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Night Train from Stamboul
Cornucopia, 2006 / Telegraph, June 2006


Hurry. One of the last great railway journeys into Asia will soon be no more. In three years time the working magnificence of Istanbul’s Haydarpasha station will be severed forever from the tracks that lead south and east.

If you put a spoon in a small tulip-shaped glass and rattle it vigorously as you call out, “tchay-kahve, tchay-kahve, tchay-kahve” and advance down a corridor – you will have some inkling of how the traveller is awakened at dawn, as the night train from Anatolia returns safely into Istanbul. When there is no more tchay or kahve to serve, the conductor will set off on another tour of the sleeper cars, rattling his spoon and glass but this time crying out, “Stamboul, Stamboul.”

There can be no more romantic sound to the ear of the traveller. Nor can there be a better station to arrive at. Haydarpasha is one of the last temples of rail travel – a vast Saxe-Coburg-Gotha schloss that should, by rights, stand above the Rhine or above a firth in Sutherland, but is instead perched on the banks of the Bosphorus. It is one of the great monumental buildings of Istanbul’s Asian shore. The ticket hall, enthroned within vast renaissance vaults, would have impressed a Borgia. Haydarpasha has always been about first impressions. It was built by German engineers as a graphic symbol of the Kaiser’s alliance with the Ottoman Empire. A very visible lynch-pin in the pragmatic fruit of this partnership: the great Berlin to Baghdad rail route. All the adventurers, explorers, oilmen, archaeologists and filibusters who sought fame and fortune in the Middle East have passed through the arches of the Haydarpasha station not to mention the greater numbers of pious; Orthodox pilgrims heading for Jerusalem and Muslims on their way down to Damascus in order to connect up with the Haj line to Medina. It is a place tangibly brushed with the romance of the great days of travel: of piles of trunks, of porters, of romantic separations and of chance encounters. A still-living backdrop to an adventure story by Graham Greene and Agatha Christie, or to a lifelong quest led by Lesley Blanch or Lisa St Aubin de Teran.

It was targeted by British agents during the Great War who achieved the spectacular success of 9-6 (September 6th 1917) when they detonated a device in the ammunition depot behind the station. The resulting inferno of explosions blew up a great chunk of strategic rail track, most of the Haydarpasha roof and one or two of the stations towers. A year later it was at the Haydarpasha landing station that the British and French chiefs of staff met at the conclusion of the First World War having sailed up through the Dardanelles past the now silent guns and entrenched Turkish infantry that had defeated them during the Gallipoli campaign. On a hill behind Haydarpasha station stands the wooded-garden of the Crimean War cemetery (perhaps the most moody, romantic and secretive of all the British burial grounds abroad), for Florence Nightingale’s original hospital is also close-by, housed within a corner of the vast Selimye barracks built for the reformed Ottoman army after the unruly Jannissaries had been massacred at the ‘auspicious event of 1826’. The very name Haydarpasha commemorates Selim III’s reforming-general who had attempted to suppress the Janissaries a generation before – but had perished in the attempt. Despite being surrounded in every direction by such poignant markers of history, Haydarpasha still remains a working station, and has not suffered from the tourist-creep that is slowly transforming Sirkeci, the railway station on the European shore, into an Orient Express theme park.

But hurry. A cabal of developers and architect-engineers have produced a plan to redevelop the docklands on Istanbul’s Asian shore. Never mind that their glass and steel towers will literally cast a shadow over the Topkapi palace, Ayia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and obliterate one of the world’s finest urban backdrops. The money that the project will generate is on a scale, and of an order, that will prove irresistible. There is also talk of a dinky yacht marina replacing the dignified – and still busy wharf front, used by the Black Sea ferries and cruise boats.

So this autumn I finally hurried into a journey that I had been idly contemplating for some ten years - to the extent that I have twice practiced catching the night-train from Haydarpasha. These practice sessions involve a ferry journey across the dark Bosphorus with long evenings spent at the Haydarpasha station’s Lokanta restaurant-bar. One door of the station bar opens onto the platform where the blue sleeper carriages silently await their passengers, while from a lower door you can look directly out over the waters of the Bosphorus. On my last visit one table was filled with moustachioed dock-workers drinking raki while a fur-coated traveler of great age, hennaed hair and indeterminate sex studied a table of mop-haired youths watching football. The local brew, ‘Efes pilsen’ is drawn with Guinness-like respect, the waiters are unflappably soignee and the kebabs are properly spiced. Above the drinkers floats a high plaster ceiling, painted lilac blue, pink and gold while Moorish geometric tiles are hung on the lower walls. It was such a perfect scene of raw unpackaged travel that I half expected to find Jan Morris or Colin Thubron lurking behind a cast-iron column.

We took our seats on the train after supper, avoiding the last minute rush that my wife normally insists upon as a vital element of true travel. We were both concerned about one of our daughters, who looked very ill, dehydrated and had lost her appetite. Earlier in the day we had been given tea by an expatriate friend who runs a hotel in the old quarter – who was very surprised to hear that we were traveling around Turkey whilst one of our children had mumps. “Oh my” she had declared, “We Americans like to nurse a child who is ill, you know, cosset them a little, make them feel special and cared for. But you British, you just up and take them off on long train journeys?” It was spoken with equal parts of admiration and admonition.

The ill daughter travelled with her mother while I cared for the seven year old in the next door compartment. Although quite small, the seven-year-old has become a remarkably assertive traveler. A crushed thumb at a village well-head in the Deccan, falling in love with every sort of serpent and rat in Goa this January – not to mention the incident when she had to pick me up from the road after I had been knocked down by a motorcycle rickshaw – seems to have toughened her up no end. While I like the window open, the curtains undrawn and the lights off (all the better to experience the chance noises of a night train, the shuntings, grindings and unexpected stops at deserted railway platforms) she likes to turn a ‘sleepy train’ into a cosey bedroom. We waged war against each others preferences all night, but as she had made an early claim to the bottom bunk, I fear she maintained a slight advantage over me through out the night. The window must have clonked itself open and shut at least a dozen times before the “tchay-kahve” wake-up call signalled a close of play.

Over a Turkish breakfast served in the dining car on the fetching blue and red State Railway porcelain - complete with wrinkled olives, tomatoes, cucumber, toasted bread, white cheese and a boiled egg –we rattled across the steppe-land.

Ankara is not on the itinerary of the romantic traveler. As a destination it was more of an excuse for a night train journey than anything else – yet there are three things here that I have been longing to see. I soon added a fourth, for the station is magnificent, a stern essay in national monolithic, all clean marble and polished efficiency.

I shed tears for the fallen at the Ataturk Mausoleum and felt misty-eyed at the relics of the wizened old temple of Augustus where the Res Gestae inscription can still be traced in a neglected locked-up compound beside the Haci Bayram mosque. As schoolboys we loved the Res Gestae for Augustus’s determinedly swank opening line, “At eighteen I raised an army and saved the republic”, but now it seemed as poignant as the neglected tomb of Cyrus.

I took turns at child-care with my wife so that we both could take our time sketching the mother goddesses in the citadel museum. The children were excused from drawing the Hittite carvings at Carchemish with me because of the mumps. Instead we let our children play havoc in the diplomatic-enclave life of the Ankara Hilton, living a life as close to their cartoon heroine Eloise of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, as they have ever dreamed. So it was room service, TV in bed and lots of journeys in the palatial lifts to the spa. Fortunately it was Ramadan so there were no high-powered guests to complain of the children shreiking with joy in the Jacuzzi.

We loved rediscovering our beds on the sleeper again the following night, and the waiters in the dining car treated us like long-lost friends as we opened up a pack of cards and ordered a late-night meze supper.

That morning I was awoken by the “tchay-khave” call as we rattled along the shore of the Sea of Marmara and looked out of the window over merchant-ships lit up at anchor. During breakfast we passed an ancient ivy clad fortress that did not appear in any of the guide books and then we listened out for the waiters magical cry of ‘Stamboul” as we approached Haydarpasha. After a coffee in the magnificence of the stations vaults, we walked down a flight of stone steps straight to the station quay and listened to the resonant cries as the landing stations of the European shore of Istanbul were called out, “Eminonu! Karakoy! Beskitas!” As we chugged across the Bosphorus we passed a school of ferries criss-crossing the straits in their livery of yellow and white. Standing by the railings, the autumn wind gusting down from the Black Sea, woke us up to the core. It was just then that the morning sun lit-up the domes of the Ayia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Travel doesn’t get any better than this. I looked at my wife and daughters shivering in the morning wind. I asked them if we should do it again before the urban planners banish all this hectic colour into history and replace it with underpasses and gleaming towers of glass and steel. There was a silence, before my wife added, “did you notice that there is a direct train from Haydarpasha to Tehran?”

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