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Local transport

Plane

As a result of the continuing D'Amato trade embargo, there has been a problem obtaining spares and replacement parts. Much of the domestic air fleet is reaching the end of its serviceable life and while the Boeing and Fokker planes are well maintained, those craft purchased from ex-Soviet territories often possess a less reliable service history.

To purchase a domestic flight ticket in Iran, you will need to book some time in advance, taking your passport and payment in rials along with a bank exchange receipt. Organising this takes time and patience so, unless you have time to waste, consider booking in advance or using an agent who will keep the booking active. Otherwise, remember to confirm and reconfirm your ticket at the local Iran Air office. Allow plenty of time to get to the airport (particularly in Tehran where traffic is frequently gridlocked) and to check in. On entry to any airport terminal building there is a security check: men with all their baggage go through one door, and 'sisters' with theirs through another. At the check-in desk abandon any idea of polite queuing; block all-comers and use elbows forcibly. You may be required to show your passport on passing to the next security check - again arranged according to gender - leading to the departure lounge.

Bus & Minibus

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 are 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). Tickets for public buses are purchased before boarding, at kiosks and/or shops nearby. Tickets cost a few cents. Sometimes more than one ticket is required for one journey.

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 as you may well get separated in the crush. 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 are 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.

Minibuses are often used for shorter distances linking larger cities and towns to surrounding villages. Sometimes they are an alternative to the bus, but usually there is 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 are uncomfortable and usually leave only when they are full, which can mean a wait.

Intercity Bus

There are usually two types of bus service, first and second class. Seats are numbered and assigned according to gender or family groups, with smokers at the back. Tickets are purchased up to a week in advance from the bus station or bus company's city office, with three or four departures an hour on the busiest routes, although there are no timetables in circulation. During Ramadan and No Ruz, reservations must be made well in advance. The bus terminal (with toilets located near the namazkhaneh or prayer room) is generally located on the outskirts of town but large cities such as Tehran have more than one, so check from which terminal the bus departs. Short stops are made every five or six hours (ensure you know the departure time) but it's best to take some food/drink with you. As in pre-revolutionary times, all public vehicles have to register at the police control points entering and leaving city limits, so carry your passport in hand-luggage in case it is required. All luggage going into the baggage holds should be padlocked.

Metro

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.

Taxi

City taxis come in three main incarnations in Iran.

Shuttle (shared) taxi

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 second 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 Ferdowsi 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.

Private taxi

At present there is no car rental system available in Iran. The roads are well engineered with very few potholes, but road signs (in both Farsi and the Roman alphabets) are few and far between, as are petrol stations. Motor spares, especially for foreign-made cars, are difficult to find (the US embargo again) even in the main urban centres. Petrol station toilets are usually poor; more preferable are namazkhaneh (road-side prayer room) washrooms.

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'. Private taxis are hailed from the roadside, and it's best to use the locally registered ones. 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. Outside Tehran do consider hiring a taxi for a day or half-day, especially in Ahvaz, Esfahan, Mashhad or Shiraz, as it is the cheapest, most convenient form of transport offering freedom of routes and stops.

It is compulsory to wear seat belts, although many drivers and front-seat passengers don't. Driving at night is extremely hazardous. If you break down, display the red warning triangle some distance behind the car, and ask passing vehicles to summon police, garage assistance or both. As the driver, do not even think of leaving the scene of any accident before police agree to you departing. Any incident involving a person will probably mean imprisonment until the matter is investigated, especially if it resulted in a fatality; financial compensation of up to US$50,000 will have to be deposited for possible payment to the victim's family before any release can be contemplated. If your car is badly damaged, obtain an official report (especially necessary for the frontier customs if you have imported it).

The emergency police number is 110. Traffic police have white caps, and their cars are white with a blue stripe.

Agency taxi

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. Demand is such that Tehran has a women-only taxi company - female drivers, female passengers, no groping.

Train

Travelling by train is an inexpensive way to get around Iran and meet Iranians. Iran's first line was the trans-Iranian railway, built in the 1930s to connect the Caspian Sea at Bandar-e Torka-man with the Persian Gulf at Bandar-e Imam Khomeini. The service isn't fast and the timings of arrival/departure are often inconvenient. Tickets are sold from the main-line station up to two weeks in advance, and queuing to buy a ticket is a supreme test of patience and physical endurance, so think of approaching a travel agent to organise this.

A useful way of getting to Sari or Gorgan from Tehran, the route goes through mountains and passes, and is one of the great engineering achievements of the XX century. It has recently been joined by another engineering marvel; the line between Esfahan and Shiraz that bores its way through the Zagros mountainscape. The line is part of an ambitious program to expand Iran's rail network that in recent years has seen lines open from Qazvin to Astara via Rasht, Mashhad to Bafq and Bam to Zahedan (though the connecting service into Pakistan has not run for years due to security issues).

Routes

Tehran is the main hub and most services begin or end in the capital. There is at least one daily service to Mashhad, Esfahan, Tabriz, Bandar Abbas and Kerman. Trains usually depart on time, but arrival times for stops en route are often in the middle of the night and, as a result, most travellers take the bus.

Classes & Costs

As with intercity buses the price difference between first and second class is minimal but the standard of comfort isn't. If you decide a 2nd-class compartment is too crowded for you, you can often upgrade to 1st class along the way, provided there is a space. A seat in 2nd class costs a bit less than a mahmooly bus, and a 1st class seat is a bit less than a VIP bus.

On overnight trains (usually to/from Tehran) the 1st class carriages have sleeper couchettes (ghazal) with four or six bunks. Solo women should strongly consider requesting a single-sex sleeper. On most 1st class services meals are served in your compartment and aren't too bad. Long-distance trains also travel with a restaurant car.

The most comfortable trains are on the busy Tehran to Mashhad route. The Si-morgh, for example, is more expensive than other 1st class options but includes dinner, breakfast, a particularly comfortable bed and the mixed blessing of a TV. You can ask to be seated in a non-smoking compartment.

Reservations

Train ticketing is on an integrated system and tickets can be booked up to a month in advance. Especially for trains leaving on Thursday, Friday and public holidays, it's recommended you book ahead.

Seating

On all forms of public transport except planes and the Tehran Metro men will probably be asked to change their seats to avoid sitting by female strangers. 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 are couples or family. A woman is not expected to sit next to an unrelated man even if there is 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 will 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.

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