Unnerving taxi ride in Istanbul

By: Doranne Jacobson
This item appears on page 24 of the June 2018 issue.

After weeks of touring Central Asia, my friend Scott and I stopped in fascinating Istanbul for a 3-day visit on our way home.

Despite gray skies and intermittent rain, on Oct. 25, 2017, we enjoyed our visits to the usual tourist sights, finishing with the Topkapı Palace complex. Afterward, Scott wanted to explore the Galata area while I wished to revisit the Grand Bazaar. Both of us are experienced travelers, so we split up.

It began to rain, and I was a bit tired after all our touring, so I hailed a yellow taxi cruising nearby to take me the relatively short distance to the Grand Bazaar. 

I asked the driver if he had a meter (our hotelier had warned us that taxi drivers who hang out near tourist attractions might try to overcharge tourists), and he showed me a number flashing red on the corner of his rear-view mirror. The initial charge appeared to be 4 Turkish liras (about $1), and I expected the fare to amount to a few dollars.

Instead of heading directly west through the narrow streets leading to the Grand Bazaar, the driver veered off to the south, ultimately speeding west along the Kennedy expressway that curves around the Old City. As watery expanses came into view, I realized that this was definitely the wrong way and spoke up to the driver, saying, “Grand Bazaar! Grand Bazaar!” 

I spoke no Turkish, and the driver’s English was halting, but he responded in a very mean tone that he knew exactly where he was going.

It dawned on me that I was being taken to an unknown destination. As a woman of senior years, fear began to grip me, as I knew that I would be no match for this 40-ish male driver with unknown intentions. 

I kept objecting, and finally he swerved off the expressway toward the city and stopped under a dimly lit underpass. The doors and windows of the taxi were firmly locked by buttons he controlled. He pointed to a stairway, indicating that it was the way to the Grand Bazaar — a complete falsehood. 

The driver clicked something, and the number 695 appeared on the rearview mirror. He roughly demanded that I pay him that sum in liras (about $173), yelling and frightening me, with his face thrust into mine. I offered him 40 liras ($10), all of the Turkish currency I had, but he ripped the notes about a quarter of the way through and tossed them back at me, screaming, “This is small money! I want BIG money!”  

I kept saying, firmly, “Open the door” and “Call the police,” but he continued his yelling and clutched at my bag, which was firmly strapped across my body. Cars were speeding past, but there were no pedestrians in view.

After about 15 minutes of threats and loud curses, he finally reduced his demands to all of my Turkish liras plus $12 US, which I paid. He grabbed the money, stepped out of the vehicle and opened the back door to let me out. 

Though completely unnerved, I noted down his license number (34 THJ 82) and staggered up the stairs to the street.

It was now pouring rain, and I had no idea where I was. I began to walk and spotted a Metro stop, Vezneciler, near the university. A friendly student pointed me in the direction of the Grand Bazaar, and, using a city map, I walked there.

From the Grand Bazaar, I knew my way back to my hotel in Sultanahmet, the charming Hotel Ibrahim Pasha (Binbirdirek Mh., Terzihane Sk. No. 7, 34122 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey; phone +90 212 518 03 94, www.ibrahimpasha.com), and found my way there as night was falling.

I related the tale of the terrifying extortion to the hotelier. He phoned the police, who said they could do nothing and that I should have reported the incident at a police station near where I was let out.

After hanging up, the hotelier remarked that even if I had done so, it would have involved hours of my time and there would have been a severe language barrier, and then I would have to return to Istanbul at a later date for the trial. With no physical proof of the incident, the result would likely be that the driver would be let off with a warning.

I left for the US the following morning. Later, I received an email from the hotelier advising me that the police said they had contacted the owner of the taxi, who supposedly scolded the driver.

Getting into that taxi by myself was the worst mistake of my decades of world travel. I can only warn travelers to Istanbul to take reliable taxis that are summoned by their hotels or to take public transportation. The other alternative is to not take taxis but to take long walks in that remarkable city with centuries of history of both violence and beauty.

DORANNE JACOBSON

Springfield, IL 

The following information, regarding the Istanbul police department, was emailed to Ms. Jacobson by a representative of her hotel in Istanbul.

We filed a legal complaint on your behalf, and I would like to inform you regarding the response that we received from the municipality.

They say on the message that the traffic department of the municipal police keeps running the routine controls for all public transportations, including the yellow taxis. Regarding our specific complaint, they will give a warning to the taxi owner. They once again stressed that the complaints for a criminal statement should be reported to the nearest police station.

As a conclusion, they simply warned the owner of that taxi. Unfortunately, no further action was taken.

There is a fixed number of taxi plates in Istanbul, which are owned usually by individuals. Some of these owners have built up a chamber/foundation, the Chamber of Istanbul Taxi Drivers, to protect the rights of drivers as well as the rights of passengers. However, the [owner of the] taxi plate in question is not a member of the chamber and does not work for a taxi stand (which is not a surprise). 

We are so sorry about that very frightening experience you had that left an unpleasant taste about your Istanbul trip. We hope that you have also a lot of good memories about Istanbul to make you come back sometime in the future.

DOGAN, proprietor, Hotel Ibrahim Pasha

Editor’s note: It was reported in February that an Istanbul taxi driver is facing a sentence of up to 10 years in prison for “aggravated fraud” after unnecessarily driving a Saudi tourist from the Asian side of the city to the European side and back, driving up the cab fare and causing the tourist to miss his flight. The tourist filed a criminal complaint against the driver.