Ancient hilltop fortress above country train station in Eastern Turkey

Making Tracks Across Turkey: The East Express to Kars

A railway here in Asia – in the dreamy realm of the Orient – in the fabled land of the Arabian Nights – is a strange thing to think of. And yet they have one already, and are building another. – Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1867

Most people do not realize just how big the country of Turkey is. Bordering eight different countries and four distinct seas, Turkey stretches from southeast Europe to northwest Iran. For this reason, while living in Istanbul in 2016, I decided it was time to venture to the far eastern points of the country. A train trip on the East Express (Doğu Ekspresi) would be just the ticket!

When I told a friend that we would be traveling for 25 hours by train across Turkey, he exclaimed, “You can’t travel 25 hours from Istanbul by train and still be in Turkey!” In reality we would be traveling 25 hours east from the capital city of Ankara!

There is an old story that the German engineers, who built much of the early railways in the region, must have been paid by the kilometer because of the zigzag shape of the rail routes. However, a quick trace of one’s fingers across a topographical relief map will reveal the reason – Turkey is mostly mountainous. It is not easy to build a straight road in that kind of geography, a fact still being felt today as new high-speed trains are being proposed and built, requiring huge numbers of bridges and tunnels.

Haydarpasa Train Station
Haydarpaşa Station – the beginning of many Asian train journeys

For more than a century Asian-bound trains started their journey from Haydarpaşa train station, a short ferry ride across the Bosporus strait from Istanbul’s Sirkeci station, legendary terminus of the Orient Express train route. However, in 2013, both local and long distance trains ceased operating from Haydarpaşa as the new Marmaray rail project bypassed this station. Regardless, I began our eastbound adventure by purchasing our tickets at historic Haydarpaşa on a drizzly gray afternoon. The thought of a warm berth in a sleeper car trundling across Turkey warmed my spirits.

A new high-speed train service currently links Pendik, an eastern suburb of Istanbul, to Ankara, Turkey’s capital, so we boarded a midday train for the four-hour run to Ankara. The timing was ideal, giving us two hours of buffer time in Ankara to purchase supplies for our next leg, the winding 25-hour journey to the remote eastern outpost of Kars, a town occupied by Russians in the late nineteenth century.

In today’s fast-paced world of jet travel and ubiquitous internet, there is something soothing about being rocked gently to sleep in a railway car. Our comfortable compartment on the East Express featured two berths, a sink, small fridge and large windows.

Canyons, castles and the Euphrates River are some of the sights along the route

After a refreshing night’s rest, we awoke to a sunrise gleaming over canyon walls along the timeless Euphrates river. A highlight of this journey is that much of the railway line does not follow the usual roads full of cars and buses, making one feel like a traveler back in Mark Twain’s day or even earlier. Drizzled out like wet sand, castles cling to cliff sides while watchtowers continue crumbling down the changing landscape.

The East Express approaches a tunnel east of Erzurum in late winter

After passing through the cities of Erzincan and Erzurum, twilight shadows began creeping across the train’s path. After conversing with another couple bound for a snow skiing break, we decided to disembark at the town of Sarıkamış. While Erzurum boasts a higher and more developed ski resort called Palandöken, the more laid back skiing area at Sarıkamış is known for great snow conditions and a pretty pine forest. It was a perfect place for my intermediate ability and much less expensive than European resorts. If staying in Kars, the train provides a great way to reach the ski area, as it leaves westbound each morning and another train returns in the evening.

Sarikamis Mar 1 2016
Skiing the pine forests of Sarıkamış near Kars, Turkey

We caught the following evening’s East Express train for the short last leg to Kars, at that time the end of the line. A new rail development project completed in late 2017 has now extended the railway northeast through Georgia to connect with Tbilisi and Baku in Azerbaijan, making this trip an exciting overland gateway to Central Asia and beyond! Highlights of visiting the Kars area include the awesome ancient ruins at Ani, Russian stone buildings and the scenic lake Çıldır Gölü.

The ruins of ancient Ani
Russian stone buildings in Kars
Ice fishing in winter and bird watching in spring are popular at Çıldır Lake

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