Most foreigners, when they think of Turkey, bring to mind a more-touristy western Turkey, with its biblical sites and Med-Sea beaches. The country of Turkey is actually quite huge, east to west.
During our recent trip, we decided that a good way to see a lot of Turkey would be to take the train from Kars back to Istanbul. Everyone has heard of the “Orient Express” running from Vienna to Istanbul, but few of us have heard of the “Eastern Express” which runs to Istanbul from far eastern Turkey.
We boarded the train at midnight in Kars after buying a sleeping compartment ticket for the two of us for the next two nights for an exorbitant $65.00. For that amount we received a two-person sleeper with clean bed linens, complimentary snacks for our small fridge, and an attentive sleeping car attendant to look after our every need (though not our need to find someone who spoke English, which he didn’t.)
The train route seemed to hit all major cities from east to west throughout Turkey. The track bed on which the train rode is quite old and limited the speed the train could travel, but the scenery was simply spectacular. There were hundreds of tunnels along the route which often winded through the mountains beside river beds rather than following highways. In many parts of Turkey the highways were built after the railroad.
As our trip took place in mid-October– already the beginning of winter in the lofty mountains of central Turkey– the train wound its way through snow-capped mountains that reminded us of the U.S. Rocky Mountains. The view from our compartment window or from the splendid restaurant car often provided a wonderful glimpse of Turkish village life as people went about their daily tasks oblivious to the train passing their barnyard or village coffeehouse .
The scenery began to flatten out a bit by the time the train reached Ankara, and from that point to Istanbul, the old meandering track was paired with a straighter new high-speed train track under construction along side. This is to be the new TGV (Trein Grande Vitesse) fast train which will cut the Istanbul/Ankara travel time from six hours to two hours.
The thought of being able to take such a speedy train in the future began to gnaw at us…as our “express” seemed to lose speed the closer it got to Istanbul. As we followed our train’s plodding advance across our map of Turkey, and the hours stretched on and on, we finally found ourselves alongside the Bosphorus. Our hopes rose at sight of the familiar waterway, but our train’s speed declined still further in response.
The train’s progress into Istanbul seemed interminable, as we were five hours late, and especially because Sharon ran out of books to read about four hours from the end. This disaster resulted in a solemn promise to all the gods ever worshipped in Turkey to buy a KINDLE so that she would never be caught bookless anywhere again. (She did so, and found out that it is good “travel insurance”–but not anywhere as pleasant as holding a book in your hands.)
The only other problem Sharon experienced on the train involved the Turkish-style hole-in-the-floor toilet in the swaying railway car.
The train finally pulled into the picturesque late 19thcentury Hadarpasha Railway Station on Istanbul’s Asian shore 40 hours after leaving Kars. We had forgotten, however, that our journey was not yet over just because we had finally stumbled off the train.
Istanbul is split by the Bosporus into an Asian side and European side, the latter of which was where we spent most all of our visits among the great monuments of past epochs such as the Hagia Sofia and her sister palaces, churches and mosques.
To return to our hotel on the European side, we exited the Railway Station and boarded a ferryboat for a 20 minute journey across the Bosporus to a tram stop and hauled our tired bodies across the Golden Horn and back to our non-swaying beds and American-style (hurray) “convenience” and bathroom!