Ten years ago I was fortunate to join 12 other Americans on a climbing and cultural exchange in Iran between the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Iran. When asked about my favorite travels, I always end up talking about this trip, which began in Tehran, a sprawling city of 9 million people.
As Americans, we were cautioned to stay in groups of at least two or three and not to wander far from our hotel.
The U.S. and Iranian governments were aware of our exchange, and while it wasn’t without risk considering the political strife between our countries, they had given us the green light.
During our first day there we drove just outside the city toward the hills for some hiking and bouldering, where one of our hosts told us we were safe out climbing, away from the city. “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’s no longer a U.S. embassy) to deal with a visa issue. The woman behind the desk said sternly, “I am very concerned that Americans are here in Iran.”
“What are you most concerned about?” I asked.
“Many things,” she replied, shaking her head. “Many things.”
On day two, our caravan of 15 people and our climbing gear convened on the side of the highway where our group would diverge: some to climb the beautiful Mt. Damavand (18,406 feet), the highest point in Iran, and the others toward Alam Kuh (15,906 feet), an alpine massif not unlike Longs Peak.
We parked at the crossroads, in front of a gate guarding a large building. After 45 minutes of packing and taking photos, several men dressed in dark military outfits appeared. Apparently, the building was a battery factory and taking photos was prohibited. Our Iranian hosts were instructed to follow the men back through the gate and out of sight while the rest of us had to wait in our vehicles, roasting in the midday sun. The unexpected happens in Iran …
More than an hour passed. When they reemerged, a guard asked to see one camera, and he scrolled through its photos, which included images of anti-American graffiti lining the walls of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran. “But he scrolled right past those,” said Tim Terpstra, the camera owner. “The only photos I remember him commenting on were of Branndon (Bargo) and me playing ping-pong 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 compensate for the inconvenience. “I went home with a wonderful piece of Persian artwork by way of apology,” said David Thoenen, our trip leader. He shook hands with one of the men and we were on our way, with the blessing of the Iranian military.
In the 10 years that have passed since our trip, political tension between the U.S. and Iran has only escalated. Right now in the U.S. there remains a Level 4 (out of 4) Travel Advisory against Iran, ordered by the State Department. Their website states (including bold words): “Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping and the arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens.”
For now, visiting Iran is out of the question, sadly.
Despite the grossly negative portrayal of Iran we often see in the news, our interactions and conversations with its locals (many of whom spoke excellent English) absolutely shattered my preconceptions of Iran, the Middle East, and certainly the animosity between “us” and “them.”
Thoenen said, “There are many things I love about Iran, first and foremost the people.”
Another on our team, Branndon Bargo, echoed, “My favorite part of the trip was interacting with the Iranians and finding them to be some of the nicest and most hospitable people I’ve ever met.”
The unexpected does happen.
And in our case, the unexpected manifested 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@example.com. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8.