After extensive travelling in many parts of the world, we more and more started to look for areas less travelled, especially since we started venturing in our Land Rover Defender. When focusing on the Middle East, we were intrigued by Iran. Once part of Mesopotamia and known as Persia until 1935, this “far away” country is, in fact, only a six-hour flight away from Belgium, though it represents a completely unknown world to many. It is an Islamic Republic by law, but mosques are empty on Fridays. It is “one of the rogue states of the axis of evil” but seems more stable and safe than any of its neighbouring countries and beyond. Before 1979, Iran was one of the most modern and progressive countries in the region. While the main language in the surrounding countries is Arabic, Iranians speak Farsi (Persian). You will not find a McDonalds in the whole country, no foreign credit cards are accepted, there is limited internet and GPS access, but you will find an unmatched rich culture and nature. This was reason enough to take a closer look and check it out for ourselves.
We had only just waved Mount Ararat goodbye and crossed the border from Turkey into Iran when we were greeted by huge mega-sized pictures of the two ayatollahs, whose presence is prominent all over the country. After handling the extensive red tape, we were excited to set off and steered our Defender into our long-expected journey. At that moment, an aggressive driver started to chase us down the road out of the border town of Bazargan. Not really knowing what to expect in this unknown country, and still busy trying to adapt to the hectic traffic, this situation made us really nervous. We hoped we would soon lose this guy in the rush hour, but the chase went on. We heard honking and shouting, and when we came to a busy crossroad, the driver got us stuck, and his car blocked our road. Before we had time to react, he got out of his car and came at us in an excited manner. As he came closer, he shouted, “Welcome to Iran,” and gave us a big smile. Our relief was palpable.
That night, we enjoyed our first wild camp under a starry sky close to a beautiful little old Armenian church. We contemplated our first day and knew we had made the right choice to come to this country.
So this was the start of a glorious trip from the green nomadic west over magnificent mountains and desolate pristine deserts, all dotted with silk road caravanserais and marvelous cities preserved since antiquity. Every single day blew us away.
And then there were the people. Imagine living in a country governed by ayatollahs who, back in 1979, from one day to another, turn the clock decades back in time and take away all the freedoms you have known for most of your life.
But these are proud and resilient folks, and they surprised us time and again. People welcomed us so warmly we sometimes felt uncomfortable in the wealth of our own uncomplicated lives. One day we visited a dakhmeh (tower of silence, Zoroastrian burial place) and met a nice Tehrani couple. They had come to climb a mountain in the neighbourhood, a four-day trip out of the city, which was their only annual holiday highlight and way to freedom. As we came to discuss the regime, he put it this way, “You are five years old and you have a bad father; you just wait until you are 25. I am 5 years old.” Nevertheless, they were happy and refused to mess up their lives by grumbling while waiting for better times.
It was striking that most people found the right balance in their own way. There were, for example, a bunch of middle-aged ladies we met in a closed caravanserai hotel dancing to music, waving their headscarves. Or the young hiking couple we met in the Alborz mountains who obligingly pitched two separate tents in the evening, while only using one.
One thing that made some encounters a bit complicated is the Persian way called taarof. It is obvious that wherever you meet people in Iran you are invited to their homes and tables and that hospitality is not a hollow concept. This makes for really great encounters, but can become difficult when taarof is involved—a form of politeness causing people to please the visitor even if they cannot afford it, which can lead to strange situations. So keep one rule in mind: only after you have declined three times and they still insist can you be sure that your host is able to commit to his invitation. This can prevent very embarrassing situations like joining a table where no food is available or moving on at a gas station without paying because your money was politely refused once.
Individual 4WD travel in Iran is unexpectedly easy, and, except close to the Pakistani or the Iraqi borders, we were never harassed with extra police or military checkpoints. It is a land that has everything to offer: spectacular scenery, ancient cities, mystical places, and great four-wheel driving. Above all, Iran is filled with real people with unconditional good intentions who are justifiably proud of their country, language, and exceptionally rich culture and heritage.
Do not wait, just go.
To read more about Iran, head to Revolutionary Ride: In Search of the Real Iran by Jessica Michael
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