Welcome to Iran!

It was with a strange mixture of excitement and uncertainty that I crossed the border to Iran. For months, I was looking forward to that moment. The day before, I had spent some time on reading about Iranian culture and rules.
Don’t wear shorts. Don’t shake hands with women. Don’t take pictures of people without permission. Don’t stretch your legs when eating on a Persian carpet. Don’t sit next to a woman.
I counted my money again to make sure I had not lost any. 600$ in freshly looking dollar bills. 200.- CHF as a present from my Grandma. Iran is not connected to the international banking system. So this was it for the next 2 months. Alright then. Let the adventure begin.

After passing a sign with an Arabic sentence and the English translation “Welcome to the Islamic republic of Iran”, I stood in the entrance hall.
“Where do you go?”, the border guard asked. “To Tabriz”.
“Don’t forget to check out the bazaar”.
Wait what?! Did the border guard really just advice me on my journey?
“And welcome to Iran”, he continued.
“Ha! That went unexpectedly well”, I thought.
I had absolutely no idea what the exchange rate was, so I just changed the leftovers of my Armenian Drums to Rials instead of taking out my hundred dollar bills. About 15 dollars.
“Should be enough for 3 days”, I thought. A little surprised I received several 100’000 bills.

A long time had passed since I crossed a border with so much excitement. Partly because it was the first country where I had to organize a visa through a complicated process. Partly because I knew so little about the country. Whenever I met other travelers and told them about my route through Iran they either reacted with: “Iran is so wonderful! I have just been there.” or with “Are you suicidal?”. Now this is a little exaggerated but you get the picture.

The first thing I noticed were the women wearing hijabs or chadors. Second thing were the military checkpoints along the road. Third thing were the cars slowing down and giving me a heart warming “Welcome to Iran”. One car stopped in front of me and held out a plastic bag. “Welcome to Iran! Here is some traditional Iranian food. We want you to know that we are nice people and not terrorists. Iran is a safe country”. I found myself a beautiful camping spot and ate the delicious food. That day I went to bed filled with joy. I couldn’t believe the warm welcome I just had!

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After two days I passed a city called Marand. There I was searching for Wifi to confirm my host in Tabriz that I’m on my way. After not too long a guy on a bike approached with a huge smile and a big Warmshowers logo on his T-shirt. This wonderful man turned out to be the famous Warmshowers host Akbar who has hosted hundreds of cyclists. He seems to have contacts with truck drivers and border guards who inform him whenever they see a cyclist.
“I was expecting you yesterday! How can I help you?”, he said.
“Well I need Wifi to contact my host”, I answered a little confused.
“I have Wifi at my office. And also breakfast.”
I followed him to his office where he made me Iranian Omelet. Which is nothing similar to the Omelet in Europe but a very good cyclists breakfast. He showed me a book full of pictures of other touring cyclists. He gave me a list of phone numbers of potential hosts in all the major cities. I couldn’t help but notice that half of the list was filled with Akbars. And again, I left full of joy in the direction of Tabriz. To my new host who’s name coincidentally was Akbar.

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In Tabriz I was welcomed by the wonderful Akbar and his roommate. Akbar was engaged and I learned a lot about relationships and marriage in Iran.Living together before marriage is forbidden by law. So is sex before marriage. So is kissing in public and dating. It is forbidden to drive with mixed genders in a car if there is no family relation. I listened interested and was surprised by the amount of interactions that are forbidden by law.

But even more interesting I found the long and hard way of being single to marriage. There are two ways how the process starts. The traditional and the modern. After that it is the same. In the traditional way, the man would go to his parents and tell them that he wants to get married. The family then searches for a wife. In the modern way, if the man likes a women he goes to his parents and tells them he wants to get married to that women. Keep in mind that there is no dating. It all points towards marriage. From that point on the family of the man contacts the family of the women and makes a proposal to the parents of the wife. They then discuss with the daughter and if she agrees they are engaged. The date of the wedding is decided by the parents. Mostly the wedding is done when both of the members have enough money to fulfill their part. This goes for months or even years and is clearly separated. The man pays for the house and the wedding and the women pays for everything inside the house. And by everything I mean everything. Starting small and buying new stuff over time is less known in Iran. The house has to be complete.

Furthermore, the man promises a huge amount of gold coins (due to inflation) to the woman. This amount is written down by an official and often so big that the man can not pay for it. Sometimes more than a salary of a lifetime. At all time, the woman can ask for the money and the man has to pay. If he can not pay he will go to prison. This gives the woman an enormous influence in the relationship. She basically has the power to send the man to prison at all time.
I couldn’t keep all the details but I was just fascinated by the traditions and rituals that are so very different from what I know.

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Instead of heading directly to Tehran I took a detour to the Caspian sea. On the way, I wanted to check out the natural hot springs. It was good to be back on the road. I had some amazing camping spots.

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I found the hot springs surrounded by buildings in a small village. It was already getting dark and camping was not really possible. So I searched for a Warmshowers host and contacted the only one in the city. He was not in town but let me sleep at his empty appartement. Just as I was about to go to bed, someone knocked at the door. The neighbors from above invited me for dinner. And again I had the pleasure of great company and a delicious Iranian meal.

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Then the brother of my absent host turned up and invited me to go to the natural hot spring. Of course! There I was confronted with an unexpected picture. Of course, there were only men. Morning is for women and evening for men, I was told. One-third was massaging each other, the other third soaping and washing each others back while the rest sat in the spring. I couldn’t help but smile. Until I was commanded to put my hands up against the wall and stay still. “What is happening now?!”, I thought. One guy started to soap my back and another one soon joined. Apparently both wanted to wash the foreign man. I couldn’t decide how I felt. Something between very uncomfortable and amused. “There better be no picture of this!”, I thought. After the cleansing, I gently declined the offer of a massage. Enough stepping out of the comfort zone for today.

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The next day started with a healthy breakfast at the place of his mother. Of course, I was given a lot of fruits and bred for the way. And then I continued. Again amazed by the hospitality and kindness. All downhill to the Caspian sea now! I was looking forward to 1000hm of pure downhill. Unfortunately, the wind was very strong. Unbelievably strong. With an average of about 10% descent, I still had to pedal to get around 10km/h! And then, as if not already bad enough, my rear tire was suddenly flat. How did that happen! This tire was supposed to be unbreakable. “Probably as unbreakable as my gloves are waterproof”, I thought. Companies and their marketing…

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Seeing my misery, a car stopped. “Çay?”, an elderly man asked. “Yes please!”. Home made cookies and Çay and I was up and running again. After exchanging phone numbers we parted ways. My fight against the wind remained until the arrival at the Caspian sea where I built up my tent at the beach. The telephone rang and the lovely people from earlier invited me to stay at their place. I already set up the tent and politely declined. After assuring him several times that everything is alright and there are no thieves as far as I could see he said: “At least come for breakfast tomorrow then”.
“Of course!”.
In the morning, they picked me up from the beach and brought me to their house. His daughter soon arrived and his wife was already there. Without hijabs! I was confused. I already counted on not seeing women’s hair for two months. Both of them shaking my hands. Amused by my uncertainty they explained that a lot of Iranians are atheists and not wearing hijabs when not in public. In the following weeks, I found this statement to be true.
The elderly man turned out to be the military general from before the revolution. His brother of a similar rank executed and his lands confiscated. He had some very interesting stories about him and the Shah and was fluent in both English and French. And again I left with fruits and cookies. And then the impossible happened. A car slowed down and two women asked about my nationality. And then suddenly both of them got rid of their hijabs and drove away giggling. “Was I just flashed?!”, I thought. “Yes, I definitely was just flashed by two Iranian girls!”. I slowly started questioning the guides telling about an extremely conservative country.

Unfortunately, my knee started to hurt very badly and I was not able to drive any further. So I decided to hitchhike to Tehran. The following days I met extremely nice truck drivers and one particularly funny ride. After entering the truck, the driver started to search a song in his music library. “This is life, Nana Na Nana”. I started laughing. This was the only English song he had. And of course, as a foreign person, I had to love this song. So the song went on and on in a loop. Most rides included a visit to a relative or friend and a meal. I had very interesting discussions. Mostly by gesturing but still interesting. The more people, I met the more I found a pattern in the conversations. Welcoming me to Iran was part of it. The other part was assuring me that Iran is safe and the people are no terrorists. Of course, I already knew that. Most of the Iranian people have illegal satellite television. And as a country with few tourists, the perception of themselves is heavily influenced by the foreign media. Sadly, the media only tells about the government and the bad stuff. During my whole stay in Iran, I met people trying to convince me that they are no terrorists and the real terrorists are in Tehran in the government. Multiple times I was asked to spread the news back home that Iranians are very nice people. I can truly confirm that Iranians are amongst the nicest people I ever met.

Arriving in Tehran I had trouble finding a host. I couldn’t afford any Hotel because of my limited money and no chance to withdraw more. I found shelter in the home of Nader and his family. Again, I was welcomed with the warmest welcome possible. The tasty dinner turned out to be one of the biggest meals I ever saw and partially ate. During my whole stay, I was taken care of so well that I had to skip some meals because I was still full from earlier.

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I was there just before the Iranian new year called Norooz. A feast accompanied by many traditions. One of them is Chaharshanbe Suri. The festival of fire. In the evening of the last Wednesday before Norooz people would originally jump over bonfires. I am not sure of all the meanings anymore but one of them was burning bad habits and memories in the fire and purifying the soul. However, the original Chaharshanbe Suri escalated quickly. Imagine our new year with fireworks. Only the firework takes place in the middle of the city and is let by private persons. Instead of crackers, people build their own little bombs that can be as big as a fist and remind more of a hand grenade than a firework. The hospitals are full of injured people during this tradition. I observed the whole thing from the roof. Afraid of going on the street. It looked like a war zone. Flying candles that didn’t gain enough height flew into buildings and started burning. It was indeed interesting to observe.
Another tradition is to lay out food on the streets. The streets are full of free food that you can just take when walking by.

Tehran itself wasn’t the greatest city. Very crowded and loud. Air pollution. It had some good museums. After visiting the museum and the obligatory visit of the local Hamam I decided to continue. Even tough my Visa was not ready yet. I would pick it up in Mashhad.

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Leaving Tehran, I took a break about 60Km away at a gas station. It was around noon and families started to bring out their picnic carpets. The tradition of picnic and camping is widely spread. Even in cities you can find tents in about every park. Where there is no sign of banning tents you can build one up. And those signs are mostly found in roundabouts and tourist attractions. I got invited to share a meal with a family. Not a picnic meal like we would have in Switzerland. Multiple stoves and pans for creating a full meal for about 15 persons. The father asked: “We are Muslim. What is your religion?”. Christianity is well known and widely accepted while the concept of Agnostic is not. So I avoided a direct answer and told him: “In Switzerland the main religion is Christianity.”
“We have the same God! We love prophet Jesus. In Esfahan there is a big church were you can pray”, he answered. I almost had tears in my eyes. “That would never ever happen back home”, I thought a little ashamed of not telling the whole truth.
I get asked a lot about my country. Something which makes me think a lot. “Are people as nice as in Iran?”, “If I visited Switzerland would people also be as hospitable?”(They are very aware of their hospitality), “Do you have mosques like this in Switzerland?”. Not always did I tell them the ugly truth. That most people are very suspicious about Muslim people. That minarets are in fact forbidden not only by law but in the constitution that our country is built up on. That they probably wouldn’t get invited even once. That their wife’s would get suspicious looks from wearing their hijabs. That islamophobia grows in frightening dimensions.