“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