A Travellerspoint blog

The House of Strength

Zurkhaneh in Esfahan

sunny 28 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Late night in a dark backstreet of Esfahan. An anonymous door leads to an old gymnasium illuminated by strip lights. The walls are decorated with photos of local wrestling champions. Sweaty men, leather chaps and the hypnotic beat of the drum: welcome to the House of Strength!

One experience in Esfahan deserves an entry of its own - our visit to the zurkhaneh,  i.e. "The House of Strength". The activity is perhaps best described as a type of "spiritual athleticism".  Zurkhaneh is a very old Iranian tradition, founded here but also practiced in Azerbaijan, Iraq, and other countries. The first zurkhaneh world championships were held in 2009, involving teams from as far afield as Lithuania and South Africa. 

It is not widely advertised but we had been lucky enough to bump in to Ali, a friendly and eccentric guide from Esfahan, who had recommended checking it out.  On the Tuesday we gave him a call asking him if it would be possible to watch the zurkhaneh the same evening. "No problem" he said, and we agreed that he would pick us up at our hotel later. 

Ali arrived on time and we began our 20 minute walk to the old town of Esfahan. The walk turned out to be a major part of the experience as Ali himself is quite a character. A geologist by training, he had now retired and worked as a local tour guide, dazzling people like us with his ability to talk incessantly in both English and French, and with his BMW car - a rarity in Iran. After a while he asked us if we knew the American show "The Daily Show". "I was on it!" he told us proudly. The Daily Show travelled in Iran in 2009, trying to present a more nuanced picture of the country. In Ali, and many others with him, they found what they were looking for. They started asking him and others easy questions like who's the current President of the US, former presidents etc. Ali knew all the answers. They then started asking him more difficult questions, on the US judiciary system and constitution. Ali knew the answers to that and all the other questions they asked. The journalists were completely amazed. In the programme, they also went to Times Square in New York and asked Americans similar questions about Iran. You can guess what comes next - the Americans didn't have a clue.

You can watch the clip here http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-june-23-2009/jason-jones--behind-the-veil---ayatollah-you-so. Ali is the guy in glasses and blue shirt.

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Stopping for some snacks before the show

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Ali's intense explanations and eccentric style proved to be a highlight of the evening

Ali led us into the labyrinth of backstreets in his local neighbourhood. We came to a darkened doorway around which some burly local men were loitering. With a couple of words from Ali we were admitted inside to a small gym with a pit sunk about a metre into the floor in the middle of the room. We took a seat on the chairs arranged around the pit.  This is a spectator sport even for locals, but tonight we were the only fans in the house. Meanwhile several local men loitered at the edge of the pit, getting changed into strange long leather shorts (much like lederhosen) and getting psyched up for the exercises to come.

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Scene in the zurkhaneh gym, including the local "wall of fame"

As we watched on, the sport began. The leather-clad men took up position around the sides of the pit, and an older man - topless but for an open leather waistcoat - took up position on a raised platform above the pit. This was the leader, and as he beat his drum and chanted the sportsmen in the ring set to work on their exercises.

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The multi-talented musical leader - here playing a flute while Ali sang extracts from Iranian poets, later playing a drum and reciting poetry himself

In time with the beating of the drum, they ran through various routines: lifting and juggling heavy wooden clubs, dancing on the spot, press ups and rolls, and head-turning spins. Sometimes they would join in with the leader and chant in time with the drumbeat.  There was focused determination written on the faces of the participants, and the exercises and chanting were perfectly coordinated with the leader's drum beating.

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Lifting heavy wooden clubs to get started

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Let's dance!

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Those leather pants look pretty tight...

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Juggling heavy wooden clubs

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Spinning very fast

So what exactly were we witnessing? Zurkhaneh is a kind of spiritual workout, strictly for men only (Helena was allowed in as a foreigner, hence an honorary man). In the West, we like to work out to techno music; but Iran being a deeply civilised nation prefers to work to poetry. The drumbeat and chanting of the leader is verses from Iran's national poets, a group of individuals at the heart of Iranian national identity. The smell of the gym left us in no doubt of the physical component of the activity.  The participants also chanted a group blessing for us, their only spectators that evening, which the leader translated. Zurkhaneh is thus a blend of poetry, music, spirituality and working out. We felt privileged to be able to watch.

After an hour or so, the spectacle was over. The men dipped and touched the floor of the pit then touched their head in prayer before jumping out to slip off their leather gear, get back into their normal clothes and melt into the night. They would be back at the same time tomorrow; they do their exercises every night. We made a small contribution to the gym - the Iranian government subsidises sports such as football, but not zurkhaneh, for reasons we never managed to learn - and left. 

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Group shot after another great poetry recital/workout session

Posted by Grantandhelena 10:20 Archived in Iran Comments (3)

Esfahan IS Half The World

Esfahan, Iran

sunny 25 °C
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Esfahan is top of the Iranian tourist trail (a trail that is light on traffic these days) and a place that according to a famous 16th century rhyme is "half the world", due to its abundance of magnificent sights.  Unsurprisingly, it is also a UNESCO world heritage site.

Esfahan is about five hours drive south of Tehran and we took a bus along the pristine motorway to get there. Unsure what to expect, we turned up early on Sunday at Tehran's central bus station. We were pleasantly surprised at the array of sparkling modern buses that greeted us. A guy called us over to his Volvo bus for Esfahan and then a rival tout came over to tempt us with his alternative, "VIP" bus service - we opted for the latter, which prompted friendly banter and a kiss on the cheek from the winning tout to his losing colleague.  The VIP service lived up to its billing - huge reclining seats, generous leg room, air con, free snacks and sour cherry juice. The price? EUR 5 each. You can hardly buy a Mars bar in Sydney for that!

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VIP service at budget prices - comfortable travel in Iran

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Even Grant could stretch his legs out on the VIP bus

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Scenery along the road to Esfahan

We stopped at a service station along the way for snacks. While Grant was standing looking at the wares on sale, an Iranian girl our age in full black cape and head scarf came up and started chatting to him. It turned out she had travelled in Germany and she asked if we needed any help, recalling that she had felt very lost on her European travels and hoping we were not feeling the same in Iran. We had a good chat and thanked her for the offer of help. What we have found extraordinary is the fact that Iranian girls and women regularly come up to us and chat like this; contrary to what one might imagine, women in Iran are not afraid to speak up. This contrasts starkly with India where precisely one woman approached us to initiate conversation during our five weeks there.  As we are quickly learning, you can take your preconceptions about Iran and discard them: nothing here is as you expect.

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Helena and a group of young Iranian girls in Esfahan - Iranian women and girls are constantly approaching us for chats

When we started walking around Esfahan, we discovered that all Iranian people love chatting to foreigners. As we wandered around Imam Square - the focal point of the city - on our first evening, we were constantly being approached by friendly locals, keen to shake hands, practice their English, and above all welcome us to Iran. There are people selling handicrafts here and the odd amateur tour guide, but overwhelmingly the people who speak to us are just ordinary Iranians, delighted to see foreigners visiting their country. They give us sweets, cherries, and invite us to come shopping with them (one couple was on their way to buy an engagement ring and asked if we wanted to join them!). One lady silently insisted that Helena take the unopened ice cream bar the lady had just bought at a stall - she would not take "no thanks" as an answer!

Everyone wants to know where we come from. Sometimes we say Sweden, sometimes Scotland, other times Belgium. The reactions are always the same: "welcome to Iran!" and (to Helena) "sorry about the football!".  We had imagined the reaction to Brits here might be lukewarm given recent events; nothing could be further from the truth. Once again, when in Iran leave your preconceptions at the door. One interesting thing is that many Iranians know a surprising amount about Scotland's independence movement and upcoming referendum - perhaps the Iranian media likes to gloat about the break up of the UK?!!

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As a foreigner wandering in Iran, expect a lot of friendly welcomes and random acts of kindness! Top shot in Imam Square, underneath at the local bird market

As for the sights of Esfahan, it is hard to know where to begin. Having just seen the palaces of Rajahstan, we can now see the heavy Persian influence in the architecture of western India. However, India has only one Taj Mahal; in Esfahan, everywhere you look there are buildings to rival the Taj, and all in the most sublime colours. The intricacy of the cupolas and the "stalactite" features under the arches of the mosques are breathtaking - you quickly run out of superlatives when looking around here!

Imam Square, Imam Mosque and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

The focal point of Esfahan is the enormous Imam Square, second only to Tiannamen Square in terms of size. It contains the spectacular Imam and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosques, as well as bazaars on all sides selling Persian carpets, tea sets, fabrics and all the usual kind of things tourists love.  We really enjoyed wandering here at different times of day, admiring the buildings and - yes - haggling over souvenirs in the bazaar.

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Imam Square and the maze of the bazaar

We also found lovely cafes and restaurants around the square to escape the heat and enjoy fresh fruit juice. We saw less than five other western tourists on our wanderings. The sights were not only the most spectacular we have seen on our journey so far, but also the quietest. It is distressing to see a city so perfectly set up for tourism that is devoid of non-Iranian tourists. This is the squandered potential of Iran.

We also met a group of Malaysian businessmen in one of the cafes. Due to their work they travel a lot. They happily told us that business with Iran is especially beneficial these days when more and more countries (but obviously not Malaysia) sign up to the embargo.

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Imam Mosque - built between 1611 and 1629. Apparently the architect put some mismatches into the design to show humility before Allah, but our untrained eyes only saw perfect Persian symmetry...

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Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was built between 1602 and 1619 and originally was exclusively for the use of the shah's harem, hence the "feminine" colours of the building and perfectly rounded shape of the cupola

Jameh Mosque

Jameh Mosque is another of the main sights in Esfahan, and is a spectacular mosque built on the recurring theme of a central courtyard with four iwans (or gates) at each end. It began life in the eleventh century but most of what you see today is from the 15th century. We spent a good hour just taking in the beauty of the iwans, and watching the place come to life as the midday call to prayer echoed around the courtyard. Helena had to put on a robe covering her whole body and head, but she did also get an invitation to join the women in the prayer room; Grant, on the other hand, was turned away for not being Muslim!

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South Iwan of Jameh Mosque

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West Iwan of Jameh Mosque

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Helena joins the ladies for prayers inside

The Armenian quarter of Jolfa

You don't expect to find Christian churches in Iran, but that is exactly what there is in the Armenian quarter of Esfahan. Armenians were resettled to Esfahan by Shah Abbas in the 17th century, and have been here ever since. We took a trip across the river to this attractive quarter for a wander around Vank Cathedral, the focal point of the Armenian Church in Iran. We also checked out the Church of Bethlehem, one of the other churches next door. These buildings are incredible and make you realise how closely related the architecture of mosques and Orthodox/Catholic churches are: the domes, pillars and arches of the buildings are exactly the same. In fact, the Armenian churches include Persian tiling at the base of their walls, exactly the same as you see in the mosques, and Persian carpets all around the altar. However, the ornate frescos adorning the walls are unmistakably Christian, showing gruesome scenes of the passion of Christ among other things.

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Vank Cathedral, built 1606-1655, is the centre of Armenian Christians in Iran - the buildings look Islamic at first glance from the outside

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Inside, the Cathedral is magnificently decorated with Christian art but with a blend of Persian decoration including tiling and rugs

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Jolfa lies on the other side of the Zayandeh River - these days, just a dried up river bed!

We wandered around the Vank Cathedral museum, which had a very interesting exhibition about the Armenian genocide carried out by Turkey in 1915, in which 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were systematically killed. Many Armenians fled, among other places to Iran. To this day, Turkey has never recognised its action as genocide, and when the French National Assembly recently did so, France incurred the wrath of Ankara.  Here is yet more food for thought: within the last century, Turkey - today a "secular" ally of the west - eliminated its Christian Armenian population in the 20th century's first holocaust; many Christians obtained shelter in Iran. Today, Christians such as the Armenian population continue to openly practice their religion in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Moreover, the same Islamic Republic whose leaders call for Israel to be wiped off the map run a country that is home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel. Not to sound like a broken record, but remember what we said about preconceptions?!

It would be disingenuous to claim that Iran is a bastion of religious tolerance - any quick research on the subject will show you it is not. For example, Muslims may be punished with death in Iran if they convert to another religion - citizens of other faiths are always free to convert to Islam, though! It's just interesting to see that the story is not as black and white as one might think.

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In some cases, preconceptions hold true - a picture we saw hanging over a shop in Esfahan's bazaar. However, we have yet to meet any Iranian who expresses these anti-US views

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In other cases, western culture and theocracy seem to blend almost seamlessly - scene from a local coffee shop in Jolfa

Palaces of Esfahan

Esfahan is also home to some impressive palaces, in varying states of repair, which can be accessed at ridiculously low prices, even as a foreigner. We really enjoyed the Ali Qapu Palace on Imam Square, which dates from the end of the 16th century and gives a nice view over the square.

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Shots from Ali Qapu Palace

Hasht Behesht Palace was also a very nice spot, built in 1660, and we had the whole place to ourselves.

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Hasht Behesht palace

It's understandable why Esfahan is at the top of every Iran tourist's itinerary: the range of beautiful buildings is extraordinary. Between seeing all the sights and shopping in the bazaar, we were kept pretty busy for our three days in the city. Next stop: the desert!

Posted by Grantandhelena 10:33 Archived in Iran Comments (2)

Arrived in I.R. Iran

Tehran

sunny 28 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.


A head scarf-clad female border guard stamps our passports after 45 minutes of queuing in the foreigners' line in Tehran's international airport, together with Iraqis, Lebanese, and precisely one other European guy who is just transiting on his way to Vienna. Welcome to Iran; a moment we were not sure would ever arrive.

When we started planning our trip, two countries were on the itinerary from the very beginning: Iran and Ethiopia, thanks to the fact of us having good friends living there.  Eric has been living in Tehran for eight months but we actually saw him as late as April in Tokyo, when our visits randomly coincided.

We were never quite sure whether we would end up going to Iran or not given the political situation but we got our tickets and visas and hoped for the best. As we were approaching the date, things seemed to "improve" and on 13 June, we got on our flight from Delhi to Doha and then on to Tehran. Beggars can't be choosers and not many airlines will take you to Tehran, but Qatar Airways was so good that it established itself as one of our favourite airlines! 

Having arrived at the airport, we queued for a long time and were chatting away with friendly Iraqis and Lebanese people in the queue for foreigners. Eventually it was our turn and they let us in - we were in Iran!

Eric had kindly organised for a driver to meet us, an unprecedented luxury for us,  which already set the bar for our stay with him. Immediately we started noticing the contrasts to India - a clean car, a well paved motorway from the airport, no animals wandering the streets, no homeless people, no litter... Just so organised! Despite it being after midnight, however, the roads were full of cars, and we ended up stuck in traffic jams. We would see much more of the extremely dense traffic in Tehran during our stay.

Seeing Eric again was fantastic. It is amazing with the kind of friends you can see anywhere and anytime and it still feels like you met yesterday.   Eric had bought some tunnbröd (Swedish bread) and Swedish cheese and we immediately ventured up to the lovely roof terrace in Eric's apartment block for a snack and a chat. With us was also Eric's friend and colleague Anders.  We enjoyed the view of the sprawling lights of Tehran as far as the eye could see, and the dramatic mountains that rise from the north of the city.

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A long day of travelling couldn't stop us from enjoying a Swedish snack on Eric's roof terrace

It's difficult to describe how nice it is to be in someone's home after such a long time on the road. Eric has a lovely place and it was awesome to have more than five square metres to move around in! 

Next day, Eric picked us up around midday and we went to the Swedish embassy for a look around and some traditional Persian lunch of rice, mutton stew and minty yoghurt. We were extremely well received by the embassy staff and it confirmed what Eric already had told us, about people being very happy when visitors come to Tehran.

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Lunch at the Swedish embasssy - no head scarf required here

Next we went to the Niyavaran Palace Museum, the complex where the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his family, spent their last ten years in Iran. We first went to Sahebqaranieh, the Shah's special office and later to the residence. It is all surprisingly intact - maybe it's been kept to show the decadence of the Shah and his family. Either way, if felt like time travel back to the 70s (1979 to be precise). The place was full of highlights, but maybe the Shah's wardrobe was our favourite.

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The Shah's special office building

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In "the Ambassador's Waiting Room" there were photos of the celebrities who had been there, including Nixon, Hitler, Mao, De Gaulle, Queen Elizabeth II, Eisenhower and Ataturk. Now also Grant.

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The shah was a hypochondriac and therefore had a dental practice installed in the office!

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Outside the the Niyavaran palace- the Shah family residence

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The Shah's wardrobe...

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...and Fara Diba's wardrobe

In the evening we went to a leaving party for three guys of the Tehran expat community. Little did we expect that one of our biggest nights out so far this trip would take place in Tehran but this is the case - we had a brilliant time. It was great chatting to the other expats and amazing to hear how they all seemed to love Tehran and the Iranians. We were consistently told what a friendly people they are. We got back to Eric's around four in the morning - very unexpected!

Before leaving Brussels we had met Fariba, of Iranian origin,  who was visiting our good friend Olga.  When she heard we were going to Iran she immediately offered to put us in touch with her family and we eagerly accepted. We had, prior to our visit, been e-mailing with Fatemeh (Fariba's mum's cousin) and she had invited us for lunch at her house in Tehran on the Friday. We had heard things about Iranian lunches and knew that we were very unlikely to leave hungry. That would prove to be satisfyingly true.

We took a taxi across town to get to Fatemeh's place. Tehran sprawls so widely and traffic is so bad that it took about half an hour to get there even though it was on the same side of the city as Eric's apartment. On the way we got to enjoy the legendary crazy Tehran taxi driving style (drive fast, brake late if at all, switch lanes at random, and dart through any gap in traffic to get ahead). Iranian addresses are vague and GPS nonexistent, so when we got to the street, we had to call Fatemeh to direct the driver to the door of her apartment building - apparently numbering buildings would be too simple for Iranians!

Fatemeh and her family gave us the warmest welcome ever when we finally tracked down their building. There was Fatemeh and her husband, Ali ,their son Amir and his wife Mariam and daughter, as well as Fatemeh's brother, also Ali, Fatemeh's daughter, and Fatemeh's uncle and aunt. The size of the family gathering was quite overwhelming! They all spoke very good English so we managed to have lots of good chat. We sat down around two and didn't stop eating until  five hours later, when it was time for us to leave. Needless to say, the food was all delicious, and served in very generous amounts!

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Some of the fantastic food we were served at Fatemeh's house and enjoying eating together

We have heard a lot of Iranian hospitality but were still overwhelmed by the friendliness we were met by. Fatemeh's family were all very interested in us, what we do, our travels etc. Fatemeh's family were all keen travellers themselves and seem to go abroad a lot, often visiting family members in the US and Europe. They have a family pharmacy business, are all university educated and have a beautiful home. We felt very privileged to be invited to spend time with them at their regular Friday family lunch (Friday being the sabbath here).

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It is difficult to write anything that doesn't manifest our ignorance when it comes to Iran and its people, but we were surprised by how culturally close we felt in talking to Fatemeh's family, much more so than in for example India. When it came to popular culture we seemed to have the same references, and Fatemeh's brother Ali turned out to be a great connoisseur of film - American, European, even Swedish, old, new etc. Their home also felt very familiar to anyone from Europe. The view from the balcony is impressive  - you can really see what a huge place Tehran is.

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View from the balcony

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We were told that the construction of this building started 15 years ago. When the company building it didn't manage to sell any of the apartments in it, they ran out of money and just stopped. It seemed like a perfect analogy for Iran - unrealised potential

One of the few things that was different was the food and that was to our delight! Also, Iran is fantastic when it comes to fruit. We had the most amazing fresh fruit and berries, both before and after the meal. We we also served different fresh fruit juices before eating - the sour cherry juice was especially good.

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Iran is great for fresh fruit and berries

The meal consisted of so many dishes that it is hard to remember and describe them all, but we kicked off with an excellent very thick, creamy chicken soup. We were then served perfumed rice topped with pomegranate pieces, chicken cooked in different ways, beautiful roasted potatoes and carrots, crispy burned rice, and a sour green sauce made with vegetables. The flavours and the freshness of the ingredients - especially the fruits and vegetables - were remarkable. The food was washed down with a minty yoghurt drink and fruit juice. 

After we could take no more, a selection of olives and pineapple pieces were brought out to finish with - we were told this was a palate cleanser, and one taste made clear why. Both the olives and the pineapple rings had been soaked in different types of vinegar, making them extremely sour. Our hosts laughed as Grant's eyes almost popped out when he took a bite of one of the pineapple rings. It was the kind of sour flavour that is so strong it makes you sweat and weep at the same time. We were told that Iranians like to finish a meal with sour flavours where Europeans prefer sweet flavours. In fact, the sour flavour - especially of pomegranate - seems to be present in a lot of Iranian cooking generally.

Having said that Iranians prefer sour to sweet, our hosts did then produce some beautiful Iranian baklava, which we somehow found space for as we sipped on some post-lunch tea.

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Nice cup of tea after lunch, served in beautiful Persian style

After lunch, we were shown various books about the sites of Iran and the art of Persian carpet making. Our hosts asked us if we would like to take a snooze - a room had been set aside for us if we wanted. We said no thanks, we were fine, slightly taken aback by the offer- not realising that the Iranian siesta is an institution. We retired instead to the sofas for more chat, but some of the family members did take themselves off to various bedrooms for a post-lunch snooze! 

At around half six, when we started to mention that we had better get back home and leave our hosts to enjoy their evening, Fatemeh insisted that we have some of her cold coffee. Of course we couldn't say no. When it came out, together with yet another cake - this time a fresh fruit cake - we couldn't believe our eyes! More food! It was just as delicious as the rest though, but after this we were pretty sure we wouldn't have to eat anything for a long time. 

Ali kindly offered to drive us back, but before leaving we made sure to get a group shot with us and Fatemeh's family. We can't emphasise enough what a great time we had and how impressed we were by their hospitality AND by the amazing food we were served! As if that wasn't enough, we were also given a beautiful book about Iran by Fatemeh - a fantastic souvenir of our visit.

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Helena and Fatemeh

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Group shot!

The next day (and here we skip the sad experience of watching Sweden getting beaten by England) Eric took us for a drive up into the mountains north of Iran. Our destination was the ski resort of Dizin. The scenery was incredible. As you will see from the photos some of the peaks reach over 5,000 metres and still had some snow on them.

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The mountains north of Tehran

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Eric's excellent car

We stopped at a couple of viewpoints along the way. People always seemed happy to see us and started chatting and asking how we liked Iran. We had a great cup of tea and a lovely vegetable soup just south of Dizin, looking out over the mountains.

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View over Dizin from our tea and soup stop

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This guy, who Eric dubbed the Iranian Indiana Jones, makes...

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... a mean vegetable soup...

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...and great tea

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This guy had been a working for the Iranian foreign service and invited us to his place by the Caspian Sea - we sadly had to decline!

The skiing in Iran is apparently very good. The hotel in Dizin was nice and clean but very much a blast from the past. The 1970s was still going strong there, albeit champagne is no longer is served in the Champagne Room.

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Old school deco in the Dizin hotel

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Welcome to Dizin!

The next day, it was time for us to say goodbye to Eric, at least for a few days- it was time to discover the rest of Iran! Our stay in Iran couldn't have started any better and we are already looking forward to coming back for some more chilling out on Eric's roof terrace!

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Our favourite spot in Tehran

Posted by Grantandhelena 05:47 Archived in Iran Comments (3)

Delhi and Thoughts on India

sunny 42 °C
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We left ourselves five nights in Delhi to finish up our time in India. We planned to do some serious souvenir shopping and see the sights of Delhi and Agra. Helena's parents, having taken pity on our tales from Rishikesh, kindly offered to pay for a decent hotel for us in Delhi, and boy did we appreciate a comfortable bed, fully effective (and quiet) aircon, mini bar and satellite TV!!

What to say about Delhi? Well, it has some decent parts and clearly there are Indians here with money as evidenced by the chauffeur-driven cars, the designer shops and the big houses in the nice suburbs. But Delhi is still very much Indian in that it is chaotic, dirty, and crowded. We were staying in Connaught Place, one of the city's nicest areas, and everywhere we looked things were half-finished: huge trenches in the streets for goodness knows what maintenance (we never saw workmen in them), electrical cables and steel wiring poking out of gaps in the pavement and the edges of buildings, dusty mud everywhere. It makes Shanghai look extremely sophisticated!

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Connaught Place - one of Delhi's swishest areas. Indian chaos still reigns!

We managed to cover various state markets, government souvenir shops and the usual selection of backpacker tat shops during our stay. As we had done in Oz and Hong Kong, we sent a package of souvenirs home from Delhi on our last day - however, the ritual of preparing the package for sending was unlike anything we had ever seen before. The Post Office will not sell you a box - they instead point you to a guy who has a small stall just outside the front door of the building. The guy fished out a rather battered box that had been used at least three times before and we filled it with our wares. He then began to weave his magic - literally: He cut the box to a perfect snug size and then wrapped it in white linen fabric, which he proceeded to hand stitch around the box, forming a sealed and very aesthetically-pleasing package. It took fully 20 minutes and he was giving us banter the whole time about his work and the European football championships as he deftly stitched up the mummy-box. The price for all this? Just under EUR 2. We laughed as we remembered that last time we sent a package from Brussels we paid more than that just for the box to send it in, and then were told in the post office we'd have to buy a roll of Sellotape to seal it as well!!  India - the land of customer service!

India is also the land of scams, as we were reminded when we went into the PO with our linen-clad box. The guy behind the counter weighed the package then demanded our passports and 20 rupees for photocopying. Helena handed it over, only to have another PO worker come up a minute later and say that a photocopy of the passport would be required and would cost a rupee. She saw red, and when PO worker number one returned she very publicly explained to him that photocopies do not cost 20 rupees and demanded her money back. The guy actually looked sheepish and handed the money back. He seemed to be getting a hard time about it from his colleagues; he in turn was abusing his fellow worker for letting the cat out of the bag on the real copying charges!

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The classified pages of Delhi newspapers are full of adverts seeking brides and husbands. The details are incredible, with separate sections for every caste, every regional identity, every religion and even professions. Details provided include height, appearance, education/earning potential, and precise date and time of birth to allow a matchmaking assessment to be made

The sights of Delhi were no great shakes. We saw the Red Fort, which was nowhere near as nice as the buildings we had seen in Rajahstan, and the Jama Masjid mosque - also not as good as we had hoped. 

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Scenes from the Red Fort

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Raja Masjid

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A crazy Hindu temple in Delhi

We did enjoy a trip to Gandhi Smriti, the Gandhi museum, which is on the site where the great man lived his final months and was ultimately assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. It is inspiring to learn about a lawyer who made such an incredible contribution and is held in such esteem by his nation and beyond. Much like with Mother Teresa, it is very humbling to see the spartan room in which Gandhi lived with a mattress and a small writing desk, and the meagre display of the worldly possessions he left behind. He was in every respect a true man of the people.

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Gandhi's room at Gandhi Smriti

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The last steps of the great man

As always, in Delhi we enjoyed the food. We found plenty of good Indian food, including delicious sweets and chaat at Haldiram's just round the corner from our hotel, south Indian food at another joint on Connaught Place, and - ok - Domino's Pizza and Costa coffee. One night we saw a huge queue at a hole in the wall on Connaught Place and found out it was the local milkshake joint: we joined the queue and were rewarded with delicious ice cold mango and vanilla shakes served in old school 400ml glass milk bottles. 

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Enjoying south Indian dosa in Delhi

Our thoughts on India

We have spent five weeks in India and there are no doubt many who would say that it is nowhere near enough to know the country. Still, five weeks have given us lots of impressions and an idea of what kind of country India is. 

When telling people we were going to India, those who had been would consistently tell us "it's very, very poor" to such an extent that it almost lost its meaning. Also, having been in China just before, we thought we were used to "poor". But, as it would turn out, nothing could really prepare us for the poverty in India. It is everywhere and it affects everything. We read somewhere that the official definition of poor in India is a daily income of less than 28 rupees, which is the equivalent of 0.4 euros. A bottle of water cost just over half of that. Never have we seen more people with absolutely nothing. The contrast to China is considerable - the material standard there being so much higher. It is surprising that these two countries are even mentioned in the same breath. India has a long way to go before it is where China is today.

Just like in China, we stand out and we are very often a target for hawkers and beggars. This really gets to you, even when you try to keep in mind that there are more things at stake here - there is no system to look after those who are poor and they have learnt that foreigners are likely to pay more. On the other hand, Indians are some of the friendliest people we have met. We have often been met by warmth and a great sense of humour and incredible service. There India beats China every time! Indians are also incredibly zen. They live on top of each other and still they seem so calm. Sadly, the approaches of friendly people often drown in those of insistent hawkers and we have probably pushed away decent people thinking they were just after our money.

The friendliness is one highlight, the food another. All this chat about the best Indian food being served in London, is simply not true. The best Indian food is served in India; we have eaten so well, at such a low cost, during our five weeks here.

A final highlight of India - strangely for a pair of non-religious travellers like us - is the spirituality of India. There is a whole spectrum of religions across India, living side-by-side, and every Indian wears their religious colours with pride. Wherever you go, the rituals of religion give India incredible vibrancy and colour. We loved the Bhuddist monasteries of Darjeeling, the crazy Hindu ceremonies of Varanasi, the Islamic architecture and sounds of Rajahstan, and the music and communal eating of the Sikhs' golden temple in Punjab. The Hindu "holy men" who try to paint travelllers' foreheads and then demand money are no doubt annoying, but Indian Hindus will constantly give rupees to holy men in return for blessings, honk their horns and rub their ears as they drive past holy temples, light incense, ring bells, chant, and generally do whatever they can to improve their karma. And particularly in Hinduism and Sikkhism, music underpins all the rituals: the tone-rich beat of tablas, the tune of the hand-pumped organ or sitar, and the melodic chanting that accompanies it. Indian music is the best we have heard travelling and much of it is linked to religion.

So be prepared to be unprepared for what India will throw at you. But the highlights are truly exceptional.

Posted by Grantandhelena 23:02 Archived in India Comments (1)

At last - Taj Mahal

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If there is one landmark people associate with India, it is the Taj Mahal in Agra.  Going to India without visiting it was simply not an option. We wondered, however, if it really could live up to the incredible hype? Too high expectations can ruin any experience and our expectations for the Taj Mahal were high.

We had decided early on to do Taj Mahal as a day trip from Delhi (more about Delhi in the next blog post) rather than spending a night there, in order to limit our stops. Due to the school holiday season, we couldn't get train tickets and instead opted for a car with a driver (it's a legitimate backpacker option, honest...). There is an abundance of operators selling these packages and after some shopping around and bargaining we managed to get a decent price. Slightly more expensive than going with a train or a bus, but pretty fantastic as we got to decide when and where to go (avoiding stopping at expensive stops, not having to be held back or rushed by other travellers etc.) 

Agra is around 250 kilometres from Delhi so we started at 6 am to get there in good time. Amazingly, the road to Agra was almost entirely without potholes so the ride was pleasant - we could even read our books.

Four hours later we arrived outside Taj Mahal. We were immediately attacked by a thousand hawkers but by now we feel a bit like Morpheus in The Matrix - we just glided through the crowds, (seemingly) unbothered. Motorised vehicles are not allowed to drive up to the site which is great,as it makes it more tranquil (pretty rare in this country!). The walkway up to the gate was also very clean - it's impossible not to notice these things in India.

We got our entry tickets and were next approached by official, or maybe it was "official" guides. They showed us the prices on their laminated badges but of course, as always in India, nothing is ever fixed - after a bit of haggling we had a guide for a third of the price. Our guide turned out be excellent, and really managed to explain and point out interesting details that we wouldn't have appreciated by ourselves.Taj Mahal is all about symmetry. The Taj has exactly identical faces on all four sides. Its not only the Taj itself but also the grounds and the gates around it that are perfectly symmetrical. It's impossible to explain with words, but it's so impressive, and it starts already outside the main gate. 

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A quick stop outside the main gate to the Taj Mahal - our guide making sure we get in the right mindset before entering

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The gate - amazingly impressive in itself and just a means to transport you to the main attraction

Our guide was quite amusing and gave us strict instructions on how to approach the temple "start here, in the middle! Walk in a straight line and watch the Taj, without looking to the sides! Don't be distracted! This is an important experience!". 

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On the way in - not taking our eyes off the Taj

He was right. It was a great experience to walk towards and through the gate, seeing the Taj Mahal grow as we were approaching through the gateway into the light. We were also relieved - it did live up to the hype.

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The Taj Mahal and us

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Four months without going to the gym hasn't affected Helena's strength at all

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Our guide had all sorts of crazy ideas for photos - he set this one up of an awestruck and sweaty Grant before the Taj

It's a funny feeling to be faced with such an iconic tourist site that you feel you have grown up with and seen a thousand times before. But it was as impressive as we had hoped, and full of beautiful details when you get up close. We learnt a few interesting facts and statistics and we won't bore you with them here. Nothing can really transmit the feeling of seeing it anyway. The main thing is that it is a mausoleum commissioned by Shah Jahan, for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child.  The construction started in 1623 and was finalised in 1653. The things men do for love!

We had a look inside (where no photographs are allowed) and it's magnificent as well. We were amazed by the beautiful details of the architecture and the intricate decorations and carving, inside as well as outside the building. Still, the main effect you get from gazing upon the Taj Mahal from a distance. There are also a number of optical illusions which all serve to make the Taj Mahal even more beautiful for example flat pillars that appear jagged from a distance due to the tile details on them. Taj Mahal is an example of Mughal architecture, which is a combination of Persian, Turkish and Indian architecture. 

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Beautiful details

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Beautiful husband

So, final verdict - it IS as good they say!

After the Taj Mahal we went to the other main sight of Agra - the Agra Fort. Shah Jahan was put under house arrest here by his son here shortly after the completion of Taj Mahal. Luckily he had a good view of the Taj Mahal from there and was buried in the mausoleum next to his wife, after his death.

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View of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

The fort is allegedly one of the most impressive Mughal forts in India. But it is very difficult to follow the Taj Mahal and also the amazing forts we saw in Rajasthan.  It was beautiful but we didn't linger for long as the heat was excruciating.

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Inside Agra Fort

We decided to head back after the fort and were back in Delhi in the early evening, around five hours earlier than if we had gone on a bus tour - amazing! Our driver took us, despite our protests, to a shopping centre on the way back, hoping to get some commission. He had already been quite disappointed when he realised that we already had had lunch when we came back from the Taj Mahal and hence wouldn't eat at a place that would reward him for us eating there. It wasn't until we angrily told him to take us back to the hotel that he reluctantly took us back - which obviously affected his tip. Everyone is trying to do this in Delhi but we had expected better when we had paid extra for our own driver.

Regardless of the driver's vain attempts, we were very happy with what would be almost our last bit of sightseeing in India. Taj Mahal is every bit as amazing as people say!

Posted by Grantandhelena 03:03 Archived in India Comments (1)

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