ourselves and headed for the main post office to check for mail at the Poste Restante. We’d only been away from home for nine days but, as Istanbul was on the list of places we had told friends and family that we could pick up letters, we thought it might be worth a try. Mail was the only way of keeping in touch, mobile phones and the internet didn’t exist in 1973. After half an hour we were completely lost in a maze of back-alleys and ended up being escorted to the post office by a friendly policeman. There was no mail. Janette posted a letter to her parents. We sat in the sun, drank strong chai from tulip shaped glasses and watched the world go by. All we had now was time and in the following months we would spend a great deal of it drinking tea and contemplating whatever reality movie was being played out before us. We strolled up the road to the Iranian Embassy where we were informed that, as we were British subjects, visas weren’t required to cross into Iran, so, all our tasks completed, we wandered into the covered bazaar.
Nothing could have prepared us for Istanbul’s labyrinthine Grand Bazaar, the Kapali Carsi. And no amount of adjectives can do it justice. Suffice to say that here was a place that you could buy anything you could ever possibly need. We wandered the streets and alleys for six hours talking to smiling moustachioed shopkeepers who did their best to sell us rings, bags, carpets, caviar, embroidered jackets and shirts, dresses, leather-work, fruit and vegetables, fish and meat, sheep and goats cheese. We walked cobbled lanes given over solely to toolmakers, cobblers, jewelers, spices, letter typists and songbirds in wicker cages. Street musicians entertained us and infant cigarette sellers offered us American and Turkish smokes as we sipped samovar-brewed chai in cafes where men puffed strong tobacco in huge, bubbling, silver-bowled narghiles. Children followed us around practising their English on the foreigners and showing great fascination with my earrings. Porters pushed through the crowds carrying enormous loads; one wiry guy we saw bent double with a three-seater sofa and two matching armchairs on his back.
Eventually we found ourselves back in the sunlight by the book market outside the 16th Century Bayazit Mosque. Exhausted and overdosed on the sights, smells and sounds we returned to the Gulhane Cinar to gather our energies.
Early evening found us attempting to make a booking on the Monday morning bus to Erzerum in Eastern Turkey. We had planned to take the train from Istanbul to Teheran but discovered that there was only one departure per week and that the next train wasn’t until Wednesday. Fascinating though Istanbul was we were keen to keep moving east. Unfortunately as no-one in the bus office spoke a word of English and the only useful Turkish we had was the word ‘Erzerum’ the process took quite some time. Eventually we left with tickets in hand costing 90Lira each, less than £3:00 for what we expected to be a three days and nights journey across the country.
Returning to our hotel a young guy suddenly appeared in front of us shouting, “You speaky English? You English?” On finding that we were, he insisted on taking us for tea in a nearby café. He turned out to be called Mohamed, a medical student studying at the University. He was genuinely friendly and interested in England, (his parents were living in London) and improving his grasp of the language. He introduced us to his Beatle-haired brother who spoke no English but, as Mohamed whispered, “He go to get hasheesh”. At this point I began to get more than a little nervous. I’d heard stories of ‘tourists’ being set up by the police in order to extract bribes from them and it was well known that there were a number of foreigners in Bayrampasa Prison serving long sentences for relatively small amounts of drugs. But, despite my concerns, I convinced myself that the situation was probably ok and that this was an opportunity to connect with the locals using something we had in common, smoking dope. Although, if I’m honest, this was at least partially bullshit justification for wanting a smoke badly enough to risk the consequences.
We followed Mohamed up a flight of worn-down, winding stone stairs to the sixth floor of a dilapidated old apartment building behind the main street. On entering the apartment, we kicked off our shoes and washed our filthy feet before sitting down to smoke and share food. The hash was golden and crudely pressed but very strong and it was difficult not to get a little paranoid about the possible intentions of these two strangers but they were very gracious and hospitable and after a couple of hours accompanied us back to the main street where Mohamed flagged down a Dolmus (shared taxi) that took us back to Sultanahmet, very, very stoned. Later, Janette disclosed that she had suffered intense paranoia and had spent the whole evening imagining a succession of horrific rape/murder/bodies-in-the-Bosphorous type scenarios.
The following day we hand-washed all our dirty clothes and hung them over the balcony to dry, then, despite our misgivings of the previous night, we took off to meet Mohamed who had been most insistent that today he would show us around Istanbul. At this encounter his enthusiasm was almost childlike as he led us to a big old American, Mercury-Eight convertible. Inside was the hashish brother plus an elder brother, ginger haired and moustached, who was behind the wheel. He turned out to be the ‘mad-driving brother’. We piled in and did battle with the city’s traffic. I think the guy had learned to drive by watching car-chase sequences in Hollywood movies, with the addition of much creative horn use and mysterious hand gestures. He would overtake queues of stationary vehicles on either side and, one time, bounced the car up on to the pavement and drove for a hundred metres at speed, causing pedestrians to jump for their lives. I have no idea where we went except that we would periodically arrive at the edge of the Bosphorous to drink glasses of chai and surreptitiously smoke spliffs in the car, one time whilst being entertained by a busking violinist. The effect of the hash had turned the day into a surreal magical mystery tour and, having little idea of what was going on, we could do nothing but sit back and surrender to the trip. You buy the ticket…you take the ride… to quote Dr Thompson.
At some point the reason for the excursion changed from their, somewhat bizarre, idea of sightseeing to a search for yet another brother, this one twelve years old, who hadn’t been seen for two days. (It seems appropriate to call this one ‘the lost brother’). This entailed a tour of the poorer residential areas, slums in fact, along winding potholed roads, scattering groups of feral kids playing street soccer and occasionally screeching to a halt to ask various, seemingly random, individuals if they’d seen him. The drive terminated at Mohamed’s place, without the ‘lost’ younger brother, and once more we ascended the scary stairs to smoke more dope and eat more grapes. It had been a crazy day so it wasn’t long before we made our excuses and got ready to leave. The ‘mad-driving brother’ who turned out to be very gentle and friendly drove us back to Sultanahmet where we said a final extended goodbye with much handshaking and kissing of cheeks. We bought two rounds of bread and a thick chunk of hard, dark chocolate and, escaping the evening Ramadan crowds retired to the quiet sanctuary of our seedy hotel.
It was Monday 22 October and our day to leave Istanbul. We intended to get up very early but, having no alarm clock, overslept, which put Janette in an intensely grumpy mood. We arrived at the Poste Restante only to find that it didn’t open until 9:00am, so we rushed around buying food for the trip before returning, only to find that there was still no mail for us. So it was back to the hotel to check out and pay the bill, 33Turkish Lira for the two of us, which was less than 50pence a night. We struggled to the bus office with our luggage only to be told that the morning departure had been canceled but another bus would leave at six in the evening. The day could only improve… I hoped. We trustingly left our bags in (what we hoped would be) the safekeeping of the ticket clerks and arranged to return at 5:00pm. This gave us the rest of the day to take in a little more of the city at our own pace and without the confusing craziness of Mohamed and his many brothers.
Inside the Blue Mosque the faithful were praying, kneeling on beautiful Turkish carpets under the many-domed roof. Aya Sofia seemed to be a vast museum, architecturally amazing but lacking in atmosphere. It didn’t help that it was full of middle-aged German and British package tourists with their guides. We escaped them and walked along roughly cobbled streets down to the Golden Horn where we strolled across the Galata Bridge, with its many fish restaurants, to Karakoy on the northern shore. But the day had become energy-draining humid so we rested for a while, drank chai in the shade and gathered our energies for the long walk back to the bus office on Ordu Cad.
On arrival, the guy in the office smiled, produced our bags and beckoned for us to sit down. We didn’t have to wait long before a minibus pulled up outside and we were invited to get in along with three other men, none of whom spoke English. It seemed a bit odd that we would be going all the way to eastern Turkey in a minibus, but, as life appeared to be getting stranger by the day anyway, I didn’t give it too much thought. We just had time to stash our belongings away and make ourselves comfortable on the back seat when the minibus pulled into the real bus depot at Topkapi where we were ushered out and directed to a waiting room packed with people. After a few minutes a guy appeared and personally escorted us, the obviously befuddled foreigners, to the Erzerum bus. What a surprise! This was a modern Mercedes Benz coach with reclining seats. Luxury compared to the bus we’d travelled on from Amsterdam! We departed pretty much on time but then spent an hour in a jam of vehicles waiting to board the car ferry to Uskudar on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Once on board, our smartly uniformed driver (Kapitain) and his co-driver invited us to join them for a glass of chai and from then on we were treated like VIPs. The bus made one more stop to pick up passengers in Uskudar and we were off… into the sunset… due East.