Persian conversation

(posted with a small delay, we have already arrived in Tajikistan and are spending a few days in Dushanbe)

We are currently speeding North on a luxurious sleeper train, from Shiraz to crazy hectic Tehran

From there we will fly to Tajikistan. Booking and paying for the train online went really well with the service of iranrail.net, highly recommended. The trip takes about 15 hours and we are sharing our 4 person cabin with a relaxed middle aged Persian couple from Shiraz. The man speaks a little English which he picked up during his studies as an electrical engineer some 40 years ago. We see the sun set over the desert, we share some of the food his wife has cooked and we talk a little bit. Apart from the usual questions about where we are from, if we are religious, if we are married and have children they are strangely preoccupied with what kind of sunscreen we use. Which brand? In which country is it made? Another question: do I wear any make-up? What do I do about my eyebrows? It´s a hilarious conversation full of misunderstandings. I end up pulling out my bag of toiletries, showing my minimalist make-up collection of powder, mascara and eyebrow pencil (hey, a cycling girl needs to feel she´s not entirely ´sauvage´ every now and again) Marzieh doesn´t use make-up but she tries my Chanel perfume, much to her husbands delight. Is it for men or for women? How much does it cost? Who from the two of us is French? Not French? But Chanel is from Paris?


Apart from chitchat we have some time to reflect. It´s been quite a month, traveling around this special country. On the one hand we are sad to leave. The people and the overall vibe have been amazing. The Dutch are always proud to have the word ´gezellig´, meaning something like conviviality. Well, the Iranians have the concept of ´gezelligheid´ down to a T, and much more so than the Dutch! We have stayed over at the houses of strangers who have quickly become good friends. We have had many short conversations in the street, starting with a smile and a hello and sometimes ending in great conversation about politics, religion, life, everything under the sun. Discovering beautiful nuances and contradictions in the many different ways one can be muslim. For instance the girl I speak to on the bus who squeezes her preference for hejab and a love for all things Hollywood and Taylor Swift into one sentence. We have had cups of tea with a family camping at a bus station and carpet sellers in a bazaar. We have been invited for lunch and an afternoon nap with another family. We have camped in a park between other camping families who were all cooking enough food to feed an army. We have been flirted with, whispered, ogled, laughed and smiled at as we were wandering around the busy bazaars or hanging out in the parks. Some people approached us because they could speak freely with us, without fear of being reported. They would launch fierce critical attacks on the government and religion. There have been some beautiful moments where it was possible to communicate without any words at all; when an older woman during prayer time at a mosque expertly rearranged my awkwardly adjusted chador before taking it off me with a big ´nah, why even bother´ smile and a hug. We have enjoyed the gentle and polite curiousity and ease of connecting with people enormously.

Marzieh has more questions, her husband translates. Your rings, what are they made of? We got two (fake) wedding rings in Tblisi. I tell her they are made of bronze. Not gold? Hmm. No gold ring, but my husband has a heart of gold, I tell her with gestures. Awww. Her husbands heart is made of iron, haha.

The nighttrain from Shiraz to Tehran has a restaurant car and we see a Persepolis rock tomb glide by from behind purpe velveteen curtains and plastic tulips. We end up being interrogated by a group of teachers who are on their way to a conference in Tehran. They are great fun, apart from the serious advice to spend one hour every day reading the Koran. In between the hundreds of questions (Dutch taxes, salaries and pensions etc etc) and selfies one of them recites famous Persian poetry for us, beloved by all Iranians. Something along the lines of ‘your hair makes me cry. Your eyebrows are like fire. Your eyes pierce my heart’. We will miss these people who are rightly proud of their rich history and culture.

There are also some things we will leave behind that will be quite a relief. I will not for one second longer than is absolutely required by the Iranian law wear the headscarf. I will not miss being treated like a second class citizen. As a woman I am often ignored in conversation, not allowed to shake hands or directly speak with men, required to sit in the back of the bus and to use different entrances and spaces in mosques. I never expected the hejab to be such a nuisance until I was obliged to wear it every moment I stepped outside. It is hard to explain what is so annoying about a piece of fabric around your head but just the fact that it is always there, how it subtly limits your hearing, vision and range of motion and how you are forever checking if it is still in place. Especially this last bit really got to me. I was constantly checking if my head was covered even though I do not agree with the patronizing idea that women are like delicate flowers that need special protection. Or sweets that need a wrap to protect them from flies, as one hejab promotion poster showed. From our easy lives in the West it is so nice and easy to think you will be the rebellious and the brave one when push comes to shove. Then when I do find myself in a situation where the law requires me to give up some of my precious personal freedom I do so with just about zero resistance, apart from writing a blogpost about it. Grrr. The opinion about hejab in Iran is divided; some people love it, as one male taxi driver confessed after he asked me how I felt about it. Other people, men as well as women, hate it and even go as far as to apologize to me for having to put up with it in their country. There are as many different ways to wear it as there are women. From a gauzy piece of nothing over a heavily made-up face to women wrapped in an all black head-to-toe chador, held with the teeth so she has her hands free to carry the shopping underneath her tent. Apart from the monitoring of my appearance we will not miss the monitoring of our internet use either, which we worked around by using a VPN tunnel with the excellent ExpressVpn app. Despite us pertinently not agreeing with it, actually experiencing the dark force of state control has been an interesting experience.

In the morning Marzieh is fervently praying, whispering koran verses. Her husband looks pained and complains his wife is way too religious. He says it would be better if they were more of a match in this respect. Marzieh offers a beatific smile to her husband with the iron heart.

Marziehs husband also wants to talk. He, together with many others we spoke with, is concerned about his country. People worry about the ever worsening drought and the poor economy caused by the sanctions. People everywhere tell us that the dry riverbeds we see would normally have some water at the end of the summer season, but that the water is becoming less and less every year. Climate change is a real problem here, but at the same time everybody uses airconditioning and polluting cars. A lot of people mention the state of the economy and how it affects them. The sanctions have serious implications for the lives of normal people here. The sanctions mean for instance that it is impossible to use (American) bank- or credit cards, so trade is virtually impossible and the carpet sellers cannot export unless they have a trustworthy foreign partner who can take payments for them abroad. People complain about the poor quality of goods they have to buy, such as Chinese made cheap plastics and Iranians pride Paykan cars. Customer service, insurance and state support are at best unreliable if at all existent, leaving people stressed out and overworked. Men are trying to provide for their families as best as they can by working mutiple jobs. Considering the difficulties the Iranians face in their everyday lives it is even more amazing to experience their incredible warmth and cheerfulness.

When we get off the train in Tehran we say goodbye to Marzieh and her husband. Another fabulous couple who have made us feel at home in Iran. We are on our way to meet a couchsurfing host in Tehran and then we will finally be reunited with our bicycles. They have been peacefully resting at Hoseins place, our first host in Iran. Soon we will be done with the easy life and get to work. The Pamirs are waiting!

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.

Hungary, also known as Magyarország

Our first taste of culture shock happened a while back. We crossed into Hungary on Monday 16 May and couldn’t understand or read a word of the language, and had to spend thousands for the grocery shopping. We didn’t realise quite how much we had become used to gentrification until it was no longer all around us.

Sneaking into Slovakia

Before crossing into Hungary we spent one night in Bratislava, a pleasant town which is well equipped for the discerning bicycle traveler. Beer, cheap food, interesting architecture and a generally good vibe.

The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava
The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava

Hungary: our first culture shock

Crossing into Hungary therefor felt like getting out of our comfort zone for the first time. It didn’t help that the weather was overcast and that it was a Catholic holiday. This meant that all villages looked like the zombie apocalypse just happened. The North of Hungary was in Soviet times well known for its large scale farm operations and these still exist. Huge flat fields with the same crops, no animals. We covered 135km since there was nothing to do but cycling and camped in a field. We did not know how we would explain ourselves if an angry Hungarian farmer would find us. Still, there is nothing like cycling for a day to make you sleep like a log.

Next stop: Esztergom, a.k.a. ‘The Rome of Hungary’. A huge kitsch basilica towers over the pleasant little town. We enjoyed a stroll around, pizza and ice-cream, and met up with another bicycle tourer on our campsite.

Budapest

Rolling into Budapest brought us back into our comfort zone with all the creature comforts the city brings. For three nights we enjoyed the hospitality of our charming couchsurfing host Valentine, another new friend we hope to see again when we come back to Amsterdam. I cooked a meal for him, his family and another couchsurfer which made me feel right at home.

Budapest was also the first goal we had set for ourselves. Coincidentally we touched 1000km just before we rolled into town and treated ourselves to a day in the baths to celebrate.

Somehow we didn’t feel like another few days of Hungarian countryside. The guide book promised us the single highlight of a paprika museum set in more flat farmland. We decided to hop on the train and skip one of the most boring bits of Danube. A good decision since we are falling a bit behind and we are scared of running into the winter in Tajikistan. We cycled to the excellent Soviet sculpture garden of Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest and from there hopped on a train to Baja.

Camping

We spent our last 2 nights camping in Hungary, one wild camp next to the Danube dyke (the local campsite no longer existed) and enjoyed a great little campsite just before the Serbian border.

Wild camping by the Danube

I’ll add the skinny about kilometres cycled, budget and accommodation tomorrow, when we get to Beograd tonight. Hungary was somehow a little bit underwhelming, so we might have to go back someday and explore the mountains. The land has been disputed and as a result ravaged so many times there is a lot less visible of the incredibly rich and interesting history then I expected. The people were friendly enough with curt greetings in passing. Cruising into Serbia on the other hand was a case of joy at first sight, what a difference a border crossing can make.

It’s 7am now, time to get up, pack up and get going. We stayed up way past our usual bedtime last night, until 9pm. Who told you bicycle traveling was rock ‘n’ roll!?