As we tried to run away from the winter in Eastern Turkey, we decided to take the Trans-Asia Express, a 3 day train ride which might be a pretty underestimated rail adventure.
We arrived in Kayseri train station one hour before the train, as we’d been told. There were plenty of Iranian families, all gathered around their huge piles of luggage just like around a fire. But there was no one around to tell us we should weight our luggage. Turks find a big pleasure in creating chaos. So later we were asked to remove all the luggage from the bikes and to weight it. Two minutes later somebody just stopped the process and put a sticker on the bikes: 30 kg each – fine, we don’t have to pay extra.
The train arrived with a non-surprising 30 minutes delay and triggered the real chaos to start. It reminded me of newly open hypermarkets in Romania where people would stand for hours in a cue fighting, just to get some 10% discounted crap. Somebody finally took charge, jumped into the cargo wagon and organized all the luggage – a job that probably should have been done by the train crew.
We went inside our compartment and realized we’re not alone: Mohsen, a young Iranian, still seemingly excited from his recent foreign country ventures will be our roommate for the first part of this journey. He was also our first real Farsi challenge, as his English was limited to a handful of words. A few minutes later, visit from the neighbors: a funny, shyly smiling and very communicative mullah who should be called Agha Hajji for the next few days. He spoke some Turkish, some Russians and some English and explained he actually is an Arabic teacher. So we managed to somehow communicate. Luckily we had printed pictures of our families and homes so our discussion didn’t end in 3 minutes like usually.
Conversation over – improvisation repertoire used up. Mohsen turned on the music on his mobile. After a while I felt an urge to take out my violin, mostly because I couldn’t stand that much of George Michael, but also because I wanted to show off with the only Iranian song I know. I started and suddenly there were many heads at our door. It started to smell like party!
In the dining car the usual socializing was in full progress, with a bunch of other foreign travelers mixing with Iranians already in a hospitable mood. In five minutes we knew everybody there and we got at least three phone numbers and addresses from northern Iran all the way to Shiraz. Everybody had a good mood, with kitschy oriental music playing at full blast and the bartender trying to hit on some Iranian girls. I found it tough to get used to the exaggerated make-up camouflaging their faces nearly beyond recognition. It reminded me of the fun me and my sister had stealing our mother’s make-up and painting our faces like Britney Spears on serious drugs. Might be a form of protest to the restrictions they have to endure in an Islamic state but I hope one day they feel comfortable with their natural beauty.
The first night was quite silent and comfortable. I couldn’t see much outside the window from the upper berth, but just being there made me feel so nostalgic. I love night trains! But the morning came quite fast and I needed my morning chai that I started to love in Turkey. I was alone at the table in the dining car until an old guy with a big belly provided company. He wanted to talk, I wanted to watch the landscape passing by. As I looked out of the window he kept on talking. I started to write in my notebook hoping he would eventually shut up. But he was still interrupting my thoughts, although less than before. Could it be from the fact that I told him I’m married? Maybe. He was asking me what I was writing and I wish I could have told him the truth: I was writing about how annoying he was and how much I would have liked to be alone. But not having the balls to be that rude I decided to leave the table.
After reaching Tatvan we had to leave the train and entered a ferryboat. It was dark and damn cold! Mohsen was asking me to play Soltana Ghalbha one more time for him outside. Some people gather around me but it was way too cold to give a concert. My strings were exploding! So we went inside where the real party had started already. Music on maximum volume, men dancing together, women clapping. They invited all the foreigners to dance and it was actually quite funny to see westerners dancing on Iranian beats. One guy fetched my violin and pressed it into my hands with a smile. I had no choice but to play Soltane Ghalba all over again. This time about fifty people sang with me making me feel like being some superstar on stage. After I was done and back to my seat all the women grabbed and pressed my cheeks – later I realized that this is quite a habit in Iran among older women towards younger ones. With already some hours of delay we got off the ferry and back into the train – this time the Iranian one.
With the first morning light glimmering beyond the snowy mountains at Turkey’s eastern border everybody had to leave the train into the cold for collecting the exit stamps. After waiting in two lines, male and female, for about an hour in an non-heated bungalow we got back into the train, the morning sun already smiling sorrily at us. As if it knew that just after a few slow kilometers further we had to leave once more – this time including all the luggage from the cargo wagon. It was the Iranian border – entering an Islamic state meant practically a gigantic hassle. The situation went into chaos. Suitcase where being dropped down and damaged, people rushed around to find their belongings. The two hours of waiting where accompanied by a slightly nervous mood, especially among the Iranians. Some admitted to us that they converted to Christianity, a sin in Iran punished with death. They carried Bibles (God knows why on such a journey!) and got very frightened of getting caught, interrogated and exposed during the check up. We agreed to take on the Bibles and hid them in our backpacks. Tourists usually are saved from the worst. Indeed we where just waved through without even having to open our backpacks! We felt some serious remorse though. After having been infected with the nervousness we decided to smuggle the bottle of good Turkish wine out of our compartment, afraid somebody would search it and deny entry to Iran. We dropped the bottle in a niche in front of the police building – not hidden well enough, as it was gone later. Had we just known better…
The atmosphere completely changed. This time we shared the compartment with a wonderful young Iranian couple. Women had their scarves back in place and became calmer, men sat next to men and women next to women. Persian carpets, chai, good Iranian rice and kebab served in the compartments by a stressed train attendant. The dining car was deserted and there sure was no alcohol anymore, no men playing backgammon and no one joking or flirting. It was such a dull atmosphere warmed only by the astonishing landscape and the smiles of our companions. One could clearly feel that the end of that holiday meant more to most people here than just getting back to their jobs.
This night was no fun anymore, the journey became strenuous. The compartments got heated till the boiling point and it was impossible to regulate the temperature. I went to bed with a taste of sadness for the people as I got a first impression for how tough life must be for them in Iran. I closed my eyes…opened again…Tabriz..fell asleep once more…Tehran…almost morning – nine hours delay. Salam Iran!