Oh My Allah! I am not sure where to begin. The one thing that I do know is this country has an amazingly rich history and an equally nice and fascinating people. From the moment I decided to come for a visit, I made it my mission to get here. When I boarded the plane I knew it was going to be a great adventure and it did not disappoint. It now ranks as one of my favorite countries and I wholeheartedly recommend coming for a visit. You will not be disappointed.
Iran is located in southwestern Asia and is the eighteenth largest country in the world. Its total land area is roughly that of the state of Alaska. It is bounded on the north by Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, and the Caspian Sea, on the east by Pakistan and Afghanistan, on the south by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and on the west by
Turkey and Iraq. Iran also has about a twelve islands in the Persian Gulf. The capital is Tehran which is centrally located in the northern part of the country. I guess the best place is to start at the beginning. I have always had an interest in visiting Iran and the more that I got to know Iranians in the Los Angeles area the more I wanted to know about their country. I started visiting the Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor websites on Iran and soon found out that my usual independent mode of travel was not going to be possible and that I would have to either sign up for a tour package or hire a guide to be with me at all times. I decided to wait until after the US presidential elections to see if maybe the tension between the governments of Iran and the United States would quickly thaw and that Iran would drop their restrictions for Americans traveling independently to Iran. After a few weeks it became clear that this was not going to happen so I decided to call the Iranian Embassy representatives in Washington D.C. and speak to a an Iranian consulate person directly. Since the US and Iran do not have formal ties with each other, the Iranian representation is administered through the Pakistan Embassy. I telephoned the consulate and was able to talk to a person in charge of processing the visas for Americans wishing to travel to Iran. He told me that I could apply for independent travel if I could get someone to sponsor me (preferably from within Iran) whereby they would write a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on my behalf. I would also need to submit my passport along with two passport photographs, and fill out an extensive form, stating the nature of my current employment, and why I want to visit Iran. Once the letter and accompanying documentation has been accepted by the MFA, then they would issue me a visa and mail my passport back. It sounded easy enough to do so I immediately contacted a couple of my Iranian friends in Los Angeles and asked them about having someone they know within Iran to write a letter of recommendation for me and personally deliver it to the MFA. I sort of got the impression that they were hesitant on doing that so I did not pursue that avenue any further. I then decided to go the route of researching various travel agencies from New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, US, and Iran. After reviewing each I decided my best option would probably be to go with an Iranian agency so I narrowed it down to about six agencies in Iran and I wrote to each of them, explaining who I was and what I wanted to see and do in Iran, and the timeframe I was interested in visiting. They all responded with detailed itineraries and costs that were all over the place. I whittled the field down to two agencies and then wrote to a few people from around the world (found them on the chat boards for Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor) asking them their experience with these agencies. It was a hard choice but based on the success rate one agency seemed to have on obtaining the initial MFA approval; I chose Pars Tourist Agency in Shiraz, Iran. I started the application process in January, did live chats with them at midnight my time, and even telephoned them directly in Shiraz a couple of times over the first few weeks. I elected to pick up my visa at the Iranian embassy in New Delhi instead of using FedEx to send things back and forth. It just felt better about doing things in person.
Once the Iranian MFA says yes to your application, you are still not accepted to enter Iran. You then have to give your passport to the Iranians, fill out more paperwork, give two passport photos, pay $100, apply for the visa, and then wait a couple more days to see if you are formally accepted. Over the next few weeks I started to have an uneasy feeling about the travel agency I had chosen and several times I wanted to give up and go with the other agency but I knew I did not have enough time to switch and still make my date of arrival in Iran. I was told by several people and travel agencies that the visa application process for Americans takes a minimum of two months and with No Ruz coming (March 21st, Iranian New Years celebration, an important holiday time in Iran where everything shuts down for 2-3 weeks) I felt like I had to stick it out. Then in the beginning of March one of my Iranian friends decides to jump in fray and have a friend within Iran help me out and I told my friend that it was too late to start that process now. Next thing I know, I was contacted by the person in Iran to help me and it turns out she knows the travel agent I am dealing with in Shiraz. I told the person in Iran that I was too far along in the process and thanked them for their offer to help. In the back of my mind I was worried that they might have contacted my agency and really muddied the waters. Then I received an email from a guy in Canada (he got my name from one of the people I chatted with on the chat boards). The Canadian was planning on going about the same time as myself and wanted to know if I would want to travel with him to cut down on costs. Prior to contacting me he gave his agency my contact information and they started writing me and they let me know that they have good connections with someone at the MFA and can process my visa application now, but I would have to start the process with them immediately. Here it was, mid-March and I was leaving April 2nd for India. The Canadian then found a couple of Americans who also wanted to go and now their package tour was looking real good. Meanwhile, I was not receiving any communication from the agency I had chosen. Early on when I either called or emailed travel agency their responses to my questions were simply “yes” or “no” or “I will let you know when I find out”. After a bit of angst I finally had to tell the Canadian that I had to stick with my original plan and I was worried that my chances may have been blown by someone trying to help because I felt I was getting no where as far as information on where things stood. April 2nd soon came and I left for India without every receiving word from the Iranian travel agency. I figured that by now I would have the “special MFA number” needed to go about getting the final formal acceptance and was planning on being in New Delhi to start that part of the visa process. Since I still had not received my MFA number to start that process I decided to leave New Delhi and return sometime during my adventures through India once I got word. After about 1 week in India I contacted the travel agency and apologized for bothering them and asked if they knew anything. I received the usual reply “I will let you know when I find out”. Traveling around India while trying to stay close to New Delhi was now affecting how I was planning my travels through the various cities in India. I eventually made it through the main places I wanted to visit while in India and after going to the final city on my list I flew back to New Delhi without
a word from the Iranian travel agency. In the meantime I checked the chat boards and found that Iran had stopped processing visa applications in mid-March and that they were possibly going to start again mid-April. I wondered if I might be stuck in that batch of applicants. I decided to go to the Iranian embassy first thing on Monday morning and basically ask them if they could check to see if an application was ever submitted to the MFA in Tehran by the agency I was using. I made my way through the people at the embassy and finally got up to the window and tried to ask my question of the man behind the glass. He could not be bothered and I politely told him that I applied back in January and he acknowledge me and continues working on some papers. I was about to give up and walk away when he reached behind himself and grabbed a large 3-ringed binder and opens it to the middle. It was full of paper and he turned a couple pages when all of a sudden I saw my name. I tapped on the window as he kept turning the pages and said, that is me, that is me, as I pressed my open passport on the glass. He flipped back, matched me up and ripped the page out of the binder. He did not say anything and started pulling some papers together then wrote down a number in Rupees and said to me “bank” and pointed to the door. I left and talked to the guard and he told me how to get to a bank a few blocks away. So off I went in the 112° F heat and got my money together. Then returned to the Iranian embassy, filled out the new paperwork I had been given and stood in line again. I got up to the window, gave the man everything and tried to give him the money and he shook his head. Then he hands me another piece of paper and motions that it needs to be stamped by the bank. Basically I now have to go back to the bank and deposit the money into the Iranian account then come back with a stamped voucher showing that the money has been paid to the Iranian account. I now rush out of the embassy because it is nearing one o’clock and they stop taking applications at one thirty. Trying to get someone to help me at the bank was nearly impossible. When I found the right line, I next had to deal with the Indian customers pushing their way in front of me. I finally became rude and blocked the whole counter until the slow clerk was able to assist me. I made it back to the embassy with a few minutes to spare and gave the embassy official the stamped slip of paper. He looks at me and says, “come back one week”. I could not believe it. I politely asked if it was at all possible to process it sooner since I had nothing to do in New Delhi but stay in my hotel room. He did not look up at me and continued with what he was doing and as I started to walk away, he motioned me to wait. After a couple minutes he came back and handed me my appointment slip and he had changed the date from one week to 1:30, Wednesday (two days rather than one week). I thanked him and happily left the Iranian embassy completely drenched from the whole ordeal. Now I had to wait around New Delhi and wonder if they would accept me or not. They do not have to give you a reason as to why you were denied but if for instance you have an Israeli stamp in your passport, you will be denied, or if they suspect you may have visited Israel because you were in a neighboring country (Egypt) they will deny you. I did my sightseeing around New Delhi for a couple days and on Wednesday at 1:00 I showed up at the Iranian embassy. The guard tells me through the door; your appointment is at 1:30 and would not let me in so I just waited in the midday sun until
1:30â€Ś 1:40â€Ś 1:45. Finally the door opens and he motions just to me to come in because by now about 7 other people have shown up to see if their visas have been accepted or not. He shuts the others out and then the embassy official that had been behind the glass appears in the guard shack and hands me my passport without saying a word. I ask if I was accepted or not and he just turns and walks away. I quickly opened it up and on the last page of my passport I have a visa stamp showing that I have been accepted and now I have 3 months with which to take advantage of going to Iran. I went outside and immediately got a ride to a travel agency. I had already checked flights to Tehran the night before so I knew that there was one leaving at 3:30 am at night and it was a direct, 4-hour flight, whereas all the other flights going to Tehran had at least one layover of 8-14 hours at various Middle Eastern airports. I booked the direct flight and forwarded a copy of my electronic ticket to the Iranian travel agency, hoping that they understood I would be in Iran in less than 24 hours. I went to the airport where I sat in an un-air-conditioned waiting area outside the airport from 3:00 pm until 1:00 am (earliest I was allowed into the airport). The check in process was a breeze; the people at the counters handling the passengers were all very friendly and polite. I was really tired by the time we boarded the plane. I tried to sleep but I was too excited about going and just could not get comfortable enough to go to sleep. Religion and Politics Iran is officially known as Islamic Republic of Iran and was formerly known as Persia from the 6th century BC until 1935. Mohammad Reza Shah (the last Shah of Iran) wanted the name changed from Persia to Iran. He never liked the name Persia and wanted a name to reflect their Aryan heritage. A few years after the name change, a few Persian scholars protested to the government that changing the name had separated the country from its past, so in 1949 Mohammad Reza Shah decided that both names could officially be used interchangeably. Both names are common, but "Iran" is used in the world community and "Persia" is used as a more historical name. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the official name of the country has been the "Islamic Republic of Iran. The Iranian Revolution, also known as the Islamic Revolution, began in January 1978 with the first major demonstrations against the Shah. In January 1979, after strikes and demonstrations, the Shah fled the country and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile from France and the Pahlavi Dynasty collapsed ten days later. In December 1979, the country approved a theocratic constitution and Khomeini became Supreme Leader of Iran. Iran's relationship with the US deteriorated quickly during the revolution and on November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students seized US embassy personnel and held them for 444 days and in January 1981 they were set free. The embassy was labeled a "den of spies" and were accused of being CIA agents plotting to overthrow the revolutionary government. The students did not asked for permission from Khomeini to seize the embassy but Khomeini supported the embassy takeover after its success.
Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein decided to take advantage of the turmoil after the Iranian Revolution and its general unpopularity with Western governments and on September 22, 1980 he invaded Iran starting the Iran–Iraq War. The war continued for another 8 years. The total Iranian casualties were estimated to be anywhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000. When driving around the city streets within Iran, you will see large poster size pictures of young men lining the center median or on the boulevards. They are the men from that area that lost their lives during the Iran-Iraq War and are considered martyrs. Ayatollah Khomeini (the person we probably most associate with Iran) and the current leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s portraits are everywhere, including lobbies of hotels, airports, shops, billboards, random buildings, etc. Iran’s current elected leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ran as an underdog in 2005 and won the presidency by promising a sharing of the oil revenues with the poorer population. He announced his candidacy again while I was there and is predicted to win. The presidency is for four years and the candidate can only serve two four-year terms. The real government is controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei and the mullahs. In talking with the people of Iran I found out that they do not like the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and that the “uneducated people voted for him”. Hummm…. sounds familiar. A couple people told me that the mullahs have gained a lot of power and wealth and their children are considered spoiled and are known to drive expensive German cars, throw lots of parties, and drink smuggled alcohol. Fast-forward to today and Iran is celebrating 30-years since the “Revolution”. When discussing things with locals they refer to the “Revolution” when marking time. A majority of the present population has been born since the “Revolution”. I can foresee that changes will be coming due to the opening up of things and the typical restlessness of youth. Everyone has a cell phone and they use them to do everything (download movies, send videos, text, listen to music). Emigration There is a serious issue referred to as the brain-drain. Where the young go to college and leave the country to seek employment elsewhere. I heard from several people that they had brothers and sisters that had moved from Iran to other countries and that anyone with an education usually ends up leaving for more freedoms or a better living standard. Since I am only briefly visiting the country, it was hard for me to see the difficulties that a few of the people told me about. Things seemed good to me but that is easy for me to say, first being a male and secondly being a foreigner – you are treated very nicely. I think every family has some member living foreign. When asked where I was from I found that after a couple days of saying that I lived near Los Angeles and having everyone say “Tehrangeles” that it was just as effective to answer that I lived near Tehrangeles. Everyone’s face would light up and no one seemed confused by my new response to their question. Mehdi told me that about 2
million Persians now live in the Los Angeles area. I think that maybe 2 million have moved from Iran but that that number is a bit high for just the Los Angeles area. Men and Women I found many Iranianâ€™s to be stunning looking. I found myself staring at some people sometimes because of they had a beautiful, exotic look. There is a famous Iranian story you hear told over and over about a prince that was visiting another country and the women just cried because he was so handsome. I found the interaction between men and women to be strange at times. I watched as many, I would presume couples, would either be coming into or leaving the hotel and the women were to ones carrying the luggage and handling the children. The men did not seem to offer to help. Another thing, at the mosques, the women have their own areas and are not in the same room as the men. Sometimes I would see entrances for women only and on buses and subways. The women are in the back of the bus and they have their own compartment on the subway. You should be careful getting on the subway that you are not going into the womenâ€™s only car. Another thing you will see are there are two door knockers on doors, one for women and one for men. That way the person answering the door knows how to greet the guest accordingly.
Iranâ€™s morality police enforce strict rules requiring women to cover all their hair and wear long, loose-fitting clothes to disguise the shape of their bodies. Many women choose to wear the chador which is a black outer cloak-like garment worn by many Iranian women in public. It is one way that Muslim women dress in order to follow the Islamic dress code known as hijab. A chador is a full-length (drapes to the ground) piece of fabric open in the front, worn over the head and held closed in front under the chin with either their hands or their teeth. It has no hand openings but is held shut by the hands. Iranian women carry things under them such as grocery bag or luggage. I mention the luggage because my guide and I were crossing a busy street one morning and a woman in front of us started one way in front of me and switched going the other direction and I heard a loud crashing sound and I looked down and a piece of luggage was on the ground. I thought, â€œwhere did that come from?â€? and then I noticed my guide crumbling to the ground clutching his knee. The woman said nothing, picked up her suitcase and continued on her way. My guide could hardly walk and I had to help carry him over to a spot to sit down. He was unable to climb stairs for a couple days after that incident. Iranian women are not required to wear chadors; however, Iranian women have to comply with the Iranian government requirements for modest dress by wearing a combination of a headscarf and a long overcoat which conceals the arms and legs. The overcoat is known by a French word, manteau. The more upscale/modern girls wear a form fitting manteau with a stylish or colorful scarf and sometimes with a good portion of their hair exposed on the top of their heads. It is obvious that many of the women that wear the all black chadors do not approve of the more modern look. My female guide in Tehran wore a light brown plaid manteau and I noticed a lot of people looking at her and I could tell that she noticed the attention. It was the only time I noticed people looking at whoever was with me rather than looking at me.
One group of women that wear the all black chador also wear an additional white hood like piece that encircles the whole face and neck and the chador is draped over the top of that piece. When I first spotted them I said to myself, “oh look, they have catholic nuns here in Iran”… nope, just another form of dress that covers everything but the front part of the face. The guys all seem to wear faded lo-rise jeans with zippers, buttons, and flaps. The most elaborate designed jeans I have ever seen. Also, their hair styles (many wore their hair pointing straight up on just the top part of their head) and facial hair designs were very unique. Sorry, I did not take any photographs of the various jean or hair styles. While walking around on my own with my camera in the various cities and towns I visited, I encountered various guys who would stop me on the street and ask me to photograph them. I would take their picture and they would look at it on my camera screen, have me zoom in and then thank me and walk on… and that was it. Later on when I off loaded the photographs and viewed them I would come across a random photograph of some guy posing for me stuck in the middle of a series of shots and then I would remember why I had taken it. When I met girls at monuments or religious sites they would come up to me and talk to me in a very direct and serious way. They were always accompanied by their female friends and would ask me very pointed questions, from religion, government issues, laws, human rights, languages, marital status, and what did I think about Iran. The guys on the other hand would ask where I came from but the conversation usually ended fairly soon after that. Most people would comment that they wanted to practice their English and wanted to know what would be a good way to learn to speak better English. Several people knew Spanish as well and I would converse with them in Spanish so that they could practice it as well. Early on when I first got to Iran, I was walking behind a guy, his wife, and small child on the streets of Kerman in southern Iran. He did a double take when he saw me walking behind him, turned and asked, “where from?” I thought for a moment on how to answer this. In the beginning, when out on my own, I was always unsure on how to answer this question. Also, Kerman is an area that is not visited by as many tourists and a few tourists have been kidnapped from this town. I decided that I should just go ahead and answer him honestly and I responded “USA”. He thought about if for a moment and immediately said “OK bye-bye” and turned back around. I thought, well I am going to get some information from you too so I quickly asked him “coffee net” (typical wording used when looking for an internet café). He looked up and down the street and then pointed behind me and said “bye-bye” and turned and left. It took me about 10 minutes going back and forth on the same street asking the same two words “coffee net” of the younger crowd and I knew I was close to it but since I cannot read Farsi and there were no obvious signs or symbols indicating internet I was completely lost. Finally, one of the young guys I had previously asked came over and with a very bored attitude, motioned to some steps leading to the upper floors of a building right behind me. It was several floors up and I felt like a real idiot poking my head into various doors on my way up to the top floor of the building looking for it.
Money The other fun part of some of my adventures came about when I needed to pay a bill (meals, computer usage, laundry, bottled water). It was great if the had a hand-held calculator where they could key in the numbers. Many times I was handed a bill or a register printout and it would be in Farsi. I could not make out the itemized portion and then when it came to the numbers many times they were written in Farsi as well. One thing I found odd for both Arabic and Farsi were both languages are written/read from right to left but when it comes to numbers, they are written/read left to right. I was glad that Farsi and Arabic numbers are similar because I had learned the Arabic numbers while traveling in Egypt and Morocco so learning the Farsi version came pretty easily. Farsi Numbers 0-٠
10 - ١٠
5-۵ Photograph of a license plate. See if you can figure out the numbers.
Currently the conversion rate is easy to figure out. Basically $1 US equals 10,000 Rials. Before I left on my trip I checked the exchange rate and it was around $1 US equals Page 10
9,850 Rials. The reason it changed so much is because they have an inflation rate of around 25% a year. I mentioned to my guide that there are banks every few feet and that I have never seen so many banks in a country before. He stated that some are private and some are owned by the government. He also mentioned that Iranians are encouraged to save money and that the interest paid on savings accounts was around 27%. I understand that since their inflation rate is so high. I found that price quotes were the most confusing thing when trying to buy something. The problem lies with number of zeros. To make it simple I will use the basic exchange rate where $1 US equals 10,000 Rials but sometimes they would quote me 1,000 Tomans (same as Rials but minus one zero and their currency is not known as Tomans) or they would say 1 Khomeini, which is 1,000 Tomans or 10,000 Rials and again, their money is not known as Khomeini either. Sometimes I handed people the lesser (minus a zero) or far more (plus a zero) and they were always kind enough to take my wad of cash out of my hand and pull out the correct amount. I say wad of cash because you use large amounts of cash to buy things. When I landed at the airport I converted $200 US to over 2 million Rials and I had a massive stack of 50,000 Rial notes and of course no one seems to have change for anything. I had the same issue as far as change in India but at least I could go to gas stations and get as much change as I needed since people in India only bought very small quantities of gas at a time and the gas station attendants were always flush with small bills. There were not as many gas stations easily available in Iran. Speaking of money... you can leave your credit cards and ATM cards at home because you cannot use them in Iran. This is a result of a US imposed sanction against Iran and the rest of the world follows the wishes of the US. One way around it would be to open your own account at an Iranian bank, deposit your cash so that you are not traveling around with wads of either Euros or Dollars and get an Iranian ATM. Iranian ATMs and banks are all over the place. I carried my Iranian Dollars in my backpack all through India and a good part of Iran. I worried about carrying so much cash while in India and felt totally safe carrying it in Iran. Cost of goods and services were very reasonable in Iran and were actually on the cheap side. The hotels I stayed in ranged from $23 to $33 US per night. In Tehran I paid $90 US for a so-so room. The hotel rooms all came with a bathroom, hot water, TV, telephone, refrigerator, bottled water and sometimes other drinks were included, soap, shampoo, and towels. The rooms also included a breakfast in the hotel restaurant as part of the costs. The breakfast ranged from omelets and toast to hard boiled eggs and Iranian breads with panir (white feta-like cheese), yogurt, tomatoes and sometimes cucumber. I had to request coffee several mornings because tea was the norm. Many times the coffee would come as freeze-dried Nescafe. Just an observation about hotel pillowsâ€Ś one thing I found odd were the lead weight pillows. The pillows were the densest and heavy things I have ever used. You practically had to get out of bed to rearrange the pillow in order to get enough leverage
to lift it. Also, some of the beds at the hotels were extremely hard. I would forget to check as I plopped down and it would be very jarring. Every hotel room I stayed in had a sign on the wall that contained an image of an arrow. The arrow points towards Mecca so that the faithful know which direction they need to face when praying. I saw prayer rooms at all the bus stations and airports. Even when traveling on the bus, the driver would sometimes stop and people would get off to pray, by carting a small prayer rug out on the side of the highway next to the bus. This happened on the first bus ride and I wondered if I would encounter more religious people in Iran than some of the other Muslim countries I have visited but that was not the case. Since mosques are seen everywhere I thought that I would be awoken in the early morning during the call to prayers but I have to say that I did not hear the call to prayer as much as I did in other countries including India. LOOK at my bathroom! I cannot believe itâ€Ś a shower curtain. Oh waitâ€Ś is that the drain on the outside? The sit down toilet is inside the shower too. You can see the toilet paper dispenser edge sticking out. Makes perfect sense to me.
I do not understand why hotels in the sub Asian continent cannot have shower curtains, curbs, and drains within the shower area. Nothing more annoying than always having wet floors in the bathroom all the time. I guess that is why they all provide rubber flipflops. Food and Drink Tea served everywhere, gardens, monuments, palaces, hotels, carpet shops, souvenir shops. I felt bad not accepting tea every time it was offered, but a couple times a day is about all I can handle. The tea is always consumed by Iranians with various forms of sugar. It comes in the familiar granular form, coarse granular, clear crystals, clear crystals on a stick, sugar cubes, irregular shaped sugar cubes, and various yellow colored discs containing flavors (coconut, caramel, saffron, etc.). Most Iranians put a lot of sugar in their tea then take a cube of sugar and dip it into the tea and eat the sugar cube or put a cube behind their front teeth and sort of strain the tea through their teeth slowly dissolving the sugar. I have watched people go through a lot of sugar while drinking a small amount of tea. Meals with a drink (water, soda, no alcohol allowed in Iran) ran from $3 to $8 for both lunch and dinner. The most I paid was $15 at the Caravanserai Zein-o-din due to it being a special meal prepared by the nomads in the region and it included a dance/performance show at the end of the meal. You will not find fast food restaurants such as McDonalds or KFCs in Iran. They do have fast food and it consists of pizza, burgers, bread roll sandwiches, and kabobs. I tried everything and found that the pizza was not all that bad. The writers of the guide book did not recommend them but I found them to be quite tasty. The odd thing about the pizzas is that they are not made with pizza sauce and when they serve the pizza, you are given packages of ketchup to put on top of it. In the evenings when I would go out walking around I would look for a restaurant that looked to be popular with the locals and would eat there. Most of the time the menus were only in Farsi so I would either know the name of a dish that I wanted or look at what people were eating and point to it. Sometimes this took a bit of pointing to the food and then to myself and the waiter would say the name and I would nod but had no idea if that was right or not. I ate fantastic kabobs made of beef, chicken, and mixed minced meats that were a mixture of lamb and beef ground together and cooked on skewers. I had great stews made from eggplant, okra, green peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and meat. Another dish (dizi) that is popular comes to your table in a small iron pot still boiling. You decant off the liquid and use a metal pedestal tool to grind up the vegetables and meat into a paste. Another stew is called khoresht ghaimeh, which is a red stew made with split peas and meat. A great casserole type dish, tachin, consisted of rice, chicken pieces, barberries (small tart dried berries), and egg, and it is baked like a casserole (served on the plane flight from New Delhi to Tehran). Every meal comes with some sort of flat bread (thin, thick, crispy or soft). A
salad of sorts was served with many of the meals and it consists of tomatoes, cucumbers, and maybe plain yogurt or yogurt with mint. If you got a regular salad with lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, etc. it always came with Thousand Island dressing (they called it by another name). I am surprised that Iranians are not overweight based on the amount of food served at each meal. Some sort of meat, rice and a baked tomato seem to be included with all lunch and dinner meals. I absolutely love Iranian rice (the country I am in now have the worst rice I have ever eaten). Iranians have a long complicated way of cooking it and it is served with a little saffron rice on top, all very fluffy, not sticky, and you do not need to add butter to it. Sometimes they sprinkle the barberries on it as well. I have tried several times to cook Iranian rice at home but cannot get it to come out the way they make it. I had yogurt with just about every meal of the day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). For some reason their plain yogurt tastes so much better than our yogurt (not sour). Maybe it is because it is not fat-free but I could not get enough of it. Towards the end of my trip I was in a small hill town in central Iran and a woman was serving meals from her home and she offered me homemade yogurt and I accepted. She served it in a huge bowl and it tasted so different from any other yogurt I had eaten. It was sort of sour and had a beer after-taste to it. I liked it but I was a little worried that maybe it had turned but in the end, I suffered no ill effects. A popular drink, dugh (pronounce dooh), consists of yogurt, water and salt. I ended up getting dugh on a daily basis and hope to recreate it back home. It also comes bottled and sold at the Coke/Pepsi stands as well but I preferred the homemade more. Speaking about drinks… Pepsi is served everywhere and I rarely found Coca-Cola. I was told on more than one occasion that Pepsi stands for “Pay Every Penny Saved to Israel”. The few deserts I had were good and it was nice to see flan as an option. I tried them all, baklava, fried dough with honey, various pastries, but the flan was my favorite. I tried a few of the different ice creams they offered. My favorite was saffron ice cream. In Shiraz they are famous for faludeh. It is made from thin short strips of either wheat or rice, it is similar to very thin pasta about ½-inch long and it is frozen and they add a lemon juice mixture on top. It is slightly crunchy and cold. On more than one occasion I would get a chuckle out of the menus translated into English. One misspelling I saw on many menus listed “snakes”… when they really meant to say “snacks”. Restaurants never offered napkins but instead they would either put a Kleenex at your plate or a box of Kleenex on the table. Also, my driver for the day in Tehran had a box of Kleenex on his dash with Christmas motifs (Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus and reindeer, etc.) on it. Just seemed out of place to me, first being in a Muslim country and secondly it way past Christmas time.
Islamic Calendar Muslim Arabs overthrew the Persian dynasty in the 7th century and established the Islamic calendar which is a lunar calendar outlined in the Koran. A Muslim caliph began numbering years as AH (Latin for Anno Hegirae, in the year of the Hijra) starting with our calendar year of 638 CE. It is considered the first year of Muhammad's Hijra (emigration) from Mecca to Medina. To convert to the Iranian system you have to subtract 621 years from the current year. Iranian Year 2009 - 621 = 1388 Years of the Islamic calendar are designated as AH. When reading a tag at a museum you will see a year listed followed by AH and have to do a little math to understand which year it means to us. Also, when listening to guides, many times they will refer to the year ending in AH. Then to add further confusion to the mix, the Iranian year begins 21 March when compared to our calendar and ends on the 20th of March the following year. Then the Iranian calendar days are different as well where the first six months have 31 days, the next five have 30 days, and the last month has 29 days or 30 days depending on leap years. When dealing with the Iranian calendar, it reads from the left to the right and instead of the days going across the page in a row, they are up and down in a column. The week begins on Saturday and ends on Friday, the days do not correspond to our Georgian calendar, and then you throw in the yearâ€Ś so, it can be a bit confusing when you look at their calendar or get a bill and it has a different date for the month, day, and year. Geology and Climate Iran is one of the world's most mountainous countries with a landscape dominated by rugged mountain ranges that separate various basins or plateaus from one another. The western part of Iran is the most populous part but it is the most mountainous as well with the highest point, Mount Damavand at 18,405 ft, the country's highest peak (it is featured on the water bottles). I understand that the northern part of Iran is covered by dense rain forest. The eastern part consists mostly of desert basins such as the Dashte Kavir, Iran's largest desert, in the north-central portion of the country, and the Dasht-e Lut, in the east, as well as some salt lakes. Iran's climate ranges from arid or semiarid to subtropical along the Caspian coast and the northern forests. Summer temperatures are supposed to get really hot. I went at what is considered by most to be the best time of year to visit Iran. The next best time to travel to Iran is in the fall.
While I was visiting Shiraz, the temperatures were very mild and the orange trees were in bloom. The whole city smelled of orange blossoms. After coming from India where the temperatures ranged up into the 100s I was surprised to see snow on the mountains throughout Iran from up north in Tehran down to the south near Bam. I was actually cold at times during my entire visit from Tehran down to the south near Bam. Several times throughout the travels spontaneous rain showers came upon us but nothing to stop out travels or sightseeing. When it did rain, the air would get very cool. Pets No one seems to have pets. They did not understand why I would have a dog. They consider having animals in the house as being filthy. I rarely saw any dogs around and same with cats. Trash Bins and Donation Boxes I would classify Iran as a clean country. You do not see trash littering the ground and they have small green bins located all over for the placement of trash. Another thing that impressed me was the donation boxes (blue box with golden hands) located about every 50 feet, at toll booths, and at tourist sites. The donations are used to take care of the disadvantaged. I did see people making donations them so it is not a symbolic thing. Lastly, the water is safe to drink directly out of the tap. There are places to fill up water bottles throughout all the cities. It consists of a large square metal box with two taps on it. I watched as most Iranians simple turned on the tap and cupped their hands collect and drink the water. I never hesitated to drink the water directly from the tap either there or in my hotel room.
Buildings and Ceilings A high percentage of buildings are built at an angle in relation to the street with the corners of the building being at 30 and 60 degree angles rather than the typical 90 degree, right angles. This offsetting seems to protect them more during earthquakes. Most of the buildings have been retrofitted with steel “I” beams that have been cut into the brick exterior of the buildings. You can see the “X” markings of the retrofits on most exterior walls. Almost all of the buildings are made of brick. They also use stone and cinder block with a lot of the buildings made from a mixture of all three. You can see the damage done by the many earthquakes that shake Iran. I was always nervous going into many of the older buildings that were made of all brick and especially those where I could not see any evidence of the retrofit bracing. The domed ceilings of buildings bothered me the most since all made of brick. Without worrying about earthquakes I wondered how some of the ceilings were able to stay up there. They had very shallow arches over large spans. I guess I do not understand physics well enough. I was blown away at the design of the various ceilings that I saw throughout all of Iran. It could have been in the mosques, bazaars, restaurants, historical buildings, hammams, or caravanserais. In the mosques, the majority of them were either painted or tiled but I did see a couple that were composed of brick. By far the most beautiful ceilings were in the mosques, but many of the bazaars contained varied patterned brick designs were no two were alike. I felt odd constantly taking photos of ceilings but they were something else. At one mosque I ran into the lone American girl from our caravanserai group and she commented to me that she could not stop photographing the ceilings so at least I was not the only odd one.
Transportation Transportation services were very good within Iran. I traveled by plane, bus, and taxi most of the time. I spoke with some people that tried the train and they said it was excellent. All transportation services are fairly cheap and the one form that surprised me the most was how inexpensive air travel was between some of the cities. The buses I rode on were all fairly new, large Volvo buses. I would bring something to listen to because at some point an Iranian soap opera with the surgical nurse dressed in her surgical mask and complete chador and manteau will be shown and at full volume. The majority of my travel within town or to an outlying town was by taxi. I found that some taxi drivers were not willing to either deal with a foreigner or did not want to go to a certain location, maybe due to distance or because they would unlikely get a return fare. You mention the name of the of the place you want to go and they may not say anything or mutter something and drive off. Once you got one to agree then be sure to ask the price because not all of them have meters. Prices can be negotiated. Sometimes they will be hauling someone and still stop to pick you up. It usually means that they were just about to get to the initial passenger’s destination so might as well get another fair (a bird in the hand…) along the way. When riding with my guide he would sit up in the front seat and it was obvious that the taxi driver would ask about me. In the beginning I would hear Mehdi say something along the lines of “Amerika” but Mehdi soon picked up that I knew they were talking about me so he started using another phrase when referring to my nationality. I could still tell when they asked the question because the answer seemed to illicit the same response. I would see a surprised look on the taxi driver’s face with upraised eyebrows then a series of question-answers would follow in rapid succession. The one that made me laugh was when he told Mehdi that we only eat steak so how was I eating in Iran. He was even more surprised when Mehdi told him that I eat all Iranian food plus things he does not eat. The taxi drivers were always polite to me and smiled when I left their cab. I never had a bad experience.
1. Tehran The plane ride from New Delhi to Tehran was a little different. The plane was not completely full so they gave me a grouping of three seats together. I was the only westerner on the flight. The stewardesses were dressed in a khaki green, and it sort of looked like a military uniform with a beret worn over their head scarf. I have to admit that they were not the friendliest attendants I had met and seemed put out when they had to stop at my row to offer me drinks or dinner. They served a very good, complete meal consisting of a typical Iranian dish. I tried to get some sleep before our 6:30 am arrival but could not do it. The pilot announced that is was 52Â° F and I thought that is cold compared to New Delhi. I followed the other passengers when we disembarked and we ended up in the immigration hall. I was the last person in the â€œForeignerâ€? line. When I got up to the Page 19
window the guy processing the paperwork looked me over after looking at my passport and started asking me questions like, occupation, reason for coming to Iran, where was I going, where was I staying? Then he left with my passport and I saw him conferring with several other guys. A bit later he returned and asked me if I had been fingerprinted. I said no and he took me back towards the plane and routed me through a long series of hallways and I ended up with another person that did not speak any English. He took me to a room and grabbed my thumb and put it on a scanner and scanned it then did my fingers. He then motioned that he needed the other hand and I started with my thumb and he grab my hand and started with my fingers first then thumb. He took me back to his post, and told me something in Farsi and pointed in the general direction I had come from. I figured I was to go back the way I came but I really had not paid a whole lot of attention as to the turns and hallways. I eventually got back to the immigration hall and no one was around. I walked through the booths and made my way downstairs to the luggage area. My bag was sitting on the ground and I grabbed it and as I was leaving a guy waved me over and motioned for me to put my bag through the x-ray machine. As my bag came out on the other end he turned to me and said “journalist?” I quickly said no. He saw all the camera equipment and netbook. I know that they have issues with journalist in Iran and you need special permission to visit. Well, no one from the tourist agency was in the hall to meet me. I had a feeling that this would happen since my tour agency had not been the most proactive so far. I wondered at that moment. Should I save myself some money and do the tour the way I want to and take my chances with travel unescorted through Iran? I thought, well, let me get to a hotel in Tehran and decide what to do at that point. I went looking for a money changer and found one. Then proceeded out the airport with my over 2 million in Rials in 50,000 notes (great… everyone loves huge notes…) and found a guy (not a marked taxi) to take me to Tehran. I found it to be shockingly cold when I stepped outside because India had been so hot. My taxi driver was a middle-aged man that spoke a few words of English. I showed him the name of the hotel I had chosen in Tehran from the Lonely Planet book. The airport is located about 45 minutes south of the city. The taxi driver told me that it snowed in Tehran a couple days prior. After a bit on the road the mountains that makeup the backdrop to Tehran appeared and they were covered in snow. As for first impressions, I was rather impressed with the driving and the city of Tehran as a whole. It sure beat driving around cows in the street and the sheer mayhem of India. Things seemed so neat and orderly without all the constant horn honking. I chose my hotel based on its location directly north of the Imam Khomeini Square and the bazaar. I checked into the hotel and they took my passport so I figured that if they have to report their guest I better contact the tourist agency and let them know I was here. I did a live chat and my contact had just gotten in and saw my message from the day before. She told me that she would contact me in a bit and set me up starting the next day. So, I had the day free and I decided to wander the streets of Tehran. I headed down to Imam Khomeini Square (nothing to see there) and continued down to
the bazaar. I proceeded to walk around the bazaar and went looking for a couple mosques in there that I had read about. I ended up meeting a young guy who spoke good English and he told me about things in the bazaar and then took me to one of his favorite mosques within the bazaar. I took my shoes off and went in and was amazed at all of the intricate mirrors all over the walls and the ceiling. When I say mirrors, I mean tiny geometric mirrors that almost appear to be like facetted diamonds. Several older men were in there praying and they were eyeing me and my camera so I did not take any pictures. From there he took me around and showed me places to visit and what was good about each place then we stopped off at a teahouse for further chatting. He filled me in on the demography of Tehran and what north Tehran is like compared to the rest of the city. We discussed their current president, the political climate, the separation of men and women. It was a great afternoon and at the end he told me that his family has a carpet shop in the bazaar and showed me the write up in the Lonely Planet guide book. His name was listed in there along with only one other place to shop in Tehran. At no time did he try to sell me a carpet or suggest we go to the showroom. In the end he escorted me back to my hotel and wished me good travels through Iran. The next morning I ran downstairs to eat breakfast and right away a guy came up to me and ask if I was Mr. Mark. It turned out that he was going to be my guide for the day and the tourist agency had sent him. I thought he was someone wanting to talk to me and practice his English because I had already been approached by a couple people by now with that request. The guide was very knowledgeable and discussed similar topics as to the carpet guy from the day before. I went to the palaces and museums in the central area of Tehran. Wow, the Iranians like to make things very ornate. The attention to the smallest details was amazing. Also, the historical museum was interesting and contained may artifacts from 8,000 years ago. He spent far more time than he needed to with me and soon it was close to 8 pm so I offered to take him to dinner to pay him back for all his extra effort. The next day I had a female guide and she was stunning to look at. She did not wear the all black chador but instead wore a beige form-fitting manteau with a brown plaid head scarf worn way back on her head exposing her lighten hair. She wore makeup which really accented her eyes. Now I had some real competition on attracting all the attention side of things. I found that just as many people looked at her as they did at me. I was so used to being looked at that it felt odd when I had to share the stares. She took me (along with a hired driver) to northern Tehran and we visited the Shahâ€™s palaces up there and then came back to where I was staying to go visit the Jewels Museum. Northern Tehran could be any place in the US. The area of northern Tehran goes up the slope of the mountains (low foothills) and the streets were lined with trees and there were all kinds of stores and shops. You can tell it is a very affluent area. It is easy to know which way is north in Tehran because the streets going north gently slope upwards. I was never lost walking around day or night. I always had a sense of where I was and knew when I was walking north or south. I was not prepared for the jewel collection. I had seen a few around the world and thought this would be the same. I do not have any photographs to the jewel collection
because it is not allowed. I have copied material here that describes what I saw because there is no way that I can remember everything I saw there. It is housed in the Central Bank of Iran and consists of a collection of the most expensive jewels of the world which were collected over the centuries. There is no value associated with the objects exhibited due to the quantity and the Iranian artist creativity. Not only are the pieces massive, they are so ornate, and some cases there are just loose piles upon piles of diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, rubies, and pearls. There are 37 showcases with hundreds of items in them consisting of: gold and jeweled water pipes, dish-covers, flower vases, boxes, ewer and basins, knives, bowls, etc; there is display with a gold decanter with enamel work containing pictures of flowers and birds; there are a pair of gold candlesticks decorated with spinals, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, tassels of pearls and emeralds; a beautifully carved ostrich eggshell waterpipe; various objects decorated with Iranian turquoise like water pipe, aigrettes, swords, etc; swords, daggers, quivers, rifles and laces beautifully jeweled and decorated; various aigrettes encrusted with jewels; jewel encrusted brooches, watch chains, buckles, necklaces, purses, armlets, and bracelets; the “Samarian spinal” weighing 500 carats, the largest known spinal of the world; there are tassels of pearls weighing +35 pounds used as curtain decorations; there are lots of gold coins; there are also hand-woven robes decorated with precious stones; “Nader Throne” or the “Peacock Throne” which has a total of 26,733 precious stones set on the throne; 141.91 carat blue sapphire; yellow diamonds; there is a unique piece called “Darya-ye-Nur” or sea of light, a 182 carat pink diamond the largest in the world.; the “Nader’s Aigrette”, set with diamonds and emeralds, weighing 781 carats; a pure gold globe of the world weighing 34 kg with 51,366 jewels weighing 3,656 grams, southeast Asia and Britain are made with diamonds, India with rubies, and large pearls for the Persian Gulf. I know, I know, impossible to read and comprehend but I was blown away by the size of the collection. I know I missed listing a few things here but you get the picture. At the end of the day I had the driver take me to the hotel to pick up my luggage and take me to the airport to fly to Shiraz. The driver did not speak English but early on in the day I was able to get him to play popular Iranian music and we settled on Iranian rap. We were really blasting the music and always had people turning their heads when we stopped at traffic lights. I really enjoyed it and was able to recognize the same tunes later in my travels around Iran. The driver dropped me off at the entrance gates to the old Tehran airport because he wanted to save the cost of driving into the gated airport. At first I aimlessly walked into the airport not knowing where I was going but I was able to get a couple hints from people I asked. It was a simple after I found the ticket counter and the flight to Shiraz was a little over an hour. As I exited the baggage claim I saw a person holding up a sign with just my middle name on it. I knew it was for me. He did not speak any English but took me directly to my hotel that was prearranged by the tourist agency and left me at the door.
2. Shiraz The hotel was great and located right in the heart of things. It had an elevator that played George Michael’s “Endless Whispers” and then would announce the floor in Farsi. I cannot get that song out of my head every time I get in an elevator I expect to hear it. Shiraz is a city of 2 million people and one thing that will stick in my mind is how nice it smelled. It happened to be the time when the citrus trees were in bloom so it smelled great everywhere I went. The city is known for its gardens, poets and proximity to Persepolis. It also has a mosque , palace, and a couple of grand old homes. At one time was the capital of Persia. It is also famous for the Shiraz grape. You can see the grape vines on the hillsides around the city but the grapes are not made into wine anymore… supposed to be forbidden. One evening I was in the courtyard of one of the mosques in Shiraz when the call to prayer started. I watched as the faithful came to pray and I knew it was not forbidden for foreigners to go in during these times so I went up and took my shoes off and went in to see what all happens within during these prayers. I got in there with my big camera and zoom lens hanging around my neck and I got the stares. I found a spot and got down on the carpet but I was now more the focus of several of the older men within the mosque. I stayed for a short while and watched and made it obvious that I was not going to photographing anyone. I sort of got the general sense that they really did not want me in there so after a bit I got up and left. I took several photographs of the exterior and the way they lit up the mosque from the outside. A woman who had come to the mosque to worship but intended on remaining outside started up a conversation (with limited English) with me and she asked all the usual questions: Where are you from? Are you alone? What do you think of Iran? What do you think of Iranian people? How long are you here for? etc. She was very welcoming and wished me all the best. Very typical of people that I was meeting on the streets or in shops. In the evenings after touring the sites I would walk the streets and find someplace to eat then continue to walk the streets. One night I ended up at an area outside of the Citadel to people watch. There were families with their kids playing, young guys showing off their skills on motorbikes and bicycles, shisha (waterpipe) smokers, and guys renting out the shishas. I found out later that shishas had been forbidden to be used in Iran yet here is was blatantly out in the open. An example of how the young people are going to change Iran. Things maybe forbidden or not allowed but it is everywhere. That is how I found Iran in general. While sitting there a soldier came up to me and attempted to talk to me. Finally I figured out what it was he was asking me. He wanted to know if I was German. He kept saying Alaman then wrote it down on a piece of paper. It is very close to the Spanish word for German but I did not make the connection. Only after he did the “Heil Hitler” did I understand what he was asking. He stayed with me for a long time and kept asking me and I kept telling him America. Even other Iranian people would stop and he would chat with them for a moment and they would ask me if I was
German. At the end I think he finally got it, I was not German. Around midnight I returned to the hotel and the streets were pretty deserted by then. While using the internet in Shiraz a German tourist sitting next to me at the internet place was complaining that all his surfing on the internet was being blocked. He could not access his emails or go to German sites. I tried to help but could not get anything to work. Just a screen saying this site has been blocked. I just chalked it up to internet problems and was glad that I did not have any issues. It was about the time that I sent out my India adventures. Shiraz is also located near an important historical site known as Persepolis. Persepolis is located a little more than one hour north of Shiraz. Persepolis must have been a beautiful city based on what is left standing. It dates back to 2,530 years ago and was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. It was built as a showcase city to awe visitors. Alexander the Great ended up conquering the city and historians are not sure if he burned the city down on purpose or not as payback for when the Persians came to Greece and burned one of their city others say it was an accident during a night of drinking.
There is a series of bas-reliefs (stone carvings) along the Apadana Staircase showing the arrival of various nations coming to meet with the king. I am only including a couple here to show the detail but it is massive with several nations represented.
Near Persepolis is Naqsh-e Rostam, the Necropolis, which is believed to have contained the tombs of Darius I, Darius II, Xerxes I, and Artaxerxes I. The tombs are carved into the side of the mountain.
While touring around Shiraz for a few days I met an Iranian couple (retired man and his wife) who decided to adopt me. They turned up on every tour I was on and we soon hit it off. He would talk to me in Farsi as if I understood everything he was saying. I attempted to communicate with him but neither one of us could understand the other one but in a way we still did. With the help of other people I was able to get the jest of what he was trying to say. Basically he wanted to marry me off with several different Page 27
women he knew that were friends of the family. He was constantly patting me on the back and saying things to or about me to others and then would give me a big hug. While in Shiraz I met my guide for the remainder of the trip in Iran â€“ Mehdi. Mehdi had just turned 26 the week before and has been a tourist guide for about 2 years. He is a tall, lanky guy with a big smile. His English was pretty good and his knowledge of history seemed to be perfect. He would ask me questions as to the whys or whats of a certain famous place for to see what I already knew about it. We were a good match and I felt very comfortable with him. During our many hours on the long bus rides he tried very hard to get me to tell him which was my favorite football (soccer) team. I told him several times through out the trip that I do not have time to watch TV let alone a long game. Besides, soccer is not as popular a sport in the US. Finally after about the fifth time I said Manchester since I had seen them portrayed on the BBC TV show called Footballers Wives. That seemed to make him happy. After doing all I could do in Shiraz we headed out east by bus to Kerman, located in the south central portion of Iran. The bus ride was supposed to be an 8 hour drive. The 8 hour drive turned into a 10 hour drive and I thought I was going to go crazy sitting on the bus for all that time. We arrived in Kerman around midnight. During the bus ride I ended up watching several TV shows I had brought along with me on the netbook. I stupidly did not think about what I was watching and where I was watching it. I happened to decide to watch Nip/Tuck since I was almost done with the series and just had a few episodes to go to finish the show. So I popped that on and if you are familiar with that show, then you know what sort of things they show. One of the things you are warned about prior to entering into Iran is bringing any magazines into the country that the clergy would find offensive and here I was watching a torrid sex scene on the screen. I looked up and my guide along with a couple guys behind me were all looking at the monitor on my netbook rather than watching the Iranian film being shown at the front of the bus. Needless to say, I did not watch anymore and switched to watching the TV show The Closer. 3. Kerman Kerman is considered frontier territory. The city is nothing to write home about but it was where we got a hotel room and used it to visit other places further south. The area is known for smuggling heroin/opiates by any means. One reason the bus took so long to get to Kerman was due to all the police road blocks along the way. The local people are known to be the major smugglers in the area because they have no other means of making a living. They use various means of smuggling the drugs including camels. They teach the camels where they live and to come home for food and they act sort of like a homing pigeon. The camels are taken to the border area of Afghanistan and the drugs are surgically inserted into the humps of the camel then the camels are released and they make the long journey back to their home on their own. Just to give you an idea, eight five percent of the opiates in Europe come through Iran.
4. Bam / Rayen / Mahan On the way south to Bam I noticed that the mountains that run north-south throughout Iran were covered in snow. I was so surprised to see snow in late April and I think it made the weather cooler than normal. Various Iranians told me during my trip that this was the best time to come to visit Iran and the second best time was in the fall. Bam was not what I expected. I knew that they had had a major earthquake (6.8) back in December 2003 and that the city was being restored but when we got there the place was completely in rubble. Sure they were working on it and they had scaffolding up and wood props holding up small sections of walls but really nothing in the former mud-brick city remains. I took some pictures and later wondered why. I was very disappointed because I had seen what Bam used to look like, a city of mud-brick buildings that looked unreal. It was estimated that 31,000 in Bam lost their lives during that earthquake. While walking around the rubble a man asked me where I was from and I said America and his face lit up and he was so excited and clasped his hands together and bowed to me putting his hand over his heart and thanked me profusely. Kept saying great country, I like America, welcome, welcome and he kept repeating it. He then went and told others in earshot. Several people came to take a look at me as I walked around.
On our way back from Bam we were coming through a checkpoint and I noticed that the police were very angry with a man and his family in the car next to us and they yanked him out of the drivers seat and pushed him in the back seat of his car with the rest of his family and several guards surrounded the car and were checking it out. When we got up to our checkpoint guard, the guard asked about me and Mehdi replied American. The guard immediately demanded my passport and I told him that is was at the hotel. All hotels collect your passport and keep it until you leave. I had a copy of my passport but did not offer it up just because the whole scene seemed a bit odd. The guard kept saying Alaman and Mehdi kept correcting him and saying â€œno, Americanâ€?. Mehdi had to go to the guard station and fill out some paperwork on me and where we were staying. My checkpoint guard had to stop collecting the information and go and deal with the car next to us that was now surrounded by guards. When Mehdi got back in the car I asked him what was going on. He said that it sounded like they found a smuggler and that the checkpoint guard was insisting that I was German. Mehdi suspected that maybe Germany did something in the last couple days that annoyed the Iranians. That might explain the army guy at the citadel kept asking me if I was German and the guy having problems on the internet. I met many Germans throughout my travels in Iran so I do not think there were any issues for the Germans. As a side note, I was asked if I was German more often than any other nationality. Mehdi promised to make up for Bam and when we arrived in Rayen I knew what he meant. Rayen was another mud city constructed after Bam but in the same style,
almost a complete copy. I was so taken with the city and that wandered around it for more that 2 hours taking a gazillion photographs (like melting chocolate). I will bore you with a few of them down below but I could not resist taking several that to most would probably all look the same. I met various kids that were visiting on school trips while doing my wandering and had a lot of fun with them.
The last city we visited in the area was Mahan. Mahan has an oasis out in the middle of the desert called Bagh-e Shahzde. It contains a series of fountains spilling down to the next pool lined with cypress trees, surround by flowers with the whole park cascading down a hillside with the stark desert on the other side of the walls. All the fountains are gravity fed. We stopped for the usual tea and a chat before going back to Kerman. 5. Caravanserai Zein-o-din Next stop on the route was the 400-year old Caravanserai Zein-o-din. We left Kerman in the early morning and took another bus north towards the caravanserai located about 60 km south of Yazd. We had the bus drop us off and along the highway and you could see a large structure off in the distance, the caravanserai. Caravanserais were built all along the trade routes from China to Turkey. They were built one days walk from the last one. Each had a protected area in the center where the camels could be unloaded and hitched up for the night. The people traveling the trade routes could have a safe place to store their goods, get cleaned up, get something to eat and a rest before traveling onwards. It is estimated that 999 caravanserais were constructed along the old Silk Roads routes. This one was restored and is now used as a hotel. You share a large interior corridor with other people staying the night. Your â€œroomâ€? consists of a hard bed on a carpeted pedestal. You pull your curtains apart and walk up three steps and
you are in your room, separated from your neighbors on either side by a heavy draped curtain. The same setup exists across from your row of “rooms” so basically you hear everything happening all around you. All the travelers meet in the dining hall and a huge feast was prepared by the local people. Before the meal one of the other tour guides had a laptop computer on which he had copies of “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” and “Team America” (from the creators of Southpark) that he downloaded and proceed to play for the few of us hanging around. The first show was a series of American performers of Middle Eastern decent who were poking fun at the whole Arab/Muslim/America situation after 9-11. It was odd to watch this with other Iranians and travelers from around the world. Out of the two, I was more uncomfortable watching the Team America show. While watching the shows I met a couple Aussie girls, an American girl, and a guy from New Zealand. We ended up chatting it up that evening and as with past travels we crossed paths again and again. We ended up hanging out together for our off times and even booked taxi excursions together. It made the travels through the central part of Iran a lot of fun. After dinner we were presented with a special dance performed by four males whirling around with sticks where their timing was spot-on because they had to be in the right spot after the whirling around or they would be hitting each other with the sticks. 6. Yazd After leaving the caravanserai we headed by taxi to Yazd about 1 hour north. Yazd is supposed to be the oldest living city in the world (continually inhabited for over 7,000 years) although I can name at least two more Middle Eastern cities that make the same claim. The old city of Yazd winds through a labyrinth of small streets with mud walls. Mehdi took me around to various sites within the old city, then to the bazaar, mosques, and as with our previous lunches, we went to an old converted hamman (former bathhouse). Yazd is a mud brick city with winding narrow alleyway streets, a large bazaar, beautiful mosques, and forest of windtowers (badgirs). These are an ancient system for catching the winds and directing them down into the buildings below. The air is usually circulated over a pool of water to cool it down further and somehow the hot air is redirected out of the building. A form of natural air-conditioning.
My hotel was in the old part of the city, located adjacent to the mosque shown above. I gave Mehdi the afternoon off and went all over town on my own to get a feel of things. At one point I met up with some more guys that wanted their picture taken and as usual the question of where are you from came up and I answered. This time it turned out that the guys were Iraqi refugees living in Iran due to the problems back in Iraq. They were all very nice to me and it was not an uncomfortable situation. I got back to the hotel and got Mehdi and we went off to witness an Iranian gymnasium ritual. It was a very interesting display where a drummer bangs away on a drum (great drummer) and singing an interesting sounding song and in the center of what sort of looks like a boxing ring but round in shape were 8 men and they were answering the drummerâ€™s calls and doing a performance. I took some short videos of this more because of the drummer and his song than the performance. Afterwards I met up with the Aussie girls and New Zealand guy (they were at the same performance) and told them I was going to try some Iranian ice creams and we ended up going for ice cream then to a sugar factory that takes beet sugar and heats it up a to a molten liquid and pours it into what look like huge frying pans. After the sugar cools it is shipped out as large round disks that are later broken into crystals. Another smaller factory did a similar process with regular sugar but instead made small bollard shaped castings for shipping purposes. The owners of these businesses saw us walking by with our cameras and invited us in to take a look.
Zoroastrianism was the main religion across the Iranian plateau until the Arab Conquest brought Islam. The religion predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It has also influenced those religions as well. When the Islamic sultans invaded Persia the local population Zoroastrians who were unwilling to convert to Islam fled to the western coast of India. Today there is a lot of interaction between the two groups and Yazd receives pilgrims who come to visit the holy waters of Chak Chak as well as the flame. They believed in one invisible god or supreme being and the followers prayed in the direction of the light. The light they had in ancient times was fire so they created the fire temples to keep the flame burning eternally. Another tidbit, the Three Wise Men of the Bible are believed to have been Zoroastrians. Yazd has one of the larger populations of Zoroastrians left in Iran whereas India is considered to be home to the largest Zoroastrian population in the world. The following day we went to the southern edge of Yazd to the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. The Zoroastrians did not bury their dead because they believed that burying the body pollutes the earth or to cremate a body pollutes the air. Instead they placed the bodies on the top of towers build on the hilltops. Vultures pick the bodies clean and then a Zoroastrian priest would collect the bones for placement in the central portion of the tower. When the towers become full, then the Zoroastrians start another tower. The Iranian government stopped this practice in the 1960. Now the Zoroastrians bury their dead in graves lined with concrete. The first photograph is of a Tower of Silence on the hilltop. The second photograph is looking down at the top of one of the Towers of Silence.
We also visited the Zoroastrian Fire Temple (Ateshkadeh) to see the sacred eternal flame. The fire has been burning continuously since 470 AD (some claim it has been burning for 4,000 years).
7. Meybod / Chak Chak / Kharanaq After doing all the sites within and around Yazd the group I was hanging out with all decided to share in a couple taxis for the day and head out north towards three sites that were listed in our Lonely Planet guidebook. The first was Meybod, an ancient mud city; Chak Chak, a holy site for the Zoroastrianâ€™s located up in the mountains that contains a spring; and then to Kharanaq, another ancient mud-brick city in the desert. The guide we hired for the day rode in my taxi. She was 23 years old and spoke pretty good English. She called me Mr. Mark as did all the other guides I had from Tehran to Shiraz. She was very inquisitive and would ask very direct questions. At one point she asked me about vegetarians. It was a concept that she could not understand. I tried for a while to explain that it is a choice and that they do not eat meat and when I explained what a vegan was; I could tell I had completely lost her. It was so foreign to her to consider restricting meat or any animal byproducts from ones diet. I would have to say that Iran is not the most vegetarian friendly country. It might be difficult to come up with interesting dishes other than salads, soups, rice and yogurt. Another observation, the conversation between the female guide and the taxi driver (also observed this in Tehran between the female guide there and the driver). They would have these very long winded conversations and neither one seems to be taking a Page 39
break to listen to what the other one is saying. They both would be talking at the same time and I have no idea how they ever heard each other. At those times I wished I spoke Farsi to understand how the conversation transpired. Meybod contained the ruins of the crumbling Narein Castle, an icehouse, and a pigeon tower.
During the winter time the locals freeze water on the outside of the icehouse then slide the ice inside for storage and usage in the summer. The icehouse has a couple windtowers to help with keeping it cool in the summer time. The pigeon tower was used to house up to 4,000 pigeons in order to collect their droppings to be used as fertilizer for crops. The guide asked if anyone could guess how many pigeons could roost in the tower and several people guessed and I said 4,000 and she said “you are right, how did you guess that number?” I told her that I counted the holes when I entered. Actually I had read about it and just remembered the number. Chak Chak (means drip drip) is a spring located on the side of a mountain that is looked after by a priest. It is a revered holy site for the Zoroastrians. A holy pilgrimage and festival occurs during the middle of June. Kraranaq is a deserted crumbling village. While we were there, it started to rain so we went inside a small eating area and had a specially prepared lunch. By the time we had finished eating, the sun was out and everything looked a little more dramatic in color due to the wet mud walls and the bright blue skies above. 8. Esfahan Wow… my favorite city as far as sheer beauty in design, artwork, mosques, bazaars, Imam Square, and the river park with pedestrian bridges. I did not include any pictures of the pedestrian bridges because the water in the river had been shut off so it is not what I would call beautiful at the moment. I was only there for 3 days and wished I could have stayed longer. I walked all over the town, was invited by a young carpet seller to meet him the next day at another shop of his for tea and lunch without the pressure of buying a rug. When I showed up the next day he was so busy that I tried to graciously bow out and let him earn his livelihood but he insisted on having me stay. I was really impressed with his knowledge of languages – English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and his native Farsi. Imam Square (Naqsh-e Jahan) is second in size to Tiananmen Square in China. Naqsh-e Jahan means pattern of the world. I liked going there to watch the colors change on the exterior of the various buildings and to people watch. While doing both activities I always had people come up to me to talk. Most people guessed my nationality as German so I must have a German look about me. The following are some photographs of Imam Square with its mosques and palace around the square.
9. Abyaneh / Kashan I am now nearing the end of my tour of Iran. I was planning on flying up the northeast corner near Afghanistan to holy city of Mashhad for a couple days and decided instead to stay in the central part of Iran because I wanted to go to Abyaneh and Kashan. I had seen some spectacular photographs of Abyaneh and knew I would regret not going to see the red mud brick city up in a mountain valley. We took a bus and had the bus drop us off in at a junction in the road that leads to Abyaneh. My guide arranged to have a car waiting there for us. The driver was something else. He was an older guy that drove like we 10 minutes to go 50 miles. What made it worse was that it was through mountainous winding roads and with no seatbelts in the back I was being bounced all over the inside of the car and on top of that he was smoking one cigarette after another the whole time. I was covered in ash due to it blowing back in through the open window. Abyaneh was everything I hoped it would be. I wandered around the streets and took so many photographs. The city was red in color due to the local mud used to construct it. It was built after the Arab conquest and was hidden away in the hills as a safe haven. Mehdi took me out of town, across the river to get pictures of the town along the side of the mountain. Along the way we passed various mud walled enclosures that contained apricot and apple trees. Once we were out on the rolling hillside I noticed various cave openings where most of them had doors. Mehdi told me that the towns people keep their flocks of sheep and goats locked away in there every night for protection from the elements. I did not venture inside one of the openings to see how deep in the hillside it went.
After Abyaneh we drove to Kashan. We stopped at a restored hammam used for viewing only, a couple of grand houses, and the Fin Gardens to see the underground spring that flows up through various pools and then down several channels and up through a series of fountains before it exits the gardens and runs down the side of the road. My adventure in Iran ended with a bit of sadness on my part. I did not want it to end. On our last night together Mehdi asked me what was the matter. I told him that I thoroughly enjoyed my entire time in Iran and was truly sad to leave. I cannot say it enough on how great a trip it was. The people, the food, the sites, the history, the combination of all of it really make this place on of my all time favorite countries in the world. I am telling you that it is best you go now before the word gets out.