Wednesday, 11 October, 2017

Inside Iran: exploring the country by train

By Jeremy Seal

“You’re wanted for questioning,” explained Tamas, the carriage attendant, poking his head around the door of my compartment.

At 3am, with close-cropped border guards swarming around our stationary train at Razi, entry point from eastern Turkey for Iran, that sounded ominous. I followed Tamas to an open carriage door, fearful that this sudden plunge into the pages of John Buchan or Eric Ambler might lead to some guardhouse interrogation, only to find a television crew gathered on the platform, and a little red carpet rolled out in my honour.

“You are most welcome to Iran, sir,” said the reporter. “Would you mind telling us what you are looking forward to during your stay in our country?”

Mind? Some might have cried media intrusion at the uncivilised hour, but I didn’t mind, not when the questioning took place in a starlit, walnut-scented night straight out of a work by Omar Khayyam or Hafez. The lingering romance of Persia, its poets, nightingales and paradise gardens, might even have been the gist of my reply to the television reporter whose interest in a train and its passengers was as understandable as it was affecting. For the appearance of the luxury Danube Express, the first private train to enter the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution, was seen as a historic beginning for tourism in a country formerly considered off-limits to all but the most determined travellers.

War in Syria and the rise of Isil has finished tourism across much of an increasingly febrile Middle East; but in Iran, whose ideological opposition to Isil’s murderous Sunni zealots has eased its rapprochement with the West, the opposite has occurred. Forget the downside of this seemingly schizophrenic destination, with its alcohol ban and rigorously enforced female hijab (headscarf and coat), fulminating ayatollahs, public executions, and secretive nuclear enrichment programme. Here’s a chance, finally, to experience a land that’s as strong on visitor security as it is on cultural heritage, boasting more Unesco World Heritage Sites in the Middle East than anywhere else, among them those fabled gardens, Isfahan’s monumental Imam (formerly Naqsh-e Jahan) Square and the palace complex of the ancient Achaemenids at Persepolis.

With foreign tourist numbers set to double over 2015, however, sanction-struck Iran may struggle to provide. Expect a welcome that’s unfailingly warm but a hotel sector so worn it looks like something out of Argo, the Ben Affleck movie set during the 1980 hostage crisis. If it’s any serious degree of comfort that you’re after, in short, best bring your own. Which is where the Danube Express, a luxuriously appointed 64-bed hotel on wheels, comes into its own. Golden Eagle, the train’s new operator, thinks so much of its latest destination that this chichi choo-choo is set to run nine Iran departures during 2015.

It’s an adventurous undertaking, one which takes the Danube Express far from the traditional shunting grounds its name acknowledges. Eight days earlier our 4,000-mile journey had begun at Budapest, the train’s home city, before passing through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. East of Istanbul the train, gleaming in its blue, white and gold livery, took to tracks on which it had never previously travelled. To those looking out of the windows, hinterland Turkey’s autumnal steppe lands, distant snow peaks and pumpkin plots were thrillingly exotic; but less so, surely, than the train must have appeared to those looking in, like the souls on the scheduled overnight service from Erzurum that we encountered early one morning.

That train clanked into Kirikkale, east of Ankara, and drew up directly alongside us, affording each set of passengers close-up views of worlds which could hardly have been more different. Where we saw crumpled figures stirring beneath threadbare blankets, and luggage racks laden with twine-tied bags, they glimpsed beechwood panelling and brass fittings, alcoves hung with embroidered towelling robes, private en suites, table lamps, vases of fresh-cut flowers and damask-covered dining-car tables laid for a champagne breakfast. Rub their eyes they might.

That alluring recreation of train travel’s elegant Edwardian heyday is what the Danube Express and its largely Hungarian staff have been about since the train’s launch in 2008. No matter that the oldest of the 13 carriages, actually commissioned by Hungarian State Railways for high-ranking nomenklatura, such as the Communist Party leader Janos Kadar, date from the Fifties; or that the four deluxe sleeping cars began life as Nineties postal wagons before undergoing meticulous retro-fits. What impressed my fellow passengers, mostly from Europe, the US and Australia, was the detail, effort and unstinting charm that went into maintaining the consistently high standards. We drank from Bohemian crystal glassware and enjoyed lovingly presented three-course dinners, typically salmon tagliatelle, wild boar, and crème brulee, somehow conjured from the cramped galley. After-dinner drinks were promptly fixed, and the tinklings of the bar-car’s resident pianist, be it Piaf or Presley, sent us to bed happy (beds were made up in our absence with Egyptian cotton sheets and discreet efficiency by waistcoated carriage attendants).

As for life beyond the train, detailed daily itineraries were provided to remind us what lay in store. Stepping down on to the little red carpets rolled out in readiness, we set off on regular guided excursions, each armed with a commentary-catching audio set, one of Golden Eagle’s especially welcome additions. There were visits to medieval Sighisoara in Romania, Istanbul’s soaring Hagia Sophia basilica, the rupestral frescoed churches of Cappadocia in Central Turkey and the exquisite carved exteriors of the Armenian Akdamar Church on Lake Van.

For all this, the growing sense was that many passengers viewed Eastern Europe and Turkey as the warm-up routine. The realisation that they would soon enter a country which they had waited decades to visit finally got to them at Van, last stop before the Iranian border, where they witnessed the obligatory offloading on to the platform of the bar-car’s every last drop of alcohol, including an outstanding selection of international wines. Some of the passengers’ involuntary squeals of excitement drowned out even the despairing yelps of their more bibulous fellow travellers.

There was no champagne at breakfast the following morning, but the views of Lake Urmia, a vast salt flat pocked by wandering herds of fat-tailed sheep, were as intoxicating. Towards Tabriz, capital of Iran’s Azeri northwest, orchards of pomegranate and walnut trees were hemmed with crumbling mud walls. Across a land half the size of India we travelled all day to reach Zanjan. After a crash-course in hijab-wearing from our newly boarded Iranian guides, we disembarked on to a platform crowded with curious well-wishers, boy soldiers and sweet-faced students, and boarded buses for nearby Soltaniyeh.

The world’s largest brick dome, the 14th-century mausoleum of the Mongol Khan Oljeitu, was adorned in turquoise glazed kufic tiles and mosaic faience. Oljeitu did the religious rounds: after being baptised a Christian he gave serious consideration to Buddhism before converting to Sunni Islam and finally arriving at the Shia Islamic faith that dominates the modern nation. His mausoleum was not merely a thing of exquisite beauty; it felt like a monument to a dizzying historic pluralism, a rich tangle of cultural and religious beliefs that would excite all but the country’s absolutist clerics.

The following morning brought us to Yazd, ancient home of Zoroastrianism — until the advent of Islam, the dominant religion of Persia. On the outskirts of this mud-brick desert town rose the hauntingly named Towers of Silence, the hilltop enclosures where the Zoroastrians traditionally left their dead to be devoured by birds. These so-called sky burials were outlawed in the Sixties, and for reasons the more sick-minded among us were to cherish even as we doubted the truth of them. “Some residents in the nearer of the newly built houses began to complain that crows sometimes dropped body parts in their yards,” our guide explained solemnly. The sniggering had stopped by the time we reached Atashkadeh, the nearby Zoroastrian fire temple, where sandalwood fuelled a sacred flame that is said to have burnt since 470AD.


Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan

Beyond the nuclear facility at Natanz, which we were forbidden to photograph even from the speeding train, we came to Isfahan. We wandered the arcaded bridges over the Zayandeh river, dry for a decade, and visited the Palace of Forty Columns amid ornamental ponds and gardens. This 17th-century pavilion was a revelation, not least for its stunning reminder that wine very much remained on the murals though it might be off the menu. All over the walls of the reception hall, goblets and flagons of wine were depicted, along with musicians, dancing girls and even some scandalously erotic imagery — heartening evidence that the ruling Safavids certainly knew how to throw a banquet.

Not so Imam Khomeini, whose stern, super-sized visage hung by the magnificent mosque-covered portal of Imam (formerly Shah) Mosque in Imam Square some 25 years after his death. In this breathtaking public space that, elsewhere in the world, would be overrun by visitors, there was only us, a few kids knocking a football across the lawns and the local calèche drivers touting for rides. Nor were there crowds in the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, a masterpiece of Safavid art, where a perfect shaft of sunlight lent the peacock at the apex of the magnificent tiled dome the most lustrous of feathered tails.

In the neighbouring Bazar-e Bozorg we lost ourselves among the high-vaulted stalls of saffron and tobacco sellers, and miniaturists. One of our group, a flooring contractor from Chicago, set off in search of the silken Persian carpet she had long promised herself.

At ancient Persepolis, the Achaemenid’s ceremonial capital, epic scenes from the heyday of Persian might were detailed on the famed Apadana Staircase’s 2,500-year-old panels. From here Xerxes had once unleashed his vast armies on Europe, and here the West had had its revenge when Alexander the Great sacked the city a century later.

From a distance, it could sometimes seem that those historic events condemned westerners and Iranians to perpetual enmity. Close up, of course, things looked different; our encounter with Iran would have been worthwhile had it only been for the courtesies we received there, from reporters and station masters, students and stallholders, which showed that there need not be bad blood between us.

Nobody knew that like Hafez, the 14th-century poet of love, wine and nightingales, as I discovered on a visit to his tomb in his home town of Shiraz. I was wandering through the cypress groves and ornamental ponds beyond the tomb when I came across a young student translating Hafez into English. The student wondered if I might look over a line in case the translation wasn’t right. It read: “Love with Friends; Toleration with Enemies.”

I told him that the line read fine as it was.

Golden Eagle Luxury Trains (0161 928 9410; has eight departures on its two-week Jewels of Persia tour from £9,095 per person, including all accommodation, drinks, visits and transfers. It has one departure on its 12-night Heart of Persia tour, beginning and ending in Tehran, from £6,195 per person. Pegasus Airlines ( has daily services between Tehran and London Stansted, flying via Istanbul, from £181. British Airways ( offers daily direct flights between London and Budapest from £75. Golden Eagle can arrange clients’ visas to Iran, which cost €180/£135 for UK citizens.

This feature appears in the spring issue of Ultratravel, the Telegraph’s luxury travel magazine, available on March 15

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan

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