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With religious fanatics in power, a dubious nuclear programme, human rights violations, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism as a political maxim, Iran's image could be better.Even if you try to travel as unbiased as possible, you always bear in mind the unpredictability of a dictatorship. In Jordan I had heard of some French travellers who had been held in Iran because they were thought to be journalists. A few weeks before, two German yellow press reporters had been sent to jail - they had entered the country as tourists and then tried to work there. The question arises: How welcome will I be there as a Western traveller?

For personal security reasons, all critical items (GPS, laptop, press card) 'temporarily disappeared' before entry. You should definitely avoid arriving under suspicion of espionage. Right after the border, however, relaxation: Not a single sign of harassment, instead VIP treatment, good and snow cleared roads, and: The Islamic Republic of Iran turns out to be a very enjoyable travel country.The Iranians' overwhelming helpfulness and hospitality allows you to forget the questionable government quite quickly. Without me asking, locals often want to make it clear: They have nothing to do with this regime. Popular gesture: First, you stroke your imagined long beard (symbolizing Islamists style), then you tap your forehead...Several times, people approach me on the street. 'From Germany?', they ask. 'I am really glad to see you here, my friend. Seriously!' I dont necessarily owe that to my irresistible charm. It's just that only very few tourists still find their way to Iran. Other locals show their respect of German poets. 'You are clever writers.' And that probably does not refer to the two arrested tabloid reporters.

Iranians seem very open, educated, clever, dedicated and frustrated with the current situation. In no way is the Islamist and anti-western attitude of the Ahmadinejad regime reflected in the people I meet. Iran seems a bit like a modern state kept hostage by a backward regime.This regime and reality seem to move more and more apart from each other - and you begin to ask by what means the people deserve such a government. Considering the existing UN embargo, the state of the nation is remarkable. The purpose of the embargo is to block the Islamic Republic from building nuclear weapons.The embargo also leads to soaring prices - Iran is not a cheap country. Services (restaurants, hair dressers, laundry) and consumable goods (food and drink, car parts) are hardly any cheaper than in Europe.While petrol and diesel seem relatively affordable, to the citizens of one of the oil richest countries in the world, they are profiteering: The reduction of government subsidies in December 2010 caused petrol prices to rise to four times the usual price. Imagine, for a moment, that happening in Europe...The reason for that step: Iran has enormous oil reserves, but refinery capacities are insufficient. Petrol stations were set ablaze, and riots broke out. According to Ahmadinejad, it's the West's fault, especially since the embargo. At the time of writing, every Iranian only received 60 litres of petrol per month at the reduced price (EUR 0.30/L instead of EUR 0.50/L).You're more lucky if you need diesel: Friends of mine didn't pay a single cent for a full tank of 1300 litres. As it's almost free, local truckers just invited them.

Even if you somehow associate Iran with hot desert climate, you better carry a sweater. In winter, most regions aren't much warmer than Germany or the UK.Central Iran is situated at around 1000 metres above sea level. The country's highest peaks (Mt. Damavand, 5600 masl) dominate the Alborz Range north of Tehran.In the Southwest, the Zagros Range stretches more than two thousand kilometres from Kurdistan to the Strait of Hormuz with its snow capped tips at around 4500 masl.Only down at the Gulf Coast can you expect a nice, warm climate, even in January. In summer, however, it gets unbearably hot. The nearby deserts Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut are among the hottest and driest regions of the world.

Caspian SeaOnly a narrow and densely populated coastal strip can be intensively used for farming. Thanks to its situation below sea level and the respective climate, you can even grow rice here.From there, a spectacular mountain road winds its way to Tehran - about 250 kilometres across the Alborz mountains. Within a few minutes, you then leave narrowly cut valleys only to find yourself on the six lane expressways of the capital.

TehranA metropolis of the rather inconvenient kind: 13.5 million inhabitants, long distances, air pollution and 'no photo' signs wherever you look. At the same time, Tehran is the economic and political centre of the country, and still worth a visit.Tehran's sights are spread all over this huge city, and you need to cross not only large distances, but also different levels of altitude. Its northern, wealthier outskirts on the offshoots of the Alborz Range are at about 1700 metres above sea level. Its lower and poorer suburbs stand at only 1000 metres - making a big difference in the summer heat. It's hardly possible to discover Tehran on foot, but the modern metro network can't keep up with the city's expansion. You opt for car or taxi? Be prepared to spend up to two hours in a single roundabout.Unfortunately, many interesting buildings, mosques and palaces are closed. Whole streets are signed 'no photo' - in fear of espionage as it seems.In an internet café, I am being briefed about the following day's 32nd anniversary of the Revolution. I am just about to complain about the fact that neither Skype nor Facebook nor Google Mail are working, when the guy there tells me that the whole web will be shut down in five minutes anyway. With the help of Google Translator, he advises me to move my car out of the central districts. The young man foresaw what happened indeed the next day: Militia and police crack down on protesters that mingled with the arranged jubilation parade.

IsfahanFor many, it's Irans most beautiful city. Isfahan combines Islamic architecture and offers a nice and lively feel. If it weren't for the construction of a new subway line right in the city centre, one could even call it cozy.Attached to central Imam Khomeini Square (renamed like so many places by the regime after the Iranian Revolution leader) are Imam Mosque, Lotfullah Mosque and Ali Qapu Palace - magnificent buildings, every one of them.In front, there are flags fluttering in the wind, saying 'Down with Israel, Down with USA.'In Isfahan, too, I get warned of violent government forces: 'Brother, you better not continue down this street. Our resistance movement is assembling there. If the police see you, you'll be in trouble.'

Shirazis renowned as 'the garden and poet city.' Too bad that the gardens are mostly barren, the poets are mostly dead. Instead, I meet musicians, mobile phone technicians and chicken wings. Relatives of a friend invite me for dinner, drinks, sleeping, showering, breakfast and, please, to stay a bit longer. Once again, I feel welcome and hosted like an old friend. Observation from the private sphere: Iranian households don't seem to look much different from European ones.Although watching foreign TV is an offence (except cartoons), I get presented German programmes. Although women are supposed to cover up and wear a headscarf in public, you may find a crazily pink jogging suit and matching make-up underneath. Although you must not listen to international pop music officially, everybody knows Britney Spears. Although female singing in public is banned, women do it while driving - they just wind up the window. Although owning or consuming alcohol is illegal, we touch glasses.

BalotchistanThe desert in the border region to Afghanistan and Pakistan is vast, empty and hard to control - so smuggling is a big business here: petrol, weapons, drugs.As western travellers have repeatedly been kidnapped, you get a 24/7 armed bodyguard escort while in this area. They're mostly nice guys who make themselves comfortable on the passenger seat, the MG between the legs. You can smell, though, that there is no running water at their desert outpost, and sometimes, they would rather desperately ask for meat, porn or alcohol (probably for their own use). Deeper conversations are mostly blocked by the language barrier.The most risky moments seem to be the handovers between the different guards, especially at night. We then move off the road, lights off, and wait. When I do some shopping at a little roadside stall, the armed crews of five pickup trucks seal off the area. The days with escort are strenuous and no big fun.Adding to this is a strong Tufan (sand storm). At 40°C, I am ordered to wait inside the car with windows shut. At a police station nearby, about 20 Afghan refugees are locked into a container like cattle. By the time I get clearance to go on, all the locals have covered their cars all over with liquid soap to prevent damage to the lacquer.Due to the fact that large amounts of petrol are being smuggled out of Iran into Pakistan and Afghanistan, petrol might run out in the border region. But I am lucky to cross with a full tank to Pakistan.

Anti Israel banner (Esfahan)

Zagros Mountains (near Abadeh)

Imam Mosque (Esfahan)

Thumbs Up (near Ali Abad)

'From Germany? Really?' (Jiroft)

Islamic calendar: These are different times. (near Qom)

Dried-out bottom of Orumiyeh Lake (near Orumiyeh)

Covered up and fanatic, with a nuclear missile in every hand: That's what Iranians are like. (Tehran)

Gas and oil production on the Persian Gulf coast(near Asaluyeh City)

Open roads (near Rastagh)

Motorway (near Tabriz)

Cloud formation above Alborz Mountains (near Jazyanaq)

Winter wonderland (near Zanjan)

Alborz Mountains (near Gilvan)

Bandar Abbas

Parked by the Caspian Sea (Chalous)

Rice patty (near Lahijan)

Top of the pass: Crossing the Alborz Mountains between the Caspian Sea and Tehran (near Nesa)

We're now beginning our descent into Tehran. (Karaj)

L.A.? - It's Tehran. Its freeways are supposed to ease traffic.

But Tehran traffic remains a nightmare.

Upper Tehran

Borj-e Milad tower lighting up the night sky.

Unfortunately it is almost always closed to public. (Tehran)

Ferdosi bridge (Esfahan)

Imam Mosque (Esfahan)

Hasht-Behescht Palace (Esfahan)

Zayandeh river (Esfahan)

Imam Square (Esfahan)

...and courtyard of Imam Mosque (Esfahan)


Flagpole at Quran Gate (Shiraz)

Wide open spaces (near Abadeh)

Petrochemical industry along the Gulf coast (Asaluyeh City)

Ruins of a metropolis: The relics of Persepolis are 2500 years old.

Moon-like landscapes separate the Gulf coast from the highlands of Balotchistan (Siraf)

Shift changeover: My escorts making their way back - hitching a ride through the sand storm (near Meski)

The 'India Route' crosses dreary, barren desert. (near Zahedan)

Sand storm: The pickup of my escort is barely visible any more. The sandblasting is also bad for paint, mood and air filters. (near Fahraj)

Dusty stop in Balotchistan (Fahraj)

Additional Information

IRAN (updated 02/2011)RouteEsendere/Serou (from Turkey) - Urmia - Tabriz - Zanjan - Lahijan - Chalous - Tehran - Qom - Natanz - Isfahan - Shiraz - Jam - Bandar Abbas - Jiroft - Bam - Zahedan - Mirjaveh (to Pakistan) Entering via Esendere/Serou crossing (from Turkey)Friendly, quick and correct handling. Superficial vehicle check. Modern electronics, alcohol, porn and pork may cause difficulties. On the Iranian side, there's a bank and an insurance office (both closed on Fridays), money exchange on the street possible. You're allowed to enter without car insurance.You are not required to get a petrol card (like you're obviously forced to obtain at Dogubeyazit/Bazargan crossing). There is one rusty petrol station on the Iranian side. No entrance with Israeli stamp. It is not advisable to enter via Dogubeyazit/Bazargan crossing. There diesel drivers complain about corruption and a massive rip-off (up to EUR 1500) for fuel cards. You would then be required to buy a prepaid card - the price and value of which depend on your stated route.Exiting via Mirjaveh/Taftan crossing (to Pakistan)This way to the Third World, please. Correct and easy handling, about two hours.FuelThe station network is not too dense, so fill up in time. Petrol is always available, never mind different reports also in Balochistan. Expect queues in cities sometimes for petrol and always for gas (CNG). No litre limit (at quantities of up to 100 litres). Petrol price nation wide EUR 0.50/L. When filling, check that the pump counter is set to zero, the price per litre is correct and the amount seems plausible. As fuel is being rationed, every Iranian has a fuel card. Due to the lack of refinery capacities, petrol needs to be imported, so now everyone is supposed to save petrol. The fuel card allows Iranians to get 60 litres at the subsidised price of EUR 0.30/L - every additional litre costs EUR 0.50/L - which is what foreigners have to pay as well. Don't be mislead: You will always get petrol, even without the card. When looking for diesel, keep your eyes open for stations with a truck queue. It seems as if there is no amount limit either. The diesel price is negligible. I could not get LPG (liquid propane gas) in Iran.Roads... are mostly in good or very good condition, but there are a lot of stupid speed brakers. Undisciplined style of driving, many accidents. Queues (stop-and-go) can take forever. During sand storms, police may halt all traffic. Radar speed checks, safety distance checks, checkpoints. Motorways (blue signs) are toll roads, expect EUR 0.50 to EUR 6 per toll gate.CampingMake sure not to camp next to any strategic installation/factory/army barrack, as you might be treated as a spy. I never encountered any troubles. You find some nice spots in my Camp Spot List.MiscellaneousCredit cards are not accepted, ATMs do not accept Western cards. Carry sufficient Euro or USD currency with you to change in banks, hotels or on the street (difficult). Power current and sockets like in Germany. After a long search, I managed to get car insurance at Bank Sabah in Orumiye, costing EUR 53 for one month. Alcohol and drugs are illegal to own or consume, as are quite a few other things (check your government's travel info). Women need to wear a headscarf in public, including inside the car. Avoid playing loud pop music from your vehicle. Western music and female singing in public are prohibited. Many websites and online services are at least temporarily blocked. Starting in Bam (checkpoint at Bam bypass), you get an armed bodyguard escort. Either you have a guy with you in the car or you have a pilot vehicle driving ahead or behind you. Expect to wait at handovers. The guys are mostly nice, but they tell you where and when to go, thus, limiting your usual freedom. The escort will continue in Pakistan. It's mandatory and generally free.All information subject to change (note time of writing).

A big thanks to Hannah Zarkar for proofreading this translation!

fabian pickel