Having traveled a bit in Europe, I am sometimes still faintly disappointed by the comparatively inadequate train service I encounter in some other places in the world – my native United States included. There is a certain romance to the railway. Turkey is a similar letdown, but what it may lack in railway systems it makes up for in an exciting and pleasant network of intercity and cross-country buses.
Turkey’s bus system is reasonably priced, the buses are new and clean, the schedules run more or less efficiently, and the amenities and little extra touches enhance your travel experience. You will get a sprinkle of lemon cologne on your hands to refresh you, or tea, water, soft drinks, cakes – brought around by an attendant who veers along the aisle with an acrobat’s sense of balance as the bus hurtles onward.
Although there are no restrooms on board, the bus makes reasonably frequent stops at rest areas, usually owned and operated by the same company. Here you can have a full meal or snack, stretch your legs, avail yourself of the facilities (you may have a choice of throne or pit) for a small fee, browse the gift/snack shop for gum or regional specialties at extortionary markups, or join the crowds of smokers outside.
There are a few things to consider before you start, however. If you look at an uncontoured map of Turkey, destinations that don’t seem to be that far away from Istanbul, for example down the coast, on the Mediterranean – may take upwards of 10 hours to reach. The map is deceptive, as the terrain in real life is mountainous and uneven in many places. Some bus routes make stops at every little two-goat town between Point A and Point B. If you know how long you’ll be on the road, you are better prepared to deal with it, if only mentally. Often the best strategy is to get a late-afternoon or evening bus to arrive at your destination the next morning.
You are at a marked disadvantage in this undertaking if you don’t speak any Turkish, as I gather that everything from purchasing your ticket to knowing how long the bus will stay at the rest area requires some knowledge of this language. Not many people will speak English. Your lack of Turkish, if applicable, hardly poses an insurmountable difficulty. Armed with a phrasebook or a translator, one can manage reasonably well. The people of Turkey’s friendliness and willingness to help the stranded or confused visitor are not just a myth concocted by the government’s tourism promotion office. If you meet anyone who does know some English, he or she will probably be thrilled to use it to help you. In fact, I have found that often people are so eager to be of assistance that rather than admit they don’t know where XYZ is, they will blithely send you off in the wrong direction, so it is usually a good idea to get a second opinion.
Taking the bus is a good way to put together an itinerary according to your own tastes and interests, and can give intrepid travelers a fascinating glimpse into the real Turkey.