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.
For most, the month-long chestnut season is the only work they will be able to find all year. Still, in a region suffering from rampant unemployment and the violence of poverty, the promise of a month’s labor is enough to draw roughly 100,000 people to journey north from their homes in Diyarbakır and its environs.
Diyarbakır is built on the backbone of history and held together by its politics. Situated on the banks of the Tigris River, this region was at the centre of ancient Mesopotamia and has been home to some 33 civilizations throughout its history. Today, the city’s name is synonymous with Kurdish identity and tenacity and many call it the “unofficial capital” of Kurdistan.
As we make our way across the country the sun-touched beiges of the beginning of the trip are replaced by squat trees and green, hill-fringed plains. As night falls and the passengers prepare for sleep the air is filled with the sound of the wind rushing by and the constant squeaking of wheels meeting track.
As the morning dawns the train stops for a modest breakfast of chai and simit (a Turkish version of a bagel) in Kayseri, at the eastern border of Cappadocia. The landscape – more Dalí than Poussin – is scattered with fairy chimneys, caves and underground cities, the legacy of volcanic eruptions that covered the plains between the Erciyes, Melendiz and Hasan mountains.
By early evening we have passed through sterile Ankara, Turkey’s capital and the heart of all things bureaucratic. As the darkness sets in the stops become more numerous as the density of towns and cities begins to grow.
Nearing Istanbul we pass an explosion of cheap construction. Then comes the modern highways, gleaming office buildings and innumerable billboards, pale in the quiet dawn. Like so many before me, I was coming “to the city” from less-developed provinces. “To the city” in Greek is I-stin poli, corrupted by the Turks to “Istanbul.” The idea that technology closes distances is a narrow version of the truth. This trip reminded me that even within a single country the world remains enormous, and in important ways is getting more complex and varied all the time.
Yes, a Turk and a Kurd may be able to email each other from across the country, but once they walk away from their computer screens each has to deal with their vastly different realities: one where you can openly and safely use your own language, and one where you can’t; one where you feel protected by the state, and one where you don’t.
As the Güney Expresi made it’s final, sweeping curve, Istanbul’s Ottoman-style Haydarpaşa Terminal came into view, framed by the wide expanse of the Bosporus and pencil thin minarets through the early morning vapor.
Flying from place to place encourages abstractions, whereas land travel brings us face to face with basic observations. After 40 hours, my head was full, my eyes were tired and my journey was over. For today, at least.