I crossed the border just after Yüksekova, a Turkish city that was about to get destroyed by an earthquake only 4 days after I travelled through it. A white, long-bearded old man with thick, dark eyebrows and a black turban was pictured above the counter. The man in the picture gazed at me with a quizzical look. The officer behind the counter controlled my passport for some minutes. Then he smiled, passed me my passport and said
“Welcome to Iran!”
I passed the counter, walked through the building and went outside. There was no questioning, no luggage searching and no inconveniences. I I was in the islamic republic.
The republic which wants the atomic bomb.
The republic where alcohol is forbidden and parties are illegal.
The republic where peaceful protests are brutally cracked down.
I had 30 days to travel in this country and I was just about to get started. What would you expect behind the borders of such a state, a state that is mostly coined by newspapers and the television rather than from tourists.
Before I came to Iran I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew some important things about that country:
I knew about the situation in Iran ever since the aftermath of the elections in 2009.
I knew that the people suffer from governmental oppresion.
I knew that demonstrations are being brutally repressed.
I knew from other blog entries and other travellers that it is safe to travel there and that the people are smart and hospital.
But beyond this I didn’t know what the people are like. Will I need to be very careful with what I do or what I say? Are the majority of the people tolerant towards the west or foreigners? How will the Iranians react on my presence? What about the police? Will they molest me once they see me? Will hitchhiking work there easily?
These questions and many others were on my mind and I was endlessly curious to find the answers. I found the answers for myself and I hope that you will get a better understanding of the people of Iran after reading on.
Now that I am in India since more than three weeks, I am still thinking about my time in Iran and sometimes, my heart is still there, as I am endlessly thankful for the experiences that I had there. I owe these posts to the many Iranians who invited me to their home, who gave me rides and who welcomed me with a genuine hospitality.
So once there was and once there wasn’t.
Flip a coin and roll a dice.
Throw away your preconceptions and read on.
Because Iran is not like what you would think it is.
Hitchhiking in Iran
“Hello Mister! Wanna change money mister? I give you good rate!” says the 18 year old guy right after the border. “No, thank you, I’m gonna hitchhike!” I said proudly “I don’t need money.” The young man didn’t understand, but he decided to leave me alone. “But you need money in Iran!!!” he shouted after me and I kept on walking.
“Urmia?” “Taxi!” “Urmia!” These were the taxi drivers, I needed to go to Urmia, yes, but I didn’t want to go by taxi. So, I kept on walking towards the main street.
Finally I was there, I arrived at the main street and compared to East-Turkey, this road was much better build, flat and solid. I stood on the street with my thumb up waiting for the next car. And yes!!! The first car stopped, I opened the door and asked: “Urmia?” “Urmia!” The driver replied. Great!
So, I called my host Pooriya:
- Pooriya: “Where are you?”
- Me: “I am driving to Urmia, I just hitched a ride, can you explain the driver where to drop me?”
- Pooriya: “Ok, give the phone to the driver”.
… one minute later …
- Pooriya: “Dude! You’re not in normal guy’s car, you’re in a taxi!”
- Me: “What? But he didn’t tell me anything about that!”
Pooriya bursts out laughing and told me that this is normal in Iran. Normal cars, which have no taxi signs at all can also be taxis. There is a huge taxi culture in Iran. Because there is no such thing as a VAT, anyone who drives a car can just become a taxi.
At first I thought that it will be easy to hitchhike in Iran because I heard of the big hospitality there, but due to the big taxi culture there, most of the cars stop only for you if they are also a taxi.
So, I told the taxi driver with sign language that I had no money at all and that he should drop me at the next junction.
At this junction I met someone doing his military service. He smiled at me and said “Welcome to Iran!”. He spoke perfectly english and asked me if he could help me. I told him that I want to hitchhike to Urmia. He seemed to understand and told me: “No problem! I will stop the cars for you and tell them in Farsi that they should take you to Urmia.” Great!
It didn’t take a minute and I sat in a car with three other people. Now I must be sitting in a normal guys car I thought to myself, but after calling Pooria again, I got to know that I was in a taxi again and he charged me 5$ after arrival.
After that Pooriya also told me that the thumb is a insultive gesture which is equivalent to the middlefinger, which is not the best sign to show to people who should give you a ride.
- Be very sure that the guy you are hitching a ride with is NOT a taxi driver.
- No more thumbs up in Iran
Now that we can’t use the thumb anymore and every car that stops is a taxi, what to do?
First, go to a good location at the edge of the city where there are no taxis, if need be, with a taxi. The best spots are always the toll stations because there is a lot of traffic, they all drive somewhat the same directions and they need to stop at the counter. Unlike in countries like France or Spain I haven’t been sent away from the toll stations. Nobody really understood why I didn’t take the bus and they actually helped me to get a ride. The police was also there and they were quite nice to me. They smiled at me and wanted to know where I come from, but didn’t ask for my passport, so they were just curious.
Second, don’t use your thumb, instead strech out your arm and start to flutter your hand up and down in order to signal the drivers to slow down and to stop for you. This sign is also used for taxis. After a while, it can become quite exhausting to flutter with your hand up and down and if someone makes a photo of you in an unfavorable moment, it might look like something else but what can you do ;)…
Now that we don’t have those two problems anymore, we can easily hitch a ride. My average waiting time was maybe 25 minutes. Not the best, but absolutely average.
Unlike other depictions of Iran which come from the news, kidnapping is not a big thing in Iran. Neither are there radical islamists trolling the streets. The most annoying and most dagerous thing in Iran is the traffic. Iran has one of the worlds worst road accidents rates with more than 200,000 reported every year. Nevertheless the Iranians are averagely very good drivers and one has no chance but to surrender to the madness and play the game. Moreover the Roads, especially the highways are big and very well built. Below you can see a random picture of the highway and the traffic in Tehran.