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Train Travel in Turkey
an Adventure in Hospitality

By Brad Zembic

The world's first medical university, now a medical museum is among the remains of the 13th-century Seljuk Empire period in Kayseri, Turkey.

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Our travel guidebook on Turkey had warned us about the danger of travelling by train. At night, the book claimed, self-appointed sandmen spray knockout gas into your compartment to ensure you're as restful as possible before they enter and unburden you of your possessions. This practice, my travel partner, Jean, learned after further reading, is actually characteristic of train travel in neighbouring countries--not in Turkey.

It was too late. Crime-conscious after years of living in Vancouver's inner city, I had already weighed other options for our trip from Istanbul to Kayseri, an ancient city deep in the Turkish interior, famous for its sixth-century Roman citadel and Ottoman covered market. Planes weren't cheap enough for our meagre budgets, we decided, and buses were mainly overnight, which meant sitting erect, or rolled up like fetuses to catch a few winks between pit stops. In the end, a 16-hour train ride, watching for thieves, seemed the most agreeable way to go. Outside Haydarpasa Station, in the Asian part of Istanbul, a hazy, red sun was setting behind the towering minarets of Rüstem Pasa Mosque, on the European side of the Bosporus, the narrow strait that separates the two continents. Built by the Germans in the early 1900s, Haydarpasa Station, with its neo-Renaissance façade, conical turrets, and baroque clock tower, stands like a palace over the busy waters of Kadiköy Bay. I lingered momentarily to admire its grandeur before ascending the marble staircase to buy my ticket.

Inside Haydarpasa, the frescoed columns, potted palms, and wooden ticket kiosks all gave the station a feel of unhurried elegance, as if I were entering a time when travel was a journey rather than simply a means of getting from place to place. Baggage-laden porters trundled along the neat platforms, and passengers at food stalls noshed lazily on doners and sipped steaming glasses of çay. I assessed everyone carefully for signs of villainy: the furtive glances; the shadowy appearance. All I saw, though, were ordinary people casually preparing for the long ride ahead of them on the Güney Express, the night train that meanders its way three times a week from Istanbul to as far south as Kurtalan, near the Iraqi border.

The mood on the train was not much different than outside. Groups of women wearing colourful head scarves chatted quietly in compartments while men crowded the corridors, blowing cigarette smoke through the coaches' open windows. Food sellers cruised with packets of pismaniye, fuzzy balls of spun sugar that have the appearance of white mice soaked in corn syrup.

Our cabin was a closet-sized room whose twin seats, headboards, and luggage racks converted into bunk beds. It was the beginning of the week, and I'd hoped for a compartment to ourselves. But soon after the Güney Express pulled from the station, past the markets and the dizzying display of lights that is Istanbul by night, a shifty-looking man in a dark jacket slid open the door and seated himself next to Jean. "Smoke?" he asked, smiling, holding out a pack of cigarettes. I looked suspiciously to my companion, but Jean, eager to create conversation wherever he goes, soon had Recep, a machine operator from outside Ankara, trying to decipher his gestures and dictionary Turkish. What followed were hours of engaging philosophical and political debate, despite our language limitations. "Door, lock!" our new friend cautioned stiffly in broken English before stuffing a sweater beneath his head and nodding off. I was reassured by his interest in security but decided to remain vigilant.

My sleep that night was restless. The train rocked and listed as if it were a ship in a squall, causing me to slide from one end of my bunk to the other, while the spun sugar I'd consumed kept my brain running in overdrive. Jean's restive snores were mercifully camouflaged by the rhythmic tap dance of train wheels on steel, and much too soon the morning sun filled the cabin. "Ankara," Recep announced as the train came to a squealing stop. He donned his jacket and sprinted out the door; I quickly took inventory of my belongings before taking advantage of the train's lack of motion to fall into a shallow sleep. Moments later, Recep rushed back in, his leathery face beaming with delight.

"Lüften, dostüm," he said. Please, friend. He unwrapped a bagful of treats--bread, olives, goat cheese, and field tomatoes--and laid them on the table. "Kavalti." Breakfast. I was touched by his generosity and felt sheepish about my lack of trust.

The station in Ankara appeared modern and charmless after the Old World allure of Haydarpasa, and I was glad when the train whistle sounded and the Güney Express began lurching toward Kayseri and the Turkish heartland. As the sun rose, we travelled through landscape as rolling and empty as Southern Alberta after harvest. The air was fresh, and a faint scent of earth drifted through our open window. Closer to our destination, the fallow plains became dotted with stands of poplar trees, vineyards, and plots of sugar beets and tomatoes worked by farmers with garden tools. The train snaked through narrow canyons as it slowly continued its climb up the Anatolian Plateau to Kayseri. At Kirsahir, Recep gathered his belongings into a small bundle and bade us a warm farewell. We had only been together for a short while, but slow travel builds fast friendships, and we waved like family when he jumped from the train onto the tracks and proceeded into town. Entering Kayseri was like arriving at some far-flung Siberian outpost. The Kayseri Valley was broad and desolate, and our route into the city was flanked by a large collection of unattractive high-rise apartment buildings. The station, however, was historic and quaint, giving credibility to our guidebook's description of Kayseri as a city with two characters: one modern and bustling, the other planted firmly in its colourful past.

The Kayseri area has a history as deep and tangled as a cedar root. The Hittites settled it as early as 2000 BC, and it later became part of the Roman Empire under Constantine, whose successor, Tiberius, named its capital Caesarea. Arab armies attacked it; so did the Seljuks, who hung on to it until the arrival of the Mongols in the early 12th century AD. After changing hands several more times, the region was finally taken by the Ottoman Turks, whose control it remained under until after the First World War. Civilizations for millennia have left their legacies in Kayseri: the Romans, the black-coloured citadel in the city centre; the Seljuks, the world's first medical university and the caravansaries that pepper the countryside; and the Ottomans, the great covered bazaar, or bedesten, with its vaulted stone ceilings and mazelike alleys, that is only metres away from the eye-popping displays of gold and jewellery in Kayseri's ultrachic and modern pedestrian mall.

"My name is Ali. Welcome!" a small voice called from behind us as we made our way from the station to the tourist information office. "Where are you from?"

After the gnatlike persistence of carpet sellers in Istanbul's Sultanhamet district, I was prepared to be besieged by merchants flogging everything from Kayseri's famous Bunyan carpets to tours of the fairy chimneys in nearby Göreme. And, except for a small group of visiting Germans, we appeared to be the only game in town. "It's the war in Iraq, and 9/11," Mohammed, an English professor at the local university, later commented. "Overseas people are afraid to travel here."

I shuddered at the thought of Jean and me being among Kayseri's only foreign targets for thieves and overzealous shopkeepers, and I decided to remain aloof and on guard. For the next few days, though, as we walked the city's streets and alleys, visiting its markets, museums, mosques, and restaurants, we were treated like celebrities. People greeted us with cheery "merhabas" and crowded around us hoping for conversation.

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Near the central bazaar, a canopied labyrinth of clothing and sundry stalls hidden behind the stone walls of the citadel, a group of young girls in tidy school uniforms approached us.

"You have beautiful eyes," one said to Jean, giggling and glancing coyly at the ground.

"You do too," another added quickly, so I wouldn't feel left out. "I hope you have a nice visit!"

That evening, while we sat on the terrace of a teahouse drinking glasses of çay, a full moon gleamed above us like a sultan's pearl. Kayserians, mostly men, strolled by or sat near us on benches, finishing games of backgammon, while muezzins issued their tinny calls for prayer from mosques.

"Hospitality is part of Turkish culture," our waiter said. I reflected on our brief friendship with Recep and the welcome we'd received from the people of Kayseri and knew immediately that, in a single sentence, he had put into plain words the essence of our time in Turkey.  

ACCESS: Trains from Istanbul can be booked at either Haydarpasa Station or Sirkeçi Station, on the European side of the Bosporus. It's best to reserve and buy tickets in person, as telephone agents rarely speak English. The cost of a ticket to Kayseri is approximately $14/$20 for one-way/return. There are hotels in Kayseri to suit every budget. The most basic--with a shared bath and toilet--range from $10 to $15 for a double room; superior accommodation begins at $40/$50 for a single/double. Prices vary with the season.