2022 Update: The original post covered a 2016 trip on the East Express. The train has become so popular, especially in winter, that finding tickets is difficult. This post provides insider tips on how to book and experience this scenic journey.
Turkey is big. Bordering eight countries and four seas, it stretches from southeast Europe to northwest Iran. Two epic long-distance train trips are found here, the Trans-Asia Express to Tehran and the East Express to Kars. Beginning in the capital city of Ankara, the East Express (known as the Doğu Ekspresi in Turkish) is a meandering 25-hour trip to the frontier outpost of Kars.
When I took this trip in 2016, it was simple to book a spot in a 2-berth sleeping wagon or a regular seat, as the train was rarely full. But in 2017, news stories began circulating about the winter beauty of the route. Travelers especially loved the segment between Erzincan and Kars, which follows the headwaters of the legendary Euphrates River.
Tourists soon began booking the sleeper cars for the entire journey, a bargain at $30. Regular travelers found it difficult to buy a ticket. In response Turkish Railways created a new experience, a special train called the Touristic East Express which ran daily in winter and three times per week in summer. The pandemic of 2020 halted this run, but in December 2021 the touristic train began running again, though on a reduced schedule.
The classic East Express train continues but has been reconfigured, making my 2016 trip a relic of the past. The train now consists of regular coaches (in a 2+1 seating arrangement), a café car and a couple of 4-berth couchette cars which book quickly in winter. The comfortable 2-berth sleeping wagons, equipped with a sink and small fridge, have been removed and placed only on the new tourist train.
The tourist train is a 31-hour route with a few special stops for excursions along the way. These places differ depending on whether you are traveling eastbound or westbound. The eastbound train stops at Iliç and Erzurum, while the westbound train makes stops at Erzincan, Divriğı and Sivas. The touristic train appears on the Turkish Railways website and mobile app, but it is usually booked through travel agents (click here for train ticket info or click here for a Turkish travel agency). The cost is approximately $100.
Travelers interested in the classic train should plan and book ahead for wintertime trips. Tourism companies reserve large blocks of seats for winter tours, especially on weekends and holidays. You should be able to find coach seats available thirty days prior, the earliest date tickets are available. The couchette berths sell out in minutes. It is easier to find tickets during the non-winter seasons.
Travel Hacks and Insider Tips:
- In Kars, the incredible ruins at Ani (40 km away) are a must-see. Plan a half-day visit to Ani, either before boarding or after arriving in Kars.
- The touristic train misses the scenic stretch of track from Erzurum to Kars, as it travels this section at night. Travelers wanting to experience the winter mountain scenery should select the classic train, as it travels this section during daylight hours (morning westbound and afternoon eastbound).
- If choosing the touristic train, I would opt for the westbound route to enjoy the Great Mosque/Hospital at Divriği and the town of Sivas.
- Snow skiers can use the classic train to access two great ski centers, the high-octane steep slopes of Palandöken (at Erzurum) or the easier forested slopes at Sarıkamış. Because of the difficulty in securing wintertime tickets, book well ahead of your planned ski trip and stay overnight in Sarıkamış (not Kars) or Erzurum (only 5 km from the ski area).
- To reach Ankara by train, take the high-speed YHT train from Istanbul’s Söğütlüçeşme train station on the Asian side of the city. This transit center is easily reached by the new Marmaray suburban train or the Metrobüs. Be aware the Metrobüs is crowded with commuters with little space for luggage, though backpackers should be okay.
- In Kars, make sure to purchase some locally made cheeses. In Erzurum, try the cağ kebap, a crispy twice-roasted meat skewer.
- For more ideas on winter fun in Turkey, check out this helpful link featuring 12 magical places.
- For a list of my favorite five scenic train journeys, click here.
A railway development project completed in 2017 extended the railway from Kars across the Georgian border to Tbilisi, connecting to Baku in Azerbaijan. While an international passenger train from Ankara to Baku is planned, the pandemic and other issues have hindered it. Once begun, this Ankara-Tbilisi-Baku through train will cover part of the East Express route and become an exciting overland gateway to Central Asia and beyond!