Iran – Mashhad to Gulistan National Park
We left Mashhad elated. After a day of much needed rest we set off due West in the direction of the Caspian coast. The landscape was not nearly as beautiful given the greater population density, and the roads were insanely busy. For a country facing years of economic sanctions Renault in particular seemed to be doing an excellent job finding the loophole – we saw more Renault 5s in Quchan, a small provincial town, than you would do in an episode of ‘Les Gendarmes’, and it was not an isolated case.
The surprises continued. We are almost certain that even the most dedicated pub-quiz professionals, famous for their knowledge of the most obscure facts in the world, would not have known that the most popular pastime in Iran was camping! They love it! What indoor volleyball is to beach volleyball, so too is Iranian camping to what we would consider the norms of this great outdoor activity. They too have tents and camp stoves but this is where the similarities cease to exist. Ask us why we love camping and our answer would reflect on the sublime sounds of nature, the clear, starry sky away from city lights, and getting away from the complexities of the modern world. For an Iranian, the ideal (and only) campsite is right in the middle of a city, in the designated park where you pitch your tent on the concrete paths not the lush, well watered green grass islands, sharing the experience with 30 other families and their identical tent. There must be many cases where a big night drinking tea and the inevitable need for a pee in the middle of the night has resulted in returning to the wrong tent and cuddling up to the wrong hijab. No tents we saw were waterproof and all of them blew away with the slightest gust of wind. Casting these differences aside it was a great experience having a number of nights in this kind of environment, watching, wondering how you get out of a full chador in a small tent and trying to keep our dignity when ourselves changing in front of a crowd of 20 onlookers.
One week into Iran some of the famed Persian hospitality started to get a little too much. We by no means want to sound ungrateful because throughout the whole country we were overwhelmed by gifts of food, offers of help and countless times when people opened the door to their family home to offer a night under their roof. The issue lay in after cycling 100-120km in the blazing heat, the only things you really want to do are eat then sleep. The first time we were invited to stay was in Shirvan by a young chap who was recently married but still lived with his parents. The wife was moved upstairs to the inlaws and despite our best efforts to explain why we needed an early night, were given shisha on the patio, then taken out for a grand tour of the city, followed by a very uncomfortable ‘hands-on’ visit to the local shisha bar. Once finally bedding down, Oli was joined on his mattress by the host who sat rather too closely asking questions about his birthday. In the most polite British way he was asked to leave us alone to sleep (by ourselves).
If this was an isolated incident we would not dwell on the point. A few nights later however was even more absurd and goes down in the Annals of Smiles as “the night of nonsense”. We pulled into Aq Qala and pitched our tent in the public park. Before long there was a crowd and two chaps who spoke good English said it wasn’t safe to stay. Whilst we are almost sure it was, when a local tells you that and offers their house as a refuge at the end of a long day it is difficult to say no. The two giant rats we saw scuttling past our tent was the tipping point though we accepted on the condition that we could sleep early, a request greeted with nods of agreement. We would know better in the future. It took one and a half hours to get to the apartment that was less than 400m away. Abdul insisted on buying us ice cream before launching into a one way showing of his amazing intellect and ground breaking theories about the world. Among others we were told there are Iranian magicians that cure disease with verses of the Quran and this has been scientifically proven in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. Abdul was aged 35 and had amazingly studied Psychology for over 25 years meaning he was quick to notice that Oli made his decisions based on emotion and Matthieu made his based on practicality. Perhaps the most insightful revelation was that societies in the West are more developed and technologically advanced because they are more punctual, not for any other reason. We sat and listened to this drivel wishing we had just jumped into our tent and closed the zip. But the night was far from over. When we finally arrived at the house we were to stay it became clear that this was some kind of secret boys den to escape from their wives and do what men do here – smoke shisha and drink tea. After spending three hours sat in our room being asked questions from the panel of seven young chaps via the one that spoke a little English we insisted we had to sleep.
Host: It is my role to make you relax, comfortable and don’t worry about everything (sic)
O&M: That’s very kind, thank you
Host: Do you relax, comfortable and don’t worry about everything?
O&M: Of course, we are looking forward to a good sleep
Host: Are you safety?
O&M: Errrrr, yes we hope so
Host: Are you uncomfortable?
O&M: Well, as you keep going on about it, yeah it’s starting to feel a little weird
Host: Wonderful! Ok have good night and rest
After departing our host asked us to join hands in the circle we were sitting in so that he could say a prayer for us all. It was the end of a very long and bizarre day but this final parting was testimony to the fact that only kindness and goodwill was their intention. Regardless of our grumpiness and desire for space, these people, as with a vast majority of the Iranians we met had a genuine desire to make our visit as memorable (in the right ways) as possible.