The train station in Ankara is a 1930’s looking building with curving brass door handles and glass-paned doors. The brand spanking new high speed terminal next to it is not – it is huge and shiny with western shops and escalators. No trains were arriving or leaving from anywhere else however, so for our non ‘high-speed’ train we had to wait for a replacement bus, UK -style. No one knew how long we would have to wait, only that our sleeper train left from some country station an hour or so from Ankara. As a result, we just hung around not going to a supermarket for fear of missing the bus. We had half a carton of orange juice, the chewy bread, the sheep’s cheese and the cucumbers. Several hours later we arrived at a lonely platform and waited in the dark and starry night with about 30 other passengers, standing on the tracks. Eventually, a train slowly rolled along the platform and we all dragged our luggage up the steep steps into the carriages. It was the Dogu Express. Our fellow passengers seemed to be mostly elderly men with knitted striped hats holding prayer beads. They had large plastic bags with some kind of produce that they were bringing from the west to the east. They had round bellies and kindly worn faces. Other passengers clambering up onto the train were elderly couples, or the odd single traveller with a scrappy briefcase. There were no tourists except us, and few people made for the the 7th and last carriage; the one with beds. The train slowly left the empty station and headed off east into the misty night, on its 26 hour journey.
After Scott had explored our miniature bedroom, tested the sink and put the small cucumbers and the sheep’s cheese into the minature fridge, we settled back onto our seats and looked out of the window at the gathering darkness. There was a crescent moon and star on the window, which made the outside look like a painting. The fridge had two plastic cups of water, a small packet of pretzels and some juice boxes. The full realisation of our food situation dawned on us. We had managed to buy two stale rolls near the train from a bread man. But they did not make a feast. The way I thought about the lack of wine made me realise that maybe I had a drink problem. Deciding we should ration the pathetic picnic, we made our way to the restaurant car, still hopeful. When we booked the train, in bed one morning, back in Berlin, I had had a vision of us sitting opposite each other over a candle, crisp white linen and glasses of wine, as the dusky landscape jogged by. The restaurant car on the Dogu Express was nothing like the one on the Orient Express. It had some tables with benches. It had no displays, no menus and certainly no crisp white linen. Most of all it had no wine. In fact, it didn’t even have food, so I call it ‘restaurant car’ advisedly. Just tea. I love Turkish tea. So we had tea and still looked out the window at the dusky landscape.
The Dogu Express is pretty slow moving and exploratory for a train. It knows where it is going but doesn’t really mind when it gets there. It stops here and there, sometimes at a station, but often in the middle of nowhere. Which is easy, as it seemed that most of Turkey east of Ankara was the middle of nowhere. It was wonderful, strange and empty. There were huge vistas of nothing, just wide open space. I suggested an early night as I could tell Scott was very excited to get into his bunk. When we got back to our cabin the train guard had already made our seats into beds and there were white sheets and tartan woollen blankets. It almost made up for the no food situation.
There is something so satisfying about being in bed on a train. You are lulled to sleep by the rhythmic movement and the regular judder of the wheels. You wake when the train stops for an unknown reason in the unfathomable night. You lie there wondering why but know that you will never know. So you let go of caring and lie in the sweetest limbo. Completely present. Although I do remember once in a sleeper with 6 others in Romania, uniformed men had come in with a long pole with a mirror on one end, like a dentist tool for a giant. They had poked it under all the bunks looking for stowaways.
We woke up on our bunks to a golden autumn morning, propped up on pillows, and looked out of the windows. Scott was really happy. Like a ten year old – he was in the top bunk, held in by the straps that held the bunk to the ceiling, still excited by the tiny sink and the ladder up to his bunk. I like travelling with him, as it means I am not always the uncool one who gets over-excited by the minutiae of adventure. I was secretly just as excited by the ladder but didn’t say anything. He went to get us breakfast but came back with more tea. Maybe there would be breakfast later – the Turkish boy in the restaurant wasn’t sure.
We were somewhere in the middle of the barren middle of Turkey. Everything was yellow and grey. So much of the planet is this frigid wasteland, unpopulated, quiet. The odd housing complex sitting starkly on a plain. Pink and yellow apartment blocks. Is there a community? What do the people who live out here do? Do they have choices? We are so lucky in the luscious west of Europe. Where the climate makes everything possible. We have not needed to survive too hot or too cold or too empty. So we could build ships and colonise, and say it was because we were better.
We spent the day lounging in white sheets, gazing at the passing empty landscape. Endless open plains. Then fluttering trees and arable land, with distant herds of cows. Hours later, crumbling concrete houses with corrugated iron roofs and dogs picking about in unfinished villages, that faded as we passed. The day wore on and I slumped into a gentle contented feeling of being ever-present, just processing the changing picture.
But we did reach lunchtime of course, and the picnic got worse. Breakfast had been a semi-victory in that there had been some. But it was a plastic tray with a peel-off top, with small hard rolls, cheese and 5 dried olives. So by now we were hungry. The cucumber had frozen and so had the cheese in the inefficient fridge. We used a plastic spork and carved some green slimy frozen cucumber and ate it with the crumbly bread and the frozen cheese. Afterwards, I was drawn back to the landscape and looked out the window again for interminable hour after hour. I had books, an incongruous cross-stitch bookmark I had been sure I would have time to make, writing to get on with, music and Scott to chat to. But I just looked out of the window at the subtly changing and merging view; shifting from plains into random apartment blocks into windswept trees into herds of dark cattle into spiked rocks into another dusk.
In the dark villages with slender silhouettes of trees, kids lob stones at the train, hitting the windows with practiced glee. We are the moving, lit up highlight of the school day as it ends. It’s hard to see much outside apart from the blurred faces of the boys as we pass. The green patch on my Googlemaps app on my phone, is either side of the moving blue dot that is us. The first green patch in a sea of yellow landscape, and I can’t see it. Perhaps it is also yellow.
24 hours later I have become attached to our 6×4 foot room with its awkward folding bunks and picture window. The barren wilderness of central Turkey will always be framed by the curved corners of the window, and filtered through the moon and star on the glass. All views are both patriotic and mystical on this train.
The end of the line was a town called Kars. We decamped from the now virtually empty train, hungry and looking forward to a meal. The name ‘Kars’ means ‘snow-water’ and it is an ancient city high on the Anatolian Plateau. I had checked it out on Wikipedia and thought it sounded intriguing and exotic, as ‘it served as the capital of the medieval Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia.’ It wasn’t like that. It was bloody freezing after Istanbul, but the taxi at the station made it clear he could not be bothered to take us anywhere. So we trudged with our packs looking for our hotel and a restaurant, my hope for some actual (vegetarian) food diminishing as every second shopfront had several horror-film carcasses of cows hanging from hooks. As we walked through the central street with its neon signs and pot- holes, I realised there were very few women and lots of staring men. I was reminded of the hundred staring eyes from my commute across the Bosphorus to work back in 1993. I walked closer to and behind Scott, like a terrier. The only medicinal cocktail to be had was in the single strip bar, where I could not go. We wandered the streets for ages, looking for our hotel, getting increasingly cold, and vowing to leave on the first train out of there in the morning. Although in the deserted station we had also realised that there were no trains out of there. Nor buses. It seemed people either didn’t go to Kars, or didn’t leave it…No wonder the train had been empty.