A Travellerspoint blog

Ankara to Kars - the Doğu Ekspresi

snow -2 °C

Ever since I saw someone post a video of their trip on this train, the Doğu Ekspresi (or Eastern Express) on Youtube, I wanted to be on it. It runs for 1,300 kilometres from Ankara to Kars: spolier - it is not an express. It makes many stops (47 allegedly) and is not fast at the best of times. When I booked, it was scheduled to take almost exactly 24 hours (55 km/hr), but I think the schedule has been changed to make it more like 28 hours. Second spoiler: my trip takes 31 hours (42 km/hr).

Apparently, the ideal way is to get a sleeper, but there are not very many of them and they get block booked by tour group operators. There are stories on the net of people sitting anxiously at their computers as the bookings open, and doing their best to score a bed. I decide to deal with the enemy, and get a travel agent which has something of a reputation for making the block bookings to get me a bed. I am somehow forgetful, however, and it turns out the bookings are well and truly open by the time I get them onboard - they report there is nothing doing. No matter - there are plenty of seats and they are dirt cheap - $13! - so I just make my own booking. The travel agent, wanting to earn its pound of flesh, then proudly announce they have bought me two seats on the train - not side by side so I can kind of lie down, no, they're much smarter than that - two opposing seats so I can put my luggage on one. No matter that there is a perfectly good luggage rack or that the seat is right beside the very noisy door. The seat I organised for myself is much nicer, and even had a working electricity outlet to keep my phone charged.

For some reason, Turkish rail are a bit coy about letting us see the loco in Ankara station and it is not until we make a stop next morning that I get a proper look at how long this train is - I am in about the middle.large_IMG_0128.JPGlarge_IMG_0129.JPGlarge_IMG_0142.JPGlarge_IMG_0143.JPGlarge_IMG_0141.JPG

Here's the obligatory shot of the front of the train as it rounds a corner.

The train leaves on time to the minute, and I can see Ankara pass by, although of course it is already dark. By about midnight, I am feeling really pleased about this trip - there is something magical about a slow train making its way through the night, the turns it makes, the wonder at what is passing by without me knowing and the wonder at what will be revealed in the morning. I make a couple of trips to the dining car, for tea, for a change of scene, to read, even to get the laptop out and to write. At one point, a young face looks over my laptop to ask where I am from: he is part of a group of seven University students from Istanbul, trainee pilots, on the way to Kars for a holiday. Surprisingly, there are three Universities in Istanbul which train pilots: I do not think to ask which one they attend. They are a very good-humoured group, but English is difficult for them so we do not spend the night talking.

Instead, I have a very good sleep, and awake to find that nothing is happening: the train is stopped in a very small village. Nothing happens for about three hours: I do not know this, so when I go into the shop, and the shopkeeper gestures that I should sit by his fire and drink tea, I think that I must return to the train. Eventually, we move on and I can get a good look at this part of the world.

For quite some time, we follow a small river through what becomes quite a steep-sided gorge.

I am intrigued by that last photo - the narrow road carved out of the rock: when was it last used? How far does it go? It is evident that it is not in use, as there are sections where the cliff has collapsed, but it looks like it would have been a hair-raising journey for those who did use it.

Along the tracks, there are various stations and the occasional town to be seen.
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I occupy myself with the occasional doze, a wander through the train to see who is using my other seats or back to the cafe car for tea, keeping a watchful eye on the word outside or reading - Elif Batumen's The Idiot when there's light or Mick Herron's Slow Horses (on my tablet) when there's not. It is a great journey to take so when six p.m. rolls around and it is clear we are nowhere near Kars, I am not concerned. By about ten, however, I start to wonder what I am going to eat. I bought a foot long wafer biscuit thing at the store when we were stopped., but it is long gone The cafe car closed - at least I had the feeling we were all ushered out so they could do so - but then I see the group of trainee pilots go in, so I follow. Ah - success! A nice plate of kofte, rice, cucumber and succulent tomatoes.

The last hour is actually a lot of fun: there is a family with three young boys in my carriage - the boys get adopted by the trainee pilots, and they play all sorts of games and there's lots of chat going on - I don't understand any of it, but enjoy watching.

Finally, a bit after 1:00, we pull into Kars station - there are a couple of musicians there putting on a bit of a performance and the normal range of taxis and the like looking for people to collect, despite the hour. I have the direction to my hotel all mapped out on my phone, so walk it. It is a little eerie, being so late and so cold - not a sign of life apart from a couple of blokes wandering the street and a dog scavenging in a rubbish skip. Certainly no shops open to give me a warming tea or a lamb kebab. Even my hotel is deserted and all locked up when I get there, despite the promise of 24 hour check in. This is a little disconcerting - I wander back and forth a little, perhaps utter a slightly wrathful word or two, certainly a wrathful rap on the door with the only metallic object I have - my cellphone. It survives, luckily, and there is a sudden movement within.

Posted by NZBarry 14:00 Archived in Turkey Comments (2)

Off to Ankara

snow 1 °C
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There is a plan, that may happen one day, of joining Istanbul and Baku by a high speed train link. It may take some time to come to fruition: at present, it is not even possible to leave Istanbul by train at all, let alone a high speed one. The line has been laid between Kars (in the east of Turkey) and Baku, and the trains to run on it were obtained more than a year ago but the current prediction is that they will not run until late 2019. So the only bit of the high speed line operating is from a station at the end of Istanbul's metro (Pendik) to Ankara, and the train does indeed get up to 250 km/hr. Like many of the metro stations, Pendik station has a number of exits so I am a bit befuddled as to which I am to take. Luckily, a woman starts laughing at me and can eventually explain it is because I look like Santa Claus. Despite her laughter, she is kind enough to take me to the correct exit and point me in the right direction for the 1 km walk to the train station. There, after a quick tea, I go through security very similar to airport security to the train. It is a pretty standard looking thing and the trip is through quite pleasant countryside, with touches of snow.

The last photo confuses me: out in the middle of nowhere, we would come across collections of highrise buildings, no doubt housing, but with no apparent industry nearby and a fair way from the railway line, so a bit awkward as dormitory towns. Some way through the journey, I read a tweet saying that a train just like the one I am on has crashed into a pillar near Ankara, with several fatalities. I am not sure how it might affect my journey: it turns out that the last 30 km are by bus. Downtown Ankara doesn't do very much for me - there's a mosque near the station, city hall and two blokes who want me to take their photo - although they can't speak a word of English and my Turkish only goes as far as çay, so it is a short encounter.

Luckily I had booked a place away from downtown, in old Ankara, which happens to be quite a walk uphill in icy conditions, through a maze of tiny streets. It is worth it, however, and I resolve to not leave the hotel at all that day - there's a bar and a restaurant underneath it. I have not made a habit of taking photos of the places i stay in, but this place is special - it is called Divan Çukurhan and the building has quite a history. It was builtin the 16th century as an Ottoman caravanserai - an inn with a market in its courtyard. Sadly, it was virtually destroyed by fire in the 1950's, rebuilt after a fashion but then abandoned. It has only recently been rebuilt, albeit in a modernised fashion. It has a nice bar area, a wonderful library and a business nook.

Service is a bit odd: the bar was said to operate 24 hours a day, but when I go for a beer, the fellow doesn't seem to know his business. Efes is the major Turkish beer, and it comes in a couple of styles - asking for an Efes Pilsner seems to impose a task beyond his abilities - eventually another fellow shows up with a tray of beers and leaves me to fend for myself (I am not even asked to pay for it). The restaurant, however, is tremendous - big windows all round giving a great view over Ankara - there are too many people for me to attempt a photo. Back in my room, the bathroom is more glam than my house and as big as my office.

The hotel is directly opposite the entrance to the citadel - very little remains apart from the walls. The inside is now taken up with housing and a few shops.

There are a couple of interesting streets near the hotel - one runs along the ridge and has several tea shops, cafes and the like. One cafe is above an antique shop, but I do not realise this, so go in to the antique shop and take a seat at one of the (antique) tables. The shopkeeper must have this happen quite a lot, as he points to the lift - the cafe is quaint and run by a sweet old couple: he wants me to sit by the fire since it is so cold out.

I have another odd tea-related experience: I see an interesting looking tea shop with some street art and a large collection of soft drink, so pop in and ask for a çay. They have to bring it in from a shop across the street so, later on, when it is time for another, I decide to go to the source - a very old looking shop. Yes, they have tea, but have to go across the road for the sugar.

The other interesting street twists its way down the hill, eventually to the station, so I go for a walk - more tea shops and cafes, and lots of little shops. I am a bit tea-d out by now so don't stop until I get to the station - the map says there is a shopping mall there and I have yet to visit a Turkish shopping mall. I'd say the map is a bit aspirational!

There is a food court, with some more terrible coffee and a lot of kebab places, but I also spot my favourite American fried chicken chain so I necessarily indulge.

Posted by NZBarry 12:57 Archived in Turkey Tagged ankara Comments (0)

Istanbul - Topkapi Palace

rain 10 °C
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The Ottoman Empire was a big deal, taking out the Byzantines and conquering Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) in the mid 14th century. At its peak, it controlled huge parts of Europe (as far west as Hungary) and bits of the Middle East, Asia and Africa as well. I am not sure when the Hapsburgs retook what we now know of as Hungary, but just today I read a wee story which is just fabulous enough to be true. The Ottomomans adopted a crescent moon as a symbol, for use on battle flags etc. When they were repulsed by the Hungarians, as a way of giving them the finger, the Hungarians developed a crescent-shaped bakery product called the Kifli - which the French adopted and called the croissant. I have no idea how true this is: my source is a character in Elif Batuman's The Idiot.

Anyway, within a few years of the conquest of Constantinople Mehmed the Conqueror decided he wanted to build a HQ there, called Topkapi Palace. It was thus the centre of power of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th to the end of the 17th century. Most of it is still standing, so of course I pay a visit. The main entrances look like the real thing - I go in the first and out the second:

There are lots of buildings I can't really identify, but there are several pavilions built off what seemed to be the main palace. In 1640 Sultan Ibrahim had a special one built for the purpose of having his various sons circumcised - I am not sure why divans were built in!

Another Sultan had a pavilion built to house his turbans, of a similar size. A summer pavilion was built in the 1640's to celebrate the fall of Baghdad - at one stage it was used as the library for the Privy Chamber - the Council of Vizers

All of the contents of the Council room have been removed, but the walls and ceilings are nicely decorated

There is another, central, library which looks like a good place to have hung out

I get told off by the guards but manage one usable photo of the ceiling in the palace kitchen

The next photos are just some I took as I wandered around, of things I liked the look of without necessarily knowing their function

After emerging from the Palace, which must be one of the biggest tourist drawcards in Istanbul, I am surprised to find a kebab shop at the entrance doing a roaring trade, with everyone inside looking like locals, and uniformed wait staff - called Sultanahmet Köftecisi. It is bloody good - crunchy charcoal lamb, beautifully crusty bread, tasty tomatoes, a nice vibe.

Here are three photos of things that catch my eye - traffic control here is a bit more vigorous than back home, this University looks like it is falling on hard times and the mosque looks wonderful at night.

After a bit of a nap, it is time to start the evening - I catch the metro across to Kadıköy which various bloggers etc have mentioned as the next cool place in Istanbul. When I arrive, I think it has already done its dash - there are a couple of streets devoted to restaurants, all featuring a bloke who pounces on me as soon as I pause to try to find out their menu, and all seeming to have very similar menus. Not my scene at all. But a venture out of the centre into smaller side streets, and suddenly I get the feeling that I should not have left this until I am tired or my last night. There are many little shops selling boutiquey things, trendy food places selling posh burgers and the like, old fashioned tea shops where old men congregate to play backgammon and catch up on the day's events with their mates, bookshops, coffeeshops... I stop in at one of the tea shops and have my very first çay (chai) - black tea in a curved glass with a cube of sugar. I'm hooked!
The flavour is a bit more robust than Choysa, and the hint of sweetness makes all the difference. I also find a combined bookshop and coffeeshop, so stop in - I think for cake and a cappucino, but am presented with a short black.

I venture back into the restaurant quadrant - I didn't come to Turkey to eat burgers - but the crowds have built up to the point I find this area unpleasant, just too many people for me to feel comfortable. I wander fruitlessly and catch the metro back to my hotel: I am obviously a bit fed up, as I even shout at a bloke trying to strike up a random conversation in the street. Eventually I spot an open air restaurant where I see chickens spinning on the spit: it turns out I do want familiar food after all.

Posted by NZBarry 11:40 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Istanbul – Beyoğlu

overcast 9 °C
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My mission is to explore the Beyoğlu area, which is across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet. Its major drawcard is İstiklâl Avenue, which runs for a mile up to Taksim Square, a fairly notorious area of Istanbul because of the tendency of protests against government actions to convene here and resulting riots. The Republic Monument is here, and İstiklâl means Independence, so it is an area of great significance to the locals. I am not heading here because of this, but because İstiklâl Avenue has gained the nickname of shopping street. There are also plenty of cafes and bars.

I decide to walk, which is a bit of a mistake - not because it is 4 km, but because of my tendency to get distracted. I let google maps dictate my path, past this mosque built in 1744 - the call to prayer has just sounded, and people - mainly men - emerge from various buildings and enter via a side entrance.
I really want to have a look around the University of Istanbul but after watching for a bit, it becomes obvious there is pretty tight security at the entrance. A quick search makes it clear that random visits just don't happen - although it is possible to get on an organised tout. I can only get a photo of the entrance and move on.
I don't get very far, as there seems to be a book village across the square from the University entrance: I must check it out. Although most of the books turn out to be University texts and all are in Turkish, I enjoy my wee wander.

Everyone who knows anything about Istanbul knows about the Blue Mosque - I take photos of this thinking this is it. I thought it would be blue, and am persuaded there are bits of blue, but it is actually called the blue mosque because of its interior - thousands of blue tiles. Looking at photos of the actual blue mosque, I am left unsure what this is.

From here, things get wierd, as google maps has a shortcut for me. I walk through an area which has several houses looking like they have been hit by bombs, others which have burnt down and others which are being demolished: it is not a cheerful walk. Eventually, I reach the Golden Horn and walk across the bridge for the metro which, unusually, has a station half way across. Maybe they had some sort of dispute as to which side the station should be on, and compromised so that it is equally useless to both sides?

Once across the other side, my maps app takes me on another merry walk, though about a billion shops selling electrical supplies, nuts and bolts and small electrical tools. Want any of them in Istanbul? I'm your man. Upon emerging from this electrical storm, I am taken with the neoclassical lines of the buildings.

I'm not sure if it is the hills or there is something lost in translation, but I'm a bit lost. I know I am at the very beginning of İstiklâl Avenue, but I want to visit the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. After numerous false starts I find it: after such a lengthy walk, it is time for a coffee and there's quite a nice coffee shop in the entrance. Curiously, the only exhibit I really like is that of the black and white photos of Yıldız Moran - the first academically trained female photographer in Turkey. This one is so cute!, but they seem to be identity cards so there is a political message as well.

Here are four more, including one of Mt Ararat

I reckon these are showing human nature, but it is this work by British sculptor Anthony Cragg that is shown under that label:

Not really my thing, but I do quite like this

Alright, it is now nearly dark: surely time for a drink and to find some food on İstiklâl Avenue? I get the drink, sitting opposite the Russian Embassy
but food is more elusive - many fast food joints but nothing appealing. Apparently, it is in the passages off the main drag where the real good stuff is to be found. The only places that really grab my attention are the two shops - next door to each other - selling fountain pens and inks

I do walk all the way to Taksim Square, which is a bit of an anti-climax as there's nothing there and actually walk all the way back to my hotel before I find a place I want to eat at - I do see several restaurants, but with no people in them, I think I can do better. About half way back, I discover that the bloke at the airport did not do a good job of installing my Turkcell SIM card: I have a phone with dual SIMS and have until now been using up data on my Australian SIM: it runs out. This is not a good thing to find out, as my phone is telling me how to get home. I figure that I am walking alongside a tram line - maybe it is the same one that runs perilously close to pedestrians as it goes past my hotel?

Posted by NZBarry 11:12 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Istanbul – Sultanahmet

sunny 10 °C
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Everyone, I think, knows of the Orient Express: if not the train itself, then Agatha Christie’s evocation of it or Lumet’s film version of it (starring Albert Finney as Poirot and a number of big name actors as the murder suspects) or perhaps the recent remake by Branagh. Although there are variants, the Orient Express featured by Christie ran between Istanbul and either Paris or Calais from 1918 until 1977. The Istanbul station referred to faces the Golden Horn and, as it happens, is just around the corner from my hotel, also called the Orient Express.

Sadly, the station is in a poor state and is barely used for trains any more. There is a heavily policed car park which makes taking photos a little awkward, but I do my best.

Inside, there is a museum, which I expect to feature Orient Express memorabilia but is really general Turkish Rail bric-a-brac - it is so crappy I don’t even bother unsheathing my camera. I like the ceiling and wall decorations in this room.

There is a thriving wee market and a handsome looking restaurant, which is deserted when I venture in so I do not linger.

This is old town Istanbul, the part that was formerly known as Constantinople, and is now called Sultanahmet – I think because the headquarters of the Sultans who ruled the Ottoman empire are in this area. I like it a lot: it is less crowded than other parts of Istanbul, has a great range of places to eat, including some quite serious coffee shops, and nice streetscapes with decent shopping. I am taken by a couple of shops selling fountain pens and another selling shirts, but resist all temptation!

I am tempted to have lunch at this place, a Locantasi (which is a kind of buffet), but the huge queue puts me off, plus the food looks like it is cold.
The only bigger queue I see is of people waiting to buy a ticket in the 70 million lira lottery. Lunch turns out to be in an old school place - formica tables, a couple of old gents in drinking tea, an old fellow running the kitchen and his wife the till - where I order what would be called a lamb shish back home, but this is much tastier. Somehow I make much less mess eating this than when I eat at the Trojan.

My first coffee is actually a Turkish coffee, a gift from my hotel.

The only two hassles I encounter here are the carpet sellers and the trams. It takes me a wee while to catch on the first time I am accosted by a fellow in the street – he’s all about being friendly, come have a cup of tea, oh it is just up here, in my carpet shop, uniquely I have someone making carpet, come watch her... I soon learn to not admit it is my first day in town: saying it is my third day leads one guy to ask how many carpet shops I have been taken to. I like his gracious acceptance that I am not a starter. The trams are also a hassle because of the speed at which they move, with no barrier between pedestrian and tram. I don’t see anyone go under a tram but it must happen.

I wander up towards the Grand Bazaar, but am distracted by what I see on the way
but run into very crowded streets

The Bazaar itself proves to be something of a reprieve from the crowds, despite being the most visited place in the world a few years ago. It has been around for nearly 600 years: as I wander around, I try to imagine how it would have been. I like the quieter nooks that I find, and try the food at what I guess is a very small Locantasi.

I don't spend all that long here - everything becomes a bit samey and there is not much that I am likely to buy. In particular, I am not going to buy (or wear) shirts like this (although I do like the lights, the chances of getting them home whole are not great):

And then for a complete break from the pressures of the city, there is Gulhane Park, which was originally the Sultans' garden

Posted by NZBarry 10:45 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

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