11. Treasure hunt

Iran; we planned to stay 4 weeks but ended up staying 8. And we could easily add another 4. But at the same time we want to continue our travel and explore new countries. So after celebrating Christmas in Iran, we took the ferry to the Middle East. 

Christmas 2019 is a special one. We celebrate Christmas eve with a bunch of overlanders at the beach of Bandar Abbas where we create a 5 cars – camp, add some Christmas decorations and listen to Chris Rea’s Driving home for Christmas. In between we here the songs coming out of the mosque- a nice blended start of Christmas. It’s good to be with some friends we’ve met on the road; in these days family and friends feel far away and are missed. 

At Christmas Day we catch a boat to Hormuz island, famous for its hippie style atmosphere. When the people of our homestay find out we celebrate Christmas, they make it a special night for us. “Guests are as lights: they lighten up your home and you have to make sure they will shine even brighter” they say to us. A warm – originally Persian- Christmas thought. We enjoy fresh fish from the grill, home made drinks and listen to WHAM. 

The other guests are 3 young guys from Teheran. It’s interesting to have chats with them, and understand more about the impact of the current economic situation. We speak about work possibilities, emigration, differences between men and women and so on. For many Iranian people it’s difficult to find their way in the current situation. While discussing, a guilty feeling rises; just because of the place where we were born we have more opportunities. This is obviously no new information, but in these kind of conversations it gets more concrete. Lots of young Iranian people still live at their parents and cannot find a job. We sold our house and quit our jobs, because we trust that we will manage to find a new place & new jobs once back from travel. The differences could not be bigger, which is a hard reality.

The planning of our visit to Hormuz Island represents our time in Iran- we planned to stay 1 night but end up staying 3. Finally, we need to take a ferry at 6AM in the morning but we cannot leave without breakfast- as Iranian say: “Breakfast is golden, lunch is for friends and dinner you share with your enemies”

Saturday December 28; time to take the ferry to the Emirates! Other travelers warned us upfront; the procedure in the Iranian harbor takes some hours. When we arrive, we see a few blue containers with small offices inside. This is where the treasure hunt for stamps and paperwork starts. First to container one to get a stamp. Then to another container, where someone checks this stamp. Then to the building left, where we need to make visa and passport copies (5 of each, of which we used 1). In the shop next to the copyshop we need to buy a folder to keep all the paperwork together. No, not a blue folder, a green one. 200 meters further, again in a random direction: a building where we need to fill in several forms. In office one the form is checked, in office two we get a stamp and then back to the entrance for a copy. In another building there are 29 desks of which 2 are open. There we receive another stamp. 

And so it continuous, in total around 27 steps. Luckily, there are 5 German overlanders who are in exactly the same process so we can share our newly gained knowledge, help each other and most of all laugh about the whole procedure. At 5PM (8 hours after the start) we collected all the apparent necessary stamps: the treasure hunt is over. At 9PM we can board. The emergency door has a sign which says “ In case of emergency, keys in buffet”. Enjoy the ride…

Arriving in the Emirates, we find out that the Emirates customs like treasure hunts as well. Signing papers, stamp collecting, payments; all in different offices in the harbor (of course the office buildings are not clear; it’s opening a container door and hoping that you’ll find a desk). After 6 hours in a rather inefficient, but operated by friendly people process, we reach the end level of this hunt and drive into the Emirates. Let the culture shock begin.

The difference with Iran could not be bigger. Immense high fancy looking buildings, huge yachts and everywhere where you look expensive cars. Supermarkets where we see Western products we’ve missed for a while, perfect road conditions and hotels with an super chique allure. We find a beach in the middle of Dubai where many locals camp. From there, we enjoy a 360 view on Dubai and the Palm island. We decide to celebrate NYE with some of our new German friends, buy some bubbles, watch the immens firework shows and get easily drunk (after 2 months ‘hardly any’ alchohol) . With a huge hangover we cross the boarder to Oman on January 1st. For now: Happy & healthy 2020!

10. Go with the flow.

Goal oriented, Result driven, Planning focused; these would probably be some of the words you would find on both of our resumes. And being Dutchies, it’s in our culture to be efficient, in control and time driven. Well, these are definitely not the characteristics you need for traveling through Iran. What you need is the opposite; go with the flow, take your time and accept the fact that you often haven’t got a clue what is about to happen. And hey, things just happen, not perse for any reason. Where we Dutchies always feel there is a lack of time, Iranian people see time as something endless- it is always there.

After our Lut desert adventure, we decide to drive to Shiraz. The fifth most populous city in Iran, and – among other things- famous for the Nasir al- Mulk Mosque and the garden and tomb of the Iranian poet Hafez. It is quite a culture shock; from off-road desert life, we jump into a city trip (it’s an interesting feeling; we’ve both been living in cities for 20 years, but since/ while traveling we evidently prefer rural area’s). Although we have to adapt, we also enjoy the benefits of city life; good restaurants, even better coffee and beautiful architecture. But after a few nights we decide to hit the road again; visiting the impressive Persepolis and off-roading through the Zagros mountains!

Driving through the Zagros mountains we come across the small village Qhalat, also named as ‘Little Amsterdam’ – we’ll leave open the question why. From our Lut desert guide Ali we received the number of a guy living there, so we decide to text him. Not having a clue for what reason Ali recommended him but hey, let’s see. The guy- Ramin – responses quickly, picks us up at a bar and – without really saying something- takes us with him to his house. Why does he show his house? What are we going to do? We haven’t got a clue. Ramin appears to be a musician and plays some beautiful music for us in his living room. Then 2 Iranian backpackers show up and join us for the music. We sometimes look to each other: do you have any idea what the plan is? Nope. Ok, let’s see. 

Ramin asks if we want to stay for the night. It’s cold and dark outside, warm and cosy inside so sure why not! Two local man show up and join our little get-together. Maybe, we say to each other, there is no plan. We just hang out, with some random people, at a random place. To make ourselves useful we cook dinner for the group. It’s nice to be able to contribute to this random gathering (or to have a goal after all?). We play and listen to music till late in the evening, share new music and just enjoy the good atmosphere.

When we wake up, we take a stroll through the village with the group and then hit the road again. Not without the promise to watch Ramin’s concert that night in Shiraz. So that night the group get’s together again in a super hipster bar and we enjoy a good jazz concert of Ramin and his band. There was no plan when we sent him an app the day before, and there still is none, but we just step from one experience into the other. And it feels quite good.

The next day we drive to the Persian Gulf. After a few hours driving we step out of the car; warm air! What a present after many cold, even freezing, nights. We find a bar where we can park via iOverlander and with our engine still on the owner of the bar runs to us saying: “ WELCOME HOME!! You are at home my friends”. Wow, what a welcome. We can park our car in front of the bar and walk in; 3 other French overlanders are there as well and the bar is a super nice, European looking venue, chill area’s, film corner and a kitchen/bar we can use as much as we like. At first we don’t understand it; why would he open his bar for us? Where are the customers? It appears that it is a private member club- only good friends of Farshid (the owner) can drop in, and he just really enjoys the company of travellers. 

We arrived there to stay for 1 night, later plan to leave after 4, but due to the rain re-plan this changes to 5 and end up staying 6. It indeed feels like home. It also feels like being student again; living together with a bunch of fun people just doing fun stuff. Farshid makes delicious cookies and shakes every morning, takes the guys out to a gym at the beach, we grill fresh fish, the French cook delicious French cakes & crepes and we enjoy a Dutch bike ride along the coast. In the evening we play games, watch movies and enjoy nice chats with our French friends, Farshid and his friends. The days just crawl by and we don’t even notice. 

A few of Farshids friends are pianist and invite us for a night at the piano institute. We go there and enjoy some beautiful music performances. And as an extra surprise we get V.I.P tickets for an Iranian concert and enjoy traditional music and dancing. Again – like we experienced everywhere in Iran- the people find it super important that we have a good experience and that we understand that the media image of Iran is not how it is in real life among the people. We already experienced that from the moment we entered Iran, but stay surprised about the genuine selfless hospitality of the people.

The last few weeks we didn’t have a plan; things just happened. No goals, no next steps, no control. Where in the first weeks of our travel we kind of ‘rushed’, we are now slowing down. We planned to be in Oman for Christmas, but are still enjoying Iran too much. So we decided to celebrate Christmas with our French friends in the South of Iran, visit the island of Hormuz and then take the ferry to Oman. 

At the moment of writing we are wild camping at the Persian Gulf a few days. Beautiful – Greece style- bays, no internet and hardly any people. Time for books again and some beach gym – working on the many many many nice Iranian cookies & French crepes 🙂 For now: we wish you a Merry Christmas!

Nb: we’ve posted the first part of our Iranian photo’s

9. Men with a mission

So, there we are. In Shadad, a small desert village, with our Troopy on a 6 hour desert drive far away in the dunes. We’re quite worried; what if someone finds our car? Our tour guide Ali helps us finding mechanics and tour guides (he leaves to India so cannot come himself). It’s a full day of calling, arranging, some more calls and well, some more calls. Luckily, a mechanic we’ve met before can help us and knows where to find a new part; in Teheran. There goes our hope for a quick fix. But it’s ok; they send it with a night flight from Teheran to Kerman. And indeed, it is delivered the next morning. Let’s start the rescue! We drive from Shadad to Kerman, where the rescue will start.

Sunday morning 08:00 AM, we wait at our hostel in Kerman. The mechanic and a colleague of him have picked up the clutch at the airport and meet us at our hostel. Packed with water and some food we get in the car. We absolutely have no idea about the plan, so we have to let go of all control (which is quite challenging) and just go with the flow. Sunday morning 08:30 AM: we change taxi’s. With this taxi we drive 200KM from Kerman to Bam. There we hope to see the offroad cars which will take us into the dunes. Because sunset is already at 16:30, we know we have to hurry. But hurry is not in the plan. We stop at a date factory and get invited into de Director’s office. It’s a Don Corleone type of man, showing us all about his business. He asks us if we know the route to our car? Ehhh, no, we thought you would know? We feel kind of discouraged. We eat (obviously) dates, and after a while we understand we have to wait for the offroad cars a little longer. We get a nice lunch, but it’s difficult to really enjoy it, not knowing when we will be reunited with Troopy.

Then after 2 (long) hours we hear the sound of some offroad cars. We run outside; we see two Toyota’s and when they stop, 2 men jump out. They’re not much higher than 1.60, wear serious sunglasses and based on their outfit look very technical & professional. They don’t smile but just start packing the stuff that we brought: men with a mission. Immediately we feel confident that this mission will be successful. At 14:00 we hit the road and after a few hours we’re back in the desert. The group: Two cars, 2 tour guides, 1 brother of the tour guide (we’re not quite sure what his role is, and still do not know), 2 mechanics and ourselves.

We understand that the original plan is to drive to our Troopy that Sunday, the mechanics will fix the car in the night, and we will drive with Troopy back to the city Monday morning. But when it get’s dark, the tour guides decide it’s too dangerous to drive further into the dune and that we should make a camp. With all our camp stuff  stored in Troopy, we have not much more than a bag with water & food. But our men with a mission came (obviously) prepared. We make a fire, eat from one big plate and when we’re about to sleep, they give us 2 sleeping bags and a tent; a pleasant surprise! Tired from the day, we fall right asleep, not even noticing the hard sand we sleep on.

Monday morning 05:30. In 10 minutes (yes, these guys have a mission), the camp is packed, no breakfast (because we have a mission) and we start driving again. The dunes get more challenging but we see Troopy’s GPS location getting closer. At 09:00 we see Troopy! Around 09:30 the mechanics start the fix; they do an absolute great and quick repair in the middle of the desert. In the meanwhile, we bake some eggs in for the team. To make the adventure complete, suddenly a guy on a motorbike crosses by. The guides tell us to stay away and start talking with this “Iranian tourist”, and then he leaves. We are even more glad that we have started our rescue mission on time..

12:30: Dune driving again in Troopy! We feel like the happiest persons ever. But the high dunes remain challenging; the turbo has some troubles (for those interested: a torn turbo inlet pipe that blocks the air intake when the turbo is actually trying to suck more air in..)  and therefore we often lose power & speed at the moments we need it. The mechanic fixes the turbo with an old t-shirt and we manage to get Troopy out of the high dunes. Once in the flat area, Tropy drives perfect again. With a beautiful sunset we drive in a few hours back out of the desert. Super super happy and ready to give Troopy a well deserved treatment in the garage. At the moment of writing everything is fixed (luckely it was more sand cleaning than fixing) and we have our car/ home back again; ready to hit the road! 

8. Hitting the dunes

“Hi, we’re a Dutch couple looking for a guide to take us into the Lut for some serious off-roading. Not just driving and camping, but serious off-road tracks.” This was the message we’ve send to some guides. And we found one. Our biggest adventure so far was about to start.

After unwinding a few days in an Maymand ecolodge (where we slept in caves, brought home 2000(!) sheeps from the land and ate (sheep) with the locals) we were ready for the desert. Monday morning 08:00 AM: we gather at a hotel in Mahan. It’s a funny feeling, we‘re about to go on a 5 day holiday with people we’ve never met. The group is already there: Ali (the tourguide) his wife Arezoo, Souma, Paymen, Asoumi, Bigi and Mahan. All in/around their 30s, and based on some of their clothes it looks like they walked straight from the Burning Man festival. This promises to be a good week.

Like mountains can be overwhelming with their enormous heights (we experienced this in Albania), the desert can be overwhelming with landscapes where you literally see nothing but flat sand 360 degrees and you loose all your orientation. We drive with 4 Toyota’s in a line, heading towards the dunes.

Ali’s enthusiasm about the desert and its high dunes makes us curious for what is about to come. When we stop for a lunch we can see the dunes in the distance. High sandy hills, stretching as far as the eyes can see. When we reach the dune area, we’re already sold. Everywhere around us nothing but high dunes, curving the sandy landscape combined with a nice winter sun. But the dunes are not easy. The sand is soft and Troopy is heavy. Where the other cars flow over the dunes, it’s clear that we are not only carrying our car, but also all our belongings. Many times our Troopy get’s stuck in the sand and we have to maneuver a way out of it. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s frustrating. 

The good thing is that we’re with a group of professional dune drivers. They guide us, learn us how to catch a steep hill, how to come off a steep hill safely, what route we can take to not get stuck, etcetera. After a few hours, we already notice that the sand get’s less challenging, we can follow the group more easily and enjoy the dunes. Our smiles cannot be bigger while driving from a high dune, our favorite DJ track in the background and enjoying crazy dune views. At sunset, we make a camp. This group is clearly experienced in desert camping. Like “Douwe Dabbert’s knapzak” they get an enormous amount of camp stuff ( even virtual reality glasses ( a VR tour in the middle of the desert?!) ) out of their cars, and within 20 minutes we have a camp spot to dream of. Often we look to each other: is this really happening? The group, the dunes, the camp nights; we could not imagine that it would be this fun.

The week continuous and we get better and better in dune driving. But unfortunately, the dunes seem too much for Troopy, especially because of its weight. It’s more and more difficult to get to the dune tops, and on Thursday the clutch breaks down 😦 No more driving for Troopy. At first, with the other 3 cars we try to get Troopy out of the dunes. But it’s too much weight, the sand is too soft and the dunes too high. After a few hours of trying we stop and decide that we have to leave Troopy in the desert to get a mechanic and a new clutch. Being our car and our home, this is not the best news for us. But the group knows how to cheer us up (these guys just know how to make fun, no matter what happens). We enjoy the last camp night with them, and drive out of the desert together in the 3 cars on Friday. Leaving Troopy behind.

7. You drive like an Iranian

Our first impressions of Iran are dominated by the 3p’s. People people and people. Upfront, we heard many positive stories about the Iranian citizens, and that’s what we’ve experienced from the first moment on. At our first night in Tabriz, people start random chats with us on the street. Being / feeling like tourists, we tend to get suspicious first. What do they want from us, what do they want to sell? But nothing happens. It’ s just a real, genuine chat and a warm welcome to their country. When we ask directions, a young couple not only points us where to go, but walks with us the entire way. And after 10 min they come back to give us their phone number- in case we have any more questions. 

In Rasht a tourist guide starts a chat with us. Again, we’re kind of suspicious. He probably wants to sell us a tour. Again, our first thought is wrong. He helps us arranging an Iranian SIM card, we have a tea at his friends bar and when he finds out we sleep in our car on a parking lot, he offers a room in his house. We kindly refuse (we enjoy sleeping in our own bed), but this type of kindness is what we continuously encounter. Without any exception. When crossing toll gates on the road, our money is refused: you are guests! When buying mobile data in a shop, we cannot leave before we eat together with the staff and make (many!) pictures, even the local photographer is called and stops by with an enormous lens. 

The first week in Iran we explore the nature in the North of Iran; the Gilan province and the Salambar mountain pass. We wild camp at 3200 m high, on top of snowy mountains and never had a more beautiful wild camp spot. Surrounded by mountains, stunning views and a beautiful sunset. We eat at 5 PM because it’s already freezing and dive into bed at 7PM to keep each other warm. We wake up with the sun shining on the mountain tops.

On our way back driving in he valley an old man invites us to his home. He lives on top of the hill, alone, in an old cottage with a stunning view. He does not speak English, but with books, hands and feet he learns us about the Iranian history; he appears to have been a pilot in the Iranian army. At one point he get his gun- in any other situation this might be the moment to start running. But we know it’s safe, he’s just very proud 🙂

Another not to miss topic when driving through Iran with our own car, is the traffic. Actually the word traffic implies a kind of structured way of moving together on the therefore appointed lanes. That is not what happens in Iran. 2 lanes used by 3 or 4 rows of cars, lanes that are suddenly used as parking lot, people driving at the upper right lane and then suddenly decide they need to go left- and really cannot wait, roundabouts where there seems to be no logic other then pushing yourself through. And that accompanied by many many horns. 

But this is Merle’s perspective. There is someone with a continuous smile on his face while driving in this hectic; Max. After a few days he knows for sure that in his previous live he must have been an Iranian cab driver. And it must be said; he meanders super smooth among all locals, in the meanwhile waving and thumbs up to fellow drivers. At one point driving in Qazvin a cab driver opens his window and shouts; you drive like an Iranian! The smile on Max’ face is not to describe. The biggest compliment ever!

At the moment of writing we are in Maymand. An off the track Flinstone- kind- off- village where people live in caves. And so do we. After 5 days of exploring Esfahan (with Max’ mother and her husband, nice to see them there!) and a few days city life in Yazd it’s nice to unwind here. We have dinners in caves, enjoy cave- hikes, sunsets and help bringing home sheeps from the land; we’re part of the local community for a few days. A good spot to unwind before our next adventure: a 5 day tour in the Lut desert with an off road guide!

6. Up in the air

Turkey, you have surprised us. We did not have too much expectations upfront. Actually, Turkey was the country ‘we needed to cross’ to get to our first goal Iran. But we were wrong. Turkey is a goal on itself. Not only because of the enormous amount of historical places, stunning nature and good food, but also the Turkish people make this country definitely worth traveling to/through.

Not only the people we meet in towns and campings are very polite and helpful, also on the road we experience joyful encounters. Hello Hello! *BIG SMILE* Hello hello welcome! *THUMBS UP* Welcome welcome! This is the common response when we drive through a police check on the road in Turkey, and there are quite many (especially in the East). Often we don’t even need to stop, it’s just a moment of saying hi. 

While driving trough Turkey, we decide to make a small “UNESCO– tour”. First stop (after Istanbul): Ephesus. We camp at guesthouse “Atilla’s Gettaway” that feels like a small oasis. A beautiful garden, swimming pool, chill area’s, fire place and a bar, well taken care of by 2 Turkish Australian brothers. They make us feel at home. For the first time, we decide to take it slow and stay for a few nights. We eat with their family (mama cooks every night for her boys) and have discussions with a beer at the fire place. We hear their thoughts (and share ours) on history (like 2nd World War) and current world crises. We do not always agree, but it’s super interesting to understand their perspective. 

We visit Ephesus (an ancient city) and Pamukkale–  again an ancient place, special because of it’s clear white landscape with mineral baths. We decide to walk up hill (shoes off; you walk bare feet on the white calcium floors with warm flowing water) and see how many “Instagrammers” in bikini dip in the pool and try to hold their best pose. It’s quite entertaining. 

Next UNESCO stop: Capadoccia. Famous for its special landscape (colored point shaped rocks) where people have carved out homes, churches and the lot. It is also known for the early morning balloon flights, every day 150 balloons take off to have tourists capture the scenic views from the air. When we arrive at the Cappadocia camping, it’s freezing cold. We’re the only ones there, until 2 young Turkish couples create a hang out spot next to our camp spot. They seem to call friends and we’re a little afraid that the place will be used for a Project X. But we feel a little ashamed of judging too quickly. They are just there to bbq, we receive a platter with chicken, and the next morning we drink tea together and watch the balloons. 

We knew the balloons would be cool to see, but in combination with the beautiful landscape and sunrise it’s still a super nice surprise. We decide we cannot stay on the ground and book a flight for the next morning. In the afternoon we take a 2 hour hike in the Cappadocia valley. Or at least we planned a 2 hour hike. It appears to be a network full of small paths and our map seems to make no sense at all (always blame the map). We end up hiking 4,5 hours but de landscape is definitely worth it. Many tiny houses are build inside the rocks, with cute small windows and doors that reach to our waists. It feels like waling through Barbapapa- land.

Next morning, 05:30, taxi pick up at our camping. It’s freezing, we wear all the winter clothes we have. Getting close, the basket seems nothing more than an oversized old grandma’s fruit basket, spacious enough for 20 people. The fire is on and the balloon takes off. Old grandma’s basket lifts from the floor. What a weird feeling. But soon we forget about that: we see all the colorful balloons taking off in the dark night, with the sun slowly awakening behind the mountains. Chicken pocks, many ‘ohhhhs’ and happy faces follow. A full hour of breath taking, magical views.

We finalize our trip through Turkey with a wild camp night at lake Van, with a beautiful view on the enormous lake and snow topped mountains. We drink all the wine and beers we have left and – with a little hangover- drive to the Iranian boarder the next morning. Excited and curious at the same time because we know; Iran is a country not to compare with any other.