The Iranian currency is called Rial and the current official exchange rate is 48’000 Rial for 1 Euro. Because of long lasting sanctions against the country there is simply no possibility for us to take out money from an ATM since there are no financial connections abroad. The same applies for network services on sim cards brought here from other countries – there are no contracts, hence no roaming, hence no connection. To get our hands on local money we had asked around for a currency exchange office when we arrived in Salmas which was the first city we passed by in Iran. After a while we were brought to a restaurant where we could change some Euro into Rial. We received 110’000 Rial for one Euro and were puzzled… What was the official exchange rate again? Are the people here really so accomodating that they would give us more than double?!
We went on and tried to find some food. Since our departure from Van in Turkey we’ve had no possibility to buy anything since there was hardly any infrastructure on that stretch and we haven’t had any Rial before. For some bread and cheese the shop keeper asked for 12 Toman… Again only confusion on our side. We took some money out of our pockets and gave it to him and he showed us that it costs 120’000 Rial…
After 1.5 days of cycling from Van towards Iran we arrived at the border. There we encountered a very, very, very long queue of people waiting to cross the border, general chaos and messy organization, if we may phrase it this way. The Turks and Iranians are in the process of building a new border crossing centre and in the meantime the whole bureaucratic process takes place in makeshift barracks. We’ve needed a lot of patience and quite some help from the border officers to manage our affairs in this crowd. Fortunately the officers were very friendly and courteous and after an hour or so we set foot (or wheel) on Iranian soil. Thereby a whole new world opened to us. From that moment onwards we weren’t anymore able to read anything or to communicate with the people around us. The main local language is Farsi and the Arabic alphabet is being used which is beautiful to look at but remains a mystery to us for now. Not only the language, alphabet or money were confusing us quite a bit in those first few days but also the living environment with all its fascinating facets.
In order to assess our first difficulties and experiences it is important to know that Iran is ruled by a strict government. There are explicit rules and laws to be followed which are geared to Islam. However we want to emphasise that within Islam many different interpretations are to be found. We’ve learned that in Turkey when for example an Alevi family we’ve met was handling their religious affairs much more liberal compared to other Muslim interpretations. Aside from that there is a similar phenomenon like in our Christian West that some people are members of a religion on paper but are in fact not practising it. In Iran all women are obliged to cover their heads and bodies. For men less strict rules are in effect, but still wearing shorts is not a good idea in most places. Alcohol and other drugs are forbidden and are officially nowhere to be found, furthermore not all kinds of music are legal and to find an official club should be a difficult affair. Despite Iran being one of the most hospitable countries worldwide – as far as we’ve heard and experienced ourselves so far – Couchsurfing is illegal. These are some small examples we’ve encountered in our first few days here.
In the first town Urmia we were hosted by a young family. We wanted to use the short break for making plans and running some errands. Already this first encounter slingshot us into a different world which was exciting and wonderfully confusing. Together with the couple we spent a relaxed evening outside of town in a apple garden with barbecue, techno music and vodka. Our host was a young man whose job it is to organise weddings and plays music at underground techno parties and would like to work much more as a techno DJ. With friends of the couple we hold out until 3am and slept until noon the next day in order to recover a bit.
Even though our sleep pattern was out of balance we managed the following to days to reach Tabris where we had been invited by a young man. With him we joined a very mixed group of young Iranians on a two day long trip. The plan was to rent two buses and go camping in the mountains. Of course we couldn’t say no to that! At 10pm we boarded a very crowed and old Iveco bus with tiny seats. Right after the departure all curtains were drawn shut and the music was turned up to maximum volume. We were blasted with ear-deafening Iranian electro pop. The small space inbetween the seats was used as a dance floor and the whole bus was chanting, clapping and partying.
After very little sleep we had a breakfast picnic together the next morning and then it continued with music and dancing until we have reached the mountains. Rather groggy after the night we had we still enjoyed the nice weather and the somewhat cooler air with hundreds of Iranians who came to relax during the weekend. Here in the mountains it seemed that the rules about covering up were less strict because of the lack of enforcement and so I could finally take of the headscarf outside of a private home.
After a short stop at the Caspian Coast – a highlight for many – the rest of the drive back home was much like the day before. Unlike our Iranian friends we were much too tired to participate in the party.The contrast between the laws of the government and how the people actually live their lives is huge at least in some aspects. This meant that it isn’t always clear to us what is appropiate and what not, especially for me when it comes to wearing the headscarf and how much exactly needs to be covered. Probably this confusion will last for a little while longer but at least we have found out that 120’000 Rial are 12’000 Toman and that Toman might be the new official currency soon. Also we have finally understood that most people simply say 12 Toman and ditch the thousand – very confusing indeed….