Sep 062010

Turkish motorways, roads, dirt tracks

– in the cities, villages and in between – things that can surprise or scare you, which can suddenly appear in front or behind, or just straight under your wheels…

and some random reflections on them.

Here’s the list, starting with the most powerful, in descending order:

On more than four wheels.

  • lorries

As dangerous as everywhere else. Luckily there are enough major roads in Turkey for the lorry drivers to stick to them and enough minor roads for us to avoid the main ones.

I believe some city buses in Istanbul running on ancient motors can cause instant death by carbon monoxide asphyxiation or at least irreversible changes in the lungs which will shorten my life anyways. (Just wondering – is this how the authorities are dealing with overpopulation?)

  • coaches

I used to feel extremely uneasy walking my bike uphill whenever I was being taken over by a coach full of witnesses to this embarrassing lack of physical power. Now I know there is probably just one person looking and sneering – the driver.

The passengers are busy watching a film or series on a small screen they each have in front of their nose – unless they’ve turned on the channel showing the view from a camera mounted on the bus front.

  • dustcarts

Nothing special about them, just my bad luck they are so often in my way in Istanbul. There’s a simple explanation – people leave rubbish out in the evenings so someone has to collect them every day.
The worst thing is to get stuck behind a dustcart in a narrow backstreet – no way you can overtake it, there is rubbish on the pavement waiting to be picked up and no way you can breathe freely while waiting for it to move.

On four wheels.

  • dolmuşes (minibuses)

Infamous nr 1 road hogs. The dolmuş drivers go either too fast or fairly slowly but without making effort to maintain any constant and predictable speed. Their inconsistent speed is the result of hunting for prospective passengers who might be walking on the pavement, standing at a zebra crossing, waiting at a bus stop – you never know. If a pedestrian shows the slightest interest by raising their hand or hurrying towards the road, a dolmuş will stop on the instant regardless of where it is and who or how fast is following them. The same logic applies when a passenger wishes to get off so if you are cycling behind or next to a dolmuş you can half expect someone will jump out of it any time. Also, a dolmuş driver might suddenly pull over to stop and transfer all the passengers to another dolmuş.

dolmus cartoon

Porof. Zihni Sinir is the author of the drawing as well as his original academic title.

  • taxis

It’s quite obvious that a taxi driver will be speeding along with a passenger in and will be much slower when looking for one but taxis are much more predictable than dolmuşes. One passenger is enough for a taxi driver, so he won’t be distracted by trying to get more in before driving his current passenger to their destination.

  • cars…

… change people. Nice and friendly Turkish Mr Smith, let’s call him Mehmet Bey (our neighbour, grocer, colleague, waiter in our favourite restaurant, even own husband) gets transformed into Mr Hyde as soon as the engine is started.

  • off-roads…

… are bigger and change people in direct proportion with the size of the vehicle. Very practical on the Bosphorus, therefore they abound on the asphalt concrete in Istanbul;)

On three wheels.

  • three-wheeled bikes with a basket

Good for shopping sprees. Only in “flat” areas, last seen in the centre of Marmaris.

On two wheels.

  • other cyclists

Rising in number. Three years ago there were very few cyclists in Istanbul, so we used to at greet each other just like hikers in the mountains or we stopped to chat. Now we see them so often we no longer have time to say hello to each (that’s what crowds do to us…).

  • other cyclists PRO, which means they are wearing a helmet at least

Rising in number too and that’s why we’ve also stopped noticing them in Istanbul but out of the city – they are still a rarity so we do want to know who they are and where they are heading.

  • very young cyclists

Kids in various villages and small towns are sometimes keen on joining us for a ride with their own bikes.

They shout “hello” first, never suspecting that one of us is actually a Turk – cycling with a helmet on must be a very un-Turkish thing to do – and even when Umut answers them in their native language you can hear the kids whispering to each other: “Foreigner but can speak Turkish!”.

The most persevering group of crazy teenagers accompanied us through the whole city of Burdur – quite a distance, a few kilometres. Another group of annoying kids (around Afyon) followed us uphill giggling continuously, which made me feel very nervous.

  • and more other cyclists

Sober but zigzagging along the street happily and thoughtlessly – can also be seen on some busier roads.

Their other sin – speeding in the opposite direction.

  • motorcyclists

More annoying in the bedroom than on the street – it’s not about sex – I just can’t get to sleep with loud pipes roaring behind my bedroom window and I honestly don’t get the argument that without this system they don’t feel safe (in an empty street after midnight?)

On rails.

  • trains

Train railways are few and far between, consider yourself lucky if you see a train passing in the distance and unlucky if you have to wait at a level crossing.

  • trams

Tram railways are also scarce but you need to watch out for them in Istanbul – for instance, cycling from Sultanahmet towards Sirkeci Station or Eminönü or from Kadıköy Iskelesi towards the Bull – there isn’t enough space sometimes to fit in between the kerb and the passing tram.
And there’s this lovely nostalgic tram trundling along Istiklal Caddesi, continuously ringing the bell at the crowd in its way…

On four legs.

  • stray cats

Mostly lounging and slumbering on pavements, cars (or in the shade underneath vehicles), rarely dashing across the street, too lazy for that.

Getting off a bike and stroking felines is my way of reducing stress caused by the traffic.

  • stray dogs

In the city mostly lounging on pavements, stray dogs like people who feed or even overfeed them. They don’t usually jump at people although some individuals annoy them (for no apparent reason) and dogs growl, bark or run towards them – still, they are usually too slow to catch up with a bike and if the worst comes to the worst – they are vaccinated.

I can also remember a couple of smart quadrupeds from Kadıköy which won’t cross the street when red light shows even though they can see dozens of pedestrians doing it.

Out of the city dogs can be a trouble. I’m never sure what is the right thing to do when I see one running in my direction – speed up, wave a stick or bark at it?

  • sheep, goats, cows

Whenever we can see a sheperd boy we ask for fresh, fatty, yummy milk – we always get it unless the animals are feeding their small ones.

On two legs.

  • pedestrians

The lowest caste on Turkish roads. Pedestrian crossings are hard to find and if someone wanted to cross streets legally on zebra crossings only they would often need to walk up to one kilometre extra to get to one. Even if these crossings are visible or hardly visible somewhere pedetrians still have to wait for drivers to take pity and stop – in rain, blazing sun, with shopping bags, old, young, with kids, suffering from diarrhoea, with lots of stuff to sort out before offices close for the day – who cares?

Pavements are also at a premium and some of them are real catwalks, 20 cm wide – if your hips or shoulders are broader than that you have to try and keep your balance on the kerb and avoid rubbing against walls, fences or an occasional tree. The authorities don’t want to spoil those citizens who use their feet.

On the other hand, pedestrians can be annoying too, suddenly stepping into the road without looking both ways first or walking on the street when there’s a nice pavement just next to it.

  • street sellers (offering tissues, flowers, sunglasses, car fresheners), including kids and women with babies

Roaming the streets while cars are waiting for green light or are stuck in a traffic jam.

Two-legged and winged.

  • mad/ young/ hurt seagulls

I’m not sure if there’s a way to help out. The poor thing is panicky, runs in all directions and can easily end up under wheels. Last spring I saw one get scared by a dog and dash straight under a car…


  • dustmen with carts…

… filled up with all sorts of stuff and taking up most of the lane.

Dustman with his cart.

Fot.: Ali Saltan

  • second hand stuff dealers
  • simit sellers…

… with carts or balancing trays with pyramid-shaped piles of simits.

  • horse-carts

Easier to come across on Princes’ Islands in Istanbul than out in the country.

Cycling on Buyukada

Shot by Bisikletliler derneği.

Small and unhurried.

  • tortoises

We pick up and put away every single tortoise we spot on the road.

  • snails

Unfortunately, I don’t have so much compassion for them and I’m able to save just one snail per kilometre.

  • frogs

I must be killing them with a single glance – have never seen a frog still alive on the road.

Apart from all above, bear in mind that…

… at crossroads Turkish drivers drive through amber and the initial seconds of the red traffic light but don’t start as soon as the green one shows.

… drivers follow the road ahead at crossroads even though they can clearly see they won’t be able to leave the crossroads before the traffic lights change to red (they also know it’s a guaranteed way of blocking traffic from the sides).

… no decent driver would swerve around a puddle just to avoid splashing you from head to toe but they might be more considerate after leaving a car-wash.

… even if Turkish law specifies a minimum safe distance that drivers must leave between their vehicles and a cyclist when passing, no one has heard of it. Drivers knock their mirrors against handlebars; even professional bus and coach drivers are careless sometimes.

… drivers and other cyclists do not indicate before turning.
… drivers can have one hand busy holding a cigarette or a mobile (and their brain is then busy with ”out of this road” affairs).

… everyday there’s a group of newly licensed drivers. Their practical exam might have lasted as long as fifteen minutes (and involved driving straight on a quite street or taking four consecutive turns in order to end up in the same spot they’ve started from).

… drivers honk not only when frustrated, it’s also a way to show how content they are to be alive or how happy to see you cycling.

… during the Ramadan, streets are roamed by a horde of hungry and edgy drivers heading home for a meal and if they don’t get there in time they’ll eat you with your chain and gears for dessert.

And the good news is…

… when getting out of the car drivers or their passengers don’t dare open the door without making sure no one will bump into it (I got surprised just once by a small kid whose actions were faster than his dad’s advice).

… no one trusts the other road users so they have no choice but to be on the alert and careful, which paradoxically can make you feel pretty safe.

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