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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 November, 2004, 12:47 GMT
Turkish journey: Ankara train
The BBC's Istanbul correspondent Jonny Dymond is exploring Turkish life on a trip across the vast country as it lobbies the European Union to open membership talks.

He sent the first of a series of reports from the capital, Ankara.


The train station that leads east out of Istanbul is something of a disappointment: Hydarpasha looks stunning from the outside - an imposing castle, with Gothic turrets topping off the structure.

Ankara train station
Some say the best view of Ankara is when you are leaving
But inside it is drab; the feeling you get is of an old-style Hollywood movie set - fabulous for the cameras, but when you peek behind the doors and windows, all you see is bare wood and struts holding the edifice up.

Staring east along the railway tracks there is a bust of Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic. On the plinth on which he stands, the inevitable railways-related quote: "Railroads develop welfare and prosperity".

Tonight the station concourse is pretty much deserted. On the departures board, a slew of local destinations. Only the presence of the Iranian capital Tehran reminds you that this is the route to the East. Once a railway straight through to Baghdad was planned. Now, one guesses, it will be long time coming.

Empty carriage

I'd never travelled by train to Ankara before and had high hopes - not of intrigue and excitement; that belongs to the train on the European side of the Bosphorus, the Orient Express. No, I wanted a heaving restaurant car, thick with smoke, its occupant swigging milky raki long into the night.

It was not to be. The train to Ankara was spankingly modern; each window marked with the crescent and star of the Turkish flag, every carriage clean and new, the restaurant car with proper tablecloths, napkins and attentive staff, something that disappeared from most European trains an age ago.

There is, beyond the risk of being horribly killed... another good reason for not taking the train. It is not the most reliable of services
The train pulled away from the station, leaving the Bosphorous behind, dragging itself out of the never-ending suburbs of Asian Istanbul.

It's one of the strange ironies of Istanbul that the part of the city which actually lies in Asia feels much more European than that which sits on the European continent.

Houses and shops are set back from the road, there are functioning pavements, room for cars to park, and there is little of the wild jumble of buildings seemingly heaped on buildings that characterises the older part of the city.

The restaurant car stubbornly refused to fill. By midnight there were a grand total of four customers. They were doing their best. Everyone was smoking and everyone drinking, and clearly a long night was about to begin, but it was not what I'd been hoping for. I asked the steward what was wrong.

"Ever since the accident, it's been like this," he said.

Last July, around 40 people were killed when the new express train to Ankara derailed. Since then, the coach trade has boomed.

Kocatepe mosque in Ankara
The Kocatepe mosque offers a lonely call to prayer in Ankara

Delay

There is, beyond the risk of being horribly killed - which is pretty high on the roads anyway - another good reason for not taking the train. It is not the most reliable of services. I awoke to find the train at a standstill somewhere on the Anatolian plain. The engine had failed.

A couple of hours later a new one was hauled up the track to drag us to Ankara. No one having breakfast seemed surprised and no one in the train's staff saw fit to inform passengers, let alone apologise for the delay.

But then, it takes a while to adjust to Turkish notions of timekeeping. A delivery promised for first thing in the morning will quite often turn up around midday. No business is so urgent that it should start without a glass of tea and a ramble through unrelated topics.

Indeed, drinking tea sometimes seems to be the business itself. More than once the uninitiated Westerner wonders quite how anything gets done.

Secular city

Ankara is, I suppose, the logical place to start any journey across Turkey. Here, countless EU delegations have swished through town, consulted and gone away again to write up reports and propose further action about this or that.

Hisar village within Ankara Citadel castle walls
Ankara: Capital of the nominally secular Republic of Turkey
It is a city of government, and not much else.

"What's the best view of Ankara?" goes the old joke. "The one you get looking over your shoulder as you leave it." Harsh, but not entirely unfair.

As I walked through the city in the evening, the last call to prayer rang out. Unlike Istanbul, where a cacophony of calls compete with each other, only the call from the vast Kocatepe mosque could be heard that night. Ankara is after all the capital of the nominally secular Republic of Turkey.

Whilst the outskirts of the city, home to poorer immigrants who have come in search of work, have more mosques, they are few and far between in the centre of the city.

Perhaps that is a comfort for those worried about what the French prime minister called the "river of Islam" that he said might engulf secular Europe.

We shall see. Because the next stop on the journey is Konya, the so-called "citadel of Islam" - reputedly one of the most devout cities in Turkey.




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