Iran- the half-done journey

Before you read ahead –

  1. This is a SAD STORY.
  2. We will GO TO IRAN AGAIN.
  3. Iran IS SAFE FOR TRAVELLERS.

We started planning our trip to Iran in August 2019. The mixed opinion on the country made us go through more articles than we do for any other country. After many discussions with other travellers who had been to Iran and listening to their wonderful Persian experience, we applied for Iran Visa in November. Unlike the Schengen Visa struggle, getting Iran Visa for Indians was easier.

While Sahana went to Chikpet for buying a nice scarf for her Hijab, I listed down the best Biryani places in Iran. Together, we finished booking rooms and decided to stay in hostels and go couchsurfing for the first time ever. We saw the news with our bags packed set to go flashpacking in Iran on January 4. –USA army in Iraq killed Iran’s top general Qasem Soleimani on January 3 2020. 

Usually, our immediate family folks, colleagues and friends who know about our trip, feel happy and wish us bon voyage This time, most of them were unhappy with our plan of Iran even before Iran’s general was killed. But this news terrified them even more, especially our parents. “Cancel the trip / reschedule/go somewhere else” – These are the words we heard most on January 3. We decided to go in dilemma and not in the state to crush our Iran voyage dream. The next early morning, we were at Bangalore airport with our backpack and a trolley.

Though we had an E-Visa grant, airport officials seemed to be confused. There was a notice stuck everywhere – “Travel to Iraq and Afghanistan is banned for Indian nationals until further notice” Like most people, airport officials were confused between Iran & Iraq. After much interrogation, they let us board the flight to Tehran.

Arriving in Iran

In Tehran airport, everything went on smooth. We had proper travel insurance and a Visa grant. The friendly officials guided us through everything. The last immigration officer even handed over an official police number in Yazd when we asked them about getting their Visa extended after 16 days. That sense of walking on an unknown land gets butterflies in the stomach. Seeing new faces, new culture – It was exciting. Nothing there seemed to be scary.
In the cab on our way to Baharestan square, we saw military bunkers, protected military areas. At that point, we remembered the current volatile condition. Once we entered the city, it was normal. We saw neither army presence nor gunmen. The Tehranis were on their usual day in their chaotic traffic and clean streets on that cloudy day.

Along with beautiful calligraphy of the Persian language, signboards in Tehran were adorned with big banners having late General’s photos. Just by seeing several banners, tourists like us couldn’t decide if people were mourning or angry. But those banners were a lot in numbers, as much as their yellow and green old Saipa cars.

Once we reached our hostel in Baharestan square, we met our buddy Arya and got our travel card. When asked about the situation, he replied saying ” I won’t say it is all perfect now. But you need not be threatened. We don’t think there is going to be any war or such. If you saw any protests, move away from the crowd and don’t click any pictures. Plus, don’t click photos around your hostel area also. You are two blocks away from the Parliament building. You can always be in touch with me for any kind of help.”

It is obvious to see military presence around the parliament building of any nation. So was Baharestan square. Once we had a local SIM on our phone, we emailed the Indian embassy in Tehran to get ourselves registered like we do in every other country. Then, we left for Darband to soak ourselves in fruits and snow.

A hoax of Missile strikes

The next day, we were outside Tehran grand bazaar watching the busy local life happening. Then, with a cup of chai from a streetside vendor, we sat on a stone platform next to an old man after wishing him Salaam. He smiled and nodded his head.

The socks sellers were shouting and calling for customers. Dry fruit shops were re-arranging their trays for their colourful fresh fruits and nuts. Workers took the trash out in a hurry as the bazar was about to get busy in the next few minutes. Girls in Hijab and denim were discussing with each other. Old ladies in Burqa were swiftly walking inside the bazar to grab their usuals. Young couples holding hands were walking around – before the day kicked in.

I clearly remember that moment- we were sipping chai while my mom called me in despair, asking if we were fine! I was surprised why was she worried so much. Then she told me how Back in India, especially the regional news channels portrayed as if the USA WAS DOING A MISSILE STRIKE ON IRAN RIGHT THEN! So I video called my mother and showed her showed how beautiful the day was starting. While the news channels were showing old war footage (calling it – Iran’s current situation), Persians were busy shopping!

The bad day

There was not even one intimidating incident in the past four days during our trip. We wondered how unique the landscape near Abyaneh was. We were high in the fragrance of roses in Kashan – historic house’s architecture mesmerised us, the details of glazed tiles in palaces muted us with their wow. But, more than everything, Persians were showering love on the two simple tourists by helping in little things and giving us rides from point A to B.

We sat in Isfahan’s square, munching on NOON KHOORMAYI ( A bread stuffed with sugary dry fruits). Met amazing Minkari artist who invited us to his workshop the next day, sipped chai in unique Azadgane tea shop and ended the day at Abbasi square with locals.

Unlike the usual times, we had to keep on updating our family about our whereabouts. We used to call them three times a day and often WhatsApp them with pictures saying all ok.

On our second day of Isfahan, We got ready to explore Isfahan in the morning to go to Verzaneh in the evening. That morning, at the breakfast area, the staff seemed to be worried. They were glued to the TV listening to their Supreme leader’s speech. There was something fishy! They noticed our presence maybe after five minutes or so and served us breakfast. The receptionist came and asked, “How long are you planning to travel around Iran” Before even we mentioned we have 14 more days in Iran, she said, “It is time to escape Iran.” She explained to us what had happened that early morning. An Ukrain passenger plane was hit by something and crashed, killing all 176 passengers and pilots. Later it was proved that the Iran military had hit the passenger plane by mistake! Urrrgghhhh

Petrified us, somehow finished the breakfast and went back to the room to check the news. The bitter news had spread globally. There were almost 20 messages on WhatsApp asking if we were safe and fine. Parents call started to flow in almost every 15 minutes, asking us to come back immediately. We calculated a lot and discussed a lot. There has always been a cold war between the USA & Iran, but no war has broken out. With our analysis, finally, consoling and convincing our parents over call and replying to all messages, we came out of the hotel to see Isfahan. The street filled with food trucks and buzzing with life was empty – as if there was a curfew. It was 9 in the morning, still no sign of tourists or locals. We must have walked 100 metres; we received a call from the Indian embassy in Tehran, asking us to leave as soon as we got the air ticket in the immediate Passenger flight.

That wasn’t a good sign! A call from the embassy to leave the country was scary. We got terrified, scared, anxious, sad – you name an emotion we were going through. The nation was in turmoil, and so were we. It was the continuous waves of emotions striking our hearts! Finally, we returned to the room and switched on the TV to know more. The government said they weren’t responsible for the plane crash and had nothing to do with it. Canada, Ukraine and other nations were warring verbally against Iran. Everyone was waiting for the USD president’s speech. The president said cultural sites were among 52 identified Iranian targets that could be attacked if Iranians “torture and blow up our people”.

GOLESTAN PALACE – TEHRAN

It was definitely not the time to waste time rethinking. Our parents were worried a lot. The number of calls and messages asking our whereabouts increased severely. The pressure to leave Iran was growing immensely. It is the embassy that is asking us to leave the country, not any regional news channel. So we called the embassy officer again to re-confirm. He said, “Do not panic, and you leave by the next available passenger flight. It won’t be easy if the air space gets locked. I don’t want to create a situation here, but I am sure you don’t want to reach a stage where you will have to be airlifted”. 

The word “Airlift” scared the crap out of us. We have heard & watched it in the movies; the stories are thrilling to hear, but it is not a situation to be. The neighbouring countries of Iran are – Syraia, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. To the North are Armenia and Azerbaijan. We were in central Iran then. If we go against the embassy advice and continue to travel, we aren’t sure of what may happen. So- We packed our bags to leave Iran.

AZADGANE TEA SHOP – AN HOUR HERE FELT LIKE 10 MINUTES, BUT THE 6 HOUR JOURNEY TO SHIRAZ AIRPORT THE NEXT DAY FELT LIKE A WEEK

We roamed in the streets of Isfahan in search of an airline office. When we found one, the tickets were not available from Isfahan but from Shiraz. Somehow we managed to get our previously booked return ticket of Qatar airways refunded with the loss of 10000 Rupees with the help of our hotel Pars caretaker. The hotel even arranged for a car to go to Shiraz in the next 15 minutes.
Thus we left Iran from Isfahan! We were receiving messages and calls continuously from friends and family. This 480km journey seemed like a thousand miles! And six hours in the car felt like a week.

Emotional breakdown on the road

THIS IS ABYANEH – THE ROAD TO SHIRAZ WAS SIMILAR

According to the plan, if everything worked out according to the plan, we would have taken a bus from Isfahan to Yazd. The landscape was magical, but the mind was gloomy. We were worried about lots of things – Are we going to exit safely from Iran? Is there really going to be a missile strike on Iran like the USA president mentioned? What if we were in the plane that crashed? Who is responsible for the accident?

Iran is cheap for travellers; we wanted to make it cheaper. We were overconfident had booked all non-refundable rooms like a boss – thinking, what can go wrong. We had to call up the guest house we had booked in Verzaneh and ask him not to come to Isfahan to pick us up. We emailed 1st quest to cancel all our bookings. Along with the scary thoughts of war, that pain of losing so much money (Cost of next 13 nights stay) put us in total hopelessness.

I saw the beautiful sceneries before Shiraz. The cold desert with the sprinkles of snow, winding roads – If it were a typical day, we would have stopped the car ten times and must have gone roaming wherever possible in that desert. We hardly talked to each other. After a conversation with our taxi driver using a translator, he realised why we were sitting like two ghosts in the car. He tried cheering us up by stopping by for tea and fruits. Trust me, we didn’t get off the car at all for the entire 6 hours.

We were approaching Shiraz, with nice music playing in the car. The sun was setting. The sky was turning gold. It was a perfect time to savour the snow desert of the Shiraz area. While we spoke two sentences with each other, we spotted a red signboard that said “Persepolis-10km to the right.” That sorrow Sahana was holding back burst into tears then. She had read so much about the Persian empire that it was her dream to be there at Persepolis in the evening.

The perfect sun, perfect place but the wrong timing! The driver who observed Sahana in melancholy did not know how to react but stopped the car and asked us to stretch our legs for a few minutes. Few sips of water and orange by him gave her some strength. The driver typed something in his translator and showed us. Ir said
“You made the right decision. Go home safe now. You can always come back to Iran when the time is right.” Finally, we reached Shiraz airport. The city which we had dreamt of spending three days, but now we were about to spend a few hours waiting for our flight. While taking out the luggage, the driver said, ” I want to say welcome to Shiraz, but I know what your situation is. Have a safe journey.”

THIS IS A HISTORIC MANSION IN KASHAN – THINKING ISFAHAN’S GARDENS ARE BETTER, WE DIDN’T VISIT KASHAN’S GARDEN. AND NOW, WE ARE BACK FROM IRAN, WITHOUT VISITING A SINGLE PERSIAN GARDEN

We both promised ourselves – WE WILL GO BACK TO IRAN and FINISH THE HALF DONE. Palanghann, Kandovan, Verzaneh, Shiraz, Yazd, Hormuz Island and so on! We are going to do it when the time is right!

What happened in Iran later?

 NOTHING! I am glad nothing happened; no war broke out between the USA and Iran. The cold war continues but NO WAR. After a few days, Iran’s government admitted that – On January 8, 2020, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down minutes after taking off from Tehran, Iran, by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. They admitted “unintentionally” shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board – 176 humans died because someone decided to take revenge against the other!

Should we have stayed back? Or was it a good thing we came back halfway? These things still haunt me today! If we had stayed back, our friends and family would be worried for the entire 20 days. We could have seen Iran, but I don’t think we could experience Iran beyond seeing. When you travel, attending calls and sending messages every now & then spoils the vibe.
On the contrary, what if we had enjoyed and experienced like we planned if we had continued even after that plane crash? I don’t have an answer for this. But I know one thing – Persians are the kindest people you will ever meet.

Why is Iran troubled?

As a tourist, I can’t comment on a huge issue like this. But after reading several books like Persepolis, A stationary shop in Tehran, watching 20 documentaries to know Iran’s history & often talking to our Iran buddies Arya & Tina – I am putting things in a nutshell here.

  • Iran was part of Mesopatomian civilization in 1000BC
  • Emperor Cyrus founded Persian empire in 550BC
  • Alexander from Greece concquered Persia in 334BC
  • Later Arabs invaded Persia, Turks & Mongols attacked and looted Persia
  • In 20th century, Iran discovered oil on it’s land and became centre of attraction of the modern world.
  • Iran was a major source of oil supplier for western world during WWII
  • King Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was a west friend and gave UK lots of rights on Iran’s oil reserve in 1940s.
  • His Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalised Iran’s oil against Shah’s rules.
  • Shah fled to Europe in 1951, US & UK helped him to remain in exile – Thus USA & Iran became enemies!
  • Shah came back to Iran and brought back western policy in Iran for oils.
  • Angry conservative who are against Iran’s foreign favouring policy hit the streets, protesting against him.
  • He was dethroned in 1979 by Aitholah Khomeni after Islamic revolution. And hence, Iran became Islamic republic of Iran.
  • In 1980, Iran-Iraq war broke and lasted for 8 years. The reason was similar – Oil reserves of Iran’s Khuzestan region near Iraq border. It left thousands of soldiers dead.
  • All these are followed by multiple sanctions issued by USA against Iran.

Most Younger crowd wants Iran to be democratic, not theocratic. The internal conflict is encouraged by the outside world to have control over oil and other Iran’s resources – The problems written here are in simple words, but it is bigger than that. So I leave it to this with my basic understanding as a layman.

 Like how Murakami says, “There is no war that ends all wars.” 

IN TEHRAN GOLESTAN PALACE, I WONDERED WHO HAD SUCH PATIENCE & MINDFULNESS TO CREATE MASTERPIECES LIKE THIS. BUT NOW, EVERY TIME I SEE MY IRAN PICTURES, I WONDER WHEN I WILL TRAVEL TO IRAN AGAIN


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