Part 1 – A road, a mountain, a home | Part 2 – The desert, the sun and the heat | Part 3 – Tehran is a schizophrenic moloch

Not many pictures since I have lost my phone on the way home.

In the summer of 2016 I was on a tour to the middle east. It all began when Stefan asked me if I wanted to pick him up on his way back to Europe. He was on a hitchhiking expedition around the world.
How would I say no? First thing I researched was mountains. Of course. Iran has nice mountains so I figured I could meet him there and have some nice mountaineering and go back home with him. So much for the plan. Getting a reference number (aka. invitation letter) was easily done through the nice people of Caravanistan who didn’t even ask me to pay directly since they have a hard time getting money into Iran but trusted me that I would send them the money (27€) when I arrive to Iran. Of course I did. I love trusting people!
After some convincing of the person in the Iranian embassy in Vienna I also managed to receive my visa in only 4 days (despite their website stating 24h express visa) and I paid 77€ for that. Another 20€ were spent on the Turkish e-Visa. 124€ in total, not the cheapest start of a journey that I have in my travel history but a very promising one!

I took the visa at the Iranian embassy on 24th, went to the highway at around 11am and started thumbing. Little bits and pieces of luck made me sail all the way down to the Iranian border in Bazargan in only 2 days and 19 hours. There was not a lot of sleep involved and I did basically not see anything of the countries I went through since I made the longest distances in the night – as always. I had planned to see them on the way back anyway. In the morning sun, 6am near the border I saw the mountain Arrarat and its glaciers glowing and shining and interpreted it as a good sign. Later I figured that a common theory under scientists is that Arrarat blew up (it’s a volcano) long time a go and with the explosion it lost an incredible amount of 3000 meters of altitude, it had been the second highest mountain in the world before.

On the Iranian border I exchanged some Euros to Rials/Toman – very bad rate, dont do it, go to official exchange offices – and called my friend Stefan who was waiting already in Urmia. I only had to hitchhike 2 hours south to meet him. Surprised by all the impressions, the “sudden” climate change and the strange landscapes I was not able to get anything from the people. I just figured they are super friendly. I had not a lot of waiting and my last driver even called our friend in Urmia so that they can pick me up. A lot of relaxing and good food waited for me there. One and a half days of rest and I was completely rejuvenated.

After doing some planning Stefan and I decided to climb the Kuh-e Sabalan, 3rd highest mountain of Iran, a volcano, 4816m of altitude, northwest in the Azerbaidjan province. We bought some warm socks (camel wool) since we expected to cross some snow fields and a fancy Pali (that scarf that the supreme leader and the soldiers in Palestine wear) to cover our head from the beaming sun up there. A little bit of hitching brought us on the same day to the foot of the mountain with only a short police check on the way and an awesome night-ride surprised us with a lift to the telecabin at 3300m altitude. Up there waiting 2 cops and another guy. We had no idea what our driver was searching up there but we already made it closer to the peak then expected. The next day we wanted to start ascending.
Talking to the cops was funny, we used a lot of google translate and I even painted them a picture about our plans of ascending and descending and acclimatizing. The moment they had opend the gate for us a rainstorm had started so we were sitting in their container drinking their tea. After a short excursion with the 4wd jeep to an even higher point at the end of the telecabin where we watched some bear trails and took pics of the milky way we scouted the area for a good place to sleep but since there were bears around the cops invited us to sleep in their container, an offer we took with only little hesitation.

The next morning we started early. We got a free ride up to the higher station of the telecabin and after we jumped the fence there to get further we were alone, with the mountains, the green grass. Alone with the sun, the great view and the motivation to get up that mountain. We had no map and there was no path on any maps that we found on our side of the mountains but we expected to get up there somehow. Anyway the first tour was just for acclimatizing and so we walked. And walked, and walked and walked. The first trails of huge paws in the snow fields next to our path explained that we were not really alone. Nature was around, for us that meant mostly: A bear is around! A little bit scary. The trails looked at least a day old so we were not too scared but when we made it up to about 4000 we saw rather fresh fecal matter. Definitely from the bear. So I was constantly on the lookout but everything was fine. I am not sure and never communicated about it with Stefan if he was worried too but the altitude was clearly slowing down our brain process a little bit. At 4200 we dumped our backpacks to climb a little hill and see whether we should continue scrambling up the rather unknown side of the mountain and to scout for paths that might lead through the snow fields (Stefan was wearing outdoor sandals so we couldn’t risk walking several hours through snow). Too bad that the mountain spirit was not with us.

After some minutes of changing plans we decided to cross the flank of the mountain to try from another direction where we might face less snow and less rock faces, but after more hours of walking and us becoming tired we decided to rather head down again and hitchhike around the mountains to try it from the north, the other side of the mountains. We kind of knew that there is a path up until the top since we saw that on the satellite images. The way down was hard, we were walking already for many hours and only at the station where we started we found a car to take us down the mountain. But we went to a nice restaurant and ate some good Disi (cooked bones, sheep meat, potatoes, tomatoes, and good sauce) with fresh bread and Adana kebab. We really ate a lot! Then we searched for a spot to camp and found a nice hill in the middle of Sarein where we had no dogs or other animals disturbing our fine sleep.

The next day we were soon on our way to Shabil, the city in the north, but on our way we made a mistake in trusting one of our drives with only asking ONCE “No money ok?” which he had replied with “Yes”. Actually it was a taxi, and the free ride was “Tarof”, the Iranian way to express respect to someone by offering everything cheap/free but not meaning it. To bad he didn’t accept that we really didn’t want to pay after we got out but after a very hard fight involving other Iranians and us capitulating we paid the Iranian prize (not the tourist fare) and he drove off in anger. We didn’t really give a lot of fucks and since Stefan had brought some food we snacked and headed further up the mountain, on the gravel road. Not too long after a shepherd stopped for us and we took seats on the roof of the car. He brought us half the way up the shelter. He also wanted money, seems like we hadn’t explained ourselves very well. He also drove off in great anger when we – this time dogmatically – refused to give anything or a thumbed ride. Anyway, the mountain was ahead of us and I was full of motivation. 150 meters of altitude under the shelter we decided to stop and rest for a moment when we spotted 2 men having a barbecue behind a rock. There was no other way but to invite us and so we had some salad, some kebab and bread and of course some schnaps. The two guys, Farshid and Behrooz, would not let us go so easily. This time it was the opposite. They did of course not want anything in return and didn’t even take a lot of the stuff we added to the meal but instead accompanied us to the shelter, set up camp next to us, talked to us all the time, showed us the bear that visited the camp in the night, took us to the top of the mountain and when we were back down gave us a ride to their city Meshkinshar and organized a nice place for us to sleep with free electricity and tea. That’s hospitality that we hadn’t expected that Iran is so well-known for!

Besides that, the way up the mountain was quite hard. Not technically, but my highest before had been 3910m of altitude and this tour started at 3700m already and we would make it in one go up to 4810. We didn’t make a lot of breaks, only at the top Farshid sleep for some minutes – Behrooz was still down at the tent bringing everything to the shelter and also sleeping because he had drunk his bottle of booze in the evening and was heavily hung over but caught up when we were descending. On the way down we had to make a longer break because Stefan got sensitive to the altitude and required to go down to 4500m altitude to take a nap. We paired that with some nice snacks, tea and cigarettes that Behrooz had brought, including a melon!
On our way down we stopped shortly at the natural hot springs that are spring-fed by the volcanic system of the mountain and relaxed our muscles.

From Meshkinshar we hitched back to Tabriz and from there to Zanjan where Stefan managed to find a host on couchsurfing in superspeed time – 1 minute. A near-hit with a truck made us sceptical if we could reach the city but nothing happened – only the truck we were driving with had to make a rough braking from ~120km/h down to 30 km/h as another truck switched lanes without any warning and hitting the break in front of us because another truck in front of him had switched lanes without a warning.

Iran shares the place for the number 1 on the ranking for highest death toll in road accidents with India.