We arrived in the year of 1397. This does not mean that we have travelled back in time but that we are in the middle of Iran and its calendar. Unlike ours it is orientated to the Muslim prophet Mohamed and the year zero marks the day when he left Mekka behind and travelled to Medina to start his first parish.
After our first weeks here we accustomed ourselves a bit to the new surroundings and culture. Now we can pay without first having to ask ten times how much they want and we got to know a few peculiarities of this country. We realise more and more that we are in very different environment. Looking back we now understand that Turkey has served as a bridge between the Western and Eastern culture or cultures. We learn that carpets are essential in many areas of life. Unfortunately we cannot bring one of these stunning but rather heavy items with us. However it seems like everybody here has a carpet hidden in their car or even somehow on their motorcycle. It seems like every opportunity is being used to roll them out in any possible place for sitting, laying around, having a picknick and to generally relax. Of course this is familiar to us and we can compare it to when we sunbathe at a lake or when we sit together in nature.
On our way we have followed the highway a lot during the last days because vehicle drivers have to pay for using it. That means that many (including some heavy trucks) are using parallel main roads. As a result we can cycle on very wide and nicely paved shoulders and don’t have lots of traffic rushing past us. Though at first it seemed a problem to us that the entry ramps to the highway are marked with huge signs that clearly forbid cyclists to use them. Well, let’s give it a try anyway, we thought… Slowly approaching the toll booth doubts started creeping in. To our relief the clerk just waved friendly and wanted to know where we are from. He then told us that we can continue without paying the toll and we merrily cycled on. On the highway we indeed passed police officers every once in a while who measure the speed of the vehicles. But even they simply greeted us friendly and let us pass without any objections. Rules are there to be broken, or so at least it seems in Iran. From time to time we pass by rest areas which are often equipped with small shops which mainly sell crisps, biscuits and softdrinks and gas stations and toilets. Sometimes there are areas to rest after a long drive. But these areas are lacking something important… Most of them are covered to provide a cooling shadow that makes them look like gazebos. But in fact they come without tables or benches and only offer a flat surface which is (of course!) ideal to roll out your own carpet.
The Iranian people fascinate us with their openness, readiness to help others and hospitality but are not always easy to deal with. In the last few weeks we often have been guests in different homes and could gain insights that way. In most cases we have helped along hospitality by using illegal Couchsurfing or Warmshowers. The advantage of this is that the people we contact through these websites are speaking at least some English to make up for our lack of Farsi. But also people we meet on the road are frequently inviting us into their homes – most of these kind offers we have to decline because usually they are not coinciding with our plans and we wouldn’t be able to progress much anymore if we were to accept them. Our Iranian visa is valid for two months and our pre-applied Pakistani visa is going to expire soon which sadly leaves us little wiggle room. Sometimes though the timing was just right, for example when an English teacher approached us in the right moment and offered us a place to stay for the night. That way we suddenly found ourselves sleeping in a class room and the next morning surrounded by his young English students.
On the road people often start talking to us and ask us where we are from and where we are heading to. Time and again they slip us food and water or refuse to accept money when we try to buy groceries in a shop. Another peculiarity in Iran is called Tarof. It means that everybody should have the opportunity to make a kind offer to another without having to follow through with it. It can be an invitation to the home or something to eat. The expectation though is that all offers are to be declined several times. How often we have to decline is a bit unclear sometimes but this roundabout approach provides the opportunity to retract offers. For us it is always difficult to assess which offers are genuine or not… Hitchhiking proves to be challenging and is only possible in about 5% of cases. That is not because of a lack of willing drivers stopping, no – as soon as we tell them where we want to go they change their route to accomodate ours. It is very kind but not really the idea of hitchhiking… Nevertheless we could visit the Kataleh Khor Caves and the Takht-de-Soleiman Zorosastrian Fire Temple that way.
The Iranians are very curious and friendly which is not always easy to deal with. One time an older man had spotted us camping close to a town and came to us very worried at around 10:30pm. After some time we understood his gestures and translations via Google as a warning of dangerous robbers in the area. Even though his concern was clearly well-intended we still felt quite safe camping at this spot and we didn’t see the necessity to pack up this late in the evening and follow this man to his home. At this point we’d like to thank Mojtaba who helped us convincing this man through translations via cell phone. Another evening we had chosen an old roofless house out of the way to set our camp. Suddenly at 9pm a whole family showed up in our ‘bedroom’ and surrounded me on my sleeping pad and insisted that we had to come with them to their village to spend the night there. It took a long time and hard work to convince them that we would be fine out here and that we would like to rest now.
Most of the time though we really enjoy the encounters with the people here. Especially if we can spend some time together and get to know each other. We had discovered that carpets are essential not only outdoors. Many houses ‘lack’ chairs and tables, sometimes even beds. Life takes place on the ground upon beautiful carpets. There they eat, relax and often sleep.