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Published: October 3rd 2015
Getting into Iran was straightforward but slow. We knew we were here as soon as we got off the bus that had brought us from the Turkmenistan immigration post. On one hand a bored, surly soldier interrupted his watching of a volleyball match on the tv to grunt at me to change my shorts for long trousers (shorts are banned here), and for Atsuko to put on her headscarf. On the other the immigration doctor was quite apologetic assuring us that once we got away from officialdom things would be much easier and attitudes different, happily he was right. Our bags were searched so no chance of smuggling in any illicit beer, it's going to be a dry couple of weeks, at least it should be good for our livers.
As we have a guide – a condition of me getting a visa with my British passport, we had none of the usual transport challenges apart from an argument with the local taxi drivers who thought our guide had jumped the queue – memories of Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Being used to independent travel it's an odd feeling to have a guide, something we'll have to try to get used to over
the coming days.
Our first stop is Mashad, home of the Imam Reza Shrine, one of the most religious cities in the Shi'ite world. Each year more than 20 million people make the pilgrimage here (N.B. Saudi Arabia – none of them die). The Shrine has a special office for foreigners where we were given an individual talk by a mullah who was very friendly, if unconvincing to us, and who seemed genuinely shocked when we told him we had no religion. We then had an individual guided tour given by a secondary school teacher who volunteers some of his time each week. As infidels we were only allowed to see the outside which is still impressive and undergoing what seems to be a constant expansion. This is definitely a living place not a museum.
Iran is a huge country. Our next stop, Yazd, is ~1200km away which gave us the chance to use our favourite transport, a sleeper train. It was very good, comfortable, clean and with great service. They also have a wagon at the back where you can load your car, old bugger that I am it reminded me of Motorail in the UK in
the days when there were only a few motorways and long distance road journeys took forever.
Yazd is remote - in the middle of the desert, incredibly dry – only 23 days and 48mm of rain per year, sunny - >3100 hours of sunshine per year, and hot – regularly over 40c in the summer. This location and climate gave it some protection in the past from the invading Mongols and Arabs allowing it to keep it's cultural and architectural history more intact than in other parts of Iran. Today it is still the centre of Zoroastrian culture, although since the revolution and the years of intolerance under the mental Ahmadinejad some of it's previous diversity has been lost. The old town is a fantastic labyrinth of high walls and narrow alleys, perfect for exploring both day and night, when despite low levels of lighting we never felt in any danger.
A cross desert drive to Shiraz awaits us tomorrow.
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