Finally, I was on the road to Iran. Even holding a visa in my hands. This visit had been years in the making. The country that has been described by some as championing the friendliest people you can encounter as a tourist.
Crossing the border into Iran
Reaching the border town Astara (that has an Azerbaijani part and an Iranian part) I was sure to be through customs quickly, since I held a visa, I came by bus, not to a busy airport, and from there a shared taxi should easily bring me to Rasht, my final destination, in less than three hours I had been told. I realized quickly that I was the only western tourist there, and apparently, they were not quite sure how to handle such unicorns.
The customs officer looked friendly but spoke no English. He called someone, maybe a superior. He asked me what my job was, and just repeated my words into the phone. He handed me the phone and someone at the other end asked me for my name, birth date, and so forth. My officer took the handle back listened, and started laughing. I became slightly less confident that I would enter the country quickly, or at all.
A group of older ladies behind me tried to communicate with me, bus since we shared no language in common, we could just exchange where we came from. They seemed impressed by me coming from Germany, and their gestures indicated that they (a) were about to visit Germany very soon, or (b) they wanted me to take them with me. Not sure. One of the ladies said something to the officer that seemed to me to be to the effect of “Just let him through, he is only German!”. The officer looked fierce.
The situation got interrupted by something that looked like a family visit. Or maybe it was his brother with his nephew arriving, or an old friend. At this point, the impatient queue that had built up behind me – occupying the only counter – had reached an impressive size. But low and behold, family matters are apparently taken seriously, so something played out that looked to me like a meeting between people who had not met in years. It seemed the officer interviewed his friend or brother about the events of the past decade, or so. Following this ceremonial greeting the boy, age ten maybe was allowed in the booth.
Next, he waved me over to stand not in front but besides the booth and asked his ten-year-old constable to have another look at my passport to find out if I was an imposter or the real deal. The boy said something in Farsi, and my officer translated “different person!”, laughing out loud. He started hacking into his keyboard, and I checked the constantly growing queue. People in the back stood on their toes to see something and to try to grasp what was going on. As I could see now, having a look at the computer screen was, that there was the hour-glass of death moving on the Windows 98.
At that point, I feared being stuck here for hours. But to my surprise the officer just said smiled at me, with a facial expression that may have meant, you waited long enough now, and said “thank you” waiving me forward. This one went up quite high immediately, on my list of “strangest border crossing events”.
Find accommodation in Astara border town
Amazingly, I had entered the border-station during early dawn. Now it was pitch black night, and I felt I would do myself a favor and just find a guesthouse or hotel, have a shower, eat some Iranian food, and continue the next day. I could not really find anyone who spoke any English and so I was told to check the hotels, that looked too expensive for my budget though. Mind you, they probably did not cost much more than 20 Euro but that was already my complete daily budget for this section of my round the world trip.
A group of school children excitedly gather around a little pushcart selling street food, running, screaming, munching. A cow is gazing by the road and some chicken stand by the curve pecking, as our bus rushes by. A group of money-exchange hustler follows me down the road in the dark of the night, like moths flattering around a street light, as I walk with my backpack, looking for accommodation. It finally feels like travelling. Only when a certain threshold of strangeness and unfamiliarity has been reached do I feel that I am being on the road for real. In Iran I reached that level for the first time on the current trip. It is an elated feeling of being “home”. Home in the unknown.
There were plenty of restaurants, many jewelry shops, even more, money exchange booths, grocery markets and so forth. But nothing looked like a guesthouse. So, I walked up and down a section of this very long shopping mile and was stopped when passing the same store, where people lingered outside, for the third time. An elderly gentleman asked me in English where I was from. To my reply he answered in fluent German “great, I am from Austria!”. He helped me to find a guesthouse. It turns out, being able to read the signs would have been a considerable advantage! Many of the said “Restaurant and Guesthouse”, with the restaurant on the bottom, the part I had seen, and the guesthouse on top, the part I had not identified as such.
After a nice warm shower, and realizing that I was back in the part of the world where quad-toilets are rather the standard than the exception, I headed out. My accommodation was less than 3 Euro a night, some insects one does not like to encounter usually being included for free of course. But using my own pillow and sleeping bag (is it not great to be well equipped on a trip?), all would go well. Back on the street to firstly search for a SIM card, since WiFi is scarce and poor, and secondly, for food, my Austrian friend offered me tea. How could I decline?
Turns out, he was an accountant but worked as clock-maker in Austria, and later owned a Taxi company. I was baffled by the fulfillment of so many stereotypes at once, but kept my thoughts to myself. Just to start smoothly into the conversation for a change. He felt that Iran had caught up very well with the West when it comes to living standards. His proof, he said, was a nice new building that someone had erected right where we sat. He insisted that Iran offers more opportunities than Germany nowadays and that the Iranian media is the most trustworthy when it comes to international politics. I ordered a second tea. Partly, because it was a damn delicious tea, but mostly because to hear more. I am a huge fan of this type of dark satire.
Brief two hours after this tea-break I was the proud owner of a SIM card with 13 GB for twelve Euros, including a hidden, yet completely free content-restriction application. Wisely, I had downloaded a couple of VPN apps. Since the great fire-wall, I have become a bit more censorship-savvy. For those not familiar with this, in Iran, you cannot use certain chat apps or look at certain News online, since they are being censored. But certain apps allow to circumvent this nuisance.
My hovercraft is full of eels or lost in translation
Traveling to Rasht, one of the biggest cities in Iran, was a piece of cake. Or so it seemed when I got to secure a seat on a bus going there from Astara. Eventually, I was dropped off some 30 kilometers before Rasht with very limited imagination on how to get to the actual town of Rasht. I, of course, asked everyone standing at this little bus station how to do it, and got no answer since no one spoke any English. One guy, however, had a google translate app on his phone and dictate something into it in Farsi, obviously believing that the translation was spot on. What I believe to extract from the gibberish that I saw on the screen, was that there a taxi would come that was going there, and his gesturing seemed to indicate that he would signal me. I settled down on some chairs in front of the station and watched the impressively heavy rain that came down.
Maybe some 40 minutes later I felt that it would not be rude to inquire once more what the deal with the taxi was. He again spoke into his wonder-device and pointed at the screen with a grand gesture, a bit like a magician who had just performed a never before seen trick. What I could read on the screen was a far too long text, first of all, and none it if encoded any coherent meaning. A daunting feeling crept up on me, being caught in the old Monty Python’s gag, where a Hungarian phrasebook contains wrong translations.
After a lot of forth and bag gesturing, guessing and grunting I thought to have extracted that a taxi was really ten times as expensive as originally thought. Which was a problem. Because I had bought some snacks in the meantime, since it was already three in the afternoon now, and I had not eaten anything all day. The downside of having a stomach filled with delicious Pistachios was that I was short of money for a taxi now. With no money-exchange insight. In fact, there was basically nothing in sight other than a huge crossing.
Using the ingenious translation machine at hand I tried to figure out what alternatives there were available. I was somewhat sure that I would not be able to walk to Rasht. By now swimming would have been a more realistic option, as the rain continued mercilessly. At least everyone was deeply impressed by my raincoat. No one else had one, which had to do with the sanctions the US had imposed. My friendly google translate obsessed friend told me that his shirt was from Italy, which he had worn for five years already, speaking for the superior quality of the fabric. While his pants were from China, as were his shoes, both of which seemed to fail him already after less than a year. We debated the intricacies of the sanctions a little further, but both realized that a quick solution to the issue was not on the horizon.
In hindsight it startling that none of that part of our interaction was led with google. Even more astounding is that it seemed entirely feasible to debate world-politics while it was apparently impossible to figure out what transportation was available to bridge a distance of a mere thirty kilometers!
After another hour of waiting believing that he would organize a taxi, I inquired once more. This time concentrating entirely on getting a taxi, no matter for what prize. “Oh, you already want to leave?”, he seemed to ask. “Now you want to leave, immediately?”, he inquired once more. Yeah, I kind of had had on mind to leave “immediately” for some hours now. “Oh, then you need to go to the curb over there (pointing towards the big crossing) and hail a taxi!”, seemed to be the answer.
I was slightly taken aback that google had apparently turned my increasingly desperate plead for help to get me away from this godforsaken place, into a very broad and laissez-faire conversation of the pros and cons of the taxi trade.
No money no fun
Walking around in the rainy Rasht, I was looking for an option to exchange some cash. After taking an over-prized taxi, since all I could offer was a five Euro note, that had not even dropped me off where I really wanted to go, I had given up hope to have any successful communication in this country. Hence, when I asked someone for “Money exchange?”, I was surprised to get a coherent answer. My morale was too low at this point to give it too much thought, having soaking wet shoes, an empty belly, and, well basically an empty belly really was the main issue.
Trotting towards the square, where some semi-criminal thugs would magically turn US Dollar into millions and millions and millions of Iranian Rial, someone suddenly yelled: “Mister, hey mister!”. It was the friendly dude who had told me the way, sitting in his dry and warm car, waving me over. “Jump in, I have to go to the money exchange anyway!”. Now that sounded both, too incredible to be true, and too warm and dry to turn down the offer.
Macan, the name of the young man, showed me around the bazaar, where we were to eventually exchange money. We all kinds of different foods on offer, and he told me all about the different fruits, animal parts, street foods, and ways they are being eaten. It turns out Macan is a chef who went to culinary school in Malaysia, his own restaurant is being remodeled currently. Since Macan has time off, therefore, he offered to meet the next day again and head of to explore the region.
He arrived in the morning with his wife Eileen. We headed to Masouleh, a village in the Sardar-e Jangal District, in Fuman. The buildings of the village are built onto a steep mountain area, tiny alleys meandering between them, and the roofs of the building below act as streets for the buildings above. The origins of the village are said to go back about 3000 years. There is an apparently well-visited waterfall outside of the village. Why so well visited, I don’t know? Probably, as someone pointed out to me, water as the basis for irrigation and farming has a very different meaning to people in a dry country, as for the people from the wet-lands of Europe. People even pointed out that they love the rain more than the sun.
One of the main agricultural products of the region is rice that is grown in abundance. I had the chance to meet one of Macan’s friends, Mahyar, who owns a factory that processes rice to all types of different high-quality products. He was so kind to show me around explaining the process to me and showing me the differences between the different quality-grades of types of rice. Mahyar sat with us and we conversed about many things far beyond rice of the obligatory tea of course. It is very interesting to hear people’s take on the current global political situation, as well as the aspects of domestic politics that shape the cultural landscape of Iran.
As I learned also in conversations with people on busses and on the streets, most if not all seem to be very outspoken when it comes to their views. Sometimes, admittedly initiated by a cautious look over the shoulders, checking bystanders, but never holding back any genuine reflection on the life and struggles therewith. In summary, people are impressively critical of the situation Iran is in, critical of their religion, and the consequences that come with any preclusive, intolerant and elitist religion.
In the evening I was invited with Macan to Eileen’s family for dinner. Instead of her parents and the three of us, I encountered a group of ten or so individuals. And the dinner turned out to be a real feast. In that context, I can report that wine from Shiraz is a delicacy. For me, it was more than just a dinner, but more of an exciting experience. I joked with them that my stereotype was confirmed, that attending a dinner in many places in the middle east basically means being fed until you burst. Before dinner we had baklava with tea, then dinner with seven or more dishes, immediately followed by candid fruits and tea, followed by cake, followed by cookies, followed by fruit, followed by more wine.
Meeting Mr. Husam
VIP buses connect most places in Iran. They have only 3 large seats per row and offer at least one meter of leg-space. Usually, you get some food and drink on the bus, costing no more than four Euro for a six hours journey. Arriving in Tehran it was raining, which is a rather rare event. Therefore, taxis were unavailable. For two reasons, many people shy away from taking their own car when it rains, because driving in the rain is unfamiliar to many. Secondly, of course, no one wants to walk in the rain either. A friendly young lady offered her help and managed to get me a taxi with a driver who even spoke some English. She handed me her business card, to contact her if I needed any assistance.
It was a nice reunion with Husam, and I met our host Ebrahim too. Ebrahim has worked as an English teacher in the Philippines, and is now back in Iran, hoping to leave again soon. His job as a mining engineer was taking its toll on his health, he told, which lead us to think about the purpose of life. On the way to Tehran, I had met a retired banker who told me that he had always been thinking to do traveling when he becomes a pensioner. But now that he has the chance to travel, he realized that he wasted some of the best years of work, as he put it. He encouraged me in my travel plans, saying that time is best seized when young. Maybe alternating between periods of work and travel, he deliberated.
Ebrahim’s and my conversation went into a similar direction. If there is a purpose of life, it is most likely not a universal purpose but rather an individual one. Whatever it is for each individually it is very questionable if a classical career is a purpose in itself. Especially if the goal is money or power or both. At least some small-scale investigations into the topic appear to indicate that nobody regrets not working enough by the end of life when they are terminally ill awaiting death. Not being with their family and friends enough, and not collecting experiences instead of money, on the other hand, were amongst the greatest regrets people reported.
Es gibt kein Bier auf Hawaii (old German song: „There is no beer on Hawaii“)
A long drink by the pool, a beer on a sunny porch, a Cognac on a moonlit beach. None of that will happen in Iran. Or so they say, since alcohol is strictly forbidden. Deceivingly you will find all your favorite beer brands in the supermarkets, but of course, all of them are with 0,0% alcohol.
The friendly lady who helped me arrange my taxi on the day of my arrival in Tehran and I stayed in touch after that. She offered me to visit her at a friend’s apartment for dinner, and so we met again. After some get-to-know each other chat over some nice Iranian snacks, I was asked if I wanted to drink something. In 90% of the cases, people ask this question here the expectation will be to be served some very tasty black tea. But when the offer was followed by “do you like to drink?”, I had the feeling we may not be talking about tea.
Before I could venture into a physiological lecture on the necessity of hydrating the human body sufficiently, and the health dangers that come with not being hydrated insufficiently, I was being offered some home-made Vodka. Made from grapes and apples that is exactly what it tasted like. A wonderful fruity flavor with a wonderful aroma combining the aldehydic depth of the apple extracts with the familiar fullness of the grape flavors. I arranged a business venture on the spot. As soon as we topple the regime this stuff needs to be exported to moisture tongues all over the globe!
After a bottle of that stuff, some dancing, listening to Iranian music and entertaining each other with intercultural misunderstandings, it seemed wise to just crash there for the night. I know that you are wondering what it felt like after some 4 hours of sleep? Fantastic. I can report that Iranian brandy does not even cause a headache. From my side, this stuff is fully approved and fit for human consumption.
Arriving in Kashan the weather was pleasantly sunny, but it quickly changed to cloudy and rainy. We apparently brought the rain with us from Tehran. This oasis is at the edge of the Dasht-e Kavir – The Great Salt Desert which is the largest desert of Iran. Kashan features many beautiful and old buildings some of which are currently being considered for making it onto the list of world heritage landmarks.
A professor for German language and two of his students took the time to show us around Kashan and have tea together. A valid reason to learn German in Iran is, of course, to be able to live in Germany. That was one of the student’s goals, an insurance agent. The other student, also a student of mechanical engineering, was single. The becoming engineer was a stably built guy, with a round face and a loud voice, a very friendly big smile, and many cheeky jokes that he would throw into the conversation. He also was single. It struck me that some stereotypes about people studying certain topics seem to be universal.
Our next destination will be Yazd, continuing our adventure in this place that so far ranks as the number one of the friendliest places I ever had the pleasure to travel to.