Everywhere you go in Iran, it seems, Imam Khomeini is there. A portrait of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary Supreme Leader occupies rial banknotes, murals of his unsmiling face adorn the sides of buildings, and in hotels and public buildings his image hovers over you in the background. So too on approaching Tehran’s railway station, where having exited the Rahahan metro stop, Imam Khomeini (alongside current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) looms over the square and flanks the double doors that lead into the station.
After a couple of days in Tehran, I had arrived to take the 15-hour ‘Nour’ sleeper service from the hustle-and-bustle of Iran’s capital to its Shiraz, one of its historical capitals, in Iran’s southwest (see ticket booking details at the bottom of the post). Foreign travellers are required to check in at a passport counter to the left of the ticket checkpoint, where one’s visa and entry stamp are scrutinised and recorded – a privilege accorded to train travel, rather than the intercity coaches. A cursory mark is made on the ticket, and I am allowed to proceed through the checkpoint and its QR scanner. In the next hall a rather colourful mural in an otherwise functional environment exudes industrial might and power: wheels, tracks, locomotives, wrapped in the Iranian flag with Tehran’s iconic Azadi Tower as its backdrop.
A passage leads out to the gantry that runs above the tracks, and then it is down to the platforms where staff check, check and check again tickets. On the train, manufactured in 2011 by the Changchun Railway Vehicles Co. of China, I find my way to the compartment, and what follows is a revelation. This is no tired European CityNightLine couchette, but a compartment with wide seats, each with its own upholstered armrests. In this four-berth that I travel on, what would otherwise be the middle seat becomes a fold-down table that is laden with a range of packeted snacks and a teacup – my first encounter with what would be a recurring sight of snack packs during other train and bus trips in Iran.
A rather classy touch is the patterned carpet a la a Persian rug that lines the corridor and compartment floor, although the purple-and-cream design of the bedsheet and pillowcases, less so. All for the grand price of 845,000 Iranian rials (about €24). The frequency of passenger services leaves something to be desired – there is just the one overnight train from Tehran to Shiraz (although a new, ‘luxury’ train, the ‘Fadak’, now also plies this route on alternate days) – but there can be few complaints about their affordability (for the foreign visitor) and comfort.
At precisely 4.20pm, a whistle blew and the train began to slowly make its way out of Tehran. The main compartment windows of the train are lightly tinted (I suppose especially necessary for the bright glare of the desert sands), but it has the effect of turning what is already an orange-and-red colour palette of stunning landscape even oranger and redder. The carriage guard comes around with a flask of hot water to fill up the teacup, and soon I am sipping away on a cup of black tea as the desert and mountains zip by. My companions for this journey, taking up two of the other seats, leaving one unoccupied, were a young husband and wife on their way home to Shiraz, one of whom spoke enough English to have a decent conversation, and would serve as my de facto translator for the rest of the journey. Like a good many other Iranians I came across, they were somewhat mystified by the idea of solo travel in a foreign land (I must come back and visit again when I get married, I was often told).
A flatscreen TV in the compartment (together with built-in audio, as well as headphone ports) plays a movie about a mute boy who is bullied a little and tries to run away from his family. It is always a pleasant surprise when you can understand enough of a movie in a foreign language, simply through the gestures and physical movement – so much so that when this exact movie appeared a week later on a coach between Esfahan and Yazd, I happily watched all of it again.
Dinner takes place in the restaurant car. I’m not offered a huge range of options: ‘chicken and rice’ or ‘chicken pieces and rice’, but I suspect that Farsi speakers can explore the full capabilities of the kitchen. In any case, the extravagantly sized grilled chicken leg that appears before me is plenty to fill me up, washed down with a cup of doogh, the sour-and-salty yoghurt drink that I rather came to enjoy. 125,000 rials (or about €3.60 later), it is getting late and nearly time for bed. Lying in the darkness, with only the universal sound of Candy Crush from one of my new friends’ phone softly beeping away, my ears are gently popping too as the train climbs into and across the Zagros mountain range that slices across Iran’s southwest.
A little before 6.30am, knocks on the door from the guard serve as the wake-up call – just in time too, to greet the orange sky of the dawn that once again turns the desert grassland alight. And a few minutes after 7am, bang on schedule, the train grinds to a halt at the Shiraz railway terminus, completing its 900km+ journey from Tehran. This station is some distance out of the town, but a flood of yellow taxis await. My newfound friends give me a lift into the suburbs, where we part ways and I hop into a different taxi into the city centre proper. (I think a taxi from the railway station will be in the range of €13, or 450,000 rials). One of the clichés of travel can sometimes be about how friendly locals are to visitors, but I have never thought it to be true-er than in my two weeks in Iran. They generously offer to meet me later in the evening to show me around a little around their hometown, an offer which I am happy to take up – but that is a story for another time.
(Planning note: this ticket was booked through iranrail.net, which was a very straightforward process, with payment via PayPal. At time of booking and writing, TripAdvisor comments were somewhat mixed on their efficiency and delivery (there is also a clause, which is slightly unnerving to the traveller used to some modicum of certainty in making long-distance travel plans, in their t&c’s about defining ‘on time’ ticket delivery as anytime up to three hours before departure, failing which a refund is made). When I hadn’t received the pdf ticket after a week, I wrote to them via their website. Their response via SMS, however, was very quick in saying that there had been some issues with sending tickets to hotmail addresses, and once I provided a different email address I received the correct ticket within the hour. They do charge a €6 service fee, which seems entirely reasonable and I would have no reservations about making advance bookings through them, bearing in mind a little patience).
Part 2, a report of the Kashan-Tehran ‘Pardis’ fast train, as well as some notes on the Tehran Metro, will follow in a week. See a previous train trip report, 24 hours on the Bangkok-Butterworth International Express. All photos (except the Google Maps and iranrail.net screenshots) by Nick Chan.