Day 3 of Ankara-Tehran trip

Tabriz to Tehran
Tabriz and a chance to engage with the real Iran.  We were allowed to take photos and one of the train bosses even took us to see the New Year decoration inside the station.  He took pictures of us beside it.  These decorations will be in every home and there is a little one in the dining car.  They consist of household objects which start with a S.  This includes goldfish, as there were two in a vase in the station decoration.  We stopped at a small station a couple of hours later and this was to allow the passengers to pray in the mosque there.  After prayers we all moved off again.
Meanwhile I had a problem ordering food in dining car.  I made the mistake of asking about food and then asking for tea.  I just got the tea and realised that no food was forthcoming.  Enlisting the help of the other passengers, particularly a clinic psychologist whose English was good, I was able to order the much needed food.  I need to stock more emergency supplies on this trip.
This train is quite unlike what I had expected from my internet research. It is old, dilapidated and dirty.  The windows are so dirty that photos are ruined.  The food is all right, when it is available, which seems random to me.  The toilets are all squat ‘long drops’ and are locked when we are stopped so I have to find an official to unlock them afterwards.
Outside the plastic bag is as much a feature of the Iranian landscape as it is of the Turkish countryside. 

Changing to the Iranian train

Before getting on the Iranian train in Van
station we had our visas examined and got an important little sticker on our
tickets.  Phew! One hurdle over.  Then onto the train, when it finally arrived,
and I was billeted with the Latvian tourists. 
In spite of being in the EU, they got a visa without having
accommodation or a return trip booked and they got it in a few days.   They were planning to arrive in Tabriz in
the very early hours of the morning and work out a way to get out of the city
and find somewhere to stay, working out their trip as they went along.  That makes my ‘adventure’ very tame
indeed.  They do this kind of trip every
year and went to Colombia on the same basis last year.  The mind boggles!
Sadly a man died on the train a short way
out of Van and the train stopped for a long time.  When the carriage finally went to sleep we
were woken to get up and check out of Turkey at the border post.  Picking my way through the steam (of the
train brakes?) and the dark was tricky on the uneven surfaces.  The border guard advised me that I should not
drink anything in Iran and I was awake enough to ask if water would be ok.  Cultural stereotyping?  Just as I got back to sleep we were woken to
provide our passports which two officials took away.  They also took everyone else’s so we were not
too alarmed.  Back to sleep to be woken
to get them back with the entry stamp in them.  That was easy, if quite bizarre.

Day 4 – second day of Ankara-Tehran train trip

“To save your life do not go upstairs”

When I went in search of breakfast, it was
clear why we had gone back to Sivas – we got a new restaurant car.  I figured that out only because it was facing
the other way.  The cook was still asleep
so I went back to await his awakening. 
We were in a much less bleak-looking area, still high and still edged
with snow-covered mountains.  We passed
several lakes and Zara and I agreed that the water was beautiful – my Farsi is
developing well under her tutelage.

The villages that we passed are so
interesting – some look more prosperous than others.  Almost of the dwellings, however decrepit,
have satellite dishes and solar panels – I tried to get a photo of a tumbledown
shed with a solar panel but the train was going too quickly for me to capture
the image.  We went through an area with
a lot of storks and that was very amazing, especially some of the odd places
where they built their large nests.   In
the same area we passed a man standing upright in a tree for no apparent
reason.  A schoolboy smoking on his way
to school and a little schoolgirl in a tartan skirt make me think that places
are not so different after all, even though we don’t normally stand up in trees
in Edinburgh.
The train itself is reasonably comfortable
though I travel to the end of the next carriage to avoid the toilet in
ours.  It has too much evidence of the
little boys in our carriage and my long clothes make it impossible to escape
from there hygienically.  I will soon
regard this train as the lap of luxury but for now I am comparing it unfavourably
with what I was led to expect from my reading on the internet.  We’ll be leaving the train for the ferry
across Lake Van in the afternoon so I stock up on food, eating as much lunch as
nearby a young family at between them. 
Given the ‘catering’ on the long ferry journey later, it was a good
It was nice sitting in the dining area (I
am getting used to the smoking) talking with my friends about the Tunisian
revolution and the current situation in North Africa.  They are optimistic that their children will
know a truly democratic Tunisia – that was good to hear.  I also learnt of the huge costs to a young
man of getting married.  Samir is
travelling before finding his bride as he doesn’t think he can afford to
later.  He did change his mind a bit at
Tatvan on the ferry when he planned to bring his yet-unidentified bride here on
honeymoon.  I reminded him that he won’t
be able to afford it then and he ruefully agreed.  We all took photos of each other and it is
nice to have other tourists so that I don’t feel too foolish with my camera.
As we approached Tatvan, where we will
change to a ferry on Lake Van, we were travelling through snow and the scenery
was breath-taking.  It was warm and sunny
as we transferred to the ferry, fooling around on the top deck in spite of the
dire warning below: ‘To save your life do not go upstairs’.  As we moved off the others all considered
that it was cold but it felt fine and fresh to me.  I was trying to wear my scarf but kept
getting my camera tangled up in it, so gave up after a short time.  Then one of the Iranian students approached
me and very anxiously advised me not to make any friendship with a man in Iran.  He could see that I am the sociable type but
I reassured him of my non-single arrangements and thanked him for his
concern.  It was a bit chilling, I have
to admit, although I did know that relationships between Western and Iranian
people of the opposite sex were forbidden, he meant even a friendly chat.  Warning heeded.  I’ll be so busy sorting out my scarf that I
probably won’t be able to communicate with anyone anyway.
The ferry crossing was utterly calm, a big
change from the rough Sea of Marmara on Tuesday.  There are only twenty people in this group so
the ferry feels empty.  I take a
surreptitious photo of the prayer room on the ferry.  


Day 3 – Start of Ankara – Tehran train journey

Being constantly chaperoned

Have ticket will travel on the misnamed ‘express’!

My ticket said ‘first class’ but there is
only one class and only one occupied carriage on this weekly three-day train
from Ankara to Tehran.  The passengers
are mostly people coming or going to family, two are mothers with young
children and one is an ‘old’ lady, Zahara, returning from a visit to her new
granddaughter in Ankara.  She is, in
fact, only 50, eight or nine years younger than me and is dressed in black but
I can see that she is not old at all when she takes off her hijab.   Her
son is anxious about her travelling alone so establishes a phone connection
with one of the two other tourists on the train so that he can check up on her
tomorrow.  I promise to ‘look after her’
although the idea of me, a single Western woman with very little of any
relevant language, looking after anyone is laughable.  The only other tourists are two young men
from Tunisia and it is fun to share the excitement of starting this
voyage.   There are also two women from Latvia who are
tourists but they are so reserved and are hijab-ed so that I don’t realise that
they are tourists for some time. 
Meanwhile I have a lark with Samir and Elias, the Tunisians, and feel
very safe in their company.  As the trip
progressed I had more and more reason to be grateful for their discreet
protection and friendship.

As the train guard came to check tickets, I
had my first experience of the impact of Islamic law.  We, the passengers, are allocated seats
together, like on the bus yesterday, but we had agreed to spread out.  I am so pleased to have a compartment to
myself but, before we are even out of the city of Ankara, I am moved in with Zara,
– it is not acceptable in Islamic law for women to travel alone.  I am grateful for Zahara’s presence on the
train; I would otherwise have been billeted with one of the young families,
which would have enhanced the trip for neither party.   We proceed to share (mostly her) food and
she teaches me Farsi, since she has no English and we do have to communicate
given that we will be travelling together for a couple of days.  We managed that very well, as people do when
they wish to communicate with each other. 
The stories of fellow-travellers are
usually fascinating. The Tunisians told me that the third member of their party
didn’t get a visa to enter Turkey, in spite of having a visa for Iran.  That is because so many young people are leaving
Tunisia to fight with the rebels in Syria, that the Turkish authorities are not
allowing any students to enter the country. 
They also told me that Morocco is now getting all the tourists who would
normally go to Tunisia or Egypt and that the cost of visiting Morocco has
doubled in recent years.  Tunisia is now
very cheap to visit and very calm and safe, Samir reports.  He is a ‘couch surfer’ and has many
interesting travel stories.  He
recommends that I visit Belgrade and so it is immediately on my list.  They (Samir and Elias) kindly invite me to
join them when going to the dining car and  Zahara agreed to chum me along for a cup of chai.  We had a pleasant interlude watching the
sunset from the dining car, which has far better viewing than our compartment
with its dirty window.
I met some young Iranian students going
home for the holidays (Iranian New Year starts tomorrow).  They ‘interviewed’ me on their movie camera
and we had some fun.  It was interesting
how reluctant Zara was to engage with them at first, though they are from the
same city.  It seems to me that men
occupy public spaces in the Islamic world and that women don’t engage with men
that they don’t know any more than is absolutely necessary.  My approach of chatting to anyone who looks
in my direction might need to be modified while I am visiting this world.
The train stopped at Sivas about 9 pm and
we went out for a walk in the station – the evening air was cool and fresh and
the sky very clear.  The dining car had
been in darkness in the evening and now a group of men were trying to fix some
workings under that carriage.  A random
stranger asked me to take his photo with the ‘sculpture’ of old wheels and
track that was on the station area.  It
was a nice break and we had a laugh when Zahara and I ran to the train together,
mistakenly thinking that it was about to leave. 
Nothing happens that fast in Turkey so we sat there for some time more.  We moved off a half a mile or so, stopped and
came back to Sivas.  The mechanical fix hadn’t worked so we were there for some time – I went off to sleep.