Route less travelled

Besides being arguably the most convenient form of transportation, and the most trust-inspiring in a city of overwhelming traffic and baffling roads, shared taxis add another level of flavor to Istanbul. Each dolmuş is as unique as one of Istanbul’s disparate neighborhoods, reflecting the personality of a driver whose understanding of the city is second to none.

text by Rachel Mollman | photos by Barbaros Kayan for BRIDGE
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There is at least one Turkish institution that never fails, come rain, shine or suffocating traffic. “We were always here, but sometimes we were taking off from behind Gezi Park,” a dolmuş driver assured in the shadow of the empty Atatürk Cultural Center in Taksim Square. His dolmuş, or shared taxi was surrounded by police vehicles. Even the Gezi Park protests, which drove all traffic out of the square for days, did nothing more than move the dolmuş stop a block away.

The dolmuş driver’s livelihood is built around understanding the complexities of the city. “Istanbul traffic doesn’t end but we are used to it, so it doesn’t really affect us much,” says driver Necdet Güreşçi, who travelled to İstanbul from his hometown of Van in Eastern Turkey in 1988. He soon after bought a dolmuş and began a career that fulfilled a love of driving he fostered since childhood. The demonstrations affected him about about as much as daily traffic. Even such large scale events roll over dolmuş drivers like our dolmuş sped over the Bosporus Bridge to the Anatolian shore.

“Would you like some Turkish tea?” he stops to ask as we arrived in Bostancı. “I have been using that bridge for 20 years and I cross it at least four times a day,” he continues, stirring sugar into his tea as he waited for his turn to welcome passengers heading back to Taksim. He knows his route more intimately than most who have lived in the city their whole lives. “I can use shortcuts to arrive in 40-45 minutes, an hour at most, when it would take others two hours.”

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Master transit

Shared cabs are historically associated with important districts and they remain convenient anywhere worth being in Istanbul, all day and night. According to the city’s transportation authority İETT there are 572 dolmuş taxis on active duty in istanbul and 110,000 people use them each day. “Our passengers end up waiting for us,” says a driver named Murat, one of 38 drivers operating the Taksim-Bakırköy route. Like 32 of his colleagues, he is from Mardin, and many are relatives. “I take a dolmuş every day. It’s the most comfortable and convenient option,” smiles a bespectacled teacher in the middle seat of the seven-passenger van.

The organization of dolmuş taxis and routes is as comfortable as the ride and dependable as the vans themselves. Schedules are flexible to accommodate changes, though the routes have remained stable for years, weaving easily around construction and road-blocking events. “We organize everything ourselves. We can have one or two, three, even four days off if we wish,” says driver Emre Ölmez. “But we have eight dolmuşes here, in the same order, every single day.”

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This level of freedom without compromising on service is made possible by the independent nature of the dolmuş stand. “My brother has been on this route for 25 years. We either own our own cars, or our relatives own them, in fact most of us are related,” says Ölmez, whose family is originally from Sivas in Central Anatolia. Ölmez has been driving the Taksim-Teşvikiye route for 13 years, and he would not have it any other way. “This is not a place just for Turks, but a more worldly neighborhood,” he says, explaining that pedestrians rule in the high-end shopping district. They hardly notice they are blocking streets as they jaunt around carrying bags from brand name boutiques. “You get used to a place and its people. I wouldn’t be able to drive on another route.”

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Getting your fill

The routes may be unaltered for years, but the dolmuş is not an antiquated mode of transport. “We all had old vehicles before ‘94, but there were some problems. They had no air conditioners and it eventually got so that you could no longer find replacement parts,” Güreşçi explains. The modern dolmuş he drives, which is owned by a friend, is more reliable.

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One of the beauties of a dolmuş is that everyone gets a seat. Even the word dolmuş, which translated to “filled” in Turkish, suggests just the right amount. Dolmuş drivers are in tune with their typical customers. “I listen to the news, or folk music, but very quietly so as not to disturb my passengers,” he notes. Murat agrees. Ölmez and his clientele prefer foreign music, particularly Virgin Radio.

Many dolmuşes are decked out with sentimental objects, elaborate seat covers, evil eye beads and banners of the driver’s favorite football team. Some are are homey and warm, some sleek and stylish, while others straddle the line between machine and flea market. “I like to decorate my car,” explains a driver from Mersin known only by his nickname of Çöpşek. “I have these eagle pins and evil eye beads. They don’t mean anything. It’s just for visual effect,” he adds, pointing to myriad knickknacks on the dash and some large fake gemstones adorning the roof.

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“I don’t like a lot of decorations in my dolmuş. I have my car, I have my evil eye and that’s enough,” Güreşçi explains. He keeps a small model of a car similar to his first dolmuş on the dash bearing a sticker of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s signature and covered with an embroidered towel. “I prefer simplicity.”

Emre Ölmez

In perfectly shined shoes and a blazer, Emre Ölmez is as well dressed as his passengers travelling from the high-end shopping district of Teşvikiye to Taksim. He unfailingly sports a ring emblazoned with the Ottoman sultan’s seal, an intense gaze and a thick, groomed mustache. His dashboard sports a Turkish flag.

Murat

Murat is a driver because his family owns several dolmuşes. He says his route is one of the busiest and there are always passengers lined up and waiting, although there are 38 dolmuşes. He prefers to listen to folk music but is open to requests as he barrels down the coastal road from Taksim to Bakırköy each day.

Necdet Güreşçi

Necdet Güreşçi’s prayer beads clatter against his steering wheel as he drives from Bostancı to Taksim and back over the Bosporus Bridge. He says an old boss brought them from Erzururm as a gift. The soft-spoken driver in oblong sunglasses has loved cars since he was a boy growing up in the Eastern province of Van.

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