Well, I’ve made it out of Iran and managed to get the bike on a boat bound for Dubai, from where I’ll search for a passage to India. While the shores of this vast Islamic Republic slowly recede from view and the Persian Gulf sparkles all around me, this crossing gives me a chance to reflect on my time in this country.
As the title of my latest blog suggests, Iran is truly an assault on the senses. There are packs of dogs on the motorway, people crossing the motorway, there’s even a fondness for taking picnics by the side of the motorway. People think nothing of reversing back up the side of a dual-carriageway if they’ve missed their exit. As for general driving standards, suffice to say that they are non-existent. There are no rules and it’s a free-for-all out there — I’ve nearly been forced off the road several times by drivers wanting to get a closer look at the bike, or take photos while overtaking and squeezing into the tiny ‘safety’ gap I’ve left in front of me. And yet, despite a few wrecks and overturned vehicles along the route (which strangely always attract a crowd) I’ve not seen a single incident of road rage, despite everyone trying to kill each other nearly all of the time.
It seems like there are mosques on every corner in the big cities I’ve travelled through, such as Urmia, Hamedan, Esfahan, Kerman and Bandar-e-Abbas, and the volume of traffic is staggering. There are huge roundabouts, but no-one knows how to use them, so the traffic already on the roundabout is forced to stop while new traffic joins from all directions. It’s a recipe for carnage, but somehow it all works, and everyone gets across safely.
Out on the road, there are endless police radar traps and checkpoints, all designed for our safety I’m told. But it would be better to have some form of vehicle check like an MOT, as the fumes belched out by huge trucks and coaches make driving or riding in central London seem like a breath of fresh air. Many cars are badly maintained — if at all — and you can spot the ones that are used for smuggling drugs, forbidden alcohol etc., from nearby Iraq, because they are jacked up at the back to take the extra loads so they don’t look suspicious when packed full. When empty they are kind of a giveaway though!
Like the traffic, the variable food hygiene and the switch from toilets to ‘squat pans’ is all good preparation for India, and I’m looking forwards with excitement and anticipation of what the next stage of my journey will bring. But if it’s as positive an experience as Iran, then I’m surely in for a memorable time. The Iranians are without a doubt the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered, and really know how to enjoy life. I’ve lost count of the number of ‘selfies’ I’ve been asked to share in, or the invitations to people’s homes that I’ve had to refuse. They are a very handsome nation: the guys with thick, dark, shining hair and striking eyes, and the women who have an elegance and grace about them, especially the younger generation who seem to creatively push the permissible boundaries of compulsory hijab wearing to the limit.
Somehow the organised chaos of this country just works. For sure, the Persian New Year was a great time to be there, with the smells, sounds, sights and celebratory atmosphere, even if it meant that my transit plans ground to a halt for the best part of a week. But that week staying with Ahmad and his family taught me so much about this huge, historically significant country with its incredible mountainous landscape, mesmerising cities and ridiculously cheap fuel (About $5 to fill up a 5 gallon or 24-litre tank).
I’ve seen no public disorder, have not been hassled at all as an obvious visitor, and have shaken so many hands that my fingers still ache. The people are genuinely delighted to have a tourist from ‘the West’ here and couldn’t be more welcoming — winding down car windows to shake your hand, offering you chai, and stopping you on the street to welcome you to their city and ask questions about why you’re visiting.
For sure it’s not easy (or cheap) to get visa approval for travel through this nation that’s portrayed with real suspicion by our media, but for the pure experience of having a close insight and so many warm encounters with the wonderful everyday people of this distant middle-eastern land, I couldn’t recommend Iran highly enough…