Iran Part II: The Disastrous Experience of Exploring and Exiting Northern Iran (and Realising Maybe Some People Had a Point)
Let me tell you something you may or may not know; Iran is a big country. It is the 17th largest country in the world by landmass. Iran is BIG. Now that probably seems a little disingenuous coming from someone who lives in Australia, the largest island in the world, and a country where you can drive for 20 hours and still be in the same state. The thing about Australia, however, is that it is completely connected by highways, and anywhere that isn’t, isn’t really worth going to anyway (no offence Tasmania).
Iran is a little trickier to navigate, and much tougher via public transport. Not wanting to risk our lives by hiring a car and driving around the death trap that is the Iranian freeway, we opted to take buses across the country. Now that’s not to say the public transport isn’t cheap or uncomfortable or unavailable; it’s actually very affordable, reasonably comfortable and there are enough buses that you can get a ticket to almost anywhere you want to go, including Syria and Iraq if you’re so inclined.
We would’ve loved to explore Iran for longer, but our insurance was almost up, and our cash was slowly depleting; slower than I thought it would, but depleting nonetheless, so we opted to end our stay and make the slow journey into Armenia. Instead of making our final stop Isfahan (a further two hours south of Kashan), we decided to break up the 24 hour bus ride with a day or two layover in Tabriz.
I was actually pretty excited at this point; we were promised that Tabriz was a more metropolitan city compared to the industrial one that is Tehran, and we were both super stoked to visit the ‘colourful mountains’, a unique phenomenon that can only be found in remote parts of China, Peru, and Northern Iran. We’d even coordinated with a local tour guide to drive us out there, built a rapport and had a friendly back and forth banter. We just had to get there first!
And so begins the most perilous journey we’ve ever had to undertake.
Our trip begins at the bus terminal. We asked around trying to find a bus to take us all the way to Tabriz, but could only find a night bus. That’s no good, we have a hostel in Tabriz, we have to go now. One thing Jemma and I both agree on is that we should have opted for the night bus.
We both mutually agree to head back to Tehran where buses to Tabriz are more frequent, and after paying the 230,000 rial are IMMEDIATELY escorted by an attendant outside of the bus terminal and onto the highway. I was a little confused, but lo and behold, there was our bus, driving down the main road. The helpful attendant flagged it down and we were quickly shuffled onto the bus towards Tehran.
Thankfully the buses in Iran are usually quite comfortable. For a low price of ~$3, you get snacks and a drink, plenty of leg room and a seat that reclines almost completely. You certainly get more than what you pay for with the VIP bus!
We arrived in Tehran almost three hours later. Now I knew in advance that to catch a bus to Tabriz from Tehran, you need to go to the West Bus Terminal. We were currently at the South Bus Terminal, a good 45 minute drive in Tehran’s traffic. Nevertheless, I tried my luck asking around. There must have been 40 different companies here, surely ONE would get us to Tabriz! So we walked up to the first desk we saw and asked.
“Tabriz?” I inquired hopefully, to an elderly gentleman with horn rimmed glasses. He looked to his partner on his left and they both chuckled. The desk we’d chosen was like a Wall Street Stock Market. Hands were flying, people were yelling out to each other and strips of ticket paper were passed around quicker than a church collection plate.
I asked a second time, “Tabriz?”
They laughed once again, with another man joining in.
“Yes,” the man replied “TAH-BREEJ”, saying it slower and correcting my pronunciation.
We all laughed this time, as I exchanged 500,000 rial for 2 tickets, and he ushered me over to a second window, where another friendly face took down my details.
“Do you like our country?” The man asked, in addition to asking my name and where I was from. That’s a common question we’d been asked in Iran; not only by people we were actually conversing with, but by people randomly on the street. It’s truly an odd ice breaker, but one we’d gotten used to.
“Yes!” I responded enthusiastically, “we love it. We’ve had an amazing time so far”. Oh, how naive I was back then.
“Well we love having you!” He said, genuinely. “Thank you for visiting us.”
We took our ticket and rushed downstairs to the bus port and were ushered onto our bus. We made sure multiple times that this was the Tabriz bus, and then made our way to our seats, bracing ourselves for the long ride ahead. As the ticket attendant made the rounds and punched our tickets, I asked one last time.
“This goes to Tabriz, right?”
“No Tabriz”, he replied, punching my ticket.
“Oh, I thought this went to Tabriz? That’s the ticket we bought, to Tabriz!”
“No Tabriz”, he alliterated, “To Kashan”.
Suddenly the bus lurched forward. We were moving, and our rather inattentive attendant walked away.
We were stunned. The bus was moving; could we still get off? Would we get a refund if we did? Screw it.
“STOP THE BUS!” We yelled. I’ve always wanted to say that!
We grabbed our stuff and quickly exited the vehicle, thankfully getting a refund on the way off.
Heading back into the terminal slightly defeated, I asked around one last time and was told that the only bus to Tabriz was a night bus. I had to accept defeat, and so we made our way outside to flag a taxi that would get us to the West Terminal. The driver quoted us 500,000 rial ($7), a price that was probably too high, but I was too unknowledgeable regarding taxi prices and too tired to haggle.
The drive took longer than I anticipated, getting us to the West Terminal nearly an hour later. We entered the building and were immediately greeted by ‘Tabriz, Tabriz, Tabriz!’, chanted by one of the men working at the desk. I can still hear this chant echoing before I fall asleep; it haunts me to this day.
We walked up to the desk, and confirmed one more time.
“Tabriz?” I asked. The man nodded. I wrote it down on Google Translate and showed him. I wasn’t taking any chances. He laughed and nodded again. Thank goodness.
We purchased two tickets at a price of 420,000 rial each (suspiciously low) and waited 45 minutes for what I hoped to be a VIP bus until 5:30pm. It was clear at this point that we would not reach our hostel until the early hours of the morning.
I’d been coordinating with the hostel host all day on WhatsApp, giving him our plans and an ETA. I felt a little bad; he said he’d wait up until we arrived but it looked like we wouldn’t arrive until well after 2am. It was OK though! He assured us he’d wait up for us!
Once our bus arrived at the terminal, it was clear this was not the VIP bus. Where the VIP bus has only 26 seats, this bus had 38. It was a much more crowded vehicle than the ones we were used to in Iran, and if we weren’t looking forward to the 9 hour bus ride before, we certainly weren’t now.
I’ll spare you the boring details of our ride. We stopped quite a few times, once for half an hour so we could grab some dinner and take a leak. The estimated time it takes to drive from Tehran to Tabriz is 6 and a half hours, but it became increasingly apparent that this would take longer. Much longer.
We arrived in Tabriz at 3:30am, almost TEN hours after our initial departure time. My phone died close to the end of the trip, cutting off our communication with our hostel host. After we got off the bus, we were hounded by an older man and a younger woman asking if we needed a taxi. Usually I’m reluctant to talk to these people, and try to find a taxi myself, but at 3:30am, we didn’t really have much choice.
I told them 10 times to wait for me to charge my phone enough to check my WhatsApp, but they continued to ask for the address. It was getting a little annoying. Once my phone turned back on, I had a message from the host.
“The guys inside the hostel said they’re sleeping now,” it read. “So I give u another address”.
It wasn’t exactly reassuring to read that our hostel was closed, but I recomposed myself and realised he probably gave us a second hostel to go to.
Finally we had an address to show the driver, who put us in a car with the girl and another man and away we went. There was a taxi cab waiting nearby, and I assumed we were going to be put into that and not into the back of this random guys car. Jemma swears the actual taxi driver gave her a signal not to go with him, but it was late, and we just wanted to move.
The 14 minute ‘taxi’ drive took us over 25 minutes as the driver decided to drop the other two passengers first, not charging them. Maybe the guy was generous and wasn’t asking for payment? Probably not.
Once we arrived, in the outer suburbs far from the hostels advertised location, it was clear we were not where we were supposed to be… or even near anything worth seeing.
We asked how much we had to pay, only to be shaken off by the man. A common practice in Iran is taarof, where a person refuses payment for services as a way of saving face. This has happened a few times, and it does get a little frustrating; I just wanted to pay and go sleep.
We were greeted now by our long haired host, who I hoped would speed the process up.
I asked for a price again and the man refused. Pulling out a 100,000 rial note, I hoped this would be enough (but really doubted it would be.) The man started getting a little irate, and began to quickly speak to our host.
“He wants 15”, he told us. No dramas; I pull out another 50000 (confusing, right?)
The man is now arguing with the host, who is laughing nervously.
“He refuses the gift.”
At this point, I consider just letting him refuse and walking upstairs.
“Can I just leave the money in the boot or something?”
“No,” he laughs again. “He wants 50, not 15.”
Screw that, man. That was more than our hour long taxi ride in Tehran.
“I’m not paying that, that’s ridiculous”
Apparently, the driver wanted more money because it was an inconvenience driving so late, even though he was the one begging for our fare in the first place!
I eventually succumbed, angry that we got cheated, but thankful that at least with the concept of taarof, I probably embarrassed the guy a little bit with that encounter. It’s the little things.
We walk inside, and climb 4 flights of stairs, made more difficult with our heavy backpacks, but the thought of a warm bed and a shower guided us up. Walking up the stairs, our host explained that this was the old hostel, and asked us to excuse the mess. We laughed and said as long as we had a place to sleep, we were happy. We probably spoke too soon.
Once inside, it became increasingly apparent that this was far from a hostel. If anything, it looked more like a brothel. There was dirt everywhere, piles of trash in the corner of the room, condoms next to the bed, and hair over EVERYTHING.
To be honest, the mess wasn’t something we fully realised until after the host had left ‘to sleep at his parents house.’ If we had, I think we would’ve turned around on the spot and left. But, as I mentioned, we were tired and happy to be inside so I think we initially overlooked the mess. We just wanted to sleep.
A cat quickly skirted past, startling both Jemma and I. That explains the hair we kept finding everywhere… I hope.
“Sorry,” He said meekly, “do you like cats?”
Uhhh, not really.
“Sure! But we’re slightly allergic” we lied.
“Oh… OK, well I’ll just put him in my office.” He said, picking up the cat and throwing him into a dark room.
The whole place was bizarre. There were two rooms, one of which had two single beds and a computer on the floor, the other had a broken computer chair and a dart board. We were taken into the room with the beds (although I don’t think the other would’ve been anymore uncomfortable), given a key, and then the host left.
Although we had caught glimpses of how dirty the hostel was, it was only then that we began to notice just how grim the place was. Words can’t exactly describe the scene we witnessed, so I’ll include our vlog of the experience below and let you experience the horrors for yourself.
It was a fairly scarring experience. After flooding the bathroom, I had to wear shoes to brush my teeth to avoid stepping in black matted hair. I needed to poop but was too scared to sit on the grime covered toilet seat.
Our beds, the sheets, and the pillow cases were covered in cat hair. In fact, the beds were so bad in general that we decided to sleep on one bed, the one with less dust and hair covering it. We stuffed one of the pillows into my jumper, laid Jemma’s portable blanket on the bed so we wouldn’t have to touch the sheets, and used my portable blanket as… well, a blanket. I’d moved both of our backpacks up against the door to alert us if anyone barged in during the night.
Everything was a mess, and I could feel my anxiety peaking. At first I refused to sleep in the bed, questioning if we could go to the roof and see if there was a couch upstairs. I was so tired before getting into the apartment but now I was wide awake. I could tell Jemma was anxious too, but was trying to calm me down and we both agreed once we were laying down we’d probably fall straight to sleep. We both got into bed, and after 10 minutes, it was clear we wouldn’t be sleeping that night.
“I wonder what’s on that computer?” Jemma asked after a long period of silence.
“I dunno.” I responded. “Probably porn.”
“What if it’s videos of him kidnapping and killing tourists? No one knows we’re here.”
I sat up, kicked off the blanket and began packing our bags.
“We’re not staying here any longer”
“Where will we go?” Jemma asked.
“Anywhere. I’d rather sleep on a park bench than stay here”
And so, we packed our bags, typed ‘hotel‘ into Google Maps and walked downstairs, setting off towards the Tabriz International Hotel (the nearest hotel), walking the 4.5km until we arrived.
We checked into the Tabriz International Hotel at 6am for 5,000,000 rial, approximately $70 and more money than we’d spent on any accomodation thus far. Thankfully the hotel concierge let us check in then and there and stay until the next day, allowing us more or less two days at the hotel. At that point, we were tired both mentally and physically. We made the choice to stay in our hotel the entire two days, leaving only to get dinner, and to change money at the Grand Bazaar (more on that in another blog.)
We tried to see the colourful mountains, but confusion with our tour guide and poor timing on our behalf meant we wound up missing them. We did, however, pass them on the drive to Armenia, so there is a slight silver lining here.
I wish we could say our trip to Iran concluded better than it did. I wanted so much to show everyone how beautiful this country was, to prove that it isn’t what our media makes it out be, and it honestly isn’t. Iran is full of loving and kind people, and home to some truly wonderful and beautiful landscapes. But like every country, there are always exceptions; but even then, our host was extremely friendly… at least up until we refused to pay him. One thing is for sure though…
Iran is more bizarre than I could have ever imagined.