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Roll up. Roll up for the Mystery Tour….

Posted by on November 5, 2012

Bus travel in Turkey is cheap for long distances. “How much for two tickets for the overnight coach to Istanbul tonight lutfen” we innocently ask one Sunday lunchtime. “Sorry – all full” is the reply. We go next door to the next coach company. Same question; same answer. And the next. At the fourth he says we can take a longer route for an extra fiver each but sorry, the electricity had cut out so he can’t book till the lights come back on. We say ok and sit down and wait. This is the 3rd power cut we’ve had in Turkey as its really common, apparently mostly on Sundays! Finally the lights come back on. After lots of shouting he tells us “sorry, all full!”. It simply hadn’t occurred to us that the buses might be full. We head back to our cave hostel (explanation in our next blog) to make sure we can stay another night. We walk down the stairs into the cave. It’s very dark; the leccy hasn’t come back on here yet.

Bus stations are mainly in the middle of nowhere!Getting used to buses
We’re getting used to long bus journeys now; it’s how people travel distances here, mainly overnight. However even now we are old hands we still feel its a bit of a mystery tour each time we get on one. I always wonder that airplanes manage to get to the right destination. I think I feel the same about Turkish buses. It’s all a bit of a leap of faith.

Firstly, there are loads of different bus companies and you basically have to check with each one in turn to get the best deal and ticket. Takes some time we can tell you. At a decent size bus station, or Ottogar, each company has an office. Most bus stations seem to be way out of town in the middle of no where and are huge. Istanbul’s station is ginormous and nearly an hours drive by shuttle bus from the centre. It has 168 ticket offices and gates, its own Metro station, shops, restaurants, hotel, police station, clinic and mosque; virtually a town in itself. You can catch a bus to Berlin or Baghdad, though most likely to other places in Turkey.

At the offices, the companies have long lists in their windows saying where they go to. In Gorome the direct service to Aleppo/Damascus has been crossed out with a marker pen.

Chaos and organisation in equal measure
The bus stations of any size are total chaos. Despite the enormity of the logistics of such a huge network of buses which generally leave on time and all connect fine with the shuttles, somethings are totally archaic. None of the bus stations have any boards telling you what stop the buses go from, what time, where they stop. You stand there looking confused whilst lots of men in suits, fags in hand shout at each other and various drivers and hope one speaks enough English to point you to the right bus. We have got on a few buses with no idea if we were on the right one! One Turkish man regaled a story of when asking where to catch his bus to Ankara being told “take your pick. choose any bus”! Would some electronic notice boards be so hard?

Hand written tickets still aboundIt’s not like it’s not all computerised. With one company we managed to book online but then we had to go and find an office near Taxim Square (a challenge in itself) before we travelled where they took my confirmation email and gave us a very old fashioned dot-matrix ticket in return which we had to sign. Clearly, they still want paperwork not quite trusting the idea of doing things online. Good job our signatures were ok. We heard how one person once had to go to glove municipal office to validate his signature before a bus company gave him his!

Just tell me how it is

In Gorome there is a bar with a sign saying ‘No Bullshit’ outside! Traveling by bus you need your antennae well and truly plugged in. When we turned up at Fethiye bus station with our rucksacks, 6 men literally surrounded us to get us to travel with their company. It was really intimidating. They all said their company offered the best service. “Wifi?”, “yes, of course”. “How long?”, “four hours direct”. “Toilets?” “no”. “But X company said only 3 hours and toilets” we explain. “They lie” we are told, “but our company very good and best”. Turns out all the agents have told us porkies and it’s impossible to know who to believe. So many times we have been told ‘yes’ when its not been the case. Virtually none of the buses have toilets. One journey as we settle in to the bus we have been assured has wifi we ask the attendant to turn it on as nothing was showing on our phones. You guessed it, “Sorry. None on this bus”. Quelle surprise!

Honesty would go a long way
So on our way to Gorome we are told many times it’s a direct express service. That’ll be the same express that means they stop to pick up random people en route with seemingly no communication between the driver and the potential passenger; one buseven stopped in the middle of some traffic light so one of the passengers could use a cashpoint she’d just spotted; another asked for a sweetie stop.

It’s 6am, we are fast asleep on the bus and we are harshly woken up with a strange word shouted at us by the attendant. The word turns out to be the name of a place we have never heard of, another bus station in the middle of nowhere. Turns out our bus is not direct at all and we have to change. But no one told us. We are all groggy from being woken so unceremoniously. At least 4 people refuse to get off the bus. The bus driver shouts at them even louder getting quite angry. They don’t get off. We do, with more than a little trepidation, leaving our warm sleepy seats for very cold early morning air. We are directed out of the cold into a building where a man tries to sell us tourist tours. When no-one bites we are sent back outside to wait for another bus. No information about where we are or anything. Our connecting bus comes over an hour later.

Had we all just been told we needed to change and where then it would have been so much easier for everyone. But then maybe had they been honest you might have bought your ticket from another bus company.

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