Turkey's 'Eastern Express' puts romance back on tracks

KARS, Turkey (Reuters) - Emre proposed to his girlfriend Mine Nur in a candlelit wagon on the “Eastern Express”, a thousand kilometer train ride across eastern Turkey which he says formed the perfect start to their voyage through life.

“We love traveling, so this suits us perfectly. This is a short demo of a life-long journey together,” said Emre, who popped the question this month after a two-year relationship.

Mine Nur said yes.

Until a few years ago taking the 24-hour train ride for a 850 mile trip - instead of a plane journey of little over an hour - would have been considered madness, despite the ridiculously cheap price of 45 lira ($11).

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Turkey's 'Eastern Express'
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Turkey's 'Eastern Express'
The Eastern Express travels through Erzincan province en route from Ankara to Kars, Turkey, February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A man looks out from Ebu'l Manuchehr Mosque at the historic ruins of Ani, in Kars province, Turkey, February 8, 2018. The ancient city of Ani was once the capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom that covered much of present day Armenia and eastern Turkey. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man rides a horse-drawn carriage on the frozen lake Cildir, in Kars province, Turkey, February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man herds sheep around an old building in Sarikamis, in Kars province, Turkey, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The church of the Holy Mother of God, also known as the Cathedral, stands at the historical site of Ani, in Kars province, Turkey, February 8, 2018. Ani was once the capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom that covered much of present day Armenia and eastern Turkey. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The Eastern Express travels through Kars province en route from Kars to Ankara in eastern Turkey, February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Passengers dance during a stop at Erzurum station as they travel from Ankara to Kars on the Eastern Express, Turkey, February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Ensar Coskun cooks food for customers in his restaurant in Erzurum, Turkey, April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Gecit train station stands near the eastern Anatolian city of Erzincan, Turkey, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A railway official makes his last checks before the Eastern Express departs after a short stop at the eastern Anatolian city of Erzincan, Turkey, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A view from the Eastern Express travelling through Erzincan province en route from Ankara to Kars, Turkey, February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
The opening of a railway tunnel is seen from the Eastern Express near the eastern Anatolian city of Erzincan, Turkey, February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man looks out of a window on board the Eastern Express as he travels from Kars to Ankara, near Erzurum, Turkey, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Swings stand at the Bagistas train station near the eastern Anatolian city of Erzincan, Turkey, March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A village is seen near Askale, a town in the eastern Anatolian province of Erzurum, Turkey, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Sinan Usta, 24, poses for a selfie as he stands on the steps of an open door on the Eastern Express as it travels through Erzincan province en route from Ankara to Kars, Turkey, April 10, 2018. Sinan decorated the wagon with candles and rainbow coloured flashing lights for his girlfriend. "We had this journey planned months ago. But my girlfriend's family didn't allow her," he said. "I don't like leaving things unfinished, so I took the train anyway." REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The Eastern Express travels through Erzincan province en route from Kars to Ankara in eastern Turkey, March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Breakfast prepared by Vasfiye Filiz, 43, and Nurcan Guner, 40, is placed on a table on board the Eastern Express travelling through Erzincan province en route from Ankara to Kars, eastern Turkey, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Passengers eat and chat on board the Eastern Express travelling through Erzincan province en route from Ankara to Kars, Turkey, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Men play a board game in Divrigi, a town in the central Anatolian city of Sivas, Turkey, March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A train waits as the Eastern Express departs a station in Sivas province en route from Kars to Ankara, Turkey, February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Passengers rest on board the Eastern Express travelling through Sivas province en route from Ankara to Kars, eastern Turkey, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Passengers listen to music on board the Eastern Express travelling through Sivas province en route from Ankara to Kars, eastern Turkey, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Passengers chat on board the Eastern Express travelling through Sivas province en route from Ankara to Kars, eastern Turkey, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man sleeps on board the Eastern Express travelling through Sivas province en route from Ankara to Kars, Turkey, April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A general view of Kayseri, Turkey, March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man makes a phonecall on board the Eastern Express travelling through Sivas province en route from Ankara to Kars, Turkey, April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man works in his atelier in Divrigi, a town in the central Anatolian city of Sivas, Turkey, March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Busra Korkmaz (L), 20, Ozlem Ozderya (R), 20 and Berfin Abadan (R top), 21, chat onboard the Eastern Express travelling through Kayseri province en route from Ankara to Kars, Turkey, April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A worshipper prays outside a mosque in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri, Turkey, March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Garra rufa obtusas, also known as "doctor fish", swim around the face of a man as he relaxes in a hot spa pool in Kangal, 105 kilometres south of the central Anatolian city of Sivas, Turkey, March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
People walk along a street in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri, Turkey, March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
University student Sinan Usta, 24, decorates his compartment with candles and lights as the Eastern Express travels through Kayseri province en route from Ankara to Kars, Turkey, April 9, 2018. Sinan decorated the wagon with candles and rainbow coloured flashing lights for his girlfriend. "We had this journey planned months ago. But my girlfriend's family didn't allow her," he said. "I don't like leaving things unfinished, so I took the train anyway." REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mine Nur, 28, hugs Huseyin Emre Sen, 29, after he proposed to her on board the Eastern Express travelling through Kayseri province en route from Ankara to Kars, Turkey, April 9, 2018. "We love travelling, so this suits us perfectly. This is a short demo of a life-long journey together," said Emre. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Sibel Uysal, 20, poses for a selfie with her friends before the Eastern Express departs from Ankara province en route from Ankara to Kars, Turkey, April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A conductor walks along a car as he delivers pillows to passengers on the Eastern Express in Ankara province en route from Ankara to Kars in Turkey, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas SEARCH "BEKTAS EXPRESS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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Things changed when a group of young Turkish tourists decided to do away with speed and booked sleeping car reservations on the train. Naturally, they shared the experience on social media.

From that point onwards, the train became a venue for fun, adventure, socializing and new experiences.

“Of course this trend has caught our attention on Instagram, some posts encouraged us to hit the road,” said Nurcan Guner, who has taken the train with a good friend, wearing matching pyjamas and socks, picked specially for the train ride.

SOARING DEMAND

Nowadays tickets for the train run out a day after they go on sale, even though the number of cars has more than doubled from five to 11. What hasn’t changed is the leisurely pace of the train through Turkey’s remote eastern hinterland.

The Eastern Express sets off from the capital Ankara every day for Kars, near the Armenian border. It travels through Anatolian provinces such as Kayseri, Sivas, Erzincan and Erzurum and reaches its destination some 24 hours and 30 minutes later.

On the way it passes through farmland, hills and woods, crossing rivers swollen by snow melting in the spring sunshine and passing through long dark tunnels carved through mountains.

In 2017 alone, some 300,000 people made the trip, a 40 percent increase from the previous year.

The Eastern Express features seated and sleeping coaches with toilets, a mini refrigerator and a table.

Apart from some locals attracted by the cheap fares, who take the train for a short distance between stations, most passengers now are people from far corners of Turkey making the full trip between Ankara and Kars.

As the references on social media to the train journey proliferated, must-do rituals emerged for all travelers.

It’s now customary to take snaps holding the signs in the carriages showing the route, decorating compartments with Christmas lights, candles and balloons, holding big parties in compartments designed for four only, taking group photos and alighting from the train at minor stops to dance on the platform.

Burcu Yilmaz, a 37-year-old medical technician, decided to take the trip after she saw the pictures shared on social media.

She had a hard time finding tickets but managed to get on the train with three of her friends.

“A most nostalgic experience” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to meet new people, to hold parties in the compartments. You can’t do any of this when traveling any other way.”

Not everyone, however, is making their dream journey. University student Sinan, who decorated the wagon with candles and rainbow-colored flashing lights for his girlfriend, is sitting alone in his little room.

"We had this journey planned months ago. But my girlfriend’s family didn’t allow her,” he said. “I don’t like leaving things unfinished, so I took the train anyway.”

(Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans and Gareth Jones)

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