Iran, Part 1: Entering the (not so) Evil Empire

Iran border to Mashhad

Iran. To go or not to go. That was the question up until Dushanbe in Tajikistan when we had to decide which visas to apply for. Our parents and those close to us warned against all the dangers. Both the French and the British foreign offices recommended against all but essential travel. Why on earth would we want to go to such a country? It was simple really: we heard it was awesome.

There is nothing quite like the excitement and trepidation of crossing a border into a new land. It is not the same when you fly in somewhere because you expect the change to be big between capital cities. When it is an overland crossing though it is hard to fathom that the people, culture, moustaches, fashion, camping feasibility, and everything else can be different when one is only going a kilometre up the track. In almost every case so far this has been the case and crossing into Iran was perhaps the biggest change we have experienced. It was like leaving a primary school and entering University. Almost immediately it was clear that the level of education and sophistication amongst the general populace was far above that of Turkmenistan, and everything else as a result improved. The security guards were polite and helpful; there were public posters advocating safe sex (in Iran??); people were orderly and respectful; and yes, the roads were immaculate.

Recommended to us by a customs officer, Robat Sharaf is the biggest (or is it the oldest) brick building in Iran.

Recommended to us by a customs officer, Robat Sharaf is the biggest (or is it the oldest?) brick building in Iran.

 

We saw the light at the end of the tunnel

We saw the light at the end of the tunnel

 

As we rolled into our first Iranian town, ominously named Gonbadli, we heard our names being shouted from across the road. It was Ali, the truck driver who we had met on the Uzbek-Turkmen border and he insisted on buying us dinner. Matthieu, naturally suspicious due to his Foreign Legion training, smelt espionage but it was to turn out to be the start of a genuine friendship. Ali left us with clear instructions of how to get to his house on the Caspian coast 600km away, an offer we would see through in due course. The kebab shop where we ate offered us their sofa to sleep on but after the owner joked that we could keep the 12 year old salad-hand for company we decided that a night between two trucks was a safer option. That and the fact we did not want to attract the dogs the next day with what would inevitably be our Eau de Döner.

Gonbadli.jpg

 

Night between two lorries.jpg

 

Sir, how about a 12 year-old  boy for dessert?

Sir, how about a 12 year-old boy for dessert?

 

The road to Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, was beautiful, winding and with camping heaven, sorry, camping-jannah, aplenty. The kindness continued when we arrived downtown and had lunch in a great little restaurant who refused to take any of our money. “There’s no such thing as a free kebab” clearly did not apply in Iran…for now. We had arranged to stay with a host from warmshowers.org, a great site for finding free accommodation with like-minded bike people. Mohammed was a wonderful host and made excellent company for a couple of days, giving us insights into environmentalism, vegetarianism and other topics best not discussed here.

Camping Iran.jpg

 

Why put the roof on the tent when it makes for a perfect blanket?

Why put the roof on the tent when it makes for a perfect blanket?

 

Mo and friend at the vegetarian restaurant. Probably the best food we had in Iran (i.e. the only time we did not have kebab)

Mo and friend at the vegetarian restaurant. Probably the best food we had in Iran (i.e. the only time we did not have kebab)

The highlight of our stay was without doubt the visit to the Emam Reza Shrine. Not for first time during the expedition we arrived in a place without finding out anything about it (we like surprises; we are not lazy illiterates) so it was pleasing to discover that we had chanced upon a city with the largest Mosque complex, by area, in the world. Having not spent a lot of time in ‘serious’ Muslim countries, as well as being white, with an atheist/Christian upbringing, walking into this immense place of worship at evening prayer time, as 50,000 pilgrims were collectively chanting, was an unforgettable experience. We won’t lie, it was quite uncomfortable being there, not from how anyone treated us – everyone was quite indifferent to our presence – but simply because we did not feel we had any right to be there. We were most surprised and humbled by the hour we spent there, and it was not going to be the last time we were to have our preconceptions turned on their head in this country.

Emam Reza shrine.jpg

 

Gathering of the Iranian All Blacks Fan Club

Gathering of the Iranian All Blacks Fan Club

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