Travelmag Banner

Riding the Orient Distress

My trip to Istanbul wasn’t going to be easy.  That was already clear.    In November 1992, I was touring Greece with two of my friends. Having reached Thessaloniki, we planned to fly on to Istanbul.  We had not made prior reservations, confident that plenty of seats would be available in the off season.  We were wrong: all flights to Istanbul were sold out.  A convention or exhibition, the travel agent guessed. We ruled out taking the train, which would take 23 hours, perhaps more.  The bus would take 13, so it would be a bus ride.

The Thessaloniki Train Station also serves as a terminal for intercity busses. After checking in at the bus counter, we got something quick to eat and sat at an outside table, surveying the people loitering about, mainly rather shifty looking young men in black leather jackets.  Where were they going?  I hoped not the same place we were.  Probably not: Thessaloniki is a bus and railroad hub to Greece and the Balkans.

The time came.  We got on our bus, and it set off.   The bus wound its way through the suburbs of Thessaloniki and then headed off across the narrow tongue of Greece that darts out towards European Turkey. This was our first trip to Istanbul, and we were excited by the prospects of finally seeing the city that for so many centuries had been the subject of awe and legend.  I unfolded my map to check our progress, and suddenly the 400 miles to Istanbul seemed a long, long way.  But I was with friends and the ride would certainly be interesting. . . .

We got a hint that things were not as they should be when, after setting out from a rest stop at a zaharoplastio–pastry shop–near Nea Karvali, about halfway to the Turkish border, we came to a traffic jam–a dead stop.  We sat or milled about for a half hour–or was it an hour?  Finally, word filtered though, across several languages, that there was a farmers’ strike of some kind going on, and that all of the east-west roads were blocked.  For how long, nobody knew.

Eventually the bus driver managed to turn the bus around, and we went back along the road by which we had come.  Did the driver know some side road around the blockage?  Unfortunately, no.  We returned to the pastry shop, where, it seems, he thought it would be more comfortable for us to wait.

I tried to sleep.  I tossed, turned, and tried to get as comfortable as a person can on the rear bench seat of a bus.  Having decided that further efforts to sleep would be futile, I got up and drowsily walked past my dozing friends down the aisle to the front of the bus and out into the chill night air.  I now had a decision to make.  I could stand shivering here, or I could go back into the bus, whose driver had–he thought–considerately left the engine running and the heater on full blast.  The resulting 90-degree-plus heat made sleep impossible and breathing difficult.  The running engine gave me pause (where was all that carbon monoxide going?), and so I decided on the third alternative, one that I had been resisting because it was going to be a long trip and I wanted to get some sleep. I stepped clumsily towards the door of the brightly lit pastry shop.

I walked into the pastry shop past its small round tables to the long glass cases along two sides of the shop, filled with trays of baklava and other honey-soaked pastries and loukoumi–jelly cubes–glowing pastel through a dusting of powdered sugar.  Although I was not hungry, I had little else to do, so I ordered a couple of pastries and a cup of “French-style,”  that is, filtered, coffee–weak, but better to my taste than Greek coffee or instant–and sat down at an empty table.  A couple of nearby tables were occupied by men and women speaking Russian.  The bus driver and one or two other men sat at the table to my left.     Hours passed.  I read, talked, dozed.  And I compared my own confounded state of mind with the demeanor of most of the passengers, who seemed to be taking the delay as if such inconveniences were just a routine part of their lives.  

Dawn had just broken when we got word that we were going.  The blockade must have been lifted.  Back we went to roughly the spot where we had been the night before.  Again to a dead stop.  Again the loitering around, wondering what was going on.  Finally word came through that we had to get off the bus, claim our baggage, and carry it to the other side of the blockade, where a bus would be waiting to pick us up.  How far would that be? One, maybe two kilometers.  Was the bus already there? What did it look like?  The answers to these questions, if they existed, didn’t make it across the language barrier.

Blessing the company that put shoulder straps and a waist strap on my carryon and cursing most everyone and everything else, I heaved the pack over my shoulders.  Then, together with my companions, I headed out along the row of cars and trucks lined up on the road.  

Our stoic band finally approached the front line of the incident.  By the side of the road was a big dark-blue police bus.  So, the authorities were here in force and had the matter well in hand.  A short distance more and we saw a bonfire petering out in the middle of the road, surrounded by strikers and policemen all happily shooting the breeze.

Continuing on a few hundred yards, we saw that the vanguard of our party had stopped at a bus.  It was a different color and model from the one we had been on and had Turkish writing on it.  This, it turned out, was our bus.  The Turkish driver and conductor were eager to get going, a welcome sign after our night’s ordeal.  Soon the bus had turned around and we were being served waffle biscuits and tea in plastic glasses.  But not before the ticket check.

Upon getting on the bus, I had gone to the seat assigned me on the ticket.  Greeks often ignore seating assignments, but I thought it would be wiser to comply rather than to get into a situation in which my sparse Greek might be put to the test.  This time there was a woman seated in the adjoining seat.  By her head scarf, I surmised that she was Turkish.  Soon the driver came down the aisle to check tickets. Reaching my row, he looked at my neighbor and then at me, and in a flurry of Turkish, took me by the arm, lifted me out of my seat and led me, wanting to protest but speaking no Turkish, towards the back of the bus.  There, he good-naturedly plopped me down next to a man who was obviously a foreigner like me.  My puzzlement changed to amusement as a similar game of musical chairs began at each subsequent stop as the driver rearranged seating so that Turkish women were not seated with unrelated men.

In late morning  we arrived at the Greek-Turkish border.  After Greek officials examined and stamped our passports, we reboarded the bus and headed for the border.  As we crossed the bridge into Turkey, the red Turkish flag with its white crescent and star stood out against the greenery on the opposite bank of the narrow river. I had a sharp sense that we were entering a new and exciting world of sultans, harems, Midnight Express. . . . 

The customs and document inspection went without a hitch, and we were soon on our way across European Turkey with still a long way to go.

It was already dark when we finally arrived at the Topkapi bus station opposite the ancient walls of Constantinople.  The bus came to a stop in the station’s vast parking lot.  The doors opened, and suddenly the self-contained little world that we had all shared for the past 26 hours was no more. The doors were swamped with people trying to get out pushing their way through hawkers crowding the doors from the outside.

Soon our taxi was off down the busy streets and boulevards that make up the old city of Istanbul. Our first view of Aya Sofya, its soft colors floodlighted against the dark sky, made the travails of our journey a distant memory. 

I’ve heard it said that the journey is the destination.  If this is true, then this journey was in its own way a destination almost as memorable as the glories of Istanbul itself.

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines