Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Turkey: Impressive efficiency in seeming chaos

The original phrase "the sick man of Europe" is commonly attributed to Russia’s Tsar Nicholas I in reference to the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1800s. While there is no doubt that Turkey does still have many political, and some economic, problems it is also a very dynamic country and is already ahead of Australia as the world’s 15th largest economy.

Although a fleeting two week holiday visit can only scratch the surface, it does give one a sense of what a vibrant and ambitious country Turkey has become. As an example, my family and I travelled on nine different modes of public and private transport and I could not help but be impressed by the efficiency in what initially appears to be utter urban chaos.

Arriving at the large and seemingly empty Sabiha Gökçen Airport – named after the world’s first female combat pilot and is 35 km from the Bosphorus on the Asian side of the capital – one has the choice of a hair-raising and extortionate (100 TL or US$66) taxi ride to the city centre or taking public transport. Determined that my teenage kids’ first view of Istanbul’s stunning skyline should be from a ferry arriving at the Galata Bridge, we chose the latter.

The E10 bus took us, perhaps a tad too quickly, from the airport though the seemingly endless suburbs of unsightly residential tower-blocks until we arrived at the Kadıköy terminal from where we hopped on one of the numerous ferries across the Bosphorus – which carry over 60 million passengers a year - to the Eminou ferry terminal on the European side of the city. The bus and ferry journey had only cost TL3 (US$2) per person but, by comparison, the taxi to our hotel which was less than a mile away was a rip off.

During our stay in Istanbul we used air conditioned public transport both to get to the main tourist sites and to get out of the heat. The 24 stop tram line in the historic part of the city costs TL1 (US$1) whether you’re going just one stop or the whole length of the 14 km line. When we went to the other side of the city we took a tram and then the impressive connecting underground funicular to Taksim Square. We also tried the cheap, efficient, and comfortable metro system which certainly puts London’s overcrowded and claustrophobic underground system to shame.

Inter-city travel in Turkey is dominated by the private sector fleets of sleek luxury coaches which crisscross the country. We, however, left Istanbul on one of the fast car ferries run by IDO – Istanbul’s municipally owned company, putatively the world’s largest commuter ferry operator - for the two hour journey across the Sea of Mamara to the sleepy town of Bandirma. While the majority of the passengers returned to their cars for the five hour drive down to Izmir, we were met by the connecting Alti Eylül Ekspresi (6th September Express) train for the six hour train journey down to Turkey’s third largest city on the Aegean coast. Although it wasn’t very fast, the train was comfortable, clean, and air conditioned and the combined 400 km journey from Istanbul to Izmir was a real bargain at only 40TL (US$26).

After the hustle and bustle of Istanbul we then spent a relaxing week in a rented villa on the coast down on the Cesme peninsula. Fifteen years earlier my wife and I had stayed in the area with our three month old son and had got around by hitch-hiking and using the ubiquitous privately owned dolmuş (pronounced dohl-moosh) or shared minibuses which link almost every town and village in Turkey. This time, however, we had a much more comfortable hire car for our son – who is now over 6 ft 5 inches tall – and daughter. The only long-distance journey we made was to the vast and stunning Greco-Roman city of Ephesus about 160 km away but the modern toll road made trip both effortless and very cheap.

Finally, for our return journey home from Izmir to London, via Istanbul, we flew with the privately owned Pegasus Airlines, one of Turkey’s main low-cost carriers. While the crowded flights weren’t the most comfortable I have ever endured, and I still resent having to pay for everything including water, the aircraft were brand new and the flights both left and arrived bang on time. The experience was similar to the highly successful Easyjet and Ryanair whose low-cost model is the way of the future for air travel.

Arriving back at Stansted Airport – now a little scruffy, but nowhere near as bad as Heathrow’s appalling mish-mash of endless ad-hoc corridors – I was struck by what a poor first impression most British airports must give to first-time visitors to our capital. This was reinforced when I sat on my overpriced, over-crowded, and litter-strewn train this morning. By contrast, Turkey’s cheap and modern integrated transport system left me both envious and impressed.

The above article was written by Menas Associates' managing director, Charles Gurdon, whose profile you can find here.

© 2010 Menas Associates

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