Thomas Erdbrink’s four-part series “Our man in Tehran” gave a personal and humorous insight into the daily life of Iran. The country was described as a country where nothing is allowed, but everything is possible. In August 2014 I was able to experience that myself by traveling with the Trans-Asia Express to Tehran. It was a special journey that I will never forget. This is the first part of my story, which describes how I ended up in Iran.
Iran can actually be reached by car, bus, train, or easiest by plane. I even met people who came by bicycle. To enter Iran by land you do need a visa, most easily obtained at the embassy. When the plane is taken, a short visa can be purchased at the airport. I myself applied for the visa in The Hague. The journey I made by train, from Istanbul the Trans-Asia Express goes to Tehran. When I went with the Trans-Asia Express there was still work being done between Istanbul and Ankara. Therefore I took the first part from Istanbul to Ankara by bus. The final return journey I did by bus from Urmia to Van.
My preparation for the Trans-Asia Express
With some luck I became a passenger of the Trans-Asia Express. I have not made any real preparations, I had not arranged the tickets in advance. In Istanbul I knew two travel agents who sold tickets for the train to Tehran, one was closed and the other indicated that everything was sold out. The Istanbul train station was also no relief. A day before the train would leave Ankara, I decided to travel by bus to Ankara and spend the night in a hostel there.
By eight o’clock in the evening, I arrived at my pre-booked hostel, Deeps Hostel. A great hostel where many Iranians temporarily stay in Ankara to apply for a visa. The first tips were exchanged. Pretty soon after check-in, I went to Ankara train station to see the options for a ticket. Unfortunately, the counter for international travel was closed and would open again in the morning.
I left my hostel the next day with less and less peace of mind. The night before I had walked to the station for exploration and now I took a taxi just to be sure. When I leave the hostel I meet a young Dutch couple, on my way to the train station for the same train only with tickets. We shared a taxi.
The international desk is not indicated in English and hardly any English is spoken, but the people were very nice to help me. The big question was in my head, are there still tickets with just over an hour before departure? After half an hour of waiting and seeing a big fight I get a ticket for 125 Lira, about € 50, – this does not include breakfast and dinner. Ah yeah!
With the Trans-Asia Express from Istanbul to Tehran
First day – Ankara
The Trans-Asia Express departs from Ankara in the direction of Tehran at around 10:30 (the timetable). The first hours of the planned 58 hours to Tehran pass quite quickly. The landscapes are beautiful, wide and mountainous. Along the way you will see many fields full of sunflowers, tobacco plants and grain. The cities along the track have a lot of high-rise buildings and are not very attractive.
I share a couchette with a Turkish and an Iranian man. At night another Iranian man comes to sleep, his family has a couchette down the road. Sleeping in four-person couches with a beautiful view through a large window. The bedding is fresh and the bed is fine. Every nine couchettes have some kind of bathroom and toilet in the hallway.
On the way, the train stops at a number of stations, mainly passengers board and the train becomes fuller and fuller. If you are quick you can shop at every stop in the shop, these are even cheaper than in the restoration of the train. Especially water and snacks are available in larger quantities. The train also has a good restoration where you can get good food and drinks.
At the end of the afternoon I order dinner, two choices are meat. A tricky choice for a vegetarian, but I wouldn’t have expected otherwise. The food is of good quality and the chef is a cheerful, pleasant man. After dinner I spend most of my time in the restoration. The place for socializing, where tips are exchanged between travelers, beer is drunk and carded.
Second day – Tatvan
I fell asleep softly the night before and that’s how I wake up. A wonderfully relaxing feeling, the more beautiful is the view through the large window to the outside. Enchantingly beautiful! See the picture, isn’t it beautiful?
Since I brought too little food, I take breakfast in the restaurant. This was fine to eat, only the coffee is very sweet instant. Really not to drink! The rest of the day I am in the restoration for two reasons. In the couchette, the air conditioning does not work optimally, but it is also much more pleasant. There is drawing, carding and even singing! In the restoration I see that the Trans-Asia Express is a rare mix of people and cultures, between the European and the Asian part of the world.
We should arrive at the port of Tatvan around three o’clock. Fortunately for a few backpackers who just came running from the mountains, the train is delayed by an hour. They quickly sprinted onto the boat. My suspicion is correct when I address them, Dutch people.
From the train to the boat
About the best part of the trip was the boat trip, wonderfully standing on the top deck in the wind, looking at the beautiful surroundings. The boat trip lasted about 6 hours, but time flew by the fun of the passengers. On the boat I also come into contact with the hospitality and generosity of the Iranians. An Iranian family has a big watermelon and would like to share it, I thank them kindly. Just thanking them is not easy, they persist and in the end I got even more than was previously offered. A delicious watermelon.
On the other side of the lake, the Iranian train has not yet arrived, it is unclear and it is unknown to me where and with whom I will be in a couchette. We come to a solution with a whole group, but unfortunately, I am not allowed to get in a couch with Iranian women. Eventually I am assigned to 3 nice Dutch retired men. Or I can play cards?
In the middle of the night we were awakened for passport control by the Turkish border guard. Because I knew it would be the middle of the night, I had kept my clothes on and was the first to check, unfortunately the border guards were not yet awake. After waiting for twenty minutes they were finally there, two stamps later I thought I would quickly get back on the train, but unfortunately that was not allowed. Half an hour later everyone was checked and the journey could continue at four o’clock in the morning. Iranian passport control took place on the train, but there was baggage control at ten o’clock.
Third day – Tehran!
Scheduled arrival time in Tehran, half-past eight Friday night. The actual arrival time is four o’clock in the morning, but no one really seems to care. Just before Tabriz, it became clear to me that I was going to arrive in Tehran in the middle of the night, arriving without a place to sleep in a total stranger city did not seem like the best idea to me. In the dining car, I discussed the plan for alighting in Tabriz with a number of other backpackers. Eventually, I got an offer from an Iranian student to stay in her apartment in Tehran. Meanwhile, telephone numbers and addresses were exchanged, in every important city in Iran I was offered a possible place to sleep. Without having drawn up a plan in advance, I now had to visit Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz. A quick introduction to Iranian hospitality…