All Aboard for Anatolia

The Journey East: By overnight express to Kars

Raf Jah introduces Cornucopia’s 55-page exploration of Turkey’s compelling northeast, with description of the train journey from Haydarpaşa Station, on the Bosphorus, to the old Iron-Curtain border town of Kars

We arrive at Karaköy in time for the 7am Istanbul Maritime Lines ferry to Asia: my wife, Francisca, my friend Mike Eggars and myself. The vessel’s diesel turbines shake the decking and the brass propellers churn the water as we surge away from Europe. Avoiding the occasional tanker, bulk carrier and numerous fishing skiffs, we plough between two continents. The weak morning sun shines on Dolmabahçe Palace and the high-rises of Taksim and Sisli. All too soon we are docking at Haydarpasa railway station, a German schloss parked beside the Bosphorus.

My experience of restaurant cars on Turkish trains has been mixed: sometimes there will be one, sometimes not. Just in case, we have a reasonable breakfast at the station, whose restaurant is one of my favourites. With its blue-tiled walls and simple painted ceilings, it is a secret gem enjoyed only by commuters – the first bread of the day for the incoming businessman, the last glass of rakı before the train home.

The Dogu Ekspresi (Eastern Express) is, I believe, Turkey’s longest domestic train journey. Leaving Haydarpasa, it trundles down to Eskisehir, up to Ankara, down to Kayseri and up to Sivas, then east to Erzincan and Erzurum before it finally halts at Kars, 30 miles from the old Soviet border. In earlier times the express would continue to Yerevan in Armenia for a direct connection to Moscow, but it was never a deluxe, Orient Express affair. When I first took the Eastern, in 1991, it was a grimy train with a few carriages of old but comfortable Pullman seats, filthy couchettes and, if you were lucky, a snack bar. Much has changed. Before us is a fully air-conditioned, seven-carriage express. The Pullman seats are cloth-covered, the couchettes spotless and an excellent restaurant car serves hot meals all the way to Kars. At the back is possibly the most luxurious sleeper car outside Moscow. We climb aboard, stow our stuff and wander off to the restaurant car with its large windows.

At exactly 8.30 the Dogu clangs and bangs and, with a screech, pulls out of Haydarpasa. The electric engine pulls the short train easily along the coast for two hours. We sit at our table drinking cay and watching the small ports bordering the Sea of Marmara and the industrial arm of Istanbul slide past.

After Izmit, the train climbs into the rocky hills as we enter Anatolia proper. The people we pass are different, their attitudes, dress and demeanour softer and more colourful. When the train halts at small stations women in headscarves climb aboard or simply watch the train go by.

After five hours we slide to a halt at the Tatar-speaking city of Eskisehir. I take to my sprung mattress and snooze until someone bangs on my door. “Sir, our carriage has blown a fuse,” says our conductor. “The fuse cannot be repaired by the engineers here and so we have to change carriage.” “Where are we?” I ask. “Ankara,” he replies and moves on down the carriage, banging on doors.

The operation involves all the sleeper car’s passengers getting out of bed, dressing and moving to the platform. We sit around for half an hour as our carriage is uncoupled and a replacement found. While the express disappears, minus our carriage, for a track manoeuvre, a small shunting engine arrives on the next-door platform with a fully made-up sleeper, which it drops in front of us. The express returns and with a bang and a hiss the train is whole again.

After Ankara the scenery changes to the flat of the Anatolian plateau. We watch the sun go down over a dinner of salad, köfte, chicken kebabs and cacik of cucumber and yoghurt. The bed is a little narrow. I bounce very gently as we make our way into the night, but I sleep early and well…

Cornucopia 42 for the complete feature with photographs, plus much more on north eastern Turkey

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 42
  • Four Walks in the Kaçkars

    Kate Clow, pioneering waymarker and author of two walking guides to the Taurus Mountains, has now created a guide to trekking in the Kaçkars. Here she describes four breathtaking one-day walks.

  • A Day on Black Rock Pasture

    By whatever name it is known – whether Karataş Yayla (Black Rock Pasture) or ÇaGrankaya (Singing Rock) – this spur of the Kaçkars is full of drama. Andrew Byfield battled rain and fog to reach its riches


  • Wrestling with Life in the Mountains

    High in the apparently empty Kaçkars, the way of life is as old as the hills. Michael Hornsby joins in the fun at a village festival in remote summer pastures. Photographs by Giulio Rubino


  • A Cold, Harsh Reality

    Norman Stone unravels the history of Kars


  • Portrait of the Artists

    Unlocking the door to the private world of Feyhaman and Güzin Duran, by Maureen Freely

  • The Flutterby Ball

    The Kaçkar Mountains are heaven for butterflies, as the butterfly book author and photographer Ahmet Baytaş, economist by trade, ecologist by nature, discovered when he returned to Yaylalar, the village of his birth



  • Mother of the Uighurs

    The Turkic Uighurs of Western China have long chafed under Communist Chinese rule. Christian Tyler meets their formidable figurehead, Rebiya Kadeer, who spent five years in prison for protesting against her people’s treatment and now carries on her fight for their freedom from Washington

  • Gorgeous Georgian

    Robert Ousterhout is agog at the remarkable Georgian churches of the Tao-Klarjeti, the two medieval Georgian principalities between Kars and the Kaçkars


  • Water Over the Bridge

    For the English-speaking community of Istanbul the suggestion of aqueduct-hunting in Thrace strikes fear into the hearts of all but the foolhardy. Relentlessly cheerful, Prof James Crow of Edinburgh University would laugh off each misadventure and forge onward.


  • Heat and Dust

    Leo Gough grew up in the hothouse atmosphere of Cold War Ankara, where his father was director of the British Institute of Archaeology. He recalls tales of derring-do from the larger-than-life visitors and scholars who passed through the institute’s doors


Buy the issue
Issue 42, 2009 Adventures in Anatolia
£8.00 / $10.59 / 41.55 TL
More Reading
Related Destinations