The Eastern Express

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There is a certain style to the public announcements when you travel in Turkey. On Turkish airlines, as you taxi to the runway, the safety briefing intones that in the event of an emergency, before the assuming of the brace position, you should loosen your collar and tie. It’s said without satire. The undertone being that, emergency excepted, collar and tie are not only required, but expected to be tight and drawn. You don’t get that sort of class on easyJet.

Some days later, in Istanbul, when I boarded the new YHT high-speed train service to Ankara, the announcement – in Turkish and English – bade passengers to please use ‘indoor voices’ when talking to others.

The indoor voices translation stuck out as slightly dated but all the same, entirely current. Too many people on trains talk into their phones at a volume that gives the impression they are trying to convey themselves across the great outdoors.

The last time I threw my bags onto a train and set off in search of adventure, I was in China and taking the Huang Shan Express in a desperate search for nature. Then there were no English language announcements. And I couldn’t comment on whether the Chinese announcements were delivered in any kind of style.

Both China and Turkey have of late set their sights on a massive expansion of high-speed rail. Both nations see rapid expansion of their infrastructure as a symbol of national pride.

Imposing landscapes are there to be conquered by civil engineers. Both countries are also using the railways – as they used to be used – to tame and tie-in their rebellious frontier provinces.

Whilst China has built thousands of miles of high-speed rail, and even constructed pressurised railway carriages for the high altitude trip to Tibet, Turkish railway projects seem beset by delays.

China of course – with a population over a billion, has both the money and manpower to build quickly. It takes resources to move mountains and dig tunnels.

Turkey though is perhaps beset by its past. Its experiment with a vast expansion of its railways dates back to the 1930s when the route from Anakra to Kars was built. The line has seen scarce improvement since. The train trundles slowly across the Anatolian plateau, through tunnels and bridges that cover the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

My plan was to take the Eastern Express from Istanbul to Kars, a small town on the Turkish / Armenian border.

The Eastern Express used to run the length of the country, nearly 2000km from Istanbul in the West to Kars in the East. And I had signed up for the whole trip .

But the new high-speed service has now taken over the Istanbul – Anakara section, cutting the route shorter. Now all that remains of the old route is the section from Ankara East. Even so it’s still a 4 hour ride to Ankara, followed by a 25 hour-long train trip from there to Kars.

I had been looking forward to a day’s enforced relaxation. I had a small stack of books I was hoping to work my way through – but I also have a legendary ability to happily spend hours staring in wonder out of aeroplane, car, train or boat windows watching the scenery go by. When in motion, I’m never bored.

The day before setting off I had visited the beautiful Haydarpasar station on the Asian side of Istanbul, which has now sadly been mothballed pending the completion of the new high-speed line into the city centre.

Trains from Istanbul currently depart from Pendik station, some 25km East of town in the Asian suburbs of Istanbul. Truth be told, it’s a bit of a trek to Pendik station.  The impression slightly reinforced by the metro line which goes there not yet having been completed. I took the metro to the end of the existing line then – after eyeing up the chaotic queue for the bus – jumped in a cab for the remaining 6km.

Pendik doesn’t have anything like the magisterial architecture of Haydarpasar.

I turned up just after 9am for my 9:30 departure.  In the bowels of the station – which has all the charm of a soviet-era shopping mall – you go through a ticket check and rather desultory security check.

The train is cheep. I paid just £25 for a business class seat, including a meal served at my seat. But the wide seats and carefully honed announcements made it feel more upmarket.

The first part of the trip is slow and winding, but agreeably so. First you trundle along the coast of the Aegean. Looking out to sea, there are a huge number of merchant ships. Turkey is still a big maritime trading nation.

After an hour or so the train starts the laborious climb through tunnels and valleys from sea level up some 600 meters on to the Anatolian plain. From here the views sweep out before you and the train quickly accelerates on a modern dead straight track.

The train is well connected, with free wifi. But it seems several of my fellow passengers had not heeded the announcement about indoor voices. I slipped on my Bose headphones and listened to music. It was all very agreeable.

Soon a Turkish breakfast is delivered to my seat. After eating and multiple rounds of coffee, you are in Ankara before you know it.   The four hours goes quickly.

I had taken the early morning train from Istanbul. I’d wanted a few hours to explore Ankara before my evening departure. I’d also had in mind that I would find a nice little shop and stock up on a bottle or two of red wine and various Turkish delights for the long train ride ahead.

In Ankara it was noticeably colder than Istanbul. I thought about dumping my small bag before trekking around the capital. But at the station there were only automatic left luggage lockers. Each time I pressed the English button on the computer screen the system appeared to crash. I didn’t hold out much hope that it would keep my bags safe so hoisted my duffle on my back and started to walk into the old town.

It’s a long old climb up to the old town and the citadel. Not long after leaving the station it started to rain, so the streets quickly became muddy and slippery. Ankara felt fairly soviet. And not in a good way.

The rain quickly cleared. I took in the view from the citadel, had a brief wander around the touristy shops around the old citadel walls. It was eerily quiet with a strange light that seemed to promise – or threaten – snow.

I grabbed a bite to eat in a restaurant that would at best be described as basic. But it was nice to take the weight off my shoulders.

I then trudged back to the station. Everyone else seemed to be trudging too. The cold air gave an impending feel of a harsh winter approaching.

I know it’s never a good idea to judge a city by a few short hours shuffling around one small part.  But with everyone dressed in sombre-looking clothes and seemingly trudging through the ennui of daily life, it felt a sharp contrast to the careless fun of Istanbul I’d experienced a few hours earlier.

It was getting dark by the time I got back to the station around 5pm.  I never did find that nice deli I’d been dreaming off.

So after an hours wait in the warm central waiting room I went off to board the train.

Across the platform the latter high-speed train from Istanbul was just pulling in. Assuming this is normally on time – and I can’t vouch for that – it would be an extremely easy transfer across the platform.

My ticket show I was in wagon 7, at the very back of the train. I’d booked a two-berth compartment that I’d have to myself.

The forward cars of the train were pullman seats which looked relatively full. But at the back of the train it was all quiet.

I found my carriage where a stocky smiling middle-aged conductor-cum-purser checked my ticket, helped me aboard and showed me to my little compartment. He spoke no English but was friendly and welcoming.  A more personal public announcement.  Just as stylish.

Just a few of the compartments seemed to be occupied – and as we slowly pulled out of the station, everyone stood in the corridor and watched, much as you go on deck when a ship is leaving port.

As we shunted off into the Ankara suburbs I thought there would be a mad dash for seats in the dining car. Unsure about security I had locked by bag to the compartment walls – but after a bit of signing I convinced the conductor to give me a key to the compartment. I locked up and went to explore.

Just a couple of carriages down I found the dining car all but deserted. This was probably positive as there only seemed to be one menu to share – helpfully with an English translation.

Throughout the trip it remained virtually deserted. Indeed it seemed to be primarily used for feeding the train staff, who when the car was empty – apart from me – drank coffee and smoked by the kitchen, all the while listening to tinny Turkish pop through a mobile phone speaker.   The chef, I noticed, smoked whilst he cooked.

I ordered a lamb kebab and was delighted to see that the menu featured a variety of Turkish red wine. Half the wine though seemed to be ‘off’ or ‘finished’ which were two of the limited English words the waiter knew. The others – I was asked this a lot – were ‘where are you from?’.

I settled down with a book and whiled away a few hours as we trundled away from Ankara’s suburbs and off in darkness of the Anatolia plateau. All the while doing my best to ensure the rest of the red was also ‘finished’.

 

Despite the narrow bed I slept well.

I woke early and raised the blind in the compartment to a view of exotic looking valleys, small streams and scrappy peaks. It’s from here that the Euphraties and Tigris rivers begin their long journeys into Syria and Iraq.

It was still early and I knew I had a lot of time to kill. After some desultory and ultimately unsuccessful dozing, I got up, washed and changed then went back to the dining car in search of coffee and breakfast.

Again I was alone in the carriage apart from the train staff. I felt like I was on a ghost train. With such cheap tickets and so few passengers I couldn’t work out how the whole operation made money. My guess is that it probably doesn’t – I flew back to Istanbul on a packed and much less enjoyable flight a few days later for about the same amount. The days of the slow train must be numbered.

 

The train trundles on slowly through tunnels and over bridges taking an excessive but enjoyably winding route. It stops frequently at remote village stations where there’s no platform. Occasionally I’d see a few people climbing off the train before, with a jerk we’d start off again.

And so I passed a lazy day. Eating, drinking and listlessly reading and taking in the view.

Later int he day, after a late lunch, leaving Erzurm it starts to get dark again. As dusk falls the train starts climbing up and over a 2300m pass. Through the dark the snow now looked more serious.

My carriage was was now entirely deserted apart from me and the conductor.

About half an hour before Kars the conductor signalled that he wanted to take the sheets of the bed.  He handed me back my ticket and – so I assumed – explained that we’d soon be arriving in Kars.

After bit of screeching and rocking the train pulled up beside a deserted and icy platform. I grabbed my bags, shook the conductor’s hand and headed off into the Kars night.  But not before adjusting my collar and tie.

 

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