The popular touristic railway Eastern Express, which runs from the Turkish capital Ankara to the snow-covered east, was suspended for a while due to the COVID-19 restrictions that were imposed in the country.
The good news is that it will be accepting passengers again very soon as Turkey is restarting its mainline trains routes on Dec. 15. Trains will depart from the capital every Wednesday and Friday, while they will leave Kars on Fridays and Sundays.
The Eastern Express became extremely popular after people started sharing photos of the scenery on social media. The huge interest in the experience made the Turkish State Railways (TCDD) put a new train into service on the same line solely for tourism after it became so popular that people trying to reach eastern Turkey by train could no longer find tickets.
The train ride, one of Turkey’s longest, has attracted the attention of local and foreign tourists alike, especially among young people, growing in interest as passengers share their experiences on social media.
If you are planning a trip on Eastern Express here is what you need to know.
What is the route?
Eastern Express departs from Ankara Train Station and goes to Kars Train Station. Its intermediate stops are Kırıkkale, Kayseri, Sivas, Erzincan and Erzurum. At the end of the trip, passengers stretch their legs – or take a sleigh ride – at the frozen Lake Çıldır in Kars, another famous photo-op.
When to travel?
The best time for those who want to travel on the Eastern Express with snow views would be January.
Photographers and videographers are frequent passengers, as the experience provides a wealth of landscapes and vistas, especially during wintertime. For those seeking to be dazzled by a winter wonderland, January and February are ideal times for travel.
However, if you can’t find tickets for those months, you can also consider April, May and June. At that time you will be able to enjoy the green nature views during your journey and also warmer weather.
Also choosing the express in autumn instead of winter, which is the most popular season for traveling to Kars, has its own charm. The railway journey might be the best way to see the red, brown and orange hues of fall.
How long does it take?
The 1,300-kilometer (808-mile) long route lasts around 25 hours. However, in some cases, the train may be delayed due to weather conditions.
How much is the ticket?
Ticket prices range from TL 30 ($2.2) to TL 600 ($45), depending on a choice of economy seats, sleeper car or more luxurious two-person private cabins equipped with a table, sink and refrigerator. Tickets are discounted for passengers aged 13-26, and for teachers, military personnel, seniors and groups larger than 12.
Is there a sleeping car?
The Eastern Express train has three wagon types: bedded, seated and a car that has comfortable seats which can be easily transformed into a bed. The train also has a wagon restaurant.
If you make your way to Kars, Lake Çıldır is the one thing you do not want to skip. Situated 1,959 meters (6,427 feet) above sea level, Lake Çıldır usually starts to freeze at the beginning of winter as the temperature drops to minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) at night.
What makes Lake Çıldır – which covers 123,000 square meters (1.3 million square feet) – unique is that tourism activities and fishermen’s livelihood start when the lake is frozen.
Every year, once the lake freezes, the villagers of Taşbaşı get their horses ready for a ride on the ice. The troika coachmen also offer tourists visiting the lake a chance to take the ride of their lives.
If taking a ride on a frozen lake sounds a little scary to you, you can also just take a walk on the ice and enjoy outstanding winter views as everything around will be covered with a thick blanket of snow.
Ice fishing and troika rides attract many, but sometimes it’s all about the simplest pleasures in life – sunsets and tea or any other drink you would like to have.
Another popular destination in Kars is the ski resort Sarıkamış. The resort has over 21 kilometers of slopes for skiing or snowboarding, which attracts thousands of tourists every year.
There are five ski runs at Mount Cıbıltepe, the longest of which is 12 kilometers, and the area is laden with pine trees. There is limited accommodation at the resort but more options in the town of Sarıkamış. A favorite pastime at this particular destination is to take a ride on a horse-drawn sleigh.
With crystal snow on its tracks, Sarıkamış is an ideal skiing destination surrounded by yellow pine forests that block the wind. The prime time to ski in Sarıkamış starts in December and lasts until April, making it the place with the longest open availability in Turkey.