Istanbul to Ankara by ‘High Speed Train’

Turkish High Speed Trains - YHT - in Ankara Station

Turkish High Speed Trains – YHT – in Ankara Station

Istanbul to Ankara by ‘High Speed Train

or all you need to know about travelling on intercity trains in Turkey …. well perhaps not all but enough for you to get by before you really understand how the system works.

This post (and the one that follows) will concentrate on a couple of journeys made (the first from Istanbul to Ankara on the High Speed Train, the second the overnight train from Ankara to Kars) at the end of September 2019. I plan to provide enough information for the first time visitor to Turkey and someone who doesn’t have a word of the language.

Obviously the internet makes life much easier now but there are always little snippets of information that you only acquire by luck or circumstance – the latter being knowledge gained after you had made a mistake (if only we knew then what we know now).

Booking

There are different routes to booking websites whatever you want to buy. However, I have found that many of those routes lead to a dead end, especially if you want to go to a page in a language other than the native one.

I found this TCDD link the one that worked for me.

High Speed Train from Istanbul to Ankara

Book as long in advance as possible. I’m not talking about months as the tickets aren’t released until a few weeks but if you leave it to a matter of days then you will be pushed for choice. I ended getting the last seat in the Business Plus class.

It was not really the last seat but the last seat that a male could buy. When booking train seats in Turkey you have to declare your gender. Of the two seats in the car one was a double seat where a female had already booked. When I clicked on that one it refused the request. When I clicked on the lone seat, at the end of the carriage by the entrance/exit to the next carriage, all was OK.

So the process:

Once on the site click on ‘English’ in the top tight corner. If it doesn’t go to English try until it does. Then choose your starting point and destination, the date of departure then whether you want single or return and, if so, the date. Click Continue.

This brings up the available trains on your date. Decide a time, click on the arrow for the drop down menu for class of travel, i.e., economy, business or business plus and choose. Click select. The price for your class of travel will be shown. Click Continue at the bottom of the page.

Then will come up a diagrammatic representation of the carriage with the class you selected. Click on your choice of seat WITHOUT a cartoon face of a man or woman. Remember what I said above about the system not liking a male to choose a seat next to a female who had booked before you. (Here, I assume, there is no problem if a woman is comfortable sitting next to a man.)

You will be asked to select your gender and if the system likes you the seat will be selected for you. Scroll down and fill in your personal details. Once completed click continue.

This will take you to the payment page. Remember – at least those from EU countries (and even the UK as it is about to leave) if you attempt to make a payment with a debit/credit card from now on you will get a code sent to your registered mobile number so have your phone handy. The code is only valid for about 10 minutes. Complete all transactions requested and you will receive confirmation of a ticket. This will also be sent to your email address.

However, you do not need to print the ticket. At the station of departure you will be asked for your Passport/ID and if the name appears on the system you will be given a small print out with your carriage and seat number.

Cost

Economy TL71

Business TL103

Business Plus TL127.50

As far as I can see these prices don’t change depending upon when you book – as is the case in the UK.

Journey Time

I was planning to continue on from Ankara on the overnight train to Kars. The ideal train – for a shorter waiting time in Ankara Station – would have been the 11.45, arriving at 16.10. However, I left booking a little late and had to catch the earlier 09.15. That was scheduled to arrive in Ankara Gar at 13.52. As it was it was about 15 minutes late. All trains from Istanbul to Ankara with the high speed train (YHT-TCDD) take, more or less, 4 and a half hours.

Arrival at Söğütlüçeşme

Söğütlüçeşme is on the ‘Asian’ side of Istanbul and the departure station to Ankara. Wherever you are staying in Istanbul get to the Marmaray Metro line and head east. The Bosphorus are indicated with a blue lake on the destination board. From the old part of Istanbul, where most people will be staying, it’s only 3 or 4 stops, say 10 to 15 minutes.

On arrival at Söğütlüçeşme go down the escalator/stairs to the lower concourse. Near to the southern entrance to the station you will see an X-ray machine and metal detector gates. Also security. You can’t go through here at any time unless there’s a train about to depart.

Put all your bags on the conveyor for the machine and go through the metal detector gate. Immediately in front of your are a couple of desks. Show your Passport/ID and if your name comes up you will be given a little ticket, as stated above.

Head upstairs and look for your carriage and then your seat. It leaves promptly.

Wifi on the train

At least in the Business class carriage there’s free wifi and (the tunnels not withstanding) quite fast. You have to register on a TCDD log-in page with the PNR number that was on your booking confirmation (so remember to make a note of that) as well as your seat number. If the two match up you will be connected. (The PNR number is also on the slip given to you downstairs.)

Power socket

All seats have a two round pin socket just below the seat. I didn’t see any USB sockets.

What do you get for the extra you pay for the Business Plus?

About 30 minutes after departure the catering staff came around with aircraft style food trolleys. They offered the passengers in those seats a little tray with; three small pieces of cheese (one of them spreadable; a few cherry tomatoes, a small dish of olives; a small dish with dried apricots and chopped walnuts; a small bread roll; a piece of baklava with a small jar of honey; a small container of still water; and the choice of tea or coffee. As well as the hot drinks you could also ask for more water or fruit juices.

I thought that for the TL24 extra on top of the business class price that was quite good. Just over £3.00, and brought to your seat. Also the staff came around on two further occasions during the trip with the offer of more cold and/or hot drinks. As I had an early start and missed breakfast it arrived at a good time.

I assume the Business class passengers get the offer of free drinks but not the food.

Cafe/shop on board

If you don’t do Business Plus and haven’t brought anything to eat/drink with you there’s a small bar in carriage No 2. These trains operate as units and this should always be the case. They didn’t have a big selection but you could get sandwiches, biscuits and other sweet things, as well as drinks. I didn’t buy anything so can’t give a price. But as with all transport throughout the world the cost will be greater than if you bought the same stuff in a supermarket before arriving at the station.

High Speed Train?

Yes – and no. We had been travelling for more than an hour before the train reached a speed of 100 km/h. There’s a screen in the back of the seat in front of you as well as two or three bigger ones from the ceiling along the length of the carriage. They become quiet hypnotic – especially when the speeds start to pick up.

It would be better to call it an Express Train with the capability of being a truly High Speed Train like the TGV in France, the AVE in Spain or the HSR in China.

But that fact made it a more pleasant and interesting journey.

I thought it might be ‘light the blue torch paper and stand back’. But it was nothing of the kind. It’s quite a convoluted circuit to get out of a city that was built long before high speed trains were thought of. The line is a dedicated track but it is not always possible for it to reach the potential speeds of the motor itself.

There were also three pick-up stations quite close to the start so those who may be living further east than Söğütlüçeşme station don’t need to go to there to catch the train.

As it weaves its way through the suburbs you start to get a view of life you probably wouldn’t have seen if you were there as a incidental tourist. It passes through rich areas, close to the sea, where there are large yachts in the marinas. There are small holiday resorts with bars and restaurants that look out on to the Mediterranean.

Later it passes through industrial areas where there are various factories, docks – both for small cargo ships and then there’s a major container terminal – it also passes right through the middle of two not insignificant oil refineries – which I didn’t think would happen in countries further west in Europe.

At times the line ran within a few metres of the water line and you could look out and see freighters of various sizes, from those that just plied the coast of Turkey to bigger, ocean going container ships. There were even a couple of small warships.

The line passed under the bridge that spans the Sea of Mamara.

For most of that time the maximum speed was little more than 50-60 km/h but then, quite suddenly it sped up and reached a speed of 230 km/h for a few minutes before having to slow again as the line twisted and turned (but without going significantly higher) through small mountains and river systems.

There were a number of station stops but they were very quick, barely enough time for nicotine addicts to get their fix.

The route then left the urbanisation and industrialisation of Istanbul behind and the scenes became more rural, passing through small villages and quite intensive agriculture. A lot of maize and then a sizeable amount of autumn fruits; pomegranates, apples, plums, chestnuts, some grapes.

It was also possible to see that the year was changing. Although the temperatures were still in the mid to high 20s it was noticeable that the leaves on the trees in the hills and mountains on either side of the line were starting to turn. Autumn may not be here quite yet but it’s not that far away.

Speeds started to pick up and the top speed of 250 km/h was being reached on more and more occasions – and for longer stretches. This was even through significantly long tunnels where the train didn’t slow at all but still remained in the dark for a few minutes. And there were quite a few of them at various parts of the route.

Together with the motorway system, which the train line at times parallels and at others crosses, there has obviously been a major investment in the transport infrastructure of this part of eastern Turkey. Whether that extends beyond Ankara I will find out in due course.

The achievements of the navvies in the construction of first the canal system and then the railways in the UK at the end of the 18th and into the middle of the 19th centuries were amazing achievements as all the cuttings and embankments were constructed by sheer force of muscle. But the new projects show what huge advances there have been in earth moving technology and huge cuttings are the norm rather than the exception.

The name ‘High Speed Train’ came into its own during the last hour or so of the journey. Once past the town of Eskisehir, the route went through a Plain. Flat as a pancake and seeming to go on forever – on all sides. Here sustained speeds of 240-250 km/h became the norm and, apart from one stop half way through this stretch, continued until reaching a commuter town for Ankara.

This plain was dominated by maize production as well as that of other cereal crops, many of them already harvested. I was a little surprised to see no real evidence of livestock rearing, apart from the occasional small flock of sheep.

I wouldn’t say it was a bleak landscape but there were a few blocks of relatively new flats on the outskirts of a town about 30 minutes from Ankara. Everything around the buildings was brown, dusty and parched with no greenery. Perhaps that changes with the coming autumn and winter but at the end of summer it looked sparse.

What else to say?

Perhaps all the locals are used to it but at regular intervals it felt as if something had hit the bottom of the carriage. This banging was, if I’ve got it right, the hydraulic brake system resetting itself but you hear, and feel, this thump all along the route.

As the British are obsessed with the state of the toilets I can reveal here that there were as good as any you’ll find on the British railway system – and probably better than some.

Finally, in regards the journey. There’s a stop in a small town about 15 minutes from the centre of Ankara. My train arrived at that stop at the time it was scheduled to arrive in Ankara Gar. Just a warning that it would cause problems if you got out thinking you had reached the end of the journey. Unfortunately, Turkish stations don’t seem to be very well signed on the platforms – although the name of the station comes up on the digital display board at the end of the carriage.

Arrival at Ankara Gar

The YHT station is separate from the general station. It’s a huge building, underused and obviously some sort of vanity project for some politician or political party which is just too big for the amount of traffic that passes through it – or will ever pass through it.

Within this structure, as well as access to the platforms there are shops, cafes and the ubiquitous fast food chains – some international some national. And a lot of empty space.

If the weather is good and you have time to spare you could do worse than go up to the top (second floor British) and go out on the huge veranda that looks down on the older station as well as a sizeable chunk of Ankara disappearing away into the hills on the horizon. Won’t, personally, be seeing much more of Ankara than the station myself on this visit but can’t say I’m over-impressed by what I’ve seen so far.

Now have to wait a few hours now before the next stage of the journey begins.

 

Bus travel from Tirana to Istanbul

Bus travel from Tirana to Istanbul – with, hopefully, some practical information (including surviving the first couple of hours or so) and some observations

Leaving Tirana

The buses from Tirana leave from the International Bus Station (N 41.333204, E 19.801029) which is off Rruga Dritan Hoxha, the ‘new’ route to Durres. The bus station is slightly hidden behind the Palace of Sport/basket ball court, This is opposite the bus station that operates buses to the north of Albania. Though not absolutely necessary it would be wise to book in advance.

There’s no opportunity to exchange currency during the journey so, if possible, have a few Euros for food and drink at the Greek stop.

I didn’t know it until I left but there are two bus companies that have buses leaving at the same time – 12.00 every day (apart from Friday). The one I used was Alvavel/Alpar (https://www.alparturizm.com.tr/en/home), from kiosk 3 at the station. The cost of a ticket was €40 one way, €60 return. The other was Expres tur which was a bit more luxurious in that there were three, rather than four seats, abreast. The bus itself looked more modern and not a second hand cast off from some other country as was mine. Also the service was more efficient. At a late night stop, when both my bus and the ‘luxury’ bus were at the same service station, the Express driver spent some time cleaning the windscreen and the front of the bus and the helper cleared rubbish from the inside of the vehicle. On my bus the ‘staff’ were in the restaurant before the passengers.

Expres tur also have a kiosk at the bus station but I haven’t been able to find a web address and hence not certain about their timetable. If the budget stretches to it I would suggest the the Expres service – the seat of a second-hand bus gets hard after a few hours and these newer seats turn into a virtual bed.

I was told the journey would take 20 hours – which with the hour difference between Albania and Turkey is a good timetable. Arriving at 09.00 would be a civilised time in a place that you might never have visited before. The website says arrival time is 07.00 – but that’s not true either.

Both companies had a pickup in Elbasin. After that, at about 14.00, the bus stopped for the driver’s lunch break on the road between Libradzh and Prenjas, for about 30 minutes.

Alvelar/Alpar have a depot in Korçe and took a number of passengers from Tirana to Korçe but few, if any, passengers joined the bus there. There’s a separate service from Korçe to Istanbul – see website.

After Korçe the bus was less than half full. I travelled at the end of September so things were getting quieter in general but at that time it meant that most people, if they wanted, had a double seat – making things slightly more comfortable for an overnight journey. It wouldn’t have been as comfortable if the bus had been full.

From Korçe the bus heads to the town of Billisht and then on to the border with the same name. The bus arrived at the border just before 17.00 and the whole process of passing through both Albanian and Greek passport control/customs took just over 30 minutes.

Leaving Albania and entering Greece

The process is as such:

To leave Albania take all luggage, both from inside and the hold of the bus, into the customs hall. There’s a random, cursory, hand check of luggage. I have a waterproof liner in my rucksack and I think the customs officer was caught slightly off guard in that what he was feeling was the same he would have done (more or less) if he had just felt around the outside of the bag. There was an X-ray machine in the building but it wasn’t used when I passed through. After the customs check the immigration window is a few metres away. I’ve always found Albanian passport control one of the easiest to negotiate. However, you don’t get a stamp in your passport when arriving or leaving by land in Albania (which was a bit disconcerting when I first arrived in Albania by land).

After returning to the bus the process to enter Greece is even easier. You only need to go to passport control and no luggage was checked, either hand or from the hold. Presumably random checks take place from time to time.

After crossing the border there wasn’t a stop until 21.45 which lasted about 30 minutes.

Crossing into Turkey from Greece

The Greek/Turkish border is reached at about 00.30-01.00. You know you are getting there as on the approach you pass a very long queue of parked up lorries.

The helper collected all the passports and presented them to the Greek immigration. That allowed the passengers to spend some free time in the duty free shop.

It’s one of the curious matters about customs that there are supposed to be established rules but they are often just ignored or openly broken. The bus staff bought a huge amount of booze, what exactly I didn’t see, way over what would be considered for personal use. Some of this was then stashed in the cold compartment where free water is normally stored. The stash of booze was then covered by the water bottles and any extra given to willing passengers to ‘call their own’ – in the event that any questions were asked.

Now this ‘smuggling’ was going on openly. I could see what was happening. There was no effort to hide what was going on. The Greek customs must know about this. If not they must be one of the most inept, incompetent or corrupt organisations in existence. But they do nothing to stop this. If you have laws and rules at least abide by them – if not just scrap them. This excess of duty free also accounted for the distribution of duty free bags earlier in the journey for passengers’ rubbish – not too good for the planet either.

Passing through Turkish immigration was equally as quick and easy. My printed visa wasn’t even looked at so I’m not sure what happens there – whether my passport scan brings up an OK I don’t know.

Arrival in Istanbul

The bus arrived at Otogar (the main Istanbul bus station) at around 05.00 – a lot earlier than I expected – and before things started to wake up, including the Metro and the public transport system in general. My bus had made a couple of stops in the old town before heading to the bus station. I noticed a sign post to Taksim Square, near to where I would be staying, but not knowing the area at all it didn’t seem a wise thing to do to get off there.

I was fortunate in that I had a very little Turkish money from a previous visit some years ago. This enabled me to pay for the use of the WC (TL1.50) – to change from shorts to trousers. I was the only one wearing shorts on the bus and started to think I might stand out once on the streets of Istanbul. Doing so in Tirana you are one of the crowd. Doing so in Instanbul marks you out immediately as a tourist.

Next thing to do was to find a cafe to sit down and wait for the city, or at least the bus station, to wake up. Not having a single word of Turkish didn’t help but assumed that life would start again after about 06.00. It was interesting that, with the fame of Turkish coffee, my first cup on this visit was made from Nescafe Instant – and it was as bad as I had remembered.

Otogar might be one of the biggest bus stations in the world but it is certainly the ugliest. Coming into it was like passing through a half constructed concrete car park. Buses everywhere but with a feeling of dirt and decay. I didn’t think it would look any more inviting in the light of day. Having only seen a small part of the city when everything was quiet this goes against the general feeling of the city which appears to becoming an homogenised western city. Such globalisation is taking the character out of so many cities throughout the world. Otogar has been left out of this modernising process.

Over the years in various countries I sat and watched – for what now seems like countless hours – street traders waiting for customers. It was the same in Otogar. The cafe was open, as were a number of other stalls/kiosks in a small ‘shopping centre’ but there were only a handful of customers for almost two hours. Whether it ever gets really hectic I’ll probably never know from personal experience but it must be a mind blowingly boring existence for so many people to just sit and wait.

By 06.30 things were still very quiet and I didn’t know if I had over-extended my welcome at the cafe. However, as I had spent a lot of time in Albanian bars where I had had a few beers whilst others had just had a small coffee but were there as long as myself, I assumed the culture to be the same in Turkey.

It was still dark and I wasn’t sure if the Metro had started up so after I got to this point in my typing I decided to wait and move once the morning had arrived before going exploring – first for a cash machine and then the Metro, assuming I would find both in the same place – that was another assumption that wasn’t correct.

When I did stir it was light – fortunate that I travelled before autumn had really set in and the days got shorter. But life is never easy. Finding the Metro (as in railway system) was made more confusing by the existence of a bus company called ‘Metro’ and they seem to have an office every second space at the front of the bus station. The Metro railway entrance is, in fact, in the middle of the huge square in front of the Otogar, slightly to the right when you have the bus station to your back.

But first, like me, you might need some cash. Once you find the Metro entrance look at the row of shops directly opposite the bus station entrances and there you will see a branch of the Turkiye Is Bankasi which has an ATM to the right of the entrance. Currently (autumn 2019) there are about 7 Turkish Lira (TL) to the £.

(One of the consequences of the light is that your first impressions of the bus station are proved right. In the dark it’s bad, in the light it confirms itself as a right shit-hole.)

As is nearly always the case ATM’s only issue you with large denomination notes but for the Istanbulkart – which you need to travel on the local transport system – you really need a couple of tens – I don’t know how the machine would react if you inserted a larger denomination note.

My solution was to go for a bowl of soup at the cafe close to the entrance gates that allow you into the Metro system. The soup was quite good and definitely filled a hole after spending 16 hours on or about a bus, cost TL10 and it was understood why I needed a couple of ten lira notes in my change.

Obtaining a Instanbulkart

Right in front of the gates to the Metro there are three machines which dispense or top up the Istanbulkart. In theory the system should go to English but I couldn’t get that to work. Fortunately a helpful local took me through the procedure.

First you put your TL10 note in the slot and after the machine has eaten it you press the bottom of the three buttons which will issue you with a card. This costs TL6 so you have TL4 credit but this will only get you on to one train/tram/bus. To top it up for a few journeys, place the card with the picture face up on the grey reader to the right of the screen. This has a lip to prevent it from slipping off the machine. Put another TL10 in the slot and once eaten press the second button (the one in the middle). This will then give you a total credit of TL14, sufficient for four/five journeys.

To enter the Metro system place the card picture side up on the reader to the right of the turnstile. A single journey costs TL2.60 and the balance on the card can be read.

Make sure to keep the card reasonably well topped-up. There’s no transfer system so if you need to change Metro lines, or from Metro to tram or bus, then you need to enter the system anew. However, if you do so within a couple of hours each transfer is slightly less that the one before. The card is also valid on the ferries but the cost depends upon the route taken.

You now have cash and the means to get around the city. And to suffer the caterwauling every day.