Useful country information

Train operator in Iran:

IRR Iranian Islamic Republic Railways ('Raja Trains').  For train times & fares in Iran see www.raja.ir, but it's often better to use www.iranrail.net, a helpful unofficial site in English with times & fares for trains in Iran.  Map of Iranian rail network.

 

 

Time zone & dialling code:

 

GMT+3½ hours (GMT+4½ late March to late Sept, as from 2011).  Dial code +98.

Currency:

£1 = 17,000 Iranian Rials,  $1 = 8,780 Iranian Rials   Currency converter

Visas:

Required by everyone.  Visas are (or were) becoming easier to get, but are still not always granted to independent travellers without a visa support letter from a recognised tour agency, and indeed may not be granted to independent non-tour travellers at all, you need to check the current situation for your nationality.  See the advice on www.lonelyplanet.com/iran/practical-information/visas, which has a list of travel agencies who can help you get a visa, such as www.magic-carpet-travel.com, www.iranianvisa.com or www.persianvoyages.com.  The London embassy has closed, although they want to reopen it. Visas can be processed via Dublin, Paris or Brussels.

Travel advice:

Check Foreign Office advice for south eastern Iran at www.fco.gov.uk.

Page last updated:

15 June 2014


London or Paris to Tabriz & Tehran, overland...

  Tehran railway station sign, Iran

The train to Iran:  The rails stretch all the way from London to Tehran, apart from a ferry across the Bosphorus & Lake Van.  Photo courtesy of PhiliptheBill

If you can get a visa, it's relatively straightforward to travel from London to Iran overland by train, using the weekly 'Trans-Asia Express' from Ankara to Tehran.  First, you need to reach Istanbul.  See the London to Turkey page for train times, fares and how to book.  The journey from London to Turkey takes 3 or 4 nights, with daily departures from London.  Then you take a high-speed train or overnight sleeper from Istanbul to Ankara.  Then you take the excellent weekly 'Trans-Asia Express' from Ankara to Tabriz and Tehran, a 3-day 2-night ride through superb scenery with a trip on a lake steamer thrown in.  Train times, fares & information for the Trans-Asia Express are shown below.

On this page...

Istanbul-Ankara-Tabriz-Tehran train times

Istanbul-Ankara-Tabriz-Tehran train fares

What's the train like..?

How to buy tickets

Getting an Iranian visa

What's the trip like?

Train travel within Iran including Tehran-Esfahan.

Tehran - Damascus train service


Istanbul to Tehran by train

There is a safe, modern and comfortable weekly train from Ankara to Tehran called the 'Trans-Asia Express', introduced in March 2001.  The Trans-Asia Express is actually two trains, a Turkish one from Ankara to Tatvan pier, then a ferry across Lake Van, then an Iranian train from Van pier to Tehran.  Only one baggage van actually goes all the way, being ferried across Lake Van on the ferry.  Both Turkish and Iranian trains have modern air-conditioned 1st class 4-berth couchettes and an elegant restaurant car.  The Trans-Asia Express used to start in Istanbul until September 2011, but it now starts in Ankara.  However, there are plenty of daily trains to choose from between Istanbul and Ankara.  The total distance from Istanbul to Tehran is 2,968km excluding the 90km length of Lake Van.

 Istanbul ► Tehran

   

   

 Tehran ► Istanbul

 Trans-Asia Express, eastbound...

 Trans-Asia Express, westbound...

 Istanbul (Haydarpaşa)

depart

*

*

 Tehran

depart 

21:25

Wednesdays

 Ankara (change trains)

arrive

*

*

 Tabriz

arrive

09:26

Thursday

 Ankara

depart

10:25

Wednesdays

 Tabriz

depart

10:56

Thursday

 Tatvan Pier (train)

arrive

14:50

Thursdays

 Van Pier (train)

arrive

19:56

Thursday

 Tatvan Pier (ferry)

depart.

15:00

Thursdays

 Van Pier (ferry)

depart

20:00

Thursday

 Van Pier (ferry)

arrive

21:00

Thursdays

 Tatvan Pier (ferry)

arrive

02:00

Friday

 Van Pier  (train)

depart

21:30

Thursdays

 Tatvan Pier (train)

depart

04:52

Friday

 Tabriz

arrive

06:35

Fridays

 Ankara

arrive

08:30

Saturday

 Tabriz

depart

08:23

Fridays

 Ankara (change trains)

depart

*

*

 Tehran

arrive

20:20

Fridays

 Istanbul (Haydarpaşa)

arrive

*

*

* The Trans-Asia Express currently starts in Ankara:  The Trans-Asia Express used to run to and from Istanbul, but since September 2011 it has been starting in Ankara because of the major engineering work going on around Istanbul in connection with the Bosphorus rail tunnel and the Istanbul-Arifiye section of the new Ankara-Istanbul high-speed line.  Istanbul's Haydarpasa station was closed to all but suburban trains in February 2011.  So you'll need to take a bus between Istanbul and Ankara, journey time about 5 hours with loads of buses to choose from, or if you prefer, a much shorter bus journey from Istanbul to Eskisehir then a comfortable high-speed train from Eskisehir to Ankara as shown on the Train Travel in Turkey page.  The Istanbul to Ankara railway should reopen in 2014.

You can usually confirm these train times at www.raja.ir or (often better) unofficial site www.iranrail.net.  Allow for an arrival an hour or two (or three) late, so don't plan any tight connections.  Travelling westbound, always allow for a night in Istanbul, don't plan onward travel to Belgrade/Bucharest/Thessaloniki the same day.  If you want to stop off, there are other trains between Istanbul and Ankara, and between Tabriz and Tehran, see the Train travel in Turkey page for Turkish train times & fares, and www.raja.ir or www.iranrail.net for Iranian train times & fares.

 Fares

Fare per person, including couchette:        

Ankara to Tehran:

€43.20 (£39 or $58)

Ankara to Tabriz:

€34.70 (£32 or $48)

The Iranian Railways website (www.raja.ir) quotes the one-way fare as 404,000 Iranian Rials including sleeping berth, about £25 or $47.  The Turkish Railways website (www.tcdd.gov.tr) quotes fares in euros.  For fares between Istanbul and Ankara, see the Train Travel in Turkey page.

What's the train from Ankara to Tehran like?

The Istanbul to Tehran train   Couchette compartment aboard the Istanbul to Tehran train

Above:  This is the Turkish part of the Trans-Asia Express, from Ankara to Tatvan on Lake Van.  It has modern air-conditioned 4-berth couchettes and restaurant car.  The compartment is shown here in daytime mode with berths folded away and seats folded out.  The restaurant cars on both the Turkish and Iranian trains are clean and modern, serving affordable full meals.  Check out the excellent video made on board this train by Sander Groen...

How to buy tickets:  eastbound from Istanbul

You can book the eastbound trains from Istanbul or Ankara to Tehran at the international booking office at Istanbul Haydarpaşa station.  The ticket office in Istanbul accepts Turkish Lira, Euros, US Dollars and Visa/MasterCard, but not pounds sterling.  It's often possible to find berths available even booking a day or two before, but as this train only runs weekly it's probably best to book in advance before you get to Istanbul.  You can do this by asking a travel agency in Istanbul to buy the tickets for you.  Try these two reliable agencies:

Tur-ISTA Tourism Travel Agency, Divan Yolu Caddesi No. 16/B, 34410 Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey. Telephone +90 (212) 527 7085 or 513 7119.  Fax +90 (212) 519 3792.  E-mail erdemir@tur-ista.com.  I can recommend their service - please mention seat61.com when booking.  They charge about 65 euro for an Istanbul-Tehran ticket.

Viking Turizm, Mete Caddesi No. 24, Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey.  Telephone +90 (212) 334 2600.  Fax 334 2660).  E-mail info@vikingturizm.com.tr.  Please mention seat61.com when booking.

How to buy tickets:  westbound from Tehran

You can book the westbound Tehran to Ankara train at Tehran station - you will need to show your passport.  Alternatively, you can book the Tehran to Ankara train through a number of Iranian travel agencies, such as www.irantravelingcenter.com.  Also see the travellers' reports below for some suggested agencies.  I recommend only buying an onward Ankara to Istanbul ticket on arrival in Ankara, in case there's a delay.  There are plenty of trains between Ankara and Istanbul so there will always be places available on the day.

Visas for Iran...

Before booking, check that you can get an Iranian tourist visa.  Iran only used to grant tourist visas if you made tour arrangements within Iran through a recognised tour agency, but until recently it had been getting easier for independent travellers to get visas.  In 2014, Iran seems to have stopped allowing independent travel at all, so you'll have to check what the current visa situation is for your specific nationality.  See the advice on www.lonelyplanet.com/iran/practical-information/visas which has a short list of travel agencies who can help you get a visa, such as www.magic-carpet-travel.com or www.persianvoyages.com.  You may be able to find an agency who will tailor-make arrangements for you, allowing you to arrive in Iran on the Trans-Asia Express.  There is no problem reported in crossing the border into Iran by train, border officials are reported to be very friendly!  The point of entry into Iran is Razi.  Feedback on the visa situation for Iran, on any tour agencies prepared to make arrangements incorporating arrival via the Trans-Asia Express, and on the Trans-Asia Express itself, would be very welcome.  Note that www.iranianvisa.com, although legitimate, has recently had some reports of slow service.

Currency...

The Turkish restaurant car accepts Turkish lira, US dollars & euros, but not Iranian Rials.  The Lake Van ferry accepts both Lira and Rials, and it is reported that Lira can be exchanged for Rials on board the ferry.  The restaurant car on the Iranian train will accept Iranian Rials or euros, but not Turkish lira.  There is no exchange possible on board the train or at the frontier, but the train stops for 1-2 hours at Tabriz and euros or US dollars (but not Turkish lira) can be exchanged for Rials there.  Rials are freely available at banks and exchange bureaux in Ankara and may be available in Istanbul.

How to plan out your trip...

If you are new to independent travel, it may seem daunting to plan a trip like this, but it's really not that difficult.  It can help to plan your itinerary using a simple spreadsheet, to work out a budget and make sure you book the right trains on the right dates.  How to plan an itinerary & budget.

A trip on the Trans-Asia Express...

The train originally started from Istanbul's historic Haydarpasa station as shown here, just remember that since early 2011 it's been starting in Ankara while they build the Bosphorus tunnel and associated rail works in Istanbul...

The ferry across the Bosphorus to Istanbul's Haydarpasa station.   Haydapasa Station, Istanbul

The journey originally started in Istanbukl, with a 20 minute ferry ride to the Asian side of the Bosphorus...

..to the historic Haydarpasa station, built in 1908.  The train now starts in Ankara.  Courtesy of Stuart Baker

Trans-Asia Express Istanbul to Tehran: train destination plate (Photo:  Arjan Veersma)   The Trans Asia Express en route from Istanbul to Iran in Eastern Turkey...  (Photo:  Arjan Veersma)

The Trans-Asia Express from Ankara to Tehran... Photo courtesy of Arjan Veersma

The Trans-Asia Express in Eastern Turkey....

Photo courtesy of Arjan Veersma

The TransAsia Express to Tehran arrives at Tatvan on Lake Van...  (Photo:  Arjan Veersma)   Boarding the train ferry at Tatvan  (Photo:  Bob Johnson)

The Trans-Asia Express arrives at Tatvan where passengers transfer to the ferry across Lake Van.  From Ankara to Tatvan, the coaches are modern, smooth-riding air-conditioned 'TVS2000' 4-berth couchette cars built in Turkey.  Courtesy of Arjan Veersma.

The Iranian baggage van (but not the passenger coaches) is shunted onto the Lake Van ferry.  Passengers have to board using the passenger gangway.  Photo courtesy of Bob Johnson.

The nameboard 'Istanbul-Tehran' on the Iranian train   Trans-Asia Express - the Iranian train at Tatvan  (Photo: Bob Johnson)

Above:  Sunset on Lake Van.  At Van on the other end of the lake, passengers leave the ferry and board a second train to complete the journey to Tehran.  You'll need to briefly leave the train for passport formalities at the Turkish-Iranian border.  Photos courtesy of Chris Blanchard.

The nameboard 'Istanbul-Tehran' on the Iranian train   Trans-Asia Express - the Iranian train's restaurant car...  (Photo: Bob Johnson)

Above:  The Van-Tehran train is Iranian, and also has modern air-conditioned couchette cars with 4-berth compartments.  Above right: The Iranian train's restaurant car.  Basic meals are included in the fare on the Iranian train, served in your compartment free of charge, but you my prefer to buy more extensive meals in the restaurant car.  The food is incredibly cheap.  Photos courtesy of Bob Johnson.

4-berth sleeper on the Iranian train   The Iranian train from Van to Tehran

Above:  4-berth sleeper on the Iranian train.  Photo courtesy of Andy Mac

 

Above:  The Iranian train from Van to Tehran.  Photo courtesy of Andy Mac

Tehran railway station ticket hall, Iran   Tehran station, Iran

Above:  Tehran railway station.  Don't worry if you arrive a few hours late!

Photos courtesy of Philip the Bill


Tehran to Istanbul by train, on video...

A 3.5-minute snapshot of a Trans-Asia Express trip from Tehran to Istanbul...

Téhéran-Istanbul par le Trans-Asia-Express from Ulysse, la culture du voyage on Vimeo.

Also check out the excellent video made on board the Trans-Asia Express by Sander Groen


Travellers' reports...

Traveller Franco Henwood travelled in summer 2010:  "We did this trip from Istanbul to Tehran just recently (29 Sep to 2 October 2010) and overall the trip was really interesting, good fun and definitely a memorable travelling experience.  We got our tickets from the Turista agency in Istanbul, two months before we travelled. We collected the tickets from the agency just before we left. The train was busy, and allocated compartment seats were strictly adhered to on the Turkish train. The food on the Turkish train is decent but a tad expensive. Stock up on groceries beforehand. The restaurant car is a social centre for the entire train: a great place to meet Iranians returning from what for them is the pleasure dome of Istanbul. Lunch and dinner were festive times, with Iranians defying the dour, austere black-clad representations one encounters in media depictions of the country. Iranians are keen to meet and talk with foreigners although it is handy to have that Farsi phrase book to hand, as English is not widely understood or spoken.  The ferry crossing from Tatvan to Van took four hours. You can buy food and alcohol on the ferry, your last chance to enjoy the delights of alcohol before you dry out on the other side! The Iranian train was not waiting for us when we reached Van at around 10:00pm. It didn’t show up till around one in the morning. Compartment on the Iranian train were reassigned by train staff, at a large waiting room at Van pier station. Unlike other travellers, who have reported simply being assigned to random empty apartments, we found that passengers were expected to occupy the compartments assigned to them.  The border station is at Karikoy on the Turkish side, Razi on the Iranian. At Karikoy everyone disembarks and is stamped out by Turkish customs. You then reboard the train, and Iranian officials collect and return passports at Razi, without passengers having to leave the train again. Customs inspections are then performed a few hours later at Tabriz. Iranians it seemed had their baggage raked over with a fine toothcomb, but inspections for foreigners (including us as British citizens) were cursory and unintrusive.  The lateness of the Iranian train at Van, plus the time spent on extended border and customs formalities, meant that the train arrived nine hours late at Tehran, at 4:15 am. By this time, we and just about everyone else on the train were somewhat frayed at the edges. But it was still more than worthwhile, regardless. We were never bored throughout the whole trip. However, expect the train to be late, and plan accordingly. 

Traveller Leon White reports (March 2009): I can recommend a spectacular travel agency that was able to give clear and honest advice over the phone and actually book a train ticket from Tehran to Istanbul within a few minutes.  This after one agency in Tehran tried to rip me off for over double the ticket price, the official train webpage returned countless errors, and other agencies alternately told me it was sold out until April, that I couldn't travel together with my sister or that I need to call Iranian directory assistance to make a booking (also didn't work, incidentally).  The Donyaye Parvaz agency in Esfahan was able to book the train from Tabriz to Istanbul, and told me that it is not possible to book to any other destination in Turkey because of the Iranian system, but if you get off before Istanbul the ticket can be exchanged for a local Turkish ticket for the remainder of the journey.  The agency address & phone number are:

Donyaye Parvaz
Chahr Bagh-e Bala
Esfahan
(just behind the Suite Hotel coming from the north over Si-o-Seh Pol Bridge)
+98 311 66731015

Traveller Jim Minton reports (December 2008):   We'd definitely recommend the trip to anyone, and would start by saying that travellers should have no fears as everything is very easy, extremely comfortable and is fascinating for every moment, despite the length of time.  Thanks to the recommendation of Seat 61 and other travellers we too used Turista travel in Istanbul. They could only buy the tickets one month in advance of our travel date and we paid in advance (faxing credit card info and passport details was all that was required), and when we arrived in Istanbul a couple of days before departure the tickets were waiting for us.

The tickets had reserved carriage numbers, but when we got on the train the guard just showed us to a random empty compartment. There were plenty of these on the Turkish leg of the journey. The cabins are for 4, but there was room for every traveller to either have one to themselves or between 2. They don't have water, but do have power points so you can listen to music or charge phones! Don't worry about stocking up on too much food, as the restaurant car is excellent and cheap, and includes plenty of veggie options (omelettes etc). There are also chances to buy fruit and bread when the train stops.

The journey was smooth, though slow, and there was one very significant delay which is apparently a regular one: just beyond Kayseri we were held up for around 7 hours while the army searched the track ahead to ensure it was clear of kurdish separatist bombs. The line was clear fortunately, and we were assured it was just a precaution. It did mean that we crossed lake Van in the dark rather than the light, and of course we didn't make up the time the rest of the journey, but was an inconvenience rather than anything else - and at least we were stopped in a small village so we could get supplies from the shops and talk to locals!

The ferry journey is straightforward, and the boat waits for the train to arrive - there is no way you can get left behind! On the ferry you CAN change money (a last chance to get rid of turkish lira, but also euros and dollars) with the chap who runs the buffet, and the rates seemed to be pretty fair.  Although you are still in Turkey when you get on the other train at the end of the ferry, to intents and purposes it is Iran. The buffet only accepts Iranian money and the staff are all farsi speakers. Again, let the guard show you to a compartment - don't worry what it says on your ticket. There were more travellers on this leg of the journey (almost all Iranians) so compartments are not as plentiful and some people ended up sharing, but couples tended to be given a berth to themselves. Again, its comfortable, and although the heating is erratic it was never cold.

The border crossing was very straightforward, though as we were so late, it was about 1.30 am by the time we crossed, making everyone - including the guards - a bit cold and grumpy. We had to queue for a bit on the turkish side to get an exit stamp, then we got back on the train, to be woken an hour or so later by the Iranian officials. This time we didn't have to disembark, and they took our passports for about 20 minutes before returning them safely stamped. Of course, you MUST have a visa - you won't get one at the border.

Customs took place at Tabriz - the first stop in Iran, about 10.00 in the morning. This took about 2 hours, but on our train it was only the Iranians who were searched. None of the (few) tourists on the train were even asked to show their bags to anyone. Some Iranians had goods confiscated, and although we weren't searched, I think you'd be foolhardy to bring in alcohol or anything else which is likely to be frowned upon - after 60 hours or so, you don't want to be sent back across the border!!

The journey from Tabriz to Tehran was long, but done at a reasonable pace. The buffet on the Iranian train was nowhere near as good as the Turkish one, though in our case this was blamed on the delay to the train causing the chef to be unable to make hot food (hmmmm).  People were extremely friendly all the way, and if you bring playing cards, dominoes or backgammon, you'll be eagerly joined by Turks and Iranians in the communal areas, which is a great way of finding out about the countries as well as passing the time. Women do need to wear headscarves on the Iranian train, which is just one of the things to get used to in Iran.

An advantage of making some friends on the train meant that when we arrived at Tehran at 3am someone helpfully sorted a taxi out for us, and the station is pretty central so all the hotels are within easy ride.  We spent 12 days in Iran and found it a great country to visit - not without its quirks, but really hospitable. The train journey was a fantastic adventure, and great fun

Traveller Kester Dampney reports (March 2008) that there were plenty of seats left available on departure from Istanbul, and he had a 4-berth compartment to himself.  "Something else to  note is that British people are rounded up at the Iranian border, taken off the train and finger-printed.  We weren't sure what was happening at first (kidnap, arrest, deportation?!) but it was all ok, though the officials didn't explain it in English!"

Traveller Chris Blanchard reports (Sept 2006):  I bought my east bound train ticket from Ankara to Tehran at Istanbul Haydarpasa train station, without any problems.  The ticket office will need to see your passport and Iranian visa before issuing the ticket.  I got my ticket 4 days before travel.  I gather that places on eastbound trains are more readily available than on westbound trains, and making the reservation well in advance is strongly recommended.  On boarding the train in Ankara, I was guided to the couchette by the on-board staff, which I was sharing with an Iranian couple coming back from their holidays in Turkey.  They took me on as their son for the next three days of the journey. To make life easy going it is wise to bring along pictures of family and your own food as well, as it is highly appreciated and very normal that you share what you have!  Despite bringing food along, the meals you can buy in the train are very reasonably priced (both Turkish and Iranian trains) and drinking tea all day long is normal.  Food was distributed free of charge at certain points on the Iranian train, and breakfast and dinner could be served in your cabin, if you would like this.  Being a foreigner on the train, it really opens doors to other people who would like to talk to you, practice their English and show how hospitable and friendly they are (this is genuine hospitability and a big shock when compared to our westernized views).  Having been invited to a lot of the compartments I was happy that I could retire to my berth and sleep at the end of my first day on board the train. This of course applied to the rest of my journey as well.  Having arrived safely in Tatvan (after coming very close to a tornado) to board the ferry across Lake Van, I managed to arrange to get a shower on the ferry (there are no showers on the Turkish or Iranian trains), which was really nice after two days without washing. As the Turkish train was about 5 hours late, I witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen in my life over Lake Van!  On arrival in Van we boarded the Iranian train, which ran to schedule more accurately than the Turkish train.  Raja Trains is in the process of phasing out the old sleeper trains, and is replacing them with newer types that are more luxurious and comfortable than the Turkish trains. Despite this, they still operate some old rolling stock as well.  The best place to change your foreign currency to Iranian Rials (including British Pounds!!!!!) is at the Tabriz train station.  They are really friendly, speak English and are very fast and accurate.  It is also the easiest way to become an instant millionaire (by Iranian standards, as 100 euro = 1,000,000 Iranian Rials).  The only hiccup during the journey was the Turkish border police, as it took them more than 5 hours to check all passports, stamp and return them, whilst the Iranians took no longer than 1 hour for the same job.  All in all, this has been one of the most amazing train journeys, in terms of the people onboard and the landscapes you pass, that I am looking forward to do it again in the near future.

Traveller John Stubbs reports:  I found the Iran Travelling Centre, www.irantravelingcenter.com/contact.htm gave very good and reliable service.  I used them to get all my RAJA train tickets (including the Trans Asia Express in both directions), and hotel reservations. I just sent them, by email, a detailed itinerary of what I wanted and they soon sent me back an itemised invoice.  The Iran Travelling Centre invoices all its accounts in US dollars which presents payment difficulties in view of the embargo on sending US dollar to Iran. However, the Iran Travelling Centre banks with Melli Bank who happen to have a branch in London (www.mellibank.co.uk). If you telephone the bank and ask for ‘cash and payments’ department, the staff there, who are very helpful, will advise you on how to transfer the money from your own bank account. Once Bank Melli in London receives your payment it is transferred to the Iran Travelling Centre’s account branch in Shiraz within the next two working days.  Upon receipt of the money by the Iran Travelling Centre, your train tickets  are booked and hotel reservations made straight away. If you are asking  them to book an international ticket (eg Trans Asia Express) you will need to email the travel agency a scan of the photograph page in your passport. Once booked all the tickets and hotel vouchers are then dispatched by DHL to what ever postal address you give the agency. Ask the agency to email you the DHL Tracking Number once they have dispatched the package so that you can check its progress. I found that within about 10-14 days of sending the money, I had all the tickets/hotel vouchers in my possession.  Making travel arrangements in this way is certainly more expensive than doing everything on location if only because of bank charges and travel agent’s fees. However, I found it well worthwhile to have the security of confirmed reservations as it eliminated a lot of time that would have been spent queuing for tickets and searching for hotels.

A traveller reports on a westbound trip in May 2005:  We managed to find a travel agency who said they would book the train tickets and send them to us by DHL - which they did.  I now think most agencies in Iran would do this, but we enjoyed our long email correspondence (!) with this one based in Shiraz : www.irantravelingcenter.com.  I forget how much this cost, but it wasn't much and we thought it was worth it to have the tickets in our hands before we left the UK.  We went to the station in Tehran a day early to ask about departure and find the right place.  We were told to come at 2pm on the day, around 3 hours before departure, to do the customs stuff.  This was completely unnecessary as it only took a few minutes, and even those checking huge amounts of luggage in for the baggage van were dealt with quite quickly.  The Iranian train was really nice and old-fashioned and when we got going the views and scenery were great..!  It WAS slow, and there were long delays on the Iranian side of the border as 2 people were sent back to Tehran for having an expired visa, plus 1 suspected forged passport.  But you certainly got to know people and there was a good atmosphere on the train. The endless cups of tea brought your compartment by the staff didn't go amiss. Sadly, the crossing of Lake Van from this direction happens at dead of night..!  We were very disappointed, as the scenery up until dark had been fantastic - great views of other lakes at dusk.  My friend forgot her annoyance at the delays and longeurs and vowed to do the journey in the other direction to make the crossing in daylight.  So the ferry crossing was a bit of a nightmare as we were exhausted.  The charming Iranians who had taken us under their wing helped to carry our baggage and got us installed painlessly on the train on the other side, which otherwise was a mad scramble with no pretence of keeping to any allocated seat numbers.  The Turkish train was all fibreglass and plastic, after the rather quaint and homely Iranian one.  But there's no denying the staff were efficient and the timetable was actually kept to.  The food was really good too (it seemed even more gorgeous after 2 days of bread and cheese!) though shockingly expensive after Iran prices.  It was great to arrive at Haydarpasa station and then get straight onto a ferry amid those spectacular Istanbul views.  All in all a great trip and one we have very fond memories of.

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Train travel within Iran

Iran has a good and growing rail network linking the main cities.  Many trains have air-conditioning.  First and second class is provided, usually converting to 4 or 6 berth sleepers for overnight travel.

To find train times in Iran:  www.raja.ir or www.iranrail.net...

To find train times in Iran on the official Iranian Railways website, go to www.raja.ir.  It has an English version, though it can sometimes be tricky to find.

It's often better to use the more helpful English-language unofficial site www.iranrail.net, who also offer a ticket-buying service for domestic Iranian trains, start by using the journey planner on their home page.  This is an unofficial site run by an Iranian travel expert who started his site to help western travellers to Iran.  As demand can exceed supply for Iranian trains, using this service to pre-book is recommended.  Feedback is always appreciated!

Tehran to Esfahan...

One of the most historic and beautiful cities in Iran, train service to Esfahan is shown below:

 Tehran ► Esfahan  

 

 

 Esfahan ► Tehran  

 

Daily

 

Daily

 Tehran depart:

22:45

 Esfahan depart:

22:40

 Esfahan arrive:

06:05

 Tehran arrive:

06:20

This train has air-conditioned first class 6-berth sleepers and 2nd class seats.

You can buy tickets at the station, remembering to take along your passport, fare 65,000 riyals with a sleeper.

Tehran to Esfahan by train is 494km.

It's reported that this train often fills up several days or even a week or two before departure, so don't leave booking to the last minute, buy a ticket in advance.  It's also reported that tickets are best bought through any travel agency rather than at the station.  In Tehran, there is a travel agency very near the main station, you walk straight across the big square in front of the station and it is a few hundred metres up the avenue heading north (Vali Asr Avenue), on the left. In Isfahan there are several travel agencies around Azadi square in the south of the city and also in the city centre.  I'd recommend using the online booking service provided at www.iranrail.net.


Iran to Syria by train

Tehran - Tabriz - Aleppo - Damascus by train...

There was a weekly train with couchettes/sleeping-cars and restaurant car from Tehran & Tabriz via Lake Van in Turkey (where passengers leave the Iranian train, take a ferry and join a Syrian train at the other side) to Aleppo & Damascus in Syria - but not surprisingly, this train is currently suspended due to the conflict in Syria.  Times and fares are/were available at www.tcdd.gov.tr (click 'English' then 'passenger' then 'trains to the Middle East').  Also try www.raja.ir and www.cfssyria.org

Traveller's reports...

Traveller Pol O Gradaigh reports "The Syrian sleepers were fairly wrecked; in a couple of the compartments it was impossible to resurrect the seating, and only the beds could be used. On the other hand, the beds were extremely comfortable. Also, the compartments each had two beds but side-by-side compartments have a connecting door, so a party of three of four could travel together  The Syrians provided food free of charge, but it was mostly composed of packets of biscuits, packed croissants etc. The exception was lunch the first day, which was some sort of chicken curry out of the fridge, very partially warmed up. Teabags were provided but not hot water! The moral of the story seems to be to bring your own food, especially if you feel the need for fruit or vegetables. There are shops selling drinks and sandwiches just outside the station in Aleppo, and grocery and vegetable stalls just outside the station yard in Meydan Ekbez.  On the Iranian train, full meals were available for about $2.00 each (according to the Iranians, they are free on the Tehran-Damascus return run). The train crossed the Iranian border about 1.00am. All this involved was an Iranian policeman coming on board, collecting the passports and coming back with them after a while. The Syrian border was similar. At the two Turkish border crossings it was necessary to get off the train. All the crossings were painless except for entering Turkey, which involved extremely rude officials and delays while the customs officers (oddly, responsible for collecting the visa fee) hunted for their forms and stamps."

Traveller David Kennedy reports on an Aleppo-Tehran train trip in 2007:  "We booked, though were not allowed to pay for, our onward sleeper from Aleppo to Tehran a week ahead.  Our names were entered onto an official-looking form by the international train ticket sales chap and we were told to return by 10am on the morning of departure.  On our return a week later there were a few hundred people in the booking hall waiting for the Tehran train.  All the sleeping berths had long since been allocated and we were still just in time to bag a pair of seats.  So a week in advance is too early and the morning of departure is too late to guarantee a berth or seat.  The carriages are fairly wretched, but luckily our car was primarily made up of Syrians also going to Iran for a fortnight's holiday.  There was a great party atmosphere and to some extent this made up for not having the expected sleeper berths.  We left around two hours late.  The Syrians were intrigued and somewhat amused by our notion that there was a timetable - the RAJA printout a good ice breaker in fact.  The Aleppo-Tehran train leaves on Monday and that's all you need to know.  Two hours out of Aleppo one of the two old US diesels broke down and so half the train decamped to picnic and we were welcome to join in.  Food is also provided just as Pol O Gradaigh reports, but take additional water, fruit and veg if you don't care for cold tinned processed meat.  It was well after dawn the next day when we got to Malatya in Turkey and the scenery from here on through to Mus is spectacular.  Worth the price of admission alone I'd say.  We got to Tatvan about six hours behind schedule.  We'd missed the boat and no one cared if it reappeared that night or the next morning.  Being up-tight London commuters, unable to accept such a lack of info and keen to avoid another night in uncomfortable seats, we rather harangued the Turkish guards billeted watch over us until we got an answer.  The boat was coming with in the hour, we crossed lake Van that night and I can report that the deck of the lake Van ferry is more uncomfortable and a not a little cooler than an air conditioned train.  The Syrian's partied on, singing, dancing and eating.  We arrived in Van at dawn.  The Iranian trains are modern, clean four-berth compartment sleepers.  There is a restaurant car.  The reservation you get given in Aleppo bears no relation to the train so you sit/sleep where you will.  The guards, in an effort to avoid having Muslim women in together with unrelated men will lump random single men in with obviously western women.  If you don't care for this simply stand your ground, they're not fierce.  We received a small rebate and a free tin of tuna as the in-compartment entertainment system, complete with LCD TV, had failed throughout the train.   I'd like to tell you what the trip was like from here on but after two nights without sleep we nodded off all the way to Tabriz.  To change money, the easiest place would seem to be your first major stop, Tabriz.  There's a bank staffed by Eng Lit masters.  They quoted T.S. Eliot as I changed my money.  You'll find Iran is a bit like that if you've not been before.  We arrived in Tehran at dawn the day after we were scheduled to arrive, around twelve hours late.  In Tehran we wanted to book a train back through to Istanbul in three week's time but were told that, as it was holiday season, all the trains (and almost all flights) were full.  It seems  one could use a local agency to book train tickets in advance from the UK.  We used Mohajeri on Nejatolahi street in Tehran (mohajeri.com +98 (21) 8882 1990 -  beware Iranian phone numbers change constantly) to get us out of the country via the weekly flight out of Tabriz (our tickets subsequently voided at the gate but that's another story) and they told us they could have got Iranian train tickets ready for us if we'd called ahead from the UK.  We had partial success getting tickets for travel around Iran whilst we were there.  In this regard, outside of Tehran, a little Farsi goes a long way and it isn't half as difficult as Arabic.  The standard of trains is high, the run to time and they are exceptionally cheap so, as you'd expect then, they get fully booked.  


Find hotels in Iran or along the way

 

◄◄ Hotel search & price comparison.

www.hotelscombined.com checks all the main hotel booking sites at once to find the widest choice of hotels & the cheapest seller.  It was named as the World's Leading Hotel Comparison Site at the World Travel Awards 2013 and I highly recommend it, both to find hotels in even the smallest places and to check that another retailer isn't selling your hotel for less!

www.booking.com is my favourite booking site.  It's really clear and you can usually book with free cancellation and so confirm your accommodation at no risk months before train booking opens.

Other hotel sites worth trying...

Backpacker hostels...


Recommended guidebooks

Lonely Planet Middle East - click to buy onlineAlways take a good guidebook - I've found that the Lonely Planet or Rough Guides are easily the best out there for independent travellers.  They seem to be researched in much greater depth than most other guidebooks, and unlike many other books which seem to be tailored to one end of the market or the other, the Lonely Planets offer a range of suggestions for low-budget, mid-range and up-market travellers.

Buy Lonely Planet Middle East at Amazon.co.uk

This covers Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Israel and several other countries.

 

 


Travel insurance & health card

 

 

Columbus direct travel insurance

Get travel insurance, it's essential...

Never travel without insurance from a reliable travel insurer with at least £1m or preferably £5m medical cover.  It should also cover loss of cash (up to a limit) & belongings, and cancellation. An annual multi-trip policy is usually cheapest even for just 2 or 3 trips a year (I have an annual policy myself).  Don't expect travel insurance to bail you out of every missed connection, though, see the advice on missed connections here.  Here are some suggested insurers, Seat61 gets a little commission if you buy through these links, and feedback from using insurance for rail & ferry travel is always welcome.

In the UK, use www.confused.com to compare prices & policy features across major insurance companies.

If you have a pre-existing medical condition or are over 65 (no age limit), see www.JustTravelCover.com.

        If you live in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland or the EU, try Columbus Direct's other websites.

  If you live in the USA try Travel Guard USA.

Get an EU health card, it's free...

If you're a UK citizen travelling in Europe, you should apply for a free European Health Insurance Card, which entitles you to free or reduced rate health care if you become ill or get injured in many European countries, under a reciprocal arrangement with the NHS.  This replaced the old E111 forms as from January 2006.  The EHIC card is available from www.ehic.org.uk.  It doesn't remove the need for travel insurance, though.

Get a spare credit card, designed for foreign travel with no currency exchange loading & low/no ATM fees

Taking out an extra credit card costs nothing, but if you keep it in a different part of your luggage you won't be left stranded if your wallet gets stolen.  In addition, some credit cards are better for overseas travel than others.  Martin Lewis's www.moneysavingexpert.com/travel/cheap-travel-money explains which UK credit cards have the lowest currency exchange commission loadings when you buy something overseas, and the lowest cash withdrawal fees when you use an ATM abroad.

You can avoid ATM charges and expensive exchange rates with a Caxton FX euro currency Visa Card, or their multi-currency 'Global Traveller' Visa Card, see www.caxtonfx.com for info.

Get an international SIM card to save on mobile data and phone calls...

Mobile phones can cost a fortune to use abroad, and if you're not careful you can return home to find a huge bill.  Consider buying a global pre-paid SIM card for your mobile phone from www.Go-Sim.com, which can slash costs by up to 85%.  Go-Sim cuts call costs in 175 countries worldwide, and you can receive incoming calls and texts for free in 75 countries.  It's pay-as-you-go, so no nasty bills when you get home.  It also allows cheap data access for laptops & PDAs.  A Go-Sim account and any credit on it doesn't expire if it's not used between trips, unlike some others, so a Go-Sim phone number becomes your 'global phone number' for life.

 


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