Train to Iran 2008



My supposed ever growing eccentricity was (to friends at least) confirmed in Spring of 2008 when I announced I intended to travel to Iran by train. Or actually a series of trains. I had seen an article in a national newspaper about the "Trans-Asiatic Express", a modern train that departed for Tehran weekly from Istanbul and it seemed feasible. And it was a few years since I had last done any serious rail travel. So brushing aside innumerable questions of the 'Why?' variety I made my plans.

Despite being a UK passport holder, a country in Iranian eyes over-deeply entrenched in Mr Bush's back-pocket, getting a visa was straightforward but costly. First I Amstardaam Central Station - Journey's starthad to get a reference number from the Iranian Foreign Office in Amsterdam - Frankfurt trainTehran, only then would the Embassy issue a visa. The whole process took about five weeks. In the meantime I planned the European leg of the journey. Beginning in  Amsterdam, I would travel to Turkey via Germany, Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria. It almost worked. I flew directly to Amsterdam after work on Friday 13th June and stayed the night with a friend, leaving early the next morning.

Sat. 14th: Caught the 07:05 high speed train from Amsterdam Centraal to Frankfurt. From there I took a train to Vienna, changing at Nuremberg. This got into Vienna in the evening and I had just enough time to get a ticket for the train to Sophia via Belgrade - a ticket unavailable in Amsterdam. This was where things began to go wrong. Nobody had mentioned the train went via Budapest where you had to change. In the event the train was about three hours late and the connecting train long gone. By now it was one o'clock in the morning, and Budapest Kileti, while an admirable railway station from an architectural point of view, wasn't the sort of place you wanted to overnight in. So I got an overpriced taxi and found an overpriced hotel for the night.

Sun. 15th: In the morning I decided the best thing was to miss out Belgrade and instead got the early afternoon train to Bucharest. A small bribe got me a first class couchette compartment all to myself for the sixteen hour journey where I spent most of my time asleep.Budapest - Bucharest, my couchetteCrossing theBlack Sea Coast into Turkey

Mon. 16th: I arrived in Bucharest Gara de Nord Station at 05:15 hours. By now I was well behind schedule and decided to cheat a bit. I took a taxi to Otopeni Airport, purchased a ticket for the early morning flight, was in Istanbul by 10:30, got a hotel by 11:30, had lunched by 12:30 and had taken a ferry to Istanbul Haydarpesa Railway Station by 14:00. There, despite a complete a inability to communicate with the ticket-man, I managed to buy an indecipherable ticket for (I hoped!) the Tehran train, leaving Wednesday night. I was also getting a bit worried that I didn't have enough hard currency for Iran where, due to US Sanctions, ATMs, credit cards and travellers cheques were useless. And I had been unable to book my flight home from Tehran in the UK. Despite several attempts however I couldn't get any Istanbul ATMs to accept my card. Hoping it would work in the morning, I got the ferry back to my hotel, had a wander around the City Centre, got some dinner and went to bed.

Tues. 17th: Got up late. The ATMs were still not accepting my cards; as a last resort I withdrew a cash advance on a credit card which I changed into Euros. I didn't do very much that day except some reconnaissance re. left luggage and supermarket facilities at the railway station; I intended taking food with me for the three day train journey despite the positive reports I had heard about the restaurant car. Anyway I'd been to Istanbul before and seen most of the tourist sights.Haydarpesa railway station, IstanbulDoubts resolved. It was the right train!

Wed. 18th: The ATMs were still not working (when I got home it turned out my Bank had suspended it due to "unusual withdrawal patterns") so I withdrew more money on a Credit Card. In the afternoon I managed to gat the wrong ferry in spectacular fashion. Not only did it take me three quarters of the way to the Black Sea but there was no ferry back! I found a bus which took over two hours to crawl through the evening rush hour traffic but made my hotel in good time and made it to the railway station with an hour to spare. The train did indeed turn out to be very modern and clean and I ended up sharing a first-class couchette compartment with Axel, a Norwegian Student. The train left on time and I got off to sleep soon after.

Thurs. 19th: Woke up at Ankara Station around 05:00 hrs. There was just time for a quick cigarette on the platform and then back on to the train for more sleep. Woke up around noon to a much drier and rural landscape. Went to try out the restaurant car with Axel. The food pretty good, the staff pretty laid back although only a handful of people were eating. Almost everyone was either Turkish or Iranian - there must have been only about half a dozen Westerners on the train. We got into conversation with Saeed - his English wasn't that good but it turned out he was Iranian and drove a fire-engine for a living in Istanbul. During Stop-off at Beyhanthe afternoon we stopped off Were we really going that slowly?at Kaysen and Sivas; both small rural villages. Had dinner again in the dining car. It was good just to sit, sipping coffee, smoke cigarettes and watch the scenery roll by. Also it was obvious that we were starting to climb - in the distance we could see a snow-capped mountain. And surprise, surprise, the train was now running about six hours late.

Fri. 20th: Woke to find the train moving very slowly with frequent stops for no apparent reason. And still climbing. We stopped for an hour and a half in a village called Beyhan. Myself, Axel and Saeed walked in the sunshine, picked and ate fruit berries off a tree, had a basic wash at a cold-tap and took some photographs. When we moved again there were armed guards on the train. I enquired and was told that this was a security measure as the previous week the PKK had tried to blow up the track! Seemingly the army had divided the track ahead into sectors and were checking it before the train could proceed. Having been in similar situations on various occasions in the past I just relaxed in the dining car with more coffee, cigarettes and scenery. The male Iranian passengers took advantage of the extra time to drink as much Turkish alcohol as possible and dance in the aisle! There was no point in going to bed, as we were expected to reach Lake Van early on Saturday morning.From the train - Turkish KurdistanThe Trans-Asian Express

Sat. 21st: We finally reached Lake Van at 03:00 hrs. Fortunately the ferry was still waiting for us. Once on the ferry we got seats and a sort of pizza sandwich and then it was time to get some Iranian money. With Saeed's help I changed a small amount of Turkish Lira into Iranian Rails; Axel changed all his money and ended up with a wad of notes around two inches thick. Actually Iranian money turned out to be a nuisance; at an exchange rate of around 14,000 Rails to the Euro, and a currency where the main note denominations are 10 and 20 thousand (the largest note is 50,000 Rails) it is definitely time they dropped a few zeros off the end. We also noticed, that despite having an entire train on the car deck the ferry did the entire four hour crossing without closing either the bow or stern doors! We disembarked at around 07:30 hrs - but with no sign of the Iranian train. It arrived after about half an hour where we were unceremoniously bundled into compartments. Myself and Axel ended up sharing with Julienne from Germany. Our compartment very hot but I managed to sleep OK. I woke  up at noon for lunch served (and possibly cooked) by the guard. Customs and immigration controls were fairly simple and quick. The train was now moving very fast through a very arid landscapeDining car - making the most of it before Iran populated with industrial and Lake Van ferrypetro-chemical plants, presumably well known to the Pentagon Satellite Network but not to me. Our first Iranian stop was Tabiz for  three quarters of an hour where Saeed left the train. After this the train sped on non-stop which was a pity as we started to make up lost time; it became increasingly likely we would be arriving in Tehran in the middle of the night. Went to out bunks for a brief sleep around 23:00 hrs.

Sun. 22nd: We were woken by the guard about 03:00 hrs; we were approaching Tehran where we finally arrived at around 03:15. And I had no accommodation! I negotiated a taxi with Axel and Julienne who were looking for a cheap hostel - I was looking for a proper hotel though. The taxi dropped the two of them off in a rather dubious street where they hoped to get somewhere to stay then I instructed the taxi driver to take me to the "Hotel Iranshahr" which he eventually found (I was to discover that Tehran taxi drivers have absolutely no idea about the layout of their city - even recognising national monuments is a problem). The doorman looked a bit intimidating, dressed as he was like Herman Goring on the way to a wedding although the hotel turned out to be a great choice and I would recommend it for anyone looking for a mid-range Tehran Hotel. I got nice, big double room which even had satellite TV, with such Western evils as BBC World, Euro News and Golestan Palace, TehranCNN! However I was Central Tehranvery tired and went to sleep immediately. I woke up at noon. The first thing I needed to do was to get a flight back to Amsterdam which was surprisingly easy - there was a travel agent up the road that sold me a ticket with Iranair for the following Saturday. Unfortunately my other enquires drew a blank. I had wanted to get some domestic tickets to visit other cities but all airlines were fully booked for the next two weeks. This was a blow as it looked as if I would be restricted to Tehran and its surroundings unless I used long distance buses and trains and I'd already done enough of that for the time being.

Tehran. 23rd to the 26th June : I've been in worse cities than Tehran but also many better ones. Basically Tehran is just a vast, overpopulated city with horrendous traffic congestion and a major pollution problem. For a pedestrian, the traffic is a nightmare. In many cities (Rome, Buenos Aires, Jakarta for instance) you get used to vehicles adopting a rather flexible attitude to traffic lights: in Tehran all drivers completely ignored them and every other rule of the road also. Motorbikes (and occasionally cars) use the pavements routinely to avoid the gridlock. Crossing the roadMummified head in Iranian National Museum could take forever; the best method being to Azadi Monument, Tehranwalk abreast with a local. Most of the cars are fairly ancient with inefficient engines and belch out fumes generating most of the pollution. However for some reason there is little horn hooting. The city itself is pretty drab; mainly post war concrete buildings being eaten away by traffic fumes. There were practically no old buildings; even historic buildings were practically invisible due to other buildings being built closely around them.

The new metro is a different matter and is very efficient and clean with good stations and plenty of decor and sculptures. It is also very cheap. The only problem is that the last part of construction (escalators and lifts) are still being installed so a lot of stair-climbing is required.

Not speaking Farsi, it took a couple of days to develop a working communication strategy. Walking about was a pain due to the traffic and the thousands of cheap taxis were uniformly driven by drivers who knew no English and had little knowledge of the city lay-out either. The best I could do was to work out an itinerary for the day, get the hotel receptionist to write down the places I wanted to visit in Farsi and show it to the drivers. This solved the communication problem but not the fact that few drivers seemed to have the slightest idea how to get to them, although after countless stops to ask directions we usually did get there.Palace Arch

The place had a surprisingly Western atmosphere to it. Shopping was mainly done in small Western-style shops with fixed prices although there was a large bazaar South of the City Centre. All men dressed in Western style clothes. Obviously women wore the compulsory headscarf and usually a tunic but with considerable style - scarves well back on the head (showing too much hair no doubt), large sunglasses and tight-ish jeans or trousers. Only a few older women seemed to go in for coveringPalace detail themselves up more completely. Actually I heard that this dress code seems to go in cycles: every few years there is a clampdown and a rigorous dress code enforced which then becomes gradually more and more relaxed as the people push the limits, until the authorities intervene and crack down again.

The people though were unfalteringly polite and helpful. And despite what I had heard they didn't force there hospitality on me. Sadly, from the few conversations I had, they seem resigned to invasion, war and defeat by America; on one occasion I was told  that this was the reason chosen not to have children. Boredom, due to the cultural and restrictions imposed on young people was another complaint I heard, as was the fact that a lot of women were becoming anti-marriage as they felt that married life was too restrictive compared to the professional opportunities now available to them (this however was told to me by an unmarried (by choice) male who cited the same reason for his own single status.

And anyway, the main reason for my trip was not to be in Iran but to get to Iran, overland. Which I had achieved. God Bless America!So I was satisfied enough to stay in the city and take in the atmosphere, especially as I seemed to be almost the only tourist. In fact, in the whole time there I only noticed one other Western tourist in the street. The only other Westerner who I met was a motorcyclist who pulled up in front of me in the street; he pulled off his helmet and in a strong American accent welcomed me to "The Islamic Republic of Aye-ran". I asked if he was on holiday, he said "no, he lived here". I asked how he liked it, he said "Its a fucking, oppressive, fucking shit-hole". When I asked why he stayed, and didn't go back to the USA, he replied "Oh, eh, No, can't do that, can't do that!", put his helmet backed on and zoomed off.  What was that all about?

On the last day I decided to do some shopping and changed around two hundred Euros into Rails. This produced two huge wads of notes which had to be distributed around several pockets. However it was worth it: down at The Iranian Handicraft Organisation shop I was able to buy everything I wanted and more, it was just a pity I didn't have more ready cash (and a bigger baggage allowance) or I could have re-decorated my living-room Persian style.

But I intend returning to Iran. And now that I know what I want to do I'll make sure I buy all my internal air-tickets in the UK and have a rough itinerary worked out in advance.

SAT 28th: As my flight left at 05:00 hrs I got a taxi to the airport at 01:45. It was just as well I left early for my guidebook was a bit out of date and obviously pre-new international airport which turned out to be about 45 kilometres out of the city. Security was very tight and emigration was a shambles - it took about ten times as long to be allowed to leave the country as it took to get into it! However the flight, despite a total lack of any in-flight entertainment was passable and got me into Amsterdam Schiphol around 08:30. I stayed the night with a friend then flew back to Scotland the following afternoon.

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