May your eyes shine - my first trip to Iran

Fact and fiction

There’s an image of remote places in the general public’s minds, formed by some direct experience and a lot of third hand reports, the media, misconceptions and prejudice. In the best case this can give you an incomplete or misleading idea of a place, its people, their life and their culture, other times a completely wrong one. For me it always meant, that the only way to find out, what life is really like somewhere else, is to travel there and see for myself – as good as I can in the short time available. Never has this been more true and eye-opening than during my trip to Iran.

The image many people have about Iran is that of a deeply conservative, Islamic republic: Women completely hiding their faces, extremist leaders trying to build nuclear bombs, strict laws and executions. On top of that you can add everything you’ve ever heard about Islamic extremism, because for many the Middle East is kind of a blur and distinguishing between the different countries doesn’t happen as much as it should.

Yes, Iran is an Islamic Republic, with both a religious leader and a more or less democratically elected parliament. Part of the people not only adhere to the Islamic laws this comes with, but agree with them and also support reserved relationships with the west. “Death to the USA” is not always just a remnant of the past.

There’s another side though. A lot of people have different views about life, religion and politics. You’ll see women constantly pushing the boundaries of the Islamic dress code with thin, beautifully colored and designed hijabs barely covering much of their hair, let alone their makeup-covered faces. Especially in Tehran, like in any other big city around the world, you’ll find modern, open minded young people. And yes, there are parties, alcohol and drugs – it just doesn’t happen publicly. And no, I didn’t feel the urge to try any of the above. I rather enjoyed a sober trip and experienced life as a traveler in an alcohol free environment. It’s hard to describe, but it changes the atmosphere of a place, in my opinion for the better. Without any special reason, one thing still lasting from my trip (now several weeks ago) is not drinking any alcohol.

The ratio between traditional and progressive tendencies is hard to tell. So is, if the near future will see a shift in any of the two directions. My feeling is, that Iran will continue to “open up”, but a more traditional and conservative government could also move the country in the opposite direction. Either way it’s important to acknowledge, that both views exist throughout society and this ambiguity is a very fascinating and important point in trying to understand the country.

Wherever I traveled in Iran, I encountered friendly and incredible hospitable people. Everyone was genuinely interested in my story. “Where are you from? (Don’t even try to say Austria, it’ll be understood as Australia 99.9% of the time. I went for “Otrish” (like the French “Autriche”: “Man otrishi hastam”.) What’s your name? Nice to meet you! What do you do? How old are you?” And the most important question of all: “How do you like Iran?” Hospitality is a corner stone of Persian culture. As a foreign traveler you can almost be sure people will go to extreme lengths to ensure you’re having a good time – “and please tell your people at home how it really is”. Iranians are proud of their heritage and (rightly) concerned about how their country is presented in the western media.

The smoggy air of Tehran

My trip started in Tehran. Most international flights arrive very late at night and mine was no exception. It got almost 5am until I cleared immigration (very fast), exchanged some money (even faster), grabbed a taxi (no problem) and checked into my hostel (we’ll do that tomorrow, here’s your room). These first two nights was everything, I had booked in advance besides the return flight. There was a fridge full of water bottles and alcohol free malt drinks in the common area. A box next to it kindly asks you to put in the money for every drink you take. It’s great when a trust-based system works. After some time in the country you wonder why anyone would ever organize it differently. The brand of the water was “Damavand”, the name of the mystic Persian mountain, which was my first motivation to visit the country and would follow me for the rest of my stay.

Rewind two and a half years. I was 29 and thinking of a small “adventure” for my 30th birthday. Kilimanjaro came to mind, but that’s what “everyone does”, so I looked into alternatives. I found a guided tour to the summit of Damavand and was intrigued. It was the initial motivation to go to Iran, but the more I informed myself, the more I got interested in everything else about the country. While a guided tour walking up some mountain is no adventure anymore, it was soon booked. A few weeks later, I was informed, that there were not enough people for the group to make the trip happen. I had no time during the other dates, so I hiked some Austrian mountains instead. Next year, same story. Then I decided – after I had met an Iranian couchsurfer in Salzburg and read quite a bit about the country and its history in the meantime – that if I’d ever go there, I would do it on my own.

On my second day in Iran (which technically still was the first after arriving long after midnight) I met with an Iranian couchsurfer. She wanted to meet in Salzburg, it didn’t work out, but she invited me to meet, when I’m in Tehran (“Now it’s my turn to say: let me know”). We walked around the smog polluted streets of the capital, visited Azadi square at night (azadi = freedom in Farsi, remember that for your shot at “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”) and soon made plans on how to make my Damavand climb possible. I can’t thank her enough for realizing this was important to me and offering support in ways I’d never dared to ask for (apologizing in the process, that she can’t do more). It had to wait a couple of days though, so the next day I escaped the smog and took the bus to Isfahan.

All these colors – the beauty of Isfahan

The bus was pretty comfortable with Persian carpets on the floor and seats reclining almost all the way back. It still felt like an endless journey followed by an hour long taxi ride across the nightly traffic of Isfahan. The “hostel” was a pleasant surprise. Like many places in Iran it turned out to be a hotel also selling some of its rooms as hostel beds at different rates. “Maybe another traveler will come to share the room with you”, but nobody ever came, so I had the place all to myself.

The next morning I had my first Iranian breakfast. The hotel manager offered to take a couple of pictures of me in the beautifully ornamented restaurant and gave me a friendly tap on the back. “Welcome to Isfahan”. I’d finally arrived.

I soon made my way to close by Jameh mosque and on to Naqsh-E Jahan square. The buildings and bazaars still leave me breathless to this day and were among the most stunning impressions on my trip. My favorite story happened inside the mosque. In the cool shadow under a tree in the patio sat an Islamic teacher welcoming travellers for free talks, cookies, tea and discussions. With an ever-friendly face he spoke in a calm voice in fluent English and French answering, what must have been the same questions day in and out. What’s the role of women in Iran (all women visitors asked that)? What is Islam’s view on other religions (I asked that)? A lot of the questions were already suggesting women are treated unfairly in Islamic society and the imam did his best to counter the arguments, sometimes more sometimes less convincingly. Overall, I was very impressed by the time I spent there. My bottom line is, that, if people would treat each other’s religion with more respect (which most religious teachings explicitly ask for), the world would be a better place today.

One of the discussions was started by an American woman bringing up Islamic inheritance law and how it prefers men to women. The imam’s counter argument went something like this: a man will marry and bring his money into the family, so in the end everyone will benefit. The next question – obviously – was, but what, if the woman doesn’t get married. The imam then went to all lengths talking about the importance of family in Islamic culture and how the law – while respecting minorities – is tailored to fit the majority and the role model of a family based society. A while later the women left and some other guest asked me how old I was. In Iran that’s a common question, usually thrown out somewhere in between “Where are you from?” and “What’s your name?”. After telling him, everyone in the round was like “No way, you look much younger!” and before I could even feel flattered, the imam hit it by saying: “It must be because you’re not married. – Because one year of marriage is like four or five years”. That came from the guy talking about the importance of family for the last half hour. I still don’t know, if he wanted to win me over with a joke or just end the topic on a lighter note, but it’ll definitely make me remember this encounter for a long time.

I continued my way to the center of Isfahan, having a wonderful lunch in a rooftop restaurant. In the afternoon I took a taxi to Soffeh park and spontaneously hiked to the 2257 m summit. My hiking boots were still in Tehran, so I did the climb in my Converse, which was no problem on the way up, but required extra carefulness on the descent. I met some new friends from Baghdad while taking the cable car on the last portion down the mountain, flagged another taxi downtown and called it a day.

A glimpse of the desert – Yazd

The next logical step on the classic Iranian tourist itinerary would have been Shiraz, but the only way to get there from Isfahan would have been another hour long bus ride. I opted for a train instead and went to beautiful Yazd. I met a couple from Amsterdam at the train station and we found out, that the hotel they were staying in, was very close to the hostel I booked. They had a free pick up service and I just hopped on and in the end (surprise, surprise) their hotel and my hostel were the same place, a beautiful adobe building with a great common area in the patio and a rooftop restaurant with a wonderful view. I spent the evening with another group of Dutch travellers, who taught me a simple card game. It either required lots of experience or more tactical thinking than my brain was willing to do on vacation, I lost badly.

The next day I did, what seems to be the natural thing to do in a desert town. Explore in the morning, find a cool place to have siesta during the day and go out in the evening. I missed the opportunity to go to the desert for sunset, but having a day for relaxation and reflection was equally nice.

Damavand

After bus and train, the only means of transport left was flying, so with the help of my couchsurfing friend I booked myself a flight back to Tehran. There are some safety concerns with domestic flights, but I think that is overrated. The only thing I regret is not trying harder (or at all) to get a window seat. Domestic flights mostly land at Mehrabad (as opposed to the bigger Iman Khomeini airport), which is situated much closer to the city. The low approach above the skyline of Tehran was quite an experience.

In the meantime there was a plan for Damavand. The father of a friend of my couchsurfing host had climbed the mountain many times and insisted to meet us one early morning (5:30). He drove us to the start of the climb in Polour (Camp 1), about one and a half hours north east of Tehran. He arranged my permit and a few minutes later I found myself on the back of a truck with a dozen Iranian climbers hauling up a bumpy mountain road to Camp 2 at 2900 m. From there it was a 4 hour walk up to Camp 3 at 4200 m always forcing myself to go slow and take my time. The highest, I’d climbed before, was Mauna Loa on Hawaii. The summit there was about the same altitude as Camp 3 and upon reaching it my only thought was going down. Of course, I felt the thin air on Damavand as well, but it was not as bad as expected. I had a good nap and hiked up to around 4500 m in the evening feeling only slightly dizzy afterwards. I had no idea, if I could manage the summit the next day, but I was determined to give it a try.

Camp 3 is a solid mountain hut with a small canteen and fresh water supply from a well. It was the Iranian weekend, so the place was packed. People slept in beds, on the floor, between the tables and basically everywhere, they found space (and that doesn’t even count the hundreds of tents spread all around the area). I wouldn’t have any chance on my own, but my couchsurfing host managed to organize me a bed. The trick is to identify the beds of the climbers, who are currently on their push for the summit. Chances are they will leave as soon as they come back and you’ll be in pole position for their beds.

You would think, it’s hard to find rest in a noisy environment, but it was the best and deepest sleep in a long time. Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe the sleeping pills, but it definitely helped to get acclimatized to the thin air. Shortly after 5:30am I started my hike. It was cold until sunrise, but soon turned into a wonderful hike. I may have started alone, but there were dozens of other climbers to follow. An Iranian couple offered me to join them to the summit. I also got offered so much food on the way up, that I didn’t even finish half of what I brought myself (and of course I was sharing that as well).

My new friends had a good pace, maybe a bit faster than what I would have done on my own, just to make sure not to over pace. After a while we met a friend of theirs, whose husband “left” her behind on his way to the summit. We integrated her into our group, thus going a lot slower, and a while later also found the husband, already on his way down. He turned around and ascended a second time with us. Apparently, that’s how the hiking groups grow. I had no problems with the altitude, but after a while felt, that I should ascend faster to limit the time spent above 5000 meters. So I abandoned my group and pushed to the summit alone. Less than an hour later, I found myself on top of Persia at 5610 m. The official altitude, which is also very prominently displayed at a huge poster on the wall of Camp 3, is 5671 m, so I didn’t realize how close I was until I was just below the summit, which almost came as a surprise. I found some alone time on a rock above the summit photo spot and enjoyed the unbelievable view. Upon climbing down I found myself being asked for photos and selfies by almost all Iranian climbers up there. I also met the two guys, who had sat next to me on the truck the day before and happened to reach the summit at the same time. It was an atmosphere of happiness and achievement and I made a lot of new friends that day.

The toughest part was the descent all the way from the thin, clear mountain air down to the thicker (albeit polluted) air of Tehran. First I headed down to Camp 3, where I napped for two hours (huge mistake), then to Camp 2 (which was somewhat tough after waking up) and then by truck down to Camp 1 where another Iranian group offered us a ride back to Tehran. After standing on top of Damavand (5610 m) at noon, I returned to Tajrish (1612 m), my favorite part of Tehran on the same day. Needless to say, I slept like the dead again.

I spent most of the next day recovering, walking around Tajrish and finding the last presents and postcards for my friends and family back home. I was feeling totally exhausted in the afternoon, but after some “special tea” in a bookshop (I’m not sure, but I think it was bitter orange leaves, damask rose and chamomile) I suddenly had enough energy to enjoy my last night in Iran.

Ten days is a short time, but I’m more than happy to have taken the opportunity. There’s a lot more to see: the northern part (maybe climbing Damavand from the other side), the sunset in the desert, Shiraz, Hormoz Island in the south and also lots of places to come back to. It’s always a struggle to decide, if you go back to a country you enjoyed or rather go somewhere you’ve never been before, but Iran is definitely high up on the “places I want to see again” list – for the nature, the history, the culture but mostly for its people.