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.