Escape from Istanbul

Istanbul ParkWe all have that list of Grands Prix we’d most like to visit – the dramatic Suzuka track in exotic Japan and the hallowed temple of motorsport that is Indianapolis are both on mine. And after last year’s rip-roaring debut race, so was Istanbul Park.

So I was thrilled when a Greek mate invited me over to see the race. Of course, I’d heard all the horror stories from last year about how difficult the circuit was to get to. But, we figured, they’d had twelve months to get on top of it, and we’d leave plenty of time in hand. How hard could it be?

Night TrainThe plan was straightforward enough: get an overnight train to Istanbul the night before the race, giving us an ample seven hours to reach the track, then catch the return train at 8pm after the race.

Our respective better halves would come along to supply moral support and to sample the delights of Istanbul.

Night Train 1Problem number one: The Greeks and the Turks aren’t the friendliest of neighbours. On the way in, we were stopped three times at various border controls and asked to cough up 15 Euros each. And it added two and a half hours to the journey.

By half ten we were in Istanbul and bidding farewell to our girlfriends. In the company with four other petrolhead Greeks we’d met on the train, we set off for Istanbul Park.

BosphorousThe four quickly began negotiations with a taxi driver to ferry us to and from the circuit for a fixed price. After twenty minutes of to-ing and fro-ing, they gave up and we set off on foot. The joys of Turkish ‘bazaar’ capitalism.

We started on the same rigmarole at a ferry taxi station to cross the Bosphorous. This too would have foundered had I not impatiently stumped up the necessary Turkish Lire. At last we were off. Two buses and two hours later, we were track side.

BusMy friend and I waved off our travel companions and went in search of the general admission area.

Istanbul Park may be a brand spanking new facility, with a challenging, sweeping track and pristine VIP suites, but catering for spectators was evidently not a priority.

Istanbul ParkTo get to the general admission area outside of the already-legendary turn eight we trapsed for several kilometres in the searing midday heat.

Once we’d made our way in we had to leave the spectating area and go back through ticket checking just to buy water which, you can imagine, was essential.

Istanbul Park viewThe race, as we all know, was very good. But while many circuits provide video screens that all spectators can see, the general admission areas were kept apart from these, which struck me as an excessively cynical means of punishing those who bought cheaper tickets.

For the trip back we found a bus heading for Taksim Square not far from Sirkeci train station. We darted through the closing doors and congratulated ourselves on a job well done.

Problem number two: The bus driver got lost.

Thankfully our driver eventually found the main road and we began to make progress. As far as we could tell the road traffic problems of last year seem to have been eased – but we may well have inadvertently taken a very creative route back to the city.

TaxiA brief, thrilling taxi ride brought us back to the station and our girlfriends – who looked immensely more refreshed than we did. Plus, we were back at the station with nearly two hours to spare before our train departed.

Problem number three: The train was full.

Problems four, five and six: There were no other trains, no bus services, and we couldn’t hire a car and leave it in Greece.

Night Train 2After much exasperated discussion in the various languages available to us, we conceded defeat and slumped off in search of a hotel. We turned down one offering double rooms at 15 Turkish Lira (???5.37) a night because the rooms were scarcely any bigger than the train bunks we arrived in.

Another hotel around the corner proved more acceptable. In my room I turned the air conditioning to ‘Siberia’ and dived into the best shower I’ve ever had.

We were back on a train at 8am the following day, braced for twelve hours of tedium, wincing in the heat and periodically having our passports perused. But even this didn’t go acording to plan.

Greek CustomsProblem seven: Greek immigration control suffered a power cut. The upshot of this was that they couldn’t let us proceed until they had restored power to check our documents. We faced the galling prospect of having to let the few trains that passed through the station go by without us.

For dramatic effect, an electrical storm blew in and soaked everyone.

StormWe kicked around eating junk food and cursing the seasoned travellers who had beaten us to the only forms of entertainment available – backgammon tables. I was crying out for a bathroom break but baulked at the state of the facilities – like a French take on Trainspotting. I resolved to wait until I could wait no more, and then another two hours.

Eventually the Greek authorities were happy to let us move on providing, of course, that we crossed their palms with Euros once again.

Much, much, much later our ‘high speed’ city train clunked into Thessaloniki, Greek’s second largest city, at 2am – 18 hours later than planned.

Had it been worth it? Hell yeah – we’d watched the Turkish Grand Prix, from turn eight!

With massive thanks to Nikos and Melanie.

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3 comments on Escape from Istanbul

  1. Mate, sounds like a mad adventure. mind you still seems nothing like getting to Pembrey :)

  2. Sigmund said on 24th August 2007, 11:58

    Nice report, just a little thing.

    My memory form the same area is different. I saw the screen from the general admission area, there just wasn´t any speakers. Anyway the screens were so small that you hardly could see them from the grandstands anyway.

    Also there was buses going around inside the track ferrying people around the track. Normal people like you and me.

  3. David Smith said on 2nd June 2009, 20:38

    Seems like just the same mad adventure I had getting in an out of silverstone in 2000 was…

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