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It isn't fast, but the Güney Expresi affords passengers a view of another Turkey altogether.
ISTANBUL — According to legend, the Germans were paid by the kilometer to build most of Turkey’s railways, making the routes anything but direct.
Returning to Istanbul from a recent reporting trip in Turkey’s notorious southeast, I decided to take the Güney Expresi, a ramshackle, old train owned by the Turkish national TRCC. Stopping in towns and villages en route, the train takes 40 hours to wind its way along a dizzying path of over 1,000 miles of track, as it slowly makes its way across Anatolia.
This is not the Turkey of skyscrapers and luxury malls. Rather than international pop, one hears the sound of folk music from the open window, the piercing strings of the Saz echoing through the compartment.
At the beginning of the journey the geography is arid and filled with dramatic cliffs and mountains. As the train zigzags away from Diyarbakır, just hours from the borders of Iraq and Syria, the land settles into softer, more fertile fields and valleys, eventually arriving in Istanbul, the gateway to Europe and the West.
In today’s age of high-speed jets and the internet, the essence of land travel is to slow down time. One can fly to Istanbul from Diyarbakır in less than two hours rather than 40. Even the bus delivers you to the heart of the big city in under a day. But how else can one grasp the distance — and all of the places in the interval — between the Kurdish heartland and Turkey’s largest city? Then there is the other reason many choose to ride the train: cash, or the lack thereof. In Turkey at least, the train is simply far less expensive than any other form of travel. The cheapest seat on the Güney Expresi from Diyarbakır to Istanbul sells for about $16.
My fellow travelers are a testament to this motivation. Boarding the train in early August, the seats are filled with migrant workers lured to the Arifiye Station in Sakarya by the promise of work during the chestnut harvest.
The compartments are filled to bursting. Men idle by the windows, cigarettes languishing in their hands. Further inside is a cornucopia of color and activity as brightly dressed women try fruitlessly to keep their children from wreaking havoc. Whatever space not claimed by a warm body is filled with belongings: large vats of oil and cooking stoves, and the endless plastic sacks holding everything from clothing to potatoes.