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).
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.
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)