From Tehran to Turkey: An international journey by train

  • A cook reacts to the siren signaling the departure of the Tehran-Ankara train from Tehran, Iran, Jan. 7, 2015.
  • A passenger listens to music that others are improvising in the restaurant wagon of the of the Tehran-Ankara train, Jan. 8, 2015.
  • Iranian passengers wait in the restaurant wagon of the Tehran-Ankara train while Iranian border police check their documents before crossing the Turkish border.
  • An Iranian woman gets off the train at Van Jetty station, Turkey, to board the ferry that crosses lake Van continuing the route towards Ankara, Jan. 9, 2015.
  • The lights of the Tehran-Ankara train are projected on the snow while the train goes through long stretches of frozen land in Eastern Anatolia. 
  • A passenger is pictured on the deck of the ferry that crosses lake Van, waiting for its departure. The ferry was supposed to leave during the night, but it left the following morning because of unfavorable weather conditions. 
  • Passengers dance and sing Iranian songs in the restaurant wagon of the Tehran-Ankara train after crossing the border with Turkey. Dancing in public is forbidden in Iran. 
  • Passengers venture on the deck after a night spent sleeping on the seats of the ferry that crosses Lake Van from east to west, waiting for its delayed departure in Turkey, Jan. 9, 2015.
  • Men gather around a car near the Iranian-Turkish border, Jan. 8, 2015.
  • A passenger whispers to a friend he met on the train, playing a game called Pantomime in the restaurant wagon of the Turkish train running from Lake Van to Ankara.
  • Writer Laurence Cornet is shrouded in a cloud of steam coming from the engine of the Tehran-Ankara train, about to leave the station of Tabriz, Iran, headed towards the Turkish border. 
  • A passenger shows his tattoo of the Virgin Mary while talking about his conversion to Christianity, Jan. 10, 2015.
  • Children play in the snow while the Tehran-Ankara train stops at the Kapikoy checkpoint, on the Iranian-Turkish border. At Kapikoy all the passengers get off the train to get their entry stamp from Turkish border police. 
  • Passengers sleep on the ferry that crosses Lake Van from the eastern to the western shore. The ferry stayed overnight stuck at the departure dock because of unfavorable weather conditions.
  • The restaurant wagon of the train that runs from Tehran to Lake Van on the Tehran-Ankara route. Lake Van is the place where Iranian border police gather all the passengers to check their documents before allowing them to cross into Turkey. 
  • A drawing made by a customer service employee at the train station in Tehran explains the structure of the train compartments for non-Farsi speakers.
  • An Iranian passenger on the train.
  • Members of an Iranian family wait for the train to leave the station of Salmas, Iran on Jan. 8, 2015.
  • Writer Laurence Cornet looks for her notebook under the bed of a compartment on the Turkish train running from Lake Van to Ankara on the Tehran-Ankara route, Jan. 10, 2015
  • Passengers wait for the train to leave at the station in Kayseri, Turkey. Kayseri is an industrial city in Anatolia with a large Iranian community.
  • A foggy landscape seen from the window of the Tehran-Ankara train while crossing a deserted plain in Iran.
  • The city of Van, situated on the Eastern shore of the namesake Turkish lake, is seen from the roof of the ferry that continues the route of the train directed from Tehran, Iran, to Ankara. 
  • An Iranian passenger sits at the bar of the ferry that crosses Lake Van. The ferry’s departure from the Van shore was delayed several hours because of unfavorable weather conditions.
  • Iranian passengers wait for their luggage to be x-rayed by Turkish border police at the Kapikoy checkpoint, Turkey, Jan. 8, 2015. 
  • The inside of one of the doors on the Tehran-Ankara train is photographed near Kayseri, Turkey, Jan. 10, 2015.
  • Passengers sleep on the floor of the ferry that crosses Lake Van. The ferry stayed overnight stuck at the departure dock because of unfavorable weather conditions. 
  • Turkish passengers are pictured boarding the train that runs towards Tehran, Iran at the Van Jetty station after getting off the ferry that crosses Lake Van, Jan. 9, 2015.
  • Iranian passengers disembark the ferry in Tatvan, on the western shore of lake Van, to board the Turkish train that will continue the rest of the route towards Ankara. 
  • People look at the train from the streets of a town in Eastern Anatolia, Jan. 09, 2015.
  • A road cuts across an Iranian landscape, Jan. 8, 2015.
  • Passengers wait for the train to leave the station in Elazig, Eastern Anatolia, Jan. 9, 2015.

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“Salam. Do you have some salt?” When a shy man in his 30s poked his head around the glass door of our small four-seat compartment, we had been on the train for no more than 15 minutes and were still stunned by the vintage features of the corridor coach that would take us from Tehran, Iran, to Ankara, Turkey.

In the Iranian third of the 72-hour journey, train seats are covered with red and purple flowery velvet that matches the carpet on the floor, and puffy curtains frame the timeless view scrolling by the window. A loosely screwed ladder jingles at the pace of the engine’s droning, and the scent of hot rubber spreads through the corridors when it stops. The acrid smell, reminiscent of Tehran’s heavy traffic, is almost instantly covered with that of tea and various local specialties that passengers take out of stuffed luggage to share with other Trans-Asianers.

The magic of food and word of mouth operates, and within a few hours, everybody knows each other. Ruhi, a 60-year-old lady wearing a tight silk scarf and dutifully knitting meters of wool into warm hats, is visiting her daughter who recently gave birth in Turkey. Navid and Mahdi, stylishly dressed from moustache to toes, had a fashion shop in Tehran and plans to open a new one in Eskisehir, where they have purchased a house big enough to fit their extended families. Khramesh is retired from the hospital of Isfahan, where he was the general accountant, and moved to Shiraz. He still works as a taxi driver to earn a little extra for his son’s studies, but in a relaxed environment. (While Shiraz is famous among tourists for its impressive monuments of Islamic art, it’s known among Iranians for its laid-back atmosphere and people.)

There’s also the head of a fire department; a painter and her mom; an ex-doctor who opened a photo studio in Kayseri when he moved to Turkey a few years ago; a truck driver and his nephew, who is the director of a hospital and paid for both tickets; Arezoo, his wife and their 10-year-old daughter, an Azeri family seeking less minority-targeted tension in Turkey; and Reza, who moved to Canada four years ago after he obtained a refugee status and is back to visit relatives in Iran and Turkey.  

The short, four-car train has a restaurant, but passengers prefer to squeeze in their tight compartments. Public space in Iran is a synonym for restrictions, limitations and control, so people spontaneously gather within four walls, where they can be themselves. Contrary to what is commonly assumed, Iranian people have freedom. The division lies between what they do and say in private, and how they are forced to behave in public since the revolution. As a consequence, people create their own “public spaces” in private and form smaller groups around common interests.

The first time the restaurant filled up was 20 hours through the trip, a few kilometers away from Lake Umria – the lake, that used to be the largest in the region, is shrinking at a concerning speed, and we could see boats floating on sand from the distance. For an hour, while the train was roaming through the majestic range surrounding Mount Ararat, passengers awaited their turn at the police check, nervously twiddling their exit certificates. Past the border, the same restaurant attracted the entire train again. This time, everyone improvised percussion on cardboard boxes of tea, tables or pans, singing local songs, dancing and telling jokes from every passenger’s region.

With his communicative warmth and sense of brotherhood inherited from his growing up among fifteen siblings, Reza directed the symphony.

“Aie Baba!” That wondrous, collective jam session marked the beginning of another journey, interrupted by a breathtaking crossing of Lake Van by ferry at night. Though still roving through fully white and foggy landscapes that look as bright and uncertain as the future most passengers are hoping to meet in Turkey, the train discharged its vapor of anxiety. Hooman, a cab driver who left the Southern city of Abadan – “the Brazil of Iran,” as he likes to describe it – for the cold, concrete landscapes of Kayseri, in Central Anatolia, commented, “Look how joyful everyone is. I am so happy for my people”. Hooman lost his girlfriend in a car accident a few years ago and needed a change. “I will always love you,” he captioned a drawing of his hometown featuring an endless beach, a man with a ghetto blaster, a flock of seagulls and a vividly burning candle.

In Islam, “the moment of death to the dying person is not a moment in the world of space-time but a timeless moment – a transit moment – similar to a no man’s land between the borders of two neighbouring states,” writes Ghulam Sabir on the Iqbal Academy’s website. An indefinite space where everything is unclear and transitional – this is what the train seemed to be for these one-way travelers. That said, many of them have converted to Christianity in the past few years. Milad, a thick, silver cross around his neck and his arms covered with tattoos, explains, “I want to show and share our culture because everybody in the world has a bad image of Iran.” As an introduction, he played the recent songs of his rapper friends, Amir Tataloo and Armin 2AFm, while offering pashmak, a kind of cotton candy from Yazd, whose equivalent we can find in Turkey.

Laurence Cornet is a journalist based in New York. 

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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