The joy of visas. We spent Monday to Thursday in the unexciting town of Erzurum waiting for our Iranian visa to come through. Adding to the joy was the fact that (to quote the great Scotsman Billy Connolly) my arse was in tatters behind me. It seems 2 weeks of solid kebab eating finally caught up with us. After a brief sojourn into the Georgian Mountains in the north east of Turkey and another day or so wait, we headed with some excitement for the Iranian border. We stayed at the truck stop town of Dogubayazit for the night but slept terribly as the warden of the area blew his whistle every ten minutes at God knows what. Waking early on Friday morning, we dumped our remaining booze into a bin just before getting to the border – the assurance of a prison sentence proving an ample deterrent to smuggling alcohol into Iran.
Any trepidation at the hazardous border crossing was soon put to rest – our carnet was dealt with very quickly and we were across the border in an hour and a half. We changed the last of our Turkish currency at the tiny town of Bazargan, and this also gifted the locals the opportunity to ogle at our strange machine and try and sell us things. One tired and sweaty man in particular tried to sell me the shirt he was wearing!
It was in Bazargan that we were thwarted in our first attempt to stock up on cheap fuel ($10 a fill up) as the station had no petrol. In the second we were successful but the attendant demanded a t-shirt as part of ‘Irish kindness’ for filling our Land Rover with petrol – despite of course paying him for the fill up in the first place. A very strange place this Iran. Our first road-sign was in Farsi, but the second, in English, read “Tabriz 250km, Tehran 850km”. A very big place this Iran!
Ten minutes after parking our Landy in Tabriz, an ex-soldier named Erfan delighted in showing us the sights. Speaking only a little English, the quick tour of Tabriz included a shut 35km Bazaar and the massive Jameh Mosque that we were not allowed to enter. While having a quick drink at the closed Blue Mosque, it dawned on us that Fridays weren’t the best days for sightseeing! Over a cold can of coke we were then invited to Erfan’s wedding in 2 years time and to meet his brethren in the park for a game of football. This turned into an impromptu sing-along using upturned plastic tubs as drums and the young boys singing popular Iranian tunes. Far from being the axis of evil – this park full of families enjoying picnics, with young people playing football instead of drinking and young women smiling coyly from behind their headscarfs seemed like the garden of innocence.
On our way out of Tabriz we got lost in the back streets of Tabriz for 2 hrs and then hit a low balcony with the top of the Landy! Fortunately bricks and mortar are softer than cast-iron Land Rover. Understandably the owners, a laid back middle-aged father and a screaming mother and daughter, were not too pleased but quickly grasped that we couldn’t understand a Farsi word they said and soon waved us on. Result!
We ended up camping in a lay-by on the periphery of Tabriz only to be woken at half six by the local noisy special branch (not sure if this is a reference to their intellect!) pounding at our front doors and demanding to be let in. They wrongly suspected we had been taking narcotics and not looking our best in the morning did little to help our cause! After a thorough search of the vehicle they arrested about £2 in Romanian lei’s and carted them off to the nearest sweathouse. They advised that it was unsafe to camp in Iran because of the ever-expanding drug trade, but at that point we were more worried about the police than any other criminals! That was our first 24hrs!
Despite the initial trepidation, we found ourselves in the company of an extremely hospitable people. Brief visits to the Caspian coast city of Rasht and the ultra conservative Qom were inter-spliced with trips to Masuleh and Qazvin, both only warming us delightfully this wonderful country.
The rock-hugging village of Masuleh introduced us to the dear Abbas, a local jolly electrical engineer that after hearing we had nowhere to stay kindly offered to open up his workshop car park for us. He also entrusted us with the keys to his office so that we could get water and make use of the toilet facilities. We were bowled over by his kindness and he requested absolutely nothing in return.
However, the real unadulterated hospitality of the Islamic Republic was shown in it’s full light in the city of Qazvin. On our way to visit the excitingly named Castles of the Assassins near the city, we got stupendously lost and had to ask for directions at an oasis of an eatery. Seeing our plight, a truck driver named Aziz phoned his English speaking son-in-law to communicate where the correct road lay and more importantly where in town we could get a minor fix for the missing hub-cap. As it was getting dark, he kindly offered to take us to the mechanic himself but unfortunately they were closing up as we arrived. There was only one thing for it: the family’s English teacher was summoned and we were to be guests at his luxurious house for the evening. Aziz’s four daughters delighted in plying us with questions about the west and our opinion of Iran. After a lovely shower, masses of fresh of fruit and a good helping of fried chicken, we slept soundly for the first time in days.
In addition, after a hearty Iranian breakfast of bread, cheese, honey and yoghurt, we were driven to the mechanic’s and the problem fixed in one hour, with Aziz actually picking up the bill as well. An amazing man indeed to which we owe a huge debt of gratitude.
It was quickly becoming clear to us that anything we thought we knew about Iran was complete fallacy. Most people are no more religious than people in the west and in fact are a lot more liberal in their views than many people I know. People are keen to express the fact that they do not want to be enemies with anyone and are very careful to distinguish between the government and normal people when discussing politics. Their generosity and hospitality to strangers is an integral part of their culture and is almost overwhelming to experience. To many of us a stranger is someone to be suspicious of. To Iranians a stranger is a friend they haven’t met yet.
Richard and Dwyer