Istanbul grinds to a halt in ‘Icelandic’ snowy conditions

Couriers skirted a ban on motorbikes on the icy roads

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Istanbul was largely cut off on Monday as heavy snowfall led to travel chaos.

Motorways into the Turkish city were closed and flights cancelled owing to conditions described as “Icelandic”.

As roads were turned to ice-clogged arteries, the governor’s office cancelled some bus services and barred the city’s ubiquitous motorbike couriers from the streets. But with an economic crisis as severe as the weather, many delivery riders ignored the prohibition and braved the snow.

“I’ve got to work, otherwise I don’t get paid and my family suffers,” said one worker delivering food to an office in Kadikoy, on the city’s Asian side.

“I’m trying to be extra-careful and drive slowly because the roads are very dangerous.”

Governor Ali Yerlikaya called on citizens to report companies flouting the ban for “disregarding the lives of not only motor-couriers but also our fellow countrymen”.

All main routes into Istanbul from the north were closed owing to heavy snowfall, Mr Yerlikaya said. The D-100 highway that links Istanbul and Ankara reopened on Monday after being closed overnight, but other routes leading from the south were mostly closed.

Provincial authorities to the north of Istanbul said vehicles would not be allowed to travel south until further notice.

Throughout the city of 16 million people, commuters huddling inside hoods and scarves queued at bus stops after public-sector workers were sent home early.

But the treacherous conditions meant few buses were arriving regularly, leading to large numbers of desperate travellers waiting at bus, metro and tram stops as the evening approached.

“There is nothing we can do. It snows, the roads are affected, the traffic is blocked and cars are stuck on the road,” Ali Safa, waiting at a bus stop in Bahcelievler, on the European side, told Demiroren news agency.

“People set out without winter tires, knowing that it will snow, and have an accident. They prevent others from reaching the road.”

Pile-ups caused by blizzard conditions led to road closures during rush hour. A 50-vehicle accident on the North Marmara highway, which skirts Istanbul’s European suburbs, led to jams stretching for miles.

Three people were killed and 18 were injured when an inter-city coach rolled down a 30-metre embankment in snowy weather on the motorway on Sunday.

Many drivers complained of a lack of information and said they feared they could be stuck in freezing conditions without food or water.

Images shared on Twitter of motorists trying to negotiate some of Istanbul’s hillier backstreets showed cars skidding out of control and crashing into walls and other vehicles.

An artist paints as snow falls near of the Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul. AFP

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said crews were working to clear the roads. “We have 7,421 personnel and 1,582 vehicles to intervene in the situation,” he said. Homeless people were being directed to emergency accommodation and food was distributed to the city’s army of stray cats and dogs.

Local media also showed footage of people waiting in the snowfall to buy cheap bread at a municipality-run kiosk. Shopping malls were closed 2.5 hours early.

Meteorologist Orhan Sen said the temperature was -8°C and 20 centimetres of snow had fallen on the ground. The bad weather was brought in from the Black Sea, resulting in Istanbul’s European districts experiencing the worst.

The bad weather is expected to persist until Thursday.

Prof Sen warned people not to stay outside for long periods:

“If we stay a little too long, we’ll get hypothermia,” he said.

“If the body temperature drops below 26 degrees, it will be difficult to stay alive. That’s why we shouldn’t stay outside.”

At Istanbul Airport, opened less than three years ago, the roof of a cargo terminal collapsed under the weight of snow. Spokesman Yahya Ustun said nobody had been hurt.

Turkish Airlines announced the cancellation of all flights until 4am Turkish time on Tuesday. At the city’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, authorities said there would be a 15 per cent reduction in flights on Tuesday.

The national carrier had earlier announced the cancellation of 36 domestic and international flights from Istanbul Airport.

Ali Kidik, an Istanbul municipality assembly member, tweeted from an aborted flight to the southern city of Adana. He said passengers had been “left to their fate” for seven hours.

Universities were closed for two days because of the weather. Schools shut last week for a scheduled break.

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Updated: January 25, 2022, 11:38 AM