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Published: September 4th 2007
Salam from Iran!
Yes, we made it! We're now in Iran for one week! Before beginning to tell you our first impressions, we want to thank a lot Isabelle and her husband as well as Kianouche and all the people who took the time to give us useful advices about Iran.
After many calculations (our visa allows us to stay 30 days in Iran and there is only one flight per week from Mashad to Bishkek, Kirghistan!), we crossed the border at Bazargan last Wednesday without any problem. The custom officer checked and stamped our visas in 30 seconds and meant "Iran border is cool, no problem!" and so we arrived in Iran!!
We went directly to the little town of Maku. The idea was to have a smooth introduction to Iran before going to the larger city of Tabriz. But Maku was quite dead since it was a holiday (which we didn't know!). Our hotel was not quite as comfortable as the cheapest hotels in Turkey (now we realize that there is much worse still! On the other hand,accommodation is very cheap, which is certainly an advantage for long time travelers!). Silvan had something like a beginning
of flu and we walked around this small city in middle of the afternoon heat... Our introduction to Iran was not the easiest, but we quickly began to appreciate this country when we arrived in Tabriz the next day. After a visit at the bazaar (where Annamaria bought more clothes that fit to the Iranian rules!) we met very friendly Nasser from the tourist office, who speaks fluently 8 languages, including French! He helped us buying our plane tickets Mashad-Bishkek (yoohoo, we managed to have the ones we wanted, on the 27th of September, so that we can stay exactly 30 days in Iran!), to change money and to organize a driver to Babak Castel the next day. In the evening, we had our first experience of Iranian hospitality and curiosity for foreigners.
Indeed, during the few days we spent in Iran, we could realize that our travel guide was totally right when it said that at the opposite of the image the West has of Iran, people are very friendly, welcoming and very curious to foreigners. Everywhere people come spontaneously to us, asking us where we come from and those who speak English continue the conversation. As they
have not many opportunities to practice there English, English student are very glad to discuss with us and everybody is very curious to know our impressions about their country, the cultural differences between our countries and to show us that Iranian people and Iranian government are two different things. We've already been invited many times at locals houses for lunch, dinner or for the night and even once at a wedding party. We had to refuse several times as we wanted to continue our trip!
For the moment attitudes towards women are not as conservative as we expected. Even if there are some rules to respect for a woman (always wear the hijab in public, never shake the hand of, or touch in any way, a man unless its your husband or a relative, try not to seat next to a man in shared taxis or buses, etc.), and even if men usually first talk to Silvan, they never ignored Annamaria and she had no problem in taking part of the discussions, say her opinion, pay in restaurants and hotel, etc. We had no problem to get a double room in the hotels but double beds have not yet
been invented here ;-(
The first evening in Tabriz, we met Adel, an English professor, and one of his students, with whom we spent the evening. Realizing that we where tourists, Adel started talking to us in the street, offered us a tea and brought us to Elgoli park, where we had kebabs all together. We had very interesting discussion about culture differences, Iranian way of life, employment problems for young people and relationships between man and women. As Tabriz is the capital of the Azarbaijan province, they proudly explained us the most important elements of their Azari culture. In fact, Iran is a multiplicity of distinct ethnic identities (even if they all feel (some more, some less) Iranians). Even if official language is Farsi, every ethnic group speaks their own language. Azari speak a mix of Turk and Farsi (even if Adel maintained that Azari has different roots than both languages!). This doesn't really help us in our efforts to learn Farsi, which is much more difficult than Turkish! In addition, the writing makes it sometimes difficult to find the places we are looking for! For example once we asked for the way to the hotel when we
were just in front of it! We'll see if we manage to read some Farsi until the end of our stay! For the moment, we learned at least the numbers!
Babak Castel was also a cultural experience of Azari lifestyle! As Babak was an Azari hero, Babak Castel (Iran's most impressive fortress according to the Lonely Planet guide, that we can only reach after a two-hours trek) is very popular for Azari people. As we were there on Friday (Iranian's Sunday) it was crowded (but we were the only foreign tourists). But therefore, the two hours climbing to the fortress appeared to be interesting as much for his magnificent landscapes as for the cultural experience it was! As we found the climbing quite difficult (steep and hot), people didn't really seem to matter, as they where carrying all the stuff for a big picnic at the top, including the inevitable tea thermos, as well as radios diffusing traditional (probably Azari) music. Most of the women were wearing their long black coat and some had the complete tchador (the long one, recovering the woman from the head to the feet). One woman was even wearing high-heels! In the fortress at
the top, a group of Azari begun to sing what we supposed being traditional Azari songs until a policeman asked them to stop (cultural demonstrations are seen as a political protest and there have been some issues with police on this mountain before), which didn't keep them from offering us a small traditional dancing show a little further on the way!
In Tabriz we took a bus to Zanjan (our neighbors were a nice family with whom we had a long conversation, even if their English was as bad as our Farsi! It was the first time we could use and show around our Farsi Phrasebook and some conversation was possible!). Two shared taxi drives further we visited the Oljeitu Mausoleum in Soltanyeh. This huge mausoleum, built around 1300 by a Mongol sultan could really be impressive if it was not covered with scaffold, being in restoration for 45 years (and at least 45 more to come). At night, we've been invited by the Ghorrati family after dinner (after having met the father and his brother in a restaurant), where we could have an insight into Iranian private life and have very interesting exchanges with her 23-years-old daughter Zahra.
The next day we made quite a few kilometers as we went from Bijar to Takab and further to up the mountains to finally reach the Takht-e Soleiman complex. This 1500-years-old fortress built by the Sassanian and later upgraded by the Mongols is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We found it as interesting for its cultural and historical values, as for its remote location and beautiful landscape. We had a heck of a trip to see thiscomplex and saw a lot traditional village life. Great.
There are only few foreign tourists in this part of Iran. Organized tours are unheard of even to UNESCO sites and often you have to walk to last kilometers without your own transport. It takes a bit more energy to get there, but that's part of the pleasure and it is much more fun without bus full of tourists!
We are now in Sanandaj, the capital of Iranian Kurdistan (Kordestan province). This city of 350'000 inhabitants offers us more services and the opportunity to rest, while discovering a bit of Kurdish culture. We bought tickets for the Wednesday night bus to Shush where we will visit some more historical sites before continuing
to the most attractive (tourist) places in Iran such as Shiraz and Esfahan.
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