Travelers on the Dogu Express.
(CNN) -- Turkey is the last stop on one of the world's most famous train journeys, the Orient Express. But there's another trip – the Dogu Express, or Eastern Express in English – that's making the country one of the world's top rail destinations.
Historically a commuter train between Ankara and Kars, the train has gone viral among Turkish influencers in recent years for its stunning scenery across the east, full of off-the-beaten-path treasures.
Berry Romo, a travel influencer who has lived in Turkey for more than a decade, notes that "the train was already quite popular with locals and Turkish travelers, but barely known among foreign tourists."
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In response to growing demand, the commuter service became a tourist route in 2019. The sleeper train, whose service lasts more than 30 hours, travels from the bustling capital Ankara to the sometimes snowy wonderland of Kars, a distance of 1,310 kilometers (814 miles), with stops along the way where excursions are arranged.
However, it is very difficult to get tickets. Passengers say they often sell out in a matter of minutes.
Passengers on the Dogu Express (Credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)
"The trick is to check the website as soon as it's midnight and buy when it's updated," Romo said.
Turkish travel agencies often buy large quantities of tickets to resell to travelers, securing their customers a spot on the train, which is why, according to locals, tickets sell out so quickly. Individual tickets can only be purchased a month in advance, making them a coveted prize for the few who get them.
Leaving the capital
At first glance, Ankara may seem less glamorous than the better-known Istanbul, but the country's political center is a worthy destination in its own right.
Major sites include the mausoleum of Ataturk, the final resting place of modern Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Passengers in the dining lounge of the Dogu Express, which runs through eastern Turkey. (Credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)
The complex is divided into four parts. Highlights include the Peace Park, with a Turkish flag composed of pebbles surrounded by a flower bed, and the Ceremonial Plaza leading to the Hall of Honor that 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 neighborhoods.
Ulus is the old town where there are Roman ruins, well-preserved passageways and even an ancient castle, perched on a hill, offering panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
Within Ulus is Sanat Sokağı, or the Street of Arts, a stretch of restored Ottoman houses that have been converted into cafes and lead to courtyards lined with stalls selling handicrafts and souvenirs from the Ottoman era.
For a more contemporary experience, head to CemModern, a new art gallery that hosts global exhibitions in a restored railway station. Cultural events here are varied, from film screenings to group yoga sessions to design markets.
Travelers often decorate their cabins with garlands of lights and candles. (Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
"An impressive immensity"
The Dogu Express departs in the early afternoon, and as you pull away from Ankara's art deco train station, the view from the window quickly shifts from a sprawling metropolis to panoramic views.
The sleeping cabins are equipped with two single bunk beds that can be converted into daytime seating, a mini-fridge and a sink. Travelers often decorate their compartments with garlands of lights and candles.
This makes it "a great way to enjoy beautiful scenery in a welcoming way," according to Romo.
Early the next morning, the train arrives in Ilic, a small town whose main attraction is its proximity to Karanalik, or the Dark Canyon. The Canyon is home to the impressive Stone Path, which clings to the canyon's slope when you're not plunging into one of its 38 tunnels or taking scary curves.
The train travels the vast expanse of Turkey's eastern region. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)
Despite its reputation for being dangerous, the road regularly attracts tourists with its stunning scenery. It offers spectacular cliffs and rugged gorges, always with the Euphrates flowing below.
The train then descends further east into the heart of Anatolia. Netta Kalpan, a Minnesota native who lived in the Black Sea coastal area of Trabzon and was used to harsh snowy winters, says she "didn't realize how big, flat and cold Turkey could be" before taking the train.
However, he describes the landscape as "breathtaking, especially because of its immensity."
"I kept trying to take videos out the windows," but I felt "like I couldn't capture what it really felt like to see it," she says.
The final destination is Kars. (uchar/E+/Getty Images)
In the evening, the train arrives in Erzurum. Romo says visiting the city was "without a doubt, one of the best experiences" he's had in Turkey because of the city's rich "history, culture and extraordinary cuisine."
Erzurum is home to many different types of local cuisine, the most famous being the Cag Kebab. The lamb is marinated for about 12 hours in onion, salt and pepper, then placed on a skewer and cooked over a wood fire before being wrapped in hot flatbread or eaten straight from the skewer.
After Erzurum, the Dogu Express has only a few hours left before reaching its final destination, Kars.
Famous for its wonderful winter landscape, its name comes from the Turkish word meaning snow. The city is known for its unique architecture that dates back to the days when it was part of the Russian Empire.
Ummu Altunas, a lawyer from Istanbul, compares visiting eastern Turkey to visiting a "completely different country" from the more European west. That's partly because, he says, "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. A short drive from Kars, majestic ruins dating back 1,600 years are open to tourists. Vast walls and well-preserved churches, all overlooking a deep ravine, offer visitors a journey into the past.
Although Turkey's eastern regions attract fewer tourists, locals are often eager to greet visitors with traditional Turkish hospitality.
Kaplan says one of the reasons she loved living in eastern Turkey is because it's "rewarding to be surrounded by 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 magnificent cities in the world."
But embrace a place less frequented by travelers? "That's what feels special."