The melancholy of the last hours of the year that passes away fits well to this Spanish leaflet which spread in a large number of versions in the age of Renaissance. In the spirit of the best tradition of Cervantes, this little memento develops both a full image and a criticism of the society, while with the example of Christ it also incites to a Stoic endurance of the same society, and finally in the last line it offers the necessary perspective. A perfectly polished little gem, in ten lines the whole universe.

worthy of knowing.

THE POPE SAYS: …… I am the head of all.
THE KING SAYS: …… I obey the Pope.
THE KNIGHT SAYS: …… I serve these two.
THE MERCHANT SAYS: …… I cheat these three.
THE LAWYER SAYS: …… I confuse these four.
THE PLOUGHMAN SAYS: …… I feed these five.
THE DOCTOR SAYS: …… I kill these six.
THE CONFESSOR SAYS: …… I absolve these seven.
CHRIST SAYS: …… I suffer these eight.
THE DEATH SAYS: …… I take them all away.

In this spirit we wish a happy new year to all our benevolent Readers.

Český Krumlov

Earlier I already mentioned that we were preparing ourselves to travel to Český Krumlov, and I have also linked an interactive map of the city with hot points that display detailed information about the historical monuments. In the meantime we have realized our journey, but only now I have time to publish the photos made there as an appetizer for Gergő and his family who are going to travel there in these days as a common Christmas present.

And while I cannot go with them, at least I enclose a small map of locals with the indication of the restaurants and pubs tested by us and with a short description of each of them (right now in Hungarian only, but in case there is a demand I’ll also translate it in English). The map is sized to be printable in A4 format. In turn I ask everyone to write me about their experiences both with these locals and with other ones discovered by themselves, so that we could continuously enrich this collection for the edification and benefit of all the lovers of Český Krumlov.

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Merrier Christmas

I have received this image as a Christmas greeting from Copenhagen, from my brother Gyuri, accompanied by this letter:

My dear ones!

Now, on the second day of Christmas we still would like to wish to everyone a blessed Christmas and a happy new year.

I also attach two irregular Christmas cards to my greeting. This image represents a small crib made out of olive tree, three wise men from the East, and one wise man from Bethlehem. The wise man from Bethlehem, Tawfiq Salsaa carved the crib. At first sight it is just like any other crib of olive tree that are sold by hundreds in the shops of Bethlehem. Nevertheless, there is a small difference. The wise men cannot pay their homage to the Child, because a wall – more precisely: the Wall – separates them from Bethlehem.

The Wall that served as a model for the wall in this little crib was erected by Israel some years ago between the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories, allegedly for reasons of self-protection from terrorism. This wall, however, is not made out of olive wood, but out of five or six meters high concrete blocks, and it encloses all the West Bank. This wall virtually closes the Palestinians in a cage, and isolates them from their lands and olive plantations, from the possibilities of employment in Israel as well as from the city of Jerusalem with the best equipped Palestinian hospitals inside. Bethlehem too found itself behind the wall. From Jerusalem it can be only approached via a regular checkpoint – for tourists only, of course, but in this way even they do not really dare to hop over to Bethlehem which is only ten minutes by bus from Jerusalem. The Christian community in Bethlehem – the largest one in Palestine – feels completely let down and abandoned.

At least in our thoughts and to the extent of a prayer let us be together with those Palestinian Christians who, caught between radicalizing Islam and isolating Israel, still keep the front in the native city of Jesus.

Gyuri, who used to live for years in Israel as a Hebraist, and recently has returned for a short visit on the scene of his youth – hopefully he will also report about it in this blog – has told me in detail about Bethlehem, once crowded with tourists but now utterly deserted, about the hopeless situation of the Palestinian Christians, the calvary of the Palestinians standing for days in long queues in front of the Wall and looking forward to be let in, the ambulances turned back from the checkpoint and the humiliating and inhuman behavior of the Israeli soldiers.

The story of this novel crib by Tawfiq Salsaa quickly spread all over the world press. With the title “O little (divided) town of Bethlehem,” the NZ Herald has also published a long interview with the master. “I was thinking about how Joseph and Mary with the little Jesus escaped from here two thousand years ago from the murderers,” Salsaa says. “It wouldn’t be so easy now.” Nevertheless he has not given up hope: he made the wall in his crib detachable.

Russian first

As Wang Wei discovered the Western borderland of Russian language in Catalonia, so we discovered the Eastern borderland of the same language in Persia.

In Persia one can more or less get by with English. With Persian one can settle more difficult cases as well. But hearts can be really opened only with Russian.

From Tehran through Isfahan to Shiraz we were asked in the most unexpected sites: Po-russki govoritye? (And you speak in Russian too?) Each time they asked it like a child who reveals a secret treasure, a rare and precious stamp, desirous to see the other appreciating it. The positive answer was greeted with a shining smile, and then a long, warm conversation followed in Russian. The people who asked it of us were Armenians and Azeris who are just as numerous in Iran as in the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The life stories told to us revealed that they have always moved with more or less freedom between the two empires, and the Russian language brought with them from the other side of the border enabled them to rise above the status of their own minority languages, to emphasize their otherness and to proudly display their connections with that large world over the borders.

It is always a peculiar experience to speak in Russian with non-Russians. When speaking in English, German, Italian, Spanish or any other idiom, it always remains clear that this is not my own language. It is a neutral intermediary language that is perhaps a pleasure for the other to hear, and perhaps I too can convincingly use it, but it always remains something extraneous to me. Russian, however, creates fellowship, recalls childhood remembrances, revives the memory of the films, books and jokes widely known in all the bygone empire, evokes the experience of that once common world. It creates such a closeness between a Hungarian and an Armenian in Iran which would not be possible either in English or in Persian. And not only in Iran. I had the same experience when speaking with a Bulgarian professor in Mallorca, a Polish cyclist in San Marino, a Georgian diamond dealer on the Madrid-Brussels flight, or an Uzbek innkeeper in Vienna.

In Tehran we were asked in the eating-house of the market at Hafez Street by a woman vested in black chador at the neighboring table whether we can speak Russian. She related us, by fumbling the words learned in her childhood, that her parents were Azeris from the “other” Azerbaijan over the border, and they sometimes also spoke in Russian at home. In an outburst of joy she ordered for us a dish that does not figure on the menu and is only taken by locals: tah dig, the crunchy crust at the bottom of the pan after rice has been steamed.

In Shiraz the Azeri assistant of the milk bar who was just smugly replying to our questions, was all of a sudden transformed into a human being when we changed the conversation to Russian. He turned out to have worked as a confectioner in both Azerbaijans, the Iranian and the Soviet ones. Azeris are great pastry-cookers. Their capital, Tabriz is full of patisseries that almost equal to those in Vienna, and most sweet-shops are in their hands all over Iran.

In Isfahan the guardian of the Armenian cathedral of Vank warned me that it was forbidden to take photos inside the church. Later, when listening to the strange idiom of our conversation he asked us whether we also understood Russian, and as we turned out to be Hungarians, he immediately recalled some Hungarian acquaintances (“István from the Ikarus bus factory”), after which taking photos was absolutely no problem.

In Tehran, on Sunday morning four Armenian men were talking away the time in the porter’s lodge of the Sarkis Cathedral. We inquired them in Persian about where we could find a Catholic mass. When they found out from where we were, the eldest of them turned the conversation to Russian, and in this language he explained us where the Catholic church was (albeit he turned out to have been misinformed, as he pointed us to the Orthodox chapel of the Greek embassy). The other three men were watching him with deep reverence. He accompanied us quite to the entrance of the church, where he asked me in a low voice about when I had been the last time in Moscow. Some ten years ago, I said. And how is Moscow like? It developed a lot, it grew much more beautiful, I said. Slava Bogu, he said, but he was not able to tell anything else, his voice faltered with sobbing.

However, our most peculiar Russian encounter in Persia was such a beautiful round story that I will have to dedicate a separate post to it in the following days.

In my childhood in Hungary it was considered a sort of resistance not to learn the language of the occupiers. Russian was an obligatory subject from the age of eight or ten until the university degree, but after twelve or fifteen years of studies most people could not tell much more than “Alyosha idyot v kino” (Alyosha goes to movie). My mother, when seating my brothers and sisters to do their homework, always released the slogan: “Russian first!”, knowing well that they would cut it with the best conscience.

I had a different moral problem with Russian. I already at the age of seven loved Russian, the strange letters, the romantic illustrations of the cheap brochures of fables sold in the Gorky bookshop, the world of floppy-eared bear Misha, Cheburashka and Crocodile Gena, but most of all that curious alchemy by which I was able, by coupling foreign words and affixes, to tell the same like in Hungarian but in a different way, which has ever since fascinated me in each language again and again. But am I allowed to learn the language of the invaders in a good faith?

I turned with my doubts to my father who told me that Russian was not only the language of the Soviet army, but that of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well. With this approval I happily threw myself into the study of Russian. And thanks to this, I have since then discovered that Russian is not only the language of these great authors, but that of small people as well, and not only of Russians but, in an odd way, of many different people from Bulgaria to Beijing and from Poland to Iran, organized into a kind of a community by virtue of this intermediary language. And in this way it is also mine.


Estuvimos en Orihuela (Oriola, en el catalán que se habla en aquella zona limítrofe de esta lengua). Explicamos un poquito del viaje en nuestra «Mesa Revuelta». Para llegar a Oriola pasamos por el aeropuerto de Alicante. Por lo que vimos en el quiosco de prensa del aeropuerto (ved la foto tomada con el móvil), Alicante también se ha convertido en una zona limítrofe de la lengua rusa. ¿O será que Oriola tiene alguna comunicación secreta con Oriol, en Rusia, en la provincia de Orlov, el lugar donde nació Iván Turguéniev? Qué mundo tan pequeño este que se ve desde los aeropuertos.

Lupus in tabula

By now it has been established as a tradition that on our birthdays we regularly spring a surprise on our three Newfoundlander dogs, Burkus, Vidra and Brumi. On the birthday of Kata, in June we have their hair cut, so that in their fur-coats proportioned to the Canadian frost they would suffer somewhat less from the heat of the Hungarian summer. And on my birthday, in December we comb out their coat that they are profusely casting in this period, so that we would also suffer somewhat less from everyday cleaning. The reason why we do this on our birthdays is that we hope that in this way we would not forget the date arranged with the dogs’ hairdresser. But it also has some nice Medieval taste, when it was still the task of the person celebrated to bestow gifts on his friends.

The happening in December, when their skin is thoroughly massaged with the brush, is perhaps regarded as a gift by them as well. At least they endure it with a silent apathy.

The haircutting in June, however, that may cost them their skin, is much less tolerated.

By the end of the combing a common birthday gift arrives as well. Snow begins to fall softly, and it soon covers the village. Winter has come. Brumi sees such a thing the first time in her life. Growing wild from each other’s combed-out smell as well as from the snowfall, they rush out to the forest, happily rolling about in the snow, devouring with full mouth the message of Newfoundland.

Persian Food

Persia therefore came to Wang Wei. And in truth, for whoever has seen the menu of this restaurant in Barcelona, has seen that of all the restaurants of Persia.

Persian kitchen is one of the most majestic, most generous, most refined, most enchanting kitchens of the world. It is rustic like Turkish kitchen, sophisticated like French, spicy like Arabic, regionally diversified like Italian, satisfying like Spanish, and so light that there is nothing comparable to it in all Europe. As a matter of fact, it can only be compared in all respects to Chinese kitchen. This is well known to everybody who has not yet been to Persia and only knows its kitchen from literature, from the menu of the classy Persian restaurants in Western Europe and from cook books. Like us.

Before our travel we lived for months in the spell of Persian kitchen. We dreamed about Persian restaurants, we cooked from Eckel’s Persian cook book (fabulously), and I have memorized the twenty-three pages of Turner’s Persian thematic dictionary on food, dishes and spices.

It was unnecessary.

During the passage over lake Van we questioned with excitement our new friend Peyman about what kind of menu is in store for us at the other shore, in the dining car of the Persian train. He meditated for a while, perhaps in order not to omit anything, and then he told: “Kebab, kebab and kebab.”

For one day in the dining car, it’s all right. But for three weeks in all the available restaurants of a whole country it wore us out.

One of the oddest experiences in Iran is that there are hardly any restaurants. The few existing ones with their pseudo-oriental furnishings apparently address western tourists and local snobs. But even of this kind there are really few, the fewest possible you can imagine. In the most touristic city, Isfahan for example only one, the Bastani restaurant at the corner of the main square. And even these ones serve principally kebab. The desperate tone of the “Eating” sections in the Lonely Planet Iran guide reflects well the seriousness of the case.

Besides – or rather in spite of – the proper restaurants there are also restaurant-like public canteens where the workers and employees of the neighborhood take a quick kebab for lunch (for example the میخک Mikhak, that is Glove on the other corner of the main square of Isfahan, with high prices and tasteless dishes), and in the most popular places of excursion and parks there are some restaurants that are only open on the weekend, that is on Friday. Among these latter – especially in such fashionable places like Darband above Tehran – there are most probably some sophisticated ones as well that are visited by the élite of the city for tasting the authentic Persian kitchen. We have seen such places in the movies. In real life, however, we had no luck to discover them. The menu of the place where we ate on Friday evening clearly attested that the chef is out of practice in the other six days of the week. And of course there was only kebab. The vegetarian Ana from Madrid whom we met in the last day of their travel had lived for three weeks exclusively on cooked rice and mixed salad prepackaged in plastic boxes, and in spite of all my Persian eloquence and the waiter’s Persian benevolence they could not serve her anything else for this last supper either.

Although this situation was quite unexpected, nevertheless it was somehow familiar to us, for – like many other things in Iran – it excited the very vivid feeling as if we flew back to the socialist Hungary of the 70’s and 80’s. I still remember how rare the restaurants and the occasions of going to restaurant were in those years. People took their dinner at home – and moreover so gorgeous dishes that even today cannot be found on any menu, like potatoes seasoned with paprika, boiled shredded marrow or stuffed cabbage –, and in those seldom occasions (principally formal ones like a banquet, a wedding or a funeral) when they happened to find themselves in a restaurant, they too ate the equivalent of kebab as it was proper: Wiener schnitzel or cutlets. Such meat, besides having the high status of festive food, was also the easiest to prepare and the most difficult to spoil. I do not know whether it was the dictatorship and the concomitant withdrawal of people to their family circles, the poverty, or the disappearance of the middle classes that shaped this Budapest out of the city of cafés and restaurants like it was between the two wars; probably all these together, just like in the cities of Iran. I’m really curious to what extent people went to restaurant in Franco’s Spain, for example.

But Socialist experiences also had their benefits. I remember how much routine we picked up in the eighties in the localization of the so-called “little dirties” and “pits”, marketplace eateries and hash-houses. This routine was quite well applicable in Iran (just like some years earlier in pre-boom China), for both the structure and arrangement of these “little dirties” is very similar to those in the Hungary of the eighties. They can be found in the markets, in the small alleys around the large “canteen-restaurants” or in the vaults of the bazaars; they are mostly set up for regular local clients, are never larger than a few square meters, and they only cook one or two dishes, but those are majestic. And not kebab. Most tourists would avoid such suspicious places in fright, but whoever enters is greeted with joy, interrogated with the spontaneousness so characteristic of Persians, and entertained liberally. And just like we did in the eighties, present-day Persian intelligentsia also inquires for such places in a programmatic way. Quite similarly to how Endre Lábass and Ferenc Bodor wrote about the inns of Budapest in those times, the excellent regularly reports about recent findings in Tehran.

In Isfahan we have found such a noname small cook-shop with two tables just some steps from the above said Bastani restaurant. They only cooked one single dish, beryân, lamb cut in small pieces then cooked and fried, accompanied with the obligatory fragrant, mint-like green reyhân – it was fabulous. At departure the chef accepted with gratitude my eulogies on the dish, while the old woman waiting for our place enunciated with her pointing finger lifted, like the lesson of a long life: “Iranian food is very good.” Yes, if someone is lucky enough to finally find it.

In Tabriz near hotel Kousar there was a small place where they also sold one single dish: cooked potatoes with boiled eggs that everyone had to break, spice and roll in a thin flat bread himself. It is easy to prepare and it leaves enough room for you to reply the questions of the other guests.

In Tehran under the bazaar there is a secret eating-place for the merchants. It is true that on the south-western main street of the bazaar a small green board advertises the name of a “Restaurant Soleiman” (in Farsi only), but even he who takes notice of it cannot but helplessly stand, as behind the board there is a textile shop. You have to cross the shop, and then cross a second shop as well, opening at the right side of the first one, while at the end of the second one there is a staircase leading downstairs, apparently to some storehouse. But if you even have the courage to go down, then you will find a superb little eating-place downstairs with eight or ten chosen good dish and friendly sellers. We would have not found it if there were not Ahmad, the hawker – “call-in-man” – of the nomad carpet shop who willingly guided us to the green board, where we found him after the dinner patiently waiting for us to buy something of him as well. And in fact, we did.

However, the day is carried by the small hash-house on the vegetable market at the upper end of Hafez street in Tehran, not far from the Hafez bookshop also indicated in the Lonely Planet guide. Here it is apparent that we are already in the more elegant part of Tehran, because they sell a number of typical Persian food we have hitherto only encountered in the cook book. Nevertheless, prices are not remarkably higher than in other similar places: for two persons we have paid 3-4000 tomans, that is about 3 euros all in all for two dishes with meat per head, accompanied with reyhân, cooked tomatos and fermented yogurt drink, duq. If the foreigner does not protest in time, he will also receive a bottle of Coca-Cola which, in spite of the American embargo, is bottled in Kerman.

But it seems that the authentic Persian kitchen, similarly to the Hungarian one of the eighties, can only be tasted by those invited for a family dinner. We were not that lucky. Nevertheless, when in the last days we complained about Iranian restaurant food to the receptionist of our hotel, Mr. Mousavi, he could not permit the honor of Persian kitchen to be damaged, and offered to us that in the two evenings left it would be his wife to cook for us, and he would serve it for us in the hotel. And it happened so. In the first evening we had a magnificent vegetarian dinner (what a pity that Ana already could not taste it), while on the second evening, the last one before our departure, we were served the crown of Persian kitchen: fesenjân, chicken prepared in sauce of walnut and pomegranate.

If any Persian reads this post, hereby I announce well in advance that in April we are going to go to Persia again, this time together with Wang Wei. We both feel a great respect of good kitchen, and both are grateful guests.


No contento con la aproximación siria, Wang Wei se sumergió aún más en las abigarradas calles de Barcelona en busca de aire persa. Pensó que en el zoco de «Els Encants Vells» hallaría algo que le satisfaciera para poder mostrar a sus amigos viajeros como diciendo: «si Wang Wei no va a Persia, Persia viene a Wang Wei». Y, así fue, los muñecos sirios con su juego y sus narguiles fueron sustituidos por la realidad de carne y hueso de dos muchachos sentados en un callejón del mercadillo jugando concentradamente a ajedrez. ¿Qué mejor estampa persa que esta? Con todo, «Els Encants» decepcionan: no es más que un gran solar lleno de baratijas y poco más.

Avergonzado ante cualquier comparación con el gran bazar de Estambul o los mercados persas, Wang Wei decidió dar una vuelta por uno de sus barrios favoritos de Barcelona, Gràcia. Y así llegó a la Plaça de Rius i Taulet para descansar un rato en un banco y observar cómo había cambiado todo por allí desde aquellos años de su juventud en que Barcelona era una ciudad con poco turismo, más bien mugrienta pero absolutamente cuajada de sorpresas en cada esquina.

En eso pensaba, cuando, nada más salir de la plaza y empezar a bajar por la calle Mozart, por pura casualidad, dio con un local persa que no venía en ninguna guía. El azar es así: azaroso. Y Persia vino a Wang Wei. Vedlo, amigos.

A Sign of Life from Syria / Un señal de vida desde Siria

While we are heading towards Persia, Wang Wei sends us a sign of life from Syria. At least this is what he writes us via his stolen internet:

Te escribo desde Barcelona a través de una conexión malísima robada a un vecino que tiene su wi-fi abierto sin darse cuenta. Una foto de Wang Wei haciendo una foto (atrapado en la foto) de dos sirios fumando sus narguiles y jugando a algún juego de manera harto despreocupada. Se sabe que son sirios estos personajes porque es un restaurante sirio regentado por un hombre gordo y simpático de Alepo.

(I’m writing you from Barcelona via a very low quality connection stolen from a neighbor who is keeping his wifi open without taking notice of it. A photo of Wang Wei capturing a photo (and captured by it) of two Syrians smoking narghile and playing some game without any remarkable interest. We know they’re Syrians as we are in a Syrian restaurant directed by a sympathetic fat man from Aleppo.)

Lo, we managed to winkle him out. C’mon, Istanbul and Tehran is only a hop from here.

El bazar de Estambul

Pero antes de subir al tren que nos llevará a Persia dejad que os muestre algunas estampas de Estambul. Aunque solo sea porque luego no voy a poder enseñaros muchas fotos de Persia —ya os diré por qué—. Pero, también, por si de este modo logro sacar a Wang Wei (o Pei Di) fuera de su isla, y que también él quiera sumergirse en las maravillas de la Polis.

Entre estas maravillas la primera es el bazar.

El bazar fue la gran leyenda de nuestros años ochenta. Cientos de autobuses salían de Hungría hacia el Oriente Próximo más próximo y el bazar de Estambul se llenaba de vulgares marcopolos que luego volverían gloriosamente cargados de tesoros conservados a través de las fronteras turca, búlgara, serbia, rumana y húngara. Oro a precio de ganga, lencería y chaquetas de cuero. En todas aquellas fronteras había que pagar un porcentaje irregular a los funcionarios de aduanas, los accidentes eran frecuentes en las carreteras terribles de los Balcanes, y no era rara la ocasión en que pillaban a un traficante de heroína en el autobús: en este caso todo el pasaje quedaba retenido varios días en la frontera. Pero nada de eso importaba. Cuando pregunté a la mujer de nuestro carpintero, la señora Cinege, que una vez al mes sale de su pequeño pueblo al norte de Hungría para aumentar con estos negocios el sueldo que gana como contable, qué valía la pena comprar en el bazar, miró embelesadamente al cielo a través de sus gafas de muchas dioptrías y respondió: “Todo”.

El bazar empieza al norte de la principal vía este-oeste Millet Caddesi con el ordenado Gran Bazar cubierto de una multitud de pequeñas bóvedas (ver Kapaliçarşi, que significa Bazar Cubierto, a la izquierda del mapa de una entrada anterior). Desde aquí se extiende sin interrupción hasta llegar al Bazar Egipcio o de las Especias, rodeado de un alto muro, a los pies del Puente Gálata, en la ensenada de Eminönü donde antaño entraban los barcos cargados con especias indias. Y al oeste del Gran Bazar empieza el Bazar de los Libros en cuyas pequeñas tiendas pueden comprarse por igual modernos textos académicos o manuscritos medievales. Aquí estudié por un largo rato las decoradas miniaturas de un manuscrito médico del renacimiento persa en hojas sueltas: un aga sentado en una almohada trazaba con el dedo el paso de un trago de café a través de sus intestinos abiertos, y, a toda página, en la corona de una muela unos diablillos cubiertos de fuego martillaban el yunque infernal.

De camino a Persia pasamos una tarde en el bazar. Más allá de los largos pasillos profusamente provistos de letreros rusos, alemanes y españoles, detrás de esas callejuelas para turistas llenas de joyeros, artesanos de la piel y anticuarios, nos perdimos varias horas por el laberinto de los pasillos interiores, antiguos caravasares transformados en patios semiocultos, fuentes colocadas como centros de recogimiento y casas de té arrebujadas en las esquinas. En un cruce, una pareja francesa estudiaba una sección de un enorme e indesplegable mapa del bazar. Les pregunté dónde lo habían conseguido y me dijeron que era regalo del mercader al que habían comprado una alfombra. Como consuelo me advirtieron de que era igual de complicado orientarse llevando uno.

En efecto, no exploramos de verdad el bazar hasta la segunda vez que lo pisamos, de vuelta de Persia. Disponíamos entonces de otra tarde sin prisas y a estas alturas ya habíamos visitado los bazares de cinco grandes ciudades persas, así que estábamos familiarizados con precios y mercancías. Sabíamos entonces dónde merecía la pena entrar y dónde no, y la oferta persa, mucho más barata, nos hacía superfluo entrar ya en un un buen número de tiendas.

Fue cuando descubrimos el barrio afgano, en la esquina noroeste del bazar, no lejos de la puerta de Yorgancilar. Aquí al fin encontramos las recias joyas nómadas por las que habíamos suspirado en Persia, el rubab, el laúd afgano que ya desde hacía tanto quería comprar y los coloreados tejidos fabricados a mano por los nómadas de la región noreste de la frontera persa. Y todo por un precio tan bajo que más sonaba a Persia que a Turquía. Y, encima, podíamos hablar en persa con unos comerciantes que agradecían con su alegre sorpresa utilizar, a miles de millas de distancia, su lengua materna con un rumi extranjero. El idioma compartido crea pronto familiaridad y ahora me resulta evidente que el persa es la lengua de cultura común en esta inmensa región que cubre de Estambul a Cachemira y desde el delta del Volga y la estepa turcomana hasta el Golfo Pérsico, igual como el francés lo fue en la Europa de hace un siglo.

En la estrecha tienda de Öztürk vimos unos bonitos bolsos modernos, kelim combinado con un hermoso cuero rojo cereza. Pero aquí el precio era más serio: unos cien euros cada uno. En los zocos persas esta cantidad sería locura, aunque luego vimos que en Budapest pedían el triple por algo parecido (y no tan bueno). Hubo que convencer a Kata a la fuerza para que comprara uno por más que su bolso ya estaba muy maltrecho después del viaje. Tuvimos que volver una y otra vez a la tienda para que se decidiera. El alto y melífluo vendedor nos recibía como a viejos clientes, con una delicada cortesía. Nos preparó té de manzana y decidió que yo iba vestido de sufí. Resultó ser aprendiz de sufí y al mencionarle que me gustaba Rumi movió la cabeza con respetuoso asentimiento. Al salir con nuestro bolso oí cómo hacía un detallado relato de nuestro pedigrí y ocupaciones a sus amigos, que por entonces ya se habían reunido en la tienda.

En la tienda de instrumentos musicales de Ali Baba (mucho mejor que lo que deja suponer su tarjeta comercial) curioseamos un buen rato entre los laúdes turcos. Probé el saz de largo mástil y el oud turco, menor que el árabe. El chico de la tienda tocaba en un grupo tradicional turco y trabajaba allí para luego poder dedicarse tranquilamente, por las tardes, a ensayar el saz. Nos dijo que probaba él personalmente cada instrumento en cuanto llegaba a la tienda y, en efecto, tenía unos cuantos cuidadosamente templados con buen sonido. Y tampoco eran caros: los saz iban entre setenta y trescientas liras (de cuarenta a ciento setenta euros), mientras que los mejores ouds no llegaban a cuatrocientas liras (unos doscientos veinte euros). Probamos por turnos los instrumentos. Yo intentaba imitar sus melodías turcas, mientras él cambiaba los temas turcos tradicionales por blues y hasta ragtimes en el saz. Entretanto, un cliente calvo, grueso, de cuello de toro, gesticulaba en inglés ante el mostrador de la tienda de música al otro lado del pasillo. “Ho’ much this smo’ guitar? Ho’ much you gimme that?” El chico escuchaba vociferar al hombre con una sonrisa. “¿Americano?, pregunto. “No”, responde. “Es israelí”. “No son malos clientes”, añade, “normalmente compran, pero antes hablan muchísimo”. Una mujer francesa que ha comprado una guitarra pregunta ahora con desconfianza si la caja es nueva (aparentemente lo es). Este negocio exige enormes dosis de paciencia. Por ejemplo, yo no compro ningún instrumento, ni siquiera después de haber probado tantos. Al menos, no por ahora. Quizá cuando vuelva la próxima vez, inshallah, porque habrá que volver al bazar más pronto o más tarde.

The Istanbul Bazaar

But before getting on the Persian train, let me show you some pictures on Istanbul. If only because I won’t be able to show too many pictures on Persia – later I will tell you why. But also in order to winkle Wang Wei (or Pei Di) out of his island, so that he also would go and pay a visit to the marvels of the Polis.

Among these marvels the bazaar stands on the first place.

The bazaar was the great legend of the 80’s. Hundreds of buses left from Hungary for the easternmost available East, the bazaar of Istanbul with thousands of common Marco Polos on their boards who gloriously brought home the treasures salvaged through the Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian and Hungarian borders, the cheap gold, lingerie and leather jackets. At all of these borders they had to pay an informal percentage to the custom-house officers, the accidents were frequent on the terrible roads of the Balkans, and it was no rare occasion that a heroin smuggler was caught on the bus: in such case the whole bus was held up for several days at the border. But all that did not matter. When I asked the wife of our carpenter, Mrs. Cinege who once a month left from a small village in Northern Hungary for an Istanbul shopping to round off in this way the salary she received as a book-keeper, about what can be bought in the bazaar, she devoutly lifted her several dioptre glasses to the sky and said: “Everything”.

The bazaar begins to the north of the east-western main road Millet Caddesi with the proper Grand Bazaar, covered with a multitude of small domes (Kapaliçarşi, that is Covered Bazaar, on the left side of the map inserted in an earlier post), and from here it spreads uninterruptedly as far as the Egyptian or Spice Bazaar encircled with a high wall at the foot of the Galata Bridge, in the haven of Eminönü where once the ships carged with Indian spices used to sail in. And to the west of the Grand Bazaar begins the Book Bazaar, in whose small shops one can buy both modern academic publications and medieval manuscripts. Here I studied for a long time the gilded miniatures of a Persian Renaissance medical manuscript taken to leaves: an aga sitting on a cushion was following with his finger the way of the coffee through his own open intestines, and in the crown of a full-page grinder fire-covered djinns were hammering the infernal anvil.

On the way to Persia we spent an afternoon in the bazaar. Having got beyond the large corridors profusely provided with Russian, German and Spanish inscriptions, the tourist-absorbing streets of jewellers, leather goods makers and antiquarians, we lingered for several hours in the labyrinth of the back-corridors, former caravansarays transformed into internal courtyards, fountains created as pious foundations and tea houses squeezed into narrow corners. In a cross street a French couple studied in a puzzle the large unfoldable map of the bazaar. I asked them where they had bought it, but they told they had received it as a gift from a merchant in addition to the carpet. As a consolation, they told me that it is not easier at all to get one’s bearing with it either.

However, we really scouted the bazaar only the second time when, on the way home from Persia, we again stopped by for an afternoon. By this time we were past the bazaars of five Persian big cities, we were acquainted with the prices and merchandise, we knew where it is worth to stop by and where not, and the much cheaper Persian offer made it superfluous to enter in a large number of the shops anyway.

At this time we discovered the Afghan quarter in the northwestern corner of the bazaar, not far from the Yorgancilar gate. Here we finally found those robust nomadic jewels we had so much sought for in Persia, the rubab, the Afghan lute I have wished to buy for a long time, and the colorful handwoven fabrics of the nomads of the northeastern Persian border region. And all this for such a low price that reminded us rather of Persia, not of Turkey. And as a bonus, we could speak in Persian with the merchants who received with a joyful surprise that so many thousand miles away from their homeland they can speak in their mother tongue with a Rumi foreigner. The common language suddenly created familiarity, and at this occasion it was palpable that Persian is the common cultural language of this immense region from Istanbul to Kashmir and from the delta of the Volga and the Turkoman steppe to the Persian Gulf just in the same way as French was of Europe even a century ago.

In the narrow shop of Öztürk we see some nice modern bags, their kelim combined with a beautiful cherry-red leather. Here, however, they demand a serious price, about a hundred euros per piece. After the Persian prices this sum seems an extravagance, although later we see some similar (albeit not so beautiful) pieces in Budapest for three times more. Kata has to be convinced by force to buy one, for her bag has just been spoiled. Again and again we return to this shop to make a decision. The high, unctuous salesboy already greets us as old acquaintances, with selected courtesies. He has some apple tea served for us, and establishes that I’m dressed like a Sufi. He turns out to be a Sufi apprentice as well, and when I mention that I love Rumi, he nods with appreciation. As we are leaving with the bag, I hear him to give a detailed account about our pedigree and occupation to his friends who in the meantime gathered together in the shop.

In the musical instrument shop of Ali Baba (which is a much more pleasant place than what you would suppose after the design of their card) we browse among the Turkish lutes for a long time, I try the long necked saz and the Turkish oud, smaller than the Arabic one. The boy in the shop plays in a Turkish folk band, and he undertook this job so that he could calmly practice on the saz in the afternoons. He says he individually tests each instrument at reception, and in fact they have carefully prepared lutes with a pleasant sound. And they are not expensive either: the saz’s are between 70 and 300 lira (about 40-170 euro), while the best ouds are below 400 lira (about 220 euro). We take turns at playing on the instruments, I try to imitate his Turkish melodies, while he changes from Turkish folk tunes to blues and then to ragtime on the saz. In the meantime a bull-necked, bald-headed customer gesticulates in English in front of the other instrument shop over the corridor: “Ho’ much this smo’ guitar? Ho’ much you gimme that?” The boy listens with a smile to the loud bargaining. “An American?” I ask of him. “No,” he says, “an Israeli.” “They are not bad customers,” he adds, “they usually do buy, but they speak too much before.” In the meantime a French woman buys a guitar of him as well, and now she distrustfully inquires whether its case is new (apparently it is). This trade needs a lot of patience. For example, I don’t buy any instrument either after having tried so many. At least not now. Perhaps when I come the next time, inshallah, for one keeps coming back to the bazaar.

November 23

I purchased this Persian miniature in the bazaar of Esfahan, in the workshop of an old master of miniature painting. The image represents Sheherezade who originally most probably held a wine cup in her hand, but for the sake of Gyuri let us regard it as a cup of tea.

The image is beautiful and it follows the best traditions of Persian miniature painting. But the inscription above and on the reverse of it is not any less interesting, being more than a hundred years older than the picture itself. In fact, the master usually paints his works on the leaves of the discarded old workbooks of the local school of theology, by this not only increasing the “archaic” atmosphere of the image, but often enriching its meaning as well.

On the two sides of this leaf the one-time talib or student of theology wrote a prayer in Arabic with black ink and in careful hand, and then he also scrawled between the black lines, with red ink and in hasty handwriting, the meaning of the phrases in Persian. I leave for the Semitic philological wisdom of Gyuri to decipher the Arabic verses, and it is only the Persian text of which now I give a concise translation, and later a Persian and Latin transcription as well.

My ears and my tongue remember You. In my heart I keep the memory of Your love and care. I confess that I did wrong, and I humbly ask You for mercy. For You look at me with love, and I bow in front of You, and strive after worshiping You. I recommend myself into Your mercy, indulgence and benignity. Oh my God, look at me, for You know my affliction. Protect me from the devil, from the wickedness of the world, from all evil things and from any long-enduring ordeal.

The master was away, and his son told me that at this time he regularly teaches the art of traditional miniature painting at the local school of art. I requested him to ask his father when he comes back to attach some lines of recommendation to the miniature that I purchased as a gift. The master did so indeed, signing his good wishes with a sketchy self-portrait instead of a signature:

For George with affection and remembrance on his fortieth birthday. [In the year of the Hijra] 1386, the 6th day of the month of Aban.

Happy birthday, Gyuri!

El tren a Persia

El Trans-Asia Express sale de Estambul hacia Teherán desde la estación de Haydarpaşa una vez por semana, la noche del miércoles, a las once menos cinco. Según el itinerario de los ferrocarriles estatales turcos, entra en Ankara temprano por la mañana y atraviesa la llanura anatolia para llegar al tercer día al lago Van, en la Turquía oriental. Aquí los viajeros toman el transbordador que cubre en siete horas los cien kilómetros desde el puerto de Tatvan al de Van. Cuando arriben verán morir el día tras el cinturón de las majestuosas montañas anatolias que rodean el lago. Al desembarcar les aguarda el tren persa con el que han de cruzar durante la noche la frontera iraní. Pararán al amanecer en Tabriz y llegarán a Teherán en la tarde del cuarto día. El billete por los dos mil kilómetros de trayecto cuesta cincuenta euros, cama y transbordador incluidos.

El recorrido puede seguirse bien en el mapa del sistema ferroviario turco que cuelga encima del televisor del restaurante de la estación de Estambul. Partiendo del punto 1 hacia la línea 2, se cambia en el punto 4 —en Sivas— hacia la vía secundaria, kurda, que conduce al lago Van, a la derecha del mapa, hasta enlazar con los ferrocarriles persas.

Quien desee consagrar sesenta y seis horas —según el itinerario oficial, pero en realidad serán ochenta— a las líneas férreas en aras de una lenta y progresiva aproximación a Persia, en lugar de las cuarenta horas de autobús o las pocas de un vuelo, puede ampliar la información en la página iraní de El autor nos informa entre otras cosas de que podemos comprar un billete por adelantado en algunas agencias de Estambul, por 59 euros, y nos dice abiertamente que “seat61 gets a small commission” si mencionamos que fue él quien nos encaminó a ellas.

Nosotros no fuimos tan previsores. Demasiadas cosas por organizar, papeles por hacer, trabajos por cerrar antes de la partida. No hubo tiempo de reservar los billetes. Pensamos que por estar ya fuera de la temporada turística sobrarían asientos vacíos y bastaría con comprar los billetes en Estambul.

Sin embargo, en Estambul nadie sabe dónde comprar los billetes de un tren que ningún ser vivo oyó ni siquiera nombrar. Tales trenes son para viejos caballeros ingleses que quieren revivir escenas de juventud, viajantes de comercio polacos o bravos mochileros. No para turcos. En nuestra posada, la barata y acogedora Sultan’s Inn —borde inferior del mapa, en el barrio de Sultanahmet— de la que luego diremos algo más, el joven recepcionista se desesperaba llamando a todas las agencias conocidas. Solo podía conseguir billetes hasta Tatvan, fin de trayecto de la línea turca. De cómo hiciéramos los otros mil kilómetros “inshallah” él se lavaba las manos, por allí es dominio del Alá shiíta, no del suní.

La taquilla internacional de la estación de Haydarpaşa, en la orilla asiática del mar de Mármara, ya estaba cerrada a esas horas de la tarde. En medio del crepúsculo recorrimos las agencias de viajes de la calle de la Mezquita Azul hasta que en la oficina de los Backpackers, por fin, nos aconsejaron ir a la estación de Sirkeci, terminal de los ferrocarriles europeos (en el borde superior del mapa). Allí venden billetes hasta tarde y, sí, también para las líneas de Asia.

Bajo la llovizna de aquella tarde paseamos a lo largo de Babiali-Caddesi, la vía que cruza de norte a sur hasta la estación de trenes. Tras el cristal de la taquilla una muchacha habla por teléfono y un hombre mayor cena en un cajón medio abierto. Llamamos la atención de la joven para no molestar al hombre pero parece que hemos hecho justo lo incorrecto pues es él la oficina de billetes internacionales. Nos atiende con relativo fastidio, como si fuera una ofensa personal que alguien quiera viajar a un sitio tan imposible. Da las informaciones mínimas de manera brusca. Está claro que no acaba de creer que vayamos en serio a comprar los billetes y preferiría volver cuanto antes a su cajón. Mientras tanto, un caballero turco irrumpe para pedir un billete a un destino que nunca hemos oído. Es considerado un cliente serio y los dos hombres evalúan cuidadosamente las posibles alternativas. El cliente serio paga en dólares.

Un ingente número de carpetas se apila en grandes montones sobre las mesas. El hombre las revuelve hasta dar con una que tiene que ver con nuestro tren. Sí, hay billete. Concretamente, un único compartimento individual libre en todo el tren, todos los demás asientos están vendidos. ¡Nos estaba esperando! Mientras calculamos si nos conviene volver a la ciudad a sacar dinero, él se sienta rápidamente tras su cajón para no perder el tiempo. Me arriesgo a preguntar si podemos pagar con tarjeta de crédito. Para nuestro asombro, se puede. De otro cajón rescata un lector de tarjetas, le sacude el polvo y a la vez que engulle el último mordisco extrae de nuestra tarjeta ciento ochenta y dos liras turcas, el equivalente de unos cien euros. Dos jóvenes coreanas se acercan a preguntarme en un turco destrozado la hora de partida del tren a Tesalónica.

Después de nuestra gran victoria, caminamos hasta la ribera cercana de Eminönü para averiguar de dónde saldrá mañana el transbordador hacia la estación de Haydarpaşa. La fila de amarres y taquillas alineándose frente al mar produce una impresión familiar, es como la vieja y abigarrada terminal del metro de Kőbánya-Kispest en Budapest, aunque mucho mayor y mucho más interesante. En los embarcaderos un gentío entra y sale de las barcas; a los lados, quioscos donde se vende kebab y te, y los espacios libres se llenan de un inacabable mercadillo donde se vende cualquier cosa, desde uva fresca hasta chalecos de piel de cordero o zapatos chinos. Pero lo que más nos atrae son los pequeños botes amarrados a lo largo del muelle entre los grandes transbordadores. Allí, zarandeados por las olas de un modo que marea con solo mirarlos, tres o cuatro hombres fríen pescado a puñados. El dueño, de pie en el muelle, publicita la vianda a voz en grito y toma ritmicamente, con una mano, el pescado frito dispuesto sobre una rebanada de pan en hojas de lechuga mientras, con la otra mano, cobra tres liras. En todo el recorrido hay una especie de taburetes de plástico con zumo de limón y sal, y pequeños asientos alrededor. Nos aposentamos en uno libre, disfrutando la magnífica cena, contemplando el vaivén de la gente, el movimiento de los transbordadores, el baile de las luces de la ciudad sobre el agua oscura de la bahía del Cuerno de Oro.

La tarde siguiente, tras un día entero paseando, empapados de los colores y la vivacidad de Estambul, esperamos de nuevo aquí el transborador que nos lleve a la orilla asiática. El último parte a las siete y diez al muelle de Haydarpaşa. Después de esta hora solo hay transbordos a Kadiköy, mucho más al sur, desde donde se tarda veinte minutos en llegar a la estación. Y esto, con la atiborrada mochila que llevo a las espaldas, prefiero evitarlo. De camino al ferry hacemos la compra para los tres días de viaje en el pequeño supermercado cercano a la ensenada. El dependiente me observa con desconfianza merodear entre los mostradores cargado con la enorme mochila y dar instrucciones a mi cómplice en una lengua extraña. Para rebajar la tensión quiero preguntarle dónde puedo encontrar queso de cabra, pero la palabra para “cabra” no me viene a la mente a pesar de que en turco es casi la misma que en húngaro: kechi. Entonces, pruebo a dar unos balidos de cabra. Su rostro se relaja en una sonrisa, agita la cabeza negativamente y señala una gran bandeja con un hermoso queso blanco mientras suelta un matizado balido de oveja. Y luego queda balando durante un buen rato. Dimos con nuestro idioma común. Se rompió el hielo.

El viaje transcontinental dura un cuarto de hora y cuesta una lira con treinta (cerca de ochenta céntimos de euro). Subimos a bordo y vemos alejarse las luces de la ciudad coronada por la Mezquita de Solimán. A nuestro lado parlotean dos muchachas en edad escolar que de tanto en tanto nos lanzan miradas furtivas intentando adivinar nuestra lengua. Al fin, cerca ya del muelle, una de ellas se arma de valor y “Was für eine Sprache sprechen Sie? Deutsch?” lanza su pregunta. Absurda, porque si sabe tanto alemán, debe haber percibido claramente que nosotros no hablamos alemán. Hablamos húngaro, le digo en turco. Nos corresponden con una risa y, más tarde, desde el muelle nos saludan agitando las manos. Les respondo también agitando la mano.

La inscripción arábiga provoca extrañeza sobre la alicatada fachada Jugendstil de la estación de Haydarpaşa, que recuerda el castillo de un caballero germánico. De hecho, este edificio con el aire de la Monarquía es también un elemento extraño aquí, en el este. La ciudad lo recibió en 1908 como presente del Káiser Guillermo, una estación central del ferrocarril Berlín-Estambul-Bagdad construida por los alemanes que ya habían llegado tan allá como hasta Urfa cuando los británicos, alterados por la expansión germana, desataron la Primera Guerra Mundial. El ferrocarril que tenía que introducir la civilización europea hasta las fronteras de Persia y Siria nunca se acabó. Muchas décadas más tarde se abrió un línea de enlace hacia Bagdad desde Gaziantep, en el ramal kurdo de la via, donde desde 2003, cuando los americanos llevaron su propia civilización a Iraq, el tráfico está cortado.

El restaurante ferroviario donde nos instalamos durante las tres o cuatro horas que faltaban para la partida hubiera podido estar en cualquier estación de la Monarquía. Alto techo con decoración de estuco, largas cortinas blancas, mesas blancas notablemente bien dispuestas, estampas enmarcadas en las paredes pintadas al óleo, un mostrador barroco, camareros de traje negro y cerveza, mucha cerveza. Escogimos con cuidado un sitio al lado de la puerta trasera que daba directamente al mar. Y cuando logramos subrepticiamente abrir la puerta, una fresca corriente marina se colaba dentro. Tal cosa no podría encontrarse en la Monarquía.

Señalamos algunos apetitosos platos de verduras sobre el mostrador, de los que no conocíamos el nombre. Berenjena frita, sopa espesa, ensalada, salsa picante, melón. Una cena palaciega. Comemos despacio, encargando nuevos platos “como el que tienen en aquella mesa” y, animados por el genius loci, pedimos cerveza, el primer trago de cerveza en Estambul.

Cerveza turca para la colección de John

Hacia las nueve de la noche, poco a poco la parroquia se hace más numerosa. Ya están ocupadas todas las mesas. Encienden el televisor bajo el mapa de las líneas férreas y enfocan también un proyector sobre la gran pared vacía, frente al campo de visión del león blanco. De repente todos miran los televisores. La transmisión que daba continuamente imágenes del choque entre los kurdos y el ejército turco en la frontera iraquí cambia ahora a noticias deportivas y suponemos que va a empezar pronto un partido de fútbol.

Alrededor de las diez menos cuarto empieza el partido de Copa de Europa Beşiktaş-Liverpool. La audiencia lo sigue con una tensa atención comentando sin cesar los avatares pero, al contrario que los húngaros, no siguen las acciones con alaridos sino con sobrios apuntes estratégicos. Llega más y más gente, las sillas se aprietan alrededor de las mesas y se empieza a pedir rakis para acompañar las cervezas. Solo entonces descubro qué es lo que tiene el león blanco bajo una de sus garras: un balón de fútbol.

Los turcos están jugando bien. “Dentro de diez minutos tenemos que subir al tren, hasta entonces no estaría mal celebrar un hermoso gol después de tan gran cena”, digo. Pasan pocos minutos, es el decimotercero del partido, y los ingleses reciben el primer gol. Los fans del Beşiktaş, como pudimos leer más tarde, marcaron el récord mundial del aullido más fuerte nunca registrado, con 132 decibelios. Ahora sí que nos podemos ir.

A Train to Persia

The Trans-Asia Express leaves from Istanbul to Tehran once a week, on Wednesday night, five minutes to eleven from the Haydarpaşa station. According to its schedule published in the site of the Turkish State Railways it arrives early in the morning to Ankara, then passes through the Anatolian Plateau, and in the third day about noon it arrives to Lake Van in Eastern Turkey. Here the passengers take a ferryboat that cuts across the hundred kilometers between the harbors of Tatvan and Van in seven hours, during which they can also admire a beautiful sunset above the lake encircled by the belt of the majestic Anatolian mountains. On the other side they are attended by the Persian train that in the night passes through the Iranian border, in the early morning stops in Tabriz, and arrives to Tehran in the evening of the fourth day. The ticket for the two thousand kilometers long journey costs 50 euros, sleeper and ferry included.

The track can be well seen on the map of the Turkish railway system fixed on the top of the television in the Istanbul railway restaurant. Starting from point 1 and traveling through line 2, after point 4 (Sivas) we change for the Kurdish siding-line that takes us to Lake Van at the right side of the map and after the lake passes us over to the Persian State Railways.

Whoever is willing to dedicate these 66 hours (according the official schedule, but in reality rather 80 hours) to the railways in the interest of a slow, gradual arrival to Persia instead of the 40 hours of bus travel or the few hours of an air flight, can read further information on the Iranian page of The author among other things informs us that we can also secure a ticket in advance for 59 euro in some Istanbul travel agencies, and he sincerely confesses that “seat61 gets a small commission” if we mention who directed us to them.

We were not so farsighted. There were so many things to organize, papers to settle, works to close before leaving that there was no time left for booking the tickets. We thought that being pretty much beyond the tourist season, there will be plenty of empty seats in the train, and it will be enough to buy the tickets in Istanbul.

In Istanbul, however, nobody knows where the tickets are sold for this train about which no living person has ever heard. Such trains are only taken by old English gentlemen in search of the scenes of their youth, Polish itinerant vendors and adventuresome backpackers, but never by Turkish people. In our hotel, the cheap and cosy Sultan’s Inn (at the lower border of the map, in the Sultanahmet district) of which I will also speak more amply later, the young receptionist desperately called the travel agencies known to him, but he only could have secured a ticket to Tatvan, the railhead of the Turkish line. As to how we will make the other thousand kilometers from there – “inshallah” he threw up his hands, it is already the domain of the Shi'ite Allah, not of the Sunni one.

The international booking office of the Haydarpaşa station on the other, Asian shore of the Sea of Marmara is already closed in the evening. Thus we set out in the Istanbul dusk, questioning travel agencies in the street of the Blue Mosque, until in the Backpackers office we are given the tip to go to the Sirkeci station, the terminus of the European railway lines (at the upper edge of the map), where tickets are sold even at this late hour, and yes, for Asian lines as well.

We amble along in the drizzling evening on Babiali Caddesi, the north-southern crossing road to the railway station. In the glass-fronted ticket office a girl is speaking by phone and an older gentleman is having a supper from a half-opened drawer. We pick out the girl so that we would not disturb the gentleman, but then it appears that we should have done just the opposite, as he turns out to be the international ticket office. He serves us with a proportionate annoyance, as if he regarded it as a personal offense that we want to travel to such an impossible place. He distributes the basic informations in an offhand manner, it appears on him that he does not believe we seriously want to buy and that he would prefer to return to his drawer. In the meantime a Turkish gentleman forges ahead asking a ticket to some unknown destination. He is regarded as a serious customer, and the two men devotedly negotiate the possible alternatives. The serious customer pays in dollars.

A large number of folders stand in huge piles all over the desks. The gentleman rummages among them until he finds one that has to do with our train. Yes, they have ticket, namely one single empty sleeping compartment in all the train, all the other seats have been sold. This one was waiting for us! While we are pondering whether we should go back to the city to withdraw cash, he sits back behind his drawer so that time would not flow in vain. But then I risk the question whether we can pay with bank card. To our great surprise we can. From another drawer he fishes out a card reader, wipes the dust off it, and while he swallows the last bites, he withdraws from our card the 182 Turkish lira equivalent to 100 euro. In the meantime two Korean girls inquire me in broken Turkish about the time of departure of the train to Thessaloniki.

After the successful purchase we walk out to the nearby Eminönü coastline to learn from where the ferry departs tomorrow to the Haydarpaşa station. The row of landing-places and ticket offices rallying along the coast gives a familiar impression, as it is just like the good old jampacked metro terminus of Kőbánya-Kispest in Budapest, albeit much bigger and much more interesting. At the boarding places a large crowd flows out and in to the ships, along the entrances a large number of kiosks sell kebab and tea, and the spaces between the kiosks are filled up by a continuous street market where one can find everything from fresh grape to sheepskin waistcoat and Chinese shoes. But the most exciting feature are the small boats hauled alongside the quay between the big ferries on which, in the middle of the swell of the sea so that it is a seasickness just to look at it, three or four men fry small fishes by the dozens. Their agent standing on the quay advertises the stuff in a loud voice, routinely taking over from the boat the fried fish put in a fresh bread between green leaves with one hand and the three lira for it with the other. Along the boats there are some plastic stools with lemon juice and salt on them and with small seats around them. We plant ourselves to a free place, enjoying the magnificent dinner, watching the swarming crowd, the departing ferries, and the glimmer of the lights of the city on the dark water of the Golden Horn Bay.

On the following evening, after a whole day spent by walking and completely filled with the colors and vivacity of the city, here we wait for the ferry to take us over to the Asian shore. The last ferry leaves at 7:10 to the Haypdarpaşa pier. After this time there are only ferries to the much more southward Kadiköy from where it takes twenty minutes to walk up to the station, and with the crammed backpack I have no desire to do so. On the way to the ferry we did our shopping for the three days travel in the small supermarket near to the haven. The salesman watched me with mistrust as I was tottering with the enormous sack on my back between the gondolas and giving instructions in an unknown language to my accomplice. In order to ease the tension I want to ask him where I can find goat cheese, but the name of the goat does not come to my mind, although in Turkish it is almost the same as in Hungarian: kechi. Therefore I’m maaing instead. His face relaxes into a smile, shakes his head, points on a large tray of beautiful white cheese and he’s baaing for a long time. We have found the common language. The ice is broken.

The transcontinental voyage lasts for a quarter of an hour and it costs 1.30 lira (about 80 eurocents). We go up on the shipboard and from there we are watching the withdrawing ligths of the City crowned by the illuminated Suleiman Mosque. At our side two schoolgirls are chatting, and from time to time casting a furtive look at us, trying to identify our language. Finally, when nearing to the pier, one of them summons up her courage and “Was für eine Sprache sprechen Sie? Deutsch?” she puts the absurd question, for if she knows German this much then she should clearly hear that we are not speaking in German. We are speaking in Hungarian, I tell her in Turkish. They greet us with a laugh, and later when turning back in the pier I see that they are waving their hands to us. I wave my hands back to them.

The Arabic inscription gives a strange impression on the tile-covered Jugendstil facade of the Haydarpaşa station reminding of a German knight’s castle. In fact, this building of the atmosphere of the Monarchy is also a strange feature here, in the East. The city received it in 1908 as a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm, a central station of the Berlin-Istanbul-Baghdad railway built by the Germans which already arrived as far as Urfa when the English, shocked by the German expansion, unleashed the first World War. The railway that could have brought the European civilization as far as the Persian and Syrian borders, has never been completed. Many decades later a junction line was opened towards Baghdad from Gaziantep on the Kurdish rail spur, on which since 2003, when the Americans brought their own civilization to Iraq, the traffic is suspended.

The railway restaurant where we plant ourselves for the three-four hours remaining until departure could also be at any station of the Monarchy. Stucco-decorated high ceiling, long white curtains, carefully laid white tables, framed prints on the walls painted with oil, a Baroque style barman’s counter, waiters in black suit, and beer, much beer. We carefully choose our place by the side of the back door that directly opens to the sea, and when we manage to imperceptibly open it, fresh sea air streams in. Such thing cannot be found in the Monarchy.

We point at some appetizing vegetable plates on the counter of which we do not even know the name. Fried eggplant, thick soup, salad, hot sauce, muskmelon. The dinner is majestic. We eat slowly, asking for new plates, “the one they are having at the other table” and, inspired by the genius loci, we order beer, the very first time in Istanbul.

Turkish beer for the collection of John

Around nine in the evening the audience slowly begins to get thicker, already all the tables are full. They also switch on the bigger TV under the railway map, and they direct a projector on the large empty wall in the field of sight of the white lion. By this time already everyone is watching the TVs. The transmission that thus far continuously broadcasted the images of the collision between the Turkish army and the Kurds on the Iraqi border now changes for sport advertisements, and we realize that soon they will televise a football match.

At about a quarter before ten the Beşiktaş-Liverpool European Champions League match begins. The audience follows it with a tense attention, continuously commenting the developments, and, in contrast to Hungarians, following the actions not with shouting but with sober strategic footnotes. More and more people are arriving, the seats at the tables are pushed together, rakis are ordered with the new beers. Just then I discover what the white lion is keeping in his hands: a soccer ball.

The Turks are playing beautifully. “Ten minutes later we have to go to the train, until then we could get a nice goal after the good dinner, really,” I say. Some minutes later, in the thirteenth minute of the match, the English receive their first goal, and the Beşiktaş fans, as we read later, produce a world record of football’s loudest ever level with 132 decibels. Now we can go.