Driving Lesson 1
for Iran, Pakistan and India

David Hielkema

22 February 2017

Traffic in India is crazy. Roads in Pakistan are terrible. In Iran we can not read the road signs. The toll is way too expensive everywhere we go. Everyone is honking at us, continuously, since we have left Europe. We can never find a service station anywhere we go. We are totally lost and it is hard, these days, driving a car all the way to another continent.

Stuck in Tehran
Josephine and I decided to do some sight-seeing in the capital of Iran. Tehran is huge and there is not really a city centre, so we had to go from one area to the next one. To move around quickly and cheaply we took our own car instead of public transportation. When we left our friends house early in the morning, we were running low on diesel, but we did not doubt we would find a service station somewhere on the way to fill up.

We went to check out a beautiful palace, went to a stunning mosque (of course you can’t escape beautiful mosques and shrines in Iran), walked around the bazaar for a bit and filled up the tank. Around seven in the evening we got back at our friends place. Sounds like a great day, right?

Well… I left out that we spent more or less six hours in our car: we got stuck in traffic jams, we took wrong turns all the time (one bit of highway we drove at least six times) and we couldn’t find the right service station for hours.

In Iran cars don’t use diesel. Only trucks do. And although diesel is ridiculously cheap (12 eurocent a litre; it truly is fun to fill-up here), you can not find a drop of diesel anywhere within a city. Of course we did not know this beforehand.

After some sightseeing we went from service station to service station to ask for diesel, also called gazoil in Farsi. But every gas station we went to, turned us down. Multiple times people thought we meant autogaz instead of gazoil. It just doesn’t occur to many Iranians that it might be possible for a car to drive on diesel! And while we drove from place to place, we of course got stuck in traffic all the time. The arrow on our fuel monitor retreated further and further into the red, as did our hope.

Arriving at another autogaz station, far out of the city already, Josephine and I got into an argument. The people working here told us that there was a service station with diesel 15kms away. But what to do? Try again? We were driving on the edge for a whole day already and so far no one understood what we meant… I wanted to drive, I calculated there should be enough diesel left and most of all I was very stubborn, Josephine said we should take a taxi and get some diesel in a jerrycan. And she was right, or at least more responsible, but we kept on driving any way. Of course we took once again a wrong turn, but we made it. Finally. One day of traffic jams and looking for the right service station. It were some scary hours.

If you think we are the only one ending up in a situation like this, well.. we are not. An overlander we met in Pakistan had the same problem while being in Tehran. He too drove all day, looking for a place to fill-up, but ran out of diesel while he searched for it. When an Iranian friend of his called the local breakdown service he had an insurance at, he asked them to come over with some gazoil. The guy on the phone, however, simply said: we only have petrol, and although our contract says we have to bring you the fuel when you’ve run out of it, we don’t have diesel and we won’t bring it.

As you see, it’s not common to fill up your car with diesel. Every time we went to fill-up in Iran, wherever we were, we really had to convince the people at the service station that we wanted diesel. It was strange to arrive in Pakistan, some time later, where the people actually believed us when we said we wanted diesel. It almost felt wrong that they believed me straight away and weren’t sceptic about it at all. Anyhow, diesel and Iran are an interesting combination, filling-up your tank is given a whole new dimension.

Camels on the road and taking selfies while driving
The highways we have been on are good in general. And with good we mean; no holes in the middle of the road. Smoothly we drive from one place to the next one!

In Iran it was organized; only cars and trucks on the highway and it was easy to drive fast here. Taking over wasn’t too difficult either, because although cars would drive slowly on the middle lane, at least the trucks stay all the way to the right. They won’t change lanes continuously.

In Pakistan and India, you will also find tuk-tuks, scooters, tractors, bicycles and even camels on the highway (except for the real new motorways). Both the people themselves and the government do not seem to care. Also, trucks don’t want to drive on the ‘slowest’ lane because of all the traffic. Instead of that, they drive in the middle lane or on the lane that is meant for the fastest drivers. This makes driving on the highway a real adventure, since it is hard to take over. You really have to zigzag around many obstacles to pass them.

On the highway, while we pass cars, we often see that the people in their cars are surprised by these two foreigners with this huge ass Land Rover Defender. More than once we have seen cars taking us over, slow down, drive next to us, drive faster and slow down again: all just to check us out. They wave and smiley enthusiastically to us, and of course we return the greetings. It is funny. Sometimes they hang out of there car to take selfies while we are driving. Or, they insist we stop on the highway to take a selfie with them. And if we don’t stop, because we felt that was just a bit too much, why not stop yourself and almost jump in front of our car so we really have to stop? Yes, it happened. Now these people put so much effort in it for a selfie, we couldn’t refuse.

Paying toll
We weren’t looking forward to all the toll we had to pay in these countries. In the end it would add up all together and cost us at least a few hundred euros…

In Europe you mostly have to buy a vignette or a week/month pass for the toll ways, so our first real toll plaza was in Iran. We stopped the car, asked for the price and got a big smile from the guy sitting at the counter. He was surprised, but happy and he opened the gate straight away. We did not have to pay. We were as much surprised as he was, and thankful, because we had no idea that we could have this ride for free. How great! The next one, the one after and many times after that, the same thing happened. We are visitors and therefore we don’t have to pay the taxes. Of course absolutely ridiculous in itself, but we love it!

In Pakistan it went the same way. The guys working at the booths are often full of amazement and happy to speak to us, athough it is often just for a few seconds. They ask us where we are from, and once they have heard the answer, we are free to go.

In India it changed and we actually have to pay. We weren’t used to this any more, we had become spoiled, but it is probably only fair. We use their roads in the end. Sometimes they let us go for free, sometimes they don’t. In India it is also relatively more expensive. It does add up here. But at the same time, sometimes, when we really have to do more kilometres, we feel it is worth paying a bit of money for some good asphalt (and no tuk-tuks on the motorway).

Driving at night
This will be the last lesson for today. A very obvious one: DO NOT DRIVE AT NIGHT!

This is what we thought beforehand, what we were told beforehand and what we have promised ourselves not to do beforehand. Yet, everywhere we have been, we have driven in the night.

In Iran to get to the border, in Pakistan to leave the mountains behind us and not to have to stay in a shitty hotel while it was freezing cold outside and in India to see the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal?!

Together with our couple friends, Ed and Izy from the U.K., we decided to go and see this magnificent building. They joined us in our car, and from Delhi to Agra, where the Taj is located, it was more or less 3 hours of driving on a new high way. But the Taj is ridiculous touristic and the only way to have a bit of peace while being there, is if you arrive early in the morning. At sunrise. So we decided to drive away from Delhi at 2 AM, to skip sleeping (well, the English slept while we drove) and arrive there early in the morning.

This road was the best one we have driven on so far. It was like we were in Europe. And it was not dangerous at all! Sometimes it is less pleasant to drive at night when there are no street lights, some cars do not turn on their lights at all and others turn on the high beem constantly, but it all depends on the situation. Once again we figured nothing is as extreme as we are lead to believe beforehand. And as long as you are not half night-blind (like Josephine) and you have someone great sitting next to you who helps you to navigate and who keeps you awake (absolutely Josephine), it will all be fine!

The Taj itself wasn’t too bad either… but that you can judge for yourself as well!

Stay tuned for more stories and driving lessons.