Most of the day in Mashhad today is spent visiting a number of important sites — there are of course numerous ones in this holy city in Iran, so it must be a selection.
First, we go to the tomb of Nader Shah, a Turk of the Safavids who liberated Persia from the Afghan occupation in the 18th century and is thus revered here, in the spiritist tradition of reverence for great heroes. He managed to restore Iran to its former extended area. He proved to be an excellent strategist, but not such a good ruler; near the end of his life he became totally paranoid. The building is modern and of an interesting design with interlocking and rotated squares. In the half-open hall where the actual tomb stands in a large slightly sunken rotated square, this must have caused some problems for visitors (I imagine some falls and sprained ankles) because the corner nearest the tomb has been filled-in with a wooden deck so people can walk along the stone tomb without having to step down and up again.
Next on our list is the site of the tomb of Khajeh Rabee, a relative of Imam Reza. It´s a beautiful and peaceful site with a large garden around it. The pavement consists of memorial stones for martyrs of the Iran-Irak war, and endless expanse of them which brings home the terrible toll the 10-year war meant for this country.
Ferdowsi was a great poet and writer from the 11th century, the Seljuk period. He wrote ¨The Book of Kings¨ and with it made an important contribution to the continued existence of Farsi, using the language carefully and avoiding Arabic words. His tomb is here in Mashhad and quite different in atmosphere to that of Khajeh Rabee. The building, situated in a beautiful garden in Tus (his birthplace), is clearly inspired by Cyrus´ tomb in Pasargadae; behind it is a part of the old mud-brick city wall of Tus, partly protected by a roof: it´s a hangout place for local youth. Inside the building, Ferdowsi´s stone grave is on the ground floor, but on the top floor is a gallery from which you can look down on it — and surprisingly on this gallery there is an art exhibition, with some really good and quite witty drawings. A little farther on we make a short stop near a beautiful brick building that houses a Koran school.
For lunch we have some nice local dishes. I start with one of my favorite Iranian dishes, a barley soup made with barley (obviously), tomato, carrot, onion, a little meat (probably lamb), herbs and probably some lemon (it´s slightly sour): it´s as delicious as I remember it. For the main course we all have a dish called ghorme sabzi, a stew with lamb and various vegetables (I recognize at least parsley and cilantro). With it, an Iranian alcohol-free beer (called sade).
Our destination for the afternoon is the holy shrine of Imam Reza which forms the physical and symbolic core of the holy city of Mashhad; the city map makes this clear, but last night it was beautifully obvious from the plane just before we landed, with lighted streets all converging on the huge, floodlighted complex of the shrine.
As in Qom, opinions differ on whether to admit non-Muslims at all, or only deny them access to the shrine itself, or be open and admit everyone. As a result, while we — all non-muslims — will be able to enter the complex today, it´s unsure whether we´ll be able to enter the shrine building itself. There, as usual, men and women enter in separate rooms on two sides of the shrine itself; since our local guide is male, he has organized some local women to accompany the women in our group (the majority); they brought some children as well, which supposedly makes our group look less like tourists. Unfortunately, their English isn´t very good so it´s rather hard to communicate (which in turn makes us more obvious than intended). We´re instructed to stay together, and avoid questions about whether we are muslim or not.
We enter through one of the huge courtyards, surrounded by beautiful buildings. Here and there, men and women distinguished only by the fact they carry what looks like a feather duster are standing around: they´re here to keep order (probably volunteers). Then we enter one of the older buildings, a very large hall, with a completely white stuccoed ceiling — a surprise when most Shi’ite mosques we´ve seen have ceilings covered completely in faceted mirrors. It´s beautiful here, and there´s a relaxed atmosphere with men and women sitting around quietly, children with them freely playing around them. I’d like to stay here a bit but we move on. Then another huge and beautiful courtyard, and next to it the shrine building. Here we split up. Us women enter the shrine bulding in a tight group with our guides without any problem, being given a look over by woman with a feather duster, with a smile and without comment. The scene inside is somewhat emotional, but that doesn’t surprise me, I´ve seen that before at a shrine. The women nearby are friendly, smiling, welcoming.
Then, suddenly, our guides call us: we must go out — now. Somehow, we have been spotted as non-Muslims and ordered out, apparently. Once outside, our companions tell us to sit together in a circle. A friend of one of them greets them, and they tell her (loud enough to be understood by bystanders) that we´re from the Netherlands, which probably doesn´t help our situation. Now some officials with a badge stay near us until a short man approaches and tells us to wait. We tell him that if we can´t go inside, we just want to go outside to meet our male companions at the museum. No, we must wait here, he tells us. We´re ordered to a different location on the side of the courtyard, and still we must wait. We´re worried the men of our group will be waiting for us either at the museum, or somewhere else, but we´re just not allowed to go. Finally, to our relief, the men come outside too, and find us here (guided by one of the officials). The short man, obviously in charge, wants us to come to the Foreign Visitors´ Office, to register (they want to keep statistics about vistors, he tells us) and watch a film about Islam and the Holy Shrine. None of us wants to watch a film, so after dutifully feeding their statistics we finally go out. By then, we´ve lost two of the women in our group — they apparently declined to even go into the office, but none of us knows what they planned, or whether they already left or not, so we stand around waiting for quite a while; they don´t turn up.
Finally we split up, with most of the group going on foot to the bazaar nearby, and me going back to the hotel with our bus to be back in time for my meeting.
Several weeks before this trip, I ¨met¨ a young Iranian, Mehrdad, on identica, a microblogging community. That was pure coincidence: I noticed him mentioning he lived in Mashhad and couldn´t help myself and told him I´d be in Mashhad in a few weeks. The answer was ¨wow!¨ and a suggestion it might be nice to meet. Thus an idea was born.
Gradually I found other contacts in Iran via identica, either involved in development of Free Open Source Software (FOSS), or users and evangelists of FOSS. Five of them were also members of the Mashhad Linux Users Group (Linux is an operating system, like Windows, except it´s Open Source). Since I´m involved in FOSS myself, I thought it would be nice to meet with Iranian FOSS people. In the end, it turned out too complicated to set up a meeting in every city we would visit (and our program was way too busy fro that), but Mehrdad kindly organized a meet-up in Mashhad, where according to our itinerary we would have a full day. I left the meeting time to Mehrdad; we were to meet at 19:00 which was perfect for me, since I could do almost the whole day program that way.
And so, a few minutes before seven, I sit in the lobby of our Pardis hotel; just a few minutes after, three young men walk in — I recognize Mehrdad immediately from his identica avatar: a photo of himself. Being already used to Iranian customs with respect to shaking hands (especially after our experience in Yazd), I don´t initiate any handshakes, and only one of the young men shakes my hand in greeting. The three came together because they live in another part of the city; Mohammad lives in the same neighborhood as the hotel and arrives a little later on his own. When we´re complete, Majid suddenly asks me what my age is — 59, I say, and counter that now they´ll all have to tell me their ages as well, which gives me a chance to write down their ages and names: Majid, 23; Mohammad, 24; Mehrdad, 23 and Morteza, the youngest at 22. Three of them are still studying, Majid has just graduated and will have to go into military service (for 18 months) soon; Mohammad also has a job — he´s a bit down today since he failed a very hard exam this morning.
After a little chatting about my trip, we get to ¨business¨ and I explain what I´m really interested in hearing about: how they manage here in Iran to download, contribute to and use FOSS, limited by filtering of some sites by the Iranian government on the one hand, and US export regulations on the other. That story is told elsewhere, on my development blog. They also gently grill me about my involvement in FOSS, and usage of Linux (so far mainly for websites).
When the subject is more or less exhausted, Mohammad proposes we go somewhere else to have drinks. We walk a little down the street to where he can easily flag down a taxi (he knows the neighborhood, and thus knows where to get a taxi); ¨I hope you´ll get me back to my hotel¨, I say — just joking because I´m absolutely sure the polite Iranians would not even think of not doing that. Then a car stops, and we all pile in: three of us in the back, two on the passenger seat in front. The car door on my side doesn´t have any lining, it´s practically falling apart, and the whole car is very rickety, seemingly held together with bits of wire. Nevertheless it quickly and safely takes us to another neighborhood where we get off at a corner and walk again a little down the street. I´m really enjoying this part, since we´ve only been transported by bus through the city so far — I don´t feel I´ve really ¨been¨ in a city unless I´ve walked along its streets.
They´re taking me to a juice bar. Little stores where you can buy a big glass of freshly squeezed juice are quite common in Iran, just like elsewhere in the Middle East. But this place is different, an upmarket version of these little juice shops: it´s bright and shiny, roomy, with tables and chairs to sit on, a menu with subtitles in English on each table. The choice is enormous, juices, smoothies and other fruit-based products (¨no sugar added¨) and ingredients are quite varied, too. The menu even has an email address for information, but curiously no website address (I later find they do have one though there isn’t much information there). I opt for a wheat-grass-and-banana smoothie, which turns out to be delicious. Two of the boys now send an update to identica from their mobile phones, to let others know that we´re sitting here. Over drinks we chat on about the software situation in Iran — as it turns out, quite similar to that in China with its ¨Great Firewall¨, where knowledgeable people can easily get around the blocks, and copyright still means almost nothing: for instance, you can get a copy of Windows for about one dollar here.
Drinks finished, I try to buy the round for them, but that is resolutely refused: I´m their guest, period. Then the taxi ritual is performed again, and this time a much better car takes us back to my hotel: they tell me the quality of the taxis is dependent on the neighborhood where they cruise around. Back at the hotel, I say I´d like a picture of all of us together, which poses a little problem: the two people behind the reception desk are occupied, and no one else is in view in the hall. Magically, just in time, our guide Noyan appears from the elevator: I introduce them to each other, and he willingly takes our picture: I leave the arrangement to my hosts, which turns out just a little formal. When they take their leave, I´m somewhat surprised to get three handshakes.
All in all — and impressed yet again by the hospitality of the Iranians — I enjoyed our meet-up very much, and I think the story about Open Source Software development in Iran is a story worth telling, because, indeed, Freedom matters!
Just back from fruity drinks with the Iranian guys (and not feeling particularly hungry after that), I find I´m just in time to join the group for dinner. Noyan knows nice restaurant nearby, within walking distance of the Pardis hotel, and so I get another chance to walk and ¨feel¨ the city a little. The restaurant is in a busy pedestrians-only street with lots of shops, and it´s quite lively with all shops still open and many people strolling around.
Inside, the decor is fully traditional; sometimes there is live music here, but unfortunately not this time. Some traditional instruments are standing around and Noyan tells us a little about them. Hibiscus tea is served, and there are sweets on the table: this is ¨service¨ for which they charge 30,000 rials. The main dish we pick (about 70,000) is called kashke bademjan. It´s made from roasted, peeled eggplant, pureed with various spices; this is served with a yogurt-cucumber salad, a tomato-onion-cucumber slad, some sliced raw onion and bread. I drink a doogh with it. A really delicious meal!
At the airport our bus is waiting for us; fully in style for Mashhad as an Islamic religious center, the bus is green — very green: not only green on the outside, but the curtains and lighting inside are green as well. Our driver wears a green shirt.
I can remember very little from our last time in Mashhad, except for the crowdedness of Hajj, with people picnicking outside everywhere, not just in parks, but even on the strips of green between the road lanes. That, and the inside of our hotel room, where I sat down at a little desk and Carla took a picture of me writing — but not the name of the hotel. This time, it´s not Hajj time and there aren´t such big crowds but still here and there people are picnicking (Iranians seem to like to do that). The hotel lobby has old-fashioned but rather comfortable chairs. When Carla and I inspect our room (quite roomy, but with old-fashioned furniture), we suddenly note that the little desk and the wall paneling around it, look quite familiar: the layout of the room is different, but that little hand-made desk is exactly the same shape: we must have ended up in the same hotel: the Pardis hotel.
Our flight to Tehrān is short and uneventful; now we have some time to kill before our connecting flight to Mashhad. There´s a TV on in the large waiting hall; a football match is attracting an ever-larger and more excited crowd and I amuse myself watching the (mostly) men watching the screen which I cannot see, and write a bit for my blog.
Then it´s time to check in for our connecting flight and we go through security — men and women separate as is usual in Iran. Fluids are not considered a security risk here, so you can bring your bottle of water, and the security ladies are quite friendly. One picks me out and wants me to open my hand bag — I´m not phased by that because although it didn´t happen so far on this trip, I quite often have to open bags because of the electronic equipment I´m carrying. ¨Do you have a knife?¨ she asks? ¨No, in my checked bag¨ I say. She starts to go through my bag, takes out one of the small pouches, and produces my Swiss army knife. My mouth drops open: I was absolutely sure I´d put it back in my toilet bag! I ask if I can still check it in, and Carla supports me by remarking it´s quite valuable. Then, right behind me, Madelon has exactly the same problem. The lady gives us a good look over, quickly discusses our case with (apparently) a superior, and takes us to a small office where a man sits behind a desk. For both of us he writes out a slip, puts a stamp on it, sticks one part to our boarding card, and the puts the other away with the knife. He looks reassuring. Then the lady takes us back again, and we can board the plane with the rest of our hand luggage. We´re told we´ll need the slip stuck on our boarding card to get our knives back — how, we have no idea.
When we land in Mashhad, we´re still waiting for our luggage to come off the plane when a man in a fluorescent yellow vest walks towards our group, looking around, and carrying something in his hand: I see some green-and-yellow and recognize the slip for our knives. Sure enough, he has both our knives, each neatly packaged in a transparent plastic bag. Phew!
In spite of the long trip yesterday, it was quite beautiful, and I´m glad we saw the petroglyphs hardly any traveler gets to see, so I don´t regret we gave up one day of Esfahān for that. But what´s left turns out to be much less than a day: instead of having a flight to Mashhad at 20:00 from here, we actually have a flight at 16:00 to Tehrān and fly from there to Mashhad, which means we have to leave the hotel already at 13:00. And with the very late night we had, we´re not getting up very early either. I totally give up my plan of walking along the Zāyande to the farthest bridge (a walk of at least two hours to get there): I’ll have to do that whenever I get back to Esfahān.
Before breakfast, I ask at the hotel reception desk about an Internet cafe. To my surprise, they tell me they have Wifi in the hotel lobby. I quickly get my netbook, and try. Sure enough there´s a signal: I just have to ask the receptionist for a WEP key (a password for the connection), and I´m in. I immediately log off again: I´ll check my email for any news from Mashhad when we get back. We quickly have breakfast, and head out for a walk: Carla, Uke, Ank and I.
Our first goal is the beautiful Si-o-se bridge (named after its 33 arches): beautiful as ever — but the river is not: it´s just not there any more! There is nothing more but a few small ponds of water, the swan-shaped water bikes resting sadly and uselessly on the mud. People are actually crossing the river across the bedding: it´s quite dry enough to walk on easily. What a strange sight! Since we have just a little time, we walk across the bridge, have a closer look at the river bed and the swan boats, and then walk back leisurely, taking quite a few pictures (at least I do, trying to catch the strange sight of the bridge crossing a disappeared river). We find out there hasn´t been this little water in 7 years: they closed the locks farther upriver so there would at least be water for agriculture, where it´s needed most.
From the waterless Zāyande we walk to the big Emām Khomeini square — one of the largest in the world an the most beautiful one I know. There’s no time to walk around (though I´d love to do that again): we have to pick and choose, so we go the big Emām Mosque. We walk around there, enjoying the spaces and unique tile mosaics here (with a bright yellow that really stands out and I don´t remember from anywhere else) — and then suddenly it´s 12:10 already and I have to rush off to the hotel to check my email before we leave. The good news is there is no mail from Mashhad, so our meet-up is supposed to go as planned (more about that tomorrow). The bad news is there is an email from SmugMug that my account there needs to be renewed by June 4th, and my credit card data is no longer valid so I need to update my account data: no problem — if only I had thought to bring my SmugMug password… that turns out to be the beginning of a long story that will be told in its entirety later.
We leave 15 minutes late, at 08:15, for our bus trip through Khuzestan on our way to Esfahān. The Khuzis are an old people, of which the real origin is unknown: they weren´t Persians, but not Arabic either, living in this are before either group arrived here. There are also Bakhtiari in this area, nomads who still move around with their livestock here — alas we don´t meet any. Iranian policy towards the nomads is quite liberal: they are not forced to settle down and can continue their way of life and move around, although somewhat coordinated so groups don´t hinder each other. Of course they do have to obey the law of the country and the children have to go to school: in the past there was a lot of analphabetism among them, but now young teachers (called the ¨mobile education brigade¨) are actually moving around with the nomads so the children get an education.
In a more general sense, separatism isn´t allowed, but culture and language are: for instance primary schools can teach in the Kurdish language, and the language can be studied as an extra subject at the University. There is — more or less — religious freedom, in particular with respect to the religions ¨of the book¨ (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) but proselytizing is strictly forbidden.
We make a short stop at a little restaurant on a hill beside the road, a little before Bāgh Malek, where we watch an episode in a police series — live. The police are parked beside the road and are stopping and checking cars. Right in front of our eyes, they make a catch: a car that is transporting drug (apparently we´re on a drug trafficking route here). The two men in the car are arrested, and chained to a street lamp with one pair of handcuffs binding them together. One is meek, the other tries to talk to the policemen, apparently arguing he was only a passenger — in vain. They´re in the burning sun, and get a bottle of water to drink. A while later a police pickup truck arrives: the men are put in the back and chained to the railing, and then taken away.
Around Izeh, in the The Natural-Historical Landscape of Izeh (on Iran’s “tentative list” of World Heritage sites), we admire Elamite petroglyphs at two different sites: Narsi Na (Koul Farah) and Tarisha (Ashkoft Salman). Amazingly hardly any tourist comes here, but the location is away from a little-traveled road and a long distance from Esfahān. At the second site we’re guided by a local herder who guided scientists exploring this site many years ago. Although it’s little-known, there is a lot to see, and even though the reliefs are partly badly damaged by erosion (rain, probably acid rain) they are quite impressive. We can see lines of people offering gifts to the king, quite similar to the scenes depicted at Persepolis.
Unfortunately I´m stuck partway through with an empty camera battery, with the backup far away in the bus — there´s no time to walk back and up to the rocks again.
After a leisurely picnic lunch in a little park in Izeh (eagerly watched by the locals) we continue along the mountainous road — on the right a beautiful blue-green lake that I cannot find on my maps. A little farther on, we make a photo stop, but the lake can hardly be seen from here any more. Still, it´s a beautiful view, and we stand around a little, watching and taking pictures of the landscape.
Suddenly a young man comes racing up towards us on his motor bike, stops, and walks towards our driver and guide, starting a heated discussion, pointing into the valley, and shouting at them. He´s obviously very excited — it looks as though he´s in a panic. It takes a while for us to get what is happening: what is he so excited about? It turns out he´s from the village way down in the valley (we can only just see the houses), and his womenfolk are walking around unveiled! And we (men among us) are watching that, and that´s not allowed! And we have these modern cameras, that allow us to see it all close-up, and with which we can see right through their clothes.
It takes a long while for our driver to calm him down — we never quite understand how — and finally they part as friends, embracing each other. The man gets back on his bike and drives off back to his village, while we continue our trip in the other direction.
From Izeh where we had our lunch, it was still another 330km to Esfahān — it seemed as though we had all the time in the world. But after meeting our paranoid friend (more leasure time) we pass through Dehdez, and here the mountain roads start in earnest: it´s much steeper now, with many hairpins and a maximum speed of 30km per hour; the road seems to be dangerous as well: we see skull-and-bones on warning signs along the road. Just before 20:00 it´s still another 115km to Esfahān, and the sun has disappeared behind the mountains: it´s getting dark fast.
Our tour leader Noyan tries to keep us amused by declamating old Persian poetry, and a little later he does a historical quiz (prize: a book of historical maps). But we´re all tired and grumpy, though at 22:45 the mood lifts when we see a lot of lights in the distance: obviously a big city. Esfahān? No, it´s Shahr-e Kord — still 80km from Esfahān… At least now the road gets better and we can make better speed. Still, it´s almost 02:00 when we´re finally at our hotel, and we haven´t even had dinner!
At least, for those who want it, the hotel can arrange for a light meal to be brought to our rooms: Carla and I share one: a plate with two buns, a fried egg, some cheese, and a packet of milk (next morning we find out this little snack cost 100,000 Rials: more than €7.50!). When we finally go to sleep it´s 03:00.