Gareth Huw Davies

By train through the heart of Turkey

What counts as an epic train journey? The 24 hour crossing of Turkey from Ankara to Kars, in the country’s far north eastern corner, 30 miles from the border with Armenia, must surely qualify.

This is a land disproportionately well-known for undemanding full-sun holidays on the coast in the south and southwest, and relatively few British tourists venture deep into silent heartland Turkey, even though it has long been possible to span the whole of the country by railway. 

The famous Orient Express route to Istanbul, is now linked by a new high speed Line to Ankara. Our minds were made up to continue to the utter east, after flying in to Ankara, by the favourable level of even our troubled currency against the Turkish lire. 

Our five day package, paid for in Turkey, was a bargain, roughly half what it would have cost even two years ago. We qualified for the best two bed compartments on the smart sleeping car express.  

This is a cultivated form of slow travel. We left Ankara at six in the evening, with still sufficient light for the opening movement, slipping out of the huge city for the first glimpses of the countryside. Next came the drift through remote towns at dusk part, as level crossings bells clanged demonically in our wake.

Then the brightly-lit conviviality of the dining car in the dark sequence, the time when Poirot would study the suspects even before the murder was committed. Then the stops in remote, unknown places, with random illuminated glimpses you’re only ever going to get from a train. On a stop at one station in an unidentified town at midnight our window was filled with the vision of a gigantic, floodlit mosque next to the tracks.

For the whole of the next morning we wound through the heights of eastern Anatolia, in and out of rocky valleys opening onto vast plains, skirting swollen, muddy melt-water rivers. They included, to our surprise, the headwaters of the river Euphrates, which we were forever crossing and re-crossing.

Here winter means winter, and we weren’t out of it in the middle of March. The bleak monochrome landscape was occasionally broken by a flash of pale pink almond blossom. This is distant and detached interior Turkey, unknown to many of us, unless it’s a landscape we glimpse from 30,000 ft on a long haul flight.  It was punctuated by a succession of little villages, with houses tidy, but poor, every one with its cow and neat woodpile and stack of dried dung, for burning.

Every few hours we would pile off at a chilly station for a ten minute break. The Turkish passengers loved to photograph themselves holding the destination boards which they detached from the carriages. 

The catering did not meet cruise ship, or Orient Express, standards, but the prepackaged snacks, and coffee, were an adequate complement to the provisions we bought at the supermarket at Ankara station. Somebody phoned ahead to one town where we were stopping and a order of kebabs was delivered fresh to our platform.

Just as cruises have made sea travel attractive again, comfy trains like this are restoring the romance to overland travel. In a more benign geopolitical age, this train may continue on into Iran, just as the many branches of the silk Road did centuries ago. (Our compartment was decorated with motifs for all points to Tehran, as if that were the original plan.) But for now our destination was Kars, We arrived two hours late, but I don’t think anyone really minded.

Kars has a distinct end of the line feeling, although there is now a connection north to Azerbaijan. Ohan Pamuk set his novel Snow here, deploying the claustrophobic winter weather as a metaphor for a society agonising over female repression by headscarf. In three days, I must report, we did not see one.

Kars, like many border communities – Armenia is just 25 miles to the east – has seen its fortunes ebb and flow with successive invasions. But in recent years it has found a positive touristic purpose, as a base to tour this deeply historical ‘crossroads’ country, above Iran and Iraq and alongside Armenia and Georgia. And most immediately for 

 visiting nearby Ani, the city of 1000 churches, an exaggeration most people would be willing to allow when they find there are only 32.

On our visit the thaw had just arrived in Kars, although the heating in our hotel was still generously set for the minus 7 C of the week before. The streets were bordered with an untidy tideline of litter, left behind by the melting drifts. Mystery men in dark coats and woollen hats trudged along, hands deep in pockets. By way of contrasting transparency, a man stepped out of his store to announce, unnecessarily, ”Cheese shop” as we inspected the piled-high local curds in his window. Two other arms of this rural economy are honey and geese.

The streets are arranged in a neat grid system, a vestige of the years of Russian, then Soviet, control.  Kars has a selection of fine churches and mosques, One building, incongruously, has a Nordic look. It was built by a Baltic architect.

And so to Ani, just half an hour away, and its impressive roll-call of  past rulers – variously the Sacas, the Sasanians, the Bagrat Kingdom, Byzantium, the Principality of Şeddatoğulları, the Georgian Atabegs, the Ilkhanids, the Seljuks, Karakoyunlus, Akkoyunlus, the Russians and the Ottoman Empire. 

The city flourished in the 10th and 11th centuries as an important crossroads for merchant caravans. The Mongol invasion and a devastating earthquake in 1319 marked the beginning of the city’s decline.

UNESCO’s formal citation extols a “comprehensive overview of the evolution of medieval architecture with examples of almost all the different architectural styles of the region between the 7th and 13th centuries.”

700 years on and, by the look of it, we were at the start of its career as a serious tourist attraction — they were still finishing the interpretation centre, ticket office and toilets. We took the long self-guided tour, which included most of the surviving structures, some teetering on the edge of the valley which forms the border with Armenia. Its ex-Soviet watchtowers glowered redundantly across the divide.

Spaced out across the plateau were Armenian churches, a Seljuk Palace, some mosques, an 11th century Turkish bath, and, deep in the ravine, the ruined bridge that carried the Silk Road over the river and created the wealth. Some 1000 year old tumbledown buildings were more scaffolding than brickwork. Heavily shored up, and with UNESCO recognition, they should at least be safe for posterity.

This region has another attraction, well known if not much visited,
Mount Ararat, a few hours south of Kars. We set off next day across a countryside with a low carbon footprint. Few people own cars here. We saw two men without vehicles evidently setting off to walk for many miles on a long lonely track striking off across the immense plain.

On our encounter Ararat was shrouded in mist.  But we found the restored  İshak Paşa Palace, startling and sumptuous against the bare uplands, tolerably comfortable. On a raw afternoon we welcomed the cover of what some consider an inappropriate glass ceiling, which kept out an icy, biting rain. This is one of the Turkey’s best surviving Ottaman-era palaces, restored after rough treatment during the Soviet occupation.

You would search in vain for any sign of a beached ark on Ararat’s stony flanks. If there ever was one, and nothing has ever been found on or around the mountain (or scientific evidence that Noah’s Ark even existed as described in the Bible), the field is open to anyone wishing to create a facsimile.

Greenpeace made a handsome small-scale version in 2007 and unveiled it on the mountainside to publicise global warming and the attendant danger of floods, in the place in the world that most readily suggests extreme water levels. We found it, in good condition and on permanent display, in the nearby town of  Iğdır.

The weather closed in on our return over the mountains to Kars. It was only us, a few cars, the occasional military vehicle and dingy Iranian oil tanker, every inch the castoff from Humphrey Bogart’s Wages of Fear, but, I assumed, with better brakes. 

Through the window of our speeding minibus, I snatched as extreme a holiday ‘snap’ as I have ever managed,  taken through the smeary condensation of the window.  It shows a bleak, snowy mountainside  in the blue grey dusk. 

Ten minutes later the window iced up.  Twenty minutes on we ran into a blizzard. Someone tried to overtake us in the swirling  snow. He could have driven us both of the road. Our experienced driver managed to  force him to pull back, then held the ice-bound road for the next 20 km  back into Kars. Our Turkish companions rewarded him with a round of applause.

Tourism is new here, but I must take over-paint the picture of a distant and isolated region. In truth, Kars is not that remote. It has a good, new airport (connecting to Ankara and Istanbul.) and that is how we returned home. It was built, I suspect, to serve an emerging skiing industry. 

There is another winter draw, still in full swing. We sampled the full Dr Zhivago horse-drawn sleigh experience on Çıldır Lake. This is the start of deep central Asia where, even in March, winter has such a hold that Çıldır was still frozen.

As well as the sleigh rides, they give you the chance to catch the local fish through holes in the ice, then serve them up in the local restaurant. A more complete opposite to torrid summer days in the teeming resorts of far west Turkey I could not imagine.