Incredible Iran - warning: a lot of text and a lot of pics ;-)

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Middle East » Iran » East » Birjand
October 19th 2018
Published: October 19th 2018
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This blog post has not just written itself and we found it hard to briefly describe our past month of travelling in Iran without using all the clichés, without sounding like a tourism promotion brochure and without sounding like we are all naive and don't see the more difficult side of the country and it is complex and difficult to understand politics. We simply love Iran and the Iranians. Travelling in Iran is an extremely positive experience. Iran has varied nature, a long interesting history, a beautiful distinct culture, architectural beauties and the most hospitable welcoming people of the world. The infrastructure and public transport is very good and comfortable, which makes travelling very easy and (currently with a very weak currency) very cheap.

We have travelled from Tehran via the mountains of Qazvin and Alamut to the Caspian Sea at Ramsar and Rasht. From there we went to Zanjan where we met some fun people and visited a great bazar before we travelled to Tabriz far North with another great bazar. From there we headed south visiting Saqqez, going for a road trip through the mountainous Kurdistan ending up at Sanandaj with old castles and ruins in the mountains. Next stop was a beautifully restored caravanserai where the silk road caravans used to rest and where we could now rest and feel very '1001-nights fairytale'-like. From Bisotun to Hamadan where we had dizi (DIY mashed bread, meat and stew) and onward to Kashan, a city where the heritage of the rich merchants in the middle ages of Persia are very visible with the beautiful traditional houses of which some are palaces and museums and some are a great place to stay. Then we travelled to Esfahan, one of the most touristic places of Iran where all expectations were met, the main square is huge and has a number of beautiful buildings surrounding it, we were truly awed. We spent 4 days in Esfehan wandering around the city with all the mosques, squares, minarettes and bazars and we met de son and daughter in law of the owner of the traditional guesthouse in Kashan. We learned a lot about the current generation of Persians. From Esfehan we travel by luxurious bus to Tehran where we pick up some left luggage, enjoy some perks of the city and visit the Holy Defence Museum learning about the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war. From Tehran we travel by a very luxurious night train to Mashhad, the holiest city of Iran where we visit the haram complex, which is like a small holy city within the city, together with thousands of pilgrims from Iran and surrounding countries. The haram complex is very impressive, big, crowded and beautiful. In Mashhad we spend a whole evening with a local family who invited us for dinner. Even within the family the brothers have quite different opinions for example about the importance of religion and their wives are quite open (to Judith) about the more free life they would want to live but cannot now. From Mashhad we travel by bus to Qa'en / Ghayen with a nice castle on top of the mountain we climb. A savari (shared taxi) brings us to Birjand where we are now, getting close to the Lut desert we want to visit.

Although not a lot of people speak English (and our Farsi is still very limited) we get to talk with many people while travelling, in the hotel lobby or simply on the street. A lot of people want to make a picture or selfie with us, to show to their family and friends and to put on instagram of course. There are photoshoots with the hotel manager, the laundry guy, the taxi driver, the lovely family we meet at breakfast, the Iraqi guy and his father in our hotel, the son of the owner of our traditional guesthouse, the kid who eagerly wanted to show us around; our instagram fanbase must be constantly growing.

The hospitality is always omnipresent. We are greeted, welcomed and invited for something at the most random places, by complete strangers, all the time.

Walking back from a restaurant at night suddenly a middle aged couple stops us in the middle of the street, starts to have a chat and immediately asks us if we can come to their home to have chay. We are getting used to this by now so yes why not and minutes later we are positioned in their nicest chairs in a beautiful living room with chay, sweets, fruit and chocolate and they call their son to help translating.

Having coffee in a nice coffee shop we get to talk with some of the other customers. The first one wants to pay for our coffee, which we were able to kindly refuse, then the others ask us if we can come to their music store so that they can play some music for us. Of course we agree and minutes later we are treated to a private concert. After which the guys take us to a restaurant outside of the city to buy us a meal, which we were not able to kindly refuse.

Preparing for the night travelling from Tehran to Mashhad we get to talk with one of the other travellers in our luxurious compartment. When we arrive the young man takes us with him in a taxi, brings us to our hotel and invites us for dinner at his place. Of course we agree and the next evening he picks us up and brings us to his home, where we meet his parents, brothers, sisters in law, a whole bunch of children and even the neighbour. We are first treated to sweets, fruit and chocolate and then a full very copious meal. Not before 1:00 AM we are finally 'allowed' to leave and only after promising that if we ever come back to Iran we will start our trip with a week at their place in Mashhad.

These are just a few examples and there are many more. We cannot accept every invitation because we would need at least another month to visit everybody.

We feel totally safe everywhere and at all times, even in the big cities after dark. There is hardly any police or military on the streets, which after some countries in Central America, South America and Southern and Eastern Africa is something we, if we are honest, had not expected.

It has been a special month for the Iranians because it was the month of Muḥarram, the first month in the Islamic calendar. This month and especially the tenth day Ashura is a major festival for Shia Muslims. The whole month and even now the second month there is a lot of mourning and commemorating the death of imam Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. We have seen a lot of processions, ceremonies and parades of men beating their chests and backs, accompanied by actually quite beautiful very emotional singing. People are dressed in black, crying a lot and black flags are everywhere.

The buildings, mostly mosques and schools but also the castles, private houses (small palaces), bath houses and of course the bazars are very impressive and beautiful. We are becoming real suckers for nice buildings in all the cities we walk around in staring up to the incredibly delicate arches, mosaics, minarettes and domes.

While we are staying in the beautiful caravanserai of Bisotun close to Kermanshah we use VPN to check the news (which is partly blocked by the government) and we see that missiles have been launched from close-by to Syria to retaliate the bloody attack on a parade of the Revolutionary Guard in Southern Iran a few weeks past. Later in the Holy Defence museum (which is about the Iran-Iraq war) we stand next to some of these missiles (find Judith on one of the pictures to understand the size of these things). We are from one of the countries in the world were there has been no war or fighting for such a long time and we realise that we are not used to this type of warmachines, arms and politics. When discussing these things with some locals it's clear that they are very much more used to these things and they believe the bad guys must be punished so don't see any difficulty in shooting missiles across the border.

We have met young Iranians with different views on the religion in their country; some are very atheist, some are just not very active in their religion and some are actually very traditional in their ideas even while they are clearly living a very modern life. It's interesting to see and hear but one thing that is very clear is that religion is very present in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although all the scarves, hijabs and even the chadors (literally 'tents') look pretty good on Judith, it sometimes just feels too hot or annoying and restrictive most of the time. The fact that women have to cover their heads all the time, even indoors when there is a man in the house who is not direct family is something we find rather difficult to get used to. Talking with (young) women about this topic gives a variety of insights. More than we thought some women actually say they prefer to wear the scarves, even if not really necessary (for example because they are on holiday abroad), they would feel naked without it and they think people (men) would be looking at them more than necessary. Some of the women we speak are very clear in telling us that they would get rid of the scarves the minute it is allowed, and they already try to go to the edge of what is 'allowed'. We are now almost 6 weeks in Iran and we are completely used to the huge variety of scarves worn by women but it still does not feel good that the women don't have a choice.

The most important topic for most of the people we speak is actually not their religion but their growth and development. Every person, old or young, male or female, is much more occupied with their economic wellbeing and their future career than with religious topics. Most people in Iran have a very good education and we have never before met so many people with alls sorts of degrees and Phd's. A big problem or at least a more interesting topic to talk about for the Iranians is not religion or fighting some terrorists but the lack of jobs that match their education.

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27th October 2018

As Americans we are not convinced we should visit Iran... time will tell. What a great adventure you are on and loved your descriptions and photos. You've covered a lot of topics and given insight into the culture. Thanks for sharing. MJ

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