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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Turkey

Modern Caravanserai
Rachael Pettus

Throughout Turkey, during out three month road-trip, we camped on service station forecourts. Hotels and campsites made inroads into small resources, so for security, convenience, and economy, not to mention more than a touch of the colour and camaraderie of the road, time and again we found that highway fuel stations were the best places to sleep.

Before tarred roads and the internal combustion engine shrank the great distances of Asia Minor to no more than a few days’ hard driving, people travelled on foot with animals. They covered roughly seventy kilometres each day and stayed at the inns, khans, and caravanserais whose jumbled or stately remains dot the Turkish landscape along the main overland routes.

The inns of old followed a square plan. Their massive walls contained rooms, kitchen, refectory, and stabling, with a mosque and fresh water cisterns in a central courtyard. If all the rooms were taken, merchants bedded down with their saddlery or among their animals. No one was turned away, and no tariff was charged for a stay of two or three days.
What colourful scenes must have taken place each evening as the caravans settled themselves before the innkeeper bolted the gate for the night... What a clamour must have risen as horses, mules, and camels snorted over their evening feed, and travellers greeted each other, bargained, and told stories...

Modern transport may have brought the era of great inns to a close, but travellers still need rest, and their beasts of burden – fuel tankers, trucks, tractors and cars – still need tending. Thus, the service station has become much more than a place to buy fuel. All things to Turkey’s 20th Century road travellers, it has become the modern caravanserai.
Merchants with laden pack animals no longer stride up to great ornate doorways. Instead they roll onto cement forecourts on eight, twelve, or eighteen wheels, their steeds snorting black clouds of diesel smoke. They dismount and slam the doors and kick the tyres. Then they head to the restaurant for quick refreshment before hitting the road again.

At around four o’clock Barbie and I usually started looking for a suitable fuel station. Our criteria were simple: the forecourt had to be big enough to give us some privacy, we liked a grove of trees for morning shade, and the cleaner the place, the better.

No company had consistently better stations. The foreign concerns, Mobil, Shell, and BP were the most frequent in the western two-thirds of Turkey, and their stations on the truck routes approached palatial. But Petrol Offizi and Turk Petrol were the two local stand-bys, and because of their numbers in the eastern third of the country, they were most frequently our hosts.

Our first night back in Turkey after our visit to Northern Cyprus, we passed three stations before deciding on Petrol Offizi, parked near some trees with the nose of the van facing out just in case a quick get-away was in order, washed off the dust, and enjoyed a soothing cup of tea in the day’s last sunlight.

Evening brought a winding down to the heavy freight traffic on the E90, the international truck route which runs along the Syrian border. One by one, drivers stopped for a rest.

An eighteen-wheeler from an Istanbul transport company parked thirty metres from us. Two tankers, so stained with road dirt that their bold red and white lettering was barely legible, stopped beside the water hose. A Man Diesel, workhorse of the Turkish roads, its bulging cargo covered by tarpaulins, wheezed up to one of the bowzers; and, most comical in appearance, a black market fuel runner from Iraq, open tray groaning and both the three-thousand litre fuel tanks bolted and strapped behind the cab nearly scraping the cement, ground to a halt beside a Damascus-bound Hungaro-Camion that had arrived half-an-hour before.

The drivers passed us on their way to the restaurant. Some smiled, some ignored us. Sometimes their curiosity made them look twice at our sleek, metallic-beige Hi Ace. They never bothered us. They simply accepted us, and sometimes invited us for a glass of tea. We believed that if we ever needed help, we could ask for it in complete confidence.
Likewise the attendants. From politeness we always asked if we could stay, but no one ever refused. With rare exceptions, they brought us tea, asked where we were from and where we are going, carried our water bottle, and treated us with immaculate courtesy. They often presented us with gifts: bowls of fresh fruit, pitchers of cold water, boxes of tissues, breakfast. We once ran over a roll of wire, which tangled in the back axel and wheel. Within two minutes, five young men arrived with a trolley-jack. They raised the van, removed the wheel, cut the wire, replaced the wheel, and, smilingly wished us ‘Bon Voyage’.

The fuel stations were self-contained. At one end of all forecourts, bright and new or tumbledown, depending on the prosperity of the place, stood a shed marked ‘Oto Lastik’. There, blackened tyre mechanics wielded tyre levers and wrestled with lengths of pipe attached to the huge spanners needed for the lug nuts of truck wheels. Next door was usually the ‘Oto Lektrik’ – a cavern of wires and cables, switches and bulbs. The pits and mechanics sheds were nearby.

The other side of the office and automotive shop catered to the human clientele. The restaurant, heated in the winter by a wood burning or kerosene stove, might be plush enough for tablecloths and polished glassware. Or it might be more basic, with rickety chairs, ill-matched cutlery, and a floor that had escaped the attentions of a broom for a while.
The washrooms were usually around the back, and only once were they bad enough for us to turn to each other and say "Let’s find somewhere else!" The toilets were always the hole-in-the-floor variety, and there was never any paper, but we learned early to bring our own. Sometimes we really lucked out and found a station with a hot shower.
The mosque, if there was one, was at the far end. Sometimes domed, ornate, and painted, a crescent silhouetted on its highest point; sometimes it was a simple shed with a hand-lettered sign.

I rarely saw anybody use a fuel-station mosque, although God plays an important role in the Turkish driving life. We lost track of the number of trucks with ‘Allah Korusan’ or ‘MashAllah’ – ‘God Protect Me’ emblazoned across the cab. "Insh’Allah!" – ‘God Willing’ – drivers always said when we asked if they will reach their destinations on time, and ‘HamdulAllah!’ -- ‘Praise be to the name of God’– they exclaimed as they unfolded themselves, limb by limb, from their cabs

At least one truck stop on the oil-sodden stretch of highway between Gazientep and Sanliurfa had a swimming pool. Drivers lined up for shorts, and leaped with cries of abandon into the water. "I’ll clear the pool for you if you want to swim," the owner promised us as he led us past on the way to his office. "I will send them all back to their trucks or to the café and you can have the water to yourselves!" But the thought of banishing fifty maniacally grinning truck drivers from the source of their almost childlike glee was too much for us to bear, and we assured him that we really didn’t need a swim after all. The splashing continued until well after dark.

But that night’s Petrol Ofizi had no such luxuries. One by one, their breaks over, the drivers returned to their trucks. Overland transport was no longer a matter of seventy-kilometre stages. The trucks rolled through the night, with the drivers grabbing a few hours’ sleep when they can. Istanbul to the Syrian border was a three-day haul on the international route, and time was money.

Throughout the night grinding gears, shrieking brakes, and the revving of heavy diesel engines punctuated our dreams. In the morning we were boxed in. Two semis parked one each side of us during the night, and a red ‘work-horse’ angled in front. The drivers were still sleeping, their blanket-huddled shapes just visible inside the high cabs. We filled our water bottle in the café and the weary attendant, about to finish his night shift, managed a smile.

By the time we had washed-up and packed, the truckers were ready to roll. We headed for the road in convoy, then separated; we for a day of exploration, a few more miles, a few more experiences to add to the Turkey Overland journal, they for hours of gruelling driving through the Kurdish mountain passes where snow still lay in the hollows, or over the wheat-gold plain.

With double blasts on their air-horns, the semis left us, and we headed east, knowing that whatever happened during the day, in all probability dusk would find us parked again on the forecourt of a Modern Caravanserai.

© Rachael Pettus January 2009
rachael at

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