Anyone who’s spent any time in Turkey is likely to have caught a long distance bus. And if you’ve only ever had to use the Esenler bus station in Istanbul you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s chaotic. Compared to what came before, it’s a oasis of calm. Here’s what I experienced the first time I arrived at the old Topkapı bus station on the outskirts of the city.
“Fourteen hours later, after stopping every two hours so that passengers could visit the bathroom and have a cigarette, even though they all smoked furiously on the bus anyway, we reached Istanbul. In the dim early morning light I could just make out huge thick ancient stone fortifications I later learnt were part of the original wall surrounding the city. To my weary eyes they were mere crumbling ruins that only added to the disorder surrounding us. The Topkapı bus station was overrun by chaos and pandemonium. Little yellow buses packed to the gunnels with people and parcels whizzed past, the drivers frantically honking their horns to make everyone jump out of the way. Large red and blue local buses with rusty sides and bits hanging off the bumper bars belched smoke from their exhaust pipes and turned impossibly large circles, cutting through the crowds of passengers, relatives, touts, food vendors, porters and an assortment of men who appeared to be at the bus station simply for something to do.
We were all milling around to the accompaniment of what seemed like a million voices screaming in my ear at once. “Ankara!”, “Eskişehir!”, “Van!”, “Kayseri!” . . . The words rolled on and over me until I suddenly realised they were the names of towns and the men shouting them worked for the various bus companies going to those places. At regular intervals someone clutching a suitcase or an assortment of sacks and cardboard boxes would peel off from the crowd and be claimed by a bus company tout. The tout would grab their luggage and lead them away at lightening speed through the throngs of people straight to the appropriate bus. It was crazy.”
If you want to know what happened next, you can find out in my book “Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul”.