Turkiye is the terminus of the Orient Express, one of the most famous railways in the world. But a different journey, the Dogoo Express, or Eastern Express in English, is what makes this country one of the world’s leading rail destinations.
Historically a commuter train from Ankara to Kars, the train has become a hot topic among Turkish influencers in recent years for its stunning views of the east, full of off-the-beaten-path treasures.
Berry Romo, a travel influencer who has lived in Turkiye for more than 10 years, said: “The train was already very popular among locals and Turkish tourists, but it was hardly popular among foreign tourists. It wasn’t known,” he said.
In response to growing demand, commuter flights were transformed into tourist routes in 2019. The sleeper train, which takes more than 30 hours, takes him 1,310 kilometers (814 miles) from the bustling capital Ankara to the sometimes snowy wonderland of Kars. There are stops along the way and city sightseeing tours are planned.
However, tickets are notoriously difficult to obtain. Passengers say they often sell out within minutes.
“The trick is to check the website right after midnight and buy when it’s updated,” Romo says.
Turkish travel agents typically buy and resell tickets in large quantities for the tours they organize in order to guarantee their customers seats on the trains, which is why tickets run out so quickly, locals say. That’s what it means. Individual tickets can only be purchased one month in advance, making them a coveted prize for the few who get their hands on them.
leave the capital
At first glance, Ankara may not seem as appealing as the better-known Istanbul, but the country’s political capital is a worthy destination in its own right.
Typical sites include the Ataturk Mausoleum, where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkiye, is buried.
The complex is divided into four parts. Highlights include the Peace Park, with a Turkish flag made of pebbles surrounded by flowerbeds, and the Ceremonial Square leading to the Hall of Honor, where Atatürk’s tomb is located.
Although Ankara experienced rapid development after becoming the country’s new capital overnight in 1923, its old districts still retain their historical charm.
Ulus is the old part of the city, with Roman ruins, preserved passageways and even an ancient castle perched on a hill, offering panoramic views over the surrounding landscape.
Inside Ulus is Sanat Sokay (Art Street), a series of restored Ottoman houses converted into cafes, leading to courtyards lined with stalls selling handicrafts and Ottoman-era souvenirs.
For a more modern experience, head to CemModern, a new art gallery that hosts world-class exhibitions in a restored railyard. A variety of cultural events are held here, from film screenings to group yoga sessions and design markets.
The Dog Express departs in the early evening, leaving the Art Deco-style Ankara train station, and the view outside your window quickly changes from a sprawling metropolis to a vast landscape.
The sleeper cabin features two single bunk beds that can be converted back into seats during the day, a small refrigerator, and a sink. Travelers often decorate their compartments with string lights, scarves, candles, etc.
Romo says it’s a “great way to enjoy beautiful scenery in comfort.”
Early the next morning, the train arrives at a small village called Ilich. The main attraction of this village is its proximity to Kalanarik, or Dark His Canyon. The canyon is home to breathtaking stone roads, and when he’s not rushing into one of the 38 tunnels or traversing scary turns, he clings to the sides of the canyon.
Despite being notoriously dangerous, this road regularly attracts tourists with its stunning scenery. It has dramatic cliffs and steep valleys, with the Euphrates River flowing below.
The train then descends further east into the heart of Anatolia. Netta Karpan, a Minnesota native who lives in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast and is used to harsh, snowy winters, says that before she boarded the train, “I had no idea Turkiye was so big, flat and cold.” .
Still, she describes the landscape as “amazing in its vastness.”
“I kept trying to take videos from my window,” but “I felt like I couldn’t capture the feeling of actually seeing it,” she says.
In the evening, the train arrives in Erzurum. Romo said visiting Turkiye was “without a doubt one of the best experiences” due to its rich “history, culture and exceptional gastronomy”.
Erzurum has many different types of local cuisine, the most famous being kag kebab. The lamb is marinated for about 12 hours with onions, salt and pepper, then skewered and cooked over a wood fire, then wrapped in warm flatbread or eaten directly from the skewer.
After passing through Erzurum, there are only a few hours left until the Dogou Express reaches its final destination in Kars.
Famous for its winter wonderland scenery, its name is taken from the Turkish word for snow. The city is known for its unique architecture, which dates back to when it was part of the Russian Empire.
Umm Altunas, a lawyer from Istanbul, likens visiting east of Turkiye to visiting a completely “different country” from more western Europe. Part of the reason, she says, is that “there are many different cultures in the east” such as Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians.
Another example is the medieval city of Ani, the former capital of the ancient Armenian kingdom. Just a short drive from Kars, a spectacular ruin dating back 1,600 years is open to tourists. Vast ramparts and well-preserved churches overlooking deep valleys take visitors on a journey back in time.
Although there are fewer tourists in the eastern region of Turkiye, the locals are keen to welcome visitors with traditional Turkish hospitality.
Kaplan said one of the reasons she liked living in eastern Turkiye was because “it was nice to be near people who love where I’m from.”
She said she didn’t mean to disparage Istanbul, adding: “It’s easy to be proud of a place that everyone agrees is one of the greatest cities in the world.”
But how can you take advantage of places less visited by tourists?
“It feels special.”