It’s been a while since I wrote about a plane ride. I suppose it’s been a while since I was on a plane. six months to be exact. When the Corona virus first came to Europe, I thought it would all be over in two months. In the same way that it was “all over” in China after 2 months of lockdown. But six months after Corona “reached” Britain the world is still in turmoil.
The world may be have been in turmoil, but Heathrow is still open. Turkish airlines was getting oin with life, and life meant three flights a day between London and Istanbul. Terminal 2 was quiet, but the Turkish Airlines check in was busy. People were being sensible and wearing masks and all of us were keeping “1m plus” away from the next passenger. Some passengers had clutched test reports from clinics, to allow their onward travel to Asia, but all of us bound for Turkey did not. We simply wore masks and were sensible.
TURKISH AIRLINES – OPERATING SAFELY
The plane was very new, and very clean. The seats were comfortable, with decent enough legroom for my 6”2’ frame. The seatback TV screens showcased Turkey while air conditioning pumped out huge quantities of cool air. The similarities with the pre-Covid world ended there. The petite stewardesses were masked, the seat pockets had no magazines and the middle seats were all empty. We were all given a hygene set of two masks, wipes and a bottle of hand sanitiser.
“Please fasten your seatbelts and please don’t take your masks off” came the rather bizarre announcement. The new world I thought.
My thoughts were interrupted as the Dreamliner abruptly pushed back. We taxied out quickly, across a rather forlorn empty Heathrow airport. With no queue at all, we lined up on the runway and the pilot opened up the throttles. As soon as we lifted off, the Turkish pilot banked us hard left with full power on. The sun shone on an empty sky. I looked out of the window and saw green England fields with the sprawl of a rather grey Heathrow in the background. We climbed fast, the skipper set course for Istanbul and backed off the throttles. We were finally heading east. To the orient.
“The flight will take three hours and ten minutes” we were informed.
“That’s fast” I said to Cisca. The lack of congestion meant that we could take the most direct air route to Turkey. I had not done the journey this fast since the 1990’s. I thought back to my childhood when the BEA trident-3’s would ply this route in the same time. I wondered how much fuel we were saving on the seemingly usual 3-hour 45 minute journey.
Soon enough the flight attendants came round handing out brown paper bags, reminiscent of a 1990’s US supermarket. They contained a sandwich, water, cake and peach juice. The offering made for a surprisingly nice evening meal. There was a certain simplicity to this journey. Everyone on board just wanted to get somewhere, to escape the madness of isolation, curfews, and travel bans. It seemed no one cared about red wine, a gin and tonic or a crummy airline magazine. Despite the changes, this was a refreshingly positive travel experience.
I looked out of the window and looked for contrails. I could find very few. The sun set slowly over the Balkans and we continued to trundle east, overflying the orient express train route through Serbia, Bulgaria and then into Turkey and Edirne. We overflew the Bosphorus and were treated to a magnificent view of Istanbul by night before touching down at Istanbul. Istanbul Grand Airport is bigger than Heathrow and it was far busier, even at 11.30 at night. Our Dreamliner was one of many aircraft. But while it was not running anywhere near capacity everything seemed normal. Normal in masks and with respectful but sensible social distancing. We were through all the formalities within minutes, and then I checked my wallet. To my alarm, my identification card was missing. I had used a passport to enter Turkey, but I really did need my ID card to do anything. I wandered over to lost luggage and found a nice man. “I think I might have left my ID card on the plane”
He took me immediately to a desk, called a young lady who seemed to know everything, who told me to sit down. I explained to the nice lady that I was probably very foolish and might have dropped my ID card below seat 21. She immediately sat down, opened her computer and started typing.
“I need your boarding pass” she said swiftly, and then called someone on an internal phone.
“Search 1972, seat 21a” she paused “An ID card, the passenger thinks he’s dropped it on the ground.”
“Please have a seat” she said again, for I had remained standing. I said I would prefer to stand outside with Cisca.
“That’s fine” she said and bustled off.
I stood outside the office with Cisca. It was now well past midnight. Life went on in the baggage hall, a huge space with wooden slats on one wall, a series of duty-free shops in the middle and baggage belts on either side. People came and went; bags arrived and were collected or hoiked off the belts and dropped on the floor in piles by able bodied airport employees. Belts started and stopped.
“Sir, it’s here” said a man in a suit.
“Your ID card”
I went inside and found the nice lady filling in a form. She read my name slowly off the ID card.
“Please give me your passport” she said. She scanned it along with my boarding card and made me sign a form that stated I have “received my ‘goods’ at the airport in good condition” .
The whole process including searching the plane had taken around 15 minutes. I could not be more greatful for Turkish efficiency, which was still so effective in the wee hours. And with that we were outside in the cool dark air of an Istanbul autumnal evening.
The next morning, I slept in. I felt I had an excuse as I had been up until 3 am. I walked up the steep hill to the metro station. Bizarrely the entry to Haci Osman metro station is located on top of a hill. So, getting to the platform requires a walk to the top of said hill before descending down a series of escalators that reminded me of the Moscow metro. I cursed the hill before descending into the tunnels. A pristine silver metro train appeared. Yellow pads on the floor of the carriage denoted where people should stand. The metro was half empty and few people were standing. Everyone was wearing a mask and sitting two seats apart.
“Keep your masks on” intoned a metallic voice and then we were off at high speed.
Only a pair of decades old, this infrastructure was a resplendent symbol of modern industrialised Turkey. Twenty-seven minutes later we emerged out of the gloom onto a railway bridge that crossed the golden horn. In the middle of the bridge was a train station. The train stopped and we disembarked.
A gin palace steamed sedately below us on the golden horn. A photographer stood on the bow photographing what looked like a female only wedding party. Their giggles and squeals carried up to us. A smaller older wooden former fishing boat puttered past in the opposite direction.
Further away from the bridge, we walked into a small cobbled side street in order to avoid the traffic. This was a parallel traders street that had clearly not changed much in 200 years. We passed a small entrance in a grey stone wall.
ORIENTAL TEA HOUSES
“Let’s go inside” suggested cisca. I had been past it so many times and never ventured inside so why not, I thought. It turned out to be an İş han or Kervansaray with workshops on all sides of a small central courtyard. In the courtyard were a series of tables spread out under some vines. Four grumpy looking men sat by the door.
“Selamaleikum ” I said
The replied in kind, but they were clearly slightly surprised by the intrusion of the foreigners. They were not unfriendly however, and my first impression had been wrong.
“Where is the çaycı (tea man) ” I ventured
“He is eating” they replied. A thin, slightly younger man stopped eating rice pudding from a tin foil dish and stood up from the table.
“I am so sorry” I stuttered. “please finish your food”
“I have finished, its fine,” he paused, “Tea?” he questioned.
“yes please.” He brought it in small glass cups, and I spilled. He gave me a scowl and brought another, but he was kind enough and did not charge me.
Some ladies and a man walked in, one in a summer dress and the other in a light headscarf. All were toting large mobile phones.
“three teas” shouted the man. The Çaycı brought them over without a word. The men sitting at the entrance now seemed to warm to us.
When I was chasing another cup of tea for Cisca in the cupboard that passed off for the kitchen I found the çaycı delicately making coffee, carefully measuring coffee powder from an ancient wooden box with two compartments, one for coffee powder and one for sugar.
“Oh you have coffee?” I asked foolishly.
“What coffee house does not have coffee?” he replied with a heavy Anatolian accent. I looked rather sheepish and he took pity on me.
“How would you like your coffee?”
“Şekerlı (with lots of sugar) please”
As I walked away his Anatolian accent played on my mind. This man probably knew exactly how to make coffee.
“Actually best make it Orta (medium)” I called over. When the coffee came it was the sweetest coffee I had ever in Istanbul. I had been right to be cautious, for Anatolia permeates every part of Turkey. Three short hours from London, we had crossed from one side of the continent of Europe to the other. Perhaps I was sitting in Europe’s most splendid oriental teahouse.
NOTE. The photos in this blog article were taken with an iPhone xr. This was due to my forgetting my normal camera behind. If you wish to travel to Turkey, please do so. It is safe and great value.