A train journey from Bucharest North to Istanbul Halkali takes exactly 19 hours, which is followed by another bus ride to the city centre. This means, pure Balkan feeling in 3 different countries. How to get tickets and reservations, what the Turkish couchette looks like and what else there is to experience - you can find all that information in the following blog.
There is one direct couchette car operating during summer (7.6. - 7.10.), you heard right, exactly: 1 direct carriage, going from Bucharest to Istanbul, which is being attached to different trains on the way. Its departure time is 12:40 pm in Bucharest North with the train towards Sofia, arrival is at 7:40 am in Istanbul-Halkali with the night train coming from Sofia. In the opposite direction, departure time is at 9:40 pm in Istanbul-Halkali, again with a train part to Sofia, arrival in Bucharest on the following day is at 6:55 pm.
The Sofia-Istanbul connection runs all year round, including sleeper cars, whereas the Bucharest-Istanbul connection requires a change during winter (or spring/autumn) in Dimitrovgrad, Grona Orjahovica and Ruse. However, travel times remain the same, as the so-called carrier trains (which carry the couchette car in summer) also travel in winter.
Most of the travellers on this connection are Interrail travellers: therefore, my recommendation for the Interrail Pass, as well, as a link, with prices starting at €168 for people under 28 years. Normal tickets are a bit more cumbersome to get. You can buy them either here at CFR, or upon request at the DB-Reisezentrum (at the counter) in Germany (other countries should also be possible), good staff provided. The last possibility is to buy the ticket on the spot, i.e. at Bucharest station or Istanbul-Sirkeci at the international counter.
The reservation with Interrail costs only €14 for a bed in a 4-berth couchette compartment. This is actually the only category offered on this train. In the night train from/to Sofia, you can choose between a couchette car (6 berths) (reservation €9,40) and a sleeper car (2 berths) (reservation €15). I got my reservation for the train Bucharest-Istanbul relatively hassle-free at the counter (=DB-Reisezentrum). Unfortunately, there were problems with the Istanbul-Sofia train, so I purchased this reservation in Istanbul at the counter.
Travel impressions from the journey through Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey
Departure is around noon in Bucharest North Gara A. This is the full name of the station. Since had a long lay-in this morning, I go to the station practically early (right after getting up), not having done a single thing with my day yet.
I take the metro, which costs about 1-2 Euro for a single trip. "Just in time", meaning relatively shortly before departure I arrived at the train, after turning my last Romanian Lei into a beer for my host in Istanbul.
My carriage is the last one on the Bucharest-Sofia train, it is the first one on the track at the terminus station.
I move into my compartment and greet my two fellow travellers Acer and Mariya, from Great Britain, also on the road with Interrail. Approx. 20 hours of train journey are ahead of us. Right at the beginning, I notice the Turkish crescents with star, which are to be seen all around the train. Later, I'll show you a picture.
The train then drives south, is diverted on the route to the Bulgarian border via Videle (which has been happening for years), because of a broken bridge on the main route.
In the afternoon, we reach Giurgiu North, where we have a medium standing time, then we cross the Danube and reach Ruse, the first station in Bulgaria, where we stand for a whole hour. At both stations, border controls take place, because the countries belong to the EU, but aren't part of the Schengen area.
Afterwards, the journey goes through the green vastness of Bulgaria. The route is partly single-track and in some places not even electrified, but since we do not change locomotive, I suspect that a multi-system locomotive is used.
Time for a glance outside...
...and a quick look around the train:
Evening has come, and around half past seven we reach Gorna Oryahovitsa. Here, the train is divided into the part that goes to Sofia and our carriage, that goes to Istanbul. The part to Sofia continues relatively soon, but our part stops here for about 2 hours.
The conductor goes through the carriage and announces this to us, meaning, we can get out for a while. He tells us, that we will leave at 8:25 pm. We ask him briefly, if we can leave things in the compartment. He replies, he will supervise it. In fact, he will sit on a bench on the platform in front of it, watching. Mariya, Acer and I go for a walk in the city after a short dinner, consisting of brought along food. In the station hall, our train is shown with destination "Dimitrovgrad" only.
When we come back, a few carriages to Dimitrovgrad – the 2nd carrier train – have been added. In Gorna Orjahovica we come across old communist inscriptions, as well as swastikas. I don't really know what to think of this place. It seems quite dead. We climb a long staircase up to a mountain. Unfortunately, trees cover the view. Within the city its very easy to find signs of the Bulgarian railway all over the place. It looks as if this is a kind of railway city, who knows, maybe the headquarters.
Then, we finally start moving again. It soon gets dark, we pass Veliko Tarnovo, which is also a spot worth seeing, says Mariya, whose ancestors come from Bulgaria.
Then it's time to unfold the two upper beds, we don't need the second one. There is a ladder near the sliding door, which we mount to the upper bed. Bed linen is also provided and I go to bed around 10, the other two read a little. Here are some pictures of our compartment's interior:
I must have slept through the shunting in Dimitrovgrad, which is followed by being woken up at the border. The conductor is making every compartment aware of it, by shouting "Passport Control" with an Eastern European accent. Tired, I quickly dig out my passport from under my pillow, which I had put there before falling asleep. After a few minutes, the border police arrives. That must have been the Bulgarian border. The train continues. I don't even recall if I fell asleep again, but after half an hour it's suddenly "baggage control outside". The conductor adds "all baggage". I say "that's so silly" to my English fellow travellers. We pack our things up and go outside. A look at my watch tells me: 2:43 am. Under normal circumstances, I would be fast asleep right now.
First, there is a passport control outside, where I meet 2 young women from Germany, who travel from Hamburg to Istanbul by train to save CO2. Exemplary! Afterwards, the luggage control takes place in a small barrack next to it. We are in Kapikule, Turkey. Inside, there is a fluoroscopy machine, where stuff is being checked. An official asks me "Alcohol?" I answer honestly with a firm "Yes" and point at the can of beer for my host in Istanbul, which is mounted on the right side of my backpack. I knew, one is allowed to import one litre, and the policeman waves me through.
I have a quick look at our train, which has already been joint with the one from Sofia. We go back to bed. A few minutes later, the British had even managed to fall asleep again, when it knocks once more. "Now it's starting to get stupid", I comment a little annoyed, as we have certainly shown our tickets 3 times on this trip and nobody got on the couchettes from Bucharest since Bucharest.
We go back to bed, unfortunately I have trouble falling asleep, when I hear the muezzin calling for morning prayer. It slowly gets brighter, maybe around 4 am. I fall asleep again. When I am woken up, it is already 9 am, we have a lousy delay, but to be honest, I am sort of happy about it. I eat my muesli with the milk I brought with me, and at about 9.15 am, we arrive at Halkali station. Istanbul had already announced itself from afar by high rises and densely built cityscapes.
Nevertheless, we are still a long way from the centre. To get there, we take the shuttle bus, which is included in the ticket. How to find it? No idea. I simply followed the crowd, I guess nearly all travellers (and combined with the ones from Sofia, that's a lot) want to continue by bus to the Sirkeci train station. There are several buses ready, the journey takes about 30 minutes.
The drive is along the sea and the old city wall of Istanbul - impressive! On the railway line next to it, there used to be a night train to Sirkeci, today there is a lot of "Trafik" to be found, which means, that the metro line "Marmaray" to Asia operates here. Using this word, a Turkish railway employee made me understand, when I asked for the reason for the shortening of the route. 10:05 am we reach Sirkeci in the heart of Istanbul, within walking distance of Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sofia, on the European side.
I'm saying goodbye to the two nice Brits from my compartment. Unfortunately, we shouldn't see each other again.
My first stop was the currency exchange. I definitely recommend checking the exchange rate beforehand. Then, travelling on to Asia with the Marmaray.
By the way, the shuttle bus in the other direction leaves at 8:30 pm to Halkali station, departure there is at 9:40 pm. Good to know, since I have to return this way in 3 days.
For me, it was probably THE most exotic railway line in Europe, or better, within the Interrail area. No wonder I didn't get the reservation for Sofia in Germany. There were no problems with the reservation for Bucharest-Istanbul. I was positively surprised by the couchette car of the Turkish railway. Very modern and comfortable. Unfortunately, the journey becomes slightly less attractive by the border controls in the middle of the night, including disembarking. Last but not least, the journey time suffers because of that as well. What gives. It was a small adventure. I do want to recommend it for every Interrail trip in the East, especially in the Balkans.
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