Iran by Rail: Making Tracks in Tehran

Telegraph Travel, The Daily Telegraph, November 1, 2014

Fanfare and flash bulbs greeted the Golden Eagle Danube Express this week on its arrival at Tehran station. The passengers were showered with gifts and good wishes, and eagerly pressed for quotes or poses, as they disembarked at Iran ’s capital into a welcoming scrum of tourism officials, residents and international news and television crews.

Ayatollah Khomeini, hard-line architect of Iran’s Islamic revolution, might not have approved. But the much-heralded arrival of this luxury period-style service, the first private European train permitted to enter the country, is being seen as headline evidence of the thaw in relations between the West and the Islamic Republic since the election last year of comparative moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

It especially marks a new beginning for tourism in a country that’s little visited despite being richer even than neighbouring Turkey in world heritage sites such as ancient Persepolis and Isfahan’s exquisite Naqsh-e Jahan Square.

“We’re on target to double the number of incoming visitors from 2.3 million in 2013 to 4.6 million this year,” says Ebrahim Pourfaraj of the Iran Tourism Operators’ Association.

The inaugural “Jewels of Persia” departure, carrying 62 mostly Australian, American and European passengers, left Budapest two weeks earlier for the 4,100-mile journey. The train first passed through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, its regular touring grounds, before crossing Turkey for the first time to make its historic entrance east of Lake Van into the Islamic Republic.

Iran, now one of the more stable countries in the Middle East, has increasingly begun figuring in cultural tour itineraries since unrest in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, and war and the rise of Isil in Syria and Iraq closed off much of the wider region. “An emerging tourism market, Iran is now returning to travellers’ bucket lists,” says Ian Lomas, Golden Eagle’s product and commercial director. The Cheshire-based company’s inaugural journey to Iran, even at prices starting from £8,695 per person, sold out within three weeks.

The trip called for what Golden Eagle’s president Tim Littler described as “true pioneering spirit,” and “flexibility and a sense of humour.” Never more so, perhaps, than when watching the alcoholic contents of the train’s bar car being offloaded at Van on the approach to the Iranian border.

With female passengers strictly required to observe the hijab (headscarves and figure-concealing clothes) in public, and with visas currently costing £140 and entailing a trip to the nearest Iranian embassy in Dublin, Iran isn’t for everybody.

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