Rail travel in Turkey – it really should be top of everybody’s agenda. This is our photographic journey of the Doğu Express (Doğu Ekspresi) overnight train from Turkey’s capital, Ankara to the city of Kars. We were alighting in Erzurum. Let us set the scene…
It’s May 2013 and, so far on our journey, we’ve travelled from Fethiye to Eskişehir by bus and spent three nights in the city, taking in Odunpazarı (the old town), Kent Park and the Porsuk River. Of course, we had fuel stops at a few bars and cafes in between, too. Eskişehir was the Türkiç Capital of Culture for 2013 and we wanted to see what the city was all about. Glad we did go. We’ll be back.
And Eskişehir is quite a compact city, so, when the time came to press on with our journey, we walked to the train station to take the Yüksek Hızlı Tren – YHT high speed train from Eskişehir to Ankara. Uncertainty surrounding our next onward train journey eastwards meant an extra night in Ankara – but we were happy with that…more time to visit the mausoleum of Atatürk; Anıtkabir.
Ankara To Erzurum On The Doğu Ekspresi
And now, finally, here we are at Ankara Garı (the train station). We’ve messaged our friend in Patnos, Ağrı to say we’ve got a train – but not the one we wanted. We wanted the Van Gölü Express that would take us to the town of Tatvan on the shores of Lake Van. ‘Exceptional circumstances’ (the official reason) meant it didn’t leave – and so now we’ve got ourselves on the Doğu Express from Ankara to Kars. We’ll be getting off at Erzurum. Hey, at least we’re going eastwards. We’ll worry about Erzurum to Patnos when we get there…
Inside, the station is beautifully romantic – there’s just something about old train stations and trains. I guess it also helps that this is finally realising two dreams – crossing Turkey by train and we’ll be in the east of the country for the first time when we get off the train.
Seriously; butterflies in the stomach and a happy glow when we see our train with this destination board on the side. Trolleys packed with food, kitchen goods and other supplies for the journey are being unloaded. We set off along the platform to look for what will be our little home for the next 20 or so hours. It’s 5:30pm and we’re due to pull out of the station at 6pm.
Inside The Ankara To Kars Doğu Express Train
We’re greeted at the door by an attendant who takes our ticket and shows us to our cabin. You can see he takes his job seriously – people in these types of jobs usually do, don’t they? He tells us his name as we walk to our cabin door (it escapes me) and, as he pushes the door open we’re pushed back by a whoosh of heat that has obviously been eager to escape for some time.
The attendant tells us he’s here to look after us. If we need anything, call him. The restaurant car is just down there, toilets either end of each wagon. “And, whatever you do,” he says, “don’t open the window in your cabin.”
“The heat will escape and the heating system in your room will close itself off.” He makes a shivering sign.
“Ahh, right, thanks.”
He strides off purposefully down the corridor and we close the door and open the window of the cabin. “If this is an Agatha Christie book,” says Barry, “he did it.”
Private Sleeper Cabin
Long distance rail travel in Turkey is just the best. 80 TL each has got us a 20 hour overnight train journey in a private cabin. We’ve got a couchette, the back of which pulls down to make a bed. Another bed pulls down above that, complete with ladder. The beds are already made. All very clever.
There are hooks to hang your clothes, a unit with cupboard and a little fridge – complementary carton of fruit juice and a bar of chocolate inside. A small sink with hand towels and soap completes the furnishings. AND you have an electrical socket. Time to put our feet up, recharge the laptops, tablet and camera – and gaze out of the window as our train, ever so slowly, rolls out of the station. This is it; the journey we’ve been waiting for!
Ankara To Erzurum – Let’s Go!
At around 8-9 pm, we head to the restaurant car for food. There are a few other people in there and, of course, everyone turns round to have a good look at us; guess we’re the only foreigners on the train, then? The chef and waiter look mildly amused / happy to see us. We’re never sure which. Guess we must be a little novelty in their usual workdays of crisscrossing Turkey so we don’t mind.
Simple But Decent Food
We look through the small menu. We glance to the opposite table and there’s a guy with an Efes. Hmm, we’re thinking it’s gonna be a long while before we have a beer again so we order chicken şiş, chicken pirzola and a beer each.
Memories of that meal: Simple, but completely does the trick, and that the beers are very reasonably priced. If you are considering rail travel in Turkey and are worried about food, you don’t need to be. Back to our cabin. After a bit of reading, it’s a comfortable, gently-rockin-n-rollin sleep to the sound of clackety-clack of train on track. We wake up just after 6 am and open the curtains.
Scenery From The Doğu Express Train
Through the night, we’ve headed southeast of Ankara to Kayseri in the Cappadocia region. From there we’ve changed direction and gone northeast to Sivas and east towards Erzincan. What a feeling to be in the mountains, on a rail track, and not be completely sure where you are.
Eventually, GPS picks us up – it takes a while – and reveals we’re in the Erzincan region of northeast Anatolia. As we’re scheduled to be in Erzurum at 1:15 pm, this is really the last leg of the journey. We’ve got seven hours to take in our first glimpses of the scenery of Eastern Turkey. Even though a couple more hours sleep wouldn’t go amiss (we’ve got a long day ahead of us because we’ve still got to get to Patnos, somehow), the curtains are open and sleepy eyes refuse to close.
Following The Euphrates
From now onwards, we’re constantly following the path of the Euphrates river. We’re heading east and the Euphrates is flowing first west and then south. Mostly, it’s to our left, visible through the cabin window. Very occasionally, we cross it, and, at those times, the corridor of our train carriage is a row of people (including us) taking photos through the window.
Other people stay in their cabins with what looks like the whole family belongings piled into a corner. Some people in Turkey don’t travel light. Maybe they do this route on a regular basis and find it all thoroughly tedious and boring. For us though, we’re on a new adventure. Excuse us while we clamber over your boxes to take photos.
At times, the Euphrates gently meanders through rolling hills.
At others, it forces its way through craggy mountains as we trundle at relaxed pace through tunnel after tunnel (the tunnels were to be Barry’s nemesis as he tried to capture his video). We’ve not seen a building for miles. We’ve been in this gorge for some time…and you just wonder where/how this guy goes home when he finishes doing whatever he’s doing with that yellow box. (We were to have thoughts like that quite often when we were in Eastern Turkey. So vast.)
Time Lapse From The Ankara To Kars Train
And this seems like a good time to drop in Barry’s time lapse video. Just over 2 minutes of beautiful East Turkey scenery from the Doğu Ekspresi put to music; including the arrival to Erzurum. Watch the weather and scenery change as we travel across country. Notice the tunnels, mentioned above. We like this one!
I was tempted to edit these photos, but we wanted this post to be the views through the window of the train. Reflections and window frames have been allowed to stay. This is a post about the journey on the Ankara to Kars train – the Doğu Express – after all.
It’s getting to sensible morning hours by now – around 9 am – so we decide to go to the restaurant again for some breakfast. The chef and waiter wave at us with a smile and bid us günaydın (good morning). And a very good omelette and çay sets us up for the rest of the journey. We don’t hang around in the restaurant car for too long – more photos to be taken.
And the beauty of booking yourself into a sleeper carriage is that they are right at the back of the train. We spend half an hour or so just standing, looking through the rear window, watching the stretch of track disappear over the horizon.
The landscape and the weather changes back and forth – sometimes it’s alpine-like mountain greenery. Other times, we’re travelling through almost baron highlands. Winter has only just passed but you can see spring is already winning the battle and is beginning to make itself visible in these parts. We’ve got sunshine, sleet, rain, heavy cloud, sunshine. And we hope there’s at least some sunshine when we get to Erzurum. A true blessing will be no rain or snow.
The closer we get to Erzurum, the colder it looks. Erzurum has been home to the Youth Winter Olympics – hardly going to be sunshine and beaches is it? We’re grateful for the lack of rain and sleet at this point. We have warm clothes – but we’ve lived in Fethiye for some time now and our bones are easily chilled these days.
A Long Way To Go
This is one of those occasions where the Euphrates is to our right. There’s one lonely herdsman with his flock, and, again, he looks like he’s come from somewhere far away and still has so far to go. We’ve had a text from our friend in Patnos to say there’s a bus from Erzurum to Patnos at 4pm.
This was sounding great at first, but, by now, our 1:15 pm arrival schedule has already passed. We’re not too concerned though. We’re still very chilled on our little train adventure. We’ll get to Patnos somehow, sometime.
Nearing Erzurum On The Doğu Express
Eventually, at around 2:30 pm, we start to roll in towards Erzurum; small settlements on the outskirts give us the clue. Most of the dwellings in this part of Turkey are single storey homes like these in the photo above. Corrugated roofing tops each home. This must be the most useful material for this climate because even brand new apartment blocks and hotels are topped in the same way.
And just what is it that makes this part of Eastern Turkey appear so vast, so remote, so wild? We’ve been through towns and villages so it’s not the lack of buildings. The further east we get, the more remote it seems. We can’t put our finger on it – not yet, anyway. It’s pointed out to us a few days later when we’re in Patnos.
Eventually, at around 3pm, we pull into Erzurum Garı. It’s a neat, modern station – with corrugated roof. We ask a guy in railway uniform where the otogar is. It’s only a couple of kilometres away, he says, and points the directions out. You can walk it in 15 minutes he says.
Wow, yes we can and we will. But this is a first for us. He’s not suggested a bus or a taxi or sucked his breath in as though it’s miles away. It’s only a 2km walk. Our bus is at 4pm. Off we go in search of our next mode of transport to take us to Patnos…
Doğu Express Train – Useful Info
- The Doğu Express timetable is simple – it leaves Ankara Garı (the train station) at 6pm daily. It’s final destination is Kars. A private cabin for 2 people in 2013 cost us 80TL.
- Erzurum is a historic city which attracts many tourists for adventure sports – we can’t do it justice as we only walked between the train station and bus station, so we’ll leave that research to you.
- Despite our problems getting the Van Gölü Ekspresi, this really was a one-off and the trains are generally very reliable.
- The restaurant car on the Doğu Express serves a small menu but the food is perfectly good and reasonably priced. We didn’t test it out during the night but we were told by our attendant we could get food and drink in there at any time during our journey.
- If you’re at all tempted by the idea of travelling by train in Turkey and would like to know full routes, fares, timetables, lines that are closed for maintenance, photos of the trains – just about everything you need to know – then you can do a lot worse than visit the The Man In Seat 61 (the link goes straight to the Turkey section).
- We travelled out of season and the train wasn’t very busy, but if you want to be sure you’ve got a cabin (seats are cheaper if you’re on a very strict budget), you can book online at the TCDD website (there is an English language section of the website).
- You can book hotels in Ankara, Kars, Erzurum & most other parts of Turkey via Booking.com.