Friendly Iran

Monday, 26 June 2017

I’m in Turkey on Day 87 of my 102 day Silk Road drive in an old MGB from Bangkok to London (and on to Abingdon where MGBs were made, many years ago). From Day 76 to Day 84 we drove through Iran. Friendly Iran as almost any visitor to Iran will attest.

▲Tashi Wheeler at the MGB wheel

I’ve had a changing cast of co-drivers along the Silk Road and my daughter Tashi joined me again (she drove with me from Bangkok in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos at the start of this trip). This time she was on board from Mashhad in Iran to Erzurum in Turkey and here she is at the wheel in Iran. With her hair covered with a headscarf to satisfy the Islamic Republic’s demands. She seemed to get on very well with Iranian driving, quite the craziest we had encountered anywhere on our trip.

Now Iran is a long way from a perfect country, just ask British woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe arrested in 2016 and sentenced to five years imprisonment for – well for what? – nobody knows apart from the Iranian authorities and they aren’t saying. So everything isn’t rosy in Iran, you certainly don’t want to get on the wrong side of some mujaheddin thugs.

But compare Iran with Saudi Arabia, as the US president clearly didn’t on his recent visit, and it’s an entirely different story. Try any comparison:

• Terrorism – well how many Iranians were involved in the 9/11 attacks? Zero compared to 15 Saudis. Who funds the evils of Wahhabism? Not the Iranians.
• Democracy – it’s far from perfect, but the Iranians repeatedly show that they know what voting is all about. Democracy and Saudi Arabia? Don’t make me (or anybody else apart from Mr Trump) laugh.
• Women’s rights? That photograph above of my daughter at the wheel in Iran certainly couldn’t be repeated in Saudi Arabia.
• Hard work? The Iranians certainly know about it, but as I wrote in my book Bad Lands ‘Back in the Kuwait Gulf War it was a standard joke for coalition military that the only thing you’d ever see a Saudi soldier lift up was a bag of money.’
• And the Iranians may have been incredibly unfair to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but you certainly don’t want to be Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia. I’ve written about him in on this website and The Guardian have recently reported on his current situation.

◄ Repeatedly we encountered acts of friendliness in Iran, like when Tashi and I drove up from Urmia (also known as Orumiyeh) to the hilltop hamlet of Sir. The Marsarjis Church in the village is incredibly ancient and we’d no sooner showed up than two men came over, welcomed us and produced the key to let us in and look around. Check how tiny the door is behind us.

▲ The town of Sarein seems to specialize in honey, every other shop in the town is a honey specialist and I got a warm welcome when I looked in to one of them. The proprietor ladles honey into a giant container, we’re surrounded by boxed honeycombs, jars and pots of honey. Every other shop has a blow up photograph of some serene beekeeper being swarmed over by bees.

▲ Tashi Wheeler & young Iranian family

Every place we stopped people would crowd around us for selfies and photos. Like this young family with Tashi in the village of Rostamkola when we stopped there to have a lunchtime picnic in their park.

▲ A temporary co-driver & Tashi Wheeler

From Astara on the Caspian Sea the road zig-zagged up to a high pass, running close to the border with Azerbaijan. At the top of the pass the road dived through a tunnel and we emerged into a different sunny world, above the clouds cloaking the Caspian. We made another picnic stop and this Iranian woman jumped in to Burgundy, our MGB, to pose for a photograph with Tashi.

▲ In the village of Osku we stopped for breakfast, we’d left Kandovan before our hotel’s restaurant opened for the morning. Buying bread in the village bakery we were invited in to watch the baking process, the two bakers preparing the oval flatbreads before they’re popped into the rotating oven. They’re delicious when they’re pulled out a few minutes later.