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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A luxury train connecting the capitals of Hungary and Iran left Budapest for the first time on Wednesday, with 70 passengers set to cross the Balkans, the Bosphorus and Kurdistan on the way to Persia aboard a set of deluxe railcars.
The two-week trip sets back each participant at least 9,000 pounds ($14,333) and some as much as 25,000 pounds including full service with private bathroom, a sightseeing program and the beautiful scenery that rolls leisurely by for about 7,000 km (4,350 miles).
The tickets for the first train sold out in 10 days, said Tim Littler, the founder of tour operator Golden Eagle, adding he planned four more trains to make the trip next year.
"There is a huge vacuum in the tourist industry for people who would like to go to Iran, but want to do it in comfort and safety," Littler told Reuters while aboard a pre-war sleeper as a steam locomotive pulled the cars through the Hungarian plains.
"The train offers both of those things," he added. "Luxury train travel sells for about $1,000-to-$2,000 per day, and this trip is in that price range."
The train may carry more wealth than the annual economic output of some of the places it crosses, but he said that has almost never posed security problems in Golden Eagle's adventure destinations.
"We had more problems in Russia when we started 25 years ago," he said. "We went into areas where people were literally starving and we arrived in an opulent train full of caviar and sturgeon and fine wines."
To make sure absolutely no problem arises, some countries offered extra assistance, he said. The Iranian government, which has announced it would spend heavily to develop its tourism industry, said it would put military marshals on the train.
The core of the service is four cars that another British businessman, Howard Trinder, bought from the Hungarian postal service and retrofitted into luxury sleepers at a cost of about 250 million forints ($1 million) apiece. Budapest is the starting point of the trip because that is where the train is based.
"We built the four deluxe cars which I funded and marketed them to the UK," Trinder said, nursing a glass of beer in the bar carriage as he waited for his first lunch on board. "Tim came up with the idea (of Tehran) ... My first answer was no."
But that no turned into a yes after a long conversation. Once the company cleared a string of problems - including ensuring power supply through a custom-built generator car, securing permits in five countries and fighting off sanctions against Iran (using an Australian affiliate) - the train was finally attached to an old steam locomotive.
Historic railcars, including the former carriages used by Hungary's Communist political elite as well as the newly retrofitted dining cars, were attached to the train, 13 cars long in all.
With a loud hiss and a tall plume of steam and smoke, the train pulled out of Budapest Nyugati Terminus and headed east. Australian winemakers Dianne and Giorgio Gjergja leaned back in their compartment to enjoy the autumn scenery and a cup of tea.
"We are relaxed into the rhythm of the train," Dianne told Reuters.
"It is wonderful. Service is excellent. We can't wait to get into Iran. We have seen the other destinations and will enjoy seeing them again, but Iran is exotic. I am very excited."
(U.S. $1 = 0.6279 British pound; U.S. $1 = 239.3500 Hungarian forint)
Reporting by Marton Dunai; editing by Michael Roddy and G Crosse