The Trans-Asia Express – Part 3

Once in Hong Kong, I witnessed a man consume five McDonald’s double sausage and egg McMuffins in one grotesque sitting. I was friends with the guy. Three weeks later in Shanghai, he bit into a cheeseburger of the same brand and proclaimed

Goddamn de-li-cious. That’s a real taste of home, right there. This here. This beautiful thing right here. That’s why they’re famous!”

To glorify fast food to that level seemed mentally unhinged. Out of touch with reality. The cold, harsh reality that you’re holding a shrivelled beef patty between bread, not a Nobel Prize-winning petri dish. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll occasionally duck beneath golden arches to gorge secretly on lukewarm McNuggets, but when I do, I find an empty corner and act more like a selfish Goblin eating a raw fish than like my friend, deeply inhaling, exhaling and closing his eyes as if experiencing intense nostalgic flashbacks. Our friendship was under strain from then on.

With this previous experience of the sexual relationship some folk from the States – and other countries for that matter – have with fried meat and potatoes, I’m now intrigued to be watching two old Americans munch down their cutlets and fries with such little pleasure. Their faces are pale and drained of enjoyment. Can the food really be that dreadful? My god, they’re old. Time to converse.

Do you recommend the cutlet option?”

To be honest with you, no. But would you take a look at the menu for a second. Don’t fancy me no deep fried Turkish cheese cigars! Bill here was just cursing us for not packing more supplies”.

Don’t worry, I’m in the same boat. Train, even. I’ve got to check something. You’re both Americans travelling to Iran?”

The short, stocky one is Frank; spectacles, polo shirt and a light sweat on his brow as he forces himself to finish his food. He is eighty years old. His sidekick William, Bill for short, is the tall one of the pair. I tell Bill I lived in Korea for a year. He tells me he served in Korea during the war. Bill is the kind of person who has probably always looked the same; the same strong frame, height and facial expressions unchanged by time. Only his hair has turned to white. He looks awfully strong for an eighty-two year old.

They’re in this for the long run, all the way to Tehran. It may be a surprise to hear that they can go at all, but the only restriction placed upon them is that they must have a local tour guide meet them off the train and show them around. This isn’t North Korea where the guides are watching your every move and the hotel rooms are bugged. They are both quick to assure me they will be free to explore and dine in the evenings without their guide.

After the Korean war, Bill stayed in the army and met his best buddy Frank. The two served in Vietnam together as officers. Through their stories shines a lust for life, perhaps born out of having survived two brutal wars. After coming close to death many times, one thing they didn’t do was make a promise to live life in comfort and safety. Instead, they promised each other that they would never take life for granted. They were going to try to see as much of the world as possible. A trip to Iran has been on the drawing board for a long time. So here they are. I remember how I felt listening to Bruno, the seventy-four year old German scientist’s story. At seventy-four, I still promise to cycle through Turkey and Iran. At eighty-two, who knows what I’ll do? A friend and I always joked that we’d get ‘Mogadishu on Tour’ t-shirts printed. Perhaps at eighty-two we’ll go.

It’s kind of a last trip for us.”

Bill says this without a hint of irony. I feel my throat tighten up. I don’t think I can take another breath. I’m stunned by the finality of it. I’ve never considered a last trip. I want to confirm what I’ve heard with a naïve ‘But whatever do you mean, Bill?’ It’s obvious though as the pair fall silent, stop chewing their food and turn to gaze at the sun slowly setting over the black mountains in the distance.

Are they sick? Do they feel as though they will be too overcome by aches and tiredness to travel a year from now? Have they resigned themselves to pottering about in gardens for the rest of their days? I can’t ask these questions, nor do I need to. A last trip. What will mine be like? Will I even have the forethought to realise that my last trip is indeed that? Would I want to know?

A last trip. This is theirs. Savour those beers, boys.

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The Trans-Asia Express – Pt.2

The dining car smells of body odour, sweet Turkish tea and a rogue cigarette. I crane my neck around to investigate the source and spot it hanging from the barman’s mouth. He’s making a sandwich, hopefully for himself. I’m glad to have found three new companions for the journey ahead. Together we’re playing cards and drinking tea so strong and sweet that people are starting to tick and drum on the table. I wonder where this next cup will take me. A bizarre palpitating armpit, perhaps?

Ankara behind us, the train is now well on its way to Kayseri; a mountain-fringed city of one million in the Capadoccia region. Despite the impressive scenery, my attention is firmly on the 6′ 7″ giant bouncing off each table on his way down the dining car towards us. He’s wearing an experimental combination of suit jacket and trousers with a polo shirt and Converse All-Stars. Stopping by our table, he leans low and takes an over-the-top bow. Without stopping for a chat, he straightens his back and walks backwards. With the grace of a drunken ballerina he takes another bow and exits the carriage.

“Okay then. He’s hammered”.

Five minutes pass and the goofy gent returns to kneel at our table.

“Helllooo! I am Sylvester, from Iran. I, uh, I speaker the English!”

All of the signs point to Sylvester being drunk, but it’s 11am and I can’t smell any alcohol fumes on him.

“I see. You play card. I know a card games. Show you? It’s hard”.

“Okay, Sylvester. Teach us a new one. We need it. Shithead is getting too easy”.

Grinning, he grabs the deck and shuffles sloppily in slow motion. Looking around the table, I think I speak for everyone when I say we feel guilty for assuming Sylvester was drunk. The signs now point in the direction of brain damage from a head injury. Smiling away to himself, he deals to us clockwise until his hands are empty. He looks from the table to his hands and back again, then one by one at each of us. His wide smile fades slowly, but before it disappears completely his face erupts into wonderful laughter. I want to shout at everyone to laugh with him, not at him.

“I am so sorry! I forget the game!”

And just like that, he’s gone again. Go forth, Sylvester. I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for.

The late morning sun is casting few shadows and occasionally I’m blinded by the glare. Outside looking south, the pale grass is crying out for rain to fall. In the distance I spy a raging river meandering across the plain. Across the aisle, a dark-haired man sits at a table with what might be his wife. They look so peaceful. She alternates her gaze between the scenery and the man. He’s busy with a thick, leather-bound book. The pages look like thick sheets of cream canvas. Spread out on the table are calligraphy pens and pots of coloured ink. I go over and ask what he’s doing.

“A good conversation starter, isn’t it? It’s how I document our travels. On each page there’s an illustration of what I can see and some lines of poetry or quotes. Whatever seems appropriate at the time”.

“It’s beautiful. Are you hoping to publish it?”

“Thanks! I’d never even thought about publishing. Too personal. Maybe I’ll pass it on to my children one day. Not that we have any children yet”.

I take a stroll through the train. In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote about his time aboard the Lake Van Express. Same tracks, different train, some thirty-five years ago. Back then this was part of the Hippy Trail. The infamous route began in Istanbul and travelled across pre-revolutionary Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan before reaching India. Theroux encountered hairy chiefs at the windows of these corridors, staring out into the distance with glazed eyes. Some smoked and talked mysticism while others meditated, played guitars or stared into the eyes of their squaws. Theroux’s train was alive and packed with travellers anticipating the glory of Persia, the fields of cannabis fluttering in the warm breeze of Afghani Badakhshan and the welcoming embrace of Goa. How times have changed. The travellers aboard this train number ten at a push. We still pass the time with tea and cards – and we’re excited – but there’s an air of uneasiness I’ll bet was absent in 1975.

Tea and card games aboard the Trans-Asia Express

Photograph Copyright ©  Ben McKechnie 2010

The Trans-Asia Express – Pt.1

The guard snatches my ticket and shows me to my compartment. All four berths are occupied. He bellows at an overweight man who is perspiring heavily into what I assume are my sheets. The bunk squatter has a getup that strikes me as more Miami Vice than long distance train journey through the Middle East; a gleaming grey suit matched with a shirt that’s an agonising shade of purple, hanging open to reveal a bountiful plumage of chest hair. He even has his leather shoes on in bed. The guard begins prodding, which wakes and provokes him to shout back what might be

“It’s late, put this man in the bed where I should be. Do anything, just leave me alone, you bastard!”

Propping himself upright, I catch a glimpse of his face. He looks near to death. The amount of sweat is breathtaking. Eyes bloodshot and dilated, breath stinking of booze and bacteria. If you had to guess, you might say he came from a seedy Istanbul nightclub where he spent the evening snorting lines the size of a baby’s arm. The raised voice, psychopath eyes and erratic gesturing do little to quell the fear he’s about to kill or spontaneously combust. If he is a homeward-bound Iranian businessman, at the end of a frenzied binge, then I forgive him completely. Who knows when he’ll next get the chance? I tell the guard he can keep my bed. He understands but refuses to back down from what he’s gotten himself in to. The exiled fellow uses the arms of his suit to wipe away beads of sweat that look like tears from his face, then is led away by the guard.

As I set my luggage down in the cramped compartment, I get a shock to see the outline of an old man sitting upright in the darkess, his playdough face of puffy features and cauliflower ears just inches from my own. He lounges comfortably against the window, propped-up against his pillow.

“Hello there”.

A central European twang to his words.

“That man was insane!”

“Yes, I thought he was going to hit me. What’s your name?”

“My name is Bruno. I am from Germany”.

We shake hands and as we speak, I notice Bruno’s sentences are peppered with excited little breaths, full of childish energy that bely his seventy-four years of age. He tells me he is an acclaimed physicist and that his two sons also grew up to be scientists; well respected in their fields. His wife died many years ago and, since then, he has been cycling across Europe on a collapsible bicycle. He has been planning this particular trip for a long time. Turkey by train, followed by a month of cycling around Iran. I am in awe. Right here and now, I make a promise that I’ll do the same thing when I reach seventy-four. 

“And why are you going to Iran?”

Ah, the inevitable question, for which I’ve had plenty of time to prepare a convincing answer. I tell him the truth as I see it. I’m going to meet the people of the Green Movement. Mir-Hossein Moussavi and his masses, in opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Enemies of God in the Ayatollah’s eyes. I have followed the political situation in Iran avidly. It was after the disputed elections in June 2009, during the unprecedented protests that grew to sizes not seen since during the Islamic Revolution of ’79, that I decided to go and meet those people. At the time there were famously moving images of a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, who had been shot through the chest by the Basij militia. Lying in the street surrounded by screaming onlookers, blood gushing from her mouth and eyes, the Basij had had censored her protest cries forever. What could everyday life be like for the people my own age? I wanted to find out. Bruno doesn’t seem to be falling asleep so I go further, telling him about my plans to write a book about my time with members of the movement. I admit that it’s not without its risks. If I’m caught asking questions during a politically sensitive time, behind the back of one of the most repressive regimes in the world, I could be accused of something sinister. The current UK government travel advice is warning of the danger faced by independent British travellers. The warning states that British travellers to Iran face greater risks than nationals of most other countries. They could be arbitrarily detained, despite their complete innocence. Independent travellers, especially if going off the beaten track face greater risk than those in tour groups. The butterflies in my stomach shiver their wings. Bruno bids me goodnight. Once his head hits the pillow, a dissonant orchestra of snores fills the compartment air.

Photograph Copyright © Ben McKechnie 2010

Across The Bosphorus – Pt.2

Let’s pay and go. It’s 23:35 my friend. You’re going to miss your train!”

By my hazed calculations, that would make it twenty minutes until my train departs Haydarpaşa station. That means running fast – flip flops were a bad choice – through a labyrinthine system of lanes towards a car park. Suzi’s car is waiting there with my worldly belongings crammed into a backpack. Twenty minutes more is all we needed to make this a relatively chilled affair, but no, we went and got stoned on carbon monoxide. Without further ado, we take urban flight. Before long we are panting like dogs, but never do we slow our sprint.

“My friend, the shop coming up to our left sells toothpaste. Do you have time to buy some? You said earlier, the train ride is three nights and you have none left!”

This is nothing less than true. Few things in life please me more than having a fresh-tasting mouth but there really isn’t time.

“No time, forget the toothpaste!”

We round a corner and at last the car park is in sight. It has been ten minutes since we left the smoke house, so that leaves another ten minutes until my train pulls out of Haydarpaşa. Suzi floors the accelerator pedal and we screech onto the main road. This isn’t any ordinary train I’m racing for. It’s a once-a-week service, so missing it doesn’t bear thinking about. The fact I’m in this situation doesn’t surprise me. It is quickly becoming my expensive party trick. Once, I slept through my alarm and woke up at 7am. I had a flight to catch to Hong Kong at 9am and I was on the wrong side of Seoul. The coach from my town took two hours to reach the airport. So, did I make it? You bet I did, but not by bus. I greased a taxi driver’s palms with fat green banknotes to violate some traffic laws and I was there in fifty minutes. Remembering this, I feel a surge of confidence.

“There it is. Haydarpaşa station.”

“You bloody legend! 23:52. Three minutes to go.”

So here we are, back to the sprint and I feel my pulse hammering in my wrists, neck and chest. Suzi wrenches the handbrake and leaps out to fetch my backpack.

“This is just like a movie, Ben.”

“Don’t you ever make me late again, you nargile addict!”

A guard sees us running fast up the platform and his eyes explode out of their sockets. Shock and disgust erupts upon his face as he realises I should be on board the train, which I now notice is moving. He is not best pleased and is yelling what could be Turkish obscenities.

“Acele! Acele! Eğer tren özleyeceğim! Salaklar!”

I jog by the side of the train and line myself up with the door that the guard is signalling for me to jump through. I’m on. Suzi has turned the colour of a ripe strawberry but is faithfully jogging alongside the accelerating train with my backpack. I take it and we shake hands triumphantly.

“Thank your mum for the meal and thank you for getting me here. Never again, that was too close!”

“Bye Ben! Best of luck in Iran.”

Without warning, I’m knocked back with force from the door by the disgruntled guard. He’s waving a gloved finger in my face. He hasn’t finished telling me off. Fortunately I understand none of it. I nod away like a novelty dog on a parcel-shelf. I couldn’t care less. I’m filling up from toe to head with a whopping dose of something I like to call Travel X. It’s not something I have left over from a full moon party. This one is a hundred percent natural. No need to be concealed in strange places through customs.

I’ll describe the sensation as it happens. It begins on the soles of my feet. Imagine those first few strokes of an oriental foot massage. I twitch my legs as I try to work out if it’s truly pleasurable or an act of sadomasochism. Before I’ve decided, my shins begin to feel as though they’re being brushed by the softest of fur. It’s as if an angel was grooming them with guinea pigs; their soft, downy bellies exciting my bony legs. Before long the sensation reaches my knees and now it really starts to heat up. My knees knock together and the hairs on my thighs burn away. I think and hope it’s just an illusion. This odd delight continues, working its way up to my groin. My body and nerves in the region begin to remember a feeling. You know the one: drunk at a house party, locked in the bathroom with a tube of hair removal cream, sheer boredom awaiting rescue, experimental slathering, fizzing and burning like dipping yourself into coke. What’s that? You have no idea?

Next comes the feeling that balloons are being inflated at the base of my abdomen by tiny clowns. This notion forms into a lit firework sizzling away at the base of my spine, that fires up my spinal column and explodes in a dazzling supernova of joy as my brain drops a cocktail of serotonin and endorphins into my system. It happens to me at times like this. This, my friends, is Travel X. Not to be confused with Travelex, the UK’s number one choice for Holiday Travel Money Card. Please don’t sue me. It’s the feeling that kicks in when travel plans that have been on the drawing board for months finally get set in motion. If I could bottle the feeling and sell it, you too could experience it in the most mundane of locations. You could be strolling in your home town on a Saturday afternoon and it would kick in. You’d be ecstatic. Even if you lived in Luton.

I’ve made it on board one of the greatest train journeys in the world: The Trans-Asia Express. It’s three nights and three thousand kilometres to Tehran – with no toothpaste. 

Photograph Copyright © Ben McKechnie 2010