I RAN: THE GOLD S TANDARD
All aboard a new luxury rail service into the heart of Iran
IN Shiraz, a man with a bird is waylaying visitors at the entrance to the shrine of revered poet Hafez. The bird is not the nightingale that these exotic surroundings, a Persian garden of ornamental pools, pathways and citrus trees, suggests; it is a budgie, albeit one with an apparent talent for fortune-telling.
On its master’s prompting, the bird buries its head in a sheaf of rice-paper notelets and emerges with my destiny in its beak. “Hmm,’’ says a passing student, helping out with a translation from the Farsi. “The budgie says an interesting journey lies ahead of you.”
I’m not one to quibble, not over a dollar outlay, but given that I am touring Iran, off-limits to all but the most determined travellers for decades, and by the first private train to have entered the country since the 1979 revolution, this feels like a future I could have predicted myself. Though the Islamic Republic certainly gives prospective visitors plenty to ponder, not least how they’ll cope with the rigorously-enforced female hijab, alcohol ban and other tiresome restrictions, the one thing that this vast country surely guarantees is an interesting time.
For beyond the fulminating ayatollahs in black turbans, public executions and alarming nuclear enrichment programs there’s evidently a cultural upside: not only prescient budgies, oft-quoted poets and the legendary gardens, but more UNESCO World Heritage sites than anywhere else in the Middle East, among them rarely experienced marvels such as Esfahan’s monumental Naqsh-e Jahan (now, predictably, Imam) Square and the ancient Persian palace complex at Persepolis.
A dramatic thawing in Iran’s formerly glacial relations with the West, combined with the headlong descent into chaos of alternative destinations in the region, is creating a rush of interest in the country, one that is expected to mean a doubling in tourist numbers during 2015. It’s an influx that sanction-struck Iran’s hotel sector looks illequipped to absorb, which explains the train. Luxury operator Golden Eagle’s Danube Express has been described as a 64-bed hotel-on-wheels, in consistently admiring or affectionate terms, but here it’s also a BYO solution to a severely hobbled tourist infrastructure, delivering sorely lacking top-end accommodation as well as faultless on-board standards of silver-service dining.
I have joined the 13-carriage train — blue and white exterior livery, fetching period decor and charming (mostly Hungarian) staff — 10 days earlier in Budapest. We have passed through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, destinations as familiar to the train’s devoted regulars as its name suggests; but beyond Istanbul the train, loaded onto a ferry and transported across the Sea of Marmara, found itself in Asia, and on tracks it had never travelled. The train passed close to Cappadocia, where buses were laid on for visits into the heart of the region’s unearthly moonscapes, before continuing across the Anatolian plateau towards Lake Van and the demonic mountain magnificence of eastern Turkey.
But for many of the passengers (a bunch that could bat about exotic destinations with the best of them) Iran is clearly the headline attraction. I could tell as much from their involuntary reaction to the offloading of the
excellently stocked bar car onto the platform at Van, last stop before the Turkish-Iranian border, a collective murmur of sheer excitement at what lies ahead (punctuated, it should be conceded, by the odd yelp of despair from the more bibulous onlookers).
I awake the following dawn to views of Lake Orumiyeh, a vast salt flat pocked by wandering herds of fat-tailed sheep, filling my compartment window. As for actual Iranians, the early-hours border controls are so cursory that I don’t meet one until the newly-boarded Ali, a local railway manager, joins me for breakfast in the panelled and damask-draped surrounds of the dining car.
The surprise, the first of many, is that Ali doubles as a lecturer in English literature at Tabriz University. He has written his thesis on T S Eliot. We discuss The Waste
Land over scrambled eggs and smoked salmon while mud-walled orchards of pomegranate and walnut trees slip past the carriage windows. Crowds of curious wellwishers mass the platform at Zanjan where we board buses bound for nearby Soltaniyeh. Here the world’s largest brick dome rises into the evening sky. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 14th-century mausoleum of Mongol Sultan Oljeitu, is decorated in exquisite tilework but its other value is to remind us of this ancient nation’s rich tangle of traditions and beliefs. I take the fact that Oljeitu was born a Christian, then flirted with Buddishm before converting to Sunni Islam, arriving almost by happenstance at the Shia faith, which now defines Iran, as a tacit rebuttal of the modern nation’s ideological absolutism. Not that our guides put it like that.
At Yazd, the local Zoroastrians’ legendary Towers of Silence rise from the outskirts of this desert city. It was within these haunting hilltop walls that the dead once underwent so-called sky burials at the beaks of devouring birds; but no longer, as our guide tells us, furnishing an explanation that none of us will forget. “When the new houses were built nearby, residents found that crows often dropped body parts in their backyards,” she tells us. “This they did not like.”
At Esfahan, famed for the arcaded honey-coloured bridges running across the now-dry Zayandeh River, other World Heritage Sites await. The exquisite Kakh-e Chehel Sotun, the 17th-century Palace of Forty Columns, tells of a different Persia, with its delightfully scandalous murals detailing Safavid-era partying complete with dancing girls, Shiraz wine and even some erotic fumblings. No such ribaldry is on show at the city’s overwhelmingly impressive Naqsh-e Jahan Square, however, where oversized images of Ayatollahs Khameini and Khomeini (by appearance sweet and sour respectively) hang from either side of the Imam Mosque. Sandwiched between these Supreme Leaders is the mosque’s great portal, covered in turquoise and yellow tilework of humbling magnificence.
Such impressions are what we carry back, often along with carpets, packets of saffron and other purchases, to the waiting train. The waistcoated staff are always there to welcome us “home”, as they put it, though in truth no home I’ve known has come with anyone like Tamas, the courteous young attendant who sees to my compartment, making up the bed during dinner, tidying it away over breakfast, with such impressive care.
With so much ground to cover — 6600km in total; more than 3000km in Iran — we have ample time to acclimatise to life on the rails. In Iran, especially, hours on end are devoted to admiring passing scenery of snowcapped mountains, rice paddies, vineyards, persimmon groves, and the giant molehills marking the passage of the extensive underground qanats (irrigation canals). For those who tire of being confined in their compartments there is always the bar car, the convivial heart of the train, where talks (for example, by Indian cricket star of Zoroastrian extraction Farouk Engineer) are regularly given.
Then there is the piano, and the after-dinner requests that resident pianist and chanteuse Eszter invites from passengers. Perhaps the most memorable of these singalongs occurs on the last night, as the train makes the long desert journey north towards Tehran, and our guides come out as diehard Elvis Presley fans. That’s when it strikes me the budgie was right.
The city of Yazd, Iran, left; the lounge car of the Golden Eagle Danube Express, above right; Isaphan, above