Traveling by train through Turkey: with the Mesopotamia Express

It’s 11:30 a.m. at Diyarbakır train station. Women in oversized sunglasses and hijabs pose for photos beneath retro clocks bearing the TCDD logo of Turkey’s state railway network. A young, lightly bearded man lies on a bench, his heart-shaped balloon on a string fluttering in the breeze, taking the edge off today’s 38C heat. Red streamers hang from the platform ceiling. Shrill whistles cut through the bağlama music as the Mesopotamia Express pulls into a stop.


The Mesopotamia Express, which runs 653 miles (1,051 km) between the Turkish capital Ankara and Diyarbakır, the Kurdish-majority city near the Syrian and Iraqi borders, launched in April and will run once a month in each direction for three months. I’ll be taking the last service in 2024, with the TCDD saying it should return in 2025.

The Mesopotamia Express makes long stops at a few towns and offers only private twin-bed cabins. It’s a more comfortable, sightseeing-friendly version of the existing Güney Kurtalan Express, which covers the same route but makes 52 short stops between Ankara and Diyarbakır. I paid 8,000 lira (£194) for my Mesopotamia Express cabin; a government-subsidized seat on the Güney Kurtalan Express costs £8.50.

This two-tier model was also rolled out in April for the Van Gölü Express between Ankara and Tatvan, a city on Lake Van, Turkey’s largest lake. The “tourist” service is also reportedly part of the Turkish authorities’ drive to get more tourists thinking about the city’s hotspots, such as Istanbul and Antalya.

The Doğu Express, which runs between Ankara and Kars, near the Armenian and Georgian borders, was responsible for this shift in Turkish night train perception from functional to fun. After vloggers showcased the Doğu Express’ mountainously scenic route, tourists began booking tickets alongside rural residents on the train, before the “official” tourist version launched in 2019.

The gallery is an explosion of contemporary freshness in the old sand-carved city, and not just because the air conditioning is set to ‘tundra’

To see if any of these new services were worth taking, I booked the westbound Mesopotamia Express, starting in Diyarbakır, where visitors are usually drawn by the antique shops and smoky grills of the historic center. Cafes are built around sections of old city walls; others have been abandoned after fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish militants, mostly in the mid-2010s.

Following a tip from artist Erkan Özgen, I head to a residential area 20 minutes’ drive west of the old city. Here, in the shadow of apartment buildings, the Rıdvan Kuday Gallery has recently opened to showcase Kurdish art. When I arrive, giggling young artists are hanging fresh prints on washing lines to dry. Ornate ceramic shoe sculptures by Sinan Kaplan adorn the gallery’s white walls. Color-saturated portraits by Bedran Tekin depict residents in front of black-and-white ruined buildings. The gallery is an explosion of contemporary freshness in the old, sand-carved city, and not just because the air conditioning is set to “tundra.”

The air conditioning in my train cabin isn’t particularly powerful, but it’s a welcome bonus for the premium ticket price. I also get my own sink, power outlet, door key, a fridge that doesn’t work, plus juice and chocolate to put in it. I head to the dining car. Here I meet Hayriye and Seher, two women from Ankara armed with a violin and a guitar respectively. At noon, as the train departs, they tune in as the train crew places plates of döner around us. The passengers show their appreciation for a serene rendition of the classic Turkish song Fikrimin İnce Gülü.

At 4pm we pull into the small Yolçatı station for the first of two long stops. A convoy of buses takes us through the nearby town of Elâzığ and up winding roads to a dusty, sun-drenched mountaintop. This turns out to be the ancient city of Harput. A man in a red baseball cap, a guide of sorts I assume, leads us past the half-ruined Harput Castle and into the Great Mosque of Harput. This building, violinist Hayriye explains via Google Translate, was built around 1157 and is famous for its crooked stone tower. A large crooked tree next to the mosque also gets a lot of commentary. The tree is also famous, we are told, because it looks as if it is prostrating itself.

Admiring the crooked tree proves to be quite an icebreaker. A fellow passenger, travelling with his two children, invites me to eat adana kebab at a nearby restaurant. A train crew member, in his burgundy vest and TCDD pin, starts calling me “Tolstoy” after hearing that I’m a journalist. The school trip vibes are even stronger as the coach takes us back to the train and I sing along with the passengers’ manic Turkish pop. Well, I clap and sing “lalala,” apparently the only non-Turk on the trip.

Sitting on stools outside the Kayseri restaurant, and then back in the dining car, passengers share bread, sugared nuts and wet wipes

After a thankfully snore-free night, we arrive in the city of Kayseri at 9am. We should have three hours here, but because the train is late, we get two. This stop was promoted as a chance to visit the Great Mosque of Kayseri and the Seljuk Civilization Museum, but there is no time for that. The musicians and I choose a restaurant near the station and make sandwiches of rich, dark purple pastyrma: a specialty of dried beef from Kayseri.

I prefer this stop to the Harput bus excursion. Passengers sit on stools outside the Kayseri restaurant and then back in the dining car. They share bread, sugared nuts and wet wipes, while I bewilder many with stories about adding milk to tea. Before our 7pm arrival in Ankara, I compile a long list of recommended restaurants to visit, although they are all kebab shops.

So, is the Mesopotamia Express worth the cost? I loved it, especially when I enjoyed the music in the dining car. With long stops that allow you to visit four cities in two days (on the eastern route it’s three: Ankara, Malatya, and Diyarbakır), it’s a good option if you’re short on time—and if the train isn’t late. Despite the train officially being a “tourist” service, I felt a sense of purpose and drive as we made our way to the capital.

However, if you don’t mind stretching in a spine-crushing open-plan seat, you can take the “standard” Güney Kurtalan Express, which runs along the same route as the Mesopotamia Express, stopping in the same city for a few days and paying for a large portion of your hotel costs with the money you save. While the Mesopotamia Express is scheduled for completion in 2024, the Güney Kurtalan Express runs year-round, five times a week in each direction.

But whether it is officially “touristy” or not, there is probably no bad night train option in Eastern Turkey. Now I have my eye on Van Gölü Express tickets to complete the set.

The Mesopotamia Express is expected to return in 2025. A cabin for two people costs 9,000 Turkish lira (€218) Ankara to Diyarbakır one way, and € 194 in the opposite direction. Train tickets are sold through the Turkish State Railways (TCDD) website and app (on Apple’s App Store and Google Play), and also by English-speaking agencies, such as Amber Travel. Accommodation in Diyarbakır was provided by Radisson Blu Hotel, Diyarbakır (double rooms by €115 B&B). Accommodation in Ankara was provided by Crowne Plaza Ankara (double of £125 B&B)

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