The beautiful buses of Iran
I'm back again after nearly two months of silence. During those two months we've managed to cover Iran - in parts, it's a huge country - and have crossed Pakistan. Current location is Passu, a small mountain village along the Karakoram Highway in the Hunza valley just a couple of hours short of the Chinese border. We'll stay here for a week or so to recharge our batteries and enjoy nature at its most impressive after nearly two months of city-hopping in Iran. Yes, travelling in Iran wasn't very scenic so we haven't had any real scenery since we left Cyprus. Not that it mattered that much since the Iranian people and culture well made up for any lack of natural wonders and scenery. A truly fantastic people, the Iranians, which I hope to be able to convey in this update. Here goes.
NB! This update is rather on the long side. I've had reports that some free webmail systems sometimes cut long messages (ie web.de) without notifying the recipient. If this message doesn't end with the phrase 'wegototrip Good Bye' then it has been cut. Either mail me and ask for another copy (I'll send it as an attachment instead) or read it on our webpage: <http://wegototrip.to/>
NB! If this update seem fragmented, incoherent or just way too long it's because Iran was such a complex experience and I find it very hard to put it into words. Writing the update a whole month after leaving the country doesn't make it any easier either...
And keep in mind: You're under NO OBLIGATION to read all this ;-)
I'll start this update as I finished the last one, reciting visa details for Iran. As we went to pick up our Iranian visa on the 3rd of April we were so loaded with negative stories on difficulties obtaining visas that we'd be happy to get one at all. To our delight we found all those stories to be unfounded (for us, at least) and after paying the $50 per person we got our visas; a full 30 days, counting from the date of entry. Excellent! All we had to do was fill out the forms, wait for ten days and pay the money. Piece of cake.
We then spent another three days in Istanbul getting ready to enter Iran so it wasn't until the 6th of April that we finally got on our way to Teheran. The bus was a fairly run down machine that left from some backyard at the waterfront in Aksaray, Istanbul, but since it was only 30'000'000 lira (approx $28) for the whole trip we couldn't really complain! The passengers of the bus was a healthy mix of people ranging from old couples to single young men but no other backpackers - I guess they mostly do some travelling around the northeastern areas of Turkey before crossing into Iran. Since the bus didn't get rolling until four in the afternoon the sun was already well on its way down as we, for the second time on this journey, crossed the Bosporus and once again entered Asia. Turkish buses being what they are we found ourselves quite comfortable and spent the evening getting acquainted with our fellow passengers, most of which turned out to be Iranians on their way home.
Waking up the next morning we found ourselves well into the mountainous northeast part of Turkey where we had a final lunch stop at the city of Dogubayazit (some umlauts missing) with a good view of the peaks of Mount Ararat. Upon arrival at the border we were met by long lines of trucks waiting on the Turkish side to enter into Iran. We later learned from the Iranian newspapers that there is a long standing issue between Iran and Turkey concerning the inefficiency of the Turkish customs resulting in long waiting times for Iranian vehicles at this particular border. Turkish exit procedures were fairly straightforward and it was with some excitement that we now finally left 'European' soil and entered the Iranian entry hall. To our delight, formalities were very swift and just fifteen minutes later we found ourselves waiting for our bags to clear Turkish customs so that we could pick them up and carry them through to Iran.
At this point we got our first taste of the Iranian openness and criticism of the current regime as we were approached by a man who presented himself as an author, adding how difficult (close to impossible) it was publishing ones work in Iran these days. He then lowered his voice and mentioned the case of Salman Rushdie! Not exactly a subject I felt very comfortable discussing while waiting for Iranian entry procedures to finish! Since I didn't really know what to expect concerning such matters in Iran - the image given by the western media being fairly distorted - I decided to ignore the comment and steered the conversation in the direction of Iran as a tourist destination. My friend the author thought this was fairly boring since, in his opinion, the people and their culture would be far more interesting than any sightseeing from a tourist standpoint. A comment that turned out to be very true when it comes to Iran, its people and sights.
Customs formalities turned out to be equally swift and efficient for us with baggage checking consisting of us motioning to take off our backpacks just to be whisked through and greeted 'Welcome to Iran'! For the locals returning home things where not so up, as a friend of ours told us later, as they had their bags thoroughly searched and much excise to pay for what the customs officers deemed to be 'excess luggage'. Seemed to us that the Iranians returning home mainly brought various consumer items and clothes from Istanbul despite it being far more expensive than the equivalent goods available in Iran. Some people also brought numerous pairs of pants, shoes, jackets etc for use as models in their copycat businesses in Iran where western copyright laws are not applicable.
If crossing the border and entering Iran was swift, the trip from the border to Teheran was painfully slow. After sitting in the border town of Bazargan for two hours, possibly waiting for the driver to finish his waterpipe, we slowly rolled on towards Tabriz. Luckily, one of our fellow passengers, a young iranian on his way home from his job as a magician at a Turkish seaside resort, kept entertaining the whole bus with his dexterity; making coins dis- & reappear, swallowing little balls and (seemingly) tearing bills apart with no ill effect... Great fun! Unfortunately, the distance from the border to Tabriz - a mere 220 km or so - took all night due to numerous checkpoints along the route. At these checkpoints the luggage of the locals was searched and, again, subjected to custom duties and excise. We were happy to be exempted from all these checks but the locals were notably irritated as we passed through Tabriz at sunrise.
The hospitable Teheranis
After Tabriz the road took on the shape of a modern four lane highway and as we neared our destination our fellow passengers took more and more interest in us and where we'd go in Teheran. We assured everyone, as gentle as we could, that we were all right and would head for a hotel in southern Teheran but we still ended up with some telephone numbers and invitations.
Almost exactly 48 hours after departure from Istanbul we were dropped of at the western bus station of Teheran which, as far as we could tell, was very modern and well organized. The usual crowd of taxi drivers mobbed the bus as we got off but they were all fairly polite and accepted 'no' for an answer. I don't really know what we expected from Teheran (or Iran either for that matter) but this place looked far too western to fit with my mental picture. Before we could sort ourselves out and get our bearings we were told by one of our friends from the bus to stay put for a while; his son would soon arrive by car and they would give us a lift downtown. Perfect! His son turned out to be very good at English and the car he was driving, the family car, looked fairly expensive compared to the other cars on the road leading us to think that our friends were fairly well off by Iranian standards. After some chatting on our way into town - the traffic being nowhere near as chaotic as we'd been led to believe by several sources - we arrived at the family house in the hilly, northern part of Teheran. Of course we'd be driven downtown but first we should meet the rest of the family... which of course lead to us being invited to stay overnight in their (very modern) house.
After washing the travel dust away we spent the afternoon with the family, consisting of our friend from the bus, his wife, son and two teenage daughters. We could hardly have expected a better welcome in Iran. The house of our host was a luxurious three storey building in the middle class area of northern Teheran so we felt right at home with the surroundings. The entire family, save the wife, spoke very good English so there was no communication problems to speak of - except the times when we didn't know what was expected of us as guests and how to interpret the polite offers of our hosts. The family was also very westernized so there was no need to cover oneself with long sleeve jumpers or, in Bettinas case, a scarf indoors as the custom in stricter families would demand. The TV, seemingly constantly running in the background, was also sporting a satellite decoder (satellite dishes are illegal - but very common - in Iran and the police regularly makes fly-overs to find the offenders whereafter they visit the houses for a small payoff...) with access to channels from all over the world. Apart from satellite channels the son of the family also had a computer with an internet connection in his room. Sure, the internet connections of Iran are monitored (the providers run filtering proxies on their networks) but for the most part of the web there're no blocks and if there are they're easily defeated. So much for censorship!
In the evening of this, very intensive, day we headed downtown with the family (minus the son) in their car. We were surprised at how openly the people of Teheran show their defiance of the current regime; we didn't really expect to hear Ricky Martin blasting out of the speakers while driving through town with the windows down. Neither did we expect to see so many young women walking around in short coats (many times not even below the knees) wearing their scarves rebelliously far back, barely covering half of the hair. The hour and a half or so spent in the car driving around town with our friends was highly interesting and was to be the only time we'd catch a glimpse of the nightlife in post-revolution Teheran. Very enjoyable indeed and the visit to 'Burger King' (yes, so it said on the door, complete with the BK logo and everything) in the northern part of town showed us that nightlife in Iran is something for the entire family, not just young couples (who aren't allowed to be running around on their own before marriage anyway).
As we returned to the house just after eleven in the evening a childhood friend of our host had just arrived from Amol with his family. We were initially slightly confused by his accent but were soon to know that he had lived for eleven years in India where he was managing a factory. He then continued to tell us a little about how it is to be a businessman in Iran, the problems (lack of government backing in the form of infrastructure & loans) and the upsides (cheap labour & loose regulations) all seem to balance out toward a slightly negative outcome for the country if he's to be believed. The main concern of our friends (and many other Iranians we met throughout the country) was the apparent lack of good management that can steer the country in a positive direction at a government level. This, and many other issues, we were discussing this late night after a 48 hour bustrip from Istanbul to Teheran so it was with great pleasure that we crashed into bed that night, trying to sort out our impressions of this turbulent first twentyfour hours in Iran!
Left to our own devices in Teheran
Having spent two nights with our family in Teheran we had to move out since they all were going to visit some friends out of town for a couple of days and didn't really fancy having us alone in the house in case something happened. Feeling a bit guilty about not being able to accommodate us for more than two days (about two more than we would ever dream of asking!) our host followed us downtown and put us up in a hotel. Thankfully, we were allowed to pay for the hotel ourselves and said goodbye to our host with a promise of a weekend trip to the telecabin at Tôchal mountain, a popular weekend pastime among the Teheranis. Apparently our host managed to get us a very good deal at the hotel since it didn't take more than five minutes after he'd left until the manager of the hotel knocked on our door asking us how we got such a good price! He then greeted us cordially to his hotel, presented his business card with his home- & cellphone number written on the back and told us to call him if we ever needed any help or assistance!
Finally being left to our own devices in Iran felt a bit strange at first but also quite relaxing as we now had time to sort out our impressions of our first four days in the country. We were soon very clear about just how lucky we'd been in starting our visit with an invitation to such a westernized and modern family, helping us to smooth the transition and being able to ask all those questions that you can't find answers to in a guidebook. Things became a bit harder at once (like were to find anything edible apart from burgers and pizzas) with much more time being spent on simple things like eating and sorting out transportation.
One of our strongest impressions so far was that of how outspoken most Iranians seemed to be on most matters - including their current regime. It happened several times that I'd sit down next to someone on a bus in Teheran upon which he'd start a conversation and almost immediately state how badly he hated the Mullahs (the ruling clergy with veto power over any decisions made in the country)! Not something one would expect in a country which, according to our guidebook and the image drawn up by western media, has a strong, ruthless secret police! Naturally I'd be vary of continuing such discussions (especially on a BUS!) and would instead try to focus on the much liked president since four years, Khatami, who is up for re- election as I write.
The relative freedom of dress enjoyed by women in Teheran was also a surprise to us since our image of Iran was that of a country where all women have to wear the black chador (meaning 'tent' in Farsi!). Naturally we saw a lot of these in Teheran as well but most women seemed to opt for a much lighter long overcoat and a simple scarf and we were even told by the members of our family that Bettina didn't have to bother with anything else than a scarf as long as she wore loose, covering clothes like long sleeve jumpers and loose pants! Bettina tried this for a couple of days but later bought a thin, loose overcoat out of respect for local customs (not to misuse the extra tolerance given to foreigners) and for her own comfort (trying not to stick out more than necessary). This move also proved to be highly appreciated by many of the Iranians we met later on in Iran and some of them even asked if we were muslims since Bettina covered up so well!
On this note it may also be said that we found it quite sad to hear that many tourists can't even be bothered to TRY to follow the small simple rules and dress modestly in Iran. All that is needed is that the women cover their hair with a scarf and that both men and women try to minimize the amount of bare flesh shown. We saw several foreigners walking around in T-shirts (accepted but rarely seen on an Iranian outside of their house) and some women sitting around without scarves as well. From our friends in Esfahan (maybe the no. 1 tourist city in Iran after Persepolis in Shiraz) we also heard that they often saw foreigners walking in shorts & T-shirt, the women not even covering their hair! That they don't get into trouble for breaking the law (women are required by LAW to cover their hair, however stupid that may seem to western tourists) is just further evidence of the Iranian tolerance. One asks oneself if these ignorant tourists would consider walking naked through town at home...
Sights, sounds and (*cough*) smells of Teheran
From several other travellers passing through Iran we'd heard horror stories about the mayhem that is Iranian traffic and if our guidebook (Lonely Planet) was to be believed, Teheran traffic would be just about as bad as it gets. Consequently, air pollution in the city of Teheran is among the worst in the world! At first, walking through the city, we didn't think neither air nor traffic that bad but after a couple of hours of searching around for various museums and monuments we had to rethink, at least the pollution part. It started as a slight tickle down the throat which developed into an irritating, dry cough which eventually became more or less chronic. Our eyes and noses started running and gradually became worse the longer we stayed outside, limiting us to 4-5 hours of outdoor sightseeing a day.
On the other hand we didn't find traffic to be nearly as bad as we'd been led to believe. True, the occasional vehicle would drive on the wrong side of the road, motorbikes frequently use the sidewalk for getting around traffic jams and the 'loudest horn goes first' rule apply but it wasn't worse than many other places we'd visited on this trip. Traffic was also far slower (due to congestion) than, for example, in Egypt and where Cairo drivers would take aim and speed up at seeing a pedestrian trying to cross. The Teheran drivers would slow down (!) being content honking their horn a couple of times extra.
Upon mentioning these our findings to our hosts we were told that traffic and pollution levels were momentarily LOW due to the extended vacation following the Islamic New Year ('no ruz'). Later in the year traffic would soar to as much as seven times that which we were currently seeing and pollution levels would of course rise to dangerous (even LETHAL!) levels! No wonder those who can afford it are moving further and further away from central Teheran (thus contributing even more to the increase in traffic, etc, etc)!
What Teheran may be lacking in air quality it tries to make up for, as is true all over Iran, by its fabulous parks which seem to take up approximately one quarter of the state budget (another quarter probably being spent on mosques ;-). Wherever we'd go there'd be a well maintained park to stroll through or relax in. Quite a change from the parks of most of the other middle east countries we'd travelled through! The parks, as far as we could tell, in Iran has an important social function and at lunch time and Fridays (the islamic rest day) they're full with families and couples having a picnic in the green. Walking through a park at these times we almost invariably got invited to have a cup of tea, lunch or dinner!
Apart from parks, the attractions of Teheran consisted mainly of numerous museums and a few memorials with almost no outstanding mosques to visit (there were enough of those throughout the rest of the country). One of the highlights of our museum tour was the 'Ceramics- and glass museum' which was interesting not only for its exhibits but even more so for the incredible building which housed it; take an old barock building, European style, make the barock stuccos a bit more stylish and add the Persian tradition of Islamic calligraphy and you're getting close. In addition to that, the exhibits were all clearly labelled, beautifully displayed and the staff friendly and helpful (although the woman wanting to guide/talk to us only spoke French). Once again in complete contrast to the museums we'd encountered in most other countries on this trip.
Another good museum was that of contemporary art located in the northwest corner of the beautiful Lale Park (where we actually saw several young couples defying local law and custom by walking hand in hand!). The museum of contemporary art was housed in a more modern building which stylishly and effectively put the art on display in focus. The exhibits, at the time we were there, were mainly paintings by various local artists and a few foreign guest painters as well. I'm not an art critic but I dare say that Iran has some very talented artists. The techniques being used ranged from charcoal through to water colour, etchings to pastells and tons of other ones. Many of the works were also done using a fair mix of disparate techniques as well. The motives ranged from portraits, still lifes, landscapes or just pure free form but one thing we both noticed was the slightly dark, heavy subtone of many of the works. It really felt as if the artists wanted to express something they were not allowed to within the strict confines of what is deemed 'proper' by the clergy!
Apart from these two museums we enjoyed the (free) Iranian Photographers Exhibition, the (almost vulgar) Jewellery Museum where the jewels of the former Shah and his family are on display and a walk in the courtyard of the recently renovated Golestan Palace although we didn't enter any of its many halls and museums due to the prohibitive entrance fees. The same was true for the National museum which we found to be prohibitively priced at 60'000 Rials ($7.50!) for foreigners where locals pay a measly 2'000! Appalling.
When we didn't visit museums or parks we simply walked along the streets of Teheran exploring bazars, shops and whatever would come our way. It was at these times, away from the main tourist sites, that Teheran would show its most positive side to us; the incredible helpfulness and friendliness of its inhabitants. If we asked someone for directions we'd often find ourselves with a guide and translator showing us all the way just to make sure we got there with a minimum of hassle. At times, our helpful guides would even get on a bus with us just to make sure we got onto the connecting bus at the next intersection! Sitting on buses in Teheran, segregated with men in the front and women at the back, the fellow passengers would also go at lengths to make sure we got to where we wanted and it also happened (more than once) that the bus driver wouldn't accept full fare for the ride. Incredible!
At the end of our first stay in Teheran we re-united with our host from the first two nights to go up the Tôchal telecabin. Arriving on time early Friday morning at their doorstep we of course woke our poor host who was enjoying a good morning's sleep after a hard working week. Just moments later we headed north through the suburbs of Teheran arriving at the trail up to Tôchal no later than nine o'clock - just to find the whole place completely overrun by young Teheranis heading up the broad path towards Tôchal! The general atmosphere of the place can only be described as PARTY! Here it seemed as if the young were trying to defy as many taboos as possible without risking attracting undue attention from the powers that be - which were of course aware of this! Our host pointed out two women belonging to the 'dress police' to us and before we could ask how he could tell they stopped two girls who they deemed improperly dressed, made them adjust their scarves and close their jackets before letting them go again! I must say I thought the intervention seemed very arbitrary since the whole hillside was so full of 'improperly dressed' youths that it would take an army of police officers to make the slightest difference!
It was soon clear to us that the concept of a nice walk/promenade through beautiful scenery is somewhat different in Iran than that which we have. Apart from droves of youths dragging their ghetto blasters up the mountain side, playing western pop hits from the nineties, the path were lined with booths selling refreshments, cheap souvenirs and clothes! We continued up to the second station for the telecabin where we had a short break, feasting on a water melon our host brought for the purpose. We then got ourselves a lift with the telecabin up to the top station, half payed for by our host due to some confusion about the price (he bought tickets of a telecabin employee making some extra money by selling his free tickets on the side...), and there got some great views of Teheran. Having spent an hour or so at the restaurant at the top (which might as well have been located somewhere in the German alps!) we then headed for the telecabin for the trip down. Standing in line for the telecabin proved to be yet another experience as a group of schoolgirls spotted Bettina and positively attacked her out of sheer curiosity! Some men standing behind me in line commented, hearing that Bettina was German, then started talking German to me since he'd been living in Germany some years ago. It's hard to get bored while standing in line in Iran!
Having spent the day at Tôchal and visiting friends of our hosts we then enjoyed a farewell dinner at our hosts. That evening there was a lot of talking about travelling and we sometimes got the impression that our stay with the family was fuelling some old debate about their future and travels with us sometimes being glorified as the perfect example of how to live ones life. Considering that, we later decided to try to play down our travel stories a bit to avoid giving a too 'glamorous' image and possibly causing rifts in the families we visited. It's hard not to influence the countries one travels through whether one wants it or not!
Bus one: Teheran to Shiraz
Since all money changing, more or less, is done on the street in Iran where the rate for a dollar is approximately 8'000 Rials (as of May 2001) we decided to take our friend up on his offer to change some money for us before leaving Teheran. Hence, I went over to his shop in the old bazar of Teheran and then spent a further two hours there drinking tea, chatting with my friend and watching him at work (extremely busy!) while he sent his errand boy out to change our last D-marks and buying us the bus ticket for Shiraz. (It's close to impossible to stop the Iranians from helping you out in any way they can!) As his errand boy returned with money and ticket it was time to say goodbye but no tears since we already planned to come back for a daytrip with our friends to Mt. Damavand - the volcano that is the highest mountain of Iran.
Arriving at Teherans southern bus terminal later that afternoon we were delighted to see how well organized it was. A huge circular building with all the bus companies (unnamed but numbered 1, 2, 3 etc!) lined up along the outer perimeter with their buses departing from just outside their office space. The TV:s hanging from the ceiling were showing some (apparently important) soccer game which most of the passengers were following with great interest and each time a goal was scored I half expected the ceiling to cave in from the cheers!
Waiting for our bus to depart we admired the beautiful buses of Iran, most of which where of the local brand 'Iran Khodro' (which I think means 'Iran Motors' or some such). There were a few Volvo and Mercedes buses as well but we were hoping to get on to one of the locally produced buses which were beautifully rounded with huge panoramic windows ending halfway up the roof! Since the bus got a bit late we started talking to our fellow passengers and a man working as the 'bus boy' on the bus we were waiting for. He turned out to be one of many Afghanis that have fled the Taliban onslaught in their native country for the hope of a better life elsewhere. Upon hearing about our extended travels he asked us if we wanted to visit Afghanistan (he made it sound like an invitation) and looked rather disappointed as I replied that we'd love to but not until there's some peace, quiet and stability in the country.
Departing, about an hour late, the bus then started to drag around town for more passengers (our friend from Afghanistan shouting: "Esfahan, Shiraz, go, go, go, go!" out the window) before finally leaving Teheran at dark an hour later. The bus was, luckily, one of the 50s looking Iran Khodros with ample leg space and comfortable seats. Very important since the trip to Shiraz was supposed to take 16 hours or so! Heading out on the highway we still didn't see any signs of the alleged maniacal driving habits of the Iranians and we were beginning to believe that our guide book as well as all those that had told us about it were merely oversensitive and all wrong. There were however frequent checkposts along the highway where the bus boy would run out with a small paper to the officer in charge before the bus could continue. We later learned that these checkposts are there to (among other things) check the speed of buses as a means to secure the safety of the bus passengers! Thus, the buses can't speed very much any more. Of course there's always the possibility of a dangerous takeover (we saw some of those) but at least speeding buses will not be a worry!
Arriving in Shiraz at ten in the morning we were immediately struck by the oppressing heat and the relaxed manner in which the taxi drivers approached us for a ride into town. We declined any taxi offers, as usual, and had a good, hot 45 minute walk through town with our backpacks before finally checking in at the LP recommended 'Esteghlal'. As seemed to be the case of most places with top recommendations in the LP prices were higher than they should be and standards lower. We were, however, far too tired to run around town for better offers so we stayed - vowing to avoid the top recommendations in the future...
The city of Irans two greatest poets
Shiraz, surrounded by hills in what seemed to be more or less arid desert, turned out to be a major tourist town. During a few hours following arrival we saw far more tourists (almost exclusively tour groups) than we'd seen during our entire stay in Teheran (a week). For a while we debated if that could be the reason why we didn't feel as comfortable - or 'welcome' might be a better word - in Shiraz as we had felt in Teheran. Maybe the people of the city were just too used to tourists and sick and tired of having to deal with foreigners stomping around their 'quaint' living areas... The upside of the tourist hoardes visiting Shiraz, mainly as a base for Persepolis, was the excellent service at the tourist information office where the two guys would give detailed information on all from transport, entrance fees and other queries we might have. If they didn't have the answer they'd find out and tell us later - easily the best tourist information office we visited in all Iran. Armed with a map, obtained at said tourist information office, we then spent a few days wandering around town in the dusty heat of southern Iran. Luckily, by mid-April temperatures had just started rising and we were spared the scorching heat of the summer months but it was still hot enough in the middle of the day to justify an extended lunch break - or 'siesta' if you will.
Two of the most important sites to visit in Shiraz are the tombs of two of Irans most famous poets; Hafez and Sa'di. Since the entrance fees for these places were both very steep (25'000 rials each; ca. $3) for foreigners we rationed our entrance fees a bit and only entered the tomb of Hafez, the greatest of Irans poets. I must admit that we felt a bit ripped off since all there was to be seen was a, admittedly beautiful, garden with some pavillions here and there. This wouldn't have been to bad to pay for if it wasn't for the fact that beautiful parks are to be found in abundance in all major cities in Iran and they usually are free to enter! We did however make the most of our visit to the tomb and spent a good hour or so enjoying a quiet back garden that no-one else seemed to consider interesting enough to visit. Funny that, how 'us westerners' cherish quiet solitude while many other nationalities consider the ultimate relaxation to be among friends or in larger groups.
Having visited the Hafez tomb we climbed a small hill, overlooking the Quoran Arch at the NE entrance of the city, upon which some sort of memorial had been built. The reason for the memorial we couldn't figure out but the views were great as we took in all of Shiraz and the dry landscape in which the city is located as well as getting our bearings before our next stop, the tomb of Sa'di. The tomb of Sa'di seemed a lot more interesting than that of Hafez but since we were both very tired and didn't really feel like forking out another 25'000 rials where locals pay 2'000 we decided that looking at the gardens from outside would have to be enough. Instead, we backtracked along the road we came, intending to sit down for an hour or so in one of the beautiful parks we'd seen lining the road out to the Sa'di tomb.
No sooner had we entered the park than a young boy that we had greeted at the entrance came running with a tray sporting two glasses of tea! He explained that we were invited to come and share the picnic basket of his family sitting just 50 metres away. Such an offer couldn't really be refused so we went over and sat down, had some salad, fruits and nuts with our tea. The family, mother, father and son accompanied by a grandmother and two uncles (I believe), almost immediately told us that they were members of a significant jewish community in Shiraz. Answering our question on if it was hard to be a jew in Iran we got a negative reply; some small problems such as the obligatory scarf for women and trying to keep a low profile was all there was to it. As long as they stayed within the laws of the state of Iran they could practice their religion freely. We were a bit surprised at hearing this considering Irans official view on the Israel issue but then again, being jewish doesn't automatically make you Israeli. In fact, as we spoke about the status of religious minorities in Iran we noted that Iran seems to be far more tolerant of other religions than most of its neighbours. Kurds are leaving Iraq and Turkey for the NE areas of Iran and Afghanis are fleeing the onslaught of the militant Taliban regime at home. We even heard that many Iraqis in general try to flee to Iran, a country with which they were fighting a war just 13 years ago! This doesn't necessarily mean that all Iranians are content with life in Iran and our picnic hosts, like so many other Iranians we met, were already trying to get the papers ready to move to the US. For a country that officially opposes the US and still has a fair amount of 'Down with USA' paintings decorating the walls here and there the positive view that the people of Iran has of the US was rather surprising to us.
Mosque-seeing in Shiraz
If we were a bit disappointed at the lack of interesting mosques in Teheran we certainly got compensated in Shiraz - wherever we'd turn there seemed to be a mosque or some other related islamic building. One such building was the fabulous 'Khan Madrassa' hiding behind a huge, intensely decorated, portal leading into a tranquil courtyard where the theological students (soon to be Mullahs) spend their breaks. There was no entrance fee since the school is still used but the gatekeeper did expect a small token of appreciation for letting us in! In all only two of the mosques in Shiraz tried to charge us entrance fees for visiting and in one of those we got the distinct feeling that it wasn't currently in use.
More interesting than visiting old, unused mosques was visiting new (and old) mosques that were still in use. One such mosque was the enormous Bogh'é-yé Shah-é Cheragh which courtyard seemed to be something like 250x150 metres or so and containing two holy shrines. The courtyard was full of people of all ages and classes chatting, eating, reading or sleeping during their lunch break and there seemed to be some sort of 'army day' since half of the open spaces were occupied by army vehicles, guns, robots and other unfriendly things. Bettina, being a true fan of all buildings holy, entered the small shrine at the side and described the inside as 'completely crazy' as every square inch of the inside was covered with mirrors! I caught a glimpse of the interior of the bigger, main shrine which was decorated in a similar manner and I'm surprised that those entering manage to find their way out again! I don't think I've ever seen so many mirrors in one temple before - not even in the recently renovated temples of Thailand which usually tend to be more or less covered in mirrors and other things glittering.
If the mosques were many and prominent features of the cityscape the non-islamic religious buildings were few and rather hidden from sight. For example, our jewish friends told us there are more than twenty synagogues in Shiraz but we didn't see a single one. We did find a church though, an Anglican one, which we payed a visit just after the service on Easter Sunday.
Persepolis & Naghsh-e Rostam
Visiting Shiraz without going to Persepolis would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel tower or skipping the pyramids in Cairo so of course we went there, despite the ugly demands for high entrance fees from foreigners. We were initially a bit worried about getting to and from Persepolis since it is located some 60 km from Shiraz and we didn't really feel like joining a tour. Our worries turned out to be completely unwarranted and with some help of our friends at the tourist information office we managed to get there by public transportation without undue hassle.
Upon buying our tickets we found out that foreigners, apart from being charged ten times as much as locals, also were obliged to buy a ticket for the 'museum' of Persepolis - another 20'000 Rials for something we'd rather skip! Making a scene and pointing out how disgusting we found the dual pricing we payed the tickets, hoping that if enough tourists protest there might be a change sometime in the future. The ticket clerks didn't seem to care much though and seemed to agree with the policy that non-Iranian tourists pay more. The argument goes that 'foreigners have more money so they pay more' but one wonders how much they'd charge, for example, a Syrian visitor who probably would have even less cash than the average Iranian...
To add to the insult of making foreigners pay more we soon found that hardly any of the information signs dotting the site had been translated into English! The Iranian ministry of tourism sure does its best to piss [individual] tourists off - in stark contrast to the population at large who so many times helped us, talked to us or even invited us. If tourism in Iran takes off it's definately *not* thanks to the official government policy!
The site itself was far smaller than I initially thought and not as impressive as I'd expected. Maybe I've just seen too many ruins in my days but for being such an important site the ruins were remarkably, eh, ruined. No wonder, perhaps, since several plundering armies have done their best to ravage the site - even to the point of hacking away faces and other features deemed offensive from the stones! What little is left from Alexander the Greats (to name one villain) plunderings is now on display to a surprisingly small number of tourists. At least when we were there. Maybe we were just lucky but we barely counted 2-3 busloads during our 3+ hours at the site in peak tourist season. Ample time and space for us to stroll around trying to find good carvings and interesting angles for photography but not so many were found. I actually found the location of the site partway up a small hill overlooking a wide grassy plain to be the greatest source of inspiration as I could imagine how the palace must've looked like at a distance when it was still standing, partly gilded! No wonder it attracted conquerors and looters from far and wide!
Cut into the hillside behind Persepolis are two cliff tombs which, again, failed to impress us very much since we'd seen much 'better stuff' at Petra in Jordan less than half a year ago. The cliff tombs of Naghsh-é Rostam located six kilometres away from Persepolis threatened to be more of the same but we defied the mid day sun and started walking (taxi drivers outside Persepolis claiming it was 15 km or more to walk...) to see them nonetheless. After less than a kilometre along the deserted road we flagged down and got a ride with a tour bus chartered by the German company 'Studiosus Reisen'. We felt sorely out of place inside this air-conditioned, leatherseated luxury bus and couldn't help but wondering how much an all inclusive tour of Iran would cost. We soon found out as Bettina started chatting with one of the passengers; DM7000 for three weeks was how much he'd paid! He was quite fascinated to hear that we were touring Iran on our own and wondered if we'd had any trouble with the police! As he then had to run to keep up with his group we had to cut our conversation short but we'd have loved to compare his experiences with ours upon completion of the trip!
The Naghsh-é Rostam tombs turned out to be more or less what we expected them to be and at 25'000 Rial per person to get 200 metres closer (still several hundred metres away from the tombs) we opted to admire them from outside the gate for some minutes before flagging down a small bus headed for Marvedasht. Returning to Shiraz a couple of hours later Bettina headed straight for the tourist information office to tell our friends there our opinion about the dual pricing scheme to most sites in Iran. They acknowledged the problem and even said that they'd been to Teheran two months ago to discuss a solution but that the central tourism organisation claimed to be powerless since prices were set at a government level! Sad, if it's true. The iranians are working so hard at making guests feel welcome in their country only to be counteracted by their own government.
Bus two: Shiraz to Esfahan
Leaving Shiraz we once again committed the error of buying our ticket a day in advance and thus had to pass up the bus that left, dragging around for more passengers, just as we arrived at the bus terminal. First lesson in Iran; don't buy tickets in advance or you'll have to wait for your bus to depart, jump on one that's already halfway out the gate instead! Not that it mattered much, we spent the half hour waiting for our bus to depart admiring the posters of the shop in front of the bus: Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme featured prominently togehter with Michael Jackson, Backstreet Boys and pictures of alpine meadows in Switzerland! They certainly have a nack for posters in Iran and Bettina once saw a poster of a Swiss village where the church had been replaced by a mosque!
Having opted to take a daytime bus to Esfahan to see some of the landscape we missed on the overnight bus to Shiraz we were disappointed by the monotonous, dry desert plains that rolled by outside the bus window. Not that deserts can't be interesting, inspiring and beautiful but this one was rather drab and what we could see from Esfahan as we approached didn't look at all inviting. Fortunately things aren't always what they seem and already on the local bus into city centre we picked up a positive atmosphere, Bettina chatting with a woman who'd lived in Scottland for some years and now (sincerely and curiously) asked if Bettina had had her coat given to her by the Islamic Revolution of Iran! I on the other hand answered the mandatory questions on country, job and name before being showed where to get off the crowded bus.
After a brief search we checked in to a noisy but friendly hotel right in the middle of town and almost immediately headed out to see the famous bridges of Esfahan. Walking along the streets of Esfahan felt more relaxed than both Teheran and Shiraz with quite a few Iranian tourists mingling with the locals and the occasional foreigner as well. The main street, at which we stayed, lined with sweet shops, bakeries, a few souvenir shops and numerous fast food places led straight down to the river. Or, as the locals now jokingly call it by replacing one letter of its name in Farsi: "The river that was". Where the river was supposed to have been was now just a flat and dry river bed, crossed at regular intervals by bridges spanning the 100 metres or so to the other side. The central bridge, today only for pedestrians, must have undergone extensive renovation because we failed to see what was so fantastic about it. With a wide, blank mirror of water flowing through its arches things might've been different, I'm sure, but as we saw it it wasn't very interesting. A walk across to the other side, girls nervously giggling 'hello' upon seeing my long hair, and then a brief walk along the 'riverside' by night was all the time we spent at the central bridge. The only bridge we considered even remotely interesting was the Khaju bridge which sported a huge pavillion in the middle which used to be occupied by a former Shah.
Mosques, bazars and museums
Always good at timing things we arrived in Esfahan on a Thursday evening and thus headed out for Emam Khomeini Square on Friday morning and hence were not let into the Masjed-é Emam mosque due to preparations for the weekend prayer at noon. Instead we took the chance to explore the extensive bazars on our way (accidentally) to the Masjed-é Jame' Mosque. Most of the shops were of course also closed awaiting noon prayers but the bazars were far from empty; in every third intersection or so the mosquegoers (mosque goers, that is) congregated around huge pots of tea and as soon as we were spotted we as well would be offered a cup! Seeing the souks and khans of the bazar area off hours was also far more relaxing from a pure sightseeing standpoint as we didn't have to constantly keep dodging people, cars, motorcycles and what not; we got plenty of that on our second visit to the bazar a couple of days later.
The general atmosphere of the open bazar was almost the same as that of the closed one though and we never felt hassled by any of the shopkeepers who instead conversated about all things other than souvenirs! Favourite subject was of course our nationality and since several shopkeepers then, upon hearing 'Sweden', asked if we were with the 'Pink bus' we guessed that a busload of Swedish tourists just arrived in town. [The 'Pink Buses' is a form of 'backpacker tour company' operating out of Sweden since 20-30 years or so.] Best of the bazar area though was the souk of the metal workers where the sound of the mallets relentlessy bending the metal to shape blended with that of welding torches and huge melting ovens thundering away. Awesome! Some of the things being created in that souk really has to be seen to be believed - beautiful!
But lets go back to our Friday noon excursion; exiting the bazar area to the left we all of a sudden found ourselves standing in the tranquil courtyard of a beautiful mosque which we later figured out must've been the Masjed-é Jame'. The style of this mosque was quite different from the other ones we'd seen so far with patterns and decorations being far larger in scale giving a, in my eyes, more restful, less cluttered impression. As we passed the entrance to the shrine of the mosque we saw, for the first time in a 'mosque context', how the visitors lit candles outside the door. Seems each mosque has its own special little rituals or maybe it's just different prayers and times of the year.
Passing up on a dinner invitation from an, I think, old taxi driver on his way home for Friday dinner we made our way through some backstreets towards the Emam Khomeini Square once again and arrived just as the Masjed-é Emam mosque emptied its guts into the huge square where fifty or so buses were waiting to take the mosquegoers (great word, isn't it?) home. The whole square was vibrating with the 'chorus' of the final prayer which sounded an awful lot like the kind of chorus one would hear at the end of a major rock concert while walking out, upbeat, happy and highly sing-along friendly!
Still being too early to visit the mosque we decided to check out some of the museums nearby instead but they too were of course closed on Fridays. Not that it mattered much since all of them had highly inflated entrance fees for tourists which we didn't feel like paying. Alas, our only lasting memory of the museums of Esfahan is that of the garden of the 'Natural History Museum' which boasted a large number of cheesy looking statues of elephants, giraffes and dinosaurs! We just HAD to get a photo - as did other tourists we saw passing the gates :-)
Instead, some bargaining got us in at half price to the 'Pavillion of forty columns' where the actual twenty columns of the pavillion in question cast their reflections in a pool of water to make up the requested forty. The inside of the pavillion was under renovation with the many [huge] paintings of wars ravaging the history of the country being cleaned from many years of dust and dirt. Well worth the [half] entrance fee but we still commented on the ridiculous tourist fee to the guide on duty inside who thoughtfully remarked that some other tourists had said the exact same thing the day before. After another hour of strolling around in parks (again being invited to the picnic table of a family) we finally got to see the grand Masjed-é Emam Mosque (once again at half the stipulated tourist price) from inside and it was definately worth the wait! The whole mosque was clad in light blue tiles with intricate patterns painted on them. The huge arches, domes and beautiful portals decorated with a ropelike spiralling pattern along the edges were truly inspiring. We had most of the mosque to ourselves and could walk around at will through the many courtyards that just a couple of hours ago had been filled with mosquegoers (sorry, couldn't resist). In one of the corners lay a slice of the main outer dome which was being restored and I was surprised to see that they actually create the dome in slices on the ground which are then somehow assembled on top of the octagonal base crowning the square of the mosque walls.
The hospitable Esfahanis
To finish off our first day of sightseeing in Esfahan Bettina decided to visit the second mosque, Masjed-é Sheikh Lotfollah, just across the Emam Khomeini Square from Masjed-é Emam. Me, having seen just about as many mosques as I could possibly take in in a day, waited outside watching the sun set over the square which was full of people enjoying their day off. I didn't have to be alone very long. A man, presenting himself as Ahmet, started asking me the standard questions in broken but comprehensible English. We were still chatting as Bettina returned from the mosque telling me how I'd missed a really special mosque. Sitting down waiting for us to finish our conversation she started chatting with the family of an Iranian guy who was discussing English with a German tourist next to us.
As the German tourist left his Iranian friend joined in the conversation between me and Ahmet. Being a much better English speaker than Ahmet he soon takes over the conversation, presenting himself as an English teacher of a private language school spending his Friday off at Emam Square practicing his English (which was excellent). His 'theme' for the day was a book he'd picked up called "Common mistakes in English" and he argued that the title contradicted itself since anything 'common' would indeed be how people use the language and thus, not a mistake. We discussed this - and many other things (ie the reason why most tourists don't speak to the locals!) - for well over an hour while Bettina chatted with his sisters and mother who were also present at the square. As it got later they asked if we would please come to their place and have dinner - an invitation we of course could not refuse!
Quickly we returned to our hotel for a quick shower after a long day out in the sun and were later picked up by our friend in his Iranian made Paykan (meaning "arrow" in Farsi) at ten o'clock sharp. A ten minute drive later we arrived at their home at the outskirts of Esfahan where we were cordially greeted and asked to feel at home while his father apologized for his humble abode (a beautiful house of some 250 sqm with a garden and some fields behind!). We couldn't figure out if we genuinely thought his house unfit for us as guests or if it was just a phrase (like my grandmother - hej farmor - apologizing for not having any cakes to offer with the coffee while piling 5-6 different kinds on the cookie tray).
While dinner was being prepared we were introduced to the rest of the family, a visiting neighbour and an uncle who happened to drop by, and showed pictures we brought from home. The brother of our friend then demonstrated the classical reed flute of Iran, called "Ney", which is played by pressing air between the teeth and the reed. We both tried this as well but failed to even get a small peep out of the completely hollow reed! Our friend played us a famous classical piece which we thought sounded good but he insisted that he was just a beginner and as he later played a tape of how the professionals play we were inclined to believe him. Apart from the reed flute there was also a small dulcimer, played with feather light hammers. Bettina called this instrument "Hackbrett" (a name I thought sounded like something found at the butcher) and claimed that the German version of it is generally bigger.
When the musical discussions were at end we were offered Gaz, a semihard, sweet, white delicious snack for which Esfahan is famous. [Hi mom! Didn't you make something similar at Christmas once or twice?] While eating the Gaz we were shown a video from our friends' New Year (called "no ruz" in Farsi) vacation to the Persian Gulf. The video really highlighted a major cultural difference; how families socialize. We had earlier that evening in the square received a rather puzzling question phrased "Why is it that the tourists we see here in Esfahan never bring their children?". This question was now emphasized in our minds as we watched the video where 26, yes twenty- six (!), members of the family and friends all travelled together in a caravan through Iran on their way to the Persian Gulf! When was the last time YOU brought your family and relatives on vacation? Never? Same here. Can't really see it happening at home with the, comparatively, weak family ties of the typical European family. Apparently, such huge travel companies are commonplace in Iran. So common that the schools of the country act as cheap hotels for such groups over major holidays in Iran! Great solution!
At around midnight (!) dinner arrived, thankfully a rather light affair washed down with a delicate homemade "Dugh" (a yoghurt drink spiced with mint leaves and salt) and we were continuously asked by our hosts if we were 'comfortable'. We repeatedly confirmed that we were but later, after asking the next day, we found out that the correct action would have been to stretch our legs to *show* it! Small words, gestures and body language make up human communication for sure! Since it was already well past one before we were ready to get back to our hotel we were offered to spend the night with our hosts with a promise of a visit to their grandfathers' farm nearby next day. A bit worried as to if the hotel would notice our absence and make a fuzz we accepted and spent another hour going through the events of the day. Phew!
A day at the English Institute
Our second day with our friends in Esfahan started with breakfast at nine (our hosts as well as us being quite tired from the late night before) and then a short ride in the car out to the farm of their grandfather. On the way there we were told that the land, being just at the edge of the city, would probably be built on within the next 5-10 years. Some offers had already come in to buy the land but so far their grandfather hadn't sold. Situated in the middle of the fields was a small farm house with a huge old pump outside getting water up to the irrigation channels lining the fields. In this end of the city they were lucky as they still had water for their fields. In the other end of the city, where their father had his fields, there was no water to be had due to the prolonged draught (the reason for the river being dry as well).
After spending some 45 minutes at the farm, drinking tea and chatting with their grandfather (who was very happy to see foreigners) we got a ride downtown past all the bridges to Vank Cathedral. The Cathedral was just about to close as we arrived but by stating we were there for a prayer (which was true in the case of Bettina) we got in for a quick look anyway. Bettina found the inside of the church very interesting with many pictures from the bible while I thought the streamer across the courtyard outside to be far more interesting: "In memory of the Armenian genocide committed by the Turkish Government" it said (it was an Armenian church). This was an obvious dig at the controversy between Turkey and Armenia where Armenia wants Turkey to acknowledge the genocide that took place at the beginning of the 1900s. Turkey refuses on the grounds that they can hardly admit to a genocide carried out by the Ottomans. The streamer thus places the blame directly on the Turkish Government... [Does Turkey have good relations with any of its neighbours?]
A good, filling lunch (you can't beat homemade food and this family even grew their own rice!) later it was time for me an Khalil to go to school as he had asked me if I would please join him to be interviewed by his class. Bettina was unfortunately not able to join us since the institute was for men only but to entertain her for the duration of the day a [female] cousin studying politics at the University was called in, enforcing the two sisters of the family.
Arriving at the language institute I was immediately welcomed by the principal and the other teachers - all of which spoke English at all times when at the institute to set a good example. Those who know me and my ways will not be surprised to learn that as soon I got over my initial nervousness and slid into my role as 'foreign interview object' I was close to unstoppable. I'd answer questions almost before they were answered, counter with my own questions and drift off subject as one thing led to the next. But how could it be different? The students, aged from nine to fifty or so, were extremely eager, interested and motivated asking not only the obvious questions about name, country, job but every imaginable subject was broached; from religion to sex, Sweden to politics and travelling to living standards. Even the subject of euthanasia (!) was brought up briefly! After spending a whole evening, six hours in as many classes, almost constantly talking I found that time had been too short - there were so many subjects and interesting angles to discuss that I could've gone on for another six hours, my voice permitting... The students seemed as thrilled as I (so it seemed at least) at this little 'interview', them getting a chance to speak to a foreign tourist and I to Iranian students in an 'organized' setting. An invaluable experience in finding out just a little bit more about the lives, ideas and feelings of the Iranian people. As I said - six hours is a far, far to short time for that!
A light late night dinner later that evening we reluctantly said goodbye as we were on our way to Hammedan to make sure we'd arrive in Teheran in good time before the weekend for our trip to Mt. Damavand with our Teherani host. Returning to the hotel Bettina told me about her afternoon with the girls and how they got rid of their scarves as soon as the men (those not part of the immediate family) disappeared and that it was because of me that they'd kept their scarves on at dinner last night. My first reaction was of course "asch, they could've skipped that, I'm used to seeing women without scarves" but on second thought that would probably be to them like wearing no trousers to school would be to me! Difficult thing to get to grips with, these cultural issues.
The distortion of truth
A reocurring theme throughout our stay in Iran would be the 'myth' as to how things work in the west. More often than not, our Iranian friends would be aware that things are not always what they seem to be and would ask us if it was true that in the west... this and that. The number of interesting questions we got from people in Iran was also evidence to an incredible curiosity and openness to other cultures (mostly the "western way of life" I suppose). Too bad then that the main promotor of 'our' lifestyle is TV... One of our friends was for example convinced that... hmm... can't rememeber what right now but the source he quoted was "Big Brother" on TV! I know it's supposed to be 'reality TV' but would anyone at home really be able to say that it's a good view into how the western way of life is? Didn't think so!
Another favourite theme would be how everything is FREE in the west in the sense that there're no restrictions to what you're allowed to do or not. This, more often than not, was meant in relation to sex and we had all the trouble in the world convincing a friend of ours that people do NOT sleep with each other on public buses in Europe! The fact that there are also social and moral codes woven into society, although not always enforced by law, didn't always sink in.
On the other hand; if anyone would have asked me about Iran prior to my visit there I would undoubtedly have mentioned how women have to dress in all-covering black and being completely without rights. Images of raging religious fanatics burning american flags with hate in their eyes would also have come to mind. Not to mention the omnipresent secret police tracking down dissidents and anyone daring to smile in public. No matter how many nice reports I'd had from friends travelling through Iran those were the images that first would surface in my mind. Such is the power of media. The old saying "don't believe everything you hear on TV" is more relevant than ever.
Bus three: Esfahan to Hammedan
An easy, relaxing wait at the small, quiet and well organized (as usual) northern bus terminal of Esfahan later we were on our way to Hammedan. Once again we'd chosen to go by day as not to miss the landscape and besides, the distance was too short (8 hours) to comfortably last overnight anyway. The scenery out of Esfahan looked like more of the same as we'd had coming in; ugly, featureless desert of mud, dried and cracked by the sun. We noticed a surprising number of 'castles' dotted along the countryside but soon realized that this was probably just the old way of planning a village more than an archeological 'sight'. Having had just about enough of desert for a while we enjoyed the change of scenery that took place some hours short of Hammedan; wide, grassy valleys with the occasional mountain on the horizon.
Our initial impression of Hammedan was confusion, after being dropped off in the dark at some weird location about 15 minutes walkway from the centre, and once we'd gotten ourselves a hotel and went out for food our impression gradually changed to 'unfriendly'. Walking around the city felt downright weird; we couldn't find "the pulse" of the city and since quite a few of the youngsters we met were quite rude (making stupid comments out loud behind our backs) we didn't like it very much. Even so we stayed a full three nights in Hammedan (had a good room - although we had to go through the usual procedure of securing our privacy by hanging bedsheets in front of the [glass!] door, putting blankets in the 10 cm space under the door and covering the key hole) to finish some work projects, catching up on postcards and such things.
The single reason we went to Hammedan in the first place was to visit the Ali-Sadr Caves some two hours away out in the middle of nowhere by local bus. And so we did. We took the bus into the middle of nowhere, half slept through the first hour of the scenic ride and were all of the sudden ushered off the bus by a woman getting off in a small mud-house village (or so it looked). However, walking just ten metres past the first small houses revealed the ticket office and entrance of the cave. How anyone finds this place without help is beyond me - there wasn't a single sign [in English] anywhere near where we got off the bus but then again, with helpful Iranians around one can hardly go very far wrong! If only the people directly involved in the tourist business could be as nice as the population at large...
That we'd pay more than the locals to get in we already knew so we were prepared for that as we payed and started into the cave. The first thing we saw inside the main entrance was a huge, paved road with stairs leading down to a very kitchy looking tea shop or two. Why do something like that to one of the largest waterfilled caves in the world? Uff! Short thereafter we got down to the start of the main tour of the cave though - the boat landing from which visitors are pedalled through the caves in small trains made up of plastic boats. The ticket clerk here turned out to be the exception that confirms the rule; a rude, impolite and dumb Iranian. When he at first refused to tear our tickets, instead insisting on keeping the thing whole (for further resale, probably) we told him we wanted to have the remainder of the ticket as a souvenir. Offended at having us asking him (nicely at that!) to please just tear off the small, perforated part of the ticket he brusquely ripped the whole ticket apart, sneered at us and kept all the parts as well!!!
NOT a good start at our visit to the caves! The guy keeping tabs and organizing the boats had seen what happened and tried to apologize for his colleague by being overly nice to us but we weren't really in the mood foor that. It took until departure before we'd collected enough enthusiasm to enjoy the caves from our little plastic boat gliding past beautiful crystals, funnily shaped rocks and... a plastic dinosaur! Of course we had to get a picture but... Uff! After about fifteen minutes of pedalling through the cave system, water being at places up to 14 metres deep, we were let off at a platform for a short walking tour of the cave. This area must have been beautiful once with eyecatching stalactites and stalagmites among the many crystals and mineral deposits seen. Unfortunately all that was left of them was small little stumps and the reason seemed to be the total lack of protection from visitors. Schoolkids and adults alike would climb around the stumps for photos and I can only guess that many of the stones have ended up as souvenirs! Still worse was the way our guide - the guy pedalling the boat - would use his oar to smash the precious stones just to show the visitors how soft the rocks in the cave were! Huge stones fell off into the water and we could see large sores in the mineral deposits where other oars had hit.
On the whole the Ali-Sadr caves was a huge disappointment and we wouldn't recommend anyone going there. What must once have been a truly beautiful cave is rapidly and actively being destroyed by tourists and caretakers alike. Hopefully someone will realize what's happening and take action soon or there might not be anything left to look at (apart from the waterfilled cave structure itself, that is) within the next 4-5 years or so. Definitely a miss.
Bus four: Return to Teheran
Wise from earlier mistakes of buying tickets in advance we now went straight to the bus station and jumped on an already moving bus instead (easy when going to Teheran where every second bus seems to be headed). The landscape outside continued to be quite dry, ugly and uneventful but the people in the bus were the more interesting. Across the aisle we had two guys who insisted that we'd have a small bag of cookies and sweets to survive the five hour journey. Behind us was an older man with eyes full of mischief and who kept rambling on (in Farsi) for the duration of the trip. Every once in a while he'd raise his voice and say something upon which the whole bus, reluctantly, would quoth: "Allah akbar". We wondered a bit about that as the guy didn't seem to be too serious for most of the time and blasphemy is quite a serious offence in Iran...
Arriving, for the second time on this trip, to Teherans western bus terminal at half past five in the afternoon we tried to call our friends to make sure we were still welcome. Only the mother who didn't speak English was home so we weren't sure but we figured that the invitation from two weeks earlier still stood and started trying to figure out how to get from the station to their place with public transport. Many helpful Iranians later we walked past the Azadi (freedom) Monument around which the tales of Teherans horrid traffic began to make sense. Seldom have I seen such a chaotic jumble of cars, trucks, buses and people - and on top of that the lovely Teheran air which made our lungs scream and eyes cry. Then again a local took pity on us and led us all the way to the right bus, got us off at the Khomeini Square and then made sure that we got on the right bus to our friends (this bus we knew already). We could see that our saviour was running late for something as he was checking his watch all the time but *we* had to tell him to leave or he'd have taken us all the way I believe! Fantastic!
Arriving at our friends' place, flowers in hand, we found the son of the house to be the only one at home. The others, all of which we'd spoken to on the phone earlier that evening at one time or the other, had gone out and the father was on another business trip to Turkey and not expected back until the weekend! As the rest of the family got back later that night we were of course invited to stay for as long as we wished and treated to a royal dinner over which we debated different options for going to Mt. Damavand in the morning.
Our daytrip to Mt. Damavand
Getting to Mt. Damavand by public transportation turned out to be quite some work and as we expected this we started early in the morning by jumping no less than three local buses to get to the Eastern bus station before nine... too bad the minibus headed for Amol didn't leave until 10.30! Heading out east from Teheran was not a particularly uplifting sight - apart from Mt. Damavand - with the whole area looking more or less like a war zone. Not scenic at all. The only entertainment was watching the numerous banana salesmen along the road using the same sales technique: an empty box in one hand and a bunch of bananas in the other, hoping for a "I'll buy your last bananas of you" sale. Off the curb there'd be a whole stash of bananas waiting to be the next "last bunch"!
As the driver of the bus decided to have his lunch break about two kilometer short of where we wanted to get off - at the access road to a small village called "Reine" - we decided it'd be faster to walk it and set off along the road. No sooner had we started than we walked into the next cluster of roadside restaurants and shops and somehow got a tip (no-one spoke English) of a shortcut to Reini up the hillside. Said and done, we walked straight up the hill, soon cursing our own gullibility, the sun and the flu which wouldn't let us be. Climbing over the crest of the hillside about 45 minutes later we were rewarded by the first truly scenic beauty since we entered Iran; cultivated fields and trees in front of the village with the imposing volcanic cone of Mt. Damavand in the background. As we were both sick (slight fever) and quite taken by the heat we decided not to get any further up the mountain and looped back down along the access road after having a burger in Reine.
The walk along the access road was far, far longer than the shortcut we'd taken up the hillside so we were quite happy when two cars - filled with youngsters playing domestic pop loud on the stereo - stopped to give us a lift. It didn't take long until we regretted getting in the car as the driver definitely was high on some sort of herb, glazed eyes and an uncontrollable giggle along with the others in the car. To our good luck we were soon let out of the car but of course had to pose for the mandatory photo of us all together.
[It didn't happen that many times in Iran but for some reason it's very popular to ask passing foreigners for photos in many Asian countries. I never understood the point of having a photo taken together with someone you didn't even exchange five words with... but then again, I take pictures of the locals in return!]
We soon got back to the roadside restaurant where we'd gotten off our bus and started looking around for transport into Teheran. Several full buses passed (the definition of a full bus in Iran being that of one where all seats have exactly one passenger each) and we could see from the number of people standing around that we were not the only ones wanting to get a ride back into town. Being a foreigner is a huge advantage in Iran in such situations. After a mere 10-15 minutes a car stopped even though we hadn't tried to stop it. Inside was an elderly gentleman telling us that he'd be happy to drive us to Teheran. Our friend didn't speak very good English so we were a bit confused at him describing himself as an airline captain but as he said; our Farsi wasn't the best either! The little conversation we could have, using bits and pieces of all our languages combined, soon revealed that he was the owner of a travel agent in Teheran and had several times been to Europe and even Sweden. In fact, he was on his way to Sweden later this summer and if he happened to be near would like to swing by for a visit but first we were invited to come and stay in his home in Teheran! It took a telephone call to his [English speaking] daughters at home to explain that we were already staying with friends in Teheran and that we most likely wouldn't be home to greet him in Sweden later that summer. Then, he insisted, at least we had to come home with him for a cup of coffee and to meet his daughters.
Said and done. We rolled into another expensive looking house in northern Teheran and sick, sweaty and dirty from our walk were shown into another grand apartment where his two daughters welcomed us with coffee, pastries and sweets. Our friend was indeed on his way to Sweden later this summer to visit family living in Uppsala. [Another reoccuring theme in Iran is how almost every single person one speaks to has family living somewhere abroad.] Having chatted for about an hour or so over coffee we were running late and one of the daughters offered to drive us home. This took us another half hour of zig- zagging through the streets of northern Teheran - how does one repay such hospitality? Impossible but, inshallah, we'll be able to when they next go to Sweden.
Arriving home at around eight we found our friend back from his trip to Turkey which he said had been tough; business was not as good as it should be at the moment (another reoccuring theme in the conversations of Iran) so he had to work harder. When the family later returned together with some more relatives (an uncle + family) I'd had it; fever was taking it's toll so I impolitely crashed to bed long before anyone else.
Bus five: Teheran to Ramsar
We then spent one final day in Teheran, revisiting the tranquil Lale' Park and spending an afternoon at our friends house feeling a bit sad we hadn't managed to spend more time with them. Last evening we spent watching a Hindi film on satellite (the mother of the family was a huge fan of everything Indian) and talking about where to meet next since the family was (like so many other Iranians) working on emigrating to the US. With best of luck and promises to meet again, wherever that might be, we said goodbye.
Next morning we said goodbye to our host and took an early morning bus to the Western Terminal where we were immediately mobbed (only place in Iran that happened) by touts trying to find out where we were headed. Their guesses (Istanbul, Ankara) told us quite a bit about how most people move through Iran and when we said 'Ramsar' (usually not too smart to tell the touts where you're going but in honest Iran it's not much of a problem) it took two or three tries before that would sink in! Can't be many foreigners passing through outside of the main route to Turkey apparently.
Bus departed for Ramsar at the Caspian Sea coast, a popular resort with Iranian tourists, at ten o'clock sharp and we looked forward to some scenery while crossing the Alborz mountains. The bus was soon crawling up the narrow, but good, road leading up to the pass at some 2500-3000 metres (my guess). For a long time we were driving alongside a river where the luxury villas of well off Iranians were lining the road, protecting their property with huge, hostile-looking iron gateways complete with barbed wire and sharp spikes along the edges!
Reading the newspapers we'd learned that if it didn't start raining soon there'd be severe damage to the agriculture of the region. We could see this ourselves while passing an artificial lake created by the damming of the river where the old waterlevel was showing some 20- 30 metres up on the hillside above the current one! Sweden is not the only country to have weird climatic changes lately it seems. Crossing the pass there was still snow on some of the 4000+ metre peaks around but most of the area looked quite arid and dry.
Having read rave reviews of the region in our guidebook and listening to our friends describing Ramsar as 'great' we had high expectations of the Caspian Sea coast. The closer we got to the coast the denser the forests became (but nowhere near the 'jungle' described by our friends, maybe I'm just more used to forests than they are). Before joining the coastal road in the city of Chalus we were conjuring up images of beautiful little fishing villages set in the lush green vegetation along the coast... we should have known better! As soon as we were on the coastal road lines of half built, half fallen down or shoddily constructed concrete 'garages' blocked all views of the water front. Inland the views were somewhat helped by the densely forrested rolling green hills so we tried to look that way instead.
After being dropped off somewhere in Ramsar (obviously *not* the bus terminal as the locals complained loudly to the bus personel about it) we found that our guidebook wasn't of much use here since the map didn't make much sense and the hotels being listed were far far away. A short couple of kilometres walk solved the problem as we found and checked in to an *expensive* apartment hotel in the middle of the city.
Well... as for Ramsar... that's about it! Both of us were rather sick upon arrival and I spent all the time of our three days there in our beautiful apartment trying to get well. Bettina spent one afternoon walking down to the beach side where she met and teamed up with a Finnish woman (living in Louxemburg) on a tour through Iran. She was highly curious as to how Iran was like to independent travellers and admitted to, this being her first 'tour vacation', feeling rather stressed by the tight schedules of the tour company. [Another mental note to us *not* to go on a tour unless we really have to - we're just not made for that kind of travel.] That was it and all we saw of Ramsar! Maybe it would've been a better experience if we hadn't both been sick (fever, diarrhoea and throat ache) but the development we saw of the area was done in such a haphazard way that the natural beauty of the place will soon be lost altogether. For anyone going - head further up NW along the coast instead!
Bus 'six': Ramsar to Mashad
Now, this is one day that truly fits with the subject of this mail: "The beautiful buses of Iran". Leaving Ramsar we aimed to reach Gorgan, just east of the Caspian Sea Coast area. As there was no straight bus to be found going from Ramsar to Gorgan we just waited at the main thoroughfare (while waiting a man passed by and asked us to join him for lunch in his home... it happens all the time in Iran) and flagged down the first bus passing by. This minibus got us past the ugly stretch we'd covered a few days earlier and dropped us at the minibus stand in Chalus. From there, no direct buses were to be found to Gorgan but we were told buses for Gorgan depart regularly from Babol; another hour or so by minibus from Chalus.
Said and done. We got on the minibus to Babol and now continued through uncharted territory along the coastal region. The construction style all along the road continued along a similar vein as that between Chalus and Ramsar but to our great pleasure the frequent roundabouts (yes, the round traffic thingies) provided some relief to the ugliness. We must've passed well over ten roundabouts on our way to Babol and they were all stunning examples of kitsch, how about a huge wireframe swan dressed in lights with hearts around it? Or why not, a large central concrete globe with four trios of wild looking horses pulling at it from four different directions! There were plenty other examples and we managed to document a few after the initial shock wore off...
In Babol we were let off the bus right at the doorstep of a beautiful "Iran Khodro" headed for Gorgan. No sooner had we sat down on the bus before it left and about halfway to Sari we were being interrogated by an ecstatic second bus driver who was absolutely delighted to have us as guests on his bus! After passing Sari the endless rows of concrete garages finally started to break up and gave in to beautiful green hills and cultivated patches of land. We didn't get to see much of that though since huge black clouds covered the sky and it was getting close to sunset as well. As we rolled in to Gorgan at half past eight in the evening it was pouring down outside and we didn't at all feel like doing the "looking-for-a-hotel" blues under those circumstances. So we decided to stay on the bus, which we'd been told by our friend was headed for Mashad, all the way - much to our friends delight. When we'd decided to go all the way to Mashad our friend immediately made sure we got two seats up front (so that he could chat with us) and provided us with as much hot tea as we wanted. It turned out that he was just having a day off from his day job and was helping a friend who needed a second driver out with this trip. He also told that he was learning English and was overjoyed to see foreign guests visiting his bus and would we please consider accepting an invitation to his home! All this while the TV above our heads (some buses have 'em in Iran but thankfully not that many) replayed some classic drama about an evil landowner oppressing the farmers, one of which at the end finally took matters in his own hand and led the uprising against the oppressor.
Trying to sleep later that night, wedged between my seat and the seat in front of me, I caught glimpses of dense forests just outside the window, almost overgrowing the road, and as the clouds opened up for a short while I also saw a beautiful valley in the moonlight. Arrgh, all of the few scenic places we passed in Iran we managed to pass at night! Gorgan and the surrounding area is definitely on our agenda for our next trip to Iran... Next thing I know I woke up at dawn as the bus stopped for the dawn prayer and magically a cup of tea appeared in my hand. We were once more called to sit up front with our friend and twenty minutes later we were dropped off in a suburb to Mashad for breakfast at our friends house. A short walk later, passing the bakery on the way, we arrived at his home where his wife greeted us with a rather surprised look on her face.
During a breakfast of bread, omelette and green herbs he told a little more about his family and how it was a pity that his kids weren't at home to meet us. He then went on to tell us a bit about his work at the cookie factory and after that he showed his new video player to us. During the bus ride he'd mentioned his new video several times and he now asked me if I knew what the button marked "intelligent picture" did. This he'd asked me several times in the bus as well so I half thought that was the major reason for inviting us! Turning down his offer to take a nap before heading downtown we then walked out to the local bus stand where we said goodbye to our friend and before we could stop him he even payed for our bus downtown! Walking around on the lookout for a hotel we immediately picked up a nice vibe and being cordially greeted to the hotel of our choice didn't feel too bad either! The people of Mashad seemed to be a hospitable bunch!
Since we arrived in Mashad on a Friday, a visit to the Emam Reza Mosque was out of the question (closed to foreigners). Instead, we opted to get our email checked for the first time since we left Teheran. This done (at a cheap, fast and friendly place) we started chatting with two other customers there since they were the first foreigners (not counting tour groups) we'd seen since Shiraz. We were rather surprised at hearing that they'd just come from two weeks in Afghanistan and what more, it was highly enjoyable albeit a bit tiring due to the appauling state of the roads in the country. They further told us that the three cities which they'd visited were completely safe since they were controlled by the Taliban! Not exactly the image one has of the Taliban from western media... or it's safe for visiting westerners but not for Afghanis who all seem to be leaving the country if they get the slightest chance. When we ran in to our friends a couple of days later they told us how they'd repeatedly been harassed by the Iranian police in Mashad - all because one of them had very Afghani features. Once he'd bought himself a wooden crucifix which he hung around his neck in a string, the trouble ended! We didn't have any such problems during our stay in Mashad, more the opposite - people were almost embarrassingly friendly!
As we'd reached Mashad with only a few days left of our visa we allotted our second day for the visa extension procedure which turned out to be far quicker than we could ever have hoped for. Upon finally finding the visa extension office we were given a small piece of paper and told to take this paper to the main branch of "Bank Melli" down the street for payment of the extension fee (10'000 Rials = $1.25). Reaching bank Melli, the first guy coming out the door asked us what our business was and as we showed him the paper he led us around the corner where a guy was standing by a side entrance to what looked like the cellar of the bank. He insisted that we give him our passports for filling out some paper but this, I thought, was a bit too odd a situation to just hand over my passport to anyone out in the street. Some confusion later the guy gave up, pointed me down the door and lo and behold; in the cellars of this huge, modern bank building was were all the transactions took place! People lining up in front of the cashier and all that. The paper the guy up on the street had wanted to fill out for me was just the payment slip but this the clerk downstairs managed to do it instead as I was missing one.
Returning to the visa extension office with our receipts we were once again showed outside; this time to a small booth on the sidewalk where we had to purchase the necessary documents and a cardboard folder for holding them! After having filled out our papers they were finally accepted and we were asked to sit down. Bettina spent the time across the street waiting for some mug shots to be developed while I waited with the officer who, naturally, offered me a glass of tea. The only remaining confusion was the need for our signatures - in the form of a finger print! That's definitely the first time I've had to be fingerprinted to get a visa extension! All in all the whole procedure including waiting and banking took about two hours; remarkably swift for such a procedure where one kind of expects to be pushed around and told to 'come back some other day'. Once again I suspect that we were given the fast track as honoured guests, most people standing around seemed to be moving much slower through the office.
The holy shrine of Emam Reza
The reasons for our visit to Mashad were twofold; to visit the northeastern most major city of Iran and to see Astan-é Gods-é Razavi, the holy shrine of Emam Reza. On our first day there, a Friday, we went to visit the shrine but were politely stopped at the entrance gates and asked whether we were muslims or not. Since we responded negatively to that question we were nonetheless led across the outer courtyard of the complex by a guard until we happened upon a Mullah who could tell us in English that the shrine is closed to non-muslims during the prayers on Fridays.
We had more luck two days later and after a minimum of fuzz, having to drop our bags off at the entrance, we were once again led by a guard across the outer courtyard but this time we were dropped off at the visitor's centre. There we were cordially greeted and given a quick introduction to the purpose of the shrine and the association running it. A small exhibition praising the Ayatollah Khomeini was there as an introduction and there was also some sort of movie to be seen but that one we missed since we were far too slow through the complex to be back before dinner! Since the holy shrine of Emam Reza is the holiest place in Iran some areas are strictly off limits to foreigners. To make sure they don't break these rules, intentionally or by accident, foreigners are given a guided tour throught the complex free at charge. Foreign women not wearing a chador are also required to wear one inside the complex and are issued with one at the visitor's centre.
Walking through the beautiful complex with its gilded minarets and domes, painted tiles and vast courtyards with small little plantations was absolutely fabulous. Our appointed guide was extremely helpful in answering any questions we might have as well as asking us about ourselves. Upon hearing that I am a computer professional he, in a low voice, shot me a question about how to go about to clear all history and cache from the Internet Explorer. He'd been "searching the web for some Honda-related stuff when his boss asked him why" was his explanation for this question... One wonders since almost all the internet café browser histories are full of links to diverse porn-sites! Didn't say anything, of course, but told him how to go about clearing the caches and he looked mightily relieved :-)
Enter the carpet museum. Our guide wanted to leave us there but we convinced him to stay with us and were thus given a guided tour through there as well. Most of the carpets on display were old and had belonged to this and that rich shah or other famous person. There was even one carpet with a motif showing "Wilhelm The Conqueror" with all his conquests woven in around him! Standing in the museum admiring the carpets we suddenly found ourselves the centre of attention of a class of [female] University students who started by asking Bettina her name, occupation and such. It didn't take too long until they shifted their attention to me though (long hair on a man in Iran is almost unheard of) and there was more than one nervous giggle in the group. Then one of the girls said something that made all the others laugh nervously and having an English speaking guide we asked what she'd said: "They said that they should try taking you to their dormitory"! So much for the tabo for women to speak to foreign men :-)
After this close encounter with the students of Iran we said goodbye to our guide and entered the main museum of the complex. This museum left a rather confused impression on us since the exhibits were so widely (or should that be 'wildly') disparate. On the ground floor old pieces of the cover of the holy shrine was on display, islamic arts and crafts. In one corner was a bunch of trophies from a stamp collection olympics (!), some sport events etc! The two other floors covered such different subjects as: seashells, astronomy and mathematics, chinese porcelain, old weapons, coins and old Quorans! All was nicely displayed with explanations in both English and Farsi but as I said, the mix was a bit wild!
Ambling around in the halls of the museum waiting for Bettina to catch up I was approached by one of the museum staff who asked me to please follow him to the director's office. I did so and was given a warm welcome and offered a cup of tea as I was the first Swedish visitor he'd met in the museum! I quickly ran out to get Bettina and we then spent the next three quarters of an hour chatting with the director of the museum. At the end of our chat I just had to ask him were he'd gotten his Indian accent from and it turned out that he'd lived there for a good many years. Upon saying goodbye we were also given his address, telephone number and email address for the next time we visit Mashad; of course we have to stay at his house then!
Having seen as much as we were allowed to see of the complex and its museums we now turned back to the visitor's centre to return the borrowed chador and say goodbye to our friendly guide. Unfortunately the centre was closed for dinner but out of nowhere our guide turned up and showed us around to the back door. We were then invited to share the dinner of him and his colleagues, we declined, needing a break from all the hospitality (!), and were then offered a ride to the Ferdosi Memorial with our friend! We declined once more since we just didn't have the energy for more input this day but felt a pang of guilt as we could see the disappointment in the face of our friendly guide.
The visit to the holy shrine of Emam Reza was absolutely the most interesting and worthwhile sight of Iran, in my opinion, and Mashad one of the friendliest cities of the country. The only 'sights' we did in town apart from Emam Reza was a couple of walks through the bazar area and up and down main street to appreciate the many pastry shops and gawking at the saffron shops where huge urns of saffron are displayed in the windows. Mashad is also known for its saffron and everywhere one goes there's saffron on sale - at dirt cheap prices for supreme quality. We bought some 20 grams of saffron in total between the two of us for sending to friends and family and at ca. $0.40 per gram I'd buy a *lot* more if I was homeward bound.
Bus seven: Mashad to Yazd
Despite having had such a good time in Mashad we felt good about finally leaving; we were 'finished' with Mashad for the time being. A good feeling we don't always have when we leave a place. Sitting at the bus station waiting for our bus to depart we got the last invitation; a guy approached us asking us the usual questions and then presented himself as the bus driver of another bus. He then invited us to come to his home some 7-8 hours away from Mashad, close to the Afghani border. That we were headed the other way and actually already had a ticket for Yazd was not a problem; he offered to change our tickets and then we would be free to visit his home! Talk about going out of ones way! [And he actually seemed honest about it!]
The bus, an uncomfortably modern Mercedes, rolled out just past five that evening and as the sun set and the moon rose we got some great views over Mashad and the surrounding grassy hills which soon gave way to the arid desert which cover most of central Iran. The bus trip was rather uneventful but I had some tea with the second driver, a former pilot in the airforce for thirteen years, who told me he'd love to go to the US but he's refused a passport by his own government since he used to be in the military forces! How's that for a reward for serving your country for 13 years before quitting since you can't make a living from what you get payed?
Morning stops at the mosque is always a good time to get acquainted with new people and this morning was no different. As Bettina came back from the morning stretching of the legs she'd gotten an invitation for Yazd by two girls on the bus. As we got of the bus in Yazd we found that they'd already gotten off the bus without us noticing (hard to see when they all wear black chadors!) and since we didn't have a phone number to call we made our way downtown and checked in to a cockroach ridden hotel which acted as the number one stop for backpackers coming from Pakistan. Going to the bank to change some US Dollars later that day we got our second invitation; from the clerk in the bank. He was so happy to see us and wanted us to join him and his family for dinner so that his daughters could meet us. Unfortunately we failed to get hold of him on the phone number he gave us and the times we passed the bank it was closed so that was another missed invitation (of many!).
Yazd was mentioned in our guidebook as being, possibly, one of the oldest cities in the world and as having one of the best kept 'old cities'. I could well imagine that this place have been settled since the dawn of times considering its location roughly half way between Asia and Europe and right on the route from Asia to the Middle East. The old city sure looked *old* and we spent almost a whole day walking around narrow alleys among mudbrick houses, mosques and Badgirs (ventilation towers). The ventilation towers, which were typical for Yazd, were remarkably efficient as we got to see one 'in action' in the Dolat Gardens. The towers are of 15-20 metres in height and have slits through which the wind can enter spread around on all its sides. The tower, being hollow, then leads the air down to a chamber where a stone in the middle of the floor pushes the air out into the rest of the house. To get rid of dust in the air (my guess) there was also a small pool of water directly below the air shaft inside the house. No moving parts, simple idea and the breeze was cooool in the baking heat of mid day Yazd.
The style of the old city reminded us a lot of El-Qasr, our favourite place in the Egyptian desert, but Yazd is far bigger and is also a *living* city where El-Qasr was only kept as a museum for the tourists. We also visited the major mosques dotted around town but at least I failed to be overly impressed by them... well, there was one with enormous carved beams holding up the ceiling and huge coloured windows giving the air a warm tone. There we sat for twenty minutes catching our breaths before heading out in the blazing heat to visit the bazar. The bazar wasn't very much to say about either; a typical bazar with arched ceiling and alleys going off at odd angles and doorways opening up into 'to-large-to-fit-in-the-given-space' courtyards. The atmosphere of the bazar was really relaxed and there was no hassle what-so-ever when Bettina bought a small gift.
Yazd is also an important centre for the Zoroastrian religion (of which I know next to nothing) and a visit to the Zoroastrian 'towers of silence' at the outskirts of Yazd provided us with stunning, although hazy, views over the city. The 'towers' were nothing else than some heavy walls built around the top of two hills which were then used for open air burials. If it wasn't for the view there wouldn't have been much to see... if one wasn't in to tourist spotting, that is! Having travelled through Iran for four weeks at that time we had hardly seen another tourist apart from at Persepolis and in Esfahan. During our hour long stay at the 'towers of silence' we counted some 4-5 busloads (!) passing slowly and one or two stopping. It felt strange to see so many 'other westerners' again after being 'alone' for so long.
Upon visiting the other major site of the Zoroastrians in Yazd, the 'fire temple' housing a 1500 year old flame, we bumped into even more tourists than before. We were really lucky to have the whole temple and its exhibits to ourselves for ten minutes, getting some pictures and reading all the texts before four buses rolled in and the place was flooded with school kids from Esfahan and a french tour group. Phew! It wasn't just tour groups and locals though. In our hotel there were also several other backpackers and at the restaurant around the corner they even had an English menu printed! Chatting with the other backpackers of our hotel and at the restaurant it was soon pretty clear that most of them were heading north to Europe for the summer after having spent the winter in India. Yazd is pretty much an obligatory stopover on that route. Of all the backpackers, ca. ten, we met in Yazd only two were headed south and they were on bicycles! Phew! Bicycling through deserts that take 5-6 hours to cross by bus is not something I'd recommend...
Bus eight: Yazd to Bam
...which brings us to our last stop in Iran before entering Pakistan; the city of Bam. The ride there was truly uneventful, hot and quite unspectacular, passing the city of Kerman in the middle of the desert on the way. Arrival wasn't too friendly; Bettinas backpack came off the bus completely soaked in gasoline and of course the bus boy just shrugged when we complained. Not much to do. Catching a taxi into the centre of town we then checked out the no 1 recommendation of our guidebook, "Ali Amiri", and found them to be complete assholes who tried to rip us off - the first hotel in Iran where we experienced that. When we turned around to leave they suddenly managed to offer us a half decent deal but we headed straight for the competition instead. We'd had a tip from two french guys we'd met in Esfahan so now we asked a local how much a taxi to "Akbars Tourist Guesthouse" would cost. He quoted ca. 3000 Rials and flagged a cab for us. Five minutes later we were dropped off outside said place, I payed the driver the 3000 Rials and got my bag - only to feel a knock on my shoulder as the driver wanted to give me 1000 Rials back!
Stepping into the guesthouse of Akbar was almost like stepping into an Iranian home. Inside the door shoes had to be taken off and we were then led into the large sitting room which also doubled as the reception. Akbar didn't even want to discuss rooms or rates until we'd had a cup of tea but as we insisted (tired and wanting to get things sorted out) he kindly showed us his spotlessly clean rooms and offered us a shamelessly low price (we actually haggled and got a discount but shouldn't have - the rooms were worth what he asked for them and more). On top of that, there was also a nice walled off garden and a sitting area under the palm trees in which we spent the evenings and the HOT hours of the day watching the tortoises crawl around in the grass... sounds stressing, doesn't it? ;-)
The main [and more or less the only] tourist attraction in Bam is the fabulous Arg-é Bam, the old walled city. Being as good at timing as we're ever going to get we managed to arrive there just an hour before noon so we really got to see the place in FULL daylight. Furnace heat... Entry, as always, was ten times what locals pay but after some convincing bargaining we managed to get in on one ticket for the two of us. Thanks! Once again we found ourselves walking around a mudbrick walled city, pretty much like El-Qasr i Egypt but on a much larger scale and with a stronger sense of an actual city plan. Not as big as Yazd and definately not as lively since this was an archeological site. We ambled around the alleys and in and out of old chambers and half fallen down buildings for some hours before finally heading up to the citadel for a view of the surroundings. From there we could see several other old buildings spread out evenly around Arg-é Bam and found out that some of them were old ice houses (for storing ice) and one was another Zoroastrian fire temple. Due to the heat we didn't visit these places though but next time...
As I said earlier we started seeing more and more backpackers in Yazd and this trend continued in Bam but arriving at the old city we even saw our first foreign car; a swiss camper bus! We didn't get a chance to speak to them but that must really be the ultimate way to travel around Iran. At our guest house there were also quite a few backpackers, most of which were passing through from Pakistan on their way to Turkey and the European summer. Walking around downtown one evening we also saw another group of backpackers but the way they were walking around in T-shirts among all the well covered locals we figured they were on a tour. The atmosphere of the city of Bam itself was unfortunately not very nice with plenty of hassle and rude comments, despite us being well covered and trying to keep a low profile, and after hearing of one of the incidents from his staff our host, Akbar, apologized for the rudeness of some of the locals! We figured it had something to do with getting closer to the border area with Pakistan and Afghanistan, border towns, in our experience, often being quite ugly.
If the city of Bam itself would just be a bit friendlier [and possibly COOLER] this would be the perfect place to relax in Iran. Easily the best guest house we stayed at in Iran, great old city to walk around and wide treelined boulevards criss-crossing the city.
Bus nine: Zahedan, gateway to Pakistan
Finally - time to go to Pakistan! Since Bam is some five hours by bus from the city of Zahedan from which it is a further hour to the border we caught an early bus at six in the morning. Along the road we saw several car wrecks from accidents (first time in Iran, really!) and our driver was overtaking the other cars in a reckless manner. Driving definitely got worse the closer we got to the Pakistan border!
From what we saw of Zahedan we were very happy we heeded the advice of our guidebook (we do - sometimes) not to stay there. It looked as one giant bus/taxi/truck stop that had collided with a huge bazar. Complete chaos and rather ugly and hot. It took us some time to get out of there since we couldn't find the buses that, allegedly, run to the border town of Mirjave. Instead, we entered a share taxi and since we were the first two people inside we had to endure the constant nagging of 'pay for all - we go now' until he'd found some more passengers to go (took an hour or so).
If the road from Yazd via Bam to Zahedan had been hot and dry I don't know how to describe the last stretch of 'land' to the border. It was like something out of a bad dream of hell, the road stretching far away into the distance, air dancing in the heat and nothing but sand and dead bushes among the rocks on both sides. We saw some camel caravans walking by the side of the road - probably used for carrying goods to and from the date plantation we saw signposted - and even some dead ones... too hot even for the camels apparently! About halfway we met a couple of motorcyclists headed for Zahedan and silently cheered the fact that we were not the ones in the full leather outfit!!! Imagine the HEAT! Just ten minutes before the border we saw another car wreck; two pickup trucks were lying on opposite sides of the road and looked as though they'd hit each other head on. Later we learned (maybe only rumours, who knows) that these two pickups were drug smugglers who'd been hunted by the police and that they crashed during the ensuing shoot-out!
Arriving at the Iranian customs we once again got the fast lane through and started walking ahead of the three Pakistanis that shared our taxi. They of course had their luggage searched and I got the impression that they wanted us to stick around so that they could, possibly, cross into Pakistan more smoothly together with us. Discrimination is present everywhere, but that goes for home as well I think :-( Leaving Iran couldn't be simpler and it didn't take the immigrations official more than 30 seconds to give us the exit stamp while he chit-chatted about all the great Iranian soccer-players in the German Bundesliga... goodbye, Iran, we'll be back!
Since I started this mega-mail in Passu we have moved on south and current location is Islamabad where we're awaiting our Indian visa which should be granted in 2-3 days or so. Then we finally will head for India, crossing the border sometime before the 20th of June or so. My next travel update will probably be sent out in three weeks time or so and will then cover our crossing of Pakistan, hiking around Hunza and sweating in Islamabad. Hope you're all doing fine and I'm looking forward to hearing from you!