Taking the Choo-Choo Train to Kars

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September 1st 2011
Published: September 2nd 2011
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Traveling by train still remains my favorite form of transportation, even after the longest train trip I have ever done. Here is a gps log of the trip (lost the gps link for a while in the middle there): click here. In all, it took 38 hours and 45 minutes to get from Istanbul to Kars. All in all the trip was well worth it, particularly the landscapes which on day two were stunning. Day 1 was nice, but the views were not too special.

I had decided to go to Kars from reading Snow by Orhan Pamuk which is one of my best favorite books. Also, I figured I had 5 weeks worth of time in Turkey, so there was some time for slow methods of transportation. Also figured it would be interesting to see the Eastern part of Turkey which is a bit off the typical Istanbul-Cappadocia-Southeast tourist itinerary.

To get to the train, I had to take a tram to Karokoy and a ferry to Hadarpasha. As I got onto the train, I was not too pleased with our cabin since my monstrous bag was not really fitting under my seat, my phone was about to die, and the prospect of 37 hours on the train seemed like just such an awful idea. Once I got a bit settled in, the time went by much better. I was able to get my bag sorted out, I was able to get my phone charging (most importantly to keep the GPS track going - yeah I am a nerd...), and I was able to get into my books that I brought (Snow and the Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond). I still have a stack of books with me that I have finished, which I am hoping to trade in somewhere in Cappadocia (there's a large tourist population there). If I can't find a place, I'm just going to donate them somewhere. I'm tired of carrying them around.

When I got into the train in Hadarpasa Train station in Istanbul, in my cabin was a stunningly beautiful Turkish girl and her boyfriend, and a jolly older man (think Turkish Santa Claus and you get the picture). The boyfriend of the beautiful girl gave me a bad first impression (jealousy?), but turns out he spoke the most English and was actually quite nice. Offered me mint-covered gum too. Santa gave me stuffed grape leaves (dolmas) and some beef-stuffed pastry triangle thingies a couple of times. I actually ended up liking my cabin mates. The cabin was a couchette where there are four seats and the seats fold down into four beds - two on each side.

All three of them smoked like chimmneys throughout, but I guess that is a pretty good way to wile away the hours on such a long trip. Even though it is nominally a non-smoking train. They asked me if I minded and I told them that I didn't, but all in all I would have preferred if they hadn't been smoking so much. Oh well.

Most of the way through the train trip I ran into an English guy that was a dead ringer for George Cornell from a distance, and resembled him in some ways even close up. He was about to go hiking in the Kackar Mountains which are in the north of Turkey and we talked about them for a while. If I have time I am thinking of going to the mountains.

Tim (The Englishman) and I ended up meeting a guy who works on the train and he took us up to see the engine and made us tea and shared his life story with us. He spoke pretty good English and was an entertaining character so this was quite fun.

A funny anecdote from the food, which was on the whole quite uninteresting, a bit overpriced, but edible. The soup was quite watery but their chicked shish (which I had a few times), was quite nice. They were selling Haylayf cookies, which I thought was just a Turkish name, but what I ended up realizing is that Haylayf is simply a Turkish transliteration of the English High Life. They were sort of like sugar-coated cracker, and were really tasty. The food as a whole was nothing to write home about though. What do you expect for a train anyway.

By the end of the trip, I was nearly the only person on the train - there were maybe 4 other people in my car, and none in the sleeper car. It felt creepy since you can't see anything outside (it was 10pm at this point), and there is nearly nobody around. A ghost train. (Admittedly there were people in the restaurant car one car forward, but still...). Serious sensory deprivation. Kars was the last stop for the train, and I asked to make sure that I was in the right place and disembarked the train into a world of uncertainty. What the hell am I doing here?

The really odd thing is that after I got off the train, I had to get my walking legs back. Its like if you have been on a boat for a few days, the world seems to be rocking after you get back on solid land. I guess 38 hours on a train will do that to you.

Getting to my hotel ended up being interesting. I had called my hotel (Hotel Temel) while on the train to try to make sure that they would be open at 12am or whenever I got in, and the guy at the hotel keep answering my questions with "Problem No", so for me he will be Mr. Problem No. I thought it was quite funny. Anyway, I thought I had a hotel sorted, they said they would be open, all good. I had made a small map for myself of where the hotel was relative to the Kars train station, and I was going to walk, but when I got to Kars, I found that it was quite dark on the streets, and as a result I didn't really want to walk it, so I decided to get a taxi. My "friendly" taxi driver made it seem that he knew where I wanted to go, and took me there, except that "there" wasn't Hotel Temel but Hotel Keravansaray. When we got there I could tell that something wasn't quite right - particularly the sign outside not saying Hotel Temel, but my Turkish wasn't good enough, and I was too tired to fight. In hindsight I should have been more forceful, as will be seen in my next post on Kars. The hotel itself was nice enough, but I think I overpaid since my taxi driver certainly got a cut of my price, and overcharged me for the taxi to the hotel. An inauspicious beginning to Kars...

Additional photos below
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5th September 2011

Hello from SC
Great to hear from you! Glad to see that you are a ways away from Syria!
5th September 2011
IMGP6161 c

Hey Ian, this is a really nice picture of you. You look pretty tan ! Is that the English fellow to your left?
6th September 2011

Yup, he's sitting to my left in the photo

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