6:33 am. The lights of the early morning metro can be seen rounding the last turn into the station at Üsküdar. You can bet on it. Each morning it arrives on time like clockwork, every ten minutes. Later, during peak times it runs every five minutes.
You can almost bet on the commuters as well. We proud band of early risers who each day arrive at the platform, waiting for the 6:33, are nearly the same to a man and woman. We’re all there for the same reason, to get the Marmaray, the world’s deepest underground metro.
Built by a Turkish-Japanese consortium for a reported $4.5 billion, the high-speed Marmaray runs nearly 60 meters beneath the Bosphorus, shuttling passengers back and forth from the European and Asian side. How many? I checked: 226 million since it first opened in 2013, according to a report last year – more than 1 million people per week.
As you head into the station at that early hour, the vast city is still dark. The waters of the Bosphorus are murky, oil-dark, except for the lights of the city, and the first ferry boats are also up and running, taking their share of passengers back and forth between continents. In that lonely, dawn universe, you feel almost as if you have the whole city to yourself.
The escalators take us down to the platform. Already the other regulars are assembling, sleepily jockeying for position. We’re like a band of brothers and sisters. There is an unspoken bond-mixed-with-rivalry (who speaks at that time of the morning anyway?).
There’s Champ. Mid-forties, broad-shouldered, deep-chested Champ. Graying at the whiskers, staunch expression, deep-set eyes. Always dressed in work out gear. Beşiktaş team jacket, black Addidas jogging pants with the white stripes running down the side, black Addidas shoes. Perhaps he’s some high-level manager, or a dentist, or cop, or professor.
Then there’s Groucho. As you might expect, this middle-aged fellow somewhat resembles the late comic. Except in personality he seems to possess more of the Grouch end of that handle. Dark-suited, surly, his visage in a perpetual crouch, as if ready to spring. Most likely a mid-level accountant or bureaucrat.
Mousey is the lady of our group. She’s young, pale, bespectacled, always sporting a backpack. Short but surprisingly long-legged in her stride. She’ll pass you in a heartbeat. Perhaps she’s a student, third-year law, judging from her aggressive stride.
Finally, we have the President’s Brother. Dubbed so because he could, in appearance, almost pass for a close relation of Turkey’s president. Personality-wise he seems far more relaxed, urbane than his famous brother. Tall, rather regal, hands in the pockets of his long black coat. He never seems to be in a hurry, and prefers to stand on the train.
There are many others obviously, but these are the ones I notice each morning. We share the same position on the platform.
The others? They change a lot. They’re amateurs, daytrippers, once-in-a-whilers. They just follow the crowd (not that there’s much of a crowd at that hour), and stand wherever. They don’t know how to use the platform scientifically.
The thing, as we know, is to position yourself right in the middle of the platform, between the middle escalators. That way, when the metro finally arrives at the Yenikapı metro on the European side, ten minutes later, you are right next to the escalator. You can disembark immediately and start up the escalator, efficiently avoiding the inevitable gridlock that occurs with everyone getting on and off the train at once.
On board, the interior is bright and virtually empty. We have our choice of seats. Later, it will be packed shoulder to shoulder, jammed with late risers, hurrying to get to work; luggage-carrying families bound for the airport; possible pickpockets hoping to capitalize on the huddled, distracted masses.
The journey begins.
Everyone is quiet all up and down the cars. A few people read books (you still see a few of the paperback variety, but even here many have adopted Kindle), while others prefer their iPods, or play games on their phones. Others doze, rocking back and forth, as the roar of the train echoes through the tunnel.
By and large, the actual riding experience is no different from any other subway, I’ve experienced, in New York or Rome or Prague, except when every now and then you stop and consider what lays outside that dark tube: the churning dark waters of the Bosphorus Strait.
Back when the Marmaray first opened, many Istanbullus, myself included, with vivid memories of earthquakes past and fears of earthquakes future, were extremely wary of hitching their fates to this train. Images of a sudden, cataclysmic slam, knocking everyone sideways, the tunnel splitting open, a Titanic-like set-up, commuters consigned to watery graves, came hauntingly to mind … Can you see the headline? HUGE ‘QUAKE HITS ISTANBUL,WORLD’S DEEPEST RAIL FLOODS, THOUSANDS DEAD
Actually, you don’t even think about it, any more than you do nuclear war or having your leg amputated by a Great White shark. You have to get to work, so you take the Marmaray. Sure, the ferryboats are nicer, more picturesque. But we’re not on holiday, and we’re not going directly to the center. We work in the “real Istanbul,” not the touristy one. For us, the ferry would involve us having to disembark and connect with the tram, then take the airport metro anyway. A waste of time.
Since the Marmaray came along, it has made getting back and forth from the two continents much more efficient for we daily commuters. Some say it has also reduced the city’s chronic traffic, but it depends on who you talk to, like many things.
Anyway, we regulars have developed a sort of morning ritual, a competition of sorts, to see who can get up the escalator first. There is no prize handed out, except the unspoken understanding that the winner owns the commute that particular day. Sounds small, I know, but in this city, sometimes you need every inch you can get.
As for Champ, he usually doesn’t settle for the escalator. Instead, he takes the stairs. He takes them two at a time, his knees high, his head bent low, breathing regularly, like Rocky Balboa ascending the Philadelphia museum steps. We’re proud of him, as we watch from our lazy, gliding escalator standpoint. (Except some mornings, the Champ settles for the escalator, too, to our great disappointment. “Come on, Champ!” we want to say. “That’s not the way to do it! Get up those stairs!”)
Groucho, on the other hand, is like a demon. He curls his dark mustache, fixes his eyes, dips his shoulder and sweeps right around you. He’d knock his infirmed grandmother out of the way to get on that escalator first, I tell you!
We used to take a shortcut at the top of the escalator, cutting over to the side where the inbound passengers are supposed to go – shaving two key minutes – and Groucho was a master of this short cut. Until the metro police finally put a stop to that. They erected a fence to prevent us from using the shortcut. Groucho had a fit when that happened. Cursing loudly, Groucho was so beside himself that it took the threat of three metro policemen combined to finally convince him (very reluctantly, mind you) that the short cut was no more.
“Tamam! Tamam! Tamam!” Groucho shouted, burying his chin in his chest. He took the loss of the shortcut as though being robbed of a Divine Right (I was with Groucho on that one: in this city, we Istanbullus view all short cuts as Divine Rights, not to be taken lightly).
Our lady, Mousey, like Champ, eschews the escalator. She’s classy that way. She doesn’t seem to hurry herself. Don’t be fooled. Those collegiate, nonchalant steps conceal the spring of a tiger. She passes the huffing Champ in an instant. Over on the escalator, the rest of us eye her progress worryingly, and try to press our escalator advantage. And yet, Mousey always seems to be right there whenever we get to the top.
(As for our other companion, the President’s Brother, is usually lost in this race. He probably considers it beneath his dignity to be caught up in such nonsense. He’s probably right, Bless him.)
At the top of the escalator, we reach the turnstyle. Here, you can either transfer to the Hacıosman metro, which takes you to Taksim and other places in the city center, or you can get the metro which goes to Ataturk airport. We all take the latter option. Passing through the turnstyle, the race continues as we make a beeline for the down escalator for the airport metro.
Like clockwork, every morning we arrive with precisely four minutes until the next train. Actually, there is a second train that will leave in 12 minutes. Mousey and Groucho, for some reason known only to themselves, opts to go and get the second train (my theory: they can maybe sit in the car and catch a few minutes’ sleep).
The Champ and I, meanwhile, board the same train, and we actually get off at the same stop. We’ve never actually spoken, so perhaps he does not know how I follow his training regimen with such intense interest.
As for the famous President’s Brother – well, sometimes he sits in our car and sometimes he opts for the other, in his dignified, high-minded way. Probably has official business of some kind.
Arriving at our various destinations, the doors of the train close, and the metro hurtles on, ready to deliver the next load of passengers to whatever share of destiny the day brings.
For a long time, I’ve played with the idea of a story about the Marmaray. Why? I suppose I was drawn to the image of a train speeding through the darkness, picking up all these ghostly passengers from all corners of the world. And I suppose we, too, the 6:33 crowd, are among those ghosts, materializing each morning from the dawn.
There was something romantic, yet modern about it, this still relatively new marvel, deep below the waves of the Bosphorus. Like its spiritual cousin, the Marmaray brings worlds and peoples together.
Anyway, come join us sometime on the 6:33, if you’re ever in Istanbul. If you’re up that early.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul.