I have split this day in two parts as it’s important that I share my horrifying experience in the Turkish night bus which I took from Trabzon to Kars that night. I had tried buying tickets online from the Igdir Tourizm website before, but it didn’t work well and they only accept credit cards from Visa and Master card. It’s worth pointing out that Metro Bus company has the widest bus network in Turkey and also have special travel card passes where you get discounts, but I didn’t use them anytime in Turkey (mostly because we wanted to try different bus companies, and also often the metro bus timings didn’t match our schedules). In Turkey, intercity travel with buses is the most common and comfortable way of traveling, and trust me, most of the buses are super comfortable and they would stop every 2-3 hours in an eating place with toilets. Highly recommended if you are in Turkey!
However, this post is about my experience in the Igdir Tourizm bus which turned out to be a nightmare. Because the Turkish bus companies don’t accept an Amex credit card, I couldn’t book tickets online. I had to get my bus tickets in the last minute directly fro their Trabzon office.I made a reservation for the night bus (11:30pm) from Trabzon to Kars. I will always advise to book your tickets on long route buses in Turkey atleast 2 days before (this can be done by either walking into their bus offices in the city you are in –mostly all of them have offices in the city center, if not, then go to the “otogar” of the city you are in). I paid 70 TL to go from Trabzon to Kars.
The bus arrived on time in Trabzon otogar stop.It was a very nice and comfortable bus with 2+1 seating arrangement, but sadly I got the last seat (37) in the bus and I was very unhappy about it. I asked the bus conductor/helper if I could move in the front, but they didn’t speak much English and was in general were very hesitant to help move in the front even though there were empty seats. I tried having a conversation with a guy from Azerbaijan and he was the only one in the entire bus who could speak very little English and tried to help me. I asked if he could ask the conductor to give us front seats which he did, but the conductor refused to change our seats saying the bus is full. The first stop of the bus was after couple of hours and the conductor took in more people and offered them front seats instead of us. I was furious, but eventually cooled down and decided to let go and sleep. It was around 3am in the morning and all the fellow passengers were almost sleeping when suddenly I could feel someone touching me in an uncomfortable way and trying to wake me up. It was the conductor guy and he was speaking Kurdish to me which he was well aware of that I wouldn’t understand. His gestures started becoming way too uncomfortable and he started pointing at my fingers and asking if I were married or not. I replied NO and he seemed very happy to about it. I raised my voice in this moment and the conductor left me alone.
Again I was awakened by something and on opening my eyes, I found the same guy just staring at me and giving me weird looks. I was kind of scared by then and by this time, the bus had stopped again for rest. I felt very helpless in this situation as nobody spoke English and I just wanted to reach Kars safely as soon as possible. It was almost sunrise by then (5:30am) and the conductor guy came to me again and started smiling at me in a very weird way and I totally ignored him and started looking out of the bus window. The sky outside was all red with dry mountains and plateaus in the backdrop. By 7:30am in the morning, the bus arrived in the Kars otogar station and I felt so so relived to to leave the bus.
Buy your long journey (especially night buses) tickets in Turkey atleast 2 days beforehand as they always sell out fast.
Something that I learned the hard way is once you are in Eastern Turkey, dress in a covered way and always carry a scarf with you.
Try avoiding the back seats in the long distance buses and it is true that the bus companies will always try to sell you the last two seats in the end, as Turkish people usually never buy those seats.
They will respect you much more as a woman if you say you are married (even better to wear fake ring as they always check your fingers!! Trust me, I am not kidding).
I think I grabbed more attention than any other western girl traveler in general as being Indian, I look a bit like them (infact, everyone I met there thought I was either Turkish, Kurdish or Arab).
After the hot sweaty night in the hotel in Trabzon, it felt great to check out early morning and I had to rush to Ataruk Square as the pick up for the tour was around 9:30am. A dolmus ride helped me get there cheap and thankfully on time. Sumela monastery was a little more than an hour ride from Trabzon and there were around 14 people in our touring mini bus. Sumela monastery is a very ancient Greek monastery built in the name of Virgin Mary and is absolutely stunning as it is built on a high mountain hilltop.
Finally it was a relief to be on the mountains as it helped me escape the scorching heat in the Trabzon city. Remember to put on running shoes, as it’s a one-way climb of around 300 steps (1.5 kms approx) to reach the monastery from the parking lot. An entrance fee of 15 TL each is charged to enter the monastery and is totally worth it (payable only with cash). The monastery has different chapels, one church, kitchen, library, etc. and the paintings on the walls are well preserved and are absolutely stunning! Apart from the monastery, the surrounding views of the big mountains with lush green trees and small waterfalls made the visit really amazing.
By the way, I got stares from almost every tourist (few Turkish and mostly Arabs with their women in black “burkas”). I still wonder why was Sumela monastery fled with so many Arabs ;-). I was happy to be approached by some Turkish tourists time to time in very little English they knew and they were very friendly. After spending 2 hours at this place, we all headed back to our mini bus.
Before heading to the caves, it was time for lunch as it was like 1:30 pm by then and hence the driver drove us to a super nice (and touristy) restaurant up in the mountains in a valley. It was a bit weird at this fancy eating restaurant as the waiters were kind of really rude to me (may be they don’t like western tourists as it’s an orthodox part of Turkey and specially the small village the restaurant was located in). The food however was really authentic local Turkish food, but was expensive. However the views from the restaurant was terrific and eating at this fancy place is a part of every Sumela tour that the travel agencies organize from Trabzon.
After a sumptuous lunch, our mini bus headed to the Karaca caves. It was half an hour drive through the huge mountains before our bus arrived there. Getting to the caves from the parking lot was 7 minutes walk up the mountains and they charge an entry fee of 8 TL to get inside. However only a part of the caves are open to the tourists and photography is strictly prohibited inside (just managed to take a pic somehow :-P). It wasn’t very extraordinary as I had been to the famous Mammoth caves in Kentucky just 3 months back, but still was quite impressive with the rock formations inside. If you are going to see the monastery, it’s nice to take the tour which includes both the monastery and caves. The driver of our bus was a very nice guy, but didn’t speak any English. I used sign languages to connect with him and also the other tourists in our bus as none of them spoke English, but everyone was super accommodating and nice to me.
It was 5 pm by now and we started heading back to Trabzon. The final stop for the tour was a local village famous for the delicious Turkish rice pudding. I tried it and yes, tummy felt good ;). After another 20 minutes here, finally everyone was ready to board our mini bus to arrive in Trabzon which was an hour drive from the village. The tour started at 9:30 am in the morning and we were back in Ataturk square around 8 pm and I was pretty happy by the end of it.
Camping in Sumela is a very good option if you plan to stay in and around Trabzon for more than just a couple of days. Here are the available camping options:
Sumela monastery and Karaca caves with a tour agency is a good option if you don’t have your own car/rented car as the drive is quite long and the roads are not very nice up in the mountains.
Uzungol or Ayder are two great mountain places with great views which you can do from Trabzon as day trips..but I didn’t have much time to do it and also in summers, they are fled with tourists which is why it didn’t fancy me much. But if you have time, do it :).
July 29th early morning I took an Onur Air flight from Istanbul’s Ataturk airport to Trabzon. Trabzon is one of the main cities in the Black sea region of Turkey and I kept it as the base point in my travel itinerary to start venturing eastern Turkey. I had quickly booked the cheapest hotel available in Trabzon after checking in the flight in Istanbul the same day morning and little did I know that it would turn into a nightmare (I suggest you check the booking.com reviews carefully before booking a budget hotel in Trabzon).
After reaching the Trabzon airport, which was pretty small and not so clean, I took a taxi to reach the hotel. The cab ride was pretty cheap here (9 TL for 3 kms approx) and I recommend you taking a cab too from the Trabzon’s airport to the city. It was almost noon by then and hence I decided to have a little lunch break in a local Turkish kebab shop before starting to explore the city. The shop owner was super nice and he confirmed that it wasn’t common to see western tourists in this part of Turkey. Almost nobody speaks English in this part of Turkey and hence body language and gestures is all how I started connecting with the locals (hotel, cabs, shops, etc). Having an internet on phone was really handy for me as I often used Google translate and also started learning common Turkish words to start a conversation (highly recommended). I could already notice the change in clothing from western Turkey and people looked way more conservative too.
The hotel sadly was quite far away from the city centre and hence I decided on taking a “dolmus” (dirt cheap local Turkish mini vans/buses usually for short distance travels and highly recommended). Luckily, I found a free ride from a local Turkish guy (kind of hitch-hiking) and he dropped at the famous Hagia Sophia Museum (also called Aya Sophia by the locals) from where you can get a good view of the Black Sea. AyaSophia is an impressive old church, which is a working mosque now and has a lot of history (if you are in Trabzon, this is a must-see!). After spending a couple of hours, a local helped us getting a “dolmus” (our very first dolmus ride in Turkey!!) to Ataturk square (the main square of the city). Here I booked the next day-trip to Sumela Monastery and Karaca caves with a travel agency located right in Ataturk square. Prices are almost the same for all the tour operators and are normally 40 TL for the entire day tour and does’t include entrance fees to the monuments, foods and drinks
Bars/pubs are not common in this part of Turkey as the culture is very conservative, but still Trabzon being a big city, it wasn’t super hard to find one. I had a couple of nice beers (Turkish Efes beer) in the Efes bar right around the corner of the Ataturk square (next to the Mc Donalds) and headed for good food in the square.
Obviously, I wanted more good kebabs and luckily wasn’t disappointed. I also tried “nargile” in a rooftop place to chill out and it was more awesome with some Turkish tea.
It was super hot even in the night (around 30 deg C) and finally, I decided to head back to the (crappy) hotel, which by the way even didn’t have fans! I didn’t have any energy to complain tot he hotel owners about it after such a tiring long day and just had 6 hours more before I had to start my next day.