Why fly to Iran when you can take the classic overland train-ferry journey from Turkey? We took the Trans-Asia Express train from Ankara to Tabriz. It’s a classic long-distance train and ferry ride that crosses Anatolia and Lake Van before entering Iran.
UPDATE: As of August 2015, the Trans-Asia Express is currently not running due to security concerns in eastern Turkey. Check seat61.com for updates on the situation.
Starting the Journey in Ankara
After a week in Istanbul, we took a bus to Ankara, where the Trans-Asia Express begins its two-day journey across Anatolia. Most tourists don’t go to Ankara. It doesn’t have the historic sights of Istanbul or the natural beauty of Cappadocia or the Mediterranean coast. Still, we enjoyed our two nights, largely because we stayed in the well-preserved Ottoman citadel on a rampart-crowned hill above the modern city.
Ankara Citadel. Our hotel, in a charming restored Ottoman house, is on the far right. It was a steal for 100TL (under $40).
The other highlight of Ankara was the excellent Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, which displays artifacts from some of the world’s earliest civilizations, including the enigmatic female figurines from Catal Huyuk and sun chariots of the Hittites.
Ankara is the city of Kemal Ataturk, the father of the modern, secular Turkish nation. His portrait was ubiquitous in huge banners around the city, like this one that welcomed us to the train station.
Kemal Ataturk’s portrait on the Ankara train station.
On the Trans-Asia Express
The Trans-Asia Express consists of three stages: a Turkish train from Ankara to Tatvan on the western shore of Lake Van; a ferry across Lake Van to the eastern port of Van; and an Iranian train from Van onward to Tehran. We took the train as far as the city of Tabriz in western Iran, where our tour started. The journey took around 48 hours, departing Ankara at 10:30 on Wednesday morning and rumbling into Tabriz around midday on Friday.
Our first experience of Iran’s friendliness and hospitality started the moment we found our train compartment. We shared it with a middle-aged Iranian man, Majid. Despite his limited English and our nonexistent Farsi, he extended a warm welcome, sharing sweets, teaching us Farsi phrases, and offering us hospitality in his home in Tehran (we unfortunately didn’t have time to take him up on his offer).
Paul and Majid in our compartment
We divided our time between our stuffy compartment and the air-conditioned restaurant car. The scenery was fantastic. Day 2 in particular took us through some spectacular terrain along glacial river valleys and verdant fields in eastern Turkey.
Night 1. Sunset somewhere in Anatolia.
Day 2. Breakfast scenery in Eastern Turkey
Crossing Lake Van
The train arrived into the port city of Tatvan on the shores of Lake Van late Thursday afternoon. Two ferries were docked side by side: a sleek modern one and a decrepit rust bucket. “We must be on the new ferry, right?” I said as we stepped off the train. Instead, we were herded onto the old ferry. Majid told us that the last Pahlavi shah of Iran gave the ferry to Turkey as a gift in the 1950s.
There was an air of heightened energy and anticipation among the passengers as we boarded the ferry. When the ferry docked at Van, we would leave behind secular Turkey for the Islamic Republic of Iran with its restrictions on alcohol, dress, and public behavior. Iranians and foreigners alike swarmed the snack bar, putting back one last beer (or two or three). Outside on deck, a group of Iranian women, many of them still unveiled, took turns singing and dancing, filming each other on mobile phones.
A young Iranian, Abbas, befriended us on deck with his spot-on impersonation of Barack Obama. Abbas is a PhD student in English in Ankara, studying the differences between British and American English. Paul and I, as an Anglo-American couple, were obviously his dream test cases, and he kept us busy with questions about British and American slang and pronunciation.
The mountainous western shore of Lake Van near Tatvan.
From Van to the Iranian Border
Although Van is some distance from the Iranian border, the train from this point on would be Iranian and for all intents and purposes was Iranian territory. The Iranian train was supposed to meet us at the dock, but didn’t arrive for an hour or two. It finally arrived around midnight. Before we could board, there was some bureaucracy around seat assignments. We had assigned compartment and seat numbers for the Van-Tabriz segment, but these were irrelevant in the melee that followed. All the passengers had to break up into groups of four and sign up for a compartment with the train agent. Abbas adopted us along with another traveler to form a group of four and arranged a compartment for us. This was probably so he could continue to practice his English on us, even though all we wanted to do at this point was sleep.
After about an hour of unnecessary confusion (why didn’t everyone just sit in their assigned seats?), all the passengers were given new seat assignments and we finally boarded the Iranian train. Oddly, this was by far the most chaotic experience we had in Iran.
Before departure, Iranian immigration authorities checked our passports and visas. “You American?” the guard asked me as he took my passport. “Yes,” I said, wondering if I would be subjected to a lecture on US foreign policy. “Welcome to Iran!” he said with a smile, and handed me my passport.
It would be a long night of snatched intervals of sleep interrupted by various border checks. After less than an hour, we reached the Turkish customs and immigration post, where all passengers had to disembark and show our passports. It took about an hour for everyone to be processed.
A few short hours of sleep later, we arrived at Iranian customs at sunrise. The Iranian passengers, most of whom had enormous suitcases and parcels of goods bought in Turkey, had to drag all their baggage out of the train for inspection. We were taken aside for fingerprinting in the restaurant car, along with two French travelers. The apologetic guard explained that this was a reciprocal move because the American, British, and French governments require Iranian visitors to be fingerprinted.
The whole process took several hours, after which I fell into my berth for the deepest four hours of sleep of my life. The train pulled into Tabriz around noon and we stepped into the glaring sun to find out what Iran had in store for us.
Turkey to Iran by Train: Practical Information
Blog articles and forum posts by other travelers were enormously helpful to us in planning this trip. In the spirit of sharing information so that others may benefit, we’ll add practical information to our blog. Here are some useful details about the Ankara-Iran train.
Fares and reservations: We bought our train tickets online ahead of time from Turista Travel in Istanbul, an agency recommended by seat61.com, where we got most of our information about this train. Tickets were 50 euros per person in 4-berth couchettes. This price included a significant commission for the travel agency. We paid for the tickets online and picked them up at Turista’s office in Istanbul. As it turned out, there were empty seats on the train so we could have bought the tickets on the spot in Ankara for much less, but we’re glad we didn’t take that risk.
Top tip: Bring a detailed map of Turkey or download one before you get on the train. We passed some imposing mountains and beautiful landscapes, and would have liked to know in more detail where we were. Without wireless internet access or a way to recharge our phones, we couldn’t always find our location on the map. Rather than cutting straight across the country, the Turkish train zigzags along river valleys and up mountain passes to stop at several cities before Lake Van. A map showing the approximate route is below. The Turkish train route is in red, the ferry is in magenta, and the Iranian train is in green.
Timing: The train departs from Ankara at 10:25 AM on Wednesdays and arrives in Iran in the early hours of Friday morning. Specific arrival times in Iran are unclear. Our ticket showed an arrival time in Tabriz at 6:25 AM, but we didn’t actually arrive until noon local time. Given the distance from Van to Tabriz and the number of stops for customs and immigration on the way, it wouldn’t be possible to arrive in Tabriz at 6:25 AM.
Food and drink: The Turkish train has a restaurant car with a limited but sufficient menu of kebabs and breakfast. The travel agent in Istanbul told us there was no food available on the train, but this was incorrect. We ate pretty well although some of the appetizers and soups were unavailable when we went to eat. Food was reasonably priced at around 13TL (US $5) for a kebab with rice and salad.
The Lake Van ferry had a small food stand selling sandwiches and snacks, and the last beer before Iran.
The Iranian train provided a simple chicken and rice dinner and bread and jam breakfast for no extra charge.
Traveling in either direction, bring sweets or snacks to share with your seatmates: sharing food is the Persian way to make friends.
Bottled water was available in the restaurant car, but we bought a case of 24 half-liter bottles of water in the Ankara station to carry on the train.
Electricity: Don’t expect to charge your devices on this train. There was an electric outlet in our compartment in the Turkish train, but it didn’t work. Our neighbors’ outlet didn’t work either. The Iranian train compartment had a working outlet.
Wifi:There is no wifi on the train.
Money exchange: The snack bar on the ferry can change Turkish lira to Iranian rials. Change your lira here or in Tabriz. We were told that Turkish lira were difficult to exchange east of Tabriz.