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A road trip through Iran

Ten days on the road in this beautiful country have changed my perceptions forever

brunch Updated: Jun 30, 2018 21:02 IST
Hormazd Sorabjee
Hormazd Sorabjee
Hindustan Times
travelling through Iran,road trip Iran,travelogue
A Scorpio outside the Golestan Palace in Tehran, Iran

Words of caution from family and friends ranged from a mild ‘Be careful’ to an explicit ‘Have you gone mad?’ when I informed them of my plan to drive across Iran. You can’t blame them, really. The perception of Iran is that of a deeply hostile nation in a controversial nuclear pursuit, with a dim view of personal rights. This is, however, a rather misplaced impression, as I found out.

In reality, Iran is warm and welcoming with a young, trendy population that is more free-spirited and open than I ever imagined.

Hello, bhai bhai!

In a rather unconventional mode of entry, I had driven into Iran from neighbouring Azerbaijan. This was befitting of the occasion – the Friendship Rally; a once-in-a-lifetime mega road trip of 18 Mahindra SUVs and 50 people, made possible by the governments of India, Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia, the Kalinga Motor Sports Club (KMSC) and Mahindra. The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) is an old trade route, which India wants to re-establish. The route bypasses China (and Pakistan, of course) via a sea route to Iran from where a network of roads and railways transport goods as far north as St. Petersburg in Russia. Now, what better way than an 11,000 km car rally to prove the INSTC’s credentials of fast connectivity?

The Imam mosque at Isfahan

The rally started in earnest from Bandar Abbas in Iran, went to St. Petersburg and returned to the Iranian port. It was on the return leg of this trip, from Baku – the capital of Azerbaijan to Shiraz in Iran – that I joined the rally. Having traversed Azerbaijan (to call it an interesting country would be an understatement) we finally found ourselves at the Astara border, which we would clear in a little over two hours. The Iranian entry process, amazingly, took only a quarter of that for the entire contingent!

The only real danger you will encounter in Iran is, well, the driving!

It was 1pm in Iran by the time we hit the road. Tehran, our stop that day, was a long way away, which meant our drive would stretch into the night. En route, we met with a group of sports car owners who turned up in, wait for it, Mustangs and Camaros! That’s not something you expect from a country that’s supposed to be anti-America. Another theory debunked, then.

Speaking of America, at the official rate of 41,000 rials to the dollar, all it takes is roughly 23 dollars for you to become a millionaire here! Unsurprisingly, dinner bills often add up to millions, but in rials, of course. By the way, fuel, at 6,000 rials, works out to ~ 9.50 for a litre of diesel – that’s practically free!

A long way for home

Tehran, where we spent the next morning, opened our eyes to Iranian culture. This is a buzzing city with vibrant people who are proud of their heritage and rightly so. And when you see the palaces and monuments, which are stunningly beautiful (just like Iranian women) you understand why the Persian civilisation was so great.

Our next stop was Isfahan, and we arrived there well in time for a wander around the spectacular Naqsh-e-Jahan complex. Isfahan also happens to be the place to buy a carpet but be prepared for some intense haggling.

Persepolis, a remnant of the 2,500-year-old Archaemenid empire

The next day had in store for us the magnificent ruins of Persepolis, a place that has for long been on my bucket list since this is where my forefathers could have come from. Driving to Persepolis, a remnant of the 2,500-year-old

once dubbed as the ‘wealthiest city under the sun’, was an exercise in scale and awe. It was Shiraz – young, more liberal and with beautiful gardens – my last stop in Iran, that stole my heart though. Monuments like the fabulous Pink Mosque add much colour and even simple things like a water fountain are a work of art.

Ten days on the road in Iran have changed my perceptions of the country forever. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people and the only real danger you will encounter there is, well, the driving!

Hormazd Sorabjee is one of the most senior and much loved auto journalists in India, and is editor of Autocar India. Sunday Drive appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, July 1, 2018

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First Published: Jun 30, 2018 21:00 IST