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Damascus – Tehran train: part 1

September 20, 2008

16/09/08

Despite our disorganization and conflicting information concerning visa fees and sleeper-car availability, we managed to nab 5 beds on the Damascus-Tehran train the morning of its departure. Contrary to the information we found on the internet, the tickets were 64 Euros or 4,700 Syrian pounds each, some $106. After having registered our passport information and written out our tickets (nothing in the Syrian transport system is computerized, so the whole process takes ages), we attempted to pay with dollars. The man initially refused, and then, after adding $3 to the price of each ticket, accepted.

 

            Lesson 1: if you want to get this train from Damascus, try to pay in Syrian pounds.

 

            The train is plush. Much more elaborate than what J and I were used to taking in China,  the sleeper cabins each have two bunk-beds, a nice big window and a sink. And they come in pairs with a connecting door in between, which is fun because if you know the person in the room next  to you, with the door open you get a much more spacious area to chill in.

 

            The food, however, will receive a much less favourable review. We had read somewhere that there was no food on the trains, so we took some supplies with us (bread, Kiri cheese, dried figs and apricots, mixed nuts), and thank Allah we did. Not because meals aren’t provided. They are, but they leave much to be desired, especially for the vegetarians among us.

 

            Breakfast the first morning was hopeful: bread, cheese triangles, apricot jam, biscuits, tea and coffee. Good start.

 

            Lunch, however, was significantly disappointing. The contents were the same as breakfast, with the cheese replaced by a tin of tuna. And dinner followed the same pattern, except with a tin of processed meat replacing the tuna.

 

            Lesson 2: Bring sufficient food supplies, especially if there are veggies among you (fresh fruit and veg are very much missed!)

 

            Otherwise, our travel companions are very pleasant. Many of the Iranian men speak Arabic because they are either from south-western Iran or they work in the oil industry, and therefore spend most time in the Arab Gulf countries. They are very talkative, eager to chat bout anything from pre-revolutionary Iranian history and literature, to the difficulties of working away from home and family, to reminding the men in the group to ”veil their women” when we cross into Iran, to proclaiming their admiration for Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah. In a conversation with J, one man said that he loved Nasrallah more than his own children…

 

            However, we were indicated by several people back in Lebanon to not expect too favourable reactions from Iranians with regard to Lebanon, and Hizbullah in particular, mostly because there is a suspicion among many Iranians that their taxes are going towards arming Hizbullah instead of being invested in national infrastructure and development… Obviously, like all overtly political discussions, it will not be a topic that we will seek out explicitly, but will probably come about as a result of us mentioning that we have all come from Beirut, where 4/5 of us have been living for the past year. Treading lightly all the while…

 

            My affection for trains that blossomed during last year’s trans-China escapade has been rekindled in the 24 hours since we’ve embarked. Trains are both literally and metaphorically more grounded than flying, which means that they are simultaneously a less anxious form of transport (you dont have that sensation of fearing a 10km death drop at every bump of turbulence) and they enable you to really be aware of the distance being covered, and the various characteristics of different parts of each country crossed. I love witnessing the change of scenery, which has so far taken us from barren desert between Damascus and Aleppo, through lush, red-dirt olive groves along the Syrian-Turkish border, to the yellow hills and man-made lakes of west Kurdistan; lakes which are a big source of geopolitical tension between Turkey and Syria because they block most of the water from the rivers that flow southwards from the Black Sea and keep it on the Turkish side of the border.

 

            (Incidentally, the Brits among us only had to pay $20 each to enter Turkey, not the $150 cited to us in Damascus… But us French nationals still got in for free, yay!)

 

            As we move eastwards deeper into Kurdistsan, the Turkish police on the train are getting visibly more antsy. In the dining carriage, they started by merely gossiping about the as yet unveiled women among us and sneaking furtive snapshots with their camera phones. Then all of a sudden, one of them stood up and started distributing mini machine guns (Uzis?) and bullets and cockily loaded their tools of death. Are there PKK rebels on the radar?

 

*          *          *

 

            There is a 40 something German woman in the room next to Di and Caro who is traveling alone. Her name is Cordela. This morning at breakfast, she said that the men on the train keep asking her where her husband is. She had replied that he was at home, so the inevitable question followed as to why he wasn’t accompanying her, and she made some excuse. Di had the great idea that she should tell people she was a widow, but that would probably invite more approaches than quell them.

 

            Most of my travels have been effectuated in a group or in a couple, and I have often been grateful for the security that such company offers. In my experience of living and traveling in Arab countries, where inquiries about a woman’s marital status are usually third in line after those of name and nationality, stating that one is married is a good way of avoiding both unwanted male interest and marriage proposals in the name of acquiring a European passport. I do, therefore, think that it is more hassle to travel as a single woman.

 

            Moreover, I have always enjoyed traveling more when there was an element of sharing in the process of discovery; the idea that one is forming some sort of communal memory that weaves itself into platonic and romantic relationships. Obviously, all individuals involved will perceive and therefore remember differently, it is naïve to think that there will be a single narrative for any given event. And unfamiliar places and strenuous circumstances can strain already-existing friendships. Nevertheless, I do find that shared travel strengthens relationships, through both hardship and enjoyment, and create invaluable, long-lasting memories.

 

            Despite these impressions, I look at the way that Cordela’s status of a single female actually renders her more accessible to the Iranian women on the train than the women in our group. At one point she had over 10 women crowded into her room, communicating is fragments of different language and through a Farsi phrasebook. I haven’t conversed with any women on this train yet. The fact that we are a group does make us more insular, more liable to be content with ourselves, in our own cabins/rooms/company, and ultimately less likely to spend time with others or forge new friendships.

 

            I realise that that is one of the big perks of traveling alone, that it makes one more accessible to those around. And i suppose that is the danger of traveling in a group, that the sense of self-sufficiency and comfort yields a degree of complacency, which restricts the extent to which the traveling experience is one of challenge and discovery. traveling in a group could just come to be transferring one’s ordinariness onto other locations, without really engaging in the difference of those places. But then again, to suppose that one can ever completely escape from those many things that constitute the self is equally naive, and there is no guarantee that being alone makes one lose ones ties to their comfort zone. Solitude can also yield a clinging to a comfort-zone, or even introversion.

 

            I think, therefore, that the challenge of exposing oneself to or engaging with the otherness that travel entails is always present, regardless of companionship. I do, however, think that it requires more effort when in a group. An easy idea to formulate, but no doubt more difficult in practice; and it remains to be seen to what extent we, both as individuals and the sum of our parts, can do so.

 

            (and then, emerging from my room into the corridor, I realize that the whole time that Ive been writing, Di and Caro have been chatting with an Iranian man and his Lebanese wife in their room, while James has been learning Farsi with another man… So maybe, in fact, I should spend less time working on my personal narrative and more time putting myself out there).

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7 comments

  1. salaam, i am from malaysia and will be going to tehran this november. i heard about the train from tehran to damscus, i plan to travel to damascus by this means. but, couldn’t really find any helpful website on the net, until i found years. i am so thankful. however, i really hope that you can reply and write to my email, i have so many questions to ask..i really appreciate it if you can. thank you so much:)


  2. I’m really glad you found this useful, because, like you, the info we found on the net was insufficient. So the more others can benefit from our experience, the better…

    If you have any specific questions, don’t hesitate to email me:

    lilithhope@live.com

    I’ll reply as soon as possible.

    Cheers.


  3. Hi.
    Thanks alot for sharing this. Ive been curious about this trip for a long time since i first heard of it.
    When i travel to lebanon im going to go on this trip, but how is the timetable from damascus? Cause dont want to go there from Beirut and be stuck for a week or so…

    Many regards Yonis


  4. Hi Yonis,

    The train leaves from Damascus once a week, on Mondays, and arrives in Tehran on Wednesday night.

    We found it almost impossible to book the tickets in advance, either by phone and even going to Damascus train station a few weeks before. So I’d recommend going to the station on the Saturday/Sunday before you plan to travel to see if you can get a ticket. But even if you can’t, we managed to get 5 tickets on the Monday morning an hour before the train left, so it could be possible to do it last-minute, but i wouldnt take the risk…

    Do leave yourself enough time in Damascus to enjoy it, it is a spell-binding city… And are you contemplating visiting other parts of Syria as well? I would definately recommend Aleppo, only a few hours train to the north of Damascus. And the coast is cool as well, full of Crusader castles and quiet fishing villages to explore. If you have the time to, i’d say don’t miss it.

    Either way, the train journey is fantastic, and I hope you enjoy it.

    Cheers,

    lilith


  5. Hi..

    Thanks alot! , hope this timetable doesnt change until the summer.
    I thought about staying for several days in Syria and might visit other places than damascus, but I guess me and my friends have to decide together, thanks for the tips. . .
    What i look forward the most however is the scenery along the route and Iran. What did you think about Iran?
    Your jouney to China is also very fascinating.

    Regards Yonis


  6. Hi there,

    Great read, informative and fun. I’m going to be doing the Tehran to Damascus route in September as part of my journey to Lebanon. Was wondering if you were aware what day the train leaves Tehran? The internet has NO information on this at all! Well, not that I can find : )


    • Gavin,

      The timetable can be found here:

      http://www.tcdd.gov.tr/tcdding/ortadogu_ing.htm

      By the way, this is a great blog! I’m hoping to travel from Damascus to Tehran, and then from Tehran to Istanbul on the train so it’s very informative. I just wish it was easier to pre-book tickets from Damascus-Tehran!



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