(CNN) — Turkey is the final stop on one of the world’s most famous train journeys, the Orient Express. But there is another journey – the Dojo Express, or Eastern Express in English – that is turning the country into one of the world’s best rail destinations.
Historically a commuter train between Ankara and Kars, it has become popular among Turkish influencers in recent years for its stunning views across the East, filled with off-the-beaten-path treasures.
“The train was already very popular among locals and Turkish travelers, but it was barely known among foreign tourists,” notes Perry Romo, a travel celebrity who has lived in Turkey for more than a decade.
In response to growing demand, the passenger service became a tourist route in 2019. The sleeper train, which lasts more than 30 hours, travels from the bustling capital of Ankara to the sometimes snow-covered wonderland of Kars, a distance of 1,310 kilometers (814 miles), with stops along The route where excursions are organised.
However, tickets are very difficult to get. Passengers say they often sell out tickets within minutes.
“The trick is to check the site as soon as midnight strikes and buy when it’s updated,” Romo said.
Turkish travel agencies often buy large quantities of tickets for resale to travelers, guaranteeing their customers a place on the train, which is why, according to locals, tickets sell out very quickly. Individual tickets can only be purchased a month in advance, making it a coveted prize for the few who get it.
Leaving the capital
At first glance, Ankara may seem less glamorous than better-known Istanbul, but the country’s political center is a worthwhile destination in its own right.
Key sites include the Ataturk Mausoleum, the final resting place of the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The complex is divided into four parts. Highlights include the Peace Garden, featuring a Turkish flag made of pebbles surrounded by a flower bed, and the Celebration Square leading to the Hall of Honor, which houses Ataturk’s tomb.
Although Ankara embarked on a rapid pace of development after becoming the country’s new capital overnight in 1923, a certain historical charm can still be found among its old neighbourhoods.
Olus is the old part of the city where there are Roman ruins, well-preserved lanes and even an ancient castle that sits on a hill and offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
Within Ulus is Sanat Sukay, or Arts Street, a stretch of restored Ottoman houses converted into cafés and leading to courtyards filled with stalls selling handicrafts and souvenirs from the Ottoman era.
For a more contemporary experience, head to CemModern, a new art gallery that hosts world-class exhibitions in a restored railway station. Cultural events here are diverse, from film screenings to group yoga sessions and design markets.
The Doğu Express train leaves in the early afternoon, and as it pulls away from Ankara’s art deco train station, the view out the window quickly changes from a sprawling city to panoramic views.
Sleeping cabins are equipped with two single bunk beds that can be converted into seating during the day, a small refrigerator, and a sink. Travelers often decorate their cabins with strings of lights and candles.
This makes it “a great way to enjoy the beautiful scenery in a relaxed way,” according to Romo.
Early the next morning, the train arrives at Ilic, a small town whose main attraction is its proximity to Karanalik, or Valley of Darkness. The canyon is home to the impressive stone road, which clings to the side of the canyon when it’s not dipping into one of its 38 tunnels or taking terrifying curves.
Despite its dangerous reputation, the road regularly attracts tourists with its stunning scenery. It offers stunning cliffs and steep valleys, with the Euphrates always flowing below.
The train then descends east into the heart of Anatolia. Nita Kalpan, a Minnesota native who lives in the Black Sea coastal region of Trabzon and is accustomed to harsh, snowy winters, says she “didn’t realize how vast, flat and cold Turkey was” before taking the train.
However, he describes the landscape as “impressive, especially for its immensity.”
“I kept trying to take videos of the windows, but I felt like I couldn’t capture what I felt when I actually saw it,” he says.
In the evening, the train arrives in Erzurum. Romo says visiting the city was “without a doubt one of the best experiences” he had in Turkey because of the city’s “rich history, culture and exceptional gastronomy.”
Erzurum is home to many different types of local cuisine, the most famous of which is Cag Kebab. The lamb is marinated for 12 hours in onions, salt and pepper, then placed on a skewer and cooked over a wood fire before being wrapped in warm flatbread or eaten straight from the skewer.
After Erzurum, the Doğu Express train only has a few hours left before it reaches its final destination, Kars.
It is famous for its magnificent winter landscapes, and its name comes from the Turkish word for snow. The city is known for its unique architecture dating back to the days when it was part of the Russian Empire.
Umu Altunas, a lawyer from Istanbul, compares visiting eastern Turkey to visiting a “completely different country” from Western Europe. He says this is partly because “the East is home to many different cultures,” such as Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians.
The medieval city of Ani, the former capital of the ancient kingdom of Armenia, is a case in point. Just a short drive from Kars are majestic ruins dating back 1,600 years that are open to tourists. The expansive walls and well-preserved churches, all overlooking a deep valley, offer visitors a journey back in time.
Although the eastern regions of Turkey attract fewer tourists, locals are often eager to welcome visitors with traditional Turkish hospitality.
Kaplan says one of the reasons she loves living in eastern Turkey is that “it helps to be near people who love where they come from.”
She says she doesn’t mean to disparage Istanbul, adding: “It’s easy to be proud of a place that everyone agrees is one of the most wonderful cities in the world.”
But do you embrace a place less frequented by travellers? “This is what feels special.”
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