Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Off Road

Many Westerners think that Iran is a dangerous country to visit, fearing terrorists, Islamist violence, corrupt officialdom and rampant theft. Unless they are really stupid and go mouthing off about the regime to all and sundry their fears are very much misplaced. Nevertheless there are a couple of real dangers whilst in Iran: being suffocated by the overwhelming hospitality, and being run over by a crazy Iranian driver. Although I enjoyed the road trip I was also a little glad to get back to Tehran in one piece and ensconce myself in the traffic-free zone of our apartment.

Luckily the roads in the desert interior of Iran are relatively empty.

Traffic is another example of the endless contradictions that make up Iran. Despite its developing country status it's a very car-centric society with most families owning some sort of vehicle, if only a battered old Paykan. Petrol is still very cheap at 40p a litre despite the 600% rise in pump prices a couple of months ago due to the paradox of Iran being one of the world's major oil producers, yet not having the refining capacity to service the domestic demand for petrol, thereby requiring it to export oil only to re-import it again as (more expensive) petrol. The road infrastructure is also very admirable and certainly on a par, if not better, than many recent EU countries. The vast majority of the motorways have been built over the last 20 years by the current regime and there are still a huge number of public works projects ongoing.

One would think that with such a strong car culture, good infrastructure and an administrative bureaucracy issuing licences and the such, that traffic in Iran would be quite orderly, but the exact opposite is true. I've been to many countries where traffic is atrocious, but nowhere comes close to the no-holds-barred mayhem that you find on Iran's roads. Here I've witnessed pretty much every infraction imaginable: cars reversing back a kilometre the wrong way along a motorway to get to a missed turn-off; cars overtaking other cars that are already overtaking round blind corners; undertaking using pedestrian zones, and plenty of others. Lights of any kind are routinely ignored and headlights are there for playing chicken with oncoming cars at night and blinding them, whereas switching them on in tunnels is severely frowned upon. On country roads this is still bearable, but in the crowded confines of the cities, where weaving motorbikes and suicidal pedestrians, daring you to run them over, are added to the mix. Double-parking on major arteries is the norm and triple parking not uncommon. Woe betide should you park correctly and then be boxed in. It happened to us a couple of times and we spent 15mins shoving the offending motorbikes out of the way and then carefully easing through the small hole we had created for ourselves. I've asked numerous people as to the reason for this flagrant disregard for traffic rules and safety, in spite of the constant signs with safety warnings and TV campaigns. Quite a few people put it down to a general Shi'ite disregard for one's own life and certitude that your life is in Allah's hands. Though personally I think that it's because Iranians are so repressed by the petty, invasive rules of the regime that the roads are their only means of letting off steam; and let it off they do. Getting anywhere in city traffic is one big game of chicken where brazenness is essential. Although I hadn't driven much previously I was well-prepared for Iranian traffic from my cycle commutes to work during the height of the London rush-hour where a similar pushiness is required. Nevertheless that's enough driving for me for the time being and I'm looking forward to getting back on a bus or train or even hitching, anything which lets me doze off!

Nobody does bumper-to-bumper like the Iranians. This was on the ferry to Qeshm. The ferry itself was a second-hand European one, designed to take 3 rows of cars they managed to stuff it with 6 rows and not an inch of space to walk.

But you're not much safer when you get out of your car as Iranian town planners have completely disregarded the pedestrian when designing urban spaces: pavements appear and disappear at whim, and when they are there they're usually in such bad condition that you have to walk on the road anyway (or someone's parked on it). Although Iranian pedestrians don't seem to mind and approach their walking with the same complete disregard for safety as their car-bound compatriots, thinking nothing of sauntering across motorways whilst simultaneously texting on their mobiles.

Iran is certainly a dangerous country, but not for the reasons you might expect.

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