Saturday, October 6, 2012

Saturday, October 06, 2012 - No comments

Haydarpaşa Station: End of the Line?

“People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they're really saying is that something you didn't want to happen at all... has happened. My store is closing this week. I own a store, did I ever tell you that? It's a lovely store, and in a week it will be something really depressing, like a Baby Gap.”
- Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) in “You’ve Got Mail

There’s a wonderful old Turkish poem by Orhan Veli called “Istanbul’u Dinliyorum, Gözlerim Kapalı” - “I am Listening to Istanbul with My Eyes Closed.”  While the bird songs and gentle breezes of Veli’s Istanbul have mostly given way to taxi horns and pop music, sitting and listening with my eyes closed is still one of my favourite ways to encounter the city.

I’m out in Kadıköy doing errands and thought a little stop in at Haydarpaşa Station would be fun, for old times’ sake.  Back when I lived up the coast from here, this station was a frequent stop for me. Its position on the edge of the Bosphorus means it’s literally the last stop in Asia.  It’s also the end of the line on the Haydarpaşa-Gebze commuter train - the one we used to ride to and from school.  Its ferry dock made it extra convenient when heading across to the European side, and it was an easy walk from the station to Kadıköy’s waterfront shops and bus/dolmuş terminal.

My time spent in the station was only ever brief as I was always running from ferry to train or vice versa, so I decided to sit and have tea and a snack at the famous old Gar Lokantası (Station Restaurant) and see what there is to see here if one actually stops and sits still.  A look around the dining room revealed only male patrons, so I took a table outside next to the tracks where I’d be more comfortable.  And as I sip my tea and savour my bread and eggplant salad, I’m listening to the sounds of the station, a la Orhan Veli.

From inside the restaurant comes the tinkle of spoons stirring sugar into tiny tulip-shaped tea glasses and the chatter of lunchtime companions.  Swallows twitter in the rafters and from the wharf comes the laughter of seagulls as they compete for pieces of simit tossed into the air by those sipping tea at outdoor tables.  The station itself is nearly empty, save for two or three clerks in the ticket booth and the folks who run the snack stands and the barber shop, and the man who collects money at the toilets.  A maintenance man shuffles by, the swish of his broom clearing the gleaming floor of any bits of dust.

The melancholy song of the ezan coming from the Haydarpaşa Mosque is punctuated by the distant horn-honking cacaphony of Kadıköy’s permanent traffic jam, both muffled by the station’s thick stone walls.  The low moan of ferry horns more insistent than usual, due, no doubt, to the thick fog blanketing the Bosphorus today.

A ferry docks and there is a clatter of heels and suitcase wheels on the marble floor as an automated female voice announces that the next train to Pendik leaves in five minutes.  A handful of passengers hurriedly punch Akbils and swipe Istanbul Cards, the turnstiles sound out two tones for a regular fare, four for a discounted transfer, and the dreaded and highly embarrassing three tones for “yetersiz bakiye” - “insufficient credit.”

Amidst the buzz of cell phone chatter and high school gossip as passengers exiting the station swish by my table, the high-pitched shriek of a whistle announces the departures of the Pendik train.  There is a loud hiss as the air brakes are released, followed by the slow, methodical clicking of the train easing out of the station.  Benches creak as those who missed the train on account of an urgent bathroom break or an empty Istanbul Card settle in to wait for the next one.  And, apart from the teaspoons and the swallows, the station is once again quiet. 

Too, too quiet.

The Haydarpaşa I remember was a place of constant motion, with whistles and shouts and a dozen trains coming and going and hundreds of passengers milling about at any given time.  It was never silent.  What I’m hearing - or not hearing - today confirms in my heart what the newspapers have already been warning me is true:  Haydarpaşa’s golden era is over.  

Construction of the new Istanbul-Ankara Express and the Marmaray project’s extension of the Metro line up the Asian side (with eventual plans to build a tunnel under the Bosphorus to connect it with the European side) have led to the “temporary” thirty-month cessation of all long-distance trains in and out of Haydarpaşa, leaving only the Pendik commuter train.  What will happen when the project is complete remains to be seen.  Some say regular trains to the interior of the country will resume.  Others speculate that this glorious building will be converted to a museum or, heaven forbid, a shopping mall.  

Designed by German architects Otto Ritter and Helmut Conu, the current building was completed in 1909 under the supervision of Sultan Abdülaziz.  Besides being the starting point of journeys to all points in Anatolian Turkey, it was the terminus of the old Baghdad Railway (İstanbul-Konya-Adana-Aleppo-Baghdad) and the Hejaz Railway (İstanbul-Konya-Adana-Aleppo-Damascus-Amman-Medina) as well as the Trans-Asia Express running to and from Tehran.  

Sitting here, I can picture this station in its heyday.  How many starry-eyed travelers or immigrants from the east stepped off the train and right here in this very spot, inhaled their first breath of salty Bosphorus air and got their first glimpse of the minarets of the Old City across the water?  How many mothers stood here crying and waving handkerchiefs as sons went off to war?  How many lovers kissed goodbye and hello again right here in this hall?  How many commuters have jumped from the ferry and run through these turnstiles to catch a train to or from work or school?

And now, one lonely train trundles out every twenty minutes.  And in between, nothing but the tinkle of teaspoons.

I know that progress is good for the city.  The new metro line will ease congestion on the  road and shorten the commute for millions of Istanbullus.  The renovation of the derelict waterfront will give the city a more polished face with which to greet tourists.  And it’s not like they’re tearing the building down altogether.  But the fact that this grand station which has been so much a part of the city’s history, and also of mine, will likely no longer get to live out the purpose it was created just makes me sad.  This city is filled with enough Byzantine and Ottoman ruins to convince me that just because a place was bustling and alive in its day, that doesn’t mean it won’t eventually become a rundown, padlocked building on a City Walks historical map.  Or worse, something horrible like a bowling alley.

I chat with my waiter briefly when he brings me my bill.   He’s worked here for thirty years.  

“Will the restaurant stay open if this ceases to be a train station?”  I ask.

“I hope so.  I love this old place.  Everyone loves this place.”  He stares at the empty tracks.  “But there’s no guarantee.”

As I leave, I notice that the stand from which I used to often buy a “sosisli” (a distant and disappointing cousin of the hot dog) on my way home had closed down.  I ask the guy at the snack shop next to it what had happened.

Gesturing towards the several empty stalls in his row, he shrugs.  “Not enough business anymore.”

Heading back up the road from the station to downtown Kadıköy, the normally cheery sign above the exit makes my breath catch in my throat.  

Güle güle!” it calls out.  “Goodbye, Haydarpaşa.”  Hopefully not for the last time.