Mountain village of Masuleh

Mountain village of Masuleh

The previous part: Desert, camels and salt lake at Kashan

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After returning to Tehran, we went for couchsurfing. Another great Iranian host took care of us and offered all his hospitality. This time, however, he was not a Muslim, but a Bahá’í. And so we could first learn about the “peacefulness” of the Iranian regime to religious minorities. But about how our host was tortured in the next post.

We had a dinner, played games with friends, and began to figure out what to do in the remaining days. After our arrival in Iran, we have thoroughly enjoyed the Tehran smog, so we were for some nature, and I was curious about the Caspian Sea. So we chose to visit Chalus, where many Tehran holidaymakers go on weekends and holidays.

Double disappointment in Chalus

The next morning we went to the nearby Western Bus Terminal and looked for savari – a shared taxi – to Chalus. The departure was right after filling the car, as we used to be for it in Georgia.

The journey to two hundred miles away Chalus leads through epic scenery through the Alborz Mountains and lasts for about four hours.

In Chalus, we found ourselves somewhere in the middle of the city and tried to find a wi-fi to check if someone from the local couchsurfers replied, even we contacted them last minute. However, no public wi-fi was anywhere, and hard-won hacking skills like typing password 12345678 were useless. We went to a local pizzeria where they did not have a wi-fi but had a menu in Persian. With gestures, I explained that I want any pizza, but without mushrooms. Mushrooms and raisins are my greatest enemies in the food kingdom. Succeeded. And after a while comes the first disappointment of the day – pizza with mushrooms. Mamnoon.

We managed to get the internet in a cafe where we went only to ask them if they have wi-fi. None of the couchsurfers replied, and we couldn’t find a hostel mentioned by Lonely Planet. So we decided to check out the coast in the hope that we might choose some hotel there. We couldn’t get rid of a taxi driver who brought us there as we couldn’t get rid of the disappointment number two – a dirty and boring beach. We quickly pulled out from the original plan to spend there the two days and started looking for another savari to Rasht.

Don’t go to Iran without cash

Finding accommodation in Rasht was easier than in Chalus. We could have even chosen. In the first one, they didn’t have internet and shower wasn’t included in the price. And that would be a disaster to pay a few extra cents for the shower! In the second one, a sign was saying “wifa”, which was promising. From sleeping on the floor, we got to sleeping in beds whose mattresses were hard as the floor. We had our own shower, but one had to almost stand by his foot in the toilet to fit into that room.

Two days before the end of our stay, we started to run out of rials, so we had to exchange more. During the evening walk through the city, we tried to find an exchange, but they were already closed. And the next day was a holiday. As a foreigner you won’t withdraw from ATM, so you have to bring all the cash with you and hope it’ll be enough. On the street, somebody advised us to try some hotel reception. We were able to find one after a while, a gentleman at the reception called someone and told us to wait. But of course, we didn’t have the money with us, so we had to rush back to the hostel across the square where the Ashura celebrations were happening, the terrible “Husayn music” was torturing your ears and its only purpose had to be to break windows within a radius of ten kilometers. Eventually, we managed to exchange the money for a normal exchange rate.

What a pity we killed a lot of time in Chalus, Rasht is a nice city and worth a visit.

Masuleh – a village with rooftops instead of sidewalks

For the journey to Masuleh, we chose savari. The transfer was supposed to be in Fuman, but the driver asked us where we were going and that he will take us to Masuleh. A surprise came when paying for the ride. At first for us, then for him. Savari suddenly became a taxi with a tourist surcharge, even though we asked him about the price in Fuman. Eventually, he wanted to charge us ten times more than we would have paid for a full savari. And still much more than if we have paid for empty places. Beeing pissed, we gave him about the half – still a win-lose situation for him.

Masuleh is a photogenic mountain village with two waterfalls where the roofs of lots of houses serve as sidewalks. And we appeared here just when one of the Ashura processions took place. The vast majority of people were in black, and we could see how they were preparing for it from the roofs. As a bonus, women were walking through the aisles and were giving out biscuits. Even to us. And it was the best cookie I ever had.

After visiting the village, we moved to Fuman, the city famous for biscuits. But I didn’t find them so awesome like the one in Masuleh. Locals helped us how to get to the bus station and even escorted us and paid the tickets for us to get there. Then we spent another few hours on the bus to Tehran.

A dinner with a teacher from an underground university and the departure from Iran

From the Argentina terminal in Tehran, no taxi driver wanted to take us back to our couchsurfing host at a normal price. Suddenly a soldier helped us, stopped a passing taxi and set the price for fifteen thousand tomans, ten thousand less than the others drivers wanted. Eventually, he tried to give us five thousand, but we refused. We just wanted to pay the normal price. So the soldier gave the money to the driver and told us to not to pay him more than ten thousand. Deal. And so we met the first taxi driver in Iran who turned on a taximeter. Which, in the end, showed much more than we had agreed. But we kept our part of the deal.

I don’t remember much about our last day in Tehran. Which is strange because they sell no alcohol there. Legally. We’ve visited the Saei Park, and in the evening we went for a dinner to a professor of an underground university. Some people are denied access to higher education, mainly because of their different religion. So the solution is these forbidden “underground universities” when students meet with teachers at home.

Later, we just packed our bags, welcomed new couchsurfers, gave them some tips, and got a taxi at a normal price to the Imam Khomeini Airport to enjoy a night flight to Istanbul and some to drop the scarf off the head.

To Iran without a plan

Play the music for better atmosphere:

During summer 2015 in Georgia, we knew that we want to visit Iran. Everywhere present road signs to Tehran were provoking, but the trip wouldn’t worth it for 4 days at max. Well, last autumn we wanted to go back to Georgia for at least a week, but Kačka said nooo because she couldn’t afford to leave university for one week. So I suggested Iran for two weeks, and suddenly we had flight tickets for the end of September in the mail.

We didn’t look forward to Iran

You want to visit Iran for several years, you’re looking forward to it and then.. Then you return after almost a month from South Africa, Thailand, Ethiopia, and Italy, you have a break at home for five days, and suddenly you’d like to rest from traveling at least twice longer. And both of you has the same problem. Well, what could we do, nobody else would do it instead of us. Moreover, we had absolutely no plan where to go and what to see. On the way to Iran, we opened a few years old Lonely Planet book and chose one of the offered itineraries. As it turned out, it was probably the most common route for first visitors. We flew from Vienna with Pegasus Airlines with a change in Istanbul. It seems that arrivals and departures in the middle of the night are popular in this region. Both in Georgia and in Iran. We touched the surface of the Islamic Republic around 2 AM and headed into the maelstrom of bureaucratic absurdities.

VIE-SAW-IKA

Iranian immigration mess

We knew that there is a possibility that we won’t be able to leave the airport and we will fly back immediately. Information about getting a visa to Iran differs not only source from source, but also person from person at the airport. Perhaps it depends on your face and the mood of officials. Some were given visas for 15 days, others for a whole month. We needed the visa for 16 days. The immigration process is also complicated not only because of the “need” to pay health insurance – regardless of whether you have travel insurance from your country – but also because everyone pays a different price for visa/insurance and by the existence of mystical reference number. Don’t try to find the system in this. It seems that they’re trying to complicate it to tourists and just get money from them. This is also probably the official motto of the Iranian tourist agency, as we experienced when paying entrance fees throughout the country.

One option is to arrange your visa at the Iranian Embassy in your country. To do this, according to the available information, you must have that mystical reference number. This is the business for its sellers. I don’t know who sell it and what it should serve for. Plenty of people went to Iran without it and passed through immigration, so why to spend extra money. We chose the second option – a visa upon arrival at the international airport of Imam Khomeini. The queue at the counter was not long, but you won’t get to the counter itself. Sophisticated officials have a different system – one of them coordinates everything with every tourist, collects your passport and eventually give it back to you with visa.

In our case, it worked quite quickly and without problems. We got the visa for 30 days automatically without asking for 70 euros, and we paid 14 euros for their health insurance. After about an hour we were able to travel to Tehran by taxi because the airport is located about 50 km away and there is no public transportation.

Bargain!

Also in Iran you have to bargain over the price otherwise you will end nicely robbed. From our host, I knew that we shouldn’t pay more than 20 euros, so I just nodded to the very first offer at the arrivals for 35 dollars without even trying to bargain. No logic here. I didn’t get rid of comments about this till the end of the trip.

Tehran didn’t catch our attention

We dedicated first three days for Tehran for the cultural acclimatization. We found our accommodation on Homestay at a young married couple in the Sadeghiyeh district. The first day we used to get familiar with the metro, local glances, marketplace, and Golestan Palace. The price for a metro ticket we knew from the internet was probably outdated so at a desk they didn’t get why we are trying to pay less, and we didn’t understand what they want from us. But we always got a ticket – seems it didn’t matter on the price. Another surprise for us was how big surprise we were for the locals. Not that we were the first foreigners who were spotted in Persia. Those glances were incomparable with the ones from Southeast Asia I already know – people here are staring at you. Without a single blink. It certainly weren’t hostile glances, but it took a few days to get used to it. They also often approached us (well, more me, but on that another time) and asked us where we are from. Some of them were satisfied with the small talk, others wanted to talk in English more, others willingly advised what to do.

Losing in the famous Grand Bazaar was interesting and photogenic, but if you don’t want to buy shoes, carpet, clothes, jewelry, shoes, and carpets you probably won’t buy anything. Oh, did I mention carpets and shoes? Each aisle offers mostly one type of goods, but we didn’t find food aisle.

It took us while to find the entrance to the Golestan Palace. Admission is paid by the exhibitions you want to see. Together with the base admission, we chose only the Mirror Hall and then we tried to get into another room, but tickets are checked carefully. Buying entrance for all exhibitions (or for boredom if you want) would be a waste of money. When walking in the park, we were stopped by the old man with the question if we are from Germany. I asked him why Germany and he said he is looking for someone to explain some things in German. And because Kačka spricht sehr gut, the Iranian gentleman got a German lesson from the Czech girl in English.

The second day we wanted to visit 3964 meters high mountain Tochal, which is located north of the city. At the same time, we wanted to get some sleep that morning. Which, as we discovered later, excluded the visit of Tochal. Traveling through the entire city by metro, then bargain a good price with a taxi driver and finally walking to the first station lasted for so long, that after our arrival we learned we came too late to get to the top of the mountain. Thanks to this the world reminded how small it is because we met Kačka’s friends who were also traveling in Iran that time.

The last day in Tehran we caught up the rest of the “must see” places – Azadi Tower and the former US Embassy. It was in reconstruction around the Azadi Tower, local grass police patrolled so nobody enters the pitch and I finally became a celebrity when locals wanted pictures with me. Then we moved by metro to the Taleghan stop which is next to the former US Embassy. To take pictures, or not? I read a recommendation to ask the security first. Luckily, no security at that time so we could photograph the graffiti without any restriction. But we also lost the opportunity to ask them if we can visit the complex because it’s impossible to take a look because of the wall.

Tehran wasn’t special for us. Millions of people, heavy traffic, and smog. We were looking forward to a trip to Shiraz in the south. We chose about 14 hours long ride by a comfortable VIP night bus for $ 20. VIP means that the bus has 2+1 seat configuration with plenty of legroom and proper reclining seats. The ticket also includes refreshments – water, juice, biscuits and some chemical cake. Take your insulin.

In the next post, we will have a look at first couchsurfing experience in Shiraz, and we will visit the desert city and the desert itself.

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