Athens – Istanbul – Tehran
A week later and we were back in Athens. Leaving the busy port of Piraeus behind and the islands where we had spent time swimming and exploring coves and churches we headed back north to the city of Thessaloniki and found a camp site on the eastern side of the city. Thessaloniki is much more modern European than Greek, probably due to the fact that most of the ancient buildings from the Roman, Byzantine and the Ottoman periods were destroyed in the fire of 1917. Buildings of rare architectural design were completely ruined. Tired after a long day travelling, we remained in the campsite that evening sharing a beer and watching the sun set over the sea.
Tomorrow we would be heading east to Istanbul, formerly the more exotically named Constantinople and the furthest east I have ever travelled to.
The journey itself was unremarkable, lifts were harder to come by and usually only for a short distance so we hopped along the coastline camping by the shore when it became too late to continue. Other than seeing a camel train alongside the road and the elite Greek soldiers at the border wearing the intricate Evzones costume and carrying out their unusual routine it was quite boring. Shortly after crossing the border we decided to catch a bus into Istanbul as the ticket was extraordinarily cheap, but it still meant we arrived in the city very late at night and were forced to take the first hotel we could find.
What a dump. The already minuscule rooms had been partitioned off to create more ‘rooms’ so you could practically hear your neighbours breathing and the beds were so disgusting we slept in our sleeping bags on the floor close to each other for warmth. The following night was no better. Discovering after a long and pointless day that hitch-hiking once over the Bosphorus was pretty much a no-goer we realised we would have to buy rail tickets to Tehran and that train didn’t leave for a few days. So back to the western side to find another hotel.
Welcome to Utopia. Don’t let the name fool you. If that was Utopia then I hate to think what Hell must be like. Most of the residents, including us, took their sleeping bags onto the roof to sleep, leaving the beds to the bugs. Travel on the cheap most certainly has its disadvantages. I think we should have been paid to stay there.
Istanbul is a busy city built on the hills of Asia and Europe. It is the capital of three empires, a city full of romance and traffic jams. It is much more exotic with the towering minarets of the many mosques puncturing the skyline. Sultanahmet Camii ( the Blue Mosque ) is one of the most magnificent building in Turkey and well worth visiting. When we went it was between prayer times and very quiet.
We stayed in the Eminönü district close to the harbourside. Here you will find the Egyptian Bazaar, or Spice Bazaar, which has stalls full of fruit, teas, and spices, while the halls of the Grand Bazaar are a colourful jumble of carpets, fabrics, lamps, and jewellery. The Grand Bazaar with its 4,000 shops on a series of covered streets all lead to a central avenue. The oldest sections are the Sandal Bedesten (cloth auction) and Cevahir Bedesten (jewellery market). The streets are named according to the trades, such as gold and silver sellers, carpet sellers, slipper sellers, boot sellers, booksellers, purse makers, etc. It is an electrifying space, one in which you are assaulted by traders wanting to make a quick sale. I dare not let my eyes rest on anything for longer than a second if I wanted to keep on moving, and tempting as many of the wares were, there was no room in the rucksack for trinkets. Walking around the aromatic smells of spices, sweet Turkish delight, grilled kebabs and petrol fumes assault your senses.
The Pudding Shop is probably the most well known place in Istanbul, at least where travellers are concerned. A very plain restaurant which had a reputation for traditional Turkish cuisine along with the famous rice pudding dish sprinkled on top with sugar and cinnamon. With its comfy sofas and piles of books, music playing in the background it was a central meeting place for travellers to get information about transportation in Asia with a bulletin-board full of messages and advice where people could schedule rides with fellow travellers or leave messages for friends and family.
By the time our train departed three days later at 20:45 I was ready to leave. I could almost feel the bed bugs burrowing into my skin. One problem with travelling on the cheap is that you don’t want to spend money doing the usual tourist things, so although a boat trip up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea was tempting, it wasn’t feasible. Basically our days were spent walking around the city. All this hustle and bustle could be exhausting and given we had had very little sleep over the last few nights I was looking forward to getting some on the train.
It was a slow train. A very slow train. We were lucky to have only 5 people in our compartment which meant we could take it in turns to lie down and sleep, using the floor as well as the seats. The windows were not very well sealed and we soon found ourselves covered in a film of dust as we travelled south to Ankara. There didn’t appear to be anything around for miles only a glimpse of a light in the distance through the grubby windows.
It even snowed during the first night! After Ankara we went south to Kayseri, then northeast to Sivas, south to Malatya and then east to Tatvan.
Eventually we reached Lake Van Golu where the train went on board a train ferry to cross over from Tatvan to Van. We all piled off the train and went to find the bathrooms so we could wash off the filth. I even managed to wash my hair in the hot water – luxury! After a stroll around the ship to stretch the legs we headed back to the train and the First Class carriages to sleep. Passengers travelling first class got a berth on board the ship included with their ticket.
The next morning it was back to second class. After passing through Tabriz we hit a sandstorm. The train was completely covered so it was impossible to see anything through the windows after that. So much for the wash – we breathed sand and ate sand; there was so much of it about.
Four days after leaving Istanbul we arrived in Tehran. Who knew Turkey was so big?
[apologies for the dreadful quality of these photos – they haven’t scanned well, but even so the composition on some are cringeworthy. Of course in the pre-digital days you never knew what your photos would look like until they were developed and this was often many months later.]