I visited Iran with my friend Alireza in November 2013. We met in Ankara where we boarded the Transasia Express and it took us four days to get to Tehran. I had this posted on my old blog, but now decided to write about Iran on this new blog too.
Ali took most of the beautiful photos of Iran on my blog (I took the shitty ones with my iPhone). He also wrote about our journey on his blog in Farsi.
What makes Iran interesting is definitely its people: take Mahshid, the pretty girl we met on the train. She tells us that she has a bridal shop in Mashhad. She brings all kinds of garments from Turkey and sells them with a 500% profit so she has to take this trip at least once a month. She tells me it is hard work but she is very successful, it is easy to see that takes pride in her success. She also says she is 32 now and it gets lonely. She flirts with every man on the train.
The train moves very slowly and sometimes stops altogether. It took us all day to get to Kayseri. We spent most of our time drinking raki in the restaurant car; the food and drinks are cheap and tasty, and the service is excellent. We spent most of the day chatting to a weirdo who was a bit too keen to learn English so he wouldn’t leave us alone. We also met a Khuzestani man who turned out to be quite smart. I told him that some Turkish people are afraid that Turkey is going to be a lot like Iran in the near future. He replied, “Turkey can’t afford to get that isolated. We have oil and gas, but one of Turkey’s biggest sources of income is tourism. Whenever we run out of our natural resources, that’s the day the mullahs will go away”.
We shared our compartment with a mother and son, Zerrin and Kamran. They were also from Khuzestan; from a city called Abadan. In the Anatolian city of Kayseri our almost empty train got full with Iranian passengers. We found out later it’s because there is a United Nations centre in Kayseri. Turns out every year hundreds of Iranians take the train to Kayseri where they apply for asylum. They usually get a job, stay there for a year and then move on to wherever they are sent to. Zerrin’s other son was also in Kayseri, she said he had been unemployed in Iran for quite a while and when he finally got a job, he didn’t get paid. She said he was very happy now, he had a job and was saving money to get settled in Canada. Zerrin and Kamran were on their way back home from visiting him.
Ali told me that their city Abadan looked like Orange County before the revolution, he explained that the majority of Iran’s oil reserves were there and BP had invested a lot of money in the area. After the revolution BP left the city as did the other foreign companies. When the Iran-Iraq War hit the city pretty hard too, Zerrin and her family had to leave and move to Isfahan. Ali said there was nothing much in Abadan now and the only people who lived there had nowhere else to go.
We kept chatting with Mahshid. At first she was very keen for Ali and I to get married, then she slowly came to accept that we are just friends. She still didn’t understand how a guy and a girl could travel together without being in a relationship. She thought I was very pretty, she kept squeezing my cheeks screaming “azizaaam”. I also thought she was very pretty, and was a bit amazed about the way she spoke openly about relationships and complained about Iranian men. She told me when she met someone, they asked her straight away if she intended to have sex with them, and left if she said no. I was surprised by such bluntness in such an oppressive society. Ali explained that young people didn’t get a chance to mix with the opposite sex until they got into university, and when they finally did get together they didn’t want to lose any more time. But he said virginity was still very important in Iran and it was common for girls to have hymen reconstruction surgery before getting married.
I also had a chat with the train people in the restaurant in the afternoon. The train chief was called Saadettin, he told me he’d been working on trains for forty years. He said he had survived three very serious accidents, in one of them the train fell off a bridge into the river, in another one he fell between the train and the platform, had an operation and remained in a coma for seven months and lost two fingers, but somehow survived. He told me about his family, said he had three grown up children and married life worked better when you spent so much time away from your spouse. He had been a bit cross when we were drinking earlier but he really warmed to me as we talked. I think my being the only Turkish passenger also helped.
We got on the ferry around 6.00pm, spent a bit of time talking about life, love and everything else. We then got on the deck and met a German couple (Ines & Felix) and a Belgian girl (Lauréne). The Germans told us they had just graduated from school and that they were planning to travel for a total of nine months, two weeks in Iran and the rest in India. They would then go back to Germany and start university. Lauréne said she would stay in Iran for three weeks then go back to Belgium, she told us she had visited many countries in the Middle East, studied art history and worked for a charity called Street Nurses – she really was very cool and sweet. Ali offered these guys to stay at his place in Tehran and even travel to Isfahan with us after that, Ines and Felix said they had their trip planned out but Lauréne accepted.
I chatted to the crew while Ali was talking to Lauréne about the details, there were two seamen called Deniz and Nuri and the captain. Nuri and I walked around the deck and smoked, he told me he had worked on yachts in Bodrum for years before going back to his hometown Tatvan. There he got married and took this job on ferries cruising across Lake Van. While we were talking, a young Iranian man (Behmen) joined the conversation, he spoke perfect Turkish and told us about the prejudices of Turks against Iranians. Nuri bought us all hot tea and it was very pleasant. As we approached Van, they announced the Iranian train was not there yet and we had to wait in the ferry, so I went to take a nap. When the train came, we went to claim our seats on the Iranian train and Nuri helped us by cutting the line and handing our passports to the Iranian officers. We exchanged numbers and got on the Iranian train.
(Nuri and I phoned each other now and again for about 2 years before I lost track of him. I hope he and his family are all well.)
The train was from the Shah’s time, the decor in compartments and the restaurant made us feel like it was still 1970. Of course Lauréne, Ali and I were in the same compartment, but another guy came as the fourth person to join us and he was a bit weird. We tried to get rid of him but failed, so we went to the restaurant to grab a bite and socialise with other people. We had a dish called Zereshk-Polo, which was saffron rice and chicken on the bone with red berries called Zereshk in Iranian. I enjoyed it but Ali said we could get a much better one in Tehran. I then went to the compartment to take a nap. When I was making my bed on the upper bunk our neighbour was playing with a camera in his hand but I was too tired to care and went straight to bed.
The train reached the Kapıköy border around 3.00am and we got off the train for passport control. There was a problem with my documents and after having a mild panic attack when the officer told me I might have to stay in Turkey (there is absolutely nothing in Kapıköy apart from the passport checkpoint, I was more worried about having to think about going back to Van and home after that than having to cancel travel plans!), it was sorted and we got back on the train. But the train was not moving, and the man that was sharing our space was stinking up the room and by that time openly filming me and Lauréne. We warned him and complained to the train attendants but they didn’t care and neither did the guy – I wistfully thought about train chief Saadettin’s story about how he forced a guy to get off the train in the middle of nowhere because he was disturbing a woman. There was nothing we could do and it was 5:30am so we went to sleep.
When we woke up to the sound of our neighbour’s snoring in the morning, the room smelled like a bear’s den and we saw that we were still in Kapikoy when we looked out the windows. We got out and asked the guys what was going on, and were told that the locomotive got derailed and we were waiting for a tow train to come from Van. We went to have breakfast but they weren’t serving anything, they only agreed to sell us a bit of very thin pita bread (this pita looks like the bubbly wrapping plastic everyone loves to pop and is very common in Iran) and some yoghurt, they wouldn’t even give us tea. The Germans had brought some raspberry jam with them so we had a bit of that. The train finally started moving after three more hours.
At noon they gave everyone a free can of tuna and the same pita bread because of the delay. The can of tuna was hot, I asked Ali why and he said in Iran they always boil cans to kill the germs??? The tuna was very greasy and heavy because it was hot, but I were starving so I devoured it. After lunch Lauréne and I wanted to get some sleep, so Ali kicked the guy out of the compartment, we opened the windows to get some air in and went to sleep. Behmen came around 6.00pm to say goodbye since we were in Tabriz and that was his stop. We slept for a few more hours and went to the restaurant for dinner, had mixed chicken and lamb shish kebab with rice which was cold and chewy but we didn’t really care. We met an Azeri guy called Ekber, who told us he was a customs officer. He said he had a jewellery shop and also brought hosiery from Turkey and sold them to wholesaler in the Grand Bazaar in Tehran. He said there was a lot of money to be made in textiles trade because Iranians loved Turkish brands and there was high demand for Turkish clothes there. We talked for a while, he spoke ill of Persians a bit but was pleasant to talk to otherwise. We went back to our stinking room late at night and went straight to sleep.
Train attendants came knocking at 5.00am and asked for our pillows and duvets. They said we were very close to Tehran so we obliged but then the train stopped in the middle of nowhere and we waited nearly an hour for these guys to finish their morning prayers. We were furious when we realised we were still three hours away from Tehran. Ali said they wanted to finish work well before we got to Tehran, so they could go home as soon as possible. We wanted to get some tea since we couldn’t sleep, but they had a huge pile of duvets in the middle of the restaurant car and were drinking tea themselves at the end. We asked if we could buy some but they said that was the last of it and they couldn’t give us any or make a fresh batch. Ali and I concluded that the concept of customer service just doesn’t exist in the Middle East. He explained to me that even if there weren’t any passengers on that route, the train wouldn’t stop running and these assholes wouldn’t lose their jobs, because they worked for the government and the government didn’t care about any industry but oil and gas.
We finally arrived in Tehran around 8.00am. We took a taxi and went to Ali’s as soon as we got his suitcases, ending the longest and most unforgettable four days of our lives!