Stories

 

Iran


From the 1st to the 26th of May, 2017



"Traveling to Iran? Isn't it dangerous? And continuing your journey through the Stans? Aren't you scared?" That is what we usually hear from our friends. Thanks to mainstream media's brainwash, the countries we planned to visit are still off the mass tourism track and therefore we hope for a genuine experience. On the down side, entering each of those countries requires some heavy planning regarding visa requirements.

Twenty days after starting the Iran visa procedure, we were ready for a new journey with Hyundi, our 4x4 van. We headed straight to Turkey and reached Istanbul after five exhausting driving days through Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria. In Istanbul, we applied for our Uzbekistan visa which we collected ten days later in Ankara. While waiting for it, we spent a few relaxing days by the Black Sea and stayed another couple of days with my friend Serkan and his wife in Ankara. I met Serkan eight years ago on my bicycling trip to Turkey. Despite the very short notice, we found both very welcoming and of upmost hospitality. The same days we collected our Uzbekistan visa, we applied for the Turkmenistan transit visa which we expected to pick up in Tehran ten days later. Finger crossed!

    

One and a half years after our first visit: Iran, here we are again! We spent our first night in the beautiful narrow Rend valley surrounded by huge cliffs and green pastures. It didn't take much time to remember why we loved this country. I'm not talking about the headscarf I have to wear of course. But the people are soooooo welcoming that no traveler could ever feel lonely. When climbing to the old fortified wall of Maku, Ismael who could speak just a few words of English, insisted on showing us the place. I usually like to discover a place on my own and at my own pace, but he was so sweet that we couldn't refuse. While walking around the old mud houses, I was already wondering how much small bills we are having and how much tip we should give him. At the end of the visit, we learned that he was actually the civil engineer in charge of the fort restoration and just wanted to show us around without expecting anything in return. He was very disappointed to hear we would leave the city the same day and therefore had to refuse his offer of staying a few days at his place... Welcome to Iran!

We continued our journey south climbing up an alpine plateau were sits the Quareh Kalisa, a beautiful medieval Armenian church. After a morning stroll in the huge Tabriz bazaar we headed up to the troglodyte village of Kandovan. The houses carved out in the conical eroded rock with their tiny windows and colorful doors reminded me of a smurf village. There are tiny steps carved here and there to access upper levels. What makes this place even more special is that local people are still living in those carved out caves.

    

Approaching Marivan, we entered the heart of Kurdistan where Kurdish people still wear their traditional outfit. For males, it consists of very baggy trousers with a matching jacket and a large belt. Some will even wear a turban on their head. On the female side, contrarily to the rest of the country where women mostly dress in black, Kurdish women wear nice colorful dresses with glittery ornament. The drive from Biyakara to Paveh bordering Iraq was very scenic with beautiful dry and rocky valleys, snowy passes as well as green covered mountains. It is difficult to imagine that in this mountainous terrain battles took place during the Iran-Iraq war (1980 to 1988). Getting out of the car to inspect a potential night spot, a family enjoying their picnic insisted we join them for dinner. Even though they spoke very limited English, we enjoyed their company around a fire with an amazing view over the rocky mountains. Of course, they left us all the goodies they still had and invited us to visit them again in Kermanshah. Those people are so sweet!

    

We reached Tehran just in time to spend an afternoon with our friends Lucien & Charlotte before their flight back to Germany. It was nice to hear their impression of their vacation time in Iran. We all agreed that the Persian hospitality is totally mind blowing! The following day, bad news at the Turkmenistan embassy. My visa has been granted, however Raphael's application has been rejected. Transiting through Turkmenistan was essential to reach the rest of the stans countries. Now we will have to backtrack to the west of Iran, crossing through Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Kazakhstan. That's a 3000 kilometers extra! What a headache really! Anyhow, we decided not to think about it for now and enjoy our pleasant time in Iran. As soon as we left Tehran and headed south to the desert, the heat forced us to plan our days according to the temperature.

In Noushabad we discovered the Oeei underground city where locals use to hide in insecure situations. They created an airflow with ventilation channels connected with 'qanat' (water channels) which provided cool air to each underground floor.

On our last visit in 2015, we enjoyed Kashan bazaar and the historical palaces so much that we decided to have a little stroll again. In the last nine days in Iran we did not see a single tourist. Last time in over a month (in December), we only encountered very few of them in Esfahan. We had the feeling of being the only foreigner in the country. But today, we were shocked to discover bus loads of tourists. Good that we already visited the hotspots such as Esfahan and Shiraz last time, we can now head straight to the desert in places where very few tourists venture.

On our way to Yazd, we visited a few nice abandoned villages and castles. Wandering around the corridors and climbing the broken down stairs leading to the three floors of the Saryazd citadel was particularly nice. We also enjoyed the Kharanaq abandoned mud village for its eroded buildings looking like a Swiss cheese as well as the surrounding beautiful moonlike landscape.

    

Contrastingly, the touristy and restored old town of Yazd looked very sterile for my liking. It is now lacking the charm of those broken down villages. Nevertheless, the Jameh mosque with it's beautiful blue tiled entrance portal as well as the three-storey façade of the Amir Chakhmaq takieh (rituals building) made up for it. We also visited the Dolat-Aban Persian garden, not quite for it garden consisting of grape plantations and high grass, but for the nice pavilion with stained glass windows and its 33 meters high badgir (wind tower), the highest of Iran.

Zoroastrianism was born around 1500 BC to 1000 BC and was the main religion in this area until the Arabic Conquest. Nowadays, with about 5500 followers around Yazd, there are a few fire temples where the eternal flames can be seen. Chak Chak is one of them. The dirt road leading to the temple leads through fast rocky mountains. There we enjoyed a beautiful and remote wild camping spot under the stars.

On the Khor to Tabas highway on our long desert journey to Mashhad we were rewarded by beautiful landscapes such as a salt flat as well as rolling sand dunes with rocky mountains as a backdrop.

    

"Toc-toc-toc, Police!" It is eleven at night, we are deep asleep. "This place very danger, come police station!" A few hours earlier, we found this hiding spot just a few hundred meters off the highway. Hidden from the highway, yes, hidden from the dirt track, yes. But not far off enough to escape the shepherd which thinks foreigners are suspicious people. While driving to the police station with a soldier sitting next to me, we tried to find out what danger they are referring to. "Mountain, very, very danger, wild animals." "Goats, sheep and dogs?" "No, wolfs." "Really? I wish I could see a wild wolf one day! I didn't know they can open car doors!" All of us, including our escort soldier, couldn't stop laughing! This is not the first time we are being disturbed by the police and not the first time people are referring to wild animal as being the source of danger. We thought this must be a code word: wild animal = wild people... The soldier insisted that cities are safe and mountains are unsafe. We explained that for us it is the other way around, mountain = hassle free, cities = police checks and noisy. Nevertheless, a few minutes later, when our solider friend translated our discussion to his colleagues at the police station they all laughed while repeating : "Mountain, very danger..." They asked us to drive 20km to the next main petrol station and spend the night there: "petrol station, very safe!" Oh, and they almost forgot to at least take our names to justify their little mission...

Just before reaching Mashhad, we headed east close to the Afghani border and enjoyed the beautiful landscapes on our way to the Robat Sharaf caravanserai. Being an important part of the Silk Road back then, the country had a hug network of 'hotels' which were providing shelter for the caravans every 30 kilometers (that was a day's journey). Most of them are like a square mud fortress with rooms inside along the walls and with an empty court in the middle. This caravanserai was bigger than the ones we had seen so far. It had two sections with two different mosques. One for the rich Sheiks and the other one for the guides and the servants. The mosques and portals are still partly decorated with beautiful original stuccos.

    

The Imam Resa holy shrine in Mashhad is the holiest place in Iran and therefore the most important pilgrim site for the Shiite. After dressing up with a chador for the first time, we entered this gigantic complex accompanied by Zeinab, our 24 years old guide volunteering here one day a week. After watching a movie presentation, we went through the many different court yards and admired the golden domes, fountains, minarets and portals. We also discovered some indoor prayer's room completely covered in mirrors reflecting like crystal. One of the most surprising place was the underground cemetery. It is the only place which had zero decoration. The concrete walls, pillars and ceiling are bare with just a layer of white paint. And the tombs are actually the marbled floor we are walking on with shoes on. In the gold domed holy shrine room, people were pushing each other to touch or kiss the golden cage covering the Imam Reza's tomb. At prayer time, seeing thousands of devoted people sitting in perfect rows, following the prayer movements together was impressive. For me listening to the beautiful singing of the Imam was a meditation itself.

    

After wandering around for a couple of hours, Zeinab warmly invited us home for lunch. Her mother was surprised she brought some guests home (it was a first), but even with no-notice we have been received like kings in their 'guest living room' with golden sofas. Thanks again for such spontaneity and generosity.

    

The scenic drive from Mashhad to Karat along the Turkmenistan border was beautiful with rocky green mountains and sandy light-pink hills back dropped by steep cliffs. The wider valleys were covered in bright green rice fields. In spring, many nomadic shepherd are herding their goat and sheep along with their donkey carrying the equipment. We saw a couple of them by the road with big water trucks providing drinking water to their herds or with a Zamyad (local pickup) ready to load the freshly cut wool. The mountain is where their investment grows while the road is their trading place.

    

Because of the extra few thousand kilometers detour, we had a few busy driving days in order to get out of Iran before our visa expiration. But with those friendly Iranians it was hard not to get distracted. While having a coffee break near a tiny village, a car suddenly stopped, an old lady jumped out, grabbed both of my hands and insisted I come to her home. When she understood we are a bit in a hurry, she gave me a big smooch on my cheek and left. A few hours later when stopping for our lunch break, we agreed to ignore everyone. A pickup loaded with chanting girls choose to have their picnic right next to us. It didn't take them long to come over with goodies and insisted we join them for lunch. Hard to refuse... I sat there among this Turkmen family, the mother with her four beautiful daughters, two boys and grand kids. It looks like Turkmen people like to dress with colors, they like to dance encouraged by clapping hands. It felt good to be immerged in this feminine vibe. Although we couldn't really communicate, bonds created very quickly and mama adopted me as her fifth daughter. Despite repeating over and over that we can't come home with them, mama couldn't stop holding my hands. She held her tears while the daughters waved goodbye while repeating "I LOVE YOU!" This is one of many occasions where I would have loved to accept the invitation. The question is: Would I ever be able to leave again?

    

North of Tomar, the Khaled Nabi mausoleum is located in an infinite landscape of hills. The main draw of this place are the phallus and butterfly shaped tomb stones scattered on a hilltop with this superb background. In addition to that, we were spoiled with a nice sunset while having dinner as well as a beautiful sunrise for breakfast the following morning.

A few kilometers south of Aliabad, a twenty minutes hike up the forest brought us to the sublime Khabud waterfall. Surrounded by green lush vegetation, the water sprinkles down the 20 meters high mossy wall. What a surprising contrast to the dry landscapes we have recently been through.

On our long drive to the Armenian border, we crossed the Alborz mountain chain, enjoyed a night by the green-blue Valasht mountain lake before reaching the densely populated Caspian sea shore. We crossed more mountain passes to finally reach the Aras river valley marking the border with Azerbijan, then Armenia. Together with the customs officer we helped each other filling in the departure slip of our carnet de passage. He waved us goodbye while we crossed the bridge. We were mentally not ready to leave Iran.

      

In nearly a month in Iran, we drove over 6000 kilometers and still explored only a fraction of this huge country. The good news is that fuel is one of the cheapest in the world. With a full tank at 7 EUR you can make a few detours... Despite the very bad diesel quality (you can't have it all...) Hyundi is behaving super well. Well, that was true until the moment we stepped out of Iran and the battery light started blinking.

One more time Iran threw a spell on us. We experienced the most human experiences in one of the country with the worst human rights. How many times have we been invited home? How many times the baker insisted to give the bread for free? How many times the road toll guy opened up the gate while refusing our money? How many times have we been escorted around to find the item we were looking for? How many times have we be given fruits or snacks from simple by passer? For sure it will be hard for the following countries to beat this genuine hospitality and friendliness.

Album "Iran - May 2017"