In Turkey, the Eastern Express cuts through snow-draped landscapes on its ponderous journey from Ankara to Kars. Here’s how I survived a 26-hour ride on Turkey’s most scenic rail route, and how you can, for just £10 a ticket. 

By Richard Collett

I’m not sure when it started to snow. Bleary-eyed from a torturous lack of sleep, I awoke somewhere between Ankara and Erzurum, some 10 hours into an epic – but incredibly long – journey on Turkey’s Eastern Express.

Through steamy windows in late January, I saw the Euphrates River shrouded in a haze of sleet and snow. The sun rose over the mountains, as the Eastern Express – a 26-hour long rail journey connecting Ankara with the little-visited eastern city of Kars – continued to carve a ponderous path through Anatolia. 

With tickets costing as little as £10, the Eastern Express (in Turkish: Doğu Ekspresi) is a budget rail ride like no other. Endure dated wagons, meagre buffet cart choices and a restless night’s sleep, and you’ll experience one of Turkey’s greatest, and most scenic rail journeys on your way east. Just remember to book your seat in advance.

What is Turkey’s Eastern Express?

Stretching 1300 kilometres from Ankara, Turkey’s capital, eastwards to the frontier city of Kars (mere miles from the Armenian border), the Eastern Express traverses deep gorges, vast lakes and high-altitude plateaus on its mammoth 26-hour voyage. In winter, landscapes are draped in snow, and in summer, the sun-parched plains of Anatolia are desert-like in the fierce sunshine. 

“The Eastern Express was one of Turkey’s first major rail routes. It had to be carved through the mountains by hand,” I was told by Ibrahim, who boarded the train in Cappadocia in the middle of the night with his family; perhaps 7 hours after we’d lurched out of Ankara’s brutalist Gare. “It’s one of the oldest trains in Turkey. It’s very special for us Turks. We always take it for holidays, but you don’t see so many foreign tourists on board.”

Ibrahim and his family sat adjacent to me, on the other side of the 2+1 Pullman configuration found along the train’s creaking wagons. After a bleary-eyed night’s sleep, I’d ravenously welcomed a breakfast of Bureks (a type of Turkish pastry stuffed with meats and cheese), sundried tomatoes and çay (tea) they’d kindly offered to me. The local feast was even more welcome after I’d seen the scanty options available in the buffet cart (Yemekli Vagon), which consisted largely of greasy Kebaps and lukewarm bowls of Corba (Turkish-style soup). 

The Eastern Express has been in operation since the line opened in 1936 (it originally ran all the way from Istanbul to Kars, but no longer). As Ibrahim alluded to, it’s become incredibly popular with domestic tourists – especially in winter, when scenes outside are a veritable winter wonderland – and in 2019, the TCCD (Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Devlet Demiryolları, or in English, the Turkish State Railways) was inspired to launch a dedicated Turistik train (in Turkish: Turistik Doğu Ekspresi) on the same route. 

The Turistik Doğu Ekspresi consists solely of sleeper cabins and luxury suites, and the train makes several sightseeing stops (where you have time to take tours) on its slower 34-hour journey from Ankara to Kars. Tickets for both trains are released 30 days in advance, but the Turistik Doğu Ekspresi (which only runs 3 times a week, as opposed to the local train, which runs every day) sells out in seconds. Turkish travel agents buy up sleepers on the Turistik Doğu Ekspresi in bulk, every single day. When I looked for any last-minute cancellations before my trip, the only compartment I could find cost 12500 Turkish Lira (a whopping £300), and that was soon sold anyway.

“That’s just too much!” exclaimed Can Yolac, a local guide I’d meet later on in Kars when I told him just how much people were spending on the Turistik Doğu Ekspresi. “It’s a train. Trains should be cheap!”

Yolac is right, trains should be cheap. As my travel writer’s lowly budget couldn’t stretch quite so far, I travelled on the more traditional, more rustic Doğu Ekspresi. Luckily, seats on the local train are still cheap and plentiful, and I booked my entire trip on the TCCD App for just 400 Lira (£10). Sure, I’d be in a seat for more than 26 hours of train travel, but at least that seat was a recliner. Looking at the map and timetables, I even decided to break the journey up and have a night, and day in Erzurum on the way to Kars.

Read more: 14 Best Things to Do in Ankara, Turkey

From Ankara to Erzurum 

The ‘local’ Eastern Express departs from Ankara’s grand station (Gare, in Turkish) every evening at 17.55 pm, all through the year (the Turistik Doğu Ekspresi departs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but only between December and March). Battered, worn but dependable, I was allocated Seat 51, in Vagon 3, for the first leg of my journey to Erzurum, which lies some 20 hours east of the capital. 

There’s something blissfully refreshing about slow travel in an age of budget flights and quick city breaks. As we crept across the Anatolian plains – the smell of lingering cigarette smoke mixing with the sharp tang of freshly poured çay in the packed wagons – the Turkish travellers on board revealed that they truly knew how to enjoy the journey, as much as the destination. One couple had set up a romantic candle-lit dinner table in the corridor, a mother and father had happily draped fairy lights over their children’s chairs, and as darkness fell, the beers were cracked open and bottles of wine shared around. 

The Eastern Express is famous for people bringing dinner, beer and wine onto the train.

Can Yolac, freelance tour guide.

I spent the night in a restless slumber. The local train is just that; a local experience. Luckily, the chairs reclined and legroom was plentiful, but it stopped all through the night and day, at seemingly every station – small or large – between Ankara and Kars. The ticket inspectors did constant rounds of the wagons, the lights were never fully dimmed, and entire families noisily got on and off with little regard for the weary passengers trying to catch some shut-eye.

Dawn came too quickly, even in January, and as the train rose high across the Anatolian plains, dustings of snow lay on the tracks. Between Erzincan and Erzurum, the sun glinted off snowy peaks, while rolling mountains led down to fields of wheat or grass. A nomadic, pastoral scene, I thought. But just as the great Anatolian plains were conquered by marauding Central Asian warriors, so too had the Eastern Express tamed this land again.

After almost 18 hours on board, we rolled into Erzurum, on schedule, at 16.06 pm. Sitting at a lofty altitude of 1800 metres, Erzurum is towered over by ski jumps and snowy mountain peaks that mingle with the white mianrets of mosques. This is Turkey’s winter sports capital, but I was more concerned with digging into a little history during my overnight stop in the city than hitting the slopes.

“The coldest I’ve ever seen it here is -35 degrees Celsius.”

Fatma Zehra, Erzurum tour guide.

After a quiter night’s sleep in the Grand Catalkaya Hotel and a hearty Turkish breakfast, I met local guide Fatma Zehra for a tour of the city before I jumped on the next train to Kars later that afternoon.

“The coldest I’ve ever seen it here is -35 degrees Celsius,” she said, wrapping her headscarf tighter as we slipped and slid our way around the icy streets. “Lots of people visit Erzurum for skiing. It’s mainly Turkish tourists, so not many guides speak English in the city.”

Snow ploughs were out in force, and Zehra showed me into the comparative warmth of a Seljuk Madrasa that was built in the 14th century. She explained that Erzurum’s history goes back to ancient times, with the Armenians, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks and Ottomans all laying claim to this strategic city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Indeed, when the Seljuk Turks (who would lay the foundations of the Ottoman Empire) swept through in the 13th century AD, their conquest of Erzurum opened the gates to Anatolia, and eventually Constantinople

We spent the morning visiting Erzurum’s historic sights, including a Caravanserai, a magnificent double minaret madrassah with an open courtyard that was piled high with snow and a Byzantine fortress where a leaning tower offered sweeping views of the city. When the cold became too much, we sought warmth in a 300-year old wooden home that’s been transformed into a restaurant (Erzurum Evleri). On the menu, local favourites like Manti (dumplings), Yaprak Sarma (stuffed vineleaves), and Erzurum su Boregi (a local take on the Burek) went down a treat.

At 16.00, I was once again at Erzurum station, waiting with a crowd of passengers in the snow for the slightly delayed Eastern Express to arrive. “The Eastern Express has become so popular in the last five years or so,” said Zehra, gesturing at the packed platform. “The east of Turkey is becoming better known. You used to be able to buy tickets the day before, now you need to book in advance!” 

Read more: 14 Best Things to Do in Erzurum, Turkey

From Erzurum to Kars

At 17.00 pm (around 40 minutes behind schedule), the Eastern Express departed for the final leg of its 26-hour journey. I left Erzurum behind in a blizzard of sleet, and the valleys we passed through were smothered in thick blankets of snow. The sunset was barely visible, creating a scene more reminiscent of the Arctic, than anything I’d ever imagined to see in Turkey. We crossed icy streams and passed frozen lakes, and then, when darkness had totally enveloped us, I sat back and closed my eyes until we arrived in Kars at around 21.00 pm 

The yellow light of the station was lucid in the snow. A great concrete construction, the station had been built by the Russians in 1899. Kars is Turkey’s eastern frontier, and from 1878 until 1917 it was controlled by the Russian Empire, who built streets of Russian style blockhouses and even introduced a local type of cheese, Kars Gravyer, which is beloved today across Turkey (find out more at the dedicated Cheese Museum). Kars was reclaimed by the Turkish Republic in 1920, but only after it had been surrendered by another occupying Armenian force.

At an altitude of 1786 metres, the streets were filled with snow the next morning after I’d spent a night at Kars Konak Hotel. A restored Armenian castle overlooked the Old town, and across the skyline, I saw minarets mixing with Orthodox Christian domes and Armenian style churches. Just outside the city, I visited the ancient ruins of Ani, an Armenian capital that was brought to its knees by earthquakes and nomadic invasions. To the north, Lake Çıldır was abuzz with sleds and snowmobiles racing across its frozen surface.

“The lifestyle in the east of Turkey is so different to the west,” I was told by Yolac, who showed me around the city. “They have different climates, altitudes, cultures and histories. Even for Turks, they’re like different countries.”

1300 kilomtres from Ankara, eastern Turkey is home to large Kurdish communities, creating a fragile political landscape. When I first visited eastern Turkey in 2015, many areas – including Erzurum – carried FCDO warnings, largely because of PKK (a Kurdish militant group) activity on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan to the south.

That put many travellers off venturing this far east (not to mention the distance), but these days, the FCDO warnings have gone, and this frontier region is slowly opening itself up to the outside world. Domestic tourists are already here in droves, so get in quick, before the rest of the world finds out about the Eastern Express. 

Read more: How To Cross The Border From Sarpi To Batumi (Turkey to Georgia)

How to ride the Eastern Express (including timetables)

Okay, so now you’ve read all about my experience, I imagine you’re wondering how to ride the Eastern Express yourself. As I’ve already mention, the key point to remember when planning your trip is that there are two trains running the same route.

  • Doğu Ekspresi: The original, ‘local’ train which has limited sleepers and takes 26 hours. Runs all year round, daily. Departs 17.55 from Ankara Gare arriving in Kars at 20.27 the following day. Seats from 400 TL.
  • Turistik Doğu Ekspresi: The newer ‘tourist’ train, only has sleeper compartments, and tickets are almost impossible to come by. Only runs December to March, three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 15.55. Dedicated sightseeing stops of around 3 hours in places like Erzincan and Erzurum en route. Sleepers from 1550 TL. Takes approx 34 hours.

Both trains make return journeys from Kars to Ankara. The local train departs Kars daily at 8.00 and arrives in ankara at 09.56 the following morning. The tourist train departs Kars at 22.30 and arrives two days later at 08.07 in the morning. It departs on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays only in the westbound direction.

In theory, booking tickets for either of the two trains is fairly straightforward. I booked all my tickets for the journey I outlined above on the simple to use TCCD App, which you can download from any App store. You select your route and date, and even get to choose your seat. You can then download a mobile e-ticket after paying by credit card to show to inspectors. At one point I cancelled my tickets, received a quick refund and rebooked for a different date with no difficulties.

You can also book the Turistik Doğu Ekspresi on the same platform. However, as I outlined already, the cheapest tickets (and more often than not, all the tickets) are swept up by Turkish travel agents as soon as they are released. I tried to book a ticket exactly 30 days in advance (when they are released) but still failed to score one (it’s like trying to book Glastonbury tickets!).

The cheapest seats on the local train are just 400 TL, and if you’re lucky, you might find a sleeper for 750 TL, but don’t hold out as they sell super quick. In comparison, the tourist train prices start from 1550 TL, but these are the ones taken up Turkish travel agents and sold on for a premium. There are cancellations available nearer the departure dates, so you might find a ticket going nearer the time if you’re flexible, but when I checked, the cheapest option on the days I needed to travel were 12500 TL!

If you’re set on a sleeper cabin or the tourist train, the best option is to contact a travel agent. I contacted a company called Amber Travel Turkey who get good reviews, to see if this was possible. They quoted me between 259 Euros and 539 Euros for a 2 person sleeper cabin (depending on the exact dates and type of berth). However, the problem was they couldn’t guarantee these tickets. They offered a full refund if they couldn’t secure them, which I couldn’t risk at the time as I needed to make the journey. They also quoted me 33.50 Euros for a sleeper berth in a shared cabin on the local train, but again, they were all sold out on the dates I needed to travel which left me in a reclining chair.

The tourist train is designed to facilitate sightseeing, and you stop for three hours each in Erzincan and Erzurum. However, if you’re not in a rush, you can make your own itinerary on the local train as it runs every day. I booked one ticket from Ankara to Erzurum, spent the night there, and booked a second ticket from Erzurum to Kars, for example. In all honesty, I’d give the local train a go, just take plenty of supplies!

Both trains depart from Ankara Gare. If you arrive on the high-speed train from Istanbul, like I did, you’ll need to make your way from the modern side of the station (the bit with all the shops) across the railway bridge to the older, more brutalist terminal. The Eastern Express typically departs from platform 1. There’s only one station in Kars, so you won’t have any trouble finding the departure point there if you’re making the return journey!

The Eastern Express, Turkey’s greatest train ride.

Read more: 14 Best Things to Do in Kars, Turkey

There you have it! My journey on the Eastern Express comes to a close. When will you be booking your seat on this epic 26-hour Turkish train ride?