Friday, August 26, 2011

Hell on Wheels

An image of Istanbul I never saw

Apologies for not blogging last week. I was working in Istanbul most of the week, which sounds more interesting than it actually was. The scheduling was insane, involving a few internal flights, lots of car travel, and no time at all for any sightseeing, which is a shame because I’d love to see more of the city. It’s a fascinating place, a confluence of east and west. It was Ramadan when I visited and some of the mostly Muslim population were fasting from sunrise to to sunset, which at this time of year is a mighty long time. No food or drink, including water, which in 35 degree heat is some sacrifice. On the only free evening I had, I sat outside the hotel at dusk. On the wind came the melodious calls to prayer from the many mosques, mingling and accidentally harmonising, signalling that it was time to break the fast. The effect was magical. 

Which is more that can be said for the defining memory of my visit to Istanbul: the taxi drivers. I am by no means the world’s most experienced traveller, but neither am I a novice, and I can hand on heart say that the cab drivers of istanbul are the most insane and dangerous I’ve even encountered. And I’ve been to south east Asia.

A view of Istanbul I saw only too often
The taxi ride from the airport is one of the most commonly unsettling experiences in travel. In London the peril lies in the cost. Likewise, eastern Europe where you are besieged by all manner of blokes who aren’t licensed but want the money. In Vietnam the issue was safety, though not mine; the roads aren’t in great condition and are teeming with bikes and tuk-tuks and helmetless teenage motorcylists, for whom I genuinely feared as they wove maniacally across the bumpy roads.

In Istanbul it was purely personal. On all three cab rides I took, death seemed a distinct possibility. At the airport our first cab had no seatbelts. The driver then almost knocked down two young women at a crossing. Then it got really scary. On the motorway that passes traffic around the city, like one of the circles of Hell, it is a free for all. Cars weaving in and out at ludicrous speeds. Our driver enthusiastically entered into the spirit of things, driving at over 100 mph, jumping from lane to lane without indicating, driving up everyones backside, slamming the brakes on when he came so close he had to stop, all while speaking on his mobile phone. At one point he started clipping his fingernails. It was then, white as a sheet, sick from the heat (there was no air con) and the constant stop-start, that I asked him to slow down. He just smiled and sped up. His English was miraculously better when we finally reached the hotel, and after I got down and kissed the lobby floor, asked him ‘How much?’ Then I went straight to the bar seeking a balm for shattered nerves.

Round two came near midnight on the way back from a different airport, on a day that began at 4am. The roads were emptier, and this time there were seatbelts in the back (the driver refused to wear his) but little good they would have done us had we crashed at the speeds that our driver was taking us. I had harboured foolish dreams of sleep, but was unable to close my eyes from sheer terror. After one swerve to avoid the car in front, certain death I again asked the driver to slow down. My Turkish is basic, amounting to no more than ‘Hello’, ‘Cheers’ and ‘Thanks’. But now I also now realise that ‘Slow down!’ said in an excited, somewhat agitated voice while weeping means ‘Can you drive like a bloody maniac for the remainder of the journey?’ to which they are only happy to oblige.

I asked our guide, an urbane young Turk who spoke excellent English, about the taxi drivers and he laughed. ‘They are good drivers,’ he said without a hint of irony. He explained that Istanbul’s roads are bedevilled by car accidents (’No sh*t,’ I thought) but that rarely do you see any taxis involved. ‘No,’ I thought, ‘because the weaving, speeding taxis are fleeing the scene, leaving a pile of molten smashed metal in their wake.’ I also asked about the seatbelts. Apparently it’s the law to wear one in Turkey but it’s never enforced. Wearing one is seen as some kind of wimpish obeisance to nanny state nagging rather than a lifesaving necessity. He pointed out the traffic police we passed, few of whom were wearing a seatbelt either. 

The final trip in a coffin on wheels came when we returned to the airport. I was almost blase at this point, laughing like a madman as we left the hotel. No seatbelts. Check. Driver on his phone pulling out into a seething mass of traffic. Check. I’m a not a gambling man, but if they were taking odds at that point on him driving at insane speeds and weaving all over the road for the rest of the way I would have been all in. My money would have been safe.

We made it, once again gasping for alcoholic medication. But while I can say that I was disappointed not to see more of Istanbul, and would like to go back and see more of the city itself, I’d be lying if it meant getting in an Istanbul cab. On the way back from Heathrow, my Turkish-born, seatbelt-wearing, speed-limit obeying, lane-sticking, non-phone talking driver, when he wasn’t fending off my grateful kisses, explained that he had driven to his ancestral home in Turkey from London last year. On the way he had passed through Istanbul. After only a few minutes on the city motorway he had vowed never, ever to drive in the city again. This from a man with 20 years driving experience in London.

I’m sure Istanbul taxis aren’t the worst in the world. But they can’t be far off. If you have worse stories, and people always do, feel free to let me know. Only then might the nightmares stop.


Dan - Friday


  1. Dan--

    One time in Manhattan I had a junkie cab driver, a fact I deduced from his mumbling and pin-dot irises, followed shortly by the cab slowing to a halt as the driver did a junkie nod, his forehead coming to rest on the steering wheel.

    My first thought was, good thing his foot came off the gas pedal; this could be worse, the car could still be moving.

    Unfortunately we'd stopped dead center athwart the southbound lanes of Park Avenue. I looked up and saw three lanes of traffic roaring down at us, on course to ram us broadside.

    I began pounding on the plastic divider and kicking the back of the driver's seat. He jolted awake and we started moving again.

    I got out at the next corner.

    And yet, I'd take that guy over any of the Istanbul drivers you described. No contest.


  2. I don't know Lenny. That sounds truly terrifying. But at least your guy was slowing down. I think a dose of something opiate might do the drivers of Istanbul some good...

  3. . He explained that Istanbul’s roads are bedevilled by car accidents (’No sh*t,’ I thought)

    I've been laughing for 20 minutes.

    Short and right on point.

  4. The influence of the 400-year Turkish occupation of Greece remains today in many ways. Thankfully, the internal combustion engine, though built, had not expanded into donkey replacing transport before independence. Otherwise I'm sure the Greek driver's natural propensity for finding a way around anything...regardless of signage or oncoming traffic...would have given the Istanbul (Constantinople) drivers a race for their money. As I said, thankfully not.

    I fully understand why you headed for the bar after each episode, but that makes you a far braver man than I, Dan, for I'd have needed a belt or two before.