Astara to Bazargan, Iran.
Number of km (from Shanghai to Bazargan, the Iran/Turkey border): 9764
Number of countries crossed: 6
“Congratulations, you made it through Hell. Welcome to Heaven,” said the cheeky looking Turkish security guard as we passed through the heavily guarded Iranian border into the land of the Turks. How refreshing to find someone with a sense of humour, we thought. We, like so many people around the world, used to share his view, before spending almost a month in Iran. In any case, it was a relief to finally be able to laugh about where we were without worrying about causing offence.
The last leg in Iran was from the famous Persian rug city of Tabriz. Unfortunately we arrived on a Friday, the holy day for muslims and therefore all the rug shops were closed. The bazaar however was very much alive and being the largest covered bazaar in the world (the one in LA is apparently modelled on this though we suspect the goods being sold are somewhat different!) we were fortunate to have some very friendly local guides. We had been approached the night before by a friendly academic who had heard we were in town and came to offer his services to show us around. We were quite tired after not having a day off for over two weeks but Mahdi insisted on showing us as much as we could take before heading off for a post-lunch nap. He represented so many of the other people we had met on our journey through this amazing country – genuine kindness and willingness to go out of their way to help complete strangers; highly educated yet frustrated by the lack of professional opportunity in his country; extremely interested the world outside Iran, not naive at all, just engaged.
It was three windy days to the border and on the last night we camped in a wonderful spot beneath an imposing rock face. As always when we camp we do a search of the area to make sure there are no hidden houses round the corner, no obvious goat trails that will be filled at dawn and of course, no bear caves in the rock. We were all clear other than a large burrow. This seemed acceptable to share our night in the vicinity of so we set about cooking up our tuna pasta. Perhaps we have become too comfortable, maybe it had just been too long without watching Bear Grylls but we made the mistake of leaving our rubbish bag right next to our tent as we settled in for the night. Barely 45 minutes later a wonderful bushy tailed Mr Fox trotted up to us with absolutely no second thought and began rummaging. The whiff of empty tuna cans was too irresistible. For us it was a wonderful moment spoiled a tad by our initial girly screaming – it could have been a wolf!
After the initial excitement of seeing duty free on the Turkish side of the border and finally entering ‘Europe’ we reflected on our experience in Iran. There had been equal amounts of anticipation and trepidation before we entered, more than any other country thus far on the expedition and so we were expecting a lot that ended up not being quite as we thought. This is our conclusion:
1. Persian hospitality is worthy to be known as one of the best in the world though male visitors should be prepared for neck stroking, knee caressing and winking, none of which should be taken the wrong way even if it goes way beyond the usual comfort zone.
2. We met so many kind, educated people it is hard to believe that internationally Iran cannot set the example of a sensible, moderate, peace seeking nation that those within the country seem to want.
3. The litter is completely unacceptable and very sad to see because there is beauty beneath the plastic bottles – the worst part is that most of the people we met did not see anything wrong with throwing everything out their window, let alone making a stand against it.
4. Don’t underestimate how difficult it is to not drink beer for a month – the hazy vision and shakes disappear after about 10 days but the general feeling of despair continues with each difficult moment encountered. Not having alcohol in a culture though does have many other positive effects that are most visible in the feeling of safety and social order in cities and towns – no one would even consider camping in the Bois de Boulogne or Camden Green without a full security system and a few night watchmen.
Overall, Iran was awesome though it will likely not be on the holiday list until we begin “Road of Smiles: The Return” in 2043.