The 80 hour train ride from Tehran to Istanbul involved a lot more that just sitting on the train. We had heroin smugglers, drug dealers, long border crossings, 2am ferry rides, and of course getting left behind in the middle of Turkey. The bus takes 40 hours, and despite the very long, slow train I think I would still rather spend twice as long on a train. I was taking the train with Yochim, an Austrian guy I meet in Esfahan who was heading back home after traveling in India and Pakistan. He met me at the train station where we had our passports checked and waited to board the train. We didn’t get going until about an hour and half after the planned time, this was just the start of our extreame delays and very little regard for the train schedule we were given when boarding.The train was great, we boarded in the dark while steam poured out from under the rails and the Iranian staff got everyone settled in their 4 berth compartments, which were decked out in carpets and came with bottled water, tissues and magazines.
It was the longest train ride I had been on since the trans-siberian trains across Russia. I was sharing with a girl around my age called Fatima with her mother, they were going to Istanbul for a holiday, then would take the train back to Tehran. Fatima spoke a little english, her mother nothing but they were really lovely and looked after me the whole trip with food and tea.
I had gotten my ticket with an extra meal voucher that would provide food for the Iranian section of the journey. I wasn’t too sure what to expect but just after we got going I was brought hot soup and bread then a huge place of chicken kebab and rice, with fizzy, dessert and yoghurt. Not bad. This continued all the next day with a lot of food being continuously brought to me. Along with everyone giving you food, I had plenty to eat. One family I was talking to their daughter and their mother insisted on giving me food every half an hour and sending her daughter down to me with tea every so often, once I stopped by their compartment and left with a giant bag of nuts and chocolate, bread, cheese, tea and sugar.
This part of the journey would take us west of Tehran over through the border crossing formalities at Tabriz then into Turkey where the train would leave at us the edge of Van lake, from there we would catch a 5 hour ferry, meeting the Turkish train at the opposite end and continue of to Istanbul. The Turkish train was coming the opposite way, there we met the passengers heading to Tehran on the side of the lake. We spent the day on the Iranian side and got to the border in late afternoon, leaving Iran was easy, just a long stop at Tabriz where they checked everyone’s luggage, a guy from Yochim’s carriage was caught with heroin and disappeared with the police. The 2 guys left in Yochim’s carriage included crazy ashk man, so named because he played this one love (ashk in farsi) song constantly from his phone, driving Yochim mental. He was from a small village and never been outside Iran, he was a bit overwhelmed with all this freedom on the train, the girls in t-shirts, and couldn’t get his head around me and Yochim just being friends.
(the border. Iran….and now Turkey!)
Crossing the Turkish border was a bit of a nightmare, terribly organised and took about 3 hours to get everyone stamped in. We all had to get off the train and there were only 2 queues for the hundreds of people to check through, so we stood in line and finally got everyone through, then they had to check luggage. There was a luggage carriage to check your luggage in so we all huddled outside in the pouring rain as it started to get dark as the let a couple of people inside at a time and went through all their luggage- like unpacking everything and I was probably let off lighter being a tourist. This took another couple of hours. Finally damp and cold we were back on the train officially in Turkey! Headscarves came off, music was turned on and t-shirts came out. Probably 70% of the women took off their headscarves and you could feel that things changed.
Another couple of hours on the train till the ferry, it was about 2am when we had to get off the train, and take this terrible leaky old ferry for 5 hours across the lake in the middle of the night, only uncomfortable seats so very little sleep. Not so bad for us but there were a lot of elderly people who had already spent hours outside in the rain at the border. Finally we arrived on the other side and dragged ourselves into the new Turkish train, much less friendly than the old train, all white and sterile, no friendly staff and no free tea, which was plentiful on the last train. But comfy beds which all that mattered at that point.
I slept most of the morning then found Yochim, who had a new roommate, a slightly crazy guy who took a lot of drugs, but spoke some english which was nice. There were a French-canadian family on the train until Van but from this point we were the only foreigners- and everyone knew who we were. We spoke a lot to anyone who could speak english, everyone on the train was Iranian and so all super friendly. Now in Turkey, alcohol was available in the dinning car so we went and drank Raki and had some over-priced food.
(Yochim drinking Raki in the dining carriage)
We still had 2 full days until Istanbul, spent a lot of time watching the scenery- which was actually pretty amazing, from rocky mountains, rivers and valleys across the border to big wide fields in Turkey I watched a couple of movies on my laptop, hung out in Yochim’s carriage a lot and in the dinning car. We were running low on food, and on money- our small supply of Turkish Lira had almost run out. We had an hour scheduled stop in Ankara, Turkeys capital so planned to go buy some food off the train. At this stage we were running about 6 hours behind schedule and looking like we would arrive in Istanbul at some stupid time in the middle of the night. We pulled into Ankara and jumped off the train, we were told a few different times from people but were sure it would be OK, lots of other people were getting off. We headed out through this market and found a little supermarket, we managed to get a whole lot of food for really cheap and then stopped and grabbed a tasty chicken kebab, the whole time nervously making jokes about the train leaving without us. We had been gone 20mins and thought we better check on the train before we went out again to try buy some beer, back into the station we went along the underground walkway which led to the platforms, we climbed the stairs and….no train. Surely it must have just moved or something? But no, there were no trains anywhere. Shit.
We had small bags with valuables in but all our luggage, and our ride to Istanbul was on the train. Slightly panicking at this point we ran to the main station to the information desk, were they could only speak enough english to say the train was gone. Sorry. We begged and pleaded for some help and were directed outside to anther guy who didn’t speak english. We were freaking out a little bit by now and trying to think of some plan B options. We split up to try find some different people, I went back to the info desk and tried to see if we could catch a train to the next place the train would stop- there was one more station the train would arrive at in 5 hours. I found out there was a fast train heading there that would arrive before our train, but it was full. Sorry. We had to get on that train. I looked upset and pleaded with the guy, (I actually was upset) finally he walked me outside, I found Yochim who had tracked down an English speaking staff member, luckily this guy was super nice and took us with him, got us tickets on the train for only 10 Euros each, we got on just before it left.
We sat on the train, laughing at what a crazy situation. I was still slightly nervous about the whole thing, based on our (proving to be incorrect) schedule, the train would get there 45mins after our fast train…luckily our fast train turns out to be really fast, 250kms per hour, we sped along the country side passing our train after 30mins leaving far behind.
(our picnic with the food and beer that almost got us stuck in Turkey)
We arrived at this random station, and told our train was due to arrive in 2 hours. We brought some beer, sat in the sun in the station and ate our food we had brought. Eventually our train pulled up, the driver waved to us, just about the whole train was at the windows waving to us. They are all so nice, we were sure that the Iranian train would have waited for us. The women in my carriage told us how they had tried to get the train to wait and were all very worried. The station had contacted the train and told them we would be waiting, but they were very stressed out. They all were. Everyone kept coming up to us and asking about it.
In the end it worked out OK, but it was extreamely close, if that train hadn’t been leaving right then, then it would have been a long bus ride to Istanbul!
So the rest of the journey was OK, the last part was painfully slow as we ended up arriving 7 hours late, the last 2 hours just about driving me crazy. Far too long on one train ride. Finally after what felt like a lifetime, we pulled into Istanbul. 1.30am, public transport long finished. Luckily we shared a taxi with the guys from Yochim’s cabin to Sultanahmet, the area where I had a hostel booked, so not too expensive.
Trans-Asian express. Done!