Evil Eyes in Istanbul.
RAILROAD, n. The chief of many mechanical devices enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off. For this purpose the railroad is held in highest favor by the optimist, for it permits him to make the transit with great expedition. — Ambrose Bierce
A train to somewhere from Asia to Europe – the yin and yang of travel.
Vietnam – Trains packed tighter than sardines in a can. In first class, windows are open hoping to catch a breeze to lighten the stifling air – cushioned seats are full (wooden benches in 2nd class) – aisles are filled with passengers, perched in a near fetal position on a child’s plastic stool. The 6″ area behind the rear seat shelters a body, curled up on a woven straw mat, toes peeking out.
Boxes are filled with crickets, snakes, roosters and God knows what else. The food car serves up cupfuls of slime, something that would tangle our fishing line in a still warm lake.
India – Smiling, friendly, religious zealots, who kissed our toes and touched our foreheads. Merchants cruised up and down the aisles hawking every item imaginable from sarees to nail clippers – 6 beds to a room with no doors on a full train.
Eastern Europe – Backpackers galore, train cars from 2 person personal sleepers to a 100+ sleeper car with no air and sweltering heat poaching our skin. Generic.
Europe – Cushioned seats are full and that is that – no poachers. The air conditioning hum can hardly be heard it runs so smoothly. Windows closed. No color, sterile… vanilla 😉
The absurdity of the brain – In Vietnam we imagine the cleanliness and civility of European train travel. As we traveled west in Europe we longed for the lively stimulating train travel in Vietnam. Go figure…
The average age on the ship was 62 here it is 22. Riding along were a 63 year old Swede who has no home and has been on the rails or wings for 3+ years (woman problems) and a 50 something Scottish couple who opted for the train over flying home from holiday. Ours was a 4 person sleeper with them….and he snored (“Get in my belly….!”)
We had stayed in Western Turkey……trains were very slow to the east, and Syria and Iran loomed large as the neighbors. We still felt guilty…….and even more so when we met a 24 year old new teacher from Germany. She had taken the bus from Berlin to Istanbul, met her sister and they took busses to the Syrian border to help Syrian refugees for a few days before launching her career in inner-city Berlin —- she will have no Germans in her 9th grade class although some families have lived there 30 or 40 years. She helped us out with language later on the ride.
We got rousted out for about an hour at 1 a.m. to check out of Turkey and about 40 minutes later to get checked in to Bulgaria. It was cool and fresh like home.
At about 6:00 am we stopped but most people continued sleeping. By 8:00 am most were up. So far as we could determine, either the locomotive or the engineer had quit.
For 2.5 hours we sat at a remote station which had no services, no coffee, no language other than Bulgarian. The setting looked like 1960′ s Russia. Bulgarian train people have no uniforms….so the 50 year old workers in shorts and t-shirts blended right in with kids.
Eventually we rode to a larger station, mostly deserted, hooked to a larger train,rode it for awhile , got directed off and told to run to another train which was a “local” and arrived at 6 pm. The best explanation was that our train got lost. At any rate, that’s how 14 hours equals 20 in Bulgaria.
The countryside stretched from horizon to horizon with a carpet of sunflower, grain and cornfields. The grain is ripe. And golden, so it stands out from the green….literally 100’s of thousands of acres… dry farmed in rolling foothills which eventually gave way to mountains, irrigated fields, alfalfa, evergreen forests and fruit trees laden with ripe fruit. No cattle though……just a few milk cows.
It’s about 73 degrees, blue skies with brilliant white clouds building and cat tails growing in the drainage areas…… very reminiscent of a Carson Valley afternoon in late July. So the ag production looks big and modern, but we are told the owners live in Germany.
Train stations are closed or deserted. In just our few hours we saw abandoned rolling stock….literally 1000’s of rusting train cars and locomotives rotting away. Many stations have 11 tracks but only 2 get any use. At least they are beginning to tear up the extras….. but by thieves or the RR who knows?
Someone told us that the release from communism just re-aligned the 1%. There is a new ruling society, more millionaires and a few billionaires. There are more freedoms and product choices. But for the masses, communism was better because at least they worked and ate. Quine sabe?
Sofia is clean and quiet except for what appeared to be a small protest opposing government corruption. The center of town is full of heart-warming pre WWII houses, office buildings and churches.. pleasantly or apocalyptically uncrowded. At 7:30 a.m. the metro has empty seats and no one standing. No jobs I suspect.
Paige is at the train window snapping shots of meadows, corn fields, mountain rivers and the sheer cliffs behind them as we go east to Bucharest. She said something about Count Dracula’s castle.
The language and alphabet are very foreign, and the locals don’t speak English, so our ride is pretty quiet. A partially filled three car train from Sophia to Bucharest. Could you imagine such between Paris and Geneva in July ?
Istanbul – cosmopolitan, clean, historical and pleasing. Home to 1800 mosques – the only city in the world to rest on 2 continents (Europe and Asia) with 17,000,000 citizens (1/5th of the country’s population).
The Bosphorus and the Golden Horn run through Istanbul and are bustling with ferry boats, cruises and cargo carriers.
It is still Ramadan so our impression of the city is based on the religious holiday – a time of meditative prayer and self-reflection – with that said it could only get better.
Since fasting during daylight hours is encouraged sunset brings out diners and festival goers in droves. The streets are packed shoulder to shoulder. Their is no order to which side of the street you should walk on so we walked like bumper cars at a carnival. Men popped up in the swarm like clowns in wind- up boxes – selling carpets, perfume and black market items. “How can I spend your money?” – “You break my heart come look in my store.” – “You need carpet – my store a museum – come take photo.”
Cafes line the streets (seating both inside and out) and each restaurant has a peddler worse than any timeshare salesman you have ever encountered!
It seems the Burqa is worn by older women with their beautiful faces exposed. However, the primary dress is a colorful headscarf and modest clothing – a long cotton coat buttoned from the collar to ankles.
A 1/2 hour of being covered from head to toe sent me into a complete meltdown – a necessary distraction I experienced when we visited the Blue Mosque. Completed in 1616 it is the largest Mosque in Istanbul – built to hold 10,000 people although today only 50 or so worship there at any time…..prayer is in Arabic and not Turkish.
Legend has it that when the Sultan Ahmed the First ordered it to be built he asked for the minarets to be altin (gold) and the contractor heard alti (six). This caused a BIG problem with the folks in Mecca – only Mecca could have 6 minarets!
The fix??? Mecca built another minaret! How did the Sultan miss this?
If you wanted your own private cemetery you had to build a mosque – lay people were allowed one minaret – the higher position you held in society the more minarets….
Minarets are tall and built with a minimum of one balcony (some have up to 3). Before electric speakers the balconies served as platforms for men to shout the call to prayer – height allowed for more distance.
Istanbul is also home to the largest covered bazaar in the world. You could get lost within its 66 streets and 4,000 shops – the spice bazaar is separate.
Turkey made headlines a month ago when mass protests started in Istanbul’s Taskim Square and Gezi Park. It spread to 67 cities throughout Turkey in 5 days. Peaceful protests about opposing the development of the only remaining green park – turned violent when the government pepper sprayed a women on day 2 and dismissed the protesters by calling them hoodlums.
CNN Turkey played a 3 hour documentary on Penguins instead of airing the protest – in rebellion the Penguin with a gas mask became the symbol of the people. You can see protest symbols spray painted on the sidewalks, streets and walls.
The park opposition blossomed – citizens tired of the “governments increasingly heavy-handed approach – toward civil liberties, secular lifestyles, opposition critics and, not insignificantly, urban planning” quotes Istanbul Today’s magazine, stood up and demanded change.
Paved paradise and put up a parking lot…………
A memorial to the fallen is on display in Gezi as well as many stray inhabitants are still sleeping in the park – the police vans ready nearby. All is calm for now.
Time for our 14 hour train to Sofia, Bulgaria….
4,000,000 people – 10,000 years old. Muslim. It has been controlled by invaders until 1928 when Turkey became a monarchy republic. Number one hazelnut producer in the world.
The 6 lane divided highway through the country side was lined by vast fields of corn and tomatoes for as far as your eye could see.
We went to Ephesus the largest most dramatic, yet 80% still covered, ruins. Thousand of years old – Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Paul and John (not the Beatles) were there – Antony and Cleopatra chose it for their honeymoon. One of the 7 churches in the Book of Revelations.
It stretches at a right angle for a couple of miles with a theater at each end – the largest of which seats 44,000. Just down the street is the Church of the Virgin Mary visited by 3 popes.
We learned the secret of the Christian fish symbol…
It is Ramadan – adults fast during the day and can only eat before sunrise and after sunset. The restaurants are hurting during the day but are packed at night.