2011
03.18

SYNOPSIS:

A day on the train.  A few thoughts about the Euphrates and a few more about Atatürk.

In 36 hours the Dogu Express takes you from the western part of Turkey all the way up to its north-eastern tip.  That is, if it is on schedule.  By the time it got to Divrigi it was 24 hours into the trip and already 3 hours late.  It don’t mind waiting for three hours – part of traveling are numerous exercises in waiting – but this delay will make me break one of my fundamental safety rules and that did not endear me to this train.  I go to great length not to arrive with all my luggage and valuables at an unknown destination after dark.  This delay will give me no choice.  I am praying to the pantheon for an honest taxi driver and a safe arrival at some hotel!

Time at the Divrigi station flows at about half tempo:  There were five men working today who had little else to do than going back and forth between their office at the station and the public fountain to rinse tea cups, or to fill water bottles.  Or they came out for a smoke.  And once in a while two of them got really busy connecting or disconnecting the single locomotive which pushed a few freight cars first back and then forth to what looked to me the exact spot it had started at.  A double locomotive stopped three times and one of the men came out to greet the driver.  Stress is not the word…

I was one of three travelers leaving Divrigi.   The two others must have called in since they knew about the delay and only showed up a quarter before noon whereas I had been sitting there since a quarter before nine.  At least I got two cups of tea out of this wait which the kind train employees shared with me.

The train itself is comfortable, clean, warm (but not too warm), non-smoking and overall a pleasure to ride.  With a name like Dogu Express you would expect some speed, but at best we are rolling moderately.  With a lofty name like Dogu Express you would also expect that it connects only the most important cities, but it definitely stopped at every barn between Divrigi and Erzincan and almost every barn from there on out – perhaps, because there is no viable alternative to the train or because that’s just the way it is?

For hours the tracks faithfully followed the valley the Firat Nehri River has carved into the mountains.  But wait: Firat Nehri is just the Turkish name for the Euphrates!  We were going the opposite direction but parallel to the Euphrates almost the entire way.  This was exciting.  The Euphrates is far from what it is in Syria.  But it is a sizable river with a good strong current.  I remember my surprise in Syria when I heard that the Euphrates no longer floods; there simply is too little water left for flooding.  As I found out here, to the chagrin of its neighbors, Turkey is damming much of the river – 20 damns are planned, 17 have already been completed.  No wonder there are no more floods down river.  I am curious to see what is left of the Euphrates in its final country, Iraq, in just a couple of weeks!

The ride took us through some formidable mountain terrain and through dozens of tunnels.  At times it seemed we were just feet away from the mountains, at times the landscape opened up into some fertile valleys.  Among endless stretches of wilderness, there were tiny villages, ten houses perhaps?  Who on earth lives here or wants to live here?!

This trip will be eight hours long, covering less than 400 kilometers.  This is slow.  But the tracks are winding and probably pretty old.  At least I don’t have to worry about transfers or layovers.  I might just as well fit in a bit of sightseeing at Erzurum since I have to stay there overnight anyhow.

Since I have time, I read up a bit more about Atatürk and the history of Turkey.  I can see now where his dark chapters are:  He would be called a racist today – I suggested that before.  But perhaps, he would even be accused of ethnic cleansing.  His vision for a new Turkey did not have any room for non-Turkish speaking minorities.  He pretty much expelled thousands of Greeks, cleaning out entire villages in some cases.  The Greeks returned the favor by throwing out all Turkish-speaking Muslims.  This must have been a mess.  My guide book did not go into any detail, but this seems quite similar to the formation of Pakistan and Israel for that matter with people losing lives, homeland, and property.  He also created a vacuum for the nearly 14 Million Kurds of Turkey which promptly led to ongoing strife, even civil war in the south-eastern parts of Turkey.  Only in recent years have real efforts been made to integrate the Kurds on one hand, but to also allow their culture, language, and traditions to flourish.  I knew there had to be a price to pay for all the reforms he pushed through.  I wonder if he could have handled these issues differently.  He seemed to have based his decision on the failed experiences from the multi-cultural Ottoman Empire.  When the pendulum swings, it swings far…

And since I have some time at this very slow express train, here are some general observations I wanted to mention sooner or later:

Much like in Lebanon, I am left to my own devices in Turkey.  People don’t stare or laugh at me as they did non-stop in Iran.  People don’t attach themselves to me as they did all the time in Syria.  And people don’t harass me as they did all over Egypt.  I just go about my business.  I am received in very friendly ways everywhere I go.  The offers of tea at the train station, at the UNESCO sites, or even in the middle of town speak volumes.  But people seem to respect a certain sphere of privacy which is more typical of the western world than of the Middle East from what I have experienced.  Surprisingly few people speak English well enough to communicate.  What’s your name and where are you from?  That is the usual extent of the language skills.  I have to admit that I am still struggling with my basic five words in Turkish…  Turkish is tricky.  It relates to nothing familiar, almost like Finnish or Hungarian.

One occupation I have not seen in ages seems to be wide-spread in Turkey:  The bathroom attendant.  There are public bathrooms at literally every corner and all of them are attended by a full-time employee who just sits there all day long collecting 50 cents per person and handing out little sheets of tissues!  What is wrong with this picture?  Is this a way to keep unemployment low?  Would it not be cheaper to let people just use the bathroom for free and not pay a person to mind the place?  This baffles me.

Once and again I am impressed with the cleanliness of the country.  The rivers are free of trash, roads are clean, cities and parks are clean and people seem to care.  People are helpful and friendly.   I have seen beggars but not in unusual numbers.  I have not seen drug or alcohol problems as I have seen in Iran, but out here, in the more rural parts of Turkey, not every grocery store sells beer anymore.  You now have to look for the famous Efes sign – Turkey’s own brand of a very tasty Pilsner beer.  I have had one almost every night.  And now I am heading to the train restaurant to see if they have dinner.

Wish me luck for getting safely to a hotel.

P. S.  Just before the train arrived a middle aged man approached me through a younger guy who spoke English asking where I was going and offering help.  Red alert?  Yes and no.  I told them that I was going to a hotel and the man claimed he knew where it was and would get me there.  The younger man urged me to take his offer.  Will I be safe, I asked?  The young guy laughed and translated the question.  I was assured, I would be.  And since the man did not ask me to get into a taxi with me but offered to walk me to the hotel, I accepted.  And here I am  – safe and sound.  And internet connected!

Thanks, pantheon.  Thanks, Turkish guys.

Good night.