The ticket I am talking about is the InterRail card, or the InterRail 26+ (for those over 26) both obtainable from the international rail office at Victoria station (tel: 0171 834 2345) or travel agents. These tickets will take you from London all the way to the Iranian border, or at least as far as the political situation in eastern Turkey will allow.
If you were desperate enough to attempt the journey straight through you could probably do it in about a week, though it has to be said that the pace slows considerably east of Budapest. I spent eight nights in hotels along the way, as well as five nights in trains, and I did not feel as though I was dawdling.
There are various possible routes across Europe to choose from. I chose to follow a line through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to Turkey, and thence to Iran. The other feasible route is the one south through Italy, by boat from Brindisi to Greece, then onwards by train from Athens to Istanbul. Both of the above routes look preferable to the route through Yugoslavia, where trains do still run (but where western tourists may find themselves at the mercy of corrupt officials).
The InterRail and InterRail 26+ cards that would get you right through Turkey from the UK cost around pounds 275 and given that they are of one month's duration one could, in theory, travel to Iran and back in that time. The return journey might be pretty trying though (I recommend flying back). Overnight train travel is no problem as long as you take the trouble to book sleepers, which will cost about pounds 15 each in western Europe, but much less further east. For any train up to at least Budapest such reservations can be made from British train stations, but for reservations much east of Budapest you'll need to book as you go along. As a matter of fact, there are rail offices in both Bucharest (Plata Uniri) and Istanbul (Haydapasa station) where you can make your sleeper reservations very cheaply and conveniently.
Train travel even in places such as Romania and Turkey can be amazingly pleasant, especially if you have a reservation. The main Bucharest railway station which resembled a gulag until recently now has a couple of smart cafes for travellers. And in Istanbul I paid just $9 (pounds 5.50) for a reservation in a first classYatakli compartment destined to carry me all the way to Erzurum - a 40-hour journey, during which I enjoyed a private compartment with a proper bed and a functioning sink. I could shave in hot water with the frozen, sunny Anatolian steppe trundling past my window. The restaurant car just outside my door served excellent breakfasts of olives, goat cheese, bread and sweet tea.
The political snag that prevents people from using their InterRail cards right up to the Iranian border is the Kurdish insurrection in eastern Turkey. In normal times, trains ran all the way from Istanbul to Tehran (including a ferry section across Lake Van) and InterRail card holders could sit on the train right up to the border. Although this Tehran train still defiantly appears on the departures board at Istanbul's Haydapasa station, the truth is that the line has been cut. The nearest you can get to Iran by train at the moment is Erzurum, a few hours by bus east of the border at Dogubeyazit. Having crossed the border, you then need to catch a bus or taxi to Tabriz, from where it's another delightfully comfortable overnight train journey to Tehran.
If Iran ever decides to join the InterRail scheme, you will then be able to proceed right across the country to within shouting distance of countries such as Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.Reuse content