Iran, country of mixed feelings

Here I am, sitting on a couch, two countries away from Iran already, thinking about a way to start writing about it. Iranian music playing in my ears. One of the things I really liked about the country. Same with the sound of the language. Luckily there was much more to like and love, but unfortunately I also felt a lot of unfairness and sadness while we stayed there…

The first day in a new country is always intense. Will the border crossing go well, what will the people be like, will we be able to change or get money, how do they drive, and there’s usually the question, where will we sleep tonight?
It was already dark when we arrived in Bojnurd. Iran is famous for their driving style, so we weren’t too happy to ride in the darkness. It was like riding at the fair. Apparently it doesn’t matter which color your headlights are and if they flash or not. We’ve seen red on the front, blue, purple and green on the front-, or backside. Small or big, one, two, three, a whole cord or nothing at all. And they like to come really close. Which I don’t like when we ride eighty kilometers an hour.

So when we rang the doorbell of the Overland in Iran guesthouse of Mohsen Qomi, we were tired and hungry. We knew about this place before we left home, because of a Facebook group Mohsen started. I had promised him our leftandride sticker for his collection. And once you make a promise… But nobody was there. Now what?
A friendly neighbour was about to help us when we decided to try and call Mohsen. Luckily he answered the phone and would be back within fifteen minutes.

It turned out to be a good choice to stay at his place. Everybody knows in Iran women don’t have the same rights and possibilities as men. And because I didn’t know much about it yet, I was a little nervous moving around in this country. But as soon as we entered Mohsens property, he made us feel at home and I could be myself. No need to cover my hair, no long sleeves.
He had one other guest, Felix from Germany. A young guy with a Honda Africa Twin. We talked about all kinds of things and I became a little less nervous. Mohsen took us shopping because I needed a hijab and something to cover my behind and in the evening we went to a restaurant for dinner. Even though I was dressed a bit more like the local people, we still drew quite some attention with our blonde (grayish) hair.

One day I worked on the motorbike for a bit. In Ashgabat we took it apart to weld the frame, but with reassembling the guys didn’t have the patience to let me tell them where all the cables should go. So I had to correct that to make everything fit properly again.
Iran is a big country and we wanted to spend about three weeks of our time here. So staring at a large map on the wall we decided, with the help of Mohsen, which route we would follow.

After leaving our marks behind and taking pictures we said goodbye to Mohsen and Felix the next day. Getting out of the city was quite an adventure on itself. We still had to get used to the driving style. Once outside the city I was glad to be able to breathe again only to find out we had forgotten the charger of the laptop. Bummer, now we had to go back and risk our lives again…
But we survived without accidents and it turned out to be a good thing we forgot the charger. 

Our plan was to ride to the clouded forest, nearby Golestan National Park, and camp for one night. But we wouldn’t get there before dark, because the sun sets at about 17.30hr. So we ended up in a nice, traditional guesthouse in a small village. We again drew some attention, especially of children. About ten gathered around the motorbikes when Klaas went inside the gate to ask for a room. The lady of the house cooked us a delicious meal. Three more great things about Iran: hospitality, food and fantastic traditional accommodations.

After breakfast we took of and headed towards the mountains, towards the forest. But the road we took was a little too adventurous for us. Good thing we didn’t go here yesterday. When we were turning the motorbikes around, close to a gas installation, one of the guys working there asked if we wanted tea. They were doing maintenance and just finished their lunch. That was a nice treat.
We went back to the main road and had to ride back to take another road over the mountains. While climbing the temperature went down and visibility became less. Until we reached 2300 meters and the sun started shining again. We had some beautiful views of the green hills around us, with the big white duvet floating in between, and the blue sky above. When we descended on the other side of the hills, the landscape was completely different. It became drier, browner and more hot.

We still wanted to camp and went for a reservoir lake between the mountains. With only 15 minutes to go before sunset, we stopped along the road to check the map for the right turn. Another thing Iran is famous for, people love to help you. A car stopped next to us and it was obvious this man wanted to help us. Except we didn’t have a problem and we didn’t have much time anymore. But he insisted, even though he barely spoke any English. He called a friend who spoke a little better English and Klaas talked at least five minutes with him. We couldn’t get rid of them and I saw the sun set on the horizon. Finally they understood we didn’t need help, or accommodation and we wanted to sleep in our tent. Great, now we had to find the lake and a nice camp spot in the twilight, and pitch our tent in the darkness. But we succeeded and had a nice and quiet evening in beautiful surroundings. Which we only saw the next morning, obviously…

On our way to Isfahan we had to cross a desert again. Luckily this time it was only 37 degrees Celsius. The desert was completely empty, not one dry bush, or camel. Just dried out cracked soil. In the distance some mountains.
Riding through a village we were stopped by a police officer. He couldn’t tell us why he stopped us, but he wanted to see our passports. We had to park the motorbikes in front of an office, outside the gate. I didn’t trust this guy at all. Once inside the gate another guy joined him and they started searching Klaas his pockets and tried to search mine as well. I pulled away and told him he had to explain first why we were stopped. Eventually there were four of them and none could explain us why. The funny thing was, the guy who had stopped us, now sat mumbling on the side, like he had been punished.
Still they had our passports. In the end they made us fill in some registration form, took pictures of our passports and visa. Then we had to ride our motorbikes inside the gate, so they could check our license plates. Why not walk the 20 meters…? Luckily after 15 minutes of nonsense they gave us back our papers and we could leave without having them asking for money or anything. But still. It took us a lot of time and we hoped we wouldn’t have any more experiences like this. 

That night we slept in a traditional clay village in the desert, on top of a roof in some sort of dome. We could park our motorbikes inside in what looked a bit like a living room. Except for the fact there were pebbles on the floor. I like the saying “when is the last time you did something for the first time?”. Well this night it was two things: smoking shisha and shower with salty water.

Our arrival in Isfahan was another good experience. Again I was stressed and frightened riding in the city traffic. But once we arrived at Nargol guesthouse this all disappeared. We felt welcome and at ease straight away with these people and at this peaceful place. But first we had to park our motorbikes… Just look and see for yourself…

Friday in Iran is like the christian Sunday and we were invited by the lady of the house, Forouzan, to share lunch with her and her husband Amir, her parents and brother Poriya. We’d planned to stay here for a few days anyway, so we said yes. Unfortunately her parents didn’t speak much English and our Farsi was limited to saying thank you, please and bread. But we felt at ease with each other, showing videos and pictures and with the others speaking both languages, we got to know each other a little better. It turned out it had been her father’s birthday a few days before, so in the evening  we went to get cake and flowers as a surprise. They even made Klaas and me dance to Dutch music…

On Saturday Forouzan dropped us of at the large (Imam) square of the city centre. A very persistent but funny guy talked us into his carpet shop. He gave us tea and told us all kinds of things about the handmade carpets. He even showed us how to make a small package of it, so we could take them on the motorbikes. Or even better, we didn’t need the motorbikes anymore, he had flying carpets with gps. We thanked him and went to the mosque. After walking around for a bit we had a short conversation with a clergyman. He asked about religion in The Netherlands and the differences. So I made it clear to him women have free choice in my country, I can decide which clothes I put on my body and I do have the possibility to ride a bicycle, horse or a motorbike. Unfortunately it wasn’t really a discussion and I think he wasn’t really hearing our answers. 
After walking around in the huge bazar for a while we took a taxi back to the guesthouse. I badly needed a haircut and Forouzan would take me to a salon. This was a nice experience, mainly to see that, even though it was behind closed doors, women could dress the way they wanted and also have short hair. In the meanwhile, Klaas relaxed at the guesthouse and had a nice talk with Poriya. Back at the guesthouse we baked and ate pancakes with Amir and Klaas and had nice conversations until it was time to go to bed.

On Sunday, after a breakfast full of love, it was time to go to church. Isfahan has an Armenian neighbourhood with the Vank cathedral and a museum, which we both visited. It was nice for a change to walk around in an area with a more European feel to it. But we had a tight schedule this day, so we didn’t lounge in one of the cozy looking cafes. 
After having Beryani for lunch (a flat bread filled with minced lamb) we visited the palace Chehel Sotoun. This one is famous for it’s 20 wooden pillars which reflect in the pond in front of it. But we definitely chose the wrong time to visit, with the sun right behind the building and to much movement in the water. But still, it was nice to see a different style of decoration (no blue tiles) with mirrors in the ceilings and colourful paintings on the wall.
All this looking around made us thirsty, so we went to Azadegan teahouse. This place is stuffed, it looks like a bazar. Iran is crazy about saffron, so it was an easy choice to take saffron ice cream. And because alcohol is forbidden they get creative with juice. We chose some distilled (according to the menu) colourful drink with chia seed. They love rose water by the way. We drank this a lot as well, with water, ice cubes and sugar.
We’d had a bit of a rest and it was starting to get dark. We had one last thing on our list for today. The Zayandeh river runs through Isfahan and some interesting bridges cross it. During the evening they are nicely lit and underneath some of them people gather to sing and make music together. It got crowded with all the people having picnic near the bridges. Nice atmosphere.
Back at the guesthouse we finished the day with some more talk in the yard and a delicious cup of saffron tea.

On the second day of October we took a day of. Relaxing in the garden, doing a bit of reading and website “work”. We were served a delicious lunch and in the evening we ate falafel together with Amir and Forouzan. We felt good around these people, so we decided to stay another day. This day I had another Iran experience, which I would feel for a few more days after… I went to hamam with Forouzan and her mom. We had fun together and it was hard to say no to her mom’s offer to have dinner at her house the next evening and say goodbye to her. It was time to move on. We had one last dinner together with our new friends, or as they like to say, family. And in the morning, after eating breakfast with a stone in my stomach, it was time to hug them goodbye… We finally got on our motorbikes, exchanged one more hug and were about to leave. Then Forouzan explained to us that, according to tradition, they would throw water behind us for a safe journey. How nice, we could definitely use that in Iran!

On the way to Shiraz we went. We spent the night in a boring hotel in Yasuj, had a look at Margoon waterfalls the next day and arrived at another guesthouse with super friendly people, Mehi and Mahmoud. Hence the name: Friendly Hostel. We also met Rogier again, whom we had met in Azerbaijan before, and had dinner together. 
The next day we explored Shiraz together and again we had dinner with Rogier and two other Dutch guys, Tom and Mark, who also stayed in the guesthouse.

On Saturday morning Mahmoud took us to the Pink Mosque. We thought we were early, but unfortunately we weren’t the only ones. After a quick walk around the place we jumped into his car again and went to Persepolis and Necropolis. As an official guide Mahmoud knew a lot about it, had a nice way of sharing his knowledge with us and the virtual reality glasses made it all the more real. Back at the hostel we again had some interesting conversations with Mehi and Mahmoud and watched a football match on television. Until recently it was completely forbidden for women to go to a stadium for a football match. Unfortunately somebody had to die first to change this a little bit.
After exchanging a few hugs again, we left Shiraz the next day to go to Abarkuh and walked around a 4500 years old cypress. Again we stayed in a really nice traditional guesthouse, where we got treated with kebab by the owner. They had a meeting with other guesthouse managers from the area. 

I had been thinking about it for a few days, but that day I decided I would go back to Isfahan, back to my new sister. This would be my only chance, as we were going to Yazd, which was closer to Isfahan again. I booked two bus tickets, one for the next day and one for the day after. And I texted Amir to tell him about the surprise. I was excited. He told me it would be their wedding anniversary and he would wait for me for dinner. Luckily they eat dinner at around nine, so that would be perfect. 

It was only a short ride to Yazd. Forouzan had told us about another nice guesthouse, Tarooneh hotel, so that’s where we went. We could park our motorbikes in the hallway, I had a shower, kissed Klaas goodbye for a little over 24 hours and took a taxi to the bus station. After five hours of driving I arrived in Isfahan, and just before nine I took another taxi.
It happened to be the slowest driver of Iran. He even stopped for minutes along the highway to look on the phone for directions. I was biting my nails by then, because I knew a hungry family was waiting for me. Except they didn’t know. Luckily I knew the labyrinth of the neighbourhood by then, so I told the driver where to go and ten minutes past nine I finally arrived at the door of Nargol House.

The surprise was successful and we spend some valuable time together. That evening they had already decided they would not let me go back by bus, they would come with me, we would surprise Klaas and they would also spend the night in Yazd. So the next day after lunch at Forouzan’s parents home we got in the car. On the way we visited a 400 years old caravanserai and we were able to see different rooms, the restaurant with a 400 years old table and even the roof. With the sun starting to set we had some nice views. 
We arrived in Yazd, only to find out Klaas had gone out for dinner. Great, but of course, he didn’t expect me back before midnight. Now we had to go and look for him. Part of the surprise gone. But we found each other in the end and luckily he had not eaten yet.
The next day we had our personal tour guide in Yazd, famous for its wind towers. It’s an inventive system which causes air flow, to keep the houses cool. Amir had studied for a few years in the city and knew where to go. We had a fun and relaxed day together and they decided to stay another night. Inevitably we had to say goodbye again the next morning, which was even harder this time. We made it “see you again”. Somewhere, somehow, someday. Again some water was thrown after us when we took of. 

We made it safely to Meymand. Mehi from Shiraz told us about this ancient rock house village. The houses are hand-dug, and some have been inhabited for 3000 years already. After we changed clothes in our cozy “room” we got tea and freshly harvested pistache served in the restaurant. And we met the other guests, a young family of three from Lithuania. Together we got a walking tour through town from one of our hosts. They originally came from Tehran and decided to completely change their lives and started the guesthouse. I guess they succeeded in that. 
We saw a Zoroastrian fire temple, a bathing house with museum, a mosque and we climbed up the hill to have a good view of the village. While walking around we learned about the way of life of the people here. They move with their cattle and the seasons to higher or lower grounds. None of the houses has a shower or toilet, they (and us) all use the general one.

When we wanted to leave in the morning, finally we were quite early for a change, Klaas noticed the fuel bottle of our stove was gone. We had asked if it was safe to leave the bags on the motorbikes and they assured us with a “Yes, we have camera surveillance.”
Bummer, this is really inconvenient, because the bottle belongs to the stove and now it would be useless. It would be difficult to find another one around here.
But our host started making some phone calls. First he wanted to see the videos of the camera’s. It was a Friday, so nobody picked up the phone. He called the head office, but it would take a few hours to get the right person. In the meanwhile, the Lithuanian family was waiting with us to pay their bill and leave, and a German woman joined us for a chat. Not all conversations with people we meet are interesting for us, of course, but this one got better and better. When I told her what we were waiting for, she asked me “Is it a red bottle and does it look dangerous?” Yes! She had seen some kids walking around with it the night before and a man took it from them.
Our host now had a clue, good thing it was a small village. He called the man, who told him he gave the bottle to somebody else. He called the somebody else, who kept the bottle in his house, only this man was not there. But he called his son and after a few minutes a small motorbike arrived with a guy and our red bottle. Amazing. We shook hands, let people take some more selfies and left for Kerman. Along the way we went to see the Rageh canyon. 

Our trip towards the Pakistan border had started. From now on it wouldn’t be too much fun anymore, just functional riding. In Bam we visited the citadel, just before sunset. This was quite an impressive site, because of its size. Our last stop in Iran was Zahedan. We could already see quite a difference in the way people dress and we hardly saw any women in the streets. I didn’t feel comfortable, but our host told us, the people dress traditionally, but think modern. That afternoon I started thinking about our few weeks in Iran. I would have loved to stay longer, but seasons don’t wait for us, so we want to move on as well.

We left Iran with mixed feelings. It’s a beautiful country in terms of nature, the ancient and rich culture, the music, the sound of the language, the delicious food and its sincerely friendly people. This is the country you get to see if you look through the eyes of the bus tourist. 

What made traveling in this country intense is all the conversations we had with different people, who didn’t choose to be born in a country with such strict rules. People who have to spend their lives in a kind of open-air prison. They can not dress the way they want, not behave the way they feel like, not do the things they dream about.
We talked about the frustrations and stress they face every day, because of everything that is forbidden. They can hardly build on anything. Before they realize, what they thought they had, evaporates before their eyes. Even their own home is not always safe and the “rules” can change at any time, without a given explanation.
It must be so difficult to live in these circumstances, without a solid base you can build your life on. Without the assurance of having a more relaxed life in the future. An unfair game of power is going on. And all they can do is live by the day, and hope that something will improve during their lifetime. All we can do is hope with them as hard as we can.

I didn’t sleep well for a few nights. Feeling sorry for all these fantastic people. Knowing we had to leave them behind. But I also felt some kind of guilt. Us poking their eyes out with our adventure, enjoying the country they hate so much. Me as a woman on a motorbike, riding around in a country where women are not allowed to do this. Once again it made me realize how lucky I am I was born in The Netherlands. 

For more pictures of Iran, take a look at https://leftandride.nl/pictures/nggallery/central-asia/Iran

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