We reached the east borders of Turkey around 18:00. We got out with no problems and waited in line for the control in Iran. Τhe driver of the vehicle was being separated from the passengers. Military people do the checking and the distance between the two buildings is covered with wired corridors.
Τhis is the point where you realize just how bad you feel as a refugee or an immigrant.
We had our tourist visas and so they removed us from the queue and took us to another office. My guess is for time’s sake. We could see Daniel opening the car for the control.
After the passports control, there were the carnet de passage control, the traveling documents of the car, which if you don’t have, you can’t go anywhere.
People coming and going, taking our documents, looking at them, pretending to be officers. In the end, they were nothing more than tricksters, trying to do small favors for travelers or for currency exchange.
After losing about 30 minutes, and having small conflicts with the people there, after getting the fees for mandatory car wash, which never happened, and also buying car security, we make it out of the borders. The time was close to 21:00 and reality hit us hard:
We were in Iran. A dream came true.
People buzzing around us, cars swirling around their own dervishing rhythm. It was hard to adjust to that new driving style; driving code and logic were nowhere to be seen. So, we decided to spend the night at the first city we saw, Maku.
There was only one hotel and not a single room available. The next hotel with available rooms was 200 klm away, and our eyes were starting to close.
Talking with local people out of the hotel, led to the possibility of spending the night in a school, but a tourist bus driver gave us the solution.
There was a room in the hotel for praying, where Muslims go for their rituals. We arranged to spend the night there, after the end of the prayers, after midnight. Our first night, in a temple room.
An Austrian team arrived at the hotel, exhausted as well. We offered them to sleep with us. Five people all lined up, on a rug. Two more teams, who traveled with the Austrians, got stuck at the borders, due to carnet de passage problems.The next day was a national holiday. So, they would have to sleep two more days in No man’s land between the borders, waiting for their papers.
Luckily, we got offered not only breakfast, but a bathroom as well.
We planned to visit the Armenian Monastery of Saint Stephen at the borders of Azerbaijan, with the Austrians. It is one of the oldest in the world and also a Unesco monument.
On the road to the Monastery we came across the driving reality for good. Deadly bumps everywhere, no signaling anywhere. I mean, they were so big that the Austrian Yaris, hit them every time, regardless the driving style. Inverted trucks, detours through farmland, cars going the wrong way in the highway, u turns. It was a jungle! And we had to adjust to that jungle for the next six days.
Thankfully, driving in Greece proved to be a good ‘school’, but compared to that, Greek driving is like Kindergarden..!
The Monastery was fascinating, due to its location, but also because it’s a good opportunity to get a first taste of the people, given the fact that it attracts lots of Iranian tourists.
And we proved to be an attraction for them! With our ‘west-world’ looks and clothes, we become stars! Women looking at us, people asking to take our photos. Now we know. Tomorrow, no more short trousers.
Whilst leaving, the road took us to a magnificent red canyon, which is also a natural border between Iran and Azerbaijan, so we went through police control once again and patrols supervised, forbidding us to take pictures.
We moved on to Tabriz, where we went separate ways with the other team and we went to the hotel. We changed clothes and went out for a walk.
Our little camera, ideal for discreet shots in the city, had been broken and we were left with the DSLR camera and our smartphones.
When we asked for food, we met Atal, who was really hospitable and willing to help us, like most Iranians, and he took us to a local Tavern for local specialties, he chose the best dishes for us and also offered to pay!
He is the one who stayed with us until the next day, until we left; he took on the guide role because he thought it was his duty. And he was the first person we bumped onto and asked for help!
The next day we wandered around the colorful bazaar of the city, looked at Persian carpets and jewelry and also more familiar treats to us, like halva and nuts. I did the mistake of trying an Internet café to send emails, and I came across censorship in all its glory.
News agencies, facebook, twitter etc all blocked, connections through providers that allow control of information and so slow that it took me an hour to send 10 photos.
At least, I was given the chance to talk to local people, who while looking at the TV, which showed the bombing in Gaza, share their opinions for Israel and Iraq. They even asked me if all European people think of them as terrorists. I assured them that that is not the deal, and that Europe really appreciates the Persian civilization, and their hospitality as well. After that, I found my friends and took off.
We had been driving for hours, but weren’t even close to our destination. We got our lesson, from then on we had to add two hours to the estimation time of our GPS for these countries.
So, we ended up at 02:00 in Myantoab, a ghost city in the middle of the desert, asking locals to open their inns for a stay. They asked us for 60 euros (an outrageous price) for one night, and this is how we made a deal.
A grand building, like a palace with lost glory, unfolded in front of our eyes.
We rested there until the next morning, when quite impressed we saw this ghost city turn into a beehive.
We left and decided to make a three-hour detour to visit the Zoroastrian temple of Takht-e Soleymān. Given the fact that we didn’t have the time to visit the impressive cities of Esfahan or Persepolis in the south, we thought that this was a good opportunity to mingle with the Persian civilization.
On the way there, we found out that the car lighter was not working. And this is our basic power source for our electrical appliances (cameras, mobile phones etc). We stopped at a workshop in a village in the desert, tried through body language to explain the problem and the friendly craftsman, not only fixed it within five minutes, but didn’t ask for money. Instead he asked for a photo with us as a souvenir.
We got to the temple, so exhausted that we decided to eat something before going up the hill. Unfortunately, what looked like a refectory, had no food and we turned to our preserved food for the first time. Iranian visitors invited to their shadow place, and offered us bread and tea. So, we ate together and exchanged stories.
The temple was breathtaking, with a lake of sulfur water with light blue waters, like the ones in Blue Lagoon, Iceland.
And this was just the beginning of surprises for us, since after that we came across very high complex constructions, labyrinth shaped underground catacombs and the room of eternal flame from when the temple was used, where a gas pipe produced a flame and this is where the elements of fire, earth and water met.
What was weirder is that by walking to the other side of the temple, we passed a gate and behind that, there was a green valley! What a great surprise in this parched land!
We left the temple very impressed, we drove through infertile, dried, yet beautiful landscapes, we reached over 3,000 meters altitude and got an excellent view. Our average speed was 50 klm/hour, which of course didn’t stop Iranian drivers to overtake us like crazy in dangerous turns and steep cliffs.
We got to Qazvin at night, where an Iranian colleague had planned for us to stay at his house, but due to lack of Internet connection, we were not aware of that and stayed at a hotel.
The next day at the toll stations, they allowed us to cross without paying, because our Rally car was considered to be very important to them. One out of two cars would wave at us, either by turning on the car lights of by taking their hand out of the windows.
Iran is definitely a country good for your self-esteem, and lets you have a taste of the life of super stars. The truth was that we were in Iran for almost a week and didn’t see a single car with foreign driving plates. Imagine how weird our bright red car full of stickers must look to all those white old cars there…
We drove up the mountains until the village of Massuleh, a classic nomad, camp location. It was really impressive, but the village was far too touristic for our tastes. Especially after everything all locals had told us about it and the “jungle” around it. This jungle was just a forest, which had nothing spectacular about it, especially if you had already visited Schwarzwald and the Swiss Alpes. It might be something if you have spent a month (or even your whole life) in Iran, but for us, coming from Europe, it was nothing to die for.
On the way back we entered the city of Rasht by mistake, and got stuck at the traffic for about an hour and that led to us losing precious time. By the time we got to the city of Ramsar, it was already night time.
The next day we drove along the Caspian Sea. A really bad choice, since the road is not close to the sea (so we had no view) and it also crosses dozens of villages and small towns, in which we had to either slow down or get stuck in traffic (once more).
The Caspian Sea proved to be quite disappointing. It is amongst agricultural countries and that means that it is one of the most polluted water resources of the planet and certainly not suitable for swimming.
My two teammates tried some sort of fish, and they said it was the worst thing they ever had to taste. So, food-wise: not good.
We continued driving for many hours and night driving was something both tiring and dangerous, with a lot of trucks and large wheeled vehicles acting crazy.
We reached Ash Khaneh, where secret police officers stopped us, checked everything and allowed us to go on. That was our only encounter with bad rumored security forces in the country.
The next day we drove to Quchan and then north to the boarders. Our stay in Iran came to an end after one week of magical landscapes and amazing people.
We all agreed that if there is a country we would like to visit again, that definitely would be Iran.
The next day, our Middle East adventure began.
A whole new page…