On the midnight express train across Turkey

<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

‘Whatever you want to pay me for, you can have,” a masseur named Karim tells me with a laugh, as we face each other in Ankara’s Tarihi Karacabey Hamami, one of the Turkish capital’s oldest bath houses. We’re both wearing just a small towel, and Karim also wears a grin.

What I pay for is a rigorous skin scrub and massage in the hammam’s steamy communal room, whose nourishing ambience is occasionally punctuated by whiffs of tobacco breath from the clientele.

I am about to take Turkey’s longest train route, so need the knots thumbed from my muscles: an entire day and night onboard a slow train may be uncomfortable for those certified as lanky.

Departing daily in each direction, the Doğu Expressdoğu is Turkish for east – runs for 800 miles between Ankara and the city of Kars. From Kars to Turkey’s border with Georgia it’s a two-hour, 100-mile drive north. So, as well as spearing to the depths of eastern Turkey, the train offers an adventurous overland route into the Caucasus: a trip normally taken from Britain by flying to Tbilisi via Istanbul.

Dating back to the 1930s, the Doğu Express route was for decades little known outside Turkey: Ankara lay in the shadow of Istanbul as a tourist destination, and far-eastern Turkey was even more off-radar. Then the YouTubers arrived.

In the mid-2010s travel vloggers clocked the mountainous beauty of the route, their footage of icy station platforms and enigmatic lakes raising the Doğu Express’s profile in tandem with their viewing figures. Tour companies stockpiled cheap subsidised tickets (it’s just 508 lira/£15 for a berth), and cabins began selling out in seconds as the train became a destination in itself.

View of the Karanlık Canyon, Turkey
Karanlık Canyon. Photograph: Alamy

Reacting to rocketing demand, in 2019 Turkish State Railways launched the Touristic Doğu Express. It runs three times a week from December to March only, and travels the same route with extended stops, allowing visits to places such as Karanlık Canyon and the small, mosaic-laden city of Erzincan. Suddenly Turkey, not traditionally a top train destination, had some of Europe’s most sought-after rail tickets.

‘The fairy lights … you can see them in all the Instagram photos,’ Sena explains. ‘It’s our dream to take this train’

After getting scrubbed down in the Ankara hammam then loaded up at Ciğerci Aydın restaurant – with yoghurt-sopped adana kebab so good I order it twice – my friend and I enter the old half of the city’s train station, opposite its Burger King-adorned renovated section.

We’re getting the standard train rather than the tourist one, but the platform is still bustling with excitable travellers. They lift “Doğu Ekspresi” signs from carriages, holding them like placards for photos. Among them is Sena, a student from Ankara. She invites me into the cabin she’s sharing with her friend Selcan and a copy of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Fairy lights are taped up around the space.

“The fairy lights … you can see them in all the Instagram photos,” Sena says via translation app. “It’s our dream to take this train.” As we leave Ankara, the giggly students attempt to light a candle in the loudly jolting cabin, to create even more ambience.

Passengers hang fairy lights and balloons in their sleeper cabin on the Doğu Express.
Passengers hang fairy lights and balloons in their sleeper cabin on the Doğu Express. Photograph: Ozan Köse/AFP/Getty Images

As we chug through the countryside, moonlight illuminates fields covered in deep snow. Among trees I spot the occasional stray dog, its wagging tail negating the camouflage effects of white fur. Knowing we have a full day of window-watching tomorrow, my friend and I make a platform from our cabin’s bunk ladder, balance an iPad on it, and open Netflix.

We bought all four berths because the booking system forces mixed-gender parties to reserve a whole cabin, to avoid men and women from different groups sharing a confined space. Considering the demand, it’s a shame berths go unused, but it makes for a snore-free night.

The soul of a night train is its dining carriage, so I relocate there in the morning. As kumru – toasted cheese, tomato and sausage sandwiches – are distributed by friendly carriage staff, some middle-aged tourists from Germany tell me they flew into Turkey for a tour based around the Doğu Express. In Ankara they bought a job lot of gooey baklava, which I stare at until they hand me a slab.

The dining carriage of the Doğu Express train filled with passengers at night.
The train’s dining carriage. Photograph: Ozan Köse/AFP

Not everyone here is on holiday: the train provides a vital service for many Turks, such as Ender, a medical student studying in Erzurum. “The plane would be expensive for me,” he says, taking a break from examining diagrams of kidneys on his tablet. “The train takes more than 24 hours, so it gives me time to study. And I love these trips because I meet people.”

The sociability factor also inspired Metin, a “VIP minivan driver and actor”, to take the trip. “I talk with everyone,” he says, plonking down next to me. “I’m from Antalya, a very hot city in Turkey. But I like snow – the snow made me come here.”

After pressuring me to follow him on Instagram, Metin dashes on to the platform during one stop and plants his face deep into the snow.

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Flanked by snowy hills, the Euphrates, which runs south to Syria and Iraq, widens as we travel along it. At Erzurum, the jovial mood in the dining carriage is bolstered by a kebab delivery. The carriage manager called the kebab shop on the platform to order meals for me and 65 fellow passengers.

The hot lamb kebab almost makes up for the train running nine hours behind schedule due to engineering problems. We arrive in Kars at 5am, 35 hours after departing Ankara. “All part of the adventure,” I sigh, as I drag my wheelie case to my hotel like a mini snowplough.

The next day I lurch up to explore Kars’s top attraction – the spectacular Ani ruins, a short drive from the city. Dating back 1,600 years and now a ticketed ghost city, the ruins are overlooked by the Armenian border running by the Arpaçay (Akhurian) river canyon, with armed Russian guards manning the frontier. Owing to the nonexistent diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia, the border has been closed to travellers for decades: it briefly opened for humanitarian aid transport only in February after the earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria.

A church in the ruined city of Ani, Turkey on a blue-sky day.
A church in the ruined city of Ani. Photograph: Aliaksandr Mazurkevich/Alamy

My plan is to go on to Georgia, having developed a love of the small, mountainous Caucasian country and its friendly, cool capital Tbilisi on previous trips. Annoyingly, a planned train route from Kars into Georgia is still “under construction”. In peak tourist season, buses run to the BCP Vale border point, but not in winter. A local driver agrees to take me there for about £90.

We stop once on the two-hour drive so that he can smash the black ice caking his chassis with a hammer.

This isn’t a border crossing to tackle with small children or Louis Vuitton luggage. After queueing with a few chain-smoking truckers at the near-deserted customs post, then pulling my case over a border line marked out in brown slush, mildly arduous negotiations with a “taxi driver” (an elderly bloke with a beaten-up saloon) get me to Borjomi.

At dusk, a view of a mosque in Kars, eastern Turkey.
A mosque in Kars, eastern Turkey. Photograph: Andre Dias Duarte/Alamy

A small rural resort town, Borjomi is the home of Borjomi branded sparkling water: the San Pellegrino of Georgia. If you’re into water, you’ll love Borjomi: as well as atmospheric old water-bottling buildings there’s a cluster of human-made thermal spring baths in a nearby forest.

I take a short and crunchy snow hike to the outdoor baths, my nipples turning to tungsten as I strip down to swim shorts amid the snowy hills. I wouldn’t call them hot spring baths, (more tepid spring baths) but floating in the sulphurous water in the shadow of pine trees feels almost as calming as my Ankara hammam rub-down.

There is a train service from Borjomi to Tbilisi, but it leaves at 5.50am, so I take a marshrutka: these taxi vans connect most of Georgia and cost a pittance to ride. Like train dining carriages, the rickety vans sometimes have pub atmospheres, mainly because there’s always a friendly red-nosed drunk aboard. I arrive in Tbilisi after two hours of snack-sharing and repeatedly agreeing that Harry Kane is a very good footballer with my fellow travellers.

Aerial view, on a beautiful blue-sky afternoon of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.
Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. Photograph: Getty Images

There’s a lot of “new hot city” buzz around Tbilisi, and it’s justified. A Berlin-inspired clubbing scene is growing, and streets outside parliament are often full of young protesters showing support for Ukraine or complaining about government policy. Tech bros and models tether well-groomed dogs to cafe tables in the courtyard of Fabrika, a converted factory bar and hostel complex that has become the city’s hipster HQ.

There’s a lot of ‘new hot city’ buzz around Tbilisi, and it’s justified

Fabrika has backpacker-bolstered parties and ramen, but I’m more drawn to the relics of Tbilisi. Between restaurant hopping, I nip into Orthodox Christian churches dotting the city centre for moments of candlelit calm.

The open-air Dry Bridge Market, meanwhile, is amazing for quirky tat. In 2022 I visited with a Russian friend living abroad owing to her anti-Putin views, who beamed as she spotted the 1970s crockery range that her grandmother had. This time I spend 10 gellari (about £3) on a ring – made of metal that I assume isn’t silver – with a comically large, snarling head of a bear on it.

After nightfall, bear head on finger, I head to a vibrant pro-Ukraine demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue, named after the medieval Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli. A video message from the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, plays to a crowd of thousands, the ex-heavyweight boxing champ thanking Georgians for their support. It’s support steeped in experience – in 2008 Russia invaded Georgia, which has been independent since 1991, annexing two regions that Russian soldiers still occupy. Before I’m allowed into Fabrika’s co-working space, I have to sign a statement declaring that I believe Putin is a war criminal.

Lounge area of the Fabrika hostel, a converted factory in Tbilisi, Georgia.
The Fabrika hostel, a converted factory in Tbilisi. Photograph: Mattia Sobieski/Alamy

I take the five-hour fast train from Tbilisi to Batumi, the biggest city on Georgia’s west coast. Passengers chuck pebbles to keep aggressive stray dogs at bay on the Tbilisi train platform, but inside the doubledecker carriage the atmosphere is more welcoming. These clean, modern trains are close to luxurious, but a reclining first-class seat costs just £22.50.

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I’ve stayed in Batumi before, and didn’t find the cascades of high-rise hotels overlooking the Black Sea that interesting. So I take a taxi to the border with Turkey (a different border to the one I entered Georgia through), then a bus south to Erzurum. The five-hour bus journey confirms that I can never get bored with views of pine tree-dotted snowy mountains.

I close the loop by catching the Doğu Express back to Ankara, hoping for a second round of baklava-lubricated socialising. However, while previously I shared the dining carriage with foreign tour groups and eccentric domestic tourists, now it’s just me, some crumbs and one man watching YouTube. He doesn’t have fairy lights around his window. Turns out that many Doğu Express tourists take the train east and then fly home from Kars – I bet they don’t mention that on Instagram.

The long, natter-free ride feels like the ambient comedown after the eastward train buzz. I enjoy a few final hours of staring at snowy mountains – still not boring – before pulling up to the same Ankara platform Sena and Selcan, the two students, were holding their Doğu Ekspresi signs on a few weeks ago.

Ankara accommodation was provided by Radisson Blu hotel, (doubles from £77 B&B), a short walk from the station. Sleeper berths on the Doğu Express cost £15; the Touristic Doğu Express (Dec-March only) is £90 for a two-berth sleeper cabin. Tickets are sold on Turkish State Railways’ booking site, ebilet.tcddtasimacilik.gov.tr, but with berths difficult to buy it’s recommended to use an agency such as Amber Travel. For an English-speaking Kars guide, contact Celil Ersözoğlu (+90 5322 263966). Train tickets from Tbilisi to Batumi from £11 via TKT.GE or 12Go