On the Dogu Express
Posted on 11 December, 2022 by Dan Vonk
In November of 2022, I headed to Ankara for a two-week adventure through Turkey and the Caucuses with a friend that I have known for many years. It had been a trip months in the making, though it started with a humble suggestion during a Discord chat one evening. Both being relatively early into our careers, we did not have the luxury of spending money on long-haul flights to the U.S., a week’s worth of hotels in an expensive state as well as the petrol needed to get us around. Nor did the idea of staying in Europe and going to museums sound all that excited to us adventure-seekers. So instead, it was more a question of how far we could go for the least money and luckily, through browsing on Google Flights, we found short-haul flights to Ankara that fit the description well. So our destination had now become Ankara. But ask any Turk and they will tell you that there isn’t much to see in this city. Therefore, we decided to take the night train across the country and continue this journey into the Caucuses, which I’ll probably describe in a further blog post.
When we arrived in Ankara, far from being boring, the city was initially exciting to be in: Even for someone who had grown up around London, it seemed huge. I think this was due to the hilly geography of the city, where the horizon was filled with craggy hills in all directions, which were densely packed with grey, concrete tenement blocks, all identically dishevelled, with their walls reflecting the yellow sodium-vapour lighting that is steadily becoming antique elsewhere. Our hotel was perched midway up the hill in the old town area of Ankara and the during the night, the views from it looked like someone had taken the city-scape of Los Angeles, as seen from the hills around the Hollywood sign, scrunched it up into a ball and it all creased, unfurled it as a sky-box around our hotel room.
The streets themselves were packed with people running their errands. On street corners, men would setup shop with a picnic table and chair, flogging lottery tickets while people waited for the pedestrian traffic light to turn green. Likewise, just in case you were starting to feel hungry, you were never far from someone selling (perhaps not so) freshly baked Simit bread, which cost 5 or so lira per piece. There were also many alleyways that turned into bazaars, where one could buy the usual counterfeit junk but also a huge variety of spices and kitchenware such as teapots, so indispensable in Turkey.
But what we found interesting is that this frenetic atmosphere was not all-encompassing. Around almost every corner, there were kebab restaurants which were exactly like the ones back in Germany (not comparable to those grotty ones you find in England, whose purpose is to supply greasy food to inebriates at 4 AM), where old blokes would spend hours talking and smoking. We also tried it, minus the smoking, and found it agreeable. Plus the food was always delicious.
However, after a while we were ready to leave the chaos of this ‘boring city’. In the months before the trip, we stumbled upon, through research on the internet in the months preceding the trip, the Dogu Express. This passenger train runs every night from Ankara in the centre of the country, to Kars, which is in the far east, in the Armenian highlands. Despite its name, the train takes around thirty hours to reach its destination from Ankara. You may think this means it traverses some colossal distance, but in fact it would only take 13 hours to drive. However, the slowness of the train did not deter us as we had plenty of time and I was rather looking forward to sleeping on a night train, which I had never done before.
Although the website for the Turkish railway company was clunky, it wasn’t too difficult to book tickets a week or so before we left for the trip. We decided to be cheeky and book two extra fake guests in the same cabin as us so that we didn’t have worry about being cramped in the cabin with two strangers. We didn’t feel too bad as this was the off-season and there were plenty of other berths available. In all, it cost us about £15 each, making this a very cheap way to get across the country. If you wanted it even cheaper, you could also get couchettes. However, we walked through that carriage and found it musty, hot and humid.
It is also considered sinful in Islam for an unmarried man and woman (including strangers) to sit next to each other, or sleep in the same cabin, for more than a few hours. This was an annoyance several times on coaches and aeroplanes, where we were assigned random seats and the attendant had to play Towers of Hanoi to get us into the proper configuration, but also may pose a problem if you are travelling with someone of the opposite gender.
Our train was one of the newer models and the cabin had air-conditioning and was quite comfy. This was welcome for me as the night before we had gone out to explore the city, gotten a little drunk and stupidly decided to go for the cheapest Doener we saw. Needless to say I got food poisoning, vomited a lot in the hotel and was green and feverish for the first night of the train journey. One let-down for me in this unfortunate state, were the toilets. At one end of the carriage, one could find the squat toilet and at the other end, the western-style toilet. However, the toilet also had a bidet function which could be turned on via a tap. Naturally someone had left this running, so after a few hours there was no more water in the tank. This also meant that the flush functionality of the toilet did not work. Luckily the train staff had predicted this and a toilet brush was already supplied to shove the waste down through the hole at the bottom of the aeroplane-style, aluminium bowl. This was all a little grim but we had come prepared with wet-wipes, hand sanitiser and Turkish cologne, which is citrus-flavoured cleaning alcohol, rather than perfume.
The carriage with our cabin was otherwise pretty good. The beds were about 2m long and spongy enough. The loud c-clank-a-clank of the wheels going over the joins in the rails took a bit of getting used to but otherwise became comforting after a while. The carriages did get noisy with those bumps and screeches if we got up to speed, but in practice this wasn’t really a problem as we barely went over 30mph for most of the trip. Overall the night’s sleep was restful.
I woke up the next morning with a beautiful view just beyond my feet. The blinds in the cabin were not completely opaque so the daylight came seeping in. With it, we saw the deep canyons that we had been traversing the night before. They were the canyons formed by tributaries to the Tigris river and our train weaved through deep cuts in the sides of the canyon walls, often through switch-backs where the rest of the train would greet us as we stared out through the windows.
The scenery had a wild-west feel to it. The sandstone rocks were rich in iron and baked in the sun, they appeared orange, a stark contrast to the deep blue, clear sky above. Along the train, there were also telephone poles, which I liked to imagine, were telegraph poles and that there were bandits hiding just over yonder.
We had finished the snacks we brought with us on the train the night before, which meant it was time for breakfast. Unfortunately, the restaurant car was not much to behold. The only food on offer was cup-a-soup, chocolate bars and packaged cheese-and-factory-bread sandwiches. However, I’m not above eating junk food so we did scoff on those in the morning. There was one packaged cake called 8Kek that tasted like banoffee pie, which was particularly delicious. The packaged bread-roll with cheese tasted exactly like something served on an aeroplane, so not great. But it was a good detox to the constant kebab and baklava that we had been eating in Ankara the days before. I was slightly disappointed by the tea and coffee though. It was just Lipton tea bags and the coffee Nescafe!
Your correspondent did also meet another correspondent in the restaurant carriage, who was a freelance writer for Al Jazeera. He was travelling from Istanbul to Trabzon with his Polish girlfriend, who also dabbled in a bit of film photography, like us, during the train journey. Luckily the guy also spoke Turkish, as although he was Egyptian, he had lived in Istanbul for some time. This helped as it gave us some more backstory to the country and allowed us to chat with some of the locals who were also on the train. For example, it turned out that our conductor was also a minor celebrity on the railways: He was a seasoned veteran who had been conducting the Dogu Express for many years and is even the subject of a short-film made by students; it is called Kondüktör (2018), which you can find on YouTube (no subtitles!). There were some other travellers on the journey, but they seemed more interested in covering hot-topics such making sure we understood their version of the events of the Armenian Genocide.
However, disaster struck when we tried to play top-trumps with the travelling couple in the restaurant carriage. An old lady spotted us and ratted us out to the conductor. No gambling allowed. He further explained to us, that he knew playing top-trumps wasn’t gambling but that it’s more about perception than reality. And he wasn’t going to get in trouble with his superiors over it. Interestingly, his superiors did board the train later on. They were about 20 years younger and dressed sharply in suits, as if they were crime-scene detectives. As far as we know, there were no murders or transgressions committed on this express though.
Before long, it was late evening again. Only in the last few hours of the trip, did we start to become bored and we spent the time by watching films in the cabin as we watched the evening set in over the plains in the Armenian Highlands, were no trees grew but was instead just monotonous and slightly undulating, grey terrain. We arrived a couple of hours late in Kars, at around 10PM. It was already dark and about -5C. We had prepared our bags long in advance and when the train stopped, we hopped out, into the sooty, high-altitude, mountain air of Kars, ready to continue on the next leg of the journey…