Well, That Was Just Plain Stupid

If the Middle East prepares you for one thing, it’s travel craziness. Y’know.

Lebanon won’t let you in with an Israeli stamp, or even an exit stamp from the wrong Egyptian or Jordanian border. Israel, in its turn, can get a bit arsey about letting you in if you’ve been to Lebanon (or Sudan).

Syria is a no-go area (although international buses were still running through it a couple of months ago). Ditto Libya (though some friendly Bedouin smugglers will take you across the border, there’s a limit to what you’re going to do in the middle of a desert with no visa).

Ditto the most interesting bits of Iraq, although they’ll allow you into Kurdistan from Turkey provided you’re not unwise enough to call it that…

All of which has left us flying rather more than I would like. (Green reasons. We’d both like the planet to survive a while longer, thank you very much, so where possible we’ll take buses, trains or ferries, or sometimes treat ourselves to wheels.)

Now, I’d actually hoped to get from Israel to Turkey on the ferry. Confronted, however, with a 500 euro spend to get the two of us to sodding Cyprus… – and, yes, you did read that right. 500 euros for one adult, one child, on a ferry that takes 12 hours.. – I figured we should probably fly.

Y’know. I’m green. But I’m not that green. You can get a sailing boat cruise down the Turkish Med for that price.

And I hadn’t wanted to prebook flights in case Israel didn’t let us in.

Further, when it came to booking flights – and, yes, this is fucktarded – I could only recall the conversation I’d had with a Cairo-based journo, who’d said that the Israeli government had only just lifted its advisory against travel to Turkey, so he wouldn’t rely on flights. So, after a cursory check on El Al, I decided to fly us out of Amman.

That’s Amman, in Jordan.

Via Cairo.

On EgyptAir.

Yes, I know.

I don’t use flight search engines usually because they spray gun my screen with loads of windows and never find the best deals. But in this instance even a Google might have been helpful.

“What?!” says Miki, unhelpfully, when I explain this to her. “You’re flying out of Oman?!”

“Amman,” I say. “Amman.”

“Don’t you know that Turkey’s one of the only places we’re actually allowed to go?” she says.

“What?!” I say, getting that horrible cold, sinking feeling in my gut that happens when travel is about to go horribly, horribly tits-up, laced with a dose of inchoate self-hatred at my utter, balls-aching stupidity.

“Yeah,” she says. “There’s 15 flights a day out of Tel Aviv to Turkey. We go to Turkey all the time…”

Israelis used to go to Egypt all the time, as well, or at least the Sinai, which they used to control, but recently it’s been perceived as risky, with its heady brew of Bedouin kidnappers, Palestinian militants and foreign jihadis, who Sinai gossip has it were trained in Bulgaria, where the Israeli tour bus was bombed.

“Oh shit,” I say. “I just found out I need to get a visa, as well…”

Now, the plane cockup is absolutely, unforgivably stupid. Positively fucktarded.

The visa cockup is a little less fucktarded. You see, we’ve been to Jordan before, and got a free visa, hand-delivered off the boat from Egypt.

So, because we got a free visa, I assumed, in my colonial fashion, that Jordan gives British people free visas, because, y’know, we conquered them. And everyone likes being conquered, right?!

Better yet! We didn’t just conquer them! We *liberated* them. From the Ottomans, no less.

And Lawrence of Arabia! He was one of ours!

And Glubb Pasha, who a 93-year-old Bedouin chap I met was very proud to have served under…


It turns out that it’s only in Aqaba, British or otherwise, that you get free visas to Jordan.

Further, while you can buy visas at the airport and at two out of three land border crossings with Israel, at this particular border crossing you need to buy your visa in advance.

“They cost a LOT!” Miki says.

“No,” I say, consulting the out-of-date guidebook I bought in Aqaba, a town of limited charm. “I think it’s, like, ten Jordanian dinars, which is fifteen dollars.”

“I think it’s more,” she says. “You should change the flights.”

“I can’t!!!” I wail pathetically. “It’s EgyptAir.”

Fucktard that I am, I have little faith in EgyptAir’s online mechanism. Largely because every time I’ve flown with them they’ve offered me the chance to choose my inflight meal from a bewildering range of options (halal! Vegetarian! Vegan! Seafood!), and no matter what I pick I end up with one cheese sandwich, one chicken sandwich and a glass of overly sugared orange “nectar”.

Now, in theory, or, rather, in my parallel universe where you can’t fly from Tel Aviv to Istanbul because they’re not on speaking terms, flying out of Amman was a good idea.

After all, Amman is barely 100k from Tel Aviv (TransJordan, the forerunner of the kingdom of Jordan, was carved out of the bulk of the various Ottoman provinces that the British called Palestine).

Further, Jordan and Israel are more than on speaking terms. In fact, by Middle Eastern standards, they’re positively cosy (which is not to say that most ordinary Jordanians wouldn’t rather the Jewish state was wiped from the map, because then everyone else in the region would TOTALLY live in harmony — as demonstrated currently by Iraq, Syria, Libya and Lebanon — and Iran and Saudi Arabia would TOTALLY, like, be BFFs with added bunny snuggles).

So it should be easy.

Then I start to look at it. Now, the only border I can sanely use is the one between Jerusalem and Amman.

At the other two, I can buy visas on the border, BUT one entails 5 hours on a bus down to the shithole that is Eilat, then 5 hours on a bus back up from the shithole that is Aqaba, while the other is two or three hours upcountry with no public transport on the Jordanian side, leaving one in a position of quite unparalleled weakness when it comes to negotiating a taxi fare, or even a fare as a hitcher.

So I need to go to the embassy in suburban Tel Aviv, which will do the paperwork the same day, provided I bring photos, of which I have run out.

Then I’ll need to get from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv (rather easier than getting across London). Then I need to get from (Jewish) West Jerusalem to (Arab) East Jerusalem, and either find a place on, or more likely hire an entire minibus to the border.

One of the peculiarities of the apartheid system operating within Israel at the moment is that routes that look plausible on a map aren’t actually so in real life.

Some roads are only for Palestinians, others only for Israelis, others open to both. Palestinian movement is extremely restricted, while Israelis are not allowed into Gaza or parts of the West Bank.

So a route that seems simple is, actually, anything but.

On the other end, I’ll then have to pay some extortionate exit tax from Israel (my out-of-date guidebook has it at $30 per head), wait possibly as long as four hours to cross the border itself in a morass of Palestinian migrant workers and business folk, then haggle with some rapacious cab driver to get us to the airport.

All of this for a distance of perhaps 100k.

And all of this to fly from Amman to Istanbul, via Cairo.

Via Cairo.

My head is aching. I am riven with angst. BUT, I don’t want to drop the money on the flights I’ve already bought.

Why? Because I’m tight. And, further, because I’m stubborn.

“Mum,” says Zac, as I explain my reasoning to him. “You are a fucktard. Why didn’t you CHECK?”

Our day starts with a vigorous troll around Allenby Street to find somewhere to do our passport photos, and progresses to a cab ride to the Jordanian embassy, which sits up a shard of steel and glass in Ramat Gan, a fundamentally intensely dull suburb of Tel Aviv.

On arrival, it emerges that they don’t start work until 10.30. Nor am I allowed to use my laptop in the building. In fact, my laptop has to go in its own special pigeonhole. As does my camera.

Zac and I slump on the floor, sulkily, until the doors open.

There’s a queue for visas. So far so straightforward.

And then there’s a sign.

“Visa Fee 200 NIS”

200 Israeli shekels, gentle reader, is roughly £35, or well over fifty of your American greenbacks. Times two it is…

Well, pretty fucking ridiculous. And if Jordan’s tripled the visa price, I can bet that Israel’s tripled the exit tax to match.

“We need to change the flights, Mum,” says Zac, whose mental arithmetic, at least when it comes to currency conversions, is pretty sharp. “Just drop the flights. It’s going to cost us the price of a flight just to get the visas. That’s more than a hundred dollars.”

“Yeah,” I say. “And the exit tax is going to be at least another sixty…”

I call Miki, who has the patience of a saint, and relate my tale of woe. She calls a couple of last minute flight agents in the city, and it looks like we can get Istanbul flights for under $200 each, on one of Turkey’s myriad low cost airlines.

Well, we can with an Israeli credit card. Or if we book online using the Hebrew booking system, which doesn’t actually show the flight we want even if Google Translate would translate the popups.

Or with multiple scans of my foreign card, plus copies of my passport.

They’re at 4.40 am, which is zombie hour, but that’s fine.

Or, as Zac puts it, “Let’s just stay up!”

And after all that neurosis, it takes me a mere three goes to get through to a human being at EgyptAir and cancel our flights. Amazingly, the company has an online ticket refund service. Even more amazingly, it works!

The nightmare that is Israeli airport security passes fairly quickly. What did we do in Israel? Do we know anyone there?

“Yes,” I say. “I just came from my friend Miki ISRAELI SURNAME’s house in Tel Aviv.”

“OK,” he says. “Have a safe flight.”

Checkin is painless, too.

“You need a visa for Turkey,” says the woman at the airport counter, helpfully. “It costs 15 euros.”

What?! I think.

I had no idea British citizens needed visas for Turkey. It’s basically part of Europe, right? Oh, wait…

“They must have changed the rules,” I say to Zac. “Probably the last time Turkey tried to join the European Union and we wouldn’t let them in…”

“Probably,” he says.

Now, Turkey may be tolerant and multicultural – it must be, as there are Israelis piling off the flight and heading into town in skull caps, the kind of style accessory that can get you lynched in Arab countries — but I figure it’s not going to take Israeli shekels at the border, and I’ve just checked my reserve stash of dollar cash.

I find a cashpoint which dispenses euros and spend far too much money on books for the flight. We’ve been up since 8am and spent at least six of those hours fannying around about tickets.

I awake in Istanbul with a rude jolt. It’s a two hour flight, which is our sleep for the duration.

I rouse Zac.

“Right,” I say. “We’re in Istanbul. We can either check our bags in downtown and explore the city for the day then get the nightbus down to Kuşadasi, or we can just get on the bus…”

“Get on the bus and sleep,” he says. “Just sleeeepppp…”

We wait behind an Australian man who is, not unreasonably, insisting on paying for his visa in Turkish lira, while the chap behind the counter holds out for hard currency.

“That’s not a visa!” exclaims Zac. “It’s more like a postage stamp.”

Which confirms my belief that the size and spangliness of a nation’s visa is in inverse proportion to its per capita GDP. (Laos and Cambodia do absolutely lovely ones, while Egypt’s is pretty spiffy too.)

We are at one of those budget airports, some way out of town — though named (my feminist heart leaps with joy) for the world’s first female fighter pilot! And Turkish, to boot!

Town, in this instance is Istanbul, so a) bloody enormous and b) set around a substantial sea. By the time we reach downtown, we’ve added a further couple of hours to our sleep quota, and realised that we left our books on the plane.

A taxi man assails me. “No,” I say. “I want to go to the otogar, but I want to take the bus.”

“No buses,” he says. “Just the airport bus. You take my taxi.”

“I KNOW this is the airport bus,” I say, unleashing the death stare. “This is Taksim Square. There are buses to the otogar from here. Where is the bus?”

He gives me directions to the stop, amazingly! Strike one for Turkish hospitality.

I’m just nodding off – Ah! Sleep! Blissful sleep! – when Zac pokes me awake and says, “Look!”

“What?” I say. “I’m sleeping!”

“No!” he says. “Look at that!”

It’s the perfect Istanbul vista, towering domed mosques and palaces framed by slender spires, tall houses toppling down to the Bosphorus, bright blue sky, sophisticated metropolitan creatures wandering the streets and, all in all, it’s rather magical.

I like this city! I like it a lot.

“This looks cool,” I say. “I reckon we should spend at least a week here!”

“Totally,” he says.

By the time we get to the bus station, it’s almost 12. Which is to say that it has taken nigh-on five hours to get from the airport to the bus station, a bewildering concourse with about ten million competing companies all offering exactly the same destinations.

I shop around and haggle a bit, and get some tickets at what seems a reasonable price, then head off in search of food for the journey, because, what with it being Ramadan, there’s no way any Islamic bus company is going to do stops of sufficient length for us to eat.

Oddly, all the restaurants are open. And fully open. Rather than “shutters half-way down but you can crawl under them” as we’ve seen in Islamic parts of Malaysia and Indonesia during Ramadan.

Plus, everyone’s smoking. In East Jerusalem on the first day of Ramadan I saw one guy smoking in an entire afternoon, and he was getting the death stare.

30 minutes into the bus ride, the conductor comes round with coffee and cakes. Which most of our Turkish fellow travellers tuck into. The guy behind us, in fact, has brought extra cakes, which he shares with us.

“Wow!” says Zac. “This is really quite a secular society.”

“Well,” I say, authoritatively. “That’s how Atatürk set it up.”

Two or three hours in, the bus drives on to a ferry, which, I guess, is a sign that we’re finally out of Istanbul. I look at our map. A perfunctory Google had indicated the journey would take 8 hours, but we seem to have covered barely a fifth of the distance.

Jesus. I hadn’t wanted to fly Istanbul to Izmir, for green reasons, but we have another bus ride to go after we get to the end of this one, and, well, we left Miki’s house more than twelve hours ago.

It is, I realise, the landscape that’s the problem.

Turkey looks about the size of Egypt excluding Sinai. But Egypt is fundamentally flat, with fuckall in it outside the Nile and the coasts. Turkey is fundamentally mountainous, with towns, cities and villages all over the place.

So journeys do not proceed in straight lines across the desert, but in a series of bends and wiggles through plains, steppe and mountains.

Oh god, I think.

We’re not going to be able to do half the stuff I’d like to do here.

Turkey is another of those countries, like China or Indonesia, where you actually need months, not weeks. Or, I guess, to fly a lot, zipping from airport to airport and seeing nothing in between.

I ask our friend with the cake how long it takes to Izmir.

“12, 13 hours?” he says.

I try and catch up on a bit more sleep. But it’s just not the same when it’s not in a bed, at night.

It’s almost 11pm when we arrive at Izmir, and I’m wondering whether there’ll even be transport to Kuşadasi.

Izmir’s a decent-sized city, AKA not the kind of place I want to be driving around in a taxi looking for one night’s accommodation. But there’s a bus. Leaving almost instantly.

And, almost 24 hours after leaving Miki’s flat in Tel Aviv, 38 or so after leaving the Jordanian Embassy, we’re at our destination.

I grab a taxi – “Meter?” “Yes, meter!” Wow! — and we wind through steep, narrow cobbled streets to the hotel we booked for the night after, and where we’ll be meeting our friends in the morning.

“Hi,” I say, with a 90% certainty of what the response will be. “We have a reservation for tomorrow. Do you have a room available tonight?”

“No,” he says. “Full.”

“Oh,” I say. Really the last thing I want to be doing is trawling round the town at night looking for a place to stay. “Are there any places near here we could stay?”

He shrugs.

“We do need somewhere to stay,” I say, pulling my patented single-mother-with-child-requires-pity face (I don’t really have the features for it, but it’s been known to work). “Which way should I look?”

The sight of Zac slumped on the sofa, with every indication of going straight to sleep, motivates him to point, rather sulkily, down the hill.

And, lo!, there is a sign on the corner. “Pansiyon” it says (I don’t know why so many transport and accommodation words in Turkish come from French, but it’s bloody handy).

They have rooms. Threadbare, but pristine. And they have beds. With sparkling white linen.

And, as I collapse on top of mine, I start to wonder whether I’m actually too old for 24 hours of constant travel.

16 Responses

  1. trevor says:

    funny story… BUT do u actually do ANY research before heading off to some where?
    there is a great turkey airport web page which tells u how to get to the Otogar and /or down town in a very short ammount of time… the metro, then the tram…. we Brits, along with many others, have paid 15 quid for a turkish visa for at least 12 years that i know of, no doubt a lot longer..
    may be ditch the LP and use wiki travel….

    • Theodora says:

      Well, yes, I normally do. So, for example, I checked the web page for Sabiha Gökçen, which is where we landed (as it says in the piece), and another couple of sites. As far as I can tell, both from the internet, and from landing at the airport, the shuttle bus is the easiest option if you’ve had 2 hours sleep and would rather sleep your way into town than fanny around with different routes. As far as I’m aware, the nearest metro stop is a 12k bus ride from the airport: if they’ve put one into the airport since then they’ve done a damn good job of hiding it.

      And, yes, I checked how to get to Kusadasi from Istanbul (LP and online). And, also, researched various stuff we’d like to do in Turkey, both around Kusadasi and elsewhere.

      Now… I didn’t look into visas (which would have entailed all of 1 minute looking at the relevant page of an outdated LP MidEast) because… well, because 2.5 million Brits go to Turkey every year so clearly I’m not going to need to go to an embassy to get one. It’ll either be a free visa or a token fee at the airport, like they have in Egypt. Either way, it’s not a major hassle.

  2. kristy says:

    We, however, are certainly glad that you did survive the 24 hours.

    • Theodora says:

      And it was delightful to see you too! I’m FINALLY catching up on my blogging………… And looking forward to the next meetup, too xxx

  3. Natalie says:

    Is it bad of me to laugh at your story? I can only do so, because I have made some big f**** during travel as well. The main point is you got here so welcome to Turkey!!

    • Theodora says:

      No, it’s not bad of you at all. It’s completely understandable!!!

      I’m really pleased by how much I’m liking Turkey, even in the high season, which is obviously the worst time to be here bar none. I do feel welcome here. And it’s so refreshing to be able to dress, pretty much, in Western style (which will change I guess if we head east)…

  4. trevor says:

    the train/metro is in the base ment of the airport….

    how hot is Turkey just now? i was in cappadocia in July, 2010…. 43 was a bit too warm… nice cave hotels…

    • Theodora says:

      In Sabiha Gokcen? Seriously?! Every website, including the airport’s own, says the nearest train station is Pendik, and you need to take the M-3 bus to get there.

      Given we acclimatised to the heat in Sinai, Turkey’s relatively cool. You need covers at night in Cappadocia, which is great…

      • MaryAnne says:

        Not in Sabiha Gokcen- it’s all from Ataturk Airport. I generally avoided Sabiha because it was so hard to get to from where I lived.

        Still jealous of you being in Turkey though I’m not sure I’m emotionally ready to go back…

        • Theodora says:

          Thanks. That’s what I thought. The budget airports are always a way out of town and a pig to travel from, but I couldn’t be a chooser in this one.

          I must say, I’m having a hell of a lot of an easier time than you did. I guess the influx of inappropriately clad Russians — bikini on travertines at Pamukkale, OK, bikini walking around the streets of small inland town at Pamukkale, REALLY NOT OK — has made life easier for women.

          Either that, or everyone assumes that I’m married, because I’m with Zac.

  5. Lesley says:

    Last year the Turkish visa was £10.. I was pleaslently surprised at the friendliness when I was there, wasn’t sure what to expect with the country being Islamic, and alas about the only reference I had previously had was the movie Midnight express!
    So I did some research and discovered so many British women have Turkish boyfriends who quite often have more than one British girlfriend, felt like I was going to be stepping in to a soap opera..
    But at the end of the day the good old standard of treating them with respect and expecting the same in return made it a very enjoyable holiday.

    • Theodora says:

      I wish I’d had pounds, actually! It was £10, 15 euros or $20 this year, Lesley.

      I’ve been very surprised first by the lowkey Islam and secondly — because, like you, I’d read all the chat stories about British women having their hearts broken by beachside Romeos — by how remarkably unbothered I’ve been. Apart from one teen boy telling me I looked like Angelina Jolie (!) — after which exchange I found my handbag partway open — I’ve been treated with respect and, well, left in peace.

      Really looking forward to Istanbul, and to starting to understand more of the Ottoman and Seljuk cultures, as well.

  6. megan says:

    I give you credit for being able to travel to all these places. I don’t think I could do it.

    • Theodora says:

      Well, there are easier ways to do it than this. Ahem. Neither Turkey nor Israel are “difficult” destinations.

  7. Lisa wood says:

    Gosh not sure how I would hold up with that much travel! Not sure our boys would be able to stand up 🙂
    Zac did well!
    What an adventure you have had…and imagine telling the grandkids one day. It would make a great travel novel.

    Sounds like you will be enjoying sleep and sight seeing while in Turkey.