I was wholly engrossed in the stress of acquiring a visa on arrival at Tehran Imam Khomeini airport as I happened to glance to my left and caught a flash of orange above a blue dress. The recognisable backpack triggered me finally, reunited with S. after a month and I hardly recognised her in her religiously-approved hijab!

I think there are few countries which have attracted as much misinformed comment from friends and family. Iran is, quite honestly, the most hospitable country I have ever been to. The Iranians themselves are keen to dispel international propaganda and showcase the reality of their culture. Iran is vast, three times the size of France, and very diverse with rugged mountain ranges, deserts and never-ending plains. The land of Iran is ancient in terms of human habitation with grand empires having risen and fallen over thousands of years. Howeverv, as much as I’d like to spend all day providing a history lessons, you shall have to endure my travel notes instead.

Tehran. Tehran is a city of ~12 million people, sprawling up against hills and possessing an intensity of traffic legion amongst travellers. Iran is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to drive in, not as bad as Namibia or Thailand but top 10. How people get driving licenses mystifies me. Lanes are but the merest hints of suggestion to dividing vast streams of traffic. A history of heavily subsidised fuel has meant that the car is the overarching master of this city. We were immediately impressed with the openess of the populace. Any person possessing any ability in English is keen to invite you to tea, to ask about your family life, to invite you to an upcoming wedding (as we were by a man we met in a subway!) or ask about how Iran is perceived in your country.

Qazvin. From Tehran we headed to the north west of the country where the people changed from Persian ethnicity to Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian or Azeri. This melting pot of humanity has been well-stirred by uncounted invasions and well-watered with blood. In Qazvin we saw a beautiful brick-vaulted caravanserai or overnight stopping and trading post for caravans of camels that formed the Silk Road of trade between east and west. Many of Iran’s bazaars (internal shopping malls/streets) are built on and around caravanserais hundreds if not thousands of years old. We stayed in one hotel converted from an old mansion built around a fountain. Due to heat, dust, security and privacy considerations, most homes are internally-focused with a high brick wall on the outside. Inside the place exuded history and beauty with stained glass windows, pretty brickwork and carpets to loll about on.

Alamut Valley. Famous today mostly for the castles of the Assassins, this rugged valley forms a barrier between the Caspian Sea and the rest of Iran. We embarked on a three-day trek with Razoul, a young buck of a guide with a face chiseled out of sinew and slate. His village is mud-walled and the roofs were 10cm thick layers of mud. He was working hard to provide for his sisters dowry. The valley was grim and foreboding but as luck would have it we were a group of six Dutchies put together and the laughter ensued non-stop. The trek was seriously taxing as we pushed straight up towards one ruined Assassin castle destroyed by the Mongols only after siege had reduced the defenders to starvation and disease. Surveying the valley we saw yet more bare mountains and straggly grass with strips of snow showing in the higher valleys. They grow mostly rice, fruit (e.g. cherries and figs) and nuts in the region. Climbing up further, we strained to catch sight of an ibex but had to make do with partridges squalling away in fright. I felt at times I was in a scene of the Sound of Music and expected some yodelling, instead we rushed to evade lightning and torrential rain as we hurtled bedraggled into a traditional family home for the night.

The next day we purchased plastic boots for those without suitable footware, turning the morning into the village fair as old ladies bent double under the weight of their years gossiped about us. We then pushed further up the mountain as the soft, crumbly rocks made the going tough. A truly impressive environment as we realised, yes, that rope we had been carrying would come in handy for impromptu abseiling and ascending scree-riddled slopes. At one point an avalanche in the opposite valley made an incredible amount of noise rushing down the hill. Natural springs bubbled fresh water straight out of the side of the mountain. The evening was spent in an empty walnut-farmer’s house above a roaring river. The final day was a little lighter as Razoul’s stated intention of pushing us to our limits had had its effect. We gazed far above the river at swallows dive-bombing each other in the air as they competed to create their nests on the cliff-face as Razoul noted the “path” we were following home had been used by traders for more than 2,000 years as the shortest route to the Caspian Sea from the valley. The peace of the mountain fastness gave way to the fertile river plain as we laughed about “Razoul hours” which are about 1.5 times normal distance estimates. My dinner of gheymeh nesar helped cap a true highlight of our trip. A lamb stew covered in rice and flavoured with pistachios, saffron, tumeric, rose water, cardamon and barberries.

Food. Food is core for S. and I in maintaining happiness whilst travelling. Iran has delivered, with outstanding simple breakfasts of cheese, honey, jams (especially carrot) lathered onto a flat bread called lavash. We have encountered one too many kebabs on rice but stews with pomegranates, walnuts, eggplants accompanied by different types of rice annointed with saffron spice (Iran produces +90% of world production, more costly than gold by weight!), tea and more tea, sangak (a delicious flat bread baked on a pile of hot river stones), sweet delicacies galore like gaz (nougat), biscuits and cakes and of course the crucial 0.0% malt beer.

Title note: friendly street sign translating a Persian proverb

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