Entering Iran was the realization of an old dream. It had long represented one of the most exotic places of my imagination, where ancient history, cultures, desert and spices coincided. Growing up, I was marked by high contrast photographs from National Geographic of unbelievable foreignness, dark featured faces and fabrics on sandy-coloured desert backgrounds, fallen temples with strange animal-headed columns in the middle of infinitely-deep, barren landscapes.
At the same time, I was going to Iran knowing that only three weeks were left to capture as much as possible of these novel travel experiences. On the other side would be an abrupt return to real life with the unknown challenges of a new academic life in Sweden. I began to plan for it incessantly, rather than trust in what I had done on the road all along, handle logistics on site. Now a year later, I am finally posting some thoughts about it.
Certainly, one of the important lessons I took from these times is the need to have a fixed setting to debrief yourself from the intensely unique experiences of your trip. Travelling life is not necessarily dichotomous to your regular one, but you have to put in the conscious work of integrating the experiences while remediating the two. Sorting through both the piles of material documentation you have amassed and the dervishes of high intensity impressions cycling in and out of your consciousness, their sensory impacts still palpable.
I didn’t do the above well enough, but here, we, are: a speeding van out of Doğubayazıt (pronounced Doyubeyazit) heading for the border through a wide open plain with biblical Ararat keeping its watchful eye over the entire landscape from the north (left).
I kept going from the Bazarghan crossing to beautiful Azeri Turk culture bastion of Tabriz, then after a few hours got back on, woke up in Tehran enough hours to feel the morning bustle of the capital terminal and then jumped my final ride south, to a dizzying arrival in Isfahan. Nearly 40 hours in transit I counted, and it felt like I had moved through multiple countries. My feet needed to get some traction.
By the end of my first evening, I had circled breathtaking Imam Square several times and welcomed my first desert night, wandering around back alleys until I stumbled into a clearing behind the square from where I could admire the southern mosque in all its curvaceous, structural mass. The wide purpling sky was incandescent with the sun’s last rays. Just as my breathing eased with stillness, a hot sunset gust of wind lifted off the dunes northwards and bellowed up my follicles with the last of the day’s heat. I had really reached the unknown, the foreign.
After four days in Isfahan, I headed back north to get to know the capital where I had the privilege of staying with CouchSurfing hosts Nima and Tamara. Tehran is an enormous city with fascinating areas of activity and eery immobility in others. You don’t quite feel like it’s been frozen in the 70′s as some nostalgics tell you, but there is evident neglect for past constructions and infrastructure. It feels like a lot is breaking and being repaired, with no real purposed effort to take the city as a whole to a contemporary level. Monuments to the revolution are impressive and graceful. The Tehran Grand Bazaar is the largest trading place I could have ever imagined, and of course visited! The museums are filled with beauty and unique pieces (impeccable pottery from 5,000 years ago makes you question the ascending cultural curb of ‘modern civilization’). But it feels fractioned, a city alive with history, green spaces, cultural depth and obvious money, but undecided about what it stands for. Tehranis also live in their own way, choosing their clothes, food, music, media behind closed doors, tuned in to Los Angeles’ (Tehrangeles) Persian channels through unauthorized satellite dishes and Facebook via sophisticated virtual private network adapters to bypass government firewalls. It’s a place where with time, I am sure that you discover layer below layer of lifestyles and scenes existing below the schizophrenic regime, as my friend Sam has since reported.
Near the end of my stay, a friend helped me get in to Tehran University. Empty for the summer break, I walked around a little until I fortunately ended up hanging out with a group of literature and film students. Much as I had experienced since arriving, political opinions were split across the spectrum, with one telling me about his friends who were still in jail from election-time demonstrations the year before while his classmate lauded the president’s efforts to engage the public and his strong stance against foreign interference. 30 years after the ousting the shah, the country has adapted and reorganized around its new political identity. They do get to vote now that they are no longer ruled by a monarch. At every turn, I felt badly equipped and devoid of time to form a real understanding of this culture.
By the end, I was hip-deep in my Stockholm apartment searches and anxious to get at least within Turkish borders. I could feel my girlfriend’s embrace waiting for me less than two weeks away and needed to get closer. And so I left in the evening to wake up early in Tabriz again, and after hanging out with a retired military man for the morning, I made my way back to the border and crossed back in with a Turkish and French traveller, the friendly border guard asking if we might have a lighter to lend him momentarily for a smoke. I was back within two days travel time of my departure airport, but first there was Kurdistan to explore. Off to sleep in Doğubayazıt. The hostel owner tells us his son Ararat will be bringing us towels to the room while his slightly more rocky distant uncle looms beyond the walls in the soft cover of a clear night.