- What’s On
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In the dead of winter, the photographer and filmmaker Annette Louise Solakoğlu takes the long, slow train journey east from Ankara to the borderland where Turkey meets Armenia and Georgia, scanning the frozen vastness of the north Anatolian landscape
In Orhan Pamuk’s novel Kar, a whole city is covered in deep snow. Kar is Turkish for snow; add an ‘s’ and you have the name of the snowiest city in the country. The architecture of remote and far-flung Kars attests to a turbulent history, under the rule of Armenians, Seljuks, Turks, Ottomans… It was annexed by Tsarist Russia in 1878 and retaken by Turkey in 1920. Standing on a plateau 1,768 metres above sea level, close to the border with Armenia and Georgia, once Turkey’s frontier with the Soviet Union, it is blanketed in white for some 120 days a year. Unlikely as it seems, it has become a tourist destination, home to decent hotels and restaurants serving exceptional food, and just a minibus or taxi ride away from the evocative medieval ghost city of Ani, on every visitor’s itinerary.
The most enjoyable way to reach Kars is by train. My husband and I packed Pamuk’s book and two old-world fur caps, which turned out to be essential. Little did we know about winter temperatures that can drop to below minus 30.
The famed Eastern Express, one of the oldest train lines in Turkey, ran from Istanbul to Kars, a trip of around 48 hours. Since 2019 it has departed from Ankara, passing through five Anatolian provinces across some 1,000 kilometres and almost halving the journey time. Thus our journey started at Ankara’s
old train station in the heart of the capital, an Art Deco building from the early years of the Republic.
Just two weeks before, horrific earthquakes had devastated vast areas of southern Turkey and northwest Syria. All the classy sleeper cars of what TCDD, Turkish State Railways, calls the “Touristic Eastern Express” (Turistik Doğu Ekspresi) were sent to Antakya. We felt this was an excellent decision and gladly settled into the regular train.
The compartment, our private quarters for the next 28 hours, had four seats in daytime mode and a small semicircular table by the window. Two young travellers next door were busy decorating their nest with colourful fairy lights and posing for Instagram selfies. The steward welcomed us with a stack of crisp white cotton blankets and pillows. As we left Ankara behind and rolled into the night, we relished the bread and cheese we had brought for supper. The restaurant car serves only basic snacks and tea and coffee, so it is worth getting in supplies before leaving.
Dimly lit streets and sleepy villages went by. Lulled by the gentle rocking of the train, we continued to read Kar for a while, then rolled the seats over and turned them into beds. And I slept soundly, with WH Auden’s poem ‘Night Mail’ running through my head:
Pulling up Beattock,
a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her,
but she’s on time.
Stanza by stanza the train chugs up and down hills to deliver longed-for letters from all over the world.
At sunrise we found ourselves in a frozen winter wonderland somewhere between Kayseri and Sivas. After a short stop at the iron-mining town of Divriği, with its exuberant medieval mosque, the train cuts through the gorges of Karanlık Kanyon, literally “dark canyon”. Chiselled into the almost vertical cliff, the track runs directly along the Euphrates, making this one of the most scenic stretches.
After the gorges we whistled through a series of narrow stone tunnels and rolled over the wider parts of the Euphrates valley, where the river meanders gently between softly coloured rocky hills. Seeing the landscape change slowly as you sip a glass of tea is one of the joys of train travel in Turkey.
Next stop: Erzincan. The train came to a halt at the station on the edge of a city hit in 1939 by an earthquake not equalled in magnitude in Turkey until the worst of the recent quakes. We strolled up and down the platform, admired the snowcapped mountains all around and quickly got back on board just as the whistle sounded.
An hour before reaching Erzurum, last stop before Kars, the steward knocked on every compartment door to take orders for kebabs. Erzurum’s speciality is çağ kebabı, marinated lamb cooked on a horizontal spit, which a local restaurant delivers to the platform. Erzurum station, at an altitude of 2,000 metres, was covered in glistening ice. The kebab made for a lovely dinner back on the train. We rolled out of the station and, lit festively by the setting sun, started climbing through the central Anatolian steppe towards Kars…
The great photojournalist Don McCullin talks to Maureen Freely of the darkness and light that have marked his life and his searingly truthful work
Since the 1940s time has stood still under the pines and palms of this modest Art Deco villa on Istanbul’s Marmara shore. Berrin Torolsan meets Suna Erbil Demirağ, who has fiercely protected it as a tribute to her pioneering father, who carved out a thousand kilometres of Turkey’s railways before building this much-loved haven. Photographs by Monica Fritz
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