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