“Salam! Welcome! Thank you very much!” Just some simple words and yet we’ve heard them so many times in the last month. Since we are in Iran it seems like everybody welcomes us to the country. And we mean EVERYBODY! We are not completely certain, if this is the famous Persian kindness or pure pleasure about the fact to spot a tourist that are still rarely seen in this country with its ancient high culture, but also a country that unfortunately is often represented in Western media as terror boot camp where human rights are subordinate.
The reality is different and more complex, we experienced two completely contrary worlds: Despite all the positive responses, Iran is an Islamic State and the Sharia is law. In public nobody dares to fall foul of the law or come in conflict with the vice squad ending up at a police station for a couple of hours to be given a sermon or even worse things. And especially as a woman I’ve always felt vigilant about what my presence as a hallway emancipated Western woman in this country could cause. But like in other countries young people try to push boundaries a little bit by e.g. wearing their Hijab (headscarf) just loose over their topknot showing their hairline, having a drink in public although it’s Ramadan or listening to forbidden female singers.
The other, ‘real’ life takes place behind the curtains: As soon as the door is closed the Hijab and Manto (a longer jacket that reaches the knees that every woman is obliged to wear) are thrown in the corner, woman are bossy and don’t hesitate to joke with the men, and – like at home – dancing, flirting and home brewed beer are essential parts on every party.
But the fact that impressed us most about Iranian people is their unlimited hospitality. Unknown people started to talk with us trying to get to know us (to be more precise, talked with Guillaume since, as long as you are in public, as a woman your presence is often simply ignored), invited us home for dinner of to stay overnight, or sometimes simply paid our taxi bills or entry fees. And they never expect anything in return like money or buying stuff. For example, in the first 10 days in Iran we only paid ourselves for our food two times, and once for our accommodation, unbelievable!
Once, we arrived really late at a bus terminal and a young guy asked whether we would need any help and in the end he invited us to stay overnight at his family’s home – two complete strangers with their weird bikes at 2 o`clock in the morning! That’s something you would never experience in our ever so well civilized world… Thanks a lot to Aydin and Fam. Eghbali for making us feeling at home and being part of the family, we had a great time with you!
Young Iranians also use modern channels to express their hospitality and curiosity about foreigners: when we made an open request on the couchsurfing platform searching a host for Tehran, we got an overwhelming response, more than 40 people all over Iran invited us to stay with them!
Our special thanks at this point go to Hamed, who hosted us in Fuman, who showed us the remarkable Masouleh where one’s pavement is the roof of your neighbor, who made a beautiful tour with us through the vast green tea fields and even found a remedy against the oppressive heat.
Furthermore, thanks a lot to Ahad, who took good care of us in Tehran, especially during the days when we were suffering from a bad food intoxication, who found place for us even in an overbooked bus and who organized a great welcome party for us! And thank you very much to his friend Siyavash for his support with our mountaineering ambitions.
And a big thank you to Vahid and his wonderful family, who showed us the treasures of Mashhad, who had a good friend for all our needs, be it for our bikes or our health, and who sweetened our last days in Iran in so many ways with their unlimited enthusiasm and lot’s of Taroff and Noosheh Jaan!
Unfortunately the Iranian’s curiosity is not limited to talking with us on the streets. Whenever we were driving with our bikes, people were completely losing their mind. For taking a good picture of us they were risking their – and especially our – life. Cars were coming really close to us at high speed or gangs of motorbikes were encircling us for kilometers, trying to ask us about our origin, names, age and of course our marital status 🙂 Combined with the complete insane and reckless Iranian driving style and temperatures that rise quickly up to forty degrees already before lunch time, it made riding a bike in Iran anything but safe or pleasant.
Therefore we decided to let our bikes for a couple of days in Tehran and after some hassle with the preparation of our Turkmenistan and China visa application, we headed south to discover Esfahan, Iran’s masterpiece and jewel of ancient Persia. Thanks to Esfahan’s profusion of tree-lined boulevards, richly decorated mosques and imposing bridges, and not least because of Poorya’s comprehensive guided tour, we fully agree with the famous 16th-century rhyme “Esfahan nesf-e jahan” (Esfahan is half the world)!
Besides of Iran’s extensive heritage of the ancient Persian Empire, we also had a chance to explore the scenic beauty of Iran’s nature. Thanks to Aydin and his family we could flee the stifling heat of Tehran, and spent a marvelous day in the chilly breeze of a narrow canyon near Mount Damavand.
And although fate was putting more than one obstacle in our way (several mountain roads were closed due to heavy rain – in Iran, in July (!), welcome to climate change…), we eventually managed to spend some peaceful, lonely – and especially pretty cold – days on a scenic green high plateau, from where we made some demanding hiking tours to the impressive surrounding 4000m peaks and reached a new personal record by climbing Iran’s second highest peak: Mount Alam Kuh with 4848m!