Overland Istanbul to Cairo. Part 1: Istanbul

IstanbulIn January 2008 we embarked on a grand adventure around the globe, a trip that would see us to far off lands and the exotic places I dreamed of.

In any trip you have to begin somewhere, we chose Istanbul, on the edge of Europe. I’ve been doing a lot of travel planning and research over these last weeks, readying ourselves for our next big jaunt and that has got me thinking back to the first one.

So here are the those first few weeks of that adventure which thoroughly changed my life.

Istanbul had long been on my dream locations list, it always sounded so exotic. I’m sure this stems from watching From Russia With Love as a child, seeing James Bond ‘spy’ in the Hagia Sophia was enough to weave it into my dreams.

I looked into where we could travel on to from Istanbul. Discovering there was an overnight train to Aleppo, Syria blossomed into an overland journey than would take us eventually to Cairo and the land of the Pharaohs.

IstanbulJanuary in Istanbul is pretty chilly, in fact we saw snow in every country we travelled through in the Middle East until we reached Egypt.

It many have been icy and cold but clear skies and less tourists made Istanbul a magical place to explore.

We had seven days to wander its winding streets and seek out its gems before our sunday train departed.

IstanbulWe stayed in a hostel, only the second time in my life I’d slept in a dorm with strangers {the other was one night in Edinburgh with some friends} so it really felt like being thrown in the backpacker deep end!

We shared the room with two {unconnected} French couples, the evening picnics we had, spread out over the dorm room floor warmed me immediately to the idea of communal travelling.

I adored Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia was one of the most incredible buildings I have ever seen in my life, and it is just so old.

That beautiful church has stood there for over 1500 years. Incredible!

The Blue Mosque, the underground Basilica cistern, the Maiden’s Tower, they all had me gushing with delight. Just seeing the skyline, with its many domes and minarets from a ferry on the Bosphorus filled me with travelling glee. It was every bit as exotic as I dreamed it was.

The Hagia Sophia

Just across from this ancient church/mosque/museum is the magnificent Sultanamet Camii, the Blue Mosque.

We shuffled our way through the slushy snow one day to slip our feet out of our shoes and enter this ornate, blue domed sanctuary.

The interior was stunningly beautiful, its many half domes decorated with thousands of small, colourful tiles.

IstanbulTopkapi Palace

The Topkapi palace is a fine day out, there is just so much to see!

From the exquisitely beautiful rooms in the Harem to fascinating curiosities in the Treasury. In here you will find a big diamond with a great story and John the Baptist’s forearm and hand, enshrined in gold of course.

The palace is in a fine location, looking out across the Golden Horn and the sparkling Bosphorus with its cargo ships and ferries.

The museum of archeology is a pleasant way to pass a few hours away from the hustle and bustle of the city with its extensive collection of Middle Eastern artifacts.

A boat trip up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea is a must do if you have the time.

The trip sails past the great palaces on the shores of river then an hour later arrives at a small fishing village, Anadolu Kavağı, on the edge of the Black Sea.

From the harbour we walked up to the ruins of an old castle before grabbing some lunch back in the village before catching the boat back to Istanbul.

IstanbulTo keep warm we found cosy bars where we sat next to the fire sipping warming apple tea, our hostel dorm was so cold these bars provided much-needed heat.

I loved walking over the Galata bridge and walking up the hill to explore the Galata area, always busy and a change from the old city where we were staying.

Our week passed and we settled into the backpacking lifestyle, Sunday arrived and we made our way in the quiet, early morning light to the first ferry of the day that would take us across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul and the Haydarpaşa Railway Station.

Istanbul had never looked so beautiful and exotic as it did that morning on the river. The sun was just coming up and there was a morning mist through which the domes and minarets glinted.

I will never forget that magical sight. Alas our cameras were safely packed for our trip to the station so neither of us took photos so here is sunset shot instead.


Our train, the Toros Ekspresi {the Toros Express}, was waiting at the platform when we arrived.

We were welcomed into the sleeper car by the Syrian carriage staff and found our cabin. It was so cute, if a little tired and worn.

It had two beds, a table and a little sink, and it was very cosy and warm. We soon made friends with the three other foreigners in the sleeper car, a Canadian, an Aussie and an American, as well as the super friendly Syrian guys who had welcomed us onto the train.

Toros Express In the 36 hours it took to cross Turkey we learnt some Arabic, drank Syrian coffee and watched the scenery change from European to distinctly biblical.

We had a delay in the evening when the train came to a jolting stop.

We had crashed into a truck on a crossing!

No one was injured, it was way less dramatic than it sounds, we weren’t exactly racing along at the time. We had to wait for hours though for a replacement engine.

We arrived at the Turkish border in the early morning sunshine, Sean the Aussie somehow managed to get himself a ride in the engine to the Syrian border, he even got to pull the whistle. How jealous were we!

Toros ExpressNow the adventure really began, we had arrived in Syria……

Most of the photographs in this post were taken by Chris Hodgson, he had a much better camera than me at the time, which is why I appear in a lot of the pictures!

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By Rachel Davis

3 Responses

  1. davegct says:

    So great to hear these stories from your big trip! I knew you went to Istanbul but hadn’t heard the details. SO excited to go to Istanbul now! But when? I love your sunset photo, really cool. And that sleeper train looks really comfy. Can not believe that Aussie guy got to ride in the engine. Looking forward to Part 2 !!

    • I’m just about to start typing part 2! Hee hee! The picture credit goes to Chris for this series, I have very little in the way of photos other than what I put on Facebook at the time 🙁
      The train was so untouristy, we had some great fun, so jealous of Sean in the engine though! Unfortunately the train stopped running the following year, even before the Arab Spring. So pleased we got to experience it before it was lost forever.
      You really need to put Istanbul on your next summer adventure, you’d LOVE it!

    • Thanks! I’ve had the idea to blog the journey for a while, it just felt like a big task! You must go to Istanbul, you would LOVE it!