Hello Sir, How Are You? (Iran)

May 2004


At 6 AM or so I was awaken by hard knocks on the door: someone had got on the wrong door. Later on I went to the shrine to see it again at daylight, but I could not enter as I was not Muslim. Back to the hotel, I picked my backpack, got a taxi and went to the bus to Tehran. The bus was none of the air conditioned ones, but rather one meant for the local people. It was very hot and other fancier buses were passing us by. It was interesting to see the other side of the coin as well. Eventually, after passing by a salted water lake, we reached Tehran's Southern Bus Terminal, which spread around a huge round building hosting everything one would ever need. I went to the city centre, not wishing to visit any palaces or museums that day, but rather to walk and see the city. The central square was also the border between the richer, cleaner, newer and better organized Northern Tehran, and the poorer, more crowded and motorists-filled Southern Tehran. The centre was noisy and bustling, making Bucharest look like a provincial city with stupid drivers which blow horns at one another because they can think of no better means of spending their lives. I stopped for a while in Park-i Shahr, which felt like an Allah-given oasis of peace and silence. There were people enjoying a picnic on the grass, as well as people sleeping on benches or on the very grass. Once again I could not but remember that most of my friends - hearing that I was going to Iran - told me I was getting to war in a country of fundamentalist islam where unwritten laws are far worse than those written ones. Well, at least in this country, just like in many other places, people could sit on the grass in the park or lie on a bench without an idiotic police officer coming out of the blue and threatening with a fine because "you have trespassed the green area", as it had happened to me a few times in "Western" Bucharest...

While sitting on a bench, an old man asked me what time it was. After showing him on fingers, as he could not read the digits on my electronic watch, we started a strange conversation, where, although neither he spoke English, nor I spoke Persian, we managed to "talk" for some score minutes. He even invited me for a tea and I must admit that the tea I had in the middle of that busy city in the heart of the desert and at the foothills of those mountains of the Middle East, was one of the most enjoyable ones I have ever had. Eventually, we splat with a short "khoda hafez" and I went into teh bazaar. The bazaar was a city itself, with those typical covered streets, as well as with a huge whole area around them, where special sections were meant for different things: a section was meant for motor bikes, another one for spare parts for cars, another one for chemicals, one (pretty huge) for carpets and so on... The bazaar was a way of life, where the main occupation was selling and preparing to do so. This was no longer meant for tourists and it therefore did not look either clean or well painted or else. It was the reason, the means and the continuity of the local community. After a long while I went to the Northern section of teh city, simply wandering along streets which - this time - bore large billboards and expensive shops, where traffic was less chaotic, where one could see less motor bikes and more expensive cars.

The following day I went to the Northern part of the city, just at the foothills of the mountains, to visit Sa'dabad Palace, actually made of small palaces and pavilions spread in a beautiful wooden park with nice views to the mountains. On the outside the palaces themselves were picturesque, while on the inside they were rather overcrowded with pieces of furniture that did not match the setting of the rooms or the carpets; as a lady part of a French group said, "c'est quoi, ce kitsch?". Once again, Tehran was not a city to visit, but a city to live, touch and feel. Neither a museum, nor a tidy city with a central square where one goes for a coffee or tea on a terrace full of tourists. In exchange, it was an alive place for local people. After wandering a little longer in the park, I went down, changed two shared taxis and got to the city centre, venturing for a little longer in the bazaar. In the afternoon I went together with Mohammad and Ayazou to a mountaineering festival that was being held in the exhibition centre of the city. In the beginning this event did not ring too many bells. However it provided to be very interesting, with many people presenting films or slide shows of their ascents and with an excellent slide show presentation of very well shot images from throughout the country. Another presentation was about a group of 200 people that ascended Mount Damavand a few years ago in summer, 144 of them reaching the summit. I also met there one of the guides of the Swiss people I had seen on Mount Damavand and the evening ended with a cheerful farewell, as the following day I was to leave on my way home.

I was leaving this country leaving many blank spots behind, leaving Mount Damavand uncompleted and also leaving many things undone; I was to return both to climb the mountain to the top and to see other places. Yet I was leaving Iran with a unique experience, with an impossibly to describe human - related experience. Iran was, for me, the country where I re-discovered humanity and honesty, where life is also passed through for it is worth to do so and not only for getting something, gathering something, making some profit out of it. Life was lived for we are all humans and for that heartly and sincere question: "hello Sir, how are you?". Only in Iran I felt it was worth and needed to answer this question when someone would approach me. Iran is one of the only two countries I visited and did not feel that the most important things were the "things to see and do" as all guidebooks bravely list at every other city and country.

I started from Tehran in teh afternoon and about 2 hours later someone which had a portable, small TV set said something and everyone on the bus started to worry and listen to the report on TV: there had been an earthquake with casualties in many cities of the country. However, after a brief stop, the bus went on, just like life. A trip that had started with bureaucratic, formal problems, could not end but the same way. The people in the Turkish embassy of Bucharest had told me I needed no visa for Turkey once I had a visa for Iran and did not intend to stay for more than 5 days in Turkey, being in transit. When I entered Turkey on my way to Iran, the border police officer in Kapikule had the same apprehension and understanding of the law. Yet when I went out of Iran on the Iranian - Turkish border, they got a lightly different interpretation of the law: that transit thing only applied to drivers, so they wanted to see my bus and could hardly understand that I was not the one driving the bus. So they concluded that I needed a visa. It took me ten minutes of talking to their chief to make him call Kapikule and sort out the misunderstanding, then, sending away the border police officer in charge of passport check, he himself stamped my passport with an entry stamp, as if he was doing the biggest clandestine thing ever, then he handed me the passport and said in a conspirative way "hasta la vista, baby". Finally, after all other passengers had their passport check, we could leave. We were stopped a few times by gendarmes which checked our passports and luggage again. It felt like crossing some war zone or like going along the road that follows the Danube Gorges in Romania (as they also checked my documents ten times a day while I was cycling that way, presuming I had illegally crossed the river swimming and brought my backpack and bicycle along). Or maybe the conflict between Turkey and Kurdistan was not over. The scenery was impressive, as we were going at the foothills of Ararat Mountains, the holy Armenian mountain lying nowadays in Turkey and also being claimed by Kurdistan. Soon they stopped for people to have breakfast in a local restaurant. Then, two hours later, it stopped again in front of another restaurant. On the way to Iran they only stopped every 7-8 hours, while now, just stopping 2 hours after starting seemed a bit peculiar. Yet things were to clear up pretty soon. After everyone got off, the driver took the bus to the back of the restaurant, between two warehouses. Just pure coincidence, a Turkish bus that had "just" arrived and two trucks followed our bus. The driver took off our luggage and started to take out of the luggage area many canisters probably full of diesel fuel. Well, this certainly added a good share of profits to them, as the fuel in Turkey was more or less ten times more expensive than in Iran. The Turkish bus and the two trucks started at a decent 10 minutes interval from one another. Everything was very funny, as next to the restaurant there was a gas station and a police station. Well, Romanians, Bulgarians and Turks were dealing alcohol and cigarettes, Iranians were dealing oil, everyone does what he is best at, I guess.

We started again and crossed more or less all seasons, from summer in extreme Eastern Turkey, to winter while crossing the mountains later on when it even snowed for a short while, just to find autumn with a very dense fog joined by a drizzle and with spring time briefly before reaching Istanbul. Before Istanbul however, we had to make a detour via Ankara, as there were some passengers going there. In the morning we reached Istanbul but, just after crossing the bridge over the Bosphorous, a sharp smell overwhelmed the whole bus and a thick smoke soon surrounded us: the bus ride had come to an end, as the bus broke down. We got off, I took a taxi and went to the Emniyet Garage, the sweet home of all bus companies with buses going to Bucharest "every day", as all of their commercials and billboards said. It seems that - in their apprehension - "every day" meant indeed every day, except Sunday, holidays and - most importantly - when smuggling did not work because of the slowness of the Turkish embassy of Bucharest to process 6 month visas with unlimited number of entries for smugglers to enjoy. As it was both a Sunday and one of those bad situations for poor smugglers, all offices were closed and the guard walking around there told me in a bad Romanian that there was no bus to Romania that day, but that there was no hurry and I could wait until the next day. Well, he seemed to know my schedule and plans better than me, but he was also very nice as to tell me that there was bus to Constanța, that being the only one to Romania. So, good bye return ticket Bucharest - Istanbul - Bucharest I had also bought and welcome nice and scenic route via the Bulgarian and Romanian coast, but what a pity it was going to be at night time...

I walked for a while in Istanbul. Shop attendants were smiling and inviting tourists in with the familiar "hello sir, how area you, where are you from?". However these smiles were artificial and their words were just mere introductions that would end up, hopefully, with people's buying some carpet or pillow or else from their shops. The bazaar here was no longer a place where things were sold and bought, but rather a place to please so that one would pay more for being pleased. I went back to the garage and soon got on the rather simple bus. This was not heading to Bucharest, so it was smaller and poorer, but it was more relaxed and filled with a wide variety of passengers, among which some members of the Turkish community living in Romania, three young people that had been illegally working in Turkey for more than a year overstaying their tourist visa, a few smugglers and a weirdo coming from Iran and - very peculiarly - without any smuggled merchandise. Someone was reading a newspaper and the background was created by some gipsy music played on the bus sound system; someone in front of me was smoking although there was a pretty big "no smoking" sign just above his head, big enough even for the blind to see. There was a much needed for sense of normality, Romanian version. A pretty good way of saying "welcome home". But unfortunately not a "welcome sir, how are you?".

Just after leaving the Istanbul - Edirne highway for the road to Derekoy, the driver pulled the bus aside and he threw all the garbage collected in the bin just off in the road. I no longer was in the "dangerous and filthy" Middle East, I was back to magnificently clean Europe, home of all civilizations and host of the most superb women not wearing a chador. And there was better to come. We reached the Turkish customs and passed through without any particular problems, then we reached the Bulgarian customs. All passengers, disregarding of nationality, were considered as potential criminals and were separated in two sections: men and women, then we were all body searched according to our gender by a man or by a woman. Then the customs officers started to carefully look through our luggage. Realizing this, the few smugglers shared the bribe to pay for their stuff, the driver collected their money and handed it the customs officer and all searching immediately ceased so that we could go. Their job had been successfully completed and now both Bulgaria and Romania could joyfully enter the European Union, hooray hooray. We continued across some scenic hills, on a road full of potholes waiting for the European Union to fill them up. Soon night fell across the land and we reached the far better road from Burgas to Varna. At about 2 AM we reached the border with Romania. On the Bulgarian side things worked out pretty fastly, as they seemed interested only in the gold and drugs we were introducing in Bulgaria, not also in the 15th century icons and paintings we were taking out of the country. I was foolish enough to think for a minute that I would get to Bucharest so early that I would have the time to go home and have a shower before going to work, as it was Monday morning and some people had work to do, not everyone was a customs officer. Yet, one of the smugglers smashed all my childish hopes: "He he, if we go out of the Romanian customs in less than 2 hours, call me priest and I shall sing the Easter mass for you!". He would be more than right.

A tall, massive, grumpy - and obviously awaken from his sweet sleep dreaming of smugglers throwing US Grants at him - Romanian border police officer got on the bus. He collected our passports and when he realized that three of us had illegally stayed in Turkey nowadays bearing only travel documents issued by the Romanian consulate in Istanbul (as they had declared passports lost or stolen in order to have their traces lost), he went flipping mad, shouting like crazy, realizing probably that he would have to do the immense effort of filling a report and some bills for some money meant rather for the government than for himself. Then he went away and called the three to his office, while we waited on the bus for almost two hours or so as nothing happened. The atmosphere on the bus got pretty Balkans-like, with people varying from making jokes to bursting into anger at the customs and border police officers. People were sharing stories about their experiences with border crossings, while the smugglers were - once again - very happy with the new cargo companies that eased their life a lot.

Time passed by and we were eventually told to get off the bus and take our luggage for the customs check. The customs hall was ready to enter the EU as well. In the middle of it there was an X ray machine and, after having their luggage passed through the machine, most passengers were asked to open their stuff because of the suspicious contents. Learning where I was coming from, the customs officer asked me to take things out of the backpack: "Aha, Iran, so any herbs, any drugs inside?". I told him that there was no need to go to Iran for drugs, as I can buy them in Istanbul on the cheap just like any other merchandise, but he did not get it. Eventually, after a final and very suspicious gaze at my nutritive powder and at my sugar can, they let me go and we could board the bus again after the bus driver and his assistant put back on the bus the heavy pieces of a large kitchen stove they were transporting for someone from Istanbul to Romania and which had raised absolutely no suspicions at all at any border check for more less obvious reasons. The most funny thing of them all was that E.U. flag hung above the entrance to the Romanian customs hall, just like above the Bulgarian one where we had been body searched. It made me burst into laughs and therefore attract the suspicious gaze of the clerks there once again.

About 3 hours after reaching the Romanian side of the frontier, the three persons with "problems" could join us again and we could go. Soon afterwards we reached Constanta, the largest harbour on the Romanian coast. It was almost 7 AM and it was pouring, reminding me of the lyrics of song played long ago by Peter, Paul and Mary and best fitting people living in the Balkans:

"It's raining, it's pouring, the ol' man is snoring,

Bombed his head and he went to bed

And he couldn't get up in the morning [...]"

I went to the train station and hoped to use the ATM there as I had no Romanian money: it did not work and both exchange offices were closed of course, as it was too early in the morning. I changed some money with a taxi driver and got my ticket for the 7 AM Intercity train to Bucharest. If someone had told me when departing Tehran that I was to go via Varna - Constanța, I would have hit him / her hard with a water pipe, but this was reality now and there was nothing to do about it. It was raining all over Europe, as they said on the radio, a rain that was supposed to wash up our souls and end up with a blue sky. Yet it would not do so for various reasons, starting with the fact that something is missing on the "Old" Continent, a heartful and sincere: "Hello sir, how are you?"



THE IRANIAN SECTION 3 (you are here)

The road is sometimes just as fascinating as the destination is. The dry scenery, the road and the desire of an oasis somewhere in the end of the day, are the only issues one can feel and is concerned about. The drought, the hot summer wind, the desert city structure leave way to imagination in a way I could not think before going to this country. A car is no longer a mere car, an old Talbot, it provides the certainty of reaching the oasis, it is the light brown camel and the black Arabian horse out of Sheherezada's tales.