Exploring Iran through hitchhiking and Couchsurfing
After a quick crossing of Armenia from Yerevan, it’s time to discover a fascinating middle-eastern country that tends to generate more wariness than curiosity in the West as the media hardly ever mention it for anything else than the advances of the nuclear deal. I can’t wait to delve into the country’s culture and go beyond those stereotypes. Hoping to have as much interaction as possible with locals and get a better understanding of the contrasts between repressive social policy and aspirations of the youth, I will hitchhike the whole way and try to use Couchsurfing as much as possible.
There’s a slight hiccup though. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is in theory forbidden to host foreigners at home and the website couchsurfing.com is blocked. However, despite the ban and the possible risks, Couchsurfing has been increasingly popular and over 170,000 members are registered in the country. As for other blocked websites such as Facebook, Twitter or Youtube, all you need to do is to download a VPN (Virtual Private Network) on your phone or laptop to be able to use them.
If you’ve recently tried using Couchsurfing in Europe and you’re a guy, you know how tricky it can be to find a host. It requires patience and you sometimes have to send several dozen request to receive just one positive response. Truth be told, more and more members use the platform for similar purposes as Tinder.
A few days before coming to Tabriz where I am planning to make my first stop, I sent a couple of requests and created a public trip, an open request where everyone can offer to host you, show you around their city or go for a cup of tea. In sharp contrast to Europe, it’s dead easy to find a host in Iran. Within 24 hours, over 12 couches have already been kindly offered to me. Give it a go and you’ll be spoilt with choice.
I make it easily to Tabriz from the border with Armenia with three cars. Farhad and his housemate Naser (all names mentioned in the article have been changed) welcome me in their small house in the eastern suburbs of Tabriz. My new friends don’t have much but they greet me warmly and kindly show me around their city.
Farhad tells me that he first heard about Couchsurfing by word-of-mouth. One of his friends has been recently involved in the community and he recommended him to try it out. I’m Farhad’s first surfer! For him, it’s a good way to practice English and, as he can’t travel himself, a good opportunity to get a taste of the outside world. Farhad has never been abroad; like all young Iranian men, he can’t leave the country until he has finished his two-year military service. Farhad is 23 and will start his service next month. He dreams of continuing his studies in Sweden once he is done and one day take his backpack and go see the world. Something rather trivial for many Europeans and other Westerners, but not everyone hits the jackpot at the genetic lottery. Even when Farhad will get his precious passport, travelling will not be a straightforward matter. Visas are difficult to get and the exchange rate of the Rial is not favorable.
I’m surprised to learn that the language spoken in the region is not Farsi but Azeri, a language similar to Turkish also spoken in Azerbaijan. Iran is a large country, nearly three times the size of France, with an astounding cultural and linguistic diversity. Tabriz, the first city I discover is a real open-air museum for me. All the kilometers I have covered now find their meaning: I made it to the Middle-East. The use of the Persian alphabet, similar to the Arabic alphabet, on signs and shop windows gives a delightful exotic character to my new surroundings. And it goes well beyond this: the countless markets, the bazar, former central hub of the famous Silk Road, the sellers of carpets, dried fruit and nuts, etc. The city, in its daily banality to the eyes of its inhabitants, delivers me a fascinating performance I could watch over and over again. I have the chance to visit a Shia mosque, the sub branch of Islam predominant in the country. The outside ornamentations captivate me with their turquoise tones. I briefly meet a mullah in the mosque; he’s looking rather intimidating at first but turns out to be quite friendly.
And the food! Kebab of course, but also Dizi, Gormeh Sabzi, and numerous other dishes whose names I can’t remember. Like everywhere else, Iranians are also keen on… pasta! Most families eat on the carpet. I struggle a bit during the first few days but soon come to love it. As the precious handmade carpet shouldn’t get dirty, it is covered with a large plastic napkin called sofreh which is also used to store bread leftovers. Every meal ends on a glass of çay. Tea is the Iranian national drink like in Turkey but people drink it slightly differently. Dear British friends, you can forget about adding milk here, Iranians would be shocked if you dared ask for some. As for sugar, you don’t put it straight into your cup. You take a small sugar cube in your mouth and let it melt whilst you drink.
Two days with Farhad and Naser are enough to understand that laughing is a real outlet here. “There are so many restrictions here you know, the only way not to get mad is to laugh about it”. So we laugh. About everything, all the time. And it’s contagious.
Someone had told me how chaotic traffic in Iran can be, and they were right. As soon as they step into their cars, Iranians seem to forget their usual politeness. They take over, honk, change lines without notice, brake, relentlessly speed up… Motorcyclists haven’t heard about the word “helmet” and don’t mind driving the wrong way or on the pavement. When it’s time for a pedestrian to cross the street, I stand speechless and watch them serenely weaving between the cars which of course wouldn’t bother stopping. Apparently the worst is yet to come, I haven’t been in Tehran.
As if Farhad hadn’t been hospitable enough, he offers to take me to his parents’ house in Marageh, a smaller town south of Tabriz. After the student house, I can’t say no to an opportunity to witness family life. His family gives me a warm welcome. We don’t have any language in common but his mother’s bright smile requires no translation. His two sisters seem delighted to practice their English with me and enthusiastically tell me about their plans to study abroad in the future.
Before coming here I had been told about Iranian hospitality but it’s always something different to experience it yourself. After only a couple of days, I’ve really come close to my first host family; I’m about to leave Marageh with a slight pinch in the heart. Under the amused looks of the family, I try my hand at some calligraphy to write “QAZVIN” on a piece of cardboard, my next stop. Five pairs of eyes are riveted on my shaky hand, the pressure is high, and yet it seems I’m doing an alright job.
Hitchhiking in Iran proves extremely simple. With a letter explaining my trip and the concept of hitchhiking written in Farsi by Farhad’s mother, I can now easily get myself understood by drivers. My sign must be readable, a car stops after only a couple of minutes.
I’m meeting my new hosts in the city center. Farid and Mohammad are in their early twenties and are both nearly done with their IT studies. It’s the first time they’re hosting a foreigner through Couchsurfing. Right away the questions are flooding: “What do you think about the hijab? What do people say about Iran in France? Do they think we are terrorists?” Iranians are very concerned about the way they are seen abroad. As a result they seem to become all the more hospitable with visitors to counterweight with Western media that often lacks nuances about their country.
Farid and Mohammad illustrate the different paths young people can follow in reaction to dilemmas presented by Iranian society. Farid will soon start his military service and plans to marry his girlfriend when he is done. Marriage still assumes considerable importance in Iran: for many it’s the real coming of age, the threshold into independent adult life. In fact, numerous young Iranians don’t move out of the family home until they have married themselves.
Mohammad’s plans are at odds with those of his friend. He speaks fluent English and has recently taken up German classes. He hopes to continue his studies in Europe and, should the opportunity arise, avoid “wasting two years” with the compulsory military service. “I haven’t told my parents as they would be mad but if I get a place for a Master in Germany and then a job, it’s very unlikely that I ever come back to Iran.”
Qazvin looks significantly more modern and organised than Tabriz. The change of scenery is not as profound, I’m not so keen on the city. I hit the road on the following morning towards Tehran. Once again finding a car is not an issue, my letter in Farsi is doing wonders! My driver might be friendly with me but his personality is distasteful to say the least. He proudly raises his right arm and declares: “I love Hitler!” I sink in the back-seat, waiting impatiently for the arrival. “Tehran terrafik kheli bade” (traffic in Tehran is very bad) my driver is commenting as we dive into a hellish traffic jam near the capital city. Drivers who complain about the ring-road in Paris should go for a drive around Tehran, that would put things into perspective.
The Iranian capital has had a tremendous population growth during the past century. The city had only 200,000 inhabitants in 1925 when the Pahlavi dynasty started to rule over the country. The urban area of Tehran is now home to over 12 million souls. Given this spectacular demographic boom, which resulted of an increasing rural exodus and an obvious lack of family planning, well-thought out projects of urban planning were soon abandoned and Tehran has been growing wildly ever since.
Like numerous capital cities of this scale, Tehran is a city of contrasts. You can easily realise it by exploring the neighbourhoods at both ends of the metro line number one which crosses the city from north to south. More destitute neighbourhoods that happen to be often more religious and traditional can be found in the south, while the north of the city, around Tajrish bazar, is home to some of the wealthiest people in Tehran. And that’s where I found a host to stay for a couple of nights.
Newly graduated doctor, polyglot and very knowledgeable, Reza is the epitome of the higher echelon of society. Son of renowned surgeons, he studied medicine abroad and is now about to emigrate to Denmark for his specialization. When I ask him about his military service, he faintly smiles and tells me there are “ways around it”. He tells me later that he got away with it for the tidy sum of 10,000€. Bearing in mind that the median wage in Iran doesn’t exceed 300€ per month, it’s obviously a luxury only a few can afford.
I’m always mesmerized by Iranian bazars. At first sight, they may seem to be an absolute mess. Conveyors with their twisted trolleys run up and down the alleys and shout “Yala, yala!” (get out of the way!), the flow of the busy crowd is never disrupted and you are surrounded with myriad colours, sounds and fragrances. And yet, having a closer look, you realise that everything is methodically organised. Some sort of harmonious chaos where nothing is left to chance. Each alley is specialised into one kind of product. There is the alley designated for spices, the one for fruit and vegetables, walk a little bit further and you’ll find the carpet sellers, look to your right and clothing stalls extend as far as the eye can see. I don’t have anything particular to buy and let myself go with the flow, enjoying getting lost in this microcosm full of life.
We go hiking in the Elbourz Mountains north of Tehran. Once we make it to the top, the pollution is so strong that we can hardly catch a glimpse of the city through a thick, greyish cloud. After a few days in Tehran my throat is really sore, as if I had just smoked two packs of cigarettes in a row. Tehran is a fascinating city but I couldn’t live there just because of the terrible air quality.
After two failed attempts at sending my newly acquired setar (Iranian instrument with four strings) to France, I resign myself to hit the road towards Hamedan heavily loaded with my bags, my guitar and my new instrument. It’s already quite late and the metro line leading to the western suburbs of Tehran is shut today. I lose even more time and it is almost dark when I finally start hitchhiking. Luckily a driver I meet at the toll station kindly agrees to take to Hamedan. A young man in the car seems delighted to meet a foreigner. However my Farsi is very basic and his English non-existent. Still, he seems to believe than raising his voice will help me to understand his language better. He yells wholeheartedly in my left ear during half the journey and eventually loses interest.
Iman, a friend I met in Georgia is hosting me for a few days with his family. Once again they prove extremely hospitable. Iman doesn’t let me spend a Toman and his mom cooks amazing food for us. Hamedan is located south west of Tehran at 1850m of altitude and it is “Kheli sarde” (very cold) as the locals say. It even snows a little bit during my stay. Iman shows me around the city and introduces me to some of his friends. It’s my lucky day, one of them works in Paris and flies there every week. He agrees to take my setar with him and will give it to my sister there. What a relief! That was really too much to carry.
I start hitchhiking towards Kashan where my next host is waiting for me. It’s not the most straightforward route as I have to change the direction twice. I get a first lift to Saveh easily. During the ride, we get stopped by the Sepah, a paramilitary group created in the aftermath of the revolution of 1979. They search my bag and take my passport while I’m told to stay in the car. I anxiously watch the heavily armed brutes flipping through the pages of my precious passport. They seem disappointed not to find any weapons in my bag or an Israeli stamp in my passport. We’re free to go.
Near Saveh it’s nearly pitch black when I start looking for another vehicle. I approach a driver who’s just pulled over and he seems happy to help me out. He tells me that he is on the way to Isfahan, which is not exactly the right direction, but after 15 minutes he lets me know that he’ll make a detour to drop me off in Kashan. I’m in luck, no need to hitchhike in the dark tonight.
Nami is hosting me for two nights in his flat near the bazar. His job at the local carpet factory is taking him most of his time but we manage to spend some time together in the evening. Nami tells me that he didn’t speak any English one year ago. His world was limited to his family, the carpet factory and his friends in Kashan. Encouraged by Ali, his childhood friend who’s been using Couchsurfing frequently over the past few years, he registered to the website and started learning English in his free time. “I soon realised what an amazing open door to the world Couchsurfing represents.” Since he joined, Nami has hosted about twenty travelers from a dozen different countries and speaks now good conversational English. He also used the platform as a “surfer” during a recent trip to Kenya. Nami is planning to quit his job soon to explore Asia, visas are easier to get than for Europe.
Kashan marks the start of my journey towards the south of Iran. The climate is already milder than in Hamedan. The landscapes have started shifting, unveiling large deserts that have come to symbolise the country abroad. The architecture is changing too, buildings are low, rectangular in shape and sandy in colour. Apart from the main streets for cars, older parts of the city can only be explored through narrow little alleys that are best strolled around following no itinerary. In my nomadic life, it’s probably my favourite past-time: wandering around these ever-changing cities with no precise goal in mind.
I hit the road towards Abyaneh, a small village in the mountains on the way to Isfahan. Hitchhiking in Iran is dead-easy, I’m not even slightly worried when I start waving down cars along the highway (you can’t show your thumb here, it’s considered a rude gesture in Persian culture). Without surprise, I soon get a lift. The driver: a trendy Iranian in his early forties who speaks just Farsi. On the bright side, spending so much time with drivers who don’t speak any English makes me improve my Farsi significantly faster. When you don’t have the choice and communication is at stake, you end up learning a lot more. Besides it’s surprising to see the wide range of discussions we can actually have with just my thirty words of Farsi, gestures, facial expressions and body language combined. After describing his family to me, my driver tells me that he admires Macron, as he is keen on “milfs” as well; in Iran the French president’s emotional life more famous than his foreign policy. We go on to discuss Iranian politics: “Khamenei [supreme leader, most important political and religious personality of the country] kheli bade…” (very bad) “Iran no alcohol, no dancing, no nothing” he tells me whilst frowning and throwing up his arms in the air. I nod and kindly suggest he should put his hands back on the wheel, it’s not worth ending up in the ditch. He shows me videos of illegal parties he organised in his villa where you can spot alcohol bottles and unveiled women dancing to thumping oriental techno music. I ask him if he’s not likely to get in trouble with the Bassidj, the religious police. He smiles and rubs his thumb against his forefinger and middle finger, universal symbol of cash. The message comes across, local authorities are not too hard to convince when you can offer persuasive arguments, never mind about religious morals.
My driver, who was not supposed to come to Abyaneh at all drops me off after a 50 kilometer detour. I stroll around the village and surrounding hills for some time. Abyaneh is a picturesque village made up of small red houses and the inhabitants wear colourful traditional clothing. Cars leaving the village are rare but the first one I see gives me a ride to Natanz, a town on the way to Isfahan. A girl and her mother call out to me while I’m trying to stop a car. They seem worried that I am hitchhiking and inform me of the sheer riskiness of my mode of transport. I tell them that I’ve come all the way from France like this and no one ever tried to hurt me but they insist and put me in a shared taxi driven by a friend of their family, free of charge!
A friend I met in Turkey has put me in touch with a member of Couchsurfing from Isfahan who can host me for a couple of nights. Azad in 30 years old and works relentlessly as an engineer. In his meager free time, he loves to learn new languages and hopes to leave Iran one day.
I have two days to explore the city. Isfahan, Iran’s second largest city, used to be the capital of the country during the Safavid dynasty’s reign. The city still has numerous splendid building from that time. Imam square (that used to be called Shah square up to the revolution) is gigantic and undeniably magnificent. Since I arrived in Iran, I’ve hardly come across any tourists. Who ventures to Tabriz, Marageh or Hamedan in the middle of November? Isfahan, on the contrary, attracts plenty of visitors. I’m now surrounded by retired European ladies who clumsily wear their temporary hijab and other Asian tourists with cameras longer than their arms around the neck.
Iran doesn’t have bars or clubs. However young Iranians, like most young people in the world, like to hang out and dance. Azad brings me one night under a bridge where people come together in the evening to sing, dance and have fun. Such gatherings are forbidden and the police usually shows up after one or two hours to disperse the crowd but things have loosened up over the past decade. Partakers used to be liable for hefty fines or even prison terms but arrests are no longer made.
I make it without trouble to Varzaneh, a village near the desert between Isfahan and Yazd. My host Ali welcomes me in his home for a night. Most Couchsurfing members are between 20 and 35 years old whereas Ali is nearly sixty. In spite of his age he is delighted to host young travelers. In the late afternoon we go to the desert a few kilometers outside the village to have some tea boiled on the bonfire and watch the sun setting behind the sand dunes. The bright, whispering stars and the silence of the desert offer a peaceful break from tumultuous cities like Tehran of Isfahan. Ali takes me on the following morning to a good spot to hitchhike to my next stop.
Yazd is located in a very arid region in the middle of two deserts: Dasht-e Kavir in the north and Dasht-e Lut in the south. The city is smaller than Isfahan and it’s a real pleasure to stroll around its narrow streets. Babak is hosting me for two nights. He works as an architect and uses Couchsurfing on a regular basis to practice his English and get in touch with foreigners. He shows me around the city on the following day but it’s Friday – Sunday for Muslim countries – everything in closed. No bazar today, we’re off to the desert for a barbecue with one of his friends. Couchsurfing is great but it can sometimes prove tiresome. You have to be constantly socially active and hardly ever have a moment on your own. After Iran I think I’ll take a little break.
Babak brings me to the start of the highway that leads to Shiraz and off I go again. I get a first lift to Persepolis near Shiraz. I use the opportunity to visit the archeological site then find a final car to the city.
Kiana, another acquaintance of the friend I met in Turkey is putting me up for a couple of nights. While not very active on Couchsurfing, she sometimes hosts foreigners to break the routine and hear stories about abroad. She would love one day to move to a different country, maybe England. Kiana’s parents don’t speak English but are most welcoming and I soon feel at home again. In the meantime I’ve made good progress in Farsi and we can communicate a little bit.
We’re joining Kiana’s friends for a little party. A good opportunity to experience one of the hidden facets of this country full of surprises. One of her friends inherited a large house in the old town of Shiraz. The mansion is in a state of disrepair and requires some serious refurbishing but he is planning to turn it into a hostel and cultural center for concerts and exhibitions within two years. Until then, they can use it to party in secret. The doors are locked, the sound system is set up and the hijabs fall out, unveiling silky hair that is just waiting to be seen. Young men and women dance together, far for the moralising looks of conservative religious fringes of society. The atmosphere is festive, everyone appears longing to unwind and blow off some steam. One of the guests proudly takes a bottle of home-made wine out of his jacket. An occasional treat that could have him sent to prison if caught. So we enjoy all the more each and every sip, and pass the bottle to the next person. After a few hours the music stops, reality catches up with the reckless souls, the hijabs are back in use and everyone vanishes in the night as if nothing had happened.
Shiraz is culturally rich and has a lot to offer. I’ve been recommended by a few people to visit Nasir-al-Molk mosque, famous for the soft rays of the morning sun shining through its coloured windows. I get up early to make sure not to miss them. The mosque is indeed splendid, but sadly victim of its own success: hordes of tourists thirsting for colourful selfies invade it every morning. I don’t linger much and start wandering through a maze of narrow alleys behind the mosque where no one is likely to hit me with their obnoxious selfie stick. Architectural splendor might not be present here, but that’s where some of the nicest, brief yet genuine encounters take place. A greengrocer offering you a delicious pomegranate, a falafel seller with whom you’re trying to have a conversation in an improvised mix of English and Farsi where both seem to prefer using the other person’s language rather than his own, never mind if you know only a handful of words. Communicating is not just about exchanging meaningful messages. Often it is all about a genuine attempt, frankly shaking hands or returning a smile.
I reach Bandar-Abbas on the coast of the Persian Gulf with a last car. Over the past five months I have covered 10,000 kilometers from my hometown through ten countries thanks to 102 generous drivers. Unfortunately the overland route through Asia after Iran gets difficult, crossing Pakistan these days is probably not the wisest decision and the visa could only be obtained from France anyway. I will take a boat to the United Arab Emirates in a few days and take a flight from there to India.
Nilophar and her cousin are hosting me for the night in Bandar-Abbas. Most of my hosts in Iran were men and I’m curious to speak with a woman active on the network to hear her perspective. Nilophar speaks flawless English and she is thinking about leaving Iran to start a new life in Europe. As an Atheist in Iran, she is often forced to pretend she is Muslim to avoid troubles. She’s dreaming of a secular land where she can be herself.
I’ve got a few days left to explore some of the islands of the Persian Gulf before heading to Dubaï. The ferry crossing to Qeshm is a short one which I spend daydreaming, while melodies of Pink Floyd and the sound of the waves are almost lulling me to sleep.
The south of Iran is culturally different from the rest of the country. The region around Bandar-Abbas has its own dialect and a significant Sunni minority. Women wear colourful Tchadors and sometimes some sort of masks that remind me of the famous Venitian ones. As we’re on the coast, fish is now on all menus. During the evening I’m going with Omid and Tami, my last hosts in Iran and their friends for a bonfire in sand dunes near the city. My new friends are very thirsty and brought a bottle of whisky bought on the black-market. You can find everything in Iran, you just need to know where to look.
On the following morning I’ve got a slight hangover, I’m not used to alcohol anymore. We spend the evening with the same friends as yesterday. We’re having Gormeh Sabzi for dinner, one of my favourite dishes for my last night in Iran. With James and Rebecca, two other couchsurfers who arrived today at Omid’s place, we’re off to explore another nearby island. Hormuz is very different from Qeshm. It’s smaller and more natural: no big malls imitating Dubaï here. The landscapes are abrupt, the colours vivid, reminding me of the northeast of Iceland. James and Rebecca return to Qeshm and I’m off to Bandar-Abbas. Tonight I’m taking a boat to Sharjah, United Arab Emirates and tomorrow I’ll be in India already.
What lessons can be drawn from the 3000 kilometers I hitchhiked through Iran and the time spent with my thirteen hosts? The country is safe, anti-Western hostility non-existent. On the contrary, Iranians have proved exceptionally welcoming and hospitable. Iran is fascinating in many ways and turns out to be a lot more complex than Western prejudice sometimes let us believe. Couchsurfing might only give access to a reduced sample of the population, members being mostly young, educated, speak English and have liberal views. Nonetheless, it deserves credit for highlighting the plurality of a rapidly changing society.