Caucasus Journey II: The Long Road to Trabzon

April 3, 2009
Thursday started early, with the alarm clock at 5am. I had an 8:30 flight from Sebiha Gökçen airport on the Asian side of the city, and needed plenty of time to get there. From Arnavutköy I took a taxi to Taksim, where I caught the 6 am Havas airport bus to Sebiha Gökçen. I made it in plenty of time, arriving at the airport at about 6:45.
I'd never been to Sebiha Gökçen before. Istanbul’s main airport, Atatürk airport, is on the European side, and that’s still where all of the international and most of the domestic flights leave from and arrive into. But Sebiha Gökçen opened in 2001, and has gradually been picking up more and more domestic flights. They’ve got an international terminal as well, but it appears to still be under construction.
I can’t say I had a great experience there yesterday. Upon arriving, I learned that my flight to Trabzon had been delayed for an hour. By the time 9:30 rolled around an announcement came telling us that the flight had been cancelled due to foggy weather in Trabzon. By this time I had already been in the airport nearly three hours.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Sebiha Gökçen still doesn’t get a lot of traffic, and the next flight to Trabzon wasn’t until 4:30 pm. Nor were there any flights going anywhere near Trabzon. Meanwhile, a crush of about seventy-five people or so was pressing up against the counter of Pegasus airlines, which was manned by three people.
I joined the crush, still unsure of what I would ask when I finally got to talk to someone. In the crush, I started talking to various people. It turned out Pegasus was giving people the option of either getting their money back, or else changing their booking to a later flight. I looked at my watch again. 4:30, the time of the next flight to Trabzon, seemed a long way away, especially if it meant hanging around all day in the less-than-inspiring confines of the domestic terminal of Sebiha Gökçen. Moreover, an old guy standing next to me said this was the third day in a row his flight had been cancelled. “So what are you going to do?” I asked. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” he said cheerfully. “I’ve got time.”
I wasn’t in the same boat. My three-month visa to Turkey expires on April 5. Moreover, I was anxious to get out of that airport. If nobody seemed certain that the plane was going to leave that day, I didn’t feel like waiting. I looked up the telephone number of the bus station in my guidebook and gave them a call. I asked the lady who answered to give me the names and numbers of a few companies that operate frequent services to Trabzon. I called one of the numbers she gave me, and found out that a bus to Trabzon would be leaving from the bus station on the Asian side at 1 pm. That decided it. I made a reservation over the phone, and when I got to the counter I asked them to give me my money back for the plane ticket.
Sebiha Gökçen, I should mention, is incredibly far from anything that I would really call “Istanbul.” The airport bus that I’d taken to get out there would take me to Taksim, but then I’d either have to get to the bus station on the European side (by noon), which would be a hassle. Taking a taxi also seemed undesirable for that kind of distance. I ended up taking a city bus down the E-5 highway for about 45 minutes, then got and out and waited by the side of the road until either a taxi or a non-packed minibus came by to take me the rest of the way to the bus station.
A relatively empty minibus finally came by and took me to the station, where I bought my ticket and had lunch. The guys in the bus station restaurant seemed to like me, and my waiter picked some fluff out of my hair. I think it had gotten lodged there during the time I’d sat by the side of the E-5 waiting for transport the rest of the way to the bus station. The road to Trabzon is long. Instead of a two-hour flight I was on a sixteen-hour bus trip. On the bus I saw a few people from the airport, people like myself who had to get to Trabzon right away and couldn’t afford to roll the dice with another flight. At any rate, it turned out that all of the flights to Trabzon were canceled that day, so we made the right choice. Plus, I saved ten liras (about six dollars) with the deal. My plane ticket had cost seventy liras, and the bus was sixty. I think anytime you can save six dollars by only adding fourteen hours to your travel time, you have to take that offer.
Waiting for the bus

Sitting next to me on the bus was Hakan, who works at the state hospital in Merzifon, a town located not far from Amasya. We talked for several hours, and had a good time watching a movie taking place in the Black Sea region of Turkey, where the characters spoke in a somewhat exaggerated form of the Black Sea region’s distinctive dialect. As we approached Merzifon, Hakan  talked about the towns we passed through, especially ones which were populated by descendants of Muslim refugees from Russia and Turkey—a subject that is of interest to me academically.  
I usually can’t sleep on the bus, but was so tired by the end of the ride that I slept for a few hours. The bus attendant shook me out of my sleep when we arrived, and I took a taxi from the bus station. Somewhat surprisingly, he knew the hotel where I’d made a reservation, and got me there in about five minutes. The hotel door was locked, and I was in the middle of asking a couple of guys hanging around in front of it if they knew of a bell when I heard someone banging on the window. I turned around and saw a smiling guy motioning that he was on his way down. It was five-thirty in the morning, exactly twenty-four hours after I’d left home in Arnavutköy.

By the way, I really like the Nur Hotel, which is where I’m staying in Trabzon. It’s a very friendly and pleasant family hotel, staffed mainly by four sons who look astonishingly similar to one another. The only one that I can really tell apart from the others is the ten year-old, who was running the place when I came back this afternoon.  
I had a pretty active day today, visiting the Trabzon Museum and then going to Sümela Monastery. The Trabzon Museum interested me mainly because the house in which it is located is very attractive. According to the brochure I was given at the museum, the house was “built by banker Kostaki Teophylaktos between 1889-1913,” and then was sold to the Nemlioğlu family in 1917. Atatürk stayed there between 15-17 September, 1924, during a visit to the city.

The Sümela Monastery, on the other hand, dates back to the thirteenth century. Like the house I’d visited in the morning, the monastery is part of the important Greek component of Trabzon’s past. In the wake of the Turkish-Greek War that followed World War I, most of the Greek Orthodox living in Turkey were forced to move to Greece and most of the Muslims of Greece had to come to Turkey. This population exchange, which was stipulated in a treaty signed by Greece and Turkey, spelled the end of Sumela’s existence as a monastery, and for decades it lay empty. Sometime in the not-too-distant past (most people have said the 1970s), it was turned into a museum and restorations started taking place.

It took me about an hour to get to Sümela, driving down with Ӧzcan, a minibus driver with whom I’d struck a deal in Trabzon (there isn’t any public transportation which goes all the way there in the off-season). The monastery is on a sheer cliff and has magnificent views, but all I could see today was fog. All the same, I’m glad I made the trip down, if for no other reason than people have been telling me for almost twenty years that I needed to see this place. 
In the evening I walked around the meydan and the Atatürk Alanı, which seem to comprise much of the “entertainment center” of Trabzon, then had some soup and a beyti kebap for dinner. I’m in my hotel room right now, watching a performance of “Karadeniz Rapsodisi” (Black Sea Rhapsody) on TRT4, a really amazing orchestral piece incorporating traditional Black Sea instrumentation and motifs into a European-style orchestral genre.  
Tomorrow I head to Hopa, and from there hope to make my way to Batumi by the afternoon. Hopefully I’ll be able to make an update here before too much time passes.

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