All Photographs Copyright © Ben McKechnie 2010
Where the Iranian train should sit, there lies only empty tracks. They stretch into the distance, steel glinting under moonlight and a scarce overhanging lamp. When my eyes are fully strained into the gloom, each disappears like the trail of smoke from a flare.
More than an hour passes, then the train finally arrives and people pour from the doors. Noticeably there are more people leaving Iran than are going. Our women are headscarved and sombre. Theirs are animated, removing layers of clothes and adding layers of make-up. A beautiful girl catches me staring as she’s getting casual, undoing buttons at the top of her shirt. She flashes me a cheeky smile and squeals salam.
After finding our compartment at the front of the train, Tom, Seb and I drift into the adjacent dining car in search of chay. We’re beginning to snap. It’s been too long since the last cup. I want somebody with long fingernails to itch the delicate membranes on the inside of my skull. I realise that drinking strong tea at regular intervals from now on is vital if I’m to function like a normal human being. I accept caffeine as my personal saviour and am born again. Slightly more evil and quick to anger.
I’m served a glass of scalding hot water and a Derbsh brand tea bag. I unwrap its yellow and red paper packaging and dunk it into the cup. After allowing it to brew to the desired shade of golden brown, I pick up a sugar cube and am about to stir it in when I remember something I read about an Iranian custom. I look around the dining car to confirm its veracity and find one, two, three men inserting the sugar cube behind their teeth and under their tongue. They then take small swigs, wash it delicately around their mouth and over the sugar, before swallowing. I try the same and the entire sugar cube dissolves instantly and washes down my throat. I try a second time and the exact same thing happens. I’m going to get a pleasant high any second now. The sugar cube trick must be an acquired art.
Owling my neck around, I come to spy a fifty-inch South Korean made LCD television suspended on the wall to the right of the door we came through. Its sleek modernity is a future anachronism inside this carriage filled with tattered Persian carpets, caramel coloured curtains and fake pink flowers in plastic pots.
The food menu is written only in Persian Arabic script. It’s time to put my reading skills to the test. Four months ago, I lubricated my mind with Korean blackberry wine and sat on the kitchen floor to stare at homemade flashcards covered in unfamiliar scrawlings. There are thirty-two letters – four extra than standard Arabic to account for the sounds in the Persian language that aren’t present in Arabic – each taking up to four different forms. It’s read from right to left too. It wasn’t the easiest system of writing I’ve ever studied.
“Okay, it’s all kababs. This one is Koobideh kabab, which Lonely Planet confirms is minced lamb on a stick. This one is Joojeh kabab. Chunks of chicken. This last one is Bakh… I think it says Bakhtiyari kabab. No idea what it is but it’s the most expensive so it could be good?”
I sidle up to the hatch with a vague idea of the Farsi I’m about to dribble onto the counter. I need a drink for the confidence. Make that two. If I was as shunted now as I was last night, I’d have already bought everyone in the dining car a kabab and challenged the waiter to an arm wrestle for his most eligible sister’s hand in marriage.
“Salam. Do Bakhtiyari kabab va yek Koobideh kabab mikham”.
A smile spreads across his cracked lips. This guy needs a multi-vitamin. I genuinely think he might have scurvy.
When the plates come they hold three seemingly identical chicken kababs, flatbread, grilled tomato and more rice than I could ever eat in one sitting. A single-serving tub of margarine sits atop the rice. I did not order three of the same thing, but I am powerless to complain. I’m too hungry to even care.
When we’re finished eating, we decide on retiring to the shared compartment for a nap. After climbing up into my bunk, I close my eyes and feel the kabab gently churning in my stomach. The train gently clackety-clacks into the night. A cool breeze from the crack in the window washes the aroma of wild steppe grassland into my thoughts. Thoughts that fade in lucidity by the second. Two hours to the Iranian border.