Published: June 7th 2010June 7th 2010
Greetings from the Islamic Republic of Iran, or to be more specific, the province of Koredestan. Yes, after southeastern Turkey I am continuing my exploration of Kurdish cultures. I am currently in the city of Sanandaj, the capital of Koredestan and given that I had forgotten that it was Monday today (all museums are closed on Mondays in Iran) I have nothing to do and getting some of my thoughts down from the past 10 days seemed a good enough way to spend a couple of hours before I go and do my laundry (yes, it is time after one month of avoiding doing it)
I don't think I have ever been to a country as fascinating as Iran. I have quickly realized that 30 days in this beautiful country will be nowhere near enough to see everything there is to see and do everything that there is to do. It is not at all as I expected that it would be. Compared to Southeastern Turkey, I would say that here is more developed, more modern, more fashionable, certainly more liberal and definitely less religious. Instead of all the women here wearing black chadors, you see young girls with make-up
caked on their faces, chic silk scarves perched on top of elaborate hair styles and people everywhere wearing designer clothing. The Lonely Planet advises foreigners not to wear jeans to Iran. Everyone in Iran is wearing jeans, and brand name jeans at that. Beside the evident poverty of certain parts of the country is incredible wealth. In every place that I have been to so far, you see men and women (of all ages) with white bandages on their noses. No, they are not all wearing those strips that my dad wears to stop himself from snoring. Nose jobs are extremely popular here as both a fashion and status symbol. According to the Lonely Planet, people will wear fake bandages just to make it look as if they have had a nose job done.
And despite the conservative image of this country that we get from Western media sources, in their views (and actions) Iranians seem very liberal. In a country where sex before marriage is illegal, I had a man tell me the other day that he went to Shiraz where he had "the very good sex for three days." A young boy on a bus was showing
US Den of Espionage - Tehran
Ooops...you're not supposed to take photos of this one!
me pictures of his family on his cell phone when we came across his collection of photos of scantily clad women. And despite the attack on a Turkish aid ship by Israel, which has been widely condemned in the government press here, people here seem fairly ambivalent to the whole thing. While there were huge protests in Turkey the day of the attack, in Tehran, I saw nothing and didn't even know that there had been attack here until I read it in Canadian media. People here seem more concerned with the deep economic problems of the country as well as the political situation (which everyone seems to talk to me openly and freely about).
And the people...amazing. I could not have imagined before starting out on this trip how hospitable the Iranians were going to be. The Lonely Planet talks about all the invitations to tea they had while writing the book, but I didn't really expect that. Everywhere I go alone here I seem to leave with someone who has struck up conversation wanting to practice their English or just find out what I think about Iran. Despite travelling alone, the only time that I am really
truly alone here is at night back in my hotel. In restaurants, internet cafes, art galleries, museums, palaces, even on the street...I have been approached by someone. The funniest one I think so far was while walking down a street in Tabriz, with my huge backpack on, and this guy just basically stopped me in the street and insisted on buying me lunch then taking me for Rosewater tea. Turns out he had lived in Canada for 15 years working as a Truck Driver. Oh, and everyone here seems to know someone who lives in Canada. And even in the most random places there seem to be people that speak English fluently. While probably receiving considerably less tourists than Russia, Iran seems to be much more visitor friendly, with English signs everywhere and people more than happy to help out a crazy foreigner.
Since arriving about 10 days ago, it seems that I have done an awful lot but it doesn't really feel like it. I still have yet to visit ANY of Iran's most popular tourist sites and the time is ticking before my visa runs out and I head off to Pakistan. I have not done the
most logical route either since crossing in from Turkey (nightmare by the way, ran out of liras for food and drink and only had enough Iranian money for my bus fare to Tehran so spent 30 hours starving). Transport here is so cheap (gasoline is 10 cents a litre) that I think nothing of taking a quick 500 km detour to see some out of the way temple in a paykan taxi, spewing out leaded gasoline fumes.
So I went to Tehran first, which is really a fascinating city for the above mentioned reasons. North Tehran is where there is a huge amount of wealth, and South Tehran is considerably poorer. I stayed in the south given my economic situation in a complete shithole with the boy who cleaned the toilets telling me that the manager of the hotel told him not to speak to me because I looked sick. I think that could have got lost in translation because apparently the farsi words for sick and tired are very similar. I was indeed very tired, but I don't think I looked too sick. Anyhow...there is not really a whole lot to see and do in Tehran as a
tourist. Mainly the point of going there is to soak up the atmosphere, do some people watching and chat with young Iranians. I did all three. That and visited some palaces, ate rosewater ice cream, visited the US Den of Espionage (formally known as the US Embassy) and met some rather interesting foreigners in the National Jewelry Museum (home to the famous Peacock Throne, well worth the 60 cent admission).
From Tehran, I went to Tabriz on a very comfortable overnight train in First Class (for only $16 I might add which included tea, drinks, dinner and breakfast) and over to Kaleybar and Babek Castle, the "emotional heart of Iranian Azerbaijan." It was in Tabriz that I joined up with another Canadian guy for a few days who had sort of pressured me into travelling with him. From Babek Castle we went to Ardabil for a look at a tomb of a famous Sheik. From there, overnight bus to Qazvin and from there to the Alamut Valley for a brief look at the Castles of the Assasins.
From there, I headed off on my own again to Zanjan to see Soltaniyeh, one of Iran's many UNESCO world heritage
sites. Iran has long been an important political centre of the world. In the 13th century, the Ilkhanid Mongols (i.e. from Mongolia) ruled parts of Iran if I understood correctly and Sultaniyeh was their capital. Given my little jaunt in Mongolia last year, I thought that this town could not be missed and it was fairly rewarding. The city was destroyed largely by another Mongol (Tamerlane) but a few monuments remain. One of the Mongol leaders flirted with numerous religions in his life but eventually converted to Islam. At Soltaniyeh, he constructed a large mausoleum with the third largest brick dome in the world to house the remains of Ali, which would have made it the holiest city in the Muslim world after Mecca I believe, but the guy who was in charge of Ali's remains said no. So the Mongol sultan had himself buried here instead and no one really cared about him so the town declined significantly in importance and is now just a remote little farming village. At Zanjan, I met a group of young Tehranians who had travelled quite a bit and were eager to express to me their frustration.
From Zanjan, I headed about
200 km west to Bijar, a town famous for...well...nothing. From Bijar I travelled another 300 km return in a gas-guzzling Paykan for about $10 to visit Takht-e-Soleiman, which despite its name has nothing to do with Solomon. Once the centre of the Zorastrian religion and dating back to the Sassian period (3rd century A.D.), the locals called it Takht-e-Soleiman in the 12th century when faced with invading Arabs. (Did I mention how people here react when you mention Arabs? This guy the other day angrily told me that the Arabs call the Persian Gulf the Arab Gulf.) The Arabs it seems were loath to destroy anything remotely connected with religious figures, so despite its lack of connection with Islam, Takht-e-Soleiman survived.
Now a UNESCO world heritage site, it is really quite impressive and very large. Zorastrianism, I am led to believe, incorporates the worship of wind, fire and water in some sort of combination (the Lonely Planet was quite confusing on this point...sorry Delna, you can enlighten me when I return). Takht-e-Soleiman was consequently constructed on top of an old Volcano that spews forth 90 litres of water an hour and had at one time provided natural gas to
fuel the everlasting flame in the fire temple. I was nevertheless very excited giddily exploring the ancient temple given its size and the substance of the temples that remain (picture me running about like a little girl with a flashlight and a camera poking my head in small dark enclosed spaces). From there I walked 4 km to Zendan-e-Soleiman which is a Volcano that has a very strong sulfur aroma and once had a temple on top as well. Some policeman doing an ID check on the road there thought I was very amusing running down the Volcano to try and catch a taxi back to Bijar for fear of having to spend the night sleeping rough with a very strong sulfur aroma in the air. For some reason, they kept imitating my run.
Anyhow, from Bijar I am now here in Sanandaj. I had a very entertaining ride in the minibus today with these three guys from here. They hardly spoke any English, but with the aid of my Farsi phrase book, we managed to have a decent conversation...one of them was a huge clown, cracking jokes the whole way. He had the whole minibus roaring with laughter
by the end of the journey. They have invited me for Qalyan and Chai this evening, which will prove a nice antidote to washing my underpants. It is kind of nice to have a more relaxing day today, even if I haven't done anything as tomorrow and the next day I have very long journeys ahead of me. I will probably have to get up at 4 AM or so tomorrow morning to reach Howraman at Takht, a remote Kurdish village 10 km away from the border with Iraq. This village is rarely visited and apparently stunningly beautiful. The only catch is that the only cheap public transportation option to reach it is a five-hour ride in the back of a 4WD Toyota pickup truck along a highway full of hairpin bends. Until recently, Howraman didn't have a hotel so tourists couldn't stay there. Fortunately, I rumours have been flying the past couple of days that there is now one hotel there and fairly reasonably priced at that. And I think it might even be one of those places where the sheets don't come with bodily fluids and pubic hair (I guess that's what you get for $3 a night).
View from the Castles of the Assasins
Castles once held by the feared Ismaili sect of Islam, destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century
We will have to see. But as for me, I am signing out now. More in 10 days time or so.
There are more photos below