Stage 2: Iran

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Middle East » Iran
December 1st 2013
Published: December 14th 2013
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Iran is a place I have dreamed about traveling to for the past 4 years. Traveling through Central Asia years ago I had been inundated with backpackers stories about the wonder that is Iran. At that time I was under the influence of Western media and thinking that Iranians were a country of extremists and I would probably be shot upon entry. How little I really knew and how much I was going to be proven wrong. So with a brand new one month tourist VISA I head in via the remote mountain border crossing of Haji Omaran from Iraq...


Quick Facts

• Population: 80 million
• Ethnic Groups: Persian 61%!,(MISSING) Azeri 16%!,(MISSING) Kurd 10%!,(MISSING) other 13%!<(MISSING)br>• Religion: Muslim 98%!((MISSING)Shia)
• Blocked: No Facebook, youtube, International ATMs or alcohol
• 1979 Revolution renamed country to Islamic Republic of Iran & started 30+ years of international isolation & sanctions

So after crossing the Iraq border I now stand waiting at the gates to enter Iran. I have my VISA all sorted I am just praying they let foreigners through this remote entrance. The lines are huge, trade between the two countries has picked up considerably since the time of Saddam and the Iran-Iraq war (which happened where I stand in the 1980s). As I enter the gates, the army personal on duty spots me. He walks straight up and rather than smack me in the face, he shakes my hand and welcomes me to the country. After a few minutes of conversation, I say I must join the very long queue; he laughs and says "No my friend, you come to the side and head up to the front, you are our guest!". This is the first of many interactions that totally shatter the illusions I held of this country beforehand and I only just literally walked in the door.

After clearing customs (I did have problems but only because their 1970s photocopier couldn't scan my shiny new "chipped" NZ passport), I go in search of a taxi. Although things are relatively quiet here this border in particular is not one I want to hang around in. The Iran–Iraq War was an armed conflict between the two states from September 1980 to August 1988 in this border area. It was triggered by Iraq trying to take advantage of the confusion of the 1979 revolution and gain territory. However after 8 years of fighting no ground was lost or gained it was just status quo. However the war cost both sides in lives and economic damage: half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers, with an equivalent number of civilians, are believed to have died. So even though things have moved on and trade is improving, there are still nervous soldiers on either side. So I find a taxi and it turns out to be dirt cheap; $40 dollars to take me 4.5 hours out of the border zone and to the Unesco market town of Tabriz. I jump at this opportunity and by nightfall I am sitting comfortably in my hotel reflecting on what an intense journey that was.

Tabriz is in the north east of the country and houses one of the oldest bazaars in the Middle East and is also the largest covered one in the world. Spending the day doing through its countless alleyways is priceless and I get the most enjoyment from going through the carpet bazaar, yes Iranians are the best at this art (sorry other countries). Leaving the bazaar I meet (well actually he meets me) a talkative guy by the name of Ali. In a moment he has organized his son to take me to the cave village of Kandovan just outside of town this afternoon, now that's service.

Kandovan is a village of 700 people where they have carved their homes into unique rock outcrops. Is very similar to Cappridocia in Turkey but this is the real deal, they live in them; it’s not a tourist attraction like Turkeys. I spend the afternoon hanging out with him and his mum (he bought her along, she is a heap of fun and she makes us wicked tea for the journey) before heading back to Tabriz. As my bus does not leave until 10pm, they want me to go relax with them at their home. It is a gracious offer and we head back to their huge apartment for tea and dinner. A great night ensues and they make me feel like part of the family. Ali then drops me off at the bus and is a sad farewell. Later a guide let me know that most Iranians deem tourists to be "gifts from god" and I really felt that after hanging out with Ali and his family for the night.

Enter Tehran.... Tehran if I could just sum up in one sentence would be massive chaotic, packed concrete jungle where you can get run over walking on the sidewalk. I enter this breathing beast early in the morning and am subjected to the craziest packed subway ride ever. I have never been to Tokyo but I am sure it beats that or at least up there with it. Squeezed to almost unconsciousness I get off at my stop. My guide book informs me that Tehran has the highest incidence of road deaths and injury per capita in the world (and strangely proud of it) and it is not hard to see why. Cars just screaming everywhere but the worst is the driving on the footpaths particularly from motor bikes, whoa that's dangerous. You don't see them until they fly by smacking you with their side mirrors. Ok enough about traffic but wow it is intensive and you spend the night just coughing up black Flem. Something else I notice is the large number of people with bandaids across their nose. Apparently Tehran is now the nose job capital of the world and I suppose as a female with a head scarf covering your face a nose becomes a valuable asset. What does crack me up is that it is now the fashion just to wear a bandaid; nose job or not. Lastly something I have noticed in Tehran and Iran in general is the participation of Women within the working society. In other Muslim countries I have visited females are mostly unseen and at home, here they are in active participant of the working force. Is a joy to see them in this role and even better seeing them pushing the boundaries of conservative dress. Jeans, head scarves hanging on for dear life on pony tails; all in the face of the conservative "dress" police they have, love it.

Checking into my hotel the only thing on my mind is an Azerbaijan VISA and then I am out of Tehran. After another ridiculous subway ride I am in the suburbs and handing in my application for Azerbaijan, will be ready in one day bonus. I spend the rest of the day going to check out the old US embassy that was stormed. It is now called the US Den of Espionage and has been turned into a mock museum and garrison for the revolutionary guard. Inside they have taken transcripts that were shredded and taped them together showing the US backing attempted coups within Iran. I tour around the facility and the anti American sentiment is shown in various wall art. This I must say is an extreme view that from my discussions was not the general opinion of all the people I met. Just an aside while I was in Tehran the president of the US and the new president of Iran had just spoken over the telephone ending 30 years of severed communications. The air is thick with excitement and I cannot talk to a single person without them telling me how happy they are. One taxi driver says "My friend a closed house gets no food, I am happy today for the future of our country". This type of sentiment is something we don't see on the news; it actually puts a human face to the problems they are subjected to by sanctions (especially those of banking, international finance and the ability for Iran to sell its oil). I complete my circuit of the building and due to the extreme hot temperatures I roll my pants up to get some airflow. Within a minute I am already getting hurled abuse!!!! Well exposing your ankles man or woman == no no here! Roll them down quickly, takes some pictures and I get out of there.

So the next day dawns and I am the proud recipient of a brand new Azerbaijan VISA and I am on my way to my next stop Esfahan. The buses in Iran are top notch, some of the best quality and most frequent departures I have seen. Within 6 hours I am in what is deemed to be "half of the world" and it is that indeed. In the 1600s the Persian ruler Shah Abas the Great shifted his capital to Esfahan. In doing so he recruited (or forced) great artisans from all over the globe to come and build his capital in grand style. This lead to an explosion of architectural marvels. I have arranged the services of an experienced guide by the name of Mohammad. He is famous in these parts and is a wealth of knowledge for all things Esfahan. We see countless palaces, mosques, huge squares and amazing artistic works. This town is a treasured jewel and if it was in France say, it would almost be another Paris.... but its not, it’s in Iran. And because it’s in Iran it sees a tiny amount of visitors which is great for me as I get the place to myself almost but not for the people here missing out on tourist $$$. Another aside just to illustrate some of the trade sanctions Iran is under, Esfahan built a metro a few years ago and completed it in 2010 however it isn’t working. Turns out the metro was built to house French trains but due to recent tightened trade sanctions it is not allowed buy the trains to go on their lines. The ones they can buy which are Chinese are not the same specification and wont work here. Craziness

After Esfahan it is time to move into the desert proper and to the city of Yazd. Yazd is a desert town and is famous for its mud bricked old city. The instant I arrive in Yazd I start to feel my face starting to melt off in the midday heat and this is supposed to be autumn! I check into my hotel, crank the air conditioning and wait until a more respectable temperature presents itself. A few hours before nightfall I emerge from my slumber and start investigating the old mud brick city. Yazd is another Iranian world heritage site and blows me away with all its twisting and turning paths and alleys through the city. At night the town comes alive as the locals awake from slumber to actually be able to work in reasonable temperatures; gosh this would be a tough place to be in summer when temperatures knock on the 50+ degree mark.

From Yazd I make a quick detour to the neighboring desert towns around the city and then make for the Fahraj desert inn to spend the night. This is a little desert oasis tucked away from the Yazd city life. Upon entering the inn I am in a form of shock to see females walking around with no scarves on their head, worse still some have shorts on and singlet’s. After a few weeks of only seeing covered females it did freak me out a little (actually a lot) and I am a Westerner. Turns out the ladies were Iranians from a northern city who come here to let their hair down (literally) and within the walls of the desert inn, they can and good on them! Tonight the owner Massoud takes a few of us out in his 4WD into the desert for a campfire and dinner out under the stars. While we are out their enjoying the good times one of his Armenian friends appears in his 4WD in a very boisterous mood. Out he comes and in his hand is a bottle of Vodka, next thing you know we are toasting to Iran drinking the forbidden nectar. At first I was very hesitant (what if this guy is a spy and it’s all a trick to get me to drink), then I realize (and he tells me numerous times) that he is Armenian and they roll how they want to. So that’s all the explanation I need as we all drink and eat under the campfire in blissful ignorance.

Final stop in the south is the town of Shiraz and the gigantic ruins of Persepolis. This was the town where the grape came from and the wine originated from; now its banned, that is pretty much the definition of "Ironic" I think. Here I board a dodgy Ukrainian plane (I think it is Ukrainian, actually I have no idea where they got this plane due to the sanctions) and head to the northern holy city of Mashhad. Mashhad is a holy pilgrimage city for Shia Muslims; it has the burial ground for the descendant of the prophet Mohammad: Imam Ali Riza. After the house flight (saving a 20hour journey across the desert) I check into the world famous Valis Non-smoking guesthouse, which is basically just a room in his basement. Vali is a tour de force for Iranian tourism and one of the most hospitable people I have met. Immediately upon arriving it is welcome tea and then we have communal dinner for all the guests and his family on his balcony. The food is spectacular and is good to hang out with other tourists all whom happen to be Chinese. Another aside... the Chinese are the biggest group of travelers I have seen in Iran hands down, they are everywhere. Iran gives free tourist VISAs to the Chinese as they are their main (pretty much only) trading partner and with direct flights from China to Tehran they are coming in their droves.

Tonight I head to the mammoth pilgrimage site, the Imam Reza shrine. Their are literally tens of thousands of people jammed into what can only be identified as a shrine complex filled with mosques, square, gold and minarets. As I look like I local I sneak in easily with my camera however normally tourists get given a personal guide to stop them taking photos and accessing the main shrine areas. Free from those shackles I spent hours witnessing the raw emotions with the pilgrims and it is very hard to not get caught up in it all. I head home enlivened by the experience and head back to Valis basement. In the morning Vali thinks it is a good idea to get my Turkmenistan VISA prior to my exit from Iran. Although I had been assured I can get it at the border I take his advice and equipped with my mean (non-existent) Russian I put in my application. Surprisingly it is pain free and in 4 hours I have my Turkmen VISA ready to go. To celebrate I have Vali buys us all non-alcoholic beer and we hang out with my new found Chinese friends none of whom speak English.

The next day dawns and it is time to head to the Turkmenistan border for crossing. I have tried twice already to get into this country but on both times I had been rejected, once because of bird flu and the other swine flu so I am a tad bit apprehensive. The taxi winds its way through the hills into the steppe desert and we start to see Kurdish nomads moving their livestock. The driver tells me a story about how he cycled this route years ago into Turkmenistan but he had to turn back due to snow, crazy to think in the desert it can snow.

Now at the gates to the border crossing I bid farewell to my taxi driver and my Iranian dream. It has been two weeks of just mind boggling sites. Firstly the people, I can say that they are some of the nicest people I have met in my travels. They buck all the illusions that I have been taught and presented with by western media and entities. They were just so genuine and wanting to help and give whatever they had, was just such a pleasure. In regards to the way they live, I think I was expecting a nation of villagers and uneducated workers but that couldn’t be further from the truth. With all the sanctions they have built a modern educated, thriving community. Lastly in regards to the government, I think there are extreme people in every society it just so happens that Iran has been run by some for the past 30 years. This type of building walls to protect any sort of inflow and outflow from other societies is just not working. From the Iranians that I have met they are hopeful for the future and the discussions that are happening between Iran and the US in particular are something that they are excited about.

Next stop I head into the zaniest place on Earth, a place I have tried to get into multiple times: Turkmenistan.

Thanks for reading


Trip Photos

Iran: Click Here


15th December 2013

Middle East
Once again, a great read and love the pics.
15th May 2014

i am happy you had good time over here. perhaps, next time, you may visit Kashan (especially persian rose water festival and other historical sites), Hamadan, Kish island and persian gulf and also cities located in the north of Iran next to Caspian sea, some have nature similar to Europe and some a mountain based area. worth to visit especially trying to be in contact with locals to see the real face of life in Iran.

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