IRAN: It'll improve, we'll be friends - eventually.

Click on images to enlarge them.

The world front-page news election happened shortly after we left.
Our entrance-exit timing was coincidentally very good.
Iranians seemed to us, quite different than their regime.
As we wrote below our impression was, it's only a question of time.

Lonely Planet map

Iranian guy on the street:
Even in booze-free Iran, Canadians are known for
polar bears, beavers, seals and Canada geese – all drinking beer.
Iran thumbnail of one large niche:
A happy-looking smiling family; too many on a small bike; her covered.


Milestone: April 15, 2009 marked exactly 9 months from our arrival in UK, and some 37,000 road kilometers from London. Via the long scenic route.


April 14, 2009, we got Iran visas, hallelujah, picked them up in Erzrum, Turkey [map] about 300 km mountain [terrain map] ride from the Iran border. There's this little Iranian consulate here that Nisrin told us about.

The visas were arranged by the highly recommended Nisrin at Persian Voyages [] [link]. She is an Iranian in the UK, who works with people inside Iran – you do need someone inside apparently. Not the cheapest of the Iran visa services we found in Lonely Planet, £50 each x 2, but she got it done expeditiously. Iran Gov't needed another €45 x2 when picking them up – same day service. So altogether the visas cost us roughly US$250-ish.

Thao had to get new photos taken with a 'head cover' for the visa. OK, whatever. Ayatollah Khomeini's [TIME Magazine link] photo was prominent in the Consulate waiting area – and subsequently in many offices, stores within the country.

Speaking of Khomeini and a tough chapter of modern history, Americans reading this – do you remember Canuck Ambassador Ken Taylor [link]?


क्रॉसिंग थे बॉर्डर वास उनेवेंत्फुल। The preceding appeared when I tried to blog at an internet café – decided to keep it, being the only (I thought) Farsi I'd ever type. English magically converted itself. However, it's not Farsi after all, rather Hindi for some reason. An Iranian kindly corrected me; see his 'Comments' from the Iranian Honda dealer at bottom. Here's Farsi: سلام آقای سور]


People: We concur with Lonely Planet's observations and cannot say it better:
. . ."A journey to Iran is a chance to peel away the layers of a country
. . .with a serious image problem. Beyond the stereotypes you’ll
. . .experience a country desperate to been seen for what it is, rather
. . .than what it is perceived to be ... the desert glory of ancient Persopolis
. . .exists alongside the dynamic present of today's traffic-choked Tehran.
. . .At its core you’ll discover a country of warm and fascinating people
. . .living within an ancient and sophisticated culture."

We like the place and people way more than we expected, some of them we like a lot. Why be surprised? Because they certainly do have 'an image problem', even with us. And they are self-conscious about it – lots of questions asked about what do we really think of the country and so on ...

No question this is a religious state, with more than the obvious implications: 98% of Iranians are Shi'ah Muslim, which places them in a vast minority alongside Iraq, Azerbaijan, Bahrain.

Sunni Muslims are 85% of all Muslims worldwide. Which might, at least to some like me, explain in part the bellicose macho over-compensation of the current Iran regime re nukes, Israel and such. Here' a Shi'ah-Sunni Wikipedia summary [link.]

The people we met could not be more friendly, seemed genuinely happy to see us riding through; 'welcome to Iran' is shouted from passing car windows, incessant honks, waves, thumbs-up and walk-ups. Incessant but not overbearing and almost always polite. Without exception 'where are you from?' (sometimes in Farsi) and always Thumbs Up, 'Canada good' and then 'welcome to Iran.' A small number speak some or quite good English while we speak none of the 84 [sic] Iranian languages [source link] and [another link.]

How they love Black Bike – a traffic-stopper everywhere, but always polite and they're not all over it pushing buttons or climbing on like many places, just looking respectfully. When I say 'Honda' it's raised eyebrows and thumbs up – a prestige brand here. They often ask 'Japan?' When I say 'Made in America' it's raised eyebrows with some hesitation and caution.

A lot of the locally-made 150cc bikes wear Honda logos on the seat covers and even some plastic-stick-on logos, something like putting a Mercedes Star on an old Beetle I suppose ...

Today we stopped to ask a policeman for directions, ended up chatting with a group of very friendly army/police guys for perhaps a half hour, comparing bikes, snapping pics and so on. One officer, upon learning of our home, made the first diplomatically semi-candid remark about Canada in barely-English: 'Canada like America' with a gesture indicating 'not so great.' I replied 'American people very good (thumbs up), sometimes government policies so-so' indicating with my hand an ambivalence.

He smiled and replied 'Yes American people good.'

You try on mine, I'll try on yours.

And so far that sums it up. Seems to be a nation of friendly, largely well-educated, cultured people – and depending where you come from, their government policies are either 'so-so' or pathetic.

Economically and in other ways, it's a largely self-destructive regime to us, likely inviting of a rebellion; an election is scheduled for shortly after we leave. We'll see how that goes.


Recognize anyone? Big highway billboard.
The faces are everywhere.
Way too much so, self-defeating-overkill, saturation.


Travels: In Tehran today, maybe 1200 km from the Turkey border – took three easy days to get here, driving between scenic mountains or large hills, many of them snow-capped, some stunning colorful red-stratified rock formations we'd never seen before; rode mostly on a plateau between mountain ranges, on decent to very good roads, some being excellent four-lane.

The western part of the country, prior to Tehran, is far from rich-looking, some mud-brick villages that look like they did a century or two ago, except they had phone lines and paved roads to the village. Mostly the land is empty, hours of it with virtually nothing that looked arable or occupied.

En route Tehran, great rock formations and snowy mountains.
Mud brick villages a-plenty. West region is fiscally poor.


Finally, Tehran, one of our trip goals.

Tehran Traffic: Deserves its congestion rap alright, but no contest with Cairo. I'd rate it quite drivable for the experienced, alert and slightly aggressive. A hair's breadth separates cars at times, but drivers seem to know what they are doing and make space for a well-noticed bike, quite gentlemanly in fact.

Cars/bikes made in Iran: Most impressive versus the Moslem neighbors; many 2-4 wheel vehicles and their tires are 'made in Iran.' That means 'largely assembled' but still ... an accomplishment towards industrialization in a nation of 66 million. Here's a CNN/Fortune article on cars made here [link.]

Peugeot, Citroen, Renault, Kia and Fiat are all manufacture/assemble here – plus a few Iranian brands like Saipa and Kodhro (based on Peugeot 405 platform.) They export some cars/bikes too. Honda-like bikes galore under local brands – its altogether very big business, the largest car/bike maker in Middle East area, 4% of Iran's GDP. Much of that is Detroit's loss, formerly the main car/parts supplier.

Good on them for manufacturing wheels, even though they are state enterprises, it's what I thought Syria, Jordan or Egypt ought to do – but don't.

Iranians have money for wheels, somehow. Many cars are pretty nice, some high end. And the motorbikes; 125 cc single-piston, made-in Iran – never seen such swarms bzzzzing around solo and then in groups, weaving through spaces I'd consider impassable, running red lights is de rigueur, up on sidewalks when traffic stops. 200 cc is the maximum legal size for bikes in Iran, for the same 'security' (i.e. assassination) reasons as Syria and Jordan.


Tehran: The friendly gent below on scooter spoke some English, picked us up in traffic and insisted on guiding us to our hotel. He had no email address, too bad ... he didn't want money, just being super friendly as many Iranians are; he may have been one of the many bike-taxis, not sure.

'Welcome to Tehran!'
Just a friendly guy who led us to our hotel.
Tehran city view, mountains in background.
Azadi Monument in Tehran, attractive answer to Arc de Triomphe.
They're over-the-top everywhere. And so are their secret police.
That's a wannabe Toronto CN Tower.
The mound in foreground is an earth/rock sculpture.
We have questionable publicly funded 'art' projects too ..
A few very nice office/residence buildings appear all over Tehran.
Some people do have money, and the aesthetic matters to them.

Just at edge of town on the freeway, a massive development of identical row apartment buildings. Jammed together for miles.

Caught this little bit from the bike, the biggest and
among ugliest developments we have ever seen.

Tehran's population is around 15 million within a nation of 66 million; a big city accused of being air polluted. Reputation aside, it strikes us as relatively clean – ground and air both. Perhaps we missed the smoggy season – it does have a mountain smog trap.

Evidently it has a good mayor who mounted a serious effort in auto/bike pollution – your license plate only allows you into downtown on odd/even numbered days, unless you buy a special permit.

Streets have relatively little garbage, buildings look clean, at least compared to where we've been of late, it's a modern-looking bustling city. By law, stores close at midnight and there appears not much to do at night unless you have friends to visit.


Money: BIG problem. As of this writing date: O-n-l-y cash hard money works here in preferred € or less-loved US$. Even £ are harder to change. Bring € bills, all you will need plus a fat safety margin. After much trying, including the head office of the national bank and five others, plus a half-dozen private exchange offices, here are the facts (as told by bank officials & others):
. . .– Zero relationship with any CDN or US banks.
. . .– Wire-transfer money? No way.
. . .– Credit cards: Do not work here, period.
. . .– Cash draw on credit card? No.
. . .– ATM? Does not exist, unless you have a local bank account.
. . .– American Express Travelers' Checks? Worthless paper.
. . .– Not enough cash? You're basically out of luck and in trouble.
I had a pile of € cash coming here, assuming I'd get more money via ATM, bank transfer, credit card or T-Checks, like in some 80 other countries I have visited. Wrong assumption! This country has been seriously bank-embargoed.

However, an awfully nice Canadian Government (maybe other countries too, didn't ask) policy exists that can save your butt in real emergencies: Transfer funds at home via web banking to a Government account in Canada, they give you cash money here at the Tehran Embassy – basically they act as your foreign exchange bank if in trouble; a potential life-saver.

Through luck and making friendship, I found another way, but trust me, it was a fluke and nuisance. I kick myself hard, that we did not read up more, and thus prepare better with thicker wads of € cash. Over-confidence strikes again.

Their currency, the Rial, is hard work at first, roughly 10,000 of them for US$1 as of now. Exchange money and get a thick stack of Rials, in the millions. Forget putting them in your wallet – you need a pouch/sac for the bundles. A taxi is about 30,000 Rials ($3.) A three-star hotel in Tehran 700,000 (US$70). Sure it's just paper, but it still hurts psychologically to part with 3/4 million of anything for a hotel room!

It's an inexpensive country though, where a monster beef/lamb/chicken sandwich, with a heap of meat and veggies that's more than a pig-out meal is perhaps $1-$2. Our hotel resto charges perhaps $10 per person for a white tablecloth kebab meal. We stayed in perfectly OK US$30 hotel rooms here too.


New friends: Befriended Vania Danialian because he's re-doing our hotel and we hit it off, he's a superb interior designer and builder – and I say this not because he will read it, it's absolutely true and I know construction/design. He's also the nicest imaginable guy, an Armenian-Iranian who had been here for generations [good Armenian-Iranian link.] I am hard to impress in construction, but what he did for the Escan Hotel [link] just a short block from ours – tasteful imaginative 4-star boutique European hotel excellence for US$90, 'The Best In Iran' according to Trip Advisor [link] reviews. A design/architecture/service winner.

Vania with sister Rema
We stayed in the way-less-good 3-star Iranshahr [link] which is US$85, much lower standards all-round than Escan for almost-same money – and the front desk people, especially one woman, with this horrid, arrogant, humorless, gimme-a-damn-break attitude, oh pulleeze! Someone, please fire her.

Vania was there and we love him, were too lazy to move – but don't you stay there! Iranshahr Hotel is geared for Iranians and they actually discourage foreigners although we met a few – while the Escan is exactly opposite, being kinda upscale 'whites only.' Both hotels are owned by the same group – great businessmen, smart guys! But why is there one bad management and one good one, a block apart? Strange.

Kevin Soltanian is Vania's bright personable assistant who is attending both advanced design and English courses. They both went way overboard in helpful friendship – finding out after a couple hours driving around, for example, that I can forget GL1800 parts/service here!

Also when I asked them about a good tire repair shop, next day a guy shows up, the tire is fixed in the hotel parking area. I have no idea what it cost – they refused to tell me let alone allow me to pay! That plus a bottle of preventative tire self-repair foam I'd had trouble finding. I got some small révenge and will get more, but damn, they are so generous, hospitable, friendly. We sure hope to welcome them to Canada one of these days.

Un-screwed: So that's why I had a slow leak!
Both pulled from the rear tire.
Worst mechanical issue in 37,000 km, not bad.

More new Iranian friends: Sahand (Enamzadeh) and Sara (Sandrolashrafi, they do not change names at marriage) are relatives of a university friend of Thao's, Savil Hemanti, so Thao called to say hello. The most generous hospitality flowed from that connection, by warm, highly educated, upscale people. A very interesting insight into upper-middle Iranians actually – her late father was a high level university prof, her mother still is one; Sara studied irrigation to a Master's level in Malaysia, Sahand is an engineer working in HVAC (air conditioning).

Went to her mother's lovely and large suburban home about an hour by taxi outside Tehran in Karaj, for an Iranian meal Sara and mother(s) had worked on all day to prepare – just fabulous to our European palettes.

Zhila is an economics prof, Sara's mom.
From left: Mahnez (his mom), us, Sahand, Zhila (her mom), Sara.
Photo taken by his brother Sina. Great Iranian feed.
Very spacious European-style living room with Persian art.
Sina, Sahand's brother, is studying fashion.
He took Thao around town. Very friendly gracious.
Eating Iranian street food – a spiced corn kernel mixture, it's delicious.


Armenian Genocide Day – in Iran? I digress only slightly ... it's April 24, the Friday religious day here; we went with Vania along with a few thousand others, to a nearby Armenian Orthodox Church for the annual civilized demonstration and genocide remembrance. It was moving, enlightening, lucky coincidence of a new friendship. There are about 250,000 Armenians in Iran by the way ...

A noteworthy event to witness: It was a couple thousand Christians strong, free-speech via loudspeaker, at a sizable and low key but lovely Orthodox Church, in downtown Tehran. They were demonstrating against Iran's friendly Muslim neighbor Turkey and it's denial of the systematic slaughter of 1.5 million around 1915. Police stood by casually in apparently small numbers, at a bit of distance. A permit to march down the street was evidently not granted to the Armenians – but it was a demonstration against a fellow Muslim nation – by Christians. From what we read, even as small as it was, one might not have expected this in a military theocracy.

Knowing little about the Armenian slaughter, I formerly thought I knew that Hitler was quoted as saying: 'Who remembers the Armenians?' as his PR-answer for exterminating Jews. The quote seems uncertain from Nazi archives [link], hard evidence is in doubt. The underlying 'who remembers?' and implicit 'who cares?' logic, is however valid. Genocides, ethnic cleansing etc. continue unabated – altogether numbering in the millions after WWII, slaughtered for race alone. The Hitler quote doesn't matter.

Jews, in Iran? 25,000 of them live here [article link] in spite of highly public official statements. This Christian Science Monitor article says:
. . . "President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fiery anti-Israeli
. . . rhetoric is about politics, not religion."

Wheezy for one, tends to believe that.


Inside Armenian Orthodox Church in Tehran.
Not what you expect to see here.
OK, there's not many but still ... at least a few.
Tears of remembrance.
Daddy may chant but his kid is just bored.


The Shah's former Palace. [Shah link.] The Niavaran Palace [photos link] is worth seeing, not so much for the missing ultra-grand opulence, rather because it creates an impression of 'balanced understatement' in the Shah's message to visiting dignitaries and his domestic audience alike.

Palaces are ultimately about ego and message; any absolute ruler can find the money.

If this place is an indication, the Shah intentionally did not go overboard. As rich as he was, this place was humble compared to the foreign rulers of the time and that seems to be the message he and his decorators sought to create. OK, it's not all to our taste, but the grounds are lovely and his wife selected some pretty great art pieces. Some of the furniture you or I could own quite cheaply today – other pieces were hand-made art.

Sara and her friend Nooshin joined us for the tour and explained much: they seem to agree that it wasn't over-the top.

Shah built this for his son. Far from over-the-top opulence.
It's OK, but we know people with nicer digs back home.
Visiting dignitaries: click to enlarge see whom you recognize.
A greeting room with Persian mirror work. Great carpet.
Again, not a huge show-off.


Goodbye among new lifelong friends
as we are about to leave Tehran.

Recommended Tehran Restaurant: An excellent Chinese restaurant in Tehran discovered with Vania – Golden Dragon [link] the duck is superb, after months of chicken and lamb, major treat. Everything Chinese is very good but skip their attempt at sushi, not even close. Back-home prices and of course no Tsingtao (or any other) beer.


Travels: Stunning 'old Iran': Esfahan [map link] was our first post-Tehran stop, ended up at the Setareh Hotel [no web site but phone +98-311-2207060] formerly called the Sedaf, recommended by Lonely Planet and three-star. Choose rooms carefully however, see it before accepting unlike us ... our room was tiny and bad-taste grotty; major loud air compressor noise shook the room all night – all this for CDN$60 ballpark. But the staff was very nice, they have internet in the lobby, a nice resto, a short walk to the town square, so ...

A surprise birthday party for us there was touching – they read from our passports that Thao and I had b'days May 4 & 6 so they made this great cake with real whipped cream, and a big fuss which was most thoughtful. On departure after two days, staff and manager gathered, a big crowd waved – we liked the place in spite of the so-so room.

Little surprise 2-birthday party,
excellent cake in Setareh Hotel's good dining room.

The Setareh Hotel is well located close to the Imam Square – the world's second largest town square, Tiananmen being biggest. This is the main attraction and really worth the trip.

Here's a New York Times article about the town [link.] Plus others' photos [link.]

The music room of Imam Palace
Beautifully carved-out details and good acoustics.

An old fortress door detail.

All women are veiled in public, by law,
not 99% but 100%, Thao included while here.
A bunch 'sun' themselves in the huge grassy square
Esfahan hotel bike crowd on departure.


Travels cont'd: We were quite worried about our limited supply of Rials, counting every million carefully - being stuck here with no cash would be a nightmare.

Plus the heat was starting to be oppressive heading south. So we were under pressure to move and missed some of Iran's sights, such as Shiraz and Persepolis; Seeing them would have been a few days of detour we felt we could not afford. Some other time ...

Pressed on to Pakistan - a two-day desert ride that became increasingly hot, empty, dusty - on lonely roads.

A few towns en route but not much to see or do. We just kept riding, bored with the flat desert roads.


A small wonderful slice of human Iran: In Rafsanjan [map link] we needed a little more air in the rear tire on our way out of town. (It's a big pistachio and carpet making area but we didn't sight-see here.)

The 2-star Hotel Almas [link] owner, during check-out, had cut the price of the room from equivalent of $40 to $30, because we were now bike buddies. See, he has an uncle who is a military General, even showed me his pic in uniform, so he has a normally illegal 1100 cc Yamaha. Power breaks rules.

Then, being another hospitable Iranian, he sent an employee to lead us by scooter, to find a tire-pump guy. It wasn't so easy to find one, given there was a district power outage and air pumps need electricity. But we drove around and the employee asked in Farsi 'till we found one. That was two very kind/generous gestures to these biking strangers, no?

It gets better.

The fellow in the photo below at left worked at a little tire garage and variety store next door, tending both simultaneously. He spoke no English. Not a word, all sign language. While waiting for the tire air compressor to fill its tank ... we bought 2 juices, some nuts, a large bottle of water and some candy for about 70¢, which struck us as half price or less. I tried to pay more, he handed back my tip with a gesture of gratitude/refusal.

He was 'gifting' us relatively rich strangers.

Then he pumped a bit of air in the rear tire. I tried to give him the equivalent of $1, he again refused.

Then he invited us to his place for a meal in sign language – we explained we had to get to Pakistan today and apologized. We gifted him a small flashlight-keychain; he loved it and put it in his heart-side breast pocket, patted it.

Do people get any nicer or more generous than that?

C'mon, here we are rich Gringos on a bike that is worth many years or indeed decades, of his net earnings. Yet he is doing pro bono work for us, giving us freebies that we want to buy?

Such remarkable generosity, hospitality, kindness. Way above human instincts for making money when one can. Almost never happens, anywhere.

One of the sweetest guys on the planet, in blue.


Travels cont'd: What do you get if you cross a camel with a mule? Lotsa money. Explained below. Zahedan [map link] is one of the world's opium/heroin capitals, 70 km from Pakistan border, same distance from Afghanistan if you can cross raw dismal desert.

Our last stop in Iran after three enlightening, mostly very agreeable weeks. May 6, 2009 – my birthday, what a cool way to spend it, riding dust/sweat-covered with a wonderful partner, thru drug trading capitals and raw uninhabited albeit paved desert. And more desert.

Into the edges of the Paki-Taliban war zone, thru a highway to Quetta Pakistan – the highway being known for hostage-takers and hold-up gangs. So why go there? Well you may ask; it's the only viable road from here to India and thus around the world – unless you go through China which involves months of detailed permit-'n-guide planning in advance. Here's a map [link] of the various '-stans' region, you'll see why Iran-Pakistan, even during war, is the easiest road crossing.

I commented it's a cool way to spend a birthday: Well, technically it's not that cool: 40˚C (104˚F) from about 3 PM to 7 PM, arriving here in the dark and freezing 35˚C (95˚F) at 8 PM.

Third day of 6-9 hours a day riding since Tehran. Gradually getting hotter as we head S-E. That heat wave in India, daily on CNN/BBC, is clearly here too!

Riding pants & boots did a fine job, no real suffering below the waist. Just the upper half, it felt like standing in front of a hair dryer blowing constantly at 110 kph. But we commented via intercom, how one gets used to it quickly.

It's not unbearable, as long as you aren't in city traffic, just need some air flow and litres upon litres of water. At least it was dry heat, superb roads and almost no traffic.

Damn bloody sweaty dirty hot is all ... Coveted an air conditioned car a few times today.

Such temperature extremes: We entered Iran via Kurd-land Turkey at a low point of mountainous 4˚C (39˚F) and left flat desert at 40˚C (104˚F) quite a variance in 3 weeks! A big, varied land.

Is there a better time to cross it? Winter in Turkey on a bike would be really bad in the Kurd mountains, it was bad enough in April-May. It's an inevitable trade-off of temperature extremes.

South Iran riding pictures below. Desert and more desert.

Flat, flatter, flattest.

Some mountains and great rock formations to see, but you ride a vast valley between them.

One nice mountain twisties section at the end, nothing to write home about. After a half hour, just more flat land and straight road.

Excellent pavement throughout the country. Much of it four-lane and nearly empty outside the towns. Except for frequent radar cops (one stopped me for 10 km over limit, but no fine, just a handshake) – its as fast as you can drive otherwise.

However when the sun heats up that black asphalt ... heat beats down on you, plus reflects off the sand, plus heat rises from the road, it's a Triple Toaster.

Even so, the bike and tires didn't complain in the slightest. Almost 50,000 km on bike and she runs like barely broken in.


Tires: Forgive me a tecchie digression, but it's indicative of life on the road for biker trash. Developed a new fetish (close your eyes reading this part); have fallen in love with Metzeler tires from Germany, a Pirelli sub. Bought this pair in Israel 20,000 km ago and they are holding up empirically much, much better than the previous Dunlops & Avons.

Without them we'd be in serious doo-doo here: Absolutely no tires to be had anywhere for this bike, or likely any big bike, except in Dubai or India and even India is not easy.

15,000 km is decent life expectancy for tires on a loaded big bike – but these will hit 25,000+. And they handle perfectly wet and dry. That's biking love. Today got a confirming email – Metzeler is even sending me new ones to India! Talk about customer service: I had emailed Metzeler USA, begging for sourcing help; they forwarded to Germany within an hour. Germany wrote me next day. Presto, tires are en route. 'Professionals' is understating it. And it is simply the best brand/model of tire for this heavy duty touring purpose, no contest from my experience.


Travels cont'd: Iran towards Pakistan is desert. And more desert. Roads are good or excellent.

How to cross south Iran, and most paved desert roads: Set the cruise control to 110 kph, point the bike, put your feet up, have a snooze. Sure is boring riding!

Just point, set cruise control and snooze ...
Desert can be scenic in its own harsh way ...
We assume it's a religious message ...
one of many painted 'billboards' on rocks in Iran.
Click to enlarge.
Traffic jam.


Bike hangin' in brilliantly: I occasionally record fuel consumption as an indicator of how the whole machine is working:
. . .– Got remarkable gas mileage here, the best of this trip:
. .. . .4.8 Litres/100 km = 50 MPG.
. .. . .That's amazing for a 600 kg = 1,300 lb bike. Was it due to the
. .. . .heat causing better combustion? Truly dunno.
. . .– Not that you likely care, but it's 20%-30% better than usual ...
. .. . .weird. Tested this a few times, same result.
Fuel price: Gas is around $0.50/litre in Iran, cheap. Numbers on the pump are in Farsi so you pay what the guy asks, probably including a tip, who knows? It's a $5 cheap fill is all I care. No idea on grades, octane, leaded, unleaded, it's all in Farsi. You buy whatever they have, one yes/no choice. Gas stations by the way, are mostly dirty, mud and gravel lots, potholed, rutted, evidently state-owned dumps – and many have half-hour line-ups.


Regimes & thumbnail history: I say it whenever people ask our impressions: Countries always look different from the inside than 3-minute spots on CNN, BBC. This one included.

Their Prez Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can be described as the southern end of a northbound donkey, granted. He loves the role too. He, his predecessors, the Ayatollahs etc screwed the place up, took a big step backwards. Iranians evidently know it too – its just too dangerous to do much about it right now.

Jimmy Carter lived then and remains even now in a fantasyland, better suited to peanut ranching than RealPolitik. This guy even now kisses Stalinist madman Kim Jong-Il (literally kisses him), praises Castro to the skies, while recommending boycotting Israel. All in defiance of US foreign policy. How much more wrong can one guy possibly be?

America erred badly, and pays even now, by electing him as a kinder gentler change to the worse. Iranians we met do not speak well of him either.

Here's a liberal-ish pro-con source [link] on Carter's Iran record:
. . ."President Carter inherited an impossible situation – he and his
. . .advisers made the worst of it. Carter seemed to have a hard time
. . .deciding whether to heed the advice of his aggressive national
. . .security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who wanted to encourage
. . .the Shah to brutally suppress the revolution, or that of his more
. . .cautious State Department, which suggested Carter reach out to
. . .opposition elements in order to smooth the transition to a new
. . .government. In the end he did neither, and [the world] suffered
. . .the consequences."

The Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) was far better than what followed, but background reading is not clear cut about whether the USA could actually have changed the outcome. Evidently the Shah went too fast with change, got on the outs with the religious powers trying to make Iran sectarian and modern. He was a tough ruler, his SAVAK was brutal, but a teddy bear regime that did good business, compared to what followed.

Here's a right-leaning view [source link]:
. . . .. ."Carter had the Pentagon tell the Shah's top military commanders
. . .- about 150 of them - to acquiesce to the Ayatollah and not fight him.
. . .The Shah's military listened to Carter. All of them were murdered in
. . .one of the Ayatollah's first acts.
. . . .. .Soon the new Iranian government was ransacking our embassy and
. . .held hostage its staff for over a year. Only President Reagan's election
. . .gave Iran the impetus to release the hostages.
. . . .. .I believe Carter's decision to have the Shah fall is arguably the most
. . .egregious U.S. foreign policy mistake of the last 50 years ...
. . . .. .With the Shah gone, the whole region was destabilized. The Soviet
. . .Union invaded Afghanistan; no doubt a direct link to the rise of the
. . .Taliban can be traced to this invasion. Iraq also took advantage of
. . .the Shah's departure to invade Iran. A long war followed that helped
. . .make Saddam's Iraq a great Middle Eastern power.
. . . .. .And decades after Carter's ignominious act, Iran is still bent on
. . .destroying America. President Bush named it one of the three nations
. . .in the "axis of evil." Iran is developing both nuclear weapons and the
. . .missiles to deliver these weapons to its enemies. We can thank
. . .Jimmy Carter for all of this."
That was three decades ago. We'll see how far the pendulum swings next. Meanwhile France did opportunistically well by the outcome, USA didn't. Not coincidentally, France had given Ayatollah Khomeini what was effectively asylum, until he returned home victorious.

To attain his comeback, Khomeini evidently dangled oil-money carrots for the people from Paris, promising everyone a cash oil dividend in some form. Once in power however, his magic money never quite materialized.

And the much-hated SAVAK secret police got even worse. Iranians are being watched. So are we tourists.


Important Iranian survey results [source link] and good short objective article, which points in the direction of internal change, soon:
. . .On 11 September 2001, while many Arab streets filled with dancing
. . .crowds ... thousands of young Iranians demonstrated in support of
. . .the United States.

. . .One year later, almost to the day, Iran’s National Institute for Opinion
. . .Polls and Research found that 74 percent of Iranians favored good
. . .relations with America —Khomeini’s “Great Satan”— and more than
. . .half of the population approved of American criticism of Iran’s government.

. . .The official pollsters also discovered that Ayatollah Khamenei, the
. . .powerful “Supreme Leader,” was the most unpopular figure in the country.
. . .
. . .The head of the institute and the editor of the newspaper that published the
. . .story were naturally accused of “spreading false information” and thrown
. . .in jail.

Indeed, as tourists who are often thought of as Americans (versus Europeans) – it most certainly was our clear impression that the majority of the population was very happy to see us passing through. We were generally welcomed as warmly as can be and there was hardly any hint of anti-American sentiment against us.

Beneath the public posturing and loudly aggressive officialdom, beats the heart of a nation that is far more pro-American than pro-Saudi, if one were to choose between lifestyle and cultural extremes.

Most Iranians, especially the young, want cars, free-choice TV channels and sexy clothes – far more than they want trips to Mecca and covered women. I believe that within a decade the facade will come off and we will be proven right: Just how much blood will be shed meanwhile, remains the biggest concern.


Economy: At least on surface, Iran is doing well for a state-controlled and oil-subsidized big-biz monopoly. The unofficial economy or black market is evidently significant to circumvent state inefficiencies – frequently the case in parallel situations. There is a private sector, but it is a small fraction of what it ought to be – big hotels are all state owned for example, small ones they allow to private sector. Corruption is evidently a huge business factor throughout; again often associated with state control.

As we all know, Iran fares badly on the world NGO lists of 'Freedom' and 'Corruption' countries [link to comparison list.]

Yet, somehow Iran operates in spite of the quite effective embargo, imposed because:
. . .(A) It was designated a state sponsor of terrorism for its activities in
. . . . . .Lebanon and elsewhere.
. . .(B) It remains under USA, UN, and EU economic sanctions because
. . . . . .of ongoing terrorism involvement and nuclear weapons ambitions.

In spite of this it seems to be doing, at least on surface, way better than most other Moslem places we've been: In order of success Malaysia, Iran and Turkey are the Moslem economically winning states. Iran has the huge advantage of considerable oil however.

GPD per capita (PPP) in Iran is $12,300:
. . .– Which is a tie with Mexico and Venezuela.
. . .Iran is doing 33% better than Turkey's $9,400.
. . .Iran is doing 225% better than Egypt's $5,400.
. . .– But Iran is doing just 43% of Israel's $28,800.
. . .Czech Republic, landlocked, no oil, is double Iran's GDP P/C.

Collapsed world oil prices is big trouble for the ruling Iran regime. A whole generation or two has become hooked on oil money and lived under a police theocracy. When all that changes ...

Oil accounts for 80% of Iran's exports; the 20% balance is composed of chemicals, fruits, nuts and carpets.

They likely have by far the best arts-crafts we have seen on this trip. Many of the carpets are stunning, even found a couple we wanted, but getting Rials cash-money was a problem again, as was shipping home – getting one at home is far simpler/safer.

State inefficient economy aside, the people come across as the closest thing to Europeans we have met since Europe. It's a bit akin to Turkey in its feeling of a special semi-European albeit Muslim people. Definitely not Arab.

Candidly, no Iranian we met has lost much love for Arabs either.

Why the Prez is butt-kissing Arabs and spitting/provoking towards West and Israel, is almost beyond everyone. But not totally. Pan-Muslim brotherhood, regional power ambitions, blah, blah, whatever. One suspects Iranians being minority Shi'ahs, plus being proudly non-Arabs, their more fanatical leaders seek a global leadership role. Hence perhaps they protest a bit more loudly than they might otherwise.

My enemy's enemy can become my friend, so maybe if I out-enemy the rest ... is one way to try win friends and regional leadership.

Money ultimately talks, BS walks. We saw zillions of French Iran-assembled cars, zero Saudi ones. They love, and lots of stores stock, USA Zippo lighters, Marlboro smokes, Swiss Army knives. No Syrian stuff in sight. Ditto Italian, Japanese, German, Korean and Brit stuff. Zero Egyptian, Libyan or Tunisian.

Follow the money and the goodies. The propaganda will change.

These people should/could be European/American trading partners and friends. They will be again, we hope soon. Three quarters of the Iranian population evidently agrees!

That is our closing impression of the place. Wonderful people. To become friends again before too long.


Drug trade capital: OK, some exceptions.

In this part of Iran, heroin and other poppy derivatives are huge biz. Some 80% of the European market's supply comes through here. Probably much of USA/Canada's too.

How do they smuggle/transport drugs? Train camels to do it; show camels how to get from A –> B thru long desert distances, with a memorable camel feast reward at the end. Once the camel has it's homing instinct, implant a few kilos into the hump and off goes a trans-desert 'drug mule.' No one can inspect every camel in thousands of square kilometers of rocky desert vastness; Jeeps can't even go there. Even if you catch the camel, whom do you arrest? Hence it works.

Today we pulled over for a break mid-nowhere. A little open-air mosque was in use by a dozen men, stopped for afternoon prayers outside at 30˚C. Post-prayer, one of them pulled out a baggie of green stuff and put a bunch in his lower gums – offered me some. Partly due to riding a bike in blistering heat, I declined the opportunity to sample whatever it was, clearly a poppy derivative of some sort.

Someone else mimed out a 'stoned' spinning head, as a response to my 'what's that?'

No secret here, a dozen Muslim men cared less that he did whatever drug. Everyone friendly, everyone jumped into their Peugeots, and took off.


Hitting Zahedan [map link] downtown, we asked a bunch of cops for the 4-star Esteghlal Hotel [link], we knew it was within a block. Immediately they wanted to give us a 'police escort' for the one-block ride. I shrugged and asked why. The Sarg with 3 chevrons, makes a 'cut throat' gesture. That's why. This town is full of serious thieves. Prior to The Shah it was called 'Thief Town' in Farsi, even officially on maps, but he changed the name. But I gather it's still Thief Town.

The excellent Esteghlal has underground parking behind a monster gate. So we sleep well. Nice place at US$70 a night, a bargain and a bit of luxury oasis in the desert, a launching pad for a Pakistan border crossing and long desert drive ahead.


Travel hazards; through Pakistan to India: From here to mid-Pakistan it is apparently convoy driving and no stopping for 6 hours. That's not idle tourist gossip, it's right from the Pakistan Embassy's lips. Riding right close to the Afghanistan border; Taliban are around; plus armed thieves are on the road looking to grab whatever they can, like bikes/cars/wallets and people.

It's very real. Up close 'n personal – while at the Pakistan Embassy in Tehran, awaiting our visa for hours, we met/befriended a well-educated family of Iranians. One was an MD. Another an engineer. Three spoke perfect English.

The husband was/is an Iranian fellow-Muslim diplomat, kidnapped by Taliban six months ago. You don't need to be American, British, Christian or Jew to qualify for kidnapping.

Not so much as a Taliban peep asking for money or prisoner exchange for him. Pakistan tells the family nothing, if even they know anything. They were here at the Embassy just to make their presence felt. A tear came to the eye for them. Classy family cruelly, unjustly victimized by their 'Muslim brothers.'

His bodyguard was shot dead.

Here's a CNN report on the incident [link].


Exit strategy: Altogether we spent over three weeks in Iran from the Turkey border to Pakistan. Driving distance, roughly 2,500 km.

We studied an exit via the south, i.e. going to Dubai [map link] then via ship/plane to India.

That versus Pakistan as a land route to India.

But finally, Dubai is too complex and expensive a route; would have been a US$3,000 detour with much lost time, waiting for ships, etc. Besides Pakistan gave us a visa (!) – that made the decision much easier.


Our (later proven to be wrong) guess is three days in Pakistan, maybe four. Central-East is calm. Just the western bit is iffy. Or so we were wrongly told.

Bike parts/tires/service await us in New Delhi. Got to get there.


Border zone security: Crossing from Zahadan, Iran to the Pakistan border [map link] was the first ‘uh-oh’ we hadn’t expected. On the bike at 6:30 AM, hoping to make trans-border miles and beat the oppressive heat, but ‘twasn’t to be. Our hotel told us after check-out that we must await a police escort, uh-oh, that arrived miraculously the moment we went outside.

Eighty kilometers to the border on perfect roads, turned into five hours of mostly waiting for an Iranian Pony Express of army/police teams. Hot, sweaty, dusty waiting.

Nicest men, actually memorably so: the last young army guy who took us to Customs at almost noon, bought us a 2-litre bottle of much needed cold water, unsolicited, I forced the equivalent of a $2 tip (decent money to him) into his pocket against his protests.

A couple dripping sweaty hours at two Customs sides, all well organized, honest, no bakshish or other games in either Iran or Pakistan.

Done. We're in Pakistan!


Taken at Hotel in Esfahan


In July-August 2009, while in Thailand-Laos, we exchanged emails with Nima, an Iranian who writes in English very well, and who happened to love one of our lonely Iran desert photos.

Nima wanted to write a song ... sent us the excellent desert photo and email below.

Our new friend found this web site via a Google search, found the blog 'fair and genuine' which is gratifying coming from someone who lives there.

Fine desert shot sent by Nima in Iran.

The blog was fair and genuine, you already know a lot about Iran and politics, I wish you had time to visit north. I only consider the green north as real Iran.

It's pretty strange that I had to ask YOU about deserts and its locations and I am gonna send the song clip as soon as I get there! Today I am gonna go to some desert like places and mountains called Ghale Rood Khaan but because the scene is quite green and the song requires some boring outlook, I think it doesn't fit.

Best, Nima

P.S. The pic in the attach is my favorite location to record the song I found it on the web, not sure if you pass through this as they call it Loot desert !

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  1. I so enjoy reading your amazing journey;
    I feel like I'm doing it with you,
    Safe rest of the way,
    Love Rosa

  2. Hi Dear Peter
    How r u my friend?
    I read all of your web page ...

    क्रॉसिंग थे बॉर्डर वास उनेवेंत्फुल। टाइपिंग इन
    this is not iranian font,
    this is indan font,
    Farsi font is hear:
    " سلام آقای سور"
    " Hi mr Sever "
    Same as arabic font
    but not exactly ... !

    Be Happy and hope to have good days in Iran,

    Hamed Karimi
    Visman Co, Ltd (honda)

  3. HI DEAR

  4. Hi Afsharnabi ... tires exist in Dubai. They are the only ones I can find within 3,000 km or so – which is about what's left on my existing ones ...

  5. sara sadrolashrafi4/29/09, 12:13 PM

    I love your blog and you lifestyles guys...

  6. Peter, Thao - More good reading for us armchair travellers! I really appreciate the view from the street - we get none of that from any of our conventional media sources. Safe travels!

  7. Peter, I am not a Blogger user, so I don't know what you use to apply styles to your copy. Looking at the source code for your page, I see a confusion of "span" tags... way more than are needed. See if you can delete some of them.

    The style being applied is "style="text-decoration: underline;" so try finding a way to remove that style.