Sleeping in Iran proved to be less of a challenge than many other countries we walked.
That’s partly because camping is a legal, normal thing here. People often travel around the country, and it’s common to see tents pitched in city parks, which frequently have designated safe zones for day or overnight rest.
Although our tent is noticeably not the same as the local ones we see everywhere, this attitude about camping lessened the mental burden around the possibility of “being caught” in the middle of the night.
But, really, what made a huge difference during our three months here was Iranian hospitality.
As we have said in other posts, the people we have met on this leg of our walking journey have been incredibly kind, generous and helpful. Many, many nights, angels showed up along the road at the end of the day. They invited us to their homes, fed us and gave us shelter.
Some of them put us in touch with their friends in other cities, ensuring that we had a place to stay when we arrived there, and a couple of times we got to reconnect with families we met previously, and stay with them again in another place.
Their kindness is beyond anything we could have ever dream of, and, honestly, it caused us some other unexpected issues we had to confront, sometimes quite seriously (namely, the consistent a lack of sleep from wanting to stay up late to chat with these wonderful people and new friends).
Here are some of our nights in Iran, in random order, with pieces of the story behind them.
Note: We are not naming names or posting identifying photos. We want to protect the privacy of our dear hosts. And, to our dear new friends, we apologize we were not able to write about all of our nights in Iran, but please know that we cherished our time together, that we carry you always in our hearts and that we sincerely hope we meet again, somewhere, sometime. Sepas! Thank you!
Our luck started the first night we landed in Iran from India. During our long layover between Delhi and Tehran, we spent hours talking with an Iranian woman who lives in Bangalore. She was coming back to visit her family, and when we all realized that the delayed flight meant we couldn’t catch a night train to Mashhad and sleeping in Tehran’s airport was our likely option, she said (as many others would repeat to us later), “You can sleep at my house. You are our guest. Yes, it’s no problem. Come home. My family will love to meet you.”
So we did. And, like she said, her parents, sister and cousin, were happy to have both their sweet relative and us, these wayfinding walkers, sitting at the dinner table. They helped us get SIM cards, told us where we could change money and booked our onward train tickets, which we had trouble doing in Farsi.
We were so happy to see them again when we passed back through Tehran to visit this massive capital city after we finished walking. Things come full-circle, and we’re glad the loop came back to them.
One day, we were finishing our walk with about 30 tiring kilometers done. We had just passed a small, nothing-special town to buy a cold drink, and were scanning the desert nothingness for a campsite that would keep us slightly hidden from the road.
Suddenly, we saw a truck stopping on the other side of the highway, and the driver jumping the divider running towards us. He was overjoyed to see us, the rare sighting of tourists there in the middle of nowhere, and with big puppy dog eyes, he begged us to come to his home, an offer he sweetened with the promise of a hot shower and a home-cooked meal.
“I’m five kilometers away,” he said, telling us the name of his village. “I’ll wait for you.” We told him it would take us about two more to get there, and we should be there around sunset.
As we have come to learn, people don’t really know distances or they make the distance shorter to appease us. Five kilometers turned out being eight kilometers, which meant an exhausting extra hour of slugging ourselves forward in the dark.
Thinking we got lost, the truck driver, his daughter and son-in-law were driving around in their car looking for us; we had changed sides of the road so we could better read the signs, and they didn’t find us until we were close to the intersection of the village. They stuffed our backpacks in the trunk, we squeezed into the back seat and we drove another kilometer or so through tiny alleyways yellowed by dim streetlights.
This was my longest day ever walking with my 25-kilo backpack weight –38 kilometers—and it was just four months after my surgery. Everything hurt, and a shower made me even sleepier as my muscles relaxed. The modest meal of potatoes, canned tuna fish and tomato sauce, whipped up by the wife who had no idea what her husband was talking about when he said they were having guests that night, was the most delicious thing I tasted all day.
As soon as our heads hit the pillow, we were sound asleep.
Early on, we placed hope and trust in the Red Crescent health stations we passed along the way. The Red Crescent is the rough equivalent of the Red Cross in muslim countries; there are health station outposts of various sizes for travelers, and their crews are among the first-responders who show up with rescue gear when there’s a car accident.
One of the first Red Crescents we passed was in the desert between Sarahks and Mashhad. We asked to refill our water bottles, and the crew shared their pasta lunch with us. Other times all along our 1,500 route in Iran, some Red Crescents had rooms dedicated to travelers who needed day or night rest, and sometimes take-away kebabs and rice or plates of crew-cooked meals would show up for us at dinner time. Showers were always a welcomed bonus!
This night, we stopped at the Red Crescent for a legitimate reason. My awful boots were causing me bad foot pain and a bunch of blisters; I asked the Red Crescent guys to check my foot to make sure none of my little bones were broken. They confirmed everything was okay, gave me a tube of pain cream and cushioned inserts, which helped and eventually reduced my pain.
The station was situated at a road rest stop with a mosque and a small supermarket nearby. At end of the parking lot was a giant white tent with a fan inside, a place where travelers could rest safely. Initially, it looked like we would sleep there, but Lluís scouted out the other empty rooms and found a storage room that looked like a half-built restaurant. With the crew’s consent, that’s where pitched our tent for the night.
A room of our own.
Arriving at the end of the day in a small town is always a bit complicated. There’s often no hotel, and it means we usually have to walk out of town to an invented, out-of-view campsite. We sometimes mull over our options while having a late-day snack-partial dinner.
While I wait for my kebabs and rice and while Lluís was writing his daily journal, a man and his young son stopped in for an ice cream. Seeing that English was going to be our common language, he called his wife to help fill in the gaps. “She speaks better English than I do,” he said. We apologized for our non-existent Farsi.
One thing led to another, and luck eventually led us to a big family gathering. The couple live in Tehran but were on a month-tour of Iran, and we happened upon them during their annual family visit which involved lots of siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles.
We ate, shared stories and danced. Someone kindly told me I danced better than Jennifer Lopez, the only other Jennifer they know; I accepted the compliment, disagreed completely about my cutting-a-rug talent and smiled with appreciation at their appreciation of how we integrated with the family.
That night, we slept in a spare room at the man’s brother’s house, a dairy farm where the man grew up. Mattresses were pulled down from a stack of mattresses reserved for relatives who frequently show up from all corners of the country, and our bed was set up on the floor, a typically set-up around Central Asia. We had fresh, just-boiled milk before sleeping, a treat that Lluís would call his favorite beverage.
The couple talked to their friends in another city, and the domino effect started.
We stayed with their friends a couple hundred kilometers away, and those friends called another friend further up the road, more lovely people who made our lives immensely easier. With each set of friends, we found it harder and harder to say goodbye, a phenomenon that began to repeat itself all too often as more and more families took us in for the night.
At the end of the walk, we met up again with the Tehran couple, and shared stories about camping in the desert.
Speaking of cow farms, we had the unusual pleasure of being invited to another dairy farm near the end of our Iranian walk.
We debated camping under the stairs of a half-built building just off the road. Spiders busied themselves fixing their webs behind us, and behind them we could feel the humidity coming off the rice fields. We were both 50-50 about the site. It wasn’t an ideal spot, but it could work, sort of, and would be safe enough.
We still had some energy and considered the idea that there may be a better spot somewhere else. We flipped a coin. Monument we stay, numbers we go. We flipped numbers. We picked up our backpacks and kept going.
About a kilometer or so later, a young couple on a motorcycle waved to us. We waved back. A minute later, they turned around and were beside us.
“You look tired. Come home. You can sleep at our house. We have plenty of room,” they said, adding like many others before them did, “Free, free. No money. Money… na.”
Our instincts kicked in, and we judged them to have good eyes (our split-second trustworthiness test). We accepted their invitation.
They told us to wait at an abandoned gas station about a hundred meters away, and they would return with their car. Ten minutes later, we were pulling into their dairy, saying hellos to their friends who were visiting, showering, and sitting down to a fish and shrimp meal. Again, fresh, just-boiled milk appeared, and Lluís licked his lips, savoring every drop.
They set us up in a second-floor apartment that we had all to ourselves, and gave us bedtime treats of ice water, chocolate, peaches and apricots. Of
The next morning, they fixed us scrambled eggs, put out cheese, bread and fruit, and drove us back to the gas station where we finished the evening before.
Most afternoons about 3 or 4 p.m., we do a little ritual. We thank the people we don’t know yet who will help us further up the road, and we roll hope forward, asking angels and the universe to start planning our safe night.
Sometimes, the universe screws with us for a little while before settling us up somewhere.
The day of our “shortcut” walk through rice fields was shaping up to be ones of “those” days. Humidity knocked us out early in the day, a sweet family helped us recover with showers, lunch and a nap, and a late-afternoon ice cream from another passerby was a tasty pick-us-up sugar boost. But, the park locals told us to camp in was still another five kilometers away, and we doubted that we would make it before dark.
A retired man saw us walking and pulled over in the shoulder. “Come home, you can sleep at my house,” were the words we heard after enthusiastic handshakes on the side of the road. “I have to bring this glass window home, but I will come back to pick you up. I live over there,” he pointed to an unseen town behind us on the other side of the road. “I’ll be back in 30-45 minutes.”
We parked ourselves on the concrete divider lining the shoulder and waited, and waited, and waited. Others stopped to make sure we were okay, or if we needed a ride. We assured them we were OK, that someone was coming for us.
Time passed…20 minutes, 30, 45, 60 minutes. It was dusk, and our hopes of this man’s eventual returned slipped.
“Guess he’s not coming back,” we sighed, hoisting our bags on our back. “Let’s see where we end up tonight.”
There were woods lining the road, and we figured we would hide in the shadows of trees, hoping passing traffic wouldn’t keep up awake all night.
We went about 500 meters and, out of the blue, the retired man was beeping and waving at us from his car. He didn’t see us sitting on the shoulder, passed us, had to do a U-turn and come back and find us.
He drove to the next town, bought chicken for barbequing kebabs, and then we went further backwards and much further down the road than we expected. We had no idea where we were going, and hated that we were in car retracing the handful of kilometers we just walked.
When we pulled into his driveway, our anxiety shifted. This was his retirement home (we called it a palace because of its size and number of rooms). He was fixing it up and adding an air conditioner to one of the rooms, which would need a new window frame and glass; we saw the window that was previously in his back seat on the floor beneath where the new cooler would go. His wife and daughter visit on their days off, so for now, he was happily a bachelor, he chuckled.
As he prepared the kebabs, he told us we could stay a few days if we wanted. We took him up on the offer and stayed an extra day, giving ourselves a much-needed rest day midweek, a day that let us catch up on our journeys and blog writing.
Our angels sometimes showed up earlier than we expected, like at lunchtime, when we only finished about two-thirds of our anticipated daily kilometers. And, on those days, we had to decide if we should say yes to a new opportunity to meet nice people or if we should press on.
On this day, a couple about our age, teachers at the nearby school, was heading home and saw us looking for a place to have a roadside lunch picnic and a shady spot to take a nap, something they figured out by our pointing sign language. We were such an unusual sight, the couple stopped in the shoulder on the other side of the road and made a little video of us walking like gear-heavy astronauts (which we laughed at later – we looked pretty pathetic).
They signaled the international sign for food, putting their closed fingers near their mouth. It was another invitation, and we figured it would be a good one or two hour rest out of the sun.
Like the many Iranians we met, they made a feast. There was tea, a big bowl of fresh summer fruit and a bowl of toffees and chocolates for starters. Lunch followed – rice, meat and beans, chicken, salad, yogurt, which then was followed by a short nap.
There was also an invitation to spend the night. We wanted to stay; they were so friendly, but we had 10 more kilometers to do. We all agreed that we would leave our backpacks there, walk the 10 kilometers light and fast, message them when we were finished, wait for them to pick us up and return to their home for the night. They would drop us off where we finished our walk at dawn the next morning.
We set off and walked towards the point on the map 10 kilometers away. As luck goes, two kilometers before we finished the walk, everything got strange.
A police car with two policemen stopped us. “Passports,” one huffed in a raspy voice from the passenger side window. “Can we see your id?,” we returned. We have become seasoned at these occasional stops and random checks. If they – whoever they are– ask for our id, we ask for theirs, wary of the fact that there may be a bribe involved or that some other power play may be set in motion.
With credentials checked on both sides, we tried to explain that we were just out walking, doing nothing special, visiting Iran and that we would head back to the hotel in the town behind us in an hour or so. We didn’t want to say anything about staying with a family; Iran is in a transitional state and we’re not going to put our new friends at any risk associated with socializing with foreign tourists. But, walking for no reason seems to trigger suspicion, and it takes a lot of patience on everyone’s part to reach a comfortable middle ground.
Just as we were working out a way around explanations and security concerns, a family we met a week or so earlier hopped out of a taxi, angels from another day who would help us again this afternoon. There were smiles, hugs and a mini-reunion while the police looked on totally confused.
Our friend translated to the cops what we were doing, how we were walking Iran, and that another family had invited us for lunch and were going to pick us up. It was more information than we would have shared, but having a local intervene in our behalf usually goes further in getting things resolved faster.
Our friend from another town told us that the police were concerned about our safety, that the little village ahead wasn’t particularly safe for tourists, and that another police car was coming and we would be escorted the next couple kilometers. The police would wait with us until the other family picked us up. There was no way around this option which we hated, but that our friend assured us was in our best interest.
We hugged our beloved angel family goodbye, and waited for two more policemen to arrive. The first cops, top-brass- looking guys, rode off, and the two rookies who joined us rolled their car at our snails pace behind us.
We unceremoniously reached the dot we marked on our map, and messaged the family. We begged the cops to leave, unsure of where another round of questioning would lead everyone involved. They insisted on staying, saying it was their duty and that they couldn’t break their orders.
We sat on the side of the road, pretending to be bored but we kept hoping that the magic of the universe would make everything go smoothly. Our experience until now tells us that we have only a 50-50 chance of being able to stay with the kind folks who found us at lunchtime; the odds could go in the favor of being escorted to an expensive tourist hotel where we would have no choice in the matter.
When the son of the couple arrived, the rookies asked him a lot of questions, and we watched him write down his name and parents’ phone number. There were more dreaded phone calls. Phone calls to some other boss always puts out plans in jeopardy, and we certainly don’t want kind people to be in the middle of anything involving too many questions from police. We eventually got some sort of okay to go back with the son, and made the back to their home.
More phone calls came, and the couple seemed to be negotiating. At 7 p.m., it looked like we wouldn’t be allowed to sleep at their home. We insisted we would not pay for a hotel, and that we would camp somewhere.
The conversation evolved towards the idea that we would be moved to the town’s mosque. But it was Ramadan, and the evening prayers meant we couldn’t stay there comfortably. Again, we said we would camp somewhere, that we didn’t want to trouble anyone in any way. No one wanted that to happen. We were, in fact, guests in their country, and that seemed to be the point the couple was making on the phone.
After another bunch of calls between the couple, the police and other people in town, we were given permission to sleep at the house, but, for reasons not translated to us, the couple had to agree to not tell any of their neighbors we were sleeping there.
The matter was resolved a few minutes before the Ramadan fast was broken. The wife had laid out another amazing meal in the patio, where it was cooler, anticipating that we were, of course, going to eat before being shuffled away somewhere. We sat down, relieved, that the forces of good worked in our favor.
Some nights we had to camp. While that’s part of our normal reality, we’re always surprised by what becomes a suitable campsite late in the day.
One night, for instance, we trudged through shoulder-high weeds to get to an abandoned one-room concrete building nestled near a brick wall. We used a few weeds as a broom to sweep away the ashes of a long-ago campfire, cigarette butts and juice bottles from the dirt floor. We waited, as usual, until dark to pitch the tent inside the room, and fell asleep to the sounds of frogs croaking.
Another night, after logging 32+ kilometers and uncertain about whether we wanted to sleep in a park where people were having dinner picnics and going for evening walks, we kept going until dark and hurried across a dried and cut vegetable field, hoping no one would notice the two human-sized Ninja Turtles out there in the open. We kept fingers crossed that the lone, unlit business building we saw a couple hundred meters away would create enough shadows of hide us. We were wrong.
Uncomfortable gravel lined the path circling the building, and our only option was to put the tent on a concrete platform with a manhole. We guessed we were on some sort of pipeline, but we tried not to think too much about it. We were more worried that cars coming and going in either direction would see the yellow mosquito net part of our tent glimmering under the full moon. It was too late to make another choice, so there we stayed, and thankfully remained without incident.
Another night on our way to a city park near a beach on the Caspian Sea, we stumbled onto an empty, open plot of land among seaside villas and vacation apartment rentals.
We decided to camp there alone between the overgrown reeds instead of pitching our tent alongside a row of Iranian tents filled with carloads of folks on holiday. Some nights, we needed to be in our own space and not socialize with anyone. Tonight was one of those nights.
We waited until dark to pitch the tent, lessening our chances of being seen by the neighbors. We fell asleep to the sounds of waves crushing sand behind a concrete wall and teenagers chatting and smoking a few meters away.
Sometimes the only place that made sense to sleep was in a tunnel below the road. We were out of view, a main concern for us when we free camp, and generally, we were safe from the changing spring weather, which fluctuated from very hot in the day time to cool at night.
One night, rain caught us, and because we didn’t put our tent far enough inside, we had to get up in the middle of the night and move our tent back a few meters. Thankfully, it was a light rain and there was no flooding or rain run-off in the tunnel.
Tunnels were also particularly helpful in the long desert stretches. They were the only places where we could escape the sun for a few hours during the worst parts of the day and catch a few zzzs.
Camping in parks were among our favorite nights in the tent.
There was something incredibly soothing about laying on top of dried pine needles and being under the watchful eye of peaceful green giants. The earthy smell of the woods and the comforting music of crickets lulled us into a deep, restful sleep.
But, sometimes, camping outside also results in “too much nature.”
Camping on a field near wet rice paddies, for example, brought with it a battle with mosquitoes that we could not win. We tried to get inside the tent as fast as possible, but ended up with tons of bites on our arms and legs. The bastards bit us through our shirts and pants!
A few of those dreadful beasts followed us inside the tent, and we had great joy squashing them to bits. Our tent is still stained with drops of blood from that hard fight.
Another night, locals begged us not to sleep in Golestan Park. They urged us to make the 30 kilometer stretch before nightfall and reach town where there were guesthouses; they offered us rides to town, concerned about our safety out in the forest, which they always referred to as the jungle.
“There are animals in the jungle. Pigs and tigers,” they warned.
When we couldn’t make the distance and had to camp along the road in the park’s boundaries, we talked ourselves out of danger and nonchalantly brushed off the warnings as exaggerations.
We doubted that there were tigers in Iran. We were recently in parts of India and Bangladesh, where tigers really do roam. We never heard of tigers in Central or West Asia. We figured, too, that we could fend off the wild boars that may sniff around at night, something we did on our test walk a couple ago in Catalonia.
We pitched our tent in a tunnel under the road. We hung our food about 50 meters away from the tent, and we marked our territory, peeing near the tunnel entrances.
We stretched out in the tent at 8 p.m., ready to call it a day and savoring the cool evening breeze.
Fifteen minutes later, we heard our first visitor. A wild boar was at the far entrance of the tunnel, sniffing around and announcing his arrival with loud snorting. “They’re not aggressive, they are just hungry,” someone told us a few days before, and that echoed in our ears.
Still, we didn’t want him hanging around. I started hooting and hollering inside the tent Lluís went outside the tent and did a “We are fearsome humans” dance with all the sounds effects. The pig ran away, and luckily didn’t return. He must have told his friends, too, because no other boars showed up the rest of the night.
Other creatures, however, did. Twice. I heard breathing and movement outside the tent once, and Lluís heard the same another time. We hissed and hooted and yelled. That seemed to be enough to scare away whatever was beyond the yellow mesh that we couldn’t see, and didn’t want to see.
The next night, we slept at a Red Crescent station and the crew let us stay a second night; we really needed a rest day. During our down day, the crew walked us over to the Golestan Park visitor center, next to their station.
Inside we saw the stuffed versions of the animals that live in the park. Tigers don’t live there, but panthers and a kind of leopard do, and so do bears and poisonous snakes, and some kind of deer and all sorts of little animals and birds. And, yes, lots of boars rummage about looking for scraps from picnics or approach people hoping to be hand-fed treats.
When we finished walking, we took a couple weeks off to your some of Iran’s main sites: Shiraz, Yazd and Esfahan.
In Shiraz and Yazd, we put on our “regular tourists” hats, and appreciated our private time, (something we haven’t had much of these last few months) in budget hotel rooms.
There was nothing special about these rooms, but it was a simple pleasure to close the world out for a few days and be in our quiet space.
In Esfahan, one of Iran’s gems, we reunited with a lovely family we met a few earlier along the Capsian coast.
They were vacationing near the sea, and, when they spotted us walking along in the late-morning sun, they pulled over on the side of the road to chat with us.
Small talk led to a picnic on the road, with traffic going by, and that led to a invitation to escape the heat and have a picnic lunch in the cool and foggy mountains. We were in “take it easy” mode, and the idea of cooler temperatures was appealing. We skipped our last 10 kilometers, hopped in the backseat and spent the rest of the afternoon with them.
Lunch led to dinner and dinner led to a good night’s rest. In between there was talk of us visiting them in Esfahan.
In the morning, the father of the family drove us back to the spot where they picked us up. We waved “See you soon,” something we were hoped would be true.
A few weeks later, we were sitting with them again, eating rice, kebabs and salad and sharing stories over hours of endless amounts of tea.
We spent a few nights with them. We walked their beautiful city, met their aunts and cousins, relaxed in their beautiful home, and savored their company.
It was like being home, and saying, “See you next time” was one of our hardest moments in Iran.
We ended our time in Iran the same we started it — in the company of wonderful people.
After our non-walking side trips around Iran, we returned to the home of other new friends near the Azerbaijan border.
Like others before them, this amazing couple found us walking on the side of the road late in the afternoon and invited us to their home for the night. Unlike others before them, they have hosted many tourists, mostly cyclists following the old silk roads linking Europe and Asia. Their experience with people who are on long journeys was evident immediately.
“Are you the kind of people who want to walk every kilometer of your route? Or do you do part of your route with public transportation?” the man asked Lluís through the car window that first afternoon.
“We are the kind of people that walk all of our route,” Lluís responded.
The man agreed to take us back to where he and his wife picked us up, at whatever time we wanted to leave. Again, that started a domino reaction with one question leading to an extended stay.
We agreed, like in other places, that we could walk our last kilometers in Iran without weight, and the man or his brothers would pick us up when we finished our daily walk. He would also drive us to the new mile marker the next day. This is a very generous thing for us. It takes time that most people do not have, but Iranians always find a way to squeeze our priorities into their day.
Besides being incredibly grateful for this weight reprieve and a couple of days of walking light, we also had a chance to do some volunteer work, which, sadly, we hadn’t been able to do in Iran until now. The couple teach English in the nearby town, and we spent a few hours over a few days talking with the students and encouraging them to speak as much English as they could.
The couple let us leave our heavy stuff behind while we toured the country by bus, and welcomed us back with open arms a couple weeks later.
We had our last cups of Iranian tea with this couple, and played with their young son on their living room floor.
We became part of their family, and they became part of ours.