Hell Train (Book Excerpt, Iran 6)

After a fantastic three weeks traveling around Iran, it was finally time to turn towards home. As an American, the only way to obtain an Iranian visa had been to book a guided tour, and while the guide had been sage-like in his knowledge and helpfulness, I was looking forward to a little time on my own. Since the visa rules require a guide only inside the country, but not on the way in or out, I’d booked the longest outbound trip I could find, the Tehran-Istanbul train.

Everything started out fine. Professor [my guide] and his taxi-driving brother-in-law met me at the hotel for our short drive to Tehran’s train station. Standing inside the station, I was sad to say goodbye – Professor had become a friend during our intense three weeks together and I was going to miss him. After making sure my seat assignment and baggage were in order, and still somewhat surprised I was leaving by train instead of plane, he held out his hand and we said goodbye. Then, quickly and without another word, he disappeared out the station doors and I was suddenly alone.

The train was barely half full, with only one other person in my 4-bunk compartment. My roommate for the four-day journey was to be a young Afghani who spoke no Persian and whose only English was ‘ok’. Since that was more Afghani than I speak, we went with his English and a lot of miming. He was going to Istanbul to work and seemed spellbound by my maps of Iran and Turkey. Other than that he turned out to be a very quiet guy – perfect for a long train ride.

Tehran - Istanbul Train
My train from Tehran to Istanbul

For the first few hours everything was easy and relaxing. Then the evening turned into night, and with it came the heat. It was a bitterly cold January night outside, as the train drove through the mountains of northwestern Iran, but the conductor decided to set the heating on thermonuclear. Perhaps in honor of their nuke program.

By 1:00 a.m. I was laying in a pool of my own sweat, barely able to breathe it was so hot. Simply to cool off, I got up to go to the freezing cold, unheated bathroom. Of course, the toilet was a squatter (i.e. a hole in the floor), and on a rapidly moving train everyone’s aim was not what it should have been. Still, I stood there in the stench, soaked in my own sweat and standing in a film of water, piss and shit, for 10 minutes until I started to cool down. Then, when the smell finally started to overcome the pleasant coolness, I fled back into the car.

On the way back to my compartment, I looked around for an empty room. Seeing one, I quickly ducked inside and tested the window, happily finding a small slit at the top that actually opened. So, at 1:30 in the morning, I packed everything up and snuck into the new compartment. The first thing I did was pile clothing over the accursed heater, then opened the window and tried to sleep.

The night soon became an endless series of half-hour stretches of sleep – first woken by the cold from the window, then by the heat after the window was closed. Alternately freezing and sweating, I tossed and turned my way through the early morning.

My struggle lasted until 6:00 a.m., when we arrived at the first immigration stop. Worried about possibly missing a document, and getting kicked out of my ‘private’ compartment, I prepared a welcome for the inspector. When he came to the door I offered him some of the fancy candy I’d bought back in Yazd. He was surprised, and seemingly touched. A quick glance at the room, then my passport (Oh, American?!? Welcome!) and he was gone. Customs problem one, solved.

The next stop wasn’t for a couple of hours, so I shut the door and got ready to try sleeping again, only NOW IT WAS MUSIC TIME!! The conductor, may his black heart and evil spirit rest long in hell, decided to crank up some utterly god-awful music at the LOUDEST POSSIBLE VOLUME; fortunately, with the treble on high and the speakers crackling from the current! Yes! Within minutes I was hiding back in the toilet, praying for a crash.

The music in the hallways was so loud it penetrated every inch of the accursed train – meaning nowhere to escape. I went back to my compartment, jammed earplugs into my ears, hid my head under clothes and pillows, but still couldn’t escape the blood-curdling screams of the treble. Hours later, my mind dull from the overwhelming heat and the hours spent staring longingly at the passing mountain cliffs, dreaming of jumping from one, the train finally pulled into the next stop – Iranian Immigration.

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