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Night train to Mashhad – Iran beyond the headlines

This is a contribution by an Iranian journalist who decided to share a story with us, of what traveling back home in a night train reminds her of.

In 2002 Brazil won the FIFA world cup for the 5th times. Euro became currency in 12 EU countries. George W. Bush, former US president used the term “Axis of Evil” to describe 3 countries: North Korea, Iraq and my country: Iran.

The most important event of my life, however, was getting accepted into one of the top universities in the country. This was the year I came to the capital, to Tehran.

Late October of the same year I was standing right here, in front of Tehran railway station to travel home, Mashhad, visiting my family two month after leaving home.

It’s now 2019 or according to Persian calendar 1398. Well almost 1398, these videos are recorded two days before the New Year. Nowruz is coming and I’m going to my family. It’s been 17 years since the first time I took one of these trains back home.

“You think journalism is what you have read in Oriana Fallaci’s books? You know it’s a very different story here.” My father was worried when I decided to study journalism. He tried to reason with me but I was 18, I was going to save the world like all the other 18 year old kids.

Its 17 years later. I’m not Oriana Fallaci but I became a journalist. My father was right it’s indeed a different story but I think I would do it all over again like taking these trains to Mashhad all these years.

It’s an 11 hours trip. 11 hours to share with 3 other people in an only women wagon. Last time that I didn’t check the only women box when I was buying ticket online, I ended up with 3 men in the same wagon. At first they seemed so uncomfortable with this situation that I started talking to them. After a while it was no different than any other wagon. We were just all the strangers in a train, you meet, you talk, you sleep in the same wagon and you never see them again.

There is always an extra stop on the way where people get off to do their prayers. I remember a time when I was one of them. I also used to walk in these long corridors thinking or crying sometimes because I was starting to face an issue called being in love and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. 35 years old and I still can’t figure the whole thing out but now I don’t cry on night trains anymore. Now I read, listen to music and sleep for Trains aren’t symbol of loneliness anymore, but rather just a good opportunity to watch the night outside the windows running beside the train.

It’s been a while since I had these feelings though. I was getting used to traveling by plane, an hour and half flight instead of 11 hours on the railroad. But you see United States withdrawal from Iran deal led me to taking the train again. As the Iran’s currency, Rial, fell its lowest rate against US Dollar, prices started to go up day by day: real state, cars, food, sanitary products and well plane tickets. So I’m just like everybody else trying to rearrange my life style according to reality. That’s how trains made their big comeback to my life.

But people can do magic, struggling with hardship and still trying to win. Like what happened in FIFA world cup 2018. Just couple of months after the day it was clear that the sanctions going to hit our lives even harder. Jun 25 people were gathered at parks, cafes, houses to watch Iran vs. Portugal match. This was our chance to make it to the Round of 16.

The craziest thing happened when Cristiano Ronaldo placed the ball on the penalty mark; he shot and our goalkeeper; Alireza Beiranvand dove and saved the penalty. For few seconds he was just lying there on the grass, embracing the ball with his eyes closed. Those seconds we were screaming our hearts out. We didn’t make it to the next stage that night but that moment was our version of victory. That night people came to the streets, they danced all over the country even though sanctions were coming back, even though that was our last game in the world cup. To me that night was the perfect metaphor for our lives in Iran. we lose, we win, we struggle, we live behind the headlines you read about our country. We are in the same train traveling through the night.

text: Zahra Choopankareh


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  1. The last paragraph was perfect. It actually illustrate our lives in Iran. We win, we lose, we live, behind the headlines you read aboat us and our country.

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