Forget all your prejudices: in just 3 days in Iran we have met more people than in the previous two weeks of the rally. Iranians have welcomed us with open arms, smiles and delicious tea. Starting with a border crossing that took hours but felt like minutes and finishing in the narrow alleys of the desert town of Kashan, this is the tale of our first few days in this wonderful country.
But before we leave Armenia
Armenian bureaucracy strikes again with yet another fee – this time 25 Euros – and another bunch of forms to be filled in. Despite being the first car at the border, it still took 45 minutes to get through, and no one even cared to check the ambulance! But what was more intriguing perhaps, was the huge picture of Vladimir Putin decorating the wall of one of the offices.
Iranian hospitality at the border
Dealing with Iranians is a pleasant experience. It took about 3 hours to finish all the paperwork required to get Lola into Iran and in that time there was plenty of time to sample the famous Iranian hospitality. The people who were helping us out with the paperwork went out to get some water, fruit juices and biscuits and we soon were engaged in a conversation about weather, Spain’s unemployment situation and Iranian traditions. An Iranian guy that was driving from Georgia invited us to his nephew’s wedding in Mashad. We were given 3 different phone numbers “in case we need anything”.
It was so pleasant that once we were outside the border we realised we had not got our passports stamped! Big mistake. Luckily we were allowed back in again to go through passport control (how on Earth we were allowed in without going through passport control in the first place is something we can’t explain yet).
The roads from the border to our first destination, Tabriz, were rather good. Well paved for the most part, the only issue came with frequent speed bumps and U-turns. Being such an arid place, driving in the motorway can be a bit boring. On the flip side, some of the landscapes are really cool and you get to see camels! Plus, 77 litres of diesel cost 12 Euros!
Driving in the cities though is a whole different story. No lanes, no rules and people crossing everywhere. Judging by the look of some of the cars, accidents are not uncommon. To make matters worse, some cars slow down to look at us and say hi. Despite all that, Lola feels as comfortable dodging taxis in the heat as she was climbing up mountain passes at 20C. Finding a parking space proved to be more challenging as she would not fit on any of the parkings lots because she was either too tall or too long (or both). Not an issue. 2 gentlemen moved their car so that we could park just outside our hotel. And not content with that, they said they would talk to the police should they appear to fine us.
The Grand Bazaar of Tabriz
“Hello, Welcome to Iran”
With Lola safely parked it was time to check out the Grand Bazaar of Tabriz. With had just walked for a few seconds when we heard the first “Hello, where are you from? Welcome to Iran!”. Now, on most other countries that would have been followed with a “buy something from me”. Nothing wrong with that of course. However, here is different. People genuinely want to know where you are from and make you feel welcome. As many as 4 times we heard the same sentence within the first few minutes in the bazaar.
Another of the good things about Iran is that mass tourism has not hit the country yet. Which means that there are not hundreds of overpriced restaurants catering only for people like us. It may not be easy to find a place to eat, but this being Iran, you just need to ask, and they will show you the way to the mosque, a place with good food or how to get to the next town.
The next day we left our hotel early in the morning after meeting a couple of teams from the Mongol Rally. In just two weeks they had made it from London to Iran!
In the motorway we spotted an ambulance conversion of a Toyota Land Cruiser at a Red Crescent station. This was one of the vehicles we were looking at before finding Lola, so we stopped by to take some pictures. What we did not expect was for the crew to took us inside and invite us to have some tea, dates and sweets with them. Wonderful, especially considering that they spoke no English and we speak no Farsi!
Once in Qazvin we ended up in a modern version of the bazaar, which has recently been rebuilt and is now full of art galleries. There, a young man was kind enough to take us to a local restaurant where we had a delicious meal and met some local English teachers who asked us to join their table. Another phone number, this time of one of the girls’ sister who runs a travel agent company. We love this place.
South into the desert
Next stop was Kashan, a few hundred kilometres away. Going into Teheran meant traffic jams so we chose a secondary road. Not a bad choice, except that it was full of trucks and overtaking with a big ambulance when the air con is on, and you are running on diesel of dubious quality is not an easy task. And just after one of these overtakes the inevitable happened, we got pulled over for the first time in the rally.
They actually stopped two cars, the one behind us got a fine. Us? well, the officers asked us to slow down and watch out because the road we were in was a dangerous one. Then the youngest one asked me to wait a minute. In turned out he was a hip hop singer and he wanted to perform a rap for me. So there I was, just outside a police car, in the middle of Iran, listening to this young man’s lyrics, in Farsi of course. How about that?! He gave us his Instagram address and asked us to follow him. Only in Iran.
On the way to Khasan we had a quick stop in Qom, one of Iran’s most religious city, to have a bit of a break and check out the breathtaking mosque complex. In theory no muslims are allowed in the shrine but we had no issues walking in after a nice official explained in Farsi how women and men are to use different entrances to get access to the site. Outside the complex there are stalls selling sweets and it’s impossible to resist the temptation to buy a box. Flour, wheat sprout, sugar, yolk, oil saffron, cardamoms, rose water, almond in pistachio… yummy!
Kashan, the first desert city in our route through Iran and then, we take a little detour towards Esfahan and Shiraz. We expect high temperatures, amazing architecture and more of this Iranian hospitality that has taken us prisoners.