Friday, 1 November 2013

Orient Express this is not

I decided to make my trip from Athens across to Istanbul a little more exciting than the standard go up the coast affair. You can't get a direct train there anyway - in fact Greece has suspended all international trains because of its economic problems.

Yes, they've suspended the most profitable lines to save money. 

After all, this is Greece, and economic logic must not be followed, ever.

So this was the plan to get across to Istanbul: 
1. Overnight ferry from Piraeus (the port of Athens) to Lesbos, a Greek Island
2. Spend the day on Lesbos before taking the evening ferry to Ayvalik in Turkey.
3. Get an overnight bus up to Istanbul. Arrive at some silly hour in the morning, as night buses always do.

And yes, get the Lesbos jokes out of your system already. 

Piraeus is a fairly nondescript place. Well, it is a port after all, so it's just full of dodgy bars with shady characters sat outside smoking. But it's flipping massive. That made finding the ticket office fun. When I booked my ticket, they said I could pick it up from just across the footbridge from the metro station. So I went there. No, go to the gate your ferry departs from. 

The gate was a good couple of miles around the port, and apparently there's a free bus that does the route, so I waited at the stop for it. And waited. And got on a random one, because I don't have a clue what those Greek letters mean or which bus I was meant to get on. 

No, this bus is out of service. Please get off. 

OK, I'll walk.


I have a 15kg pack on my back. That was not a good idea in the slightest. 

But I found souvlaki for 1€, which was a lot cheaper than anywhere else in Athens, so I wasn't too unhappy. 

OK, so having traipsed around the port and nearly getting knocked over by multiple lorries whose drivers were probably about to clock out, will the ticket office be open? I'm sure I could invoke the great Ancient Greek philosophers if it wasn't - you tell me to pick up my ticket an hour before, but the ticket office isn't open - what would Plato say? How about Aristotle? 

Σκάσε σας ξεγελάσει probably. (Stick that into Google Translate if you like)

But fortunately the ticket office was open, and I couldn't confuse the boarding staff with references to random philosophers. He looked at my passport and said "ah, Newport County?" He was a Millwall fan. I have no idea why. Football: the original international language.

So, time to get on the boat. This is Greece, so there is no order to this in the slightest. Car ramp comes down. Off comes a load of pedestrians who can't be bothered to wait 2 minutes for the pedestrian ramp. Cue large numbers of horns. And whistles. They love blowing whistles here.

And on go a load of people who don't understand that if you let everyone off first, you'll get on a lot quicker. 

That said, I managed to manoeuvre my way to the front of the scrum waiting to get on, which was interesting with a big pack on my back, but there you go. Because this is a night ferry, and the earlier you get on, the better the place you sleep. 

In my case, I managed to blag a sofa for the night. Score. 

I was pretty much ready to sleep by the time I got on, so I lay down on my newly blagged sofa.

And got shouted at in Greek for it. 

You what? Am I going to have to make some awful jokes about the company being HELLenic Seaways or something? 

Who knows. In the end I was joined by a Greek guy who lived on Lesbos (so he was a Lesbian?) and we had a beer, despite the fact that I spoke no Greek and he spoke little English. Beer: the other international language. 

And off to sleep. On the sofa. Yes, I was allowed to. 

And I'm glad I didn't go to Chios. 5am would not have been a fun time to start the day. 8am was a lot more civilised, and sunrise light makes for some nice photos to make people jealous:

If only I saw more sunrises.

Maybe I should go to Scandinavia in the winter or something, when sunrise is 11am. I'd see plenty of them. And I hear those 1pm sunsets are pretty special too. 
If only I was up in the morning more often...

Breakfast, breakfast, breakfast. After finding a bakery that didn't do sandwiches (you what?) I found a place that did hot dogs for a euro. Given that I had about 10€ in cash to last me the day, this was probably a good shout. 

But I couldn't find souvlaki on a Greek island? You what? 

After that, it was off to get my ticket for the evening ferry and then find somewhere to drop my bag. Tried to find somewhere in the port to leave it, but I just got shouted at for entering no man's land without being meant to. Oops. 

So I found the shipping agency, and they let me print my ticket. Oh, and leave my bag in the back room! Cheers, Jale Tur! I suppose I paid 30€ for the privilege of a 90 minute ferry crossing, so it was the best they could do.

Off to the castle. I managed to walk all the way round the castle, rather than just walking 100m up the road to the entrance. Fail. 

Walked past some Greek military exercise though. Should I tell the Turks? Or should I tell them that the castle no longer needs defending? Don't they know? Either way, they seemed amused at the random foreigner having a wander.

Then I realised: I'd left my ticket somewhere.

So I went into the castle, tried to get student discount and failed (apparently she knew what "expiry date" meant), 2€ down but given that I had 10 euros in cash for the entire day then that was somewhat significant!

Worth the 2€ though. Nice castle. Though I definitely didn't need to walk the whole way round - I could have just walked 200m up the road from the travel agency and been there. And it was a different entrance, so maybe I would have got away with expired student ID.
The castle: THE sight to see in Mytilini
There's not a lot to do in Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos, so after a few wanders I was done by about 2pm. Shame I didn't have a couple of days there to explore the island actually - really nice place. But given my deadline of the 29th October to get my flight out of Istanbul, I had to get a move on. Ferry wasn't until 6 though. 4 hours. Can't really justify abusing the free wifi in a cafe for that long after only buying one coffee. Though if you charge me 2€ for it, then maybe I can.
Maybe I could have gone and scared the forest even more, by speaking Welsh.
That said, having 4 hours stuck on an island when you're at your loneliest, in reality and psychologically too, is not fun, however beautiful the island is. In fact the only people who would speak to me were the local beggars. I was trying to fix my bandage (because apparently I was unable to put it on properly today) when I got accosted. Oh great. How do I get out of this? There was one guy in a wheelchair and a guy pushing him. He definitely didn't need the wheelchair. Oh how fun it would have been to attempt a "miracle" and get him to walk.

But no, of my remaining 4€ or so, I gave the guy in the chair a euro to get him to go away. No, his friend wants some too. And we're going to stay in your way until you do. OK, have some of that, but for once in my life I think I need it more than you. I never give to beggars. I hate giving to beggars, it doesn't help anything in the grand scheme of things. But when they're in the way, and the only other option is to push them out of the way (and we know what happens to foreigners in Greece who do such things - hello 10 year prison sentence for doing NOTHING AT ALL).

OK then, more hot dogs it is for me. OK, now I'm out of euros. I really did not want to pay the £1 fee for ATM withdrawals that my prepaid card charges me and apparently nowhere here takes card, so that was it for food.

4pm, let's go for a wander. Maybe go for a swim? Nah, a wet towel won't be that fun given that I've got a night bus to Istanbul next.

Oh, and I found my ticket. It was where I thought I left it. Untouched. Impressed.
They have one of these apparently. It probably confuses American tourists.
So I just went to the port and on to the boat. I was the only one on there for quite a while. Was it really the boat to Turkey? Then I saw the crew doing some finger-pointing at me and doing the motion of a passport stamp. But no, I don't need a stamp, I'm an EU citizen leaving an EU country. No, you must be escorted back into Greek territory so you can be checked out.


It'll be five minutes apparently. So I left my bags on the boat.

I hate leaving my bags behind, but couldn't be bothered to traipse back across the port with them.

Half an hour later, we were told it would be 5 minutes. Yes, you said that half an hour ago.

Seriously, how long does it take to turn a computer on and get a stamp out? You have about 3 international departures per day, so it's not like you have much more work to do.

And they wonder why the Greek economy is buggered.

Eventually we got through. He took a look at my passport and gave it back. Yes, that's all OK. Wasn't even worth going back for.
Could do with some Lesbian Ouzo right now. They produce half of the world's supply here.
The boat was fairly empty, even if it wasn't just me on there any more. That's what happens when you charge 30€ for a 90 minute crossing I suppose.

Nice views of the sunset mind. Insert make-readers-jealous pictures here.
Next time I might actually spend long enough here to justify saying that I've been.

The Turkish port was tiny as well, but it seemed that it still had more staff than there were passengers on the boat. OK, £10 for a visa sticker on arrival. Yes, I could probably have made one of them myself. Seems legit.

OK, I want to go to Istanbul tonight. Where's the bus station?

After much hand-waving later, the Turkish guy I'd asked about this asked me "Parlez-vous francais?"

Yes, yes, I do. Sort of. Though since finishing my GCSE 5 years ago it has consisted of saying stupid stuff in French to my French teammates. But I'll try. Gare.....autobus? No, it's gare routiere you idiot. Oh, French. But we got the picture.

Much Turkish spoken later (I didn't have a clue) and after they'd realised I needed some cash, the guy said to come with him. He was going to drive me into town. This is what I love about this bit of the world - proper hospitality.

OK, stop at a cash machine. Liras out. 250 should do it for my stay. Famous last words of course.

Back in. Ah, there's a bus company office. Go in there.

Merci beaucoup said far too many times later, into the office. Yes, do you want the 22:30 bus? OK then. Ticket done, the stop's 50m away, and something about the number 9 that I didn't gather. Located the bus stop and all was good. Time for food.

The guy recommended the cheapest thing on the menu, so I thought I'd go with that and that he was being honest. Istanbul this is not. Iskender, beef with bread in sauce or something. It was good too!

Ice cream. They only had about 2 flavours, one of which was "blue ice" or something. What's that? Mixed fruits or something, though he also managed to sneak the word "aroma" in somehow. He gave me an extra scoop for free too. Turkish hospitality at its finest.

I walked past the office to and fro a few times, and the guy inside gave me a bit of a concerned look. I should have realised. 22:30 came around and no bus. Maybe this is Turkey. But no, there's noone here waiting for it.



That's Turkish for bus station, it turns out.

Take a bus. The number 9.


I asked someone else. Take a taxi. I asked a policeman. Take a taxi.


Taxi to the station, 25 lira down, and yes, the otokar was right out of town. Made no sense to me, it was only a small place.

And I'd missed my bus.


The 23:00 bus was waiting though. Tried to get on that. No, this is the wrong bus. Confused foreigner look. OK, come inside. Much shouting in Turkish. The only English he spoke to me was "where are you from?" Couldn't be bothered with the usual "Wales" "Where's that?" "Near England", so I just swallowed my pride and said "England" and they got on with it.

Didn't even try explaining it. Too tired, couldn't be bothered.

OK, come with me. Bag in the hold, sit on the back seat. He shook my hand and I assumed that that was all sorted. Maybe.

There were 3 staff on the bus - the guy who took me round and presumably fought my corner (no idea...) who was some sort of conductor (he also took a trolley of snacks around - which were free - score), a driver, and another guy who sat next to me most of the journey and who knows what his job was.

Free wifi and TVs on the back of each seat too. But I couldn't turn the bloody screen off, and just wanted to sleep.

No, woken up by trolley man at 12. I didn't want anything, but he insisted I had a cup of some fizzy drink, a chocolate orange biscuit (which was really nice) and something that I thought was Turkish delight. Nope, more like cookies. The fizzy drink seemed like the liquid version of that "blue ice" icecream I had earlier. Who knows, I was tired.

OK, back to sleep.

2am. You have to change buses. You what?

On to the next bus, didn't put shoes on, wet socks. Lovely. They were washing the buses.

Random seat. I want to sleep.

Turkish woman turns up. You're in my seat. Confused foreigner look.

Someone spoke English though. "What's your seat number?" Couldn't be bothered to explain the whole situation, but mentioned that I'd just changed buses at least. Too tired so I just moved to another empty seat, next to a Turkish guy who seemed to want to take up half my seat too. No, go away. Eat less maybe.

Conductor on this bus looked and sounded about 14, but he was cheerful enough. Spoke some English too so he did try to help me out.

OK, try to sleep. When you've got someone trying to take up your seat too, that's not the easiest. And we arrived at 6:30am. Why do night buses ALWAYS arrive at 6:30am?!

After avoiding a million porters and taxi drivers (no, I don't need a trolley to move my bag around, it's a BACKPACK) I found a metro station. I'd heard about some "Istanbul Kart" which was a bit like London's Oyster Card, so I tried to find one of them. I asked in a shop and apparently they didn't exist any more. The equivalent of "go away you tourist, stop trying to save money and keep to your budget in our vastly overpriced city".

1 token.

Oh, now I need to get a tram.

That'll be another token.

And you can't even get away with not paying here, however ridiculous the prices.

It seemed like a fairly simple journey from the tram stop to the hostel, but not for me apparently. No, there's the Bosphorous. And I'm nearly at the edge of the district. You what?

OK, I'll walk down here. I'm tired, haven't eaten, and need some coffee.

Oh, I got the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia confused. They both have lots of minarets, and the Blue Mosque doesn't look very blue in the morning.

It's a long walk with a 15kg pack on your back.

Especially when you get to the hostel and get told to go away and come back at 12 to check in. He was reluctant to take my bag actually. Even if I hadn't showered in 3 days and drastically needed sleep.

I came back at 10:30. He got me a bed this time though. And I slept. Definitely needed that. 

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