Travel: The next stop isn't Mount Ararat

Lording it like a pasha, Jeremy Atiyah was loving his train ride from Turkey to Iran. But what the Turks call 'very, very problems' loom...
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Even for a someone who had just whizzed through every train stop between London and Istanbul, en route to Tehran, this was a sensational sight.

With its cathedral-sized columns and shimmering blue tiles overlooking the waters, Haydapasa railway station on the Asian side of Istanbul has barely changed since Ottoman times - since 1908, to be precise, the year it was opened. One could easily imagine that the old trains to Persia, Iraq, Palestine and Hejaz, deep in the Arabian peninsula, still ran from here.

Except that most of these services vanished long ago, scrapped along with the Ottoman Empire itself. Of the international services, only the Tehran train had survived long enough still to be listed on the departure board - long enough, in fact, for me to waste a day trying to book a berth on it. The response to all my queries had been: "No Tehran!"

"But here it is. Look. It's written on the departure board."


It turned out that the direct rail link had been cut because of the Kurdish uprising in the Lake Van area, but no one was willing to spell out this national humiliation for the benefit of visitors. Never mind. I would ride as far as possible by train before continuing by road to the nearest Iranian railhead. I booked a seat to Erzurum, 40 hours to the east, and ducked into the station restaurant.

Mustapha's caff? Tea and sandwiches? Hardly: this was Haydapasa, a palace of stained glass, chandeliers and attentive waiters in starched jackets. I ordered beer and shish and waited for my departure.

After dinner I dragged my bags into the cold night air in search of the Erzurum train. The platforms were deserted. I saw a line of cold, dark carriages. But when I asked a passing guard about my berth, he shook my hand joyously. "Erzurum!" he exclaimed, before unlocking a carriage door, turning on the light and putting an entire wagon at my disposal.

No pasha could have travelled in finer style. My compartment - which I had paid US$8 (pounds 5) to reserve - contained a real bed with sheets and blankets, a washbasin, clean towel and orientalist reproduction prints of 19th-century Istanbul on the walls. Even the toilet down the corridor was useable. Best of all, however, was the fact that I was next to the restaurant car. As the train pulled out of the station, I dropped off to sleep with the scent of sweet tea and baklava in my nostrils.

Shaving is never such fun as in a train. The first morning, with the frosty Anatolian steppe trundling past my window, I lathered my chin while watching vast landscapes of rock, yellow scrub and distant plains giving way to untrodden hills pass before me. Here and there traces of civilisation cropped up - golden corn stubble, scratched soil, a village in a puddle of green grass. I finished shaving and stepped outside for a breakfast of goat's cheese, olives, bread and tea.

But this joy was not to last. In Ankara, it was decided "for technical reasons" that my wagon needed to be replaced. The passengers - myself, a soldier and his wife - had to relocate to a new, icy-cold carriage with no restaurant. "Very, very problem," the attendant sighed. He was right; from Ankara there were still 28 hours of lonely hillsides, frosty dawns, yellowing birch trees and huddled sheep before Erzurum.

By the next morning I was alone and shivering in my compartment, gnawing on bread and soggy cheese. Outside, the skies of Eastern Anatolia were brilliant blue, and patches of grassland - the Central Asian steppe - had begun appearing in luminous streaks. Snowy peaks towered from the edge of the valley. The human presence had been reduced to the occasional line of military style barracks. Erzurum, when I finally disembarked, felt like humanity's last line of defence. I boarded the first bus to Dogubayazit, five hours away, with some anxiety.

Were there Kurdish separatists hiding in those dark, craggy hillsides? The road to Dogubayazit ran through snow-covered fields that gave off a sinister light long after nightfall. We passed miserable villages huddled in wreaths of smoke. The only available food seemed to be the piles of gigantic cabbages by the roadside, fodder for the winter. Dogubayazit itself - the last bus stop in Turkey - was deserted except for a stubby armoured personnel carrier charging round in the darkness.

At dawn the traders emerged. I awoke to find the town under a layer of smoky fog, with the colossal peak of Mount Ararat filling half the sky. Ararat, guardian of the passes to Iran! Travellers have been mesmerised by this sight since the days of Cyrus the Great. I approached the border with a gang of Turkish smugglers in a taxi, before being escorted on foot into a series of duty-free shops selling liquor by the crate. A whisky bazaar? An odd introduction to an Islamic republic. I made as if to pick up a crate. The smugglers were alarmed: "You take whisky Iran? Very, very problem!"

Being the first alcohol stop this side of India, the bazaar was presumably for travellers heading west. For me, going east, this last glimpse of shelves stacked with whisky felt like a terminal moment. The next step was through a door with Ayatollah Khomeini's portrait above. I took that step - and found the door promptly locked behind me.

This was Iran. A jostling mass of unshaven men in a cell-like room, lined by tired women in black. No one would leave until the Turkish

smugglers with their fake cut-glass ashtrays and wall clocks had paid their baksheesh.

When I finally emerged into blinding sunlight, taxi drivers homed in like wasps at a picnic. "You are going all the way to the nearest train station?" "A private taxi all the way to Tabriz? You know how far that is?" The collective cheek-blowing and rubbing of fingers and thumbs seemed to suggest colossal money, but nobody wanted more than US$15 for the 300km journey. In minutes I was roaring along a smooth, empty road through the craggy deserts of western Iran.

By Tabriz, three hours later, a warming breeze had set in. The railway station, despite its huge forecourt and cavernous hall, had an oddly languorous, deserted air. At the ticket window, I found a man reading a newspaper surrounded by a crowd of half-sleeping customers. "Sorry," he explained, "We are praying."

I had no objection. Indeed, when prayer-time was over, a cry came down the line that the foreigner should be served first. Strangers thronged to help me buy my ticket and wish me bon voyage.

An hour later I was on the Tehran train, ensconced in a carpeted compartment with three moustachioed men sitting cross-legged and eating saffron rice and chicken from silver trays. In the corridor loitered soldiers, mothers in black and girls with hair spilling out from headscarves. I had come a long way from Waterloo.

The JOURNEY from Waterloo to Turkey begins with Eurostar (0345 881881) to Brussels or Paris. Inter-Rail and Inter-Rail 26+ passes can then be used to travel right through Europe (not France or Belgium in the case of Inter-Rail 26+) to the far east of Turkey. An Inter-Rail ticket valid for one month and covering all zones to Turkey costs pounds 245, while the Inter-Rail 26+ costs pounds 215 for 15 days and pounds 275 for one month (1996 prices). Tickets are available from BR International at Victoria Station in London (0171-834 2345) and from travel agents.

Inside Turkey, comfortable first-class sleeping berths (yakatli) can be reserved for about US$8 (pounds 5) to Erzurum, using the Inter-Rail card. Turkish buses are on average twice as quick as trains, and there are daily direct buses from Istanbul to Tehran (about US$30 one way; the trip takes two days or more).

The route from Erzurum through Dogubayazit to Tabriz in Iran by bus and taxi cost the author about US$22 (pounds 14) in total.

In Iran, train tickets with sleeper reservations in four-person compartments can be bought at short notice and are very cheap; for example, the one- way fare from Tabriz to Tehran (a 12-hour journey) is about US$5.

Return flights between London and Tehran on Iran Air (0171-409 0971) range in cost from pounds 425 to pounds 521; a one-way flight costs pounds 340. There are three weekly flights each way.