The original idea of this trip was to fly to Istanbul, spend a few days there, travel from Istanbul to Tehran by train, do a tour of Iran, then fly home.
We eventually decided to do it the other way round: start with a tour of Iran, then take the train from Tehran to Van in Turkey and do a tour of eastern Anatolia.
During the research phase I read that trains in Iran were old, but clean and comfortable; not quite up to European standards, but improving. So we decided to travel as much by train as possible.
The night train from Tehran to Esfahan was definitely old, but not very clean and only acceptably comfortable. "Dinner" was served in our compartment and consisted of lots of rice, a cheap kebab and a bottle of sugar-water with a picture of an orange on the label, which matched the colour of the contents if not the ingredients. And we were in first class! Esfahan to Yazd was slightly better. Slightly.
But at least we had the night train from Tehran to Van to look forward to. The "Trans-Asya Ekspresi" is described on several websites as being a throwback to the grand days of train travel, à la Orient Express, though with a tired and worn aspect.
Some of that is true; guess which part! I find it hard to express my disappointment. But I'm going to try.
The first class sleeping compartments have four seats/beds each. We tried to book four in order to have a private cabin; at €20 per bed it wasn't a big strain on the budget. The ticket agent couldn't get four, so we paid for three; one extra person sharing our accommodation would be better than two, and there was always a chance the other person wouldn't show.
On arrival at the station we tried to swap our three for four. The man at the ticket desk thought we wanted to fill the fourth seat. "Don't worry, there's another foreigner on the train, I'll put him in with you." Our new travelling companion was a sociable twenty-something German called Jean – yes, French name – so that worked out fine.
At dinner time we asked where the restaurant car was. "Very, very far! We bring dinner to you." We said we'd rather not eat in our bedroom, but the steward didn't seem to understand. Meanwhile, our plastic dinner trays arrived, with matching plastic forks and spoons. The options on the menu were chicken and rice, or rice and chicken. We were told we could take our trays to the restaurant car if we wanted. We did.
We shouldn't have bothered. They actively discourage people from going to the dining car. There were no passengers there, only crew-members, sitting around the plastic-covered tables – a sadly common feature in Iranian restaurants – drinking tea.
Maybe I've been spoiled by my experiences on night trains from Paris to Madrid and Madrid to Lisbon. On those trains the restaurant car is an actual restaurant, with a menu – short but with several options, including wine – and real plates, cuttlery and glasses. On this train the standard was lower than on an aeroplane. And this is first class! Granted, the ticket price is cheap, but most things are cheap in Iran (for example we had some pretty nice dinners in various places for under €10 each).
My expectations were too high, it seems. One up for experience.
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