The day we crossed the snowy divide
Train travel: France, India, Turkey, The brothers Karamazov and my daughter Alyosha
I’m on a Eurostar train - London to Paris. Then I’ll take another train from Paris-Montparnasse to Châtellerault in the Vienne, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart country, northeastern France. I am heading there to film a family I met a few months ago, three sons and their mum who live in a wind-swept-shack, in the middle of hay and wheat fields, who live off potatoes, eggs and rabbit stew. The house has not changed in fifty years and the mother told me, this is how it will be till the end
Love trains, don’t you? The speed, the people all around, some grumpy like the woman two seats down who seems on the warpath with someone, somewhere, out there on the other-end-of-her phone-land. The little child stuffing his face with sweets as his father snores. The man who makes sure everyone obeys the silence rule. The other lady who wears her mask almost covering her eyes. The lovers behind me who kissed, as though nothing could fall. He is French, she is English.
And the shame was on the other side.
Oh, we can beat them, for ever and ever,
Then we could be Heroes, just for one day. (Bowie)
I have always found trains exhilarating. As a kid there was a television programme made with stiff wooden toy people. Each week an adventure. The tune for the series was Chigley: Time flies by when I'm the driver of a train . . . Under bridges over bridges to our destination . . . Puffing through the countryside there's so much to be seen.
Unlike a plane or a boat where it is hard to anchor one’s self and we depend much more on nature, a train glides, tracks on ground, allows for dreams, speeding fast, but not fast enough to miss the leaves that shiver on February’s trees, not fast enough to miss the lace-curtain windows in the nearby flat as we draw out to the already darkening skies of 5pm Paris. Yet not slow enough to catch the name of the streets as we pass. A train offers that happy balance of exotic, banal and the momentary. And is safe.
When I met my biological mother many years ago, I took the slow train up to London. Then the trains were slower, smellier, and the seats covered in stained material. They were also very cramped and we could still smoke in the carriages. To the right, the smoking den, to the left for the purists. However, the smoke always made its sneaky way into the entire train. It reeked.
I went with trepidation that hot day in the summer when I wore a green scarf to bring calm and clarity - and lost it at Charing Cross Station. This snippet is not about my mother Suzanne, nor our meeting, it is about the two important pieces of information she gave me in our nine-hours never-to-reoccur-meeting.
First, my biological father was Lebanese, not Iranian. I had been obsessed with Iran/Persia, marrying an Iranian for the heritage I thought I owned. And my paternal grandfather, George, worked in India as a chef on the trains for a while before the Second World War, and had lucid dreams and heard voices. This information I packed away into a place in my heart to retrieve at a later time.
It delighted me. I loved trains.
My daughter’s name was born on a train between Rameswaram and Delhi years before her birth. I lay in the sweltering heat on a tiny top bunk with my love, a slim-hipped romantic Iranian student called Siavash, who tried to avoid going back to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. We read The Brothers Karamazov, a book my dear father Marius had given me before I left for my overland trip to India. We read the entire book, bar the last chapter, as the train stopped and started, and people got off and on, and a baby was born, the toilets blocked, an old man died and lay in the corridor for hours till we stopped at a small station and his body was carried away - I cried and cried. There was another old man with perfect English, hands behind his back, upright and stern, yet kind, with a twinkling gold tooth in the right side of his mouth. These are details one remembers, strangely. He spoke gently, stop crying as it was but a body and his soul is now free. We continued to read, sometimes Siavash, then me. We got to Delhi and I never read the last chapter, but knew the day I had a boy or girl they would be called Alyosha. And one day, that boy or girl would read me the last chapter.
It still has not happened. I still do not know what happens at the end of the novel.
Alyosha. My travelling companion, with whom I have covered much of the globe.
I was leaving again,
this time with Alyosha, for Iran.
I was heading out to meet Siavash, twelve years later, and take Alyosha to meet his family. He had spent many years on and off in political prison, and managed to get an amnesty to meet us in Istanbul, meaning that his family paid lots of money to get him out.
Alyosha was now five - just the right age for longer travel. We left our home in Tuchan village, South West France. A suitcase and three large bags of books followed behind us. We arrived in the UK to say goodbye to my parents and friends who waved us off to Heathrow Airport in a cab. It was early October. I knew we had to try and get into Iran before midwinter came. I had no fear about Iran, having Alyosha with me would make the journey easier as Turks and Iranians adore children.
I was not going to be disappointed.
First, Siavash and I had to get married to enter Iran together. We headed for Ankara by bus where the Iranian embassy was willing to grant a temporary visa for me. This took most of our money and the plan to enter Iran regally by plane soon vanished into the cold smoggy air. The only option was train or bus. A dear friend called Mojo had survived the worst bus crash in the history of Turkey a year before between Izmir to Ankara, and was the only survivor. He begged us to take a train. We settled for the fast train to Sivas-Ezerum, over snowy mountain passes, which would take 11h 18 mins said the ticket officer. But, there is a faster train that takes 11h and 5 minutes.
I had never been through Central Asia, only as far as Istanbul where I had lived for a year teaching English before Alyosha was born. Even though Istanbul is half in Europe and half in Asia, I am not sure it ever counted as Asia Minor in my mind.
I dreamt of the grand Orient Express which would chug us slowly through Turkey. Alas, this was not to be.
From Ankara, the train ride out to the eastern provinces was not glamorous and it was freezing inside the carriages. I could see it was going to be very, very cold because families were pulling on coats and gloves, and carrying small wooden sticks and small cans of paraffin to heat a fire in case of a breakdown, of which there were going to be many. We had all three layers of clothes wrapped around us for the entire journey.
Alyosha did not care. Kids don’t feel cold in the same way. She was ecstatic as she had the entire train to run about in. She made friends with some Kurdish kids, which saved me as our 11 hours and 5 minutes became two days with a final breakdown in Sivas where we had to stay in a hotel to wait for another train to Ezerum. Alyosha disappeared with the Kurdish family, literally, while the landscape became more religious, the headscarf the hijab, the air colder, the snow falling faster, the bread more like the Iranian Nan-e sangak (stone bread cooked on small hot stones) and the donkeys smaller and more dainty footed.
This part of Turkey is less explored, even now, less walked, even though it is one of the main routes into Iran from this side of Turkey. Sivas is stunning, surround by mountains, 184 in total. It has a mythic feeling. The snow gives the ethereal feelings of timelessness, no tracks on the land, a land so new and fresh and then suddenly, far off a girl, or boy, of a group of shepherds bringing their sheep or goats through knee-high snow opens the horizon ledge to life that does exist in this white cold.
That morning, as our new train finally arrived, the drivers had painted eyes and lashes onto the front carriage, Alyosha, ecstatic, said our the train was the Lady Train. She was the beautiful Doğu Ekspresi which would slide us to Ezerum, which is the city at the highest altitude in Turkey. Here she would break down, and we finally gave up on trains.
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From Ezerum, the only way forward was by bus. It was a simply frozen afternoon as a small group of us waited for the bus to the last town, Doğubayazıt, before Iran, A journey of a few hundred kilometres which would take another day due to the weather.
This point of the journey is far off in my mind as I kept trying not to think of Mojo and the bus accident. A large, built like a wrestler, Karabackhi man in his sixties, with hands the size of of fire bellows, laid out a sheepskin rug for Alyosha to sleep in. He had a bag of dried meat which he’d slip her now and again. She slept almost the entire journey. He spoke in Azeri with Siavash. Talking, smoking, laughing, bantering and drinking Arak. He showed us a photo of his father on a donkey by yurts. He was a Turkic nomad. He explained how he considers Karabakh an independent land, a tiny slither lost between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The photo was taken in 1940 perhaps. The closet I can find is this one which is of a young Turkish boy.
He drank some more and sang rueful songs, cried a little, and told us we were mad to be going to Iran by bus in the winter. He warned us of the brutal frontier crossing in Doğubayazıt where bandits lay in wait, gun smuggling, people smuggling, and resistance fighters in the mountains. Then he softened up, Doğubayazıt is akin to Karabakh as it was the Kurdish capital called the Republic of Ararat. It was also once Armenian, Russian, Iranian, and now has settled for simply, Doğubeyazıt in Turkey. As day breaks we will be able to see Mt Ararat. That always makes me weep.
Mt Ararat. To the beginning of the Biblical world.
Just before the bus arrived in Doğubeyazıt to the warning of another snow storm, an extreme sun shot through the open window to show off Mt Ararat. The bus driver stopped for us to stretch our legs. Mothers began the vigil of breakfast. Little paraffin stoves were propped up, urns of tea made and eggs boiled. From somewhere a man came by with a small van selling bread, a loud speaker blasting to advertise his wares. I walked away from Siavash and Alyosha to a silent spot.
How can one describe a feeling which is so filled with lore, myth, religion, emotion? It is still an impossible feat. I have tried before and try now. This trip is impregnated in my soul forever. If I can never get back this way again, I have the memories, the smells of the air, the sound of mountain silence, the quiver of excitement knowing we were only 29 kilometres from the Gurbulak/Bazargan border crossing, and here we were at the cradle of our western existence.
Today’s climate is different, even in the Covid climate. Iran welcomes visitors. Then it was tough, really tough. The war was not long over, there were sanctions much worse than now, and this border was and still is the one route of hope for many refugees. It is still dangerous, each year many die on the frozen, snowy mountain passes.
No one wanted to take us the border. No one. Nowadays there are minibuses which go regularly.
There was the snow fall coming, there was a feeling of edginess in the small town of Doğubeyazıt. We found a vast and empty hotel like a cement factory. The owner was very suspicious of a couple crossing with a child in the depth of winter. He examined our passports. Even though I had my Iranian visa and temporary marriage certificate, he did not trust us. He phoned through to the border and gave our names. The Karabackhi was right. Something felt wrong all of a sudden, and Noah and his arch under Mt. Ararat were not going to save us.
He showed us to an almost empty room with one large bed. Alyosha used the tiled shinny floors to skid on. The man gave her some warm bread and milk and let us use the kitchen to cook some rice. We could not eat. Siavash was also nervous and left to try and find us a driver for the next morning.
Night fell and Siavash did not come back. The call for prayer mixed with gun shots. I sat on the balcony as the snow began to fall again.
Siavash arrived the next morning at 6.00am. He never told me where he had been or what he had done. But he had a driver ready to take us at 9.00am.
On the way,
in the blizzard our car was stopped by Kurdish soldiers. Our driver told me to not say anything, to be quiet, not to talk in English and let him and Siavash talk.
The three soldiers lent through the window, their Kalashnikovs stuck in the snow, upright. Before I could stop her, Alyosha leaped through the window into one of their arms calling out Papa, Papa, Papa. ( Her birth father is an Iranian-Kurd from Hamadan.)
Passports and control were forgotten. They adored her. I had my little instamatic and two rolls of film. I fiddled desperately to load it. They waited patiently and posed with Alyosha. The snow falling fast.
This photo, captured in time!
We were ushered on our way with smiles, with Alyosha hanging from the window waving, waving till we all disappeared in the storm.
Our driver left us 500 meters from the border. An old man with a cart dragged our bags to the division between Iran and Turkey.
It cost one dollar.
It took five hours to clear the two borders. It was mid-afternoon before we were ushered to the other side to wait for our bus to Tehran. Siavash took this photo just before we got on board.
Another adventure waiting. This time we had not choice. The only way forward was by bus.
I am now nearly in Châtellerault. The people around me hurry to pick up their things.
Mamie will be waiting at the station for me. I have to close this story now as the train announcement reminds us not to forget our belongings.
Thank you for passing by. Have a wonderful week. A great St. Valentine’s day. Thank you for sharing, and for your comments.