A Turkish steam train adventure
By Robert Kingsford-Smith
Turkey has always been a great travel destination; during the 1970s and early 80s railway enthusiasts found it was a wonderful place to photograph Turkish steam trains. There were several classes of locomotive, stunning scenery and mostly friendly natives. There was a big “but” in the case of friendly natives, however. Police and military were to be avoided at all costs; the appearance of either usually meant trouble, time wasting and potential imprisonment.
Turkish Steam Train Middle East 2-8-2 No. 46.221 near Icme with the Elazig – Tatvan ‘Posta’. The water is an arm of a vast reservoir formed by damming the Euphrates.
At the end of 1981 I was in Turkey with three mates. None of us had previously photographed a Turkish steam train on the Elazig – Tatvan line in the east of the country so we allocated a number of days there. All rail traffic was handled by “Middle East” 2-8-2s, more familiar to Australian railfans as the NSWGR 59 class.
Turkish Steam Train Passes Through Spectacular Gorge
A quick reconnaissance of the western (Elazig) end of the line revealed a dramatic gorge, in which the railway criss-crossed the Murat River (a major tributary of the Euphrates) upstream from the remote village of Palu. Our story begins in this gorge on December 30th 1981.
Middle East 2-8-2 No. 46.221 in the River Firat gorge near the village of Palu. The Firat is a tributary of the Euphrates.
After taking some late afternoon photos of a Turkish steam train near Palu we followed the very rough dirt track further up the gorge and discovered several great photo locations and a great place to camp for the night. We needed supplies, however, so drove back through Palu and on another 15km or so to a shop out on the bitumen main road. It was dark by the time we began the drive back down the dirt road to Palu. Suddenly a pair of young soldiers jumped in front of the car waving their rifles to stop us. It turned out they wanted a lift back to Palu where there was a small army camp. We managed to squeeze them into the already occupied back seat.
Having military personnel in the car when we were trying to drive discretely past their camp and then on to our own camp site was awkward enough but these guys were also quite drunk and irrational. Needless to say the language barrier did not improve the situation; they spoke no English, German or French and the few words of their Turkish that we may have recognised was so slurred as to be incomprehensible. One of them kept turning on the inside light which made it almost impossible to spot potholes and other road obstacles so I would immediately turn it off. At one point a rifle was waved past my ear – I got the message – the light stayed on! On arrival at Palu they told us to stop outside the village’s tiny hotel and then insisted we follow them inside where we were checked in.
The atmosphere was tense. We assumed we had been placed there under a form of house arrest, however next morning the hotel owner was friendly and we were free to go. We realised then that the carjacking soldiers were probably just trying to be helpful; after all, we had given them a lift.
As it happened they probably did us a favour; the overnight temperature fell well below zero so, even with good sleeping bags, a night in the tent would have been uncomfortable.
Middle East 2-8-2 No. 46.229 near Mus with the Tatavan – Elazig ‘Posta’.
On December 31st, after photographing a couple of trains in Palu gorge we returned to the main road and drove roughly 50km further east where the map showed another side road accessing the railway which, at this point, was about 25km to the south. The map did not indicate that this side road, which led to a small town called Genc, ran through a vast army base. Our car was scrutinised by several sentries and we saw at least one of them making notes. Genc proved to be on a flat stretch of railway with no exciting scenery so, although the staff at the railway station were very friendly and gave us some train running information, we carefully drove back through the army base to the main road and resumed our eastward journey.
After over 100km it was getting dark and starting to snow heavily so on reaching the town of Mus we checked into the first hotel we found then, after a meal across the road, returned to our room with a couple of bottles of Efes, the ubiquitous Turkish beer. A young man working at reception came up to our room for an impromptu English lesson after which we gave him some money and a tip to bring us some more beer from across the road. The snow fall had now turned into a blizzard so we stoked up the wood fired heater in the room as the outside temperature fell and settled in for a comfortable New Year’s Eve.
When there was a knock on the door we assumed it was the lad returning with our beer but it turned out to be a couple of cops. Our hearts sank; had the army in Genc radioed instructions to interrogate us? But no, these guys were friendly and presented us with a bottle of raki, a Turkish firewater very similar to ouzo. Turkish police are usually posted well away from their home towns to lessen the likelihood of corruption. These guys, who were staying in the same hotel as us, were from Istanbul (at the other end of the country) and no one in Mus wanted to know them (police are not the most popular of government employees in Turkey) so they obviously thought they would celebrate New Year with the foreigners down the corridor. One of them spoke reasonable French so we were able to converse to the extent that my very limited school boy French would allow. Anyway, a fun time was had by all although the cops did get quite drunk and it took a while to convince them to return to their own room after midnight.
Middle East 2-8-2 No. 46.211 shunts wagons onto the Lake Van train ferry at Tatvan. The wagons were destined for Iran.
We spent a couple of days visiting the eastern end of the line at Tatvan where railway vehicles are shunted onto a train ferry for the 100km crossing of Lake Van before they can resume their rail journey onto the Iranian border and beyond. On our way back to the Elazig end of the line and near the road junction for the track into Palu we were pulled over by a military road block. While this was not unusual, I guess they were checking for Kurdish rebels, we never quite knew what to expect. Usually we were just waved on but sometimes a search of the car was required. On this occasion, the platoon leader, a lieutenant, spoke a few words of English and asked to see our passports. While he was flicking through the pages we noticed that a couple of guys in the squad were trying to make themselves invisible behind their mates. We realised they were the pair who’d hijacked a lift into Palu with us a few nights previously and were now obviously hoping we would not mention the incident to their officer. We didn’t, of course, and after a few minutes the officer exclaimed “Ah, toureests?” We replied that we were indeed tourists whereupon he handed back the passports, smiled and said “A penis”. This left us wondering what he meant or, indeed, what he was expecting until it dawned on us that he had been trying to say “happiness” and that we were free to go and photograph yet another Turkish steam train.