Iranian extremism

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.

Leaving Kashan

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.

Esfahan

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.

Desert home

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.

Yazd

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.

Visum stuff

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.

Spiritual practice

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.

Shiraz

Persepolis

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.

Iranian extremism

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.

Salaam Iran

Contrary to Georgia en Armenia, Iran is one of the countries we read up on quite extensively before we left. We met up with Iranian people, a colleague of mine went on holiday here earlier this year and I was very excited about Iran to the point of dreaming about it. We therefor felt  quite prepared to enter the country and finally enjoy the many sights and the famous Iranian hospitality that we had heard so much about. Most people will only ever hear about Iran in scary news reports featuring stern bearded hardliners who hate the Western world and force women to wrap up in black head-to-toe coverings. The cycling and traveling blogs that we have read and Iranian people that we met before entering the country paint a very different picture. A picture of a proud and ancient Persian culture that loves poetry, beauty and welcoming and interacting with strangers.

Salaam Iran

Still, our first days in Iran were much harder than we expected. Reading about a country is not the same as understanding it, and trying to adhere to the cultural norms is not the same as accepting them. Experiencing everyday life here brings us a little bit closer to understanding but it is the most alien culture we have experienced so far. Some of the differences are very positive and inspiring, others less so.

So, we crossed the river that is the border between Armenia and Iran. Before crossing I put on my headscarf, my long floppy trousers and a long sleeved baggy cotton shirt that falls over my bum. This dresscode, or hejab, is a legal requirement in Iran. Since we came down from the last Armenian mountain pass it had gotten very hot, and we were looking at dry, barren and very hot craggy mountains rising up before us. No green, no shade, no villages, and certainly no jolly families inviting us for tea and handing out water melon. Just a whole lot of nothing we had to cross before getting to Tabriz, the first big city on our itinerary. After the compact countries in the Caucasus we were finding it difficult to deal with the different scale of Iran, where distances are huge and there is not much variety in the landscape inbetween destinations. We were intimidated by the landscape and I was really struggling with the extra layers of clothing. This first impression seemed more in line with the hardline political face that Iran presents to the world than with the sweet stories of hospitality we had read about. These hard and unforbidding mountains, a dry and wind still heat that is beating the shit out of you and will get you to your knees in no time, the vastness of it all. We felt small and inadequate, even after having crossed all these Armenian mountain passes. We started climbing but after some 30km really started to despair if we could make to any place where we would be happy to spend the night. Everything around us looked too stony, prickly our exposed to camp, and besides there was no water. We decided to hitch-hike to the first village we saw on the map and hopped with our bicycles into a passing pick-up truck.

Park life

We arrive in Kharvana, a small village surrounded by dry farm land. Police arrives and wants a photo of our passports and of us. We are surrounded by some men, friendly enough, but we don´t really know what to do until jolly Hamid drives by on his motorbike. He speaks English and directs us to a small park around the corner where Iranian families are camping and cooking. He introduces us to the shop keeper across the road and we are happy to put up our tent and settle in for the evening surrounded by new friends. There are women too, all dressed in head to toe black chadors, but looking and smiling at us with open curiosity. We are invited to tea by some of the other campers but we are too exhausted from a long day of cycling and our many first impressions. Despite the loud music from a live concert blaring over the village we sleep a long and deep sleep. Despite our difficult first day we are very excited to finally be in Iran and we feel very safe and secure. In the morning there is one more polite passport check and we are on our way to the next town, Varziqan.

Control

We expect to do a similar routine today, cycling until it gets too hot, then maybe hitch-hiking to the next town and find the park where we can camp. We start cycling, waving at all the cheerfully honking and ´hello!´ hollering car drivers. The road is excellent, the best we´ve seen in months, and the hilly dry landscape is beautiful, so different from anything we have seen before. Still, it is very empty, and before long it gets too hot and we hitch a ride with a pick-up truck full of friendly businessmen. They are a bit sceptical about our idea of being dropped off in Varziqan and questioning if we really want to go there. They tell us that the whole town has been flattened by and earthquake about 4 years ago and we can see new buildings being built up all around. The city is a landscape of reinforced concrete-iron beams sticking up into the crisp blue desert sky. A medical student approaches us and helps us out with sim cards and  place to lunch. He invites us to come and stay with his family that night and we happily accept. Then things get a bit weird. We have presented our passport to several policemen already when our host gets accosted by a couple of plain-clothes men who are obviously trying to argue with him. His dad, who is a local politician, gets involved and things seem to be resolved. Through our translation app and our hosts dad gesturing a turban and a long beard we understand that this is the local vice police who is apparantly not happy with our presence. We go back to the phone shop for a seemingly endless process of filling out forms, fingerprinting, passport copying and waiting and waiting before we get our Iranian sim cards. When we are finally done and get back to our new friend, expecting to be taken to his home, we find that the situation has turned in our absence. The family sits in the shop together, and with blank faces they point us away, ´to the camping´. We suspect the vice police won the argument after all so we leave without further questions, quite sad at this manifestation of state control interfering with our meeting the locals. There is no camping in this devasted town, and we end up sleeping in a dirty motel for truck drivers. More misunderstandings, we are tired and upset and very disappointed. In the morning we have breakfast and things look a little bit better. I sit with the women in the back, Cyril has breakfast with the owner in the front. This separation of men and women is one little barb that adds to the sadness we feel. Even though we knew about this beforehand, actually experiencing this seggregation and (however grudgingly) subduing to it is quite something else.

Tabriz

On our third day we do the same thing again, cycling and hitch-hiking into Tabriz. We decide we will stop cycling while we are in Iran, as it is insanely hot. Even in the ´cool´ North it is almost 40 degrees! We spend two nights in a lovely relaxed hotel in Tabriz and find our feet again. Tabriz is lovely and we have a great time enjoying the sights, together with our accidental tourguide Wahid. Despite a series of comic misunderstandings we get to see the Bazaar, the best coffee shop in town, a park full of families strolling around in the evening and a touristy village built in hollow rock formations. We are getting used to feeling like rockstars, people who want to have their photo taken with us, calling out to us, asking where we are from, hello, hello mister!

Our friend Hosein

Before we traveled to Iran I had contacted Hosein through warmshowers. He lives close to Imam Khomeini airport, which is handy since we fly out of there to Tajikistan. We take a bus from Tabriz to Tehran to meet Hosein and leave our bicycles with him so we can travel around the country with minimal luggage. Hosein is our hero, as he comes to the rescue to pick us up from a rather stressful arrival on the outskirts of Tehran. We are taken to his home and have a great two nights relaxing at his place. We love spending some time with his family and experiencing the Iranian way of life. Hosein works three jobs, but it feels as if he has all the time in the world to help us and spend time with us. He and his wife will open a restaurant soon, and we teach him how to make espresso with our little mocha coffee maker. Soraya´s cooking is fantastic so we are sure the restaurant will be a hit. Hosein has done some cycling trips around Iran, and cycled around the town with his wife as well. He tells me the same thing I heard from a girl in Tabriz which makes me sad: if a woman rides a bicycle she will get looks and be talked about. This is why they used to cycle around together at night, so no one would see them. As we have experienced before, we are humbled by the warm and generous welcome of Hosein and his family and we talk about how we can bring some of the Iranian culture of hospitality home with us to Amsterdam. We are already looking forward to returning to Hoseins home at the end of our tour of Iran.

Spot the boys
Spot the boys

 

Tehran reunion

We go back to Tehran to catch a night train to Andimeshk, a town quite far South and close to the Iraqi border and the Persian gulf. Before we get on the train we meet up with Verena, the Austrian cyclist we first met in Batumi. She is staying with a cool couple in Tehran and we enjoy a lovely afternoon together.

Ladies who lunch in Tehran
Ladies who lunch in Tehran

The train is great, with comfortable beds and airco. The grandmother of the all-female family we share our compartment with is a bit upset with Cyrils presence but in the morning all is good and we part ways as friends. I play rock paper scissors with the youngest kid until we roll into Andimeshk station.

Ziggurats and waterworks

Straight of the train we take a taxi to Shushtar, a town renowned for its waterworks. On the way there we stop off at the archeological sites of Choqa Zanbil and Haft Tappeh. Choqa Zanbil is a gigantic 5 storey ziggurat of which 2 and a half remain in excellent condition. It is surrounded by temple ruins and a wall encompassing a town, built some 3500 years ago. For me this site is comparable in size, condition and cultural meaning to the pyramids of Egypt, yet we are the only visitors. It is so remote, and it is also extremely hot: during our stay in Shushtar temperatures reach 50 degrees every afternoon. The ziggurat has been buried beneath the desert sand for about 2500 years, until it was discovered by an aerial survey of an oil company sometime in the last century.

Choqa Zanbil
Choqa Zanbil

Nearby Haft Tappeh is a site with a cluster of smaller ziggurats and a museum detailing the archeological work. There are some beautiful artefacts on show such as the skeletons buried in clay pots, as is custom with the burial rituals of the Zoroastrians. The Zoroastrian belief predates Islam, is still being practised in Iran and abroad and believes in good vs evil and the elements of fire, water, earth and plants. Since they don’t want to contaminate the earth element people are buried in clay pots (today in concrete cases).

We hadn’t read much about Shushtar before we arrived so we had dreamt up a poorly informed picture of a collection of watermills, based on our knowledge of Dutch and other European mills. The Shustar waterworks  therefor was a jaw-dropping surprise. It is a more than 2000 year old engineering feat that is still in use today. It was built by captured Roman soldiers around the first century AD, but the qanats (underground canals) that bring the water into town together with the Qarun river are believed to be much older. The whole system consists of a weir where water is divided into two streams. These streams are then led to a complex of mills that operate by having water being run through them with great force created by differences in height and width of the water canals. The overall effect is magical: from road level you look down on glittering green water spouting out of the qanats from sandstone cliffs into a pool surrounded by an ancient collection of arched and domed mill buildings. High above the water works are the old buildings of the town, built in adobe. There are some modern additions but rather than clash with the ancient surroundings they do nothing but enhance the wonder of the engineering works: a small electricity generating plant was added in 1941 and an ice factory was running on its own electricity generated by the waterflow until a few years ago. The water continues its flow through a canyon lined with palm trees and other plants. Ducks are kayaking the strong currents in the pool. After our excursion in the boiling heat of the day it is lovely to unwind in the cool atmosphere of the water.

Shustar
Shustar

We are staying in a pleasant historical house that has been turned into a hotel. It consists of a courtyard with a huge date palm tree and a small pool surrounded by simple rooms. Usually we are not big fans of airconditioning but here it is a necessity as at night it only cools down to around 30 degrees. We stroll around town in the morning and have a nap in the afternoon when it gets too hot. The town is small and conservative (we see mostly chadors and very little adventurous interpretations of the hejab) but we discover a wonderful coffee house which shows artefacts from a local collector. The coffee and milkshakes are superb and we meet some nice people. Mojtaba invites (read: orders) us to lunch with his family which makes for an afternoon well spent. We are invited to nap in the living room together with his family. Somehow this is one bridge too far for us reserved and individualistic Northern Europeans and we head back to our hotel for siesta.

After much confusion and many ´no problems, relax my dearest friend´ we manage to organize a night bus to Esfahan through our hotel. We wake up as the sun hazily rises over the desert. The bus driver plays a beautifully hypnotizing call to prayer on the soundsystem and we are drifting along with it, feeling a bit delusional with lack of sleep. No need for alchohol, we are tripping.

Kashan

We skip right through Esfahan onto another bus to Kashan, a town renowned for its Qajar era houses. We check into Eshan house, one of these houses turned museum-hotel-library-restaurant. For the first time since arriving in Iran we are in a place that almost exclusively caters to non-Iranian tourists. The receptionist speaks excellent English. Fellow guests lounge by the pool and most women flout the hejab. I find this a bit problematic since I fear it can get the hotel into trouble for breaking the law, but what do I know.

 

After a much needed siesta we head for the bazaar where we enjoy a chay with a courteous rose water merchant. The rest of the evening is spent chatting in the hotel courtyard with a Danish couple. We are unwinding from the Shustar heat and the nighttrip on the bus. This is starting to feel like a holiday.

Kashan mosque
Kashan mosque