The Eastern Express
Into the unknown! That's how this leg of the expedition felt. An 18 hour sleeper-train across Eastern Turkey? The idea had thrilled me since I first planned it. I had notions of waking, parting my cabin curtains and seeing dawn pouring across the snow-capped Pontic Mountains, then whiling away the rest of the day gazing out of the window with my notepad and letting the muse take me.
The reality? Booking a cabin on this famous train is very, very difficult. You have to wait until a few weeks before the journey before you can book, and the few cabins are sold out within moments of becoming available. Anyway, enough whingeing, I still got a berth, but just a normal train seat.
Truth be told I almost didn't even make it onto the train. When my taxi dropped me off at Yerköy station, I had no ticket or confirmation. The TCDD app had confidently told me I needed only produce my passport to get my tickets at the station. Ha! Yerköy is a small town and the station was pretty basic. The chap in the ticket office - who had the patience of a saint - didn't speak a word of English, and I only command a really basic Turkish vocabulary, Google translate rode to the rescue - kind of. There were a few comedy mis-translations (one involving me claiming "I have already burned my tickets"). Good job I had got there 2 hours before the train's arrival because it took over one and a half hours to search the TCDD system and prove that I had bought tickets. Me and the station master actually did an ecstatic high five once we found them :)
Famished, and having read the advice that the train sometimes didn't have much food on board, I grabbed a lamb pide and a bottle of juice. I assumed it was some kind of soft drink... then I noticed it was actually 'hot black carrot juice'? Eh?! Well, try everything once, I say. I did, and I won't be trying it again. It tasted something like spicy dishwater. Urk!
Anyway, the train came, and I found my seat. Darkness had fallen by this point, so there was no sightseeing to be done. As the train moved off, I tried to make myself comfortable - the seats were big and comfy, but it was still above 20 degrees Celsius, and I knew 18 hours would be a test. So I flicked on my Kindle. About half an hour in, a voice stirred me from my reading. I looked up to see a smiling young woman, holding out a box towards me. 'For you' she said. Confused, I took it, opened it and beheld the cakes and pastries it contained. She was away before I could thank her. Just to be clear: she was not a member of the train staff - she was just being very, very kind. I saw other people doing similar things: offering each other food and drinks from their own personal stashes. Indeed, later on another family boarded at Kayseri station, and they proceeded to give me a potato! I think they thought this was quite funny because I'm from Britain and all British people are (apparently) crazy for potatoes! A while after this I spotted the kind cake woman and gave her a pack of haribo for her young daughter. This whole communal atmosphere really softened what was to be a tiring journey.
With nothing but the darkness of night outside, time wound on lethargically, and - unable to lie down - I simply couldn't sleep. I was exhausted and on the edge of full grumpiness when something wonderful happened. Dawn. The Turkish sunrise. Beauty emerging from darkness like an amber teardrop.
This was the vision I had been waiting for. Silhouetted hills, rolling dusty plains, Cliffs and crags. These were the lands that the Hittites once roamed, honouring the spirits of every rock, wood and vale. And the landscape changed after a time. The train plunged into mountainside tunnels, emerging into successively rockier and more lofty ranges - chiselled walls of terracotta that stretched for the sky - some capped with snow even though the ground-level heat remained sweltering. For every height there was a matching ravine, with opaque, emerald brooks, fed by toppling, silvery waterfalls. Now I was in my element!
I left my seat behind and began patrolling the train in search of good windows from which I could take photos or simply observe (and wait for the muse to come!). It was simply magical, and at one point I was entranced by a green river and the way the sunlight was sparkling on its surface... then I realised (with a quick check of the map) that it was actually the upper Euphrates - one of the most famous and ancient rivers in the world.
The highlight - by far - was my find of the mail carriage. It was deserted. No mail bags, no furniture - just an empty shell of a carriage... with huge doors on either side, lying wide open! So, with a form grip on the rail next to the door and my camera set to video mode, I tried to capture the moment...
My train journey ended at the city of Erzerum, which deserves a special mention because - although it is small and not quite the 'beautiful' tourist city, it is very authentically Turkish, and that is what I was here to see. I only had a short overnight here, but I did manage to browse the historic city centre and its very wonderful mosque and medrese. Even better, I was introduced to a Trabzon Pide here - a deliciously calorific cheese, egg and bread concoction that went wonderfully with a chilled pint of Efes :)
Just before I left to catch the bus onwards to Georgia, I had a moment of reflection, and realised that a few of my books had criss-crossed this ancient city, as my video will try to explain:
Eastern Turkey Travel Tips
A full gallery of my journey through Eastern Turkey is available here on Facebook (Like and follow, please!)
Gordon Doherty, writer, history fan, explorer.
Empires of Bronze: The Dark Earth - the story of the Bronze Age's catastrophic end.