Of course flying to Iran is much easier, but I love train journeys and adventure. As soon as I decided to go to Iran I tought of the Trans Asia express from Istanbul to Tehran. Unfortunately, luck was not on my side. A few months ago the train had been cancelled because of security concerns.
The other option was the Dogu express. The longest train ride in Turkey taking 24 hours from Ankara to Kars in Northeastern Anatolia. There I had to continue my journey to Dogubayezit to cross the border to Iran. This journey was not as straightforward as the Trans Asia express, but little did I know about the beauty of the scenery along the way.
From Istanbul to Ankara
I arrived late night in Istanbul and my train journey started the next morning. My first mission was to go to Pendik station for the new high-speed train to Ankara. To get to the Asian side was quick and easy, but then the challenge started.
It took a while before I found a local minibus heading to Pendik station. I still had 2 hours so I tought I had plenty of time. I was wrong. The traffic was crazy and we went through endless suburbs that did not seem to end. Only 10 minutes before departure I arrived at the station for the rather dull journey to Ankara.
I had a couple of hours to kill in Ankara where I decided to have lunch in the park in front of the station. Just one month ago a bombing in Ankara killed 37 people and it was eerily quiet in the park. The only people I spotted were armed police guards trying to hide behind trees and bushes. It did not invite me to explore Ankara further with my heavy backpack.
The Dogu express
At 6 pm I finally boarded the Dogu express. I was surprised by how modern the train was. My cabinet had 4 comfortable beds. The train attendant gave me blankets, sheets and even a free pair of slippers.
As I retreated to my seat the rest of the passengers were still debating in the corridors. Men and Women were divided in several female and male cabinets. I am not sure if I was supposed to be alone, but nobody else joined me. Once the train left we were soon rolling through a rugged landscape with a wonderful sunset.
I had a good sleep and woke up to a frozen land. It was already April, but winter had not yet finished in the Anatolia highlands. The scenery was stunning. Endless mountains and fields with streams running through. After every tunnel a new beautiful view emerged and I enjoyed every hour of the train journey.
We didn’t come across many towns or villages but the ones that we did go through looked rather gloomy. Old farm houses are quickly disappearing and replaced by Ugly Soviet style flat apartments. The new buildings can not mask the fact that life is rough in this cold and desolate landscape.
After 24 hours we finally arrived in Kars, a small town at what really felt like the end of Turkey. It didn’t look very promising at first. From the outside, it seemed another gloomy town, but I was wrong.
When I tried to find my way from the station to my hotel I was immediately adopted by a family whose daughter came back home from her studies in Erzurum. She insisted she would bring me personally to my hotel and even invited me to stay at her place.
The center of Kars was very lively with shops selling fresh fruits and vegetables and families strolling through the main shopping street. For dinner I found Ocakbasi restaurant. The place looked so posh that I tought it must be way above my budget, but it was the cheapest and best food I had in Turkey.
Kars is one of the highest and coldest towns in Turkey. The next morning when I woke up there were dark clouds in the sky. It was snowing heavily once I walked to the local bus station. It was a 3 hour bus drive to Dogubayezit through small villages and over two mountain passes surrounded by mist, snow and ice. Somewhere behind these clouds was the famous mount Ararat.
In Dogubayezit it was still snowing as I made my way from the bus station to my hotel. Soon I had several invitations for tea as people seemed happy to see a tourist still coming their way.
With nothing else to do in Dogubayezit I decided to try to visit the Ishak Pasa palace up the hill. Unfortunately the minibuses going there decided the weather was too bad. A shopkeeper nearby invited me for tea while he called the bus driver, but one tourist wasn’t enough for him to come back.
The shopkeeper turned out to be a trekking guide who was taking care of his friends shop. He was bored and offered to show me the palace, even tough the road was covered in snow and ice. The palace was wonderful. Once we were up it stopped snowing and we had a wonderful view over Dogubayezit.
The shopkeeper asked me to tell other people to still come to Eastern Turkey and to Dogubayezit in particular. I enjoyed my time here even tough I was not lucky with the weather. The scenery was stunning and the next morning I woke up to a clear blue sky with a full view on Mount Ararat.
Kars: Hotel Kent Ani
Dogubayezit: Hotel Ararat
Dogu express: Going by Train through Turkey to Iran
The Trans Asia express is cancelled due to security issues and it will not resume anytime soon. It is still possible tough to take the train through the biggest part of Turkey to travel to Iran. You can either take the Dogu express or even still travel the same itinerary as the Trans Asia express with a combination of train and busses.
For Istanbul you can read my post on the best of Istanbul in 24 hours.
Getting to Istanbul Pendik station: take a ferry from Eminönü ferry terminal (near Sirkeci station) across the Bosphorus to Kadıköy, a 20 minute crossing with frequent departures. Then take metro line M4 from Kadiköy metro station to Pendik metro station, this runs every 5-10 minutes taking 38 minutes. It’s then a 2 kilometer walk or 5 minute taxi ride from Pendik Metro station to Pendik TCDD station. You should allow at least 2 – 3 hours in total to get from the European side of Istanbul to Pendik station.
Option 1 The Trans Asia Express through Van/Kapikoy
- The High speed train from Istanbul Pendik station to Ankara leaves at 19:20 arriving in Ankara at 23:13 (ticket is 70 TL). Stay the night in Ankara
- The Van Golu express only leaves on Tuesdays and Sundays departing at 11:19 and arriving at 13:31 the next day in Tatvan (TL 46).
- Take the bus from Tatvan to Van (20 TL 2 hours) and stay overnight in Van.
- Take a bus to Tabriz (Iran) the next day crossing the border at Kapikoy/Razi.
Option 2 The Dogu express through Dogubayezit
- The High speed train from Istanbul Pendik station to Ankara leaves at 10:45 arriving in Ankara at 14:42 (ticket is 70 TL)
- The daily Dogu express leaves Ankara at 17:45 arriving in Kars at 18:00 the next day (ticket in the 4 beth couchette is 52 TL)
- Stay the night in Kars and take a bus to Dogubayezit the next day. From Kars you need to take a bus to Igdir (3 hours 20 TL) and change in Igdir for another bus to Dogubayezit (1 hour 8 TL).
- Stay the night in Dogubayezit to cross the Gurbulak/Bazargan border the next day
Crossing the border to Iran (Gurbulak/Bazargan)
From Dogubayezit it is easy to cross the border to Iran. Near the tourist office (Agri Caddesi with Rifki Caya Caddesi) there are frequent minivans (7 TL) to the border in Gurbulak. It is a 30 minute journey to the bordergate. From there you have to walk up to the buildings where you exit Turkey and enter Iran.
Once you go through all the procedures you are now in Bazargan, Iran. The whole process took about 20 minutes for me and they did not even check my bags. When you leave the building taxi drivers and money exhangers will approach you. The exchange rates are not so good so my advice is to change as little as you need.
From here you can take private (Negotiate !!) or shared taxi’s (20,000 rials) to the actual town of Bazargan that you will see below you. From Bazargan there are shared taxi’s to Maku (20,000 rials) and from Maku frequent buses travel to Tabriz (110,000 rials 4 hours).
To read more about Tabriz read my post about the best of Tabriz and Kandovan: a warm welcome.