All aboard a new lux­ury rail ser­vice into the heart of Iran

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - Jeremy Seal

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

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