The North and Tehran

O norte e a capital

Iran. So many things we have heard or read about this country, so many surprised or scared reactions from others when we told we would travel there, so many images we’ve already had in our minds and now, we’re actually really there.

We approach the Turkish-Iranian border from where we can already peak to the other side through the bars of the big door that separates „the known from the unknown“. The famous heads of Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei cast a glance at us from their huge banner and a friendly young soldier says with a smile: „Welcome to our country, Iran!“. After about 4 hours of visa and customs paperwork, a rather careless car inspection (they didn’t even ask for alcohol!), organising a car insurance and waiting for the locksmith to come and open the car because the keys got locked in 😉 , we’re ready to hit the roads of country No. 10! Yey.

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It almost feels unreal driving on the roads of such a feared country. And if it wasn’t for the road signs written in Arabic letters, we wouldn’t really realise that we left Turkey.

Here, the time is put another half an hour forward. Autumn has reached the North of the country and dusk is falling around 5.30 p.m. For the first night, we decide to pull up on a dirt road next to the highway, as we don’t want to drive at night – especially because of the death-defying driving style of the Iranians… Oh lord, do they have a crazy understanding of moving by car! Stay in the lanes? Use the wing or rear-view mirror? Pay attention while overpassing? Why should they 😉
After heading to Tabriz the second day, where we sleep in a picnic park outside of the crowded and dusty city – camping in parks seems to be free and legal over here – we drive further to Astara, a nice little city at the Caspian sea. Unfortunately the weather doesn’t want to be friends with us, letting the water of fog and rain fill the air. And for the first time we’re really tired of camping, sleeping and eating outside or inside the car, tired of adapting to so many different countries, languages, cultures.
So we decide to take a time out and relax in a hotel for a few days until the rain stops to fall (which it won’t for the next five days, actually).

A sticker next to the clock of our hotel room shows us where Mecca is, the direction in which Muslims stand when doing their prayers.

A sticker next to the clock of our hotel room shows us the way to Mecca, the direction in which Muslims stand when doing their prayers.

Our plan is to drive along the Caspian coast and take the famous Road 59, or Chalous Road, which leads through the Alborz mountain range, connecting the cities Chalous and Tehran. The road is one of the busiest in Iran, offering the people of Tehran a perfect holiday getaway from their crowded and smog-filled city to the much calmer and greener north of Iran. It’s also said to be one of the most amazing roads to drive. We now know why:

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The green and humid part in the North versus the dry and brown part in the South.

...versus the dry, brown part in the South.

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On the way up there we miss an important exit in Chalous and end up in the winding alleys of the city. A young man in a Hyundai Santa Fe pulls up next to us and asks if we need help. We tell him our plan and before we’ve finished our sentence he says these two words that will symbolize the start of a new friendship: „Follow me!“

Just like us, Erfan and his wife, Negar, are heading down south to Tehran, where they live and work. They invite us to their home, as we don’t really have a place to stay yet. So, we do as they tell us and follow them on the Chalous road until we reach the first city on the southern side, Karaj. A police control orders us to stop and show them our passports. Erfan helps us with the language barrier and just when we are free to drive off again we notice something rather unpleasent: There’s smoke coming out of Jorge’s front!

„It’s your ‚dynaam‘! Fire!“ Erfan says after looking at it for seconds. Without hesitating, he opens the car, inspects the problem and manages to avoid a bigger fire or even an explosion. We stand there rather shocked and ask ourselves how he could be such car savvy, when he reveals the secret: „I have this car, I have a Toyota Land Cruiser, too!“

So, in a country where we seem to be the only persons driving a Toyota Land Cruiser, we meet this one young man of our age which has the same car and knows about its mechanics, just before Jorge goes up in flames…

If this wasn’t meant to be, we don’t know how to explain our luck. And as we try to find our way through the crowded highways of Tehran, following our rescuer and new friend, we start an adventurous 10 days stay in one of the biggest and craziest cities we’ve been to.


To start off: A welcoming barbecue with our new friends Mohsen & Neda, Negar & Sehper, Erfan & Negar and Jorge’s persian cousin Kaiko in one of Tehran’s parks.

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And this is what the city looks like during the day: The greyish part in the middle of the picture is Tehran’s famous smog. It’s not only visible; you can feel it in your head, your eyes, your nose, your throat, your chest… Incredible that we survived our stay.

We throw ourselves into the chaotic throng of the city, visit the Bazar, do some sightseeing, walk around the green city parks and participate in everyday life activities of our hosts.

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Tehran’s wall show off some of the most amazing graffiti works ever! We can’t stop turning our heads from left to right during the endless seeming taxi rides through the city. Most of the art work is of political or religious nature, showing Iran’s fallen soldiers, martyrs or other things to remind…

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We use every occasion to get answers to all the questions we have about this country, its nation, religion and politics. And more than once we laugh about all the wrong information we’ve had in our heads…

After all we’re totally amazed by the Persian culture and history, the exceptional hospitality, friendliness, interest and knowledge of the Iranians and the vast diversity of this nation. After two days we stop counting how many people in passing cars have waved or honked, how many „Welcome to Iran, all the best for you“ we’ve heard or how many invitations to someone’s house we’ve got. What we’re sure of is that this country is definitely one for the bucket list!

However, the real reason why we stay in Tehran for so long, is our car. The dynamo is broken, again, and has to be repaired. The only problem is that, apart from trucks, there are almost no Diesel cars in Iran. To find spare parts for Diesel cars is therefore almost impossible. It’s only thanks to Erfan and his brother-in-law Mohsen that we manage to find the needed parts and good mechanics who can fix Jorge.

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So, we’re ready to drive off again, further south to Kashan and Isfahan. Incredibly thankful and happy to have met so many good people, we say Kheili Mamnoon, Khodafez!

خیلی ممنون از ملاقات شما خوش وقتم خُدا حافِظ

Kashan and Esfahan

At one of the very rare gas stations in Tehran, where they actually do sell Diesel, we fill up Jorge’s tank. For the last time, Erfan says „Follow me“, gets into his car and shows us the way to the right highway exit – something essential in Tehran’s highway labyrinth – which brings us down south. A last hug, a last goodbye, „Khodafez“ and there we are, off to the heart of this beautiful country!

It feels kind of weird to be on our own in this huge country again. For the last two weeks almost, we’ve been part of a circle of Iranian friends and their family. We’ve felt like living in Tehran as an Iranian and not as a tourist. And now we’re leaving this reality to enter again the tourist soap bubble…

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After some three hours of driving we arrive in Kashan – with its population of around 250’000, a somehow small city compared to Tehran. In the narrow mud-brick alleys of the city, we find a free room on the rooftop of the adorable Ehsan Guest House, one of the many historical houses in Kashan which have been turned into hotels or guest houses.

It’s just one of the most beautiful places we’ve stayed at so far on our journey!

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The best thing about the guest house: There’s a communal kitchen we can use to cook our own food and save some money, yey!

So, during 4 days we explore the surroundings of this little city and are stunned by the beauty of its architectural treasures.

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We enjoy the small size of Kashan, as almost everything is in walking distance so we can let Jorge in front of the guesthouse and stroll around town. That’s usually where you get so see much more interesting things than the typical tourist spots: everyday life of the ordinary people.
Old men sitting on the sidewalk, drinking tea, workers baking fresh bread at the bakery, kids helping their family selling vegetables on the street, women buying fabrics at the bazaar to sew something for their relatives – we love all of them!
And watching them, getting a ‚Hello‘ and a smile in return, is just about one of the nicest things while travelling.

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One morning, when we walk out of the guest house to walk to the Bazar, there’s a note at Jorge’s front window. Someone from the ‚center of communication and international affairs‘ invites us to have an interview at their office and talk about our journey by car. Somehow amused but also skeptical, we follow the indication to their office.
Half an hour later we’re getting interviewed by two friendly employees of the municipality of Kashan. 🙂

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They ask us about our opinion of Kashan and the rest of Iran and why we’d chosen to travel by car to this region of the world, after all, one of the most feared at the moment. We explain them, that we don’t just believe in what the Western media tells us and that the best way to get to know the truth is to see and experience it with our own senses. They consider our journey as a peaceful act because by making own experiences in a foreign country, we can tell people back home and act as an ‚ambassador‘ in this way.

So, in order to fulfill our function as an ambassador of peace, all we can say about Iran for now is: Don’t be afraid of this beautiful, rich, secure and most hospitable country, rather come visit it as soon as you can. And bring plenty of empty bags (and stomachs) because you will surely fill them by walking through the countless traditional bazaars, especially the ones at Tabriz, Tehran or Esfahan.

With the latter being our next destination, we drive further down south and already get some first impressions on how the desert landscape will look like.

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Esfahan, once one of the largest cities in the world, used to be the capital of Persia. The city is about 2500 years old and one of the oldest of Iran. To visit its historical sites is both interesting as well as breathtaking – more than once we stop jaws dropped in amazement in front of the numerous buildings and their absolutely stunning architecture.

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Because of the historical and architectural significance of its Islamic buildings, Esfahan is Iran’s number one tourist attraction. Nevertheless, at this time of the year the city seems very calm, relaxed, less polluted and much more organised than Tehran… we really enjoy our stay, although we can’t wait to get to see a ‚building‘ that’s made from another hand than men’s:
Dasht-e Kavir – the desert!

On the way to make a dream come true, we leave you with the following wise words:

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Dasht-e Kavir and Yazd

We leave the busy streets of Esfahan in direction southeast with our first destination being the little town of Varzaneh.
It’s said to have one of the most spectacular and safest deserts of Iran, with dunes over 50 metres in height only 15km away from the town centre.

On the long and empty highways down there, we spot a cyclist several hundred metres in front of Jorge. Another one of those mad guys, we think and pass ‚him‘, realising that it is actually a woman! Surprised and impressed, we drive past, taking a last look at her in the wing mirror, when we notice that she’s waving at us. Unsure, if she needs help or just wants to say hi, we decide to stop the car and wait for her.
Only two minutes later she pulls up beside our window, saying ‚Sali zäme‘ in the most unexpected Swiss German we could imagine in this remote place of the Earth. We’re stunned!

So, that’s how we get to know Vittoria, a 24-year-old Swiss artist, who has been travelling all the way from Switzerland to Iran by bike in the last six months.

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We keep chatting for almost an hour beside the highway. The sun is already setting and in the last glow of the evening we leave Vittoria to find a good place for her to put up the tent. Although, we’re not sure about letting her all alone in the desert to pass the night, we want to arrive in Varzaneh on that same night and so, continue our way.

Only a short hour later we arrive in the town, looking for a good place to camp. As always, the parks do it best, and so we spend our first cold desert night in Jorge’s shelter. The great thing about the parks in Iran is that, apart from being free, they have fresh water and sinks to wash the dishes, and quite clean public toilets. The other thing which is nice, when you park in a small neighbourhood, is the fresh tea, dates and bread you get served by the locals in the morning… 🙂

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So, with full stomachs and the blessings of our new acquaintances, we make our way to something that will be a highlight of our journey…

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The Dasht-e Kavir, the Great Salt Desert!
Apparently the 23rd largest desert in the world, this barren landscape stretches from the north-western Alborz mountains (where we drove down the Chalus Road) down south-east, where it ends at the beginning of another desert, the Dasht-e Lut.
The dunes are amazingly high and, as we’ve been told before our arrival, very easy to reach from Varzaneh town. Also, as it is not the hottest season in Iran right now, there’s no danger at all for us to stay in the desert during midday hours. Actually, it’s quite nice to get warmed up before passing the desert nights, which are very cold here!

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They say that there are more suns in the universe than sand grains on Earth. Standing on a huge sand dune, looking at all the sand beneath your feet, really makes you feel like you’re actually just a fraction of nothingness.

Varzaneh is also known for something else than its dunes and the salt lake: the ‚clothes‘ of local women, or rather, their chadors. Usually being black throughout the rest of the country, the chadors of Varzaneh’s women are completely white! And, instead of a lightweight polyester or silk fabric, their made out of heavy cotton, just like a usual bed sheet.

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One of the reasons for the chadors to be white is the ancient religious belief of the people of this region. Before Islam was brought to the Persian empire, people used to believe in the Prophet Zoroaster or Zarathustra. According to its philosophy, there are two important forces or directions, the good and the bad one, Light or the Darkness, between which every individual can choose. As Light belongs to the good force, the colour white seems more fitting for Zoroastrian women to wear than black. Either way, it’s interesting to know that the chador was worn long before the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979.

We enjoy a couple of days in this laid-back town, sharing experiences with locals and other travellers, before we head further down south in direction Yazd.

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We opt for an alternative dirt road route through the middle of the desert, where we come upon an old abandoned caravanserei. This building used to serve as a road guesthouse in ancient times, when travellers crossed the desert region in caravans and needed a place to rest. Amazing how nicely and well-thought the Persians constructed their buildings back in the days.
Everytime we visit such old locations, we’re stunned!

Yazd, a desert city in the centre of Iran, is just one of those places. It’s said to be one of the hottest and driest cities in Iran, which makes totally sense when you drive there and realise that it’s actually only surrounded by desert.
Also, it’s one of the oldest cities, with a history that dates back more than 5000 years. The old city centre is a huge labyrinth made of traditional clay houses and narrow winding alleys, which make it almost impossible for us to drive through with Jorge.

We’re lucky and get the chance to stay in one of those houses, the Narenjestan Traditional House, where we enjoy a few ‚less touristic‘ days: After visiting the Jameh mosque with its 52m tall minarets, we just stroll around town, have some rose water and saffron cake and chat for hours with our new friends Vittoria (yey, she made it to Yazd in the same time!) and Juliana & Franklin, a Brazilian couple living in Switzerland.

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Yazd is also called the City of Windcatchers.
These chimney-like constructions have served as a natural air conditioning system since ancient times. The system is quite simple: Wind is ‚caught‘, led down the chimney to a water spot, where it is cleaned, cooled down and then led into different rooms of the house.
And really, this kind of house construction, with clay and windcatchers, is just one of the nicest we’ve seen so far! During the day, when the sun is heating up the dusty streets, it’s pleasently cool inside, while at night, when the dryness of the desert air lets temperatures sink rapidly, it’s much warmer inside – although there hasn’t been any heating system in any of the clay houses we’ve stayed so far.

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We definitely fell in love with the desert region of this country and therefore decide to get the full program:
Driving 400 kilometres up north-east again to visit Fahrazad, a ‚real‘ desert village only surrounded by sand dunes. See you there 🙂

Fahrazad and The Kalouts

Tonight is a full moon night, a Supermoon night. It will be the brightest, biggest and closest-to-the-Earth-moon since 68 years!
As fast as we can, we leave the city and flee into the desert in order to find a good spot from where we can assist the spectacle.
Luckily, we find an abandoned mud-brick oasis just before sunset. We hide behind the crumbling clay walls and palm trees, prepare dinner and an evening tea, while the sun goes down on one side, only to let the moon rise on the other about half an hour later. Magic!

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With the moon lightening up the night as if it were daytime, we sit and watch in silence, listening to the rustling noise of the palm trees and a distant voice singing the evening prayers.
What a blessing!

Although them being by far the coldest, there’s something deeply soothing about the nights in the desert.

After our morning ritual, cooking fruit porridge and tea, we continue our way up north to reach Fahrazad, a little desert village only inhabited by an extended family, in the afternoon. We are amazed when we realise that there isn’t anything else apart from sand surrounding this village!

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Sand, dunes, sand and some dry bushes where herds of dromedaries stop for dinner. 🙂

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And then there’s the Supermoon again. Sitting on top of a sand dune, shrouded in the silence and the cold of the desert, watching it rise as red as a fireball is just one of the most magical moments.

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After two nights in the middle of nowhere, we’re on the road again, heading down south-west with our next destination being Kerman. In this region of the country we often drive hours in silence, letting us tantalize by the beauty of the surroundings…

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The distances between two destinations are often long in this big country and so we mostly need two days to drive from one place to the other, having a night of camping in between. When we arrive in Shafiabad, our last destination of Iran’s desert region, we come from Kerman, the first city where we doesn’t feel very welcome. All the more we’re happy to meet the owners of what will be our home for the next few days. Mostafa and Sekineh run their guesthouse in the little desert town with such a warm-hearted and unpretentious attitude it makes our hearts melt.

We spend some days in the traditional Iranian way of living, sleeping and eating on the carpet-covered floor, with food being prepared outside the house and water heated by a wooden stove boiler in the courtyard.

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Happy to meet our Brazilian friends again, we cram Juliana and Franklin into Jorge’s back and head out to see the famous natural phenomenon of this region: The Kalouts. Mars-like landscapes with ’sand castles‘, sand hill structures carved out from the blowing winds.

Oh, and apparently the hottest place on Earth with temperatures reaching up to 70° C in summer.

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With our stay in this country slowly coming to its end, we make our way further down south to spend our final weeks there.

The next and last city will be Shiraz, the heartland of the Persian culture, before we finish off this trip through Iran on the Island of Qeshm.

Persepolis

There are about 660 kilometres to go from Mostafa’s house to our next destination Shiraz. Usually, we don’t drive much more than 400 kilometres a day, as Jorge’s got a slower pace anyway and we don’t like to rush on Iranian roads – although we’ve accostumed quite well to their driving style, we still can’t believe that we haven’t been involved in a car accident yet. Driving on Iranian roads is probably the greatest – and only – real danger in this country.
So, we ’slow down, take it easy‘ and look out for the nicest spots to camp and pass the night…

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This is about the most liberating part of travelling by car: You can just pull up wherever you like, discover spots which you would have never seen if you were travelling in an organised tour or by public transport. Like this, we have seen places that not even locals have visited or heard about.

So, after another chilly night in the desert, we arrive in our last big city in Iran, Shiraz. And for the first time in over a month, there’s something we’ve almost forgotten about: Rain!
Cold, grey, rainy weather for the next three days to come.

Put off by the weather and somehow tired of visiting mosques, bazaars and palaces, we decide to skip all of the sights and just visit Persepolis, the Persian City, 60 kilometres northeast from Shiraz. Although nowadays we use the Greek name for this place, it was originally the Persian King Darius the Great who began constructions and defined it as Parsa, the new capital of Persia, some 500 years before Christ. Unfortunately, the city had only lasted for about 200 years, when it was set on fire during the invasion of the Greeks with Alexander the Great in 330 BC.

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Nowadays, there’s not much left of the huge buildings they once were, and without a good imagination, it’s really hard to guess how they used to live in this place back then. Nevertheless, strolling through the remaining walls is interesting and almost lets us forget about the bad weather. Almost.

After just one hour we’ve seen it all and head back to the warmth of our guesthouse.

Without having seen or done anything else during our short stay in Shiraz, we leave the day after to escape the cold. There’s only one destination left before we leave Iran: Qeshm Island.
The biggest Island in the Persian Gulf, with an average temperature of 31° C in November. Yey 🙂

Qeshm Island

So, there we are.
After 7 weeks in Iran, almost 4 months on the road, letting over 12’000 kilometres behind us, we’re leaving the mainland for a new adventure. It will not only be the last destination in Iran that we travel to. It’s also the last place we’re going to explore with Jorge for quite some time…
After going through all different plans of how to continue our journey, we decided against the hassle of applying for the Pakistani visa or spending a huge amount of money on shipping the car to India. Instead, we will leave Jorge on the Island, stuff our backpacks and continue our trip to Asia on public transport. The plan is to stay in Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Tibet over the winter months and come back in spring to pick up the car and drive back home again. Although it hurts a bit leaving Jorge behind, we think it’s the best option for us and can’t wait to explore the East!

We arrive on the island in the late afternoon, just before sunset paints the sky with shades of purple, pink and orange. The air is humid and heavy, the wind carries salt from the sea. Everything is so different than what we’ve seen from this country until now.

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We’ve been told that there are some really nice natural sights to visit on the island. However, this last week of our trip through Iran will be all about the people. They capture us from the moment we leave the mainland and get on the ferry. Although, not by their obstrusivness but by their beauty!

It feels as if we’ve jumped into another world. A world in which people are a complete mix of Persian, Arabs, Indian and African. Their colours, hair, faces, physical structure, clothes, language, traditions – everything is different to anything we’ve visited before.
We’re totally amazed!

Later we will find out that the people of this region are called Bandari, the Afro-Persians „people of the port“ (Bandar).

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One first thing we notice when we drive to the city of Salakh on the southside of the island are the mosques. The top of their minarets are decorated with a crescent moon symbol – something, we’ve been told, that is typical for Sunni mosques, while Shia mosques in the rest of Iran show the name of Allah in Arabic handwriting on top of their minarets. Worldwide, the major group of muslims are Sunni, whereas only about 10-20% of all the muslims are Shia, with most of them living in Iran, Iraq or Azerbaijan. So, when we arrive at our guesthouse, we ask the host about the matter, he tells us that here on the island, the majority of the people are Sunni. The only difference that this makes for us, actually, is that we hear the muezzin call for prayer five times a day instead of three…

And then, we immerse ourselves in the everyday life of a traditional Bandari family.

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The guesthouse owner’s mother, Zinat, is a midwife and a poet, famous for being the first woman of the island which put down her burqa, a traditional mask which hides the face. Every city or village on the island has its own type of burqa, with colours and forms varying. Here in Salakh, the burqa is either black or golden and rather thin compared to other masks. Apparently, the shape of the mask should resemble thick eyebrows and a moustache, in order to fool intruders when approaching the island. Nowadays, the burqa is worn mostly by the eldery women. However, most of the women, independent of their age, won’t let their faces be taken on photographs.

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During our 9 days we stay at the family’s house, we talk to our hosts, watch them craft dolls and miniatures, stroll around town and catch children playing in the sandy alleys, visit a local environmental artist’s gallery, attend a football game, watch the women of the house bake fresh bread while the children play in the garden and enjoy a Zar ritual show, where the sound of the drums and the singing brings women to fall into a trance.

One afternoon we find ourselves sitting in the private practice of Fatima, a local doctor who is famous for getting out sand of people’s eyes by licking them with her own tongue. When we ask her, where she’d learnt this practice, she said she was gifted with it and discovered it at the age of 8. Unfortunately, neither of us had any sand in our eyes to try out her talent…

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Although, we enjoy our days at the guesthouse, being with the family, reading books or just doing nothing, we feel bad about leaving this island without having seen any of its natural beauties and therefore head out to some of the nice spots of this region.

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And then, there it is. The last day of almost 60 that we’ve stayed in this big, unknown, totally misconceived and at the same time surprisingly beautiful country has come to an end.

We clean Jorge, prepare him for his hibernation, pack our bags and enter the plane to Dubai almost as easy as we passed the customs at the Turkish-Iranian border in October.

Khoda hafez, see you again in spring!