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My Unexpected Iran

Adventures off the Beaten Track
Travelogue by Federico Boccardi from Gilgamesh

Iran. Yes, but my Iran: my life, my dreams, and my fears. Iran: why did I even choose this country when my plan had been to go to Japan for the summer? What on earth made me book a flight to Tehran? God only knows ... and He knows very well! 'Are you crazy? Iran? It's near Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan; have you watched the news? Do you know what those people are capable of?', said my mother in a husky voice the day I told her about my decision to come to Iran.
I don't know what they're capable of but I'll find out, I replied with a smile. 'Of course, that is if I don't get kidnapped ....She sighed. My father remained silent - probably because, after all these years, he understood that there was no point in arguing with me again. "Come on, Mum. Why do you always believe what you see on TV? Why do you let yourself be conditioned by what they say? And how many times have told you that fear is our own worst enemy?' She fell silent for a minute before storming off. My dad followed but in a more composed manner. I laughed. What else could I do except - out of compassion - accept their behavior? I knew that, sooner or later, they would have to accept my choice. It is as easy as that. It's my life, and no one else can choose for me!
But what did I really know of Iran? I asked myself this the night before leaving the comfort of my own country, Italy. Not much, to be honest. And most importantly ... how safe was it really? Was my Mum right? Would it be as daunting as it often seemed on TV? Would I come home in one piece? 'Well, I said out loud, in order to try to stop the whirlwind of doubts that were filling my mind, there's only one way to find out: my way!'

First Trip to Iran
A landscape scene along the route of a short hike towards
the beautiful village of Salaj Anbar in the Alamout valley- Qazvin.
Photo: Feredrico Boccardi

Almost two months later, I have indeed found out more about this amazing country. I extended my visa once already and I'm planning to do it again. I want to stay here as long as I can. I have been so surprised by the differences between how this place really is and how it is shown on TV. And the differences are so big that it really makes me wonder what's truly behind all the propaganda.
By the way, whoever claims that getting a tourist visa is a long and complicated process is completely wrong - at least, this was not my experience - 'Welcome to Iran. Enjoy your stay!', said the immigration officer with a big grin as he handed me back my passport at Tehran airport. I had waited just fifteen minutes to get my 'visa on arrival. It couldn't have been any easier or more hassle-free! And, once again, I beg to differ with whoever has the audacity to say that Iran is a big, barren, and desolate desert with almost no water! Yes, I admit Iran has deserts - very beautiful ones at that - but it is not only one big desert. The north of Iran, especially the province of Guilan, boasts thick, flourishing, and almost impenetrable forests that remind me of the Amazon rainforest! I have even seen banana plants! The high valley of Alamut amongst the peaks of Siah Län and the mountainous region of Hawrāmān in Kurdistan reminds me of the Himalayan mountain range. The lonely route from the village of Māsüleh to the town of Khalkhäl is outstandingly beautiful. I hiked the first few kilometers through a forest in heavy rain - yes, it rains a lot over here! -, before reaching a high mountain pass, where I left the clouds below me. The scenery was breath-taking! The two-day trek from the village of Andabīl all the way down to the small town of Asälem also had its own particular beauty. It was a good thing my phone had a GPS signal, otherwise, I would never have found my way through the incredibly thick fog that, all of a sudden, wrapped me up in its eerie embrace. What an unexpected experience! And that very same fog kept me company as I stayed in the village of Sübätän for a few days. It both appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye, adding to the sinister feeling of the surroundings.
Last but not least, I was impressed with the number of waterfalls scattered all over the country. I particularly loved the one situated four hours - on foot - from the village of Talleh Zang, where I pitched my tent and stayed alone, practicing yoga and meditating, for three days. That place really had great energy.
Yes, what incredible energy this unexpectedly green country has. But is it only a country's natural landscape that makes it beautiful and worth visiting? What else should be taken into account? Old buildings, squares, mosques, castles and ruins? Delicious food? Or maybe local people and culture? What really makes a place truly unforgettable?

Sand dunes near the town of Varzaneh by Federico Boccardi in his first trip to Iran
Sand dunes near the town of Varzaneh.
Photo: Federico Boccardi

Let me be honest with you: I've been backpacking for twenty years now - mainly trekking, hitchhiking and sleeping in my tent - and I've seen a good portion of the world. The immaculate forests of Canada, the pristine beaches of South and Central America, the majestic peaks of Nepal, the ancient temples of Asia, the deserts of Africa and the food and history of Europe. But the question I ask myself all the time is: what remains of my travels when I return home? Pictures - only pictures.
Here in Iran aside from the country's natural and historic beauty which left me absolutely astounded the aspect of Iran I have truly fallen in love with is its people. Of course, I've met many nice people around the world on my travels, but how many of them invited me to their homes just a few moments after meeting me? How many of them asked me if I was hungry and offered me their food? How many of them offered help when I needed a ride somewhere, or tea when I fancied some or assistance of any kind at all? And how many of them seemed to understand the true meanings of guest and host as well as Iranians? I'm sure of one thing and one thing only: I have never experienced a welcome like the one I have experienced in Iran.

People here are truly amazing indeed, to the point that, while traveling, I stopped carrying food with me, knowing that I would definitely have breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a random house! I also stopped worrying about where I would pitch my tent at night because was always sure that I would have a roof over my head. I have never felt so safe - in any other foreign country, day or night, in a city or in the middle of nowhere - as I have done in Iran. And, to be honest with you, I've never been so spoilt - to the point that I have found myself feeling disappointed if a car doesn't stop after a couple of minutes of hitchhiking!
No doubt: the most welcoming people I have had the pleasure of meeting are from this country! So, the bottom line is this: don't believe what you read or hear about Iran. Visit and experience this beautiful place for yourself: only then will you be able to form an educated opinion. What's more, not only will you have pictures to look at but you will also have found real friends and memories to treasure in your heart forever.
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