December 5, 2014 3:25 pm
Three days before we were due to board a flight to Iran, it wasn’t looking good. The Iranian security services had decided I’d been reporting from Tehran in 1982, and not one of them had thought to follow up by looking at my date of birth. I may have been a precocious child but at six years old, that still would have been rather far-fetched. A flurry of emails, calls and two flights to the Iranian embassy in Dublin later, the elusive visa had somehow materialised and I was finally permitted to go.
And yet, for many tourists, getting to Iran is becoming easier. Just before my visit last month, Iranian officials announced a big rise in the number of foreign visitors. In the year to March, 4.5m tourists came to the country, an increase of 35 per cent on the previous year, with a 200 per cent rise in European visitors. Iran is now hoping to hit 20m annual visitors by 2025 and, visa hiccup aside, my visit was symptomatic of such ambitions. I was to join the Golden Eagle Danube Express on its inaugural journey from Tehran to Budapest — the first time the Iranian authorities had permitted a European luxury train to operate in the country.
The train pulled into the platform in Tehran, met by a wall of smartphones flashing. Handsome attendants, immaculately attired, stepped down from historic carriages and rolled out the red carpets, while television crews pushed forward, straining for a better view. The scene would not have looked out of place inMurder on the Orient Express if it weren’t for the media presence and, of course, the many times life-size poster of Ayatollah Khomeini watching every move.
We were to spend two weeks on board, taking in a circuit of Mashhad, Kerman, Yazd, Shiraz, Persepolis and Isfahan, before leaving over the Turkish border. Though it is now British-run, the train’s carriages were built in the mid-20th century to transport Hungarian officials around the Balkans; the wood-panelled cabins, silk furnishings and piano in the bar still have the feel of a bygone age. Until the light fades, the 52 passengers can watch Iran fly by the picture windows from their cabins, then spruce up for a drink and a three-course dinner. While they are dining, the cabins are made up for the night. Though the sound of the wheels on the tracks does take a little getting used to, it’s constant enough to lull you into a dreamless sleep.
After an overnight journey from Tehran, we arrived at Mashhad and were met at the station by the provincial governor and a small child handing out roses amid yet another media scrum. The arrival of so many foreigners remains big news in Iran.
Mashhad is Iran’s holiest city and a major pilgrimage centre for Shia Muslims: the resident population is outnumbered almost sevenfold by the pilgrims who visit the shrine of Imam Reza each year. As I approached the shrine gates, its guardians appeared with an armful of chadors, the all-encompassing cotton sheets printed with floral designs. The chador attaches with elastic around your neck; the end result was that I looked like a skittle decorated with Laura Ashley offcuts from 1970.
The dress code didn’t detract from the splendour of the shrine. Under constant development since the imam’s death in 818, it is, in terms of area covered, the largest mosque complex in the world, a labyrinth of courtyards and halls. Recognising that both Iran and Islam sometimes have a PR problem, the mosque has taken the unusual step of creating an education department: young, erudite mullahs offer free lectures in English for tourists, informing them about the history of Mashhad and the significance of Imam Reza.
From Mashhad the train turned south, stopping in the desert towns of Kerman and Yazd before continuing west to Shiraz. Famed for its grapes (though sadly little wine is made here now), it is known as a city of poets and tombs and also the gateway to one of the best-preserved and politically significant sites in Iran: the Achaemenid ruins of Persepolis.
Darius the Great founded Persepolis in 518BC as the capital of an empire stretching from Greece to the Indus Valley. The surviving palace friezes depict hundreds of tribes bringing valuable gifts to the king. While the guide moved our tour group on to yet another striking sight, I sat transfixed by a single depiction of a Bactrian camel, lifelike and unscarred by man or time. The forces of Alexander the Great sacked Persepolis but, somehow, this image survived.
In 1971, Persepolis again played its role in history as the site of the shah’s infamous last party, where 600 mostly foreign guests celebrated 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy. The costs ran into millions of dollars as critics raged that this was money Iran could ill-afford. By the end of the decade the monarchy was overthrown. The rusting frames of the party marquees are still visible below the palace.
We awoke the next morning in Isfahan, once the capital of ancient Persia, where the Safavid emperors deployed their finest architects, engineers and artisans to craft the most beautiful city in the Islamic world. The city’s central square, the Naqsh-e Jahan (“image of the world”), is surrounded by two exquisitely tiled mosques, cloistered walkways and the Ali Qapu palace. Beyond is the Qasarieh bazaar, a warren of vaulted tunnels, workshops and shops selling souvenirs. I showed an interest in the hand-printed textiles and found myself led through the back alleys to watch the craftsmen at work.
Iran became greener as the train journeyed on to the north. We finally slipped out into Turkey in the middle of the night, headscarves cast asunder and a bottle of champagne on ice.
Photographs: Christophe Boisvieux/robertharding.com, Sophie Ibbotson
Sophie Ibbotson was a guest of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains (goldeneagleluxurytrains.com). Its 15-day “Jewels of Persia” trip runs from Tehran to Budapest or vice versa, and costs from £9,895; in 2015 it is also offering a circular “Heart of Persia” trip, beginning and ending in Tehran, from £9,095
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