Iran – Golistan National Park to Astara
After almost six weeks of arid landscapes and desert we chose to head to the Caspian coast for a change of scenery and a milder climate. We had also been told that this was the jewel of Iran and the playground of the middle classes in amazing little resort towns. To get there we had to climb up into the Golistan National Park and take the road straight through the middle. The traffic was dreadful and the rubbish piled in heaps on the side of the road. It really is such a shame given the area we were going through had the potential to be lovely – think Germany’s Black Forrest (cake!) – and it was simply ruined. We were lucky enough to see a huge wild boar, though he was sadly sifting through the leftover kebabs thrown from people’s cars as they passed rather than rooting around hunting truffles as they are supposed to do.
We arrived at Bandar e Turkmen as scheduled to meet up with the friendly truck driver, Ali, who we had met at the Uzbek-Turkmen border and again in Gonbadli (which went well FYI). He met us, all smiles as always and proudly led us to his house, introduced us to his entire family, took us to the market and the promenade along the sea, and took us for an outstanding ice cream, all the time dressed in his finest suit. Although we did feel a bit like dancing monkeys, Ali and his family showed us nothing but kindness, concern, and a desire to make us feel genuinely at home. Despite the fact that Ali, like a majority of the people in this region was a Turkmen rather than Persian by blood, when we look back on Iran he will always be a special memory for us.
We were hoping that the Caspian Sea would be like the Mediterranean with a headdress. Alas, it’s a far cry from offering a Riviera atmosphere and felt more like Skegness, without the “entertainment”. There were lots of half-built buildings seemingly deserted and no doubt a direct result of the sanctions being imposed by the West. Regardless, Iranian families littered the beaches (pun intended) with the women bathing in their full gear in private areas cordoned off by large plastic awnings. It’s no wonder the Iranian women’s swimming team have never got past the paddling pool stages of Olympic qualification.
On our third day on the coast a police car screeched to a halt in front of us and insisted we go with them to the station which was inside a heavily guarded compound up the road. It was the moment we knew would happen at some stage in Iran and we went in fully armed with broad smiles, ready for the charm offensive. We were led past a tiny, squalid cell with no windows into the Police Chief’s office where we were faced with four broad shouldered interrogators.
Q. Are you enjoying ride?
A. Yes, very much, thank you. Wonderful roads, excellent country.
Q. Food good?
A. Oh yes, the food is excellent!! Kebab – velly good (both rubbing tummies in unison). Your office is very well decorated by the way.
Q. People good?
A. The people are incredible, the friendliest we have met so far (big smiles and shaking hand gestures)
Q. Government bad?
A. Definitely not, government good! Iran people good! You, us, friends.
Q. Yes, government bad. Government bad?
A. No, government good. Why government bad? Government good. We love Iran.
Q. Israel very good?
A. Come on mate. You can really do better than that. The entrance, the intimidation, the open door cell, the long pauses stroking your bushy moustache – all excellent work but this is the most pathetic attempt at duping we have ever experienced. We were expecting much better.
So the last bit didn’t quite go that way but it did take all our efforts not to laugh out loud, which would have been a mistake. After 30 mins of this we were back on the road, back in the drizzle and humidity and cracking on. Within a 24 hour period Matthieu got attacked by a six year old with knives while his parents laughed and Oli got attacked by a motel owner with a meat cleaver after arguing over the price to stay in his pig-sty. There’s never a dull moment when on the road. From Bandar Anzali, we headed over the mountains back to the dry, warm climate we were now very much starting to miss after a week of humidity, rain and even cold. After all this, we just needed a beer to make it all better. It’s amazing how much you miss something when you can’t have it anymore.