Iran and the wind of change
45 days in Iran: when we add up the days of stay from our last trip, we have been in Iran for more than 4 months of our lives! Strangely enough that might be more than the time we spent in for example France in our entire lives. Iran was all about change to us: in comparison to 5 years ago we can feel the wind of change in Iran. We notice that things are loosening up a little, making the life of most Iranian a little bit more relaxed. But Iran also was the point in our travel where we – up till now – had the hardest time. It started with the feeling that we were really going to fast and after that we found out about some big obstacles on our so well thought out travel route: we had to make some big changes.
On the 5th of June we cross the border from Armenia to Iran. After an easy border crossing, we are in! The landscape changes suddenly from mountainous and green, to a dry and arid place with rough mountains. This is how we remember Iran. We drive through a strange nomansland: the border corridor between Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The sun is almost going down, in the distance we see dark clouds heading our way. Maybe rain, but most likely a sandstorm, altogether it gives a very special lightening. We are tired and the environment looks threatening, but still it feels good to be back in Iran! Especially when we meet the Iranian people again. When we enter Jolfa – the first town on our route – we are welcomed by an Iranian family. And when we visit a restaurant and wanted to pay, we are only allowed to pay 30% of the bill. And that’s just the start of the endless hospitality of the people of Iran!
The rules and the space between it
Entering Iran also means I have to wear the headscarf again. And that is a struggle: it is hot this time of the year, and every time I move my head, the scarf is almost falling off. I feel repressed: why do I have to cover myself? And I get even more angry when I think of the Iranian women who don’t want to cover up themselves, but have to because of the rules of their government. It is unfair… I know I have to get used to it again. And for me it is only for a few weeks.
And we notice in another way that Iran is an Islamic Republic. Just a day after we entered Iran the Islamic month of Ramadan – or as the Iranians call it: Ramazan – starts. A whole month of fasting during day time: Muslim people should refrain from eating, drinking and smoking. In Iran that means that it is really forbidden by the government to do one of those things: when you break the rules the punishment is 70 lashes. Although those rules do not apply for non-Muslims like us, we are told to not eat in public. On the first days of Ramazan, we are secretly eating or drinking water in our bus. But at the same time we see Iranians eating in the parks. “We are so brave” they say “Of course we are not allowed to eat in public, but we try to stretch the rules”. When you are a Mozafer (traveller) the rules of fasting do not apply to you, so that’s why you see many people travelling during this month, even when it is just a 15 km trip away from home. Restaurants are mostly closed, a few have a permit and are open. But when we enter the restaurants that covered their windows with newspapers, we see they are full of people.
In Tabriz – the first major Iranian city when entering from the west – we take our time to do some maintenance on our bus. In Iran you see many minibuses, which are mechanically exactly the same as our Mercedes 508. So it is the perfect place to give our Abi some love and care! On our previous trip we had a very good experience with a mechanic in Esfahan, but this time we will not go that far south and decided to find a good one in Tabriz. We drove from one part of city to the other and many people were eager to help us. But the language barrier didn’t make things easy…
In the end we spent five days on two different workshops: Roderick worked together with the mechanics to renew the rubbers of our doors, find and change the shock absorbers, fix the brakes, and cover the chassis with tar. I was mostly inside the bus, trying to write something and doing some administration. We eat our lunch secretly between the cars, together with the other mechanics. And we even called a “dealer”: a woman who takes the risk to secretly bring food to people during Ramazan. By car she comes to the workshop, and from her trunk she serves out the hot meals. In the evening we were welcomed to the house of the garage worker and stayed there for diner and the night: a great change from the dusty and hot workshop. All in all we had five really tiring days, with a lot of communication problems and at the end some hassle about the price we had to pay. We are not so happy with the quality of the work: it is not how we would do it ourselves. But at least Abi is ready to hit the road again!
When we drive East, via the Northern route close to the Caspian sea, we see a new side of Iran: the humid North with European style forests with beech trees, rice fields and sometimes almost a tropical feel. We really didn’t expect this! In our minds Iran was desert, dry mountainous areas and historical cities. A great surprise! We even took the chance to swim: I was of course fully covered, but the men around were wearing shorts only, and so did Roderick. We are heading relatively fast to the East, because in 2,5 weeks we can enter Turkmenistan. On the road we see many many accidents… a car on it’s side, burning apparently with people inside… several motorcycle accidents.
When we park on a parking next to the road, to cook for lunch, we suddenly hear a low sound and after that a scratching and trembling noise coming from the left side of the bus. Soon we realize the sound is coming our direction. Roderick looks out of the window and the only thing he sees is a big dust cloud with an outline of an outline of a truck on its side heading our way. Everything happens in a split second. I can’t see anything from my position, but I realize that danger is coming our way. The noise is getting louder and louder. What should we do: stay inside or go out of the bus? Both options don’t feel safe. I decide to leave the bus and the moment I want to step out of the door, I see a huge amount of sand and gravel coming from under our bus, like a wave. What is happening? The noise suddenly comes to an end and at the same moment we see the big truck on it’s side, just a few meters away from us. WT*! What just happened? The driver went through his windshield: he looks very pale and blood is running from a wound on his head. He seems in shock, but apart from that he is fine. We have the feeling we just entered a movie set. We realize we just escaped from a major accident! A few seconds later people are running towards the truck to help the driver. It appears that the truck had a blowout on his right front tyre.. and because of that he fell over and came our way. Wow…, this was so close! While our hands are still shaking, we dig the piles of gravel that surround our bus away. We drive to the next parking to recover. We are very happy we and the truck driver are all right!
Wind of change
We have the feeling that things are changing in Iran: we hear loud music from cars, women swimming in the sea and not wearing a headscarf, girls wearing a chador that looks more like a protest banner, with texts like: I need a day between Saturday and Sunday. On our last trip we didn’t see anything like this: is it the liberal North that makes the difference our is Iran really changing? When we speak to Iranians about it, they confirm that things are really getting a little bit more relaxed since the new president. No revolution, but a slow change: step-by-step. When you compare this to what happened in for example Syria and Libya the last years, maybe this is a more sustainable way!
One thing that didn’t seem to change: the overwhelming Iranian hospitality. Inviting us to their picnic, always waiving when we are on the road and wanting to find out where we are from, trying to give us fruit through the window of our car (while both driving!), stopping us on the highway and inviting us to a restaurant, offering us their office to work and stay – even when they are not there and they know us only for a few hours – and providing us a feeling like being home when adopting us to their family. We met so many great Iranian people: so welcoming, so warm. It is still unbelievable, even after all those months in Iran it keeps surprising us. We hope to bring some of this warmth and hospitality home.
Hurdles and obstacles
It is great to be in Iran again, but we are not enjoying it as much as we would expect, our would like to. We keep ons asking ourselves: Why? But we realize that it might be the time pressure that we are experiencing: we are slow travellers, but because of our visa and the climate we have to make it fast. It feels like hurrying. Just 350 km before the border with Turkmenistan – the visa that was the biggest reason why we had to hurry – we realize we don’t want to hurry anymore. On the 25th of June – Roderick his birthday – we are thinking what to do: continue or…? At the same moment we get some startling news about our further route: in contrary to earlier official announcements that the border between China and Nepal would open in June, the latest statement is that it probably will not open anytime soon. Our alternative was to drive from China, to Laos and go from there to Thailand. But right at that moment we find out that a transit through Thailand has become impossible due to new regulations, which will be valid from the 27th of June – so that means in two days! Long story short: it would mean we would be stuck in China or Laos. Continuing towards Central Asia would mean we need to race back to Europe on a Russian transit visa before winter kicks in. And exactly that is what is bothering us the last months: we have the feeling we are going to fast!
We had only four days to make this big decision: whether or not to continue our route. Why? Because our visa for Turkmenistan will start the 30th of June and is valid for only five days. In March we applied for the transit visa and from that moment we already knew we had to transit Turkmenistan on those exact dates. How ironic that we are now – exactly a few days before the visa that gave us feeling that we had to hurry all the time – we might not cross this country. Our minds had a really hard time processing all the information, consequences and most important: our emotions. What do we really want? Both of us are always eager to reach our goals and to do whatever is possible to continue.. But one of the things we wanted to learn on this journey was to slow down.. to live more in the moment and actually spend some time at all the interesting places and communities we visit. We realize that when we keep on rushing this would be very hard… So maybe it is time for a radical decision?