A Train to Persia

The Trans-Asia Express leaves from Istanbul to Tehran once a week, on Wednesday night, five minutes to eleven from the Haydarpaşa station. According to its schedule published in the site of the Turkish State Railways it arrives early in the morning to Ankara, then passes through the Anatolian Plateau, and in the third day about noon it arrives to Lake Van in Eastern Turkey. Here the passengers take a ferryboat that cuts across the hundred kilometers between the harbors of Tatvan and Van in seven hours, during which they can also admire a beautiful sunset above the lake encircled by the belt of the majestic Anatolian mountains. On the other side they are attended by the Persian train that in the night passes through the Iranian border, in the early morning stops in Tabriz, and arrives to Tehran in the evening of the fourth day. The ticket for the two thousand kilometers long journey costs 50 euros, sleeper and ferry included.

The track can be well seen on the map of the Turkish railway system fixed on the top of the television in the Istanbul railway restaurant. Starting from point 1 and traveling through line 2, after point 4 (Sivas) we change for the Kurdish siding-line that takes us to Lake Van at the right side of the map and after the lake passes us over to the Persian State Railways.


Whoever is willing to dedicate these 66 hours (according the official schedule, but in reality rather 80 hours) to the railways in the interest of a slow, gradual arrival to Persia instead of the 40 hours of bus travel or the few hours of an air flight, can read further information on the Iranian page of seat61.com. The author among other things informs us that we can also secure a ticket in advance for 59 euro in some Istanbul travel agencies, and he sincerely confesses that “seat61 gets a small commission” if we mention who directed us to them.

We were not so farsighted. There were so many things to organize, papers to settle, works to close before leaving that there was no time left for booking the tickets. We thought that being pretty much beyond the tourist season, there will be plenty of empty seats in the train, and it will be enough to buy the tickets in Istanbul.


In Istanbul, however, nobody knows where the tickets are sold for this train about which no living person has ever heard. Such trains are only taken by old English gentlemen in search of the scenes of their youth, Polish itinerant vendors and adventuresome backpackers, but never by Turkish people. In our hotel, the cheap and cosy Sultan’s Inn (at the lower border of the map, in the Sultanahmet district) of which I will also speak more amply later, the young receptionist desperately called the travel agencies known to him, but he only could have secured a ticket to Tatvan, the railhead of the Turkish line. As to how we will make the other thousand kilometers from there – “inshallah” he threw up his hands, it is already the domain of the Shi'ite Allah, not of the Sunni one.

The international booking office of the Haydarpaşa station on the other, Asian shore of the Sea of Marmara is already closed in the evening. Thus we set out in the Istanbul dusk, questioning travel agencies in the street of the Blue Mosque, until in the Backpackers office we are given the tip to go to the Sirkeci station, the terminus of the European railway lines (at the upper edge of the map), where tickets are sold even at this late hour, and yes, for Asian lines as well.

We amble along in the drizzling evening on Babiali Caddesi, the north-southern crossing road to the railway station. In the glass-fronted ticket office a girl is speaking by phone and an older gentleman is having a supper from a half-opened drawer. We pick out the girl so that we would not disturb the gentleman, but then it appears that we should have done just the opposite, as he turns out to be the international ticket office. He serves us with a proportionate annoyance, as if he regarded it as a personal offense that we want to travel to such an impossible place. He distributes the basic informations in an offhand manner, it appears on him that he does not believe we seriously want to buy and that he would prefer to return to his drawer. In the meantime a Turkish gentleman forges ahead asking a ticket to some unknown destination. He is regarded as a serious customer, and the two men devotedly negotiate the possible alternatives. The serious customer pays in dollars.

A large number of folders stand in huge piles all over the desks. The gentleman rummages among them until he finds one that has to do with our train. Yes, they have ticket, namely one single empty sleeping compartment in all the train, all the other seats have been sold. This one was waiting for us! While we are pondering whether we should go back to the city to withdraw cash, he sits back behind his drawer so that time would not flow in vain. But then I risk the question whether we can pay with bank card. To our great surprise we can. From another drawer he fishes out a card reader, wipes the dust off it, and while he swallows the last bites, he withdraws from our card the 182 Turkish lira equivalent to 100 euro. In the meantime two Korean girls inquire me in broken Turkish about the time of departure of the train to Thessaloniki.


After the successful purchase we walk out to the nearby Eminönü coastline to learn from where the ferry departs tomorrow to the Haydarpaşa station. The row of landing-places and ticket offices rallying along the coast gives a familiar impression, as it is just like the good old jampacked metro terminus of Kőbánya-Kispest in Budapest, albeit much bigger and much more interesting. At the boarding places a large crowd flows out and in to the ships, along the entrances a large number of kiosks sell kebab and tea, and the spaces between the kiosks are filled up by a continuous street market where one can find everything from fresh grape to sheepskin waistcoat and Chinese shoes. But the most exciting feature are the small boats hauled alongside the quay between the big ferries on which, in the middle of the swell of the sea so that it is a seasickness just to look at it, three or four men fry small fishes by the dozens. Their agent standing on the quay advertises the stuff in a loud voice, routinely taking over from the boat the fried fish put in a fresh bread between green leaves with one hand and the three lira for it with the other. Along the boats there are some plastic stools with lemon juice and salt on them and with small seats around them. We plant ourselves to a free place, enjoying the magnificent dinner, watching the swarming crowd, the departing ferries, and the glimmer of the lights of the city on the dark water of the Golden Horn Bay.

On the following evening, after a whole day spent by walking and completely filled with the colors and vivacity of the city, here we wait for the ferry to take us over to the Asian shore. The last ferry leaves at 7:10 to the Haypdarpaşa pier. After this time there are only ferries to the much more southward Kadiköy from where it takes twenty minutes to walk up to the station, and with the crammed backpack I have no desire to do so. On the way to the ferry we did our shopping for the three days travel in the small supermarket near to the haven. The salesman watched me with mistrust as I was tottering with the enormous sack on my back between the gondolas and giving instructions in an unknown language to my accomplice. In order to ease the tension I want to ask him where I can find goat cheese, but the name of the goat does not come to my mind, although in Turkish it is almost the same as in Hungarian: kechi. Therefore I’m maaing instead. His face relaxes into a smile, shakes his head, points on a large tray of beautiful white cheese and he’s baaing for a long time. We have found the common language. The ice is broken.

The transcontinental voyage lasts for a quarter of an hour and it costs 1.30 lira (about 80 eurocents). We go up on the shipboard and from there we are watching the withdrawing ligths of the City crowned by the illuminated Suleiman Mosque. At our side two schoolgirls are chatting, and from time to time casting a furtive look at us, trying to identify our language. Finally, when nearing to the pier, one of them summons up her courage and “Was für eine Sprache sprechen Sie? Deutsch?” she puts the absurd question, for if she knows German this much then she should clearly hear that we are not speaking in German. We are speaking in Hungarian, I tell her in Turkish. They greet us with a laugh, and later when turning back in the pier I see that they are waving their hands to us. I wave my hands back to them.


The Arabic inscription gives a strange impression on the tile-covered Jugendstil facade of the Haydarpaşa station reminding of a German knight’s castle. In fact, this building of the atmosphere of the Monarchy is also a strange feature here, in the East. The city received it in 1908 as a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm, a central station of the Berlin-Istanbul-Baghdad railway built by the Germans which already arrived as far as Urfa when the English, shocked by the German expansion, unleashed the first World War. The railway that could have brought the European civilization as far as the Persian and Syrian borders, has never been completed. Many decades later a junction line was opened towards Baghdad from Gaziantep on the Kurdish rail spur, on which since 2003, when the Americans brought their own civilization to Iraq, the traffic is suspended.

The railway restaurant where we plant ourselves for the three-four hours remaining until departure could also be at any station of the Monarchy. Stucco-decorated high ceiling, long white curtains, carefully laid white tables, framed prints on the walls painted with oil, a Baroque style barman’s counter, waiters in black suit, and beer, much beer. We carefully choose our place by the side of the back door that directly opens to the sea, and when we manage to imperceptibly open it, fresh sea air streams in. Such thing cannot be found in the Monarchy.



We point at some appetizing vegetable plates on the counter of which we do not even know the name. Fried eggplant, thick soup, salad, hot sauce, muskmelon. The dinner is majestic. We eat slowly, asking for new plates, “the one they are having at the other table” and, inspired by the genius loci, we order beer, the very first time in Istanbul.

Turkish beer for the collection of John

Around nine in the evening the audience slowly begins to get thicker, already all the tables are full. They also switch on the bigger TV under the railway map, and they direct a projector on the large empty wall in the field of sight of the white lion. By this time already everyone is watching the TVs. The transmission that thus far continuously broadcasted the images of the collision between the Turkish army and the Kurds on the Iraqi border now changes for sport advertisements, and we realize that soon they will televise a football match.

At about a quarter before ten the Beşiktaş-Liverpool European Champions League match begins. The audience follows it with a tense attention, continuously commenting the developments, and, in contrast to Hungarians, following the actions not with shouting but with sober strategic footnotes. More and more people are arriving, the seats at the tables are pushed together, rakis are ordered with the new beers. Just then I discover what the white lion is keeping in his hands: a soccer ball.

The Turks are playing beautifully. “Ten minutes later we have to go to the train, until then we could get a nice goal after the good dinner, really,” I say. Some minutes later, in the thirteenth minute of the match, the English receive their first goal, and the Beşiktaş fans, as we read later, produce a world record of football’s loudest ever level with 132 decibels. Now we can go.