Ten years ago, I was lucky enough to take part with 12 other Americans in a climbing and cultural exchange in Iran between the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Iran. When I am asked about my favorite trips, I always end up talking about this trip that began in Tehran, a sprawling city with 9 million inhabitants.
As Americans, we have been warned to stay in groups of at least two or three people and not to hike far from our hotel.
The US and Iranian governments were aware of our exchanges, and although it was not without risk in the face of the political dispute between our countries, they had given us the green light.
On our first day there, we drove just out of town towards the hills for hiking and bouldering where one of our hosts told us we were safe to climb, out of town. “But,” he added, “we should all be very concerned. The unexpected happens in Iran. “
The next day I visited the Swiss embassy in Tehran (there is no longer a US embassy) to clarify a visa question. The woman behind the desk said sternly, “I’m very worried that there are Americans here in Iran.”
“What are you most worried about?” I asked.
“A lot,” she replied, shaking her head. “Many things.”
On the second day, our caravan of 15 and our climbing gear met on the side of the highway where our group would break up: some to climb the beautiful mountain. Damavand (18,406 feet), the highest point in Iran, and the others towards Alam Kuh (15,906 feet), an Alpine massif not dissimilar to Longs Peak.
We parked at the intersection in front of a gate guarding a large building. After 45 minutes of packing and taking photos, several men in dark military outfits showed up. Apparently the building was a battery factory and photography was prohibited. Our Iranian hosts were instructed to follow the men through the gate and out of sight while the rest of us had to wait in our vehicles and roast in the midday sun. The unexpected happens in Iran …
More than an hour passed. When they reappeared, a security guard asked to see a camera and he scrolled through the photos, including pictures of anti-American graffiti on the walls of the former US embassy in Tehran. “But he just scrolled past them,” said Tim Terpstra, the camera owner. “The only photos I remember having commented on were of Branndon (Bargo) and me playing table tennis with some Iranians in a park. He asked where the park was. “
To our shock (and great relief) the guards offered us a beautifully wrapped gift to make up for the inconvenience. “As an excuse, I went home with a wonderful Persian work of art,” said David Thoenen, our tour guide. He shook hands with one of the men and we set off, with the blessing of the Iranian military.
In the 10 years that have passed since our trip, political tensions between the US and Iran have only escalated. There is currently a level 4 (of 4) travel warning against Iran in the USA, which was ordered by the State Department. Its website states (including bold words), “Do not travel to Iran because of the risk of kidnapping and the arbitrary arrest and detention of US citizens.”
A visit to Iran is unfortunately out of the question at the moment.
Despite the grossly negative portrayal of Iran we often see on the news, our interactions and conversations with its locals (many of whom spoke excellent English) have had my prejudices about Iran, the Middle East, and certainly the hostility between “us” and ” You.”
Thoenen said: “There are many things that I love about Iran, primarily the people.”
Another on our team, Branndon Bargo, repeated, “My favorite part of the trip was interacting with the Iranians and finding them to be some of the nicest, most hospitable people I have ever met.”
The unexpected happens.
And in our case, the unexpected manifested itself beneath the complex layers of religion, rules, politics, and propaganda. It was the people of Iran whose kindness and compassion changed our minds and filled our hearts.
Contact Chris Weidner at [email protected] Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @ cweidner8.