Journey to Tehran on the Trans-Asian Express

The power of the interwebs is an amazing thing, and makes me a very lucky gal. Because of some astute Twitter spotting by my friend Alistair Gill at 52NYR, he was able to hook me up with this truly one of a kind guest post by the imminently interesting Niall Doherty, who is traveling round the world without flying. Yup, I bolded that statement for a reason. He has been generous enough to share with us his leg from Turkey to Iran, pretty amazing stuff, and if you want to see more pictures from Iran or more about his trip, check out his site Disrupting the Rabblement.

Take it away, Niall:

Photo by nomenklatura (Flickr) Trans-Asian Express

The Trans-Asian Express is a train service that runs from Ankara in Turkey to Tehran in Iran. Many travelers will start out in Istanbul and make their way from there to Ankara. However, as of February 2012, the train line between Istanbul and Ankara is closed as they upgrade it to a high speed link. The upgrade is expected to take approximately two years. In the meantime, you can easily catch a bus to Ankrara from Istanbul’s giant Autogar station. No need to book in advance; there are many bus companies operating out of the station and a ride to Ankara leaves literally every 30 minutes or less, 24 hours a day.

From Ankara, the Trans-Asian Express leaves every Wednesday morning at 10:25 from the main train station (located a 10-minute walk from the Maltepe metro stop). You’ll want to get your train ticket in advance to guarantee a spot. I simply went to the station the day before and bought my ticket then and there. The three people in the sales office had just enough English to answer all my questions. I’d advise anyone hoping to take this trip during peak months (it was quiet for me in late-February) to make a reservation more than 24 hours in advance, just to be safe. You may be able to book online, but I haven’t been able to confirm that.

The train left Ankara promptly and I found myself assigned to a 4-bed cabin with a friendly young Iranian man. At the first stop a couple of hours later we were joined by two older Iranian gents, one of whom spoke good English. The cabin was a little cramped for four people while seated, but not too bad. There was a restaurant car with a decent menu. Being vegetarian however, I was limited to salads and what I believed to be lentil soup. The prices were reasonable: 4 Turkish Lira for soup with bread rolls, and about 9 TL for a full meal (dinner or breakfast). Cash only. Not the best food I’ve ever had, but sufficiently tasty and nutritious for the adventurous traveler.

The train had a Western-style toilet at both ends of each carriage, but water seemed scarce, just a trickle from the sinks. Only one power outlet was available per cabin, and in quite an awkward position above the door. No wifi or Internet access available, but of course.

The cabin was quite comfortable once the beds were folded out. I liked that there was still plenty of head room for sitting once the top bunks were lowered, meaning not everyone had to call it a night at the same time. The bedding was clean and comfortable.

Having left on Wednesday morning, we weren’t due to reach Tehran until Friday evening, a 56-hour ride in total.

On Thursday evening the train was held up for a couple of hours in the middle of nowhere due to snow on the tracks. We had to wait for it to be cleared. I was actually impressed that this was the only time we were held up by the snow, as we could see it reaching the roofs of some houses as we made our way through the countryside. I hadn’t expected such extreme weather in Turkey, but obviously they’re well prepared for it given how the tracks were mostly kept clear. All that snow also added to the beauty of the mountainous landscape.

Photo: mia! (Flickr) Signage on Trans Asian Express

Later that same evening we arrived at Lake Van. The plan was to transfer to a ferry and cross the lake that way, then hop on an Iranian train at the other side. As we were getting off the train and onto the ferry, I was surprised to see that the tracks had led onto the boat and the baggage car would be making the trip across the water with us.

The ferry crossing took approximately six hours. It was quite an old boat (“It was very modern sixty years ago,” joked one Iranian passenger), but cozy enough. Food was offered on board. I got a toasted cheese sandwich which was halfway decent.

Our main host on the ferry was offering to change currency for anyone in need. Wanting to get rid of my last €5, I took him up on the offer and got back two 50k Iranian Rial notes. Other passengers later informed me that it wasn’t smart to exchange currency on the boat, but according to my later calculations I got a pretty good deal.

Once across the water we spent twenty minutes in a waiting room at the ferry station until the Iranian train arrived to pick us up, and it was attached to the baggage car.

At first glance, the Iranian train was an upgrade. The cabins were more roomy and comfortable, with two better-placed power outlets in each. However, the cabin heater seemed to have a mind of its own, and we had to make do with a squat toilet. Also, the menu in the restaurant car was very limited, and a touch more expensive. My choice was either rice and chicken, or rice and lamb. Thankfully, the staff were generally very friendly and one chap would later invite me to his cabin to share a fantastic meat-less dish he’d whipped up.

By the time we were done eating, it was past midnight and we were just arriving at the border between Turkey and Iran. First we all had to get off the train and walk into a building where everyone lined up and received an exit stamp from Turkey. Then it was back on the train, a few minutes of forward motion, then more waiting until the Iranian passport control came aboard to make sure evreyone was on the up and up. They were quite friendly and everything ran smooth, albeit slow. In total, it took us about two hours to get across the border. Unfortunate that it was in the middle of the night, too. But I shouldn’t complain, since the whole affair left me awake and looking out the window at the clear dawn, sun rising over tremendous snow-capped Iranian mountains. A sight I won’t soon forget.

I spent Friday mostly napping, reading and chatting with other passengers. Everyone was friendly, and many Iranians eager to communicate even when all they had were a few words of broken English. I should note that the only currency accepted in the restaurant car was Iranian Rials. Upon learning this I was very glad that I’d exchanged that €5 earlier, as other than that I only carried with me US Dollars.

Photo: Niall Doherty - Azadi Tower, Tehran

We arrived in Tehran after midnight, six or so hours behind schedule, but not so bad considering the weather we’d had to pass through. I’d later learn though that the train is notorious for never arriving on time; I was told it’s always at least three hours late.

After helping some folks with their luggage, I exited the main station with one of the elderly Iranian gentlemen I’d been sharing my cabin with. He’d kindly offered to help find me a taxi to my hotel and negotiate a fair price. And I was extremely glad he did, as the taxi drivers were on us like vultures as soon as we stepped out. My new friend was going the same way so we split the fare. I ended up paying only 20,000 Rials (less than two US dollars).

The hotel I’d booked into was called the Firouzeh, located quite close to Imam Kohmeini Square. They had a chap on night duty so it was no problem to check in so late. I got a private room with a shower, nothing fancy, but reasonably priced. The free breakfast the next morning didn’t last long.

If I was to ever do this trip over again…

  • Being vegetarian, I’d bring more food with me. Non-veggies would be wise to bring both Turkish and Iranian currencies so they can feast in the restaurant car.
  • I would have brought more cash with me, as I discovered no Iranian ATM would accept my Irish or American debit cards, and it was impossible to pay for anything by credit card. All I had was US$100, which was easy to swap for Iranian currency at a good rate at one of the many exchange shops near Ferdosi Square.

Niall Doherty is the chief rabble rouser over at Disrupting the Rabblement, where he encourages you to think for yourself, live your dreams, and piss off zombies. He was last seen near Dubai, the latest stop on his 4-year trip around the world without flying.

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  • Durky

    Hey !! We study in Ankara as the erasmus students. Your article about the trip to teheran is really impressive. It gives us a lot of information, but i d like to ask how much did you pay for transport and what about the price in teheran. Actually, we re plannig to go there in February, I hope it s not so cold , can you tell us what s the weater like in Teheran in this time of year ? Thank you

  • PDiracDelta

    Thank you for this post! This is the only place on the internet that states how long in advance you can buy your ticket 🙂
    For those who are too lazy to look it up in the text: Apparently it’s fine if you buy your ticket more than a day in advance.