Culturally shocked in Turkey
Coming from Germany, travelling through Asia is a quite unique experience from what we are used to seeing and feeling in our home country. There are various colours and odours, particular emotions and sensations that we had never felt before and we had to learn how to deal with them.
Everything is new, unknown and exotic. Even the sky looks different.
Travelling as a backpacker might be challenging but it brings you closer to distinctive cultures and people like nothing else can.
Our first cultural disorientation occurred in Istanbul, Turkey. The Metropolis that literally connects Europe and Asia gave us some things to struggle with like chaotic traffic, never-ending crowds in the streets and different cultural behaviours, we knew nothing about.
We were surprised to learn that people would wear special shoes to enter the restroom, nod their heads up and down to say "no" (while we shake our heads to say the same - nodding means "yes") and eating bread and kebab, all the time.
But, at the same time, we discovered a wondrous historical culture that we knew nothing about, beautiful art that we had never seen before - slightly different from European crafts. Even just wandering through the streets was an amazing experience.
Vendors selling fresh fruits like pomegranates and oranges, all kinds of fish, vine leaves, Turkish Delights and an overwhelming quantity of spices and herbs. Walking through the food market piqued all our senses and we would often just stroll through the narrow lanes smelling, watching and tasting food.
Last but not least, the hospitality. People we had never seen before invited us for tea into their homes straight from the street. As hitchhikers, we never waited for more than 10 minutes in Turkey before we got a lift.
And strangely, people were proud of us. They called their relatives and friends to talk to us, they told us about different places in their country that we should not miss and they even invited us for meals or to board with their families overnight.
There were, however, some people who did go a little overboard, especially truck drivers. We were uncomfortable with their touching us. One guy even wanted to take advantage of a night drive and tried to rob us! But, luckily for us, he wasn't a professional and hence, wasn't quite sure how to plan his heist.
We travelled across Turkey for almost three months. From the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, between modern cities like Izmir and Antalya to traditional ones like Urfa and Diyarbakır. We hiked along the Lycian Way, flew in a hot air balloon over the bizarre landscape of Cappadocia and visited the Whirling Dervishes in Konya.
Confused in Iran
Just as we had adopted the Turkish culture, we entered Iran. Where suddenly, we realised we couldn't read anything anymore! The Persian alphabet surrounded us. However, the people got friendlier than in Turkey.
They had no idea what we were doing - the concept of hitchhiking is not common at all in Iran - still, every second car stopped to ask if we needed help and to direct us to the nearest bus station.
At one point or another, we would be surrounded by a lot of people, offering help or inviting us for a meal or an overnight stay. Some even offered to pay for our hotel room! There were, of course many who were just around us to 'look at the strange foreign couple with their enormous backpacks'. Needless to say, we attracted the attention of the police on occasion.
The most challenging part while hitchhiking in Iran was to convince people that we didn't want to use the bus or taxi. Trying to explain the concept of hitchhiking was perhaps the most time consuming of things; no attempt was ever successful. So, we invented a story. We told people who inquired that we preferred to walk and would only take a car if somebody offered us a ride. This little trick opened many a car door for us.
The Iranian culture, as we noticed quickly, is an extremely polite one. The most fascinating aspect of which is called "Tarof" (a kind of a ritualistic behaviour of offering and declining several times). It is used to ensure nobody loses face because he or she is not able to offer anything.
Tarof is a large part of daily life there. Imagine you are sitting in a taxi and you want to pay the driver. He would say something like, "You don't have to pay me. There is no value in it".
But he knows (and you know as well) that you have to pay and he expects you to pay - still there are several minutes where you engage in Tarof - offering and declining, until, finally, you hand over the money. In the beginning, it appears to be a very polite and respectful activity but soon, it gets tedious.
One can't help but wonder where they get the time to Tarof the whole day.
Being in public in Iran is effortless, so long as you can adopt the Islamic rules of the country. Hijab is mandatory, touching a woman is not allowed, and drinking alcohol is forbidden. Having a coffee in a restaurant with the other sex? - he or she best be a close relative if you want to avoid any uncomfortable questioning.
And then, there is a second, more private world inside Iran.
This is a completely different world, hidden deep in the underground. Going to a private house party is the perfect social experiment. Women entering totally covered, disappearing in one room and reappearing some time later with a lot of makeup, extensive hairstyles, backless tops and skirts just to impress a bunch of cousins.
Looking pretty is definitely a high priority in Iran; to have a nose job is considered a status symbol. And when it finally comes to partying, people prefer high potential, self-made alcohol, and get wasted within half an hour.
The contradiction between the outside world and the inside world is so huge, that it is hard to believe that both take place in the same country (or even on the same continent). In this regard, we felt the tension among the people to be high and not everybody manages to handle that well.
However, Iran is a lot more than obeying Islamic rules or not. It is a beautiful country with a lot of history. To this day, the Persian Empire remains to be an exquisite influence. At least in Europe: When referring to Persia everybody gets impressed - however, talking about Iran, everybody gets scared without truly understanding anything. But that is another story altogether.
On our way through Iran, we once decided to go out camping in the desert Dasht-e Lut (supposedly the hottest place on earth with the temperature rising up to 75°C in summer middays). During the wintertime, we expected a lovely night - watching a starry sky, surrounded by silence. Instead, we got a unique experience. Firstly, there was no starry sky because of a massive ceiling; we could not spot even one star. And then, just as we put up our tent, a massive sandstorm exploded around us. Inside the tent, we hurriedly tried to secure our belongings by pushing the tarpaulin against the wind, hoping it wouldn't crush down our tent.
We struggled until 4am in the morning to just breathe in the blowing dust inside the tent. The storm stopped as quickly as it had begun. Upon inspection the next day, we found what was probably more sand in our tent and belongings than in the entire desert around us!
After about two months in Iran, we finally entered Pakistan by crossing Balochistan. We were escorted a good 400 kilometers before the Pakistani border by Iranian police and military. They were nice but serious folk, taking pictures of them or their bases was absolutely forbidden. They gave us the feeling that this border area was not fun at all. However, the Pakistani Levies? Such funny guys!
Here in Pakistan, it wasn't us who asked to take the pictures first - it was them. And not only one - two or three sometimes up to five! They were singing songs in Urdu for us, happily serving tea and food while we waited for the next escort.
Even though cheerful, they had one finger on the trigger the whole time. The atmosphere was much more relaxed than in the supposedly safer areas in Iran. We shared pictures of our families and now, we are all friends on Facebook. The inconvenient part about travelling with the Levies was that it took a lot of time. For just 600 kilometers from the border to Quetta, we travelled two whole days, stopping every once in a while to sign a book and wait for the next car to pick us up.
While in Quetta, we were not allowed by the authorities to leave our hotel without any police security. The police did not bother themselves to show up, which was unfortunate because we had no food, and no money to buy any. After waiting several hours and and some starving, we decided to venture out on our own and it turned out that Quetta is a nice city to stroll around.
There is so much to see that we would never expect to see in Germany like donkey carts on the streets, rickshaws, interesting street food, traditional clothes and fully covered women...and men. People started talking to us and even if we were initially suspicious (because of all the police advice) it turned out to be very nice - more friends on Facebook.
In Quetta, we weren't the only ones curious about the new. At a restaurant one evening, all eyes were on us. Every single person stared at us, constantly. And nobody seemed pushed if that appeared to unsettle us. Some, for a better view, even turned their chairs around to face us.
They smiled at us, while we searched for a table, they smiled at us while we waited for the food and they smiled at us while we ate. Finally, somebody broke the silence and we started a small chat which abruptly led to: Are you married? Obviously an important issue in Pakistan - we are still frequently asked that question.
However, some decided to take it further: Love marriage or arranged marriage, they asked. As far as we know, there is no such thing as an arranged marriage in our country, to many, it is an unthinkable inquiry.
We said goodbye to Quetta and took an almost 24-hour dusty train ride (on the request of security officials) forward, bumping and honking.
Arriving in Karachi, we looked worse than after the sandstorm in Iran! If this is to be the worst part of our journey, I'm sure we've got a handle on it. Here, we are able to walk around, for the first time, without any security and that is just great.
The people are friendly and helpful, always interested in our stories and so far away from the image of Pakistan that is projected by the Western media. We are extremely happy to be here and not for a minute do we regret not paying heed to the opinions of people who have never visited Pakistan.