The train from Selçuk left quite early in the morning, so we left the pension house with plenty of time to make the walk across town the station. We’d bought our tickets the day before, we knew where to go.
Once on the platform we were surprised to see a lot of other backpackers loitering, waiting for the same train. Surprised because in the two or three days we had spent in the town, we’d seen little or no sign of many others; apart from within the heaving ruins of Ephesus, but we’d assumed most of those were coach parties only there for the day.
Our train was late. When it finally rolled in, a claggy, dirty diesel locomotive pulling a shabby collection of eight or so coaches, there was the usual mad rush to get aboard. Once inside, we could see why. The train was heaving with people, every seat was occupied, in some cases by two people. We stood despondently in the corridor and wondered how long it would take to cross a large chunk of western Turkey on this bucket of bolts, and whether we’d have to stand up all the way.
Sitting on the floor was not really an option, because the toilet just a few feet down the corridor had leaked, spreading foul-smelling gunk everywhere. The floor surface was sticky underfoot, and we kept our noses close to the window to avoid the smell.
The train pulled away from Selçuk, a town where we’d enjoyed a fantastic Turkish bath together, several delicious meals, and one minor argument. It sped up into mountains and seemed to be making good progress, when suddenly there was a jolt and the carriages slowed. We coasted for several dozens of metres and rolled to a stop. For several minutes nothing happened. Then the sound of shouts, another jolt, and we heard the diesel engine of the locomotive chugging away once again. The only problem was, we weren’t moving.
Lots of people stuck their heads out of windows and doors. The locomotive was tearing away up the track, carriage-less, leaving all eight passenger cars sitting on a remote section of track halfway up a Turkish mountain. The reaction from all the Turkish passengers was to immediately open all the doors, jump down on to the track and light up a cigarette. Hundreds of men and women were milling around the abandoned train, smoking and talking. We stayed on the train, partly terrified that another train might woosh past at any moment, partly hoping that in the rush to get back on board, we might be able to snag a pair of seats.
Not that we had any idea how long we would be waiting. The loco had disappeared, and while none of our companions, Turkish or fellow backpackers, had any idea where it had gone or why, no-one seemed terribly troubled. Perhaps this is normal on Turkish rail services.
We waited in the heat, and after an hour or so, the loco could be heard coming back. Hundreds of fags were stubbed out on the trackside and people flowed back on board, instantly filling every available seat once more. We were still out in the corridor when, after some more jolts as the loco re-attached itself, we set off once more.
Our destination was Denizli, an unremarkable town, but close to where we really wanted to go: Pamukkale, home of the world famous calcium carbonate deposits, a huge cliff of salt. We had no idea how long the journey would take, and soon found that most stations had no signs on the platforms to identify themselves. Usually there was just a strip of concrete by the track, next to which the train would halt for a few minutes. We got into the habit of asking Turkish passengers if this was Denizli, and every time they laughed and said no.
After some hours of discomfort a small girl approached us. She said nothing, but beckoned us to follow. Bemused, we followed her into the next carriage where she pointed to two empty seats. Delighted and thankful, we sat down in them. The girl sat down in another seat opposite us, eyeing us up. Next to her was a huge woman dressed entirely in traditional all-black Muslim style, glaring at us with a very stern expression. We shrank away from her gaze, smiled pathetically, and turned to look out the window in an effort to hide our discomfort.
Time passed. The stern woman reached into a bag and pulled out a bunch of small cucumbers and a sharp knife. With practised fingers, she peeled each cucumber and cut it into fingerfood-sized strips. She gave one to the little girl, kept one for herself, then, her expression still as stern as ever, offered two more to us.
Astonished and grateful, we accepted the fruit and munched happily, enjoying the refreshing watery taste. We made expressive and repeated attempts to say “thank you”, but the stern woman said nothing and continued to regard us as though we were the naughtiest children she had ever known.
Hours after we’d hoped to arrive, we stepped off the train in Denizli, and TipTop crashed into us.
He was about 19, with short dark hair and a fantastic white smile. His father owned a guest house in Pamukkale, and it was TipTop’s job to hang around the train and coach stations in Denizli and pick up customers. TipTop spotted us as we got off the train, and rushed to be the first person to offer us somewhere to stay – the platform was full of these touts looking for business, all competing with eachother. I was hugely suspicious at first. I’d spent some of the journey looking through our copy of Lonely Planet and had picked out a few places I might want to stay. TipTop saw me glance at the book.
“Ah, Lonely Planet! My house in there! Look!” He grabbed the paperback from my hands and flicked expertly to the right page, stabbing his finger on the entry.
“See! My house. Come with me. We have lovely rooms, air conditioned!”
He won us over, and soon we were accompanying him in a crowded bus up to Pamukkale. The “air conditioning” he’d promised turned out to be a corner room with two windows – he grinned as he showed us this, delighting in his joke – but he was right, it was a lovely room, in a quiet but central spot. The guest house had a small pool fed by springwater from the cotton cliffs towering above the village.
In the dining room sat TipTop’s father on an executive leather chair, always smoking and watching in a state of resigned despair as his family caused mayhem around him. Presiding over the kitchen, and producing delicious food, was the eldest daughter. A much younger child, a little girl, ran screaming around the place. TipTop lounged around between bouts of crazed oneupmanship against his friends. One evening, while we were eating, he and several friends tried leaping out of the first-floor window of the dining room and into the pool below. Yelling and shouting, their joy was infectious.
And the amazing cliffs of Pamukkale worked magic on us. We were dumbfounded by the beauty of this place, and shivered as we watched the sun set over the mountains, our trousers rolled up and our toes dipped in the cool water of a little pool near the top of the rocks. Later, we strolled down to the guest house and swam in the pool. In the dining room above, we could hear the family larking about and enjoying themselves.
This, we decided, was worth every minute of the bizarre train journey.