A Train Journey from Tehran to Aleppo

From One "Rogue State" to Another

For decades, relations between Syria and Iran have been close. And for several years now there has been a railway connection between the capitals of the two countries. Manuela Römer took the sixty-hour journey from Tehran to Aleppo in Northern Syria

photo: Manuela Römer
Made in the GDR - rusty Syrian baggage car at Tabriz' main station, North Iran

​​One searches in vain at Tehran main station for a ticket window where one can buy a train ticket for Syria. Tickets for Syria can only be bought at travel agencies.

But there are other things to discover instead – for example there's a place in the main station hall where you can recharge your mobile phone while you're waiting for a train. Just plug your phone into one of the eight sockets on a small shelf on the wall. You can leave it there unattended while you do something else, and pick it up later.

The check-in is like at an airport. We have to be there three hours early – it says so on the ticket. Many of the passengers have voluminous suitcases, and it's clear that the time is needed for checking in and loading up. Thirty kilograms are allowed in the Syrian railway baggage car – otherwise you have to pay extra.

A thirty-seven-year-old trader from the West Iranian town of Ahwaz, where many Arab Iranians live, tries to divide up her baggage among the tourists. She'll be selling Palestinian head scarves in Syria and she doesn't want too much of her profit to go into paying extra charges for excess baggage.

Strange music and the noise of squealing tyres

photo: Manuela Römer
Unexpected customer service - the "Mobile Charge Outlet" at Tehran's main station

​​Once we are through passport control and we have checked in our baggage, a railway official greets us in full panoply, wearing a uniform with a gold fringed sash. In the train itself, there are even video screens in the modern sleeping compartments.

The train leaves almost on time at 8:30 pm. There's strange music and the noise of squealing tyres in the toilets. Evidently the film soundtrack is fed through to the toilets, so the passengers don't miss anything.

The restaurant car offers dinner à la carte, although there's a set menu for those who have booked their ticket including meals. That's what a welder from the southern town of Shiraz tells us. This evening there's chicken with rice.

A trip to Azeri country

Next morning we reach Tabriz, the provincial capital of East Azerbaijan. What is there to do during the two-hour stop at a station in the icy north of the country?

My companion and I decide to go on a city tour by taxi. Our trip turns out to be an endless drive along a dead straight shopping street, later named after the omnipresent Imam Khomeini.

photo: Manuela Römer
Where the streets have no name - an Azeri mountain range shot from the train window

​​An hour later we return to the station, only to find the train has gone. The station master, Mr Suleiman, doesn't let that worry him. He calls for some Jahan tea: "This here tastes better than what you get on the train," he says.

During the day, it's Mr Suleiman's job to know the arrival and departure times of all the trains that are listed in his computer. In the evening the station master teaches English lyric poetry at the University of Tabriz.

He goes into raptures about Goethe's Faust, which of course he's read in English. In the end he organises us a taxi. With luck it'll catch up with the train at the last station before the border.

"Welcome to Turkey"

We go through the border control in the town of Salmas, which is sunk in snow and thick fog, in time for the train. Our rescuer demands the equivalent of 15 euros for the 120 kilometres. That's a fifth of the price for the whole train journey from Tehran to Damascus.

Salmas is where the border controls take place. It's freezing cold in the waiting room, everyone wants to get a seat close to the radiators. Anyone who wants to smoke is sent outside by the cleaners, into the snow where it's even colder.

My companion is not feeling well, so once we are back on the train, we search for the medical compartment, that is part of the Iranian railway service. The doctor hunts around in some screwed-together plastic boxes for some pills which are supposed to help.

map: world-maps.co.uk
By-passing Iraq - the trans-national train connection between Tehran and Aleppo

​​Snow-covered mountains flash by. The train is crossing a bare plateau. Poplars glisten in the light and shepherds drive their herds along the clay and gravel roads which link the few villages.

We cross the border to Turkey. Time to get out again. A customs official behind a glass window points to a picture of Ataturk, the founder of the state, and asks a young Scottish women tourist cheekily, "Do you know who that is? Welcome to Turkey." The Scottish women takes off her headscarf with a sigh of relief.

Loosening up

In the train, Beatrice, who's studying Arabic, also takes off her headscarf. The train conductors turn the music up and take out their dominoes. The train becomes relaxed and jolly as the Turkish afternoon draws on.

The welder from Shiraz gets out in the middle of the night. We've arrived at Van Lake and he wants to see Turkey. The Scottish woman and a few others also get out here. There's just one taxi waiting in the dark.

The other 51 passengers get off the train and into the ferry, which also has room in its hold for the sealed Syrian baggage car.

In Tatvan, on the other side of the lake, the Syrian train is waiting. Its carriages were made in East Germany in the eighties. They are soon to be replaced with modern carriages from South Korea. Turkish security forces have boarded the train. A Syrian conductor tells us, "The Turks are worried about problems because the line goes through Kurdish territory."

Sign reading Aleppo at the city's main station (photo: Manuela Römer)
Getting there - ancient Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the region

​​The restaurant car has long ceased to provide service for the passengers, and Turks and Syrians sit together, eating the food they've brought with them. They don't have a common language. Only the Kurds on both sides can translate for them.

Raib from the Syrian town of Qamishli is one of them. Every two months he travels from Tatvan to Damascus and back. Many of the passengers are Kurds. They are traders, bringing tobacco to Syria and returning with clothing for the Iranian market.

"Meals" in polystyrene boxes

Three times a day, the passengers are given "meals." In polystyrene boxes, held together with staples, they are served with biscuits, cream cheese, pretzel sticks, jam, flat bread, Madeira cake, little portion packs of Nescafé, and teabags. In the kitchen there's boiling water in two big kettles that bubble away the whole time.

Outside, there are low clouds over the volcanic mountains and ice on the power cables. The weather only gets milder once the train has crossed the border to Syria, and we can see endless rows of olive trees, in the plains and on the mountain sides.

We quickly reach Aleppo. Muein, a student from Isfahan, is leaving the train there to visit his father who works in Hama, where the Iranians are currently building Syria's largest cement factory.

We finally arrive. The seals on the baggage car are broken and we can get our luggage. The train travels a few hours further to Damascus. In a couple of days, the thirty-year-old American diesel locomotive will pull the train back to Iran.

Manuela Römer

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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