Iran may seem like an unusual travel destination, but taking the Trans-Asia Express from Istanbul to Tehran gives a real sense of travelling to a different world
Most tourists probably arrive in Iran via the new, vast Ayatollah Khomeini Airport in Tehran – built to take the millions of visitors a year the regime wants but, not least due to their reluctance to issue visas, are unlikely to receive any time in the near future. The benefit of this is that you’re highly unlikely to find yourselves in any queues at the airport, or anywhere else come to that – though be warned, it is the most modern building in Iran and very unrepresentative of the rest of the country.
Being of sterner stuff, however, I travelled to Iran by train, and I heartily recommend it. The Trans-Asia Express leaves from Istanbul's HyderPasa Station (where budget flight connections may mean this is a more economical option) and, over three days, travels the length of Turkey, through cities and across deserts and lakes, with Turks using it to visit the far Eastern reaches of this vast country, and Iranians travelling to and fro on holiday. You watch the countryside and towns and cities become more Middle Eastern by the hour, and eventually transfer to a battered old ferry to cross the sea-size Lake Van, which acts as the practical border between the former Byzantine and Persian empires.
The most remarkable thing about the journey (excepting the restaurant car's lengthy, but seemingly almost entirely unavailable, menu), is the interaction with Iranians on the way. The journey is effectively the end of their holiday, which many combine with a significant amount of purchasing of products unavailable in the Islamic Republic. The headscarf-less women chat openly, and I probably learnt as much about modern day Iran in the three days of this journey as I did during the following three weeks in the country. Their hospitability, tendency to offer you food at every opportunity, and discuss religion, sex and politics at the drop of a hat is a wonderful knock to the stereotypes most westerners have.
The train has a tendency to run several hours late, and on our trip this meant changing to the Iranian rolling stock in the middle of the night, as opposed to just before bed. Border formalities are, as you’d expect, somewhat lengthy. However we were told that, as guests of the country, it would be dishonourable for our bags to be searched, and were waved swiftly past. This meant that, while the train had to wait for all the other passengers, we could bed down in the much more modern and comfortable Iranian train for our onward journey into Tehran.
It’s now headscarves on all the way for the women and the playing cards are put firmly away as the train roles into the Islamic Republic. A lengthy stop at Tabriz provides the first opportunity to step onto Iranian soil. Here the modern, new station is clean and a good place to change money – much easier and better value than in Tehran. There are no international cash machines in Iran, nor are travellers’ cheques cashable, so it’s VERY large wads of cash all the way. Never have I carried so much money in my life, nor felt there was lesser risk to me because of it.
The train arrives in Tehran ‘International Station’ which, seeing as this is the only international train that goes to Iran, is a pretty subdued and deserted affair. Round the corner is the bustling domestic station, where food, drinks and far, far cheaper taxis are freely available.
We booked into the Firozeh Hotel, waking up the night porter as we did so, and got some much needed sleep in the basic but clean and tidy rooms. The Hotel Ferdossi Grand is a much more salubrious affair, and a good place for a meal or drink when in central Tehran. Tehran is a large, over-crowded, modern (circa 1980s) city which is fortunately being slowly kitted out with a 21st century metro system. The Park-e-Shahr is a great place to get away from the incessant traffic and have lunch, tea, or smoke a shisha pipe. The Shahs' gaudy, extravagant Golestan Palace and museums are all very worthy of a visit and give a good insight into the country's recent history. Of particular note are the former American Embassy, the National Museum, and the Iran Ebrat Museum, where the Shah tortured political prisoners. The fact that the Shahs’ excesses directly gave rise to the current regime is something to reflect upon.
Darband, on the edge of the city is a slightly grubby entertainment district, where courting Iranians and groups of youths go to hang out. Restaurants abound, and the people-watching is what it’s all about. A scary looking cable car ride up into the hills provides the opportunity for a pleasant wander back down into the city.
The Ayatollah Khomeini tomb and Iran-Iraq war cemetery are also easily reachable on the edge of the city and again provide a riveting insight into the day-to-day lives of the people. Families come to picnic on the graves of their deceased sons and husbands, and will try to get you to join in, which is quite an odd feeling. The tomb is a place where people chat, picnic (Iranians love to eat, and a picnic seems to be desirable at almost any location - roadside verges and traffic roundabouts are NOT out of bounds) and children play. Whatever your feelings about Khomeini, his wish that his tomb was not to be a place of sorrow, but for people to enjoy, has certainly been achieved. There is also a good range of burger bars here!
Bus and train connections to the rest of the country are plentiful from Tehran. Trains must be booked from a travel agent rather than the train station, which can take a little time but is not too arduous, and buses can be picked up without any need to book pretty much anytime during daylight hours. Bus stations are a scene of utter chaos, but walk in saying fairly loudly the name of your chosen destination, and you'll find yourself on a modern coach, with a complimentary snack and drink in hand, and under the wing of someone going to the same place before you've had chance to panic at the dozens of buses arrayed in front of you with not an English sign in sight.
Note: You MUST get your visas before you enter the country, otherwise you may not be able to get in, or, alternatively, be staying somewhat longer than you hoped! Using an agency to help with visas (there are many via internet) is cheap and provides a little greater certainty around gaining one within a reasonable time period. Doing it yourself will require persistence, time, and possibly 3 visits to an Iranian embassy-possibly viable if you live in London