Damascus – Tehran train: part II

September 20, 2008

17/09/08, 5 pm Damascus – Tehran Train; Tabriz – Tehran leg

56 hours into this increasingly epic journey. The second day was more hectic than the first, with us having to change from the Turkish train onto a ferry across Lake Van, and then onto an Iranian train on the other side. The crossing itself was pleasant enough, although it took place at night and we therefore didn’t have the chance to see the lake and its surroundings by daylight, something that we had all been looking forward to.

On board the ferry, our group of 5, now 6 with our German companion Cordela, received much attention from other passengers who had not been in our carriage and who we had not met yet. J was eager to start conversations in order to practice his newly-learned Farsi (courtesy of the Lonely Planet Farsi phrasebook and some preliminary exchanges with some young boys in our carriage). And then there was the whole taking photographs beside young girls and groups of middle-aged women palaver, which I often find embarrassing but for some reason was more comfortable with this time. Perhaps because their eagerness and curiosity regarding our presence and intent seemed so genuine, so without ulterior motive (i have probably been poisoned by my experiences in Egypt with regard to people flattering your foreignness and then requesting something). The hospitality from our fellow Iranian passengers was honest and warm, and even though we were not yet on Iranian soil, it was a welcome initial exposure to our destination country.

One significant plus to the boat journey was the existence of a panini machine in the snack shop, thanks to which we all indulged in out first hot meal for nearly two days… Who would think that a semi-stale cheese and ketchup toasted sandwich could ever be celebrated as a gourmet meal? Well, with out collective aversion to tinned processed meat and consequently rumbling tummies, it was.

The crossing took about 5 hours, and we arrived in the town of Van at about 3am. All of us shuffled with heavy eyelids to our new train, which was more rudimentary than our former vehicle. We were also told by our new conductor that a copy of our ticket was missing, and fined us $2 each, which i have decided is a scam, for foreigners because, funnily enough, it as only us and Cordelia that were missing the elusive white paper… Hence:

Lesson 3: If purchasing the ticket from Damascus, make sure that there are TWO bits of paper contained in the ticket: a white one and a yellow one.

After managing about an hour’s sleep, we arrived at the Turkish-Iranian border. On the Turkish side, we had to get out and queue for the departure stamp. The sky was just showing signs of daylight and it was quite cold. Luckily, the women’s line was shorter than the men’s, so we finished beforehand, and managed to climb back into bed. The Iranian visa process was much easier, with officials getting on the train and registering passports while it was moving, instead of us having to get off and wait at the border.

The remainder of the journey was punctuated by the minor drama of Di suffering from bouts of nausea and diarrhea, most often while the train was stopped at stations and the doors to the toilets were locked, which happened quite often (the train spent almost as much time in stations as it did on the road, which is why our journey has already well exceeded the estimated 55 hours it was supposed to take). At such moments, no amount of begging or tears could make the conductors unlock the door. One particularly helpful chap suggested that she release her vomit into the small space on either side of the metal pieces that link the carriages together… Di said she was more likely to do it in the middle of the dining carriage as retribution for their dogmatic and uncompassionate attitudes. Luckily, she managed to keep it all under control, and no such punishment was necessary…

18/09/08, 3 a.m. Tehran

After 67 hours, two trains, one boat, 2350 km, and an innumerable amount of Kiri and bread sandwiches, we have FINALLY arrived In Tehran.

The scene at the train station was a memorable one: while the passengers awaited their luggage, they bade farewell to the new friends that they had made on the journey. I watched as Minou, one of the girls that we had taken photographs with on the boat, did the rounds to about 80% of the women in he room and gave them each three kisses and a hug as they exchanges parting words. I thought that this was the first time that I had seen such warmth: where else had i witnessed a group of people who had shared public transport leave as friends? Where else had the shift between stranger and acquaintance occurred with such seemingly pleasurable eagerness? Nowhere else.

We as well left that train having ‘made friends’. Most began relatively harmlessly, but as the journey progressed, some exaggerated enthusiasms came to translate into irritable omnipresences, manifested in the collapse of public/private space, as our cabins because veritable social hubs, and the tendency of people to not take hints after an hour of chatting, we were ready for a break (feigning sleep became our means of escape). One man from Abadan (near Iraqi border) and elderly mother were enjoyable until, after having insisted that she need to see a doctor in Tabriz, the Hajji attempted to massage Di’s upset stomach. On the other hand, when it became clear that we would be arriving in the capital at the wee hours of the morning, another man, Youssef the sailor, was so kind as to call various hotels for us and ask for prices. he eventually reserved us rooms and told the management to be expecting us round 3 am. He also negotiated a taxi for us from the train station to the hotel, and although we still probably paid slightly more than normal, I’m sure that it was less than had we been alone.

The sky is lightening, sleep beckons, and tomorrow the bazaar awaits…



  1. Very interesting to read.
    How was the beds in the train and the journey in general?

    Too bad you didnt upload some pictures.

  2. Hi,

    I found your blog on one of my endless Google searches in preparation for my trip to Syria & Iran. Glad to have found it because you part1 & 2 entry on the train journey from Damascus to Tehran has been a fascinating read. My friend and I are planning to do that route in July. I was curious to know how long you get to spend at the different towns/villages en route to Tehran – looking at the timetable it doesn’t look as if there is ample time to appreciate these stops. Our thinking behind taking the train was mainly to keep cost low, but given that the journey takes three days it may not be worth it. I am completely a novice to the region and was wondering whether you new of any cheap airlines that fly from Damascus to Tehran. So far my searches for them are proving to be useless.

    Anyway, thank you very much for keeping the blog – it has provided me with some insightful and practical information.



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