Pictures: Penang

All Photographs Copyright © Ben McKechnie 2010

The Trans-Asia Express – Pt.4

The train grinds to a halt. I take a long swig of Efes Extra. The bar has sold out of regular Efes – less than twenty hours into the journey – so all that’s left is the fierce 7.5% abv version. Alcohol is banned in the Islamic Republic, so this is my last chance to get drunk for a very long time. The involuntary detox starts tomorrow when we disembark the Turkish train, so the extra strength is fine by me. Bruno says

“I hear sometimes the train stops for up to twelve hours. Turkish soldiers sweep the track ahead for bombs planted by the PKK. The Kurdish militants. I wonder how long we’ll be stopped for”.

We’re a long way from the Turkey of package holiday fame. Sitting ten metres away on parallel tracks is a disused train bearing the logo TCDD. Its white paint is rusting away in places, but its red and blue horizontal stripes remain bright. Between locomotives, underneath a wilting tree, sit four railway workers on wooden crates. They’re passing the evening drinking tea, talking, laughing, chain-smoking, and despite the probable infrequency of passing trains, not a single one of them has looked over, pointed or done anything to acknowledge our arrival into their world. It’s as though I’m an invisible observer. Maybe it’s the warm, heavy, post-coital glow that super-strength lager induces, but I’m feeling detached from my own body. The longer I stare at them, the more it feels like I’ve moved through the window and am hovering somewhere overhead in an attempt to listen in. I should’ve eaten something before hitting the sauce. I’m feeling quite bizarre, but in the name of living fast, I continue drinking.

Anti-clockwise from bottom-right: Bruno, the cycling German Physicist; Onur, the chain-smoking barman; Burak, the chef responsible for Turkey’s least desirable meat cutlet; And about the other two gentlemen, I know nothing.

I’m so hungover that I’m having trouble working out exactly what animal’s anus it is that my mouth tastes like. I’m detecting a hint of weasel excrement. Last night after the fourth Efes Extra, I went for a walk up the train with a German girl called Anna. The train had pulled up at a station, characterless in the darkness, and I opened the door to get off. I missed the steps and fell, hands first onto concrete and gravel. While searching around for the pair of glasses that had abandoned my face, the train began chugging off. Hastily jumping through a moving train doorway for the second time in twenty-four hours, I dragged my right shin across a sharp piece of metal protruding from the steps. Blood gushed down my leg, dampening my socks and causing me to laugh like a maniac. Back in the dining car, Anna took a napkin to my cascading shin and the barman, half cut himself and feeling sorry for me, slammed down a pity beer. Free of charge. I really didn’t need any more but I graciously accepted. Everyone was enjoying themselves and I was, in the moment, convinced it was my nonchalant disregard for personal safety that had helped to lubricate the atmosphere. The train staff had clocked off and were sitting amongst passengers, sipping beer and setting the world to rights. Bruno and another German traveller, Sebastian, looked content locked into a discussion in their native tongue. Dutchman Tom and Ricky, a Chinese-Australian, were also hitting it off. I took my cue though and quit whilst marginally ahead. I hobbled back to my compartment, downing a bottle of mineral water as I went. In my bunk, I closed my eyes. Normally my mind would’ve raced to digest the day. Instead, I felt myself drifting further and further into nothingness.

Now it’s eleven in the morning and my first cup of tea is kicking in. A smartly dressed Iranian man with glasses and pristine goatee beard approaches the table. In perfect English he says

Hello. You must be Ben?”

How did you know that?”

You were still sleeping this morning when I introduced myself to your friends here. They told me about you and I have something I’d very much like to discuss. How about you stop by the compartment in, say, an hour or so?”

I knock an hour later and Maisam whips open the door to reveal a compartment at full capacity. I still have no idea why I’m here. I’ve just turned up out of curiosity.

Ben, welcome! Let me introduce the others. This down here is Iman, up there is Komeil and over there in the corner is Ali. Sit, please, make yourself at home. My colleagues and I were in Istanbul for a conference on child psychology. Actually, I tell a lie, it was in Izmir. Tell me Ben, are you planning to visit Shiraz?”

I tell him yes, of course I’m going to Shiraz. It’s famous for being the heartland of traditional Persian culture, the original home of Shiraz wine, and I wouldn’t miss the tomb of Hafez or a trip to Persepolis for the world. Maisam Hosseini thinks this is good news. Very good news indeed. He’s the director of a private language school in Shiraz.

It is in a beautiful situation. The classrooms are around a typical Persian courtyard with fountains, gardens and places to relax. Your friends in the dining car told me you’re an English teacher. This is correct?”

I see where this is going now. They weren’t lying, I tell him.

Excellent. Then I would like to invite you to visit my school. The children would love to meet you. Is it okay to ask you a few questions? Please tell me if it’s not”.

I say of course, fire away, then I notice the video camera he’s holding and instantly regret it.

Great! My friend is going to film us as we talk”.

This is not what I want to be doing right now. Hungover to hell and filmed for the viewing pleasure of a hundred Iranian children, but the red light flickers on and the job interview commences. Why did you get into teaching? Do you have a message for the children? Yes, stay clear of Efes Extra! Why are you coming to Iran? The story I told to Bruno would be wasted on a bunch of Iranian kids and I haven’t known Maisam for anywhere near long enough to judge his political leanings. I play it safe and spin some easily translatable tourist waffle. Iran is so beautiful, I want to try all of the food, visit baking deserts, soaring peaks, a Shia mosque during Friday prayers and make lots of new friends with people my own age. Actually, it’s all true. I just keep my mouth shut about the green movement.

Once the surprise interview is over, I write down Maisam’s contact details in the back of my journal. He seems genuine and could be a good contact to have in the months ahead. Who cares about political allegiances in times like these? Even if his ideology was the polar opposite of the people I’m travelling to meet, this would still have been an interesting game of football in No man’s land. As I walk back to the dining car, I think about Maisam’s sharp suit, fluency in English, a language school where he’s the boss, and his lowly Iranian passport affording him visa-free travel rights to just fourteen countries. Then I think about my scruffy Thai fisherman trousers, flip-flops, basic Farsi skills, yet the best passport in the entire world, affording me visa-free travel rights to one-hundred and fifty-nine countries. All Maisam and I have in common is the age of twenty four.