Tuesday, 19 April
A grey morning presented a rather unprepossessing view of the rooftops of Sofia from the fourteenth floor. The hotel served up a vast, borek-dominated breakfast in a huge room with all the atmosphere of, well, a large conference room being used to serve breakfast in.
Sofia at ground level turned out to be a mixture of the attractively scruffy and Mitteleuropean cleanliness and
efficiency. One moment you felt like you ought to be several degrees north (especially with the biting cold) in Vienna, given the late Austro-Hungarian architecture dominating much of the city centre; then someone says “mersi” to you for holding the door of the French-style market hall open and you relocate a few degrees further north still. Internal location devices are further thrown into haywire by the medieval mosque round the corner, closely followed by a selection of Soviet-style apartment blocks and government buildings. And then a market consisting wholly of stalls selling honey, the geographical basis for which I am unsure of.
Crossing the road amongst immense government departments, I discovered a subway which incorporated the remains of medieval eastern gate, paid for by the Municipal Privatisation Fund. Despite any ideological objections I might have to the mere existence of such a fund, having learnt that subways could be interesting, I used every one I saw from then on. Mostly these just proved to be pristine subterranean shopping arcades, but I did find an XI century church almost submerged by a roundabout and a metro station with an internal fountain.
Even with occasional showers, Sofia was a lovely for sauntering in, making random discoveries, especially in April as the trees lining every road were just coming into leaf, bringing a freshness to the grey buildings. The main boulevards of the city were a haven of packed ancient trams, bendy buses and bendy trolley buses; meanwhile hidden in the courtyard of the nineteenth century presidency were the remains of 4th century Byzantine church, surrounded by gleaming ministerial cars. Surreally, the main square was full of 120 painted bears, which turned out to be United Buddy Bears
which travel the world (including most recently Pyongyang) promoting peace, harmony – and quite possibly honey – with one bear for each UN member state. To add to the whole surreal nature of this enterprise, the main sponsor turned out to be a German and British railfreight operator. This square was also populated by black market money changers, who would sidle up to you amongst the bears and offer ‘very good rates’ for euros and dollars. Strangely, on being asked to quote a rate for my remaining Albanian lek, they seemed to suddenly lose all interest.
On a low hill above the city centre stood the huge Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, surrounded by swirling traffic – the space under its vast dome, illuminated only by a few flickering candles
was remarkable, the gentle mumbling of prayers, the tap of echoing footprints; hidden amongst the shadows was the throne of the kings of Bulgaria. A few streets behind, the 15-storey tall Soviet war memorial now provided a convenient hang-out for local kids armed with large bottles of larger. One of the bas-reliefs around the base of the memorial quite clearly showed Edward VIII heroically studying a map whilst his car was being fixed. And perhaps as the final irony, there’s now a Starbucks across the road.
Scattered around town were lots of pavement stalls selling Easter paraphernalia: painted eggs, daffodils, fluffy chicks. Amongst these, I stumbled on a massive open air produce market, stretching at least half a mile up a single street. This was clearly the season for aubergines the size of bowling balls and huge bunches of bright red plump radishes. However, the real cut-throat competition between traders seemed to be over lettuce, the price dropping gradually – and vocally – the further up the street you walked. A sudden brief burst of warm stormy sunshine touched the market and Sofia’s legion of stray dogs decided en masse to have their naps, preferably in the most inopportune of places – such as the middle of a narrow, busy pavement. Stray dogs, however, seemed to have been awarded near sacred cow status by the citizens of Sofia, who stepped carefully around them as they did the cracked paving slabs.
I made my way to Sofia station, whose main hall was so monumentally long and unlit that standing at one end it was almost impossible to make out the other. The inbound arrival of the Istanbul train from Belgrade was marked up on the board as 60mins late. As it was timed to stop in Sofia for more than an hour, so there was an off-chance that the train might make an on-time-ish departure. Upstairs, the dreary platforms were a preserve of grimy, unwashed second-hand rolling stock and stray dogs. Which were also grimy and unwashed.
Eventually, the Istanbul departure was given a platform number different from that of the Belgrade arrival. Clearly I was looking confused as a member of station staff, who it later turned out saw himself as a self-appointed shepherd of Istanbul-bound foreigners, ushered me to platform 6, assured me that the single, graffitied ex-Deutsche Bahn regional coach (of the sort so familiar from Albania) was indeed the Istanbul train and kindly ensured I found a seat in the completely empty coach. Slowly the coach filled, mainly with Interailers each asking me if this really was the Istanbul train. I blamed a combination of Graeme Greene, Agatha Christie and the sleeper symbols promisingly displayed in the Cooks European timetable for giving a false impression of the glamour of this connection. Time ticked by, well past departure time, and with no locomotive attached it got increasingly dark in the coach. Eventually, at 19:30, the 17:47 from Belgrade arrived, its locomotive and a single Serbian coach off the front were detached and shunted onto our coach. Another twenty minutes of general dilly-dallying and the Istanbul express – composed of just two coaches – set off, 55 minutes late, quickly leaving town and out into the dusky grasslands.
The late departure meant I could see very little of rural Bulgaria – put basically, it is a very dark place. Often, the only light that was seen for miles would be that of one of the many stations we hurried through, silhouetting the station master as he stood to attention for the passing train. At Plovdiv, the train practically emptied and only a handful were left to push on further east. I was asked to settle dispute between two Bulgarian passengers as to whether the UK was in the EU. The one claiming it wasn’t just about believed it was when I showed them the front page of the passport. It would seem that ‘name the 25 member states’ is a game that strangers who meet on trains play here. Clearly this was my sort of country!
Wednesday 20 April
At 2am we pulled into Svilengrad, the Bulgarian border post, where the Sofia ticket office had told me that the bus replacement would commence. It turned out that the rail staff gesticulating were merely telling us to get out of the Bulgarian car, which was being detached here and move into the Serbian car next door. At this point it became clear that there had been secret vacant sleepers available in this car all along, which could be had on production of a €10 note to the Serbian attendant – pretty much none of which, I am sure, will have found their way to accounts of any state railway.
The whole Sofia contingent was somehow squeezed into this car, Bulgarian exit checks undertaken (many hard stares but at least I got my passport straight back this time. Bulgarian border guards and I don’t seem to get along much – they seem to be enjoying their new role as gatekeepers of Fortress Europe a little too much) and we set off across a searchlight-swept landscape towards Turkey, crossing the replaced bridge on the way. Twenty minutes through this weird border zone of watchtowers, strange lights and traffic queues, before screeching to a halt at the Turkish border station of Kapikule, where we were ordered out to queue in the pre-dawn cold for the insanely slow passport control and visa issuing, basically a hard-currency getting device, for which many passengers seemed woefully ill-prepared. Visas purchased (where necessary – my German compartment mates smugly suggested that their exemption from purchasing a visa was payback for their national ‘welcome’ of gastarbeiter) from a bored man in a hut, then in to the main station to have my name spelt down a mobile by a passport official who after cogitation stamped the passport. The two coaches (we had gained a Romanian sleeping car in exchange for the Bulgarian seats) sat around under the arc-lights for some time until the west-bound ‘Bosfor’ arrived and we swapped locos.
I awoke to an empty land of waterlogged arable fields – and it was still raining – in which the only sign of life for miles was a stork plodding its way northwards, curved neck see-sawing as it walked. After Çerkezköy, where the train was chased out of town by sheepdogs, progress became a bit more purposeful and the landscape more interesting as we twisted through low wooded hills. The curvaceous nature of Turkish railways had already become apparent – the urban legend is that German engineers were paid by the mile, so made the lines as long as possible. There was very little civil engineering, the line contouring, rising and falling gradually across the hills. The sharp bends led to some very slow sections, but the route taken kept the line well away from the motorways and their attendant strip development, opening up vistas of vast, empty, unbuilt landscapes
About 40 kilometres out of Istanbul, the first apartment blocks began to appear on the low hillsides, followed by grey dormitory towns and seemingly endless traffic jams. Eventually we pulled alongside the Bosporus, the Asian shore dimly visible through the murk. Through the old walls of the city, we crawled past the works for the new railway line through a tunnel under the straits. The so-called express was now stuck behind a local stopping train all the way to the Sirkeci adding delay to delay.
Final arrival was 2 and a half or 3 hours late depending on which timetable you choose to believe. We ground to a halt in the pouring rain on distant, uncovered platforms – local trains now dominated the grand building and overall roof designed for the Orient Express. In this day and age, the slow, creaking international trains, populated almost entirely by students on Interail passes were really the poor relation of the rail network. The lady at the ticket counter happily printed off my internet-booked tickets for me and I headed out into the rain. There was noticeably more use of umbrellas here than in Bulgaria – perhaps because no one ever murdered a Turkish diplomat with a poisoned umbrella tip.
Istanbul feels like a western version of Hong Kong, with mercantilism at every level. Barely an inch is wasted which could be used to buy, sell, or trade something. Like Hong Kong it has hills and water, with porters struggling up the hills with heavy loads and huge cargo ships steaming effectively through the middle of town. The presence of sudden glimpses of water at the bottom of a hill, either the Golden Horn inlet or the Bosporus Strait itself helps to make the town – given that to be brutally honest, many of it’s streets are uninspiring concrete affairs, especially on a grey day, although wander enough and you find fantastic tumble-down or restored nineteenth century
wooden houses. There are certainly areas and buildings of great beauty – the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are beyond stunning, even if the sudden reappearance of tourists in their thousands was a big of a shock after the previous few countries. I threw myself in with the hordes and fell in love with the spice Market down by the Golden Horn, a dark haven of smells, colours, delicious foods and my first successful haggling experience, in which I saved myself an entire lira on a bag of dried fruit (I should point out that since revaluation, there are now just 2 lira to the pound, not 50,000 as previously). Sitting in a café drinking excellent Turkish tea I was amused to watch a tout
who seemed to be employed with the specific purpose of ensure the three neighbouring and very similar cafés got equal patronage.
In fact, the weather suited Istanbul well, giving it a late winter grandeur – the well dressed inhabitants still muffled up against the cold, a wet sheen on the marble floors around the Tokapi Palace complex, the aroma of the chestnut and sweetcorn stalls still doing good business.
A walk over the Golden Horn bridge and a trip on the world’s second oldest metro (in fact an underground funicular unimaginatively called Tünel) took me to the Galata Tower, a costly climb, but worth it for the fantastic views and orientation
of the geography of water and hills and to compare the skyline of mosques above the Horn with the sprouting high-rises to the north. Just up the hill, the restored and pedestrianised (bar a ‘nostalgic tram’ rumbling down the middle) Istiklal Cad could be the shopping street of any prosperous northern European city.
Too soon it was time to board the Bosporus commuter ferry m/s Baris Marcofor the hop across to Asia for the train east. By now the sun had emerged and the waters were sparkling. Sitting up on the top deck as we played chicken with passenger and car ferries, catamarans, freighters and
oil tankers, the Istanbul skyline receding, the vast Bosporus bridge coming into view and the Maiden’s Tower island to port was a simply heart-lifting experience. The spartan lower decks were packed but only a handful of us braved the slight cold on the huge open deck, full of well polished wood. Istanbul commuters, it would seem, don’t like the cold. As we crossed the strait, a vast armada of cargo ships at anchor out in the Sea of Marmara came into view. We pulled up alongside the fantastically opulent
Haydarpaşa station, with an ornate exterior and interior that befits a key stop on the Berlin-Baghdad railway. At the platform head, a stray cat sat carefully studying the omnipresent portrait of Kemal Atatürk. Cats, we are told, can look at kings, but there is no particular stricture in regards to looking at founders of modern secular Turkey. Waiting for my train, I sat on the station steps in the sun watching the ferries arrive from Istanbul, packed with dark clothed masses: on each, a few commuters were about to miss their train and athletically jumped off before boat fully moored.
I was allocated a fantastically comfortable private compartment on the overnight Konya train, the facilities of which even ran to a fridge containing free chocolate. And as if to confirm that this was a slightly different world a mail car was hooked on immediately behind my coach. We snaked out of Haydarpaşa as the sun set, with views of the sea and out to the dark Buyukada Islands. Dinner consisted of simmit (savoury sesame pastries), sharp Konya sheep cheese and dried lemon – the finest picnic that the spice market could produce. We raced past Lake Sapanaca in the gathering dark, a growing wind and rain storm whipping white horses on the water’s surface. The carriages – known as T2000 stock – ride like a dream over often ropy track, giving me the best night’s sleep on a train I’d ever experienced, though this may well have been helped by last night’s lack of sleep on second-hand German commuter train seats.
Thursday 21 April
By morning the train was meandering through the vast empty landscapes of central Anatolia, sometimes rolling, sometimes flat, punctuated by the occasional flock of sheep. My leisurely getting-up in the spacious compartment was interrupted by being ordered out at Sarayönü at 7:30am for an unexpected rail replacement bus for the last few miles to Konya, pay back, presumably for not having a 2am replacement bus at the Turkish border. The weather, as we refugees from the comfortable train crunched along the ballast towards the waiting coaches, was much as it had been in Istanbul: cold and wet. This slow transition to the Middle Eastern climate wasn’t quite working out as I had hoped.
The coach climbed through the cloud bank over a low mountain pass and we were soon amongst the sprawling suburbs of Konya. The town’s station was being completely rebuilt for high-speed project – explaining the bus replacement – though this wasn’t preventing important things like a train-load of Turkish army tanks being shunted through. With a sparkling new station building and platforms that were a building site, there wasn’t a huge amount of the atmosphere of the place where Hercule Poirot paces the platforms in the first pages of Murder on the Orient Express. My guide book warned of that I could expect much hassle in Konya, yet this was the first place where I was not immediately offered a taxi and had to wander a few streets to locate one to take me to the Mevlana Museum in the town centre.
The museum was a calm and beautiful mosque complex centred around the mausoleum of Celaleddin Rumi (also known as the Mevlana) and his key disciples, founder of the dervish sect, a largely liberal and tolerant approach to Islam. Around the main mosque was a calm square lined with spartan cells for the dervishes. I was quite pleased to have Mehmet self-imposed on me as a guide to explain the intricacies of the
fantastic Islamic art on display – illuminated korans and prayer carpets, along with the reed pipes on which the haunting music to which the whirling dances were performed. Beyond the main mosque, we discussed the meanings of the dervish dances and the complexities of the 1001-day apprenticeship. I was particularly impressed by the early mirror ball whose express purpose was to console the lonely dervish! Despite being a museum, the mausoleum remained very much a place of pilgrimage – large single-sex groups prayed fervently in front of the huge tomb. Mehmet asked me to talk to group of students for English practice – their English was truly appalling – they were reading off scripts and found it very hard to diverge from these. Not, of course, that I have any room to complain given my non-existent Turkish.
At the heart of Konya is what may well be the world’s most attractive roundabout – a huge traffic island which contains an ancient mosque, park and
cafes, tended by a small army of female gardeners and surrounded by clanging trams. Konya is supposedly a highly conservative city, at the heart of the southern Koran Belt, but there was very little obvious sign of this on the streets of the town, apart from clear absence of alcohol for sale. Very few women wore full Islamic dress and were clearly active in public life – in many ways it felt little different from Istanbul.
I walked back to the station, past groups of smartly attired, flag-carrying school children returning from a rehearsal for Independence Day celebrations, to catch the replacement bus onwards to Çumra, which eventually turned up a good half hour late. To show that rail replacement buses are the same the world over, the driver managed to get lost finding the station in Çumra – he had clearly been drafted in at the last moment. By the time we finally found it, nearly every male inhabitant of the little town had been called over – Efendi! – to volunteer directions. The train south to Adana, formed of dusty Pullman coaches, finally left Çumra around an hour late.
We started off across a seemingly endless plain on which the only points of attraction were the occasional bird of prey or hoopoe. Before long, though, bare rocky mountains came into view to our south, foothills of the Daglari range, the barrier between the plain and the Mediterranean. A field of bright red poppies was a highly incongruous splash of colour in a landscape of browns, greys and muted greens. In many ways the interplay of light and land was the distinguishing feature of this remarkable emptiness, as the train moved from sunshine, to rainstorm, to cloud and back again. Despite being labelled as an express, we stopped at every station, each with its smart ochre-painted station house. At many of the stops, there were yards full of white or pink blocks of marble, torn from surrounding hills and awaiting onward transportation. At Ayranci, the late running meant our train had to be put into siding to let a long freight past, then reversed out again before heading southwards again. The mountains were crowding in by now and we climbed a low pass, much of the line protected by snow fences. Indeed, as we headed east, snow appeared on the peaks around us, now topping 3000m with cloud bubbling dramatically around their summits.
At Ereğli, the train was accosted by simit sellers who did a good business on this facility-less train. The surprise after pulling away from Ereğli was to start seeing Friesian cows – of a particularly scrawny variety – grazing in the fields, looking very out of place in this decidedly unlush landscape.
The line climbed steeply to the Ulukişla pass, taking us into the narrow Mediterranean basin, the locomotive labouring first through grasslands then into a land of dusty dry ravines through which a man galloped on a fine black horse, leading another on a rope. It was all very spaghetti Western. At the summit a fine panorama of snowy mountains opened up ahead and we descended slightly to Ulukişla station, where we crossed – and exchanged vendors with – the up Hydrapaşa express.
Pulling away, we descended a narrow, fertile, blossom-filled valley, flanked by eroded rock formations, the outposts of Cappadocia. At the little halt at Gumus, where we crossed an almost endless container train, we were given an odd insight into family life: only one person alighted and his two daughters were waiting to meet him. They were clearly overjoyed to see him: he walked past without a word and they followed him to the house beside the station, still not speaking. This, it had to be said, was beginning to feel a little more like a conservative heartland.
The following descent down the gorge must rank as one of the most spectacular bits of railway in Turkey – and possibly of road too, as the main road is also squeezed down the gorge. The railway clung to the valley sides, tunnelling through outcrops, leaping beautiful side valleys, whilst descending continually at a remarkable gradient. Sadly, further down, a new motorway despoils much of the gorge floor, but after Pozanti it climbs out of the valley, leaving the railway alone in an otherwise undespoiled gorge. Beyond the isolated station at Belemedik, the line was largely in tunnel just inside the cliff face for many miles, occasionally emerging for split-second glimpses of the narrowing gorge and the Pezanti river now 200m below us, the evening light picking out spectacular shadows in the rock faces.
The gorge came to a sudden end at an escarpment overlooking the rolling coastal lowlands. The river exited between spectacular columns of rock, whilst we made our way steadily down the hillside. On these Mediterranean-facing slopes there was an immediate vegetation change – suddenly olive groves and roadside cacti were everywhere. After Yenice, there followed a fast run across the darkening coastal plain to finally reach Adana.
Adana will win few prizes for great beauty – though its vast modern mosque – with the underground car park that every good mosque should have – and its fine Roman bridge are very much worth seeing – with bats hunting around the riverside gardens in the early dusk. Mainly, though its broad, lively boulevards are a great venue for an evening stroll – at last, in the warm – picking up bits of
street food as you go, borek, pide, some form of sticky pastry or other. After Konya, seeing alcohol openly advertised on the streets was almost as much of a shock as the pleasant climate. Once again, the guide book seemed to have got the place rather wrong: whilst noting that Adana is the country’s fourth largest city and growing fast, it still suggests that it is a bit of a one horse town where hoteliers will stare at you oddly as a foreigner for wanting to stay, which was far from the case. It further notes that there are “no pedestrian crossings so to see the sights, jay-walking is a necessity”: I have rarely seen anywhere quite so abundant in pedestrian crossings. It was a great place to people watch modern Turkey – crowds waiting for dolmuş, working men drinking tea in backyard cafes, well-dressed families sauntering to the mosque. Even with the temperature standing at 20°c at 10pm, I was feeling very underdressed by the standards of Adana.
Friday 22 April
Having pleased yesterday, Adana’s weather had turned to steady rain by the morning, puddling the roads and turning building sites to quagmires. The hotel, otherwise unremarkable, produced a superb buffet breakfast, including hot pancakes. Given the weather, further strolling in Adana seemed unattractive, so I decided to push on to Gaziantep in the mid-morning. With a long row of bus companies with offices on the outer ring road, I made my choice of giving my custom to SEC simply on the basis that a) they had the smartest minibus standing outside and b) their ticket office has diversified into baklava baking, which appealed to me as a business model.
The trip to Gaziantep introduced to the wonders and idiosyncrasies of Turkish bus operation. The general concept is to site the main bus station as far from the centre of town as you might a small airport – around 5km in case of Adana and then include a minibus (servis) transfer from the town centre bus company office to the bus station in the ticket price. The servis inevitably leaves slightly too late and is therefore driven eratically in order that there is time to divert to give lifts to the driver’s mates. On the plus side, the servis will pull up alongside your onward coach at the bus station, saving you from navigating these vast things.
As I suspected, SEC did turn out to be a smart outfit, operating some sort of space-age German coach which seemed to be built entirely of smoked glass, had individual TVs at every seat, and a bow-tied attendant. The bow-tie appealed in particular. Somehow it all managed to just about do the impossible: give a coach journey a feeling of occasion. After departure, bow-tied chap distributed rose water for the refreshing of hands, then brought a trolley of free drinks around. It was surreal to hear the Turkish radio station being played using the News at 10 theme to introduce it’s 10am news bulletin.
The weather brightened as we headed eastwards along motorway, passing the fairytale ruins of Yilanlikale on its isolated hill top. Through one range of mountains, we paused for breath at Osmaniye, then climbed into a second, more dramatic range, rain-swept and weakly sun-lit in turn, burrowing under the summit. One final rain storm of almost biblical intensity hit us as we approached Gaziantep – this was, quite literally, darkness at noon. The Gaziantep municipality seemed very serious about re-foresting their region, even separating the vast out of town industrial estate from the city using a newly planted forest belt.
From the huge, airport-like bus station, even further from the centre than normal, a taxi drove me to the railway station with a French-speaking driver. I’m hoping it was because his accent was so thick that I was almost completely unable to understand him, not because my French no longer works.
Gaziantep station was like a ghost town, cut off from the rest of Turkey for several years by seemingly never ending engineering works. This had left it as an isolated gateway to slightly edgy places: as well as the service to Aleppo, it also plays host twice a week to Mōsul in Iraq. Gaziantep, I had decided was the decision point as to whether to continue into Syria: the news had been pretty much stable for a week: if the twice weekly train from Aleppo had run that day, then I would ride it on its return run that evening. Up on the platform, a shining Syrian multiple unit sat quietly, clearly having worked in across the border that morning – so the die was cast.
I was surprised to see a smart modern tram terminating outside the station, but with no apparent way to buy tickets to access the gated platforms meaning that I had a short, but muddy walk into town, through squares and streets covered in red Turkish flags and pictures of Atatürk (and of the leader of the locally popular political party) in preparation for independence day tomorrow. Turning off the busy main street, Gaziantep turned out to be the best looking Turkish town I had visited, its bazaar consisting of ancient warm stone buildings and busy with the tapping of metalworkers and the selling of the area’s famous pistachio nuts. Historic buildings labelled in Turkish and English in clear
expectation of a tourist influx that had yet to emerge, judging by the surprise at an English visitor that I encountered. European Union money had been handed over to turn, sympathetically, some of the old buildings into boutique hotels and coffee houses. Sitting in the weak sunshine in the garden of one of the latter, I remembered why Turkey is a country where I drink tea in preference to coffee. The kale (keep) sits on an artificial mound of 400 years worth of detritus. It houses a decidedly odd museum on resistance to the French occupation of the region in the 1920s, consisting of a lot of rather skilllessly executed brass tableau, although the well translated information made up for them. The tone of the information boards tried very hard, but rather failed, to avoid the nationalistic, especially once the inevitable hagiographisation of Atatürk was reached.
Large school parties were being shepherded round, clearly as a pre-independence day ‘treat’. Nevertheless, as a Brit abroad, it was an unusual experience to see our own brief occupation of the region in 1919 portrayed as essentially benign.
The old Christian and Jewish quarter, on the other side of the main street, would not have looked out of place in a small French town – narrow pedestrian streets of inward facing, almost fortified houses. Sitting below the castle in the early evening sun was an interesting experience, first as a
Turkish family insisted on having their photographs taken with me – possibly it was the patriotic red jumper, several degrees brighter than anything I’d seen on an adult male in Turkey – then people began to walk past carrying increasingly strange things, culminating in a man with four squirrels in a hamster cage and a monkey on his shoulder.
As dusk fell I strolled through the various bazaars: copper, leather, clothes and spices each in their dedicated area, and down to the station. In the marble booking hall, lit by a single guttering light, a clearly bored booking clerk issued one of his few tickets of the day. This was an immensely lengthy process as the Turkish Railway booking system does not like very short first names so he had to improvise a new name for me using a combination of first and second names. Unlike his
colleague who I had run into earlier in the day at the station, he didn’t choose to warn me that Aleppo was too dangerous for me to visit. This was a very different approach from that adopted by the Aleppo hotel receptionist I had rung earlier in the day: “No problems in Aleppo, sir. We all love the President here.”
Like a Mad Hatter’s tea party, I had been allocated a seat randomly in the middle of an empty coach. Apart from me on the entire 5 coach train there were a pair of elderly Lebanese gentlemen, who were as fascinated by my journey as our limited shared languages would allow, and a Syrian businessman who immediately commandeered the board room provided at the back of the train. And at least five members of staff, excluding however many were crammed into the driving cab.
Guard: “Your nationality?” “British” “British? Welcome!” It was unclear if this meant as a welcome to the train or an advance welcome to Syria. He returned a few minutes later with the slightly odd complementary first class (the train, oddly, was first class only, with generous armchair seats) offering of a plastic cup containing two very small boiled sweets, which carried the Chemins de Fer Syriens winged wheel logo on their wrapping.
We headed out into the dark at a good pace. For what was on paper a minor line, with just
six passenger trains per direction per week – and only two running beyond the Turkish border – the track seemed to be in excellent shape, presumably for the benefit of large quantities of international freight. At Karkamiş we reversed, which involved the driver’s tea-making apparatus being moved almost ceremonially through the train. The driver’s secondman, meanwhile, conducted his prayers in the seat pair opposite me. Quite how he could be certain he was facing Mecca on such a twisting section of line, I was unsure. For a long distance the line now formed the Turkish-Syrian border, but in the dark there were no visible signs of this. At 10.30 we stopped alongside a very short platform onto which we were ushered through a single door and into a well lit station building where the handful of passports were examined by unsmiling Turkish officials under an unsmiling picture of Atatürk, whilst alarmingly young Turkish soldiers stood guard outside with sub-machine guns.
We trundled on for a further 5 minutes before coming to a stop at another platform. A rather friendly, jolly fat man welcomed me to Syria and then wandered off with my passport and all the others from the train. A few minutes later an overcoated young man who, to be blunt, appeared exactly as I pictured one of President al-Assad’s goons, wordlessly and grim-facedly ushered me off the train. I was quite pleased that I never saw him again. Inside a portacabin, rather unusually decorated with thick Laura Ashley drapes and ornate curtain ties, the welcoming jolly man was being less welcoming and jolly, working his way through a pile of passports of which mine had been put aside as being of special interest. He then, as I had expected would happen ever since I saw ‘research assistant’ printed on the visa, quizzed me as to what exactly that meant. At this point, the Syrian government had banned foreign journalists from entering the country.
Reader, I told the Syrian immigration authorities no lies, but I might have accidently omitted a few key words. Such as ‘MP’, ‘Parliament’, ‘politics’, ‘Labour’, ‘shadow minister’, ‘select committee’, etc. After all, none of these were in any way relevant to my holiday, so what was the great harm? After a while – and after occasionally glancing at the phone on his desk, and presumably deciding that the Ministry of the Interior was a little engaged in other things at this precise moment in Syria’s history, the un-jolly, un-welcoming man unlocked his safe to get his date stamps, plonked some very faint Arabic on my visa and handed the passport back, resignedly saying “To train”. To be honest, it was a less painful experience than I had from Swiss border guards on a Paris-Lausanne TGV when my mangled French made them think I said ‘chercheur‘ (jobseeker) rather than ‘recheurcher‘ when asked what my job was.
Nevertheless, I breathed a slight sigh of relief when we trundled off into the Syrian night. The train ran through an area of scattered settlements, pinpricks of light providing little glimpses of life: lines of shoes neatly removed on porches, men in high-visibility jackets waving us through the level crossings they guarded, before returning to the camp beds laid out in their bright cabins.
Arrival in Aleppo’s grand nineteenth century Baghdad station was at half midnight, a welcome hour earlier than the Cook’s timetable suggests. The handful of passengers trooped across the freshly mopped floor of the muralled booking hall, much to the evident disgust of the men with mops, who no-one had reminded that Friday was the day when a train arrived at this time. Jolly, welcoming man, who had returned from the border on the train, was now back to his former self, waving cheerily to me as he left the platform. It was only a two minute walk to my hotel, in which time I passed four large posters of President al-Assad. The balcony immediately opposite my hotel room – which was very comfortable if slightly weird layout which meant it was mainly corridor – was hung with a large Syrian flag, presumably marking out its owners as regime loyalists. Before falling asleep I had time to notice that al-Jazeera was scrambled on the room’s TV, although the generally abysmal Euronews channel, which in a rather desultory fashion covered the bloody repression of that day’s protests was available.
Saturday 23 April
Saturday morning in Aleppo seemed like a calm Saturday morning anywhere else: no signs at all of anything out of the ordinary. Families strolled in the park opposite the hotel, kids played on the playground, taxis and buses coursed the streets. Walking in towards the old town, you quickly became aware of the number of posters of the President – almost every shop door, in bus windscreens and in car rear windows. He was depicted in a variety of poses – statesman-like in a suit, meeting a senior cleric, in army fatigues or wearing Gadaffi-style sunglasses. How much of this was simply keeping on the right side of the security service and how much is genuine is hard to tell, but the impression is certainly of a loyalist town. Interestingly, on the hotel’s wifi, I had been able to access the BBC, Guardian and Twitter sites without problem. Police presence on the streets was very low key – a couple of traffic pointsmen, another helping a blind gentleman up a curb, a further one buying a pizza slice.
In the dusty streets around the perimeter of the old town, I found a man to change my remaining Turkish lira at a passable rate, even taking into account his friend’s backsheesh, watch two cats fighting for ownership of a telegraph pole/scratching post and came across an old chap grazing his equally elderly, behorned sheep on a tiny patch of grass on the old city wall.
Entering the warren of streets of an Arabic old town is an astounding experience – alleys, stalls, tunnels, hidden mosques and churches, souks, hammans all jumbled together into an almost un-navigable maze. The town was only just really getting into the swing of Saturday, with shutters going up, deliveries being made by porter’s trolley and a scramble for fresh flat-bread around a hole-in-the-wall bakery. Eventually emerging into an open space you are confronted by the vast bulk of the citadel, sitting squarely atop its defensive mound. This place, surely, would re-awaken anyone’s childhood love of
castles. Entry is via a steep eight-arched viaduct across the moat which leads into the huge gateway, designed to resist the earliest attempts at mechanised warfare by leading you through six right-angled turns along high vaulted passageways before admitting you into the citadel complex above. This is an astounding warren of remains – palaces, a mosque, hammans, vaults and an underground reservoir, charmingly used by the French as a prison during their mandate.
Down below, a period building was being used as a backdrop for filming, with a selection of camels, horses, mules and extras dressed as Bedouin and Turkish soldiers. At a rough guess, from what I saw, I don’t think the Turks are going to come out of this film very well. From another of the perimeter towers, I could look down on a flock of swallows darting amongst the insect-attracting poppies on the side of the castle mound. From up here, the flat-roofed sprawl of Aleppo stretched out towards the quarries on the horizon, from which came the occasional noise of blasting, the clouds of dust disturbing the horizon. In the quieter, unexcavated parts of the citadel, lizards scuttled amongst the ruins and columns of ants carried unfeasibly large grass heads along the dusty paths.
A little after midday, the calls to prayer from a hundred or more minarets across the city mingled together up at the citadel to create an incredible tide of noise, rising and falling, sometimes cacophonous, but often accidentally combining into remarkable harmony. Up here, few paid attention – the citadel was where every Aleppo teenage boy bought his girlfriend on a Saturday, in a chaste courtship of handholding and the latest Arabic hits played quietly on tinny mobile phones.
The souks were the most remarkable experience of the old town, particularly the Souk Al-Attareen which even with very sparse crowds takes a good 10mins to walk the length of – covered all the way, almost entirely with ancient stone vaulting, starting from the most unassuming of archways alongside the citadel’s moat. Along its half-mile course it ran in clearly delineated sections: soap, clothes, spices, meat, underwear, cloth. The scale of the souk as a workplace meant it even had its own mosque.
North of the old town is the Christian Quarter, though certainly no longer religiously exclusive. Every conceivable Christian sect has its cathedral or church crammed into this area, amongst the goldsmiths and clothes markets. The blank-faced houses of ancient stone line twisting, arched alleyways, which merge seamlessly into the surrounding quarters. You can walk practically for miles without leaving bazaars or streets
of small shops, selling absolutely anything you’ve ever wanted to buy. The little details of life are fun – boys carrying huge piles of flat bread on their heads, the African Grey parrot keeping an elderly carpet shop-owner company. The only downside was occasionally having to cross the roads, packed mainly with battered yellow taxis, which cut through all the areas outside the core old town and which, indeed, surround it. Cosseted Londoner that I am, I lack the sheer chutzpah to be an effective Aleppo pedestrian. This requires the self-belief that you can step out into three lanes of traffic and that they will swerve or slow slightly to avoid you.
Returning later to the hotel, I read the BBC and Guardian news reports of continuing violence and crackdowns in southern cities following the Friday protests, and a slightly panicked sounding email from the British Embassy in Damascus, urging British citizens to ‘seriously
consider’ leaving the country. Aleppo, I felt could lure the traveller into an unjustified sense of security, and with both of my next two destinations – Hama and Damascus – mentioned as emerging centres of uprising and counter-uprising, the time had clearly come to reconsider my travel plans – I made the decision to head to Jordan earlier than planned. After an hour in the hotel’s business centre, rejuggling reservations, I headed to the 8th floor bar, deserted but for a group of western businessmen conversing worriedly in the corner. There was a certain last helicopter from Saigon feel about the place, despite the fantastic view across the twinkling lights of Aleppo. I downed a glass of dismal Syrian red wine and regretted having to leave this beautiful, friendly country so soon. In happier times, hopefully when its people have achieved the political freedoms that so many of them were marching – and dying – for, I promised to return.