Taking the slow track to China
Tuesday 14 May 1996
To celebrate the occasion, the Iranian engine Pride pulled dignitaries from the eastern city of Mashad through Sarakhs to Tedzhen in Turkmenistan, thus for the first time linking Iranian railways into the ex-Soviet system in Central Asia. Though some technical problems remain, the 185-mile stretch of new track opens the possibility for rail travellers to go from London to Peking without having to go to Moscow.
Currently, those undertaking the journey have to go through Eastern Europe to Moscow and then take the Trans-Siberian express to the Mongolian border, a week-long journey.
Instead, after going through the Channel tunnel, they will be able to take the train from Paris to Budapest, then through to Istanbul, a journey that takes four days.
The Orient Express, if you can afford it, will still take you in luxury as far as Venice. But the trains through Eastern Europe to Istanbul will give you a bumpier ride as you skirt around the region's various embargoes and front lines.
Another three days takes you to Tehran, though this poses a problem. For several months, even armoured trains have not dared go to Iran through Turkey's south-eastern Kurdish war zone. And anyway, a mysterious rise in the water level of Lake Van - shortly after reports of a Loch Ness- like monster - has flooded the rail ferry jetty. But an pounds 18 sleeper ticket will allow you to skirt around the danger area on a 40-hour ride to Kars on the flanks of the Caucasus. A six-hour bus-trip then connects you to the railway line in Iran.
Once in Iran it is another day to Mashad, and you should be in Samarkand later that same day (with luck) One more day and you are in Tashkent, from where there is an "excellent" service to Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, according to railway experts. Assuming you left Waterloo on a Thursday morning, it is now Saturday morning - and by good fortune, the regular Alma-Ata to Peking service leaves at 1900 that night.
This southern alternative to the mighty Trans-Siberian is not a trip, however, that is likely to drag out into mind-numbing days. The fortnight it would probably take you to reach Peking will need a Gladstone bag full of visas and several Passepartouts to deal with surprises. "If you could survive it," a leading railway expert said yesterday, " you would at least have a tale to tell."
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