Posts Tagged ‘train’

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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…

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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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last minute packing, as always…

September 13, 2008

My flight leaves from Nice airport at 3pm. It’s now 1 and i still havent packed my bag. Predictable.

The initial ‘leg’ of this journey is infact a false one: it takes me from Nice (where i’ve been for the last 10 days visiting my mum and stepdad) back to Beirut, from where the real games begin. However, it is nonetheless stressful, and will take over 12 hours and 2 stop overs (Paris and Budapest)…

I should arrive there at 4am tomorrow (Sunday). Just enough time for me to go to my friend’s house, take a quick nap, shower, and pick up my big backpack, before heading out to Damascus round noon with J and Caro.

In Damascus, we will meet up with Di and Jeevs, who have gone on ahead of us in order to buy the train tickets to Tehran. Our train is scheduled to leave at 8am on Monday morning. The train is 2350 km long, and taks over 50 hours.

Route: From Damascus, it takes us north into Aleppo, and then further up into Turkey. From there we turn east and run along into Kurdistan, till we reach lake Van. I think then we have to take a shotr ferry. Then back on the train till the Iranian border, where we cross at Razi. And then we descend south-easterly into Tehran.

For a detailed timetable, see here.

So that’s the first stage… Quite hectic, but that only increases the excitement.