Sarah, one of our photographers, and her boyfriend Yves, just came back from three weeks travelling around Iran. She took some mesmerising pictures, he ever so kindly scribbled down some words for us:

“Let’s get one thing straight. Iran is not a terrorist nation. It must be one of the easiest countries to travel in. Okay, certainly since the last elections, getting visas can take months, and even then you don’t really know if they will come through. But once you get in, it’s an amazing destination.

There are only three things that need some time to get used to. Number one: the omnipresence of Khomeini’s pictures and the Iran-Iraq War martyrs’ images. They are literally everywhere, even in the smallest mountain village or the four square meter grocery shop. Number two: the scarf. Woman travelers are required by law to cover their hair and to wear loose-fitting clothes to disguise their figures. The first days in Iran you tend to get upset with this dress code, but you get used to it and finally, you love it and even forget to take off the scarf when showering. Number three: traffic is crazy. Even to Italian or Asian standards, the chaos is shocking. Iran holds the world record for the highest per-capita number of road deaths, with a horrifying 28.000 people killed and another 270.000 injured each year.

But as with the scarf, eventually you get used to it. Taxis are extremely cheap compared to a ticket for a roller coaster, and they are just as much a great experience. Most of them have a sound system more expensive than the car itself and the taxi driver likes to impress you with his forbidden pop music collection. They will play I’ll take you to the candy shop I’ll let you lick the lollipop Go ahead girl, don’t you stop, whoaa, just for you, not understanding a word of English.

How nice is that? In general, people are exceptionally friendly, hospitable and curious. You will get numerous invitations for tea and you will need to pose with dozens of your newly made local friends. In Persepolis, Iran’s most famous ancient site, the presence of foreigners easily prevails on the magnitude of the stones. It’s very hard for Iranians to go abroad, and if they speak some English, they want to know all about life in Europe. This way of mental traveling might sound charming, but in reality, it’s their only way out. They are convicted to visit their own country. Just imagine going twice a year to Bruges or the Citadel of Namur. Still, most Iranians don’t seem to care and keep on heading to the dirty beaches on the Caspian coast every weekend. It is very interesting to witness women in chador bathing like whales washed ashore.

It should be no surprise people desperately want change. First, they tried to achieve this in the elections earlier this year. And since that didn’t work out, people left their houses and started to demonstrate. And since these street protests were put down with ferocity, activists are slowly giving up and the streets are returning to silence. Shouting has become whispering. The only remains are the green Musavi ribbons in people’s pockets. This is where fear comes in; every fellow student or colleague can be connected to the regime, thus openly criticizing the system can cost you your job or your freedom. Or worse.

The contrast between the regime’s image and the people’s warmth is what makes Iran this fascinating. Like its landscapes: on one side overwhelmingly beautiful mountains, on the other an enormous military domain. During our trip, the army launched another provocative missile. The government revealed a new uranium enrichment plant. Developments that were making UN sanctions almost inevitable, until Iran suddenly agreed to an IAEA (the UN nuclear watchdog) inspection. What’s next? To be continued…