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The Overland--Iran 1978

The Dome of the Shah Mosque

After yanking our motor out of our van for the 5th time and having it fixed in Mashhad, Iran, we headed east driving about 600 kms deep into Iran. A few kilometers past the town of Gorgan (I think) we pulled off the road onto a small, gravel area to the side of the highway. The countryside was empty and no one else was around, so we fixed eggs and fried potatoes for supper and then went to sleep.

We awoke suddenly around midnight from pounding on the side of the van and yelling. Terrified, I opened the side door. In the dark I could see men with flashlights and rifles surrounding our van. It took me a moment to realize they were an army patrol. One of the uniformed men told us in broken English and sign language that we could not sleep there. We had to go back to Gorgan for the night. Basmo and I decided that rather than go back we’d drive on towards Teheran. Driving at night was frightening. I was behind the wheel, trying to keep my eyes open and Goldie on the road. We stopped at the first town we came to, parking in front of an all-night petrol station and tea shop. In the morning we got tea from the shop and changed the oil in the van. Then we drove over the mountains into Teheran. Parts of the terrain reminded me a little of Colorado and I felt a little homesick for the mountains of home.

Driving in Iran was scary because no one seemed to follow any rules. On one curve we were run off the road by three BMW’s trying to pass each other coming toward us. It was terrifying. It seemed no drivers followed the speed limit, if there even was one. I suppose because they could afford a nice car, they felt entitled and that they could do anything they wanted.

On the Road in Iran

Teheran didn’t seem as bad as other travelers we’d met on the road described to us. It was chaotic and busy, but the map we picked up along the way helped us find our way to the American Embassy. I sometimes wonder now how we managed to find our way 10,000 miles through Asia using maps and asking people on the streets for directions. In many places there were no signs in English. It would have been nice to have had a GPS. We parked on a side street and that night we wandered around—we ended up going to the movie “Taxi Driver.”

In the morning we went to the American Consulate, and they helped us out a lot. They sent us to Central Customs where we easily got an extension on our transit carnet. We wandered around Teheran, to the Post Office and then back to Goldie. We had a conversation with one well-dressed Iranian man we met on the street. He spoke excellent English and told us that he feared a revolution in Iran, much like the one that had just happened in Afghanistan. At the time it didn’t seem like it could happen, but it did some months after we’d passed through, and the people at the embassy who helped us were taken hostage.

Food was expensive in Teheran, and we had done what business we needed so Basmo and I decided to leave the city. We headed south to Qom, one of the most holy cities in Iran. On our way we had to stop because Goldie was vibrating terribly. Initially, we thought it was a tie-rod in the front, but it turned out to be our left rear wheel. The lug nuts were loose, and the wheel was loose. We tightened the lug nuts, breathed a sigh of relief, and were off again. It would have been much worse for us if the wheel had fallen off.

Basmo and I wanted to stop in Qom and check out the large mosque there, but we learned that foreigners were not allowed inside the mosque. Also, we got strange feelings in Qom—it didn’t feel friendly or inviting; so, on the 23rd of July we drove on to Esfahan and found our way to the Youth Hostel which had a camping area and swimming pool. Esfahan seemed to be a nice city, well laid out with great markets.

We visited the beautiful Shah Mosque (it became the Imam Mosque after the revolution in 1979) and checked out the beautiful blue dome which could echo 7 times if you stood under it and said something or snapped your fingers.

Shah Mosque, Isfahan 1978

We spoke with people on bus tours across Asia who were also staying at the camping ground. That night we all hung out around a small campfire area. I played my guitar and a guy on one of the bus tours had a violin—he accompanied me, and we had a great time playing for everyone while they listened or sang along.

The people who ran the hostel and camping area also owned a Korean restaurant—they had come to Iran from Korea, a strange decision on their part. There was a high fence at the edge of the camping area, separating it from a mosque on the other side. Our second night a loudspeaker blared out the voices of Imams coming from the mosque. The Korean owner of the camp nervously listened to what was going on. He was worried about what was going to happen based on what the Imam’s were saying on the other side of the fence. This echoed what the man we spoke with in Tehran had said about religious unrest and possible revolution. So, I was only mildly surprised when the Shah fell in February 1979 and an anti-West theocracy formed.

On the 25th of July 1978, we pulled out, heading north toward Teheran. We turned west long before we reached the city and made it all the way to Zanjan, a small, nice town. We found a sandwich shop to eat then looked at some of the shops. There were many knife shops there with old men making the knives by hand which was fascinating to watch. We slept at a gas station as we’d learned our lesson about sleeping in the country, and early the next morning, June 26, we headed for the border. We stopped to have a chelo kebab (the national dish of Iran)—white rice with butter and a strip of cooked beef, large pieces of onion, and flat Iranian bread. It was tasty but expensive. That was why we ate at sandwich shops so much in Iran—the expensive food, and I know it was only because we were travelers that the price was so high. As we neared the Turkish border, we could see Mount Ararat in the distance across the border in Eastern Turkey, near to Iran and what was then the USSR, now Armenia.

Mt. Ararat in the Distance--Iranian side.

We reached the Iran-Turkey border, a strange place built on a hill. Customs on the Iranian side was so fast it was over before we knew it. We drove up the hill to the joint Iran/Turkey building where the Iran police check was also a breeze. We drove over the border line into Turkey, parked, and walked into the office, expecting the worst. Suddenly, we were finished with that too and walked to Turkish customs. A uniformed customs man and his superior, a middle-aged man wearing Levis and sport coat, walked with us out to check our van, looked at it, smiled, and said, “Finis.” I couldn’t believe how quickly we’d made it through after all the horror stories we’d heard about people spending hours there, waiting to get through. I suppose we hit the border at a good time or something. Maybe the border gods were being nice to us after our experience coming into Iran.

One thing we noticed were the many trucks lined up on each side of the Iran-Turkey border. There were at least a hundred trucks waiting to get across each way.

Line of Trucks at the Border of Iran and Turkey

We found a place to park in the huge parking lot on the Turkish side and spoke with an English couple who, like us, had just crossed and were spending the night there before driving on into Turkey. We had dinner in the restaurant, a truck stop, our first encounter with Turkish cuisine and it was outstanding. The owner of the restaurant spoke no English so took us into the kitchen where he showed us various pots on the stove, while we pointed to what we wanted. I had two stuffed peppers and a plate of rice and beans, served with Turkish bread. The bread is much like French bread, soft inside with a tough, chewy crust. We changed money and slept.

I wasn’t sorry to have left Iran where we met some of the best and worst people. It was truly a land of contrasts, with people dressed as they had for thousands of years next to people wearing Levi’s and sport coats. For me, Mount Ararat promised the beauty of the mountains and the interesting country in Turkey as we got closer to Europe, moving toward home. As much as I enjoyed the travel, I was getting weary of the struggles with our van, border crossings, and the general hardships of overland travel.

Below please find several more photos. In the next post I will relate what happened in Turkey.

Mount Ararat in Turkey.

On the road in Iran

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Awesome review I'm loving every moment. It reminds me of our trip to Kabul, Bamiyan and Jalalabad Afghanistan in 1978. What memories and your stories help bring them back to life. Thanks Buddy.

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