UK to Nepal: Travels With Our Sherpa - Part 2
by Cindy Thompson
We approached the Iranian border with a little fear and in trepidation. I was suitably frumpy, shapeless and covered, with hijab (head cover, law for all women) and munto (baggy coat). Mad Max had told that as travellers in our own vehicle going through Iranian customs, women are separated from the men and had to go through a different customs procedure. We found out however that it wasn’t the women that were separated from the men, but the drivers from the passengers. The most bizarre part of customs was having an official ask if we had contraband in the form of a pack of playing cards!
‘Playing cards very dangerous in Iran.’ He told us. Iran was the first country to stamp our important Carnet de Passage document for the waiver of our vehicle import duties.
The first thing we had to do in Iran was re-fuel. Filling stations we found to be rather messy places, with fuel being so cheap it was slopped about on the ground with gay abandon. A complete contrast to English filling stations, where each extortionately priced drip was gently coaxed out of the pumps. The long queues were full of old petrol Land Rovers, old Hillman Hunters, very old Hillman Hunters, and new Hillman Hunters, They were every where! Rootes, the British company sold Hillman Hunters in kit form to Iran from 1969-87 during which time Iran could not import fully assembled cars. After 1987 Iran bought the rights to the Hillman Hunters lock, stock and barrel and started to make them under the name of Peykan. An hour later we filled our tank, four Jerry cans, bought two litre bottles of coke, and got change out of a $1 bill! (Diesel was 1p Litre!)
We only had a five day transit visa which we had been told could not be extended. Iran was 1,628 miles across via the shortest route. Visiting Isfahan and Shiraz would add roughly an extra 703 miles. Roads were excellent driving roads, in fact better than many English ones, considering that Iranians didn’t pay any road tax! They were mainly dual carriage ways between large towns, and Iranian truckers would always flash their lights and sound their musical horns as soon as they noticed that we were a foreign vehicle.
Tehran is a huge sprawling city, with a population of about 10 million. People, and was our rendezvous with our friend Hissam. We had arranged to meet him at the toll gate just outside Tehran.
As we approached the toll kiosk the attendant asked us where we were from.
‘England.’ we told him.
‘You are very welcome in Iran, the toll for you is free.’
Hissam was a psychologist and worked for a rehabilitation centre in Tehran, which helped those with drug and alcohol addiction and those who had attempted suicide. ...........Alcohol addiction in Iran! The importation and sale of alcohol was strictly prohibited and anyone caught doing so would be faced with a prison sentence and possibly death. Hissam explained that as it is impossible to buy alcohol, industrious Iranians simply made it themselves. He told us that numbers for such addictions and problems had been steadily on the increase, especially since the revolution.
‘Since the revolution the strict changes of law and conduct have left many people feeling confused, angry and rebellious. They end up being very depressed and frustrated and start to look for an escape. Addiction is a way out for some people, its very sad.’ Hissam in a sombre mood continued. ‘Iran was a beautiful, very wealthy and developed country during the time of the Shah. Although things were not perfect, Iranian citizens enjoyed freedoms then, that they can only dream of now.’ The freedoms that he spoke of were very simple things that you
or I would demand as our basic human rights. He continued. ‘Can you imagine what it must be like for a man not to be able to sit next to his wife on a public bus or to be able to take her for a game of tennis or even to be able to take his family to the beach and swim with them? Still today these things are not possible. Men must sit separate to women on public transport and on the beach women and girls must bathe under the covered section of the beach away from the men and the boys. All of these restrictions put tremendous pressures on carrying out a normal family life.’
En-route to Empire Park we passed a large housing estate West of the city, known as Ekbatan Flats. They were built in the reign of the Shah and it is said that when viewed from above, the lay out of the flats reads in Persian, Javid Shah ‘Long live the Shah.’ Apparently when the Ayatollah came to power he wanted to change the message to Javid Khomeini, ‘Long Live Khomeini’ but the project proved too costly and complicated and had to be abandoned. The Ayatollah also tried to change hospitals, by making them either for females or males, but with the mass exodus of professionals after the revolution, this also proved too problematic and had to be abandoned!
Empire Park or National Park as it was called under the Shah was a welcome break. Located in the North of Tehran it is home to some beautifully manicured lawns and gardens, a complete contrast to the drab, dusty streets of Tehran. At the weekends families and friends came by the car load to picnic and enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the gardens. The park though well kept today, must have been a sumptuous and ambitious project in the days of the Shah, especially as it was built for the general public to enjoy, with its fountains and waterfalls, small lakes and aviary. Empire Park is surrounded by trees which at the time of planting the Shah instructed that each tree be fitted with identity plates, which told of where the tree came from, its age and type. After the revolution the mullahs had all the plates removed, claiming that it was petty nonsense!
We were now beginning to enjoy Iran and her people and as a consequence wanted to extend our visas. At the Alien’s Bureau (which should translate Foreigner’s Bureau) we had to complete three duplicate forms and hand them in accompanied by three photos. The official took our paperwork, but then handed mine back.
‘What’s wrong?’ I quizzed.
‘I cannot accept these.’ said the official.
‘But why, what’s wrong with them?’ I asked.
‘Ma’am, it is forbidden under the regulations of the Islamic Republic of Iran for me to accept a photo of an unveiled woman.’
‘But you’ve just taken a photocopy of the same photo on my passport and that is a picture of me unveiled.’ I went on but with little effect, ‘Surely that must be in contravention of the regulations of the Islamic Republic of Iran!’ I was told that it was just silly rules and that the official granting the extensions was a very religious man and that he might not like my face unveiled and as a consequence may not issue the extension!
‘It’s not a problem, you can walk a few streets away and get your photo taken and return.’ It took us a further 2½ hours of to-ing and fro-ing to complete the task.
I asked Hissam, why as a professional he didn’t leave Iran along with the millions of other professionals who escaped the Ayatollah’s strict and repressive regime. His answer was short and simple.
‘Iran is my country. If all the professionals leave, there will be no one left. Some one has to stay and help the changes.’ We silently drove back to Hissam’s house, resigned to the fact that we would once more have to visit the ‘Alien’s Bureau’ in a couple of days time to collect our visas.
In Esfahan, we were parked a little distance from the main square, so we flagged down a Hillman Hunter taxi. We gave our destination to the driver and before we barely had time to get in and shut the door, there was a screech of tyres and we were thrown back into our seats by the accelerating car. What followed resembled a clip out of a 007 movie as the taxi sped through the streets of Esfahan at breakneck speeds, swerving and weaving in and out of the main traffic. Suddenly he swerved into a covered alleyway and accelerated through a maize of ancient narrow market ways, sending pedestrians, cycles , and donkey carts, jumping for their life! At the mercy of centrifugal forces caused by acceleration around blind bends and sudden unexpected tight turns, we were thrown from one side of the back seat to the other, each time being acutely aware of the increasing possibility of a fatal accident. We finally screeched to a halt in the main square.
We sat in silence watching the driver, who sat watching our faces in the rear view mirror.
‘I wish I had a video camera for that. That was brilliant!’ exclaimed Alan.
‘You are welcome in Iran.’ The driver told us.
The main square in Isfahan, Meidun-e Eman Khomeini, built in 1612 and covering an area of about 20 acres is the second largest square in the world. The largest being Tiananmen Square, China. Shops and mosques line the square with blue tiled onion domes and minarets standing out in front of a back drop of clear blue skies. Lush green lawns dotted with healthy green trees brought the square to life. If you focused on the buildings it was easy to believe that you still in the year 1612, little seemed to have changed since being built.
I liked Iran and her people, and we were shown acts of friendship throughout our travels in Iran, which were heart-felt and genuine. One day we were driving between towns and a gentleman passed us in a Hillman Hunter waiving a teapot out of his window! He wanted us to stop and drink tea with him. But I was shocked to find that Iran, a ‘cleansed Islamic regime’ had so many problems, just like the rest of us. I somehow expected Iranians to live perfect lives in-keeping with the strict religious code of conduct, that professed to know what was best for everyone in the name of Islam.
I understood that Islam and Moslems are not always the same and that Iranians were struggling with the oppressive regime of the Ayatollah, just as much as I was.