Night Train to Tabriz – Tehran and Tabriz, Iran

Night Train to Tabriz

Train ride between Tehran and Tabriz, Iran

Public Iranian spaces can be intimidating–crowds of dark-skinned, heavily-bearded men and clusters of veiled women all staring, or seeming to stare–intimidating, at least, to a lone fair-skinned American. Airports are, to my mind, the worst of these spaces. Waiting at airports is always a bore but made worse when the bureaucracy is foreign. In Iran, men and women undergo separate security checks. On our first conjugal trip to that country (my husband, Farshan’s, birth land), I was whisked away from him and ushered into a curtained-off area, then hand-searched by a group of women who eyed me relentlessly through the black veils of their chadour. Immigration authorities confiscated my passport on our second visit (later redeemed by my father-in-law after two all-day excursions to a bureaucratic hole-in-the-wall). On our most recent trip to Iran, complete with two young sons, I had had enough of airports and flying and voted whole-heartedly in favor of taking an overnight train for our annual pilgrimage from Tehran to Tabriz.

Tabriz is a city in the northwest corner of Iran, a mountainous region high above sea level. Farshan’s cousin once told me that Iran looks like a cat; and if you look at a map of Iran, you will see that the drawn outline of the country does, indeed, have a feline shape with a definite head, ears, and arched back. Tabriz, located in the head, could be seen as an eye or, if you’re so inclined, the brain of this cat. It was here that my husband’s parents, Malakeh and Jamshid, were born.

Due to its elevated height and northerly location, winters in Tabriz are bitterly cold. A typical breakfast reflects the winter climate: thick cream and honey spread over sangak (traditional bread) for high-fat energy and, to warm the blood, cupfuls of ginger-flavored tea. Farshan remembers his zan daie beating raw eggs with sugar until frothy: the original high-protein shake. Pastry shops are as ubiquitous in Tabriz as Starbucks cafes are in any American city, and a bulging box of cream-filled confections is the traditional hostess gift. My father-in-law’s favorite treat is gorabieh, a large cookie made with either walnut or almond meal. Delicious fresh, or even slightly stale: they are the perfect size to place atop a cup of steaming chai, which has the benefit of steaming them soft again.

Shortly after we boarded, a man came by selling sweet breads, filled with dates or saffron, and prepackaged in plastic. He did not work for the train company, but made his way through the trains before they departed the station. There are many such independent operators in Iran, profiting by small opportunities. We bought date-filled sweet breads for each of us, stored our baggage in the overhead racks and pulled down stow-away tables for our impromptu picnic.

In good timing, another man came by offering cups of tea, which we accepted, because anywhere you go in Iran, from the parks to the bazaars, you are likely to be approached by someone with a portable samovar on his back, and a bag full of plastic cups. This man did work for the train company and had his own office, which we spied on the way to dinner. It was a little like a janitor’s closet, but lined with extra pillows and blankets, and essentials such as tea and sugar. He also had his own cabin with a single bunk for the journey. Soon we heard the long, drawn out whistle announcing our departure, and the train pulled slowly out of Tehran station.

We were an express train, which meant that out of the four hundred or so miles to Tabriz, we would stop only three times, at major cities (major for a mountain route, population on average 100,000 – 300,000) along the way: Karaj, Ghazvin, and Zanjan. If we had taken the local, it would have stopped at every mountain village. Karaj is famous for its large dam; we picnicked there, by the river, the first year that my husband and I visited Iran together. A caravan of cars holding aunts, uncles and cousins wound its way through mountain paths, trunks filled with steaming pots of rice and khoresht (meat and vegetable dish), ash (heavy soup), plates and silverware, a kerosene heater and, of course, tea. Ghazvin is known as one of the first cities to have a coffeehouse (ironically, now only serving tea).

The last stop, Zanjan, is the approximate halfway point between Tehran and Tabriz. Located at the foot of the mountains, it is in the middle of a low, flat valley. It is windy and very cold. (When Farshan complained to the conductor about the overheated compartments, he was told to wait until we arrived at Zanjan. Then we would be glad of the heat.) A short way after Zanjan, the train begins to climb the mountain, and climbs the rest of the way to Tabriz. As the train waited at Zanjan station, I pressed my hand to the cold dark glass and tried to imagine what lay just beyond: miles of flat white snow, a huddling of houses, mountains in the distance.

Farshan often recalls drives he took as a child from Tehran to Tabriz: waking at four in the morning to avoid the glare of the noonday sun, watermelon vendors lined up along the country roads, the clearness of the mountain streams (I remember dipping my face into one of those streams; Farshan said back then you could drink the water). I have seen photographs of wildflowers in the lush countryside outside Tehran, and I have been to the Caspian Sea and traveled back by car through those mountain ranges, have witnessed the richness of colors in those hills, layered like spices in the bazaar-sumac, saffron, turmeric-one upon the other.

So I knew as the train whistled past in the dark something of what I was missing, but the darkness engulfed everything from the flat snow to the sharpest mountain peaks. Who knew what could be lurking within those depths? Somewhere out there, I knew, were wolves, their howls drowned by the train’s chug and hiss. If it were light the snow would have reflected an opaque surface back to the sky, pages of a blank book, nothing hidden; but now, at night, the dark was fluid; it took on the quality of water, of an immense ocean fathoms deep with no way of knowing what lay in or beyond. As if I had been submerged-mountains felt rather than seen, rising to the sky, sharp points blocking me from the rest of the world.

As the hour grew late, we made our way to the dining car. The waiter greeted us in a deep Turkish accent, explaining that because the shipment of beef intended for the restaurant had been found to contain mad cow disease, chicken was the only available dish. “Chabob,” he said, his accent swallowing the hard K in kabob, “chabob nist.” There is no kabob. He stood blocking the doorway, fully expecting us to turn around and leave. In Iran, you do not order anything but kabob at a restaurant, since most Iranian women pride themselves on their own rice and khoresht.

After we had convinced him that we did want the chicken, we sat down next to a table of Iranian soldiers who were dressed in green fatigues. Their proximity was only slightly alarming, given their military uniforms, grave demeanor, and dark bearded faces which, in the U.S., would have earned them the name terrorist. But it was obvious they were merely a group of tired men about to enjoy their evening meal. They seemed to be concerned that our older son, Shahin, would fall from his chair, and collectively cringed every time the train lurched on its tracks.

The waiter brought us a very salty soup, or ash, typical of the region: barley, tomatoes and beans cooked in chicken broth, served with sweet lemon wedges. I had brought my camera, and attempted a few shots of Malakeh and Jamshid. All the photos that I took on that trip were in black-and-white, and when I think back to that train ride it seems as if the images in my head are also in black-and-white, as though the train ride were from a long time ago.

As I was snapping, the waiter noticed me and began to move purposefully forward. I was alarmed, remembering the incident a few years back in which my film had been confiscated by authorities at the Tehran airport because I had been caught photographing airplanes along with the mountain vista. I cringed as the waiter approached my husband and spoke a few short sentences. “What did he say,” I asked, as he walked away. Farshan smiled. “He says that if you want to avoid a glare from the window, you should take the picture at an angle.”

Another trouble with being in any sort of public Iranian space is that it is vastly overheated. Airports are notoriously hot, made worse by the fact that women are not allowed to remove their outer layers. In regards to heat, the train was no exception. But thankfully, in this private space, I was allowed to remove my cumbersome wool coat, worn in anticipation of the Tabrizi winter. We draped the heavy coat across the heating vent, to no avail. The only window to open was a narrow one near the ceiling. This window would prove both my salvation and my scourge. Though at first it relieved the tiny cabin of excess heat, it soon let in too much of the opposite sensation. Throughout the course of the night, as we began to climb the mountains, the window banged open and shut as we sped around bends in the track, first letting in blasts of icy winter air, then blocking them until the cabin became suffused once more.

I slept on one of the bottom bunks, opposite Shahin. Farshan and Malakeh occupied the two top fold-out bunks and our five-month old, Arash, slept in his car seat on the floor, rocked rhythmically by the motion of the train. Jamshid had gone to the next compartment to sleep, to allow us more space; he was bunked with three other men traveling from the south of Iran, near the Persian Gulf. These men were well-used to the heat – my father-in-law later reported that they kept on their coats and hats the entire night. Iranians usually have no dislike of heat and, indeed, recommend strongly that one cover one’s head whenever possible. My poor father-in-law, however, became so overheated in that tiny cabin with the window bolted shut that his vocal chords dried up, and for the next week he could barely speak.

In our cabin, with the window sometimes open, sometimes shut, it was impossible to achieve a comfortable temperature, and I rocked all night on my lower bunk, alternately hot and cold. I had taken off my pants as I first lay down to sleep, but quickly pulled them on again at Zanjan. I never did figure out how to keep the window locked in one position, so along with the vicissitudes in temperature, we suffered the constant symphony of the window banging shut, again and again and again, round every mountain curve.

I fully expected my mother-in-law to complain about the cold and request that the window be kept closed, as it was in the compartment where my father-in-law slept. She is sensitive to chills and catches cold easily (she won’t leave the house for twenty-four hours after a shower). But she never said a word. Tabrizi women are notoriously feisty. Malakeh can hold a cup of steaming tea with bare hands, reduce rug merchants to tears, incite riots and shame authorities. Like most people born in Tabriz, or the province of Azerbaijan, she speaks Turkish. Turkish is, in fact, her first language and the one she returns to when she is filled with any sort of emotion, from excitement to anger to grief.
The Turkish spoken in the province of Azerbaijan is an older form of the language known as Azari, from before the time Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (during his presidency of 1923-1938) changed his country’s alphabet to Latin, thus causing certain sounds to be lost.

Traveling through Tabriz is, in a way, like traveling back through time as the Turkish spoken there is now no longer spoken anywhere else; it has elsewhere become extinct. Though the language survived, much of the older Tabriz did not, the Tabriz that Farshan remembers from twenty years ago. He has often described the life his grandfather lived as an owner of several villages and a large orchard he inhabited with his many children. Details of the orchard have become real to me – lines of gnarled fruit trees, mud walls, the long house with its many rooms-and it seems that the train ride we took is part of this same detail. Though I know that the orchard is long gone, now a part of the city, paved over and built up, I wish that this older Tabriz still existed.

The year after our train ride, my brother-in-law and his wife visited Malakeh and Jamshid with their new baby. They, too, decided on an overnight train to Tabriz. Elena sent a photograph taken in Tehran station just before boarding. The long body of the train and swirls of smoke in the background bring to mind the black-and-white photographs that I took. I did not realize that we had made the ride sound enviable. Between Arash waking up and the intolerable heat we had such a poor night’s sleep that, upon arriving in Tabriz, the first thing we did was to book a plane ride back. Yet the aura of the train persists – the magic of stepping into another time, the immediacy of the land. It is easy enough to fly places, but sometimes the essential moments in life demand sacrifice. And every sacrifice has its blessing: imagine, as the clock strikes six, in a silvery pre-dawn light, the overnight train from Tehran pulling into Tabriz station.

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