Travel

Western Turkey by rail is efficient if not altogether romantic

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It seemed like a brilliant idea at the time: touring Turkey by train. Turkey was at the top of my list of countries I had yet to conquer, and trains have long been my favorite mode of transportation. Conjuring images of the old Orient Express, I envisioned lounging under a silk-shaded sconce in my plushly upholstered, wood-paneled compartment as the Mediterranean coast glided past my window.

There were, it turns out, a couple of problems with that picture. Turkish passenger trains didn't travel along the Mediterranean. Second, most Turkish trains are relatively modern, with interiors appointed with molded plastic, chrome and fluorescent lights — more evocative of Amtrak than the Orient Express.

But trains are still a good way to get around Turkey. During a two-week tour of the country this spring I found Turkish trains generally clean, comfortable and efficient. They are also remarkably cheap, especially compared with trains in Western Europe or the United States. A ticket on an overnight train from Istanbul to Ankara with a private sleeping compartment, for example, cost $54, and a 30-day pass good for unlimited travel on the entire Turkish rail network cost $95.

Turkey has a well-developed rail system dating to the mid-19th century, and its 5,400 miles of track connect most of the country's major cities and tourist attractions. The system was originally built and operated by private German, French and British concerns. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the Turkish Republic in the early 1920s, the rail network was taken over by a state company (State Railways of the Republic of Turkey, or TCDD), which still runs it today.

In recent years Turkey has undertaken an ambitious modernization program. The first section of a high-speed rail link between Istanbul and Ankara began operating in March 2009, slashing travel time between Turkey's economic and cultural center and its political capital from 11 to 5 1/2 hours. The second section of the line, scheduled to be completed by 2013, will cut travel time on the 330-mile route to about three hours. Work is underway on several other high-speed lines as well as a new rail tunnel under the Bosporus linking the European and Asian sections of Istanbul, a project that is scheduled to be completed in 2012.

Deciding to ride the rails was a no-brainer for me. I was traveling alone and on a limited budget, so planes and rental cars were out. And although I had heard favorable reports about Turkey's extensive intercity bus system, I have an aversion to long bus rides (probably stemming from a 14-hour bus trip I once took in southern Mexico). But the most compelling reason is that I have had a hopelessly romantic fascination with train travel ever since I was a kid (no doubt inspired by movies such as Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" and Lumet's "Murder on the Orient Express").

After studying the TCDD's route map and schedules I decided on an itinerary that would crisscross the western half of Turkey, beginning in Istanbul and heading southeast to Konya and Cappadocia, then west to Izmir and Selcuk, before returning to Istanbul. Because not all these destinations are accessible by train, I had to mix in a few buses, but they were all relatively short trips. I was also tempted to take the Dogu Express, the mother of all Turkish rail trips, which traverses the country between Istanbul and Kars, near the Armenian border, but the journey takes more than 36 hours each way and I decided my limited time was better spent in western Anatolia.

Tickets can be purchased in advance on the TCDD's website (http://www.tcdd.gov.tr), which has an English version, but the site is maddeningly dysfunctional. Seats can also be booked through authorized Turkish travel agencies, for a small additional charge. Either way, Turkish Railways does not allow passengers to buy tickets more than 15 days in advance. Because I was visiting Turkey well before the peak summer travel period I decided to wait until I arrived in Istanbul to buy my tickets.

My hotel in Istanbul was in Sultanahmet — the historic heart of the city where many of the most famous sites, including Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmed Mosque are located — a short walk to Sirkeci, the main train station on the European side of Istanbul. Sirkeci, designed by a Prussian architect in an Orientalist style, opened in 1890 as a terminus for the Orient Express. As I walked through the dark, cavernous terminal to buy my tickets, it wasn't hard to imagine a bygone era when elegantly dressed passengers disembarked from the famous luxury train and were greeted by uniformed dragomans (guide-interpreters) from the great European embassies.

After spending three days dashing around Istanbul — far too little time to explore such a complex and exotic city, to be sure — I began my train tour. My first destination was Cappadocia, a region in central Anatolia famous for its distinctive "fairy chimney" rock formations and cave dwellings where early Christians once lived and worshipped in secret. Unfortunately, the area is not directly accessible by train, so I decided to take an overnight train to Konya, home of 13th century mystic poet Rumi and his whirling dervish disciples, and then a 3 1/2-hour bus ride to Goreme, one of the main towns in Cappadocia.

The train to Konya left from Haydarpasa Terminal, on the Asian side of Istanbul, the city's largest and grandest train station and the starting point for all eastbound trains. I took a tram to the Eminönü docks and hopped on one of the many ferries that ply the busy waters around Istanbul. As I sat on the deck, I watched the fishermen casting their lines off Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn, a scene captured in countless Turkish novels, poems and plays. It was a cold, windy afternoon, but the short trip across the Bosporus was made more enjoyable by a young man who came around selling cups of sweet Turkish tea.

Haydarpasa, named for an Ottoman general, was built in the early 1900s as a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to Sultan Abdulhamid II. The station was constructed on wooden piles hammered into Kadikoy Bay, and from the ferry the neo-Renaissance façade, jutting imperiously into the water, is an imposing sight. The ferry dropped me off in front of the station. I climbed a broad set of marble steps leading up from the quay and entered a large hall with vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and archways painted with intricate floral designs.

On the platform outside my car I was greeted by a porter smartly dressed in a maroon jacket, white shirt and tie who led me down the narrow corridor to my sleeping compartment.

My cabin was small, clean, and functional — but a far cry from the Orient Express. On one side of the room was a double seat with a pair of bunk beds folded into the wall above it. On the other side was a small wash basin with a mirror and a towel. A refrigerator under the counter contained complimentary bottled water, orange juice and a candy bar.

I had more than an hour before my train was scheduled to leave, so I decided to explore the station. Haydarpasa's restaurant occupied a large room with chandeliers dangling from the lofty ceiling and red linen covering the tables. A glass display case inside the entrance contained a bounty of meze and salads and a mouth-watering assortment of fresh seafood and grilled meats. I was tempted to sit down for a quick dinner but decided to save my appetite for the dining car on the train. After all, is there anything better than enjoying a good meal as an exotic foreign landscape streams by your window?

It didn't quite turn out as I had hoped. By the time I made it to the dining car it was already dark, so the picturesque landscape was more of a gray blur. Several passengers were already seated at tables covered with white tablecloths garnished with little vases holding plastic tulips. The waiter wasn't unfriendly, but he gave the impression he had just woken up and would just as soon be back in bed. I ordered grilled chicken cutlets, which were dry and rather tasteless, accompanied by a mound of bland white rice, tomatoes and green beans, and a salad. But the price was decent — about $13.

After dinner I returned to my compartment, folded down the lower bunk and climbed under the covers. The bed was comfortable if a bit stiff. I tried reading but quickly fell asleep. There's something about the rhythmic motion of a train that never fails to make me tired. That's a good thing when you're trying to sleep, but I have also been known to nod off during spectacularly scenic rail trips in Norway, Switzerland and numerous other countries.

Although Turkish trains are supposed to be smoke-free, the rules are apparently not strictly enforced. I smelled cigarette smoke seeping into my cabin, and some of the bathrooms also smelled of tobacco. Speaking of bathrooms, there was one on each end of my car. One had a conventional toilet, but the other was the hole-in-the-floor variety where one is obliged to stand on ceramic footpads and squat.

I woke up early the next morning and made my way back to the dining car. Apparently I was the first to arrive because the waiter and the cook were sprawled out on the seats sound asleep. Breakfast consisted of a greasy omelet accompanied by chopped cucumbers and tomatoes, a roll packaged in cellophane and the ubiquitous Nescafé (good coffee is not as common in Turkey as one might expect).

The train was scheduled to arrive in Konya at 8 a.m., but we didn't pull into the station until after 9:30, which I learned was not unusual for long-distance Turkish trains. Konya has a reputation for being religious and socially conservative, but I found the small scale and slow pace of the city to be a welcome respite from the sprawling bustle of Istanbul. I visited the 12th century Alaaddin Mosque, which crowns a hill in the center of the city, and the Mevlâna museum where Rumi is entombed, which attracts 2 million people a year. Unfortunately, the famous dervishes were not whirling that day.

The bus ride to Goreme, through mostly flat, agricultural land, was rather dull, but as we approached Cappadocia the terrain took on a darker, hillier complexion. In the distance I could make out the fairy chimneys — conical protrusions formed over the centuries by the effects of wind and rain on soft volcanic rock. The bus dropped me off in the center of town, which appeared to be totally given over to tourism. The main drag was lined with souvenir shops, rug merchants, hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars. Fortunately the hotel I had reserved was a few minutes outside of the center on a hill overlooking the city. The rooms were carved out of fairy chimneys and caves — but they are very nice caves, indeed. My room sported a king-size bed, a stone fireplace, a flat-screen satellite TV and a huge bathroom with a Jacuzzi and a stall shower.

The next morning I ate breakfast on the hotel terrace as a procession of colorful balloons slowly floated across the Goreme Valley. Ballooning is one of Cappadocia's most popular tourist activities, but the going rate of $200 seemed like a lot to pay for a 90-minute thrill — especially if you're afraid of heights.

After two days of hiking and exploring caves, I treated myself to a Turkish bubble massage in the hotel's hamam, and I am not ashamed to admit it was one of the highlights of my trip. As I laid down on a stone platform, a striking young woman from Uzbekistan covered me with a thick layer of warm bubbles and proceeded to gently massage me toe to head.

The next stop was Izmir, Turkey's third-largest city, which lies on a bay near the Aegean. To get there I first had to travel by bus to Ankara, a five-hour trip I was not looking forward to. The terrain was monotonously flat, but we did pass the chalky shores of Lake Tuz (Salt Lake), the second-largest lake in Turkey and the source of about 70% of the country's salt. In the distance, I was surprised to see mountain peaks still capped with snow.

I arrived at Ankara's handsome Bauhaus-style station nearly two hours before the night train to Izmir was scheduled to leave. This time I decided not to take a chance with the on-board food and headed directly to the station restaurant, a large, comfortable room with chandeliers and white tablecloths. The food wasn't spectacular, but it was a far sight better than what I had experienced on the train.

To my disappointment, my sleeping compartment was identical to the one on the Istanbul-Konya train — a functional space lacking in charm. I woke up early and watched the scenery, which became increasingly hilly and lush as we neared the coast, before venturing into the dining car for breakfast. As I attempted, not very successfully, to communicate my order to the waiter, a young man sitting nearby with his wife and child offered to help. Tuncay, it turned out, was an officer in the Turkish army, and he and his wife had lived in Monterey, Calif., for two years while he attended an officer training program. Breakfast ended on a bright note. Tuncay's wife, Meltem, who also is in the army, offered me a slice of homemade pastry — layers of egg noodles and cheese that reminded me of my mother's Lokshen kugel.

Tuncay and his wife were visiting their parents in Izmir, and as we pulled into the station, they invited me to join them for lunch. I had planned to hop a bus to Bodrum, a resort area four hours south of Izmir, but how could I pass up an opportunity to spend a few hours with a Turkish family? Her parents lived near the bay in an area of modest apartment buildings popular with retirees. Even though they hadn't seen their children or granddaughter in months, they greeted me warmly and made me feel right at home. We ate a simple lunch of cheese, olives, bread, cucumbers and tomatoes on the patio overlooking the street. After lunch Tuncay took me for a stroll along Izmir Bay before dropping me off at the bus station.

If I had any doubts why many Turks prefer to travel by bus, they were dispelled by the trip to Bodrum. The shiny new Mercedes-Benz coach was equipped with individual touch-screen monitors offering a choice of music, movies, TV shows and video games. A pair of attendants, impeccably dressed in white shirts, bowties and vests, dispensed snacks and drinks (included in the ticket price) and every now and then sprayed the coach with air freshener. Near the end of the trip they came around again, sprinkling lavender water on each passenger's hands. It was almost like flying in business class — minus the champagne and barf bags. Greyhound, are you listening?

After two days relaxing in Bodrum I made my way back up the coast by bus to Selcuk, near the Roman ruins of Ephesus, one of Turkey's most popular tourist sites. I must admit I am generally not keen about ruins, but Ephesus is impressive in terms of the number of structures and the state of their preservation. It was also exciting to stroll down the same street where St. Paul and Cleopatra once trod.

The train back to Izmir, on the oldest rail line in Turkey, was a slow-moving, local affair, crowded with mothers with young children and students returning from school. But the train must attract foreign tourists as well because the announcements over the PA system were in English as well as Turkish, something I hadn't noticed on other trains.

The final leg of my trip, from Izmir back to Istanbul, offered two choices. I could have taken another overnight train, but that would have required changing trains in the middle of the night in the industrial city of Eskisehir — not an appealing option. I decided instead to take a train to the port city of Bandirma and then a fast ferry across the Marmara Sea to Istanbul.

It was a good choice. The train passed hills studded with olive trees, meandering streams and occasional flocks of sheep. The ferry was bigger and fancier than I had expected. It had a large cafeteria, a snack bar, a shop selling books and magazines and, best of all, comfortable seats and large windows offering expansive views of the sea. The ferry also contained a reminder that I was in a Muslim land — separate prayer rooms for men and women.

My only disappointment was that passengers were not allowed on the deck, so my vision of standing on the deck, hair whipping in the wind, as we sailed into Istanbul, was thwarted. Still, it was satisfying to end a rail journey that began with a ferry across the Bosporus with another ferry across the Marmara.

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