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, near the Armenian border.
I can not say exactly how the journey came about, or what kind of neuronal fire must have occurred in my brain the previous month as I lay sweating between the oscillating fans on either side of my bed on the Oaxacan coast of Mexico not – the position in which I undertook to plan my first transatlantic voyage since December 2019.
Before the onset of the pandemic, I led a pathologically wandering existence for nearly 20 years, tossing continuously between countries and continents and nurturing an existential aversion to rest.
Coronavirus put an abrupt end to the arrangement, which was meant to be a two-week stay in Oaxaca in a hitherto unimaginable year and a half.
Since the southwestern Turkish town of Fethiye has been a regular stop on my international circuit since 2004, I decided to make a trip there for the 18-month anniversary of my sedentary existence – and felt immensely relieved that I was not completely lost the urge to move.
Once I sorted out the details of my bed office for a two-week stay in Fethiye – thanks to the universe, as I did every day on the Oaxacan coast, for inventing the oscillating fan – there came out of my cerebral depths came. a memory of a train traveling from Ankara to Kars.
Shortly thereafter, I booked all four seats in one of the dormitories, with my parents’ names and those of a friend, for a total of about $ 45. Cliché visions of romantic chatter through the Turkish countryside flowed through my head along with obligatory flashbacks to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
I have traveled on many trains before, from the old-school Uzbek train that runs from Tashkent to Samarkand and Bukhara to the decidedly unromantic high-speed trains from Western Europe to the Sri Lankan train that runs tea plantations along the mountainside.
There was also the delightfully impoverished Tbilisi-Yerevan overnight between the countries of Georgia and Armenia, and the Cuban freight train on which my friends and I somehow rode ourselves for free in 2006. The crew accommodated us in their sleeping area and smiled while we spent. which seemed like several hours swinging back and forth before it finally progressed 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 sleeping cabin would cost just $ 45 for a trip of more than 24 hours.
As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about on that front. However, I had to worry about the train conductor’s refusal to believe that there was a single dose of coronavirus vaccine – the Johnson & Johnson vaccine I received in August – as well as his refusal to at Google.
Eventually, my suspicious vaccination card and I were allowed to stay on the train, and the conductor dealt with the issue of my three fellow non-passengers by just giving me four pillows.
The Doğu Express came into motion and my cliché mind resumed, presumably as a result of a combination of conditioned nostalgia – and the traditional romanticization of train journeys – plus real nostalgia plus the physically soothing sensation of moving along train tracks.
Leaning against my four pillows, I spent the next 28.5 internet-free hours staring out the window between naps. While the act of prolonged movement was reassuringly liberating after being silent for so long, the lack of the option to even think about going online was in itself acutely therapeutic, as I felt that being human was slowly seeping back into my being.
To use further cliché, it was like coming back to life – and yet at the same time it was a shutdown, as body and mind retreated from a state of constant alertness and dependence on digital stimuli.
This hibernation of sorts elicited a return to a simpler era in which it was normal to just, well, be bored, without feeling the need to consult one screen or another at all times – a normalized behavior that coincidentally benefiting the powers that benefit from converting people into technologically addicted vending machines.
But I was not bored at all. Or maybe boredom has become a novelty.
Not that the 28.5 hours of scenery left much to complain about, as the scenery on this not-yet-dead planet tends to do. And however Oriental it may be in this case, there is a certain imaginary intimacy accompanied by the thug by farmers toiling in a field or men smoking cigarettes at a train station.
More than 12 hours into my journey, somewhere between the stations of Çetinkaya and Demirdağ, I saw what seemed to me to be the most perfect sight I have ever seen – a small hamlet, an Ottoman bridge and sunlight in everything places – all the time guilty aware that said perceived perfection might have had to do with the fact that I was not fast enough to capture the landscape on my camera for future uploads to social media.
In the pre-Internet days, of course, we were better equipped to experience events in real time without even thinking about the need to preserve them digitally – or an inevitably mutilated, cheaper version of them – so that they can be marketed to a social media- audience for quick scroll-and-hold purposes exhausted from any kind of emotional connection.
But those days – though not so long ago – are long gone.
The Doğu Express entered Kars at about 22:30 on 23 September, several hours behind schedule. I took one last breath of freedom and hurried to my Airbnb to post the photos I could actually take on the train on Facebook – more out of an ingrained sense of commitment to the “real world” than out of desire.
By doing so, I almost felt dirty. But for that 28.5 hour, I was able to suspend a reality that is by no means real.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.