The “Axis of Evil” — Iran.

The Bazargan border crossing into Iran

**Disclaimer; The internet connections have become so poor or non exisitant that we will have to update our posts with more images and video clips once we get a better connection.**

Well, we are in it now!

Under the George bush administration Iran was classified as the axis of evil and an enemy of modern day democracy and freedom.

A little history. Iran, is arguably the oldest civilization on earth. The Persian culture has existed for over 2600 years and has been host to organised populations for 4000 years.

Fast forward to 1951, Mohammad Mossadegh had nationalized the British owned Anglo-Iranian oil company. He was elected prime minister only to be overthrown in a coup organized by the CIA and the British in 1953. If interested, a good history lesson and easy read is a book called “All The Shah’s Men”

In the 1979 Iranian revolution. After months of demonstrations, crackdowns, and more demonstrations. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi leaves Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini returns and turns a broad based revolutionary movement into a victory for hard line Islamic forces. A referendum confirms Iran as an Islamic republic. Almost immediately the Islamic republic was viewed suspiciously and accused of adopting confrontational policies designed to promote other Islamic revolutions. A group of conservative students storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and take 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. A special forces rescue fails

Because of Iran’s geo political stance, economic sanctions are imposed on the country and have remained in place to this day. 20th century mullahs said “our religion is our politics and our politics are our religion”

Brings us to July 2015, an agreement, and history, has been made. The sanctions will begin to be lifted and Iran is apparently rejoicing over the potential economic benefits that may become possible.

Our experiences:

Hossein, what a diamond in the rough. He is a retired tourism director who helps with importing people’s vehicles (among other things) such as Mongol Ralliers. He is rather opinionated and shares a strong opinion towards the Islamic Republic and its mullahs. He used to be a tour guide as well, but has since had his privilege revoked as he refused to write his reports on his tour group in as much detail as the police wanted to see. He has also shared his opinions with us about the sanctions and what is really going on, at least in his eyes or the eyes of the average Iranian. He has a pretty wild story and I am willing to share in private. But we cannot write it in this post.

Hossein and Matt in Turkey before we crossed into Iran

The Iranian border, Bazargan. It took us seven hours to deal with formalities and that was with the help of hossein, who knows the process well. There was a Swiss team who was there for over 24 hours trying to sort the vehicle import and paper work out themselves. After multiple bribes they eventually were let in shortly after Our group. We learned an Iranian saying; ‘everything is forbidden in Iran, but everything is possible.’ A direct reference to bribery and corruption. Iran is also our first country where we don’t stand a chance at reading any signage. Everything is written in squiggly lines.

Our guide, Milad, was about our age and seemed to be as relaxed as he was allowed to be. Driving from bazargan immediately people were honking waving and yelling from their cars “where are you from?” And “welcome to Iran”. It is an interesting contrast between how friendly everyone is vs the reputation of the government and the military. Even Milad seemed nervous every time we saw a military check point.

The Aras river. We took the scenic route to Tabriz along the Azerbaijan border and the Aras river. Very scenic drive with the caucus mountains in the desert. The river cooled the air ever so slightly, which makes a big difference under that middle eastern sun. The road was loaded with military check points, we just smiled and waved and breezed through them all. We visited the St Santostephanos church along the river on our way to Tabriz.

St Santostephanos church

Gas. Filling up our car with 36 litres cost 312,000 rials, totalling $10 USD or $0.26/litre.

Our convoy is quite the spectacle, every time we stop we have loads of Iranians stopping to talk, causing traffic jams and being overly friendly. Everyone welcomes you to Iran. We have people giving us phone numbers incase we get lost, suggesting places to visit, food to eat, taking pictures with us, or just making sure we are comfortable.

As we continue towards the heart of Iran from Tabriz to Qazvin it’s become difficult to maintain any preconceptions we had about Iran. The people of Iran love us and the fact that we chose to come to visit. This must be what celebrities feel like, ha! We are consistently handed snacks and fruit from the windows of moving cars on the freeway. Every time we stop we are asked to be in photos, drink tea and talk. We arrived late in Qazvin, check into our hotel and go for a big dinner of garlic yogurt, salad, stuffed olives, rice and shishlek all for under $20 CAD. At dinner we discussed what we could do on our way into Tehran the next day. The option to drive iran’s most dangerous road to Alamut castle was brought to the table. Naturally the group voted for the drive.

The Tabriz Bazaar

The road was loaded with steep inclines and sharp turns with drop offs to nowhere. We made it all safe and relatively sound. The view was incredible from the top of the 2200 meter Alborz mountain. On the way to Tehran we stopped to eat. We had an Iranian lamb stew called Dizi with rice and flat bread. Derreck had rice, no vegetarian options were available. Although some Iranians claim that lamb is in fact a vegetable.

Alamut Castle

Coming into Tehran we experienced the dreaded Tehrani rush hour traffic jams and chaotic driving style. Good fun. We were also told about a car in Iran, the Kia Pride, that is very unsafe and has apparently killed more Iranians then revolution.

Tehran, looking north from the Milad tower

All this about everyone being so friendly is all well and done. The potential caveat to what we experienced is that most of these interactions were with families and small groups of friends around our age. We have avoided large groups of people, police and military, and anyone else that seems a little aggravated or wanting to discuss politics or religion.

Tehran Traffic, 3 lanes makes five!

In Tehran we went to some shrines, museums and up the Milad tower for a view of Tehran. A highlight was the cab driver we ended up with getting to the tower. He was about our age and waited for us to finish at the tower. When we came back down he had a game of darts set up. We ended up spending some time joking around and listening to Iranian pop music before we drove to the former U.S. Embassy, aka “the U.S. Den of espionage”. He spoke about as much English as we spoke Farsi.

We also had the chance to discuss the sanctions and life in Tehran with some more affluent Iranians from the north of the city. They were optimistic about the possibilities that the nuclear deal and sanctions being lifted could bring to their business. They also stated that Iran, and Tehran specifically, has “schizophrenia” meaning that things are not all as they appear. There is more then meets the eye. The former U.S. Embassy was a huge layer peeling back. First, We were not allowed to go inside, even though it was open. second, there was anti USA rhetoric painted on the walls of the compound and even a quote from Khomeini himself “We will make America face a severe defeat”

The “US Den Of Espionage”, the corner wall of the former embassy
The above mentioned billboard

After the embassy we went to a back ally Tehran tea and sheesha house. We ended up befriending a group of Iranian men, they were very nice and helpful, however when the conversation turned to politics we quickly changed the subject!

Sheesha and Tea in Tehran and our new found friends

Esfahan, on our way one of the cars in the convoy broke down and we spent the day in a desert town in 45+ degree heat waiting for the car to be fixed. Once it was fixed we made our way to Esfahan. What a surprise, it was full of trees and had the most beautiful architecture we have seen in Iran so far! Iran is loaded with caravansary’s across the entire country. These are 16th century hotel type places for caravans to stop and spend the night in safety on their way to Mecca. Most of them are just left alone to crumble over time. If these were in Europe anywhere they would have an entrance fee and be heavily guarded. But here in Iran they are left all alone.

The Royal Square in Esfahan
Caravansary

Mashhad. The holiest city in Iran because it is home to the Imam Reza Shrine. The scale and size was very impressive. 40 million pilgrims visit every year and it’s open 24 hours a day, we were lucky enough to be allowed to go into the shrine during a prayer for about 10 mins. There were thousands of people. Pretty neat to see. We were taken into a back room where we were given “a gift from the shrine” a convert to Islam book and some Saffron rock sugar for tea. We were then told “you are in a very special place, now you must go” What a last night in Iran!

Mashad outside the Imam Reza Shrine
One of the preyer “rooms” that we were allowed to see
The main preyer area in the Imam Reza Shrine
Milad, and our group inside the Imam Reza Shrine, Mashad, Iran

Leaving Iran was similar to entering, but a little less hectic. The usual corrupt border crossing, attempts at extortion and bribes. This is exactly the paradox between the people of Iran and the government of Iran.

I was asked if I feel safe. Generally yes. The most dangerous things that have happened are one of the teams had a car pass so closely it took off their rear view mirror. An undercover “cop” flashed his badge at our convoy driving in Tehran, we ignored him and kept driving and he went away. And there was one dodgy interaction with some large men covered in scars, and Avoiding conversations about politics. We had a few run ins with the police, one was them mistaking the United Kingdom Union Jack for the Israeli flag, the other was a standard document check. There is also a rumor that one of the other rally convoys had to make a mad dash for the Iran border as they were threatened to be arrested. But from our experience this doesn’t sound entirely unprovoked.

Overall Iran has been a positive experience and was much more then we expected. It is a complicated country with many layers to all aspects of life. It’s difficult to explain. But I think I’ve got a better grasp of what we were told on our first day. In Iran everything is forbidden, but anything is possible.

Onto Turkmenistan!

Click HERE for all our IRAN photos!

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