Take a slab of deep frozen butter and color it black and you have the image of Iran: cold, hard, unforgiving. But no sooner than you touch it, the butter melts and the true nature of Iranians comes to the fore: extremely friendly, touchingly hospitable, unbelievably helpful and deeply poetic.
The images that flash through our minds after our first week in Iran are of beautiful, untouched landscapes, charming cities and towns and people greeting us like long lost friends and going out of their way to help us. On several occasions, we felt like guardian angels appearing out of nowhere to help us in tricky situations - this started after our arrival at Bandar Abbas port on Friday, weekend day in Iran with all shops closed, so we were stranded without local money and didn't know how to pay a taxi to the hotel. Looking for someone who speaks English, we approached a police officer who also didn't speak English but when we mentioned the name of the hotel, he took keys out of his pocked and beckoned us to follow him to his car. He drove us all the way to the hotel and en route treated us to Iranian pop music at night club volume!
Tourism hasn't touched Bandar Abbas much and as we stroll along the sea we are constantly approached by local people who smile and are keen to talk to us despite the language barrier. Picnic spots are full of families enjoying the afternoon, children laugh and play. With our pathetic Farsi language skills, we try to find a restaurant, and we relish our first Iranian meal of delicious kebabs and Doogh, a drink made of yoghurt that tastes remarkably like the salty Indian Lassi.
The next day, we experience Iranian bureaucracy at its best as we are trying to get Pele, our expedition vehicle, out of Bandar Abbas port. After eight nail biting hours, we are still at the port and in disbelief. It is incredible – if there was a championship for inefficient processes, Bandar Abbas port would surely clinch the trophy! We have been sent from office to office and in total knocked on more than 15 doors, with officers and clerks filling in at least 10 different forms. Just when we think we are done, they tell us about yet another office to go to for someone else's signature or another form to fill whose purpose is as mysterious as the previous one.
Finally, we have Pele back! Relieved, we drive out and look for a garage as we didn't have time for the overdue oil change in Dubai. With the exception of French Peugeot cars, there are only locally produced Saipa cars on Iranian streets and none of the garages have oil filters for our Landcruiser. Slightly nervous, we leave Bandar Abbas hoping that we will find a fitting oil filter in the next town.
We are heading to Qeshm Island off the Iranian coast. Armed with the phone number of a local Qeshm resident who offers home stays, we catch the ferry to the island. Reaching Qeshm, we meet Mohammad, our host, who guides us to his home. A warm welcome and smiling faces of his family greet us. Mohammad doesn't believe in breathing between sentences and as we eat the simple but tasty meal, he mentions that we are invited. Since it is already past 11 pm, we presume the invite is for the next day. Wrong. We are ushered into the neighboring house of his extended family. There are about 15 people waiting for us. The women sit chattering, embroidering beautiful designs and giggling excitedly. A carrot and an orange is offered to everyone accompanied by the tasty Iranian tea. An impromptu music session follows with Hindi and Iranian songs being sung and applauded. The next morning we surprise the family with their framed photos that we took the previous night and their excitement is palpable. Soon the women and other friends join the photo session for family portraits - a memorable morning for the Memory Foundation!
Kindness has many faces in Iran! The next morning we renew our efforts to find an oil filter for Pele and bump into Ali, a racing enthusiast, who spends the next two hours taking us to various shops. We finally find one that doesn't fit and a second one, that decides to follow in the footsteps of the first one. Saying a short prayer, we ask the mechanic to try the first one again and viola - it fits! We invite Ali for lunch and he finds it difficult to fathom how one can be a vegetarian. So is the case with most Iranians and on several occasions, the vegetarian rice arrives with a hidden agenda – a whole chicken beneath the white mound!
As we make our way north towards Teheran with gorgeous landscape merging into another, we explore the highlights of central Iran - the understated elegance of Shiraz, the picturesque desert ambiance of Yazd and the imperial majesty of Esfahan.
At the colorful night market in Shiraz, young fashionable Shirazi boys and girls are out to make the most of the lively market. It is here that we meet Omir, an enterprising Afghan selling falafels. His friendly smile and the eagerness to learn a foreign language are endearing! Sunny skies and citadel walls are a perfect backdrop for a photo-session with friendly bicycle policemen the next morning. Today is a holiday on account of the death anniversary of Imam Hussein and we decide to explore the shrine that attracts Shirazis. To go inside women have to wear a Chador, a huge piece of cloth draped over the head and loosely held around the body. It is a different experience, very elegant and clumsy at the same time. Inside the shrine, Persian carpets have been rolled out for the devotees to pray. It looks more like a day out with the family than a somber event. We simply sit there for a while and soak in the atmosphere. Before leaving Shiraz, we pay homage at the shrine of the celebrated Persian poet Hafez. It is touching to see young Iranians reverentially offering flowers on the marble tomb and silently reciting Hafez' couplets while standing around it.
Our next stop is Persepolis and we get caught by the first snow of the season on the way there. The colossal ceremonial capital dating back to 515 BC is impressive even in this weather. Later that night, seated on a carpeted stand in the courtyard of our traditional hotel in the desert city of Yazd, we savor our magical 1000 and 6th night in Iran! A heritage walk through the narrow roofed lanes of the old city the next morning leaves us thoroughly charmed. We are left wanting more, but Esfahan awaits and we must move on.
Esfahan's beauty and grandeur is simply jaw-dropping – standing on Naqsh-e-Jahan, the 2nd largest square in the world which is spectacularly lit up at night, we realize that we are running out of superlatives to describe our Iran experiences! The Shah Mosque is the awe-inspiring masterpiece, horse-drawn carriages wait in the middle of the square, shops filled with friendly, witty shopkeepers line up the whole periphery, young Iranians enjoy the grand fountains and the entrance to the labyrinthine old bazaar beckons invitingly. The icing on the cake is our leisurely walk along the river and across the historic bridges. A group of old men invites us to have tea with them. Later, we see a crowd gathered to listen to impromptu singers, who start their heartfelt renderings one after the other, inviting everyone to join in by clapping to the rhythm. Suddenly, two policemen disperse the crowd. This doesn't stop the singers, however, and we spend one of the most enchanting afternoons in Iran listening to small groups singing and enjoying. Kudos to the Iranians' art and peace loving spirit that refuses to bow down in the face of hardliners.
In a park nearby, young Iranians skate board under the somber eyes of the Ayatollah - the giant photos of Imam Khomeini and Imam Khamenei are omnipresent in Iran – this scene stays with us as an iconic image of Iran's surprising and captivating contrasts.