Salaam, khoobi, everything good, everything allright? This is the standard Persian greeting. Lots of people greet us this way an stop us in the street for a chat. Often they ask us to tell our friends and family back home that they are not terrorists or extremists. So, read on for more impressions of Iran, the Iranians and their extremism.
In the last two weeks we have visited some of the highlights of Iran. We have also squeezed in a couple of ‘off the beaten track’ experiences. A personal highlight was hanging out with Arie and Gerben, two friends from Amsterdam who came to visit us. We have only just waved them goodbye after having traveled together for almost two weeks.
Kashan was one of our favourite places in Iran. Large and touristy enough to offer ease and comfort, small enough to have a very laid back villagy atmosphere and little hassle.
The only thing we were quite disappointed with was a tour we took with Hosein ‘I’m in the Lonely Planet’ Moznebi. His business is not online, I cannot leave a review anywhere so I will do it here as a courtesy to other travelers. Apologies for the following moan!
Touring the desert
Hosein is a very nice guy who speaks great English. He found us in one of the traditional restaurants. He offers tours of the Kashan surroundings and we decided to take a two day tour that would take us from Kashan to our next destination Esfahan, with an overnight stay in a desert caravanserai. The tour included a visit to a mud fort, a salt lake and desert sand dunes, an underground city, a beautiful mosque in the city of Natanz and a visit to the mountain village of Abyaneh.
The price was supposedly all inclusive but unfortunately confusion and vagueries ensued and we had to fork out quite a bit more: the entrance price to the underground city and the mosque, the toll price to the village of Abyaneh, the lunch of our driver. We didn’t appreciate being treated like a stupid walking bag of money, expected to hand out cash at every opportunity. Now if this expected generosity from our side was met with an exceptional tour it wouldn’t be so bad.
Alas.. We had an English speaking tourguide with us but unfortunately he only offered a talk at the underground city stop. For every following part of the tour we were being driven around by different non-English speaking drivers without any further explanation or information. So, all in all an underwhelming experience which I cannot recommend to fellow travelers. End of moan.
We did meet three really nice Italian guys on this tour, we kept bumping into them in the next following days as a lot of people do the same circuit of Irans most famous cities.
In Esfahan we met up with our friends from Amsterdam. We greatly enjoyed strolling around the famous square and visiting the stunning mosques. Esfahan has a laid back, friendly and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Great coffee houses, a bazaar where craftsmen are hammering out silverware and copper pots. It’s hard to explain exactly what was so wonderful about Esfahan, in this case sounds might speak more than typed words: craftsmen at work and a tourguide who sang for us to demonstrate the wonderful acoustics of Masjed-e-jameh mosque.
On our way to the desert town of Yazd we stopped over for one night in a delightful homestay in Toudeshk village. Our host Mohammad has been a longtime host of bicycle travelers before he started a guesthouse. He tells us that when he was a kid he used to stop bus drivers and trucks to ask if they had seen any cyclists. This so he could ‘catch’ them on their way through and invite them to his home. Now he runs a beautifully renovated traditional adobe home with elegant rooms around a peaceful courtyard. His mum is a great cook and it is nice to hang out with the family. This is the first place where I am invited to take off my headscarf, one more reason to love this place. It feels as if life in the desert is a little bit more free, far away from the prying eyes of government and nosy neighbours.
Approaching Yazd it is hard to see what is so special about it. We enter a busy city with the same mad traffic as in any other Iranian city. Just behind the shops on the busy Emam road however lies the adobe-built old town of Yazd, where we settle into another lovely traditional guesthouse. Kohan house is one of our favourites because of the flowers surrounding the courtyard pool, the friendly and professional staff and the quiet classical Iranian music tinkling in the background.
The next couple of days we spend aimlessly wandering around the quiet and narrow streets of the old town. Since all the houses are built of adobe there are no hard or straight lines but instead the flowing organic shapes of rounded walls, domed roofs, the typical wind towers and vaulted walkways, everything in the same muted mud colour that glow beautifully in the evening sun. There are no distractions such as advertising signs, just the occasional ‘hello!’ from a neighbourhood kid cycling by. The overall effect is incredibly relaxing. There are a few rooftop cafes where we see the sun go down while listening to the crackling lo-fi call to prayer of the Masjed-e-Jameh mosque.
Since Cyril and I are staying in Iran longer than our 30 day visum allows we have to organize a visum extension. We decide to do this in Yazd as some reports indicate that the office in Shiraz is too busy with immigrant workers to cater to tourists. A good decision. The whole process in Yazd takes only about an hour, most of it spent having a great conversation with the officer who is handling our application. He asks about our tax system and offers his opinion on Iranian traffic police. He is overall super friendly and interested. We are very aware of the luxury of our white Western privilige when we are ushered in past the growing queue of poor Afghan immigrants who are waiting for their work permits.
House of Strength
We spend our last evening in Yazd with a visit to the Zurkhaneh or House of Strength. We heard about this before but were a bit puzzled. Why should we visit a local gym to see men working out? The zurkhaneh turns out to be an incredible experience and a lot more than just a workout. The one in Yazd is housed in an underground water reservoir with four wind towers, just off Amir Chakmagh square. We walk in when a session is in full swing.
A small group of boys and men, dressed in embroidered knee-long tight shorts, are in a circular pit in the middle of the room. They are rhythmically swinging huge wooden weights over their shoulders in time to the drumbeats, chimes and chants of a man seated on a platform overlooking the pit. All around the room there are pictures and parafernalia of former champions. Apart from the wooden weights there are also iron bows with ringing chimes, to be hoisted over the head and swung from left to right in time with the drum beat. The practitioners take turns to whirl like dervishes, spinning with outstretched arms in the middle of the pit. The chanting, the drumming, the rhythmic movements, all of it is hypnotizing.
I read up a little bit about the practice and find out it is closely linked to different religious movements over the millenia: Zoroastrians practiced it, later on sufi and shi’ite religious elements were added. It is therefor a lot more than just a physical work-out: it is a spiritual warrior practice. It was in decline under the rule of the shah (who didn’t like this old fashioned practice in his quest for modernizing Iran) and imam Khomeini (who didn’t like the pagan pre-Islamic elements Lately there has been a rise in popularity as it represents nationalism and a pride of Iranian culture.
We meet up with our Amsterdam friends again in Shiraz and visit the incredible archeological site of Persepolis (Iranian name: Takht-e-Jamshid). Much has been written about Persepolis and it is truly magnificent, especially the finely sculptured walls, depicting the kings subjects bringing him wine and food from every corner of his empire.
Camping with the Shah
Next to Persepolis is another interesting place that is not as well known. In 1972 the shah invited most world leaders to a lavish camping trip. He erected a huge tent camp next to Persepolis and feted the invited heads of state in a gigantic PR stunt that won him much acclaim abroad. Unfortunately for the shah the people of Iran were less impressed with his inordinate spending and all that is left now are the skeletons of the tents. I appreciate the idea of a camping trip for world leaders, especially in this land where the people love to camp and picnic with a passion. There is unfortunately also a faint association with the traveling tent camp embassy of Ghadaffi, not quite as innocent as the Iranian families we see camping in the parks and next to the highways of Iran.
Shrines and mosques
Apart from our visit to Persepolis we find it difficult to fall in love with Shiraz. It is a busy, congested city and its most important tourist destination is a shrine that appears rather kitsch to our modernist Western eyes. The Shahecheragh shrine is an important pilgrimage site for Iranians and we get some interesting insights by doing a short tour with one of the International Affairs tourguides associated with the shrine.
We find out that mosques are generally more understated in their design since they are meant for prayer, but shrines can go all-out in decoration since they are meant to honour the imam that is buried there. The Shahecheragh is a riot of mirrored muqarna, shooting light and colours off the gigantic crystal chandeliers like a decadent disco. People are walking up to the shrine, rubbing and kissing walls, praying for good luck. As in all the mosques we have visited the spaces surrounding the actual shrine feel like welcoming community places where people can walk in at all times of day or night, to pray, to talk, to sleep, to meet up, to let the kids play, to read and to contemplate. We really like this strong communal aspect of Islam even if we don’t like the separation of men and women.
New friends in Jahrom
When we were in Armenia we met Ali and his wife Neda in our Yerevan hostel. They live in a small town some 200km South of Shiraz. After our Dutch friends have left we travel down to visit. Unfortunately Neda is away but Ali turns out to be a great host and we find we have made a new friend. Jahrom is an unassuming little town and we enjoy being the only tourists in town, experiencing the Iranian way of life. Ali takes us to a huge man-made cave, on a short hike to another cave overlooking the town and a date-palm garden. We visit the mosque for midday prayer and are greeted by stunned worshippers. They are quick to embrace their foreign visitors. We love talking about our different ways of life with Ali and his friend Reza and we hope we will meet them again sometime.
Since we have some very challenging months ahead in the autumn and winter of Tajikistan, Kyrgystan and China we decide to go back to Yazd to enjoy the slow pace of life in this desert town. We are back in Kohan house and are trying to meet up with some locals via couchsurfing. A few more days before we travel to Tehran. A few more days before we have to start packing for our flight to Dushanbe.
Iran has been an incredible experience. I’m glad we got to step off the beaten track and see glimpses of everyday life by meeting up with many lovely people. For us Iranians are indeed extremists. Extremely hospitable, generous and friendly people. We aspire to be similarly good hosts when we return to Amsterdam.