Up All Night

It was not so long ago, on Turkish long distance buses, that smoking was permitted – if not actively encouraged. Reports from travellers of yore (some of them even hardened smokers) speak, shuddering, of grim night journeys crossing the expanse of the country, sleep deprived and contorted into a seat that would be unacceptable to a Formula 1 driver, with the only light as the glowing embers of a hundred Turkish cigarettes bobbing around the gloom like fire flies.
 
These days, the no-smoking signs are up, the seats permit reasonable blood circulation, and if you are lucky the bow-tied steward will give you ice cream. At least, this was the practice on the night service from Istanbul to Pamukkale (the latter also the name of said bus company). This was my inaugural bus journey in Turkey so I really tried to pay attention – I would be taking many more in the coming month and I wanted to learn the rules and etiquette. It would also be my first of many close-up experiences of the blotched, wretched moonscape that characterises so many bus stewards’ hands. Although soft drinks and juice are offered, most people choose tea or coffee which prompts the wielding of the boiling kettle at a unnerving proximity to your bare arm, only then for the water to be poured into the tiny cup from a perilous, Moroccan tea-house style, height. This also seems to regularly coincide with the part of the journey where the bus lurches from one side of the road to the other. Political prisoners after interrogation come away with better manicured hands than those of a Turkish bus steward…
 
It would also serve as my first taste of the country’s thriving 24/7 road-stop culture. Although I have since taken a few long distance buses around the world, growing up in a country the size of the UK does not exactly provide good bus travel training. 12 hours after leaving London you have almost fallen into the North Sea – in Turkey, 12 hours gets you just out of the Istanbul suburbs. Turkish bus travel shames me on behalf of my country. Even if public bus journeys in the UK are one of the few things that are inexplicably cheap, it is best not to talk about the service you receive. On a British long-distance bus, for your culinary delight, you will feel lucky even if you are spat out of the bus at three in the morning, into a deserted petrol station for five minutes, blinking and staggering into the harsh yellow light, only to weakly croak food orders to the shop attendant through the window, who then spends half an hour wandering around the store like a lost child, for your obscure, inane items. You return your bus, now partially awakened from your stupor, peer curiously into the shopping you have just bought, and slowly produce a limp prawn sandwich and a pack of Worcestershire Sauce crisps. You are now £5 poorer, probably weeping, and dreaming of breakfast in a Little Chef outside of Aberdeen.
 
But here, on your first stop, you wake up (or maybe not, I was watching a documentary about Che Guevara on the inbuilt TV on the seat in front), leave the bus and immediately enter a bright, busy, cavernous world where people are enjoying hot, spicy plates of tavuk, buying bread and cheese from the deli, washing their car, sitting drinking tea, buying clothes, getting their shoes shined, or exchanging conversation with passengers from another bus. This of course was not the case all the time (I would later make roadside stops in places that were reminiscent of Stephen King novels) but it amazed me to see the effort made by Turkish people to accommodate the weary traveller. While I am accustomed to nothing – this galaxy of bustling twilight hubs twinkle all across the country and would reinforce my feeling that half of this population are permanently on the move.

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