Tuesday, July 17, 2012


As I mentioned before, there is a big competition between Esfahan and Shiraz as to which is better but in a way Yazd was my favourite destination because it felt more traditional, exotic and ancient than the other cities I visited in Iran. Of course there is a large modern city to it and like everywhere in Iran it was spread out too much, but at the same time there is a very obvious and fairly compact old town that can be easily visited on foot.
Like Kerman, Yazd is on the edge of a desert (but a different desert) so was also very hot and dry. Yazd and the surrounding area also claim to be amongst the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world going back around 7000 years also. It doesn't feel quite that old but wandering around the old town definitely gives the impression of going back in time a few centuries at least. It has the standard mud-brick walls and narrow lanes look typical to old desert cities around the world but what is more exciting for me was that the traditional methods of architectural cooling and water distribution are still in use and easily seen. A/C is king the world over but in Yazd the skyline is dotted with wind towers. These towers look like chimneys with side openings designed to catch the breeze and redirect it into the house, often over a pool of water which serves to cool the air and reduce the incoming dust. The principle is simple, energy efficient, effective and looks cool too. Iranians'll tell you that it's unique to Iran and Yazd but I'd actually seen wind towers before in Dubai (of all places) in a traditional museum there. The Iranians reply that this is just another example of Arab idea theft from back in the day...

A traditional water reservoir with wind towers.

On top of a traditional hotel admiring all the wind towers.

The old town of Yazd has many crumbling and abandoned sections.

Yazd's most iconic structure.

Iranian shrines are so shiny.

I got dizzy staring up into this for a while.

One of the more interesting museums in the country is the water museum in Yazd. Just as they've harnessed the air very effectively for cooling, the ancient Yazdis also came up with an amazing system for maximum utilization of their water. It's called a qanat, and underground water tunnel dug by hand for many km through the desert. This system is still in use around the region including in Kerman and Bam where I saw them also. There is water, even in deserts and so they find the water at a source in the mountains at a higher level than the city and dig tunnels underground (often quite deep) with an extremely shallow grade, directing the water to and under the city where it can be stored in huge underground reservoirs or sent out to fields for agricultural use. The reservoirs are big half domes with several windtowers rising up from them to keep the water cool and fresh. Nearby there would be an entryway with a long set of stairs decending to the reservoirs where the public could go and fetch water. As far as I know most of these reservoirs and many of the qanats are dry now and not used, with the entries to the reservoirs bricked up and garbage thrown down the stairs. Some qanats still work and you can hear them or see them when they reach the surface of the city. For example in most cities on the sides of the streets there are gutters of varying sizes used for carrying off rainwater (not good for bad parallel parkers as they are often not guarded and you could easily drive into them), but as I've seen no rain they've always been dry, except in places where there is a natural continuous flow from the mountains. In Bam, although it was very hot and dry, there was always lots of water flowing beside the streets, so much so that it supported quite a bit of algae. In Yazd there is also this water, still hidden underground. The building and maintenance of these qanats is very dangerous and difficult and the workers held in very high esteem within their communities. The girls will remember all this because we saw the same system at work in Xinjiang province of western China where it is in use also. Don't ask me who invented it though.
For some reason, of all the cities in Iran it seems that Yazd has the most famous backpacker hotel and I went into it to book a day tour to some nearby sites. It's the only place in Iran that I've seen any concentration of foreign tourists other than the odd 1 or 2 I've come across through couchsurfing. Even the main tourist sites have had fewer... Sad. The very informal day tour started with 6 of us in 2 cars with a local driver with a guiding license. We went about an hour away to Kharanaq, a mostly deserted village with a history going back 1000+ years. The central older part of the village is all crumbling mud-brick now and very interesting to scramble around in. It's built in layers but I couldn't figure out the layout really. Most of the area was too damaged to really walk around in and you'd see holes in the ground you were walking on and another set of rooms below you. I imagine it'd be quite easy to fall through in places. I'd've loved longer to explore it more but tours don't allow such things and so much too soon we were rounded up and driven to Chak Chak, a Zoroastrian holy site where legend has it a princess hid from invading Arabs and found a hidden source of dripping water. The location and views are cool from up the mountain. Our final stop was in the larger town of Meybod to see another crumbling citadel, a caravansarai and another huge reservoir that was used to store ice. The mud-brick architecture and building below ground makes it so much cooler that they could cut ice formed in a pool in front of the reservoir during the cold winter nights and store it for use all summer. Extra impressive as I was feeling the summer temperatures they had to counter.



The road to Chak Chak.

Speaking of Zoroastrians, Yazd is home to Iran's largest Zoroastrian community and I was lucky to have hosts that were from a Zoroastrian background. The largest global zoroastrian community is now in India and there are a few old Zoroastrian sites kicking around in neighbouring countries so I knew a couple things about the religion but had never been able to meet and talk to them before.
Zoroastrianism is considered to be the first monotheistic religion in history and was the dominant regional religion until the Islamic invasion. Zoroastrian symbolism dominates the old historical sites like Persepolis and is surprisingly common throughout the country in tourism promotion, etc. The 3 wise men from the birth of Jesus story are believed to be Zoroastrian Magi and the religion is mostly remembered for 2 unique practices, “fire worship” and “sky burials”. The don't actually worship fire but have fires burning in their temples symbolizing purity. The main temple in Yazd has a flame that is said to have been burning continously for over 1500 years. It's been moved a couple of times and has only been in that temple since 1940 but it's still an impressive stat. The sky burials take place in towers of silence, special towers built on hills where the dead are left to be consumed by vultures. There are some towers that are still active in India but the 2 in Yazd have not been used since the 1960's.

The Zoroastrian fire temple.

The towers of silence just outside the city.

Zoroastrians are integrated and accepted in Iranian society and within their own community are much more relaxed. They have to obey Iranian law but do not otherwise have prohibitions against alcohol or have restrictions on their women. They are supposed to pray 5 times a day though. Could this be where Muslims got it from in the first place? There are still Zoroastrian villages surrounding Yazd and with my hosts I was able to visit them. Ok, it's not really all that different but it sounds special. I was also able to see a unique exercise form called Zurkhana. It's some kind of traditional aerobic workout for men only in Iran. In Yazd there is one that is open to visitors to watch inside one of the reservoirs. In Zurkhana the men wear a traditional set of pants and exercise in a circle while another guy drums and sings. It's quasi-religious somehow and mostly didn't make much sense but I liked the music and thought the whole thing overall was interesting. The session lasted for an hour and looked pretty thorough and involved lots of spinning too. The nice part is that the participants were of such a varied ages and skills. A guy sort of leads the activity and the others follow along but can do it with their own personal variants/interpretations so there isn't really pressure to keep up with the crowd and hurt yourself.


With my hosts we also went out of town for the weekend (thursday and friday in Iran) to hang out in a mountain village, Manshad, with some of their friends. It was cooler which is why everyone heads up there in the summer and quite relaxing just hanging out in the garden in the shade of the trees relaxing.
We walked a bit through the village orchards and got lost until ending up near a cemetary. There are lots of memorials thoughout the country as well as photos of soldiers killed during the war with Iraq. It's still very much a part of the public psyche as every village and town seems to have had it's share of victims. This is of course the war between Iran and Iraq which lasted through most of the 1980's and had no net result other than destruction. According to Iran, Iraq invaded first and was better equiped (being backed by the US) but Iranians are tougher and were more determined and so turned the tide and tried to invade Iraq to possess the 2 holiest Shia pilgrimmage sites in Iraq at Karbala and Najaf. Both sides failed and the cities along the border were destroyed (there are still apparently entire cities and villages still destoryed and abandoned along the southern border region) and I've met quite a few people that migrated from the area to Tehran during that time or had loved ones killed during the war.

Hanging out in Manshad village.

My hosts from Yazd, walking in Manshad.

A war memorial and photos of dead soldiers from Manshad.


Sunday, July 08, 2012

Kerman, Rayen and Bam

By the time I got to Shiraz I'd made the realization that my 3 week visa was never going to get me through what I wanted to see in the country. Too many places were going to have to get cut so instead I decided to just go where I wanted to go, see and do what I was interested in and hope I could get a visa extension later. Visa extensions are not difficult to get nor expensive but being a Canadian there is always a risk that I'd have a harder time of it. You have to apply at the end of your visa so I wouldn't know until the end and so I'd just have to risk it.
Thus I went 8 hrs further east to Kerman. I didn't know a whole lot about Kerman and it wasn't so much of a destination in itself for me as much as a staging point to head further south to Bam. So when I arrived in Kerman I was at the mercy of my hosts and hoping that they'd know something interesting to see for a day. Kerman is a provincial capital on the edge of the desert but at a higher elevation so it wasn't nearly as hot Ahvaz, but only in the high 30's. Also in contrast to Ahvaz, Kerman is considered to be one of the cleaner cities in Iran. The countryside is semi-desert and very dry but there are bare, stony mountains around it as well, adding some beauty. Kerman's biggest negative is social. Apparently there is a drug problem in the region as Iran is the main smuggling route for opium and other drugs coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Consequently there are more strict checks at the checkpoints on the roads coming from the southeast. Not that I noticed. It's not like arriving in Skid Row or a militarized zone or anything.
Kerman has a large market area, of which I saw only a small portion as well as a museum that was a public bath. The rest of the time I spent hanging out with my hosts and their friends trying to understand how the social system works for the youth of Iran these days.

The public bath museum in Kerman.

Kerman market has very high, wide arches.

30km from Kerman in Mahan there is a locally famous shrine and garden that I was also taken to. The shrine is for a great Sufi (a more mystical form of Islam popular in Turkey and central Asia) leader whose dervish order is still active and the tomb and shrine were built by an Indian king who was a disciple of the sufi. Shazdeh garden, is yet another example of how the Persians love gardens and every city seems to be full of gardens built by princes or wealthy people and now open to the public for a fee. There are often very nice small palaces or retreats secluded away in their many hectares of grass and trees and ponds or waterways running through them. They are a great way to relax and a large collection of Persian gardens (or maybe the concept in general) has been recognized as a Unesco heritage. This garden was no different and used the natural sloping landscape to form small cascades as the water ran through the middle of the garden. We went after dark for dinner so I didn't get many photos, but I was once again reminded that the Islamic description of paradise and heaven is of a garden and it certainly does feel like a relaxing paradise after the dry heat outside the garden walls.

Mahan shrine.

The palace at the top of Shazdeh garden.

From Kerman I went to Rayen, a small town off the main road to Bam. It was a long-forgotten “baby Bam” and Rayen citadel is the 2nd largest mud-brick structure in the world (after Bam citadel). It's seen a bit of a revival apparently since the destruction of Bam and is also slowly being repaired and rebuilt but when I was there I had the entire site to myself. The citadel was basically a small fortified town and the outer walls and the inner walls of the governor's residence have been rebuilt as well as random sections in other areas but for the most part almost everything inside is mud-brick rubble. With nobody inside and no restrictions it was fun to poke my head in every hole and climb all over everything but unfortunately there is a lot of garbage piled around as well. I found it very interesting and a shame that nobody visits the place. It's at least 1000 years old but was abandoned over 150 years ago and has been slowly disintegrating since. I was there about an hour in the 40C heat before hitching the remaining distance to Bam. Hitching was easy but thus far the distances I've been travelling between cities has been too far for it to be worthwhile for me to use it elsewhere.

Rayen citadel.

Inside Rayen citadel.

Rayen citadel.

Inside the citadel.

Leaving Rayan.

At the end of 2003 Bam suffered a devastating 6.6 earthquake that officially killed 30,000 people, half of the residents in the area (though many believe the number to have been much higher). It also completely destroyed the citadel and most of the rest of the city's infrastructure. Bold declarations of a complete and rapid rebuilding were made shortly after but as with all things, it takes a long, long time. The citadel is only a fraction rebuilt today and it will take them a long time still before they ever finish it. The citadel was huge and pre-2003 it would've been so amazing to see. If they ever finish it I'm definitely coming back to check it out.

The central part of Bam citadel.

There is so much left to rebuild.

Walking around the city there are numerous signs of the devestation still remaining. Many shells of buildings left abandoned or partially rebuilt line the road and some of the old mudbrick markets have been replaced by more modern ones in a different location. It's hot but a pretty desert area with lots of palm trees also and the city is famous for it's dates.
I only stayed in Bam for a day and night, just long enough to see what's happening to the citadel these days (most of the area is blocked off for preservation/reconstruction) and for a walk around town before returning to Kerman.

A very common site in the city of Bam.

The rebuilt market area.


PS. I want to make a few more comments on the food.
They make pizza and lasagna here without any tomato sauce and put ketchup on it after. It still tastes good though because they do have real cheese. One of the things I really love is that there are cold water “fountains” everywhere on the main streets so you just have to go out with a small water bottle and keep filling it up all day and keep drinking to stay hydrated in the heat. There is also a lot of fast food served here, though it's all local chains as there aren't any McDonald's or Starbucks here.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Shiraz and Persepolis

The overnight bus to Shiraz took 8 hrs, none of which allowed me any sleep so when I finally got to my next hosts' place early in the morning, we all immediately went back to sleep, introductions delayed for a few more hours. My hosts, a couple my age, were really easy-going and while Shiraz was also a busy stop for me, it was probably the most relaxing place I stayed as well. Esfahan and Shiraz are the 2 most famous cities in the country for tourists, and there is something of a rivalry between them as to which is better but everyone in Iran agrees that the Shirazis are the most laid-back (lazy) and fun people in the country.
Shiraz and surrounding area have a very long history with many peaks in importance. I'm still fuzzy on all the different Iranian dynasties and what was going on when, but there are a few that stand out. First, the oldest discovery of wine, a flask dating back to 7000 years was found in the area. That's a bit ironic considering that alcohol is now illegal in the country.
Internationally the most famous archeological site in the country is Persepolis, the old capital of Darius the Great from about 2500 years ago. It was the capital of one of the biggest and most influencial empires the world had known until it was destroyed completely by Alexander the Great ~300BC.
I went with my host and a Dutch couple (that my host knew through couchsurfing) to Persepolis early in the morning to try and beat the heat and tourists. I needn't've worried. There are not many tourists these days and at 35C the temperature was much more reasonable and bearable than Ahvaz. In fact, starting the trip at 50C turned out to be a very good idea because it never got close to that hot again and everywhere else seemed pleasant afterwards.



Some ancient writing.

More ruins.

Overlooking the central part of Persepolis.

Persepolis is very nice. Perhaps not the most intact site in the world, but quite a lot still remains of the pillars and reliefs and the setting is pretty impressive, with a large staircase carved into the stone leading up to a flattened area at the base of a hill still elevated over the surrounding plain. The ruins of Persepolis are only the remains of the majestic capital buildings and palaces of the city which would've stood out above the rest of the city below. There are also a couple of tomb facades carved into the hill behind. We spent a couple hours walking around before continuing to Naqsh-e Rustam, 12km away.
In a way it's just a continuation of the whole thing because it is a site where the kings of Persepolis were buried. You can see the facades of their tombs carved into the side of a hill and some more impressive reliefs as well. It was a great day.

The tombs at Naqsh-e Rustam.

Back in Shiraz there was also lots to see and do. Shirazis say that their city is the centre of Persian culture because it was home to 2 of the greatest poets in Persian history, Hafez and Sa'di. Both of them have large tombs set in nice gardens and a visit there is akin to a pilgrimmage to many Iranians. Gardens and poetry are big things in their culture and the people are very proud of both. It's always interesting to see how my visits to different far-flung and seemingly unrelated places can connect and as another example, I was constantly told that Hafez was reverred by Goethe, who I had been learning about not long before in Germany.

Hafez' tomb.

Sa'di's tomb.

Shiraz citadel with it's crooked tower.

Shiraz is considered the 3rd most holy city in Iran (despite being so liberal) in large part because of the Shah Cheragh Shrine which was built to commemorate the brother of Imam Reza, whose shrine is in Mashad, the holiest city, up in the northeast of Iran. My visit to this shrine was my first in depth look at the religion here in Iran and I was blown away. I generally like mosques and find them relaxing and have visited many so have come to recognize the various aspects and styles common to different areas. Iran has a completely different style. Some of it is simply the Persian style and others related to the Shia sect but I'm not sure which is which. For one thing they love tile-work and some of the decoration is extremely ornate and gaudy, especially some of interior domes, which are completely covered with small glass mirrors and reflect the light in ways that make you get dizzy and feel like you're about to be sucked into outer space. Unfortunately most of these shrines and mosques (and quite a few museums too) don't allow you to take photos inside.
I knew Shiites were different from Sunnis but I wasn't sure how exactly because Iran is really the only country that is completely Shiite. Historically they diverged early when they decided to follow the bloodline of the prophet Mohammed instead of the Caliphs, as everyone else did. There were 12 Imams (religious leaders) that followed before the 12th disappeared and is believed to be waiting to come back again like the 2nd coming of Christ. They only pray 3 times a day instead of 5 and also do their prayers and ablutions differently as well. The ablution is a simpler and quicker one and when they pray they press their head onto a small disc instead of directly to the floor. I'm still discovering differences all the time but it's difficult as most of the people I've met and have been hanging out with do not pray or consider themselves religious.

Entrance to the Shah Cheragh shrine.

Vakil Mosque.

Detail of the "Red" mosque.

Shiraz also served as the capital of Iran during the Zand dynasty and a citadel was built as well as some other historic buildings. The bazaar is quite large, clean and hassle-free and I found it nice to just wander along the covered lanes discovering caravansarais and mosques tucked away in corners of the market. Shiraz is a nice place but the city is very spread out and I never managed to figure out where I was in relation to anything else and had to heavily rely on my hosts for directions. It doesn't help that I have no maps to start with. I needed a lot more time to explore but after a few days it was back on the road again. Next stop, Kerman.

I had to laugh at this air conditioner in the bus for the driver.


General impressions

I'm getting ahead of myself here because I'm so far behind on my blogs, I guess I need to write a blog about Iran and my perception of the everyday here. The sites and my travel are one thing, but it doesn't really explain what the people are like and what life is like. It's not what we think. Yes, it's very strict with many silly, every day and ordinary things illegal, (like backgammon, cards, couchsurfing, satellite dishes, alcohol and women not wearing headscarves) but our belief that people agree with these laws and that such things don't exist in Iran is also very, very naive.
They drink here. Maybe not like the Aussies, but there is plenty around if you look for it. I know I'm meeting a very liberal subset of the population and it's very dangerous to make wide generalizations from that, but basically every person I've met and talked to in Iran drinks alcohol on occassion. Real stuff is imported on the black market and everyone has a “dealer”. I've heard that a single can of beer on the black market can cost about as much as a bus ticket halfway across the country! The most common alcohol is home-made and while some is quite sophisticated and/or toxic, it can also be as simple as people buying the non-alcoholic beer readily available here, adding their own yeast and sugar and letting it sit for a while.
The Iranian people are really like anyone anywhere else and are not extreme, but love to party and rebel as much as the next country. They just manifest it in different ways. If in the US marijuana is illegal but everyone does it, so in Iran everyone drinks behind closed doors. You could even say that if the official policy also supports terrorists, then they again rebel and are peace-loving people, no threat to anyone. In the home the women get very relaxed and animated and everyone loves to joke. You would never guess that they are “Iranian” people in the western sense of what we expect when we hear the name. I have not felt a single threat or bad vibe here. It's so much safer and more relaxed (towards me) than so many other countries I've been to. Like the Pakistanis when we were there the people are sensitive to and worried about their international reputation and want very much for visitors to leave with a good impression and try very hard to show their hospitality.
The Iranians are racist (like anywhere else) but it's the typical racism that you get from a proud country hating its neighbours. Ask any Iranian who they hate the most and they'll say Arabs. For some, the reasons go back as far as when the Arabs invaded and forced Islam on them, others the Iran/Iraq war, accusations of cultural theft, etc etc. They'll claim that the best parts of Arab culture and technology were stolen from Persia long ago, which is quite possibly true. One of the biggest manifestations of this rivalry is in the “Persian Gulf” debate. I am surprised how many people here have brought up the topic and asked what I call the Persian Gulf. There is currently a big push elsewhere to have it renamed the Arabian Gulf. Google Maps no longer names it anything and the Iranian government has threatened to deny air space to airlines that “mislabel” the gulf on their inflight maps. This seems to be having an effect as people here are sensitive to the debate and are very happy when I tell them that the whole thing is nonsense because to me it is, has been and always will be the Persian Gulf.
Some Persians don't like Turks, though generally they seem to be friends and for many Iranians it is the first foreign country they ever visit. They don't trust the Afghans and Pakistanis and idolize the Europeans. They like America and can't imagine America declaring war on them because they believe they don't deserve it because they are nice people though they will admit they have a crazy government. But at the same time they really resent the idea of another country telling them what to do. They like the US but don't want it telling them that they can or can't have nuclear power for example and if the US attacked they'd be forced to side with their government though everyday here they rebel against it. I think the point they're making is that change has to come from within and they have been trying as was shown in the 2009 failed revolution. Sooner or later they will succeed though it might get more repressive again before that happens. Everyone has told me that the youngest generation now is very different and much more liberal and anti-religious. They just need to grow up a little and seize the power. They do say they don't like Israelis (which is different from not liking Jews) but it comes from the same source as us not liking them. Pure ignorance and propaganda from mainstream media controlled by lying governments.
They are not all dark-skinned, and the majority don't have beards either. On many occassions I have been mistaken for a local. I've had people just walk up to me and start asking directions or discussing the newspaper in Persian only to be shocked when I told them I didn't understand. In Shiraz I was walking with a Dutch couple and a guy came up and started to talk to them (they were blond and very obviously foreign) and asked them if I was their local friend. Maybe if you just glance at me you could be confused, but the reverse is also true and I find myself also very often mistaking a local for a foreign tourist. But every time I ask a local if I look Persian they say definitely not. I'm too tall, too-white, have the wrong fashion, etc. But I do see the occassional tall Persian, or light ones (even with blue eyes) or wearing a t-shirt and hat so it is theoretically possible to end up with a combo like me that is Persian. 100% I can't be mistaken as Chinese, but maybe it's only 97% here.... The most likely explanation is that there are so few tourists that the people just assume that I am not one especially if I am not doing something obviously touristy.
Internet, music and other media are banned, blocked, or heavily censored. Satellite dishes are illegal so everyone has one. Facebook is banned and blocked, so people use proxys and everyone seems to have an account and wants to add you within 30 seconds of meeting you. Music is censored so the Persian bands are all based in California. I actually like the music, whether it's the old traditional Tar, Sitar, Tambour, Daf or other instruments and folky old singer or the modern Persian pop.
As I said before the people like to joke and are completely different in the home. They have to lead 2 lives, public and private, but many try to push the boundaries. Women have to wear a hejab by law so the hair is covered. The chador is not required though most women still seem to wear it though it depends on how traditional the family and city is. Non-muslims would never wear it. Liberal Muslims don't wear it, and from looking at people you can tell quickly who is more open-minded. Even still, though the hair should be completely covered, many wear the scarf showing half the top of the head and quite a bit of hair. In strict Islam makeup and other vain things are not allowed, yet many women wear makeup in whorish amounts, wear highheels and tight pants under their jackets (they are not allowed to show their butts so have to wear a long shirt/jacket). Iran is also the nosejob capital of the world and you see lots of both men and women wearing bandages on their noses either having recently had the operation or, more frequently, pretending that they have (it's a money thing...). But seeing the really strict clothes like burkas or eyes-only chadors is quite rare and much worse in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan for example. In Europe they might be banning it and complaining about it, but those people aren't Iranians....
The weirdest thing is that somehow couchsurfing is illegal or so I've been told. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me but has something to do with minimizing the contact between locals and foreigners because of fears of spies and rebellions. In most places it's fairly relaxed and hosts don't worry too much about it, though I've met quite a few that know friends or other CS members that have been in trouble with the police for being very active. Some hosts have asked not to have references left or at least not to admit that they've been hosting. They'll warn me that if I'm are stopped on the street by the cops or other people, to say that I'm staying in a hotel. This hasn't happened to me, but I had to put a hotel name on my visa extension application and my hosts were nervous about the whole thing at the time. The thing is more about not hosting, but generally meeting up can be ok, though also discouraged in some ways. But it's kind of dumb because back when I was in Dubai the couchsurfing website was blocked by the government (I don't know the current status there now) and yet it isn't blocked here. I've been told that some of the local members are government spies and hope to use it as a way to infiltrate the network and find out what people are up to. I don't know how true it is, but it seems reasonable and there are not as many large CS meetings and events as in other countries unless it's between known friends. But it depends on the place. In the west at the beginning I had no idea and all was good. In Shiraz things are relaxed and my host took me around everywhere and there was no worry, though she mentioned some of these problems. In Kerman I heard more but things aren't too bad. In Esfahan though, it's a different story. It's more strict and if foreigners are mixing with locals for more than a couple minutes then the police can come over and question you. Not just any police but certain types I guess. Anyway, the locals would be the ones to get in trouble not me so my host would keep a lookout and once in a while ask me to walk a distance aways and pretend we weren't together or remind me of a cover story if we were ever stopped. I never understood who we were avoiding but apparently there are some kind of police that bust people for not wearing their headscarves covering enough or some other kind of infraction and also for talking to foreigners without a tour guide license. This kind of paranoia sucks and probably explains why few people would randomly approach me during the course of a 12hr day walking around the city. I kept an eye on people and very few women would make eye contact or be looking around at others while walking. Sometimes you can't kill people's natural curiousity but in Esfahan it seems you almost can...
If I had a dollar for every person that told me they had a relative in Canada or was trying to immigrate there I'd never have to work again. I think they'd get a little extra excited when I said I was from there and then there'd be a million questions about how to get a visa or about the next step in their application. They love Iran but want to leave, citing worsening economic problems and needing freedom as the obvious reasons to go. Their currency has almost halved to the hard currencies in the last year or so, raising prices for them but making it even cheaper for us. They are doing away with dual-pricing for foreigners so it's got the best value tourist sites in the world now. It's just 25 cents for something as fantastic as Persepolis, the price of a local ice cream cone...
Speaking of ice cream, with all the hot sunny weather and all the ice cream shops everywhere I've sort of become an ice cream cone junkie. The food in Iran continues to be good and I'm gaining weight from all that is offered me. I've eaten more cherries, walnuts and pistachios here than in all the rest of my life put together. But the fruit is all smaller and the apples, grapes, peaches and melons are all tiny compared to average sizes back home.
Overall what has been impressing me the most in Iran is the generally high level of intelligence of the people and awareness of their own pre-Islamic history and culture. They take pride in it and I was surprised to see it so valued in a country that is so notoriously pro-Islamic. This is in stark contrast to Egypt, where it seemed so many of the people have no clue about their ancient history, especially as I've already met more people in Iran that have recognized my name as belonging to Amun Ra (the ancient Egyptian sun God) than I did in Egypt! I think in some ways you can make an argument that Iran is particularly repressed and opressed by its government because there is still so much potential to once again become a regional powerhouse as was more or less always its natural historical status. There is still a kind of vibe from the culture, that if the political system was more relaxed and things free then the people would suddenly rise up and accomplish great things. In Egypt I didn't feel such a vibe and if I had to guess I'd say that although Egypt just had a successful revolution, they will not do a lot with the opportunity and will never become significantly more powerful or influential than they've always been. Maybe this is what everyone in the region is afraid of and why their neighbours are helping to globally undermine and ostracize Iran. I remember having a long conversation with a guy working at the Jordanian embassy in Ankara and being told that Iran was considered their biggest threat because Iran has always been so strong and influencial in the region's history. Time will tell.

Sunday, July 01, 2012


I hadn't realized it ahead of time and certainly hadn't planned on it, but the overwhelming theme of my next stop was one of meeting people. The road south from Kermanshah to Dezful was very busy with semi-trucks. It reminded me of the road out of Djibouti except that this time I was going downhill and happy that I wasn't in a shared taxi dodging around them at high speed. Buses in Iran are very nice coach buses, very good value, and have governors on them so they can't speed.
8 hours later I met up with my new host, Adel, and his friend, Mohamad to be told that after an ice cream to refresh, I would be taken directly to a friend's English class to be shown off and talk to the students to inspire them. Adel is an English teacher and explained that since almost no tourists head to that part of the country, the students needed as much incentive as possible to keep learning. It's nothing very new for me at this point to head into a class to say hi, but I wasn't expecting it to be a women's class with very outgoing students speaking English at an already high level. Women in Iran are generally repressed, though not as much as in many other Islamic countries contrary to popular opinion, so I wasn't expecting to meet many on this trip but it's nice to know that they are just as nutty as girls everywhere else in the world. I actually had a lot of fun talking to them, a children's class briefly and then a 3rd class at a smaller institute nearby. So many of them want to emigrate and had a lot of questions about life in Canada (which I had to invent answers to as I have no idea anymore) and of course wanted to know all about my impressions of Iran and Persian culture. I definitely am getting the impression that people here hate their government, are fed up with the religious repression (especially the younger generation), have a lot of pride for their culture and long, rich history but are totally frustrated with the way things are going. The western sanctions also seem to be working too, in the way that sanctions usually do. The people we want to “help” are the ones getting screwed over by worsening conditions while the government continues to do what it wants.

Meeting with a small English class.

The kids were really excited.

Dezful itself was a nice enough town but as I'd come out of the mountains the weather had gotten progressively hotter and in the region the temperature was in the high 40's most of the day. Dezful claims to have the oldest still working bridge in the world. It's a bit of a stretch as only some of the foundations still remain in use, but they do date back to about 1700 years ago and were built by Roman slaves.

The Dezful bridge.

The following morning we were picked up by another friend of Adel's, Ahmad, who drove us to the small town that Adel and Ahmad are from, Safiabad. Adel said he had relatives invading his home and classes to teach so Ahmad was going to be my real host and take care of me and show me the neighbouring sites of Shush over the next 2 days. This is not exactly how Ahmad saw it and instead he decided to engage in what I refer to as “hospitality torture” whereby over the next 2 days I met absolutely every single person in town, drank copious amounts of tea, gained lots of weight and existed mainly as an object to be admired and shown off within the community, while all of the tourist activities and sites promised me were continually bumped back to “later”. I also made a few more guest appearances in Adel's other English classes in the neighbouring little town. I'm not against meeting people at all, and I don't mind visiting classes either, but Ahmad's English was at a low intermediate level and his English was the best I had in that time. 12 hours of meeting people and dealing with their slow and confusing conversations is exhausting and requires a lot of patience. Ahmad also had a way of asking if you wanted something by telling you what you wanted.

Another English class and more people to meet. Ahmad is 3rd from the left. Adel is sitting to my left.

I think Adel got a little annoyed at Ahmad too, who clearly didn't want to show me around to the tourist sites and had to get a bit yelled at to do it and then only did it reluctantly, but Adel had promised me that I'd see them and be well taken care of and promises mean a lot out here. So about 46 hrs after first meeting Adel I finally saw my first tourist site, when Ahmad and another guy Hani drove me 15km to Shush. It was once an ancient city, Susa, and is famous for Daniel's tomb, which is a pilgrimmage site. It's actually the 2nd “Daniel's tomb” I've been to, the other being in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, but this one is generally considered the most authentic or famous of the ~6 “Daniel's tombs” in existance. There was also a castle/fortress, a small museum of old artifacts, and the foundations of Darius' palace from 500 BC there as well. Hani was a nice guy with almost no English, but Ahmad tried to rush us through the whole thing as fast as possible. To me it didn't matter that it was 45C, I was finally seeing stuff and loved it. The saddest part is that after all my time there I never got to see Chogha Zanbil, a Unesco site that was the one thing I wanted to see the most and the reason I'd headed that direction in the first place when planning my route. Next time I guess....

Daniel's tomb.

The citadel of Shush.

I was guiltily secretly very happy to be done with Ahmad when he returned me to Adel at the end of our time together. I was exhausted from all the attention. I've been away from him for 2 weeks or so and to this day Ahmad still calls me 2-4 times a day to tell me that he and the others miss me and want me to come back and Hani texts me that he loves me. These are all guys roughly my age (+/- 5 years) and married.
Upon reuniting with Adel, he and Mohamad (from the first night) drove us south to Mohamad's agricultural university stopping along the way to briefly see Shushtar and its Unesco-listed ancient waterways. They are carved from the rock canyon as water diversions to be put to work with ancient waterwheels, etc before spilling back into the canyon river. It looks really cool and has been functional for 2000 years or so also. We spent the night in the university dorm, which meant that I met another large group of guys that were very interested in me. I never got to experience the university dorm life (not that I ever wanted to) and I doubt that Iran is a good example of what it's like at home, but everyone was very nice and curious and once again I was bombarded with questions. It was kind of funny because as guys from other rooms would stop by to talk to their friends about something they'd get trapped in the room talking to me until it got very crowded indeed. They had a hard time believing the farming technology we have and some of them are doing their thesis on various tractors used in the US. Eventually it all became too much for them and I was sent to bed so they could study without distraction for their exam the following day.

Shushtar waterworks.

Dorm life.

Leaving my new friends on campus.

The next morning they went off to class, while Adel and I continued on the bus to Ahvaz. In 2011 Ahvaz was named the most air polluted city in the world, mostly because of dust from Iraq and pollution from the many refineries outside the city. For me it was a big and modern looking city of over 1 million people and not nearly the worst air polluted I've seen. I'm told I was lucky because it was unusually clear in the whole area while I was there and so didn't get a proper representation of the usual conditions. My lungs are very thankful. But it was still excessively hot and at sunset that night it was 47C. We were staying in the home of another friend of Adel's (I was “hosted” by Adel but never stayed in his home but in 4 different ones in my time there), a wealthy businessman who got approval for his visa to immigrate to Canada while I was there. Nobody felt like doing anything or going out and as far as I know there isn't anything in Ahvaz that is famous for tourism so we hung out at the home with A/C, with more of their friends that came over to visit and practice English. After 1 ½ days I left Ahvaz on an overnight bus to Shiraz.

The mosque at the Ahvaz airport.

Another night out for dinner in Ahvaz with more new friends.

Ahvaz looks like any other modern city.