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July 15, 1998
On a recent reporting trip to the Balkans I arrived at the train station in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, a little early for the 10:55 p.m. train to Istanbul, only to learn that the train would be departing more than two hours late. The kiosks were closed. A café was open, with chairs outside in the freezing March night, offering stale wafers and instant coffee in thin paper cups. Rock music blared from a transistor radio by a rusty cash register. I retreated into the station hall where homeless Gypsies had taken refuge, and seated myself atop a radiator that provided a little warmth.
The train finally came at 1:20 a.m. It had no tap water or heating. I fell into a fitful sleep as the cars rattled southeastward into the night, until a Bulgarian immigration official knocked on the door of my compartment to stamp passports. Then the train pulled out of the little border town of Kapitan Andreevo, named for a Bulgarian hero of the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, the results of which had created this frontier with Turkey.
As the train crossed the Turkish border post, invisible in the blackness, I thought about how in the modern age the essence of land travel is to slow time down: one can fly to Istanbul in an hour rather than spend twelve, uncomfortable hours getting there. But how else can one truly grasp the distance between the Bulgarian heartland and Turkey's largest city? Flying from place to place encourages abstractions, whereas land travel brings one face-to-face with basic, sometimes-unpleasant truths. I prefer this form of travel: journeying by second-class car and staying often in cheap hotels while interviewing presidents and ambassadors in the interim. Experiencing daily such extremes of life provides context for the most critical observations: those regarding the hopes and fears of the middle class, such as it exists, in each country.
The idea that a technology like the Internet closes distances is a narrow version of the truth. An American and a Bulgarian might send e-mail to each other, but once they walk away from their computer screens each has to deal with the reality of a vastly different society: one where you have to pay protection money to keep your car or house from being vandalized, and one where you don't; one where your currency is worth something, and one where it isn't; one where the Second World War ended in 1945, and one where it really didn't end until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Indeed, because of the precipitous decline in both the quantity and quality of foreign news coverage in the United States, it was harder during my recent travels than in the 1980s to know beforehand what, exactly, I would encounter as a reporter in each country. Thus, I often felt like an explorer. In Bulgaria I found a society that, while labeled a democratic success story, was under siege from criminal groups. What would I find in Turkey, a country that, despite its great size, NATO affiliation, and critical geopolitical position, was like a reliable old uncle, habitually ignored and taken for granted? I had no idea.
The train halted at the Turkish border town of Kapikule, where a customs official brusquely ordered us outside into a freezing downpour. It was 4:30 a.m. He told us to walk fifty yards in the dark to a ramshackle building to have our passports stamped.
"No visa!" the mustachioed policeman said unhappily after leafing through my American passport.
"But I never needed a visa to visit Turkey in the past."
Pointing behind him, he said, "You must go there, to that building."
I reentered the darkness and rain, with my belongings still on the train that threatened to leave momentarily. In the other building I found a uniformed official snoring, his head thrown back and his feet on a desk.
"Visa!" I yelled, holding up my passport.
"Forty-five dollars," he answered, as if talking in his sleep.
"That's an outrage!"
He shrugged. "Forty-five dollars or no visa."
I gave him the money, and he sent me back to the first building with a chit to have my passport stamped.
Countries show their true faces at remote border posts, where the patina of modernity created by an airport is absent. Kapikule had a particularly mean reputation, owing to a tradition of drug smuggling through this point of entry from Asia to Europe, and an awful historical relationship between Bulgaria and Turkey, which has improved only in the past few years. Turkey's brutal, five-hundred-year-long occupation of Bulgaria had been repaid by communist Bulgaria's equally brutal repression of ethnic Turks.
I fell asleep for an hour and woke as dawn was breaking over the Plain of Thrace between Edirne and Istanbul: cities that until the early twentieth century were called Adrianople and Constantinople. Adrianople was the original capital of the Ottoman Turks, from where Mehmet II (known as Fatih, or "the Conqueror") had marched on Constantinople, capturing it from the Byzantine Greeks in 1453. From the train window I saw fog and bare branches on a bleak and bony earth, suggesting a wildness and impermanence manifested by the countless armies that have migrated back and forth through this transcontinental gateway.
Near Istanbul we came across an explosion of cheap construction, as in Bulgaria. But then came the modern highways, gleaming upscale apartment houses, and innumerable, late-model foreign cars parked in the quiet dawn beside villas of real brick, each one adorned with a garden that had been maturing for years -- something that is missing from most Bulgarian homes, with their legacy of communist-inflicted poverty and severe functionalism. The Balkans suddenly seemed very far away, and I realized: Politics mattered! Had the Yalta agreement turned out differently, the disparity that I observed between Bulgaria and Turkey would not have been so great; in fact, it may not have existed at all.
Like many travelers before me, I was coming "to the city" from the less-developed provinces. "To the city" in Greek is I-stin poli, corrupted by the Turks to "Istanbul." Communism's legacy had performed the trick of keeping the Balkan provinces underdeveloped, thus sustaining an earlier era of travel. The train made a sweeping curve along the Sea of Marmara into the egress of the Golden Horn, just when wide gray domes and pencil thin minarets began appearing through the early-morning vapor.
The environs of Istanbul's Sirkeci train station are normally considered an emblem of the exotic confusion of the Orient -- there are the aggressive hawkers by the Galata Bridge, the Ottoman-era Yeni Cami mosque, the spice bazaar, and the crowds jamming the ferry boats for points up the Golden Horn and the nearby Bosphorus. But the decrepitude of the Soviet inheritance was such that after nearly two months in the Balkans, Istanbul's train station for me signified the West.
Robert D. Kaplan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His cover story for the July Atlantic will appear, in somewhat different form, in his new book, An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, to be published by Random House later this summer.
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