('On-line' text of)
'VIA RISHIKESH - A HITCH-HIKER'S TALE'
An account of hitch-hiking from England to Europe,
North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan & India in 1970
by Paul Mason
© Paul Mason 2006
OF BAZAARS AND BATHS
Behind the bobbing boats which surround us in the harbour lies the majestic skyline of Istanbul. A mass of great low domes and slender towers monopolise my vision. The view is grand, powerful and imposing; I feel a strong urge to go and explore, to become a part of the city life.
'Want to buy sexy pictures?' a voice queries.
'You both want sexy pictures?' the man persists.
'No we don't.' I say dismissively.
I look over at Yolanda.
'Where on earth is he coming from?' I mutter.
Now Anthony joins us looking excited and nervous, I wonder why. Maybe he has been looking at the pictures.
'I'm thinking...' he says, 'Shall we all join up together? Shall I ask the Germans too?' he adds breathlessly.
'Maybe it would be a good idea,' I concede.
'I'll go and ask themů.'
He beetled off before we have time to discuss the idea.
He comes back flushed with success.
'Yes, fine. They're dealing with their van, then they have to find somewhere to park it. We're all going to meet up by Galata bridge. Before then we've got time to change some money and have a drink,' he suggests.
Clearly, Anthony revels in the thought of us all staying together and I suppose it is a good idea to make the most of one another's company.
'The Galata is a floating bridge, we need to cross it to get to old Stamboul. That's where the Pudding Shop is, the Sultan Ahmet and all the cheap hotels,' he babbles, demonstrating his knowledge of Istanbul.
The subject of eggplants had been a constant source of amusement on board ship, and I seriously doubted the existence of a vegetable that resembles an egg.
'What about eggplants?' I ask him now.
'Yes. Lots of eggplants too!'
'I am the eggman, you are an eggplant, she is the walnut.' I sing to the tune of the Beatles 'I am the Walrus'.
We meet up with others at Galata Bridge, a bridge that spans the vast expanse of water between the two main areas of Istanbul. The bridge seems to be constructed in sections as it bobs up and down, gently but quite perceptibly. Once we are over the bridge we take to the steep and busy streets of Old Stamboul, an area that projects a strong air of mystery and enchantment. We look about for a suitably cheap looking hotel. It looks like Anthony and the two German guys are going to take responsibility for finding us rooms.
'A room for seven please,' says Anthony.
'Seven? Seven room?' the manager puzzles.
'One room with seven beds,' Anthony repeats, checking around with us all that it's alright. I frown slightly but nod my head.
'One room? SEVEN beds?' the manager asks again.
It is really too much for the guy. He shows us a room containing just two beds.
'This room too small!'
'No, no, no.... more bed... Yes?'
He disappears but soon returns dragging a mattress behind him. We help to haul more beds, mattresses, and bedding into the tiny room.
But he is right; it can be done though it leaves virtually zero space for anything else. We set about stuffing our bags under our beds. But we're going to have problems; we have to climb over one another's beds in order to get to our own. But as nobody voices any dissent the rather bizarre state of affairs I don't openly question the need for us all to slum it like this.
We have not come all this way in order to sit around staring at our hotel room so we elect to go out and taste the delights of the street life. When we have secured the room, we make a beeline for a nearby café and make our selection. It presents an opportunity for Anthony to play the role of Oracle: -
'Achik is weak tea without milk in a small glass, demlik chaay is really strong. I prefer achik chaay. Then there's coffee, they call it kahve here, sade kahve is no sugar coffee, sutlu kahve is white coffee and sweet coffee is checkerli,' he advises.
'Check early? I think the sweet tea sounds best,' I decide.
We all order sweet tea and the light brown nectar is soon brought to us, served in what looks like oversized sherry glasses. The sugar comes in the form of lumpy rough large cubes placed beside our glasses. I expect tea without milk to be bitter but instead it tastes smooth and refreshing.
As the café has an all male clientele, the girls Monick, Gretta and Yolanda find themselves the focus of attention but I don't hear them complain.
After finishing our tea, we are off to scout out the rest of the area. It seems that the accepted norm here is to buy snacks on the street, so there's no need to waste our precious Turkish lire in a restaurant or cafés. The Turkish lire is roughly equivalent to about seven pence (there are about thirty-five TL to the pound) and is equal to one hundred kurus (pronounced kuroosh). With the price of a tea between twenty-five and fifty kurus and the snacks being cheap too, I can see no immediate money worries looming.
Satisfied that we know whereabouts we are, and where the local cafes are, we all agree that it would be a good idea to turn in, as none of us has had much sleep lately.
* * *
Today, Anthony's big priority is to visit the Post Office; Yolanda and I tag along for he seems to think we'll enjoy finding out about the Post Restante facility, which is a great system for travellers. The idea is that family and friends can write at the main post office wherever you stay. There are no hidden charges; in fact the system sounds ideal. But I reckon that for many the novelty has long since passed. I watch the line of people waiting at the window, they are all heavily tanned, they all look to be 'old hands' at the game. Two guys take my attention. They both look under-nourished; one of them has a particularly faraway look in his eyes. They are dressed in unusual getups; they appear to be returning from a long trip somewhere.
'From India, we're on our way back to London,' one of them tells me.
When I ask him if he has enjoyed the trip, he just smiles, rather weakly. To date these are possibly most important people I have met on our journey for they symbolise something of my ambitions and are proof that it the trip can be done.
Istanbul I discover is a crossroads, to the East, to everywhere in fact. Many come just to enjoy the atmosphere of Turkey, but for some this is just the start of their adventures, whilst for many others it is almost their journey's end. By going via North Africa we had taken a massive and perhaps unnecessary detour, but we had both wanted to go that way. However, I feel sure we could have reached this far within a week or ten days had we travelled more directly. So, have we wasted our time and money dragging ourselves around the 'long way'? Who can tell? Who knows what has been achieved? But right now I am raring to go to get on our way to Persia and on to India.
Whilst we are at the post office I mail the Acropolis to Mum and mention that she can write me c/o Post Restante, Main Post Office, Teheran, Iran.
But we are going to have to wait in Istanbul for a while as the formality of getting visas for our journey is going to take time. So we might as well enjoy ourselves whilst we are here, besides a trip to the Grand Bazaar is a treat I have been waiting for since Anthony told me about it on the Kades.
'You need to wear sunglasses,' he said. 'The brightness of the gold is so bright, quite unbelievable. It's the biggest bazaar in the world. You've just got to see it. There are tons of alleyways with stacks of different stalls and shops. You can buy virtually anything there.'
Though he exaggerated about the need for sunglasses he is correct in all other respects. It is an amazing place, a labyrinth taking us on a tour both magical and mysterious. In the quaint shops here are leatherwork, pottery, clothes, metalwork, jewellery and food for sale. It would take days to explore the place properly, a holiday just in itself. Mind you, getting about the place is not all easy.
We go around as a group, all seven of us. We are badgered and hassled almost continually by the traders here who seem to have a surprisingly good grasp of the English language. When we turn down offers to be shown their wares we are treated to a tirade of abuse. They must have learned the words from passing tourists; perhaps they are unaware of quite how coarse their language is with the 'f', 'b' and 'c' words?
Some weeks ago it was Yolanda's birthday and now I have a good opportunity buy her something special. After visiting many many shops at last we find her a suitable dress. It is basically white, and it has wide yellow and gold bands. It is loose fitting and modest, it looks just great on her.
And I'm looking for something myself too; my kick is a passport bag. All the ones we find are made of leather and are designed to be worn around the neck. I select a bag that is slightly larger than a passport and has space enough for all our travel documents as well. But it takes time to haggle the price, I do well I get it down from ten Turkish lire right down to four lire. So I do not hesitate when it comes to handing over the cash, but it seems the shop owner is having second thoughts.
'Fuck off,' he mutters dismissively.
'Charming!' I counter.
But there is nothing to do; we will have to look elsewhere.
I am curious what the Germans have got their eyes on. Christian has got it into his head to buy some leather trousers and since the place is literally crammed full of leather goods, he has no end of choice. In fact all the shops and stalls in the bazaar are crammed full and very busy.
It is quite a release to back out of bazaar and escape the hustle and bustle of the place. We all return to our cafe near the 'otel and order up fried eggs and tomatoes followed by rice pudding with cinnamon.
'Seven tomategg seven rice, seven tomategg seven rice,' the owner chants.
The fried food is served up in miniature portion-sized frying pans, which is a brilliant way to present the food as it gets served fresh and keeps hot. And I guess it saves on washing up too.
Anthony explains to us that Istanbul has several modes of transportation. When walking proves too wearing then one has to resort to buses and taxis, and the taxis are surprisingly cheap. Dolmus taxis are the cheapest, at the price of TL/2 per head you can travel wherever the taxi is heading. It is rather like a bus as the ride is frequently shared in the company of other passengers. But you cannot stipulate where the driver will take you, so when the dolmus goes off course one simply gets out and finds another one going the right way. But the real thrill about the dolmus is that most of these cars are vintage 1950's American Cadillacs, Buicks, Pontiacs and Chevrolets, they're all out there. I guess, maybe the Yanks sold them a 'job lot' way back. Smashing old cars, probably rare back in their own country even. Anthony, Yolanda and myself take one in order to get to the Iranian Embassy. Actually it takes us two taxis actually, followed by a long walk.
The Iranian embassy is located on the modern side of Istanbul where mainly the rich hang out, where the expensive looking hotels and clubs. Belly dancing can be seen here at night, though the girls are unlikely to be of Turkish origin, more likely some lass from Manchester, caught up in a modern white slave trade.
'How come you don't need a visa?' I ask Yolanda
'I guess Italy's friendly with Iran.'
I have to leave my passport in the hands of the embassy whilst they issue the visa, so we must stay in Istanbul until it is ready.
We meet back up with the Germans and decide to get around to see some of the sights. They want to go off to the Sultan Ahmet (the Blue Mosque), and I am eager too, as I have never been inside a mosque before (other than visiting the outer precincts of one in North Africa in order to use the toilet). Before we leave Christian, who has bought himself a little piece of hashish, wants to have a smoke. Out of the seven of us he alone wishes to indulge, and he can't find any cigarette papers, they don't seem to sell them here. I help him out. First I strip the silver paper out of a pack of cigarettes then carefully separate the backing paper from it. Breaking open a cigarette I then crumble a little sweet smelling hash and mix it with the tobacco and roll it in the backing paper from the cigarette packet. I seal the resultant 'joint' with pieces of postage stamps before completing the special cigarette with a filter made of cardboard. He is all set for lift off!
Christian smokes the joint right down to the boards, I am surprised that the others do not join in, it appears that despite all the media attention perhaps not all young people are 'turned on'. As we all make our way to the mosque Christian plays a wooden flute, giggling to himself from time to time'.
We arrive at a vast building with multiple domes clinging like limpets to the main body of the structure. Some half dozen balconied minarets pierce the surrounding aerial space like ancient prototype rockets. So this is the Sultan Ahmed. As I stand gazing at the imposing and impressive structure I am struck by the fact that I am not exactly sure what a mosque is. All that I understand is that it is some sort of church. I wonder what it will look like inside, but I'm sure that with such a splendid exterior it must be chock-a-block with treasures.
As we make our way up the steep spreading stone staircase to the entrance of the mosque I am appraised of what offering we must make in order to enter. Perhaps the price was too high!
'I can't do that,' I gasp.
'Everyone has to take them off, else they can't go inside. That's the custom,' informs Anthony.
Reluctantly, as I see the others are co-operating I take off my shoes and cast them onto the pile of rubber and leather at the entrance to the mosque. For a while I worry for the safety of my shoes but then the beauty of the ornamentation on the walls of the staggeringly large building sidetracks me. I am also struck by the emptiness of the place, for there is no furniture, in fact there is nothing here other than the vast richly coloured carpets and other than for the few other tourists, the place seems totally deserted, just a huge and empty room.
'I'm going outside. I want my shoes back,' I explain to the others.
It is a relief to be outside again, this has been enough sightseeing for me. I just want to go back to the bazaar to look for a passport pouch; it would be such a very useful addition to our kit. I am transfixed by the idea of getting the pouch.
I have to wait a long time before the others emerge from the mosque.
'Do you want to see Top Kapi and Saint Sophia,' Anthony asks.
Right now I'm in no mood to traipse around old buildings and I'm also hungry.
'What are they selling?' I ask, pointing to a row of street vendors.
'Roast corncobs. Shall we get some?'
Corncobs are stripped of their green covering and roasted on an open fire. To my surprise I find the charred toasted corn tastes so much better than it does boiled, it has a lovely nutty taste similar to that of chestnuts.
Today we stick together, mooching about the old quarter, wandering quite aimlessly, stopping to look at a shop, and going somewhere for a snack. We start to evolve a daily ritual which revolves around the 'otel, the local cafes, repeated trips to the bazaar and the area immediately around the bazaar where all the lanes and alleyways seem to abound with well stocked shops, often full with people milling about. As many of the footways are extremely steep and narrow, moving heavy goods must present a great difficulty.
'Did you see that?' Yolanda gasps.
Apparently, she felt that she was being tapped on the back but she did not respond, thinking that perhaps it was unintended. Then to her surprise she felt a searing pain, as if she were being pinched very strongly. The girls have had to get used to having their bottoms pinched by passing men, so she turned around to confront the perpetrator but found herself staring at the long and tired face of a horse waiting to overtake her.
On another occasion we see an old man carrying an upright piano on his back up such a hill. His load is secured with a rope across his forehead. Heavy Man!
Interestingly, these crowded cobbled streets also attracted street entertainers, and here we witness that most bizarre spectacle, the dancing bear. I feel extremely sorry for the animal and wonder that it must be a very dark side of human nature that subscribes to such displays.
We revisit the bazaar but it is actually at one of the many touristy shops that at last I obtain my prize. I buy a two-tone leather passport pouch at TL 5, and am soon transferring our passports and papers into it. I buy another (spare one) in brown suede, after all, I haven't exactly splashed out on luxuries since we have been on our travels, the djellaba in Morocco, the nail clippers in Libya and now a zippered pass-a-port case!
On the subject of souvenirs, whilst in London Yolanda had worked for a gift shop in Trafalgar Square, and had gotten me several rings from there. I wear these rings along with one she gave me early in our relationship which is silver embossed with small circles of gold hammered into it, giving the appearance of something mediaeval and romantic. Apparently it had been made for her and given to her by a former boyfriend in Amsterdam. When she had first given it to me, she made the condition that I shouldn't wear it in company, that it was just our secret. I had sometimes worn it in private, whilst she was away in Italy. When she returned to London I then felt free to wear it openly.
The other rings are less precious but one in particular has fascinated me from the day I got it, it is a Turkish Puzzle ring wrought of silver and consisting of four differently shaped segments which fit together into a pleasing pattern rather like a knot. It was fun deciphering the puzzle. Back onboard the Kades I discovered that Anthony also has such a ring but a totally different method for solving the puzzle. These sorts of rings seem surprisingly hard to find in Istanbul, so perhaps they are for export only?
Antique signet rings are also aimed at tourists; they are attractive as each one contains a panel of brass with Arabic script inscribed upon it. But I doubt that they are authentic, most likely they have been aged by pressing dust into the crevices. The shops and stalls them sell them price them high, as though they were the real McCoy. But I have set my heart on owning one and ashamed myself by palming one and walking off with it.
'Serves 'em right' I think to myself, 'if they were more honest, I would have paid them the price.'
All of us seem to like rummaging around stalls so Anthony suggest that a visit to the Sunday Flea Market might be fun. The very name puts me off, but as we have nothing to lose we go along really just to find out how bad it is.
Unlike the regular indoor bazaar the Flea Market has no new items for sale but also there are no antiques either, the place just seems to be stuffed full of rubbish. But, in spite of the lack of quality goods the place attracts crowds of people who gather here to turn over the mounds of assorted junk, like rusting nails, broken tools, buttons, soiled clothes and rolls of sticky tape so weathered that they had fused together in a useless mess. What on earth induces people to come here? Can anyone really hold out any real hope of finding something useful, even yet a bargain? Our Germans friends are really most put out by the place, they don't like it a bit. But for some reason Anthony appears at home here, or possibly he just wishes to project that image. I ask him if such places exist anywhere else than in Istanbul? According to him one can find a Flea Market in Amsterdam too.
Now a great mystery I am puzzled about is why we cannot drink the tap water here. When I first heard about it, I thought it was a joke but apparently the water here is so bad that people actually buy purified water, in small bottles with aluminium caps at 20 kurus a throw. Imagine having to do that, to actually buy water? Had we been staying longer I'm sure I would have got around to trying the tap water, surely it can't be that bad?
'Fancy a Fruko?' Anthony asks.
'Huh?' I puzzle.
'It's a fizzy fruit drink. But actually the people here call the army the Fruko too.'
I don't know much about the role of the army here, but we seem to see quite a few uniformed soldiers on the streets, but at least I know what the president looks like. On the coins and on the banknotes, at any turn in the road or inside any old shop you might see the face of Ataturk, the man in charge of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, his face is everywhere. Apparently it is he who has established the modern European face of Turkey. In order to modernise they have abolished the use of Arabic script replacing it with the 'normal' Roman alphabet. The changes haven't stopped at that of course, the commitment to western ideology shows itself in many ways. There are no signs of any gauzy veils or any remotely resembling traditional costume. The land of Eastern Promise summoned up by the Fry's Turkish Delight ads seem to belong firmly in the past now. But on the subject of this delicacy, when I have the chance to sample the real thing I am shocked to find I prefer the Fry's version. Though the delight here is tasty it lacks that smooth milk chocolate covering, not to mention the beautiful purple paper around it. In fact even the centre is no match to Fry's. This is strange, maybe one day they will be importing British Turkish Delight.
Ever since reading Lewis Carrol's 'Alice in Wonderland' and seeing the illustration of the hookah smoking caterpillar I've been curious as to know what it is like to smoking a hookah (a hubble-bubble pipe). In a café here I spot an ornate pipe I am curious as to how much it costs to have a smoke. I do not intend to indulge, as I am sure these pipes are only used for the smoking of cannabis, but assuming that I want to have a smoke they refill the apparatus with fresh water and also bring me something to smoke. I finger the substance, it is not hashish but a dry dark strong tobacco, I decide give it a try. Filling the bowl with tobacco I take a match and draw heavily on the mouthpiece. Whoo-oo-ah, it's quite a heavy smoke in spite of the smoke having been filtered and cooled by the fresh water. As the body of the pipe is made of clear glass I can watch the smoke pass on its course through the Hookah. At just a Turkish lire it is a cheap thrill but not one I wish to repeat.
But the Turks seem to like tobacco strong, even their cigarettes also tend to be a little bit harsh. The attractively named 'Yeni Harman' brand has the most alluring packaging but on the other hand is quite the most awful cigarette, decidedly down market. Opening the ochre packet the cigarettes have all but emptied their contents. I guess the problem lies in the lack of plastic wrapping, in the hot weather they cannot stay fresh long. Curiously, some cigarettes sold here are rolled into an oval shape; they look as though they've been sat upon.
Sometimes Yolanda and I go out alone, sometimes Anthony comes along too. Sometimes we join up with some or all of the Germans and today we all agreed to join forces and visit a genuine Turkish bath. The one we go to is housed in an ancient looking building which from the outside looks very similar to a mosque. But this building is only for men; the ladies must go elsewhere. Once inside we find ourselves treading the most amazingly beautiful marble and alabaster floors, and we make ourselves to the washing area where we find sinks and sunken hot water pools. We cast off our clothes and totally naked we soap and wash ourselves in humid hothouse, rubbing and scrubbing until every vestige of dirt and loose skin is washed away.
As I languish in a sunken pool I stare up into the vast vaulted domed roof, an impressive sight for lovers of ancient architecture. High up there, thriving in the intense heat and moisture, providing a splendid sideshow far out of reach of the custodians of these baths, grow ferns and other plants which have rooted themselves in the crevices and cracks.
I repeatedly wash myself over and over again, possibly a dozen times before I get bored with the experience. Some might wish to languish longer, if they had a desire to stare at the bodies of friends and strangers, they might wish to savour the experience longer but I have had enough, I must be clean by now and I just want to get out. I now discover that the next step in passing through the baths is to have a dip in cold water. The contrast is quite a shock to the nervous system, soon I am frozen and shriveled and eager to wrap myself in the two large soft Turkish towels which have been brought for me. I sit down in a small room where a man brings me a glass of hot kuchik chaay, which I eagerly accept. I dressed and make my exit, hoping to find Yolanda. She is outside waiting, apparently she is not enamoured with the experience. Certainly as I sneeze repeatedly I reckon I might have overdone it. I wonder if perhaps I am now too clean? Is that possible? Perhaps we both hanker after our lost dirt?
I'm not sure at all as to whether Anthony has got his facts right about 'following the sun'. After all, we have moved from the intense heat of North Africa to merely hot weather here. In fact the nights here are decidedly cold. Perhaps that's why I suffer a minor head cold for a couple of days; maybe it was the Turkish bath with its extremes of temperatures?
We are issued our visas for Iran and we no longer have a reason for staying any longer in Stamboul. And if getting out of such a large and sprawling city is not hard enough there is the added problem that we have become a wee bit too comfortable for our own good. But as ever the travel bug exerts itself and provides us motivation.
The question is how we are going to travel across Turkey. The most obvious route is to go directly by road via Ankara. But Anthony is full of enthusiasm for us joining up with him and travelling together by train. The idea is attractive, but it would be a heavy drain on our meagre funds. Another method is suggested the small ads that are posted on notice boards at the Pudding Shop and other cafés around and about the Blue Mosque. The idea is that extra passengers share the cost of petrol (which we can ill afford) but as luck has it there are no ads related to travelling East just now. Secretly, I harbour another plan. On leaving the SS Kades the captain had shown me a sticker in our passports, resembling a postage stamp. According to him this enables us to travel at half the normal rate on another ship.
Trotting off to their offices I check out the situation with regards the cost of skirting around the edge of Turkey. But, apparently this discount rate only applies to international voyages. However, since we are not quite ready to sail home just yet, I am still interested in what concession they can offer on trips in Turkish waters. We strike gold, for there is a boat that can take us along the coast of the Black Sea coast almost to Persia. And, importantly the boat sails soon and the tickets are quite cheap.
We have grown quite fond of each other, Anthony, the German couples and us, having fallen into a friendly familiarity, especially during the time spend at our favourite cafe. Christian and myself decide that the place needs an intelligible menu so that the owner can gain more business. We have spent a fair amount of time discussing the project, but when Yolanda and I announce our decision to sail in a couple of days it significantly alters the status quo of our merry little band. For starters I notice there is no more mention of the topic of menus. Christian and the others start to look quite subdued, perhaps it is because they too will be returning to their country soon enough to resume their studies at university. It feels like it would be nice to finish our stay together on a high note, someone gets the idea to go to the movies.
Not a frequent cinemagoer I am nonetheless curious to see the homegrown Turkish product. Just the venue is sufficient in itself to throw us all into hysterics. The 'cinema' has been erected recently, with sheets hung on ropes to form the walls and screen, with seating (such as it is) upon wooden benches where the seven of us sit tightly squeezed between extremely loud Turks. The heat is really up this evening; thank goodness it is an open-air performance. The first short film is just the most hysterical, ridiculous and melodramatic nonsense I ever saw! And the film that follows is no better either. Admittedly, we know almost no Turkish, so that might appear a disadvantage, but it is not so as none of the films we see require any great understanding, for they all have one simple plot viz. Goodies versus Baddies. The goodies are instantly recognisable, they are anyone with a heroic and suave image, and if you are in any doubt, these are the ones that draw the cheers from the audience. The baddies, and there are many - invariably sport long drooping moustaches and the most evil expressions. It seems the goody usually prevails but not always. If by some mishap a goody gets killed he is promptly replaced by another dapper chappy whom the audience cheers with great gusto. Film after film rolls by on the sheets before we are done. The experience leaves us in lively spirits, the sheer disjointed banality of it all leaves us heaving with mirth.
The deckclasser's from the SS Kades take one last moonlit stroll together. The night is the best time to see Istanbul for the lights from the boats, the cars, the stars and moon all contrive to turn the very impressive view into something really quite magical.
'So you're still going by train?' I ask Anthony.
'Yes, via Ankara, you've heard of it no doubt, where Angora wool comes from. It would have been nice to go with you by boat, but there you go.'
'We might meet up again though, keep your eyes open for us!'
To 'Via Rishikesh' Chapter 12
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