Zanjan and Tabriz and more randomness with strangers

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August 7th 2010
Published: August 7th 2010
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Hamadan, was known in classical times as Ecbatana - the ancient capital of the Medes - and was once one of the greatest cities of the ancient world. Nope, I'd not heard of it either! More often than not, travelling in Iran makes you shamefully aware of your own ignorance about things removed from that speck land at the end of the Eurasian land mass known as Europe. To a self-described history buff such as myself it is equally embarrassing and irritating to come across something such as Ecbatana for the first time and know absolutely nothing about it. Zilch. Heavy sighs for a classical education....

According to my LP guide book the ancient city of Ecbatana once had seven layers of walls - as long as classical Athens and two of which were coated in gold and silver. I had to take their word for it because as with so many Iranian cities very little physical evidence remained of this ancient history. It seems the Mongol invasions of Iran (1219 to 1221) which ended the Khwarezmia empire in addition to Tamerlane (1336-1405 who sought to restore the Mongol Empire was to blame for most of this destruction. Now it was just another busy Iranian city with a peculiar cartwheel layout - designed by a German engineer in 1929.

I stayed at the Farshchi Guest House and began negotiating the price for a room with the wily old owner - but he wasn’t having any of it. I just wish these owners would stop presuming that I’m from Germany - I don’t really know why - but it irritates me to my core. I had a 6 bed dorm to myself with the low-lying beds and austere lay-out it made me think that they were for men on pilgrimage then backpackers. I opened a door out onto a roof which provided a welcome breeze and it was here that I spent a couple of days writing at a small table at the middle of the room writing the blog, relaxing and enjoying the cooler climate.

I had sort of agreed with ‘Fatima’ that I would try and extend my visa and come see her again. So I did this in Hamadan, with details of the process on how to do it in my Lonely Planet. I should have never have countenanced extending my visa - it only made me cross and despise the needless bureaucracy of Iran’s governmental departments. I popped into a 'reputable' travel agency and asked if I could extend my visa. They examined my passport and made a phone call to the Passport Office further along the street and said that I could and that I should go to the office. The office was guarded by bored conscripted army recruits who always look soooooo idle. The plain clothes man behind a desk looked at my passport and even though he was working in the ‘passport office’ seemed unable to make himself understood in Farsi or English. Basically he couldn’t extend my visa because I still had a couple of days left on it - I went back to the travel agency and the English-speaking woman came back with me to see what the problem was. I explained that I had to get my visa extended now because I would be going to places that did not have a passport office or might take a week to process - I could not afford nor want to leave things to the last moment. Nada, he didn’t have the authority and insisted I go to Tehran - even though the Lonely Planet explained that it would take a week to process - moreover I had already visited polluted Tehran. I'm afraid I lost my temper outside the building - I simply couldn’t understand how difficult the government made it for tourists to stay in the country and SPEND money in the place. I was also frustrated at the apparent misinformation in the Lonely Planet and also the travel agency - did anyone know what the fuck was going on here?

The one tourist thing I did in the city was to visit the tomb of Esther and Mordecai - a 14th century tomb tower that was once Iran’s most important Jewish pilgrimage site. I’m afraid my Old Testament knowledge is a bit shaky - as is understandable because God is a vicious thug in it. According to the Bible, she was a Jewish queen of the Persian king Ahasuerus. While Ahasuerus was traditionally identified with Xerxes I during the time of the Achaemenid empire, many historians now believe that Esther was the queen of Persia under a later king of Persia, during the time of the Sassanid empire. Her story is the basis for the celebration of Purim in Jewish tradition. Anyway, Esther had a book in the Old Testament named after her and she was meant to have saved the Jews from a massacre by Xerxes’ commander - Mordecai was Esther’s guardian.

It’s amazing that these things still exist - particularly in Islamic Iran. Rabbi Rajad showed me inside the tiny tower and the tombs, asking me if I was Jewish before handing me a keppah to wear. He told me that were 10 few Jewish families left in the city. For his troubles he later asked me for a donation of my pen - he’s an avid collector of foreign pens apparently - so I gave him my Aussie one. I will miss it.

As I'd chilled-out sufficiently and finally caught up with writing the travel blog - yes, this one I planned to go further north, this time to the city of Zanjan where there was a magnificent monument from when the Mongols ruled Persia.


The bus from Hamadan took about 5 hours to get to Zanjan, so I arrived at about 8pm at the bus station. The taxi driver took me to a guesthouse listed in the "Lying Planet" but it was fully booked - so a kid in the foyer pointed to the guesthouse opposite the busy road. A grey haired man with the usual plane shirt, black trousers and belt combo was stood outside doing sweet fa and had to open up the entrance doors to let me in. As I asked him if he had available room he said yes and then asked me gruffly for money - but I told him I wanted to see the room first. The little cell was windowless, had no fan and not even a shower - the gruff bastard indicated that I use the sink. With my backpack on I gladly walked back downstairs and back out onto the street. I got a taxi to the mid-range option - the Park Hotel but for 200,000 Rial the bathrooms were not very good and it was overpriced but they were not for negotiating. So I lumbered with my heavy bag on my back down the street sort of looking for a hotel to stay at and then ‘a bloke came up to me’.

Yeh, you know the story if you’ve been following my travels in Iran, a random bloke comes up asks where I’m from, where I’m going - to find a hotel etc. This time I was wary about being stopped to chat but this guy whom I passed had o.k. English and asked me to stay with him and his family in his house. Considering my options; the lateness of the day, my tired shoulders and the lack of suitable accommodation - I did. He went to the supermarket first and bought washing powder and a load of eggs. Then we walked across the street and into his apartment building where a bird greeted me, this was Nina - the pet let loose. ‘Mohsen’ immediately told me to get into some pyjamas - something I’d forgotten to pack on my travels! So he chucked some over large ones and we sat down as he showed me a photo album from his life. Yep. He wanted to brush up on his English which he had been very good at some years previously but there were little opportunities to practice. Looking at his life through pictures of him as a kid, in school playing basketball, dressed in kaki in the army, to the moustached 1970s and basketball matches - I felt like it was an unorthodox way to introduce yourself, but it worked. All the while Nina was being naughty and perched on my shoulder and pecking at my ears.

‘Mohsen’ admitted he wasn’t a cook so he apologised for fried eggs on lavash bread and watermelon with tea. I had no complaints. Then his wife and daughters came home and I think they were a little surprised, but men and the keys to the household in Iran it seems and if a man wants a random white bloke staying in the house that’s what’s gonna happen.

That night, I, ‘Mohsen’ and his second daughter slept in the living room on the carpet. It was hot and it took me a while to get off which wasn’t helped by being in a room full of people I didn’t really know. Would getting up to get some water from the kitchen wake everyone up? Was it offensive? Did someone have to get it for me?

The next ‘Mohsen’ drove me to the share taxi parking spots where I planned to go to Soltaniyeh a nearby town about an hour away by taxi. “Town of the Sultans” was built by the invading Ilkhanid Mongols as their Persian capital from 1302 but in 1384 it was destroyed by Tamerlane. However, the magnificent Oljeitu Mausoleum survived - the world’s tallest brick dome at 25 metres in diameter and 48 metres high and visible from miles around. Inside, the space is staggeringly, I led my way up the spiral staircases and marvelled at the tiles and stucco-vaulting despite all of the restoration scaffolding that occupied the inside of it. It was built by Mongol sultan Oljeitu Khodabandeh to re-house the remains of Imam Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohammed. But he never pulled it off and he used it as his mausoleum instead. From the top of the staircase there was a terrace with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and I noticed that the only people I could see visiting were Iranians. This was an incredible building - a real highlight of my time in Iran and a justified UNESCO World Heritage site; I took some photos of what it used to look like down the centuries and how even more magnificent it once was.

‘Mohsen’ told me to get a cab from the outskirts of the city to his house but as they tried to overcharge me for the short ride I decided to walk. Unfortunately I couldn’t relay this properly to ‘Mohsen’ on the phone and so I prevaricated. I had to top up the credit on my phone - which took ages so about an hour later I was back. However, unbeknownst to me he had been waiting on the street for me and he was thus not happy. He calmed down a bit when I told him how much the taxi drivers wanted to charge me - despite him giving them instructions on my phone. He then very kindly bought me a take away lunch of chelo kebab (rice and kebab meat) which we ate back at home.

I lounged for the rest of the day - away from the heat and I showed them pictures and videos from my travel. ‘Mohsen’ filled me in with details of his life as well - both he and his wife were teachers and it was now the long summer holidays. ‘Mohsen’ had a son living nearby and two daughters who lived at home.

From pretty early on ‘Mohsen’ asked me not to mention to anyone that I was staying with him. I asked him why and he told me that he had spent five years in prison in the early 1990s for giving money to the opposition abroad. His brother had been killed in government demonstrations at around that time. Until relatively recently and despite being nearly retired he still had to report to the police and state what he was doing. So he was still under state suspicion and any foreigners staying with him would cause him trouble. I didn’t think it could be that serious if he was actually taking a risk but who was I to know? Slightly staggered by this revelation as you can imagine we had some interesting discussions on the state of Iran (going down the plug-hole), Sepah, The Basij (hardline and armed volunteers), the Islamic state, President Ahmedinijad - all the while watching BBC Farsi and Voice of America in Farsi and opposition group TV from France.

Zanjan is a city with an ethnic Azeri population - those who spoke a dialect of Turkish. So we lay down and watched a lot of Turkish TV with its skimpy clothed singers and plunging necklines in direct hilarious contrast to Iranian TV which was staid and conservative and mostly head-scarved. Mohsen’s wife had a sister who was living and working in Bolton, Lancashire and the last night I was there they called her up and put me on - she seemed quite surprised that I was in Iran let alone Zanjan - a common refrain from those who’ve left. I got her to email me the full address of the family so that I could honour the Mohsen’s requests for some trainers - he had had the same pair for 15 years and they looked as new as the day they were bought.

I stayed a good couple of days with the family and was fed handsomely, constantly provided with fresh melon, watermelon, endless glasses of tea and wholesome food; I even got to do some long awaited laundry. I was a guest and thus pampered like a member of the family.

We visited the new home that he was building as part of a co-operative of people. We stood around the foundations of the construction site and hosed down the concrete to keep it wet and sat drinking chai, sucking on sugar cubes. I asked him if he would give permission for me to blog online about my stay with him - but he said that he couldn’t. I have been forced to censor myself by changing names, family details and worst of all excluding photos that I took of the family. I regret that this is the nature of Iran whereby I cannot truly report on the people I met for fear of their safety. I sincerely hope I haven’t put him in danger by describing my stay - there’s no way he deserves any more grief.
Mohsen drove me to the railway station for my overnight sleeper train up to Tabriz, my final Iranian city before entering Christian Armenia. He had refused all money from me during my stay and so I stuffed a load of notes down hi t-shirt and made a run for it but it was no good. He had a strong grip and gave it back to me.

Once inside the station a policeman asked to see my passport - the first time this had happened in Iran and my heart sank. As I rooted around my bag for my passport I panicked and went through my camera and furiously deleted all the images of VOA and BBC Farsi that I had taken. The policeman was nowhere to be seen and I went outside and he was there with a man in plain clothes who was talking on his mobile phone. They then went through my passport and recorded my visa information- all the while I looked on - shitting myself with fear. Another man came up to me wearing a suit and asked me questions about my stay in Iran and how I had liked Iran? My passport was returned to me and I had an hour on the train platform to think about how naive I was to have stayed with what was essentially a known political dissident. I thought how idiotic I had been and how foolish I was to think that I was immune from an Iranian government simply jailing me - they have a track record on these things and are such a pariah, they can really do what they like. You are at their mercy.


I calmed down once I was on the train and in my carriage. A young Kurdish Iranian family were on their first ever train trip and were amazed to see me laying there on the top bunk. They and their small son helped distract me from the thoughts of sudden arrest. I didn’t get a great night’s sleep because of the loudness and violent motion of the aged train. Morning was great though; I sat in the restaurant compartment with no services operating and watched as we trundled through beautiful dusty brown mountains and skirted beside Lake Orumiyeh.

In Tabriz I avoided all the taxi touts outside the train station and walked to the next main junction and hailed a share taxi into the city. I asked for Golestan Gardens but the driver inexplicably took me to the bus station on the other side of town. I shouted at him and he drove me back into town to the Darya Guesthouse - I paid him and then went in - it was fully booked. Thankfully it was still early morning and so I walked to find other alternatives. One place was pretty grubby but the 60ish man at the desk spoke fairly good English but then he outlined that I would have to pay extra for showers - I stomped out cursing Tabriz.

Every time I arrived in a new place it seemed to produce a furiously foul mood in me. I was fed up with taxi touts, the shitty taxi drivers who always tried to rip you off, the shitty pavements that constantly tripped you up, the chicken game of death every time you crossed the road, the constant stares, the heavy backpack, the heat and the fact I could only wear trousers. The more I thought about it the simply fact was I was becoming utterly contemptuous of Iran; the lack of any decent coffee apart from instant shite (Melbourne’s coffee scene had made me petulant in this regard), the men spitting in the street, no post boxes nor post offices near to anything central and closing for the day at 1pm; the bus and rail stations miles away from the centre, the squat toilets that nearly gave you a hernia; the squalor of the toilets, the lack of fans in guesthouses; the disgusting showers with a metal chair stood within in rotting away; the buses that have broken air con and broken arm rests; the lack of and respect for the queue. Fuck me, I need to begin writing a book called, “Is it just me or is everything just shit in Iran?”
The people I’ve met have been the difference between howling down the street pulling out my hair (before tripping over a piece of recklessly discarded masonry on the street of course) and toleration.

Anyway Tabriz - it’s in the state of Azerbaijan within Iran itself so teh ethnic minority of Azeris who speak Turkic and wear little woollen hats, a bit like a keppah. I had a look around the bazaar which was huge and dangerous -one man rushing a shitty cart bashed into me - it’s a difficult place to sort of dawdle like a tourist in these places.
I wanted to visit the Christian church of St Mary’s which was built in the 12th Century and mentioned by Marco Polo - but the gates surrounding it were closed. Next was the Blue (Kabud) mosque which was constructed in 1465 and was once the finest of its time and despite surviving one of the worst-ever earthquakes that destroyed the city in 1727 it didn’t survive the later 1773 quake. It lay in rubble until 1951 and now you can sort of see its former splendour. It was outside here that I met another BLOKE! He was a carpet merchant in the bazaar - these guys are loaded by the way and effectively hold a lot of power brokerage in Iran’s economy and government. So we went for a walk and went into an ice cream parlour and well, had an ice cream. It felt like being in a doctor’s surgery with people sitting on rows of chairs but licking and spooning their ice creams. It was actually pretty delicious actually. Mr Meza offered to take me to Valias District which is where Tabrizians come for the nightly ‘passeggiata’ - walking around the pedestrianised Shahriyar Street in all their dressed-up glory. It was a sight to see so many dressed up Iranians but basically a dowdy version of Oxford Street on a Saturday.

Mr Meza was a good-natured man, like Hamid he also had photos of foreign backpackers on his mobile phone - people who had stayed with him. He also told me about how he liked to have a drink and that once whilst sipping some white wine with his food his wife asked him ‘what is that you are drinking?’ and he replied ‘lemon juice’! He also had family in England - a brother in Manchester who was also a carpet merchant and his nephews and nieces and visited him but had wanted to go back to England. Unsurprising really. What was strange was when I told him about Mohsen in Zanjan and what a scare I had had. He didn’t seem to think anything would happen to me, but then he hadn’t heard of the American hikers or the French woman who was imprisoned for taking photos of a protest or the British sailors who were kidnapped and given mock executions. He was shocked at this and the difficulty in conversing meant that my points could not be made more effective. Anyway, an hour later on a shuttle minibus and we’re back in the city. We wandering about the place looking for a falafel and it felt like I was out on the piss back in England except I was in Iran with a man in his late forties; with no front teeth.

The next day was my most difficult part of the trip - leaving Iran for Armenia. The only ways there were by aeroplane from Tehran to the capital Yerevan - but I recalled a deadly plane crash on that route recently that killed everyone on board so I chose the only alternative open to me and that was by bus.

At 8pm I caught a bus going northbound to the border - in 17 hours I would be in Armenia.

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