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“Before we go on, I’ll have to ask you to stop,” urges the Iranian man with his hair tied back in a tight bun. He is not looking at us but at our camcorder. He regards the camera with such uncertainty that we could have been pointing a locked and cocked Kalashnikov in his face. “I can’t talk to you with that thing looking at me. You know, I don’t think I’m going to talk to you any more. Shit, someone could see it and they might disappear me.”

We have just boarded the TransAsya Express at Istanbul’s magnificent Haydarpasa station and after settling into a 2 sq m cabin have bumped into the Iranian – or rather squeezed passed him – on a recce of the carriages. Before he ended our conversation he had been telling us about the trip he was making back to Tehran – the final stop on our train’s 2,968km journey. After spending two days in Ankara applying for a green card for the US, he had travelled to Istanbul to visit family before now making the three-day train ride back to Tehran.

The green card story would become a familiar one over subsequent days. He had agreed to an interview and a portrait but during our exchange he had begun to speak disparagingly about Iran. It was at that point he realised his mistake and clammed up. He said he feared for his safety if anyone picked up on his remarks. With that he disappeared into his berth.

The TransAsya Express leaves Haydarpasa every Wednesday at 22.55. We haven’t even left the station and we have already managed to alienate one of the passengers. We decide to retire to our couchettes and start afresh at the break of day. Our dour conductor inspects our tickets and his equally sullen attendant furnishes us with a pillow, sheet and blanket. As we bed down, the train’s wheezy horn sounds our departure and the heater in our cabin wafts into life with all the energy of a silent fart.

We are a little disappointed that the train isn’t a rickety old choo-choo or a faded 1940s Pullman coach breathing its last gasp of steam. In reality the TransAsya Express’s rolling stock is built by Turkish train manufacturer TÜVSAS; our carriages were thrown together this side of the millennium and lack the romance of the golden age. It becomes apparent that this trip will be less about the train and more about the passengers, as long as we can find some who will agree to talk to us.

Sleeping on trains is one of those masochistic pleasures that is both exhilarating and exhausting. As the locomotive trundles out of Haydarpasa and heads for its first stop at Izmit the streetlamps of suburban Istanbul provide a dazzling if unwelcome light show through the curtainless windows. At intervals throughout the night we are startled from our slumber by the train’s croaky horn and the odd insomnious Turk bouncing off the walls of the snug corridors.

When morning breaks we find ourselves in Ankara where the railway workers are draining the lavatories. We are supposed to arrive here at 06.45 and stop for 55 minutes, but the driver is running behind schedule and there is only 10 minutes to stretch our legs.

Breakfast is served in the buffet car that doubles as a communal living area for passengers and staff; we end up referring to this meal wagon as the “party car”. Whether it’s a Turkish State Railways employment policy or just plain cabin fever that affects the train staff is hard to discern, but as we enter the car for breakfast the conductor, chef, waiter and several travellers are engaged in a Turkish jig. It transpires that most of the personnel have been up all night on the booze. When asked what they have been drinking the waiter points at a nondescript bottle of hooch and mumbles something in Turkish. A fellow passenger gives us a rough translation, “he says goat syrup whiskey.” Whatever it is, it clearly does the trick.

Every morning passengers tuck into the “Traditional Turkish Breakfast” of “yellow cheese, white cheese, olives, bread and boiled egg”. Behind us a young family of Australians is devouring their platter and we strike up a ­conversation in a bid to reignite our ­lukewarm passenger relations. “I take the kids out of school for three months every year. To travel from Europe to Asia in just 48 hours sounded incredible,” says the father, Robert Reid.

“We have read that the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] is fond of disrupting the rail system in the mountains. I guess we’ll have to wait and see, but so far everything seems very safe,” says Reid.

Turkey’s bid for EU membership is plagued in part by its proximity to the Middle East and Asia. In two days we will arrive in the Turkish-Kurdish city of Van that’s just 50km from Iran. That Turkey also borders Syria and Iraq to the south and Armenia and Georgia to the north-east is hardly an advantage. It is no secret that Turkey’s human-rights record and regrettable treatment of the Kurds is also precluding them from early accession.

We spend the first full day chewing up the tracks between Ankara and Malatya, stopping at Yerköy, Kayseri and Sivas. People travelling on the TransAsya Express are on it for the long haul – few passengers disembark along the way and with such long stretches between stops a community spirit develops. Of the nine carriages, seven contain passengers in two classes. Then there’s the baggage and dining cars. We’ve purchased a premium one-way ticket from Istanbul to Van for about €50 each which buys us space in a four-person couchette that we keep to just the two of us for the entire journey.

“These trains never get packed out,” says Ladan Jahansouz, an Iranian author who is Interailing to Tehran with her ­husband after travelling around southeast Asia. “I have made this journey many times. We could fly, but why would we? We meet so many interesting people.” ­Jahansouz embarked at Ankara where she had spent a few days “collecting myself before the journey back to Iran”.

“I was staying in a hotel in Ankara opposite the US embassy. There is an enormous queue of people applying for their green cards. I call it the Green Mile. I love my country, but many people are desperate to leave.” Jahansouz had just translated Richard Bach’s 1970s cult pseudo-self-help novel Jonathan ­Livingston Seagull into Farsi.

Iranians outnumber Turks on the train. Their reasons for heading home are manifold. While the express trundles through tiny villages and the air begins to thin as day wears into night, our fellow Iranian drifters offer up their experiences: “I have a bad heart which prevents me from flying long distances so we took the train. My father died one year ago and Iranian tradition demands I return to pay my respects a year later,” says Bemrouz Moorian of his pilgrimage.

Rasid Khaze, another Iranian who we nickname the Ambassador of Car Four for his sheer gregariousness, is desperate to tell us his story. After dining on leathery steak in the party car we listen to him speak. “My daughter get green card in Ankara. Now she leaves Iran. My family fled Lenin to live in Iran when I was three, now my family leave for America.”

Another rattly night passes, this time without the flashing lights – we’re in deepest, darkest Turkey now. The only discomfort in the night comes from the popping of our ears as the train begins to gain altitude and the terrain roughens.

Shortly after breakfast we stop in Beyan, a Turkish military checkpoint. “The army is assessing the threat to the train from the PKK in the mountains. That is why we have the armed guards. Look,” says Jahansouz. Two men board the train with what look like homemade guns. The PKK has been fighting for Kurdish independence in Turkey and Iraq since they mounted their armed campaign in 1984. In 2007 the Turkish parliament voted to allow its military to attack the PKK over the border in Iraq.

For the first time on the trip we spot two young men wearing biker boots, “Kayseri’s where we boarded,” says Hannes Zellweger, “We are riding from our home in Zürich to India on motorbikes. The rain stopped us yesterday so we’re training it to Tehran. Things are getting a bit hairy, no?”

After five hours at the checkpoint the surly Turkish soldiers clear us for departure and we head into the mountains where the landscape freezes over. We pass bunkers from which soldiers train assault rifles at us. Shortly after 22.00 we reach Tatvan where we disembark to board a ferry across Lake Van. The boat has train rails embedded into its base so that the baggage car can be driven inside. The ferry’s hold door stays open for the entire three and a half hour voyage. Most of the travellers fall asleep during the crossing, but not before taking advantage of the tubs of chocolate spread in the cafeteria.

When the ferry weighs anchor in Van at around 02.00 everyone is exhausted. The baggage car is hitched to another train and the passengers leave us at the dock to continue their journey to Tehran. Van is bleak. High on a hill topped by an army barracks overlooking the city there is a massive slogan daubed on to the rock. We are told it translates as, “We are proud to read Turkish,” a cruel jibe in a predominantly Kurdish city where the Kurdish language is banned from being taught. Kurds are fiercely proud of their heritage and feel oppressed by the Turkish government, but Turks will strongly defend their actions, claiming the PKK’s “terrorist” tactics are a very clear threat.

Van is a sobering reminder of the Turkey that borders Iraq and Iran, a Turkey far from Istanbul’s cosmopolitanism. We leave the city feeling tired and enlightened. Flying back to Istanbul from Van’s tiny airport, we watch the rugged terrain that took two days to cross pass below us in less than three hours. At one point we’re convinced that we spot the train returning to Europe from Tehran but in such a vast landscape spanning two continents it’s hard to tell.

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