From Ankara to Kars on Eastern Express: A Great Rail Journey Across Turkey’s Eastern Anatolia
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The Dogu Express, also known as the Eastern Express, is a 24-hour overnight trip from the capital city of Turkey Ankara to Kars, a former Russian outpost. It covers an 814-mile in length across seven provincial capitals and Anatolia plateau.
This amazing trip on a diesel locomotive is a local secret, with only a few tourists or none. It is a perfect way to see the rare part of Turkey that you would otherwise missed. The price of the train is affordable and the logistic is not difficult to plan, but it does require a bit of flexibility and an adventurous spirit.
Here is my experience about this rail journey and tips.
How to get tickets for the Eastern Express
The easiest and the most cost effective way is to book the tickets directly on the official Turkish Railways website here.
The price for regular seats is around 47 lira per person. Another option is the sleep berth for extra comfort. It is not expensive and the tickets come with free drinks and snacks in a small fridge in your compartment. However, the tickets for sleep berth are booked out quickly so be sure to purchase them a month in advance. I purchased my tickets three weeks before departure and there were no tickets left for the sleeping car.
Now you have received your tickets for the Eastern Express. If you are in Istanbul, you need to take a high-speed train to Ankara, then a free subway to Ankara Garı (train station) for the Eastern Express.
How to get to Ankara Garı from Istanbul
The departure station of the Istanbul-Ankara high-speed train has kept changing. When I was in Istanbul in early 2018, I had to get to Pendik station for this train. Now, I have earned that the train leaves Istanbul from Söğütlüçeşme station. Therefore, if you plan to take the train in the future, be sure to keep yourself updated regarding the departure point of the Istanbul-Ankara train as it may change again.
To get to the departure point in Istanbul, I recommend you take the metro and Marmaray if possible. The traffic is very congested in Istanbul, especially during rush hours.
The train departs Istanbul several times a day and it takes around four hours to get to Ankara. I recommend you take the 9:30am or 11:30am morning trains. This way, you still have more than two hours in Ankara to transit to the Ankara Gari, get food, and relax.
For the schedule of this high-speed train and the tickets, you can check out here.
The train from Ankara to Kars
I took the Dogu Express in mid-January from Ankara to Kars. It was really one of the best experiences in my two-week trip in Turkey. Unlike the bus trip, we moved freely on the train, walked from one compartment to another, socialized with others, and looked out of the window at nature and the small and traditional villages along the way.
Due to the inclement weather, the train traveled extremely slow and stops often. Inside my compartment, people talked until midnight, walked around, had snacks and tea, and got off the train at wee hours for smoking break, but I found it easy to sleep, perhaps because of the jetlag or the lack of daylight.
Dining on the Eastern Express
The dining car
I have taken other trains and the food in the dining car was usually expensive and mediocre so this was a question I wondered about before this trip – how is the food on this train?
It turned out that the food in the dining car was surprisingly good and cheap, with a wide range of drinks and several choices of meal plate, bread, snacks, and burgers. I chose a dinner plate that cost only 21 lira, and found it was surprisingly tasty. The food was not microwaved and there was a small kitchen inside the dining car where you could see the chef cook the meals.
During the day, you can spend some time in the dining car, drink coffee and salep and see the Anatolia plateau slowly go by through the large window.
Order Cağ kebabı in Erzurum
Cağ kebabı is a marinated rotating lamb kebab originating from Erzurum province. So when you arrive in Erzurum, you cannot miss the opportunity to try it. You can order it in advance and the kebab will be delivered to you on the train upon arrival.
There is also a small restaurant at the Erzurum train station offering Cağ kebabı for 15 lira. The restaurant is in the opposite direction of cars 7 and 8. The train stops in Erzurum for only ten minutes so I just walked to that restaurant and asked for Cağ kebabı takeout.
The people on the train
As the amount of foreign tourists on the train was minimal, it was a great opportunity to get to know the locals and learn about Turkish culture. There was hardly anyone on the train that spoke English, but most people I met were lovely. They welcomed me, took pictures with me, gave me information on ordering Cağ kebabı and even invited me to tea.
Fantastic scenery throughout Eastern Anatolia
There was something special about taking this train. Perhaps it was the fascinating and varied Anatolia landscapes, the notion of seeing the remote parts of Turkey through the large window in a stress-free way, or both.
I traveled in mid-January while daylight was short and the train was delayed, which means 2/3 of the time we spent in the darkness and only another 1/3 on the train traveling through the daylight. However, those few hours of seeing the day made the whole trip worthwhile.
The snowy scenery with fairy lights made it as if we were traveling to another world. In the morning, I woke up to the train rolling through the rugged landscapes with Upper Euphrates towering by the mountains. The landscapes became exceptionally appealing a few hours before approaching Erzurum, as we were meandering through the canyons and white-colored mountains alongside the transparent emerald-colored water.
Eastern Anatolia has the highest altitude in Turkey. It is also the largest geographical region in the country but with the lowest density of population. We passed through a few Turkish towns and did not see anyone on the road for hundreds of miles. I am not sure if the people in the village were too busy to care about the train passing through their backyard, or preferred to stay indoors to keep themselves warm, but I feel the life there is different and tough in this harsh climate.
Arriving in Kars
The train pulled into Kars at 11pm, five hours behind the scheduled time. Despite the late arrival and heavy snow, Kars station was lively with people waiting to reunite with their friends and loved ones.
The taxi ride to my hotel was fast and cheap. I visited Ani ruins, Lake Çıldır, explored Kars Castle and stone bridge, and walked around the city. Locals kept inviting me to tea and Turkish delights as they were happy to see travelers still coming their way.
Accommodation in Kars
Kars Konak Hotel: A two-star hotel in downtown Kars with complimentary breakfast and welcoming staff that frequently offers their guests free tea. It has cozy rooms with free WiFi, TV, and a panoramic view of Kars. The staff helped me to arrange my day trip to Ani ruins and Lake Çıldır.
Dogu Express: Practical information and tips
-The Dogu Express leaves Ankara Gar at 18:00pm daily and is scheduled to arrive in Kars at 6pm the next day. However, please do not book significant trips on the same day of arrival in case the train is delayed.
-As the train has been gaining popularity throughout the years, I recommend that you book it at least three weeks in advance on their official website. Be careful of booking through a travel agency, as some of them will charge a tourist price.
-Make sure to bring books, some audio podcasts to kill the time, as well as toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
-Please charge your phone and camera fully before getting on this train. Once you are on the train, the only place you can charge your electronic devices is in the bathroom.
-The service in the dining car is very limited on the second day afternoon, so be sure to bring snacks and water with you.
Have you taken Eastern Express in Turkey? Share your experience below.