A long train ride

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Middle East » Turkey
October 18th 2014
Published: June 21st 2017
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Geo: 39.935, 32.847

Not many photoshere - and they were meant as memory joggers really. Still.

The first problem with the Trans Asia Express is finding the place you get on it. Go to Tehran main station and they tell you you have to go back out, across the square, turn left and it's on the left. About 5 minutes.

And there is an entry on the left with one of those barriers that stops cars, but no sign saying International so you ask the guy in the control box and he nods and lifts the bar and as you walk in you do see a sign in the middle distance but you can't read it because it's dark (because the train leaves at 21:25 - or is it 22:40) but when you get closer it does say 'International Terminal'. Round 1 victory! And when you go inside there are 2 guys sitting and you show them your ticket and they put a little sticker in it telling you which carraige/couchette you will have on the Iranian train and the Turkish train. (1/13 and 1/31 in my case). And they tell you to sit down,. It's a rather unattractive waiting area with no facilities beond a WC but people with mountainous piles of luggage. I tell you - there were parcels that were 6 foot cubes! These people were either moving house or shipping vast quantities of goods to trade in Turkey. They were checking it all in for carraige in the goods wagon.

Now what you have to understand is that this is cheap travel;. I paid 40 Euros for the whole thing which included a dinner (served to your seat - chicken kebab) after the train left, breakfast and lunch the next day and a kind of box of snacks - biscuit, cake, juice - the next evening. But no food included on the Turkish train. You could get a cheaper ticket without food and they all carried mountains of food with them - more bread (Iranian flat bread) than a camel could comfortably carry. So these are poor people on the whole - they are either going to Turkey to find work or to trade stuff. On the whole, this is not an elite and very few speak English. Most of them had brand new passports (it seemed) and they rely on a treaty struck by Ataturk and the last Shah's father that allows visa-free transit between the two countries. It seems that deal comes to an end soon and the whole thing could stop, which might stop the train running.

After a while of watching all these piles of stuff being checked in I saw some arguments break out between potential travellers and the workers receiving all this stuff to load onto the train. I think it was because some parcels exceeded a weight limit but there's was lots of finger waving and raised voices and earnest pleading. But I never saw a resolution except in one case a guy went off and returned with three large empty flour sacks and proceeded to repack things - and got flour everywhere which started another argument.

All the time announcements were being made, in Persian only, but then one caused a stir and it turned out to be the call to proceed through security to the inner waiting room. Fortunately I was near the door and got through early (passport check and baggage search) ths avoiding all the subsequent shoving and shouting and got a seat near the door leading to the train. More waiting, more watching luggage being checked in. 21:25 came and went - clearly that timetable had been wrong (though it is still live on the Turkish railways website). and finally at about 10pm came the call to board the train. Another mad scramble - storage space is at a premium in the compartments so you need to be there to get your bags stowed away. And I found myself sharing with 3 blokes, all from Shiraz though only two were travelling together, all going to Turkey looking for work - it transpired much later because not a word of English among them.

We had the dinner that the attendant distributed and then settled down to sleep having made up our bunks. I had a top bunk that night. And slept amazingly well. We got to Tabriz some time around 10 the next morning (not quite breakfast in bed - but it consisted of lot of flat bread, one little pat of butter, a little pot of 'cream cheese' and a little pot of carrot jam. Oh yummy!

The two guys travelling together spent amazing amounts of time asleep. And when awake they dd nothing - there wasn't a book between them, though they fiddled endlessly with their mobile phones but never seemed to make or receive a call or a text or any other form of communication. The border was not far from Tabriz so we got there quite early, and travelled through some attractive mountainous scenery and past Lake Orumiyeh which is drying up (like the Aral Sea) and one boat left hgh and dry miles from the water was clearly visible.

The first part of the border crossing involved everyone on the train being summoned (a carriage at a time) to the restaurant car where the Iranian passport control people were sitting with a laptop laboriously entering the details of everyone's passport and then questioning them about where they were going. Like, was I going to North or South Britain???? Now there were at least 8 carraiges with 12 compartments in each and 4 people to a compartment (and it was pretty full) that made nearly 400 people to be processed. Then they came through the train checking everyone's luggage and then once again checking that every passport had the exit stamp (so no-one had tried to avoid them). That was the Iranian bit done. And the train travelled a few miles to the Turkish border where we all had to get out and stand in a long line to hand our passports in, and then stand outside (not allowed back on the train) while everyone else had their passports checked and while they went through all the stuff in the baggage wagon. By the time this all finished it was late, and dark. But the evenings fun had just begun....

The train proceded to Van. Where we all got off. That was the end of the Iran train part. Some of the Iranian traders went no further. The rest of us had to get on a ferry to cross Lake Van. Getting on was enough of a trial - two very steep and narrow flights of steps led up from the deck they put the baggage wagon on to the passenger deck. Which consisted off rows of rather tired reclining seats, some wirh the stuffing falling out, and not enugh for everyone - many resorted to sleeping on the floor. Just before we got off the train they had distributed cheap white cotton sheets to everyone, I hadn't been able to figure out why, now I knew, to protect you from the dirty floor and seats.. It was hot on the ferry - despite being cool outside - no-one made any announcements of any sort in any language, f it had decded to sink (which would not have been a surprise) no-one would have known where the life jackets were. Most of the lights were out, which may have been because it was dark or just because they weren't working. And it was all in the dark - so I crossed Lake Van but didn't see it. Oh and of course - no facilities, no cafe, no nothing. But this train does only run once a week in each direction so I guess it isn't worth it, though they had two ferries: the one we were on and a spare sitting by the dock.

Arriving at Tatvan on the other side of the lake there was no train waiting for us and there was a mad dash for the tiny waiting room. But fortunately there was only a wait of 20 minutes or so before the train reversed into the little station an another mad dash ensued. Turkish trains are so much better - newer, quieter, cleaner. And I was re-united with my three companions from the previous train.

One thing that startled me was the speed at which the Iranian women took off their headscarves once they had the Turkish entry stamp in their passport. Not all of them, of course, but all the younger ones and most of the middle-aged, it was only the old ladies who retained their crow-like coverings of black!

Finally the sun came up but by then I was fast asleep having been awake most of the night. But when I did wake at 10 or so we were still passing through spectacular mountain scenery. Given that they weren't giving away free food any more - though my travelling companions were being generous with their supplies (bread and garlic sausage - lots of bread, little garlic sausage) I made it to the restaurant car for my first beer in 10 days and a lunch with more in it than bread. But I hadn't been in the restaurant car long before a party started which consisted (as I later established from one of the few who did speak English) of ancient Iranian folk songs with one lad playing his violin, another a drum and lots of clapping, singing along and even dancing. They hadn't been out of the country 24 hours and the old nostalgia was already overflowing!

Turkish trains may be better than Iranian - but they don't go so fast. Perhaps it is because the track runs through difficult terrain? But it certainly trundled along at what seemed little more than 30mph and even though I didn't have an accurate timetable it was obvious from the gaps between stops that we were falling further and further behind schedule. The time lost at the borders had been made up at the lake which was scheduled to have a long delay before the Turkish train departed but which seemed to leave almost on time. But Kayseri which we were scheduled to reach at 2am Saturday wasn't reached until 4. Lots of people got off there, including two of my compartment companions. I didn't see them all get off but in the morning the train was very empty. Don't know why, though maybe it had something to do with being the first major city we passed through so a good place for the traders.

And we finally pulled into Ankara at about 11:30. I remember Ankara station, I spent a couple of hours there waiting for the train to Eastern Turkey as part of my Black Sea expedition. And I recall that on the far side of the tracks there was a railway museum. Closed down but you could climb through the fence and wander among the engines. All gone - a huge building site now.

After all that I decided I needed the easy way home. So I got a cheap flight from Ankara to Istanbul and found a room on a nice hotel near the airport so I'm well placed for my early morning flight to Gatwick.

And that's it!

6 weeks feels like a long time. And there have been some tedious bits. but lots of memorable things too - Song Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan (though not necessarily the staying in a freezing cold yurt) Samarkand, Bokhara and Kiva in Uzbekistan - the reason for the journey and lived up to expectations. Weird and wonderful Turkmenistan with golden statues of the President but also the mysterious ruins of ancient Silk Road cities with their stories of plunder and massacre by the forces of Ghengis Khan. And Iran - wonderful Iran and wonderful Iranians. So friendly and generous. Individuals met along the way, mostly like ships passing in the night with just conversations as we go (like Tom the Australian on the Tehran to Ankara train) but I received an e-mail from Susumu earlier this evening telling me he is back in Japan but not yet home. But I shall be glad to be home.


21st October 2014

Really enjoyed reading your blog Peter ( belatedly) . Lovely to read about fact, fiction, descriptions, embellished by your own humorous observations. Sounds such an amazing trip.Welcome home .

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