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
to get a reference number from the Iranian Foreign Office in
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.
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.
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
afternoon we stopped off
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.
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 landscape
populated with industrial and
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
However I was
very 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 road
could take forever; the best method being to
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
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.
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 covering
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
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
the main reason for my trip was not to be in Iran but to
get to Iran, overland. Which I had achieved.
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.