‘Whatever you need to pay me for, you possibly can have,” a masseur named Karim tells me with fun, as we face one another in Ankara’s Tarihi Karacabey Hamami, one of many Turkish capital’s oldest tub homes. We’re each carrying only a small towel, and Karim additionally wears a smile.
What I pay for is a rigorous pores and skin scrub and therapeutic massage within the hammam’s steamy communal room, whose nourishing atmosphere is sometimes punctuated by whiffs of tobacco breath from the clientele.
I’m about to take Turkey’s longest practice route, so want the knots thumbed from my muscle tissue: a whole day and night time onboard a gradual practice could also be uncomfortable for these licensed as lanky.
Departing each day in every course, the Doğu Specific – doğu is Turkish for east – runs for 800 miles between Ankara and the town of Kars. From Kars to Turkey’s border with Georgia it’s a two-hour, 100-mile drive north. So, in addition to spearing to the depths of japanese Turkey, the practice presents an adventurous overland route into the Caucasus: a visit usually taken from Britain by flying to Tbilisi by way of Istanbul.
Relationship again to the Thirties, the Doğu Specific route was for many years little recognized exterior Turkey: Ankara lay within the shadow of Istanbul as a vacationer vacation spot, and far-eastern Turkey was much more off-radar. Then the YouTubers arrived.
Within the mid-2010s journey vloggers clocked the mountainous fantastic thing about the route, their footage of icy station platforms and enigmatic lakes elevating the Doğu Specific’s profile in tandem with their viewing figures. Tour corporations stockpiled low-cost subsidised tickets (it’s simply 508 lira/£15 for a berth), and cabins started promoting out in seconds because the practice grew to become a vacation spot in itself.
Reacting to rocketing demand, in 2019 Turkish State Railways launched the Touristic Doğu Specific. It runs thrice per week from December to March solely, and travels the identical route with prolonged stops, permitting visits to locations akin to Karanlık Canyon and the small, mosaic-laden metropolis of Erzincan. All of a sudden Turkey, not historically a high practice vacation spot, had a few of Europe’s most sought-after rail tickets.
After getting scrubbed down within the Ankara hammam then loaded up at Ciğerci Aydın restaurant – with yoghurt-sopped adana kebab so good I order it twice – my pal and I enter the outdated half of the town’s practice station, reverse its Burger King-adorned renovated part.
We’re getting the usual practice slightly than the vacationer one, however the platform continues to be bustling with excitable travellers. They carry “Doğu Ekspresi” indicators from carriages, holding them like placards for pictures. Amongst them is Sena, a pupil from Ankara. She invitations me into the cabin she’s sharing together with her pal Selcan and a duplicate of Agatha Christie’s Homicide on the Orient Specific. Fairy lights are taped up across the area.
“The fairy lights … you possibly can see them in all of the Instagram pictures,” Sena says by way of translation app. “It’s our dream to take this practice.” As we depart Ankara, the giggly college students try to gentle a candle within the loudly jolting cabin, to create much more atmosphere.
As we chug via the countryside, moonlight illuminates fields lined in deep snow. Amongst bushes I spot the occasional stray canine, its wagging tail negating the camouflage results of white fur. Realizing we have now a full day of window-watching tomorrow, my pal and I make a platform from our cabin’s bunk ladder, stability an iPad on it, and open Netflix.
We purchased all 4 berths as a result of the reserving system forces mixed-gender events to order a complete cabin, to keep away from women and men from completely different teams sharing a confined area. Contemplating the demand, it’s a disgrace berths go unused, nevertheless it makes for a snore-free night time.
The soul of an evening practice is its eating carriage, so I relocate there within the morning. As kumru – toasted cheese, tomato and sausage sandwiches – are distributed by pleasant carriage employees, some middle-aged vacationers from Germany inform me they flew into Turkey for a tour based mostly across the Doğu Specific. In Ankara they purchased a job lot of gooey baklava, which I stare at till they hand me a slab.
Not everybody right here is on vacation: the practice supplies a significant service for a lot of Turks, akin to Ender, a medical pupil learning in Erzurum. “The aircraft could be costly for me,” he says, taking a break from analyzing diagrams of kidneys on his pill. “The practice takes greater than 24 hours, so it provides me time to review. And I like these journeys as a result of I meet folks.”
The sociability issue additionally impressed Metin, a “VIP minivan driver and actor”, to take the journey. “I discuss with everybody,” he says, plonking down subsequent to me. “I’m from Antalya, a highly regarded metropolis in Turkey. However I like snow – the snow made me come right here.”
After pressuring me to comply with him on Instagram, Metin dashes on to the platform throughout one cease and crops his face deep into the snow.
Flanked by snowy hills, the Euphrates, which runs south to Syria and Iraq, widens as we journey alongside it. At Erzurum, the jovial temper within the eating carriage is bolstered by a kebab supply. The carriage supervisor referred to as the kebab store on the platform to order meals for me and 65 fellow passengers.
The new lamb kebab virtually makes up for the practice operating 9 hours not on time because of engineering issues. We arrive in Kars at 5am, 35 hours after departing Ankara. “All a part of the journey,” I sigh, as I drag my wheelie case to my lodge like a mini snowplough.
The following day I lurch as much as discover Kars’s high attraction – the spectacular Ani ruins, a brief drive from the town. Relationship again 1,600 years and now a ticketed ghost metropolis, the ruins are neglected by the Armenian border operating by the Arpaçay (Akhurian) river canyon, with armed Russian guards manning the frontier. Owing to the nonexistent diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia, the border has been closed to travellers for many years: it briefly opened for humanitarian assist transport solely in February after the earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria.
My plan is to go on to Georgia, having developed a love of the small, mountainous Caucasian nation and its pleasant, cool capital Tbilisi on earlier journeys. Annoyingly, a deliberate practice route from Kars into Georgia continues to be “underneath development”. In peak vacationer season, buses run to the BCP Vale border level, however not in winter. An area driver agrees to take me there for about £90.