An ode to train travel

During the 28.5 hours I spent on the Turkish Eastern Express, I was able to suspend a reality that is in no way real.

'Prior to the onset of the pandemic, I had led a pathologically itinerant existence for nearly 20 years,' Belen Fernandez writes [Belen Fernandez/Al Jazeera]

At the end of September, I took an overnight train called the Doğu Ekspresi – or Eastern Express – from the Turkish capital Ankara to the city of Kars in the northeast, close to the Armenian border.

I cannot say precisely how the journey came about, or what sort of neuronal firing must have transpired in my brain the previous month as I lay sweating in between the oscillating fans on either side of my bed on the Oaxacan coast of Mexico – the position in which I had undertaken to plan my first transatlantic trip since December 2019.

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, I had led a pathologically itinerant existence for nearly 20 years, flitting continuously between countries and continents and harbouring an existential aversion to settling down.

Coronavirus had put an abrupt end to the arrangement, converting what was meant to be a two-week stay in Oaxaca into a heretofore inconceivable year and a half.

As the southwestern Turkish town of Fethiye had been a regular stop on my international circuit since 2004, I decided to stage a trip there for the 18-month anniversary of my sedentary existence – and felt immensely relieved that I had not totally lost the urge to move.

Once I had sorted the details from my bed-office for a two-week stay in Fethiye – thanking the universe, as I did all day every day on the Oaxacan coast, for the invention of the oscillating fan – there emanated from my cerebral depths a recollection of a train that ran from Ankara to Kars.

Shortly thereafter, I was booking all four spots in one of the sleeper cabins, using my parents’ names and that of a friend, for a total of approximately $45. Clichéd visions of romantically chugging through the Turkish countryside surged through my head alongside obligatory flashbacks to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

I had traveled on plenty of trains before, from the old-school Uzbek train that runs from Tashkent to Samarkand and Bukhara to the decidedly unromantic high-speed trains of Western Europe to the Sri Lankan train that traverses mountainside tea plantations.

There was also the delightfully shabby Tbilisi-Yerevan overnight between the countries of Georgia and Armenia, and the Cuban cargo train that my friends and I somehow finagled ourselves onto for free in 2006. The crew accommodated us in their sleeping quarters and grinned as we spent what seemed to be various hours lurching forward and backward before finally advancing definitively.

But back to the train at hand.

When I arrived at the train station in Ankara on the afternoon of September 22, I was still not entirely convinced that an entire sleeper cabin for a journey of more than 24 hours cost merely $45.

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about on that front. I did, however, have to worry about the train conductor’s refusal to believe that there was a coronavirus vaccine that consisted of a single dose – the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that I had received in August – as well as his refusal to Google it.

In the end, my suspicious vaccination card and I were permitted to remain on the train, and the conductor dealt with the issue of my three fellow non-passengers by simply giving me four pillows.

The Doğu Ekspresi lurched into motion and my clichéd thoughts resumed, presumably the result of a combination of conditioned nostalgia – and the traditional romanticisation of train travel – plus actual nostalgia plus the physically soothing sensation of moving along train tracks.

Reclining against my four pillows, I spent the next 28.5 internet-free hours staring out the window in between napping. While the act of prolonged motion was reassuringly liberating after having been still for so long, the lack of the option to even think about getting online was acutely therapeutic in itself, as I felt humanness slowly seep back into my being.

To employ further cliché, it was like coming back to life – and yet it was simultaneously a shutting down, as body and mind retreated from a state of constant alertness and dependence on digital stimuli.

This hibernation of sorts evoked a return to a simpler era in which it was normal to just be, well, bored, without feeling the need to be consulting one screen or another at all times – a normalised behaviour that happens to benefit the powers that be that profit from the conversion of human beings into technologically addicted automatons.

But I was not bored at all. Or perhaps boredom had become a novelty.

Not that the 28.5 hours’ worth of scenery left much to complain about, as the scenery on this not-yet-dead planet tends to do. And as Orientalist as it may be in this case, there is a certain imagined intimacy that accompanies chugging through farmers toiling in a field or men smoking cigarettes at a train station.

More than 12 hours into my trip, somewhere between the stations of Çetinkaya and Demirdağ, I observed what appeared to me to be the most perfect sight I had ever laid eyes on – a tiny hamlet, an Ottoman bridge, and sunlight in all the right places – all the while guiltily cognisant that said perceived perfection might have had to do with the fact that I had not been quick enough to capture the landscape on my camera for future uploading to social media.

In the pre-internet days, of course, we were better equipped to experience events in real-time without thinking only of the need to digitally preserve them – or an inevitably mutilated, cheapened version of them – such that they might be marketed to a social media audience for rapid scrolling-and-liking purposes that are depleted of any sort of emotional connection.

But those days – though not so long ago – are long gone.

The Doğu Ekspresi pulled into Kars at about 10:30pm on September 23, several hours behind schedule. Inhaling a final breath of freedom, I rushed off to my Airbnb to post to Facebook the photos I had indeed managed to take on the train – more out of an engrained feeling of obligation to the “real world” than out of desire.

Doing so, I felt almost dirty. But for those 28.5 hours, at least, I was able to suspend a reality that is in no way real.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.