I left the snowy Istanbul from Haydarpasa train station on the Asian side (a quick ferry ride from Eminonu near my hotel) heading for Syria in under 36 hours! As the Istanbul – Adana direct train did not have a sleeper carriage (shocker!) then I decided to head to Ankara (middle of Turkey) and then down to Adana from there on the sleeper service. The times of the trains actually suited me better and did not require an overnight stay in Adana. I clearly travelled on some of Turkey’s newest rolling stock and splendid it was too. Haydarpassa to Eskisehir is a four hour journey but a good while of this can be spent sitting in the dining car having lunch!
As with all my Turkish trains, it ended up running late and in the end we literally jumped off this train and straight onto the train on the opposite platform which would take us to Ankara (administrative centre of Turkey). For this 1 ½ hour Ankara service our luggage had to go through a scanner and all tickets were checked as we boarded. It was like a posh version of Eurostar with infinitely superior toilets! They could teach Virgin a thing of two about toilet doors opening and closing without every other person using the emergency alarm and alerting the whole carriage. And both of the above train journeys came to 34 lira (~£13).
On arrival in the snowy winter wonderland of Ankara, I had a cunning plan. Two and a half hours until my overnight train, I would grab a taxi to the central hamam, see a bit of Ankara during the ride, and then spend the time getting nice and clean and relaxed prior to my overnight journey. I locked my main luggage into left luggage (so much easier here than Brussels…) and jumped into a taxi. The taxi driver got his glasses out, worked out from my book where I wanted to go and off we set. He dropped me off right outside the hamam but fortunately the snow made turning round slower than usual and no sooner had I got out of the taxi, I was back in as I was informed that the hamam was closed due to the snow – gutted! He drove me back to the station but wouldn’t accept payment for the return journey! Nice idea… and so I spent the time sitting in the station concourse as I had been hoping to avoid.
Some good people watching later, I boarded my overnight sleeper to Adana, found I had a two bunk carriage to myself (with sink and mini fridge!) and was happy to see that the dining car was again in attendance. Chicken shish, fried aubergine, a salad and a large Efes were the order of the day. I was pleased to see that I wasn’t the only woman drinking – four Turkish woman were sharing a bottle of wine and some nibbles.
I woke around six and popped out to use the facilities. The train guard seemed keen to revert the bed to seats but I resisted – we weren’t due into Adana until 07h26 – so much sleeping time left. Hilariously at 7h10, he knocked on my door and told me 8 minutes until Adana. I got dressed and packed my bags in a hurry but it didn’t take me long to realise that he just wanted to collect the bedding and finish reverting all the beds to seats. We arrived in Adana an hour and twenty minutes later…
Another taxi was required to get me from the train station to Adana Otogar, where I could start the journey to cross the border into Syria. I had to remind the driver to turn on the meter (old trick!) but after that he looked after me very well and ensured that I got to the right bus counter to buy my ticket to Antakya. Here I met two young Germans and they became my travel companions for the day. We took the 3 ½ coach from Adana to Antakya and then despite thinking that we wanted a private taxi to Aleppo, we were convinced at Antakya Otogar that the bus would be just as quick. For 10 lira per person (and it was raining), we decided to go with it. Our main concern was about getting stuck for hours in the passport/customs queues at the border but in the end, we couldn’t have made it though much faster.
The Syrians carried out many different checks on the bus and its passengers, generally with a cigarette in hand. Being a “Rooney” caused a good laugh with the Syrian passport control and in future at border controls, I shall just embrace the Wayne/Liverpool connection and invent a family story. We were wondering how on earth the bus company could be making money taking 4 passengers from Antakya to Aleppo for 10 lira each – some plants and money changing hands at a petrol station beyond the border (with the customs officers!) might have provided a clue.
I was trying to remember when was the last time I had crossed a border by road and for most of the morning was convinced that it was as far back as lunch in La Vajol in 1995! Not that the card playing, chain-smoking border guards seemed that interested at the time. In reality though I think it was by Greyhound bus between Seattle and Vancouver in 2000. The Syrians were a lot friendlier.