London, Asharq Al-Awsat—For the first time in history, a private train carrying European, Australian and American passengers entered Iranian territory through the Razi border station between Turkey and Iran’s West-Azerbaijan province on October 23.
Once it had crossed the border, the Golden Eagle Danube Express paused in Zanjan, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Soltaniyeh. The sleeper then traveled south to Yazd in central Iran, widely considered to be the second oldest city in the world and the cradle of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Iranian monotheistic religion.
Also on the itinerary is Esfahan—capital of the Persian Safavid Empire and now known for its magnificent Naqsh-e Jahan Square (Image of the World Square)—Shiraz and Persepolis, before the Express reaches its final destination of Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic.
Sixty-three passengers from Australia, the US and EU countries, plus two Kuwaiti nationals, were on-board for the outbound journey, a westbound leg is also possible from Tehran to Budapest.
Tim Littler, founder and owner of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, accompanied the passengers on the tour’s maiden trip through Iran and told Asharq Al-Awsat that the tour went off smoothly and the passengers all enjoyed the trip.
Commenting on the inaugural journey, Littler said: “This new adventure honors our proud heritage of offering pioneering rail journeys across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America over the last 25 years. Places [on the tour] were snapped up by adventure travelers who were drawn to the excitement of visiting culturally fascinating but remote destinations in style, comfort and safety.”
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat from on-board the train near the city of Mashhad in northeast Iran, Littler said that the only difficulty the tour had faced was the warm welcome that local authorities had given passengers, causing something of a time drain on the passengers’ itineraries.
The Jewels of Persia tour is set to offer four eastbound and four westbound journeys throughout 2015. Also on offer in 2015 is a brand new Heart of Persia tour that takes in destinations in Iran that have been off the tourist map for many years and have rarely been experienced by western visitors. The journey starts and finishes in Tehran.
The Jewels of Persia attracted a lot of media attention inside and outside Iran as it was launched at a time of regional conflict as well as tension over a decade-long nuclear stand-off between the West and Iran. A day after the train entered Iran, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office issued a travel warning discouraging British nationals from traveling to Iran unless necessary. The advisory issued on October 24 read: “British travelers to Iran face greater risks than nationals of many other countries due to high levels of suspicion about the UK and the UK government’s limited ability to assist in any difficulty.”
Golden Eagle Luxury Trains confirmed that a number of British nationals took part in the subsequent Jewels of Persia tours and were not subject to any unwanted attention from Iranian authorities . A total of 26 US nationals have also taken part in the tours of Iran, the tour operator confirmed.
The preparation phase to launch the Jewels of Persia tour took more than 14 months with Golden Eagle Luxury Trains liaising extensively with various government agencies in Iran and the UK. Despite all this preparation, the company is facing a number of difficulties owing to international sanctions against Iran, including money transfers via Iranian banks.
The company also confirmed that a number of Iranian military marshals have joined the train to ensure the safety and security of passengers and staff throughout the journey.
Places on Golden Eagle Danube Express costs between £8,695 and £13,995 per person. Tickets sell out quickly due to high demand to experience this unique view of Iran.