In Iran, if you can’t get somewhere by bus (or minibus), the chances are no one wants to go there. More than 20 bus companies offer thousands of services on buses that are cheap, comfortable and frequent. The quality of bus drivers does vary, but the government does its best to minimise ‘insh’Allah’ (God willing) attitudes by aggressively enforcing speed limits. Speeds are recorded and drivers must stop and show this log to highway police every 100km or so. Fares are set by the government so variations are small. Except on very short trips, standing is not allowed.
Don’t be confused by the names of the destinations on a bus. It’s common for a bus travelling between, for example, Khorramabad and Ahvaz, to have ‘Tehran-İstanbul’ written on the front or side in English. Similarly, phrases such as ‘Lovely bus’ are not always a fair reflection of reality. There are no bus passes.
A useful resource for bus information is the Farsi-only www.payaneha.com.
Most bus companies are cooperatives and were formerly known as Cooperative Bus Company No X (Sherkat-e Ta’avoni Shomare X), or whatever number it is. Most now have more varied names, but in the terminal they might still direct you to, for example, ‘ta’avoni hasht’ (cooperative number 8). The best ta’avonis, with the most extensive networks, are TBT (Taavoni 15) and Iran Peyma, often with the word ‘Ta’avoni’ or ‘Bus No One’ written on it.
For a bit more comfort, Seiro Safar offers newer, better buses for a little extra cost, though most travellers don’t bother seeking out a specific company and just take whichever is the next bus going their way.
There are two main types of bus:
Mahmooly Meaning ‘normal’, these are Volvo, Scania or similar intercity coaches. The driver is accompanied by one or two attendants, who hand out packaged food and handle luggage. Most have toilets. Older, 1960s-era Mercedes mahmooly buses have mostly been retired on account of their pollution.
VIP More luxurious because they have seats that recline almost fully and more service. They operate on major routes, such as Tehran to Esfahan or Mashhad, and cost about 50% more than a mahmooly.
Most bus terminals are located at the edge of town and are easily reached by shuttle or private taxi. Some cities have more than one bus terminal; if in doubt, ask at your hotel or charter a taxi to the relevant terminal. Tell the driver ‘terminal-e (your destination)’ and he’ll know where to drop you – pronounce ‘terminal’ with a prolonged ‘aal’ at the end.
Bus terminals are filled with the offices of individual bus companies, though timetables are rarely in English. Just ask ‘Shiraz?’, ‘Esfahan?’ or wherever and you’ll be directed to the right desk, or listen for your destination being screamed out when a bus is about to leave. Terminals always have somewhere selling food, and larger terminals might have a police station, left-luggage facility and even a hotel.
If you’re leaving a secondary town, such as Zanjan or Kashan, you may need to go to a major roundabout to board a passing bus, rather than at the terminal. Locals will point you to the right place.
You can buy tickets up to a week in advance from bus company ticket offices in town or at the terminal. Between major cities, such as Esfahan and Tehran, buses leave at least every hour between about 6am and midnight. In medium-sized towns, such as Hamadan and Kerman, buses to nearer locations leave every hour or so, but longer trips (and any cross-desert trip) will often be overnight. In smaller places, where there may be only one or two buses a day to your destination, it is essential to book ahead.
There are often no-shows for bus trips, so seats can magically appear on otherwise full buses just before departure. Alternatively, you might be offered the back seat.
Tickets are almost always in Farsi, so learn the Arabic numbers to check the day of departure, time of departure, bus number, seat number, platform number and fare...or ask a local.
Expect to average about 60km/h on most journeys. On most trips of more than three hours, you’ll stop at roadside restaurants serving cheap food. Ice-cold water is normally available on the bus and is safe to drink. Every two hours or so the driver will stop to have his tachograph checked by the police as a precaution against speeding. If it’s summer, try to get a seat on the side facing away from the sun.