We found getting around Iran no problem at all. In fact the infrastructure for transport is excellent – good roads, regular comfortable buses, not so regular but certainly comfortable, cheap trains too. There are lots of taxis and opportunities for private drivers. If you don’t know any farsi it may be challenging so I recommend at least learning the numbers and some basic phrases. Flying within the country can also be a good option given the long distances between cities and availability of reasonably priced flights. We didn’t fly at all as we had plenty of time and prefered to see the changing landscapes out the window of a bus or train.
Hitch-hiking in Iran is something we only did once and it was great – I have a separate post on it here. We found the prices and bus service so good that we didn’t need to hitch-hike but have heard only good stories from travellers who did this frequently.
If you are a plan-in-advance person travel in Iran might be frustrating as I don’t think it’s easy to find information or book things online. It’s mostly turn up and go type scenarios so you need to go with the flow! One huge advantage for us was staying often with local people who could then explain where to get the bus or car to the next place. Hotels could also assist with this information. Our hosts often found out timetables and prices for us too. Sometimes on arrival in a town we enquired about travel timetables and then bought a ticket for the onward journey. During Noruz this was highly recommended as things booked up fast but the rest of year the day of travel or day before would be fine for buying a ticket to most places. Iranians are very happy to help travellers so if you are looking lost in a bus station, someone is bound to come to your rescue speaking English and offering guidance. In our experience buses went frequently to most destinations, day and night buses.
The main way we traveled was by bus. They have regular buses which we tried once for a short distance (1 or 2 hours). There was very little leg room but the bus was otherwise fine. Mostly though we traveled in VIP buses. It sounds fancy but it is THE way to travel around Iran! VIP buses were excellent, not expensive and ran frequently. They were marginally more expensive than the non VIP buses but 100 times better. For any long distance travel they are the best option. There was a lot of leg room, seats reclined, we got served water or juice, snacks and even lunch on some routes! We couldn’t believe how cheap and how good these bus services were.
We traveled during the day and also overnight on the VIP buses. The only odd thing was that there were frequent stops where the bus driver had to exit with various papers in hand and see some officials. Not sure why or what it was about but it occured several times during a journey, on every journey. On the odd occasion an offical boarded the bus and once, after requesting our passports and looking straight at them, the official asked us where we were from. We had to smile at that 🙂
The driving was very good but I was a little concerned with one driver who while driving was writing down things, at night. I have a photo to prove it! –>
It looked like a record of something. Not sure if it was numberplates of those overtaking him, perhaps those speeding or driving dangerously or it could have been completely unrelated, perhaps a shopping list! In any case it was rather amusing the way he could multitask.
On another trip I approached the driver to ask a question about something and was offered tea by his assistant at the front. I ended up chatting to the driver for half an hour or so and drank a little tea (which turned out to be tea mixed with coffee- not to my liking). He spoke English well (unlike most of the drivers) and we talked about philosophy, history, religion and Persian poetry. He was very open and was keen to share his thoughts about life in Iran and the situation for regular people, thoughts for the future etc. It was an unexpected but fabulous conversation!
Local friends or Hosts as Drivers
We were lucky enough to workaway in Iran and on one of our days off our lovely host Annelie took us all over Qeshm to see the major sights – amazing daytrip (described here). Annelie kindly offered to do this without charge as a kind of thank you to us and the two other volunteers for our help. I don’t know how we would have seen all that we did without her driving us and her knowledge of where to go and in what order etc. We were really lucky. There was room inside the truck for all of us but Antony and Milan prefered to try open air style on the back of the truck for part of the trip!
When couchsurfing our hosts were often extremely generous with their time and wanted to show us their cities or regions. This was fabulous- getting an insider’s view on the good places to see and enjoying these places with them. In the case of longer trips such as the fantastic day trip into the desert that we did with our Kerman host, we paid for the cost of petrol. We enjoyed not only our host’s company on this trip but also the good company of the other two couchsurfers who were staying there at the time also. Although Antony and I enjoy each others company, this year of travel means we spend a lot of time together, just the two of us, so it is really nice when we can socialise or travel with others for a change!
Taxis are generally easy to find whenever you need them. Drivers are not always in marked taxi cars. If you want a driver/ taxi to take you out of town then often there is a certain area in the city where you would go to get the taxi. Certain spots depending on the destination. For example in Qazvin we were told that to get a driver to take us to Fuman we would need to go to a particular roundabout/ street. Everyone seemed to know this, from the taxi driver we used within Qazvin to the hotel staff to our couch surfing friends. How this knowledge is acquired I am not sure, but we headed to this spot with all our bags and sure enough there were plenty of people willing to take us to Fuman for a price we then negotiated with the driver.
This was the only time we used a taxi to get straight to a new destination/ city. Usually we took the bus. Taxis were of course more expensive than the bus but still very reasonable. I think as long as Antony and I both live we will never forget our drive from Qazvin to Fuman!!! We hopped in the car and although it was a suburban city street our driver floored it and just gunned it through the streets, weaving in and out of traffic like we were in the car racing game Antony plays on his ipad! I was in the front trying to stay calm. The driver noticed I was holding on to the door for dear life and told me to relax! This was a little hard to do with the speeds he was reaching. Soon things got worse as he retrieved a very old mobile phone and tried to find photos on the minute screen, whilst driving at high speed. What transpired was that he was an off-road racing driver and had driven in competitions (and won!) in Turkey, Dubai and perhaps Russia. The precise details are a little foggy now but the photos he showed us (also very foggy on a tiny screen) were of him competing in various places overseas. This knowledge was meant to make me relax…
I can’t say it helped me relax although it did help me understand why he drove the way he did. After half an hour he slowed down for us and took things a little more sensibly. At one point there was a traffic jam in the 2 or 3 lanes of traffic heading where we were. Not interested in stopping our driver just drove on the grassy verge along the side of the motorway and snuck in front of all the other cars! Antony was loving it. 🙂
We arrived safely and he was a very pleasant guy and competent driver – one I will not forget in a hurry.
Only once did we have a problem with taxis and that was when we were wanting to leave the cave village of Meymand and head back to Shahr-e-Babak. We waited and we waited and we waited for a taxi! No cars came. It was so quiet! Without credit on my phone to call anyone we managed to find someone whose phone we could use to call someone else who called a taxi for us. More waiting… as the driver had to come from Shahr-e-Babak. It was a fine day so no big problem.
We often asked locals how much taxis should cost (e.g. to get to the ferry or the bus station) and always what the locals told us the price should be, that was the price quoted to us from the driver before we got in. It was always the fair price. No-one tried to rip us off or charge us more because we were foreigners. That surprised me as it seems to be common practice in most countries of the world to charge a little extra to unsuspecting foreigners (unless there is a taxi-meter).
The driving in Iran is definitely different to New Zealand or anywhere else that I’ve been, except Kabul – there it was also crazy! It somehow works but it was hard for us to work out what rules people followed and how the traffic merged, gave way, entered roundabouts etc. There is no way that either of us would want to rent a car and drive ourselves here. I think we would cause an accident within hours if we tried! If you did rent a car there’s a good chance it will be white. Although you can find other coloured vehicles in Iran there was a huge majority of white cars for reasons unknown to me.
Private Drivers/ Driver-guides
We had simply fabulous experiences with drivers hired to take us to various places of interest, wait while we enjoyed them and then take us to the next place. The first one was through an official agency based in Yazd and their driver Mehdi was great. We enjoyed some incredibly cool places on our way from Yazd to stay the night in the desert, then the next day Mehdi took us and the other couple we traveled with to our next destination, Esfahan, with one stop on the way. We could have done day trips to some of the sights from Yazd and then gone more directly by bus to Esfahan but doing it the long way round was great- we saw some of our favourite stuff on this trip. More about it here. Sharing the cost with a couple we met at the hotel in Yazd worked out really well for all of us. We loved their company and conversation and it of course became cheaper for all of us with four in the car instead of two. Mehdi was a great driver and I would recommend him for anyone looking for a driver in these parts. He spoke English, drove sensibly and was very relaxed and pleasant company.
In Jolfa our host organised a driver for us. He took us on two trips and joined us in looking at many of the points of interest. He stopped in many places for us to take photos along the way. His name escapes me but he was very nice. We chatted away and he put up with my very basic farsi! The first trip was an afternoon jaunt west of Jolfa to St Stephanos monastery and the Dam beyond (beeeeeautiful!). The following day we went east of Jolfa, along the gorgeous Aras valley and all the way up to Babak Castle. He drove quite a long way up the dodgy road to cut down the walking time to the top. Then he drove us to the Armenian border and we sadly left Iran. This our last day in Iran was possibly the best! Details here. Babak castle was incredible.
Getting to the island of Qeshm required a ferry from Bandar Abbas and we also took a ferry from Qeshm to Hormoz and back (amazing place!). This was cheap and easy. The first ferry had limited capacity but I think everyone got a seat in the end. People had to rearrange themselves as new people got on to ensure women were not sitting beside men they didn’t know. The ferries were not large – just passenger ferries, no cars, although it is possible to take a car ferry to Qeshm- but from a different port. Contrary to what I’d read in the Lonely Planet the ferry to Hormoz was decent, safe and reliable. We enjoyed being in the Persian Gulf and seeing all the other ships out there.. busy place!!
On the island of Hormoz, it seems the way to get around is by tuktuks. We hired one (with driver) and he took us all over the island to the main points of interest. It was a great way to travel as you feel you are part of the place, wind through the hair and all that!
From Qeshm we also went to Hengam island to see the dolphins. The distance is short and those interested in going to the island briefly and otherwise being near dolphins could do so in a small motor boat.
We took two train trips in the last week of our trip. The first was a night train from Tehran, bound for Tabriz. We booked our tickets a couple of days before, with the help of someone from the hotel who took me to the travel agency. The tickets cost $12 USD each and the 600+km trip took 13 hours. We shared a private cabin with one other couple who we chatted briefly with. We were given free drinks and snacks once we settled in. After a few hours we put down the bunk beds above and put fresh linen on them and arranged the seats below into beds too. Antony and I slept on the top bunks. It was comfortable and clean. The only problem was the heat. The cabin was heated so high and we couldn’t turn it down. It was almost suffocatingly hot! I had to open the window to get some air and we kept it ajar while we slept. All in all the train was a really good experience and one I would recommend to other travellers. If you do the overnight trip you miss out on the scenery but do save on a night’s accommodation costs!
Food & a bed on the train, Tehran-Tabriz
Our second trip on the train was from Tabriz to Jolfa. It is much faster to take a taxi or bus but we love the gentleness of a train and the fact you can walk around and read without getting travel-sick etc. The train was also incredibly cheap (less than $1 each!). Ridiculous actually. It was pretty empty too (see picture below) so I don’t know how this train service can possibly cover its costs!
Once we arrived in Jolfa our couchsurf host was nowhere to be found and in fact didn’t turn up until the evening. So we had many hours to kill, having arrived before lunch. The train station was clean and comfortable. There were no other trains coming or going in the few hours we were there so it was very quiet. We saw plenty of security guards, one looked at our passports, more out of curiosity than anything else I think. No-one seemed too bothered that a couple of foreigners were hanging out, reading and on computers in the station!
Now before I sign off this post… in case any of you find yourselves in Iran traveling around, perhaps stuck in stations for hours waiting for transport, you will need to eat. We found that local bread shops were easy to find generally and the bread fresh and cheap. In little shops you could find things to eat with your bread such as cream cheese, chocolate spread, honey – all in convenient small packages (as well as in larger jars and containers). Another discovery that was good for snacks when traveling was the packaged seeds and nuts. So good.