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A wrap-up of Iran, sorry for the length. The Great Internet Firewall of Iran prevented me from publishing while we were there. Now in Morocco. Expect stories involving surfing, tagine and camels to appear.
Rasht, Ardabil and Tabriz. The further north we went, the more minorities we came across. In Rasht we sat down for breakfast to eat some ash (soup) and with the translation assistance of a fellow diner. He was insistent in giving us a ride and so began an adventure where he took us to the fish market to select a Caspian sturgeon, took us to his home and proceeded to marinate it in pomegranate syrup and lemon as he told us his story. Three years of fighting in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, an incredibly brutal war with millions of casualties. He was captured and spent five years as an Iraqi prisoner of war. He suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sleeps on average two hours a night. A shocking but not uncommon story. Indeed it may be fair to say that an entire generation of Iranians are scarred deeply by this conflict and want to avoid any more bloodshed in the future even if it means putting up with an authoritarian regime.
We liked Tabriz, visiting the bazaar there was a most pleasant experience and by pure chance we were introduced to Mr Sisi, an 80+ year old shoemaker who was still stitching shoes at 9pm on the Iranian equivalent of a Sunday (Friday). Suffice it to say I purchased some of his fine wares. We made an excursion to visit one of the oldest churches in the world, the St Stephanos Armenian church from 62CE which entailed us driving from Tabriz via Jolfa along an interesting border. The road runs along a twitchy border zone stemming from an obscure war called the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A grubby war with awful consequences. The Aras river forms the border and has a road running along it on the Iranian side. We travelled through the rugged Aras Valley gorge past watchtowers, an abandoned train line and barbed wire first along the Nakhichevan Autonomous Region (occupied by Azerbaijan), Armenia and finally Azerbaijani territory occupied by Armenia whereupon we turned inland and headed to Babak Castle, a mountain fastness formerly occupied by a legendary warrior of the Azari nation. This part of Iran is truly stunning with richly forested hills as far as the eye can see, with little more than the occasional sheep herder and bleating goats. The trek up to the castle was vertigo-inducing but really worth it.

Isfahan. The Iranians call Isfahan ‘half the world’ and it’s certainly the prettiest city we’ve visited so far. It has the most beautiful mosques in Iran. The main Naqshe Jahan square is the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square but, unlike Tiananmen, is beautiful with gardens, fountains and rimmed completely with bazaar shops (no plainclothes police ready to grab a Tibetan protestor or Falun Gong practitioner). The square hosts the stunning Lotfollah mosque built for the wives of the Shah, a delicate, exquisite construction in blue, green and white. The south side is dominated by the entrance to the Masjed-e Shah mosque which is gigantic and once you’re inside, hosts a hundred different sparkling tile designs. In the south of the city is the suburb of Jolfa, home to an Armenian Christian minority who were forcibly relocated there in the 1600s to build up artisan industries. The cathedral is brightly and spectacularly painted and contrasts with the incredibly sad exhibits covering the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917 perpetrated by the nascent Turkish state. For an event that killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, it’s important we remember it (unlike the current Turkish government).

The hotel receptionist took a shine to us and spent an afternoon with us as we interrogated her about how she dates guys etc. She studied economics, has a good job at 23 and is very prepared to give it up once she marries so as not to cause her husband any ‘worries’. Love works like this: a boy hears about her or perhaps sees her on the street, his family informs her family that he would like to see her. If the woman’s family agrees, he comes on a formal visit with his parents to the woman’s home (at which her whole family will be in attendance). The visitors bring sweets and flowers. There is discussion between the sets of parents to ascertain whether it is appropriate to continue. If so, they can see each other in neutral places like a cafe during the day. There is no sex before marriage. If they continue this chaste process at some point marriage is agreed on by the parents and dowry is paid. Marriage ensues, and sadly in Iran, more than likely divorce. Iran has a high divorce rate (unsurprising if you get married without getting to know each other beforehand!).

Shiraz. After Isfahan, it’s no surprise that Shiraz wasn’t quite as impressive but from Shiraz we took a day trip to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the original Persians, the kings of the Achaemenid Empire such as Darius who so famously lost to the Athenians at Marathon, and his son Xerxes who spanked those naughty Greeks a few years later. Alexander the Great paid back the compliment in 330BCE and burnt the palace to the ground. The place is amazingly well-preserved and would have been a true wonder of the world when tribute flowed in from all over the empire. Intricate friezes, soaring columns, roaring marble griffins and two Tomb Raider-worthy tombs make this one of the most impressive archeological sites I’ve seen.

Yazd. Think Mos Eisely in the first Star Wars movie. A city in the middle of the desert, mud brick homes, domed roofs, lanes too narrow for cars and otherworldly mud chimneys (called badgirs) that operate as natural cooling towers. The mechanism works in conjunction with qanats (underground manmade aqueducts, some of which are more than 70km long!) which flow under the buildings. By circulating the air through pressure differentials they draw up the colder air from these tunnels to cool the lower levels of the house. In summer it gets to over 50 degrees. The design is over 2,000 years old, how cool is that! Our friendly Couchsurfing host Amir took us out into the baking desert to Chak Chak, the site of a Zoroastrian temple (one of the world’s oldest religions) located in a valley where a woman led her tribe members to escape death from their enemies. Water dripping down the wall makes a chak chak sound as it hits the ground, hence the name. Intriguing and of more interest was Kharanagh, a mud brick village more than 1,000 years old, deserted in the 1940s due to drought. Amir led us up onto the definitely-not safe roofs, gaping holes dodged as we gazed about, the architecture stunning in its earthy simplicity and eerie silence.

Kashan. We were on the direct bus to Tehran and our bus driver unceremoniously booted us off on the highway next to a road toll a few kms past Kashan. Rather bewildered by this un-Iranian act, we were waved hither by two truck drivers sitting cross-legged on a picnic blanket eating two enormous watermelons. No English but it was the story of Iran for me – incredible hospitality, genuine warmth and curiosity in others. We were picked up shortly thereafter by E. our Couchsurfing host. Kashan is a desert town on the way to Tehran famous for its restored merchant houses and gardens as well as a spectacular caravanserai in their bazaar. Our host E. and his wife were most keen to fatten us up with home cooked meals and we learnt a lot about Iranian culture staying with them.

A sign we saw in the old hammam (bathhouse) struck me as being a good intro to an elephant in the room; “In reality, Islamic veil is for women the equivalent of the oyster for the pearl. The oyster keeps the pearl safe from hazards therefore Islamic veil must be seen as a protection not an imprisonment.” In travelling, we must respect local cultural differences yet try to bring our own cultural lenses to bear to be honest and true to our values. S. and I do not agree with this statement and it represented the biggest aspect of Iranian culture that grated with us. The treatment of women through the guise of religious rules meant that we mostly saw men wherever we went. It’s too big a topic to write about here but it is something every visitor has to wrestle with. Our experience: the Iranian woman unwilling to ride her bike anymore (her passion) because she was warned four times by the police that she “attracted too much attention.” The woman unwilling to shake my hand in public as it would be assumed by men in the street that she was a woman of loose morals. The woman who smoked in secret as women who smoke are licentious (despite the Iranian menfolk in general smoking like chimneys). The Iranian women segregated on the Tehran metro in a woman-only carriage to protect them from leering men in rush hour. A society whose rules are dictated by a fundamentalist theocracy kept in power by a corrupt military regime. However, it’s always much more complex and for a country as large as Iran, with a history as old, and as intricate a sociopolitical tapestry, this culture cannot be deconstructed in a blog post. The day we left Kashan, the Iranian presidential elections were held and Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate of candidates was elected in a landslide with 56% of the vote. Most Iranians are the same as anyone else, they want progress, economic opportunity, liberalisation of political and social restrictions and an end to international isolation. Most of the young I spoke to decried the lack of opportunity. No jobs, no future prospects. Many want to immigrate. Of course a self-selecting group by dint of their English-speaking abilities, but the cusp of something moving in Iran’s very young population.

Tehran. Finally we ended our journey in Iran in the big smoke. We hit up the bazaar, dodging the shark pit of carpet sellers, the National Jewels Museum where the amassed wealth of the Shahs was on display under heavy guard, the Carpet Museum of Iran which is a sadly neglected but fascinating look into the diverse styles across Iran and finally shot up to the US Den of Espionage also known as the former US Embassy which is now run for propaganda purposes in the middle of the city complete with murals abusing the US and the inner secret communications machines from the 70s standing there complete with Thunderbirds-esque mannikins plotting the downfall of various regimes.

Food. Ok, you’ve got to have been asking what the hell are we eating? It’s like you never read about characters using toilets in books. Kebabs dominate Iran but as we’ve sifted through many menus we have curated some favourites for you. Khoresht fesenjan is a pomegranate and meat stew eaten with rice. The rice in Iran is often garnished with saffron-flavoured butter and barberries. Ash is a soup made from chickpeas and meat pounded together and eaten with bread. Kashk-e-bademjan is a dish made from ground walnuts, caramelised onions, yoghurt and grilled aubergine. Gheyme nesar is the special dish of the city of Qazvin, a lamb stew covered in a mound of flavoured rice. Dizi demands active participation and is a stew made from beans and meat. You are given a pestle and need to mash the beans to paste before eating. Our most delicious meal was the unanticipated Caspian sturgeon kebab marinated in pomegranate syrup and lemon juice. Tahdig is a hard rice crusting the bottom of the pan and went well with the sturgeon. Sangak is a thick bread grilled on river stones and a good accompaniment to any and all dishes. Doogh is a fermented yogurt drink which S. guzzled down on any occasion. Yadzi coffee is boiled like Turkish coffee with added cinnamon, cardamom and rosewater. Gaz is a nougat sweet from Isfahan whose main ingredient is ground pistachio nut.

Title note: English translation of the final line of a soul-rending live performance of this masterpiece we listened to.

I was wholly engrossed in the stress of acquiring a visa on arrival at Tehran Imam Khomeini airport as I happened to glance to my left and caught a flash of orange above a blue dress. The recognisable backpack triggered me finally, reunited with S. after a month and I hardly recognised her in her religiously-approved hijab!

I think there are few countries which have attracted as much misinformed comment from friends and family. Iran is, quite honestly, the most hospitable country I have ever been to. The Iranians themselves are keen to dispel international propaganda and showcase the reality of their culture. Iran is vast, three times the size of France, and very diverse with rugged mountain ranges, deserts and never-ending plains. The land of Iran is ancient in terms of human habitation with grand empires having risen and fallen over thousands of years. Howeverv, as much as I’d like to spend all day providing a history lessons, you shall have to endure my travel notes instead.

Tehran. Tehran is a city of ~12 million people, sprawling up against hills and possessing an intensity of traffic legion amongst travellers. Iran is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to drive in, not as bad as Namibia or Thailand but top 10. How people get driving licenses mystifies me. Lanes are but the merest hints of suggestion to dividing vast streams of traffic. A history of heavily subsidised fuel has meant that the car is the overarching master of this city. We were immediately impressed with the openess of the populace. Any person possessing any ability in English is keen to invite you to tea, to ask about your family life, to invite you to an upcoming wedding (as we were by a man we met in a subway!) or ask about how Iran is perceived in your country.

Qazvin. From Tehran we headed to the north west of the country where the people changed from Persian ethnicity to Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian or Azeri. This melting pot of humanity has been well-stirred by uncounted invasions and well-watered with blood. In Qazvin we saw a beautiful brick-vaulted caravanserai or overnight stopping and trading post for caravans of camels that formed the Silk Road of trade between east and west. Many of Iran’s bazaars (internal shopping malls/streets) are built on and around caravanserais hundreds if not thousands of years old. We stayed in one hotel converted from an old mansion built around a fountain. Due to heat, dust, security and privacy considerations, most homes are internally-focused with a high brick wall on the outside. Inside the place exuded history and beauty with stained glass windows, pretty brickwork and carpets to loll about on.

Alamut Valley. Famous today mostly for the castles of theĀ Assassins, this rugged valley forms a barrier between the Caspian Sea and the rest of Iran. We embarked on a three-day trek with Razoul, a young buck of a guide with a face chiseled out of sinew and slate. His village is mud-walled and the roofs were 10cm thick layers of mud. He was working hard to provide for his sistersĀ dowry. The valley was grim and foreboding but as luck would have it we were a group of six Dutchies put together and the laughter ensued non-stop. The trek was seriously taxing as we pushed straight up towards one ruined Assassin castle destroyed by the Mongols only after siege had reduced the defenders to starvation and disease. Surveying the valley we saw yet more bare mountains and straggly grass with strips of snow showing in the higher valleys. They grow mostly rice, fruit (e.g. cherries and figs) and nuts in the region. Climbing up further, we strained to catch sight of an ibex but had to make do with partridges squalling away in fright. I felt at times I was in a scene of the Sound of Music and expected some yodelling, instead we rushed to evade lightning and torrential rain as we hurtled bedraggled into a traditional family home for the night.

The next day we purchased plastic boots for those without suitable footware, turning the morning into the village fair as old ladies bent double under the weight of their years gossiped about us. We then pushed further up the mountain as the soft, crumbly rocks made the going tough. A truly impressive environment as we realised, yes, that rope we had been carrying would come in handy for impromptu abseiling and ascending scree-riddled slopes. At one point an avalanche in the opposite valley made an incredible amount of noise rushing down the hill. Natural springs bubbled fresh water straight out of the side of the mountain. The evening was spent in an empty walnut-farmer’s house above a roaring river. The final day was a little lighter as Razoul’s stated intention of pushing us to our limits had had its effect. We gazed far above the river at swallows dive-bombing each other in the air as they competed to create their nests on the cliff-face as Razoul noted the “path” we were following home had been used by traders for more than 2,000 years as the shortest route to the Caspian Sea from the valley. The peace of the mountain fastness gave way to the fertile river plain as we laughed about “Razoul hours” which are about 1.5 times normal distance estimates. My dinner of gheymeh nesar helped cap a true highlight of our trip. A lamb stew covered in rice and flavoured with pistachios, saffron, tumeric, rose water, cardamon and barberries.

Food. Food is core for S. and I in maintaining happiness whilst travelling. Iran has delivered, with outstanding simple breakfasts of cheese, honey, jams (especially carrot) lathered onto a flat bread called lavash. We have encountered one too many kebabs on rice but stews with pomegranates, walnuts, eggplants accompanied by different types of rice annointed with saffron spice (Iran produces +90% of world production, more costly than gold by weight!), tea and more tea, sangak (a delicious flat bread baked on a pile of hot river stones), sweet delicacies galore like gaz (nougat), biscuits and cakes and of course the crucial 0.0% malt beer.

Title note: friendly street sign translating a Persian proverb