When a policeman tries to hitch a ride on the back of your Triumph because he loves it so much, it’s time to wonder whether you should have believed the hype.
Perhaps the travel warning ‘avoid all but essential travel’ might have been a little excessive but this is Iran – a nation greyed out on most westerners’ tourist maps for years. For those that dare to try, however, it’s a rewarding, rich, vibrant, colourful and hugely friendly place that’s worth the little extra effort needed to get there.
Kevin Sanders – tour guide with Globebusters and a record-breaking around-the-world rider – was one of the first people to organise a tour to the Islamic Republic on the Persian Gulf that he admits “smashed all preconceptions”.
“We rode through Iran for eight days. We had to have an official guide to get the visas, but he didn’t keep tabs on us at all and it was all low key,” he says.
“We did our research in some depth for this trip and had lengthy discussions with local guides who knew the country and capital Tehran. That took a lot of the possible pain away.”
Straightforward and welcoming
Although the visa process is time-consuming and expensive (around €270) and the paperwork had to be collected from the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, riding into Iran was straightforward and welcoming.
Kevin says: “Everyone at the border was smiling, talking English and welcoming us. They even had a special tourist office lady who was fluent in English. There was no stress at all, they didn’t search us and even allowed us to take pictures of the border.”
There were no restrictions on where to ride: “Each day, locals would stop to talk to us and welcome us to their country. There were no army checkpoints and the few police that stopped us were purely interested in us and our bikes, including one policeman who wanted to go pillion into Tehran on my Triumph Tiger Explorer.”
Fortune favours the brave
It was, though, the welcome from ordinary Iranians that left the greatest impression on every rider fortunate and, initially, brave enough to cruise into their villages.
“Everyone was so pleased to talk to us and practise their English. Iran is an Islamic country, but it seemed less strict than Turkey. The women have to wear a headscarf but even this seemed to be slipping, with the scarf complemented by designer sunglasses and make-up, jeans, trainers or high heels,” says Kevin.
Iran does have a few more surprises in store, with driving in the larger cities, such as Tabriz and Tehran, an interesting experience, the group found.
Five lanes into three do go… apparently
Kevin explains: “The locals tend to drive very close and cut lanes without warning. They make five lanes out of three but generally the traffic moves and you have to go with the flow. Forget signalling; use your horn and be assertive.
“A lot of time the drivers will drive close to look at you and take pictures. Then there are Iranians who will drive alongside you at 60mph, hanging out of the window and trying to have a conversation. All the roads signs are written in Farsi (Persian) and English, so navigating is easy.”
If it’s solitude you seek, the mountain roads of the north are beautiful and remote with traffic scarce, but there’s little chance of being lulled into a false sense of security as you would in the Alps because of a higher than average probability of unexpected hazards and potholes.
A few shocks
Kevin says: “Probably the only downside of the trip was that there’s no alcohol in Iran, or at least none to buy or on show. Talk to the locals and they tell you it’s easy to buy alcohol and drink at home – some even brew their own beer – but we didn’t risk getting illegal alcohol, so there was no cold beer at the end of a long day’s ride.
“Technology was more up to date than we expected. Phone signals were fine and all the hotels had Wi-fi, but Facebook is blocked.”
The price of fuel is between 20 and 25 pence per litre. Compare this to Turkey, the previous country, which at £1.20 per litre is one of the most expensive in the world.
Would you go back?
“It was a hugely positive experience,” Kevin says. “Other than being in dire need of a real beer. Overall, it was a great surprise to all of us who had never been there before. We left wanting to see more and it certainly smashed most preconceptions we held.”