Published: June 23rd 2008June 10th 2008
Crossing the border from Pakistan was no trouble at all and I was ushered through in less than an hour, it was once I was in Iran however that things started to get more complicated. I was issued with an army officer and told that from now on for my own safety he would travel with me. This didn't make much sense because it is far more dangerous on the Pakistani side and I had no guard there, but I had no choice in the matter so off we headed. On the way to Zahedan (The first big town on the Iranian side) we passed a number of checkpoints and at each I was issued with a new guard along with the accompanying paperwork which meant a lot of standing around on my part. Finally arriving in Zahedan several hours later I discovered that I was to be handed over to the city Police and the charade was to continue. The Police it turned out only have jurisdictional power as well so every time I passed into a new area I was handed over to different Police. For example we would stop at a busy intersection, the policeman would call up
on his radio, another police car would arrive on the other side of the intersection and I would be ushered through the busy traffic to my new "holders". This whole process actually made me feel less safe as I felt like more of a target and more recognizable. Eventually however my escort left me at the bus station and I hopped on a bus to Kerman. Looking back I could have completed the whole journey in one hour on my own and remained almost totally inconspicuous but with my escort proclaiming my presence to everyone it took 5 hours...
The most striking difference that I immediately noticed between Iran and Pakistan, aside from the aforementioned "security situation", was the road! Heading to the border on the Pakistani side our bus had only just fitted on to the narrow pot-holed road and every time we came upon oncoming traffic both drivers would wait until the last minute and then each would swerve wildly keeping one set of wheels on the road and pass inches from each other! In comparison the roads in Iran looked like runways and most of the time I traveled on dual lane highways with 3-4 lanes
on each side. As silly as it may sound this change in transport infrastructure came to symbolize my feelings about the two countries and occupied my thoughts for my first few days in Iran. I missed the unpredictability and excitement of travel in Pakistan and Iran in contrast felt too comfortable, sheltered and dare I say safe. For some reason I had expected Iran to be very similar to Pakistan but in truth it turned out to have more in common with Europe than it did with its neighboring Islamic Republic. I had arrived wearing baggy trousers, a long sleeved shirt and sporting a fairly impressive beard (by my standards) but I immediately felt very out of place and within a few days I was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and was clean shaven. On the air-conditioned buses I was given complementary snacks and drinks and upon arriving in cities I found it too easy to find my way around and English speakers were always on hand to help out if for some reason I did manage to get lost. So for the first few days I found myself coasting but not really enjoying myself at all, that was until I
realised that I was still looking for experiences and feelings that I had encountered in Pakistan. Knowing that this was unfair I then did my best to open up to Iran and as soon as I did that I realised that Iran's real attraction was its people.
The hospitality and generosity of Iranian people is almost impossible to explain to someone else, much less comprehend myself. Paradoxically, from this trip, I have discovered that the more a group of people are subjugated, discriminated against and exploited the more generous and open they are to outsiders. This is particularly true in Iran where the people live under an oppressive religiously controlled government that has done away with many of their civil liberties and on top of that Iranians abroad are labeled as "terrorists" and the country has been named in Bush's "Axis of Evil". Thus as you can imagine I found it very difficult to understand why, as a foreigner, I was so warmly received by everyone. I felt like the Iranian people were trying to prove to me as a whole that they weren't so bad and were actually very nice people. It could be put down to "ta-arof"
Hamum in Kerman
This one was a museum but was quite similar to the one I went to when I first arrived.
(The Iranian code of hospitality which dictates the rules of social interaction and allows everyone to be on equal terms. For example if you can't afford to offer someone something you still do and they refuse it. I was told to always refuse anything 3 times but if the person kept insisting that I should accept it.) but in every circumstance it seemed completely genuine and heartfelt. For example in Kerman I was trying to get a taxi to take me to the bus station (everyone in Iran takes shared taxis and it is very cheap because fuel is about 20 cents a liter) when a car salesman called me over and said he would take me. He then reversed one of the brand new cars out of his showroom and told me to jump in on the plastic covered seats! In Shiraz a girl paid for my taxi to the bus station, helped me get my ticket and find my bus and then bought me two drinks and some pistachios for the trip. I had many experiences very similar to these two and after a week or so they actually became very normal, rather than exceptional. Kerman
Prayer stones and beads
People bow down touching their foreheads to these small stones when they pray and some people actually have permanent marks on their foreheads from this.
in Kerman from Zahedan the first thing I did was head straight for the hamum. After traveling solidly for three days from Lahore in Pakistan across the desert with sand and dust swirling in the train I felt quite embarrassed as the washing guy scraped layers and layers of dirt and dead skin from my body! At first he tried to motion to me where to move but after a few failed attempts he gave up and just grabbed whichever limb was closest to him and spun me around and slid me back and forth on the smooth marble floor until I was in the correct position. Emerging from the subterranean hamum an hour later I felt extremely clean and refreshed and ready to start experiencing Iranian culture, and what better place to start than the bazaar... Iranian bazaars are architectural wonders in themselves with high sloping arches with small holes that allow beams of light to pierce the damp, cool interiors. The bazaar is kept cool by splashing lots of water on the floor and as soon as you enter from outside you can feel the difference in temperature. I also visited a few mosques and shrines decorated in
the typical blue tiles that dominate all Iranian architecture and even though Kerman wasn't exceptional by any means it was a good introduction to Iran. Yazd
Yazd's mud brick old city is one of the oldest towns on earth and is even more incredible because people still live there much the same as they did hundreds of years ago. Getting lost in the meandering lanes you can't help but feel like you have been transported back in time. As Yazd is situated in the middle of the desert the people have developed a number of innovative techniques to make life easier, the main two being bagdirs (wind towers) and qanats (underground water channels). The old city bristles with tall badgirs rising up above the dome shaped buildings eager to catch even the slightest breeze. This air is then directed down into the building over a pool of cool water and acts as an ancient air conditioning system. The second invention, qanats, are underground channels that are dug from areas where the water table is higher and flow down to the city providing the inhabitants with fresh water year round. Many houses have a basement room through which these channels
pass and they are used as a cool relaxing room and as the cold storage area. It was really interesting to see how sophisticated and advanced these people were hundreds of years ago.
Yazd is also home to one of the largest populations of Zoroastrian followers in Iran. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world and it follows the teachings of Zoroaster, a man born in about 550BC in modern day Afghanistan. Before Islam arrived in Iran Zoroastrianism was the main religion and even in Persepolis there are many Zoroastrian images carved on the ruins. Historians also believe that the Three Wise Men from the Bible were Zoroastrian Magi. So I found it really interesting to visit the Ateshkadeh (Fire Temple) where there is a flame that has been burning since 470AD, and see the pilgrims who come from all over the world to see it. Shiraz
The thing that I will always remember most about Shiraz is that it introduced me to Persian Poetry. I had heard that Iranians love their poets and that nearly every household has a copy of Hafez alongside their copy of the Quran (I later verified this in a
number of homes) but that never prepared me for the literary masterpieces that I later read. Visiting the tomb of Hafez I was amazed to see many people touching the tomb stone and praying. I found out later that many Shirazis come to the tomb at the start of every day to read a Hafez poem so that they have good luck for the rest of the day. To an outsider it seemed as if they showed more respect and adoration for their poets than for their holy men. In several cities I saw monuments to poets that were far larger, more impressive and more visited than the holy shrines. Their adoration isn't misplaced either because as well as creating beautifully worded poems men like Hafez helped to protect the Persian language (Farsi) and culture during times of occupation.
Below is a small exert from one of my favorite poems by Omar Khayyam. Keep in mind that much of the beauty of a Persian poem is lost in the translation to English, so I can only imagine what it would sound like in Farsi! :) In this particular poem Khayyam is describing wine and is lamenting the fact that
the new Islamic rulers have banned it. Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
That Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah whence, and whither flown again, who knows!
Ah love! could thou and I with Fate Conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits - and then
Remould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!
From Shiraz I also visited the ruins of the once mighty city of Persepolis, built by Darius the Great and later added to by Xerxes among others. The city is set upon an elevated rock platform about 15m higher than the surrounding plain. Climbing up the long flight of stairs cut out of massive blocks of stone you are greeted by the Gate of All Nations, an extremely impressive archway flanked by two enormous Assyrian Bull-like figures. Walking through this gate and into the city you enter the Palace of 100 Columns where the King would have received delegations from his subject nations and accepted their gifts and tribute. The entrances are carved with images of 28 figures, each one representing one of the subject nations,
carrying the King on a platform on their backs. Out of all of the ruins though, the staircases leading to the Apadana Palace were in my opinion the most impressive. They are decorated with highly detailed and extremely well preserved images of Persians and Medes coming to hold court with the King, the Imperial Guard or rather the Immortals protecting the King and 23 different delegations bringing their tributes to the King. These delegations are the most interesting because they show how vast the Persian Empire was, at that time, covering countries as far away as Ethiopia all the way to India. Each delegation is dressed according to their traditions and they are all bringing different gifts ranging from camels, horses and ibex to cloth, perfume and chariots. Definite highlight of my travels in Iran! Esfahan
Esfahan really lives up to its "Half the World" description by the French poet Renier and was easily the most beautiful city that I visited in Iran. Emerging from the labyrinths of the Bazar-e Bozorg into Imam Square you can't help but be awestruck! The Square used to be used as a polo ground (polo originated in Iran) but now there are lush
green parks and bubbling fountains with only the two goals at either end remaining. I had thought that Esfahan's Jameh Mosque (Friday Mosque) was impressive but the Imam and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosques were something else entirely. The Sheikh Lotfollah used to be a private mosque and thus has no minarets because it had no need to sound the call to prayer. The tile work inside was the best I have ever seen and I stood entranced for quite some time after entering the main room. The Imam Mosque followed the more traditional layout of a mosque and is offset from the Square so that it faces Mecca. I found the entranceway to this mosque the most interesting thing about it, although inside was also very impressive. The architect deliberately made a few details of the entranceway unsymmetrical to symbolise humanities imperfection in the face of a perfect God. Standing in front of the doorway I felt like I was playing one of those "Spot the Difference" games in a newspaper but eventually I found 3 or 4 differences between each side.
In Esfahan I also spent a lot of time walking in the many parks next to the river
and crossing the numerous beautiful pedestrian bridges. This is where young people from Esfahan come to meet and was a superb setting for people watching, especially at one of the many tea shops along the river. Tehran
I ended up arriving in Tehran on the 4th of June, the one day that the LP recommends avoiding it at all costs. It is a National Holiday held every year on the anniversary of the death of Imam Khomeini, and officially is called "The Heart-Rending Departure of the Great Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran". :) As everything was shut and the city was pretty much dead I decided that the best place to go was where most of the inhabitants had gone, to the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini. This is a monstrous complex still under construction built fittingly on the main road to Quom, the spiritual heart of Iran. Expecting to see many people mourning when I entered I was quite surprised to see families sitting around the Shrine having picnics and children running around and playing games. There was still a very respectful mood but was far more relaxed than I would have expected. Since the holiday
continued on for 4 days and most things were closed during that time I decided to head to the mountainous Alamut Region. Alamut
The Alamut Region as well as having some spectacular scenery for hiking is also famous as the home of the Castles of the Assassins. During the 11th Century these men terrorrised the whole region, capturing and killing important people and then returning to their 50 or so mountain fortresses. They believed is a quite radical and militant form of Ismailism and were motivated by the belief that if they were killed on one of their raids they would immediately be transported to paradise. Their leader Hasan-e Sabbah encouraged this belief by showing his men beautiful gardens with equally enticing maidens while they were stoned on hashish. Thus they were called the "Hashis-iyun" and that is where the modern term assassin comes from. I stayed in a small town just below the main castle "Gazor Khan" and spent 2 days hiking around the area heading up to the castle twice and exploring some canyons nearby. It was great to be out of the big cities and to experience a little of small town life in Iran. I
also loved the fact that I could buy delicious fresh cherries for almost nothing and ended up putting my digestion system up to quite a test. :) Tabriz
After my visit in the Alamut Region I decided that it was time to start making my way North to Turkey so went to Quazvin to get a bus. Discovering that there was no bus I went to the highway and waited for a bus from Tehran to go by. I had only been waiting about two minutes though when two guys stopped and asked me if I would like a lift to Tabriz! :) Ali and Mehdi turned out to be top blokes and we had a really nice trip to Tabriz stopping for tea and pistachios along the way. They asked me what my plans were for my time in Tabriz and I mentioned that I was hoping to visit Kandovan, a small town about 50km out of Tabriz. They talked together for a few minutes and then said, "OK. First we go to my house, you wash whole body, we eat good food, then we all go to Kandovan together!" How could I say no to their smiling
faces! Anyway it turned out exactly as they said and I ended up staying with them for three days, which were the best three days of my time in Iran.
Kandovan is Iran's equivalent of Cappadocia in Turkey, and we spent a really nice afternoon there exploring some of the houses and drinking the water local water which is supposed to be the healthiest in Iran. The next day, despite my protests, they both took a day off work to show me all of the main tourist sites in Tabriz. They took me to the Blue Mosque, the Azarbayjan Museum, the Poets' Mausoleum, the Main Park and the Bazaar and paid for absolutely everything the whole time. The bazaar was particularly interesting because they had grown up there and seemed to know everyone! We wandered around visiting different shops and I was introduced to all of their friends. In the afternoon they took me to their University and we sat in on a maths class in Farsi. By then I had the Arabic numbers down so to my surprise I could follow along with the integrals they were doing.
As I said before those three days with Ali
You can see the Zoroastrian God in the top left hand corner.
and Mehdi were the most interesting and most enjoyable of my whole time in Iran and I left for Turkey with a really good last impression of Iran.
There are more photos below