Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Taurus Express from Aleppo, Syria to Istanbul

A brief history of the Taurus Express from Seat61
Agatha Christie's novel, 'Murder on the Orient Express', doesn't start in Istanbul, or on the Orient Express. It opens on the platform at Aleppo, next to the two blue-and-gold Wagons-Lits sleeping cars of the Taurus Express bound for Istanbul.

Those would be the two I’m standing in front of now then, woohoo!

The Taurus Express was inaugurated in February 1930 by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the same company that operated the Orient Express and Simplon Orient Express, as a means of extending their services beyond Istanbul to the East. It ran several times a week from Istanbul HaydarpaƟa station to Aleppo and Baghdad, with a weekly through sleeper to Tripoli in Lebanon.

After the second world war, the Wagons-Lits company gradually withdrew and operation of the Taurus Express was taken over by the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi state railways. Up until the late 1980s, a twice-weekly Istanbul-Baghdad service was maintained, with weekly through seating cars from Istanbul to Aleppo. For political reasons, the through service to Baghdad was suspended and the main train curtailed at Gaziantep, but the weekly through seats cars Istanbul-Aleppo were maintained.

In 2001, the Aleppo portion of the Toros Express was speeded-up and given a proper Syrian sleeping-car instead of the two very basic Turkish seats cars. You can once again travel in the security and comfort of a proper sleeper from Istanbul to Syria, and it's a great way to go...

Aleppo (Halab) 11:05
Meydan Ekbez (Syria) 15:30
Islahiye (Turkey) 17:14
Fevsipasha 17:39
Adana 20:44
Konya 04:15
Istanbul (Haydarpasha) 17:55

The day starts with a steaming hot shower in my very cold room. Outside I find the temperature has fallen dramatically overnight, it’s bitterly cold. I head with all my gear to the Pastry shop I visited yesterday, tuck into a couple then pick a tray’s worth to take on my journey. Onwards up to Baghdad Station – my bag is damn heavy with booze and plenty of water, but it’s not at all far, why did I take that bloomin’ taxi the first day?

Into the station, and it’s way roo early, but they have heaters! I try to use the coffee machine – it’s all in Arabic and the cleaner I ask to help me but he refuses so I just choose one near the top and hope I haven’t chosen the “extra sugar” option. It’s not sweet, but not good either. Next, I ask about times to Damascus from here – the times on Seat61 are out of date. This turns out to be more of a chore than I expected. A rather clueless girl tries to help me, but in the absence of a timetable she seems to be making the numbers up, she doesn’t understand the 24hr clock so writes “morning” or “afternoon” after every time and doesn’t get the table with stations I’ve drawn up for her, so writes them out separately. Eventually the task is over:

Aleppo to Damascus Train Times
Train : 70 10 12 16 30
Aleppo 0400 0540 1005 1532 0000
Hama 0515 0740 1130 1730 0215
Homs 0615 0840 1230 1830 0315
Damascus 0900 1015 1330 2030 0630

Train: 10 11 73 13 37
Damascus 0650 1532 1745 2020 0020
Homs 0915 1740 1915 2220 0320
Hama 1000 1840 2015 2305 0420
Aleppo 1130 2032 2315 2400 0620

Fare for Aleppo to Damascus (First/Second Class) in Syrian Pounds
Express Trains (240/100)
Slow Trains (110/75)
Sleeper 290

I’ll send all this off to Mark Smith at Seat61, perhaps I’ll get a mention, woo!!

I head back out to find hummous and bread, which I manage a couple of blocks away. So cold! As I get back to the station, it starts to snow, quite heavily! Woohoooo! How exciting!

It’s only brief but makes me happy. I celebrate with another random coffee, which turns out to be something approaching a cappuccino. Waiting around, it’s quite easy to spot the couple of other backpackers clearly waiting for Istanbul train, though they all seem to be Arabic. I’m hoping I won’t have to share a train with someone who will have an issue with me having my beer and wine!

Finally, the boarding announcement! Istanbul Haydar Pasha here we come!

And Maa el salama to you!

Oh cheer up!

We’re directed across the train tracks to two sleeper carriages standing alone, no engine.

Inside, I find my nice two bed cabin which I’m sharing with.. an Arab chap.. oh no!

But he turns out to be friendly, a Syrian student studying economics in Damascus. Might be okay. Then he notices some water dripping from ceiling, just outside our door, and so he moves to another empty cabin, but promises to come back when he’s boring! Marvellous. Suddenly we’re all thrown sideways as they couple an engine to us, a really rusty old Soviet affair.

We set off about five minutes late, at 11:15am. So what’s my cabin like? The door has a twist lock and a little chain. Next to it is a small wardrobe with something inside it which rattles a lot – this will be attended to before tonight, I assure you!! Then a door into the next cabin which wasn’t locked – I think I’ve secured it. A ladder sits covering it, then a washbasin with a table on top, and a mirror in a cupboard with a power plug for shavers which I hope my laptop won’t overload. The window is filthy on the outside, but the cabin is clean inside. I’ve folded the top bed up, but it doesn’t quite go vertical, and I’m worried it will fall on me! My lower bunk is comfy, I have a decent pillow and duvet with clean sheets. There’s no heater control, but it’s a reasonable control. There’s a large fluorescent light across the ceiling. Toilets at the end of the carriage are fine, one “Western” and one squatter. I know which one I’ll be using!

Trundling along, the train has a very unhurried feel to it. Perhaps because the track is so bad that going any more than 30km/hr would result in us derailing, or at least hitting a goat or something. We cross the plains, farmland with the occasional village or small town, before a grand-looking snow-capped range of mountains rears up in front of us.

This is where we stop, at Maydan Ikbes for border formalities. We arrive at about 2:30pm. Our passports are collected, and some regular seating and a single freight Turkish carriages are bolted on. We have a customs check, which consists of the conductor coming along with a Syrian army chap. He smiles and says in Arabic “Where’s this one from them?” and the conductor replies “English”. End of check! I prefer this border to the idiots between Damascus and Amman! Just as well too, as I’d just cracked open my first beer, and had it tucked behind my pack!

Passports are returned shortly afterwards. Glorious sunshine as we wait, the Syrian flag fluttering in the gentle wind in front of the pretty yellow-cream station building. I sip my beer out of my mug to avoid suspicion! After about an hour, we head onwards, and a few hundreds metres further, we approach the actual border line, marked with barbed wire and guardhouses stretching into the distance. Bye bye Syria!

Sign spotted in Aleppo

The borderline proper

For some reason, the Turkish side is verdant green, such a contrast!

Anyway, we head on for about an hour, with the Taurus Mountains on our left, and snow everywhere, before arriving in Islahiye Station.

Here we disembark to get our passports inspected.

I climb down the carriage steps and land on thick snow, crunching through it with my socks and sandals.

Crunch crunch crunch across the next line to the Immigration building, where I hand over my passport. Do I have a visa, I’m asked? No. They look at the front of my passport, and seeing the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, assume that I’m Irish, and so tell me the visa is 11 US$. No no, I say, I’m British. Ah, in that case it’s 20US$. Ah well, I’d rather pay more than be thought to be Irish (that one’s for Seamus!). Four officials are involved, but eventually I have an ink stamp or three, filling a whole page, with scribbles on appropriate bits. Nowhere does it seem to say Turkey on it. Three month visa for four days visit. Slight overkill, but what can you do? For the fee, I hand over a 50US$ note, which is frowned upon, but I get back (minus the 20$ fee) 20$ and 11 Turkish Lira. I know the exchange rate is about 2.3 to the pound. So I guess this is ballpark right. Useful to have the small money I suppose too.

Another twenty minutes and we’re off, after they bolt a Turkish train on to the front of our carriages. The sun sets over the mountains, lighting up the snow pink.

I crack open my bottle of wine, a slightly involved process as my cheap corkscrew from South Africa falls apart, but it’s open in the end. Just as a pour a taster out, the train decides to test the brakes. Repeatedly. All is well though, and first mouthful, well, I can only see it has hint of creosote. Not good! We stop somewhere at about 5:30pm. Not obvious what’s going on, but I note that it’s dark already. Heading into the Northern Hemisphere clearly!

It’s dark now, and we rumble along. Stopping sometimes, then carrying on. Not always at a station. I wish I could pull down my window and poke my head out, but it cannot be opened. The windows in the corridor can be though, but I’d risk getting involved in some quite boring conversations out there, and moreover people are using the corridor as the smoking area, despite the no-smoking signs. I finish off the wine and get to bed, sleeping marvellously well.

From my filthy window

I wake up and think for a moment we’ve stopped in some sort of historical sight – I’d forgotten that the blind that I pulled down to supplement the curtains has a picture of the Aleppo citadel on it!! Outside it’s blanket snow everywhere, thick in every direction.

When was the last time I saw snow like this? I honestly can’t remember, certainly not on this trip. I overhear the French in the corridor still complaining about the lack of restaurant car. So we still have the whole of today on the train. Bit early to start on the beers. I reread the International Herald and Economist that the French Australian chap gave me. The power has gone now so not too much KotH today.

As we approach the scheduled arrival time of 6pm, I’m told we’re running three hours late. This needs King of the Hill, so I get them to switch the power back on to the vanity unit with the all-important shaver plug. As it gets dark, I see there’s a full moon. Eventually we approach Istanbul, passing through miles of suburbs, and the Fenerbahce Stadium, where a critical match is being played out tonight - the sound is quite impressive. We arrive in Hayderpasha Station - Welcome to Istanbul, how exciting!!


Anonymous said...

yeah Id like to see that passport crawley, full of "stamps" from all those so called ports you claim to have visited, I dont buy any of this you know

Sam Crawley said...

You're welcome to inspect, Mr Anonymous. Also, I do take photos of all the visas periodically, just in case :)

Sam Crawley said...

Wahoo, Mr Seat61, Mark Smith, has updated his London Syria page with my train times! And "it has been reported" about the shuttle bus from Hejaz to Kadam Station is me too! Fame at last :)