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Rials into rails in Iran (part 1): the Tehran-Shiraz ‘Nour’ sleeper

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.

Tehran Railway Station.

Tehran Railway Station.

Departure and arrival boards at Tehran Railway Station (with the English side unnervingly blank)

Departure and arrival boards at Tehran Railway Station (with the English side reassuringly blank)

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.

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Industrial power.

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Line 5 for the Shiraz-bound ‘Nour’.

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.

Roasted peanuts, muffin, wafer biscuits, juice box, tea...what else do you need?

Roasted peanuts, muffin, wafer biscuits, juice box, tea…what else do you need?

Patterns on the Nour: bedsheets and corridors

Patterns on the Nour: bedsheets and corridors

The Chinese-made sleeper compartment. The bed drops down from above, and between each seat is a drop-down table.

The Chinese-made sleeper compartment. The bed drops down from above, and between each seat is a drop-down table.

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.

Outside Tehran, after a little bit of rain.

Two hours out of Tehran, after a little bit of rain.

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.

Dinner (which was much better than this photo suggests, by which time the chicken leg had been buried under rice)

Dinner (which was much better than this photo suggests, by which time the chicken leg had been buried under rice)

Tehran to Shiraz (via Google Maps)

Tehran to Shiraz (via Google Maps)

Dawn, near Shiraz.

Dawn, near Shiraz.

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.

900 kilometers later, this Siemens locomotive comes to a stop.

900 kilometers later, this Siemens locomotive comes to a stop.

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Disembarking at Shiraz.

***

The iranrail.net website.

The iranrail.net website.

(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.

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24 hours on the Bangkok-Butterworth ‘International Express’

I wonder if Paul Theroux ever saw something like this, I thought to myself.

Beneath my observation point on the mezzanine balcony, a scout and guide troop was assembling itself on the open expanse of Bangkok’s Hualamphong station floor. After some cajoling from the troop leaders, a few densely-packed lines were formed, followed by the instruction to plonk themselves down on the floor en masse.

Sipping at an iced black coffee in an desperate attempt to cope with the stuffy humidity, I watched as the troop then suddenly dispersed to swarm some of the vendors around the station concourse, leaving their backpacks behind in their quasi-orderly lines. A short while later, new snacks and drinks in tow, the troop reassembled in their lines, and were then marched off to their train.

The station floor was visible once again, with no trace remaining of the organized chaos that had occupied that space for the prior quarter of an hour.

Soon enough, it was time for me to take my own leave, to pass under the portrait of King Rama V that gazed over the waiting hall, to board the daily 14.45 ‘International Express’ bound for Butterworth, Malaysia.

 

Scouts and guides on the Bangkok station floor

Scouts and guides on the Bangkok station floor

Bangkok's Hualamphong station

Bangkok’s Hualamphong station

The 14.45 International Express, train #35, ready for departure

The 14.45 International Express, train #35, ready for departure

***

Getting these tickets had been an adventure in itself. I had gone to Hualamphong three days prior upon my arrival in Bangkok, only to be confronted with “sorry, no more available” at the ticket counter. The agent, for dramatic effect, swivelled his computer monitor to show me a somewhat incomprehensible screen of numbers and letters. The important thing though, was that the seats on the train were all zeroed out. “Look!”

This was a little unanticipated. I later realize that I have arrived during a school holiday and was intending to travel at the end of this holiday, and on a Friday, hence the train selling out. Perhaps it was time to abandon the dream, and return to the modern default – to take the plane. While an extra day in Bangkok would normally be no cause for concern, this time was different: I had a family anniversary to get to Penang for on Saturday afternoon.

But back on the Internet, I find that the one direct daily flight between Bangkok and Penang is booked out. Few other options – either exorbitantly priced or involving unprotected air connections – seem to present themselves.

But then The Man in Seat 61 reminds me that the whole Bangkok-Butterworth journey is only undertaken by two carriages. Other parts of the train, and indeed other trains, run and terminate at Hat Yai, a little before the Thai-Malaysian border.

Armed with this sliver of knowledge, the next day I return to the station ticket counter, and ask for a ticket – on the same train – from Bangkok to Hat Yai. Success! At least I will get a thousand kilometres or so out of Bangkok. That train is due into Hat Yai at 6.30am, and I figure – or so the internet tells me – that I can get a bus from Hat Yai to Penang in time for the evening.

Thankfully, all this is moot when, in a final roll of the dice, I arrive at the station an hour or so before the International Express is due to depart, and ask at the ticket counter about this last leg, from Hat Yai to Butterworth. And lo and behold, a cancellation has meant that there is a seat after all. So I walk away from the counter, with a little quiet fistpump to myself, now with two tickets in hand for the same train – from Bangkok to Hat Yai in one carriage, and then Hat Yai to Butterworth in another. A little shuffling around will be required, but it is at least much more reassuring than taking the bus.

I also quietly thank the inefficiencies of the Thai railway, and the fact that it has not adopted airline-style dynamic ticket pricing. The price for this little bit of split-ticketing – which remember, has only fallen into place an hour before departure – is little different to a single through ticket, at 1497 Thai baht.

The platforms at Hualamphong

The platforms at Hualamphong

Last-minute repairs

Last-minute repairs

Carriage for the Bangkok-Hat Yai section

Carriage for the Bangkok-Hat Yai section

***

Bangkok’s Hualamphong station is a terminus, with the line heading northwards. The first hour of this journey thus is a somewhat tortorous crawl through the northern Bangkok suburbs. A multitude of level crossings, combined with the density of Bangkok’s road traffic, make it slow progress indeed. But then soon enough we begin a looping westerly curve, over the Chao Phaya river to finally head southwards.

One of many level crossings leaving Bangkok

One of many level crossings leaving Bangkok

The urban greyness of Bangkok soon gives way to the green of the countryside: rice paddies, palm oil plantations, and patches of jungle and overgrowth. On the train, however, there is a constant stream of people through the carriages and the hiss of the doors sliding open: ticket inspectors, railway police, catering staff, hawkers who hop on and off from station to station. There is even a cleaner, armed with a mop and bucket, whose valiant work is utterly undermined by this parade of people and their trail of shoeprints.

Paddy fields beyond Bangkok

Paddy fields beyond Bangkok

At least these are perhaps the most spacious train seats that I have ever been in. Wide enough to seat two, for the sleeper segment of the journey only one person is allocated to the seat. A giant pillow means that my best efforts at making progress with a book are defeated by dozing off to the clackety-clack sound of wheels on rails. By the time I rouse myself, the sun is beginning to set, for which my seat is on the ‘right’ side of the train to see the glowing ball of orange gently arc towards the horizon. The landscape is also gradually giving way to the hills and mountains in the distance, the Tenasserim Hills that mark the natural border between Thailand and Myanmar silhouetted against the setting sun.

Sunset from the train

Sunset from the train

Seats and cushions

Seats and cushions

View down the train carriage

View down the train carriage

***

Why is it that the more high-tech a train, the worse its catering options for the masses? Eurostar, the TGV…all you ever end up with is a microwaved gloopy panini. By contrast, the best train food I’ve ever had was on a slow Amtrak sleeper from Washington DC to Atlanta, ribs cooked to perfection and the chance company of a member of the US House of Representatives heading back to his district for the weekend. In second place was gloriously unhealthy early lunch on in a Czech dining car from Dresden to Prague, where the cook looked simply delighted to have a customer.

But on this train, the ‘Bogie Restaurant’, as it calls itself, is a site of frenzied activity. For some reason few people seem to choose to eat in the restaurant car. Instead, the car is half occupied by restaurant staff busily plating up meals, and then covering them in clingfilm to be carried through the carriages to the passengers. So I am largely alone for dinner – although it is by no means quiet, as the rattle of the wok competes with the sizzle of frying.

Plated and wrapped meals for delivery down the train

Plated and wrapped meals for delivery down the train

With nine different set meal options, now this is a kitchen worthy of the name! I go for the set with both fried pork and green curry chicken, which also comes with fruits and soup, and in a matter of minutes, fresh, steaming portions are put out in front of me on the checked tablecloth. Nothing is out of a microwave, instead all prepared a few feet away, and it tastes like it.

The Bogie Restaurant in action

The Bogie Restaurant during a lull in action

Dinner options on the Bogie Restaurant

Dinner options on the Bogie Restaurant

My four-course dinner

My four-course dinner

***

Making up the sleeper berths

While contemplating this overnight journey, I had stumbled across a YouTube video of the ‘turn-down service’ in action (again hat-tip to The Man in Seat 61). By the time I return to the sleeper carriages, the attendant is already well into his motions further down the carriage, and I am just in time to watch him at work. It is a supremely coordinated sequence, repeated bunk after bunk: a rhythm of unlatching the upper bunk that swings down from the ceiling, then latching it in; sliding the two seats together to form the lower bunk; retrieving, then laying out the mattress pads stored in the upper bunk; and finally, the fresh sheets that cover the pad and go over the pillow.

The result is a completely flat and relatively soft berth, wide enough to roll 180 degrees, and while the carriage is ‘open’ and not divided into individual cabins, curtains give a pretty complete amount of privacy (although not to sounds). Rather cleverly, there are small shelves built into the carriage ceiling for those of us in upper berths to store bags within reach of the upper berth. So given the relatively early sunset in Thailand, by 9pm most of the carriage has their curtains drawn, and I too, easily drift into sleep.

Ready for sleep

Ready for sleep

***

The train is due into Hat Yai at what seems like an inordinately early 6.30am, although it is light by then. When I wake myself most of the other passengers are also well on their way to gathering their belongings, and the attendant comes by shortly to pack up the berths, and we return to our sitting positions. Unfortunately, however, 6.30am comes and goes and Hat Yai is no-where to be seen. Instead, groggily drifting in and out of sleepiness, even as the scene outside the window continues to brighten. It is not until around 9.30am that Hat Yai Junction finally arrives. I get my bag but insead of joining the exodus of the carriage, I head down to the part of the train continuing on to Butterworth, and find a new set of seat-mates, all equally half-asleep, even as the train inches backwards and forwards in jerky movements as it sheds its extra parts – most of the carriages and the dining car. A short while later, we pull out of Hat Yai, and head for the Malaysian border.

***

One of the more iconic modern examples of contrasting development trajectories is a well-known photo of forests along the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. In a neat, undulating line, the Haitian side is stripped bare, while the Dominican Republic remains densely forested.

'Open tracks'

‘Open tracks’

The change in crossing the Thai-Malaysian border is less stark, but noticeable nonetheless, at least in railway terms. On the Thai side, the tracks are ‘open’ – people happily/dangerously cross wherever they want and fields and buildings skirt right up to the edge of the tracks. Entering into Malaysia, however, the tracks are ‘closed’, fenced off with an strip of land between any development and the tracks. The Malaysian rail network has recently completed a double-tracking and electrification project right up to the border, so suddenly, overhead wires, and freshly-laid track ballast, yet to be weathered by the rain and pollution, also appears alongside the track that we are running on.

At Padang Besar station, immigration formalities for both sides of the border are completed. For the passenger, however, the most noticeable design difference between the Malaysian and Thai networks is that Thai station platforms are ‘at grade’ – level with the track, so the passenger has to climb up onto the train. Malaysian platforms, by contrast, are level with the carriage floor. So when the Thai carriage rolls into the Malaysian station, a stopgap solution is found – some planks that somewhat precariously bridge the gap between the carriage floor that is designed to plunge downwards to track level, and the platform.

Mind the gap – between the steps and top of the platform.

 

***

In his history of efforts at international government, Governing the World, Mark Mazower writes about the rise of ‘scientific internationalism’ at the dawn of the 20th century, when an international bureaucracy (that still remains with us today) began to emerge to attempt to coordinate and unify scientific expertise. The harmonization of technical standards – efforts to speak a common scientific language – was seen as a step to making the world a more peaceful place. The “metric movement swept most of Europe by the 1880s”, Mazower writes, and similar movements of standardization in other spheres were also underway, such as the adoption of the Greenwich meridian for navigation and timekeeping purposes.

The metric system, of course, saw only incomplete adoption – and the railways also saw a similar story, where in different parts of the world, different track gauge widths are used, the result of a mix of geography, technology, and the path dependency of sunk infrastructure costs. Even today, trans-European through train travel (i.e. the Paris-Moscow Express) includes a technical stop at Brest on the Belarussian border for carriages to be raised and bogies replaced, in order to continue the journey onto Moscow on wider Russian-gauge track than the European standard.

For my journey, therefore, the fact that the International Express chugs smoothly over the Thai-Malaysian border is also a quietly remarkable non-event. With both countries having adopted the same railway standard of a 1,000m gauge, the diesel-powered train is interoperable across the border, with only a change of locomotive from the State Railway of Thailand to Keretapi Tanah Melayu, the Malaysian rail operator.

View out of the back of the train at Padang Besar (while stationary). Note the overhead wires for electric trains.

***

From Bangkok to Butterworth (on Google Maps)

The ‘Express’ is a somewhat sad two carriages when it gets into Malaysia, trundling southwards for the final couple of hours from Padang Besar to Butterworth. As if to amplify the reduced stature of this train, the air conditioning decides to pack in for most of the remaining time on Malaysian tracks.

By the time we pull into Butterworth, some two hours behind schedule just before 3pm, it has been 24 hours since leaving Bangkok, the longest I’ve spent on a train. I once spent an almost similar amount of time – I think it was closer to 18 hours – on a Shosholoza Meyl sleeper from Durban to Johannesburg, and more recently, the 12 hours of a daytime train on the Overland from Adelaide to Melbourne. (I’m not complaining – bring on the Trans-Siberian!).

One of the trendy images that floats around twitter is a map of isochronic distances from London in the early 20th century, illustrating travel time, rather than absolute distance. As I disembark, It feels as if I have just walked out of the era of those maps, where travel is measured in days rather than hours.

It is, after all, a journey covering well over 1,100km, a whole day on the rails compared to the sub-2 hour flight time that Google Maps seems to prefer. One of The Economist’s recent book reviews, of a airline pilot’s memoirs, speaks of the ‘place lag’ somewhat endemic to air travel, “the inability of our deep old sense of place to keep up with our aeroplanes”.

There’s none of that on this trip.

Butterworth station

The Malaysian KTM locomotive

The Malaysian KTM locomotive

***

A shuttle minivan takes disembarking passengers up to the nearby ferry terminal – and after some fumbling with change for the antiquated turnstiles, I am on the ferry across to Penang island. The haze limits visibility, but the giant hulking outline of a Star Cruises liner is visible in the distance, as are a range of other container ships: one Marshall Islands-flagged vessel has the same orange submarine-like emergency lifeboat seen in Captain Phillips, which seems somewhat incongrous in the density of the Penang harbour. But while the Horn of Somalia is on the other side of the Indian Ocean, pirates are also not unknown in the Straits of Malacca.

A view from the Butterworth ferry to Penang island

A view from the Butterworth ferry to Penang island

The ferry journey – a service that has been the subject of much recent debate between the state and federal governments, but seems to function adequately today – is just ten minutes or so before disembarking.

I make it in time for the family anniversary, where I am asked, somewhat incredulously: “You came by train?”

“Yes, I did.”

The State Railway of Thailand insignia

The State Railway of Thailand insignia

All images (except the Google Maps screenshot) by Nick Chan. Please do not reproduce without credit. 

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