This journey was totally improvised, reservations being a concept totally alien to me. Of course I did some homework beforehand, so as to know the must-sees. My only available information source was the Lonely Planet guide "Iran - A Travel Survival Kit (1st edition)" (Australia, 1991, by David St Vincent: a great book, but aging badly; fortunately, new editions are always in the making). Descriptions are kept informative enough so that those who have been there should recognize the places, while those who would like to go there should be able to locate them. This report is not intended to be a crash course on Iranian history and culture.
By the way, I compiled an independent travel guide to Iran from available on-line information: .
This journey also was on a shoestring budget, a mattress to crash on and a shower being all that is needed when constantly on the move. Visa costs, transportation to/from the Iranian border, inoculations, medicine, postcards, and souvenirs excluded, I had a daily maintenance ratio of about $7.5, covering accommodation, food, drinks, transportation, and entrance fees. This was a little bit roughing it sometimes, so reckon on $10 per day for a really cozy trip!
All views expressed here are mine, and you are the judge whether they are witty insights, total misunderstandings, or unspeakable truths. Note that all Iranian names have been changed, to "protect" the people I met.
Comments are welcome.
The exit formalities on the Turkish side are very fast, but the Iranian side is a bit chaotic, with papers to fill out, closed doors to wait at, and huge queues. I team up with two young Iranian Azaris, let us call them Akbar I and Akbar II, who are returning to Tehran from a brief vacation in Ankara. They are resourceful enough to "talk me" past all queues and even to talk the customs officer into "neglecting" his duty of having me fill in a currency declaration.
So, after only 2.5 hours, we emerge in Iran. I feel elated to finally be here, after four failed attempts to even get the visa. Judging from the state of the vehicles and buildings, my very first impression is that I somehow seem to be thrown 20 years back in time, as if nothing had been done over these 20 years, but this was going to be my last "negative" observation about Iran. The Akbars continue to take charge of my progress, thus giving me a smooth introduction to their country, since I do not speak any Farsi language yet, although my Turkish gets me around with the Azari and Turkmen people, and cannot read the alphabet yet, except for the digits. We change cash dollars into Rials at the black market, at a hugely profitable margin compared to the official bank rate.
We then negotiate the fare for a "savari" (collective taxi) ride east to Tabriz, together with some businessman. The driver initially wants 9,000 Rials [I am unsure of the amount right now, but the proportions to the next-mentioned amounts are correct], but my co-travelers quickly haggle him down to 6,000 Rials, where the negotiation stagnates, although we want it to continue down to 4,000 Rials. "So what", says the driver in Azari to the Akbars, "that foreigner is certainly rich, so do not tell him anything about the real price and make him pay 3,000 Rials, while each of you three gives me 1,000 Rials!" Without taking into account that I had actually understood all this, due to my basic Turkish, the Akbars explode and chastise the driver for even thinking of such a deal, as they would of course divide the fare exactly by four. I also say a few friendly words in Turkish to the driver, who shrivels and reduces the fare to the desired 4,000 Rials! I will have several other such occasions where Iranians defend my right to pay the same price as them, even though the government sets a bad example by systematically and "officially" over-charging foreigners in hotels and museums (and I will not even talk more about taxi drivers, who, like their brethren all over the non-taximetered world, are the biggest self-inflicted curse of humanity). On we go! The road itself is in perfect shape, and this will be a constant observation throughout the country, but it takes us through godforsaken dry and dusty land; this is also true for much, but by far not all, of Iran.
In Tabriz, the Akbars bid me goodbye and head for the airport to catch a flight to Tehran, whereas I head to the bus terminal. Hadi, a student, chats with me in flawless French, assists me in buying a ticket to Tehran, and stays with me until the departure of his bus. I like the naive English inscriptions on some buses, such as "We go to good bay" (sic) and "My beautifule buse" (sic). Then I just linger at the terminal lounge, waiting for my own bus at 8pm, and waiting for the Akbars! And, sure as hell, here they are, not having been able to secure tickets for the last flight, just as I had predicted, even though I have no experience with Iran Air -- my gut feeling was that you just cannot go the airport 20 minutes before a flight and get a ticket! Once we all have tickets for the same bus, we have dinner at the terminal restaurant, for my first "chelo kebab" in a long series, and then leave southeast on the bus, at sunset.
Not long afterwards, the bus repeatedly breaks down for short whiles, sometimes even creeping around at 20km/h, and eventually we have to leave it, flag down another bus, and pile into its remaining empty seats. There goes the comfort of our 27-seater, as we now have to spend the rest of the night in extreme discomfort on a cramped bus. Luckily, my time-tested technique of simply stretching out on the floor comes in handily here, but do not tell my boss...
But first I visit Sogol Tour & Travel, whose agent Azadeh had sponsored my tourist visa and was very efficient and reliable throughout that procedure. She is a very attractive young lady, dressed in a black chador like her female colleagues and like most (but not all!) other women in the country, and patiently answers my many information-hungry first questions about Tehran, over a cup of tea of course. It is then time for me to fly on my own wings now, with the Akbars' and Azadeh's wind underneath. So I set out for a restaurant that she recommended, its address written in neat script on a piece of paper.
Over the next two and a half days, I visit Tehran, often on foot, so as to get my bearings about life in Iran, such as hailing a taxi or a "savari", making phone calls (to friends' friends), asking for directions, figuring out the correct prices of things, etc. It is a bit disconcerting at first, especially that the loathsome pollution really weighs on you, not to mention the additional effect of the heat. But there is a whole country and culture to finally discover, and this prospect thrills me.
Memorable sights include the beautiful Park-e Lale with the fabulous Muze-ye Farsh (carpet museum), the magnificent Muze-ye Abgine (glass and ceramics museum), and the mind-bending National Museum of Iran, which covers no less than 10,000 years of history. The main bazaar is enormous and teeming, and would probably rank very prominently in any "Westerner's" memoirs of a trip to Tehran, but I have been to too many Islamic countries to get a real kick out of this one. Another remarkable sight was the Armenian cathedral of St Sarkiz, of course with a huge Khomeini mural right next door. Armenian Christians, as well as other religious minorities, (seem to) have full religious rights, a somewhat surprising fact considering the fundamentalist reputation of the Shi'ite regime. The former US Embassy sports a "Down with USA" graffiti on its wall and is now simply called "The Center for the Publication of the U.S. Espionage Den's Documents" (sic). In front of it is a same-named bookstore where you can buy, for a few cents, copies of painstakingly re-assembled shredded documents, with highly classified CIA material (vintage pre '79). They look too good, and the English is too perfect, to be fake. I buy a volume with a top-secret CIA description of the Israeli Mossad and a biography of Yitzhak Rabin...
The bus south to the Silk Road city of Esfahan is a superfast brandnew Volvo, rather than the usual slow old Mercedes, so we arrive at 3am, instead of the 6am or so I was told. While everybody bustles away, I open my guidebook for orientation, still rubbing my eyes from sleep. Just as I am about to despair and settle in the park until sunrise, help pops up in the friendly person of Hassan, a graduate student at a local university. A taxi-ride to downtown soon confirms his suspicion that hotels have no reception service at this time of the night; this being Iran, Hassan simply invites me to his parents' home, somewhere in the Armenian quarter! This nightly taxi ride through empty streets raises my spirits, as Esfahan turns out to be at least as beautiful as in all the travelers' reports I had read so far: I immediately feel that I will resonate with this splendid city, so I fall asleep happily.
Indeed, I spend a memorable three days in Esfahan, unable to understand why Esfahanis have such a negative reputation among fellow Iranians. Hassan and other youngsters-turned-voluntary-guides alternate showing me around town, providing for great conversation and learning, for relaxing moments at the landmark bridges over the Zayande Rud and in the parks along the borders of this river, and for visits of mindboggling sites. Thank you Hassan, Said, Ali, Parriz, and many others, for sharing with me the beauty of your city!
The absolute highlight is the unsurpassably beautiful Meydun-e Emam Khomeini square, which is surrounded by sumptuous mosques (Masjed-e Emam and Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah) that feature exquisite tilework, a nice palace (Kakh-e Ali Khapu), and a teeming bazaar. Also memorable are the elegant tree-lined Kheyabun Chahar Bagh alley, the splendid Abbasi Hotel compound, the cute Chehel Sotun (Forty Columns) reception hall in front of a pool in a shaded park, the relaxing Hasht Behesht (Eight Paradises) park, where I once got "abducted" for breakfast on a blanket by enthusiastic young Azari Iranians, as well as the Si-o-Se Pol (Thirty-three Arches) and Pol-e Khaju pedestrian-only bridges, where most of the social life of the city seems to be going on, with all these shaded tea-houses located under their arches, and hence refreshingly at water level. I spend hours there, just lingering around, and an obvious target for a chat. In the suburbs, I visit the Armenian Kelisa-ye Vank (church) of the Jolfa district, with its ghastly paintings of martyred saints (why are many religions so fascinated with violence?) and posters asking the Turkish government to acknowledge the (alleged) 1915 massacres, and, last but not least, the swinging (yes!) minarets of the Manar Jomban mausoleum: just climb up, clasp the outer wall by reaching through the windows, and rock the minaret while leaning on the inner wall: it goes back and forth by about 5cm!
In terms of drinks, Iran must be the most coca-colonized country in the world: in 95% of the places, you are not even asked whether you want Coke or not, and it is close to being the only choice other than water! Amazing, no, that the government tries to convince everybody that the "West" and its inventions are the Great Satan, whereas hamburgers and Coke are so pervasive!? Interestingly, one of the local imitations of Coke is called Zam-Zam, after the sacred source near Mecca: is it not astounding that the Muslim clerics tolerate this defamation? Caffeine seems to have absolutely no effect on Iranians, since they are caffeine-trained from earliest age: I saw eight-year-olds drink Coke at 11pm and yet fall asleep thirty minutes later! So when I, as a "Westerner", declared not wanting Coke, they stared at me as if I was the biggest idiot this side of the universe... Similarly, as a European, I found it quite amusing to see grown-up men have soft-drinks, like Fanta or so, because, needless to say, Iran is a completely "dry" country (but see below). So next comes water; tap water is usually excellent (it comes straight from the mountains in most cases), and is also pervasive: in order to keep a promise in return for a wish come true, shop owners set up water-reservoirs on the sidewalks, so that pedestrians never go thirsty. Similarly on buses; as a rule, you never have to carry water, but may want to carry a cup so that you do not have to use the community glass. Unfortunately, many if not most Iranians seem to have forgotten the tradition of drinking hot tea in hot weather, which is definitely healthier than the ice-cold soft-drinks and water that are being served everywhere. On to the highlights of the Iranian drink charts: addictively savory fruit or vegetable juices are freshly pressed for you at "vitamin-stations" just about everywhere, "chay" (tea) is still being served in "chaykhune"s (teahouses), and "dugh", the local variant of Turkish "ayran" or Indian "lassi" (water and yogurt mix), is another effective thirst quencher. Islamic beer is only a distant relative of the real thing, of which you will start phantasizing after about one week. No wine, no spirits either, at least on the surface. But Iran being Iran, with Christians and Jews having the right to produce alcohol for their religious services, it goes without saying that they produce more than needed... You catch my drift: everything is available, if you manage to get the right people to trust you.
- We are very honored to have you aboard this bus, Sir. [...]
During the usual smalltalk enquiries about my opinions of Iran and the Iranians, the other passengers stir in their seats and stare at us, maybe eager to find out about me. Then:
- What is your name?
Somebody tips on his shoulder and asks, in Farsi, what my name is. After his reply, the word "Pierre" goes like a bushfire to the end of the bus, so I turn around and gently bow forward, with a friendly smile, now that I am officially introduced.
- What is your surname?
And a "Flener" sound soon ripples through the entire bus.
- Where are you from?
- I am from Luxemborg. (sic, Farsi pronunciation)
Now, the words "Luxemborg!", "Luxemborg?", and "Istanbul!" (sic) resonate around.
- What is your job?
- I am a teacher.
- Are you an English language teacher?
- No, I teach Computer Science.
- Wow! At what level, high school perhaps?
- No, at a university.
- But you are very young... Are you a teaching assistant?
- No, I have a Ph.D. degree and am an assistant professor.
The eager man behind us tips on my neighbor's shoulder again to get the summary of my latest answers. And the word "doktora" echoes manifold through the bus, to be instantly followed by an almost collective outcry:
- Mashallah! (a common Islamic phrase, used to avert the evil eye when expressing admiration)
Their admiration seems limitless. (Later I found out that, with the level of the economy, obtaining a Ph.D. in Iran is something very difficult, and thus quite rare and noteworthy, especially for people of my age.) Passengers send their children to bring me cakes, fruit, vegetables, and tea. How natural Iranians thus are, in the sense that they simply "adopt" me, making me one of theirs, with no regard to my race, creed, or title! I like this!
The city of Shiraz is the other must-see on the Iranian part of the Silk Road, although less exhibitionist and visual than Esfahan, but maybe more poetic? I spent four days there, and they were as busy and wonderful as my days in Esfahan, for the same reasons: many young people chatted with me, abducted me for "faludeh" ice-cream (a local specialty), or otherwise showed me around. Unforgettable! Enter Ali and Hadi, two young Iranians visiting from somewhere near Tehran, and in town for the same time-span as I.
Among the most memorable sites are the various parks, including the ones with Aramgah-e Hafez (the tomb of Hafez, the most celebrated poet of the Farsi tongue) and Aramgah-e Sa'di (the tomb of Sa'di, another son of Shiraz, and probably Iran's second-most famous poet). The former park features a lovely tea-garden where it feels so good to while away the hotter hours of the day, listening to soulful classical Iranian music. The mausolea at Shah-e Cheragh, of Sayyed Mir Ahmad and his brother Sayyed Mir Mohammad (close relatives of Emam Reza), are especially interesting, not only for the throngs of pilgrims shuffling through and donating impressive amounts of Rials, but also and mainly for their dazzling three-dimensional mirror mosaics inside: you feel like walking through a diamond, or through outer space, with all these myriads of reflections! There also is a generous sprinkling of other sites of interest, such as the Ark (citadel), more mosques and madrassas and churches, a small museum, and of course the lively bazaars.
As my two-week travel visa is about to expire, I also head out to the police station in order to ask for a two-week-extension. This turns out to be quite an experience as well, so let me delve on it. The Alien Affairs bureau is a bit hard to find, but once there, I am relieved to find out that at least Colonel Masti speaks English. There is a form to fill out in duplicate (without carbon paper) and attach mug shots to, and then you are sent out to queue up at an on-site branch of Bank Melli in order to pay 1,000 Rials (so no money to the police officers: not much trust here?) and to buy, believe it or not, a folder for your own file at an on-site stationery shop. Back to Colonel Masti with all these items, and ready for the dreaded interview: travelers reported to me that they were interviewed on as interesting topics as "the achievements of the Islamic Revolution, from 1979 to today" (!) before being granted the extension. As he scans through my application, he finds the magic line about my job, and fifteen minutes later I walk out of there with a promise for the requested extension, having "only" been grilled on computer software and hardware! I may pick up my passport the morning after, and it is ready indeed.
One afternoon, I set out with Ali and Hadi for Takht-e Jamsheed, better but erroneously known in the "West" as Persepolis, and the number one archeological site in the country. First by minibus to Marvdasht, some 50km north, then on by taxi to the ruins. An exorbitant 10,000 Rials are extorted from foreigners, much to Ali and Hadi's surprise, then dismay and shame, because it is 20 times more than what locals pay. This kind of discrimination is rampant in Iran (though the multiplier usually is around 2 or 3) and in many other countries, but I will always fight it. Ali and Hadi argue with the ticket officer on my behalf, exposing the absurdity of the system: it contradicts the government's [now old] line that tourism money is not needed, and suffers from the fact that not all foreigners have the same buying power, etc. He is sympathetic, but says the government forces him to charge me more (even though there is no video camera behind his back verifying whether he really enforces it). The ruins are awesome, with their giant walls, columns, temples, statues, and so on, especially the incredibly well-preserved 2,500-year-old reliefs, such as the "Parade of Nations". (Let the compared lengths of my harangue against the ticketing practice and of my praise of the site not make you infer that the hassle was the dominant moment of the day, because it really was the visit of the ruins; but how can I describe in words what you ought to go out and see for yourself?!) When we walk out, Ali and Hadi argue once more with the ticket officer, pointing out that all signs and explanations are in Farsi, so that it is a shame to ask foreigners to pay more without even offering them any service for it. He sheepishly hands back 5,000 Rials, obviously embarrassed now. We also visit the impressive rock-hewn tombs of Darius I, Xerxes, Artaxerxes, and Darius II at nearby Naghsh-e Rostam (though I would now recommend going to the two sites in the opposite order, so as to have better light conditions for photography).
So there is little entertainment other than hanging around with friends or staying with the family (which is of course difficult for the transient traveler). Discreet dating seemed to be going on in pastry and ice-cream parlors and tea gardens, but "going out" seemed limited to window-shopping up and down the fancier boulevards.
Of course, for those who can afford it, there is big-time underground entertainment in family and friends circles, not unlike what was going on in the USA during the Prohibition, according to what I hear: I still regret having turned down (for time and itinerary reasons) an invitation to such a "decadent" party, as it would have provided a stark contrast to the life of the lower classes that I observed every day. Alcohol would most likely have been available there, and there would have been unveiled women to talk to, but it was not to be: maybe another time?
Iran has a vibrant and world-class movie scene (one of my all-time favorite movies is an Iranian one, namely "Bashoo", and I also enjoyed the "Madjid" series on a little boy growing up in Esfahan), but little (if not nothing) thereof was visible on the streets: movie theaters invariably sported blood-and-tear-filled posters for Rambo-style flicks with mustachioed bandana-wearing machos carrying blazing machine guns and crying chadored ladies across battlefields... And such rubbish seemed to attract huge (male) crowds, maybe reminding them of heroism in the Iran-Iraq war? It is sickening to see such bloodthirst kept alive, but to Iran's excuse it must be said that this is a worldwide phenomenon.
The city is full of prospective students from all over the province, as the university entrance exam is the day after. It thus turns out completely impossible to secure a bed for the night, in any price category, and many students tell me that they will actually have to sleep in the parks. At some "mosaferkhune", however, I talk the receptionist into setting up a bed for me in the courtyard, for a steep discount of course, as long as I have access to the common facilities. Which he does, right in the courtyard, where students mill around, pouring over their lecture notes, cramming the last few theorems, and polishing their English up with me as a last-minute God-sent recitation instructor.
Similar things happen wherever I go in the city. Interestingly, and maybe because they are away from their hometowns, young women chatted with me much more frequently than elsewhere (which is zero times everywhere, except in Esfahan). Zahra, for instance, wants my advice on whether she should take the medical exam or the English language exam the day after. Hard questions by confused young people!
In the evening, a pleasant surprise awaits me at the pension. Ali, an Iraqi Kurd and the night receptionist, tells me the other receptionist charged me an outrageous price, and that paying half as much will suffice. So there are people without interest in short-term profits! I chat a lot with him and his friends, because it is of course impossible to think about going to sleep in my bed now in the courtyard, where the students still recite their lessons.
I am extremely exhausted, and the sometimes extreme solicitude of Iranians (partly due to the fact that I am a "Westerner", and thus a rare animal) starts unnerving me a bit, especially now. Iranians do not understand that "Westerners" sometimes want to be alone, or have trouble coping with large groups of people hanging all over them and constantly talking to them from all angles. Once the novelty of talking to a foreigner fades away, the group will leave you alone, which unfortunately also means that you are marked "available" for the next group... After going through the same ceremonial many times a day, and every day, things become a bit repetitive. But one cannot complain, as they are in their country and culture, and we are the foreigners and should be tolerant of local ways. The most practical way to cope with what is sometimes perceived as excessive solicitude (but of course only meant as hospitality) is to spin a web of half-lies about other obligations, but I did not like this approach.
The next morning, after finishing the night in one of the rooms vacated by the early departing students, Ali shows me around town. When seeing that Ali is a local, two Esfahani girls sidle up and ask us whether they can join us. Sure! We visit Abambar-e Shesh Badgiri (a water-reservoir with six wind-towers; such towers are the chief landmarks in Yazd), the Masjed-e Jame mosque, and the narrow alleys of the mudbrick-built old town. The girls are very interesting to talk to (especially that you rarely get the opportunity to do so completely unsupervised), and are strongly in favor of more rights for women.
Iranian women have many more civil rights than their Gulf Arabic sisters (funny, no, that the "West" always conveniently forgets this when supporting these countries and despising Iran), and are active parts of much of the public life, as nurses, teachers, MPs, etc. They may actually drive cars, even alone. It was funny to see pedestrian-crossing signs that were seemingly imported from Western Europe, because they depict a mother in a rather short skirt crossing the street with her little son, rather than a walking triangle with a son. Also, long-legged, blonde, unveiled Barbie-dolls were on sale, and I wondered how the importers could get away with this. [However, they seem to have been banned recently, with the introduction of shorter, olive-skinned, and dark-haired dolls, which I endorse, because "Western" imperialism should not dictate the canons of beauty to other nations (and I see this in Turkey, where many middle/upper-class women have their hair dyed blonde in a vain attempt to look more desirable to their blonde-crazy men, although it often has the opposite effect, on me), and that wear the chador and headscarves, which, if a logical requirement for the current regime, makes me sad.]
Indeed, other than the general mood being gloom (especially, but, I am afraid, not uniquely because of this being "Moharram", the mourning month), the most depressing thing during my stay in Iran was to see the women, suffering in chadors and headscarves. Yes, I know, what a grandiloquently naive and ignorant statement this is, but bear with me and give me a chance! I went to Iran very open-minded about this, I have spent years living and traveling in Muslim countries, I have discussed this for hours with Muslim women, and I considered myself mentally prepared, but after ten days, my resolve evaporated and slowly turned into anger. I perceived this as sheer oppression, I believed to sense suffering, especially among younger (and thus more open-minded) women. Seven-year-old girls and many of the older women would not even arouse a prisoner on the deathrow. I cannot add anything to the debate that has not been said yet, and I know all the pros from first-hand reports, but the cons far outweigh them if this dresscode is imposed (by relatives or governments)! Why do women have to pay the price for men's supposed inability to contain themselves? This is so unfair and hypocritical! If Islam were a powerful religion, then it would not have to defend its women against its men! Anybody having seen chadored women spend half of their lives sweating like hell under these dark tents and delegating one hand full-time to the readjustment of the chador after every move, cannot be indifferent to the plight of these women. Even if you consider this assessment imperialist, note that I have the right to express my own opinion.
Mashhad-the-Holy turns into a quite harrowing, claustrophobic experience. Indeed, it is "Moharram", the mourning month, and the city is packed with seemingly millions (though it feels more like billions) of pilgrims who converge here to pay their respects at the tomb of Emam Reza, one of the major martyrs of Shi'ite Islam. The "savari" ride from the bus-terminal to downtown, along Kheyabun-e Emam Reza, soon confirms this, and I still do not understand how it was possible that I actually found a place to stay (admittedly, the "room", if one can say so, was the most disgusting one of my life, and I am not known for being picky about rooms).
Near my "mosaferkhune", on Moghaddas square, the throng of pilgrims fills half the boulevard: they are almost exclusively men, clad in black, and slowly shuffle forward to the Haram-e Motahhar-e Emam Reza, the holy precinct with the shrine. Drums are mournfully beaten, group leaders with loudspeakers wail prayers echoed by the pilgrims, and every couple seconds or so, synchronized with a single hollow drum beat, everybody flagellates themselves. No blood seems to be drawn from this, but it is ghostly enough to make a lasting imprint on my mind. It feels unbearable for me as a non-believer, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So, on the sidewalks, from where women and individual pilgrims observe the organized pilgrim groups on their procession, I work my way forward to the shrine as well, dressed in my darkest gear, and with my hair combed flat so that I do not stick out too much (I normally have a crew cut, and am blond).
The circular precinct features some of the best Islamic architecture in the world, with golden roofs visible from far away and with mind-bogglingly sumptuous mosques and madrassas (Kur'an schools). After a cursory bodysearch and deposit of my daypack (no cameras of course, and even if it were allowed, one would have to be ruthlessly disrespectful to shoot any photos of these events), I am admitted into the precinct. Some pilgrims sidle up to me every now and then, asking me whether I am a Muslim. Although I say `no', they are totally tolerant, maybe in the belief that my very presence here will put me on the right path anyway? There is so much to see here that you cannot take it all in with just one visit. Other than the stunning tilework, the key experience is of course further observation of the pilgrims. Here is Shi'ite Islam in full action, and I am amazed that I can, as an infidel, walk up all the way to the holy tomb itself: the religious authorities are sometimes very tolerant, no matter what prejudice circulates in the "West". Once they have touched and kissed the tomb of Reza, some pilgrims become hysteric: adult men roll on the floor, big tears flow down their cheeks, foam builds up on their mouths, they beat themselves senseless, and are dragged away by their more sober friends, while still wailing "ya Reza, ya Ali"... Unforgettable sights, observed from within, not through long lenses or on some documentary channel. I feel superfluous as an infidel, but, even though many would warn you that such "fanatics" can easily turn into a raging mob at the slightest provocation, I must also add that I feel very safe among all these believers.
I also explore other parts of Mashhad, sometimes just looking for a peaceful rest on a park bench away from the sounds and bustle of the pilgrims, at other times being magnetically drawn back to the "Haram". Mashhad is famous for its saffron (I could have paid for my entire trip with the profits I would have made by buying here and selling abroad; five grams cost about $2.25). The spice and dry food stores have other interesting items on sale, namely "Mashhad pilgrimage kits", with a prayer stone (made of clay from Mecca) (Shi'ites put their foreheads on such stones when praying), a rosary (?), a cake of soap, and some other tacky souvenirs, featuring portraits of the martyrs Reza or Ali.
The "Rubaiyat" quatrains, such as the above, are full of irreverence for the political and religious leaders; they mention courtship and wine, and they remind us of the shortness and meaninglessness of life. Not surprisingly, these poems are not very popular with the current regime, but many people seem to have stowed copies away, since I was often shown old illustrated hardcover editions, so that I could read them during the night. I linger for many hours in the park, enjoying the peace, before returning for a last night to Mashhad.
Mashhad was thus quite an experience, and I sigh with relief when my bus pulls out of town on big suburban boulevards. The plain is wide and fertile, along a range of mountains with the Turkmen border. When we pass the crossing where a road forks off to Ashkhabad (the Turkmen capital), I breathe deeply, as this is as close as I will get to closing the missing link with my former Silk Road trip, which was unceremoniously ended in Ashkhabad two years before, when I was denied an Iranian visa because the border was closed to foreign nationals (see my Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan travelogues). Shortly after, the powerful bus (I was very happy with Cooperative #15) climbs into hilly steppe and eventually reaches a fabulously beautiful large forest near Dasht. The vision of green leaves soothes my soul after all this gloom in Mashhad, but part of this depressive mood has peeled off to me, because I have not been involved in any meaningful conversation for days now. The people are still friendly everywhere, but the language barrier gets very high once you are off the Silk Road and the major cities, so conversation boils down to basics in my Tarzan Farsi or their pidgin English, and there is lots of staring to cope with (oh yes, the Asiatic stare...).
But, as usual when the morale is lowest, solutions pop up. First, since we are passing provinces with Turkmen populations, there are many Turkmen passengers and crew on the bus, and, to their great delight, I can show off my Turkish language skills. Next, we reach the Dasht-e Gorgan plain near the Caspian Sea, with its rice paddies, corn fields, etc: another riot of greenery. This must be where they shot "Bashoo"? My eyes scan the horizon, and, yes, there it is, still some 30km away, the Gonbad-e Kavus in the same-named town! After unloading everybody at the terminal, the crew actually gives me a VIP ride on the bus to this burial tower! Built under the Seldjuk Turks in the year 1006, this 55m high brick tower of a stark beauty is incredibly well-preserved (it looks like water-towers built back home in the 1950s) and has awesome radiance. Its sheer age and size (maybe the highest tower in the world at that time?) testify to a timelessness that makes one reckon that this secular building will still stand unscathed when many of the younger Islamic buildings will need more serious repair. Under the bemused eyes of superb Turkmen women in colorful silk dresses, I take some photos of the tower and then stumble into an icecream parlor.
There I meet Carole and Luc, a French couple touring Iran in their private car. Since they are also headed for Gorgan for the night, they offer me a ride, which I gratefully accept, happy to have a full-scale conversation again and to have somebody to share my experiences with, to get feedback from, and to assess my trip so far. In Gorgan we settle for a hotel distinctly above my usual budget, but after the hell-hole of a room in Mashhad I need a nice bed and shower. I easily haggle the receptionist down from the (legal) 300% charge for foreigners to a 120% charge of what Iranians would pay. What "moved" him was that I live in Turkey and draw a Turkish salary, but he is still unbending to yield the remaining 20%: "But you are a foreigner nevertheless, and must pay more!" I cannot see the logic behind this, and it seems not entirely self-serving: he seems to genuinely believe that it is the only possible system that foreigners must be overcharged. Anyway...
After a short siesta due to the long haul to here (the French couple also left from Mashhad this morning), we leave for dinner just before sunset, fully taking advantage of having a car. There is only one thing to do: just follow all the other cars heading out of town and up the slope into the forest on the mountains behind. The road-sides form a huge picnic and barbecue ground, and we have "shishlik" at an open-air restaurant. The people seem more relaxed and fun-loving here; maybe it is because of the more colorful environment? We get invitations to Tehran and other places by nearby picnickers, and thus round off the day in harmony.
The Clinton administration has so far failed miserably in its efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran on the basis of trumped up allegations and accusations of terrorism. Allegations which were never substantiated by even a single piece of evidence. [...]
This is not the end of rejections and humiliations for the U.S. president and his Zionist constituents. [...]
Despite all these contradictory and pessimistic responses from its Western allies, the U.S. is still unilaterally continuing its incoherent and illogical moves against Iran. This is the same United States who once used to be regarded as the champion of `worldwide free trade policy'.
What happened to those attractive but misleading slogans chanted by the most developed country in the world? What became of the United States which was so enraged by the Arab boycott of Israel in the years past and so vehemently attacked the concept of economic boycott calling it anti-Democratic and unacceptable under any circumstances?
Do democratic principles apply only to the U.S. and its Zionist offspring? [...]
Or what about this one:
Our nation's lengthy sacred defense against the barbaric invasion of the Mongolians, Iran's various defensive wars with the Tzarist Russia and keeping the strong invading army of the Tzars behind our borders, disabling them to occupy even the slightest bit of our country's sacred soil during the reign of Safavids, are the best examples of how the Muslim people of Iran rose up to confront enemies.
And of course, in very recent history of Iran, the braveries of Iranian men and women, young and old alike, in their most spectacular Sacred Defense of all the times, the Eight-Year, Iraqi-Imposed War are the last, and best chapter of the same book.
In order to revive the sweet memories of the brave individuals, to whom we owe our sovereignty, our pride and the solidarity of our nation and soil, in a war that we did not fight merely against the Iraqi army, but practically against most of the Western countries, which wished to perish our glorious Revolution, the Tehran Times Service is proud to announce its intention to portray a very small bit of what our combatants went through in those tough days. [...]
As the French head south to Tehran, I board a minibus further west to Ramsar, the most-sung of the resorts because the coastal strip is narrowest there and the forest almost plunges from the mountains into the sea. Of course, the Shah had a villa there, which is now the "Museum of Decadence" (what else?!). The driver drops me off at a nice "mosaferkhune" where a charming old man immediately quotes the right price, for once dispensing me from having to haggle. (This actually becomes a constant feature from now on, maybe because I am way off the beaten tourist track, or because my Farsi is getting better?) I stroll up and down this pleasant village, taking in the sweet smell of the forest and the flowers, relaxing here and there, observing the locals taking it easy as well, and finally having a dinner that is so far the best one, by a landslide. (This also becomes a feature from now on, is it just luck or is it experience?)
Masuleh is well-known for its distinctive architecture: the village is laid out like a staircase, on a mountain-slope. When you stroll past a row of houses, you are actually walking over somebody's roof! An intricate net of staircases connects the various "floors", and all the features of a village are built in, such as a market square, a mosque, etc. Very interesting. But also a bit geared towards tourism, not necessarily for foreigners, but mostly for Tehrani and Rashti sightseers: women sell woollen handicraft, such as socks, caps, dolls, etc.
Enter Mahmut. He is a young man about my age, and enthusiastically waves me into the next "chaykhune" for a few rounds of tea. Not much English spoken here, about as much as my budding Farsi, but his warm hospitality and my dictionary provide for an entertaining few hours. For a better view of his village, he proposes to guide me on a walk along the slope of the opposing mountain, which we do. At some pasture, we join a few old men, and a Tehrani architect, over a few more teas, relaxing, chatting, taking in the beauty and peace of the surroundings. Mahmut is quite adamant that this fairy place is a paradise, but he also complains about tourists dropping candy wrappings and plastic bottles. Yes, how can one walk through such pristine nature and yet feel nothing about spoiling it by dropping such items? In the early evening, we complete our loop and make it back to the "savari" terminal. There would have been plenty of possibilities for homestays overnight here, but I did not know this and thus head back to my pension (and luggage) in Rasht.
I spot a nice hotel right off the main square, and they charge 7,000 Rials (no zeroes missing) for a kind of room that I saw elsewhere often quoted for 60,000 Rials, and without even making a difference between locals and foreigners. The friendly receptionist seems very resourceful, so I approach him with my wish to visit Alamut, the nearby but hard-to-reach fortress of the Assassins. After some bargaining, he sets to his task and delivers: tomorrow morning, an acquaintance will take me there, in his four-wheel-drive! (I do not wish to embarrass those readers who have also done this by mentioning the price that I eventually paid for this excursion.)
I make friends with some of the Iranian Azaris staying at the hotel, and they call me for tea, which they prepare on a gas-cooker in their room! Otherwise, I while away the rest of the day by strolling through town, writing postcards (the first ones I find since Shiraz, and they are about Esfahan), etc. I simply must mention the place I had dinner at, namely "Eghbali Restaurant" (on the main street), where you have to sample their absolutely divine "khoresht", which will set you back, with all the trappings, by about $2 (no zeroes missing).
The 90km road first goes through a plain, and then climbs a succession of two steep passes, to the village called Alamut (no relation to the main castle, though, which is still beyond). This stretch of the road seems to be the Mecca of Iranian cyclists, and my legs itch with jealousy as we pass them. Soon after, the asphalt turns into a dirt-road, and I can better visualize the descriptions of fearless Dame Freya Stark, who traveled here earlier this century. It also dawns on me that none of my three companions has ever been to Alamut, as they have no clue where to drive next and start asking every peasant, proceeding by binary search before locating the right turn-off. Here the track becomes extremely steep, and I am surprised that even a jeep can negotiate this slope. Eventually, we cross another village, whose sewage consists of a minor torrent simply diverted through the main streets. To my astonishment, some brandnew cars are parked here, and I look in vain for the helicopter platform where they must have come from.
Behind this hamlet is a huge vertical outcrop of a rock, on top of which used to stand the main castle of the Assassins. This is where the Ismailis, a 12th century heretic Shi'a sect, led by Hassan Sabah (a.k.a. the old man of the mountains), had their main hideaway. All over the Middle East, they were much feared for a century and a half because of the political assassinations that their fanatical followers would stage in public, in return for a promise of paradise, with 72 ever-virgin female servants ("houris") and other trappings. There is controversy over the real name of the sect, but it is a fact that it was adapted by the Crusaders in order to designate murderers (hence the French and English word "assassin"). To everybody's big relief, the Mongols managed to achieve where they had all failed so far, namely in capturing this well-defended stronghold. Actually, they literally did not leave a stone on top of the other one, so there is not much to see here. But it is getting here and being here that I came for, and I feel very elated to stand at a place that so much influenced History. (See, e.g., Maalouf's "Samarkand" for more on the Assassins.) A quite slippery trail leads from the parking lot around the rock and eventually onto it: it is dizzyingly high and one can imagine how easy it was to defend it.
After taking in the place and picnicking there, we start the long 4hr return journey, interrupted only by a tea-stop somewhere. Of course, I head back to Eghbali's for dinner.
Once there, after settling onward bus ticket and local accommodation issues, I start strolling through town, but without much energy or gusto for sightseeing proper. It is a pleasant city, boasting even a pedestrian shopping zone and finally some tape stalls with blaring rhythmic music, and people watching here is as entertaining as ever. So I just buy a newspaper and head for some shade in some park. Now, it does not happen often to a Luxembourger to be abroad and suddenly see the name of a fellow countryman on the front pages of every newspaper. So imagine my delight when I see the following headline:
(Note to the ignorant: Jacques Santer then was the current President of the European Commission, and was Luxembourg's Prime Minister before picking up that new post.) Too bad I did not have a copy of such a newspaper with me at each of my four rejected visa applications at Iranian embassies in the last two years: now that I have one, I am sure my next visa application for Iran will go through in a breeze! I feel like telling every passerby that I am from the same country as this gentleman on the photos who defies the USA and takes a pro-Iranian stand...
I thank you, dear reader, for staying with me until this last line.