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It isn't fast, but the Güney Expresi affords passengers a view of another Turkey altogether.
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.