Getting there & away
Iran has issues with Israel. If you’re travelling on an Israeli passport you’ll be turned away at the border (and you won’t even get onto a flight coming into Iran). Similarly, having an Israeli stamp in your passport will see you turned away or put on the next flight out.
Iran has 2410km of coastal boundaries along the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and Caspian Sea, but there are relatively few ways to enter or leave Iran by sea.
Boats with passenger berths do cross the Caspian, but that’s about as definitive as we can be. Schedules are non-existent and most travellers have neither the time, the patience nor the requisite degree of masochism to bother. If you’re still keen, start sniffing around in Noshahr.
The main shipping agency for trips across the Persian Gulf is Valfajre-8. Valfajre-8 operates car ferries and catamarans from Bushehr, Bandar Abbas and Bandar-e Lengeh in Iran to destinations including Sharjah, Kuwait City and Bahrain. Services are not exactly frequent and not that much cheaper than flying; for departure details see www.irantravelingcenter.com/valfajr8_persian_gulf.htm.
People have been crossing Iran by land for thousands of years, from the earliest merchants seeking fortunes on the Silk Road through to those seeking something altogether different on the 1960s and ’70s ‘Hippy Trail’. The relative laissez faire of ’70s travel came to an abrupt end when things got heavy, man, with the revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, not to mention the Iran–Iraq War.
Well, the good news is that, the ‘war on terror’ notwithstanding, it’s easier to cross in and out of Iran than it has been for 25 years. The border with Afghanistan is open; routes into Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are do-able with varying degrees of hassle, and Turkey is a piece of cake. Most overlanders say the Pakistan crossing is straightforward if not necessarily comfortable. In theory it’s possible to cross into Iraq, but think 20 times before you try it.
There is no reason why you can’t ride in and out of Iran at any of the land borders. A small but steady stream of cyclists cross between Turkey and Pakistan, and we have had no reports of trouble at those borders, or any others.
To bring your own vehicle into Iran, you must be more than 18 years old and have a current international driving permit. For the vehicle, you’ll need a carnet de passage (temporary importation document), which can be obtained from the relevant international automobile organisation in your country.
Most people with vehicles have reported hassle-free crossings in and out of Turkey and Pakistan. As long as everything is in order it’s just a matter of following and waiting. Officials will probably note your vehicle’s details in your passport to make sure you don’t leave the country without it. Third-party insurance is compulsory for foreign drivers, but can be difficult to obtain outside Iran (if you do get it, make sure the policy is valid for Iran and accredited with Iran Bimeh, the Iranian Green Card Bureau). If you need it, buying the insurance in Maku is cheaper than at the border.
No-one but the police is allowed to have a motorbike over 150cc. Foreigners, however, are allowed to ride bikes of any size so long as they take the bike with them when they leave. With big bikes so rare, expect to attract a great deal of attention if you’re on one.
Shipping bikes across the Persian Gulf is time-consuming, annoying and relatively expensive, but a reasonable number of people do it nonetheless. Rules and ferry times change regularly. Try the following websites for details.
Horizons Unlimited (www.horizonsunlimited.com) Aimed at motorcyclists, but good for anyone with a vehicle. For the most up-to-date detail, search the Middle East thread on its HUBB forum, which has detail on borders, fuel, shipping and repair shops. The overlander’s Bible.
The border between Iran and Armenia is only 35km long, with one crossing point in Iran at Norduz. Armenian visas are issued at the border for US$30, though sometimes the bus leaves before you have your visa – apart from that it’s pretty smooth.
The Azeri border has two recognised crossings: between Astara (Azerbaijan) and Astara (Iran), and Culfa (Azerbaijan) and Jolfa (Iran), the latter leading to the exclave of Nakhchivan, from where you cannot enter Armenia and must fly to get to Baku. Visas are not issued here.
These days direct buses between Tehran and Baku, via Astara, are as rare as rocking-horse shit. Which is a good thing, because if you’re not on a cross-border bus you’ll avoid a three- to seven-hour delay as your conveyance gets a full cavity search, which is considerably less interesting than it sounds. Crossing as a pedestrian is much easier.
Until there is a dramatic improvement in the security situation, you’d need to have rocks in your head to even consider crossing into southern Iraq. And anyway, the border posts at Mehran and Khosravi – servicing the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq – are open for locals only. Further north, the Haj Omran border near Piranshahr is the gateway to Iraqi Kurdistan and opens fitfully; check Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree (www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) for the latest information.
There main road crossing to/from Turkey is at Gürbulak (Turkey) and Bazargan (Iran), where there are hotels, moneychanging facilities and regular transport on either side of the border, though staying in nearby Maku is more pleasant.
Foreigners can also cross at Esendere (40km from Yüksekova, Turkey) and Sero, near Orumiyeh in Iran. There is nowhere to stay on either side and transport can be infrequent. Motorists usually cross at Gürbulak and Bazargan.
Buses to/from Tehran cost about IR250, 000 to İstanbul (about 36 to 42 hours), but IR300, 000 to Ankara, which is nearer. They leave from both the central and western bus terminals; several bus companies offer the service, but usually it’s just one bus that runs. Those in the know swear it’s better to take the Ankara bus, which is full of students and embassy workers, rather than the İstanbul bus, which is full of traders and therefore more likely to be taken apart at customs.
Alternatively, take it more slowly and enjoy some of eastern Turkey and western Iran along the way. By taking a bus to – but not across – either border you’ll avoid having to wait for dozens of fellow passengers to clear customs. It’s usually possible to cross from Erzurum (Turkey) to Tabriz (Iran) in one day if you start early.
It takes longer in winter when high mountain passes near the border are frequently snowbound.
The train from İstanbul to Tehran via Ankara and Tabriz is called the Trans-Asia Express. It runs weekly in either direction and, at the time of writing, trains on the 2968km journey left Tehran at 8.15pm on Thursday (IR577, 300), and departed İstanbul at 10.55pm Wednesday (about €40). It takes about 70 hours and seating is in comfortable 1st-class couchettes with four berths. Check www.rajatrains.com or the Turkish railways website at www.tcdd.gov.tr for the latest timetables and prices, and www.seat61.com for trip reports.
The Trans-Asia Express is two trains; an Iranian train between Tehran and Van, on the shores of Lake Van in eastern Turkey, and a Turkish train from Tatvan to Ankara and İstanbul. It’s evoked some strong feelings among readers, usually relating to the concept of ‘express’, though complaints have been fewer in recent years. Delays are likely in winter when snow can block the tracks and low temperatures can freeze the plumbing. However, there’s a distinctly romantic touch to such a long train trip, as one reader reported:
This was one of the most enjoyable trips I have made. I was the only foreigner on the train, and once this was discovered I had not nearly enough time to visit all the different compartments full of people wanting to chat (and feed me! Oh, so much food…). It is quite a spectacle to watch the (largely middle-class) female passengers switch from coats and scarves into T-shirts and hairpins as soon as you cross the border. The men, of course, fetch beer and the whole thing has a bit of a party atmosphere. I spent the days learning to sing the poems of Hafez and being pursued by the suddenly liberated single girls (Valentines apparently being in the air). All in all, a very, very interesting trip – definitely a journey.
Readers report that although you need to pay for the whole trip even if you are planning to get off at Ankara, the ticket is valid for six months and it is possible to make a new reservation on the same ticket for a later trip to İstanbul. Food on the Turkish train has been criticised for its price and quality. When changing from the ferry to your new train the berth numbers are usually ignored, so you could just grab anything you can find.
There are three border posts open to foreigners along this 1206km-long frontier. From west to east, there is inconvenient and little-used Incheh Borun and Gyzyl-Etrek, Bajgiran and Howdan linking Mashhad and the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, and Sarakhs and Saraghs for those heading east. You must change transport at all three crossings.
The paperwork and organisation involved in travelling to Turkmenistan is still a big hassle; the people at Stantours (www.stantours.com) seem to be the best at making it all go as smoothly as possible.
Arriving in Iran is usually straightforward. Assuming you have a visa, most immigration and border officials are efficient and tourists rarely get too much hassle. If you’re flying in, you should be negotiating with a taxi inside an hour. Land borders can take longer if you’re on a bus or train. Of course, women need to be adequately covered from the moment they get off the plane or arrive at the border.
Tehran has two international airports, the old Mehrabad International Airport (THR) and new Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA). As of late 2007, all international flights except those to/from Medina, Jeddah and Damascus fly into IKA. As IKA isn’t that big, delays on arrival are very possible. A second terminal is being built and can’t come soon enough.
Iran Air is the national airline and has the Homa, a mythical bird, as its symbol. It has a reasonably good reputation. As the government-owned carrier, it offers service with an Islamic flavour (ie no pork, no alcohol and no exposed hair on the hostesses). Women flying on Iran Air used to have to wear hejab from the time they arrived at the departure airport, but these days most women don’t put on the headscarf until the plane has landed; if you’re unsure, just watch what other women do. The same applies to all other airlines.
Iran Air (code IR; www.iranair.com) Amsterdam, Ankara, Bahrain, Baku, Beijing, Caracas, Cologne, Copenhagen, Damascus, Doha, Dubai, Frankfurt, Geneva, Gothenburg, Hamburg, İstanbul, Kabul, Karachi, Kuala Lumpur, Kuwait, London, Milan, Moscow, Mumbai, Paris, Rome, Seoul, Stockholm, Tashkent, Tokyo, Vienna.
British Airways (code BA; www.britishairways.com) London.
Iraqi Airways (code IA; www.iraqiairways.co.uk) Baghdad.
UM Airlines (code UF; www.umairlines.com) Kiev.
If you’re going to Iran you probably know how to find a fair-priced plane ticket, so we’ll keep this brief.
Most travellers fly into Tehran, though Shiraz is a good alternative if you want to avoid back-tracking. Buying tickets in Iran for flights from Iran is best done through an agent; Iranian airlines have yet to master internet bookings or even reservations.
The Middle East is a popular staging point, with several airlines connecting Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz and Kish to the rest of the world via various Gulf airports. Iran Air and other Iranian and regional airlines fly to/from Abu Dhabi (UAE), Bahrain, Beirut (Lebanon), Damascus (Syria), Doha (Qatar), Dubai (UAE), Kuwait, Sharjah (UAE), İstanbul and Ankara, among others. It’s worth checking whether your airline flies to Shiraz, Bandar Abbas, Qeshm or Kish Islands, because shorter flights are cheaper and it could save you doubling back to Tehran.
Flights to Central Asia are less frequent and more expensive than you might expect, though things are getting better. Iran Air, Iran Aseman and Caspian Airlines fly between Tehran and Almaty (Kazakhstan), Ashgabat (Turkmenistan), Baku (Azerbaijan), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Dushanbe (Tajikistan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan), and the respective national carrier usually does too. Ariana flies to Kabul.
Elsewhere in Asia, India, Pakistan, China, Japan, Thailand and Singapore are all connected by direct flights to Tehran. Travellers from Australia and New Zealand usually stage through these (usually Singapore or Bangkok) or the Middle East. Connecting to Africa is best done on Emirates or Etihad in the UAE.
There are no direct flights from North or South America. Instead, most people come through Europe, where a host of airlines have regular flights to Tehran, or the Middle East. As usual, less direct routes (eg via Moscow) are usually cheaper.
Many travellers visit Iran on an organised tour, a situation likely to continue as long as visas are hard to come by. Apart from the convenience, having an English-speaking guide can be worthwhile.
There are some experienced and reputable agencies that offer organised tours to Iran from outside the country. Note that almost all of these companies use local operators once you get to Iran. If you can live without that foreign tour leader, consider booking direct through an Iranian operator.
Equitrek (02-9913 9408; www.equitrek.com.au) Tailor-made horse riding tours of the northeast.
Passport Travel (03-9500 0444, www.travelcentre.com.au) Standard highlights trip, plus a more exotic tour of northwest ethnic groups.
Catai Tours (www.catai.es) For Spanish speakers.
Clio (01 53 68 82 82; www.clio.fr) French operator of cultural tours.
Pars Travel (069-230882) In Frankfurt, mainly flights and some tours.
Ace Study Tours (01223-835 055; study-tours.org) Ace Study provides infrequent study tours with professional lecturers.
Magic Carpet Travel (01344-622 832; www.magic-carpet-travel.com) Established, Iranian-owned operator specialising in Iran tours.
Persian Voyages (01306-885 894; www.persianvoyages.com) Iran specialist with a range of tours; Nasrin is very helpful.
Americans often use organised tours as it’s difficult to get a visa otherwise.
Bestway Tours & Safaris (800 663 0844; www.bestway.com) Upmarket trips, some combining nearby ‘stans.
Distant Horizons (800 333 1240; www.distant-horizons.com) Small groups accompanied by a scholar.
Geographic Expeditions (800 777 8183; www.geoex.com) Mainly bespoke tours aimed at the upper end.
Silk Road Tours (888 881 7455; www.silkroadtours.com) Regular package and tailor-made tours.