This is the article I wrote for The Iranian, for their May '97 issue.

See the photos !
Read about our trip : by car from Belgium to Iran and back !

In our tent in Bandar-e-Turkoman...

Luckily things were
a bit different

Written and photographed by Jan Van Assche
The Iranian
May 1997

During the summer of 1996 my wife Ayse and I traveled in Iran for about five weeks. We decided to go to Iran because we wanted to see what was true of all the stories we heard about it, especially through the Western media.

We had learned some Persian words before we left, but in Iran we managed to get around with Turkish (my wife is Turkish and I speak some Turkish as well). We flew to Istanbul and then we went overland to Dogubeyazit, in the east of Turkey. At Bazargan we crossed the border and from there to traveled overland to Tabriz, Sanandaj, Kermanshah, Hamadan, Tehran, Qom, Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd, Kerman, Bam, Shiraz and Bushehr.

From Bushehr we took a flight to Rasht on the Caspian coast and stopped in a couple of towns near the sea. We also went to Bandar-e-Turkoman and then on to Mashhad, with short stops in Minudasht and Bojnurd. We spent about 4 days in Mashhad and from there we flew back to Tabriz and then back to Turkey... a fantastic trip!

We've traveled quite a lot before and we always do everything on our own, i.e. not organized. You get to see a lot more of the country that way and you meet people in a lot of different situations. This of course also meant that I had to take care of my visa myself. Ayse didn't need one, because she was travelling with her Turkish passport. So a couple of months before we left I contacted the Azadi International Tourism Organization in Tehran by fax. That was the only address I had. It took me about 3 months to obtain my visa and I thought "well, if this is how things will work in Iran, then..." But luckily things were a bit different.

In Sanandaj the hotel manager woke us early in the morning and told us that the police had come at night and they had taken our passports with them. They had told the manager that we had to come to the police station to pick up our passports. At first we were a bit concerned about all this, but we were treated in a very friendly manner by the officer in charge. He only spoke Farsi and very little English, so he called in an Azari soldier to translate everything in Turkish.

They just had to make sure that we were married. Luckily we were (what would have happened if we weren't?!). As a precaution we had taken an official form with us from Belgium, as proof of our marriage. The officer just looked at the form and then the Turkish-speaking soldier asked me "Is this wife yours?" I nodded and the officer gave us back our passports. We were a bit nervous at the time, but afterwards we laughed about the situation. In fact, this was our only contact with Iranian police.

All Iranians are very curious toward Western travelers and we got in touch with people quite easily. In Kermanshah people invited us to come and join their picnic in the small park near Bistoon. At first I thought they were chasing us away, but then we saw that they were calling us to join them. We spent the whole afternoon with the whole family and we really had a great time, even though communicating was a bit difficult at times.

The place that I liked best in Iran was Mashhad; a very unique city indeed. I really liked the atmosphere there and that's also where we made the most friends. We met a family from Zanjan who were staying at our mosafer-khaneh (inn) and we spent all of our spare time with them. They were in Mashhad to visit the tomb of Imam Reza, Iran's holiest religious shrine. Together we visited it a couple of times. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers and to our surprise they called us when we got back to Belgium.We also visited Ismail, whom we had met in Yazd, and we went to Ferdosi's tomb in Tus, near Mashhad. I recommend visiting Mashhad to everyone and I do hope we can go back there in future.

We also stayed overnight at Bandar-e-Turkoman, because we wanted to go to the Turkmen market. There are no hotels in this small town, so a taxi-driver took us to a holiday tent camp near the seaside. We managed to persuade the soldiers to let us stay there for the night. Actually we persuaded the old Turkmen guard by talking Turkish. He was really surprised, but we understood each other really well. He got one of the tents ready for us and at night the soldiers brought us some chicken and the old man gave us tea and bread. In return we gave them some gaz candy from Isfahan and sohan sweets from Qom.

Another place which will remain in my memory forever is Bandar Bushehr on the Persian Gulf coast. But not for the same pleasant reasons as Mashhad. On the contrary, we had to go to Bushehr to get a flight to Rasht. All the flights from Shiraz were booked and we didn't want to go by bus... so we decided to go to Bushehr instead. Boy, was that a mistake!

The heat was unbearable. I've experienced high temperatures before in Pakistan and southeast Asia, but this was terrible.We arrived in Bushehr around one in the afternoon and on top of the heat, we couldn't find a place to stay. So we just walked around with our backpacks in deserted streets; no people, no cars, no nothing, just us. Two fools walking around in this sizzling town! At last we managed to find a hotel with sir conditioning -- thanks to Assaadola, a man from Khorramabad who was stuck in town as well.

Apart from two domestic flights, we went everywhere by ground transportation. Bus rides are very cheap by Western standards. And I think we sat in every imaginable version of a Paykan, the Iranian national car. I don't think there are two identical cars in the whole country.

During our trip we met a lot of people, some of them became really good friends. This was one of the most exiting things: meeting people in the streets and getting to know each other. The hospitality of the Iranians was really overwhelming and they will be in our memories forever.

You can also read more articles about Iran in the travel section at The Iranian.

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