This blog has been published by our friend Andrew Estabrook because we can’t access WordPress in Iran. Thank you very much Andrew. (The pleasure is all mine – Andrew)
The Turkish border with Iran was straightforward enough, although Graham had to explain four times why Bridget’s passport was in such a state. She had gone swimming in Lake Van fully dressed including her passport. The shore after was a picture laid out with her passport and all her euros and dollars drying in the sun.
The border crossing was a mountain pass so we had been cycling solidly uphill from Van in Turkey and now the road was downhill for 45 miles to Khoy in Iran. As soon as we crossed into Iran the scenery changed from the beautiful but bleak, dry brown Turkish hills with the occasional herder, to a lush green canyon with a river flowing and craggy rocks rising steeply above it. We spent our first night wild camping by the river in a recently harvested field, surrounded by piles of hand-baled hay. Our second night was spent in Khoy where we were given a tour of the city by a man who had learned his English with the British Council before the 1979 revolution.
Out of Khoy we joined the main East/West trunk route across the country. Once part of the ancient silk route, this is now more like a linear industrial estate. Instead of camel caravans the road is populated by large trucks belching black clouds of choking diesel and blasting super-charged air horns in our ears – usually just to say hello, but often so deafening that we were run off the road. To add to this enjoyment cars would often suddenly swerve and stop in front of us just so that they could talk to us.
Nearly every conversation includes the curiously composed question “what is your idea of Iran?” Aware of how poorly their country is portrayed abroad they are keen to counter it. They are also keen to tell us about the restrictions they live under. One young man stopped his car and got out to talk. He had a Masters in agricultural engineering (all the men seem to be some sort of engineer here). His girlfriend eventually got out of the car and joined us but she did not speak. She was wearing jeans but also the all encompassing black chador (tent) that many women here wear. The young man explained that they were on a “four-hour holiday”. He said conventions in Iran meant that for him and his girlfriend to spend time together they had to go to another city or drive out on the highway. They planned to marry in a year or so, but until they had gone through the formal process of being accepted into each others families (and thus being engaged) they should not be seen together.
On another occasion a student spoke to us about the government. He introduced the subject by saying he did not like the name Sepah Square as it was a government name and he talked about the difficulties of protesting here and what happens to those who do, but all the while he was looking around to see who else might be listening to our conversation.
The awfulness of the East/West trunk route was almost redeemed by the encounters we had along the way and the wonderful Iranian truck stops which were a joy. They bear no relation to the soulless motorway service stations of the UK. They are lively welcoming places usually serving freshly cooked food and copious quantities of black tea. The drivers and the owners are often keen to chat – albeit either in Turkish (spoken widely across western Iran) or Farsi. Outside the drivers drench their trucks in water from large fountains before setting off again. Maybe this is a hangover from watering their camels in former era? Or perhaps not.
At one point we stopped in the shade of a parked truck for a breather and within a couple of minutes the driver (a Turkmen) came and offered us tea which we gratefully accepted. He opened up a cupboard door in the side of his truck to reveal a complete camp kitchen with gas burner, larder and fridge. The cupboard door became a table and he produced some folding stools for us. He brewed up green tea, claiming in Russian that Turkmen tea is the best in the world. And then, without asking us he produced a sort of beef confit which he cooked up with some tomatoes and placed in front of us. It was utterly delicious matured beef and barely cooked tomatoes all eaten with fresh white bread. As we ate he gave us his views on Iran. It was clear that he couldn’t wait to get home. ‘Iran’ he said. ‘No beer, no vodka! What’s the point? This kind of generosity has been a hallmark of our time here. We’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve been invited to people’s homes and the gifts of food we have been given.
The sanctions here mean that foreigners cannot use credit cards or travelers cheques (they also mean that there isn’t a McDonalds on every street corner). Before we left Turkey, we spent several days withdrawing our maximum daily allowance in euros until we thought we had enough to sustain us through Iran. Here we change them into local currency and become instant millionaires, with a weekly budget of 4.2 million rials – just under 30 pounds a day. This is enough to live on staying in budget hotels and camping, eating street food – and of course – not drinking any alcohol, which is illegal here anyway.
We haven’t missed the beer as much as we have missed getting any international news reporting. Iranians have satellite TV in their homes and anti-blocking software on their computers, but cheap hotels and internet cafes do not give access to them. We tried reading the English language Tehran Times and one TV channel had rolling English language subtitles of ‘international’ news, but both were so biased as to be laughable.
Iranian cities are in the main are quite ugly and blighted by traffic. As you enter the outskirts, the lack of planning and the many half completed buildings resemble a war zone. The town centres are generally not much better. The buildings are modern and square, put together in a haphazard way and poorly maintained. Much of any town looks like an abandoned building site. Iran has a long history of artistic architecture but only occasionally do you get a glimpse of it. Behind the modern shop fronts, a wooden beam or a mud-brick wall peaks out, not quite covered. Or, tucked away in a back alley you find a beautiful, elaborately tiled mosque with graceful minarets.
The heart of every Iranian city is the bazaar and we found ourselves constantly drawn to them. Trading in the bazaars started over 1,000 years ago and the brick arches of today’s markets are often two or three hundred years old. They are busy, seemingly chaotic and fascinating to wander through, packed full of things we did recognize and many that we didn’t. It took us some time to realise that the sorry looking green fruit we had seen everywhere was actually walnuts still in their husks. A strange contraption like heavy duty scissors mounted on a wooded board turned out to be a sugar cutter. Sugar is much harder than at home here and comes in large chunks.
The bazaars are divided into sections so all the carpet sellers are in one area, spices in another and fruit in another etc. This system spills over into the surrounding streets, thus you can find your way around town by crossing Car Alarm Alley, turning down Ladies Dress Shop Lane, past Greeting Card Close, left along Pneumatic Actuator Alley and into Shoe Repair Square. Squares incidentally are never squares in Iran, but roundabouts.
Off to the sides are old caravansaries, no longer used as stops on the silk route but it is easy to imagine them still full of travelers and animals and traders. Some are now car parks, some are warehousing for the bazaar and others quiet retreats with pools of water or shaded with trees and grass.
According to the guidebook, only 16% of people are living below the poverty line, but this is hard to believe. There are many people trading very small quantities of fruit, cigarettes, watches or anything else they hope will sell from a mat on the pavement. Late one hot afternoon as the bazaar was shutting up, we saw an elderly man standing on a street corner with armfuls of cheap trousers. He looked tired and dejected and we wondered when he had last managed to sell any.
All over Iran the traffic is a problem, but in Tehran it is an infestation of cars and motorbikes growling through the city. Every second business is car-related and with petrol only costing around 20p a litre it is not surprising that Iranians are obsessed with cars. Our hotel in Tehran seemed to be on Car Alarm Avenue – Tehranis in particular delight in the horns, honks, trills, whistles, klaxons, sirens and bell sounds a vehicle can be contrived to make. Their joy at the little beeps of the central locking system is boundless. This constant cacophony was the soundtrack to our time in Tehran.
Road safety is not a concept that has entered Iranian consciousness. Traffic regulations are ignored and you need nerves of steel to cycle here. Being a pedestrian is terrifying. Motorbikes often use the pavement if there is no space on the road and although there is a nominal one-way system in Tehran; vehicles think nothing of going the wrong way up a one-way street. Reversing lights are almost unheard of and looking behind you is considered unnecessary. Indicator lights are used, but we have been unable to fathom what for – it is certainly not to indicate a turn. But we have discovered a cunning cycling ploy. A very clear hand signal completely fazes Iranian drivers and is likely to bring all traffic to a halt as they try to work out what it might mean – very useful!
Traffic signals, especially red lights seems to be advisory and don’t for a moment be fooled into thinking a zebra crossing or a green man means that traffic will stop for you. These things merely indicate that you have a slightly better chance of getting to the other side of the road without serious injury. Our guidebook suggests that the best way to cross the road is to put an Iranian between you and the traffic and follow them through the maelstrom. This is sound advice, but it still tests your nerve to do it.
Outside the cities, most people try to drive on the right except when approaching a blind bend when it is usual to overtake. We saw one truck swapping drivers as it joined the freeway – without stopping. On major, fast-moving roundabouts we saw families picnicking, their rugs spread on the tarmac next to their cars, as the traffic swerved around them.
Of course it’s easy to make light of all this but tens of thousands of people are killed or maimed every year on Iranian roads. To witness this collective insanity going on around you every day on such a scale is disturbing indeed.
We had to spend a frustrating two weeks in Tehran as we waited for visas. We used the time to visit the amazing Golestan Palace, built over many years by succeeding Shahs. Modern Iranian taste is kitsch in the extreme, but one look at Golestan shows you that it has a respectable heritage: the amazing mirrored halls, covered floor to ceiling with thousands of tiny mirrors cut in floral and geometric shapes; enormous crystal chandeliers, the light reflected in the twinkling mirror mosaic; floors covered with hand painted tiles and walls with enamel tiles in relief, each depicting a different scene. Every possible surface is adorned with some form of patterning.
While we were waiting we also went to Esfahan, one of the very few attractive towns that we visited. The Old Si-O-Se Bridge (so called because it is made up of 33 arches) crosses a broad seasonally dry river. At night young men sing soulful songs and play traditional music under the flood-lit arches. Many come to listen including a high proportion of young women. The romance of the setting is not lost on them or us. In Esfahan, we also visited the grand mosque and Imam Khomeini Square. The mosques are simpler and in some ways more beautiful than the elaborate palaces. Soaring brick built tiled arches, patterned with verses from the Quran and geometric patterns are made from individually cut tiles coloured with lapis lazuli. They are often vast with grand courtyards and provide a calm space in the middle of noisy Iranian cities.
When we finally left Tehran we thought we would only be a few more days in Iran, but now we are stuck in Mashhad and appear to be at least another week away from getting our visa for Turkmenistan. By the time we leave we will have been in Iran almost seven weeks. It is definitely time to go.