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Short story long: How backpacking causes you a lot of trouble (and made my friends love Iran)

It was on my birthday two years ago in Kyrgyzstan. “Hi, helloo, eeeem hi!” I heard when I opened the gate to a bunch of people from Czech Republic. I held the door open and they kept coming, one, two, three, four and five, to the guesthouse I was currently volunteering at. I soon figured out they didn’t have much clue about the city, so for my relief they dropped their bags and went to explore. And I continued planning to go for paragliding with my local friends, and eat birthday cake.

“I’m sorry but the wind is too strong,” I soon received a call from the mountains and our paragliding trip got cancelled. I’m not hiding that I felt a bit down, I mean, what kind of birthday is this without flying??

In the evening the Czechs came back and surprised me with a bottle of pink champagne for the kids which made me feel much better, and we became friends.

Their trip in Central Asia was much shorter than mine and soon they had to leave (maybe because I forced them to drink horse milk the next morning) but we kept in touch time after time. Last year two of them, Jirka and Jenda announced me that they were planning a trip to Iran. The country I fell in love some time before so I was very excited for them. Obviously I wanted to hear every detail of their adventure afterwards and lucky enough – Jirka agreed to share it here as well.

The whole story gives a pretty good insight of how does it feel to backpack when you don’t really make plans; and when you get into troubles all the time. Jirka’s honest overview of the trip made me laugh several times and feel like I was there with them.

Read more about travelling in Iran HERE.

Photo Reportage by Jirka

“Hi, do you wanna go to Iran?” I asked my friend Jenda one beautiful day.

“Iran? Why the hell Iran? There must be nothing to see except some desert. No?” Jan fired.

„Well, I’ve heard that it’s a pretty cool country,” I said with the most convincing tone.

„Ok, sounds good. When should I take my vacation?“ he agreed.

Yeah, it was easy like that to arrange one of our biggest adventures ever. No obstacles… yet.

As soon as I had bought the flight tickets I had to tell these great news to my Estonian friend Madle who travelled in Iran for some time.

„Well, but in this particular time they have ramadan there. Did you know that? Maybe that’s why the tickets were so cheap…“.

The fact about ramadan – meaning no food during the day time but only from sunset to sunrise – hit me hard also because I realized how little I actually knew about that country… and heavy googling began.

I found out that if you have Israeli stamp in your passport there’s no way to get Iranian one. My happy memory from the past – me, standing in front of the airport in Israel, staring at the stamp in my brand new passport and feeling like a really cool traveller – lost the part of happiness. Oh well…

I also found many articles saying that applying for visa is not so cheap and easy procedure as I’d thought. Luckily there was also an option to fly to Tehran and get an on-arrival visa. And this is exactly what we did! Easy peasy…

↑ ↑ I managed to arrive to Tehran despite the fact that my backpack was 5kg heavier than allowed. That’s a great start, no? Full of excitement and adrenaline (which we were for most of our trip), we kept following signs leading us to the airport immigration office. The officer there didn’t really bother to see our documents (hotel bookings and insurance) – instead she just handed us some small credit card sized papers to fill in with our passport numbers, names and occupations. After an hour of sitting on a comfortable sofa we received two documents with the price and the time of expiration. No obstacles at all. That’s gonna be a happy trip!

What I love the most about travelling, are the things you wouldn’t expect to encounter and experience – the ones which differ from the ones in your home country. One of them surprised us immediately when we wanted to cross the three-lane road in Tehran. There was no crosswalk. The best solution? Watch and learn.. from the locals. You start crossing slow but confident and the cars will drive around you even if it looks like they will hit you. It can take a bit of practice but we got used to it pretty fast and actually – I miss this little doze of adrenaline in each day while back in Europe.

↑ ↑ Next new thing for us was obviously ramadan. That time people really don’t eat on the streets and expect you to do the same, or at least we wanted to respect them. So if we weren’t lucky enough to find one of the few open fast food places, our snacks looked the same all the time. We searched for some hidden alleys and ate as much as we could before someone showed up.

↑ ↑ Iran had an amazing surprise for us regarding the transportation – VIP night buses. They are only a little bit more expensive than the normal ones but worth it when you need a good sleep over the rides. You basically kill two birds with one stone – no need to find an accommodation for the night and you also don’t waste your day for getting from one place to another. It’s like teleportation! You fall asleep in the evening and in the morning you wake up surrounded by completely different landscape somewhere 600 km far away.

↑ ↑ So, one early morning we arrived to Yazd. Even though we are not huge fans of the cities and architecture, we decided to give it a try and head to the city centre. Or rather – we asked the way from a random bus driver, because we literally had no idea which bus was heading in which direction. From that moment on he acted like our man, our guide. He took us to the right bus, told us where to change, and so did the second bus driver. We were completely amazed how nice these people were!

We got off near the Amir Chakhmaq Complex. But hey, there was something strange… No tourists. At all. It was supposed to be one of the most popular places in Iran, so where the hell are everyone? “But wait. Let’s think about it,” we told to ourselves, already knowing the obvious answer. The touristic season was over because it was already hot as hell. It was ramadan, so you could barely find any food and if you did, you couldn’t eat it in public. According to the media the political situation between Iran and US wasn’t too promising either.

↑ ↑ Actually Yazd wasn’t our main destination in that area. It was Kharanaq. A very old abandoned sand city – that time with… yep, zero tourists. There were just a few farmers and four teenagers smoking hookah. We quickly figured we’d need more time to properly discover the city, so we left it for the next day and instead went to look for a place to sleep. It was a nice warm night, so why not to sleep outside under the beautiful stars? Why, why not… I’ll tell you why. I spotted a fast huge yellow spider and started to chase it in a hope to take a picture, but after a few seconds it started to chase me and… that moment I terribly started to miss our tent, with properly closed door.

The stars had to wait for another time.

In the morning we were ready to support the local economy and pay for the entrance to the city but there was not a single person. We had to go around and explored this completely deserted city for quite some time.

↑ ↑ When we finally had had enough, we continued heading to the south. Just to realize that there are not too many buses or taxis on that day… actually… there were no buses at all on that day… or any other day… Great opportunity to try hitchhiking! So we lifted our thumbs up and it took us only a few minutes until a truck stopped and a kind old man took us back to the civilization. Later we found out that a lifted thumb in Iran means something like a lifted middle finger in Europe. Sorry…

Because we weren’t sure at the beginning of our trip that we would get visas, we didn’t plan our itinerary too much. So after we stepped out of the airport, we had absolutely no idea what to do. After a while of thinking and staring the map, we came up with a simple plan. To go south until Persian gulf.

↑ ↑ It took us only a few days when we found ourselves on an island Qeshm – the hottest place I’ve ever been to. While googling I found a nice looking cave, only waiting for us to explore it. We took a taxi and passed through a hot desert where we ran out of drinking water. Is it a problem? “Not a problem,” we thought, assuming we’d just find a small shop selling water, postcards etc. the tourists might need… in the middle of the desert.

Nice dream. Our taxi driver left us into the middle of nowhere and disappeared. We found some (a lot of) sand, a few shelters and a nice kind guy who offered us one litre of water and a head lamp. Then he pointed us to the direction of the caves and wished a very good luck… At that moment I realized something I’d been thinking of already for quite a while… it wasn’t exactly the place I had found on the map before. Happens, I guess, and a cave is a cave.

We managed to find a small entrance of the cave where we had to crawl through a small narrow hole full of salty crystals. As we both had only one clean pair of trousers, we agreed that now it’s finally THE time to become rational, responsible and act like a grown-up. Not a good idea to get completely dirty just because of this little adventure… what would our moms say…

So we left our clothes on a stone and crawled into the cave. After one hour exploration we figured it wasn’t such a good idea to leave our shoes outside as well. Those sharp crystals of salt were causing terrible pain which made us moan and swear much more than we’d thought.

↑ ↑ But this cave was magical! The feeling when you turn off the light, and see and hear absolutely nothing, is unbelievable. In such moments you have plenty of time to think about everything. For example the fact that we just ran out of the drinking water.

↑ ↑ We used the holy silence in the cave to the maximum and came up with a plan to again find the kind guy who gave us the headlamps, and ask him for some more water, and then go get some sleep on the beach. It worked like a miracle – without having more time to think about it we already saw him – he came to check if we were fine! Those nice Iranian people, once again… He took us onto his bike and offered his place to stay for a night. “You can sleep in this room with air conditioning. Feel free to take the cold water from the fridge. Before you take a shower, I’d definitely recommend you to have a bath in the sea. It’s really good. When you go somewhere, leave the key under this stone. Good night and see you later!” … And so this deserted and forgotten place turned into heaven on Earth where we had everything we needed.

And this is another thing I love about travelling. You have nothing to drink, nowhere to sleep, you are dirty and sticky. Three hours later you are clean, fed, accommodated, sitting in the shelter and enjoying one of the best Milky Way views in your life!

↑ ↑ Next day our friend came back with his car and took us to the city. Along the way we made quite a few stops. A stop to see a huge runway for the alien spaceship with an intergalactic laser gun in the middle of it, for instance.

Ok, in fact is was just an old British abandoned oil well. But I was standing there staring it like I had just landed on the moon. For me it was the most epic place in Iran.

↑ ↑ Our next stop was Shiraz. Friendly guys at the hotel reception gave us many recommendations, and as they didn’t have much work to do, they took a car and went with us. Maybe if they had known that we would spend four hours photographing around a pink lake, they would have changed their minds. Too late.

↑ ↑ We decided to take a rest the next day and set our alarms to 12am. It sounded like a perfect plan except that I woke up at 6am and couldn’t get sleep anymore. So I sacrificed myself and went out to take a few pictures of the Persian architecture for our grannies. Although I can usually barely see any beauty in buildings, I have to admit that Iranian ones have some magic.   

↑ ↑ In the evening we used the Iranian VIP night teleportation service once again to move to the north. Every time I say my name in any foreign country, the receiver always asks: “Can you spell it, please?” But it didn’t happen in Iran. “They are good,” I thought, until we asked someone to read our names out loud from our tickets. “The Tourist,” he read. Some secrets should stay as they are.

That wasn’t our one and only Persian lesson that day. When we arrived to a new city, we were roaming across it because, once again, we didn’t have a place to sleep. Finally we found a building which looked like a hotel, so I asked a guy standing nearby whether they have a free room. That’s how the game began.

It wasn’t a hotel, but he texted something onto the phone and made us to take a photo of it – before we were instructed to go along the road until we would find a guy with a big black sign. Because of the language barrier we didn’t really get whether he meant 500 meters far from there or 5 km. So we waved to a taxi driver and showed him this mysterious photo with written message. He nodded and let us in. In few hundred meters we saw an old man with the black sign. Taxi driver told him something, said ‘bye’ to us with a big kind smile and disappeared without asking any money. We changed cars and the old man took us to his house. That’s how we found our accommodation for that day without really realizing what had just happened.

↑ ↑ The next morning this old man took us to the salt terraces nearby. Very nice place with a variety of very photogenic objects. I hit the record number of the pictures taken there per hour. Starting with the terraces which looked like rice terraces (well, with sand only) in Vietnam, continuing with nice mountains and ending with white bleached rock. There was also a little businessman – ten years old boy selling small sculptures made out of clay. Let me tell you something – if only everyone smiled once a day like he did, no one could possibly become a bitter old man or woman.

While I was focusing on another shot, I heard: “Hey, are you Russian?“ This is how we met Scott. A Brazilian guy with his Iranian wife and her family. They invited us to their house as they lived “right around the corner”. Checking the map though, we found out that the corner is 150 km far away. Moreover they were complete strangers to us and we were already planning to go exactly the opposite direction. So we had to tell them that… we’re coming!

But a bit later.

↑ ↑ We had a photo night ahead. We pitched our tent in the mountains and got ready for the Milky Way. After the sunset it got damn cold but around 9pm the sky performance began and we didn’t care about the cold anymore. Until that day I didn’t really understand the fishermen sitting on the lake bank for hours and hours, checking their rods. I got it there as we were basically doing the same from 9pm to 3am. We were just using cameras instead of rods and staring at the sky instead of the lake surface.  

↑ ↑ Our goal for the next day was to visit Scott. The first obstacle we faced was 0 transportation. We asked several drivers at the parking lot but everyone just arrived and no one intended to leave. So we started to walk. In ten minutes of walking in the oven a motorbike stopped. I must say that riding a bike alone is much more comfortable than sharing it with three people with bags. But it was still much better than going 20 km on foot in 40°C. He left us to the first gas station – a first sign of the civilization again. We had lunch. It was 12am. The sun was shining like it would never set and Jenda’s neck couldn’t take it anymore. We were hoping that someone would stop soon and end our torture… and we were lucky!

↑ ↑ 130 km later our new driver finally dropped us to Semnan. Scott picked us up from the bus stop and invited for a dinner. So we got to experience the real Iranian hospitality, once again! Among all the foods there was a yellow lemonade on the table. We were told that it is good for digestion and also for… many other things. Basically it is a Miracle able to heal everything, but it can also kill when overdosed. Anyway it was really tasty, so we were drinking one glass after another. I had no clue that this beverage is made of saffron, the most expensive spice in the world. For those who are as dumb as me, here comes a little education room: the saffron spice is a stigma of the saffron flower. Every bloom has only three stigmas and no harvest machine exists (yet). So someone has to pick 450 000 stigmas from 150 000 blooms by hands to collect 1 kg of saffron spice.

Crazy.

Before we came up with our typical question: „Where will we go today?“, Scott mentioned the beautiful place at the Caspian sea coast called Ramsar. So our plan was set. They helped us to get a shared taxi without any “extra tourist fee”, and gave us a goodbye present. Agate and Amethyst. „Whoa, that must be precious!“ we reacted by surprise. „Yeah, but there are plenty of it in the desert behind the city. We can find new ones.“ Our backpacks became 1 kg of precious stones heavier.

When we arrived to Ramsar, ramadan had just ended. I cannot describe that relief for us. That pleasant feeling of eating in public.

↑ ↑ As the time was running fast, we had only two more days in Iran, so we wanted to use that time as much as we could. It was still a morning. We bought the bus tickets departing at 15:30. Plenty of time, so we found a small waterfall on the map and decided to visit it. It was called Javaherdeh and it was only 5 km far from us. We took the shared taxi but it didn’t stop where we wanted to get out. It left us confused and we asked the English speaking passenger where exactly are we going to.

„We’re going to Javaherdeh, as you wished.“

„And when will we be there?“

„In 45 minutes. Around 1pm. It’s a really beautiful place. You must stay there at least 2 days. How long are you staying here?“

„Well, our bus is leaving at 15:30.“

„Okey, but which day?“

„Today.“

He couldn’t believe what he just heard. As soon as we got off the car, he pulled out his phone and called to the bus station to reschedule our ride. But the next bus with available seats was leaving the day we were supposed to be already at the airport. He could barely hide his sadness because we didn’t have time to explore his beautiful village. He showed us the direction to another waterfall which was the only place we could possibly manage to visit time wise. It was 1 pm. The waterfall was 20 minutes of walking and at 2 pm we had to head back to catch our bus. As our seats were the last available seats in the next two days, I have to admit that I had a bit of adrenaline rushing through my veins when we caught the bus just a few minutes before the departure. And when we then noticed our driver playing games on his phone while driving, we realized that it wasn’t the last adrenaline we’d experience.

↑ ↑ We got back to Tehran around 12pm and started to solve our usual problems. Where are we? And where will we sleep? Before we even opened the map, there were two Iranian girls offering us help. After ten minutes we had a hotel, a driver to pick us up and amazing Iranian friends.

Let me tell you something. This country has plenty of amazing things to offer: architecture, nature, culture, food. But the best thing about Iran are definitely the people! I’ll share one part of our conversation with Mahdieh, one of the girls. She told us that when she travels and finds herself in trouble, someone always appears and offers help. And that’s why they were so brave to approach two strangers in the middle of the night and offer them help. They were just returning kindness they had received from other people before. A powerful philosophy that can change the world for a better place. Always pay it forward!

↑ ↑ Tehran was completely different after the end of ramadan. The streets which only offered closed shops and a few people before were now full of people and FOOD. I prefer this version of Iran.

↑ ↑ Our last day in Iran. Let’s use it! Right out of the city there was a cableway which can take people up to 4000 meters above the sea level. The last part was closed, so we went to only 3000. Mountains were obviously amazing. Finally the temperature was bearable, the air was breathable and as we were looking towards Tehran, we realized why it takes two hours to get from one side of the city to another.

We were relaxing, enjoying the view, taking photos. The peaceful silence was interrupted by Jenda: „Is it just me, or the cableway doesn’t move anymore?“ I focused my eyes on the steady rope hanging in the air and after a few seconds I confirmed his worries. The cableway station was closed and we were left alone. Shit. Our airplane was about to leave in 10 hours. Let the game begin… once again.

↑ ↑ Our first problem occurred as soon as we started to go down. Dogs. Iran doesn’t have the best reputation regarding the street or shepherd dogs, as they really can make your day… quite bad. We were lucky. Our only problem with these dogs was to hold ourselves back not to take toooo many photos of these little cute creatures, and go and catch that damn airplane! As we were supposed to go down the hill by the cableway, we had no useless heavy items like food or water. Only one kilogram of the precious stones…

↑ ↑We managed to get to the city slightly after dusk, so we had time to meet our new friend from the day before. During these few hours we got to know much more about Iran than we had absorbed within the past two weeks. She showed us the city and thanks to her we finally tasted some delicious Iranian food and got to know many tips. I wish we knew all of that two weeks before. But hey, better late than never! So now we didn’t use the taxi to get to the airport. Oh no, we used the local drivers via a mobile app. Because now, we weren’t those stupid tourists anymore!!!

Airport check-in. I was wondering whether my backpack would pass again, because, thanks to the precious stones and food I bought, the weight was twice higher than the luggage limit. Everything went well. I was ready to go but suddenly another guy came to the check-in desk and ordered to weigh the luggage. The weight not only surprised him, but me as well… Anyway, then we were clearly told that the fee for the luggage is 55 euros. I had thought about it in advance so I actually only had the cheapest tent with me that I could leave behind if needed. I started to pull my stuff out of the bag, fitting it into my pockets and calculating the price of equipment I might need to leave to the airport…

…meanwhile Jenda found out that he had lost his camera. When you happen to lose your shoes, your kidney, or your kid, well it sucks. But losing your camera with pictures of Iran in two weeks in it… that is really bad, that is an emergency. After searching every inch of the airport we got to our beloved check-in desk. It was there! Moreover, the guy who made us weigh our bags, was on his way to the security gate to wait for us and return the camera. Amazing people!

When the problem no. 1 (camera) was solved, we returned to the problem no. 2. I realized that the value of all the things I had to leave to the airport was higher than the fee for an extra luggage. And the third problem had occurred. We only had 100 euro bill which was too big for change, and then 50 euro bill which was not enough. So I collected all of my Iranian rials with the value of 2 or 3 euros. The guy started to laugh watching us collecting all the little money and then gave us the ticket for the luggage.

We still had 30 000 rials left though. “Great, we can finally buy a postcard!” we cheered ourselves up.

“Hello, how much for these postcards? We would like 6 of them.”

“One is 40 000 rials.”

“Hm, sorry, we don’t have that much.”

It was impossible not to notice her confusion. She just saw wealthy European guys who didn’t have enough money to buy a single postcard. 

Then we were hoping to buy a bottle of water instead.

“Sorry guys, but the water is 40 000 rials. But give me thirty and the rest is a gift from me.”

And that’s how Iranians kept showing their kindness until the very last moments in this amazing country! I am very grateful for the opportunity to meet all of them.

Jirka /the trip took place in May 2019/

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