„Hello, welcome to Iran“. We hear this sentence everywhere we go, several times a day, sometimes even several times an hour. We hear it from kids, teenagers and older people. It seems everyone knows it, even if they don't know any other single word in English. And it's not just a slogan they keep repeating. When they say it, you feel they really mean it.
We knew little about Iran before we came here. Back in our flat in Karlsruhe, when we were looking at the map of Asia trying to choose the nicest route, I didn't even want to consider visiting this country. With my head filled with western news about atomic bombs and war with terrorism, I wanted to stay as far away from Iran as it was only possible. At least until we started reading blogs and reports from other travelers, people, who have actually been there and seen the country with their own eyes. You could ignore one or two opinions, but if twenty or thirty different people write Iran is the nicest and most welcoming country they have ever been to, it kind of makes you want to go and check yourself.
Iranians are perfectly aware of the opinion their country has in our part of the world and they don't really blame us for thinking like that either. That makes them appreciate foreign tourists even more. They are simply glad that there are people who still want to meet them and see their country, no matter what they hear in TV. And trust me, once you're here, they will do what they can to show you, how wrong the western media are. And many of them will stop you at the street just to ask if you are having a good time in Iran and whether you still think they are all terrorists here :) As someone told us on our first day “ Mister, not afraid, Iran no bomb, no war. Iran good people, no problem”. As far as we can tell, he was right!
I have written a lot about hospitality in Central Asia. I have praised it so much, that some of you even suggested I was exaggerating. I wasn't! But if you have any doubts I can only recommend you to come and see yourself. Those people are more friendly and open than a normal European person could ever imagine. But still, Iranians manage to take it all to a completely new level. Sometimes we really didn’t know how to react to all their hospitality and helpfulness, as it was more than we have ever faced before. Those people really are fantastic! And you don't need to wait too long to see it.
The border formalities went pretty quickly. It was a first country where we needed our “Carnet de passages”, so we wanted to get it right. We had to leave 5.000 Euro with ADAC to get this document and missing one stamp may mean we're not getting this money back, so we'd rather be extra careful with it. Fortunately there are enough people at the border who speak English and help you sort all the paperwork out in no time for a few dollars.
Driving into Iran was a great feeling. We didn't know what to expect and it felt like jumping into the unknown waters, wondering what will meet us there. But already in the first city people at the streets were smiling and waving, shouting “welcome to Iran” all the time. And we didn't have to wait long for our first local experience. We stopped at a grill bar in a small town, as we were getting pretty hungry, but before we even managed to order anything someone gave us a mobile phone. The person on the other side of the line was Farshid, the local English teacher. He said he will be with us in 5 minutes and we should just stay and wait for him. Before we even noticed we were invited to our first Iranian home. And we loved it!
Being invited to an Iranian house is a wonderful experience. There you can really see how the everyday life really looks like. And most important, you can try home-made food! Iranian cuisine is simply splendid! After weeks of eating mutton and mutton we fell in love with it instantly. And Farshid's mother proved to be an excellent cook. It felt like a whole new world, with a huge variety of different tastes and spices. It is a pity that in most restaurants you will be served only some basic dishes, including a few versions of kebab. The real cooking takes place at home.
Farshid not only provid us with food and shelter, but also showed us around, allowing us to fully appreciate the beauty of northern Iran. I always imagined the country to be more or less a big desert, so that I was surprised to find out how green and full of life this region was. Some parts of it was a real jungle. He took us to see the local fisherman at work, too. And the evenings were spent drinking hectoliters of tee and smoking water pipe. But most importantly we were able to take part in some of Farshid's English lessons, meeting a lot of young, English speaking Iranians from the area.
We really felt sorry when the time came for us to leave, but we knew there is still much to see and explore. We got a few kilos of home-grown kiwis and were ready to meet the rest of the country. Only one problem remained, our car insurance. It was already late when we were crossing the border, so we didn't manage to buy it back then. We thought we will be able to buy it in the next big city, but it turns out things are a bit more complicated. There are insurance companies all over the country, but only some have license to sell insurance to tourist nowadays. And they are mostly situated in the border cities or international harbors. We tried a few others, but at the end they all told us to drive back to the border and buy the insurance there, as we're not getting it anywhere else. Normally it would not have been a big deal, as it was only around 100km, but driving such distance in Iran, without a valid insurance, is a real game of nerves.
I will tell it straight, Iranians are the most crazy drivers we have ever seen! And I say it after driving through Central Asia and Mongolia. They drive as chaotic as people in Kyrgyzstan, but the problem is, they have much more cars and people here, and the roads are better, allowing them to drive much faster. They seem to believe that breaks and blinkers are highly overrated, so they prefer to accelerate in most cases. I have seen more crashes since we're here, than I ever did before. I have read that Iran has one of the highest number of death casualties in road accidents. Well I have to say, I am not surprised. If you see people driving through a village in the middle of the night, with 100km/h and that without even turning their lights on or fastening their seatbelts, you no longer wonder why the rate is so high. Especially if you see all those pedestrians, dressed mostly in black, jumping on the streets without warning. But the worst of it all are the motorbikes. All the time you see a four-person family squeezing on a tiny motorbike, that would be considered too small for two people in Europe. The father is holding the steering wheel in one hand and baby in the other. The woman has to divide her hands between holding on to her husband or the bike, grabbing the second kid and pulling her chador together, which normally flies behind the bike like a parachute. I guess I don't have to tell you that neither of them has a helmet of any kind, not to mention lights or mirrors... But no one seems to care. The police, who could cause you quite a lot of trouble for dressing inappropriately, don't seem to mind speeding or careless behavior on the streets. And as one of our new friends told us, that makes driving one of the very few areas of life where Iranians feel free to do what they want. And they take advantage of it.
There are some security systems on the roads, but we never managed to understand how they work. Or maybe the person constructing them never really understood how they were supposed to work. Cause there are a lot of traffic lights, but they are either completely off or they are simply blinking. Some of them actually seem to be warning you about some obstacles or changes on the road, but some seem to be not more than a colorful decoration. And you hardly ever see them at crossings where you could really need them. But speed bumps are even more fascinating. They have quite a lot of them, mostly unmarked. And sometimes you meet them in places, where you would not expect them at all. Like while driving out of the city. Or on a highway, next to a sign that says you should slow down to 90km/h. Well I guess I would not like to know how it feels like to drive over one of them with such speed...
All in all there has to be some method in this madness, as it works better then you'd expect it to. So I guess as a tourist all you can't do is to embrace this chaos and pray to get out of it without any damage.