FIVE DAYS TO IRAN
1500 km, 3 countries, 2 friends, 1 van.
I was quite fortunate that my friend Alen also got a visa for Iran in Georgia. This meant only one thing – that we could go together to Tehran…. with his campervan. I would be out of my mind if I’d missed this chance of comfortable travel and started hitchhiking towards Iran. I would be banging my head against the wall. According to my calculations it would take me min. one week by hitchhiking, if not longer. On the way I would be obstructed by high mountains and low temperatures which at night go down to -15°C. All these obstacles would be easier to pass in codriver’s seat in one grey campervan. We said goodbye to Lusia and headed towards Iran.
The sun rose above enormous white mountains which we needed to pass in the coming days. Driving through mountains was accompanied by beautiful landscape. Sometimes spectacular scenery would come along. Other times, we would only see desolate road ahead of us. Sun was hiding behind the mountains so the temperature was going down and down….. all the way down to -10°C. At dusk we arrived to Erzurum, the coldest town in Turkey. There we were hosted by three Lusia’s friends. Actually, nothing spectacular happened here. The morning came and we continued our journey.
It took us one whole day to arrive to one little town only a few kilometres away from Iranian border. At dusk even here the temperature went down below zero. The name of this border town is Dogubayazit. A cold, dark, unattractive and totally depressing town. We bought some food and locked ourselves in the campervan.
We entered Iran. At the border we were greeted by one shady guy with Iranian banknotes. He was trying to sell everything under the sun and in the end he managed to sell us Iranian banknotes. With 100% honesty and glow in his left eye he explained that if we wanted to change dollars into rials (Iranian currency), HE would give us the best possible exchange rate. We fell for his words. Naturally, this was all a lie and we discovered it a couple of days afterwards. Border experience was unforgettable. It was the most interesting border crossing up to now. We were all waiting in line to get the stamp to be able to cross the border. Suddenly, a quarrel began. The main culprits were the policeman and an Iranian. It’s not all black&white there, meaning you don’t always have to follow the law. You deal with things right here and right now. First, there was a hullabaloo, then a little quarrel which turned into a huge fight where people were fighting with hands and fists… and after a couple of minutes everyone went back to where they came from. As if nothing happened. Cool. I don’t think anyone would try shouting and threatening our border force officers 😉 My friend and I just looked at each other when we realized how crossing of this border actually functions. A lot of people working at the border are actually not their employees at all. Namely, a lot of local people just walk in and start solving your problems. They take your passport along with other documents you have, photocopy documents, and explain where and how to continue your journey, they take you around the border and speed up the whole cross-border process. In the end, guess what happens… they want to charge you for their help. The first price was 20 EUR but in the end we agreed at 5 EUR. What crazy border experience! I have to compare this with our borders. Do you think you could just walk in and just start doing the job of border force officers… and in the end charge for everything? Don’t think so…
We realized that it was impossible to find internet in Iran. I think this will be a huge problem following us everywhere in Iran. We arrived to a first big town, Tabriz. It was already 8pm and all the coffee shops were closed already. I see the logic here. What would people do in coffee shops late in the evening unless they drink alcohol? It’s little late for coffee. We were driving around town 15km/h with open laptop looking for WiFi. We were trying to find WiFi without password. We found it close to a gas station. It was probably 10 times slower than normal connection to Internet but it was helpful. We realized that we were not the only ones sitting in the car stealing internet.
Four hours earlier I received a message (which I only saw after connecting to internet) from a CS host offering accommodation but the message wasn’t so positive. He wrote that in the end he couldn’t host us because one of his government sources had told him it was forbidden to host tourists in Iran, and, especially, offering accommodation to tourists. I think this was complete and utter nonsense. I think that he decided last minute not to host us and to play this card. I know this is forbidden in Vietnam but not here in Iran. If this was true, I don’t understand why the Iranian government didn’t ban this CS webpage. That would make more sense. All in all, we didn’t have a place to sleep. This meant only one thing…another unforgettable night in campervan on a couple of degrees Celsius below zero. If you are using Couchsurfing website, you know that you could leave this host a negative reference. Since our host hasn’t had any references up till that moment, I decided to forget this whole experience.
Late afternoon it started snowing. There was so much snow that it was impossible to drive. We saw a couple of cars in the ditch being pulled out by tow truck. This was definitively a sign to stop as soon as possible and wait in the van until morning. This whole day was filled with a lot of snow.
We finally arrived to Tehran and found our first CS host immediately. After five days in campervan it was time for something more comfortable. Washing our bodies, washing our clothes… you know how this works. Samaneha welcomed us in her flat which she rented with her flatmate. They cooked dinner as a welcome gift to Tehran. We were looking for local people who could explain the whole Iranian culture. In these blog posts I describe my experience and my view on everything that surrounds me. Therefore, I am free to suggest that if by any chance you visit Iran one day, Tehran is the town to skip. The capital with nothing interesting in it except for traffic jams and crowded places. Tehranians, please, don’t be offended… this is only my opinion, after all.
A day arrived when Alen and I had to part. We spent around 20 days together on the road. We met in my previous blog – in Georgia. I think this was more than enough. One day when we meet again in our beautiful homeland, we can continue socializing. Our plans differed. His plan was to go to Yazd, whereas my plan was to go to Esfahan. I kept him company until the first crossroad outside Tehran where our roads divided. We got out of the campervan, took a selfie, said goodbye to each other, shook hands and parted. Thank you, Alen, for everything.
The night is coming and I’m entering Esfahan, the town located in the centre of Iran. I’ve heard some amazing stories about this town which simply captured me. Already the second time on this journey I was out of luck when trying to find a CS host. I sent so many requests but half of them never replied and the ones that replied rejected my request. I met a young guy who explained the reason behind it. It’s all because I am a man. Due to somewhat awkward male-female relationships present in Iran, men usually like hosting girls, whereas girls are not allowed to host men. Country, religion, government. There, this is simply not OK. So, what now? Nothing, I simply refuse to think about that. Maybe, something good will happen.
Two hours later…
Something happened. I met a girl. Meeting her was so epic, just like in the movies. We were walking in the street, one behind another. Suddenly, this girl turned around and asked: “Where are you from?” This was enough for us to become friends. She was on her way to Si-O-Seh Pol, one of the two most beautiful bridges in town, so I went together with her. We started an ordinary conversation which turned into something unusual and was finished with dark subjects. LOL, I love that. After speaking to someone for some time, one always moves towards something deeper, various theories and the meaning of life.
Girl’s name is Davaone. She was born in Paris where she lives nowadays. Her parents are originally from Laos. So, Davaone looks like a true Asian. She is only 26 years old and she works as an architect in her own company in Paris. She’s an extremely enthusiastic girl. She told me she always had problems with her being so enthusiastic because she gives too much of herself to her job and she simply forgets about herself. Whenever possible, in order to get away from work, she travels. She always travels alone because only then she can be who she really is. She uses every possible opportunity to travel which gives her the possibility to take her mind off work. She got the visa for Iran valid for 30 days but she was only able to use 14 days, naturally, because of her work. She flew from Paris to Istanbul and from Istanbul she flew to Tehran where on 24th December, Christmas Eve, she would be flying back home to Paris. I met a lot of people flying home for Christmas holidays. I am the only one who still doesn’t know what to do on Christmas. I will spend Christmas in the country where Christmas is not celebrated.
Davaone previously agreed to spend night at a CS host but only because of me and because she felt sorry for me not having accommodation, she cancelled her previously agreed accommodation and decided to join me on the path of uncertainty. This was very noble of her. She told me she had found herself in similar situation 100 of times and this was the reason she decided to stay with me. After two hours of thinking and discussing we decided the best solution would be to find the cheapest hostel. One more night in the hostel will not kill me. I guess. Hostel is not that expensive anyway. One night costs around 35-40 HRK. I think I can get away with that.
After two days of hanging out with Davaone around Esfahan I realized that she was my first co-traveller on this journey. Proper genuine co-traveller. Well, this feeling is not at all bad. On our second evening we decided to travel to Shiraz, town which is 480km further south. Because I didn’t have much luck with finding accommodation via CS website, we decided to buy night bus tickets. The money, which we would use for paying for one more night at the hostel, was used for an 8-hour night ride which we would spend sleeping anyway.
In Iran everyone talks about the same thing. Every one of them loves their country but they hate their government which imposes radical conditions and laws. Everyone is fully aware of everything happening here but due to somewhat dictatorial leadership no one dares to change anything. If nothing else, at least they still exude that genuine hospitality which has almost faded away in the rest of the world. I often ask myself the same question: “How come Persians are such hospitable people?” I still don’t know the answer. Of course, the answer might be that hospitality is part of their culture… However, I am still looking for an answer with deeper meaning. If this is part of their culture, why is this so? Is religion actually the key to their hospitality or is all this just a pure coincidence? We know that in Islam guest always comes first and it is all nicely described in Quran. In the moment I am writing this blog post, I am located in United Arab Emirates where it’s full of Arabs who are also Muslim but not as hospitable as Persians. Are they hospitable only to tourists because they don’t see them often or are they like that with everyone? Is it because of their weakened connection to the outer world that can effortlessly and quickly poison the mind of every human being? If you know the answer, please, email it to me. I’d love to discover this secret on Persian hospitality.
It took me two and a half months to merge with my journey. All this time we were avoiding the conversation. The meeting. Proper. Genuine. Meeting. Slowly IT merges with me. Slowly I merge with it. With every step I drift away from old, imposed social prejudices and approach new non-imposed patterns of belief based on my own experience. Contributing factors to this were definitively these wonderful people whom everyone has always described as the kindest. Persians. Best people in the world. For now I can confirm these rumours with 100% certainty. People, there is no one better than Persians.
Due to all these facts one can survive here without anything. Without money. I think the only thing you need is clothes you are wearing. Well, I think you can even survive without clothes. People approach you anyway, even without you asking for help.
Here one can easily find friends or at least momentary friends. All you need is to stop for half a minute in the middle of the street and soon someone will come over and ask you if you need help. In 10 minutes you already find yourself having a tea party with the person who came to help you. This also happened to us. In the middle of a street in Shiraz Davaone stopped only for a moment with a guide of Iran in her hands and she was looking left and right. Soon after that Johnny slipped between us and asked: “What you looking for?” What happened next? We were having tea with him. Johnny is a man of the world. He is sometimes Iranian, sometimes American. He has travelled around big part of the world. In Belgium he met his wife. Now an ex-wife already. She is American and Johnny went with her to the USA where they got married. Soon after wedding, Johnny got his citizenship. Fifteen years they lived in Colorado where Johnny discovered his love for travelling and nature. After his divorce. Since he has American passport, Johnny can go wherever he wants to. For Iranians it is hard to get any type of visa because their government is just too radical. Local people told me that soon after war with Iraq their government became severely dictatorial. Everything changed and became stricter. But not for Johnny. Johnny Boy has the American passport Soon, he went East. He travelled around most eastern countries but in the end he came back to Iran. Today, he lives between USA and Iran. LOL, countries which are today the greatest “friends”.
After driving us for 2 hours in his car, playing Christmas music on the radio and showing us around the town, he took us to a restaurant where he bought us dinner. And only after dinner Johnny opened up to us. Words filled with deep wisdom, learnt not from books but on his journeys, started coming out of his mouth. His own experience. On his own skin. I feel the need to share his wisdom so here it is: “If you have a good time, you get a good memory. But, if you have a bad time, you get an experience”. Therefore, dear people, if you think that at this moment you are in a dark dead-end situation, don’t panic. This is just one of countless situations after which you will be blessed with one more experience. Nothing else. Experience teaches us about life. With its help we are able to develop and grow. Enough philosophy for today.
Daovone and I are parting today. She is travelling by night bus all the way to Tehran from where she will fly to Paris. She will arrive home on Christmas Eve. From Paris she will catch the train which will take her 100km away from Paris to family dinner. She’s a lucky girl. Since she is very busy she told me she would be free for Easter holidays. Then she is planning to come to India and, as things stand now, I imagine I will be there at that time. Who knows, maybe our paths will cross again in the future. Or, maybe not. One can easily make friends while travelling and it is so difficult to forget them. When you come to that point when you need to part your newly made friends, emotions take over. Feelings of sadness and happiness take over at the same time. At farewells we always say the same things that we might see each other someday. Deep inside yourself you know that there is a really slim chance of this coming true. Up till now I have already found myself in many similar situations and I am sure there will be many more to follow. We finished our five-day long journey, but not friendship, with a big hug, this time without a selfie.
I finally got a positive reply to my CS request. Esmaeil wrote he could host me and asked me to explain where I was at that moment. He has a car so he was able to pick me up. Esmaeil and Mousa, two greatest friends. They hosted me in the flat of Esmaeil’s sister who was at that time staying with her mum just so that I could be hosted. Imagine that! Just because she heard they would be hosting a Croatian guy, she left her flat for her brother to be able to host me for a couple of days. This is a true example of hospitality in Iran. The next day we all together went to their mum’s flat because I was invited for dinner. Their hospitality has no end. Esmaeil and Mousa have never been outside Iran. They told me one could get the passport only after having served military service lasting a year and a half. Another option for getting the passport is studying outside Iran. That’s why Mousa is dreaming of continuing his studies in Germany where he is planning to get employed. All Iranians, as well as the rest of the immigrants, see Germany as the Promised Land.
I realized that Iranians are very educated people. Up to now all my hosts or everyone I have met so far has a university degree or they are about to get one. Education is their priority in life. Well, did you know this? Do Americans talk about this when they present this country around the world? By the way, nobody likes Americans here. Because Iranians were brave enough to oppose to America, today they are faced with sanctions. All in all, without beating about the bush… Iranians didn’t let the Americans enter their country and steal oil. They opposed to them and said NO. Some of the sanctions are that rial is one of the world’s weakest currencies (1 HRK = 4250 rials), somewhat strange banking system (they don’t accept any foreign credit cards except Iranian ones) so no one can withdraw money from cash machines or pay anything by credit cards. Once you walk into Iran, you have to be sure you have enough money. They drive only locally made Iranian cars plus French Peugeot. But, they have the cheapest gas in the world. One litre of gas costs only 1.5 HRK and if you have their card, then a litre costs 0.75 HRK. At least something good.
In the morning I arrived to Yazd, town which is exactly in the middle of Iran. After not getting positive replies on CS requests, I checked into a hostel. Little boy at the reception desk was peeking at me every minute. If I got it right, he was working there and he was supposed to take me to my room. He took one part of my luggage and disappeared at the end of the hallway. I was quick to follow him but little boy disappeared soon after every corner. Every time he would come back and shout “Mister, mister…here” waving his hand. The room was at the rear end of the hostel. The door was locked. The boy took control into his own hands by banging on the door. Two minutes after, a tall boy with bowed head opened the door. His head was bowed because the room was too low for him. Danieli (the tall boy) and his girlfriend were the only ones in this big room. After quickly introducing myself, where, who, why and how… we realized that it was Christmas. “You cannot be alone today so come with us”, he said. “We are taking you for breakfast. It’s Christmas after all.”
From all the places I have visited in Iran, Yazd was the most impressive one. This town has stood here for around 5000 years. The oldest town in Iran and one of the oldest towns in the world. It captured me with its unique architecture. The only town where I spent most of my time walking around and then looking for a way out from its labyrinth. Every time I stepped into the old part of town, I lost myself in its labyrinths and at the same time I was happy because I knew I would be walking around for a long time looking for a way out. I think this was the first time in my life I was happy to be lost. If you ever visit Iran, don’t bypass this town. This town should be your main destination in Iran.
The New Year is approaching. I’m asking people around me about what their plans are but everyone just looks at me in a strange way. Iranians don’t celebrate New Year on the same date as we do. They celebrate it in spring. I realized that I had to find tourists. I created a public event on CS website and explained everything. I wrote that on New Year’s Eve I was going to Hormuz, one of the smaller islands in the south of Iran, and that everyone was welcome to join me. In an hour or two couchsurfers started responding to my event. Great start. I met some of them at the harbour in Bandar Abbas, the others I met on a beach on the island of Hormuz. It was already night-time when we arrived to the island. A handful of people arrived. Suddenly, everyone started asking around about that guy Tom from Croatia. LOL, what a strange feeling. I showed myself to everyone, waved my hand and said “I’m Tom”. And then they started worshipping me and throwing me in the air. Of course, it’s just a joke. We lit a fire, played loud music and the celebration began.
Life is so unpredictable. Last year I spent my New Year’s Eve in Croatia on -10 degrees Celsius, and now all of sudden I am on a sandy beach, 23 degrees Celsius and I am standing barefoot in the sea. Completely opposite form last year’s celebration. The island was magical and wonderful so I stayed there for 3 more days.
Dear readers, I will stop here.
New Year began and my adventure finished… adventure in beautiful Iran.
Oh yes, I almost forgot… Happy New Yeeeaaaar