"In the axle of evil"
I must admit to feeling a slight shudder of nerves/expectation/fear upon realising that after years of dreaming about heading to Iran, I was finally going. After 3 weeks of absolute nonsense with the visa, to and fro with iranianvisa.com, getting shafted, miscommunications, threats, bribery, all sorts of idiocy I left for the airport in Kuala Lumpur unsure still if I even had a visa or not. My laptop was barely alive. I found wireless and checked my mail. Still no reply. I wrote to the email address on their site and stated : I AM AT THE AIRPORT WAITING TO BOARD A PLANE AND I STILL DO NOT HAVE MY VISA NUMBER. PLEASE ASSIST. I decided to head over to the check in counter and try to attain my boarding pass. Unsurprisingly I was the only caucasian in the long line. I was greeted with a few bemused glances and a whole lot of outright smiles. When it was finally my turn to check in the lady behind the counter took at least 20 minutes walking back and forth to a supervisor to ask whether or not I was eligible or not to board the plane. I decided to keep the visa debacle under wraps and pretend I was getting a Visa On Arrival. It worked. I received my boarding pass (window seat) and headed outside to breathe the last of Malaysian air before squeezing down a cold beer and heading inside to the AC world to try and check my mail one final time before boarding. The visa arrived. Followed by an apology of sorts that did little to quench the enormous distaste I have for the agency itself.
With a slightly easier sense of optimism I walked through the godawful lines and immigration madness (8 counters for 800 passengers), half way to the front of the line 2 Iranian men started talking to me, upon finding out I was headed to Tehran they began a tirade of great information on where to go, where to eat, phone numbers were exchanged, promises of visits accepted and then the snaking line separated us and we followed the trodden paths of a million before us. An incredibly annoying mainland Chinese lady stood in front of me for the 45 minute wait for immigration, talking louder than most Americans manage and with that awful snarling, swilling, coughing tone that makes me remember being surrounded by Chinese peasants on 3rd class trains while they spat and blew their noses next to my feet and smelled of old sodden wool mixed with chicken excrement. I considered putting my headphones on, but it was hassle enough. Just when it was my turn another mainlander from another line jumped in front of me and started begging and weeping in Mandarin and gesticulating wildly. I let her cut in. Angry and perplexed at the same time.
I ended up sitting next to a retired couple from Tehran who had just spent 2 months in Hong Kong visiting their daughter. The husband either spoke no english or did that time honoured thing and pretended he didn’t and let his wife harp on for hours while he tried to find his happy place. She was incredibly sweet and told me many stories about Iran, Do’s and Don’ts, repeating over and over MEN DO NOT WEAR SHORTS
Dressed in my finest black jeans I arrived in Tehran. Iman Khomeini Airport. An hour later I was standing outside in the cool midnight air of Tehran with a Japanese traveller who agreed to share a cab into town.
Ten days have passed since that moment. Ten days that have absolutely blown me away. A tired, jaded old traveller who has to admit that there are still places on this earth that can amaze you, make you humbled, make you smile genuinely, make you thankful, make you astonished… places that re-write the rules, force you to swallow some of your prejudices, cause you to believe again in the generosity of a stranger and not wait for the customary rip off at the end. In short, make you realise how much you really love travelling and exploring the world, and that there still are plenty of places out there that have not turned into graveyards of inebriated students, shirts off, pissing on streets and starting fights in bars while the locals look on in shame, but at the same time size up their wallets. The look of despair as they tolerate what genuinely feels abusive and disrespectful in the knowledge that in the end they will manage to make a few bucks off the idiots and they can eat another day.
Tehran was glanced at in 2 days. Spent in the markets amazed at the smells and sights, spent at Golestan Palace where a security officer asked me to eat half of his lunch while I was wandering around the mirror room, spent walking in the parks, crossing the roads (a true gift), and spent on white knuckle rides at rush hour through the streets on the back of a motorbike taxi while they zig zag in and out of oncoming traffic sometimes reaching 100kph on small inner city roads, braking wildly, ducking and diving CENTIMETRES from other cars, and then you arrive in one piece and exhale and laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Esfahan was next on the list, the reason I basically came to Iran. 6 hours after staring out of the window of the VIP bus at mountains, salt flats, villages and desert I arrived at the bus station as the sun set and the town was bleached of colour. Found a decent enough room and settled in for the night. Morning came, and with it the anticipation of seeing the Bazaar, the blue Mosque, the Khomeini Square. Hours passed in a blur, delirium of shapes and colours and alleyways and markets and sounds and smiles and trees and gardens and pillars and tiles……. at the point of collapse I ventured into a Kebab shop, an old Iranian teacher sat next to me and began telling me of some special sights to see in the bazaar that normal tourists don’t know about. Immediately I started getting suspicious that he was going to sell me on some TOUR of the city or some bullshit, but I decided to follow him anyway. We spent 3 hours walking around places I would never have found or thought of going to, got evangelised by 3 Afghans at a religious school which had a delightful garden, saw the highest minaret and found the mosque behind it, wandered through the old town until I could walk no more, said my farewells to the teacher and waited for the punchline. It didn’t come. He wanted nothing but to show me around his city. The next day was spent visiting some bridges, palaces, and wandering completely lost in areas I will never find again but were definitely worth seeing…. time to move on.
I caught a bus to Yazd and arrived late afternoon, checked into Oasis Hotel and sat in the beautiful courtyard drinking alcohol free beer and chatting with the employees. Yoshi arrived from Tehran and we ended up hanging out and eating together before retiring and agreeing to meet up the next day to wander around town.
Up early to walk the morning hours off through 4000 year old parts of the city, visiting traditional homes, greeting everyone on the street, being asked a million questions by shopkeepers and strangers: “Which country?, Married?, How much you earn?, Iran Good?” all done under a breathtaking blue sky and the gentlest of suns. I then headed over to the Zoroastrian Fire Temple, walked the markets and headed back to the guest house deciding it best to head to Kashan straight away rather than spend another day in Yazd. It was exceptionally beautiful, but in that museum kind of way, not really the vibe that made you want to revisit anything you had seen the day before.
Yoshi had planned to head to Mashad but his train was full so we both decided to take the afternoon bus to Kashan and try to find a hotel. What happened next will be what I remember of Iran for the rest of my life, not the buildings, mosques, bazaars, food, but this:
The bus left late. We were supposed to reach Kashan at midnight which would give us a small window of opportunity to find a hotel before they closed for the night. The bus arrived an hour and a half late. More importantly, they forgot we wanted to get off at Kashan and kept driving until I got the sneaking suspicion that we had passed it. The driver apologised profusely but basically just dumped us on the side of the motorway at 1.30am in complete darkness 30 kilometres outside of Kashan. We crossed the road, walked to a service station but there were no taxis and no life at all… standing in the middle of the car park wondering what to do next a truck driver came over and spoke to us in limited English. We tried to explain the situation and he immediately ordered us to get into his truck. He drove us about 20 kilometres back to the split in the highway, then called a cab company and explained which exit to pick us up on. Instead of leaving us there to wait for the cab he took out 2 deck chairs, and fired up his camping stove to make hot tea for us on the side of the motorway. He then ended up giving us books as presents and waved away any offer of money when the cab finally came. The cab driver spoke no english. We circled Kashan for 2 hours searching in vain for a hotel that was open or had vacancies. NOTHING. Absolutely exhausted and at the point of giving up/freaking out we decided to skip Kashan and head back to the motorway to flag down a bus to Tehran. The cab driver asked me first to speak to someone on the phone. We went back and forth on the phone for over 20 minutes before I finally understood what the other man was saying “Go taxi house, empty, in Kashan tomorrow hotel”. I agreed and the cab driver sped off into the night, filled up more gas, then headed out of town and 20 kilometres into the utter darkness of the desert on a tiny 2 lane road. Yoshi and I started getting a tiny bit apprehensive, specially since the driver knew no english, but we thought we might as well give it a go. He ended up turning off the road into a tiny village on the side of a mountain surrounded by tons of sheep. He stopped outside a huge wall with a massive gate, called ALI ALI fifteen times before a sleepy boy opened the door… it was 5am… he then led us into a bare room and grabbed some mattresses, pillows and blankets and laid them out on the floor… got us a jug of water and 2 glasses and said goodnight. He then turned and went back to ride his cab. Ali turned off the lights and disappeared. Half stunned, half laughing we sat there in the darkness just wondering what the heck had just happened. The world just caved in and I slept better than I had in a month.
At 11am Ali returned and motioned for us to follow him. We grabbed our things and walked 200 meters up the path to another house where a lady invited us in, sat us on the floor and proceeded to cook us the most amazing breakfast, eggs, fresh goats cheese, copious amounts of tea and fresh Iranian bread. We sat there on the floor eating, watching Ali laughing at the comedy on TV. At midday Davod the taxi driver returned, smiled, we said enormous thank you’s to Ali and the lady and turned and headed back into town. He drove us back to Khan E Ehsan and wanted nothing but 4 dollars for the 3 hours total he had driven us around the night before and the journey back into town today…. AND THE ACCOMMODATION/FOOD!! We tried multiple times to give him more money but he wouldn’t hear of it.. he just smiled and thanked us over and over. We walked into what turned out to be one of the most amazing hotels I have ever stayed at just shaking our heads in disbelief. Yoshi kept saying ” Ah.. memory for lifetime, very good experience”.
2 days in Kashan passed and were probably my favourite days in Iran. From the amazing hospitality of the night before, to the gorgeous hotel, incredible staff and the mellow beautiful streets and mosques and old town and bazaar and historical houses of the town. The temperature was perfect, there were only 3 other travellers who ended up being great, and the evenings were spent sitting on the cushions in the courtyard talking with Iranian tourists and drinking tea.
The day after we said our goodbyes to the hotel staff, headed back to Tehran by bus, got shown the way to the metro by an afghani guy who paid for our subway tickets ????? Headed back to Khayyam hotel where Mohammed the receptionist said to me as I entered, You are back ! Our very honoured guest of course we have a room for you. The best one!!
Yoshi left on a midnight flight. I booked tickets to Istanbul and spent the next day just relaxing in the hotel catching up on sleep and trying to get a little bit of energy for the next move.
When I left that morning it was with a heavy heart, and with the desire to return there again as soon as possible. Iran ! What a place.
The Bitter Man
A backpacker by default since birth, have scanned almost 100 countries in the search for perfection and imperfection in equal measure.