I visited Iran in 2003 on a three-month trip travelling back to Germany from China overland that also brought me to Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia before ending in a Mad Dash Home to make it back in time for Christmas.
A word of warning. The quality of my pictures from this trip is horrible, I was a bad photographer and I had an early digital 3,3 MP camera. Due to a shortage of memory cards I set the resolution down to 1 MP, what a mistake. Taken as memories from this trip, they are still quite enjoyable.
I arrive at the border together with a Turkmen doctor. Iran pays better wages. She is wearing a long skirt and a traditional Turkmen headscarf that covers most of her hair, she is wearing that at home in Turkmenistan and does not have to adapt to fulfil the clothing rules of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the country on this trip I am most looking forward to. I am curious how the strict, politically controversial Iran is looking from the inside. Clothes are one thing, female hair has to be covered, these rules also apply to visitors. We cross the border without pain and soon we sit in a taxi to Mashad. Before starting the driver pulls out a small screen, attaches it to the windshield and soon we are driving through the Islamic Republic with its clothing rules and scantily clad Shakira is dancing in front of me. Every time a police car comes into view, the driver takes the little screen down. I can’t believe it.
Mashad is the second-most populous city of Iran but has little to offer to the tourist. The standout sight though is the Imam Reza Shrine, by area the largest mosque in the world and the most important pilgrimage site in the Shia world. 12 million people visit every year. As a tourist you can visit the Shrine but only on a tour and because there is a religious festival there are no tours at the moment. The complex has several entrances and I try to enter on two of them but am being stopped each time by a guardian. In the afternoon some snow is falling, not something I associate Iran with. I have found out the time of the train to Tehran and very optimistically, I am heading to the train station an hour before departure without a ticket. Emboldened by my success buying train tickets in China I put down, with the help of my guidebook and someone at the hotel, the sentence I should say. There are many people at the ticket window and it seems that things are not really moving. I am finally able to make my way to the window and say my sentence. I get zero response. I step back, but stay in the melee. I have no clue what to do. A short while later a man in uniform comes out of the ticket area, he says follow me and starts walking. We go to a quiet area of the train station and sit down. He tells me he is a member of the armed forces and not allowed to speak with foreigners. But he is very keen on getting to know me. Because of the religious festival all the trains are full, there are no tickets available, that is the reason why there are so many people at the ticket window and no one ever seemed to leave with a ticket. But he thinks he can help me, let’s go to the director of the railway station. Ten minutes and a little chat later I have a ticket in hand and I am ready to board the train.
The guys on the train speak little English but are very friendly to me. Besides that, they behave like the worst teenagers you can imagine, looking and whistling after every girl that passes our compartment. Please behave a bit more modest. At prayer times the train stops and people can go out to pray. Many do. On arrival in Tehran one of the guys invites me to his home, I decline and he does not repeat his invitation. You are supposed to decline an invitation twice and an invitation that is meant serious is being repeated at least three times. Not repeating an invitation means that it was only a friendly flowery phrase like asking “how are you?” in English as a greeting. I remember meeting some cyclists in China that were telling me how much they loved Iran, because everybody was inviting them. I think they invited themselves to a lot of people who did not really want to invite them.
Tehran is a massive city with about 7.5 million people, located at the foot of the Alborz Mountain Range that rise up to 5,671 metres at Mount Damavand. I begin to realize how climatically diverse Iran is, in Mashad I experienced snow, Tehran is already noticeably warmer and down in the south I can still expect summerly warmth. Tehran traffic is terrible, I feel unsafe, the roads are clogged and the motorbikes are horrible, they drive everywhere where there is space (including sometimes the sidewalks) and in every direction meaning that you have to constantly look in every direction.
It is Ramadan and by law you have to observe the fast during the day. But you see people breaking the rules everywhere. Islam offers exceptions for sick people, for travellers, for pregnant women giving places like restaurants an excuse to stay open. You smell it when you pass, the first room is always empty but business goes on in the back rooms. I always like when I see people breaking the rules, I do not believe in unnecessary strictness. Travellers are another exception from fasting, and they make good use of it. Train and bus stations have restaurants, the windows are usually covered with newspapers or other stuff but inside business is good. On buses (often modern Volvos, a treat after Central Asia), the attendant gives out snacks and as soon as the wheels start turning people munch away. I for myself try to be discreet, I always have something to drink in my backpack but I only get it out when no one is around.
Iranians are super friendly and they are happy to see a foreigner, with my blond hair I stick out. I get approached by many people, also by women which surprises me as unrelated men and women are not supposed to mingle, it is rather me who is reluctant at first. It seems that the rules are not enforced as strictly as one might expect. At Tehran train station the information counter is manned, womanned I should rather say, by a girl, lipstick and all, how am I not supposed to approach her and talk to her? She speaks good English as well. Women are supposed to wear clothes that hide the shape of their body so not to entice men into sexual thoughts (yes, the reason for all restrictions on women in Islam is a perceived male inability to control sexual urges). But many Iranian women wear full length clothes that are pretty tight. Head scarves are a must, but in many cases worn fairly far back to reveal the front part of the hair, many women style this area in a special way. Shops sell fairly revealing clothing, including miniskirts and dresses with a deep décolleté for use at home supposedly. Or?
All in all, the atmosphere seems a lot more open and accepting than I expected. This might have to do with the fact that in Mohammad Khatami the country has a reformist president at the moment. People were very disappointed with him though, his loss in the 2005 election came as no surprise to me, they claimed that nothing had changed even with a reformer in charge. I found their criticism misguided as the structure of Iran’s political system leaves fairly little real power with the president. I talk a lot about politics, most people I speak with are totally against the current religiously dominated political system but are they a majority? Hard to tell, only a subgroup of Iranians will speak English and think it is a good idea to approach and talk to a foreigner. I meet one young man who is very conservative, he calls one of the hard-line newspapers very, very good and wishes for a more conservative government. We walk past a shop selling posters of Iranian singers and actors/actresses. When I ask about the men, he tells me their names, when I ask about the women, he says “a woman” in a dismissive tone. I make it a sport to ask him about all the women on display.
I hardly ever see the religious police but once I see them checking on a group of young people in a park. Unrelated men and women are not supposed to mingle and in a group of ten of the same age it is unlikely that they are all related. I ask another guy what happens if the police catch you. “They tell your parents,” he answers. Not the steepest of punishments or rather it depends on the moral attitude of your parents. If they are conservative this might have consequences for you, if they are liberal, they will even approve of your behaviour.
From Tehran I travel to Qom, the main centre of Shiite scholarship with the famous Azam mosque and the starting point of the Islamic revolution of 1979. I need a train ticket. People constantly try to jump the queue and a lot of arguing ensues. Next to me stands a cleric, robe, turban and all. Our eyes meet and our minds meet as well, what kind of idiots, we both think. He is Iraqi and came to Qom to further his religious studies. He wishes me a safe trip. I also wish him well. Humanity can get along when serious people take the helm.
On the way to Bam we have to change buses in some smaller town. I have met two girls travelling on the bus so we walk around a bit together. A police car stops and tells us to get inside, the guy doesn’t speak proper English and I don’t really understand what he wants. Is he upset, that I am walking around with two probably unrelated girls? He is very friendly and just brings us back to the bus station. From his gestures I think he just wants us to stay there, southeastern Iran has security problems, there is more police and more checkpoints, the German embassy warns against possible kidnappings. And truly, two German cyclist I meet in Bam are going to be kidnapped (and later released) a few weeks later.
The oasis of Bam is impressive. A historical town and citadel made out of bricks that was abandoned in the mid-nineteenth century it has an elegance that is hard to describe. Suddenly a man, Iranian looking, approaches me and asks in German if I speak German. “Yes, I do”, he has been living in Germany for 30 years and is just back to visit his homeland, he is so taken by Bam that he wants to share his feelings with someone, I’m the only person around and he is glad that he can talk with me.
I stay in a nice hostel; Akbar, a retired English teacher, is a friendly and funny host. Many houses in Iran are more like compounds surrounded by high walls and gates. These are executed in a fashion that you cannot look inside allowing the family to relax and also to disregard dress codes or whatever. Akbar’s hostel works the same way, he has a big sign after you enter telling that you can dress however you want. I visited Bam the 19th of November 2003 and on the 26th of December that same year a magnitude 6,6 earthquake destroyed both the historic and the new town. The standard mud brick and sand construction method proved deadly as the tremors transformed them into piles of rubble. 26,271 people lost their lives, the hostel I stay was destroyed (no one died there), I recognized the beds in pictures on the internet.
On to Kerman, it is the last Friday of Ramadan and this means Al-Quds day, Jerusalem day. A demonstration winds its way through town, flyers wishing death to the U.S. and Israel are lying on the ground. I ask a guy what he thinks about it, he’s looking at the demonstrators and scoffs: “stupid people, shouting”. I later meet a man on the train who tells me he is working on leaving Iran, where does he want to go? “To the United States”. On to Shiraz, the gateway to Persepolis. After snow in Mashad, I’m now back in the warmth.
I read about Iran’s history, about how the Shah forbade women to wear a headscarf, about how the regime that swept him away forces women to wear headscarves. I hope Iran will one day have a government that let’s women wear what they want. And I hope that I will never live under a government that tells people what to wear. I also realize that Iran in many ways is a functioning democratic system. There is a multitude of newspapers, elections stretch from municipal councils up to the presidency. The only problem is that this democratic system is superimposed by the religiously installed “supreme leader” and the guardian council who regularly disqualifies candidates for elections that it deems not religious enough. If the Iranian people manage to get rid of the superior religious level a well-oiled democracy would appear beneath it. I am contrasting Iran to many other countries where below the level of leader there is just nothing, no civil society at all. I hope Iran can fulfil its potential one day.
I start with a minivan from Shiraz and have to change seats as the final passengers arrive. Men are not allowed to sit next to women and according to that the seats have to be changed. The taxi driver for the last kilometres demands 1100 rial despite everybody telling me it would be 1000, as I pay, he hands me the 100 rial note back. Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire that existed around 550 to 330 BCE. The name is Greek meaning the “City of the Persians” and points to the fact that the city’s decline began with its destruction at the hands of Alexander the Great’s army. It is an amazing ruin with beautiful carvings. Still, in my memory it is rather linked as a place of perceived freedom. It is a Sunday and a fair number of young people is visiting, it is still Ramadan but everybody has some snacks with them. A certain ritual repeats itself a number of times. A girl “realizes” that her headscarf got out of place, so she needs to take it off (everybody look at my beautiful hair please) and puts it on again. Must be exciting.
A bit up in the hills are some caves. I meet three Iranians around there, a guy and two girls. They speak next to no English but I manage to convey that I am a tourist from Germany (Almanistan). One of them wants to see my guidebook, I have an Iranian copy of the Lonely Planet, the pictures lack a bit of colour but otherwise it is exactly the same, one page is a bit loose. I leave and go to another cave. A few minutes later the girl who took my guidebook appears and hands me the loose page. Did I lose it somewhere, did she just take it? She also gives me a cookie and then hands me a piece of paper with the word “I love you” and her address on it. I’m flabbergasted and do not know how to react. She is beautiful but I cannot even talk to her. I try to tell her that I will be leaving very soon but I don’t think she understands anything. I feel like I should embrace her, but I think that would be the wrong signal in this moment, maybe I should have done it anyway. After some moments of awkwardness, she leaves.
“I see you are here for the first time”, tells me the carpet vendor as I step onto Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square and he is right, I am struck by this beautiful architectural ensemble. Ali Qapu Palace, Sheik Loftallah Mosque and Shah Mosque are on the sides of the square. But Isfahan offers even more, more palaces, more mosques and more friendly carpet sellers.
I’m back in Tehran. Iranian bus stations are nice for stupid tourists, you enter and someone will approach you, you tell them where you want to go and they bring you to a counter with buses to your destination. I buy the ticket to Baku, the bus leaves in the evening. What is to follow is the weirdest bus ride of my life, true in 2003 and still holding true a lot of bus rides later in 2019. Read about that in the following Azerbaijan post.
Iran left a lasting impression on me and changed my understanding of the world. It taught me to question things more than I did before. In international politics there was plenty of talk about Iran being a bad actor, the American invasion of Iraq was just a few months old and there was talk of Iran being the next step in a broader plan. I found a divers, complicated country, with bad things, with good things but most of all with wonderful people. I can’t believe that I haven’t been back since.