Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

An old hammam in one of the mansions

An old hammam in one of the mansions

To come back to our own wanderings- our path led us from the capital down south to Kashan, a town famous for its mansion buildings. We wandered the streets and checked out the formidable architecture- they used to be merchant’s homes- labyrinth-like, with courtyards complete with greenery and pond, richly decorated with mosaics, colored glass windows, wood carvings- in short: truly beautiful.

Then we yet again got a taste of Iranian people’s incredible friendliness and hospitality- waiting at a streetcorner for a taxi to take us to a park some 9km outside of town, we made the acquaintance of Ali, who stopped in his car and offered to drive us there. then we got to talk about the desert (Kashan lies at the edge of a huge desert stretching eastwards), he offered to drive us there in the afternoon. We agreed, and so, a couple of hours later, we were headed for sand dunes, together with Ali’s little son and his father in law. We climbed around the dunes, rolled around in the sand, and had a really good time altogether. On the way back, the father in law invited us back to his house for drinks and some fruit, before Ali dropped us at the bus terminal to catch our bus to Esfahan. And he never asked for a cent, as many people would probably expect.

Desert trip

Desert trip

Desert trip

Desert trip

In Esfahan, we were picked up by Mohammed, our couchsurfing host for the night (or so we thought). He drove us home to his family, where we met his mother, sister, brothers, their husbands and wives, and their kids- we were promptly invited for dinner the next evening. Then on we went to Albofazl (yes, that was his name indeed, and he turned out to be quite the Albofazl…), who we had contacted first, but who had declined our request saying he already hosted other people for the night- he then recommended Mohammed. It turned out he did not host anyone after all, so we stayed with him- on the floor, as there was no couch.

Our first hosts

Our first hosts

It was a bit of a weird situation, his old mother was sleeping on the floor in the hallway and also spent the better part of the day just sitting around there, never speaking a word. The place was not the cleanest and our host himself somewhat strange to say the least- he had a weakness for vanilla icecream, calligraphy and bad puns- along the lines of:    Anna: “Oh it was too hot outside today” Albofazl: “Was it too (read: two) hot or three hot or four hot, hahahaha?” or Nico: “Yes, I read about that” Albofazl: “You read (read: red) it or you blue it, haha?” Us: “We ate Kebab today” Albofazl: ” You ate (read:eight) it or you nine it, hahaha?”. Leaving us standing there, feeling forced to smirk awkwardly…..

Typical Iranian LIving/Dining/Sleeping Room

Typical Iranian Living/Dining/Sleeping Room

Esfahan itself is a beautiful place, with the mighty Imam square, the second largest in the world after Tiananmen square. We had a look at the bazaar and then went to visit the huge mosque at the square, which is decorated with blue mosaic all over- just imagining the amount of work that went into creating this place leaves you speechless. We then checked out a park with palace, and the Armenian (and thus Christian) quarter on the other side of the dry river bed. It had a very different flair, more modern (and even sported a Starbucks, much to our surprise). In the evening it was time to head to our dinner invitation, but before we had agreed to meet Mohammed at his English school, to visit two of the classes in order to talk to the people, which was a nice experience.

Magnificent Immam Mosque

Magnificent Immam Mosque

And then the dinner- it was delicious. We all sat on the floor to eat, and apart from enjoying the food, had nice conversations with the different family members- about their lives, and ours, about Iran and Germany. In Iran, in order to get a taste of proper Persian food, you have to be invited to someone’s home- there is no real restaurant culture to speak of, it all consists of kebab places (and kebab meaning dry rice, dry bread, and a piece of meat, no sauce, no salad), or burger and pizza joints. We tried the latter- and seriously had the world’s worst pizza…no kidding. Iranian families love picknicks, and you will see them having them at the weirdest possible places- along the highway, on a patch of grass for instance. But the rest is home cooking.

Our host Eshan visiting the Persepolis with us

Our host Eshan visiting the Persepolis with us

We got more of that upon our arrival in Shiraz, the next stop on our itinerary, where we stayed with Ehsan and his family. Both him and his sister, despite being in their late twenties, are still living at home, as it is not common to live by yourself before you get married, unless you study in another town or find a job somewhere else. They welcomed us warmly, and we had an absolutely great time in Shiraz. Eshan took us on a city tour, helped us arrange the issue with Gulf air (took us some time to convince them we did not want a refund but a new ticket, and that it was their fault, not ours), and finally even drove to Persepolis with us- an ancient site some 50 km north of Shiraz. His mother insisted on serving us delicious food throughout the day, which made us feel rather guilty, especially as they wanted nothing in return- so we got to taste chicken in walnut pomegranate sauce amongst other delights. We visited the tomb of a famous Persian poet, sat in a park and generally did a lot of talking- about Europe, about Iran, about the current situation in Iran, and Ehsan shared his opinions with us very openly and thus allowed us to gain a deeper insight into many of the things we had previously only noticed but had never had the chance to address.

Impressive Persepolis, built by Xerxes almost 2000 years ago

Impressive Persepolis, built by Xerxes almost 2000 years ago

Then it was time to say farewell and head on to Yazd, a desert city north east of Shiraz. The old town is built entirely out of mudbrick houses, most of whom have so called badgirs on their roofs- ancient airconditioning systems- they act as wind collectors, the air is then cooled down with water and led to the rooms below, a welcome relief in the scorching heat. And hot is was. We liked Yazd a lot, it was fun to stroll along the narrow lanes, enjoy rooftop views over the old centre, and explore the bazaar.

Desert city Yazd from above

Desert city Yazd from above

But as this was not quite enough desert for us just yet, we headed on the Kerman from where we went onto a desert tour proper- into the Luts desert- an area full of bizarre sand rock sculptures, where we spent the night sleeping under the desert sky- with millions of stars, and amazing shooting stars!!! It was incredibly hot, 50 degrees during the day- apparently the region is the hottest on earth, in summer, temperatures go up to 65 degrees Celsius (and may I care to remind you that I was still wearing a black coat and headscarf…).

Luts Desert

Luts Desert

And sunrise in the desert

And sunrise in the desert

Our small adventure group

Our small adventure group

King of the desert

King of the desert

Now we felt like some ocean for a change, so we boarded a bus heading down to the Persian gulf (one of the many night bus rides we took during our stay- and a word on buses: many of them have the funniest English slogans written all over them, like “Touristy well come”- doesn’t make sense? Nah, it doesn’t). If we thought the desert had been hot- we did not consider the incredible humidity in Southern Iran. Bandar Abbas was ” just” 43 degrees, but our clothes were literally glued to our bodies- a whole new definition of what it means to be sweating… We took a small boat that cruised over the waves to Queshm Island and spent one day wandering (read:  sweating) along the streets of the town (which is lined with shopping malls, as it is a tax free area). But these had not been the reason for our being there- the next day we set out to visit traditional wooden boats in the small town of Laft and took a boat ride through a huge mangrove forest that extends just off the coast of Queshm. The trip back by boat was even more fun than the way there- it was a nutshell type of outboard motor ship, not covered, and the conductor loved driving up as close as possible to all the huge freight ships and oil tankers that crowd the Persian gulf, just turning at the last moment to zoom past them, all before the backdrop of the red sun slowly sinking over the hazy gulf. Sounds cheesy, but was really nice.

Queshm Island

Queshm Island

Our stay in Iran ended in Shiraz- we lay in the park, drank alcohol free beer (there is an incredible market for that stuff, and it comes in all sorts of flavors, from classical malt to lemon, apple, pomegranate, cherry, coffee, raspberry….), and observed people. We will have to come back at one point to visit the Kurdish regions in the West- very remote, mountainous areas, with a people that still lives largely with centuries old traditions.

And our first free roaming camel

And our first free roaming camel

All in all, Iran was an amazing experience- the only disturbing feature being that we were asked by several people whether Adolf Hitler was a hero in Germany- imagine that. It leaves you speechless, before you start to vehemently lecture people on reality. A certain naivety towards other cultures thus persists, even among the better educated, but we felt that this was probably due to some warped way of being taught what it means to be heroic at school’s and universities…..

News on India to follow soon, and already now there is so much to say!!!!

Until then,

all the best,

les voyageurs

My shoes didn't make it at the end

My shoes didn't make it at the end

Heat, watch the temperature

Heat, watch the temperature

well, 10 minutes later....my alarm clock can't handle 50 degrees

well, 10 minutes later....my alarm clock can't handle 50 degrees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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There is an end to this incredibly long silence on our part- and so many things have happened, I do not even know where to begin…..

As Nico wrote in our previous post, we have by now reached the Indian shores (news on that soon)- but for now, there is much to recount from Iran (the internet connection is unfortunately very slow here, so we will not be able to upload any photos at the moment- but will do so as soon as we find adequate connection speeds somewhere).

New Dresscode

New Dresscode

Many people we told about our intention to visit Iran reacted with a worried expression on their faces: ” But, isn’t it dangerous? ” ” Anna, you will need wear hejab over there!” “What about terrorists???”. This, combined with the general perception of Iran in the West and most of the media representations made us think: all the more reason to go- and without any preconceptions or prejudices at that. And we have not regretted it a single second- in fact, I absolutely have to and want to go back there some day, there is so much more to see, and we did not have nearly enough time.

Notice the earphones......

Notice the earphones......

So, how did it all start? From Dogubayazit, our last stop in Turkey (a town at the foot of majestic snowcapped Mt Ararat, Turkey’s highest), we took a minibus to the border and then walked over into Iran (how cool is that, arriving in Iran on foot). I was dressed up all proper in my new shiny coat bought in Turkey, complete with headscarf. The immigration officials looked at us a bit confused- in the sense of: what the hell do you want to visit our country for?, but gave us the necessary stamps nevertheless. Two taxirides later, we found ourselves in Maku and boarded a bus headed to Tabriz. A four hour ride for the equivalent for 2 euros- much to our joy vis a vis our travel budget. In Tabriz itself, we were facing a somewhat serious issue- the limited amount of money we had changed at the border had only brought us so far- we desperately needed cash. The issue in Iran, however, is that you cannot use credit cards at all, or any bank pass for that matter- foreign cards do not work at Iranian ATM’s- only cash exchange, and only in high denomination Euros or Dollars. Problem: the exchange bureaus were closed, as it was late already. So we had to ask the hotel receptionist our money back to be able to buy something to eat and promised him to pay in the morning. Fortunately, he accepted.

Religious issues....one of the few churches, behind high walls and surveillance Cameras...

Religious issues....one of the few churches, behind high walls and surveillance Cameras...

We had been somewhat afraid that sharing a room might turn out to be a problem, as we are not married, but much to our delight, it never was an issue during our entire stay, and we weren’t even bothered by questions about our relationship status as often as we had been in Eastern Turkey. Hotels in Iran are obviously not quite comparable to what you are used to in Western Europe (at least not the budget options we were aiming for). They mostly come without attached bathrooms, so you have to share a smelly squat toilet on the corridor (with a hose to flush, and no toiletpaper ever, it is BYO), and looking at the state of most of the showers, it is a miracle we did not catch some fungus between our toes….But this was not so much the issue, if anything the fact that I had to don my headscarf and coat every time I needed to take a leak was somewhat irritating at times- and Nico had to remind me more than once :-).

One of many bazaars

One of many bazaars

We spent a pleasant day in Tabriz, strolling around the Bazaar, having a Kebab lunch in a den-like bistro, where men and women were technically seated separately, but they made an exception for us, visited the Blue Mosque and were confronted with one of the outstanding features of Iran that remained remarkable for the rest of our stay in the country: the incredible openness, friendliness and helpfulness of its people.  Many Westerner’s could learn a great deal from the Iranian people when it comes to hospitality and selflessness when dealing with strangers. You won’t spend more than a minute standing at a street-corner looking lost, before someone comes up to you to ask if you need assistance of any kind- more on that later. Of course, there is the occasional annoying person, the taxidriver that wants to rip you off, and the unfriendly shop owner, but that is about it.

So we were invited for tea (chai- and it was not going to be our last) by a guy who saw us at the blue mosque at his office nearby, he went out and bought cookies and was very happy to talk to us- we have shared many a story with a variety of Iranians during our stay. Unfortunately mostly men, as the women are harder to approach.

A simple home in Kandovan

A simple home in Kandovan

Later in the afternoon, we drove to Kandovan, a Iranian mini Cappadocia of sorts, complete with fairy chimneys and houses hewn into the rocks, all overlooking a river. A slightly annoying situation occurred when an old men gesticulated to us to have a look inside his house and then would not let us go without giving him money- but it was all made up for by a bunch of schoolgirls on an outing who were quite excited to see us foreigners and shyly asked if they could take some photos with us- all accomplished with much giggling- and we were not so sure whether Ms. Teacher approved….

A word on money- Iran made us millionaires. The exchange rate for Euro- Iranian Rial currently lies at 1 to 16.500, so you can imagine that our wallets were absolutely too small to hold all the bills- you need an entire handbag to transport all the wads of cash. Additionally, and probably owing to the huge sums that you have to deal with in your everyday life, even if it is just about buying something as profane as bread, Iranians use the system of tomans- they do not quote prices in Rial, but toman- toman being one tenth of a rial. So if the cab driver tells you 3.000, what he means is 30.000. And you have to get used to it fast, otherwise there will be confusion!

Well, what did we expect...

Well, what did we expect...

Our next stop was Tehran, the capital. 15 million inhabitants, and growing, Tabriz already had crazy traffic, but nothing compared to Tehran. People always warn you of traffic conditions in countries like India (and yes, it is crazy indeed)- yet, Iran does not fall short here- it is insane. Honking is your means of survival as a motorist, and good eyesight and quick movements as a pedestrian. Iran’s streets are full of the country’s most beloved vehicle- the Paykan (translates to arrow…), an antiquated, leaded-fuel belching metal box on wheels that huffs and puffs through the streets, doing its best to increase the already sky-rocketing pollution levels of the cities- no good for asthma sufferers. We have had many a ride in a Paykan- many are taxis. Their production has, fortunately, been discontinued a couple of years back, but since there are still German Mercedes buses from the 1960’s operating throughout the country (they look awesome), it will be a while until the last Paykan will roar along the boulevards of Tehran and beyond.

We had a good time in the city- we went for walks in a lovely park, and checked out the palace building of the former Sultans. Talking of kitsch and overindulgence: picture huge rooms decorated with myriads of mirrors and glittering stones- pomp, straight out of the book. Many a Sultan, it so happens, also was more interested in his own hobbies and passions, rather than the countries needs- in one case, in order to finance his delusions of grandeur (or maybe just the next big party), a sultan wanted to sell all of Iran’s natural resources to a foreign investor for a ridiculously small sum, but was stopped in his foolishness before the damage was done. The buildings were beautiful from the outside-full of mosaics, and ornaments.

Nice ornaments in Mosque

Nice ornaments in Mosque

Then we made a slightly unpleasant discovery- upon trying to postpone our outbound flight from Tehran to Mumbai we were informed that all Gulf Air flights from Iran had been cancelled in March- due to the protests in Bahrain (Gulf Air is a Bahrain based carrier, so flights stop -over in Manama, the state’s capital). And no one had informed us- no e mail, nothing (plus we had been able to book the flights online after the cancellation had already been in effect-picture that). We would have arrived at the airport like morons, trying to check into a flight that does not exist anymore- but to do anything about the misery, we needed to go directly to the Gulf air office. After an odyssey through town, which ended with an amazing guy just driving us there in his private car for free, the office was closed. Next day- a Friday- the equivalent to our Sunday in Muslim countries- everything closed as well. So no solution just yet.

Online we discovered that Nico’s e mail account had been blocked for some unfathomable reason- and for reactivation you needed to have a code sent to your mobile- we don’t have one. So a big thanks again to Lorenz who happened to be on skype at the time, and received the code for us on his mobile and sent it through to us. Your average internet experience is somewhat restricted in Iran anyways. As Nico already mentioned in the previous post, we could not even access this blog- the government is apparently not so keen on blogging more widely (after the 2009 protests, that might seem a smart move on their part- yet they will never be able to control it…). So regular skype is off limits (we have our ways of getting around this one), facebook is impossible, news websites are blocked, many a google search will yield unsatisfying results due to censorship- but the young people know how to circumvent the restrictions anyways- they are on facebook, trust us.

Chique young women

Chique young women

Some thoughts on the people and their culture are in order anyways. Whoever has vague notions of a nation of black clad, veiled women and long-bearded men sitting in a mosque praying all day long should do away with these as fast as possible. Iran turns to be a very varied country, in its interplay of tradition and modernity, religiosity and consumerism, strict rules and the manifold ways in which they are interpreted/bent. Religion is a constant presence- you are surrounded by mosques, hear the call of the Imam, you do see many women traditionally veiled in a black ankle length chador (not to be confused with a burka, the chador does not cover the face), and men with above mentioned beards, white caps and long robes- yet there are various interpretations even to the classical chador. In the countryside, many women opt for patterned, colorful chadors, rather than black ones- floral patterns abound. Not everybody follows strict religious routines of praying five times a day (though many people do)- and from what we have observed the assumptions comes to mind that there are more ‘modernity’ oriented young people than supporters of the traditional way.

The more traditional side

The more traditional side

You will see young women and even girls clad in head to toe chador, but there is a very large number who does not do so- they opt for a manteau (coat) and headscarf- and in many cases, these manteaus are incredibly tight, bright colored, and barely cover their buttocks (which they are supposed to do). The headscarves are loosely worn, way back on the head in many cases, showing much hair, often bleached blonde, and lots of girls wear huge amounts of make up, high heels and sport chic  sunglasses and handbags. Of course, this all depends on location, and the cities there is obviously more tolerance in these things than in the country side.

Mosque courtyard

Mosque courtyard

And then, there are the unmistakeable signs of the Islamic state- first the faces of Ayatollah Khomeini (the deceased, self-declared leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution) and Ayathollah Chamenei (the present cleric leader of the country) abound- they stare at you in every shop, in every restaurant, from walls, from mosques…it is quite incredible. Talking of idolatry. Then there is the separation between men and women. In overland buses, no unrelated man and woman are allowed to sit next to each other, in city buses, the separation is even stricter- men enter the bus through the front door and sit in the front, women enter via the back door and stay in the back, there is a barrier in the middle of the bus. Men are not allowed to shake an unrelated women’s hand- even though this only applies to the more religious men, as I have had my hand shaken by many guys. An interesting observation is that many young men walk around holding hands- as a sign of friendship- an unusual sight for the unaccustomed Western eye- as in Iran, these are obviously not open expressions of homosexuality.

The "big" guys...

The "big" guys...

Fortunately, we have had the chance to talk about all these issues with some people during our travels, so it stayed not just at the level of observations, but went deeper to actual conversation about them- and the main reason for this being that we decided to try couchsurfing in Iran, to stay with people at their home- more on that in part 2 of our Iran adventures.

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