Finally reaching Kars in 1962, this Trans-Turkish railway originally covered the eleven hundred or so kilometers between Istanbul and the Armenian border in the far east of the country. A new high speed connection has opened in more recent years, servicing the line between Istanbul and Ankara, but the old style “slow train” still runs between Ankara and Kars. “The Eastern Express” was the first leg of our journey, and we were looking forward to relaxing on board and taking in the delicious scenery.
In my imagination I was creating a combination between the train journey across the Urals to Varykino, from Dr.Zhivago, and the Art Deco glamour of the Orient Express; the scenery from the former, with some of the elegance of the latter!. If I had been slightly deluded about the elegance of carriages, I certainly was not disappointed by the scenery, which had us gazing in awe out of the windows for most of the daylight time of our twenty seven hours aboard.
Regardless of what we imagined however, the journey began in a car which really should have been off the road, carrying us heroically through the Ankara traffic, with the screeching and ineffective brakes ensuring that the obliging Mehmet was forced to travel at a demure speed. Seemingly oblivious to the traffic around him, and the woeful condition of his car, he animatedly told us stories, whilst weaving joyfully from lane to lane.
I was beginning to wonder if we would ever get to the station in one piece, when finally we turned off onto the slip road, with much relief…. at Ankara Grand Central.
The train station looked impressive, and we thanked Mehmet profusely for bringing us there, and hurried off to look for the train. After about twenty minutes, we finally discovered that the first part of the track was under repair, so we had to get on a bus first…. so no “romantic departure” from the big city…. but join the queue for the forty minute bus ride to a small provincial station of Irmak further down the line.
Waiting patiently in the evening sun, we stood with all the other travellers that had gathered for the trip, a mixture of tourists, and people who were clearly travelling home, waiting with parcels, luggage and food for the trip ahead. The atmosphere was distinctly “party” and I think that most of the people there were secretly infused with the childhood delight of “going on the train”.
Finally the train came clattering into the station, and we joined the crowd of people jostling on the platform. We quickly located our carriage, and the two berth cabin that was to be “home” for the next 27 hours.
Our carriage “manager”, a suave looking man with good aftershave who would have looked more at home in The Savoy, introduced himself straight away. He politely gave us a quick tour of the cabin and welcomed us aboard; he was to keep a close eye on us for the rest of the trip.
By now however it was starting to get dark, and we sped off into the evening, the light fading over the beautiful landscape that stretched away into the dusk, as we were lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train.
After a fairly restful night, the rest of the day was spent looking out of the window, and moving between our compartment and the dining car, which boasted a high ceiling and views of both sides, and which was also where we met Mert & Lucja, who I will talk more about later.
From the windows of the train, the stark empty beauty of what is now known as Eastern Anatolia, stretches away as far as the eye can see to the Munzur mountains. This part of modern Turkey has the highest average altitude, largest geographical area, and lowest population density of all the regions of Turkey. Prior to getting its current name from the Turkish state, most of the region was part of the Six Armenian provinces in the region known as the Armenian Highlands.
Although the history of this area is sadly bathed in the blood of millions, it is not my intention to enter into any political discussion here, apart from to say that after 1880, the geopolitical term “Eastern Anatolia” was coined to replace what had historically been known as Western Armenia.
In spite of its history, this place remains beautiful, and my eyes are drawn into the ever changing landscape. We pass through small country stations, wide and empty grasslands, brown fields speckled with shy wheat, and hill top castles boasting silken flags. Often as we go, we are travelling along a deep river gorge, as the train line takes advantage of the work of millenia, our first real introduction to the deeply historic nature of our journey, as I realise that we are travelling along the Western Euphrates River.
The epic size of the landscape is hypnotic, and I am fascinated by the way the delicate poplar trees, shivering and naked in the spring sunshine pierce the horizontal momentum, joining the plateaus with the mountains like stitches.
Every town of any size, seems to boast a castle, some of them tidier than others, although the views of what lies along the train tracks is often less appealing.
In some places, children beg from the fields, as the train slows, and the brightly coloured clothing distracts the eye from their thin arms and faces, and their makeshift homes amongst ruined houses. We throw most of what we have out of the window for them, the complimentary biscuits, chocolate and juice from our fridge. The girl that waited the longest, gets the reward, and she holds our gaze for a moment, looking back at us with her black eyes in a solemn face, before turning to share what she has gleaned with her younger siblings.
Plastic rubbish is something that accompanies our whole trip, and even in the most remote places, there is an abundance of it. The train line seems to be a dumping ground for everything however, from scrap metal, to building refuse, to household waste, to dead animals.
Some stops are longer, and passengers are able to get out and stretch their legs in the afternoon sunshine, buy snacks from the vendors on the station, and to take advantage of the fresh air. After we leave Erzerum, the shadows begin to grow longer, and the light takes on a magical quality, bathing the hills with molten gold. As the dusk closes, I sit quietly in the dining car sipping tea, and watch the timeless majesty of this beautiful wilderness pass by. We are late, by about three hours overall, and will not reach Kars until after nightfall, and I watch as the mountains drift gently into the distance as the world turns to soft grey.