City taxis come in three main incarnations in Iran.
If you hail an empty taxi the driver will probably think you want to hire it privately. He might ask you: ‘Dar baste?’, which literally means ‘Closed door?’, or perhaps ‘agence?’ If you want to share, then make your intentions clear by leaning in and telling him simply ‘Nah dar baste’, or ‘No closed door’. He’ll soon let you know if he’s interested or not.
In most towns and cities, shared or shuttle taxis duplicate or even replace local bus services. They usually take up to five passengers: two in the front passenger seat and three in the back. While Kia Prides make up the bulk of shuttle taxis, there are still plenty of old Paykans cruising the streets. Note that shuttle taxis operate in cities, while savaris offer a similar service between towns.
Shuttle taxis travel between major meydans (squares) and along main roads, so the key to using them is to learn the names of the meydans along your intended route. There is a certain art to finding a shuttle taxi going your way. Start by stepping onto the road far enough for the driver to hear you shout your destination, but close enough to the kerb to dash back in the face of hurtling traffic. If the driver has a spare seat, he will slow down for a nanosecond while you shout your one-word destination – usually the name of a meydan. If he’s going your way he’ll stop.
When you want to get out simply say kheili mamnun (thank you very much) or make any other obvious noise. Pay during the trip or when you get out; drivers appreciate exact change.
The government-regulated fares range from a few cents for short trips to a couple of dollars, depending on the distance, the city (Tehran is the most expensive) and the traffic. Try and see what other passengers are paying before handing over your money.
If you get into an empty shuttle taxi, particularly in Esfahan and Tehran, it might be assumed you want to charter it privately. Similarly, if everyone else gets out the driver might decide you are now a private fare. Clarify what you want by saying dar baste (closed door) or nah dar baste.
When trying to hail a shuttle taxi, don’t bother with anything along the lines of ‘Iran Hotel, on the corner of…’: the driver will have lost interest after the word ‘hotel’, picked up someone else and be halfway there before you know it. Use a major landmark or a town square as a destination, even if you are getting off before then. Shout it quickly and loudly: ‘FeDOSe!’ will do for Ferdosi St or Sq; similarly, ‘eHESHTe!’ for Beheshti St or Sq; and so on. The driver will either ignore you, or give you a quick beep on the horn and pull over for half a second while you leap in.
Any taxi without passengers, whether obviously a shared taxi or a more expensive private taxi (usually yellow), can be chartered to go anywhere in town; an act usually called ‘service’ or ‘agence’. Unless it’s a complicated deal, including waiting time, simply hail the vehicle, tell the driver where you want to go, and ask ‘chand toman?’ Immediately offer about 60% of what he suggests but expect to end up paying about 75% or 80% of the originally quoted price.
If your destination has no known street address, tell the driver the name of the place and the nearest square, main road or other landmark.
Agency taxis, or ‘telephone’ taxis, are ordered by phone. Any hotel can arrange an agency taxi (often with the manager’s brother behind the wheel). These are the most expensive taxis but you get a better car, the comfort of knowing there will be someone to complain to if anything goes wrong and, possibly, a driver who speaks English. One reader wrote to say that lone women are advised to get someone to call them a taxi if they’re travelling after dark, thus avoiding being hooted at or ignored by dozens of drivers as they try to hail one. Demand is such that Tehran has a women-only taxi company – female drivers, female passengers, no groping.
Metros are the great hope for Iranian cities slowly being strangled by traffic. The Tehran Metro is growing and Mashhad’s first Metro line is operating. The first phases of underground railways in Shiraz and Esfahan are scheduled, insh’Allah (God willing), to be operational by 2013.
Most Iranian towns and cities have local bus services. Because local buses are often crowded and can be difficult to use unless you know exactly where you’re going, most travellers use the Metro, where possible, or shared and private taxis instead.
Bus numbers and destinations are usually only marked in Farsi, so you need to do a lot of asking around – most people will be happy to help (even if you don’t entirely understand their reply). Except in Shiraz and on one private operator in Tehran, tickets must be bought at little booths along main streets, or at local bus terminals, before you get on the bus. Tickets cost a few cents.
Small children of both genders and all women have to sit at the back of the bus. This segregation can be complicated if you are travelling as a mixed couple and need to discuss when to get off. You must give your ticket to the driver either when you get on or off, depending on the local system. Women must pass their tickets to the driver while leaning through the front door of the bus and then board the bus using the back door.
Minibuses service local suburban routes and are quite often so crammed with passengers that you can’t see out to tell where you’re going. You normally pay in cash when you get on. Men and women get a seat anywhere they can; there is no room for segregation. Minibuses stop at normal bus stops or wherever you ask them.
Recommended private drivers and guides (mostly men) speak English and make a good, flexible alternative to more formal tours. They are often happy to meet visitors in Tehran and take country-wide tours.
You can almost always find a savari for a trip between towns less than three hours apart. Savari means ‘shared taxi’ and is usually applied to intercity versions of the species. Speed is the main advantage because savaris are generally less comfortable than buses. Sometimes two people will be expected to squeeze into the front passenger seat, though for longer journeys a total of four passengers is normal.
Savaris rarely leave with an empty seat unless a passenger (or all passengers) agrees to pay for it. These days most savaris are Kia Prides (or the rebadged Saipa Saba) and bigger Peugeot 404s. Peugeots usually cost a bit more.
As a general rule, savaris cost two to three times more than mahmooly buses. This is still cheap and worth using for quick trips, especially through dull stretches of countryside. As usual, lone women will normally be given the front seat.
Savaris usually leave from inside, or just outside, the relevant bus terminal, or at major squares at the beginning of whichever road they’re about to head down. If in doubt, charter a private taxi and tell the driver ‘savari’ and your destination.
Almost every car in the country is available for private hire. Needless to say, prices are open to negotiation. One way to avoid getting ripped off is to ask the driver of a savari for the price per person of a certain trip then multiply it by four or five.
To hire a taxi for the whole day costs between about US$50 and US$120, depending on factors including your ability as a negotiator, the quality of the car, the distance you plan to drive and where you are. The smaller the town, the cheaper the price.
Choosing where to sit on Iranian transport can be fraught with difficulty. On city buses, even married couples must sit separately; men at the front of the bus, women at the back.
In contrast, on intercity buses and minibuses, seating is arranged so that women sit next to women and men next to men, unless they’re couples or family. A woman is not expected to sit next to an unrelated man even if there’s only one spare seat left on the bus, and people will move around until the gender mix is right.
But sometimes the opposite sex is impossible to avoid. In shared taxis people pop in and out of the front and back like pinballs in an attempt to keep unrelated men and women apart. But when this proves impossible, you’ll end up next to someone of the opposite sex and no one will get too upset. On the Metro women can choose the women’s only carriages or squeeze in with the men. And on sleeper trains you might find yourself in a mixed compartment if you don’t specify that you want a single-sex compartment.
Minibuses are often used for shorter distances linking larger cities and towns to surrounding villages. Sometimes they’re an alternative to the bus, but usually there’s no choice; just take whatever is going your way. Minibuses are particularly popular along the Caspian Sea coast, and between Caspian towns and Tehran.
Minibuses are marginally more expensive than buses, and can be faster because they have fewer passengers and spend less time dropping off and picking up. On the downside, they’re uncomfortable and usually leave only when they’re full, which can mean a wait.