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From border to border
Sulaymaniyah (Iraq) to Goris (Armenia), March 2014

Our fourth visit to Iran initially started with a problem. It took us quite a bit to cross the border between Iraq and Iran. On the Iraqi side, everything went smoothly, but because there is no so-called "contract" between Iraq and Iran for the temporary importation of vehicles with foreign number plates, the Iranian custom didn’t let us in. In the beginning they told us that we could not cross the border with our car. They advised us to drive back to Turkey and cross from there into Iran at the Bazargan border crossing. But eventually everything went well and we could start our fourth visit to Iran (see also the article: Stress at the border with Iraq and Iran).

The Iranian region we visited first was Iranian Kurdistan. We visited this beautiful and ultra-hospitable part of Iran before, but nevertheless it was a pleasure to be back. Already on the first day in Iran, we were invited by a Kurdish family for dinner, and everywhere in the town of Marivan, we were welcomed. "Welcome to Iran" is the phrase that we have probably heard most during the first days in Iran. From Marivan we drove to Paveh, via Howraman Valley. The road that runs through the beautiful valley, which is only paved for about half of its length, gives a good insight into the traditional Kurdish life in the small villages (see photo impression about the Howraman Valley). Further south we drove to the Lorestan province, also a province of Iran that is rarely visited by foreigners. And as in Kurdistan, the people here are very friendly.

A spectacular road crosses the Howraman Valley in Iranian Kurdistan

From the capital of Lorestan, Khorramabad, we drove across the Zagros Mountains, to Iran's biggest tourist attraction: Isfahan. We stay in a small hotel near the central Naqsh-e Jahan Square and enjoyed all the beauty this city has to offer. However, we noted immediately that Esfahan is a destination where the local people are accustomed to tourists. People are still very friendly, but the extreme hospitality you experience for example in the provinces of Lorestan and Kurdistan, is no longer present. One of the areas of Iran that we had never visited before, was the desert in the heart of the country. And this was the time to visit it, because we had our own wheels with us. We initially stayed a few days in the city Naein at the boundary of the desert, and afterwards we drove deeper into the drought to the oasis village Garmeh. We stayed in the guesthouse called Ateshooni, but despite the beauty of the area, we were not really enthusiastic about the pension itself (see the photo impression about the Iranian desert, and the column on Ateshooni).

Slowly but surely, the Iranian New Year holiday period (called No Ruz, which literally means ‘new day’) came in sight. This is the most important and busy holiday period in the country and almost everyone seems to go on vacation, in the two weeks following New Year's Day. And that means that all hotels in popular holiday destinations are fully booked and the roads are extremely busy with mad driving Iranians. We decided to spend the days around New Year’s Day in Tehran, the only destination that does not seem to attract holidaying Iranians. But before we arrived in Iran’s capital city, we spent a few days in Semnan, an ancient Silk Road city just a few hours’ drive east of Tehran. In Semnan we had our first and only secret police experience in Iran. Three plain cloth police officers paid a visit to our hotel after we had a conversation of a few hours with a German cyclist in the lobby of the hotel the night before. Perhaps that was the reason for someone to inform the secret police to see what exactly is going on with the foreigners in Semnan, a city that is seldom visited by foreign travellers. After they studied our passports and asked what our itinerary was, they told us that they actually had come to the hotel to warn us for the dangerous and busy traffic on the roads during Iran’s New Year holiday period. Yeh right, and we are actually Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Old men near Esfahan's northern bazaar entrance

After our visit to Tehran, which was shut down for the most part of our visit because of the holidays, we drove to the north-western part of Iran, a very popular area among holidaying Iranians. Around Tehran we had for the first time during our visit to this country, struggles finding diesel. Trucks are not allowed on the main roads in and out Tehran, which means that the petrol stations have no diesel on offer. But near Qazvin, we were able to fill the belly of our jeep again. Our actual goal that day was the famous mountain village called Masuleh, near the city of Rasht, but because of the fact that also many Iranian holidaymakers had this village in mind as their destination, we decided to leave the queue of cars and skip Masuleh.

After visits to Sarein, Kaleybar, and the Aras valley, we drove to Jolfa, our final destination in Iran, a stone's throw away from the Caucasus. The New Year's holiday period was still in full swing and that means that you see picnicking Iranian families everywhere along the way. It's amazing to see how little these people need to have a nice holiday. In many towns and villages that are popular among the holidaymakers, special areas with sanitary facilities are available for Iranians on a tighter budget, to pitch their toy tent and to spend the night. And at the end of April, a few days before our Iranian visa would expire, we crossed the border with Armenia (see also the article: Iranian - Armenian border). For the first time we were in the Caucasus. What a difference!

View over the sand colored village of Mohammadiyeh near Naein
Unearthly landscapes in the Iranian desert
Time for a picnic
Village life in the nort-western part of Iran
The dramatically located Babak fortress near Kaleybar
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