Axis-of-evil-dwelling, nuclear-power-hoarding western haters, or friendly and accommodating folk at odds with their restrictive government? Michael Bailey strives to overcome mountains, men and media perceptions in Iran.

I had no idea what they were shouting, of course, but they were carrying knives that spoke to me in a manner that broke through the language barrier. My intrepid friends had scarpered which left the count at six of them to one of me, and the best weapon I had to hand was a squirty bottle of sunscreen. I took the valiant decision of handing over my bag and my wallet which precipitated their swift and mutually-welcome departure.

The White Demon of Damavand
The White Demon of Damavand

“You must have been terrified,” seemed to be the most common comment whenever I recounted the tale. In truth I think my assailants – Persian police being what they are – were far more nervous than I. I was livid. In many of my listeners I also detected an undertone of, “I told you so.”

“Why are you going to Iran?” Long before I flew to Tehran I could switch my brain off and answer that question on auto-pilot. Despite our self-proclaimed status as an educated and enquiring people, it seemed that I couldn’t have picked a less credible holiday destination if I’d told them I was going bird watching in Helmand or windsurfing off the coast of Somalia. If you listened blindly to the media your picture of Iran would be one where men with stones stalk the streets in search of adulterous women, while the government spends its time rigging elections in between sessions of feeding pieces of glowing green metal into a centrifuge. I wasn’t buying it and I had decided to find out for myself.

Milking goats on the mountain
Milking goats on the mountain

Whilst I can’t deny that asking the Revolutionary Guard to give me a tour of the country’s nuclear research facilities was an intriguing prospect, I decided upon reflection to try something I’m a little more familiar with. I was heading for Mt. Damavand, a sulphurous volcano and the highest mountain in the Middle East. At 5,610 m (18,406 ft) it wouldn’t quite be the highest mountain I’d ever climbed, but with only two nights on the mountain to acclimatise it was surely going to be tough work.

Surprisingly, I’d even found a few foolhardy guys to come with me. Inevitably we started our trip in Tehran which, aside from the lack of nightclubs and alcohol, seemed not so different from a western capital. We spent a day in the city, visiting the palace of the deposed Shahs and getting our first taste of what was to be a two week diet of never-ending kebabs. Then we struggled out through the traffic clogged streets in the direction of a disturbingly large looking mountain on the horizon. We stayed that night in a village at the foot of the beast and I began to regret not being a little fitter. It was impossible not to relax though amongst our affable hosts and they proved to us that you don’t need alcohol to have a good time, as we wrestled and played other games (man-climbing has to be seen to be understood) until 2 in the morning.

Looks like we're out of beer. Man-climbing anyone?
Looks like we’re out of beer. Man-climbing anyone?

The following day we began the (mountain) climb. If we’d been there during spring then the land would have been a wide field of yellow and red flowers, but at the end of the long, dry summer it was a very parched landscape we were hiking through. It wasn’t long before I was feeling the same thirst as the ground around me. We could have driven higher and started cooler but with altitude sickness being a very real danger we were better off using our own muscles for the ascent.

There was one woman in our party and though she was neither Iranian, nor Muslim, by law she was required to cover her hair with a headscarf. Naturally we were curious about what the locals thought of the law and we didn’t have to press to get some answers. Our guide, Hossein, was clear on the subject. “Every year the skirts get two centimetres higher,” he laughed (women wear trousers under their skirts) “and the scarves go a centimetre back.” I don’t doubt that there are plenty of people in Iran who respect the religious dress code but every woman we spoke to echoed Hossein’s sentiments, and the need for change through subtle subversion. The Iranians rose up and deposed a government 30 years ago and I jokingly asked a few whether they’d consider doing so again. None of them seemed to think the suggestion a joke; a few even thought it a good idea.

A sacred shelter
A sacred shelter

We spent the first night sheltering in a mosque and we were quickly reminded that a hot day on a mountain doesn’t mean a hot night. Already I was needing to take larger lungfuls of air and we were barely more than half way up. We emerged into the chill morning to find a crystal clear view of the monster looming over us. Its beauty competed with its sheer daunting size for our attention. There was one other party of westerners making the climb at the same time we were but the majority of the hikers were Iranian. The mountain features prominently in Persian literature and legend and the locals swarm up it in surprisingly large numbers. Tourists are a rarity in Iran and many were eager to talk to us. One subject that kept surfacing was their desire to emigrate to Europe. As usual, Hossein summed it up for us, “Everybody wants to leave Iran. Everybody except the tour guides. Because we know our country. Because we love our country.” His passion for his homeland was clear but he seemed no more content with the status quo than anybody else we talked to.

On our second day we left the shrubby trees behind us and headed up into an ever more barren landscape as we headed towards a mountain hut at 4,000 m (13,000 ft). By the time we reached it headaches and nausea were starting to appear as the altitude began to bite. After the sun set the heat soon fled and people started talking about temperatures of -20C (-4F) at the summit. At this point I realised that I’d brought nothing warmer with me than a long-sleeved T shirt and a rain jacket. “You did read the part where it says the top is covered in permanent ice?” one of my friends questioned. “Yes, but nobody told me it was going to be cold ice!” I replied.

Snow turning back now!
Snow turning back now!

We started very early on summit day as we still had a long way to climb. At the top of a mountain that high there is only half the air that you’d find at sea-level and long before we reached the top our hearts and our lungs were struggling to find enough oxygen and every step became a labour. Not only that but visible clouds of sulphur dioxide wafted across the path and what was a breath of inadequate air one moment became a breath of acidic burning stench the next. From a distance the peak had been obvious but up close it was impossible to tell how near it was and I was almost taken aback when I finally found myself staring across the snow-clad crater at the roof of the Middle Eastern world.

In the end the sun was out, the temperature mild and I’d gaffer-taped my towel around my neck for nothing. If the cold wasn’t upsetting us, the thin air was. We all felt sick and one of the party was busy decorating a rock with his breakfast. As usual for such a climb we were very pleased to have made it to the top but even more pleased that we didn’t have to go up anymore. We didn’t stay there very long.

On top of the Persian world
On top of the Persian world

Back in the mountain hut we entered into the typical post-climb discussions, but after sickness and cold and sore muscles had been dissected a theme began to emerge. We could have gone to climb a mountain in a dozen other countries that would have caused far less alarm among our friends and colleagues, but we’d chosen Iran for a reason. Sensationalist western media eclipses the nature of the Iranian people and in many cases portrays them as an enemy. But we’d sensed none of that enmity in any of the people we’d spoken to and everywhere we’d turned we’d found smiles and welcome.

Exploring the 17th Century Shah Mosque of Esfahan
Exploring the 17th Century Shah Mosque of Esfahan

The climb over we headed south to see some more of Iran and we were about ready to head home and tell everybody how wrong they’d been when late in the evening, in the city of Shiraz, we watched in disbelief as two motorbikes drew up not far from us, six youths jumped off and quickly relieved a local man of everything he was carrying. As we stood around trying to convince ourselves that we’d just seen was real the bikes returned. Before I knew what was happening I’d been surrounded and I was quickly relieved of the burden of my possessions. Many will no doubt see the incident as vindication of the caution of my friends back home but, as I look back on it now, I’ve come to a different conclusion.

If I let that one event form the basis of my opinion of Iran then I’d be guilty of the same neglect shown by anybody who thinks they know all they need to know about a country after hearing one story of an allegedly adulterous woman being sentenced to death by stoning. Should I let a small group of criminals make me forget that (visa-grudging embassy staff aside) every other Iranian I’d met numbered among the friendliest people I’d met in this world? That sort of crime happens everywhere and if I’d been in somewhere like Nairobi or Washington DC then I’d have expected it to. It was only because Iran had felt so hospitable and so safe that we’d been out on that street at night at all.

Beanie there, done that
Beanie there, done that

If I hadn’t gone to Iran I would have missed the ancient serenity of Persepolis, capital of what was once the greatest empire on Earth. I would have missed getting lost among the tiny maze-like streets of the oasis city, Yazd. And I would have missed the simple pleasure of sharing tea with strangers met in passing on the banks of the river in Esfahan.

So to answer the other question I’m often asked, no it hasn’t put me off visiting places other people might avoid. Perhaps it’s just my stubborn, contrary nature but the trip has left me even more convinced than ever that I don’t want to rely on popular, media-induced opinions. I’d far rather see such places for myself.

Michael flew direct to Tehran with BMI airlines and organised the trip through the Tailor Made section of Imaginative Traveller.

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