Part One of an adventure to Eastern Turkey
Feature photo above: The mountains around Iliç station.
This was a biggie for Jan and I and our friend Michelle. Some considerable months in the planning by Jan and after much liaising with Yeşim at Amber Travel in Kaş, we three found ourselves at Fethiye Otogar clambering aboard the 10pm Kamil Koç coach on an overnight 700km red-eye to Ankara. Sounds awful, but don’t let that put you off. The coach was modern, comfortable and, most importantly at this time of year, cosy warm. The complimentary water and snacks were also most welcome. We hit the first snow up at the Karabel summit on the main road to Antalya and I have to say it more or less stayed with us until we descended from the Karabel on our way home a week later.
You’ve got to like white if you want to take this trip at this time of year!
The coach stopped a number of times for ciggies and comfort breaks and for the most part of the journey the roads were smooth, fast and empty dual carriageways. Finally, we reached Ankara, a vibrant, bustling feel-good city peppered with ultra-modern high-rise skyscrapers, some entirely encased in black glass, many illuminated by futuristic lights. Very Blade Runner. The enormous Otogar was already busy, despite the pre-dawn chill, and we took an enthusiastic taxi ride to the Gar train station where we deposited our bags in a left luggage locker. Now unencumbered, we searched out breakfast in Gençlik Park opposite the station.
The ponds in the park were either drained down or frozen over, but in its lonely emptiness we found a little cafeteria that had a welcoming soba. We also found it full of jovial park workers cheerfully sipping tea and bracing themselves for a busy day’s work chiselling frozen pigeons off the benches. We all hit it off immediately with much friendly handshaking. Jan’s growing expertise in Turkish impressed them no end. Not for the first time this trip.
We had planned to visit various places in Ankara but the weather deteriorated into snow, dampening both spirits and clothes, so we returned to the Gar. This original 1930s very classy Art deco building is connected by a footbridge to the modern YHT (High Speed Train) station, an impressively spacious curving structure and a pleasant place to await the start of your journey. Several pigeons now live inside its capacious interior, having discovered it’s considerably warmer than the park opposite.
Finally, as 5pm approached and passengers gathered in the old station, the Turistik Doğu Ekspresi arrived and we all embarked to the sounds of a jazz band playing on the platform for a birthday group. In such a setting, it was a lovely whiff of nostalgia.
And so we set off, trundling eastward through the Ankaran suburbs and out into the snow-covered countryside as dusk fell, destination Kars, a mere 31 hours away. The train was busy, but certainly not full, with several empty sleeper cabins in our carriage alone. This was fortunate as Michelle discovered a man eating his McDonald’s supper in her cabin, but this was soon sorted with the help of fellow passengers Yusuf and his wife Ayşegül, who liaised with the steward, another Yusef, and the Mac-munching man happily moved to another cabin.
The Turistik Doğu Ekspresi now runs daily and entirely comprises sleeper carriages, each divided into cabins equipped with two bunk beds, a washbasin, fridge and storage cupboard. During the day, the bunks fold up to reveal a pair of seats. In addition to the sleepers, there was one buffet car, two storage carriages and a generator car at the tail end to supply power for the entire train.
As night fell, we made our way to the buffet car for a rather uninspiring and parsimonious evening meal, but any disappointment was tempered by the exuberant birthday group who, having enjoyed the jazz band send-off, were giving their all dancing amongst the tables. With many cabins up and down the train decked out with colourful fairy lights, this was definitely a party train.
Ever slept on a train? It’s – well, interesting. The beds were comfy enough, but it’s noisy in a diddly-da, clatter-over-the-points, rumbling-through-a-tunnel sort of way and you can always tell when you’re going around a bend because it feels like someone’s trying to push you out of bed! That said, it’s perfectly agreeable once you acclimatize and is an essential part of the experience.
The following morning, we awoke to find ourselves approaching Iliç. This was the first of three scheduled stops, each of about three hours duration, allowing passengers the chance to go on an optional excursion. Iliç is on the banks of the Euphrates and a minibus took us to Kemaliye, a small but interesting traditional town deep inside the Euphrates gorge surrounded on all sides by towering icy cliffs. Just outside town, where the road spans the river on a chunky girder bridge, lies the entrance tunnel to the notorious Taş Yolu, the infamous Stone Road of Kemaliye. Started in 1877, only finished in 2002 and with 38 wing mirror-scraping tunnels, this is 7km of hand-hewn, cliff-clinging, vertigo-inducing terror and of one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
Yeah, not that brave – we gave it a miss…
Back on the train again, we rumbled for the next 100km alongside the infant Euphrates in a succession of spectacular gorges. At this point, there’s no indication that this modest stream flows on for another 2000km to become one of the mightiest rivers in history. There were no roads in these gorges, just our single track railway plunging in and out of tunnels (we were told there are 220 between Ankara and Kars), winding its way always eastward.
Next stop, a few hours later, was Erzincan, notable for one thing only – we lost the train! A couple of minibuses carried some intrepid passengers into town but to be honest there did not appear to be much to lure us away from the station, so we took a stroll along the platform to stretch our legs. Suddenly, to our astonishment, there was a blast on the hooter, the train lurched into motion and trundled off into the distance, eventually disappearing around a bend.
There was one of those tumbleweed moments, you know, when the silence is only broken by the low moan of wind and menacing croak of a hungry crow. Everything we possessed was on the train – money, passports, coats, woolly socks, emergency biscuits, the whole nine yards. The stop was scheduled for three hours and we knew the minibuses would eventually reappear, but come on – three hours stuck in Erzincan station?
With nothing else to do – and no money even for a çay – we sat in the waiting room and, well, waited. Another train breezed in, deposited passengers who actually wanted to be in Erzincan, then departed. It was at this point I saw our train reversing back into another platform. We all participated in a communal sigh of relief, but to reach our train now meant walking across the tracks. Officials in the UK shout at you very loudly if you even think about crossing the tracks in a station, so what would the reaction be here. Well, guess what – this is Turkey. Other passengers returned and positively launched themselves across the tracks like lemmings, so we just joined in with the crowd. Never has a tiny cramped sleeper cabin been so welcoming. On reflection, it’s now obvious our train was only moved to allow the local train access to the station.
We pushed on. The light faded again and by the time we reached Erzurum it was fully dark. This is a big city with a long and distinguished history – and it was absolutely perishing! The station is another Art deco classic and beautifully illuminated but it was too cold to spend admiring its clean lines. Buses were laid on to take us passengers for an evening meal and whistle-stop tour of the city centre. Ours had leather seats. In this weather? If your bottom wasn’t cold beforehand, it most certainly was afterwards!
Erzurum is noted for its cağ kebap, a horizontally stacked and marinated lamb kebab offered on the skewer, and accompanied by the very amiable Yusuf and Ayşegül, we were taken to one of the numerous restaurants specializing in this local delicacy. The food was tasty and most welcome, but there was no time to linger. We were whisked away to the city centre for a peep at its historic buildings. The floodlit panorama was impressive, with the ancient citadel opposite the 13th century Çifte Minareli Medrese, a beautiful twin tower monument from the Seljuk era.
The only thing not impressive was the temperature. It was very, very cold. Frozen snow crunched underfoot. Thankfully, we had now dressed appropriately and with proper boots and two pairs of socks, my feet were toasty. My legs were also thankful for a pair of long-johns under my jeans. Classy.
A short walk on icy pavements brought us to the Erzurum Evleri. Created from a combination of several historic houses, the fascinating interior was an intriguing rabbit warren of original and authentic Ottoman rooms leading eventually to a restaurant. Traditional folk dancing was already in progress and Ayşegül was off like a shot to join in with cheerful enthusiasm. Yusuf had to drag her away when it came time to depart and rejoin the train, our thawed fundaments once again instantly chilled by the frigid leather seats in the coach.
Once back on the train, we dozed for a few hours before being roused by Yusef the steward calling our imminent arrival in Kars. Any doubt we’d reached our destination was dispelled when he promptly whipped the still-warm sheets off our beds! The train finally pulled in at 2am. We three shared a taxi with Yusef and Ayşegül – there was much giggling and sitting on laps in the back seat – before we skidded to a halt on the treacherous ice-covered road outside the Güngören Otel. Yusef and Ayşegül waved goodbye and headed off to their own accommodation leaving us to hurry into the warmth.
At last, after an overnight 700km journey sat upright and unable to sleep on a coach, followed by a fascinating and eventful 31 hour 1300km railway journey, a warm, spacious and non-moving bed beckoned.
We had finally arrived in Kars.
A NOTE ON EXCURSIONS:
These are all optional. If you wish, you can remain on the train during these stops. Prices are as follows:
Iliç excursion to Kemaliye: 40 lira per person.
Erzincan excursion: No idea. Our money departed with the train!
Erzurum excursion: 60 lira per person, including cağ kebap dinner, guided tour of the historic town centre (in Turkish only) and visit to Erzurum Evleri, but not including any drinks.
First published for Fethiye Times, 22 January 2020