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Driving across the ‘Axis of Evil’

The UK Government’s official travel advice with regard to Iran includes “avoid large gatherings or protests”. Such manoeuvres can be very difficult if you are the reason for the gathering and the crowd comes to you. On entering Iran I had to park Bridget, whilst going off to collect insurance documents. I was approximately twenty yards inside the country’s boundary and very nearly caused a riot (one for the Guiness Book of Records). I parked behind a lorry and in front of a taxi, where the customs official had told me to. Within three minutes there must have been at least thirty males of varying ages all jostling to see and touch Bridget, and traffic was stopping so the drivers could see and take photos. One driver, however, wasn’t interested and tried in vain to get out of the line of vehicles, ending up blocking the road just as a police car arrived. Lots of whistle blasts were heard and the officer shouted something at the unfortunate man that was trying to get on with his business. The driver took exception to the officers’ comments and jumped from his vehicle ready to square up to the traffic cop. Just then a second police car arrived and luckily diffused the situation by weight of numbers but for a few moments it looked like things could have got out of hand. Anyway, the driver left and all the men returned to milling around and discussing Bridget.

The drive from the border to Tabriz, my first stop-over, was uneventful, though the Iranian traffic is a little more erratic than even the Turks. You also have to be very careful in towns because the Iranians will stop at the side of the road and throw open their doors without thought of other vehicles.

The terrain in Iran is far more barren than Turkey and the mountain ranges craggy. We spent three days in Tabriz and experienced the first real taste of Persian hospitality and their culture. The warmth of the people is every bit as sincere as the Turks and they are very curious about foreigners. I was continually approached in the streets by people who wanted to talk to me, even when all they knew of the English language was to say, “Hello, how are you. You are welcome here.” I met a fellow guest, an Iranian staying at the hotel with his wife and two work colleagues, and spoke briefly about what I was doing. Later, around six o’clock, I saw them again and he sent his party off in a taxi to the bazaar saying that he would like to walk with me if I didn’t mind.

We walked and talked for almost two hours when his mobile phone rang. Suddenly he was very apologetic and said he had to return to the hotel because he had forgotten that he was due to take his wife to a friend’s house for dinner. We eventually arrived back half an hour late.

Clearly I was wrong about Iran not having internet facilities and it is both very common and heavily used. I have no idea why adverts for the hotels did not carry their e mail addresses.

On Thursday I decided to visit a village called Kandovan, around sixty-five kilometres south of Tabriz. All the houses are carved out of volcanic lava that has formed hive shaped mounds similar to, but larger than, termite hills. I was talking to another guest, this time an Iranian who had lived in the States for several years, and he enquired of the staff about the cost of a taxi for me. The next thing I knew was that two of the staff, one who had a car and the other who spoke reasonable English, had volunteered to take me to Kandovan as it was their day off. That sort of hospitality I found everywhere during my first few days in Iran.

Camel transport in IranFriday 25th July and we were back on the road, this time to Astara on the coast of the Caspian Sea. Bridget started off sounding and running a little rough but after about forty miles seemed to settle down into her rhythm and I relaxed too. We were stopped at checkpoints no less than five times by the police during the journey, which was annoying most of the time but turned out to be a good thing on one occasion after I had taken an unscheduled diversion (wrong turn). It transpired that I was heading into Azerbaijan on a road that was not an authorised crossing or on my route! What was that I was saying earlier – finding a complete country shouldn’t be difficult?

The journey between Ardabil and Astara was simply unbelievable. Bridget had been attracting all the usual attention from other road users although perhaps with a little more hustling, when we came to a long queue of traffic caused by an accident. Being Friday it was the start of the Iranian’s weekend and the traffic was very heavy compared to normal weekdays. Anyway, we had cars literally all around us, some even using the hard shoulder, then people started getting out of their cars and taking photos of Bridget, coming up to talk to me and offering me sweets and fruit. I was surprised just how widely spoken English is in Iran, even the children speaking it.

Family picnics are a big thing in Iran and Turkey, and many of the people were on their way to their favourite spots. The traffic moved a little and then stopped again and the crowding would start all over. After about forty-five minutes the traffic started to move again, but slowly, and we were going down a mountain road still three abreast. I looked across to see who was on the outside of me and there were three guys and a girl in the car. Their car window was down and after chatting for a few minutes they invited me to join them for a picnic lunch. So a few hundred metres further on we stopped at a parking area and had a very pleasant meal and chat, and of course took lots of photos.

An incident when I arrived at Astara later in the day reinforced two things for me that were useful reminders of security when travelling in unfamiliar countries. We were driving into the outskirts of the town when I pulled over to ask where I could find a good hotel. Immediately there were three men looking over the car and talking in a curious but friendly fashion about the car and my journey. Then I was ushered over to the rear of a car parked just in front of Bridget, the boot was opened and before I knew it I was being offered a drink of illicit local brandy! I politely refused for two reasons, the first being that I was driving and had no idea how strong the alcohol might be, and secondly because the punishment for a European caught drinking alcohol in Iran might well be severe depending on the political climate at the time. I thanked my unexpected hosts and drove a little further down the road. Then I spied two young lads on motor scooters talking at the side of the road and again asked for directions. They said to follow them into town and they would show me the location of a good hotel. Not to my surprise, as we drove through the market and the town centre there was lots of whistling and shouts from people who clearly knew the guys escorting me and we also collected several more scooter mounted lads. After ten minutes of this and some hesitant turns into smaller streets I started to become suspicious of where these lads were leading me. Eventually they pulled up outside a fairly dilapidated building that I was pretty sure was not a hotel, so rather than risk getting out of the car I called to them, saying that I wanted a “good European style hotel”, and started to pull away. They did their best to stop me but were unable to do so until I came up to some traffic lights several streets away. There they caught up and started hooting their horns and shouting. As the lights turned to green I started to pull away when a big Mercedes passed me and stopped. Although a little nervous I had no option but to stop and the Mercedes driver got out of his car, at the same time saying something to the leader of the lads. They immediately melted away with just a final defiant honk on their horns and the Mercedes driver approached Bridget. He asked if he could help and I told him I was looking for a hotel. He replied that if I would like to follow him he would take me to the hotel that he was staying at, although he would understand if I preferred to find my own way. The hotel he guided me to was excellent and it transpired that he was an Iranian business man based in the UK who imported marble from the Astara area and was just visiting for a few days. With hindsight I believe the lads were just high spirited and meant no real harm, but it served as a reminder that when entering an unfamiliar town or city you can never be too sure what the neighbourhood you are in is like.

Saturday and I went to the local beach. Segregated bathing, and all signs in Persian, make for a potentially hazardous guessing game. But once again my guardian angel was watching over me and a passing lifeguard, seeing that I was unsure, took me under his wing and showed me where to go. He also fed me and took the opportunity to practise his English. At the end of the afternoon he invited me to go to his home, which he shared with another lifeguard, and have some tea. The house consisted of a single room, bare walls and stone floors, with a minimum of furniture. There was a small kitchen area in one corner of the room and two beds at the far end. Functional, but it made me realise how fortunate we are in Western Europe.

From Astara we ventured along the coast road to Rasht and then down to Tehran. Again we attracted the attention of the local plod, this time in the guise of motorway police. They pulled us over for a good look at the car but couldn’t even guide us to a decent hotel.

After driving around the major routes of Tehran for about an hour I stopped to study the map and try to figure out whereabouts we were in relation to the city. Suddenly there was a whoop of joy and two lads on a motorcycle stopped alongside me. We chatted for several minutes and I asked them if they could give me directions. They said that they could do better than that and told me to follow them. I had this feeling of deja vu. After about fifteen minutes of weaving through Tehran traffic, and that’s a feat not to be underestimated, we arrived at a great hotel. The lads wouldn’t accept anything for their trouble except one of Bridget’s postcards each.

On the second day in Tehran I realised that I was fast running out of US Dollars. I had already established that travellers cheques and debit/credit cards were not accepted anywhere in Iran, but I thought in the capital it might be different. A quick call to the British Embassy soon settled it as they confirmed that neither method of payment would be accepted, only hard currency: US Dollars, Euros or GB Pounds. They said they could get me some money from the UK but it would take around ten days. When I said I didn’t have enough money to stay for that time they just said, “Get out then.” So I decided I would have to budget tightly and make a dash for the border. It was going to mean pushing Bridget a little harder than I had wanted before arriving at the Pakistan border, but needs must.

Queues for fuel in oil-rich Iran

Queues for fuel in oil-rich Iran

From Tehran I drove down to Esfahan, some three hundred miles south. Although Bridget’s engine did not sound too good at the end, she coped very well. We ran out of petrol some fifty miles short of our destination. Iran is the third largest producer of oil in the world and yet there are vast distances between filling stations and people often have to queue for fuel. I passed queues of lorries as long as three quarters of a mile at some locations. They also have a ration scheme whereby they are allocated a number of litres of very cheap (less than ten pence a litre) fuel each month and use a chip and pin card in a similar way to a mobile phone pay-as-you-go card. Once they have used their allocation they have to pay around twenty-five pence per litre.

Anyway, as I said, Bridget ran out of fuel and so I used one of the jerry cans for the first time. As usual, although in a lay-by on a major route, a small number of people gathered to take photos and just as I was about to leave a car pulled up and asked one of the onlookers how far it was to the next service area. From his reaction he clearly wasn’t going to make it so I gave him some fuel from one of the cans; it was as if I had handed him a bar of gold, he was that grateful.

Well, we arrived in Esfahan with temperatures in the mid forties degree centigrade and Bridget needed a rest, so we took a day off. I decided to walk around the town to see what might be of interest. Iran is big on mosques in the same way Italy is with Duomos, so I was hoping for something different. I found a building that looked similar but in some way different to the normal mosque and decided to make a closer inspection. It turned out to be a famous (in the Muslim world) school of theology called Chaharbagh. Its architecture, decoration and setting are really beautiful. As I was about to leave I was approached by a man in uniform who said, “Hello, welcome to Esfahan. What country are you from?” So I told him and we spoke for several minutes, during which I noticed an emblem on his shoulder and the word Police. His English was very good so I asked him what department of the police he was in. He replied proudly, “I am with the Tourist Police.” Without thinking I pointed to his gun and said, “And is that for shooting bad tourists?” Fortunately he realised that it was my off-beat sense of humour and laughed politely. We were joined by another man who wanted to ask some questions and it turned out that he was a Mullah who taught at the school. I was invited to tea (which they drink all day long) with him in his ‘cell’ and he offered to be my guide for the rest off the day. Now being from Oxford I know what a professor’s ‘cell’ is like: eight bedrooms, six bathrooms, etc. However, this man’s cell was twelve feet by ten with one end curtained off for his bed and robes. The remainder was plain walls, cushions on the floor and book shelves all around the room. Once we had finished our tea he couldn’t wait to change out of his robes and into his civilian gear, get out his 125cc motorbike (which appears to be compulsory for every resident of the country) and show me around his city.

We spent the remainder of the day sightseeing, and in discussion about pretty much everything, including politics and religion. There was one interlude in a bazaar, whilst we were talking, a couple stopped us and the lady said, “I saw you on the road yesterday in that beautiful car.” This was followed within two minutes by another couple approaching us and asking if they could have their photo taken with me. They had never set eyes on me before, nor I them; the whole episode was quite surreal.

The first day of August and we were back on the road completing over five thousands miles since the start of our adventure. Another first, we were stopped for speeding! I honestly had no idea what the speed limit was in the area and I still don’t know today. We were caught by an officer with a handheld radar gun and the first I knew of it was when his colleague jumped out waving a small red lollipop sign. I pulled off the road onto the hard shoulder and the officer that was using the radar approached. It gradually dawned on him what he had stopped and his face lit up like a beacon. He called his fellow officer over eagerly whilst I pretended to be confused as to what was going on. He was talking excitedly to his colleague and pointing at the car so I said, “Beautiful?” in an enquiring fashion. “Yes, yes, beautiful,” he replied. I reached behind me and withdrew a handful of postcards from the storage box and offered both the officers one each. It was then that I noticed the rear door of their patrol car open and an officer, with badges on his epaulettes signifying his seniority, stepped out. He started walking over to see what was going on so I quickly jumped out of the car and extended my hand to him. He took my hand and shook it, smiling as he moved closer to inspect the car. The junior officers made way for him and I held out a postcard towards him. He took it and looked at the picture of Bridget. I said, “For you,” indicating with my hands that the card was a present. He spoke to the radar operator then turned to me and said, “Thank you. You go.” I didn’t need a second bidding.

We made our way without any undue events to Yazd. It appeared on the face of it to be just another provincial town but I was learning that in Iran external appearances can be deceptive. I was picked up by the tourist police at a road junction coming into town and given an escort to a hotel. From the outside it didn’t look very promising but inside it was palatial.

Bridget was running so well that I considered continuing to Kerman, the next planned stop, but decided not to push too much before the ‘robbers’ road’ in Pakistan. It would have been a total of over five hundred miles and the midday temperature was forty-seven degrees centigrade There’s no doubt that leaving early in the morning and stopping around midday was much better for the car.

Saturday and we were another two hundred miles closer to Pakistan. We arrived at Kerman around midday and quickly found a Tourist Police car with three willing officers to escort us to a hotel. This time I was given a cold drink by the sergeant as well. On the drive we were flagged down a couple of times to have photos taken and were stopped twice at police checkpoints. A senior officer at the second checkpoint kindly gave me a bag of pistachio nuts, so all in all the ‘boys in blue’ were in favour for a while.

Roy's book

The standard of hotels throughout Iran is very good and the hotel at Kerman was no exception. I fell into the company of several students that used the hotel to ‘chill out’ and was invited out for the evening. I thought it was exceedingly nice of them to invite a ‘wrinkly’ along and it was a great opportunity to learn how they felt about the future of their country and their personal aspirations. They were surprisingly frank and confirmed a number of things that I had previously heard or that had been hinted at. The government is widely unpopular and their international policies have little support. The feeling seemed to be that if the UN was correct about nuclear weapons, the money could have been better spent on necessities for the people and that might also have removed the sanctions that were causing considerable inconvenience. I also learnt that the religious police, that we heard so much about after the downfall of the Shah, are still very active, threatening peoples livelihoods and futures if they don’t obey the strict codes of conduct, particularly things such as women’s dress. One of the girl students told me that she liked to wear her headscarf in an individualistic manner whilst still making sure that it covered her head, as required by sharia law. She was stopped and admonished by the police who then reported her to the college where she studied and she was threatened with exclusion if she repeated the offence.

Sunday 3rd August and we arrived in Bam. The earthquake of four to five years earlier almost totally destroyed the city and the evidence of the devastation was still everywhere to be seen. Although building work was going on it appeared that more housing was desperately required. The drive from Bam to Zahedan on the Iran/Pakistan border was a severe test for Bridget. The weather was extremely hot, plus there was a hot wind that felt similar to standing behind a jet plane’s engine, and just to make it interesting there was a dust storm as well. The dust was very fine and got into everything. Visibility was reduced to under half a mile. It remained like that for almost the whole of the two hundred mile journey, which included traversing a mountain range. At least at the top of the mountains the dust was far less dense. There was only one service station shown on the map and unfortunately when I arrived at the site it was all boarded up and deserted, so once again I had to use the jerry cans.

We arrived safely and I took Bridget into a car wash to spruce her up. The guys that operate these washes just go mad over the car and do a very good job. It was my intention to stay in Zahedan for two days’ rest before tackling the robbers’ road in Pakistan. The next day I checked the car over thoroughly in the hotel car park. The heat had taken a heavy toll in the cockpit, with much of the trim coming away as the glue melted. The crash bar foam had disintegrated into dust and the face of the speedometer had come adrift from the meter and flopped from side to side. In addition to this the oil filter was loose. Fluid levels were all OK except for the clutch reservoir, which I had expected to be dry from the difficulty I had finding second gear recently. Also, one of the front wheels had a little play in it so I removed that and found two things.

The first was a nest of stowaways. Red ants had invaded the disc brake and they were swarming everywhere when I disturbed them by taking the wheel off. Secondly, the hub nut was indeed loose so I removed the split pin and tightened it up a notch. Whilst doing these minor adjustments a taxi driver arrived, amongst several other interested passers-by, and capably assisted, without being asked, as well as supplying a rag for cleaning up. Everything else appeared to be alright and ready to go.

As I checked out from the hotel in Zahedan the police arrived and insisted that I have an escort to the border for security reasons. They also had an Australian, Chris, with them who had driven a Toyota Landcruiser from the UK and was making for home taking the pretty route! We didn’t clear Iranian customs until a little after midday.

Entry into Pakistan was fairly swift but then we had to put our watches forward by one and a half hours so it was almost three in the afternoon by the time we were ready to go. The driver of the Ozbus was also at the Pakistan customs, having just driven from Quetta. The Ozbus plies between the UK and Australia on regular trips taking around three months each way. He told us that there was no way in this world the MG would get through the robbers road and added “You’re bloody crazy, you’ll wreck the car and have to walk out.”

Will Roy drive himself out of trouble? Find out in his book, Not in That Car.

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