My original route for Iran consisted of Tabriz – Tehran – Esfahan – Shiraz, then out to Yazd, Kerman and Bam enroute for the wild east frontier town of Zahedan where we would set ourselves up to cross into Pakistan, but I hadn’t counted on the bureaucracy of the Indian Embassy in Tehran, so from Shiraz Karen and I needed to return to Tehran to once again try and obtain our visas for India.
On Thursday I was looking at some maps and gauging distances, as if we get our Indian visas in Tehran we’ll need to bolt to Zahedan to meet a convoy of overland travellers and quickly cross Pakistan’s western lands with them, before our Pakistan visas expire, and when asked by Karen how far the return trip from Shiraz to Tehran was I erroneously said “630km” (this is actually the distance from Tehran to Yazd), rather than the correct answer of 920km.
Around four o’clock Friday morning I woke up having realised my mistake, and I fretted over that for the next two hours until the alarm went off at six am, and I could explain the error to Karen. To be quite honest the stress of the India visa challenges is having a flow-over effect, and I’m making mistakes in simple things like distances and dates, something I’m usually pinpoint accurate with. At least my riding hasn’t suffered, not yet anyways.
Karen was unperturbed about the additional 300km we’d need to cover in order to get to Tehran in one day, as the alternative meant stopping overnight at the halfway point (Esfahan) and that would introduce its own set of challenges, so we loaded the bike and were leaving Shiraz’s city limits by 07:30am.
We stopped for fuel just out of Marvdast, perhaps 40km north of Shiraz, to ensure that we had the range to reach Esfahan. We’d planned also to get a drink but some big guys at the servo were taking too much interest in the bike so we refuelled, remounted and rode off immediately.
We stopped again in Surmaq to find some breakfast, as Karen had spotted a cafe that was open. Some men inside were reclining on a large day-bed, sharing food and smoking their pipe, and I tried to order two omelettes, similar to what some of the men were eating, but we were served with a tomato paste and something concoction, and some flat bread. I ate the sloppy mix with my flat bread but Karen thought it reminded her of dog vomit and couldn’t eat it. We bought some little cakes from the shop next door and hit the road again.
We stuck to the 110kmh speed limit and made steady progress back to Esfahan, averaging an actual on-ground speed of about 90-95kmh by virtue of our stops and occasional slow traffic conditions – the most extreme of these being the police checkpoints along the road that have speed bumps to slow you down to a crawl as you pass the officers standing on the side of the road. The external temperature down here was about 36.5 degrees – warm but manageable.
We refuelled about 40km south of Esfahan – our intention being to then stick to the ring-road deviation around Esfahan and avoid the need to enter Esfahan city for fuel, but the deviation was poorly sign-posted and we got sucked into the vortex of Esfahan. As I battled with the traffic and Karen kept her eyes peeled for the few road signs that vaguely pointed the way towards Tehran we attracted the attention of two men onboard a little Honda 125cc motorbike, and they started to follow us.
I slipped through a red-light – to be quite honest if you stop on the red you run the risk of being rear-ended by cars because they are expecting you to go through – and the little motorbike came along with us, pulling up alongside Karen with the rider gesturing at her to pull over. Karen presumed that the rider was one of the guys that had tried to get our attention a few minutes prior, and she just waved back, indicating that we didn’t have time to pull over and stop for a friendly chat. Over the Sena intercom Karen advised me to keep on riding.
The rider then pulled forwards a bit and when I glanced over I could see the badge on his uniform, the pepper spray he was holding in his left hand, and the AK47 slung over his pillion’s chest. That was enough for me – we pulled over and stopped in some shade on the side of the road, the Honda blocking our forwards movement once we’d come to a stop.
Neither of the two policemen could speak a word of English, but we ascertained that they wanted to see the bike registration papers, so I pulled the laminated papers out of the tank bag and passed them over. The rider inspected the papers whilst Karen asked his gun-wielding pillion if she could take his photo, but he declined and I had the papers returned to me by the rider with a wave for us to carry on our way. Upon reflection we’re convinced that he couldn’t read a word of English so the papers would have been indecipherable to him, but he was happy with what he saw and we were happy that we hadn’t been pepper-sprayed.
We left Esfahan behind and settled into the second-half of the ride. Karen was parched and we looked for a shop selling drinks but the first few we scouted didn’t have anything for sale. Things were getting a bit dicey as the temperature had climbed over 40 degrees, and whilst we had bottled water on our panniers the bottles are exposed to the sun and not insulated, so the contents are close to boiling point.
We saw signs indicating that Natanz wasn’t too far away – I’m talking 85km further north which was better than Kashan at around 135km (Natanz you’ll recall is the little village off the main road we stopped at on our trip down to Esfahan a week ago) but shortly before the Natanz turn-off we spotted a rest area just off the main road, so we peeled off and made our way there. We bought a large bottle of cold water and shared that and the little cakes we’d bought earlier in the morning under the shade of a small hut in the car park, and then rejoined the six-lane highway.
The temperature at this stage was hovering over 44 degrees and Karen was starting to feel the effects. I was warm but I’d kept my jacket zipped up and that was keeping the hot wind off my chest. I’d planned to refuel and stop for water at the rest area south of Qom we’d used on our trip south to Esfahan, but it was much closer to Qom than I recalled, and so we had no option but to suck it up and press on through the blistering heat.
The highway north of Esfahan has a posted speed limit of 120kmh but I was cruising around 100-110kmh to try and manage the bike’s engine temperature. It seemed like ages but eventually we saw the sign to the rest area, so we left the highway and once again I parked the bike on the forecourt of the large restaurant-shop. The guard waved to Karen, gesturing to park the bike in front of his vantage point in the shade, and I thanked him with a few IRR later for keeping onlookers off the bike whilst we had a few bottles of water inside.
We remounted and rolled around to the adjacent servo for a top-up, but I was distracted in conversation with some locals as I refuelled and the nozzle didn’t click off when the tank was full so I spilt a fair bit of fuel over the bike and ground before I realised. Karen had to jump out of the way to avoid the splash, and that was registered in my mind as something to be watchful for in future. As I washed the fuel off the bike with our hot bottled water some guys on a small Honda came up and started chatting but Karen didn’t like the pointed questions being asked about the bike so we remounted quickly and scooted off.
On the highway we were constantly being photographed by people in passing cars – sometimes they’d jockey from one side of us to another so they could photograph us from all angles. We also attracted the attention of more policemen about 50km south of Tehran, this time cruising in their patrol car.
We pulled over – I let the patrol car stop in front of us and then I rode around it so it was between us and traffic coming from behind, and two of three officers got out of the car and stood behind the bike for a minute or so checking the license plate before the senior officer approached and shook my hand before asking for our passports (I think, as his English wasn’t up to Oxford standards), whilst his mate chatted to someone on his mobile. I indicated that our passports were in the top-box, which was buried underneath our spare tyres, but as I prepared to alight and get the passports out his mate wrapped up his phone call and spoke briefly to the senior officer, who then tapped my helmet and indicated that I could put it back on and carry on our way. It looked to us that whoever was on the other end of the phone call had given us the tick of approval, and we were allowed to go.
I do note that the highway between Shiraz and Esfahan features a network of ‘automated traffic violation system’ sites – point-to-point cameras that detect forwards-facing number plates used in calculating average speeds over known distances, but despite the odd burst of speed to clear obstacles our average speed would be well under the permissible limit, and our bike doesn’t have a front number plate. Also, I acknowledge that I’ve seen plenty of road signs indicating that motorcycles aren’t allowed on the highways here, but the police didn’t have an issue, and neither do the toll-booth operators who wave us through with a smile, free of charge.
About 100km south of Tehran we started to encounter congestion on the road and began dicing with the cars. Often I’d try and sit in the slow lane but that could lead to being trapped behind a very slow truck or ute, so occasionally I’d pull out and blast ahead, making full use of the three lanes available to us.
If I’d thought ahead when we were last in Tehran I would of marked our destination – the Tehran Grand Hotel – in our GPS, but I hadn’t, so instead we plunged into the hectic traffic of this city of 17 million people and navigated by instinct and luck towards our hotel. Road signage was again vague and often displayed too late to react to – when you’re the only motorcycle in a melee of cars and buses five abreast on a three lane road you don’t get much chance to make early lane selections and often we’d get swept away from where I wanted to go, as life preservation rated higher than lane selection. I kid you not – the rules of the roads here looks like this – “If you want to turn left you should be in the outside right hand lane and vice versa” – as every intersection was an absolute shitfight of jostling cars. Add to the mix our camera-snapping fans who would drive within a whisker of the bike, and you can imagine the situation we faced. In fairness I think that Iranian drivers are accustomed to squeezing their cars into the narrowest of gaps and as the bike doesn’t occupy the whole width of a car lane we frequently had cars nudge ahead of us from either side as I simply couldn’t protect our space from both sides simultaneously. The concept of safety buffers simply doesn’t prevail here in Tehran.
The going got a bit easier when I noticed some local riders on their 125’s were using the dedicated bus lanes, so whenever I could I slipped down these lanes, grateful for the buffer away from the cars. I was looking for Valiasr Street – a 17km street that runs north-south through Tehran and which leads to our hotel, but despite our eastwards cross-cut of the city and a few promising but ultimately misleading signs we missed the street and overshot it. I turned north on a random whim and by complete fluke Karen and I started to recognise things we’d seen on our previous sightseeing tour through downtown Tehran – a building featuring a large mural of a martyred soldier, and the park opposite. We’d walked through this area and then caught a taxi back to the hotel, so shouting above the road noise as Karen’s Sena had run flat, we retraced the taxi’s route to the hotel. We picked up Valiasr Street, elated with our efforts and surrounded by other riders on their little bikes, waving and shouting out encouragement in the early evening traffic as we head for our destination. Negotiating the final intersection involved cutting across six lanes of cross-flowing traffic as you can’t stop despite the red light, and Karen assisted by hand-signalling the drivers that we were moving across – great team work.
I rode up to the entrance of the hotel – Karen thought I was going to ride through the doors into the lobby, and switched off the bike – 920km and twelve hours after departing Shiraz that morning. I was elated at our success, but Karen was looking shattered – I think she thought she was going to have a heart attack as we rode through downtown Tehran.
We unloaded the bike and parked it underground as quickly as possible, and then showered and ordered room service as it was now about 9:00pm and we were tired from our day.
I penned a little ditty to celebrate our success but I think it was lost a little bit on Karen, but she deserves full credit for her support and stamina over a very hot and challenging ride in which we faced a lot of potentially scary situations as she surmounted every difficulty thrown our way.
Sung to the tune of Petula Clark’s 1965 hit of the same name my ditty goes like this:
where everyone goes
where the traffic never slows
Riding in Tehran
And that was our day. Fingers crossed that our efforts will be rewarded and we’ll get our Indian visas this week.