Taking the long way round: taking the train from Ankara to Kars
My initial online research into buying tickets for the Dogu (Eastern) Express rail journey to Kars did not augur well.
As I Googled 'Ankara to Kars train tickets', I was met by blogs and websites forewarning me that tickets for sleeper compartments on the Dogu Express were “as scarce as hen’s teeth”, and advised booking an organised tour.
Pre-arranged, guided tours may suit some but are generally anathema to me. The dearth of sleepers came as a surprise to me as I have generally found that Turks laugh off railway journeys as a fool’s way of getting from A to B; especially, when buses and flights are so efficient and cheap in Turkey.
However, the train rebel in me had had a wonderful experience on a previous journey. Four years ago, I travelled by sleeper train from Ankara to Cappadocia, via Ankara and Kayseri just prior to the route being upgraded to the new fast electrified line. As I planned the trip, Turkish eyebrows had collectively raised when I disclosed my plans. My friends had explained patiently to this evidently, slightly nutty foreigner that I would get there much quicker if I were to fly, or take a bus, or presumably wait for the line to be electrified.
Turkish trains are said to take twice as long to get anywhere as they snake and wind their way across the countryside. Apparently, the Germans were largely responsible for the initial building of the Turkish rail network and the Turks are convinced they were charged by the kilometre.
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However, unbeknown to me, the Turkish were starting to embark on their own love affair with their elderly and neglected rail network. There is nothing better to reignite feelings for an old flame than realising the old flame might not be around for much longer. Large parts of the Turkish rail system are upgrading to a more efficient but inevitably dull high speed network (YHT or Yuksek Hizli Tren).
The Ankara Kars Dogu Express, with its epic 25 hour journey, was also given a boost by a group of young Turkish passengers who recently posted a viral video of their trip on social media. Prior to this, people were largely ignorant of the beautiful, isolated landscape the Eastern Express passes through, following, in parts, the flow of the western Euphrates river.
Ankara to Kars Trains
Ankara Kars Dogu Express; the original slow train to Kars, is subsidised by the Turkish Rail Network (TCDD). Tickets are available on the TCDD website, but difficult to get hold of, as sleepers and couchettes are snapped up in bulk by travel agents immediately they become available and resold as package tours at much higher costs.
To cope with the demand, TCDD in May 2019 added an extra (tourist) train consisting of sleeper compartments only. The tickets are more expensive making them less attractive to tour operators and therefore easier to book online independently.
Buying Ankara to Kars train tickets
Like an intrepid explorer refusing to be denied the climb of a treacherous mountain, the difficulty in securing sleeper tickets made me more determined than ever. Paul Forrester's Amber Travel agency in Kas, who promise little but often over-deliver, came up trumps, securing seats for a small fee to convert to sleepers at the last minute.
It seems that tour operators have been block booking the sleepers, then releasing them nearer the time of travel if they remained unsold. However, from May 2019, a second train has started to run from Ankara to Kars with the Turkish rail network (TCDD) now getting a slice of the action themselves to alleviate pressure on the subsidised train service.
However, this new (yeni) Dogu Express comes with a caveat: the tickets are much more expensive. However, it will alleviate pressure on what is after all meant to be a train service, rather than a tourist excursion, to transport people from A to B with some 53 stops along the way, most of which seem to be in the middle of nowhere.
The New (Yeni) Ankara Kars Tourist Dogu Express
On 29th May 2019, the first Yeni (New) Turistik Dogu Ekspresi, consisting of sleeping cars only, pulled out of Ankara Gar two hours behind the original train – hopefully the first train will never be four hours late as ours was on leaving Erzurum or there could be an interesting coming together further down the line.
With train tickets showing on the TCDD Turkish Railway online website booking service, it is already looking far easier to book sleepers. Although the tickets are more expensive for foreign tourists, this will still prove to be an affordable and worthwhile journey with prices lower than standard train ticket prices across Europe, and the train will make just two stops with longer intervals to allow for excursions.
The journey begins
As we congregated on the Ankara Gar platform with the other passengers it was hard to ignore the anticipation and excitement, as though we were going off on some intrepid expedition into the unknown.
My companion and I deposited our cases and booty of food and wine into our air-conditioned, modern, sleeping compartments. We brought wine as alcohol is no longer served on Turkish trains.
Each sleeper was furnished with a wash basin, two fold-up bunk beds, a slide out table and a fridge with complimentary goodies such as orange juice, water, chocolate and biscuits. Slippers were also provided to welcome us into our mobile Turkish home and an avuncular train guard popped his head round all our compartments to make sure all was in order. He cast a wry smile in my direction, while putting his finger to his lips, having spotted the bottles of wine cooling in the wash hand basin.
Our neighbours for the journey exchanged pleasantries and some even started to decorate their compartment in readiness for a 50th on-board birthday party. They too were anticipating popping a few corks.
We pulled out on time at 6pm – it was the only time we were going to be on time for both this and the return journey. However, as nobody was in a hurry to get anywhere that was part of the overall charm.
We soon gave up on the long queue to the restaurant car as everybody seemed to have had the same idea at the start of the journey. However, our onboard picnic of English cheddar and pork pies were preferable to the humble offerings of toasted sandwiches and kofte, the standard culinary offering of the onboard restaurant and we gobbled them down like naughty St Trinian's schoolgirls.
As it got dark, and the outskirts of Ankara faded from our view, there was comfort whilst we sipped our wine in the knowledge we did not have far to fall into our narrow but perfectly clean and comfortable bunk beds. Remaining in them at night was a challenge as the train hissed and screeched into innumerable stations with a sharp judder that left me clinging on to the side of my bed. Curious peeks out of the window confirmed we were in the middle of nowhere. I wondered why anybody would choose to live in such far away places.
As the sun started to come up at 6am gently ushering me out of my sleep and bunk bed, I watched the Anatolian countryside slide past my compartment window as we passed through almost Devonesque gently rolling hills in the region of Sivas.
Near, Cetinkaya, we passed a solitary white van waiting for us to pass at a level crossing. I smiled at the thought of this Turkish White Van Man cursing his bad luck at being delayed by the solitary train on a single track railway and wondered whether he varied his schedule every day in a vain attempt at not being caught out by the Dogu Express, only to be thwarted on each occasion by its inability to run on schedule.
We soon started to follow the rapid flow of the Kizilirmak river; I was not sure whether the train was trying to keep up with the river or the other way round – in any case, the river appeared to be winning the race. Snow peaks started to appear on mountain tops as we approached Kemah, near Erzincan, this being the end of March just before the thaw, and the hoar frost glistened and sparkled magically on the grass verge next to the tracks as we crawled along sometimes at only a snail's pace. An enterprising soul distributed flyers for pre-ordering Cag Kebab, a horizontal type doner kebab exclusive to Erzurum to where we were now headed and passengers eagerly placed their orders for the onward journey to Kars.
My companion and I were greeted at Erzurum by a display of stalactites hanging decorously from the station roof, forewarning us of the low temperatures that were about to hit us as we climbed down from the warmth of the train.
We stayed for two nights, visiting two famous Medrasas, a citadel which was well worth the treacherous climb for the views over the city and its famous ski slopes. We also stumbled across the ubiquitous 'Ataturk stayed here' house, where the well-travelled founder of the Turkish Republic stayed for some months. This reminded me of the way Queen Victoria appeared to have 'slept here' in seemingly every stately home in the UK in the century before him.
Erzurum to Kars by Train
Our sightseeing done in Erzurum, we resumed our journey to Kars wondering what on earth can delay a train by four hours on a single track rail line with virtually one train running on it. I asked the guard when we got on board whether the train was often four hours late. “Oh no”, he replied proudly, “it is normally only two hours late”.
It did not matter to us, although we regretted not having enough time to explore Kars itself. Hiring a car, we visited the ruins of Ani, the neglected former cultural and commercial centre of the largely forgotten Armenian Empire on the old Silk Road. Every church seemed to be named the Church of St Gregory; we wondered whether this was due to a severe lack of imagination but instead discovered that St Gregory is the patron saint of Armenia. The ruins of Ani, the former medieval city was also known as the city of 1001 churches and, situated right on the closed border of Armenia, is an absolute must see.
At Lake Cildir, it is possible to ride a horse and sleigh on the frozen water. Surrounded by snow at the end of March, we seemed to be a million miles from most tourists' perception of Turkey who are more familiar with sun-drenched bars lining the length and breadth of western style seaside resorts such as Bodrum or Marmaris or Antalya.
Train from Kars to Ankara
Most sightseers opt to do the train journey one way due to the paucity of tickets, since generally, travel agents only offer one-way trips. However we were certainly happy to enjoy both ways, this time more knowledgeable and alert as to when and where we would find the best photo opportunities.
It even seemed that, on this occasion, the Dogu Express might even make it back to Ankara on time. However, as night fell, and the train started to grind and screech as it crawled into Sivas Station I spotted some uniformed Jandarma boarding the train.
With the black pitch of night, and our wine contraband quickly slammed into a cupboard, we felt as though we were fugitives in some kind of Russian epic movie as the camouflage uniformed officers checked IDs in their dour and efficient way.
An hour later, we pulled out. The Dogu Express was destined to arrive at its destination late once again. On a journey like this, nobody cares. However, I might make an exception and feel a little sorry for some Turkish White Van Man cursing his luck as he is delayed for work getting stuck at that remote level crossing in Cetinkaya yet again!