Travelling: Conversations in Trains and on Trails
Finally: Tina Uebel at the end of her six-week journey to Shanghai (Photo: Tina Uebel)
19 September 2010
The land route from Hamburg to Shanghai: Tina Uebel began an unforgettable journey through Central Asia on 16 July. Six weeks later she finally arrived at her destination, rich in new experiences and in the knowledge that as a German, one is envied everywhere. By Tina Uebel
I wish I were still young, says N., who is 47. To decide again what I want to do with my life. For two days, the clickety-clack, clickety-clack of the wheels has set our conversation to a beat. As we were passing through the wilds of Kurdistan, the military encampments buried in the mountains made me think of Karl May and Joseph Conrad, firing into a continent, the latter once wrote, here they are firing into the cragged, karstic denial of a landscape, there will be someplace to fire into. We arrived on Lake Van in the late afternoon, transferred to the ferry and the boat set off from shore in pastel light. A big moon clears its throat in the cloakroom and prepares for its appearance.
You are 47, I say, what can you no longer do with your life, what would you do if you could. I would become a military fighter, says N. She is a person of elfish appearance, rather quiet; it took her a few hours after we left Istanbul to demonstrate how good her English actually is.
N. lives in Teheran, she was visiting her daughter who is studying in Istanbul and her lover, ten years younger, who will try to slip into Schengen Europe illegally from Turkey. If he makes it she will probably never see him again. She loves him so much that she hopes he does. I would walk barefoot through the mountains for him, she says; that is the plan, to get to Switzerland through the Italian Alps. I hike a lot in the Alps, every year, just for fun. Just last summer I went to Italy from Switzerland and back in 24 hours. I climbed up through the trackless high mountains and enjoyed the landscape, the adventure and the good air.
What would you fight for if you were a fighter, I ask. For freedom, says N. For freedom, and not only in my country. I would begin there and then I would keep fighting wherever there’s no freedom. I wouldn’t stop until everyone was free. Her facial expression alternates between Hobbit-like and absolute beauty. We are holding this conversation to the clickety-clack of the rails, we are holding this conversation in the body-temperature night under the wellness light of the moon above Lake Van.
Meanwhile a young chav in a too-tight polo shirt is telling compartment companion Katy what it was like to be arrested off the street at the protests after the election, to have his eyes bound for two weeks, to be tortured, eyes bound, for two weeks and no longer believe he would survive until they took off the blindfold and set him free, after two weeks.
She’d like to be Che Guevara, says N. and smiles like a Hobbit sphinx. She talks about how shitty it is to be a woman in these cultures where a woman is worth less than an animal, a piece of furniture, a service. The two hours previous she sat in a circle of Iranian men and dominated the conversation, a conversation about politics, what else; after we will have gone in a little later to where three guys are dancing to music, applauded and egged on by all the passengers except for the one hodja, who finds it objectionable, it will be N. who gives him a proper theological retort.
Our train began its journey in Istanbul. I danced the tango two nights there. I met Serdar, Attila, Özar and danced with them. I come from a country where people are allowed to dance with one another.
Whether I’m a tourist, A. asks me on a city corner, because it’s hard to overlook it. We sit on a bench in front of the theatre and he tells me how the people were arrested at the university, disappeared, how the professors were fired and replaced by loyal weaklings, how they are even talking about moving the university to a suburb in order to minimize its influence on Tehran city life. You cannot trust anyone anymore; every assumed friend could be a spy and turncoat. Yet they would never give up, he says, how could they give up fighting for freedom.
Maybe my children will be free, says M., or my grandchildren, in twenty or thirty years. He himself is more twenty than thirty. We met on the hiking trail; there are five of them, four boys, one girl, whose headscarf keeps slipping right at the ascent and the manteau is sticking to me with sweat. They have a tent and provisions with them, they will keep walking until nightfall and sleep high in the mountains, do I want to join them. I’d like to. The first few hours you walk though hustle and bustle, a patchwork of restaurants, picnic areas, cafés adhered to the slope like birds’ nests. Then, everything falls behind and the sky spreads over the peaks and us. Only rocks and boulders eavesdrop on our conversations. We all love our country, says N., and we all just want to get out of here if we only could. It’s like living under Hitler, like in North Korea. What do they think of the Iranians overseas, they ask, that’s what everyone asks me. No matter where or when, as a German travelling alone I am naturally an uncensored press agency, and whether the people in Germany are happy. Before we say goodbye, we take a group photo. M. holds the camera, "Say 'Ahmadinejad' and smile," he says as he pushes the release. Below us, framed by the slopes of the steep valley, the first lights go on in a soft-focused section of Tehran.
He has to make it out of the country, says Al., to Germany with the DAAD, or Japan, or Russia, anywhere, he loves his country, but there is no future for him in Uzbekistan. We are walking in the evening light down a mountain trail, first we talked about photography, then about the world. The system is too corrupt and broken down, he says, and he’s already twenty-six, he doesn’t have a whole lot of time left to do something with his life. Here the best he could be is a teacher, but he’s a scientist. We overtake a young shepherd whose family has pitched their tents further up the mountain. A lamb follows us bleating down to the campsite, where Al. and other guys his age put up tents for the trekking tourists whose backpacks they will carry over the mountains tomorrow.
There’s no one that cannot understand that I’m travelling. There’s no one who does not envy me for it; for my passport with which I can easily travel out of and into other countries. At every border crossing, I hold this, my passport, in my hands in amazement and ask myself what I of all people have done to deserve it.
My mother travelled half the globe, but I’m too old, says As. – he is 31 – and have a wife and two small children, if I didn’t have them I would do everything in my power to go abroad. I have an excellent education and now I’m a taxi driver. He’s a taxi driver; two weeks ago he was a banker. The taxi is his BMW. He loves BMWs, but with standard transmission, automatic, that’s not really driving. On his t-shirt the BMW logo is emblazoned right over his heart, there’s another one on his belt buckle. Here in Kazakhstan I don’t have any vocational opportunities, he says, without connections you can’t get a job, you could be a damned genius but without connections or payoffs all you can do is drive a taxi. Then he asks me the price of BMWs in Germany and whether the people there are happy.
As if by prior agreement, almost everyone I met asked me this question, whether the people in Germany are happy. I wasn’t really sure how to respond. I think freedom is, perhaps, like light. You don’t notice it until it’s gone. I think that if we knew how lucky we were, we would be deafened by the constant shouts of rejoicing pealing throughout the land. But, what do I know, I think I don’t know much, that’s why I travel in the hope that I’ll return a little less ignorant. I can travel, I have the passport that allows me to travel and I plan to make good use of it, humbly and thankfully, in an immeasurably big world that you can cross half of in only seven weeks by rail.
Tina Uebel is a writer and journalist. For the Deutsch-Chinesische Kulturnetz she reports in her travel blog about her unusual approach to China, her perceptions of the gradual change in landscapes, language regions and cultures between the two twinned, port cities of Hamburg and Shanghai.