From West to East and Back Again

Some people believe in astrological birth signs. My life has been more ruled by music. On the day I was born in 1941 the record at the top of the charts was “The Chattanooga Choo Choo” by The Glen Miller Orchestra. As a toddler I’m told that the first song I sang was “The Trolley Song” by Judy Garland. Is it any wonder that I have had a life-long passion for all things to do with transport.

When that redoubtable pair of Turkey travellers, our friends MnM, announced that they were planning a trip to Istanbul and Gallipoli in the Spring of 2015 and were looking for people to join them, my first thought was “great”. And this did not refer to a chance to explore more of Istanbul or to visit Gallipoli around the time of the 100th anniversary of the WWI campaign. No, top of my mind was the possibility of trying out a truly unique transport experience that was not much more than one year old. I’m referring to the Marmaray, the Istanbul metro line which links the two great continents of Europe and Asia through a tunnel under the Bosphorus.

Istanbul is an amazing city. It is the fifth most populous city in the world with 14.2 million people within the city limits (as measured in 2014). The bulk of the commercial and business sector activity is on the west side of the Bosphorus, in Europe, whilst the larger part of the population lives on the east side, in Asia. This means there is a significant daily movement of people across the Bosphorus.

For centuries the only way to cross the Bosphorus was by boat. As mentioned in my last post in this blog, we had used a ferry for that very purpose the previous day. The year 1973 saw the opening of the high-level suspension bridge, known rather mundanely as the First Bosphorus Bridge, and in 1988 the Second Bosphorus Bridge, with the more glamorous name of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Köprüsü, was opened. These two bridges relieved some of the pressure on the ferries. But they were still not enough to carry all the people who needed to cross on a daily basis and construction started of a third bridge, the Yavuz Sultan Selim Köprüsü, which will be a combined motorway and railway crossing. It’s due to be open later in 2015.

Having lived on the island of Great Britain for most of my life, I am more than just a little conscious of the barrier that the water creates for transport. As a child in Glasgow and in London, it was always a thrill to go under the mighty rivers Clyde and Thames using the underground. The idea of being in a tunnel tens of feet beneath water was quite amazing. Many years later I was fortunate to be living in London and visiting Paris regularly on business, at the time when the Eurostar rail tunnel was opened under the English Channel (or La Manche as the French call it). To be able to cross from one country to another by train under the sea was nothing short of a miracle.

October 2013 saw the opening of the first phase of a rail tunnel linking Europe with Asia. The sub-sea part of the tunnel is 1.4km in length (a little under a mile), and is used today to allow the Istanbul urban rail system service, the Marmaray, to connect the East and the West. It has many innovations in tunnel engineering including features that will make it resistant to earthquakes, an all too common event in Istanbul, and the use of a fire-proof concrete. These are world firsts. Later in 2015 a second pair of tunnels will be opened to allow the passage of high-speed rail.

We were staying in the Istanbul district of Kumkapı at the Hotel Kumpkapı Konağı. The reception lobby was quite grand and the breakfast room on the roof had a stunning view over the Sea of Marmara and up to the Blue Mosque, but there the luxury finished. For the most part, the bedrooms we were allocated should have been single rooms. Instead, the hotel management seemed to have squeezed in double beds which left little or no room to walk about the room. In some cases there was no room for a wardrobe and the en suite bathrooms required serious acrobatics to reach them, especially for the inevitable middle of the night visits of the more elderly. But there was one redeeming feature, it was but a short walk from the Marmaray Yenikapı station.

After breakfast on the first morning in Istanbul, we set of on our journey from West to East. Yenikapı station was about 1km along the Kennedy Caddesi boulevard that skirts the Sea of Marmara. On the seaward side there are ferry terminals and docks and on the landward side there is the main railway line from Europe. It is along this line that the world famous Orient Express used to travel on its approach to its terminus at Istanbul Sirkeci Gar (station) on the waterfront close to the Galata Köprüsü (the Galata Bridge) over the Golden Horn.

Soon we could see the Yenikapı station but how to get to it was a bit of a puzzle. We were in a jungle of road and pedestrian under-passes and over-passes with no obvious signage. Eventually perseverance won the day and there we stood in front of the shiny new station entrance. Two tickets were soon purchased for the princely sum of 4TL each (about £1). This must be the cheapest ticket available anywhere in the world to travel by public transport from one continent to another. And, as I found out later, if we had worked out how to buy multi-trip tickets, the fare could have been as little as just over 2TL each.

Although the station has been operational for about 18 months, everything was very clean and still looked brand new. A long escalator took us down to the platform level. The ceiling heights were spacious and gave no sense of claustrophobia. Similarly, the platforms were wide with clear markings where the train doors would open. The train indicator boards showed how long the wait would be for the next train, a mere two minutes in our case.

When it arrived, with only a minimal of noise, the train itself was almost an anti-climax. Apart from the shiny metal and fine livery, it looked fairly conventional. The tracks are the same gauge as London Underground (4 ft 8 ½ in or 1435 mm) but the tunnels are much higher and wider so the carriages are much more capacious.

Once on board, the most obvious feature was the layout. The inside of the train was open from end to end, with bench seats along the sides. This gave a reasonable amount of seating and an enormous amount of standing space. These trains were clearly designed for high capacity. The carriages are similar to those of the new rolling stock on the London Overground and the Circle Line but so much bigger.

The train moved quickly and quietly out of the station. We were clearly starting the descent in preparation for the Bosphorus crossing. In a couple of minutes the train pulled into the first stop, Sirkeci, still in Europe. The building of this station and the nearby tunnels, was the cause of much delay in the construction process. Sirkeci is very close to the Topkapı Palace and the Aya Sofia Mosque in the Sultanahmet historical district of the city. As the tunnellers dug their ways into the subterranean depths of ancient Istanbul, they unearthed many ancient buildings and artefacts. Each one had to be properly examined and recovered, where possible, before construction could continue. This added more than four years and serious amounts of additional cost to the overall project.

As the train pulled out of Sirkeci station there was little further sensation of descent as the tunnels were already close to the maximum depth required. At its deepest, the tunnel is 60 metres (nearly 200ft) below the surface and is buried under the seabed. It seems that operators feel that the passengers might panic when under the sea so, for the whole of this part of the journey, screens showed animated graphics telling everyone how safe everything was and what would happen in the event of a fire. I could see how some might be re-assured but for the rest of us more blasé passengers, it started to conjure up unnecessary images.

And then our five minute, intercontinental journey ended as the train, still below ground, pulled into Üsküdar station. Of course, we were still in Turkey so there were no passports to show or customs formalities, it was just another urban train journey. Well not exactly, we were now in Anatolia and the next continental boundary to our east was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Our plan, whilst in Asian Istanbul, was to try to fit in a visit to the Haydarpaṣa railway station and see where trains used to leave for places such as Baghdad and Damascus. If there was time, a visit to the Florence Nightingale Hospital of Crimean War fame in Scutari (Üsküdar), was also on the cards. But first we had to travel to the temporary end of the line at the next station, Ayrılık Çeṣmesi. This took only a couple of minutes or so but brought us right back to surface level so that the station was in the open air.

The contrast between the West and the East was dramatic. We had started our journey in old Istanbul, the land of giant mosques and ancient buildings. Now we were in a land of ultra-modern high-rise buildings and a giant shopping mall. We were just trying to find the route to Haydarpaṣa, when the rain started. This was not ideal for a 2km or so walk so we decided to have a look in the shopping mall. Once inside it was as though we had crossed to yet another continent. It could have been in any city in the United States. Even many of the stores and brands were American. There were a couple of concessions to Europe in the form of an M&S and a Zara, but that was it.

We did though find a very good Turkish coffee shop and got seats. A waiter soon appeared and took our order for a latte and a Turkish coffee sade (without sugar). These were delivered in elegant cups with little biscuits. There was iced water and a little container with a piece of Turkish Delight to go with the Turkish coffee. A classy experience and very reasonably priced.

On the bad news front, as we ventured back outside, the weather had taken a turn for the worst and we didn’t have adequate protection. The plan for Haydarpaṣa and Florence Nightingale were abandoned and we caught the next train back to the West. Changing continents is as easy as a tube ride in Istanbul.

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement based in Richmond, London. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels in North America, Europe and Turkey plus other places as yet unknown.
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