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.
Photograph Copyright © Ben McKechnie 2010