A sliver of sunlight penetrates the compartment as, disorientated, I find my bearings. I’d been expecting 3am to come. A sharp prod in the ribs and another icy waiting room. My fingers were secretly crossed for a back room interrogation from a bearded fundamentalist, seething with anti-western rhetoric. Confusingly though, they let us sleep. For all the time and money that it took to procure a visa, I’m now being propelled east across Iran’s West Azerbaijan province with documents unchecked.
I jump down from the top bunk and wrench open the curtains for my first view of the pariah state. The landscape floods my retinas. My knees are rendered weak. I steady myself against the window frame and drink in the view. Rippling, ochre hills studded with green line the track looking south. A miniature canyon carves its way through the valley floor between ridges. Such a scene gives way to a rolling plain that reaches out for miles towards a black mountain in the distance. A grey haired shepherd dressed in an old, grimy woolen jacket tends to a flock two hundred strong. Some of the sheep look up when they hear the sound of the approaching train, but quickly return to the more pressing matter of munching plants.
Next door in the dining car, I sit to drink tea with Maisam and his entourage. He explains why we were left to sleep.
“Border checks are to be made once we arrive at Tabriz. Just know that when we get there, soldiers will board the train and doors will be locked. They’ll empty your backpacks and search every inch for banned items, so have one last check before we get there.”
Prohibited items include alcohol, pork products, material critical of the regime, and any music, film or book that has been banned by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. I’m quite sure I left my copy of The Satanic Verses in Singapore, but there’s the small chance I dreamt it.
“Look out the window. The shores of Lake Orumiyeh!”
A permanent, hypersaline lake more than five times the area of the Dead Sea; Lake Orumiyeh is drying up. Not far from the train window, I can see where the water’s edge used to be. Now, mirages shimmer upon vast beds of crystalised salt. Rippling, pink apparitions on the horizon could be a colony of flamingos. An illusion or a reality? I strain my eyes across the blinding expanse of salt and focus on the shapes. I’m about to succumb to the urge to shut my eyes tight when one of the salmon coloured blemishes spreads its wings and takes flight. The bird soars until little more than a dot, a pinprick, a fleck of dust upon my glasses.
The train veers away from the salt flats of Lake Orumiyeh and sets course for Tabriz.