Iran – Tabriz & Qazvin & Tehran & Abyaneh

Country # 2 of our overland journey! Exiting Turkey and entering Iran via the Bazargan border crossing was a breeze. We quickly exchanged money at the border and instantly became multi-millionaires, ha. The Iranian currency is still a bit confusing, as there as so many zeros on each note (100,000 Rials = $3) and the locals often interchange Tomans and Rials when quoting prices to us (10 Rials = 1 Toman). Confused yet? So were we, but eventually we got the hang of it. From the border crossing, we went directly to a bush camp near our local guide’s (Hossein) village. After setting up our tents, the locals showed up in force with open arms, musical instruments and snacks. They sang and danced and were super excited to welcome us to Iran…what a reception!!! All of us have felt like rock stars in Iran with the locals going wild to take selfies with us. Iranians have been so incredibly welcoming and kind, even more so since our first visit back in 2004. The attention is overwhelming and exhausting at times, with everyone eager to talk to us at every corner, and offerings of free food and drinks are commonplace. We’ve been in countless selfies and videos…this must be how celebrities feel!

Our first few days were spent in Tabriz, Qazvin, Tehran and Abyaneh. Facebook in banned in Iran and the internet is shockingly slow so updates will be slow to come.

17 May – After getting stamped out of Turkey, no man’s land was a mere 10 meters so we were on Iranian soil in no time. Once officially in Iran, we were directed to a tourism office. The lady there had us fill out some vital information, gave us an informal interview and consolidated all our passports once she realized we were a large group. It was a fairly easy process with the only interesting thing to note that all UK and USA passports were separated with the rest of the group allowed to proceed back to the truck. We had to ink our fingers for fingerprint cards because as the Iranian representative apologetically explained it was a “tit for tat” retaliation since our governments require all Iranian tourists to do the same. Fair enough…we completely understood and had to repeatedly assure her that it was all OK. Then we were in Iran! Whoopee…easy border crossing. A furious black market for Iranian Rials was being conducted right at the border, so we exchanged our last 30 Liras for 33000 Rials and $200 for 6600000 Rials with the exchange rate about 33,000 Rials to the Dollar. After loading up the truck and driving a few hundred meters, we were flagged down by the border police who informed Kate that all US citizens had to return with their passports for one last bit of processing. Kate volunteered to collect and process them on our behalf and the Iranian official agreed, so we waited for an extra 30 minutes for the final bit of admin to be conducted.

Lunch was just down the road in an empty lot where we waited to meet our mandatory Iran guide who was to escort us throughout our entire time in the country. He finally showed up and we were introduced to Hossein, a good looking young guy who specializes in motorcycle tours. It was music to our ears to hear that the men could wear short sleeves and flip-flops. Women could also wear flip-flops but they had to stay covered up at all times other than inside our hotel rooms. Hossein then escorted us to our first bush camp near Marand. After setting up our tents locals started to show up on motorcycle and by the truck load to say hello. The circus was in town! Even the shepherds minding their huge flocks of sheep and goat came in for a closer look. After dinner, two locals provided some impromptu entertainment with a tambourine and traditional type of guitar like instrument. He sang the first few rounds and was keen on us to start dancing for him, but no one was really game. It was all a bit too surreal being surrounded by locals filming us on their cell phones and demanding that we perform for them. Dance monkey, dance! The ladies had the perfect excuse since we had been told local women don’t perform in front of large groups of men. But the guys were free game, and after relentless pressure, Robby, Andy and Anthony reluctantly gave it a go much to the merriment of the locals. Poor Kyle was the last guy singled out and he wasn’t having any of it. After adamantly refusing several times, the locals finally dragged him out to the center of the makeshift circle but Kyle escaped as soon as possible. Thankfully the locals caught the hint when we started packing up the kitchen around 10 pm and they quickly said their goodbyes before leaving us in peace. Welcome to Iran!

18 May – Today we were driving to Tabriz. We were making good time as we drove towards the city, so Becky asked Kate if it would be possible for the truck to take us to the nearby village of Kandovan, also known as Iran’s very own Cappadocia. Kate checked with Kyle since it would be a bit of extra driving on his part but he was game, so we took a vote and it was a unanimous decision to delay our arrival to Tabriz and visit Kandovan as a group. Yay! Once there, we were treated like celebrities with all the locals begging to take photos with us. The curiosity, excitement and adoration was incredible. Everyone felt like rock stars and we happily agreed to pose in countless photos or selfies. Everywhere we went, locals were filming us with their phones…Lord knows we don’t make interesting subject matter but the locals seemed thrilled to have a truck load of tourists visiting in town and they made no effort to hide their excitement. Little Cappadocia doesn’t compare to the real deal, but we enjoyed our quick excursion out to this small village. After a quick truck lunch stop near Kandovan, we drove back to Tabriz. This massive sprawling city was a bit tricky for Kyle to navigate, and we ended up driving round and round in circles looking for our hotel, the Darya (close to the industrial part of town near the train station). After getting settled in to our rooms, we were keen on checking out Tabriz’s famous bazaar but quickly discovered we were about an 8km taxi ride or 2 hour walk away. So instead we just wandered around the hotel area to check out the nearby surroundings. Becky’s cook group had to shop in Tabriz tomorrow, so she was on the lookout for bakeries, supermarkets and local produce stores. Restaurants were few and far between, and the shopping selection seemed sparse but we eventually spotted an area that looked promising. After running into Ichi and Lars on the street, we quickly gave them a rundown of our impromptu tour around the area when a local business owner ran out of his store to give us gifts of orange juice and alcohol free beer, along with paper cups so we could enjoy our refreshments. People in Iran are insanely kind and welcoming! Can you imagine someone in the US doing that to foreign visitors hanging outside their storefront? No freaking way. Back at the hotel, we took a quick shower before linking up with the group for dinner. Thankfully Helen and Gill had found a local place serving up kebabs with sufficient seating for our large group. The waiter and chef spoke no English but they showed us the various skewers they could whip up and we used sign language to place our order. Each kebab was served with a 3 foot long slab of bread and a garlic yogurt…yum! Our meal was under $5 each even with all of us picking up Kate and Kyle’s tab, which was good value. Back at the hotel, we unhappily discovered that Iran does indeed block Facebook and a wide variety of websites. Our VPN software also didn’t work so we were out of luck for the time being until we could figure out a workaround. The wifi signal was pretty crap in the room so we just checked email and called it a night.

19 May – Today’s Tabriz city tour was scheduled for 10 am, so we got up at 7 am for breakfast . Kate informed us that Hossein had texted to inform her that he’d be running late, and would be at the hotel at noon instead. That gave us a bit more time to kill in the morning, so Becky decided to take advantage of the delay by doing cook group shopping right away so the rest of the day could be dedicated to seeing the sights. The shopping budget in Iran was pretty generous (1.2 Million Rials for the 17 of us) and we didn’t end up spending all of it so we gave Kate the difference. Since the truck was parked on the street outside the hotel under the hot sun, we decided to store our cook group food in the fridges in the room since we had bought chicken, cheese and yogurt that had to remain cool. Becky acquired a case of water which we stuck in the freezer to have some ice for tomorrow’s long drive day. Back in the lobby, it quickly became obvious at noon that Hossein was a no-show. By 12:45, Kate told us that he would be in Tabriz in another 90 minutes if we were so inclined to wait for a guided city tour but all of us were fed up waiting for him by that point so we hailed several taxis and made a beeline for the bazaar (80,000 Rials for the 8 km journey split between 4 people). Everyone dispersed straight away once we hit the bazaar so we made our way to the tourist information office for a map of the city and lo and behold, SCUBA Gill and Dya were already there flirting their way into getting as much information out of the friendly staff! Good going girls! We decided to hang with them for the rest of the day, which ended up being great fun. First stop was lunch. Nasar from the tourist office showed us a nearby local restaurant that was underground. Two thumbs up…good service, good food and cheap prices. We were quite happy with the recommendation. Becky ordered the dezi (lamb and chick pea stew), which was their specialty. Robby, Dya and Gill ordered the kebabs and were quite satisfied. Total bill for our meals and drinks came out to 100,000 Rials each (about $3). Our afternoon self guided city tour of Tabriz was the following: Arch of Alishash, City Hall and the Blue Mosque. Dya befriended a local man at the Blue Mosque and ended up giving him all her contact info and her social media accounts. He even linked their two cell phones together and we joked that she was going to find all her bank accounts drained because he was a very competent IT specialist who was going to town with her phone, ha. The rest of the group caught back up with us at the Blue Mosque but we left them as we headed over to Elgoli Park, a decent taxi ride away. It was a pleasant place for a stroll and again, we were inundated with requests for photos and selfies. This must be how celebrities feel and to be honest, its quite exhausting to always have to be on your best behavior, serving your role as an ambassador of your country. This one interaction could have a huge impact on how your country is judged, so we tried our best to be kind, patient, friendly and happy with the relentless requests. The rest of the group again caught up with us, and we saw Anthony happily munching away on an ice cream in a waffle cone (3 scoops for 30,000 Rials). Jealous of the happy look on his face, we sauntered up to the same ice cream parlor and got some of our very own. Getting back to the hotel was quite the adventure with 3 taxis happily accepting our business. The drivers were maniacs, wildly cutting in and out of traffic. They wouldn’t even stop for pedestrians, picking up speed at the cross walks and daring anyone to cross the street. Once safely back at the hotel, we breathed a sigh of relief and were grateful to have arrived in one piece. Dinner was with the group at 8 pm but once we saw that it was headed to a local fast food pizza joint, we immediately declined and went back to yesterday’s restaurant. It was a good call since pizza in Iran is made with ketchup…eeew! Lars led the group to a local shisha joint after dinner but the girls discovered to their dismay that it was a mens only club so only Mark, Robby and Lars ended up partaking.

20 May – After our 7 am breakfast of minamin (a Turkish dish of eggs sautéed with onions and tomatoes), we loaded up on the truck and drove onward towards Tehran, with plans to bush camp tonight. Hossein joined us on the truck and loaded up his luggage in the compartment next to ours, so Mark had to relocate his expensive camera gear. Kate served up a truck lunch, and in the late afternoon we had a brief stop in the town of Qazvin. The town is famous for having the largest underground cistern in Iran (Sardar Big Cistern), which we paid an overpriced 50,000 Rials to enter (only 10,000 for locals and free for guides). We had a few minutes to check out the rest of Qazvin so we hurriedly rushed off to see the Jameh Mosque and Ali Qapu Gate (a 16th century gateway to the Forbidden inner city). Only later did we realize we shouldn’t have taken photos at the Ali Qapu gate since today it houses a police headquarters. Luckily we got away with it, and we had just enough time to score some cold chocolate milk at a nearby supermarket before heading out of town for a bush camp. We drove for quite a while before we found a suitable location, away from the prying eyes of curious locals in the village of Khoznan (possibly Ziyaran). Cook group 3 (Becky, Andy, Ichi) made chicken fajitas which were a treat. Cooking by gas took a while because our campsite was quite windy and the vegetables and meat took forever to cook down. After dinner, we threw a kettle on for a rare cup of hot tea before calling it a night.

21 May – Today we were headed to Tehran! Since our bush camp wasn’t too far out, we were in the capital before lunch. Kyle stopped at Liberty Square on the drive in, offering us an opportunity for a brief photo stop. Our hotel in Tehran was the very pleasant Ziba Hotel, not far away from quite a few of Tehran’s sights. We checked in and had unpacked when Andy came knocking on our door. Since we had been given a twin room and he and Gunji had been giving a double, we had to switch with them…no biggie except Becky had just dropped the kids off in the bathroom, so what a nice surprise from those two when they check out the toilet facilities. Since Helen and Anthony were keen on seeing the same stuff as us, we linked up with them and Ichi and Lars to the former US Embassy (now referred to at the “US Den of Espionage”). It was a solid 30 minute walk away and we were able to take photos there even though our guide book had warned us it would be hit or miss, depending on who was nearby. As we made our way around the compound, Anthony was warned by a watchful guard to put his camera away so he warned the rest of us and we quickly complied. Ichi and Lars left to see a palace located on the city outskirts, while the rest of us backtracked towards the hotel in search of lunch. On the street, we were constantly being offered free drinks to try (our favorite was the one with tiny passion fruit seeds floating around in it). Apparently throughout the day around the entire city, free items were being handed out to all passersby. We saw free flowers, drinks, snacks, and later heard that free ice-cream was given to everyone. After happily gulping down our free drinks, we found a chicken rotisserie shack which was good value with a whole chicken, salad, bread and drinks costing the 4 of us 250,000 Rials total. After lunch, we walked over to the Golestan Palace which would have cost a whopping 950,000 Rials to see all the sights. Instead, we opted to pay for the main halls which was still quite expensive at 300,000 Rials a piece (150,000 Rials for entry into the Palace grounds and another 150,000 Rials for a special ticket for the main hall). No photos were allowed inside the mirrored main hall, although Robby managed to surreptitiously take a few. To round out the rest of our Tehran sightseeing day, we strolled through the bazaar with Helen on the quest to find another long sleeve shirt to wear in Iran as she only had a single merino wool long sleeved dress to wear as an appropriate top. Mission success when she scored a long sleeved purple top for about $5. The heat of the day tuckered us out, so we head back to the hotel for a bit of rest before dinner with the group. We got lucky at dinner, finding a nearby restaurant that served up delicious lamb skewers served with rice…yum. Kate even managed to get a delicious selection of salad, olives and yogurt. Vegetarians in Iran have a hell of a time finding decent food to eat! Back at the hotel, we finally cracked the code on a suitable VPN allowed in Iran, but the wifi was so painfully slow that internet was pretty much unusable.

22 May – 7:30 am departure today since we had a long drive day making our way towards Esfahan. At lunch, Kate surprised us by announcing that we were making such great time that we could stop at the village of Abyaneh if we liked…yay! The drive to Abyaneh was scenic, and Kate used our local payment to cover the 50,000 Rial entrance fee. Even though we had visited back in 2004, Abyaneh had transformed itself since then. It is way more touristy now, catering to both foreign and domestic tourists alike. We met lots of friendly Iranians here, and again, posed for lots of photos. In addition to the scenic red hued village, the local tourists were happily dressing up in traditional garb (rented by the hour) for photo ops around the village. They happily hammed it up for the camera, striking the most outrageous poses for us…great fun. From Abyaneh, we drove onward to Esfahan, and were treated like celebrities on the main highway with guys on motorbikes riding dangerously close to cheer and wave at us. Once the locals spotted our bright big yellow truck, they started blowing their horns, cheering, waving and yelling hello to us. The first question yelled out inevitably was “Where are you from?”…the reception in Esfahan was incredible. Iranians are some of the friendly people on earth…no one ever describes this level of adoration thrown at tourists who dare to venture out and visit this magnificent country. Our lodging for the next 3 nights was at the fabulous Sunrise Hotel. Kate asked who wanted to share a quad room and Ichi and Lars joined the two of us to quickly volunteer to share. Lucky for us, our quad room was quite spacious with a double and two singles, complete with kitchen and massive bathroom. Gill, Helen, SCUBA Gill and Dya also agreed to share and they ended up with a much more compact quad room. All the quad rooms had the same bed arrangement (double with two twins) but the guys on the trip threw a huge stink about sharing a double bed together, insisting they were not homosexual and refusing to consider sharing. Poor Kate had to do her best to appease everybody and worked with the hotel staff to find a solution. In the end, the best thing she could do was add an extra mattress to the floor. The guys then drew straws to figure out who would sleep on the floor and this solution seemed to satisfy the group. We were keen on seeing the old bridges of Esfahan at night, so 9 of us shared 2 taxis to Khaju Bridge, the furthest of the 3 famous bridges. What a bustling center of activity. There were hundreds of Iranians crowding around the bridges at night, soaking up the incredibly photogenic atmosphere. Many families were picnicking, and they warmly greeted us as we walked from Khaju bridge to Joui bridge, and lastly to Siosepol Bridge. Some of the picnicking families offered us food and snacks, and insisted that we have some of their food when we politely declined. That is how we discovered the insanely delicious snack of Sohan, which is now one of our favorite things about Iran! A thin layer of crispy toffee smothered in pistachios…yum!!! It was close to 11 pm when we reached Siosepol Bridge and we were hungry for a proper dinner so we scoped out the area for food, grabbing an ice cream cone to tide us over. Eventually we settled on a restaurant called “Good Food” which served up lamb kebabs (they hit the spot). Lars had opted to stay behind taking long exposure photos so there were only 8 of us making our way back to the hotel together, which made the return taxi ride easy.

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