Trans Asia Express time!
We set off on our Trans Asia Express train to Tehran, at 10.00a.m. When we arrived by the luxury of Taxi! I alas did forget my watch at the hostel and had to instruct the driver to turn back so I could get it before returning to our journey to the railway station in down town Ankara. Good thing we left ourselves plenty of time to get there. Watch secured we arrived at Ankara station in enough time to buy ourselves a drink and some breakfast bread. Staffs at the station were polite and helpful, even though once again English was not a familiar language. Our train pulled in at 10.15 and left at 10.26a.m. we got to our carriage and stowed our backpacks into the smallish compartment. Seats look and are roomy though, and once underway blankets, pillows, and sheets are brought round. Ticket inspector checked and marked off our outward bound tickets, and wished us a good journey. I had a cracking headache, probably from getting up way to early, so crashed on the extremely comfortable pull out beds. I got two hours sleep/rest and got up in a better place. The staff all appear very friendly and try their best to help us out. Tea (chai) is offered and brought to your cabin. We have yet to try out the buffet car, but a quick rekkie tells us prices look the same as any in Ankara, and the variety as interesting. We sampled the delights of the buffet car and ordered (guess what?) chicken Kebab, and salad. Which was not to bad, we shared as both of us didn’t quite feel like much to eat(kinda kebabed out). Staffs were very friendly and Angela had another last drink of coffee, at the local Turkish cafe.
This train does do a lot of long stops, most of the night I woke because of the lack of movement, not the gentle rocking it does when underway. It rained a lot too as we seemed to higher into the hills.
Next Morning we both woke to find us again stopped, this one lasted around an hour as the train staff seemed to be eating breakfast at the local shack! Still raining, but the scenery starts to altogether change, more mountainous, and most of them covered with snow. As we pull away from our breakfast stop we start to see more stunning scenery, the train follows a long and powerful river, with breathtaking views of the hills and we pass through numerous tunnels where the train track cannot hope to bend in time. I have taken some lovely pics, albeit through the train window/glass. Great cracks in the hills some of them revealing small and larger waterfalls. The other passengers (none of whom speak any common language to us) treat us kindly and try to communicate with the usual speaking in Turkish/Farsi and hand gesturing. Smiles always go a long way. The other thing I notice as I look at the landscape from the train is the sparsely populated country side. Few single storey crofter type cottages, looking like there are no roads in and no roads out to them, small numbers of cattle. A very hard life of small agriculture with fishing from the river spring to mind. This is definitely getting away from it all places also quite desperately poor by western standards. At last the sun has come out, and we have stunning sunshine, but still the temperature has not risen by much. We have now hit a large succession of tunnels; this is not so fun, so Blog writing I am.
We arrive at Takvan to get the ferry to Van, where we pick up the second half of the TransAsia. Express train to Tehran. The ferry is included in the train price; very narrow steps up two flights lead you to the seating deck, which looks like a budget airline seating arrangement. We find ourselves a pair of seats and settle with our bags to watch what becomes a cockney style market stall at the snacks and drinks area, with one very “larger than life” character selling olive oil, chocolate spread, fruit flavoured chewing gum, and various treats which are apparently very expensive in Iran. All being sold to the highest bidders. Fascinating to watch and I even indulged to get some flavoured chewing gum, which was 3tl for three packs. People on the ferry(Iranians) were very friendly and helpful, letting us know what was going on, and what all the announcements.
We wandered outside onto the middle deck to see the most stunning sunset over Lake Van, a huge lake which looks more like a sea
once underway. The ship doesn’t just carry passengers, it carries one of the train carriages we just got off from, loaded with people’s baggage, and two further shipping containers full of various goods unknown. All making for a very slow 5 hour trip across the lake, but I really didn’t think that was a problem as I really didn’t want to go any faster with all that on board.
We arrived around10.00p.m.at Van Iskalsi, and disembarked after around a forty minute wait as the train was late. We were herded into a large shed, where we waited for the ticket managers to check our train tickets and reallocate our seats as women and men are not allowed to share the same carriage, except families of course. During all through this the train arrived. A rather ancient looking stock, inside and out. We get lots of help from the train ticket supervisor finding our carriage as everything is now in Farsi, and no English numbers. We squeeze ourselves into our 4 berth compartment, and settle down when two more ladies come to join us, one older (in her 60’s+ and one about our age (45-49). We are greeted by them with smiles and the younger lady, Zoreh, speaks some English. It’s apparent that the older lady is not going to make it up into one of the very high couchette, so Zoreh goes off to find her a lower bunk elsewhere, stressing that she loves our company and that she loves chatting and helping us, which she does for the rest of the train trip.
We arrive at the Turkish border check out point at around 3.00a.m. To have our passports stamped out of Turkey. Again men and women in separate ques, with children and old people first. Back onto the train and we must have stopped in a siding about an hour later not to move until 8.30a.m. the next morning. Where we are woken up to be told that Passport control was boarding to take our passports to stamp us into Iran. Hooray! Bearing in mind we still had to go through a customs check later at Tibriz. Passports were returned after breakfast with our stamps of entry on. Breakfast was not so good, what can only be described as flat bread that was more like chip paper, and a tiny pot of honey. He seemed to think we needed several folds of these large sheets. About 8 to be precise, we both didn’t manage to get through half a one each. Tea and a pot of hot water were provided.
Next big stop Tibriz, where customs board the train to check everyone’s baggage, it’s at this point we are grateful we carried our backpacks ourselves and didn’t tow them in the luggage carriage. As everyone who did had to go out with their luggage receipts and wait for their bags to be taken off. We were trying to work out if they were going to make us empty every bit of our bags, or do the cursory once over glance. Thankfully it was the latter and we cleared customs to be able to go and try out our new garb of lightweight long length shower coats and head scarves (which we had been observing since we had passed passport control). Tibriz station is very modern, and large, but very plain, just the obligatory ticket booths, one small kiosk, a bank, where Angela tried to discuss changing $100 but the guy behind the counter wouldn’t indicate what the exchange rate was and just kept asking her for the $100 bill. She walked out, rather than risk not getting a decent rate, and actually our train did accept Turkish lira, so as we had some left we new we wouldn’t be needing rials at this stage. There was also a small open book stall, and some smaller units, along with a prayer hall. Ladies toilets were downstairs, behind a discreet curtain, with several cubicles with squat toilets, but clean if not a little wet! I was a bit apprehensive as I had coat, scarves etc., but actually once in them you see they provide a rack and coat hook for all of your bit and bobs. Very civilised (I really didn’t know what to expect). After that back to the train where our lovely porter informed us it would leave by 2.00p.m. so we enjoyed the cool shade as it was quite warm when we arrived, and boarded about 1.45p.m. to start the rest of our journey. Sleep was first on our list. We both had lunch (provided by the staff on the train) and then sleep, we both needed it by then. We both finally got up about 6- ish and felt a bit more normal after the very long day and eventful night! Both thirsty we decided to drop down to the buffet car, and were knobbled by our new Iranian friends, who invited into their carriage for afternoon tea (well that@s what it turned out to be). Hot water and tea bags, biscuits (Iranian style) and lots of friendly chat saw us spending till 9.00p.m. with some very lovely people.
Arrived in Istanbul after easy 4 hours via Turkish airlines. Landed at Attaturk airport north Istanbul, what seemed like miles away from the centre. We grabbed a bus, which seemed more like a coach toTaksim Square as there were no buses to Eminou where we would have to take the ferry across to Kadakoy, crossing the Bospherous to the Asian side of Istanbul. As it was, had to take another bus from Taksim to Kadakoy, finally arriving quite late in the evening to near our destination for the Hush Hostel/Lounge (please read our review), which is up a rather long steep hill at the end of the main road at the ferry port. I have to say I was quite tired and managed to fall over on the uneven pavement on street, and was lying there with this huge backpack arms flaying everywhere feeling like an upturned turtle, shouting at Angela “Help” in a turtle type way! I was really heartened to see and hear so many local people rushing to help me. As usual, I was hoisted up by rather scrawny looking, fifty plus, man, who lifted me up like I was a twiglet! After the very long climb up the hill we found our hostel and checked in. End of day 1.
Today was Pouring with rain, but we decided to make the best of it. Blue Mosque day it would be. We purchased our Istanbul kart at the ferry port (just like an oyster card in London), and put on about 20 Turkish lira. Carefully navigating our way onto our first of many river crossings. It did remind me a bit of the river taxis we have been on in Thailand, but better organised! Landing on the Western side of Istanbul you are greeted by the stench of fish from the port fish restaurants on the dock, all selling fish sandwiches for a mere 5tl, and the New Mosque and then the Blue mosque to your left, with the spice market tucked down in front of the New Mosque. A feast for the eyes. We took the tram to Sultanahamet. Again we used the card we purchased from the ticket office, easy, across the park and we are there. Stunning! Beautiful mosque, of which I have many pictures and will post when I get a chance. It is definitely a “must do” when visiting Istanbul. Entrance was free. We did walk up to the topaki palace only to find it was closed until Wednesday. So off back to the hostel for the rest of the day, and dry out.
So today we took the trip across the river again back to Sultanahamet, as we had to visit the Iranian Embassy to get our visa for our journey through Iran. We had forgotten to get our headscarf passport photos done back in England (note to self, do this before leaving home), and it didn’t take us long to find a small shop with various ticky tacky tourist bits, but also very usefully “passport photos” for we paid 12tl each for four pics which was about the same as you pay in England (£5-6). Pics done off up the smaller hill to the Iranian Embassy, we got there about 9a.m. and were greeted by a friendly security guard who let us in after we said “Visas!” we were greeted by a large open space with dark glass windows all around one side with tiny little openings to speak through. There was one in English and Farsi market “Visas”, so we waited patiently, the lovely consul came over and we explained our requirements (please see blog on Visas), we left our passports and decided to spend the rest of the day out sight-seeing.
We had been told by a friend of Angela’s about some beautiful underground cisterns in central Istanbul. So off we went to find them, they too are not far from the Aya Sofia Mosque, and we joined the que, thinking we might be there for a long time, but actually it moved quite quickly. We descended into near pitch blackness via some very solid stairs. To be greeted by soft, warm orange light, tastefully showing the stunning huge columns holding up the ceiling. (Again pics later) soft unobtrusive music accompanied your walk round on solid wide walkways. The water here is now only a few inches deep in places. Again somewhere well worth the visit if your there. We paid 15tl each to get into this and I have to say was definitely worth all of that, especially when you consider what you would pay for something similar at home
When we popped up, like rabbits in Alice in Wonderland, (through another set of sturdy stairs) we found ourselves almost right outside the Aya Sofia, we took one look at the que and decided that that was not an option today!! So we elected to go to the Museum of Islamic Art. We paid 10tl to get into here and saw some interesting artefacts, carpets, scripts etc. I must say, maybe it was just us, but we came away not so impressed. I guess by then we were a bit hungry and foot weary, we set out to forage for food, we wandered across the square in front of the aya sofia across the hippodrome and off down a side street to find ourselves a sunken café/restaurant, where we were greeted by a smiling face (again). We sat and decided to give ourselves a well-earned lunch (2.pm) and rest. Great food, good prices and no hassle meant we stayed quite a while chatting about our next days plans of places to go and things to do. I must say the chicken Kebab is lovely there. We finished off the day just wandering back towards Sultanhamet for our tram, but without really worrying exactly how, or which route we took.
Today Is Aya Sofia Day! And Topaki Palace day is also the day when it finally stopped raining and allowed us to wear less cumbersome jackets. Finally sun, that thing that Turkey is apparently famed for. Aya Sofia was not so busy this morning, but still a good showing of people and we got through to tickets quite quickly. We Paid 20 tl each to get into here, again worth every penny. I guess I didn’t realise how big it is inside, actually huge! And lovely art work, again one of those places you have to see (pics later). We did the long sloping walk up to the upper gallery which give you a stunning view of the main place below. My camera did have a smashing time in their taking some lovely shots.
As we had had missed the Topaki Palace on Monday (it was closed for two days), we went straight round the corner from there and took the walkway up t the ticket entrance, it’s a bit like looking at a fairy tale castle when you approach the main gate, and just to the left are the ticket booths. The Harem is definitely a must see, but you have to pay separately for that once inside. 20tls saw us into the main part of the palace, and a further 15tl each to get into the Harem, which is where we went first. Very elaborate entrance through many courtyards and passages to finally get to the quarters where queen and concubines were housed. Gilded cage does come to mind, I thought as I walked round, but put in context of time and history I guess it was an honour to be picked as a concubine? Still not altogether a rough place to live. The main parts of the palace are set into sections, an armoury, where photography is “strictly forbidden!”, and a treasury, which houses some of the most stunning jewels you will see anywhere, a bowl full of Emeralds, one of the top ten diamonds in the world, weighing in at a hefty 80+carats, and various stunning gifts form various heads of state throughout history. An empty Library, which looked very comfortable, but had no books! The section of various prophets’ relics and even the staff of Abraham, and important relics pertaining to Mohammed. This was again very worthwhile going to, and we spent our time in lovely sunshine and relaxed atmosphere marvelling at the views from the terraces looking across the Bospherous.
Pick up Iranian Visa Day! We got over to Sultanhamet again to pick up our Iranian visa, in and out in five minutes, with fetching head scarves emblazoned in our passports. Hooray! We are going to Iran!
We booked ourselves the Trans Asia express from Ankara to Iran at the local railway station in Istanbul, Hydraplace is closed. We paid 103tl each for our train tickets and then we booked our bus from Istanbul to Ankara which cost 51tl each, not forgetting to ask for a place on the shuttle bus that takes you to the main bus station. We got that on Saturday at 10.30a.m. and I was impressed with the Turkish Bus, more like a coach even with in coach entertainment screens with Turkish TV. We had some refreshments and one half hour break throughout a five-hour journey. We arrived at what I can only describe as the biggest bust terminal I have seen anywhere in the world so far!, hundreds of buses/coaches making their way into the station in no particular order, but all finally finding their allotted spot. The lovely attendant from our bus directed us to the metro, where we got tickets 3.50tl for both of us to our stop at Kurtulus. Again up a hill (yes we seem to keep choosing them this way) we settled into yet another clean and roomy Hostel (review to follow).
We really like Ankara, Very very very Hilly! But you know, not heaving with tourists, and prices for eating out which Istanbul could really learn from. We really used this as a stop-gap for grabbing visas and picking up our train to Iran. was always going to be a transit stop. The people here speak English even less than Istanbul, in fact non-existent, but so eager to help us get what we needed to eat, or drink.
We visited the Uzbeckistan Embassy which is open 9-12a.m.and although we had tried to fill in online the visa application form and print, three times, it wouldn’t. We were directed to a small basement round the corner from the Embassy, by the lovely Uzbeck consul, to a small internet office where a very nice young woman fills in the form and prints it off for you, all for a princely 10tl. Back we trot to the uzbeck embassy and hand in our forms, only to be told that they cannot issue them in Ankara, and gave us the choice of Tehran, or Ashgabat, we chose Tehran, as we did not have three days to wait for it in Ankara. The took copies of our passports, and gave us the original applications back, for us to take to their consulate in Tehran, for Monday.
We had just enough time to get over to the Turkmenistan Embassy, we thought we would try our luck getting our Turkmen visa as well as we already had a LOI. We arrived with 15 mins before they closed for lunch and managed to start the process of application, we showed our LOI, and first we were quoted $75 for a less than 3 day issue for the visa, as once again we didn’t have 3 days to wait. As we were filling in our forms the consul there came out and informed us that the price was now going up to $113, and we had to pay through the bank across the road, bring back the receipt and he would issue the visa, or we could get them inTehran. We we chose Tehran, and walked out with our LOI. we are now aware that that is the price for instant visa issue.
I sometimes wish we had done all this before leaving the UK, but the whole idea about the aspect of this trip was flexibility. Alas not without cost.
Citadel Day, today we took the metro into central “oldAnkara”, which is largely very modern, and a smaller very ancient part. The Museum of Anatolian Civilisation was our first call, and having walked from the metro up another hill! Were not really sure the lonely planet map was very accurate, coupled with the fact that I had eaten something that disagreed with me; I could see I was not going to make it on foot. We flagged down a Taksi, which looked like he had done this one many times before, and charged us 5tl to take us up a fair way to the museum. I have to say from where my tummy was at it was well worth it(the 5tl). When we arrived and walked through the gates it was like an oasis of cool trees and beautifully laid out grounds. We paid 15tl each to get in, but this was a stunning museum, not boring or stuffy at all. We found state of the art WC’s with air con, and very modern features all around a 15th century beautifully restored building. It has been voted 1994 museum of Europe and I think still holds that title for me today. Photography is allowed in the first set of halls, which for me enhances my experience, and rightly the second set of halls it was not allowed, but then you saw so much ancient pottery, metals, gold and precious ceremonial, burial, and everyday artefacts, it would have been lost on camera.
After we rested and refreshed we walked up a little further up the very steep hill to the site of the old citadel, or Ankara Fort.
In here village people still live and work, mostly for the tourists, but it is not “tack Ville”, they leave that to the stalls outside the walls! We found a lovely café courtyard where we sat and had a couple of well earner drinks and soaked up the lovely calm atmosphere missing in down town Ankara.
You are aware that you are still walking uphill as you pass through the windy street lined with houses looking like they are about to fall over and still lived in. They are in poor repair, but you can see where once they would have been stunning. Lots empty and some lived in; a small community still thrives here. Lots of children all under 14, run and play football in the various small squares you pass through. Finally we reached the end of the village and we were able to look out onto the mound across the modern road built in-between the two hilly outcrops, here you could see 14th and 15th Century buildings in decay, with just one or two here and there with people still resident, almost slum like, sad really as this could have been preserved for cultural history.