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Author: Maria Zehentner / Translation: Elke Weninger
Beitrag vom: 05.05.2017

Welcome to Iran!

Iran – March – April - May 2017

Is a first impression of a country possible at all? Don't we already travel there with a lot of luggage in the form of expectations which we have been gathering so far, hence a first impression cannot be gained anymore but is brought along?
Clichéd images of terror, danger and war are spread via the media into European capitals. Therefore, many people still label Iran as something bad or dangerous regardless the fact that they have never been there. However, many people traveling there told us that they had never been in a country inhabited by such friendly people and a place bearing so many surprises. And this is how we came to our expectations even before entering this country!

To make things easier for you readers I will give you a short introduction to the republic of Iran. The Islamic principles of faith fit perfectly to Iran. Principles, which make human belief dependent upon God's will. True and proper freedom can only be gained when completely obeying to God's laws and orders. Though modernisation has taken place, religion is still of uppermost importance and permeates through every aspect of human life.
The Koran is the holy book and serves as basis of Islam from which again derives the sharia, the Islamic rights, which women cannot make use of. I will explain more of this matter later on. Alcohol and drugs are strictly forbidden in this country. Though disobeying to this law may result in death penalty, the Iran globally counts to one of the top 10 and most powerful providers of drugs. The country and its inhabitants are mainly led by seven ruling families, of which the Mullah family is the mightiest. This family has been reigning the Iran for more than 35 years, focussing on its own greed and authority. Corruption, deception and nepotism as well as elimination of opponents are omnipresent.
In 2013, when Hassan Ruhani was elected president, the Iran made a good choice. This person might be able to put back life into this desert country by though having conservative ideas being open for Western ideas as well. It's a matter of fact that the majority of Iranian youths turn their backs on fundamental politics and utopias but instead aim at education, dialogue with the west and a deeper understanding of modern culture.

I had already provided myself with a headscarf as there were only a few kilometers left between us and the Iranian checkpoint Bazargan. We had read in quite a lot of travel blogs that we might face troubles at the border when entering Iran with our own vehicle. And yes, at the border we were separated. While Leander with Akela was guided on, Lennox and I had to pass the border on foot. After shortly checking our visa, an official led us to an office where we should wait for Leander. A friendly lady registered us, offered us information brochures on the Iran, gave us exchange rates and helped us regarding the language Farsi, the language spoken in Iran. Moreover, she pointed out that there were 'facilitators' around who offered their “help regarding entry formalities”. Making use of these people might speed up bureaucracy a bit, yet is not necessary at all.
Our little helper wouldn't understand why we didn't want to make use of his duty, but he hadn't foreseen to come across somebody like Leander who made fun of him. Completely irritated by us, the helper finally disappeared without making any money with us. The 'Carnet de Passage' (official custom document to enter with Akela, which we had already organised back home) was checked and stamped. The old truck itself hardly raised any attention, and the customs officer only shortly checked our living cabin and that was it.
No closer searching of the wardrobes and cupboards, no drug dogs, no annoying officials...however, we did get the impression that this country would be a bit more complicated than those we were used to so far. This procedure lasted nearly two hours until we were finally allowed to enter Iran without any troubles or problems. We had succeeded! We had entered the first country to pass through it of which we were neither able to speak the language nor able to read the writing or numbers. Our first planned destination stop was Tabris. We stoppped at the Mekka of people of this religious belief here.
Here we also hoped to find a good mechanic for Akela. Leaf springs and crankshaft, our dirty tank – we had calculated to have to do numerous repairs and, therefore, had taken along US dollars and euros as it is not possible or allowed to get money from an ATM for foreigners. Furthermore, paying by credit card or other bank transactions don't work either. Thank you, USA!

We left behind the border in the early afternoon and approached Tabris. The town is located in the region of East Azerbaijan and still belongs to the Kurdish region. After two hours behind the steering wheel we stopped at a car park to stretch our legs a bit. As soon as we had stopped the engine we were surrounded by a group of other travellers taking a rest, who offered us a tea pot full of chai. We were greeted and welcomed with the words “welcome to Iran” and “nice to meet you”. Those people also told us that currently in Iran the Persian New Year, Noruz, was celebrated. Many Iranians made use of the public holidays to travel around in their own country just as this family, who had come from the city of Esfahan, 900km away, did. Simin, one of the young women in this family and I exchanged phone numbers, I promising to get in touch with her. We had intended to visit Esfahan anyway so it was by no means a mistake to have a phone number of some local people living there, especially of people who all appeared to be very nice. After taking a final picture, we separated to our own vehicles and went our own ways. And here they were again – our brought along expectations! Being in a very good mood we got into the driving cabin and were looking forward to bazaars, orient, delicious food, nice encounters and a lot more.

It was a very long day for all of us (13 hours and 300 km!) when we were finally able to stop Akela's engine in Tabris, in the El Goli park. This recreation area is huge and additionally to a big area reserved for vehicles to park, there is an amusement park, outdoor fitness, restaurants and toilets. The area was crowed with people and as we were very hungry we were driven to a small nearby restaurant. When ordering our drinks the waiter caused misunderstanding as he offered us some beer. Leander quickly realised why the waiter offered this “beer” as it was obviously free of alchohol, which he wasn't really keen on.
Luckily, as it would turn out to be later on. We had to pay €30 for kebab made from chicken or lamb, some salad and rice and lemonades. You cannot really call that a bargain! We had eaten enough and returned to the truck to spend a quiet first night in Iran. We planned to go to the tourist office close to the bazaar the next day to clarify some important issues. We also hoped to meet Nasser Kahn there, a person who is well known among travellers by now. Nasser is able to speak eight languages, among them German as well, which he speaks fluently. We were lucky and found him at least for a short time as he had other appointments to meet. However, he asked his brother Mansur to help us and him following us, he assisted us to get an “Irancell phone card” to still be able to be online.
Furthermore, he accompanied Leander to an insurance company so that he could sign an insurance contract for the truck. He had to pay €65 for one month insurance. This was not a bargain either, especially when considering that the average income in Iran is about $300 to $400. The price smelt of overpriced tourist tax, yet we weren't willing to risk driving without any insurance and signed the contract. In order to be closer to the center we did what Mansur had suggested and parked Akela in a different park.
This park, Mozafer park, was quite a bit smaller and more quiet, offered outdoor fitness as well, provided water and had toilets. While Leander was on his way with Mansur, Lennox and I tried the outdoor fitness machines with me wearing a Hijab (headscarf), knowing that not obeying to this law, which says that women have to wear one, might be charged with a financial penalty or even prison. After Leander's return we spent the rest of the afternoon in the world's oldest bazaar. Unluckily, the Persian new year's celebration affected the bazaar and, therefore, many stands were closed and the market hall seem deserted.

Only few distributors had opened their stands yet hardly appeared to have interest to sell anything to anybody. Quite disappointed we returned to Akela by taxi. Late at night when Lennox was already fast asleep and dreaming, there was a knock at the window. It was Iwe from Holland, who plans to take a similar route along the Silk Road with his Toyota Landcruiser as we were doing right now. Iwe was very talkative and open for any kind of food being offered to him. Iwe's car urgently needed some servicing as well, which made him decide to take it to Dizel Abad, an area where a lot of mechanics were located, together with our Akela. It was worth a try, despite the fact that we had weekend and the New Year's celebration of Noruz. As expected, many shops and garages had their blinds closed. Leander looked around a bit and returned with a man who was covered in oil from top to bottom. He wasn't really able to communicate in English, but instantly lay under the truck and started checking it. After a short phone call he had organised somebody who could provide us with leaf springs, despite new year and weekend. Leaf springs have to carry a lot of weight and ours were really old.
Should one of them break, we would have to face a mighty problem. We were accompanied to the aforementioned garage, where work on the truck was instantly started. After various hours of work the leaf springs of the front axle were bent up again and as the ones of the back axle were declared to be still in working order, we had to pay a fair price of only €100. At home we would probably have had to pay ten times that price. If the repairs were successful we would still have to find out, for any other work we wanted to be done on Akela we were asked to wait till Monday. Driving in convoy we returned to Mozafer park. The way Iranian people drive is 'unique'. They drive wherever there is space, they drive in an extremely reckless way and park where they want to. Though there might be proper traffic rules in Iran they are completely ignored. Similarily traffic lights appear to be an utterly bad investment of the Ministry of Transport. In urban traffic Akela was usually the stronger one – not only due to his size but also due to Leander's way of driving him as he had perfectly and quickly adapted his driving style to the local one.

Sunday morning was breaking, the last and at the same time the holiest day of these New Year's Celebrations. The sun started shining over the mountains of Tabris when the best sites to have a picnic were already occupied in the park. Iranian people love having picnics outside! You may come across them at any day- or nighttime gathering up and enjoying time with each other and together, mainly, of course, on free days or bank holidays. Everything that isn't bolted to the ground gets taken along. Granddad, granny, children, food, no time we were among these crowds of people having a picnic and it didn't take long until the first curious onlookers approached us. Some of them loudly and euphorically called out “welcome to Iran” as if they had been taught to do so at school.
Akela got examined closely and pictures were taken. Roundhooded trucks are seen fairly frequently here in Iran, yet the way these trucks are used here is completely different from ours. Here, these indestructible huge trucks have to do really hard jobs. 'Austria' as our home country didn't ring a bell for any people and they didn't really know where it was. “Oh, Australia, good people.” We never found out if they were not able to tell where we came from just because of the name or also regarding geography. On this very day we were invited five or six times to have lunch/dinner with local families. Many of them wanted us to be their guests on their picnic blanket. Whereas Leander was able to quickly communicate with other men it turned out to be more difficult regarding speaking to women. Mostly they weren't able to speak English or were simply more reserved than their male companions. At times we were surrounded by up to ten people who were all asking questions at the very same time and who kept asking us to take Selfies with them.
We joined the family who had first asked us to spend time with them and they served chicken kebap and rice, and various side salads and Noon Sangak (a Persian pita bread into which the dishes are wrapped, comparable to a wrap). As soon as we had finished the last bits and pieces of this food they quickly served chai and sweets. Once we have had enough to eat and dared saying “no, thank you” to further servings the family looked disappointed as if we despised their food, which was not true at all! As sitting all the time was fairly tiring we had the idea of putting up our slackline, which we had brought along from Austria. This piece of sports equipment was a completely new thing for Iranians yet they were not afraid to give it a try. No matter if users were young or old, slim or weighty, they all gave it a try on the shaky rope and there was squaking and roaring with laughter which made our day. Slowly but steadily the Persian New Year's Celebrations were coming to an end when Behzad, the oldest son of our hosting family, came up to us and invited us to stay in his parents' house for the night. We had read and heard before that Iranian people enjoy but also seem to regard it as their duty to welcome travellers at their homes and put them up for the night. However, we politely declined and offer and chose Akela for the night as we had everything we needed fitted in and simply enjoyed staying and living there. However, Behzad insisted on us HAVING TO STAY with them for the night so we gave in and promised to at least drop by for a glass of chay.
Their house was big and stunning, furnished with superior and noble furniture, on the walls hung heavy-weight rugs. No sooner had we touched the leather of the seat bench that we were served with tea and pastries. The lady of the house kept wearing her headscarf even in her own house and though I was yearning to get rid of mine I didn't dare doing it. I still don't understand how Iranian women can bear this duty. It is a nuisance in every move you make. In the course of the evening it turned out that Behzad's dad knew a workshop in Dizel Abad. Behzad's English was good enough to understand what problem we had with the Mercedes and pass this information on to his dad. He offered us to take the truck to this very garage the next day to have it checked there. This sounded mighty fine to us! We could hardly trust our ears when they suddenly announced that dinner has been served.
Though we already felt bloated we had no intention to appear ungrateful and took place at the dining table. Behzad's mum had made some kind of bean soup followed by pasta and for dessert we could enjoy jelly of rose blossoms served with yoghurt. This was all accompanied by the sweetest lemonade I have ever drunk, though Leander and I would have preferred some hard liquor to help in digestion. Well, up to then we were still naive and believed in the strict prohibition of alcohol in Iran. After convincing the family once again that we felt mighty fine in our truck Akela and that we didn' t want to make an exception for that night either, Behzad's dad took us back to the park in his car. Phew, it had been an exceptional, interesting and eventful day but we were still relieved to have returned to our own four walls, our Akela. Iranian people speak in a very loud voice, and one of the top favourite spare time activities seems to be making Selfies. Though honoring Iranian hospitality, it still left the impression of being exaggerated and obtrusiv

The next day was the day when Akela was supposed to be taken to the quarter with all the mechanics and worksheds for his complete renewal. We stopped him at exactly 8:30am in front of the workshed. No sooner had the engine been stopped that already some assessors were under the truck to start checking him. There were many people, many different opinions and it was a real challenge to make sense out of this chaos.

Akela's luck, or let's say, his well being was now in Jamshid's and Behram's hands. The two of them were brothers in their 60s, who have spent half of their lives screwing and drilling and working on old Mercedes Benz lorries. They should be knowing what they were doing, shouldn't they?! The consequent days and nights were spent in this area of the city. I wouldn't have liked to be in Leander's place in those days. He hardly had time to breathe as constantly his name was called, well, none of them were really able to pronounce his name correctly. At times it was 'Linda' or 'Andre' or the like. Lennox and I were NOT liked at all by Leander when just for fun dared to call him 'Linda' one day. Leander would have had to split into many different people to be able to be wherever his name was being called out and his presence was requested. He didn't want to leave the work at the men's sole responsibility. This had two reasons: he wanted to get to know Akela even better and he wasn't happy to have them alone inside of Akela to do screwing and drilling.
When communication broke down completely, Leander called Dariush, a former work colleague who originates from Iran but has been living in Austria for decades. Thanks to these translations, Leander kept being able to clarify the one or other 'utter chaos' which had come up. Everything lasted for ages! As soon as something seemed to work out perfectly and run smoothly another and new problem came up. In the end the rear leaf spring was worked on, and the crankshaftseal and gasket ring were replaced and Akela's dirty diesel tank was cleaned, spare parts were organised and the handbrake adjusted... and some other things at a reasonable price. Leander trusted Jamshid and his work, which other choice did we have? We spent a week in Dizel Abad, which lay quite far from the city center.
In an area of quite a few square miles there couldn't be seen and found anything else but worksheds, trucks, oil, dirt, loud engines, the sound of hammering and knocking came from was tiring having to tell Lennox that we weren't allowed to be outside the truck. We weren't supposed to be there and I was not up to taking him to the city in a taxi on my own. Iran, the currency, everything still appeared so strange and foreign to me. The two currencies which were in circulation (Rial and Toman) confused me even further and the street scene, which is mainly marked by men, didn't bring me any relief either.

After spending this week in Tabris, Akela looked mighty fine and hopefully top fit for us again and having received a lovely invitation for a picnic by Jamshid and his family, we said good bye and set our course in the direction of Tehran. In Tehran we had to stop to get our visa for Uzbekistan. We hoped that it would not take us too long do get them. We had already applied for these visa back in Ankara and they should be ready for us to be picked up at the embassy. Covering the distance of 650 kilometers in a night and morning driving shift with only four to five hours of sleep we reached the very place consequently quite tired and worn out at 3 o'clock pm.
As an industrial and commercial city with universities, colleges, libraries and museums, Tehran is a very important center of economy, business and culture as well as a very important transport hub of this country. The cityshape appeared modern, clean and contained well looked after parks and shone in bright colours. Local women here proved to be brave by wearing colorful clothes and exchanging the dull black mainly present in extremely devout Tabris for bright cloths.
We found a nice park for Akela to stop and for us to relax and especially for Lennox to let off steam after the tiring trip here. Having to keep calm and inside for over a week this is what he had urgently been yearning for. Then we did what Iranians do and had a picninc outside in the open. Afterwards we prepared all necessary documents for the 'visa marathon' the next day and consequently fell into our beds tired to the bones.

Bang on time did we arrive at the Uzbek embassy. I had a queasy feeling as I had been told on the phone that though Leander's and my visa applications had been successful, Lennox still had the status of “under consideration”, whatever was meant by that. We dearly hoped everything would run smoothly, yet our fears were confirmed. Lennox didn't show up, his visa had been forgotten. Luckily, however, not by us as we could prove the visa application by showing them the confirmation of application. The clock was ticking away, time was pressing as we still had the Turkmen embassy on our 'to do list' and it was already 10:05 with the required embassy closing at 11:00. We needed to get to the Turkmen embassy to apply for transit visa. Before being able to apply for those, however, we had to get colour copies of our newly received Uzbekistan visa, which were a prerequisite to apply for the Turkmen visa.

Time showed no mercy with us but kept passing swiftly. Making a phone call with the Turkmen embassy brought a bit of relief as the official there promised to wait for us, yet we shouldn't waste time. In the end we did have luck on our side after all. Lennox received his visa stamped into the passport and was very relieved as Leander and I had made fun and had made him believe that he might have to travel alone after us to join us again.
The Turkmen embassy kept its doors open for us half an hour after opening times and accepted our applications. Everything had worked out to our complete satisfaction and we hadn't lost a minute, let alone day with waiting. After eating something we started the engine to make our way towards Esfahan, the so-called Persian cradle, which we were happily looking forward to.

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