It’s 6 in the evening and we’re driving into Tabriz, Iran. The sun went down 30 minutes ago, but we’ve been driving through a storm-induced twilight for the last few hours. The air is thick with diesel fumes and giant sticky-wet snowflakes and the visibility is from here to the taillights of the next car. Of course, when only about a quarter of the cars turn on their lights before it’s too dark to see, visibility is from here to “WHERE THE HELL DID THAT GUY COME FROM.”
A taxi flies up an on-ramp, brakes hard, swerves, accelerates, and squeezes between a guardrail and a lumbering dumptruck. The truck bovinely corrects course into the adjacent lane, scything a niche out of the traffic as the smaller cars scramble out of the way. A few honks of the horn, and the little Paykans and Peugeots break left and right and fly up the road in a cloud of exhaust.
A series of roundabouts filters vehicles as they enter Tabriz. The theory of a traffic circle’s one-way route is ignored by most drivers, who instead of methodically circling around to turn left, simply arrow into oncoming traffic to save themselves the… effort, perhaps? One can’t be sure. They are not the only fish swimming against the current. Cars fly in from every angle, exposing blind spots you didn’t even know were there. You’ve checked your mirrors three times over, but there’s no accounting for the little taxi that’s reversing into the roundabout.
My Iranian friend calls this characteristic suicidal lunacy of Iranian drivers “Persianality”. When he tells me I need more Persianality when I’m driving, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
It’s bad enough as a driver, but at least you’re behind a thin sheet of metal. Pedestrians don’t have that luxury, and maniacal drivers give no quarter to the bags of flesh that dart out in front of screaming traffic. Iranians take a whites-of-their-eyes approach to crossing pedestrians, which is to say they begin to brake when they see the stitching on your jacket. It buys you precious seconds, but I’ve found the safest way is to wait for a group of old ladies to wade into traffic and cower behind them. There may be a better way than using senior citizens as human shields, but I’ve yet to find it.
Back in Tabriz, nominally one-way streets abound when you’re in the city proper. Large dividers line major arteries and funnel traffic in one-way circles around and around the same block. This is common to most major cities in Iran, I’ve discovered. Want to get out? That’s why one-way streets are one-way in name only. Our hotel in Tabriz was on one of these divided streets, but in the other direction. I go to pull a U-turn in the dark, wet and snowy traffic, and think I’m just going to make it when the heart-stopping crunch of metal on cement immobilizes the car. I’ve just driven into a joob, the three-foot-deep drainage ditches that line random city roads, unmarked and curbless – just a straight drop off the side of a major street. Our little Nissan lists like a sinking ship, its front right wheel suspended helplessly in the roadside trench. I look up and realize the car has keeled off the road not 5 feet behind an Iranian Army truck. The soldier and some passing Iranians see the steering wheel is on the right side, laugh at our predicament, take a picture, then help push us out. The soldier then escorts us the wrong way down a one-way bus lane to our hotel. Welcome to Iran. Somewhat ironically, President Ahmadinejad holds a doctorate in transportation engineering.
There are a few positives to the sheer insanity of the driving here. For one, from the outside, the omnidirectional traffic circus is entrancing to watch. So many tons of steel careening around with inches to spare is like some sort of sadistic ballet.
For two, gas is just gleefully cheap. We filled up with diesel most recently for all of $12. I’ve thus been far less inclined to show any sort of restraint when driving, as gas mileage is difference of cents now, not dollars. This is typically Iranian, though – vehicles are often left idling because its simply financially trivial to turn them off.
Diesel is also much cheaper than petrol. We even got a tank for free from Mr. Hosein because it’s cents on the liter for residents.
There’s not much else to recommend driving in Iran. The people and the scenery, on the other hand, supply every reason to come here. Iranians are by far the most friendly people we’ve met on the trip. They are unfailingly generous and polite. And the country has had some of the most surprising landscapes of the trip. But that will be for the next update.
And for those who haven’t seen it, here’s a video summary of our drive from France through Europe, all the way to the border of Iran.