It seemed like a brilliant idea at the time: touring Turkey by train. Turkey was at the top of my list of countries I had yet to conquer, and trains have long been my favorite mode of transportation. Conjuring images of the old Orient Express, I envisioned lounging under a silk-shaded sconce in my plushly upholstered, wood-paneled compartment as the Mediterranean coast glided past my window.
There were, it turns out, a couple of problems with that picture. Turkish passenger trains didn’t travel along the Mediterranean. Second, most Turkish trains are relatively modern, with interiors appointed with molded plastic, chrome and fluorescent lights — more evocative of Amtrak than the Orient Express.
But trains are still a good way to get around Turkey. During a two-week tour of the country this spring I found Turkish trains generally clean, comfortable and efficient. They are also remarkably cheap, especially compared with trains in Western Europe or the United States. A ticket on an overnight train from Istanbul to Ankara with a private sleeping compartment, for example, cost $54, and a 30-day pass good for unlimited travel on the entire Turkish rail network cost $95.
Turkey has a well-developed rail system dating to the mid-19th century, and its 5,400 miles of track connect most of the country’s major cities and tourist attractions. The system was originally built and operated by private German, French and British concerns. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the Turkish Republic in the early 1920s, the rail network was taken over by a state company (State Railways of the Republic of Turkey, or TCDD), which still runs it today.
In recent years Turkey has undertaken an ambitious modernization program. The first section of a high-speed rail link between Istanbul and Ankara began operating in March 2009, slashing travel time between Turkey’s economic and cultural center and its political capital from 11 to 5 1/2 hours. The second section of the line, scheduled to be completed by 2013, will cut travel time on the 330-mile route to about three hours. Work is underway on several other high-speed lines as well as a new rail tunnel under the Bosporus linking the European and Asian sections of Istanbul, a project that is scheduled to be completed in 2012.
Deciding to ride the rails was a no-brainer for me. I was traveling alone and on a limited budget, so planes and rental cars were out. And although I had heard favorable reports about Turkey’s extensive intercity bus system, I have an aversion to long bus rides (probably stemming from a 14-hour bus trip I once took in southern Mexico). But the most compelling reason is that I have had a hopelessly romantic fascination with train travel ever since I was a kid (no doubt inspired by movies such as Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” and Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express”).
After studying the TCDD’s route map and schedules I decided on an itinerary that would crisscross the western half of Turkey, beginning in Istanbul and heading southeast to Konya and Cappadocia, then west to Izmir and Selcuk, before returning to Istanbul. Because not all these destinations are accessible by train, I had to mix in a few buses, but they were all relatively short trips. I was also tempted to take the Dogu Express, the mother of all Turkish rail trips, which traverses the country between Istanbul and Kars, near the Armenian border, but the journey takes more than 36 hours each way and I decided my limited time was better spent in western Anatolia.
Tickets can be purchased in advance on the TCDD’s website (http://www.tcdd.gov.tr), which has an English version, but the site is maddeningly dysfunctional. Seats can also be booked through authorized Turkish travel agencies, for a small additional charge. Either way, Turkish Railways does not allow passengers to buy tickets more than 15 days in advance. Because I was visiting Turkey well before the peak summer travel period I decided to wait until I arrived in Istanbul to buy my tickets.
My hotel in Istanbul was in Sultanahmet — the historic heart of the city where many of the most famous sites, including Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmed Mosque are located — a short walk to Sirkeci, the main train station on the European side of Istanbul. Sirkeci, designed by a Prussian architect in an Orientalist style, opened in 1890 as a terminus for the Orient Express. As I walked through the dark, cavernous terminal to buy my tickets, it wasn’t hard to imagine a bygone era when elegantly dressed passengers disembarked from the famous luxury train and were greeted by uniformed dragomans (guide-interpreters) from the great European embassies.
After spending three days dashing around Istanbul — far too little time to explore such a complex and exotic city, to be sure — I began my train tour. My first destination was Cappadocia, a region in central Anatolia famous for its distinctive “fairy chimney” rock formations and cave dwellings where early Christians once lived and worshipped in secret. Unfortunately, the area is not directly accessible by train, so I decided to take an overnight train to Konya, home of 13th century mystic poet Rumi and his whirling dervish disciples, and then a 3 1/2-hour bus ride to Goreme, one of the main towns in Cappadocia.
The train to Konya left from Haydarpasa Terminal, on the Asian side of Istanbul, the city’s largest and grandest train station and the starting point for all eastbound trains. I took a tram to the Eminönü docks and hopped on one of the many ferries that ply the busy waters around Istanbul. As I sat on the deck, I watched the fishermen casting their lines off Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn, a scene captured in countless Turkish novels, poems and plays. It was a cold, windy afternoon, but the short trip across the Bosporus was made more enjoyable by a young man who came around selling cups of sweet Turkish tea.
Haydarpasa, named for an Ottoman general, was built in the early 1900s as a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to Sultan Abdulhamid II. The station was constructed on wooden piles hammered into Kadikoy Bay, and from the ferry the neo-Renaissance façade, jutting imperiously into the water, is an imposing sight. The ferry dropped me off in front of the station. I climbed a broad set of marble steps leading up from the quay and entered a large hall with vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and archways painted with intricate floral designs.
On the platform outside my car I was greeted by a porter smartly dressed in a maroon jacket, white shirt and tie who led me down the narrow corridor to my sleeping compartment.
My cabin was small, clean, and functional — but a far cry from the Orient Express. On one side of the room was a double seat with a pair of bunk beds folded into the wall above it. On the other side was a small wash basin with a mirror and a towel. A refrigerator under the counter contained complimentary bottled water, orange juice and a candy bar.
I had more than an hour before my train was scheduled to leave, so I decided to explore the station. Haydarpasa’s restaurant occupied a large room with chandeliers dangling from the lofty ceiling and red linen covering the tables. A glass display case inside the entrance contained a bounty of meze and salads and a mouth-watering assortment of fresh seafood and grilled meats. I was tempted to sit down for a quick dinner but decided to save my appetite for the dining car on the train. After all, is there anything better than enjoying a good meal as an exotic foreign landscape streams by your window?
It didn’t quite turn out as I had hoped. By the time I made it to the dining car it was already dark, so the picturesque landscape was more of a gray blur. Several passengers were already seated at tables covered with white tablecloths garnished with little vases holding plastic tulips. The waiter wasn’t unfriendly, but he gave the impression he had just woken up and would just as soon be back in bed. I ordered grilled chicken cutlets, which were dry and rather tasteless, accompanied by a mound of bland white rice, tomatoes and green beans, and a salad. But the price was decent — about $13.
After dinner I returned to my compartment, folded down the lower bunk and climbed under the covers. The bed was comfortable if a bit stiff. I tried reading but quickly fell asleep. There’s something about the rhythmic motion of a train that never fails to make me tired. That’s a good thing when you’re trying to sleep, but I have also been known to nod off during spectacularly scenic rail trips in Norway, Switzerland and numerous other countries.
Although Turkish trains are supposed to be smoke-free, the rules are apparently not strictly enforced. I smelled cigarette smoke seeping into my cabin, and some of the bathrooms also smelled of tobacco. Speaking of bathrooms, there was one on each end of my car. One had a conventional toilet, but the other was the hole-in-the-floor variety where one is obliged to stand on ceramic footpads and squat.
I woke up early the next morning and made my way back to the dining car. Apparently I was the first to arrive because the waiter and the cook were sprawled out on the seats sound asleep. Breakfast consisted of a greasy omelet accompanied by chopped cucumbers and tomatoes, a roll packaged in cellophane and the ubiquitous Nescafé (good coffee is not as common in Turkey as one might expect).
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