From India to Iran

April 3rd, 2007

The trip that Rani and I are taking has gone through several incarnations. My first plan, which led to Rani dropping to her knees in tears and begging me to stop, was to drive my silver Bullet (motorbike: a thousand quid; software delivery: priceless) back through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Europe. Having just met a couple who cycled from London to Delhi, and given that we are at present sharing a hotel in Iran with three Germans who are motorbiking from Australia to England, I now feel my original plan was perfectly reasonable. Indeed, our hotelier tells me that Iran has an overland cycling season. However since everybody else thought I was completely insane and my mother and fiancee would have disowned me, I was forced to reconsider.

So now we’re backpacking. We decided to skip Pakistan, partly because it would be tough for Rani to get a visa, and partly because it’s just not that fun a place to slum it. The idea to go by ship instead came from Marc McNeill’s blog, where on the map of his planned but never executed journey from India back to Britain there’s a seabound arc from India to Iran. It turns out that it’s not that hard to get passage on a container ship – it’s just relativly expensive, and requires forward planning and a flexible schedule.

It was a relaxing and fascinating experience, partly appealing to my inner geek (the hardware is quite special), and partly to my inner lazy bastard – life simply doesn’t get more catatonic than being a passenger on a merchant vessel. Since I’m currently reading Moby-Dick, I had some rather romantic views about working in the merchant navy. It turns out that things have changed a great deal over the last fifteen years. Gone are the days when ships spent several days in port: the turnaround now is somewhere between a few hours and a day. The crew very rarely get to sleep when the vessel is at port, let alone go ashore, and so they often spend months at a time on the ship. As a result, tours of duty have been reduced to four months plus a month or two paid leave for the Northern European sailors who comprise most of the officers, and eight months with no paid leave for the Filipinos who do everything else on the ship.

Working in the merchant navy has become more unpleasant in two other ways: paperwork and customs. The captain reckons that the amount of paperwork he has to deal with has increased by a factor of seven since the nineteen-eighties. This is deeply depressing to hear for anyone working in IT, which is supposed to solve these problems. However you can see just by glancing around the bridge that the introduction of IT systems has led to the usual integration nightmares. The system which monitors and remotely controls the various systems on ship runs on Windows. However all the navigation systems run on UNIX. The automated system which allows ships to get each others’ status is updated manually via the radar control panel, rather than being hooked up to the ship’s controls. As a result, everybody still relies on radar, paper navigational charts, GPS, and the radio to get everything done. I thought I would never see another protractor and pair of compasses after leaving my GCSE maths exams: I was wrong.

Finally it was unsurprising to hear that as customs have become more and more powerful and autonomous, their demands have become correspondingly more rapacious. Pakistani customs require several cases of Whisky not to make any unpleasant “discoveries”, and India and the Suez Canal (nicknamed the Marlboro Canal) are not much better. After four days at sea we landed in Jebel Ali port, which has a sensible arrangement to prevent graft whereby customs don’t board the ship, and the crew don’t come ashore. Rather than spending a whole day taking a ferry to Bander Abbas in Iran followed by a ten hour train journey, we immediately broke our rule forbidding air travel and took the first plane to Shiraz.

Iran is just wonderful. The people are the most hospitable, helpful, generous, cultured and polite that I have met anywhere in the world. This is a pretty tough call having just come from China and India, and it puts the UK to hideous, demeaning shame. Tourists are still quite an unusual sight in Iran, and given the combination of the current spat over the British sailors with the somewhat hysterical propaganda outfit that passes for domestic news in Iran, we were expecting at least some raised eyebrows when we told people we were English (this is inevitably the first question that anybody asks, even if they don’t know any English). Instead, we have invariably received delighted cries of “Ingilish!” or “Inglistan!”, followed by “welcome to Iran”. When the conversation turns to politics, as it inevitably does when you talk for long enough with any of the surprisingly large number of people who speak English, both sides are able to bemoan rather eloquently the idiocy of our respective governments.

In addition to the people, there is of course the scenery. Spring is famous in Shiraz, and it’s easy to see why: the beautifully manicured public spaces are blushing with flowers of all varieties, and the lightly clouded spring skies produce a fabulously warm light that makes the 2500-year-old frescoes of Persepolis look like they were carved yesterday.

If you’re interested in travelling on a freigher ship, please visit freightertrips.com to find an agent. Our agent was SGV Reisezentrum Weggis in landlocked Switzerland. Apparently it’s very popular with businessmen who need to be out of touch so they can get their work done. If you want to visit Iran, and you should, be aware that you’ll need to start applying for your visa at least six weeks in advance.

  • Matthieu

    hello,
    I plan to go from India to Iran by boat ( 2 of us with 2 motorbikes)
    would you have any advice on how to proceed to do so?

    Regards and thanks,

    Matthieu

  • jez

    Try the email address I put at the bottom of the post. By the way, Pakistan is pretty safe to travel through – I recently met several people in Iran who had just travelled through Pakistan by motorbike. It’s worth knowing also that it is difficult to travel on the same ship as your motorbike, and that organising everything will involve a large amount of paperwork and suck up a lot of your time.

  • http://www.alongroadhome.com ARYABHATT

    hi jez,
    i’m an Indian tavelling with my wife by car from London where I lived last 4 years to south India. Our Pakistan visa got rejected for no reason..so we are looking for alternatives. one of them is taking sea route to india from iran. As you have done it..(though as passengers with out vehicle as I gather) am trying to know if there were any vehicles loaded into your ship? do you have any idea how to organise passenger and vehicle to go in the same ship? do this ship work the other way around(I mean Iran to India)? we too have this code of not travelling by air..hence this questionaire. Sorry to have asked you so much but you are the one to ask(ORACLE..I mean)..

  • owen venes

    hi jez. im in iran now and i want to get a boat to india. how does one go about this task? iv been looking on the net but not had much luck. if you can help me in any way id be really happy cuz im running out of cash and i want to get to india soon.
    regards, owen

  • jez

    Hey Owen

    If you’re running out of cash, the boat is not the way to go. It costs around US$200 per night per person – basically you can think of it as the same price as a really nice hotel. If you want to pursue this, the email address for the agent is at the end of my post – but don’t expect to be able to organise it in a hurry. The cheapest way to get to India from Iran is via Pakistan by road (think bus + hitch-hiking). It will be hard work, but it’s your most reliable option. Make sure you have your visas sorted out for Pakistan and India – you almost certainly won’t be able to get them at the border.

  • darius

    Hello!
    I was pleased to read your account of travelling in Iran. I am in Tibet at the moment and hope to take the ship from India to Iran after passing through Nepal and India. I wondered, how long is the passage? I couldn’t ascertain this from your account. I have contacted the organisation you mentioned, thanks for that! Would you happen to know about the alternative route through the ex-soviet states? I am a bit concerned that if the ship doesn’t work out, then I might have to go overland, and moving between Pakistan and Iran doesn’t sound that inviting. Perhaps it is practically safe.
    many Thanks,
    Darius

  • jez

    Hi Darius

    It took us about five days to go from Bombay to Dubai by sea. The easiest alternative to Pakistan – Iran (which I believe is reasonably safe but unpleasant) is Nepal, China and the -stans. The main problem with this is visas – depending on your nationality, you may not be able to get them at the border (this is certainly the case for Iran). As usual, the best thing is to do your research thoroughly and check what other travellers have to say at places like the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree (search for it in Google).

    Thanks and good luck,

    Jez.

  • D&O

    Hello All Fellow Travellers,

    We also would like to take the ferry from Iran to India.
    Has anyone of you found out more exact details about this boat trip , e.g. companies, ports, schedule and costs?

    PS. Can we conclude that 4 times one day @ $200 makes 800 box for this trip ??!

  • Eloise

    yes, i was wondering, 200 dollars a day ? there is no way to work or travel in a different “class” ?
    i would like to ship from india to iran, does anyone have any information ?
    Thank you
    Eloise

  • jez

    Hi Eloise.

    On freighter ships, there is no concept of ‘class’ — they aren’t passenger ships with special passenger cabins, they just rent out spare crew cabins.

    It used to be the case that you could work to earn your passage, but these days maritime health and safety regulations mean it is impossible.

    So unfortunately, there is no “cheap option” to travel by freighter or working ship — at least not legally. And you will be lucky to find any captain willing to break the law, since they will certainly be caught at the first port and relieved of their captain’s license.

    Thanks and good luck,

    Jez.

    @D&O — there are no public schedules for freighter ships. You should contact the email address I give at the bottom of my blog entry, above. And yes, you conclude correctly — Dubai to India is US$800 per passenger.

  • abbas

    hi,dear can you please guide me the exact route from mumbai to iran and which are the means to travel to iran, can u plz give me details that what is cheapest means for travelling there and with whom i can contact for bookings and visa purposes,through which route it is more convinient.i am an indian citizen.please guide me.
    thanking you.
    abbas

  • baset

    Hello
    I am from Iran . my name is Abdolbaset and I am a 27 years old man . I have master degree in “educational psychology” from Shahid Beheshti university in Tehran. my English language is good . now I live in Birjand city in Khorasan as a teacher of university and high school . I am very interested to continue my education for PhD in India at your college . please send me the answer if it is possible you and if its not please tell me how can I get to this my purpose .
    Best regards
    Abdolbaset Bineshi phone number : 0098 915 961 3027

  • citairribic

    What is bumburbia?

  • joen

    dear jez

    thanks for this information
    i ve just tried to send an email to station.ws@lakelucerne.ch.

    but it does not work, do you know what helps please??
    and are there really no other cheaper better alternatives for flying?? i start thinking again to survive a week – or two- in Pakistan, cause i read the bad news, but who gives me more reliable reasonable information??

    thanks for everything

    joen

  • pankaj

    hi guys i want to travel iran from india .suggest me any by ship or by airways.

  • http://www.curryhunt.co.uk pete mcguire

    Hi,
    Do you have any up to date info on the India-Iran shipping.
    We will be in Mumbai in 2 weeks looking to ship 2 bikes and riders to Iran. We came through Pakistan on the way out so are looking for a change of scenery for the way back, also going into UAE and Oman so shipping makes sense to us.

    Cheers
    Pete