The border crossing into Iran goes amazingly smoothly; on the Turkish side, the bus is allowed to take us right up to the gate which is practically flush with the Iranian one at Bāzargān. After that is customs, which worried us most — for no reason as it turns out. All ladies in our group were already dressed “decently” before getting on the bus, and the rather grumpy tourism officer who receives us before the customs gate (for inspection?) actually compliments us for how we are dressed. Possibly as a result we get no baggage check at all!
We’re getting our first culture shock tonight. Since the hotel is some way outside the center of Tabriz, all twelve of us take the city bus into town to find dinner there: the bus stop is right in front of the hotel. When I tell our guide Showān that we’re going into town by bus, he’s really shocked: We can’t just do that, we might get lost, and he’s responsible for us! Well, I explain, we can just do that, we do it all the time; and we’re responsible for ourselves. When we leave, he can’t stop us, of course — but he looks decidedly unhappy.
We find that in the city buses men and women are strictly separated: women ride in the back. (There’s no such separation on long-distance busses, by the way.) The result is surprisingly positive for us ladies: we immediately have contact, many especially younger women speak some English and start chatting with us, all the while translating for the older ones. The atmosphere is a cozy one of women among each other. Also watching women in other city buses, we observe the same, we’re not just lucky in our bus: they’re chatting and laughing together — in the men’s section there’s no such atmosphere. It’s fun to ride in the back of the bus!
We take the city bus to the center of Tabriz again, and go looking for the Armenian Maryam church, near the bazaar according to our little map. We can’t find it, and when we are obviously looking around us, an older man spots us and guides us there: he guessed what we were looking for because he himself is an Armenian. The church is in the block where we were looking, but with no obvious entrance: you have to go into an alley, then turn right into another alley, then knock on an iron gate.
We’re let into the courtyard by a friendly old man, but alas the church itself, dating back to 1782, is closed, and only opened for religious holidays. He tells us a little about Armenians in Iran: they’re only a very small minority with about 250,000 people in all. Here in Tabriz there are 4 churches, and they even have an Armenian school where the children learn Armenian (which has its own script), Farsi (written in Arabic script) and English (written in Roman script). They also used to have their own newspaper here (there’s a remnant of the printing press in the garden) but now there’s an Armenian newspaper only in Tehrān. Many of the Armenians here live in the flats around the church; the buildings are owned by the church.
After our visit to the Armenian church, our next goal is the bazaar, across the square. The bazaar in Tabriz is the oldest bazaar in Iran; not only is it very large but also very beautiful. It covers one huge block, and has all covered “streets” with vaults of brickwork, and sometimes larger halls. The brickwork is intricate at times and in many places very nicely restored. Also there are 55 open courtyards, many caravansaries, and countless small passages.
A man in a green jacket approaches us and tries to guide us — which we don’t want — but we don’t find a way to get rid of him politely. Sometimes he irritatingly tells us what we can see easily with our own eyes (“this is the paper bazaar”), then again he comes with interesting facts (like the 55 courtyards). At last it transpires he wants to show us his brother’s carpet shop. We explain we won’t be able to buy anything, with still such a long trip before us but that’s fine with him - just come along for a cup of tea, he suggests; we agree.
That turns out to be a good decision — we have a very interesting conversation over tea. The older brother doesn’t speak English so our guide translates: the carpet trader travels in many countries around Iran to buy carpets and thus has a different view of the world than most Iranians. First he tells us he thinks Carla and I are overdoing it a bit, the way we are clothed (we explain we feel more comfortable this way). He also tells us that Iranians are suppressed, and have little access to information because all information sources are controlled by the government. It’s obvious he is not one of the conservative Iranians, and hopes the situation will get more liberal here. So our tour of the bazaar ends with a nice meeting — this sets the theme for our trip through Iran.
After we take our leave form the carpet seller and his younger brother, ‘Green jacket’ no longer follows us. Our next goal is a visit to the beautiful Blue Mosque of Tabriz (Masjed-e Kabud, still in the process of being restored, very expertly) and after spending quite some time there we decide to call it a day and head for the park. We find a bench in the shade and watch the locals relax. Soon a man approaches us and asks if he can talk with us; we agree and he joins us on our bench.
He turns out to be an Azeri (not all that surprisingly as we should have known: this region is actually called East Azarbaijan and many Azeris live here; Tabriz is the capital of the province). His story matches that of the Armenian at the Maryam church and the carpet seller but adds new insights. He tells us that as opposed to the very small minority of the Armenians which obviously don’t form any threat, Azeris aren’t allowed to use their own language: Turkish is forbidden here in Iran. Of course people speak it all the same (when they feel safe enough) but it’s not taught in any school and thus they can write only in Farsi.
Another surprising tidbit he tells us is that while alcohol is strictly forbidden — if you are found drinking it you may end up in prison for six months — some two million people are addicted to drugs which are easily (though not openly) available; they can go to some parks to use the drugs. Also according to him, many young people (four million) are depressed. Except at university, young men are not allowed to speak to girls, and if caught, a young man may even be forced to marry the girl in question (frankly, that sounds a bit far-fetched to us). Like the carpet seller, he brings up the point of access to information, and tells us that many people have a satellite dish, which is forbidden. A dish can be bought secretly if you know the way, and is kept indoors. At the recent elections for parliament here, when so many liberal candidates were removed from the list, only 14% of people in this region actually went to vote — partly because there was no candidate left which they wanted to vote for, partly as a form of protest. In general, it seems that while things were gradually getting more liberal before, now that’s being turned back again.
Of course we can’t check all the things he tells us, but he seems remarkably open and clearly eager to talk about the problems in his country and for the Azeri minority he belongs to. We end up staying much longer in the park than we had planned. All in all, an interesting day, even more for the people than the sites we visited.
We’re headed for Takāb today but we’re making a side trip to Kandovān first. Unfortunately, we leave much too late, and in Osku, a little before we reach Kandovān, we get another delay: there’s a big hole in the road and our “best bus in Iran” is much too large to be able to pass the hole in a bend, with the hole at one side and a steep channel at the other side. There’s nothing for it: the hole has to be filled first! The hole is part of a lot of digging going on all through the village; they’re building a natural gas pipeline here.
Kandovān is a bit touristy, but most of the tourists are from inside Iran: Kandovān is famous for its water which is supposed to have healing properties. Young couples often come here for that reason: the water is supposed to help with fertility problems.
Also interesting are the houses on the mountainside, many of them hewn into the rock so it’s always cool inside — much like similar houses in Cappadocia in Turkey. We drink tea in one of the houses and get a taste of local produce: dried apricots, plums, walnuts, almonds, and a delicious honey of which I would have liked to bring a pot home… not possible on this trip.
On the way back we see what we already feared: the hole in the road is not only back - it’s much bigger now! And of course has to be filled yet again. We’re running late…
When we finally arrive in Bonāb, to have a look at the old mosque there, our delay turns out to have been very lucky. Normally non-muslims aren’t allowed to enter this mosque, but at the moment we arrive a service is starting; a prayer service, we think. And when Jan takes a peek through the door, he’s invited in; then to our surprise then our whole group, still standing outside, are invited in. It turns out to be a funeral service. We’re allowed to sit at the side, and can watch the proceedings. One older man and his son are standing at the door - obviously the bereaved. Several young men, all dressed in black trousers and a black shirt, go round with water to spray or pour on the hands of the guests, then tea is brought, sugar, and delicious dates. Little plastic baskets stand all around on the floor for the date pips. Continuously, men come in (we see no women), sit down quietly and get served tea, then pray, and take their leave again, only then saying a few words to the bereaved at the door. Everyone sits on the floor, except a few older men who are sitting on chairs along the wall, near the mullah. And all the while the mullah is praying (it’s almost singing), sometimes answered by some of the men — it’s beautiful to listen to.
The mosque itself is superb, small and simple but with a unique wooden ceiling resting on wooden pillars; the flat ceiling is constructed and painted in a way that’s found nowhere else. So thanks to our delays we get not only a unique chance to watch the inside of this unique mosque, but at the same time experience how a funeral service is conducted. It’s one of those precious experiences that are rare even on a trip like this.
It’s very late and fully dark when via a winding road through the mountains we finally arrive at Takāb.
On the way to Sanandaj we make a visit to Takht-e Soleymān which has two attractions. One is “Suleiman’s prison” (Zendan-e Soleymān) — nothing to do with anyone’s prison but in reality an extinguished volcanic crater, and then the large citadel called (like the village) Takht-e Soleymān on top of the next mountain. Although the citadel is supposed to be very interesting, with an enclosed lake, most of us decide to skip it: we’ve seen so many citadels already! In-between the two mountains is the small Kurdish village named after the historical citadel (we’re still in Kurdish country here), to where a small group of us walk from the citadel.
First we drink tea at a tiny restaurant strategically located at the entrance of the village. We sit outside on the stoop, in the shade, and chat with a 14-year old boy helping out and the older owner (we never find out whether he’s the boy’s father or his granddad). There’s an old and very deaf grandma as well, and all three are willing subjects to have their photographs taken.
When we walk into the village, we don’t get very far - we’re almost immediately stopped by a woman who asks us to take her picture. She has a big smile with many gold teeth, and her husband, with a really beautiful old face, joins in the fun. We take many pictures of the couple. They even show us their passports (it seems they have to carry them!) with thumbprints and much younger pictures. Although we don’t share a word in any language, we manage to find out the couple have seven sons. They’re very nice and companionable together — I hope that will somehow be visible in the photographs!
Ten meters on we’re invited into a house where men are building an annexe — for the eldest daughter, it turns out later, who’s married to one of the men doing the building; she just had her first baby. Inside, we’re invited to drink tea, and watch the three daughters work on knotting a carpet stretched on a huge loom. It must take very long to make a carpet as big and intricate as they are making, even with three working on it. A little later, the men take a break from their building to have an early lunch (early for us, that is, but they probably started early in the day). We get a taste as well: flat, tasty bread, butter, yogurt, three kinds of cheese, all locally produced. And a little riddle is solved: we’d already often been served tea, with sugar for those who wanted is, but without a spoon to stir. That’s not the way they take their sugar here: the men take a sugar lump into their mouth, pour some of the tea from the glass into the dish, and drink it from there, ‘around’ the sugar. We also take many photographs of the family at their work.
Then the bus is hooting: it’s still a long way to Sanandaj; we never make it farther into the village.
In an Internet cafe (“coffee net”) in Sanandaj, trying to send one item to the site, I’m getting into trouble. For some reason, my mail does not seem to arrive at all. This post is a test, really: if this doesn’t arrive either, I’m giving up for today.
We head for the mosque first, of which we had a glimpse when we walked through Sanandaj last night to watch the people shopping: the streets were busy on a Thursday evening. But today it’s Friday so naturally most stores are closed and it’s very quiet. Behind the old mosque a new prayer hall is being built; Carla and I aren’t allowed in there (Thom tells us later it’s very beautiful), so the two of us head for the women’s prayer hall to the side. Since it’s Friday, prayers are in progress — one woman praying aloud for a group, all in a row closely together. Normally non-muslims aren’t allowed in during prayers but we’re welcomed warmly all the same: we’re waved in, smiled at, and several women bring one or two hands to their eyes: a symbolic greeting we later find out means something like “you are more precious than my eyes.” We sit down at the side for a while, and watch and listen to the proceedings quietly. After a while, one of the women spots Thom waiting outside and points to him; after we take our leave, several women even wave us goodbye from behind the windows.
After lunch in a pizza restaurant in Sanandaj (you’re supposed to put ketchup on a pizza in Iran but I prefer mine without…) we head for the area where most Internet cafes are (they’re called “coffee net” here). We’re hoping to find one that’s actually open on Friday since we found out yesterday most will be closed today. With the help of two young men who walk us half way there when we ask for directions, we do indeed find one. It turns out to be the hardest Internet access experience so far: Internet Explorer is intermittently taken over by casino and sex sites (sex dialers sit on the desk top as well) — and then after I finally manage to send an email I can’t see the result on the travel blog site. I suspect a proxy server is serving the first-retrieved page from a cache: no amount of clearing IE’s cache, history or forced reload makes any difference. I try several times but can’t find any other reason why my mail doesn’t appear. After three tries I give up and write a short note about the problems (which also doesn’t appear though it should) - hoping my first Internet experience in Iran isn’t predictive for the rest.
Reports that sex sites are all filtered out in Iran by state-controlled proxies are definitely missing something… it’s not hard to reach them at all — in this “coffee net” it’s hard to avoid them!
Because most of Iran is taken up by deserts and otherwise dry areas, greenery and parks are very precious to the Iranians. Everywhere we see little parks and green strips of well-tended grass along the road sides (or in the middle between lanes) where people sit with their study books or play a game of chess. Especially on a Friday evening, the many parks here in Sanandaj are alive with young people strolling, old people sitting and watching, families picnicking, barbecuing and playing, and sellers of corn roasted on charcoal doing good business.
We sit down at a table with an Iranian ‘beer’ (a non-alcoholic drink not really tasting like beer, but refreshing and not sweet like fresh drinks) and watch it all. A man and his daughter come crossing the road, heading for the kiosk where we bought our drinks; the girl stops and stays behind to watch us while her father goes on to buy a snack. She tries to talk to us, but of course we don’t understand Farsi — something that obviously amazes her. She never met people like that before. The girl, at a guess about 12 years old, keeps trying to make herself understood; when a few passing boys shout “Hello!” at us she picks up on that clue and tries “hello” as well — that works! Then she comes up with “I love you” which I answer with “I love you, too” — she’s a really lovable girl and trying so hard to communicate with more than just a smile! That exhausts her English though and she tries Farsi again. After some more failed attempts at communicating in that language she gives up and runs to her dad to tell of her experience. We see him listen to her, and obviously telling her to try some more but sensibly he stays in the background. The girl is still fascinated, and indeed comes back to us. Behind her big brown eyes her brain is visibly grinding … even the most simple sentences and words she tries, carefully enunciated for our benefit, are not understood. How can that be?
Suddenly I remember I happen to have a Lonely Planet in my bag so I take it out to see if it has something about Farsi. That works. Now she reads aloud the “common signs” written in Farsi, and together we can go over the counting words listed, and a few other words. As a result, one little girl in Iran has learned today that there are actually people who don’t understand Farsi (but can learn) and I have learned to say “goodbye” in Farsi. With a friendly (though not completely accurate) “Khodāfez!” we leave and walk back to our hotel.
On our way to Hamedān we make a stop at Kermānshāh to visit Taq-e Bostan (“Shelter of God”) near Bisotun where one can see splendid reliefs and some architectural remains from the Sassanid era. The reliefs are in their original location, hewn from the rock wall, and depict kings and gods of the Sassanids, such as Mithra (recognizable by the sun rays around his head), a tree of life (acanthus leaves), hunting scenes showing elephants used to flush the deer from their shelter, a female deer with a ribbon round her neck used to attract the males, and a hunting goddess (the equivalent of the Greek Artemis). It’s one of the best examples of ancient Persian art.
While at the Taq-e Bostan site, we meet some unexpected foreign visitors: four Iraqis who are biding their time in Iran (fled “under the fire” as they say) until the situation in Iraq has quieted down; two are from Bagdad, two from Najaf. They’re quite explicit that the situation under Saddam Hussein was bad, but that now, under the Americans it’s still bad.
We chat with them for a few minutes - it’s remarkable how different they are from Iranian men: just as friendly, but very open and direct. When one remarks he hopes to be able to return to Iraq in two months, and I reply “Inshallah!” he says: “You’re my friend!” and gives me a hand — something an Iranian man wouldn’t dare (or even think of) — and Carla makes friends with another man who’s a teacher, like her. Before we leave they have to make pictures of all of us together and each with their newly-made friends.
Our next stop is at Kangāvar, halfway between Hamedān and Kermānshāh, where we (or at least some of us) visit the site of the Anahita temple. Only a few pillars are left to stand now, but the outlines of the original buildings can still be seen. The whole complex was burnt at the Arabian invasion - some ashes from that disaster were found by archaeologists. Of the largest building, which originally had 48 pillars, a few still stand: impressively heavy, more than a meter thick, but only some 4 meters high, with a square undecorated capitol. Walls built from small stones were Sassanid, ones with large blocks are from the Parthian period.
Anahita was a fertility goddess. The whole site is unique for several reasons: because it’s the first temple built for a goddess but also because the Zoroastrians for the first time built one of their fire temples next to that of a goddess here.
The hotel in Hamedān is inconveniently far outside the town center - and there’s a big thunderstorm when we arrive. Carla and I decide to stay in the hotel; inside practically every surface except the floor is covered in faceted mirrors, with glaring white lights in-between: truly dazzling. I attempt to catch the glitter in a photograph — it’s hard to know how that will turn out: glaring lights tend to confuse my camera’s light meter…
Another surprise: for the first time in Iran we see ladies behind the reception desk.
Through a beautiful landscape of rounded mountains with wide, fertile plains and valleys in-between and snow-capped mountains far to the south, we ride to Qom, a holy city for Shi’ite Muslims. Surprisingly, there are very few trees in this fertile area; the ones we see are clearly planted: some poplars (construction wood), and orchards with nuts and fruit trees. After we pass Arāk the landscape changes and becomes less fertile but now there are more trees — strange.
In Qom we stop to visit the Hazrat-e Masumeh complex: a very large complex around the holy shrine of Fatima (Fatima al-Masumeh, sister of Emām Reza (789-816AD), who died and was buried here in 816 AD. The first buildings date back to the Safavid era, started in the early 17th century under Shah Abbas I (1587-1629) and extended during later rulers. The complex comprises a large mosque with three inner courtyards, each in its own style, and many other buildings, most dating back to the 17th century but new ones are still being added.
Usually non-Muslims aren’t allowed in, and all women have to wear a chador but we’re very lucky today: our guide Showān manages to arrange that we’re allowed in anyway and (after a short inspection of us ladies to see if we’re decently clothed, which we are!) even without a chador. To promote international relationships, we’re received in the office of the Mullah, an obviously very intelligent and sympathetic man who welcomes us warmly, tells us something about the complex (we all get a picture and a brochure as well), asks some questions of us (like what’s the most surprising or new thing we’ve seen in Iran — veiled women —, what made us decide to visit Iran, etc.) and invites us to ask questions of our own. The complex is being restored at the moment, and he tells us it will take several more years to complete; when I remark that I hope to once come back to Iran and see it again in its full glory, he answers he wishes that for me, too. If we make a wish here, he says, no matter if we are Muslim or not, the wish will come true. He answers our questions subtly and politely; clearly a deeply religious man without being extremist — a man who commands respect.
Part of the complex is a school where people from all over the world come to study to become a mullah: a basic study of 6 years, and another 10 years to become fully qualified (10 years in all if you study very, very hard); there are 92,000 students per year, 18,000 of them from foreign countries, including from Europe. Also part of the complex is a kitchen, normally catering to the personnel but on Wednesday and Friday evenings food is distributed to the poor; there’s a small hospital as well for those who are sick and clearly too poor to pay for medical help.
After the visit to the Mullah, we’re allowed to walk around for 20 minutes in the courtyards (but not enter the buildings); from the third courtyard we can actually see a glimpse of the shrine though. Today is a special day — the anniversary of the death of Fatima, I think — and we see Pilgrims from many countries, Arabs and Pakistani clearly recognizable by their clothes, Shi’ites pounding their breast as a sign of mourning. I feel really privileged to be allowed to witness all this and experience the deeply religious atmosphere — something we have mostly lost in the Western world. I won’t be able to share my photographs though: they’re all just pictures in my head since (understandably) photography is not allowed here.
After arrival in Kāshān we go out for dinner in the Delpazir restaurant, which to our surprise is run by Jane, an English woman. She married an Iranian 12 years ago and came to live here. When we ask how she likes it here, she says: “I love it! I’m well respected.” Seeing her at work, it’s obvious she enjoys it, too. The restaurant serves traditional Iranian dishes; I try fesenjan, rice with chicken in an absolutely delicious sauce made of ground walnuts and (slightly sweetened) pomegranate; Jane tells us that in the Caspian Sea region the sauce is more sour than here.
Unusually, our Iranian guide Showān had accompanied us for dinner in the Delpazir restaurant in Kāshān. After dinner, a conversation between him and our travel companion Marie Josee ensues (with Thom and me listening and sometimes prompting). Marie Josee, a very independent woman and capable travel companion, and Showān, a well-educated Iranian (but maybe raised somewhat traditionally) working as a guide to help finance his studies, had had a personality clash right from the first moment they met; now, they’re really talking for the first time, and Showān tells us what he’d wanted not to bother us with at first.
Just before we arrived in Iran, new rules set by the government required each group to be accompanied by a guide (we certainly hadn’t asked for one, and Marie Josee had actually wanted to “fire” him). His brief was that he was responsible for us, for our safety, and that we didn’t take any photographs of military objects. The problem is that we’re independent travellers, travelling ‘with’ a group rather than ‘in’ a group — something Showān had never encountered before, but the standard for the trips organized by Koning Aap Reizen (Monkey King Travels). It was already clear to us he always tried to stay with us and keep us together; at one time the group actually decided to get rid of him for once by splitting up and all go in different directions at the same time — unwittingly making Showān’s job very difficult for him. He actually had clear instructions (from the government, by proxy of his travel agency) to keep us together. Already on the very first evening, in Tabriz, he found this was impossible to do.
On the third day, so he tells us now, he’d called his boss to explain it was impossible to keep us together, but also that he found us really interested travellers and would like to stay with us. That evening, a meeting took place in Tehrān at the highest level: the minister of tourism, a man from the tourism bureau, and someone from the travel agency (Showān’s employer); the meeting lasted three hours. Finally, Showān did get ‘permission’ to ‘let us loose’ (not that he had any choice, but at least they’d acknowledged that); but he was told he’s still responsible for us not to photograph any military objects and for our safety (how is he going to handle that when we spread out over each city and town we visit?). The decision eased the situation for him only partly, and he’s still in a conundrum; if anything goes wrong, that will likely destroy his chance to go to abroad next year to continue his studies as he’s hoping to do: it’s not just his job on the line but his future as well.
On the other hand, not having encountered people before who travel like we do, he had decided to try an experiment to find out what it’s like: walk around a strange city, without help, without speaking the language, without even a map. In Sanandaj we’d encountered him together with driver Mohammed and assistant Ali, proudly telling us: “We do what you do!” We had no clue what he meant then but now it’s suddenly clear — and he confesses he actually didn’t manage to find the way back without help. Of course, that’s something you have to learn through practice but we’re impressed he actually tried this to get a feel for how we travel.
Showān also still has to report back where we are each day, and what we do — we have no problem with that — and Marie Josee has a solution: she’ll just give him the same photocopies with city information she gives us: that way he can ‘report’ without even trying to baby-sit us.
Of course in one conversation personalities and personal backgrounds don’t change. But at least now there’s a truce and mutual understanding. Showān has a difficult job to do, and his future is at stake as well…
After a visit to the beautiful Kāshān bazaar (with a mosque that to our disappointment — and that of the mullah who arrived just before us — turns out to be closed), the three of us head for the area where there are a few restored old houses. The first we find is the ‘Abassian historical complex’. Dating back to the 19th century, it’s still in the process of being carefully restored to its full glory but it’s already very beautiful. One enters the building on what turns out to be the floor above ground level — the building has three levels in all; rooms are arranged around two large courtyards and one smaller one. Everywhere is very “Iranian” stucco with intricate floral designs; in one room is a unique ceiling of white plaster, with small decorations made of mirrors in the shape of a sun, stars and trees with birds in it; in several other rooms are superb stained-glass windows.
The complex boasts several badgirs: ‘wind towers’ that function as a natural, passive kind of air conditioning: at the top openings all around catch the lightest breeze and create a draft that pulls up warm air from inside, so it’s always cool. The badgirs here are not just excellent examples, but one can also see in the rooms the air inlets and conduits so it becomes clear how this ingenious mechanism works. We will see many examples of badgirs, typical Iranian desert architecture; they’re not just used in houses but also for cooling communal water cisterns.
On the way to Yazd we make a little side trip to Abyāneh — after the desert the river valley is in a surprisingly green: the village grew up in this oasis. Abyāneh is architecturally interesting, with all houses facing south to catch most of the sun during the very cold winters, overhanging bay windows in the second floors and all houses reddish in color as a result of the red mud used for plastering the walls. Still I find the visit somewhat disappointing: it’s become a museum village with a population thinned out by migration of those with a good education to Tehrān and other big cities, leaving behind only old people who try to make a living selling handicrafts to tourists. In winter, when there are no tourists, only a few hundred people actually live here. It just doesn’t feel like a ‘real’ village.
We arrive a little before dinner time in Yazd; Thom, Carla and I are not all that hungry, so we make do with some fruit that we find in one of the shopping streets. After ‘dinner’, Thom and I go out to find a “coffee net”; the place we’re directed to turns out to be a backpackers’ hotel near the Akmir Chakhmagh complex. There’s a single, slow computer with a slow connection used also for the hotel administration — visitors (even non-guests) can use it though (for a reasonable fee). Other than slowness, there’s no problem and I manage to catch up a little of my travel journal backlog.
Meanwhile Thom chats with two boys from the hotel — I don’t follow it all since I’m busy typing but it sounds like they’re talking about subjects like the difference between religion and culture. When I’m finished and we want to leave, it becomes clear what one of the subjects really was: Thom had explained that shaking hands (specifically a man not shaking a woman’s hand) is not something to do with religion: Muslims in other countries do it; friends kissing each other in greeting or to say goodbye is similarly cultural and occurs in different cultures (we do that, but it’s not done here). Now, the boys, one bold, one shy, want to try how one says goodbye in our culture! Bold shakes Thom’s hand, and then my hand without even blinking but after Shy shakes my hand he quickly withdraws it — as if he burned his hand. Then comes the friendly goodbye kiss - we’re friends, after all, after chatting for over two hours… Now Bold gets less bold and wants to ‘practice’ with Thom first while Shy gets more bold and kisses me goodbye (one friendly peck on each cheek). After that it’s Bold’s turn (he gets three). For us, something that would be quite normal taking leave of our friends, for them it’s really shocking to shake hands with a woman and touch cheeks — even when that woman is old enough to be their mother. It makes me wonder how young men grow up here: they can’t really learn to handle emotions of affection or friendship with a woman — what will happen when they’re finally ready to get married?
We have to be let into the hotel by the night watchman when we return at quarter to midnight.
First priority this morning in Yazd is changing money - I’ve already borrowed some from Thom and Carla. So we head for the old town where the bank should be near the mosque and next to the post office. According to our city information, it’s very easy to get lost in the old town — and getting lost is exactly what we do. Not a real problem: the old town is quite beautiful and reminds me somewhat of the old town of Bukhara with its network of alleys and mud-plastered walls. When we finally find ourselves in a ‘real’ street again we find we weren’t even far off: we actually already passed the back of the Jame mosque (I even took a picture without realizing it was this mosque) and once we’re in the right street, the post office is easy to find — but where is the bank?? After walking up and down the street and asking several times we find we walked passed it at least twice already: the bank building is on the corner and they’ve just built a new wing; they are now renovating the main building - meanwhile neither building has a sign this is the bank!
We have to practically walk through a building site to get to the money-changing desk in the new wing. Changing money is a complicated affair with three forms, showing your passport, signatures and stamps, and then going back down to the other building to do the actual exchange at the cashier’s. While working through all the forms the bank employee who helps us chats with us a bit and tells us they actually do a lot of business with people from the Netherlands: Iran is importing a lot of seeds from seed growers in the Netherlands, such as for cucumber and carrots.
The Jame mosque, of which we already had a glimpse, turns out to be one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, with splendid tile work. It’s also a nice, cool space and we see how several students take advantage of this and sit around on the carpets and against the tiled walls with their study books.
Near the Jame mosque we already noted a sign pointing to the “Y@zd Internet Cafe” and that’s where Carla and I head this afternoon (this time without getting lost). It’s only a small room with two machines though - both occupied. One of the young men we ask says to come with him, he’ll bring us to another room; he takes us inside the gates of the mosque, then to a side entrance where there turns out to be a library with a room next to it housing several computers where students can work. The machines are modern, with Windows XP, and the connection is reasonably fast, too — much better than in the backpacker’s hotel here in Yazd where we worked last night. First I help Carla to send an email, then I start typing away my backlog while Carla waits outside, shops, and later brings me a very welcome fruit juice: just what I needed since no drinks are sold here.
On the way back from the Internet in the Mosque in Yazd we see again what we saw somewhere else before without knowing what we saw: white stuff scooped into a plastic cup, eaten with a spoon. It’s not ice (which Carla can’t eat I and I don’t like). We decide to try it when the friendly vendor explains: plastic cups stand ready with sugar syrup in it; into that the mysterious white stuff is scooped, then rosewater, a lump of ice, and some poppy seeds are added to it. “Stir” he says, when he hands us our spoons. We sit down at a long table where several women are already sitting, amused to see us trying something new. It’s delicious!
Later, we learn this specialty of this region is called faludeh and can be served with variations: lime juice instead of poppy seeds (fresh or from the ubiquitous bottles here since lime juice is used in many dishes), or flavored with saffron instead of rosewater. We’re immediately addicted to it: it’s a very refreshing snack, and not as sweet or sticky as ice. Something to try to make at home!
After a nice ride through — again — a beautiful landscape (with many pistachio orchards in this region) we arrive around lunch time in Kermān. The idea was to have lunch in a restaurant in the bazaar here where live music is performed in the afternoons. Alas, today is the anniversary of the day Emām Khomeiny died: an official day of mourning and nearly everything (official buildings, museums, most shops, even many restaurants) is closed — including the restaurant we wanted to go to.
We spread out in the Vakil bazaar, some in search of the ingredients of our picnic lunch tomorrow, others in search of lunch. Carla and I find a good sandwich at a small shop near the main entrance of the bazaar and then walk back to have a good look around. Although small, it’s one of the most beautiful bazaars I’ve seen so far in Iran with wide vaulted ceilings from brickwork, some plastered; some domes even have frescoes inside, including a very interesting one at the entrance of the Ganj Ali Khan Hammam museum (closed today, of course) depicting many bizarre animals (like an elephant with mouse ears taking a man between its pointed predator teeth) and elaborate hunting scenes. Opposite the museum is the large rectangular Ganj Ali courtyard, a beautiful space with much greenery and at the end a medressa which is being restored (no entry).
In spite of regulations, some shops in the bazaar are open anyway and some vendors sit around in front of closed shops (some shopkeepers probably can’t afford to close up for a day and this seems to be tolerated). There’s a very nice atmosphere here; people are nice and friendly, too. We also note many with Pakistani clothes (though for all we know they might be Afghans - it can be hard to tell the difference). Although the bazaar in Tabriz is very beautiful, too, and this one is much smaller, I actually like this one better with its unique frescoes in the domes.
Originally, an excursion to Bam was on the program for today but since the earthquake last December that’s obviously off: we’re not into ‘disaster tourism’, the citadel is practically destroyed for now (we saw some shocking before-and-after photographs) and anyway we’d just be in the way while they’re rebuilding.
Instead, we go to Rāyen, a much smaller town south of Kermān, with a citadel much in the style of Bam, though naturally also much smaller. As with historical sites all over Iran, they’re busily restoring it. The outer wall, seemingly in good shape anyway, is fully reconstructed — using fired brick where the mud brick was missing in a few places — and the public-facing walls are already nicely plastered again. Inside there are several buildings; the restoration of the castle is also well advanced (the living spaces in the same style as the historical houses we saw in Kāshān), as is a small mosque. Elsewhere, only the outlines of buildings are indicated with low mud-plastered walls. At some unfinished buildings it’s interesting to be able to see how a domed roof is constructed on a square plan with nothing but adobe brick.
Many tours that would originally have gone to Bam are now coming here but Rāyen hasn’t quite adapted yet — but maybe they don’t want to? Apparently most tour buses just go up to the gate of the citadel and leave immediately after the visit. We go in search of a cup of tea instead but we can’t find a cup of tea anywhere in the village (rare in Iran) but a bottle of Iranian Cola and some chairs the shop owner lends us to sit on makes up for that — we even get some bread with it. A little farther on we find a simple but beautiful shrine in a small building with a nicely-tiled dome. Then it’s time to leave.
The plan was to have our picnic lunch in the historical gardens in Māhān but when we arrive there we find them closed (whether that’s still because of mourning for Mr. Khomeiny or simply because it’s Friday does not become clear). The pleasant little park in front of the entrance is already full of picnicking families and we’re lucky to find a place in the half-shade. Curiously, the Iranian family next to us look at us but don’t attempt to make contact. Is is because we’re in a large group now?
After lunch we visit the beautiful mausoleum for Shah-Nemat-ollah-Vali, one of the great gnostics of Iran. Not all of us enter the building housing the shrine itself but both outer courtyards, with a wealth of flowers and shade trees around a central pond are quite beautiful. The shrine building also has a beautiful tiled dome and minarets but they are actually hard to see through the trees!
On the way to Shirāz, a very long trip today, we pass several large salt lakes. Just past Neyriz where the road winds through the mountains over two passes, there’s a beautiful view of enormous Lake Bakhtegān (Daryācheh-ye-Bakhtegān) and we stop for pictures. A wide fringe of the lake is white with encrusted salt which is mined here — before we stopped we saw many large sheds and big piles of white salt.
Further on, some 20 km before Shirāz, we make another stop near teh much smaller Lake Mahārlu where the road comes near the shore. A couple of avocets are feeding in the shallow water near the shore, but fly up when we approach over the salt-encrusted mud. Salt is mined at this lake, too (at the south end) though at a much smaller scale than at Lake Bakhtegān.
The bazaar in Shirāz is nice and roomy, with vaulted brick ceilings much as we’ve seen elsewhere but wider and higher (so it’s cool); shops are larger, too. The effect is quite pleasant and relaxed, though it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of streets and alleys. Inside the bazaar is the Vakil mosque where Carla and I go first. It’s not in use at the moment, seemingly having been neglected for a long time: we see the brick and tile work is quite dilapidated in places, and plants grow between the stones in the courtyard. But (of course) they’re hard at work with the restoration. The building dates from 1773 but most of the present tile work was added in 1820 — the strange result can best be seen in the courtyard with two styles mixed together but alas not quite in harmony: styles and colors clash. At the back of the courtyard is a large open prayer hall that’s quite nice though with its many thick and spiraled stone pillars.
When we stand looking around in the prayer hall, suddenly a man approaches us asking whether we speak German (we do) and then if we speak English (as well); his son speaks better English, he explains, but actually his English is quite good. It turns out the family (father, mother and son) are back in Iran for a visit after having fled the country 16 years ago, first to Germany where they lived for many years, then on to Canada where they live now and where the son is studying tourism. Part of the reason for the visit is a study trip for the son: he may be wanting to take tour groups here. Their view of Iran, after 16 years outside the country, forms an interesting contrast with that of other Iranians we spoke to: many people here mention the lack of information and a move back lately from earlier more relaxed rules while this family (father and mother) takes a longer-time view and note that people actually have it better than when they left; there’s more and better food and other goods, and it’s more relaxed now than it was then.
Hopefully this longer-term trend, even though it’s three steps forward, two steps back, will continue.
After the mosque we want to visit the Madrasseh-e Khan, which we find only with the help of some Shirāz locals (it’s also in the easy-to-get-lost-in bazaar, and the map in the Lonely Planet is useless — as they are for many bazaars). Normally the public isn’t let in in this Madrassa since this is a functional religious school but after a chat with a nice young Mullah at the entrance we just walk in and aren’t stopped.
Young men sit around with study books, and at the end of the courtyard is an open hall where many Mullahs sit together in a circle for a group discussion. The tile work of the building, almost baroque in style with its many floral patterns, is superb and because here it’s all from the same (Safavid) period, forms a more balanced whole than that in the Vakil mosque. The courtyard is a beautiful space, too, with a small central pond and many shade trees and orange trees and flowers: a very pleasant place to study!
In the afternoon Carla and I cross the river over an old bridge; the river is nearly dry most of the year, flowing through Shirāz and ending in Lake Mahārlu. It’s nearly dry now, but looking at the high walls along the river it must hold a lot of water at times. Just across the bridge is a small mosque with a beautiful dome in the shape of a tulip bulb, covered with intricate tile work. Of the mosque itself (Emāmzādeh-ye Ali Ibn-e Hamze) virtually all of the original 10th century structure has disappeared as a result of both earthquakes and successive repairs and additions but the nicely spaced forecourt is different in that it’s almost completely paved with old gravestones, some very beautiful — we’ve never seen this anywhere else.
As we’ve learned to recognize in Bonāb, a funeral service is obviously in progress as we enter the courtyard - with a difference: the women take part here as well, and we’re invited into the women’s room. It’s quite crowded there, and we hardly find a place to sit without sitting in front of others. Inside, the ceiling is completely covered with small mirrors, giving a dazzling effect. Similar to the funeral service at Bonāb, refreshments are served; here we get dates (filled with nuts and covered in coconut) and lemonade. We’re quite welcome, but leave soon since we’re obviously physically in the way in the crowded space.
Today we make an excursion to Takht-e Jamshid, a huge complex of palaces started by king Darius I in about 512 BC and completed by a range of successive kings (Xerxes among them) over a period of 200 years. It was originally called Pārsā but is better known to us by the name Persepolis which is what the Greeks called it when they invaded and destroyed the city in 331 BC.
We leave Shirāz already at six in the morning, hoping to be at the site at seven, when the light should be good. We are - but alas they can’t open up for us: official opening time is 7:30 and the guard doesn’t have a key. It’s 7:45 before we’re actually inside. As a result, the famous reliefs on the Apadama staircase, now protected by a roof, are half in the shadow already: it’s obvious that at seven the light would have been much better, the sun is too high in the sky already now…
On the site as a whole, some pillars still stand, and parts of gateways with sculptures and reliefs but I’m most fascinated by the reliefs found on almost every upright surface; while many are damaged there’s still a lot in very good condition. Almost all of them depict long lines of people from all parts of the huge Persian empire coming to pay tribute to the king. If you know what to look for, the various nations can be recognized by their clothing, hair and beard (all are men) and attributes. Easy to spot are the Persians with a straight hat and the Medians with a round cap; I think I also spot a Phrygian hat - and there are many more. All these people seem to be walking with the visitor as it were, along the same corridors, and actually climbing the same stairs; sometimes two abreast - a surprising bit of perspective in the otherwise ‘flat’ scenes. Other reliefs show the king (or maybe a prince) controlling a bull or a lion. The capitals of the pillars are often two-headed figures such as eagles, lions or bulls.
Overlooking the site is the tomb of Artaxerxes II, hewn out from the face of the mountain and also decorated with beautiful reliefs. I climb up to there (ignoring my protesting knees) and see my effort rewarded with a beautiful view - hopefully caught in the panorama photograph I make from there.
The whole complex is enormous and very impressive. Interestingly, the actual use of these palaces is not quite known, whether they were lived in, or used only for ceremonial purposes. What is obvious though is that this city in its time must have been a stunning symbol of power and wealth.
Today we have a long travel day from Shirāz to Esfahān but we make a little side trip to Pāsārgād (Pasargadae). When we arrive at the Tomb of Cyrus just after the entrance to the site, a surprise awaits us: the field behind the tomb is crowded with people with cameras, parasols, much electronic equipment, even a satellite antenna and there’s a lot of rather nervous activity… what’s going on here?
A friendly bearded man with a NASA t-shirt explains the situation. The t-shirt isn’t fake: he’s actually an Englishman working for NASA in the US, visiting here with a team for a very special occasion: today (in fact, in 5 minutes!) there will be a Venus transit: the planet Venus passing in front of the sun causing a very small eclipse. Everyone is busy calibrating their equipment to be ready for when it really starts in a few minutes; Venus’ trip across the Sun’s surface will take 5 hours. This is indeed a unique event: in astronomical time it happens more often of course but no one alive today has ever experienced this.
The people here are mostly astronomy amateurs but some real science is taking place (astronomy is one branch of science where it’s not unusual for amateurs to cooperate with the pros and make some real contributions): when Venus will be fully in front of the Sun the light as it passes through Venus’ atmosphere will be measured: since the composition of this atmosphere is known, the resulting data will help with interpreting measurements of other distant solar systems with planets as they are observed.
The NASA man tells us that astronomy is quite popular in Iran; last night they were visiting in a town nearby which has the largest astronomy club with 1000 members - in a town with a population of 10,000! The club is building their own observatory and the NASA team made a donation of some equipment; they had a wonderful evening with 500 people turning up for the event!
We get a few special ‘sun glasses’ so we can see with our own eyes the small black dot made by Venus on the face of the Sun.
Then we leave to actually see the rest of the Pāsārgād site. The city was begun under Cyrus the Great (Kouroush) in about 546 BC but was superseded by Persepolis after Cyrus’ death. It’s located at the very center of what is now Iran but also then the Persian empire, in the middle of the fertile plains of the Fars province. Remains of the city are quite scattered and not as well preserved as those at Persepolis; we make a tour along the various ruins with our bus.
On the way here, the fertility of this area was obvious, with endless grain fields interspersed with occasional smaller fields with other crops (such as rice); through the open roof of the bus entered a summery scent of ripening grain.
At the end of the afternoon we arrive in Esfahān; our hotel is conveniently located both for the city center and for the river which has several old bridges which I must see. Carla and I decide to walk to the Emām Khomeini square - the place I dreamed about before visiting Iran.
The square, with 500 x 160 m one of the largest in the world, is a sublime example of town planning - it dates back to 1612 and was designed and built as a whole. In spite of its huge size it’s a very pleasant space, surrounded by galleries, some mosques and a palace. It’s all at a very human scale: you don’t feel small here, you just experience a large but pleasant space around you.
At this time, in the early evening, the warm sunlight is still on the square, and it’s lively with people strolling, picnicking, flirting, biking, playing in the pond with its many fountains, taking a ride around the square in a horse-drawn buggy. While Carla goes off to have a look at the shops, I just sit on a bench for a while, feeling the space and drinking in the atmosphere, completely happy to finally be here — and just sit.
Later, we chat a bit with a woman (wearing a nice shawl around her head) who asked where we come from - as many Iranians do. She lives in the US now and is visiting, but originally she’s from Esfahān - here to show the city to her two young daughters. When we say goodbye, she touches my Aussie hat and says: “I love your cover-up; better than mine!”
Back to the Emām Khomeini square this morning with Thom and Carla. It has a different atmosphere in the morning, not just because of the morning light: the fountains are off now and most people are at work instead of relaxing after hours. It’s still just as stunning.
We pay a visit to the Emām mosque, at an oblique angle to the square because it was built angled to Mecca. Built over a period of 26 years and finished in 1638 it’s a superb example of the Safavid building style: it’s completely covered (both inside and out) with glazed tiles in the yellow and light blue specific for Esfahān, with accents in a surprising light green color I’ve not seen anywhere else. I spend nearly a whole film trying to capture the splendor (knowing I won’t even approach what I’m seeing but trying anyway). Although the intricate and sometimes playful patterns are very ‘Iranian’ in their curly complexity, I like this a lot better than the almost ‘Rococo’ flowery style of the early 19th century seen in the Vakil mosque in Shirāz.
Esfahān is famous not only for its Emām Khomeini square, but also for its bridges over the the Zāyande river. Late afternoon, with the sun sinking and just at the right angle, Carla and I walk to the Sī-o-Se bridge which is so named because of its 33 arches (sī-o-se means 33 in Farsi). This pedestrian bridge was built in 1602; double arches on two levels give it a remarkable style and texture, enhanced in the late light, and always provide some shade regardless where the sun is. We admire it first from the northern shore of the Zāyande river, with the huge fountain and ‘swan’ water bikes in front, then experience it by walking all across it. On both sides of the river are parks with shaded walking paths, another area where a lot of people come to relax and play after work.
Of course, being a real bridge nut, I take a lot of pictures of the huge bridge and its surroundings. Afterwards, we sit on a low wall at the river shore with a (non-alcoholic) beer and a bag of chips, just watching and enjoying the sunset.
Looking at the map of the city, I had reasoned that the bridges for which Esfahān is famous should be at their best in the early morning or evening, with a low sun at the best angle. So: we get up at 5:30 am and at precisely 6 walk out of the hotel. The streets are very quiet now (it’s no longer risky to cross the street) and you can hear the birds singing. I always love to see a city before it fully wakes up.
We walk to the Zāyande river and then left (East) along the northern shore. People are walking along the paths to their work, others are jogging or doing gymnastics. At 7 we’re just past the Khāju bridge which was built to double as a dam (the square notches that once held the sluice doors are still visible) and has nice 17th century paintings and tile work. We’re just in time: the light is indeed very beautiful. Unfortunately at the moment you can only walk along the bottom of the bridge: they’re reconstructing one of the ramps to the upper level. Under the bridge is a long row of arches: you can look through all the way to the other end of the bridge. At the other end a number of men are sitting; nearby others are doing gymnastics. We walk across and find out the men at the end are the public for a man who’s singing — a capella, taking advantage of the acoustics of the stone arches. He has a good voice and sings classical Iranian songs; the songs are full of emotion, a bit like Portuguese fado, although we can’t of course understand the text. When he stops after a while, another man under the next arch takes over, and we walk on.
We want to continue our Esfahān bridge tour along the southern shore of the Zāyande river by passing under the Sī-o-se bridge and discover there’s a chaikhana (tea house) here. So we order a pot of tea and sit down on a small bench under one of the arches. After a little while, a young man sits down across from us and starts talking to us. He’s a writer, he tells us, and has written five books but can’t get them published here (why, remains unclear). He offers us a little poem which he writes down in Carla’s notebook - I can put it on my website, he says. So here it is:
People tell me
Don’t have feelings or a heart
But when the glass of a window
Is steamed up
And I’m writing with my finger on it
The words “I love you”
Then the window panes
Start to cry!
Our next goal is the Armenian quarter of Esfahān, Jolfā, South of the Zāyande river. It’s immediately obvious this is one of the more wealthy areas of Esfahān. We visit two churches there, their inside completely covered with superb paintings; the gilding is real gold! The Bethlehem church is smaller and only opened (with a huge key) on request but it’s more intimate than Vānk cathedral and I prefer it for that reason.
Connected to Vānk cathedral is a small museum. One of the exhibits here is devoted to the genocide of Armenians in Turkey early last century (around 1915 if I remember correctly). While Armenians everywhere are pressing for acknowledgment of this horror, Turkey still officially denies it ever took place. Here, documentation is presented, in the form of letters and telegrams with clear instructions to kill all Armenians without mercy and even quite shocking film images — except there is no way to tell whether it’s authentic. The estimate is 1.5 million Armenians were killed, and the same number deported to neighboring countries (one of the reasons why so many Armenians live in Iran now, and are allowed their own language and religion and left in peace). Armenians all over the world commemorate the genocide on 24 April, demanding Turkey finally acknowledges it.
(If this is what happened, I think they should, and not be allowed into the EU until they do — but is it? Arguments from both sides actually sound equally convincing.)
For some reason we couldn’t get a flight from Esfahān to Mashhad as planned, so today we first take a flight to Tehrān and fly on to Mashhad in the evening, which gives us a chance to spend a little time in the capital. It’s not an attractive city, we’re told, but at least there are some good museums — some of them closed today because it’s Friday. We make the best of our time here. On most days, traffic is deadly here in this city of 15 million inhabitants, but since it’s Friday most businesses and shops are closed, and crossing the street isn’t a gamble.
Our first stop is at the Historical Museum and the Museum for Islamic Art next door (one ticket for both together). We have only two hours — much too short, 3 hours for each would be normal — but it’s still worth the entry price. The Historical Museum with its superb exhibits in chronological order helps to put into perspective all the things we’ve seen from different periods during the last weeks in Iran. The prehistoric finds, refined figurines and delicately decorated pottery (many pieces depicting ibex) are very interesting, too. Far too little time is left for the Museum for Islamic Art but they have some spectacular exhibits as well. Definitely a place to come back to, with enough time to spend.
After that, a visit to the mountain (hidden here under a multitude of restaurants and teahouses around a stream full of empty bottles) where Tehranians come for the fresh air — and some to do some real mountain climbing farther up; a park (no grass here on the mountainside, but plenty of trees and many seats in the shade, most of them occupied of course); and finally a modern shopping center where the (expensive) shops are actually open.
After that tour we leave for the airport again for our flight to Mashhad and have a nice Iranian dinner on board.
On arrival in Mashhad, one of the three holy cities of Iran, it suddenly becomes clear why we couldn’t get a direct flight here: Everything must have been solidly booked because it’s ‘Hajj time’ — there are many, many pilgrims already here and more arriving; many families are camping out everywhere in the open in the parks, with nothing but a blanket, sometimes a little gas burner to make tea or cook some food. Our bus at the parking lot before the airport is blocked, there are so many cars; some have to be literally shoved aside before we can leave for our hotel.
We leave Mashhad at six - without breakfast - since we want to be early at the border so we won’t have to wait all day. When we are a little outside the city, our guide, Hassan, manages to produce tea, fresh bread and cheese on the bus, so our stomachs aren’t rumbling. At 10 we’re at the border at Bājgirān and the long wait starts. Leaving Iran is no problem, entering Turkmenistan a bit of a hassle. The passport check just after the Iranian exit gate is easy enough but then we need to wait for our bus to pick us up and take us to the actual Turkmen border post. Finally our guide, Bava, appears — without the bus: it was not allowed to go through till the gate. In two shifts we go in a minibus taxi to the customs check. The driver goes at a crazy speed along the winding mountain road, laughing at our worried looks, refusing to slow down.
We’ve heard stories about Turkmen border officials, so we insist we won’t enter the customs building until we’re all together; then we go one by one, with our guide and our tour companion watching, keeping in mind the stories about border officials grabbing what they could. Apart from a lot of hassle with all the forms, stamps and counter stamps, it all goes surprisingly easy though: the officers (half of them women) are friendly and actually check only a few bags. My load of films (more than 100 in lead-lined bags) causes mainly amazement: “Are these all yours?” - “Yes” - “How many used?” - “About half” - “OK.” The serial number of my camera is noted on the declaration form. A cursory glance and poke at the inside of my big bag, and that’s all. Still, since we do it all one by one, bag by single bag, it takes a long time.
Many of the things we see and experience in Iran are not specific to any locality but remarkable enough, I think, to make a note of. So, at the end of our trip through Iran here are some of the things I noted along the way and wanted to tell you about:
- Immediately after crossing the border from Turkey the change is apparent: infrastructure here is much better developed than in (Eastern) Turkey. Power and phone lines (above-ground) are well-maintained (we see not a single sagging pole). Roads are generally in good repair, not just being well-maintained but constantly improved as well: we see road works in many places, often to turn the (still) mostly two-lane roads into four-lane or even wider highways. There’s also Internet access in many places (far more than I expected) with no apparent restrictions.
- A big surprise is that many road signs are bilingual: not just the directional signs pointing to cities with the name in Farsi as well as a transliteration in roman script; we also see signs like: “reduce speed,” “use low gear” (on mountain roads), “fasten seat belts,” etc. Along some roads also a nice illustration that this mostly hot and dry country (as we experience it now) can also be very cold in winter: we see many road signs warning graphically that snow chains may be needed. Also remarkable is that in many cities, as well as at checkpoints, road bumps are used to slow traffic down; most are of a standardized design so it’s rather easy to learn how to negotiate them (unlike the confusing variety of road bumps we have in the Netherlands).
- Motorbikes of all sorts are extremely popular here, and not just with the young ones. One can see whole families on a motorbike: father riding, child in front, mum behind, a small child between them, and an older child at the back. Almost no one wears a helmet - I expect it’s only a matter of time before they become compulsory though, given the obvious growth rate of the number of bikes…
- This country has a lot of oil and natural gas - and yet we see many signs of energy being saved. In some hotel rooms we had a fridge, nearly always of an energy-efficient type. Most light bulbs (in use and on sale) are of the fluorescent type; there’s a dazzling variety of them. We even see gas lamps in many places - possible emergency lighting but they’re not antiques: they’re in obvious working condition, have been used, and in one place I saw them burning, too. They’re also extending their network of natural gas pipelines — not just for export but more use of their own gas is planned as well (it’s certainly more energy-efficient to use natural gas as a direct energy source than burning it to produce electricity).
- Iran-Iraq war
- During this war which lasted nearly ten years (1980-1988) there were very many casualties. Every village, town and city has their own martyrs of the war, who are commemorated with billboards with their portraits, usually placed at the entrance of a town. The many dead soldiers left behind many widows and orphans and collection boxes were set up all over the country for donations to support them; they still exist, but are now intended for helping the poor. The system works, since every Muslim is supposed to spend 5% of their income on helping the poor; the boxes form an efficient means to channel such donations.
- In a mostly dry country with two huge deserts it’s understandable that greenery and flowers are cherished. We see new trees being planted alongside many new or improved roads; in the cities roads are lined with trees, shrubs and flowers, well-watered. There are many well-maintained parks everywhere, with trees providing shade, used intensively for relaxation, picnicking, or study; especially at the end of a working day there’s always people sitting around on the grass.Some parks even have special paved circles for picnicking. There are flower shops and (small) garden centers as well, where fresh flowers and potted plants are sold, much like in the Netherlands. Iran’s national flower is the rose; rose leaves are sold on the market and rose water is used to flavor many dishes.
- In every hotel room (in fact, starting with the one just before the Iranian border in Turkey) there’s not just a prayer rug and clay tablet provided, but there’s always an arrow stuck on one of the walls helpfully indicating the direction of Mecca so the guest can adopt the correct orientation for praying. (We found a Koran in only one of the hotels rooms, however.)
- Everywhere in the cities there are public water tanks with drinking water, with one or a few taps, and usually with drinking cups (metal or plastic) on a chain or a string provided as well. They usually take the shape of a simple plastic or stainless-steel tank and are sometimes provided by shopkeepers, and often by the city; at times they have a quite elaborate wrought-iron fence around them. The contents are always tap water (quite safe and drinkable in Iran though sometimes with a faint chlorine taste), topped up during the day when necessary. Since it’s always hot in the cities during the summer, many people use these for a quick drink - a habit easy to take up (after getting used to the water, of course).
- Food and drink
- Many new taste experiences here, some of which I’ll try to ‘take
home’ (either by imitation if possible, or by trying to get them or the
necessary ingredients at one of the Iranian supermarkets in Amsterdam):
- A refreshing drink made of yogurt and water (still or sparkling). Sold in bottles as a fresh drink everywhere, sometimes fresh - the best: at one place we had a large 1.5 liter can which cost just 5000 IR: about 0.50 EUR. An acquired taste (most people in our group didn’t like it) but I’m going to try this at home! In principle, all you do is mix yogurt and water and let it stand in the fridge.
- Barley soup
- Based on chicken stock, some vegetables added (carrots and tomatoes are usually present but other vegetables can be used as well), thickened with barley. Many variations, but always delicious. A cup of barley soup and a small bottle of dūg make a healthy lunch; in fact this was what my first lunch in Iran consisted of.
- The major discovery for someone like me who doesn’t like ice cream or someone who cannot eat any dairy products: a refreshing snack or a delicious desert after dinner. Consists of thin starch noodles (boiled till just soft), sugar syrup and rose water for a nice fragrance; our first had some poppy seed added for flavor. Served almost frozen. There are variations, such as using saffron instead of rose water for flavoring and a different fragrance, or fresh lime or bottled lime juice instead of poppy seeds; sometimes ice cream is added but you can always get it without - it’s definitely more refreshing that way. The starch noodles seem to be made from wheat, but you might try (broken) rice noodles for a good imitation.
- Iranian “beer”
- Alcohol is forbidden here (except for Armenians who are allowed to use it within their homes). You can still drink beer though: there are several brands of imported alcohol-free beer (really 0% alcohol), often from Germany or the Netherlands but I liked none of them. Much better for my palate was “Iranian beer” of which there are many variations and brands as well; it’s a lightly carbonated malt drink, often with some vitamins added, and hops for flavor. Not exactly an imitation of beer (and not really intended as such). Don’t think “beer” when you try it, just think “drink”; it turns out to be quite refreshing, because it’s not sweet like the ubiquitous Cola and Fanta imitations which make you thirsty again immediately due to their high sugar content.
Too little time at two museums
Carla had persuaded me to join the first part of the planned excursion, to the National Museum and the Ceramics museum, so we could go together to the bazaar in the afternoon. I don’t like to spend less than two hours in a museum where (as I remember from the last time we were here) there is so much to see, but actually half a day is enough for the bazaar, and this way the three of us (Carla, Uke and me) can go together. In the National Museum (the Iran Bostan Museum, where they show the archaeological collection) I look mostly selectively, re-visiting some pieces that had particularly stuck in my mind from last time. And, photography is allowed here (no flash) and I have a better camera now, so I manage to take some nice pictures — struggling to get rid of reflections (maybe I should get a polaroid filter after all?). I’m pleased with this visit in spite of my original misgivings about the short time allowed.
Next we go to the Glass and Ceramics museum (Muzeh-ye Ābgineh va Sofālineh) in a different part of town: I have not been here before. It is not so big (but then the exhibits aren’t either), and housed in an old Palace, itself worth a good look: especially the stucco ceiling and wall decorations are impressive. The collection turns out to be mostly glasswork, surprisingly beautiful and elegant pieces, all very old, with some ceramics thrown in. It’s exhibited very professionally here, lighted so that there are no reflections at all in the glass separating the visitor from the exhibits; light is made to shine through the glass to bring out its structure and often subtle decorations: all this makes photography (generously allowed) very easy, and I’m grateful for the functions of my new camera (especially manual focus) to make the best of it: I could not have done this with my old analog camera. So… this is now yet another museum in Tehrān where I’d like to come back some day and spend several hours! Afterwards we all sit in the garden and have tea and cookies together. Noyan, our guide, tells us the Bazaar is actually within walking distance from here, and we happily take his directions and set off…
The other direction!
We should turn right, and get to a big street (Emam Khomeiny), Noyan said, but we don’t and end up at a T-crossing, looking at the wall around the Russian embassy compound. On the way I had had a peek at my little compass and found we were heading North — surely the museum cannot have been South of the bazaar? Now, we finally stop and I get to take out my map and figure out where we are. Indeed: at completely the wrong place. While we’re still looking at the map, a young man approaches us and does his best to help us (not that we couldn’t figure it out); he’s very nice and helpful and doesn’t leave until he’s sure we know where we are and where to go. That is: right back, to begin with! The bazaar is South of us, in the other direction!
Chicken shoarma for lunch
When we arrive at the North-West corner of the bazaar, we note the subway entrance (and I recognize the corner from a picture I saw om Google Earth) — so we immediately know how to get back. Finding the entrance of the bazaar is another matter though: what looked like an entrance to me turns out to be a short alley leading to a small courtyard, and nothing else. But someone asks if we’re from the Netherlands (yes), and leads us to where the “real” bazaar starts — all the while talking Dutch: it turns out he’s actually from Leiden, and half-Iranian: he’s here now (he says) because his mother’s father died. Of course, once we’re at the entrance, he pulls out a business card, and offers to take us to his relative’s carpet store. We thank him politely, and go our own way.
We need two things: lunch, and new shoes for Uke who has hurt her feet. Although we were told there are very few places in the bazaar where you can get anything to eat or drink, we almost immediately find a small place where someone is making sandwiches from roasted lamb or chicken with vegetables: just the thing we need. Ordering is another matter, since Mr. Meat Roaster keeps pointing inside. Finally we understand how the system works (you go inside to order and pay, get a ticket, and deliver that to the meat roaster outside who will then make your sandwich) but by that time we’ve convinced him we will pay and he is making our sandwiches and pointing us inside again to pay. Our chicken-and-veggie sandwiches, accompanied by a bottle of water, are absolutely delicious — and big: I can’t even finish mine!
Then we dive into the bazaar proper. This is not a bazaar to visit for the beautiful old architecture, but that’s not what we’re looking for: it’s the hustle and bustle of trade going on, the variety of goods crammed into small stores, and above all the people themselves. (The rich, in fact most Tehranis, are not shopping here, we’ve been told, it’s mostly poorer people; but we see also traders who sell and buy wholesale here: thus the idea that only poor people come here was a bit misleading.) We roam around for a while, jumping out of the way of porters with their carts (there seems to be a universal rule in bazaars that they have right of way), see clothes, household goods, carpets (of course), but somehow we manage to miss the shoes in spite of being given directions. Finally we find a “real” shoe store outside, near where we came in, and Uke gets her new comfy shoes (for the incredible amount of seven euros).
Navigating the subway system
Then it’s time to head back and figure out the subway system — we’ve reserved ample time for that, since Noyan (seemingly somewhat nervous about us heading out on our own in Tehrān) had told us it can be really, really crowded and slow during rush hour. But around four rush hour apparently hasn’t really started yet, and the subway turns out to be very easy to navigate. I love trying out subway systems, and design and layout of signage is one of the things I always look at — it’s really excellent here, and of course it helps that all names are written in both Arabic and Latin characters. First we study the maps to find out where we are and where we need to go: real easy, it’s just 4 stations further along the same “red” no. 1 line. There are ticket vending machines which Uke heads for; they’re obviously operating on ATM cards, but I’m doubtful that will work with any of our cards; there’s a real human-operated ticket office on the other side. For us, part of the fun is figuring it all out, but when we’re heading for the ticket window, a woman approaches us and offers to help — we politely thank her and say we’re doing just fine, and having fun! I go to the ticket window, and get three tickets for 15,000 Rials each, a little over 1 euro. A little later Uke has lost sight of Carla and me; a woman notices her looking around, takes her by the hand, and leads her to us: “your friends are here!” The genuine hospitality and helpfulness in Iran is well-known, but here in the big city it still takes us by surprise.
The first train that arrives is really, really full and we let it go, walking to the end of the platform: maybe it’s somewhat less crowded when you get on at the end of a train there? We take the next train, and some people actually get up so we can sit, Carla on one side, Uke and I on the other, facing each other in the back of the car. One man standing near Carla starts talking and talking to her, apparently saying not nice things. Uke and I try to follow what’s happening on the other side, but there are people standing in-between. (Carla later tells us the man sitting next to her actually apologized for him and said he’s really sorry for her.) The man standing in front of me gently taps my arm and then points at his temple: “He’s crazy”, he says. Everyone around seems to agree, and when the man sitting next to me gets off, they all point Carla to the free seat: obviously not just so she can sit next to us, but to get rid of the nutter they are now shielding us from. Meanwhile we carefully count stations, and get off the train in time.
Chicken for dinner
We’re back at the hotel early, so we sit in the lounge, and order a big pot of tea. I can catch up a bit with my writing. A little before 6:30 Noyan appears, is happy to see us, and disappears again. After a while we get anxious, because the bus is standing near the hotel (driver sleeping inside), but none of the group are anywhere to be seen and neither is Noyan. Finally we head to the hotel reception to ask if maybe he has called to leave a message. No. The receptionist offers to try a find a phone numb er for him, goes through a stack of paper slips, and writes a number on a piece of paper. I try to explain need a country number to call anything from my phone; not sure he understands, but he lets me call on the reception phone. I get a busy tone. We go out again. We’re relieved a little later to see Noyan arrive, the group behind him. Turns out they went to have a meal, since they skipped lunch. When I show Noyan the slip of paper, he tells me the number isn’t his…
At the airport, I ask Noyan if we’re going to get a meal on the plane. Just a snack, he says. So the three of us set out to organize something to eat: we didn’t skip lunch but need something for dinner instead! At what looks like a restaurant, we ask for sandwiches; the man behind the counter points to a row of fridges with glass doors. There are indeed several not too attractive-looking sandwiches and a few other dishes in a fridge, the glass door closed with a padlock. The cashier lets us point out what we want to have (this is just a show window) and orders it for us - Uke and me both choose a dish that turns out to be “chicken and fries”. We’re promised it will be hot. Well, when it arrives it is far from that, but it’s served with two buns, and the cashier also brings us plastic cutlery, salt and pepper, and ketchup; it turns out to be quite tasty (though we don’t try the bread) and plenty to fill our stomachs.
Snack on the plane
Soon after take off they bring around our snacks: a packet of fruit juice, and a burger, served with ketchup. The “burger”, sitting on a bed of still-crisp salad inside the bun, turns out to be a thick slice of cold chicken.
We’re riding North from Ahvāz. Before we got in the bus, the humid heat here hit us again, and we miss the pleasant breeze in Tehrān. At first the landscape is rather dull. On the right, everything is flat and empty, with fields of grain, mostly already harvested. On the left, more fields of grain, but at a distance there’s a row of low hills, almost as even and continuous as a dike, sparsely dotted with trees and large shrubs. Farther on, there’s a big cluster of small trucks bringing the harvest to a building with a walled yard, inside of which is a mountain of grain already almost as big as the building. Then there are clusters of reeds, and we pass through a desolate village. We’re in Mesopotamia now and this is a really new landscape, unlike any we’ve seen before in Iran. Apart from a little island around Ahvāz, most people here speak an Arabic language, just like across the border in Iraq. The area is rich in oil, and was especially hard-hit during the Iran-Iraq war. Not much is known about the origin of the original people in this area: they were not Semitic, and not Persians either (those came much later from the North-West); it is not known what kind of language these people, the Elamites, spoke.
Farther from Ahvāz there is more variety in the landscape: a field with berry shrubs, a few cows grazing on the fringe of a field, a small stall with pale-green melons. On the fringes of the fields, sometimes sunflowers and roses are grown. A while later we stop for a cup of tea, and to watch a family harvesting tomatoes. Like many people around here they’ve rented a piece of land; together they’re paying a watchman who lives in the house next to which we’ve stopped. The family busy with the tomato harvest actually lives some 20km away. Unusual to us, the tomato plants are not bound up, but lying almost flat on the earth, the pear-shaped fruit hiding beneath the leaves — we wonder if that’s an adaptation to the hot climate…
Our first goal is Choqa Zanbil, one of the largest, and best-preserved Ziggurats: a constructed temple mountain, shaped like a pyramid with huge steps: there are four levels. It’s all human made (i.e., not fashioned from an existing hill), although it is impressively situated in the landscape on top of a slight natural elevation. There were temples for different gods on the different levels, with that for the most important one on top. Priests were enormously important in society, as the people believed everything in life was determined and controlled by the gods who had to be placated to get them in a favorable mood towards humans. On one side of the pyramid there is a set of steps that leads straight to the top, probably accessible only to the priests and the local king or queen. On other side there are steps, too, but you’d have to walk around to another side to get to the next level. Common folk had no access here at all, but all around the big ziggurat is a whole constellation of temples for “lesser” gods. It’s all very impressive (and I take a lot of pictures) but it’s disappointing that it’s not possible to climb the steps of the ziggurat - we’re the common folk in our time, and archeologists the priests.
After a quick drink and a banana bought at a stall along the road, we arrive in Shush where we have lunch: a delicious local dish called ghemeh: a tasty stew of lentils with meat and potato, served with thin slices of raw onion, and chapatti-like bread. I have my favorite Iranian drink with it: doogh, a refreshing drink made of yogurt and water with some salt, very popular in Iran. It’s made in factories and sold bottled all over Iran, but some restaurants make their own fresh doogh: that’s the best. The doogh here is bottled and rather salty — I’ve had better.
Our next goal is the site of Susa where king Dariush — the second great Persian king after Cyrus the Great — founded his capital. We visit the ruins of his palace, clearly modeled after that of Cyrus in Persepolis neat present-day Pasargadae. There’s an impressive 19th-century French fortress next to the site that would afford a splendid overview of the site from the top but alas it’s not possible to climb up there, so we skip it altogether. Unfortunately it’s Monday so the nice museum near the site is closed. We sit in the shade in the garden to rest for a bit, and drink delicious cool water from the drinking fountains there.
Back in Shush we visit Daniel’s (presumed) tomb: Daniel was an important figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. To be allowed inside this sanctuary us women have to wear a chador: a whole collection of them made of light fabric with cheerful flower prints is available on racks near the entrances for visitors to borrow — it’s not only us Western tourists who don’t bring our own. A friendly old woman helps Carla to put hers on. The atmosphere inside is very relaxed: it’s cool inside, so it’s a pleasant place to sit — some sit to read the Koran or pray, but there are also some clusters of school girls who come to sit together here to study, just like we’ve seen students use the mosque in Yazd before. Because of this relaxed atmosphere it’s also possible for me to take pictures: no one has any problem with that. Outside we all have a bowl of delicious faludeh, a refreshing Iranian delicacy of a kind of frozen vermicelli, spiced with (usually) rose water or other taste makers like poppy seed or lemon. It’s also a great alternative for those (like me) who don’t like ice cream or those (like Carla) who cannot eat anything with milk.
As if our heads aren’t already full with ziggurats, temples, palaces and tombs, we go on to the site of Haft Tappeh (Seven Hills): a complex of burial mounds of different members of one family, each buried together with servants in a burial vault. It’s a beautiful spot but very little is restored so it’s not so easy to make out what’s what. The museum next to it is excellent, with nice models (including a very detailed one of Choqa Zanbil) and many beautiful objects excavated from the various sites around here. As usual in many museums in Iran, photography is allowed, but no flash — I do my best to pick out what I like.
Back in Ahvāz we shop together at a small grocery and a greengrocer for the picnic lunch planned for tomorrow. Carla, Uke and I also buy some (alcohol-free) beer and some snacks. There’s a nice gazebo in the middle of the garden in the hotel courtyard; we take our snacks and drinks there and sit in a pleasant temperature (the little pavilion is even air-conditioned!) to drink beer, nibble crisps and apricots and listen to classical Persian music coming from the stereo speakers of my new phone. Carla and Uke chat (I put in a word or two), while I type, trying to catch up: there’s hardly been any breathing space to write my stories so far (and it will continue like that for a while!), so we cherish these precious moments. When it gets dark, the light comes on in our little gazebo, and it’s like we sit on a little island.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!