Through the desert in the morning

One of the most scenic railways in the world spans Iran

The UNESCO World Heritage Trans-Iranian railway crosses four distinct climates—and challenges stereotypes of this long isolated country.

Travelers on an overnight train from Yazd ride southeast through the desert to Zahedan, Iran. As more tourists return to experience the country’s beauty and hospitality firsthand, negative stereotypes are being challenged along the Trans-Iranian railway.

Stretching between the glittering shores of the Caspian Sea and the fertile plains of the Persian Gulf, the 866-mile Trans-Iranian Railway is hailed as one of the greatest engineering marvels of the 20th century.

Experts from around the globe were presented with an extraordinary challenge: The proposed route would cross four distinct climates and connect soaring mountain ranges, deep gorges, salt deserts, old-growth forests, and plains.

Inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2021, the resulting network of 174 large bridges, 186 small bridges, and 224 tunnels was constructed between 1927 and 1938, a feat made possible by more than 70,000 workers, extensive mapping, and aerial photography. The railway knits together a striking tapestry of landscapes, from the towering buildings of the capital to the tombs and mosques of Qom to the nomadic dwellings of the Zagros Mountains.

“When you sit on the train from Tehran to go towards the south, you suddenly change seasons in a matter of hours,” says Yeganeh Morakabati, a tourism researcher and associate professor at Bournemouth University who examines the effects of political violence on tourism in the Middle East and Africa. “And not only that, but you also feel as if you have moved from one country to another because the cultures and peoples are very different—you’re talking about a complete change of scenery and even languages. It’s phenomenal.”

Yet, Iran’s image as a multifaceted tourism destination has suffered since the 1979 revolution; decades-long sanctions and negative media portrayals of Iran as an anti-Western society have further marginalized the nation, Morakabati says. But as more tourists flock to the country and experience it firsthand, those stereotypes are being dispelled.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, travel to Iran was surging, and with the 2022 FIFA World Cup hosted in nearby Qatar this fall, the country is preparing for an influx of travelers. The railway–which began as one of Iran’s most controversial infrastructure projects–is at the heart of the nation’s continued efforts to revive tourism.

The birth of a railway

These days, the railway is celebrated as a symbol of modernity and unity, but during its construction, it was fraught with controversy.

Iran’s railway took shape notably late compared to its neighbors in the Ottoman Empire, British India, and Egypt, all of which had railway networks by the second half of the 19th century, says Mikiya Koyagi, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Austin and author of Iran in Motion: Mobility, Space, and the Trans-Iranian Railway.

That’s because during the global railway boom that lasted until World War I, Iran was caught between two imperial powers competing for military and commercial influence in the region: the Russian Empire, which was expanding into the Caucasus, and the British Empire, which controlled India.

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“Whenever there were Russian-proposed projects to construct railways in Iran, there was British opposition, and when there were British plans, there was Russian opposition,” Koyagi says.

That changed in 1925 when Iran’s Qajar Empire collapsed. The new Pahlavi state wanted to build up the country’s infrastructure and expand trade without relying on foreign powers. They funded the entire railway domestically by imposing high taxes on sugar and tea and taking out domestic bank loans. The Danish company Kampsax led the project, and over 40 companies from several countries were involved in construction. “That was quite a deliberate decision in order not to give too much power to any one particular country,” Koyagi explains.

They also planned the route around national interests to optimize trade and state military access. For example, the railway connected major bodies of water in the north and south, where Iranian goods could be exported more easily. It also gave the state military access to hard-to-control parts of the country that were previously isolated by steep mountain ranges and inhospitable deserts.

Despite these efforts to prevent foreign interference, the Allied forces invaded Iran in 1941 and leveraged the railway to transport military personnel and goods during World War II. “There wasn’t much traffic prior to the Allied occupation, but when they came, they needed to transport a lot more,” Koyagi says. “They expanded port facilities, highways, and the railways, and started to import diesel engines instead of steam locomotives,” Koyagi says.

As the rail inevitably transformed the nation, experiences among Iranians varied widely. While some people became more mobile, others were forcibly displaced by construction without receiving compensation for their land. People living in remote villages between major destinations, who had previously relied on income from domestic travelers, now found that the railway bypassed them altogether.

“Most Iranians really hated the railway project during that time period,” Koyagi says. They were paying high taxes, and, aside from Tehran, the route didn’t run through most major cities. “Despite the massive number of complaints during that time period, I think that now a lot of Iranians feel very proud of the [railway].”

Tourism in the Middle East

Post World War II, tourism in Iran was thriving. Between 1967 and 1977, it was considered the Middle East’s top destination, outranking places like Egypt, says Morakabati, who examines the effects of political violence on tourism in the Middle East and Africa. But after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, followed by the Iran-Iraq War, a once steady stream of tourists dried up. The country struggled under decades-long international sanctions that devastated the economy and undermined millions of livelihoods.

“Compared to the rest of the world, the Middle East has not reached anywhere near its potential,” says Morakabati. “The Middle East and North Africa region have huge potential for tourism, but it also has been a magnet for violent conflict. These two things are working against each other.”

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Pre-revolution, Western Europe and the U.S. were Iran’s most important tourism markets. In 1977, for example, Iran received more than 70,000 American visitors, but by 2010 that number dwindled to just 400.

The market shifted dramatically, with most international arrivals coming from neighboring countries including Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Afghanistan for both religious tourism and business.

Multiple studies found that U.S. and U.K. media coverage of the revolution and nuclear program between the 1980s and 2010s reinforced negative sentiments about Iran, which was frequently labeled as being anti-Western—something experts agree impacted tourism.

“There is this perception of political instability or political authoritarianism as a sort of danger to tourists, but I don’t think these two really correlate with each other,” Koyagi says. “If you’re a citizen, and if you’re politically involved, you have a certain risk. But for tourists, it’s not that dangerous.”

But that perception of danger may be changing.

A new era of railway travel

In 2015, nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were lifted after the successful negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran deal. Tourism rebounded almost immediately. (Former President Donald Trump reinstated U.S. sanctions on Iran in 2018, and in 2021, President Joe Biden once again began talks to lift sanctions.)

According to a United Nations World Tourism Organization report, the Middle East recorded the highest growth in tourism in 2019, and Iran was among the fastest-growing destinations. The nation aims to attract 20 million visitors by 2025 (up from 4.8 million in 2014) and is investing in hotels, tourism facilities, and transportation. That includes more than 4,300 miles of new railways in the past seven years, including a high-speed rail line between Tehran, Qom, and Isfahan.

The Trans-Iranian route alone travels past dozens of national parks and wildlife refuges, including the UNESCO-inscribed Hyrcanian Forests and storied Mount Damāvand, the highest peak in Iran, which attracts climbers from around the world. You can see the strokes of history in Khuzestan, one of the oldest regions on the Iranian plateau, where the labyrinthine hydraulic system in Shushtar dates back to the fifth century B.C.

Koyagi, who has been traveling to Iran since 1997, says his fondest memories from taking the train throughout the country have been meeting people in between sites. “One of the great things about traveling around Iran is nobody leaves you alone,” says Koyagi, who has shared many a night train compartment with strangers. “Other people in the compartment talk to you, they share food with you, they ask all sorts of questions, you get to hear all sorts of stories—it’s not the kind of rail travel I have experienced elsewhere.”

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Train tickets are also extremely affordable, says Matin Lashkari, an Iranian travel blogger and co-founder of Persian Food Tours. “It’s very peaceful, it’s very safe, and it’s a kind of slow travel without a big carbon footprint,” she says. “I think the Western media has focused on the sort of darker side of Iran. I don’t want to deny that that exists, but there’s this other side that’s completely neglected.”

But Lashkari also believes a new era of tourism is on the horizon. She recently traveled to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Yazd, known for its notable earthen buildings, traditional hammams and bazaars, and handwoven textiles. “It has transformed completely,” she says, adding that a host of new restaurants, cafés, boutiques, and hotels have sprung up in the past five years.

“I’ve never met anybody who came to Iran and was not surprised by what they saw,” Lashkari says. “They’re blown away by the hospitality, by the openness of people. I have this sense that a lot of people think that Iranians aren’t open to foreigners because the country has been very isolated for so many years, but it’s just the opposite.”

Gulnaz Khan is the climate editor at TED Talks and a former editor at National Geographic. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Matthieu Paley has traveled all over the world for National Geographic and focuses on issues relating to diminishing cultures and the environment. See more of his work on Instagram.

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