Our taxi was bumping down a lane somewhere on the outskirts of the southern Iranian city of Shiraz.

We were flanked on both sides by two-metre-high adobe walls topped with straw and bundles of thorn bush.

Five minutes earlier we had been stuck in traffic along one of Shiraz's main boulevards where neon lights pulsated with light and Shirazis crammed into "sandwich" bars to order hot dogs and hamburgers and the shops were full of tight jeans and tiny sparkly tops.

There were three of us in the taxi, beside the driver - me, Reza and Rahim. We were all tour guides or managers and out on the town after our groups were safely tucked up for the night.


We were not out for a frivolous night on the town, however - this was a serious mission. We were in search of one of the few remaining places in Shiraz where it was possible to feed our addiction - the smoking of qaylan or hubble-bubble.

Now, I hasten to add, there was nothing at all dodgy about what we wanted to smoke in our water pipes (which are illegal to import into New Zealand where the powers-that-be assume the worst). All three of us were strictly flavoured-tobacco smokers - certainly no hashish and not even pure tobacco as is preferred by most Iranian older male smokers.

Finding hubble-bubble in Iran used to be almost as easy as finding a cup of tea but over the last year or so the authorities have been cracking down on teahouses serving hubble-bubble, ostensibly on the grounds that too many young people were smoking too much. However, many Iranians reckon the real reason was to put a dampener on the socialising between the sexes that accompanied a night out smoking and drinking tea.

Reza and I only ever smoke while on tour - both of us have never smoked a cigarette in our lives and never will. It's not the tobacco but the gurgle of the pipe, the teahouse atmosphere, and the deep sense of relaxation that comes from reclining on a carpet-covered bolster and the sipping of tea at the same time that makes hubble-bubble irresistible.

Rahim grins when I ask him if he is a regular: "No, I only smoke when I travel - and I only travel for 10 months of the year".

Rahim has been told about what may be one of only a handful of places left in Shiraz where hubble-bubble and flavoured tobacco are on offer - hence our presence in a darkened alleyway. We pull up outside a high gate lit with coloured bulbs. It looks promising but inside the garden is too quiet and I can't detect even a whiff of orange- or apple-scented tobacco.

A man materialises out of the shadows and a low-voiced conversation ensues. I can't help feel that I'm part of some kind of illicit deal - especially as I, the female foreigner, have been told to stay in the background.

But it was all to no avail - our informant was wrong - this is a wedding reception garden, there is no hubble-bubble here.


However the manager gives us a new lead. Our taxi driver has entered into the spirit of the occasion and hurtles us across to the other side of town as fast as he dares - the night is no longer young and he's worried that the tea houses could close at any time.

The tip-off has taken us to an upmarket fast-food restaurant with outside tables and security guards wearing earpieces. We're told hubble-bubble is available, but only in the back garden, but just as we're about to celebrate the closest guard tells us it's pure tobacco only. All is not lost he adds ... he knows another place not far away...

It's now after 11pm though and speed is of the essence. We hurtle through another labyrinth of back alleys to yet another wall, its entranceway draped with a tarpaulin.

We haul this aside to reveal a vast open-air teahouse full of takts (wooden platforms covered with carpets and bolsters) and - halleluiah - the distinctive aroma of flavoured tobacco smoke. There is even a live band. We've hit the jackpot.

As we take off our shoes and climb on to a takt Rahim points out that the lead singer is decidedly flat but it's a small price to pay as the tall glass hubble-bubbles arrive along with a tray containing small glasses, a satisfyingly large pot of tea and a bowl of golden lumps of sugar.

We throw caution to the wind and order black-cherry tobacco instead of our usual orange or apple. The hubble-bubble gurgles as Reza blows a cloud of smoke in my direction. It's like black forest gateau without the calories.

It's my mother's birthday so we ring her on the cellphone as the hubble-bubble circulates and I pour out more tea.

Reza has a coughing fit while I'm on the phone and my mother says: "I know exactly what you're doing."

Swathed in cherry-scented smoke we discuss New Zealand and Iranian films. The band packs up and leaves.

"Thank God" breathes Rahim in between puffs.