Turkish Instagrammers love the Dogu – or Eastern – Express, running almost a thousand miles from the east to the west of Turkey. And it isn’t just for social media fans. The journey is spectacular, from the capital city of Ankara through the rocky wilds of Anatolia and to the city of Kars, from which it is a short drive to the ancient ruins of Ani on the Armenian border. There are planned stops with excursions, comfortable seats and beds, and over 30 hours to admire the remarkable scenery.
The train sets off from capital Ankara, Turkey’s second-largest city, around 5pm. While not as rich in history as Istanbul, there are notable museums, mosques, and a castle. It is also home to the tomb of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who made Ankara the capital in 1923. After a short visit, make your way to the renovated and gleaming train station, where only a few trains leave every day despite the modernity.
From your cosy cabin with fridge, sink, and two seats, watch Ankara slip away and the rocky countryside begin. Have a meal in the dining car or bring a picnic, then fold down your bunk bed and think about getting an early night. The train arrives on the outskirts of the small village of İliç at 7am.
A short drive from İliç takes you to the Karanlık, or "Dark" Canyon, a spectacular, eerily quiet gorge with birds of prey flying overhead. On a motorboat, take a trip up the peaceful Euphrates, then travel onwards to picturesque Kemaliye. Take in a view across the valley, and then meander down a road – lined with signs adorned by the work of local poets – into the village. There, among alpine wooden chalets, try the local sweet almond dish, and have a cup of tea in an authentic Turkish tearoom, before returning to the train.
The Dogu Express climbs almost 1000m on the journey, which starts to become noticeable at the lunch stop in the suburbs of Erzincan, surrounded by distant snow-capped mountains. The once large city never quite recovered from a huge earthquake in 1939. A drive around the surrounding area includes Girlevik waterfalls, where water seems to fall through the woods, and the ruins of a church near Altıntepe castle, with remarkably well-preserved Byzantine mosaics from the 6th century. After pit stops at a local fountain with naturally occurring carbonated water, and a small shopping complex in town, get back on the train for the afternoon.
The evening stop of Erzurum is 500m higher again than Erzincan. This time the train station is in the centre of the bustling and modern town centre. A short walk, which can be done without tour guides, offers architectural delights, including the twin-towered Çifte Minareli Medrese, built as a theological college in the 1200s, next to large Ulu Mosque. Also worth a look is the Yakutiye Medresesi, now a museum, and views from the Kalesi citadel. After a long day on the train, a local cağ kebab – horizontally turned lamb – is welcome. Tasty ones can be found at Koç Cağ Kebap, only five minutes from the train.
The train arrives in Kars after midnight, so book accommodation before arriving. The town itself is grid-like due to Russian influence, and some roads have animal statues as markers to tell them apart. Kars Castle stands impregnable on a hill, and there are striking dark stone Russian buildings, including official government offices, and Hotel Katerina Sarayi, built as a palace by Tsar Nicholas II. The Russians occupied Kars in the 1800s, but it was won back after WWI. Enjoy having your feet on solid ground after the moving train.
Less than an hour’s drive from Kars are the beautiful ruins of Ani, the capital of Armenian civilisation a thousand years ago, and once one of the largest cities in the world. Transport there or tours from local companies are easy to arrange. Surrounded by an imposing wall on one side and a deep gully on the other side, is a series of well-preserved churches, and there are great views into Armenia. In western Europe, Ani would be a thriving tourist attraction, but here you can walk around almost alone. Drive back to Kars, or arrange to have a local Kurdish meal of goose in the village of Ölçülü nearby.
Make it happen
"Tourist" train tickets cost 480₺ for a single, and pairs are less. Tickets can easily be bought online. There is a cheaper train for 58₺, but this doesn’t stop. The tourist train leaves three times a week – on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, just before 5pm. It arrives around midnight the next day, more than 30 hours later, though is often slightly delayed. The non-tourist train leaves at 6pm each day, and takes 24 hours. Tours at each of the three stops cost 75₺ extra and can be booked on the train. If you do leave the train, be sure to return promptly as it could leave without you. The route is subject to change, so check before leaving.
Bring drinking water, and an evening meal, as there are limited food options on the train. Also bring night and day clothes, and cash to spend at the different stops. Alcohol and your own food is not allowed in the main dining car, but can be consumed in the front carriage and in your cabin.
To get to Ankara from Istanbul, high-speed trains take around four hours and depart four times a day, and buses are convenient too. Not too far from Ankara is Cappadocia, famous for its hot air balloon rides. You can take the return train journey from Kars, fly back to Istanbul or travel onwards – there are plans for an extension to the train to Tbilisi in Georgia and Baku in Azerbaijan, though this is long delayed.
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