Monday, June 2, 2014

Train Rides 2014 - Istanbul to Bucharest

Travelling Date: 7th April 2014

Istanbul's historic Sirkeci station was built in 1888 in the heart of the city, within walking distance from all the city's attraction sights. Istanbul Sirkeci terminal is the main station of the Turkish State Railways (TCCD). It was inaugurated as the terminus of the famous Orient Express, built by the order of the Ottomon Sultan after the Crimean war. On October 4, 1883, the first voyage of the Orient Express departed from Gare de I'Est in Paris passed through it's route to Strasbourg, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Ulm and Munich in Germany, Vienna in Austria, Budapest in Hungary, Bucharest in Romania, Russe and Varna in Bulgaria ending in Sirkeci. The travel took 80 hours for the 3,094 km. 

Our journey was planned following on the same route of the Orient Express when they were running in 1883. For the record, the Orient Express stopped running slowly from 19th May, 1979 till 2009 after over 130 years traveling to and from Paris to Istanbul. In our journey, we have split the train ride via a numerous train services connecting all 8 countries as we had planned to stop and tour 8 cities along the journey. Hence, we commenced from eastern Europe to middle Europe ended in the western Europe of slightly longer than 3,094km of Orient Express as we also went across to London via Eurostar from Paris.

We travelled from Istanbul to Bucharest on the international sleeper train Bosfor, which train leaving Istanbul's Sirkeci station daily at 22:00 @ 10pm. The train is arriving in Bucharest Nord at 18:30 @ 6.30pm on the next day, i.e. day 2, means you have to spend 1 whole night and 1 whole day light inside the train. We were expected for an hour or two late arrival, occasionally 3 hours. The Bosfor has a Romanian sleeping-car with safe, comfortable and carpeted 1, 2 & 3-bed compartments with washbasin, and a Turkish couchette car with 6-berth couchettes (basic bunks). Ours was a comfortable 4 beds bunks.

There are no ordinary seats. A sleeper is the recommended option, rooms can be converted to private sitting rooms by day, there's even a shower at the end of the corridor which might even work. Following advises from, we brought along our own food and drinks as getting foods in the train is a "no chance". However, the travels in the comfort and security of the sleeping-car, was rather a pleasant journey.

A Bulgarish conductor helped us to get ready with our bed. After a quick toilet used at Cerkezkoy's toilet (you may asked for toilet key from the station staff) we went straight to bed. Closed to 2.30 am, I awakes from my sleep with a panic state thinking that we have missed the Immigration checkpoint. We were fully reminded and prepared to get off the train at the frontier station, Kapikule, estimated arrival time at around 02:52 in the morning. It stopped for almost an hour, scheduled to depart at depart 04:05 to have our passport stamped. The electric locomotive disconnects and is replaced with a diesel locomotive at this juncture. Passengers need to disembark and cross the trail tracks (via underground passageway) to clear passport control. 

For information, bus replacement between Istanbul and Cerkezkoy took about 2 hours. It was slightly after midnight when we reached Cerkezkoy in a very cold weather. It was a 115km bus ride from Sirkeci train station to reach Cerkezkoy. The bus departed from outside Sirkeci station at 22:00, the same time as the train was scheduled to. We just need to show our train tickets. The bus will usually waits for the rest of the passenger to board the bus before the bus driver on the bus engine, hence, prepared for a freaking cold seat. The bus transferred us to the train, due to leave Cerkezkyy station at 00:02.  The bus replacement works very smoothly, so everybody has nothing to worry about.

Cerkezkoy station is where the Orient Express was snowed in for days in 1929, the incident which gave Agatha Christie the idea for her 1934 novel.  It was too cold for me to compare the station building which was showing in Agatha Christie novel turn movie to confirm whether that it hasn't changed much. The bus services from Sirkeci to Cerkezkoy will continue until further notice while tracks are upgraded as part of the massive Bosphorus rail tunnel project to link the rail networks in Europe and Asia. 

Last few photos of Istanbul while riding a bus to Cerkezkoy
At Kapikule's passport control

In fact, now that the Marmaray Tunnel is open, the future of Istanbul's historic Sirkeci station is in doubt, it may become a museum, and it may or may not lose its train tracks.  It's possible that the international trains will end up starting from Halkali, 28 Km from Istanbul, although once work on the suburban tracks is complete you'll be able to hop on a suburban train from central Istanbul to Halkali, and so do the whole journey from central Istanbul by train once more.

To conclude the first part of the train journey, our first route from Istanbul to Bulgarian border is 115km by bus from Sirkeci to Cerkezkoy (if by original train route from Sirkeci was 2 stop to Halkali in about 27 km and another 129km to Cerkezkoy station). It will be passing Alpullu in another 100km, 21km to Pehlivankoy, 46km to Edirne and finally 20km to reach Kapikule Turkey/Bulgaria border. We have travelled by bus and train for 316km in Turkish soil to reach Bulgaria that night.

It was raining in Kapikule station. Our train while waiting for the passengers to stamped their passport
Turkish train maps

To be continue with train rides crossing Bulgarian land....

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