I am currently confined to my hotel in the small Iranian border city of Zahedan, we have spend the past week in Iran - a country where petrol costs less than a penny a litre, alcohol is banned and women are subjected to harsh Islamic laws.
After a rather bureaucratic ordeal at the Turkish border we quickly made our way to the large cities of Tabriz and Zangedan, where our local tour guide Hassan took us to the city's bazaar and the most fantastic tea-houses. However with so few visits from westerns, a bus load turning up all at once did rather attract a lot of attention. The entire city seemed to grind to a halt as people literally stopped what they were doing and stared. Everywhere we went a crowd followed and haggling soon became uncomfortable as you were quickly swamped by onlookers. The locals were however incredibly friendly and keen to know what life was like outside Iran.
Iran is a culture shock in lots of ways, most noticeably everyone must dress 'modestly' (so it was out with the shorts even though it was baking hot) but it was much worst for women who had to cover their heads at all times. Also there are few recognizable brands, not many advertisements, controversial websites are blocked and lots of military personnel on the streets.
Another notable aspect of Iranian life is the lack of nightlife, with no bars or clubs (dancing is illegal in Iran!) people have found other limited ways to entertain themselves. So in every sizeable town you can find an amusement park. Thus on Sunday night in a rather surreal experience we found ourselves on a Ferris Wheel with local families enjoying lots of candy floss. Again however our presence soon attracted crowds, eager to take our picture or pose with their children.
Since they hear so little of the outside world, Iranians are curious and often spontaneously start conversations. Many women spoke of how they despised having to wear the hijab (which is enforced by the religious police) and men often talked freely of how they felt socially and sexually repressed. Though it was evident in the people and their society that 30 years of rule by the Ayatollahs had worn down their spirit.
Next it was to Tehran, the bustling capital city. Tehran is frankly not a nice place. Road traffic is awful in Iran - simply no one obeys any rules. Many drive on the wrong side of the road (we came across some horrific accidents) but it was Tehran that took the biscuit. Our many taxi rides across the city meant holding on for dear life, and it was not helped that our driver insisted on singing and dancing as he drove. The city is a noisy, dirty place with little to visit, but it was the pollution that was choking. Visibility was virtually non existent and your eyes and throat would hurt from simply walking down the street.
Oz Bus time in Tehran was mostly spent however inside the Pakistani Embassy, because due to problems in London we had failed to get our necessary visas. So after a visit to the British Embassy (on Booby Sands street) to receive a letter of confirmation, it required many forms, hours of waiting and finally an interview before we were granted our papers. Impatience coupled with the rising temperatures (it was now in the mid 30s) led to many unhappy Oz Busers as we left the capital city.
Things improved when we reached Esfahan, a delightful and by Iranian standards cosmopolitan city. It has the second largest square in the world and the most spectacular bridges. But it was the Blue Mosque which proved a highlight; it truly was one of the most impressive buildings I have ever visited.
It was at this point we also lost two of the Oz Busers. Thursday which has now become the 'day of doom' saw one of our fellow passengers knocked over by a bike. After being rushed to hospital it was decided she required an operation and so could no longer travel. Her humour and charm brighten up many journeys; she is greatly missed and is now recovering back in the UK. We also lost one of our drivers Bart, after his embassy refused to give the seal of approval to pass through Pakistan stating it was too dangerous following the kidnap of a fellow Belgian last year. He is now in Delhi where we will meet up with him next week.
After some much need western fast food, the local cuisine leaves a lot to be desired, it was on the road again. The landscape quickly changed to desert, literally hundreds of miles of nothing. For the first time on the trip it was possible to ignore the views from the bus windows.
After quick stopovers in Kerman and Yazd (where we stayed in an impressive five star hotel) it was on to Bam. This city had been devastated by an earthquake in 2003 that left 40,000 dead and five years on was still struggling to cope.
As we moved further east, Viv our tour leader warned us that our next week would present many dangers. Thus our bus is now trailed by a police convoy, we are constantly followed by armed guards (they do take good photos) and we can't leave the hotel without an escort.
Although Iran is very different, it has also surprised me. On the surface it is more liberal and not as regressive as I expected. The men often wear trendy western clothes and women are confident and have many rights enshrined in law. What I shall take away however is the thirst among the young (over 50% are under the age of 25) for change and we can only hope they succeed.And so it's the end of week four - tomorrow we have a dangerous, mammoth 18 hour non-stop drive as we cross the Pakistan border and come within a few miles of Afghanistan… so let the adventure begin!