Overland to Bangladesh 1973 – Part 2: Lost and Found in Istanbul
With no internet, no guidebook and little money (the back page of my passport shows that I was allowed to take £202 with me under the Exchange Control Act 1947 – this would have been in traveller’s cheques), I settled down for an indefinite wait in Istanbul. I went to the British Consulate but received no help from there. I sent an expensive telegram to Belgrade Station to try to trace the trunk, but to no avail. Each morning I went to the station bagaj and was met with a tired “yok”, accompanied by an uplift of the head to indicate ‘no’.
I had no idea how long I would have to wait and I filled my days with sight-seeing tours, first to the obvious places nearby: Aya Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Suleymaniye Mosque, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, the Covered Bazaar and the Sunken Cistern. I then walked further afield, discovering an English-language bookshop near Taksim, which I noted for future reference once I had consumed my current reading material – aptly, it was Passage to India.
Over the two and a half weeks I spent in Istanbul, my explorations were mainly on foot to conserve money. One of my favourite places was the Kaariye Mosque (also known as the Chora Museum), a former Byzantine church decorated with marvellous mosaics. Even then, it was on the tourist map: I found groups of Germans and Italians going round it when I arrived. But when they left I had the place almost to myself for an hour. I also used the Bosporus ferries, which were extremely good value: a two-hour trip to Beykoz cost less than one Turkish pound. (At the time there were 35 Turkish pounds (TL) to one pound sterling.) My most extravagant excursion was to Kilyos, a resort about 30 miles north on the Black Sea coast. This involved taking a trolley bus to Taksim Square, another bus to Sariyer and then a shared taxi (dolmus) to Kilyos – all for the grand total of 5 TL. Kilyos was then a small village with a large sandy beach, for which one was charged what seemed the exorbitant sum of 7.5 TL to enter. It didn’t have many facilities but for me the big attraction was to get away from the attentions of the crowds of small children who used to hone in on me wherever I went. It was worth the money.
My hotel was in an unprepossessing and rather noisy street near the railway station. Its main virtue was that a shared room cost me only 50p a night. However, sharing did afford a frisson of unpredictability each night. My journal notes ‘there have been different Turks every night arriving at different hours, some at 1 am, one at 3 am. On the second night, one of the hotel staff came in and placed a suitcase under the other bed, which remained there untouched for four nights whilst the bed changed occupants regularly. This evening a Turk from the next-door room came in and took the case. Another night the chap who left the suitcase came in while I and another Turk were dozing and removed a pair of dirty sandals from beside his bed.’ Many of my fellow guests were Gastarbeiters on their way back to Germany – and, as my journal records, many were snorers!
I did a lot of reading in Istanbul. My Penguin copies of Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion (which I still have) came from the second-hand bookshop there. It was quite a lonely experience. My journal again: ‘It is always a temptation when alone in a city to find something to spend one’s money on for want of anything better to do and it is a useful discipline to learn to resist it. One doesn’t always need – or even really want – that glass of lemon and it is good to try to keep regular times of eating and drinking. Whatever else, it is hard to be depressed here for long – somehow it’s not that sort of city.’
Departure from Istanbul
The very next day, I went to the station at 9.30 am as usual – and the bagaj people told me my trunk had arrived! “Come back at two o’clock for customs.” I bought more books, checked out of the hotel and returned to the station to embark on an epic round of form filling and queuing. Eventually, I was shown my trunk, which had survived its journey intact, although the wheels of the little trolley I had attached to it had taken a battering. It was opened and the contents pored over, with much head shaking over the cassette radio and stock of cassettes. Would I have to pay duty? But no, and one hour later, ‘I was helped up the luggage store steps by a grumbling porter in possession of my trunk again. I was soon accosted by another porter whom I commissioned to take it to the ferry. Halfway there, the wheels, which I noticed were wobbling with increasing violence, completely buckled under the pummelling of the cobbled street.’ And there they were abandoned. ‘Not dismayed, the porter took out a thin piece of rope and tied the trunk to his back. He carried it about 100 yards onto the ferry and we crossed to the Asian side.
Then followed a rather confusing few minutes in which everything seemed to happen at once. I took out 20 TL to give to the porter, who was obviously impressed with the amount. After his feat of strength, I was in no mood to stint! He then proceeded to rush around shouting directions and questions to all and sundry, trying to get me a place on a coach there and then – which he did! Everyone around chipped in with their own contributions, none of which I understood, but I came to understand that the coach was going to Erzerum and that it would cost 130 TL – which seemed reasonable considering the volume of my luggage. So the trunk and my rucksack were stowed in the boot. I then paid the porter and there was an immediate storm of criticism directed against him for accepting so large a sum (about 56p). I was happy, however, and it all ended amicably.’
In a strange way, my enforced stay in Istanbul had helped me acclimatise to Asia and prepared me for the journey to come.