Coming to Iran was my idea. I wanted to come here for precisely the reasons people don’t want us to come here. I usually have a very sceptical attitude of the press, and I wanted to see for myself what it was like here. Having done a bit of research, I was pretty sure that it was nothing like the image that we see in the papers and that it was safe. Michaela wasn’t so keen to come, but because she loves me so much, she was willing to give it a chance.
We arrived to Iran from Iraq, accompanied by Nasser, an Iranian Kurd who helped us through the border formalities, trying to explain the difference between Austria and Australia. In Kurdish style, we were invited to his home where his mother made us a wonderful lunch and we rested for a couple of hours, before drinking more tea with some locals and then catching a night bus out to Tehran. Being close to the Iraq border there were a few police checkpoints along the way, but no trouble so far.
Where do I start with Tehran… The capital of Iran has anywhere from 10 to 18 million inhabitants, depending on who you speak to. Either way it’s a lot of people. Of those 10-18 million people, I think half drive taxis and the other half drive motorcycles. Badly. Traffic in Tehran is the absolute worst that we have ever seen. It makes Cairo streets look like country roads. Actually, the drivers in Tehran are not bad drivers. In face they are very good drivers, they just ignore every single rule of the road. Motorcycles speed up and down the footpaths, charge through red lights and drive the wrong way down the roads. Pedestrian crossings are only there for decorative purposes. The only way to cross the road is to walk straight, don’t stop, keep an eye on the cars and pray. The best technique is to try and put a local between you and the oncoming cars. Actually, the drivers are used to this madness and will speed at you, diverting around at the last minute. The absolute worst thing you can do is to hesitate while crossing. To add to the danger of oncoming cars, there are also bus lanes, with buses that travel in the OPPOSITE direction as the traffic. So while you’ve got your eyes on the surge of oncoming cars, there’s a bus about to flatten you from behind. Madness.With all of these cars comes lung destroying pollution. As we first entered Tehran, you could see the brown haze over the city, looking like a ring around a dirty bathtub. The city is surrounded by snow-capped mountains which should provide a beautiful setting. The problem is that with the smog, most of the time this scenery isn’t visible. Every day looks like a cloudy London day, except these clouds aren’t natural.Like Aleppo in Syria, the traveller hotels in Tehran are in the auto parts district. Lovely Imagine the busiest road in Tehran (possibly the world) with the footpaths heaving with tire shops, tires piled twelve high, boys scurrying about with carts loaded up with car parts, motorbikes loaded with tires barrelling down the footpaths, cars parked across the footpaths, water-filled ditches between you and the busy road. Incredible noise from the horns, cars and muffler-less motorbikes breaking your ears. It’s not a nice place. The nearest internet cafe is a 30 minute walk away (it closes at 6pm) there’s no food besides fast food places and there’s absolutely nothing to see or do. And there’s not one woman in sight. What a wonderful place to be.
Unfortunately we had to be in Tehran for a few days in order to apply for our Indian visa and we weren’t looking forward to it. We managed to find a clean-ish hotel with rock-hard beds in which to base ourselves. We’ve never had beds this hard before. Through a tear in the mattress, we took a look at the “cushioning” inside. It turned to be hard styrofoam of the sort used to pack TV’s or other fragile goods. Incredible. These mattresses probably cost all of $5 each. Michaela had a nightly ritual of piling up every available blanket underneath her to create some semblance of softness. After a while we got used to it, and we found that every hotel was the same. We also found out that most Iranians sleep on the floor, so the hardness of the beds was not part of some sadistic plan to create discomfort for westerners, but is pretty normal for this part of the world.
In Tehran we found that the food available in restaurants is generally awful. In reality the restaurant food across Iran is pretty awful. Iranians don’t as a rule, eat out and most of the food consists of kebabs (meat or chicken with a single shriveled tomato,) fast-food (burgers,) pizza or sandwiches. Kebabs are at least in the category that we would classify as “food” but it’s not very interesting and doesn’t form a complete diet. One needs vegetables. The burger places are American-style fast-food joints with OK tasting burgers and oily, soggy french fries. Not healthy but at least you know what you’re getting. most of the time. In one burger place we were given the option of chips, which turned out to be french fries as expected, but the next time we tried to order chips, we each got a plate of potato chips (crisps) covered in melted cheese, processed sausage meat, ketchup and mayonnaise. yuck. Despite Iran having great traditional bread, sandwiches are white-bread filled with dodgy chicken or piles of flavourless processed “sausage.” Finally, we come to the pizza. Pizza places are everywhere. Pizza in Iran however, is not pizza as we know it. I think that someone saw a picture of a pizza and sought to recreate the dish despite never having eaten a pizza in his life. The recipe was copied and now this twisted idea of pizza has spread like wildfire all across the country. First of all the crust is simple toasted bread, there’s no tomato sauce (you do get lots of ketchup though) tasteless cheese and tons and tons of the now familiar processed sausage. An Italian would die if he saw this. At times we have found decent food, but it’s almost entirely meat based (even the deserts have meat in them!) but it’s nothing to rave about. Eating so much meat and rubbish food has had us feeling less than healthy. Fortunately we found a great vegetarian restaurant in Tehran which served delicious, if expensive food, and eating there saved our lives.
In Tehran we got our first view of the Iran that you see on TV. Women dressed in head to toe shapeless black sheets called “chador” – which literally means “tent” – with little more than a small square for their faces. We joked that the women looked like black ghosts. Head scarves or “hijab” is mandatory for all women in Iran, foreigners included, as is “modest” dress – figures should be obscured and arms covered past the elbows. Michaela is quite flexible with regard to the head scarf, but she grew frustrated with constantly adjusting it throughout the day. Actually most Iranian women that we spoke to also hate the scarf and when there is no chance of police seeing, they take off the scarf at the first opportunity. Many women here, especially in Tehran dress a lot like western women, with jeans, trendy shoes and handbags, but with the scarf being pushed almost to the back of the head with a mountain of stylish hair protruding out. They all wear a trench-coat style jacket that covers their bums, but they are increasingly figure hugging and quite trendy. It’s only the older women or the deeply religious that wear the all-black chador. In other more conservative places, the chador was the dress of choice, but here in the capital, fashion and not religion decides the choice of clothing.
A lot of buildings in the city have huge murals painted on them depicting scenes from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980′s as well as constant reminders of the thousands of so-called martyrs that died in the war. The families of martyrs tend to support the ultra-conservative religious leaders and making heroes of these young men is a good way of securing votes and support. Surprisingly there are no anti-American murals, except on the walls of the former US embassy (now hilariously renamed the US Den of Espionage) where beautiful (in a strange way) murals displaying anti-American and anti-Israeli images including the famous painting of the Statue of Liberty with the face of a dead person line the walls.
We didn’t do an awful lot in Tehran except for putting in our Indian visa application (with much fun and games and not a small amount of money – Incredible India!) There are some things to do here, such as the bazaar, the jewellery museum but for some reason we didn’t feel like being tourists here. It didn’t look like anyone else did either as we only met one other foreign couple in the city. At the first opportunity we got out and headed north to the village of Massouleh in the province of Gilan.
Cool, clean air! Praise be to Allah! Massouleh is a beautiful stepped village built on the side of a small green mountain. The traditional houses have over the years been joined together and the roofs have formed the streets of the step above. So when you’re strolling the streets, you’re actually walking on someone’s roof. It’s a quiet, if slightly touristy place that gets very busy with Iranian tourists at the weekend but is tranquil during the week. We spent a few days relaxing, walking and visiting a great little mountain-top castle near the village. Luckily we got a small apartment-hotel with a kitchen where we could cook our own food, saving us from another kebab meal.
We have found that most Iranians don’t speak English very well. They are very well educated but for some reason they don’t learn English much past the most basic level. We are told that in school they learn English grammar, but are not taught to speak. Many people say that this is a conscious effort on the part of the government to keep people ignorant, and perhaps it’s true. Learning a few phrases in Farsi comes in very handy as most people in hotels and restaurants don’t speak a word of English. Saying that, of course there are some people that speak english and the ones that do, bombard us with questions, many of them incredibly direct, and perhaps of the sort that we would consider rude in the west. Most people ask the same questions. “What is your idea of Iran” “What is your country?” “What is your job?” “What do you think of the head scarf?” but many also ask “What is your salary?” “What is your idea of the nuclear question?” “What is your idea of Islam?” Iranians are generally very curious and love asking questions. Sometimes it feels like there is a stack of cards with “Questions for westerners” on them. They really do want you to be truthful, but at times it’s a bit awkward. Trying to explain that you are only travelling for enjoyment, that you don’t have a university degree or that you have given up your job to travel will often be greeted with looks of bewilderment. Also, telling people that you are technically Christian, but don’t practise, is often greeted with looks of bewilderment. Iranians love to talk. We’ve talked to more people here than anywhere else on all of our travels and soon the conversation usually turns to politics and the current situation in Iran. The vast majority of Iranians that we have spoken to hate the government, hate the religious leaders, and increasingly are put off by the religion; unlike other Muslim countries that we have visited, the mosques here are usually devoid of worshippers. I’m sure that Islam is a beautiful religion, but the regime here is twisting it for their own aims and in the end seems to be shooting themselves in the foot as many Muslims in Iran are turning away from the faith. Not completely however, as changing your religion to one other than Islam is illegal; we met a couple of people that converted to Christianity so that they had a chance of claiming religious asylum in another country.
I think that for once the western media get it right in regard to the government here in Iran. From what we have seen, it really is terrible. The joy in the people has been taken from them. Of course there is no alcohol here, the restrictive dress-sense for women (men can wear whatever they want, no matter how stupid it looks) no mixed-sex dancing, no women singing, no nightclubs. Socializing between sexes is discouraged and gatherings of more than a few people (men or women) are not tolerated for long. Men and women are so completely segregated that there are separate carriages for women in the trains, in the buses, at weddings the men and women are separate, of course swimming pools as well. From what we’ve heard, there are spies everywhere and even normal people are encouraged to snitch on their neighbours in the hope of scoring brownie points in order to secure a good government job. The internet is heavily filtered, satellite dishes are illegal as are western movies and music. However, most people aren’t buying it. They have secret parties, are inventive in meeting their girlfriends and laugh at the internet filters. Everyone has a Facebook account (which is illegal) and use proxies to get around the internet filters. Every house has a satellite dish with American-Iranian TV channels and pirate CDs and DVDs are everywhere. You get the feeling that the regime here cannot last. The internet especially is empowering young Iranians to learn about the world and they are growing increasingly tired with the status quo.
As a side note, we think that internet filtering only happens in countries with oppressive governments, but Australia is currently implementing a country-wide filter as well, supposedly to filter out illegal content like child pornography. Look it up for yourself if you think it’s not true. In my opinion, whenever a government creates the ability to censor information available to you, for whatever the official reason, this is the road to fascism and authoritarianism. We must resist attempts by our governments to tell us what we can and cannot read – we are all adults and don’t need to be told what we can or cannot do. If we allow them to do these things, we are submitting ourselves to control as severe as in Iran.
We left the green hills of Massouleh and travelled to the hot, dry south. This was beginning to look like the Iran from the photos. Almost as soon as we passed through Tehran on our way to Kashan, the landscape turned to desert. Huge jagged, rocky mountains could be seen in the distance as we travelled in the bus. The desert isn’t sandy but is made of stones and hard earth. It’s rather barren and doesn’t look like it could sustain much life. But most of Iran is desert and it’s supported a large population for thousands of years due to some ingenious technology such as underground water canals, huge ice houses and wind towers to cool the insides of dwellings. Most of the older buildings are made with mud brick (adobe) and are cool during the day and warm at night. Not to mention, they fit in very nicely with the landscape.
Kashan is famous for it’s mud-brick buildings, historical houses and apparently it’s motorcycle factory. We’ve never seen so many motorcycles. Every kid over the age of 13 seems to be on one and the footpaths are nearly as dangerous as the streets as the bikes zoom up and down them.
Almost immediately after we arrived in Kashan and were immediately stopped by an Iranian, living 40 years in the UK, but here in town to visit his mother. He insisted on taking us in his car, with his mother, to a neighbouring village where they make rose water. If we had been here a couple of weeks earlier we would have seen the harvesting of the roses, but as it stood, we could only see the green rose bushes. That didn’t stop the entire town from smelling of roses though. We made a quick trip to a rose water factory before being driven back to Kashan where our friend insisted on finding a hotel for us. He wasn’t going to stand us staying in the usual low standard of accommodation that we were used to and instead drove us to a halfway decent, but much more expensive hotel. He insisted on paying for the room (we politely declined and after much pleading, he put his money away) and even bought us some sandwiches and drinks. The next day he called to tell us that he had arranged for us to go on a tour of a neighbouring village and had sorted out a nice discount with the driver. Again, we politely declined, as the discounted rate was still a little expensive for us. We were getting our first taste of hospitality, Iranian style. We’ve had many encounters such as this. The Iranians seem to think that we are lost and alone in their country and they want to make sure that we are entirely cared for. It’s lovely and they really do want to help us, but for independent travellers such as ourselves, it can be a bit much sometimes. It’s difficult to explain to people that we are travelling for fun and that we like to explore. We really don’t mind sleeping in hotels and we’re not lonely. Travel is a difficult concept to explain to people. We soon found that we have to accept that fact that we can’t zip around places, seeing the sights all alone. At times we don’t walk 10 metres before we are stopped, invited for tea, bought ice cream, offered lunch, given phone numbers, email addresses. Travel in Iran seems to be more about meeting people, listening to stories, answering questions than seeing the sites. It’s a strange feeling, because on one hand this is what we always want – in many places we complain that it’s difficult to connect with people – but now that we have it, it can be difficult as well. It’s hard to have your day planned out entirely for you by well-meaning people, but at the same time it’s wonderful to be cared for so much.
From Kashan we went south to the jewel of Iran, the city of Esfahan. Esfahan is as close to a planned city as you can get in Iran and was designed on the orders of Shah Abbas the Great (Shah means King,) back in the 15th Century. Over the river are some really beautiful bridges, the most famous being Se’o’se’pol bridge with it’s 33 arches. Apparently the 33 represents the age of Jesus (Prophet Issa to the Muslims) when he died. The streets are lined with trees, there are large beautiful parks, canals and the crowning glory of Esfan, Immam Square. Immam Square is the official name, but everyone refers to it by it’s original name of Naqseh Jihan Square. The square is huge, its’ size only surpassed by Tiananmen Square in China. At one end is a beautiful large mosque, on the other end, the grand entrance to the bazaar, while the sides have a palace and a smaller, more beautiful mosque. Along the lengths of the square are the shops of the bazaar. The centre houses a large fountain and green spaces. The square is supposed to represent religion, politics and commerce, which make up the facets of society. It’s very impressive and is filled in the evenings with Iranians picnicking and playing volleyball. (Iranians loooooovvve to picnic and will find any green space on which to pitch a tent(!) pull out the charcoal cooker and prepare a full meal with the family. Those green spaces can be any old place – think a traffic roundabout or the green bits lining a motorway – and it doesn’t matter if the noise or pollution is excessive, as long as it’s got grass, it works for them.) Immam Square’s one flaw is a busy road that intersects one end, putting an end to hopes of a leisurely stroll around the entire circumference of the square. It’s a great place to hang out and to meet the locals, of which we met many.
In Esfahan we had our first Couchsurfing experience. Couchsurfing is a website where you can connect with people that have extra space in their homes and are willing to let you stay with them. We contacted Mohammed who was kind enough to pick us up from the bus station and to let us stay in his family’s home. While leaving the bus station, he had to pay a few thousand rials for parking and when I offered to pay, he declined my offer with a line that really stuck in my head. He told me to stop thinking like a European while in Iran. He told me that not everything has a price tag and while in Esfahan we were his guests, and guests don’t pay for anything. It’s a tough thing to accept for us. To simply accept the charity of absolute strangers – people with a lot less money than us – is really difficult. I think we do probably put a price tag on everything in the west. Maybe that’s allowed us to be more successful economically, but in terms of human relations we lag behind these people. We’ve been bought so much food, tea, VIP bus tickets(!) and even a meal in a gourmet restaurant by people we hardly know. Simply because we are guests in their country. I am so amazed over and over at the graciousness of the Muslim people towards us. I say of the Muslim people, because I don’t know what else it could be. Perhaps it’s simply Middle Eastern culture, I don’t know. Every time someone gives us something, or does something for us, I think of all the people who were scared for our lives when we said that we were coming here. I think that the Middle East, and Iran in particular is safer and friendlier than any European country by an absolute mile.
Mohammed introduced us to a great bunch of friends and we spent hours drinking tea beside the bridge. Iranians love poetry and nearly everyone can recite poems by heart. Their idea of fun is to drink tea, recite poetry and sing songs to each other. A bit different from a night down the pub perhaps, but fun nonetheless. Most Iranians are real romantics and can recite poetry by heart and some of the great Iranian poets such as Hafez or Sa’adi are seen as almost mythical figures. Often we are asked what our favourite poems are, or to recite a famous proverb and we are slightly embarrassed to say that we don’t know any. One of Mohammed’s friends turned out to be a vegetarian (shock!) and a Vipassana meditator (double shock) and we were invited to attend a meditation sitting one morning. We went to the house of a really special family of vegetarian Vipassana practitioners where we ended up staying for 3 more days. When I said earlier that the food in Iran is bad, I meant the food in restaurants. The food in homes is really delicious and the vegetarian food cooked up by our host family and their friends was superb. A few days with them was really rejuvenating for us. We drank green tea, fruit juices ate home-made bread and devoured veggie meals. These people were absolutely glowing. I don’t know if it’s the meditation or the veggie food, but whatever it is, it works. It gave us a good kick in the bums with regard to us eating meat, and since then we’ve been working a lot harder at securing veggie food rather than eating the first thing that we see. The family also own the only natural goods shop in Esfahan where we were able to stock up on natural soap, organic nuts and other healthy treats.
At first, for me especially, it was difficult to stay with the family. They wanted us to be happy and well taken care of, but to such an extent that we didn’t have much time for ourselves. We had to be back for lunch, then nap time in the afternoon (Iranians take siesta much like the Spanish) then picnic in the park in the evening, up early for breakfast, etc. It was really wonderful to be there but for me it was difficult to get used to. We live such an independent life back home, without any family to speak of and even more so while travelling, that to have an instant family is a bit of a shock. But that’s what we were to them: family. They treated us like absolute gold, the grandfather was saying we were his son and daughter, and had tears in his eyes when we left. We were bought bus tickets back to Tehran, given a mobile phone (to be returned somewhere down the line with other friends) and pickup was arranged with another friend in Tehran. These people are not rich. Far from it. They are normal, lower middle class people that just happen to be exceedingly nice. Eventually I settled into the family (Michaela had no such trouble) and by the end was gladly accepting the hugs of family members whenever we saw each other. We have heard other stories much like this from other travellers and it appears this is totally normal behaviour for Iranian people. I can’t imagine buying train tickets for strangers let alone my friends – it’s too expensive. There’s that price tag again. It all makes you think.
A Preview of India
From Esfahan it was back to Tehran on our luxury VIP bus (thank you Iranian family) and back to the Indian embassy. we got a small preview of India. We had been waiting for our visa to be processed, but every time we called the embassy, they couldn’t tell us whether it was ready or not. We decided to visit in person and when we arrived at the embassy we had to literally fight our way, pushing and shoving, to the front of a crowd of people begging to be let inside the office. Luckily, after an hour of wrestling, we were let through by the small Indian bureaucrat who locked the door behind us and didn’t let one more person through, despite the dozens of people pounding on the door and windows. We soon found out that they had lost Michaela’s application, so we had to write one up in a hurry, and luckily we still had some passport photos with us. India seems to have tightened up their visa regulations and we had to sit through an interview where we had to explain in detail our planned route through the country. Finally the man seemed satisfied, we ran downstairs and begged the cashier to take our visa payment before they closed for the day (12:00) and we left. We came back later in the evening to collect the visas. 2 hours of waiting and we were told that the computer had crashed and then finally, when they were starting to turn out the lights we were giving our passports and visas. Michaela’s is filled with mistakes and has been corrected by hand (hopefully we don’t run into too much trouble with this one.) Incredible India!
Indian visas in hand, we got the heck our to Tehran and went south yet again, this time to Yazd, in the hot, hot desert. The temperature in Yazd was a scorching 42 degrees. Luckily for us, Yazd has the only real hostel in Iran, the Silk Road Hotel, where we finally met other travellers. The hotel has a fantastic courtyard and a massive covered area where we could all escape the heat. They also offer free wi-fi internet (albeit dodgy, slow Iranian internet) and we spent a few days lounging around, swapping stories with other travellers and trying to surf the web. The last time we travelled, 2 1/2 years ago, we saw only a few people carrying computers. Now it seems that laptops have become essential equipment for the modern backpacker. We were quite surprised at the sheer number of laptops (ours included) that covered the tables in the hostel.
Because Yazd was so hot, we only really ventured out in the evenings when the temperature fell. At dusk we wandered around the town with it’s mud-brick buildings, tangled mud walls and domed bazaars and mosques. We were amazed at the ingenuity of the people in this desert region, in how the buildings are designed to deal with the heat. Domes force the heat up and out of the dwellings, streets and shopping bazaars are covered in places and the walls are high enough to create shadows that provide respite from the sun. Underground canals or “qanats” ingeniously deliver cool water around the towns and also provide cool areas to store food. Water pipes are now replacing this ancient technology, but the qanats work so well that they will be around for some time yet. Beautiful wind towers or “badgirs” dominate the skyline of this low-sitting city. The badgirs are open on 2 or 4 sides and funnel cooling wind down into houses. Again, modern air conditioning is replacing the badgirs, but they still work remarkably well and standing under one is excellent proof as to their functionality. Perhaps the most interesting bit of desert technology was the huge ice house that we visited. Now replaced by the refrigerator, this marvel is no longer in use. The ice house consists of a tall, tapered cone-shaped roof, not unlike a bee hive, which draws heat up and out of a tiny hole at the top. In the bottom of the ice house is a large pit that would be filled with ice, little by little during the winter (it can reach -30 degrees in the winter) and then covered with straw. The ice could last well into the summer, surviving outside temperatures of up to 50 degrees.
Before the Arab invasion which brought Islam to Iran, Zoroastorianism was the main religion in the country. One of the world’s oldest religions, it has largely died out in Iran where only a few thousand followers still practise. Incidently, the largest population is in India, where they are known as Parsis. The religion is still held in high regard however, as a symbol of Iran’s past glories from the days before the perceived destruction of Persian culture by the Arabs. Many people still wear Zoroastorian symbols and have Zoroastorian pictures in their homes. Near Yazd is one of the most famous temples of the religion, a placed called Chak Chak, which means drip-drip. It is called this because a story says that during the Arab invasion, a Persian princess fled into the desert mountains and upon reaching a dead end, hit her staff upon the mountain, where the wall opened up and she was allowed to escape. Since then, there has been a small trickle of water (drip, drip) emerging from the rocks where, in this scorching hot place, there should be none. A temple was built and a tree was planted, which is now almost two thousand years old. The tree is a huge, vibrant thing, alive in the lifeless desert and now many Zoroastorians from around the world flock here once a year to pay their respects. We also paid our respects to this beautiful temple. While we were there, high up in the temple we were treated to an impromptu concert by a (now scarfless) Tehrani woman who played a type of Persian guitar and sang in a most beautiful voice. Singing and scarfless. tut tut.
Zoroastorians hold the four elements in high regard, and believe that in death, the body should not pollute the earth. Zoroastorians in ancient times built towers on the hilltops, which they called “Towers of Silence” into which they would place the bodies of the deceased so that the vultures could come and pick the bones clean. In modern times, this ritual is not practised (apparently there are no more vultures) so bodies are placed in a sealed concrete coffin instead. The towers are still there of course, but nowadays they are used by the locals as sunset-watching platforms instead of the more morbid original use.
Yazd is a very beautiful city and we really enjoyed staying there. Of course the great hostel and its nice food helped. But the city itself has magical feel. It’s a desert city that appears not to have changed since the days of the storybooks. I was going to say 1001 Arabian Nights, but perhaps Prince of Persia is more appropriate. The mud structures glow almost red with the setting sun, and seem almost fantastical as you gaze over them from one of the many rooftops that are available to be climbed upon. It’s a peaceful place, where it would be easy to get stuck for a while. That is until the temperature hits 50 degrees and we would be running for the first air conditioned bus out of here.
It didn’t hit 50 degrees, but after a few days of recuperation we decided that it was time to move on and we travelled south for the last time to the city of Shiraz. Shiraz is known as the city of poets in Iran and was home to two of it’s most famous poets, Hafez and Sa’adi. Their shrines are located here in beautiful green gardens – perfect for picnics – to which thousands of Iranians flock each day to pay their respects. Shiraz, you might have noticed, shares a name with a type of red wine and in the past the region was known for it’s vineyards. Most of the vineyards were ripped up following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but some are still around, producing grapes and raisins. Not quite the same, is it…
In Shiraz, we were to meet up with some friends of our Esfahani Family in order to return the mobile phone that had been lent to us. We were picked up by the brother of the actual friend, who was busy, and we were surprised to learn that he had lived 10 years in London, was our age, and was big into the London club scene, around the same time that we were. We couldn’t believe it. We spent the next few days swapping clubbing tales with him (with his London geezer accent) and were introduced to a side of Iran that we previously hadn’t run into. We stayed with our Iranian Geezer’s family for 5 days and were again treated to fantastic food and warm hospitality. Despite the fact that their house wasn’t huge, they made room for us and treated us as part of the family. The Iranian Geezer brought us out with his friends and we were given a taste of what the youth of Iran does in it’s spare time, of which there is a lot. There isn’t a lot of work around for young people and the entertainment of choice is driving aimlessly up and down the streets (at high speed, with mobile constantly attached to one ear) looking for friends. What we in Canada used to call “cutting laps.” Unlike the other friends that we made in Esfahan, who recited poetry to one another, this group of friends listened to dance music, had DJ businesses, and liked to party. We lived a double life in Shiraz as we stayed out late in the evenings with one brother, while we woke up early to meditate with the other brother. I have to say, that the two lifestyles are probably not compatible and we were really looking forward to the after-lunch naps.
While in Shiraz, we visited the ancient Persian city of Persepolis. We were kindly treated to a lift out to the site by another friend of the family, and were joined by a couple of other people that were simply out to meet the foreigners. The site was the home of a spectacular palace built by Darius the Great something like 2500 years ago (I need to check that) but was burned to the ground by Alexander the Great. That marked the end of not only Persepolis but the empire as well. Now all that remains are some pillars and some grand archways guarded by huge stone man-headed bulls. Some of the walls of the palaces still remain and as they were covered over by sand for centuries, still display remarkable detailing. If you’re ever visited the Persian area of the British Museum you will recognize many of the works of art as much of the best preserved statues and reliefs were taken here or to the Louvre in Paris where they still live today. One of the unfortunate side-effects of long-term travel is that you get a little jaded with the sites. No disrespect to the Iranian people, who see this as one of their greatest treasures, and rightly so, to us it was nice, though we weren’t blown away. Persepolis really is amazing, and if you come here as part of a visit to only the middle east, or to only Iran, you will love it. On this trip to Iran, however, we were far more astonished by contemporary Iranians than anything their predecessors built.
Go To Iran!
We were caught completely off-guard by Iran. Or rather the Iranian people. In my last entry I said that theh Kurds were the most hospitable people in the world, but I think they’ve been trumped by the Persians – what a wonderful competition! No where have we met so many people while travelling in a country. We feel as if we have really gotten in touch with the locals for once, and for me especially, I was surprised at how uncomfortable that made me feel – though eventually I started to overcome this. The kindness that we have been shown has been nothing less than extraordinary given that we are total strangers to these people. We have to thank all of the Iranians that we met, but especially those that took us into their homes and made us part of their families. They provided us with very special experiences that we won’t soon recreate.
I was surprised at how open people have been with regard to talking about their lives, their religion and their government. They seem to have a strong desire to connect with the outside world and to learn about it from someone who actually has been there. For Iranians it is almost impossible to travel, not because their government makes it difficult, but because western countries will not give visas to Iranians. Once again, disputes between governments hurts the common man more than the people in power. Because for many people their only view of the outside world is via Hollywood movies, they have of us, like us of them, a distorted view of the west. Many think it’s all roses, with big houses, fast cars and easy women. Of course that’s not true, and neither is it true that Iran is unsafe or full of people that want to take us hostage. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The people here in Iran are normal. The cities are for the most part clean and modern – Esfahan and Shiraz being particularly good examples. It’s exceedingly safe. There are about five banks on every street, but because of the various sanctions placed upon the country by the UN and USA, none of our bank cards function in any of them. As such, you have to carry with you all of the money that you will need for your entire trip in Iran. I can’t think of many places, London included, that I would feel comfortable carrying around 1500 euros in my pocket, but in Iran we did feel comfortable.
I realize that I didn’t write an awful lot about the historical sites of Iran. That’s not because there aren’t any, or that they aren’t of sufficient interest. On the contrary, Iran being the home of one of the world’s greatest and longest lasting empires, that of the Persians, and also the center of the Shia branch of Islam, there are extraordinary sites aplenty. I didn’t write much about them, because for us Iran was about the people and not some buildings. Nearly every country in the world has interesting historical sites, but not every country has people as unique as Iranians. They are the main reason to travel here. You will be amazed. Of course another reason to travel to Iran is to see for yourself what the country and people are really like. Don’t believe what you see on TV. Often the BBC or CNN is as unreal as Hollywood. Almost every Iranian that we met was completely over the moon when we told them that we loved their country and they made us promise to tell our friends and family about what a great place it is to travel. I hope that in writing this that I have fulfilled that promise.
There are no urinals in Iran. In nearly every public toilet, the men’s queue is longer than the women’s because the men have to wait to get inside a small, grubby cubicle rather than stand up to do their business quickly as in most other countries.
Iranians not only sleep on the floor (this gets surprisingly comfortable after a while) but they eat on the floor too. An Iranian table consists of a large piece of plastic thrown on the floor, onto which food is placed. DOn’t worry, they do use utensils, although you’ll never find a knife. Strangely a fork and spoon is all you’ll get.
Nose jobs are all the rage in Iran, especially Tehran. There wouldn’t be a day that went by that we wouldn’t see at least a couple of people, men and women with distinctive plasters across their noses.
The currency in Iran is the Rial, but no one uses the term. People call the money Tomans, but a Toman is in fact a Rial with one less zero. So, if something costs 10,000 Rial, people will say “one thousand Toman”. But if something costs 1000 Rial, they will also say “one thousand.” In addition, they might simply say “one” for 10,000 Rial. Or even more confusingly, “one Khomeini” (every single note has the image of Ayatola Khomeini.) I don’t think I ever got used to dealing with the money, and a lot of time I just held up a few notes to whoever was selling me something and they took what they needed. It’s a good thing Iranians are honest.
Next up, it’s a few days in the ultra-modern citystate of Dubai.
Michaela y Len
Average Costs to travel in Iran (Iran Rial – IRR):
£1 GBP = 14,773.56 IRR
€1 EUR = 12,231.76 IRR
$1 USD = 10,015.50 IRR
1 hour internet: 15,000 IRR
1 night in a hotel: 25,000 IRR
1 night in a dorm (2 people): 20,000 IRR
meal in a restaurant: 50,000 IRR
1.5L water: 3000 IRR
1 hour bus ride: 15,000 IRR
1L Petrol: 400 IRR Yes, that’s $0.40 cents.
Average daily cost for 2 people was £33.59.
تابستان سال 89