This month UK-based rail operator Golden Eagle Trains will set off with the first private train into Iran. Tickets for this epic luxury rail journey apparently sold out very quickly, despite the minimum price tag of nearly £9000 and they’re already booking up for 2015.
Of course it’s quite possible to arrange your own train journey to the region for a fraction of that cost, as Tom Stapleton, of travel start-up Travel Local, shows with this latest guest post on his own rail trip to Tehran back in 2008. Here’s his account of the journey.
I’d been intrigued by Iran for a while before coming across the London to Tehran pages on seat61.com, describing an epic sounding rail adventure taking in Cologne, Vienna, Belgrade and Istanbul. That persuaded me to take the plunge, and after many evenings figuring out how to buy the tickets, my brother and I embarked on the first leg of our journey from St Pancras.
There was just enough time in Cologne to climb the spire of the city’s Gothic masterpiece of a Cathedral. In Vienna timings only allowed for a coffee in the station before we continued to Belgrade – a youthful city with friendly, international locals where we spent a couple of nights. A sleeper train later and we were in Istanbul, exploring the many layers of history, trying to like Raki and enjoying the colour of one of the world’s most convivial cities.
The final three day leg of the journey – the Istanbul to Tehran ‘Trans Asia’ Express – started with a ferry ride across the Bosphorous to Haydarpasa railway station. Located on the Asian side of Istanbul, the station is a grand, classical building, and one of the busiest in Asia (or was – it’s currently closed for a major refurbishment).
On board, we met our fellow passengers. There were a handful of other travellers, but the majority were Iranians returning home from holidays or work in Turkey. Shortly after departing, an Iranian gentleman from our neighbouring compartment invited us in, and with a conspiratorial grin invited us to join him and his wife for some sweet red wine, along with pistachios and other snacks. We had no language in common, but whiled away a pleasant hour or so learning a few words of Persian. Heading to the buffet car, the party atmosphere continued, with much singing and a little dancing. As the train hurtled eastwards, women took their last opportunity to be without the Hijab, and men had a few last sips of beer, wine or whisky – all forbidden in Iran.
Waking the following morning, we felt a long way from St Pancras. Dry, gently undulating scenery, small villages and towns with donkey carts waiting at the level crossings, and the preponderance of minarets rather than church spires: all told us that this was not Europe. The further east we got, the more the train slowed as the condition of the track became more and more rickety. As we approached the eastern most Kurdish provinces, soldiers got on board, supposedly to protect us from Kurdish separatists. They stayed with us all the way to Tatvan, on the shores of Lake Van.
Seventy four miles across, the lake is more of a sea and marks the end of the railway. Our luggage was loaded into a luggage car, and we boarded a ferry to take us across to Van on the other side – a five hour journey that is reportedly very scenic. Unfortunately the train was five hours behind schedule, so we were unable to verify this…
Waiting for us the other side was an Iranian train to complete our journey to Tehran. A little shabbier than the Turkish train, the party atmosphere evaporated as we crossed the border and the hijabs came on. After a few hours sleep, we arrived at the first major city, Tabriz. A prolonged stop of an hour or so presented the opportunity to change some money. I handed across a couple of crisp fifty dollar bills and received back 2.7 million Iranian rials – a carrier bag full of banknotes that made us feel rich beyond our wildest dreams until we came to actually buy things.
We’d departed Istanbul bang on time, but the further east we got, the more time we seemed to lose. We finally limped into Tehran a mere 12 hours late – but what’s 12 hours when you’re practically crossing a continent?
At the time I was glad to be getting off the train, but looking back, this is a journey I remember with great fondness – with the world getting ever smaller, it truly felt like an adventure.
London to Iran by train journey cost
Tom took the journey in 2008, but the following are current costs, as of October 2014.
About the Author
A life long train lover, Tom is the co-founder of start-up TravelLocal.com. TravelLocal connects travellers to locally owned travel companies in your destination who specialise in providing private, bespoke trips. For instance, if you’re travelling to India, TravelLocal makes it safe and easy to book with an Indian travel company, saving you money and getting you a better, more authentic trip. Call 01865 242 709 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more or to start planning a trip.