A preparatory tour ...
During December 2006/January 2007 I spent a couple of weeks in Iran without the trike; what follows are some thoughts on my experiences
I've been trying to get to Iran for awhile now and over the years I've read a lot, watched a lot of tv and video - totally a propos of nothing, there are some really interesting Iranian movies floating about that are worth catching - and even started (but didn't finish) a teach-yourself-Farsi course, but even tho I felt that I had something of an idea of what Iran is, I'm not sure I can articulate exactly what I was expecting - obviously not the bunch of militant zealots eager to cause destruction that is the staple beloved by television - but I know that what I found was different to what I expected. In short, Iran continually surprised me
As to what I found during a whirlwind visit: read on
I guess it's only natural that as a bike rider I start with roads (and road signs) and traffic conditions. As usual, there seems to be rather significant variations in road conditions, Tehran is one thing, the major urban centres like Esfahan and/or Shiraz another and then there are the rural areas, oh, and then there are the toll-roads
Tehran is special... the roads (in central and northern Tehran) are mostly wide, with good surfaces, line markings and so-on. Directional signage seemed a bit spotty, the major signs are in both Farsi and (a sort of) English and what there are of them are pretty good, it's just that didn't seem to be an awful lot of them. At some of the big city intersections there are large displays above the traffic signals that show the time left until the traffic lights change, an interesting idea but rather meaningless given the propensity for drivers to simply barge thru an intersection regardless of whether the traffic light was red or green. The anarchy on the roads just has to be experienced to be believed!
The roads in Esfahan and Shiraz themselves were also pretty good. The signage and the drivers were likewise much the same as in Tehran. The jubs - in effect, deep and wide open drains - along the curb seemed to be more noticeable than in Tehran. Jubs seemed mostly unprotected; an accident waiting to happen. Roundabouts also seemed more common than in Tehran, but as drivers appear to compete in the total disregard of road rules (and common sense) as they jostle for the best position and/or the shortest route between two roads - even if this means driving into oncoming traffic - the roundabouts don't seem to do much beyond concentrate the chaos. From the car window it seemed that once a few kilometres beyond the cities, the roads deteriorated. About the same as everywhere actually
Again, as seen from a car window, the few rural roads I saw - around Shiraz and Kashan in particular - didn't look so flash. The pavement appeared uneven, big ridges in the tarmac, precipitous drops along the ragged edges, no verges to speak of and the usual stones, rocks, glass, fragments of blown tyres (tires) abundantly scattered. On the other hand, everything is relative and even these not-so-good roads looked a whole heap better than roads I've seen in neighbouring countries...
The toll-roads are world class - and the tolls, like the petrol (gas) seemed inordinately cheap - but then again, bikes aren't allowed to use toll-roads
No matter which road, or which place, the traffic is appalling. There is constant argy-bargy, tho it doesn't seem to help much in making progress, in Esfahan it took over an hour of inching forward - well more crabwise, from one side of the road to the other and back again in a vaguely forward direction - to cover a mere 6 kms during peak period. Goodness knows how long it would have taken in Tehran. I'm not even going to attempt to describe the chaos of the swarms of small motorbikes, or buses roaring up the street in contra-flow lanes! I read somewhere that Iran has a humungous road toll with thousands killed or maimed each year, I reckon that whatever the total is, it's surprisingly small. On the face of things it's lucky that anyone survives an outing on the road, be they driver, passengers, pedestrian or simply bystander
Driving habits are crook and the vehicles driven are likewise less than optimal. The ubiquitous Paykan abounds together with a host of no-frills Korean midget cars of dubious quality, pensioned-off Turkish buses on their second or third million kilometres and the usual badly maintained diesel trucks all dashing about at max warp speed - unless there's one of the flashy baby Mercedes-Benz police cars in the vicinity - combine to pump enough crap into the air to make a visible brown fug that stings the eyes and nose
Yep, it's that bad, and I'm thinking of cycling in that? Just who's crazy here?
Talking of crazy, you might be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of their driving habits alone, that Iranians are a bunch of nutters, but all it takes is to meet (a non-motorised) Iranian to come to know that - generalisation follows! - they are open, warm and generous, if slighty formal (tho that may well just be a result of a lack of fluency in mutual language skills, but I tend to think not). The contrast between an Iranian on the road and one off the road is just one of many contrasts in what is land of contrasts
Iranian food likewise is full of contrasts - like the segue? Again as a bike rider, food is an eduring interest for me. Altho many say that Iranian food is just kebab, kebab and more kebab, the food I found - including kebabs - had lots of contrasts. I'm told that food preparation is governed by the principles of balance of 'hot' and cold'cold', not in temperatre but energy. Who knows? All I know is that I have fond memories of a rice-based cusine with plenty of variety: lots of aubergine, lots of fruit and meat combinations (from a sweetish lamb and quince koresh to a wonderfully tangy, sweet + sourish fesenjan - chicken with a thick walnut and pomegranate sauce - as well as tasty soups and wonderful yoghurts). And those kebabs? No doubt, they're everywhere and the cheapest are a quite basic grilled meat and flat bread. Bread in Iran is also unusual, the most common type seems to be a thin (unleavened?) flat bread that's good when fresh but brittle + inedible when not... In general, tho it's tasty, the food is not spicy which has led some to call it bland. I can't say I found it bland, I liked the unusual combinations, the big servings and the cheap prices! All washed down with copious quantities of (tea-bag) tea or fizzy soft-drinks. Soft-drinks aside, my time in Iran was something of a de-tox, lots of fresh food and no bad stuff, like alcohol... I have to say I felt quite good after a week or so of this
Of course, my view of Iranian food is somewhat skewed by eating in restaraunts, but the markets I saw were pretty standard, plenty of fresh fruit + vegies at reasonable prices plus the usual spices and the faintly gory butcher shops. Everything seemed fresh and abundant
Hmmm, roads + food. A cyclists view of the world. So be it
What else? Well, I guess I should mention the truly wondrous sights - Persepolis is as remarkable as promised, the tiled mosques and palaces dazzle the senses. Including the aural, whispers are amplified and broadcast under those mosque domes for example. The parks and gardens are beautiful and in the heat of summer must be truly refreshing. The mountains are rugged and when I saw them, dusted with snow, they looked attractive - some of the road gradients tho looked ambitious from the perspective of a decidely not-good hill climber. Iranian hospitality is legendary, a chance encounter doesn't automatically lead to a carpet or perfume shop - what tourist touts there are, are very low key, they take No for an answer
So was it worth going?
A visit to Iran is worth any drama over visas or what-not. It's just a pity that I travelled by plane and car rather than by bike. There will defintely be a next time (with the bike enshallah)