25 Hours on the Train

25 Hours on the Train

Israeli professor of history Yuval Noah Harari in his bestseller book, “Sapiens – A Brief History of Mankind” states that, since the Industrial Revolution, humans have become slaves to timetables, that our lives have been distributed to small time slots for everything, and that the whole world runs on this timetable. According to Harari the first ever timetable was prepared in Britain in 1840 for the World’s first passenger train line between Liverpool and Manchester dating from 1830. Actually an ancestor of this timetable, a schedule, was also issued in Britain for a coach service in 1784. This schedule apparently had departure times however did not include arrival times. According to Harari, this was mainly because British cities and towns had their local times which varied from Greenwich by up to half an hour. Only in 1847 the British decided to calibrate all train times to Greenwich Observatory time, later the Greenwich Meantime (GMT) that the whole world now observes. [1]

Opening of Liverpool-Manchester Railway

Less than 200 years later we travel on much faster trains that run on fuel or electricity rather than coal, drive cars that can out-speed even some trains and we fly long distances on passenger jets. Our lives have been completely transformed and sped up, and as a result they have become so stressful that so many of us have to live on some kind of relaxing medication or drugs. I am sure many of us wonder if it is worth it, if this lifestyle compensates for our lost health and peace due to the hectic pace which throw us from one place to another constantly. Whatever the answer, this is not an easy way of living and certainly takes its toll on our lives.

Love of trains
I always loved trains. Perhaps every child does. My uncle was the head of a division of the Turkish State Railways (TCDD) in charge of safety and security of the railroad tracks in Thrace, the Northwestern corner of Turkey on the European continent. His lojman (the housing provided by the state) was at Halkalı, the Western terminus of the suburban train on the European part of Istanbul, and his offices were located at the Eastern end of the line, Sirkeci Garı, the terminus of the world-famous Orient Express

Sirkeci Terminal by German architect August Jasmund, 1890, Istanbul

We used to visit my uncle’s family every summer and when there, even going out to buy bread was a good excuse to get on the suburban train to go three stops to Küçük Çekmece. This suburban train was called banliyö treni, the Turkisized French term train de banlieueAs most of these railroads in Turkey were built by the French, the majority of railroad terminology had also been imported from France. We used words like Şömendöfer (chemin-de-fer) for railroad, istasyon (station), gar (gare) for larger train stations, ray (rail), pulman (Pullman) for regular seats, kuşet (couchette) for a kind of sleeping compartment on the train to name a few.

Former "banliyö" train near Yedikule, 1986. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal


Town of Irmak: 64 km east of Ankara near Kırıkkale. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

In the last couple of years I started using the limited train services for my travels as part of my solo project, Düştüm Yola (I Hit the Road) and since then have taken all but one of the available overnight trips in Turkey. All of these routes begin in Ankara, the capitol and the heart of the Turkish Republic. With the arrival of faster train lines and services in Turkey, these old-fashioned lines and trains will surely be a part of history in the near future and this change has already begun. Overnight trains to Adana with the famous German Bridge at the Taurus mountain range has been cancelled due to the construction of the new tracks for the high speed train line to Sivas. 

Train station at Irmak. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

Similarly, overnight service to Izmir (a nice 16 hours) has been shortened by almost five hours since one must take the High Speed Train (YHT)[2] to Eskişehir and only there can one board the much slower sleeper. As no trains can come into Ankara currently, except for the Eskişehir and Konya YHTs, all eastern bound trains use Irmak, a small town in the mountainous region about forty miles outside of Ankara, as the terminus. You have to take the shuttle buses provided by the TCDD to go into Ankara, at the least another hour in urban traffic. My solution for this mishap has been to drive to Irmak myself and leave my car there.

Train tracks at Irmak station. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

The Journey
Today I will be travelling to the city of Batman (yes that is the correct spelling) in Southeastern Turkey. It is quite difficult to board the train at Irmak because the platform is neither long nor high enough to comfortably climb the steep steps of the carriages. And quite frequently I have to climb the steps from the tracks because I am at the very end of the whole train and the engineer doesn’t pull up the train far enough for the last carriage to reach the platform. Then it is nearly impossible to board the train without help and I have even seen people fall from the steps. Oooh, and I forgot to mention: this is actually my weekly or bi-weekly commute!

Violin and compartment. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

Once on board, I quickly proceed to the back of the carriage where my seat/bed is. This is literally the very end of a ten-carriage train. Behind my compartment there is only a bathroom and the train ends there. This bathroom is typically the cleanest on the whole train since it is used only by the sleeper carriage passengers, who are generally only a few. I prefer this last compartment of the whole train as it is rather isolated and quiet, though shakier than the rest of the train. Even when the carriage is full or at least very crowded, this is the spot that has the least passenger traffic walking by my door. This is important since I will be practicing my violin and I also love the feeling of solitude.

Muted nighttime practice. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal
Muted nighttime practice. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

Preparing for the road
It takes me a little while to settle. Before I even sit down I remove everything I might need from my suitcase; put the perishables into the small refrigerator, yes, there is one neatly placed under the desk behind a cupboard door; change into something more comfortable (I have a long way to go), and hang a plastic bag on one of the coat hooks that acts as my garbage. Next, I do a quick cleaning and a few wet wipes do the job. I wipe the laminated surfaces of the desk, the pull-out table, the sink and the refrigerator doors. If you were to see the wipes afterwards you would understand why I do that.

Bed and compartment. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

Typically the bed is already done when I board the train, but occasionally the conductor comes and quickly fixes your bed. Nowadays I travel with my own blanket cover because I just don’t like to feel of a  woolen blanket touching my skin. Otherwise, the sheets and pillow case are very clean, white cotton material. Having put my luggage on the high glass shelf across from the two beds, I am now ready for my long journey.

I have a whole day ahead in this little cubical of a room and I LOVE it. I love the empty expanse of the Central Anatolian steppes which accompany me on either side of the train, the irregular chuckle of the metal wheels on the tracks right below me with the occasional and sometimes not-so-occasional jerking movement that throws you off your feet if you are standing, and the almost complete solitude that surrounds me.

Anatolian steppes between Kırıkkale and Kayseri. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal
Anatolian steppes between Kırıkkale and Kayseri. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

Why 25 hours
The trip from Ankara to Batman on the Southern Kurtalan Express used to take approximately 25 hours. This has recently been shortened by an hour and a half since you have to get off the train at Irmak, long before Ankara. But the trip still takes nearly a day and, if there is a delay, could be several hours longer. Ankara to Batman, which became a province a little over two decades ago, is more than eleven hundred kilometers (684 miles) by car. It is 753 kilometers (468 miles) as the bird flies and direct flights between the two cities take approximately 70 minutes. But the train is a different story. This is mostly a rather mountainous terrain and it is simply impossible to build any straight road unless you dig many tunnels. This would have been too expensive and perhaps impossible with the technology of the 1930s and 40s when the line was built, so the railroad simply follows the contour of the land, meandering through many valleys imitating the stream just below, allowing the passenger a slower, but visually very pleasing experience.

Winter scene in Elazığ province. Two diesel engines at work on ice. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal
Winter scene in Elazığ province. Two diesel engines at work on ice. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

At the time of construction the power of the engines must not have been strong enough to climb big ramps, so in order to change elevation the tracks do slaloms. There are locations we simply do almost whole loops, going down or up a major ramp: now we face the sun and a minute later the sun is behind us and again and again. You can see the tracks from your window where you will be in a few seconds. So this is one of the main reasons why the trip takes so long. As the metal bird flies 753 kilometers to Batman the train travels 1200 kilometers, 1198.062 to be exact. 

Village of Kürk, Province of Elazığ, eastern Turkey. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal
Village of Kürk, Province of Elazığ, eastern Turkey. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

One last reason is the number of stops on the road. Even though this is an intercity service, it also serves the small towns and even some hamlets on its route stopping at an amazing 72 stations. Some of these stops are like the way drivers stop at four-way traffic stops in the United States, barely coming to a stop sometimes honking its horn and moving again within seconds. Perhaps it is time for a short coffee break while enjoying the bright autumn sun shining on the now mostly yellow Anatolian landscape with flocks of sheep here and there, and lines of poplars, a staple of Anatolian villages, lining a field or stream.

Evening sun and Mount Argaeus. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal
Evening sun and Mount Argaeus. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

As the early winter sun paints the post-harvest fields to shades of orange, I sip my coffee gazing into places I cannot see. I don’t even use coffee creamer because I have fresh milk with me. I guess the next step will be to bring a small kettle along. The door of my compartment is open since the conductor has locked the entrance to this final carriage and nobody wanders back here. Evening sun pours in sometimes from my window and sometimes from the open door as we meander toward the city of Kayseri. I smile to myself thinking Akşam güneşi güzele gelira Turkish proverb meaning “the evening sun shines on that’s beautiful”. It is time to practice the violin. This is one of the reasons I travel by train and in a sleeper car. It provides me with much time to work, write, practice, read and even watch movies. I have a metal mute, typically known as a hotel mute that makes my violin sound like a mosquito. Is it going to be a Bach unaccompanied sonata or passage work from the solo repertoire I have been performing the last two years. As I continue playing, the legendary/biblical mount Argaeus (Erciyes in Turkish) greets me with all its splendor. An ancient and almost always snow-capped volcano, Mount Argaeus was instrumental in the creation of the famous fairy chimneys at Cappadocia. Long defunct, Argaeus rises from the Anatolian Plateau to an imposing 3916 metersArgaeus and I catch regular glimpses of each other as my train speeds toward the city of Kayseri (photos above and below).

Mount Argaeus (Erciyes in Turkish) and sommer fields near Kayseri. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

By the time we arrive at Kayseri, ancient Caesarea renamed in 14 CE after the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, it is almost dark. Evening hours on the train bring a different sense of solitude. A deep feeling of sorrow, quiet and being lost in this ancient land takes over. Thoughts of all kinds, past and family crowd into my head and I decide to skip both practice and movie. I pull the bed down. Turn off the lights. There is a full moon tonight. A magical scene of isolation lies farther than I can see, even imagine. Moonlight silhouettes the rolling hills of the Anatolian steppes. Distant lights from the occasional village flicker as the engine pushes into the night. The distant chug of the engine and the rhythm of the tracks beneath make the perfect lullaby. As I gaze into the darkness outside, separated from the masses in the front I slide to a different plane.

Tunnels in Elazığ Province, Eastern Turkey. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

As the train slides on the meandering tracks, the celestial dome seems to rotate above head. Dry silhouettes of poplars, the most common tree in the Anatolian landscape, appear illuminated against the dark backdrop of the steppes of Asia Minor. Distant lights wink as though accompanied by a slow, beat-less new age music. There are times it feels like I am the only person on Earth. This feeling gives me a very different perspective on life. You find yourself reflecting, sometimes questioning yourself, and asking “Why”. We live in crowded cities, in heavy traffic, among inconsiderate drivers and people, and I find this time of solitude meditative and healing. Feeling the warmth of the cabin against the frozen tundra gives one a sense of comfort and a home-like feeling. As the train pushes into the dark night, my eyelids feel heavier and heavier until they drop.

Frozen tundra and Mount Argaeus, Kayseri Province, central Anatolia. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal
Frozen tundra and Mount Argaeus, Kayseri Province, central Anatolia. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

Due to the number of curves on the tracks and their sharpness there could be much squeaking but I have solutions for when the noises do bother me. I always have earplugs and a sleeping mask on me to use when I sleep, as even the slightest light and unexpected noise can wake me up. In some compartments I realized track noise comes in through the sink hole. Once while shaving I realized the noise seem to stop due to the water collecting in the sink. There was my solution: now whenever there is too much track noise coming in from the sink hole a piece of a plastic bag and water do the job. I put the plastic on the hole and run some water on it which stays there and simply blocks the opening that reaches down to the tracks. The only such pollution I cannot fix is the people smoking. Even though smoking is not allowed anywhere on the train, many people do. The smell of smoke filters into any compartment – hell for non-smokers like me. I regularly warn people but even the TCDD personnel think it is a too long a journey not to smoke!

Rail bridge on Karakaya Dam lake, near Malatya. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

When I wake up in the morning I am always a little anxious and curious. Where are we? Did I sleep so well that I have not enough time to pack? We are in the middle of nowhere. Are we running late? Because once we were late almost five hours! It can happen. It is a single track and if some other train derails you wait. Yes you wait. Do you have any other choice? No! But today we seem to be running on time even though when I boarded the train yesterday we were behind almost an hour and a half. So, just like the airplanes, the trains can make up for lost time.

I like to arrive, wherever I am arriving, as if I come directly from home. So my morning routine involves perhaps a little exercise if there is time, shaving, breakfast, and getting dressed. Shaving is always fun and a little dangerous if you use a straight blade like me as the train sways and jerks you around. But thankfully I don’t cut myself any more than I would at home.

Pretend train conductor! at Ergani, Diyarbakır Province

Shattered dreams
That rainy and gloomy day I was trying hard not to shake my hand as I prepared some flashcards for teaching and a big thumping noise made me jump in my seat. Even though I know this happens frequently as the train slowly pulls into or leaves small towns east of Diyarbakır, like Çöltepe and Bismil, and ghetto-like industrial areas of Diyarbakır, it catches me by surprise almost every time: the stoning. Mostly children throw rocks at the train. Young children don’t cause much damage, probably some dents. There are, however, other reasons behind this act of vandalism and not-so-young children who also stone the train frequently break windows. Today, though it did catch me by surprise, I was lucky. My upper window survived the attack with only a crack, but the compartment next-door currently not occupied was not so lucky. Its window will have to be replaced as it is fully shattered. This act is surely an expression: an expression of anger and perhaps even hatred. For these “children” the shattered glass is simply a reflection of their shattered dreams.

Train window shattered by a thrown rock. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

Like all good things the long train trip also has to come to an end. If you are travelling south to Adana or Mersin on the Çukurova Ekspresi, the first lights of the day greet you as the train descends from the Taurus Mountains to the Çukurova Plateau through a series of 22 tunnels, totaling 12 kilometers, and as many viaducts. Having crossed this very difficult terrain, the train stops at Hacıkırıjust before crossing the famous Hacıkırı or Varda Köprüsü (see below), built by the Germans between 1907 and 1912 as part of the Istanbul-Baghdad-Hicaz Railway. Passed the bridge, the train speeds down a long ramp toward Yenice, the midpoint between the cities of Adana and Mersin, where the cotton fields of Çukurova or, in April, the dizzying scent of the orange blossoms welcome you.

German (Hacıkırı or Varda) Bridge on Taurus mountains, Adana province

The Kurtalan Ekspres takes you further east to the cities of Diyarbakır and Batman in the northern proximity of Ancient Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent. A mostly treeless scenery of yellow fields along the banks of the Biblical River Tigris and soaring temperatures near 50° Celsius during the summer months envelope you in this ancient land. In contrast, only to the north, the Doğu Ekspresi arrives at Kars near the Turkish-Armenian (former Soviet) border when temperatures dip into 30° Celsius below freezing in January. Snow-covered half the year, the train’s route goes through Sarıkamış, one of most popular ski resorts in Turkey and arrives at Kars surrounded by frozen lakes and tundra

Orhan with diesel engine at Batman station. Photo: Orhan Ahıskal

The only arrival by the sea is in İzmir since the Ankara Ekspresi, the sleeper that used to go between Ankara and Istanbul, ceased to exist as the main train terminal Haydarpaşa Garı on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus has been sadly closed for a decade. Arriving at Izmir is very pleasant as the train goes along long stretches of vineyards and even tunnels created by pine trees planted along the tracks long time ago. Dark blue waters of the Aegean greets you in the Bay of İzmir just before your train arrives at Alsancak Garı . I always get a sense of sadness as another journey ends: sometimes twelve, sometimes sixteen, and sometimes after twenty five hours on the train.

[1] Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Vintage Books, London, 2011, p.396.
[2] Yüksek Hızlı Tren in Turkish. Similar to the German ICE and French TGVs but not as fast only reaching up to 256 kph

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