A rail link be­tween Europe and Asia

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 -

ME­LANIE PETERS

AN OT­TOMAN sultan’s 150-year-old dream was re­alised the day we ar­rived in Is­tan­bul.

It makes front page head­lines in the Turk­ish news­pa­pers and in the in­ter­na­tional press. Al­though the last sultan ruled in the early 1900s, in true Ot­toman style – the new­est chap­ter to the coun­try’s 3000 his­tory books – is grand.

The Mar­maray is a high-speed rail link un­der­neath the Bospho­rus Strait. The Turk­ish cap­i­tal strad­dles two con­ti­nents, and the new rail­way links its Asian and Euro­pean shores. It takes its name from the nearby Sea of Mar­mara, with “ray” be­ing the Turk­ish word for rail.

It is the deep­est of its kind and is a world first in con­nect­ing two con­ti­nents. It is de­signed to with­stand earth­quakes and it will help ease the traf­fic on the two bridges, used by about two mil­lion peo­ple cross­ing the Bospho­rus ev­ery day.

We took a joyride on this im­pres­sive feat, join­ing hun­dreds of cu­ri­ous lo­cals mak­ing use of the gov­ern­ment’s two-week no-pay of­fer. It took us just four min­utes to cross – short enough to pre­vent my over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tion get­ting caught up in a Hol­ly­wood Po­sei­don-style ad­ven­ture.

Work on the link be­gan nine years ago but ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions de­layed con­struc­tion for four years when work­ers dug up an­cient arte­facts, repli­cas of which are on ex­hi­bi­tion at one of the sta­tions. In the­ory it brings closer the day when it will be pos­si­ble to travel from Lon­don to Bei­jing via Is­tan­bul by train.

I could just imag­ine the likes of Jamie Oliver us­ing this mod­ern in­car­na­tion of the leg­endary Silk Road to shop at the fresh food mar­ket we dis­cov­ered on the Asian side.

Here, life slows down to a stroll. In the mar­ket, glis­ten­ing fish are stacked on ice. Thick slices of Nor­we­gian salmon vie with a pile of crab nip­ping to get away.

Butch­ers dis­play cuts of meat, and car­casses hang from hooks. One store of­fers crates of veg­eta­bles. Across the cob­bled street a gro­cer dis­plays a myr­iad olives in sacks. Dried chill­ies, aubergines and pep­pers – used to make a stock, the gro­cer ex­plains – are strung up like bells at the en­trance to the store.

Next door at a con­fec­tionery bak- ers put out rows of en­tic­ing pas­tries and sweet treats. I mill about tak­ing in life in Usku­dar, one of the more con­ser­va­tive neigh­bour­hoods. It has fewer bars and more tea gar­dens and is home to 180 mosques.

Watch­ing peo­ple is my favourite pas­time. I see friends meet­ing for a cup of Turk­ish cof­fee and cou­ples do­ing their weekly shop­ping. Be­fore I get too en­grossed some­one from our group sig­nals that its time for our jour­ney back to Europe.

It is only when I’m back in Cape Town that I learn of some of the hic­cups the rail sys­tem ex­pe­ri­enced in its first few days. A YouTube video shows scores of pas­sen­gers leav­ing a stopped train and walk­ing along the tube. If I had known this I might not have been so keen to make the trip be­neath the rush­ing waters.

JOYRIDE: The Mar­maray is a high-speed rail link un­der­neath the Bospho­rus Strait.

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