15.10.2010 - 23.10.2010 27 °C
The border crossing
I was quite excited we were about to enter Iran. When you plan a journey like this, there are always some countries that you looked forward to the most. For me, Iran was such a country. Iran has a very rich history, with many civillisations that flourished in the area. The area that is now known as Iran is in history often referred to as Persia. A name that evokes romantic images of dessert caravans and lush courtlife.
What a contrast with the image we (Westerners) have of modern day Iran. Nowadays, the image is shaped by headlines from the media. Think about it, what is the first thing that pops up in your mind when someone asks you about Iran? Most likely it will be about the Iranian nuclear programme, their president denying the holocaust, foreigners who get arrested for spying, or something alike.
I found it hard to believe that these international political games were relevant issues in everyday Iranian life. Backed by travel journals which were, without exception, very positive about the country, I wanted to experience how Iran is.
I was convinced it was safe to travel, as long as you respect their culture. Though, if there would be any trouble, I was expecting them at the borders. Therefore I was prepared for the worst when we took the Dolmus heading to the border..
In contrast with expectations the border crossing went very smooth. "Welcome to Iran!" As tourist we got to skip the queue, handed our passport to an officer who guided us from one room to another, and another, and.. oh, we are in! They didn't check our luggage, didn't ask about the amount of foreign currency we were carrying, nothing of that all. Altogether the whole border crossing took only about half an hour!
Tehran traffic and polite people
Our first stop was Tehran, the capital. I had to go there first because I had to request my transit visa for Turkmenistan (with a tourist visa you need to have a guide with you all the time, which my budget doesn't allow). After about two weeks traveling in Iran I would come back to Tehran to pick up the visa (hopefully). We tried to walk to the Turkmenistan embassy from the nearest metro station, but Tehran appeared bigger then we thought. While walking we discovered that most people in Tehran don't walk, they drive. What a traffic and what a mess! There seem to be no traffic rules and two lane roads are in practice five lane roads. Crossing the road as a pedestrian seemed to equal suicide and if we wouldn't be killed by crossing the road, we would certainly die from toxication. The air is so poluted!
Another thing we soon discovered was the friendliness of the people. Very polite, very helpful and many spoke English! Much more then in the eastern part of Turkey. We were relieved to notice that, because it makes a visit to a country much more interesting when you can communicate with the locals. Not to mention the fact that the Arabic script was impossible to read for us, thus often in need of help. As a westerner you draw attention in Tehran. There are not many tourist in Tehran. In fact we didn't meet any, except one group of Czech people in our hotel, of which I knew one actually (what a coincidence). In the streets people came to us, wandering where we are from, why we are in Iran, what we think of Iran, etc. The conversation always ending with: "Welcome in Iran!"
They are very curious, especially about what you think of Iran. And they seriously want to practice and improve their English. Quite funny to get so much attention, and good to notice it would not be hard to break the ice with the locals. In the Metro it was even funnier. From the corner of my eyes I could see people staring at us, I could hear them whisper (once in a while an English word) often followed by some giggling. This could easily take ten minutes and then a brave Iranian would come to us to ask us where we are from (at that moment at least 30 ears are approaching us, to be sure not to miss the answer): "Holland" "Aah, Holland. Beautiful country, many flowers!" Flowers, that is the first association Iranians have with Holland, whereas in the rest of the world this would probably be Gullit, Van Nistelrooij or Robben.
Tehran is not known to be the most beautiful city. It consists of many concrete buildings and combined with the smog from the heavy traffic it creates a grey image at first sight. Though this image positively changed once I spent more time here. It is not all concrete, there are some interesting places like the big bazaar and the Golestan palace. We visited the palace, but I found the name not very suitable. 'Golestan', literally meaning rosegarden, should (in my opinion) be replaced by 'mirror' or even better 'bling-bling'. The interior is very shiny, a bit over the top actually. We were not allowed to take photos inside, but even on the outside they used mirrors.
After visiting the palace we passed by the former US embassy, now known as the US Den of Espionage. Unlike the name of the palace, I think this name is quite suitable if you look at Iranian history (the US organised a coup from the basement of this building in 1953). The building is now in use by an organisation which is very anti-America.
For many Iranians the USA is the big Satan, though there are also many that have a more open minded view on the world. In fact, Tehran is full of contrast. The northern part is modern, liberal and rich. The southern part is traditional, conservative and poor. And, wow! What a difference! Especially notable in the way woman dress. In the south very sober, from top till toe covered by a black chaddor. In the north woman dress modern and wear their colourful scarve loosely over their head, showing plenty of hair (and they even use lipstick).
That modern, pro western, side of Iran you don't hear much about in the west, though they make a considerable percentage of the population (just to let you know: 70% of Iran's population is under 30 years old). These young modern Tehrani's hang out in the many museums, parks and art galleries of Tehran.
We went to an art gallery located in a nice garden with a nice restaurant attached to it (if we wouldn't like the art, we could at least have a decent meal ) It was interesting to see the modern Iranian art and also to see how popular art is among young Iranians. When we were just about to leave we met Rose (not her real name), an Iranian poet. We went to the restaurant for a drink and had some interesting conversations. Communication was no problem as she speaks English, German and French (next to Farsi of course). She appeared very friendly and also very open. She shared her views with us, which was very eye opening.
After a while her mother joined the table, a very nice lady who, surprisingly, spoke some English and German as well. Of course we talked about our travels, but we also got educated about art (though we didn't agree on how Van Gogh lost his ear). But especially interesting (for us at least) were the conversations about Iranian society. There was one thing they really wanted us to remember: Nowadays Iran is Arab Iran, the Persian Iran is the real Iran! A statement that would often be confirmed by other Iranians ("we are not Arabs!"). It got late and the ladies had to go home. Before she left, Rose shared one of her poems with us (which I can't write here, as she is trying to get her work published).
The next day we met Rose again after lunch. After spending the afternoon together, Henk and I headed to the train station to take the night train to Esfahan.
Tourist is king
Arriving at the train station it appeared there were no train tickets available anymore to Esfahan that night. Bummer! We were already thinking about alternatives when we got told that they would arrange something for us. They really don't want to dissapoint tourist. We got tickets for the train and it appeared we had to change beds in the middle of the night. Not ideal, but we were happy we could get on that train. In the middle of the night I woke up (half) when two guys left our couchette and two woman came in, soon after I fell asleep again. The next morning I realised we didn't change beds, instead they commanded two others to move.. :s Really nice that they are so friendly towards tourist, though this time I felt bad for those two Iranians.
Half the World
Esfahan is one of the biggest jewels on Iran's tourist crown, if not the biggest. This was soon confirmed by the fact that we saw plenty of other tourist. Not as many as any average European city, but compared to Tehran it is a very touristy city. And right so, the Imam square is majestic! It is the second biggest square in the world (only after Tiananmen square in Beijing) and it is surrounded by arcades and flanked by two beautiful mosques, a palace and the entrance gate to the bazaar. During the early evening Iranians gather for a picknic and the buildings get illuminated. Spectecular! This square justifies the 16th-century rhyme: "Esfahan nesf-e jahan" (Esfahan is half the world).
Then there is the Zayandeh river that runs through the city. I always like waterfronts and here they transformed the riverbanks into leisurely parks. While strolling along the river we came across some splendid old bridges.
For many Esfahanians a walk up- or downstream the riverbanks is like a daily ritual. It is the place to flirt, relax and meet friends for a tea. We decided to have a tea as well and enjoyed this simple but pure form of leisure.
That night we decided to go to the Armenian quarter for dinner. There we would be able to find some 'modern' restaurants. Since we've been in Iran, we noticed that many restaurants serve mainly dry kebab with dry rice.. It is not very bad, but it is hard to finish your plate as it is very very dry. We found a restaurant that served some western food and, of course, there were some other Dutch people who also wanted to escape the kebab + rice dish.
After the biggest city (Tehran) and the third biggest city (Esfahan) of Iran, it was time to visit a more remote place. We decided to go to Toudeshk, which is a small village near the main road from Esfahan to Yazd. Some mud-brick buildings form the old part of the village. We arranged to stay in one of those mud-brick houses with Mohammad Jalali and his family.
Mohammad has been welcoming travelers for years, but always warns them not to expect hotel/hostel facilities, but just a stay with an Iranian family. We were in for that and when we arrived it appeared there were some other, very relaxed, travelers staying for the night as well.
The family is very nice and welcoming and they took good care of us. They served all kind of traditional food (no kebab + rice) and chay all day round. Of course the waterpipe was present as well. It is a lovely place to relax and to get to know Iranian people/lifestyle.
But that wonderful atmosphere is not the only draw. Toudeshk is also a desert village. So in the morning (or actually in the middleof the night) we got up to see the sunrise at the shifting sands (desert dunes).
Some other travelers left after the morning, we decided to stay one night more to relax a bit more. In the afternoon the others went to the desert again to watch the sunset. I decided to skip that. Instead I borrowed Mohammad's motorbike (I would call it a mopad) to cross around in the area on my own.
After these wonderful relax days, we continued our journey to Yazd... (to be continued)
"To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries."
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