From Turkey to Tehran
So it wasn't my last day in Turkey. Waiting for my promised ride to Tabriz, I showed up half an hour before the agreed time, expected departure to be much later than suggested, but 5 hours afterwards threw in the towel. I was starting to have hysterical visions of being forever stuck in this border town in Turkey, waited a bit longer, and walked back to the hotel, checking in where I, in the morning, had checked out.
Crossing the border turned out to be a complete breeze. The guidebooks talk of the busiest border crossing in Asia, but far from it. Together with a German, travelling the world for 18 months with the money he inherited from his grandfather, we walked to the bus stop, to be picked up by a roving bus driver before getting there. A 15 minute wait, and we were off to the border. Walked some 250 meters to the Turkish check point, a quick scan, a remark I hadn't an Iranian visa, a rebuff, and that was one half done.
Then, we stepped through a minute opening in a huge gate. A friendly Iranian asked for our passports and, after accepting them, closed the gate and thus the border and walked with us to inside a building, where our passports were quickly checked. Then, moving on, a lovely young Iranian girl working for the tourist board, spotted us and came over to direct us from one place to the next. First registering the foreigner (not me), then with us to the bank to change money, then on to customs control, which was skipped when Sven, the German, said he had film (old school photography) in his backpack, and ending with walking us to the outside door, where she arranged a cab for us to Tabriz (30 dollars for the car), a three hour ride away.
Maybe we were the first tourists of the day and she was happy to finally have some work. Maybe it's related to the recent government drive to offer financial incentives to tourist agencies, offering cash bonuses for every tourist which is brought in, 20 dollars for American tourists, 10 dollars for others. Ahmedinejad might be vilified in the western press, Iran, through Ahmedinejad, is also offering several friendly hands as a basis for bringing Iran's and America's countries closer together on a personal level.
Getting of the Turkish bus, walking to the Turkish checkpoint, there's a bend in the road. The walls on the side of the road don't allow you to see around the bend. Some 20 guys were, right before the corner, busy taping themselves in with all sorts of stuff, sticking goods as close against their bodies as possible, wearing multiple shirts and, more importantly, several layers of trousers. One of the guys went through the checkpoints directly behind us and we could see his passport. Iranian, stamped from front to back with Turkish stamps.
We arrived in Tabriz on a very rainy day. The hotel we chose, Hotel Iran, close to the train station, was cheap and decent, but very far from town.
After a good night's sleep, it was off to see the sights of Tabriz. Only one day, because Sven and I had gotten a train ticket for the journey to Tehran for the very same evening. The Bazaar, some 3.5km of alleyways, constitution house, with pleasant pictures of mass hangings dating from the early years of the 20th century, the inaccessible Kalisa-ye Maryam-e Moqaddas (Church of St Mary), the Arg-e Tabriz (the Ark of Tabriz), a huge brick citadel, the Kabud Mosque, an enjoyable 500 year old mosque, strangely enough closed on Fridays (Islam's Sunday), and the lovely Park Elgoli.
The train ride, a 12 hour drive from Tabriz to Tehran, was good too. Train rides in Iran are cheap and good. The 12 hour ride, over some 600 or 700 kilometres, cost only 12 euros, first class. You get to stay in a roomy, mixed(!), four person cabin, food and drinks provided. Two LCD screens were showing movies. First Burn Hollywood Burn, indeed an interesting choice, then some Iranian comedy. The screen our two companions were facing was broken, but both couldn't ride 'backwards'. Instead, I had to explain to the two Iranians in our compartment, for the 10th time in two days, what my background was, in Farsi. Every time the same questions. And one has to stay friendly.
Spending the two days with Sven was good and bad. Good because it's always nice to travel with like minded companions. And it also infused me with more confidence in Iran, since people here see me as Iranian, I was now at least more knowledgeable than Sven, on Iranian matters. But it was also bad, in the sense that I was constantly forced to be the middle man. Sven went into some copy shop in Tabriz to make copies of part of my Iranian Lonely Planet. When the owner found out I was Iranian too, living abroad, he started talking like a waterfall, non-stop for twenty minutes, forcing me to try and understand the jabbering. Very tiring, particularly when that happens several times a day.
I had the feeling that on several occasions, people saw me as the Iranian guide to the lonely tourist. In the bazaar, a young lad walked up to us, small plastic bag filled with cheese on a piece of bread in his hand, and started talking to Sven, who's about two meters tall, in decent English, in an extremely civilised manner. At first it seemed he really just wanted to make conversation, until he invited us to his, of all things, shoe shop. Earlier, he had asked what kind of sports Sven liked. "Soccer". Sven asked the same question. "Gymnastics and swimming". Only then we really noticed the wavy hair and the feminine characteristics. We made a quick getaway.
In Tehran, the next morning, tired from having to get up at 4:30 because of the early arrival of the train, I sit at my uncle and aunt's apartment, happily chatting away, listening to the street musicians down below, sipping my tea and sliding into life here as if not having been away for 11 months.
Budapest to Tehran, thousands of kilometres in 18 days. Not too bad. Next time in summer, allowing me to see more of the out-of-the-way sites in both Turkey and north western Iran.