Polish-British couple Ania and Jon are as close as you can get to being full-time, professional hitchhikers. English teachers by trade, they both quit their jobs when they set off on their “Long Way Home” journey — an 11- month-long hitchhiking trip across Asia that finished in December 2015. Their trip took them to many exciting countries, including a memorable one-month stay in Iran in summer 2015.
During their travels in recent years, the couple, who have also lived and worked in several European countries, have visited 52 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe, experiences they share with fellow backpackers and interested readers on their “Hitchhikers Handbook” blog.
Ania and Jon first met nearly nine years ago in a hostel in Macedonia and have hitchhiked around the world together ever since. And Iran was somewhere they both wanted to go.
“We’d met so many nice Iranians in Europe and we wanted to see if people in Iran were as nice as the people we’d met,” explains Ania. “When we decided to go to Asia, we planned our route from Europe and many of the routes lead through Iran.”
But, as a British citizen, it was harder for Jon to get an Iranian visa than it was for Ania. Several nationalities, including the British, require a visa and a tour guide before they are allowed into Iran. “But we couldn’t afford that. So we contacted our Iranian friends in Europe, asking them for suggestions and then everything seemed to fall into place. We really didn't want to book a tour or a private guide,” the couple recalls.
They contacted a number of travel agencies to find out if they could go to Iran without being booked onto a tour, but most of their requests were ignored and some refused. Eventually, an Iranian friend put them in touch with an agent in Iran who booked them onto a fake tour.
“Without his initial help, it really wouldn't have been possible,” says Jon. “But once we had made the initial contact, our travel agent became our liaison officer. The border crossing was stressful though because we didn't have a guide waiting for us. An official pulled us out of the queue into a small private room and very gently interrogated us as to our intentions in Iran. Who were we visiting? Where were we going? Had we been to Iran before?”
Jon adds, “Generally, she was very pleasant, although we did get the impression that her soft questions masked an intelligent mind and that she was weighing us up.”
During the interrogation, Jon’s fingerprints were taken, but Ania’s were not.
“She eventually let us go and we were in,” he says. “After that we didn’t have any problems with the authorities throughout the rest of the country.”
The couple spent a month in Iran, the duration of their visa. Traveling into the country from Turkey, they then traveled southeast to Tabriz, where they went onto Zanjan and to the Iranian capital, Tehran. Following that, they hitchhiked south to Isfahan and Shiraz, and then northeast to Yazd, Tabas and Mashhad before going to Turkmenistan.
“Hitchhiking in Iran was a joy. Iranian people are just so friendly. Some people were a bit confused about what we were doing and other people thought that we wanted a taxi but we had a letter written in Farsi and once we showed them that, people couldn't have been more helpful,” the couple says. “Our waiting times were extremely short. We were frequently invited for lunch and dinner and people went out of their way to help us. It was simply fantastic.”
Jon adds, “The thing that surprised us the most was how liberal the people were. They seemed so much more European than we had ever imagined. They spoke negatively about the authorities and bemoaned the situation in which they lived. We’d not expected that.”
Ania and Jon felt at ease to do what they wanted while they were in Iran but they were conscious of how differently Ania was treated compared to the local women. “They treated her as an honorary man in some instances. She was allowed to enter men-only shisha bars and to communicate in men-only environments.The only disappointment was that she wasn't allowed to go ice-skating. Men only apparently.”
Despite the Iranian ban on alcohol, the couple drank a lot while they were away. “Although we probably shouldn't say so, we drank a lot in Iran. We’d prepared ourselves for a one-month detox but in fact people in Iran just kept giving us drinks.”
While in Iran, Jon and Ania tried many different types of local food, and they even learnt how to cook their favorite Iranian dish, Dizi [a Persian stew].
“We cook Dizi now and we’re getting better at it every time we try. We were taught the dish in Zanjan as part of our Cultural Relay Project and we really fell in love with it. We were also taught how to make falafel using a special falafel maker but in truth we haven't got around to making it yet. Soon, though.”
The couple are eager to go back to Iran, but given the situation in the surrounding countries of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, hitchhiking is not a possibility for now. Jon adds, “One day when the political situation has normalized, we’ll definitely try to go back.”