Wednesday 19.30 hours, Haydarpasa, Istanbul
On the banks of the Bosphorus stands a truly magnificent railway station, on a par with London’s St Pancras or New York’s Grand Central. Istanbul’s Haydarpasa station oozes the splendour of the Orient Express, although it never stopped here. Sirkeçi, the pink terminus that was purpose-built for the mother of luxury trains, looks more suitable for Thomas the Tank Engine compared to this imposing neoclassical railway castle.
Not much has changed since the station opened to the public, 101 years ago. Arrival is still over water on the intercontinental ferry embark in Europe and disembark in Asia, where you’re teleported a century back in time. Steam trains to Baghdad and Medina don’t run anymore, but once a week there is an exotic Middle East connection that can still be made: the Trans-Asia Express takes 69 hours or three days and three nights to reach Tehran.
22.00 hours, Haydarpasa, platform 3
Piles of luggage in suitcases, duffle bags and rubbish sacks surround the Iranian families gathered on the platform. A half-dozen westerners with backpacks or wheeled trolleys pace up and down, anxiously awaiting what they expect to become the train trip of a lifetime. An hour before scheduled departure, the Trans-Asia Express rolls backwards into Haydarpas¸a station.
The Turkish train turns out to be surprisingly modern, its cosy couchettes equipped with reclining chairs, fold-out side tables, reading lights and a socket. A bathroom with shower is the only thing missing for the next three days we will have to make do with cold water and a washcloth. At five to eleven, just as everyone has settled in and precisely on schedule, the train starts moving. The conductor comes by to punch tickets while the wagon chef hands out clean sheets. As Istanbul’s twinkling lights glide past, berths are unfolded into beds and just after midnight it’s oh so quiet as the train’s rhythmic clickety-clack lulls us to sleep.
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