Jewels of Persia: Iran by Private Train

Douglas Grimes and Annie Lucas, MIR’s President and Vice President, had the privilege of being aboard the inaugural journey of the first western private train allowed into Iran.  A round trip journey from Budapest to Tehran and back aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express private train, this was a first-of-its-kind itinerary and an historic undertaking.

In late October 2014, they joined the Jewels of Persia by Private Train rail journey in Tehran with a two-night hotel stay before embarking on the luxury private train for the epic journey around this enigmatic country.  Their arrival procedures at Tehran airport

“…reminded us of Soviet times, with a hurry-up-and-wait in this line, then that line and then yet another line, finally concluding with getting fingerprinted (as is typical for U.S. visitors). We were the last two souls to clear customs – at 3am – but our bags were there on the carousel waiting for us just the same.”

For the next week they traveled around the country aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express private train, enjoying the onboard comforts and amenities as well as the ancient and fascinating sites all along the route. Here are a few of their impressions.

 

  • Tehran, Iran

    What’s memorable about Tehran?  Plenty.

    The top cultural highlight of Tehran is undoubtedly the collection of Crown Jewels at the State Jewels Museum housed in the vaults of the Central Bank of Iran.  Open for limited hours on four days of the week only, the extensive collection includes the world’s largest uncut diamond, and the Peacock Throne, covered with over 23,000 gems. Tight security prevails here, as one can imagine, since this fabulous treasure is the collateral to the Iranian currency – hence its location inside the bank vault!

    We found time on our own to explore Tehran’s burgeoning food scene as well. We enjoyed a lunch of Persian specialties prepared with a modern twist and served in a chic atmosphere with wonderful mountain views at the divine Divan Restaurant, located in an upscale shopping complex in the city’s north end.  It was far and away the best food we experienced on our journey, and every dish we tried (and we sampled many starters, salads and a few mains) was equally good.  (Did you happen to catch the episode of that recently aired on CNN? Fabulous.)

    Traffic like we’ve never seen before – anywhere. Gridlock is the standard. Add to that the pure volume of vehicles, and the sheer chaos of drivers making up their own rules as they go, including helmet-less motorcycle drivers buzzing up and down the lanes – in the wrong direction – coming at you head on in your own lane.

    (click on photo to see larger version)


     

  • Aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express Private Train

    Departing Tehran in the evening aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express private train we settled into a deluxe cabin and headed for Mashad. The return westbound leg of this epic trip included Mashad, Kerman and Mahan, stops not featured on the eastbound leg.

    (click on photo to see larger version)


     

     

  • Mashan, Kerman, Mahan

    MashadMashad, the second largest city in the country is the Mecca of Iran.  Home to the Imam Reza shrine, one of the holiest Shi’ite shrines in Iran, the site and the city receive millions of visitors a year.

    On arrival we were greeted by the mayor and railway administration officials and treated royally at a welcome reception.  Local press besieged us for the entire day as a police escort led our three-coach caravan to the shrine.  Here the women donned chadors (ably assisted by our local handlers) and were grandly received by a local imam in one of the outer courts of the complex that are open to non-Muslims.

    (click on photo to see larger version)


     

    KermanWe were back aboard the train for dinner and an evening listening to piano tunes in the lounge car performed by our Hungarian singer/pianist.  Overnight the train headed toward Kerman where we were again met by the press, the mayor and governor, a variety of local officials and school children who gave us roses and handmade artwork.

    (click on photo to see larger version)


     

    MahanWe headed to Mahan and visited the mausoleum complex of Shah Nematollah Vali, Sufi leader, poet and mystic born in the 14th century, before lunching at the restaurant inside the beautiful Shahzadeh (Prince) Garden.  We were back aboard the train for dinner and heading toward Shiraz.

    (click on photo to see larger version)


  • Persepolis

    We awoke in a virtually brand new railway station and boarded coaches for the trip out to Persepolis, about 45 minutes away.  We had been told that the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid kings at Persepolis was one of the top trip highlights in Iran, as well as one of the most important sites of the Ancient World, and after seeing it, we have to agree.  The famous bas-reliefs showing kings, courtiers and gift-bearing representatives of the Persian Empire’s tributary nations was a favorite.

    (click on photo to see larger version)


  • Naghsh-e-Rostam, Shiraz

    Naghsh-e-RostamEnroute to Shiraz we stopped briefly at Naghsh-e-Rostam.  The monumental rock carvings at Naghsh-e Rostam are thought to be the tombs of Darius the Great, Xerxes and Artaxerxes.  Carved in the Elamite, Achaemenian and Sassanid periods, the cliff walls contain the façade of a palace. The Sassanian rock-reliefs here are magnificent.

    Here we ran into the MIR small group tour, Ancient Persia Modern Iran, led by one of our favorite Iranian guides Farzaneh, and hosted by MIR Seattle staff member Jake Smith.  At first it was hard to place these familiar faces in such unfamiliar surroundings.  Small world!

    ShirazA visit to Shiraz just wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the tomb of Hafez.  Surrounded by a lovely garden, the tomb of Iran’s favorite poet is a place of pilgrimage and reverence.  Interaction with the locals, who visit in droves just as the foreign visitors do, was indeed a highlight of our time here.

    Stained glass of Citadel of Karim Khan in Shiraz, Iran  Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

    Stained glass of Citadel of Karim Khan in Shiraz, Iran
    Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

  • Isfahan

    Our final stop was Isfahan (though the train, without us, made one more stop in Iran as it wound toward the Turkish border at Zanjan).

    Isfahan is without a doubt my favorite city on the itinerary.  Our favorite sites here included Chehel Sotun Palace (11 Columns), and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.

    Shah Abbas II built the Chehel Sotun Palace in 1647.  Set in a park by a long pool between the Ali Qapu Palace and Chahar Bagh Avenue, the pavilion was used for receptions and entertainment.  The name means “11 Columns,” and refers to the 20 wooden columns supporting the entrance to the Great Hall, multiplied by their reflection in the pool.  Inside are exquisite frescoes.  The beautifully decorated 17th century Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque took nearly 20 years to complete, and the tilework was simply stunning.

    (click on photo to see larger version)