BY VIC ALLEN
There was a beautiful young Turkish tour guide called Meli.
Every day, sometimes twice a day, she would conduct groups of tourists from all over the world mostly English-speaking countries like Britain, America, Australia etc. around the abandoned Roman city of Ephesus, south of Izmir, on the Aegean coast of Turkey, and one of the most complete Roman cities in the ancient world. She loved her job, and she did it very well, telling her groups the most interesting details and the most fascinating stories about this wonderful place. Sometimes the groups would arrive by bus stopping briefly as part of a longer tour of Turkey; most commonly, they would arrive on a cruise ship, that put into the nearby port of Kusadasi for a morning or an afternoon. But after explaining Ephesus for the forty thousandth time, Meli sometimes wished that the horizon would extend beyond Ephesus much as she loved it and she could sometimes spend longer with her tourists, and show them more of Turkey after all, she knew that there was much, much more for them to see.
And then, one day, came a handsome (!) English travel agent and tour operator called Vic. He was on holiday with his wife, Liz, and like hundreds and thousands of tourists before him, he got off the cruise ship at Kusadasi, and picked at random - one of the tour buses with a sign saying English, and off they went to Ephesus. By the greatest of good fortune, it was Melis bus he had chosen.
After the visit to Ephesus, Vic told Meli about the specialist tours all over the world that his company ran for steam train enthusiasts. Even 20 years ago most European railways had given up using steam trains, but Turkey still had plenty. There had for some time been a steady stream of British railfans coming to Turkey to see, travel on, and photograph them, but Vics idea was different he also wanted to charter a train, for two weeks, covering most of Anatolia (Asiatic Turkey) and pulled by a different type of steam engine every day!
Vics organization had a ready market for such a tour in Britain and elsewhere. He also had access to detailed information as to which routes to take and where the best steam engines were located. But how to make contact with the Turkish Railways; how to find, and make reservations with hotels in the out-of-the-way places they needed to go? Meli immediately provided the answer. Not only would she be delighted to help organize the trip, but she would also give up her beloved Ephesus for a couple of weeks, to be the tour guide and to make sure that everything went according to plan!
So after a few weeks Meli and Vic went by appointment to the Turkish Railways HQ to negotiate the charter of the special train. Turkish society, although much more liberal than in many Moslem countries, still sees few women in high places, and Turkish Railways HQ was no exception. Moreover, the man in charge of charter trains was a sandwich short of a picnic, and only in his job because of family/government connections. They were all quite unprepared for the arrival of this energetic, clever, determined, and gorgeous girl in their midst they must have thought a whirling dervish had descended upon the staid and musty environs of Turkish Railways Headquarters! They were also quite unused to being shouted at, reasoned with, pleaded with and generally out manoeuvered by this amazing fireball, and she negotiated a contract in record time such as Richard Branson would have been proud of! It turned out later (fortunately after the tour) that the Turkish Railways had, in their haste and confusion, even forgotten to include the cost of the coal, which was the fuel for the steam locomotives!
A few days of driving around Turkey (Melis very liberated mother had lent her her car) to check on the hotels, and quite a lot of frantic letter writing, and Meli had arranged everything for the tour train, hotels, bus transfers etc. and everything was ready for the off on 1st October.
To cut a long story short, the tour was an outstanding success. The train consisted of different steam engines (of course); a restaurant car, a day carriage with seats, and a couchette car for the group to sleep in when they were not over nighting in hotels. Part of the plan was to stop the train in scenic locations so that people could get out and take photographs of the train doing a run-past. Meli had the train crews train conductors, drivers, firemen, guards etc. etc.eating out of her hand indeed she spent a lot of time on the steam engines themselves so that she could tell the drivers where to stop, and what to do when they had stopped and between shouting at them, cajoling them, begging them or just using all of her feminine charm, the tour ended up with just over 100 photo run-pasts a record for any tour of its kind.
The trip was so successful that it was repeated annually for several years afterwards until the Turkish Railways finally gave up using the old fashioned steam engines for its trains! And Meli continued to organize them, and to guide them she would have made much more money guiding ordinary American tourists, than she did sharing a train for two weeks with 60 or so dirty men! (from the coal dust and the smoke from the steam locomotives). But it made a change, and she loved it, and the tours and Meli - are still talked about with affection wherever rail fans meet.
That chance meeting on the dockside at Kusadasi had resulted in the chance for Meli to organize and run entirely by herself a major tour of Turkey, and one which turned out to be 110% successful. And they all lived happily ever after!
If this all sounds to you like a fairy story, it isnt it is all true! That first tour was arranged in 1982 twenty years ago and the rest is history! Melitour is now one of the most successful specialist tour operators in Turkey, taking- as always a personal, (and almost proprietorial!) part in showing visitors whatever there is to see in Turkey that survives from the ancient world, and informing her tours with her in-depth knowledge and her very special brand of customer care that makes every one of her clients a cherished part of her family while they are on tour and for decades afterwards!