It’s 17.05 on a warm September afternoon on the wide and peaceful platform 1 of the old Ankara station, still functioning behind the modern YHT (high speed) station. If you arrive at the back there are no stairs to deal with, no escalators, just an x-ray machine and you are in at platform level. The woman screening my bags asks me if I have a knife. I tell her it’s little one and just to prepare my food. She accepts this explanation without my needing to open anything to prove my innocence.
The ‘Dogu Express’ pulls in slowly from the west, pulled by an old and slightly brutal looking TCDD diesel locomotive. Aerodynamics are clearly unimportant at the speed we will be travelling at over the next 24 hours. The train is made up of seated wagons, couchettes, a restaurant car and sleeper carriages towards the rear.
The modern style of carriage is called a V2000, and they are simply great. I’m in carriage number 8, and there to greet me is Michael, my carriage attendant. I’m on board after a cursory ticket inspection, and I unpack in the sleeper compartment.
It’s a little older than the one I had coming from Sofia, but every bit as comfortable. I have packed my luggage so that I don’t need to open my big bag; I have everything I need in my daypack and camera bag. My first priority is to unpack my shopping and stock the fridge. Getting provisions was easy, however getting beer was very hard. But I haven’t got to where I am today without learning a few tricks, and I have some ready chilled beer and a bag of ice from my hotel.
I should mention that it can be quite hard to get a ticket for a sleeper on this train. Tickets go on sale 30 days before departure and are usually sold out within a day. You can buy them online, but not wishing to miss the moment, I paid a really helpful Turkish travel agent to get this for me. They are called Amber Travel, and recommended over at Seat 61. I must say I found them excellent to deal with, and e-tickets were sent to me well in advance.
The carriage fills up mostly with Turkish families that I’m guessing are headed to their homes in the country. I’m the only European in this carriage. I discover quite a few of the people on board are actually just seeing other people off, and they are eventually shepherded off by Michael. A man tries to join me in my compartment, but I’m having none of it as I have paid the rather good value 20TL supplement to have the place to myself. Much to my embarrassment it turns out that he is my next door neighbour and he is trying simply to give me one of my bags that I have forgotten that I have left in the corridor. I spend the next few minutes apologising profusely.
We set off on time at 17.55 with a jolt. This is uncharted territory for me, and I remind myself that ahead of me Turkey has borders with Syria to the south and Iran to the south east. Places that normally feel very remote, but are now becoming just a bus ride away.
Not quite settled, I decide to complete a close target recce of the restaurant carriage. It’s the only disappointing thing that I can find about the train. It sells just snacks, no hot food and no beer. I’m pleased that I have come prepared. The carriage itself is really nice, but the service has been stripped back to a basic catering franchise. One of the things I love about sleeper trains is being able to linger in the restaurant and chat to people, but with no reason to hang about, this one is devoid of customers and atmosphere.
My feast is Turkish bread, cheese and ham washed down by icy Efes beer, and it’s a nice way spend a few hours watching the sun set over the hilltops. With the night comes a fresh surprise. There is a new moon tonight and it is pretty black outside. So dark in fact that I can see the Milky Way from the train. This is my first ever experience of train-based astronomy, and as we swing around, the stars re-orientate above me – quite amazing.
I turn in at midnight, my bed has already been made up by Michael, all I have to do it lower it, which takes five seconds. Sleep doesn’t come as easy as I had hoped. I eventually drop off and then wake with a start at around 05.00 am – we are in a tightening curve and the carriage is shaking, the brakes are squealing and everything not in a bag is now on the floor.
Unable to get back to sleep I tidy up and prepare for the day ahead. Michael puts the kettle on and I rustle up a cup of reasonable coffee and some breakfast. Outside the landscape is rocky and slightly Mars like, were it not for the head waters of the Euphrates now cutting deep into the valley bottom alongside the train tracks.
The toilets in this carriage have remained clean and are worthy of mention so I can pass on some important safety tips. The carriage has a WC at each end, an Asian squatter at one end and a western toilet at the other. The squatter has a pressurised flush, however if you press it also pressurises and fires the ‘bum gun’. Be very careful, as you might need to change for dinner. The western toilet also has a pressurised system and a separate bidet button. This is why, it would seem, it has been flooded. I would avoid pressing that button too at all cost.
We stop half a dozen times and the families get off with large amounts of luggage. One couple have managed to stow a complete plastic patio furniture set in an empty compartment. The great thing about this journey is that there is most of the day to sit back and take in the world outside the window.
My destination today is Erzurum, and we arrive, almost on time, at 14.30. This has been an amazing journey, and the highlight of my trip so far. I’m brought back down to earth though with a ride in a taxi that should not be on the road. Apart from the smashed windscreen, the horn does not work. To a Turkish taxi driver that is like a pencil without lead, and my driver beats his steering wheel as if it might make it start working again. A night in a simple place tonight before what might turn out to be a complex set of border arrangements tomorrow, as I plan to get a bus to Hopa and then walk across the Georgian frontier at Sarp. If I’m successful Batumi beckons, but looks like it might be greeting me with thunder, hail and torrential rain.