A Travellerspoint blog

June 2012

Persepolis and Shiraz

sunny 34 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Ah, Shiraz; the city of poetry, of gardens and roses, and the city of wine. Well, not so much of the last bit since 1979, but the others are intact. We spent a couple of days in Shiraz to wind up our grand tour of the big name sights of Iran, and found it to be a nice spot even if not up to the high standards of Esfahan and Yazd.

Our trip to Shiraz from Yazd was a bit wearing. We ended up with no option but to take a night bus down there. We got the VIP service, which gave the standard of comfort we have come to expect from Iranian buses, but the driver seemed to be a frustrated rallying fan who threw the bus around the twisting roads for the whole night. At one point we swore the bus went airborne over a particularly steep rise in the road! When we stopped at daybreak for a prayer/pee break, Grant got out to stretch his legs and discovered that two guys were sprawled out sleeping in the baggage compartment under the bus.  One had a plaster on his leg and crutches, so perhaps this is the definition of disabled access?!

Persepolis

On our first day we took a local guide for a look around Persepolis, the ancient ruined city near Shiraz. This is one of THE tourist sights of Iran, showing even in its ruins the magnificence of the Achaemenid Empire. The city was built as a showpiece by the empire around 518 BC, and took almost 200 years to complete. It is thought the city was only used for about one month a year, for new year celebrations. The whole city was burned to the ground (at least the timber parts – the stone survived) by Alexander the Great, when he invaded Persia in 330BC and then was lost for centuries, only being excavated in the 1930s!

Persepolis was to prove the sight of the downfall of another Persian regime much more recently: in 1971, the Shah invited the leading dignitaries of the world to Persepolis for a party that redefined extravagance. The occasion was the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy and no expense was spared in housing visiting monarchs in lavish “tented accommodation” and flying in catering from Paris. It was to be one of the last anniversaries the Shah would celebrate as opponents – disgusted by the wastage - overthrew the monarchy before the decade was over.

Persepolis is a ruined city so a certain amount of imagination is required to picture how grand it was in its day. However, our guide, Sara, knew the place inside out and spared no explanations as we went around the site.  Also, the detail of the carvings that have been preserved is miraculous, although it seems that the best pieces (with original colours intact) have been seized by museums in London, Paris and Chicago.

We started at Necropolis (Naqsh-E Rostam), next to Persepolis, where the remains of four Persian kings are buried in tombs high up on a sheer mountain face. The carvings on the mountain face date from 1000BC and the oldest grave is that of Darius I (died 486BC). The site is overpowering not only for its age, but also for the details that are still clear three millennia later. People carved these tombs and reliefs by hand and the work still makes your jaw drop today.

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Necropolis, where four Persian kings are buried – the scale of the carvings and the age of the site are mind-boggling

From Necropolis it was a short hop to Persepolis where we were greeted by a pair of sphinx-like creatures at the entrance to the ancient city, which sits on a platform of enormous odd-shaped stone blocks, all still perfectly intact.

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The entrance to Persepolis is guarded by these ancient sphinx-like statues

Our guide took us through each section of the site in exhaustive detail, talking through the significance of all the carvings, how the city was built block by block, and how it was run. A few photos below give a flavour of the place.

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Only a few of the original pillars still remain in place – still standing after all these years

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Some of the beautiful carvings remain incredibly well preserved

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“Yes, very interesting…” – Sara’s descriptions were perhaps a bit too detailed for Grant

While at Persepolis we witnessed a funny exchange between a Chinese tourist and an Iranian guy. We saw them from a distance sharing a laugh and swapping contact details, then as we approached we overheard the Chinese bloke tell his guide in English: "he wants to be Facebook friends with me". We thought it was hilarious that two guys from countries whose regimes ban Facebook should be adding each other to their friends lists! Of course, we have discovered through travelling in these places that everyone can access banned sites through VPNs - but then why do these regimes spend so much money and effort swimming against the tide? 

Shiraz city

We enjoyed a couple of days wandering Shiraz in pretty hot conditions. It is known as the city of poets, as two of Iran’s national poets – Hafez and Sa’di – are buried here, and generally has a reputation for sophistication.

Initially, we didn’t find the Shirazis to be as friendly as people in other parts of Iran but that perhaps had more to do with us having just stepped off a night bus than with the residents themselves! Unsurprisingly, we ended up meeting lots of friendly people when we spent more time in the city. One young guy with better English than most started chatting to Grant on a square on the last day. He asked, as always, what we thought of Iran and was clearly happy to hear how much we like the country. He became serious as he lamented the government and the bad image they create of the country overseas (a common theme in conversation with people here – even people with the most limited English can still exclaim to us: “Iran good, Islamic Republic bad!”). He asked us earnestly to tell everyone in Europe how much we like Iran and that it is not like the media portrays it; we said we would, and he left us with a smile and a wave. Imagine our surprise when our new friend returned two minutes later from a shop across the square brandishing two bottles of cold mango juice. “It is so hot, I thought you would like these”, he told us as he insisted we take the bottles he had just bought. We gratefully accepted and he left us with a smile: no strings attached, just another random act of kindness by a friendly citizen.

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When we saw this comedy sign, we just had to sample the ice cream – Helena was happy to join in “the experiment”!

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Typical friendly Iranian greetings at the ice cream parlour

On the first night, we hit a traditional restaurant where we were serenaded by a resident club singer and his backing band, playing Persian classics.  The guy at the table next to us started translating the lyrics of the love song for us, and explained that the lyrics were about as explicit as the regime would allow to be played in public. He also clarified that, of course, only men may sing in public. We listened and only after a while the words started to sink in and we got increasingly agitated. It may seem like a trivial example to be upset about when there are so many to choose from in I.R. Iran. But singing is part of what makes us human, and by banning women from doing this, the regime effectively dehumanises women. Some people with power consider women to be second rate citizens and will therefore deny them the right to sing in public. Moments like these remind you of the incredibly repressive and evil regime of the country you are visiting. 

We took in a lot of sights in Shiraz, but a few are worth particular mention. 

Hafez, a national poet of Iran, is buried in a private cemetery/park on the north side of the city. It is said that the works of Hafez often sit alongside the Koran in Iranian homes and are referred to for spiritual guidance by the people of this country (notwithstanding that most of his poems deal with lusty romance themes and contain copious references to wine – not exactly “on message” with today’s regime!). We wandered up there one evening to watch streams of pilgrims visit his mausoleum and the surrounding gardens. We did not see any people moved to tears by the combination of poetry and ambiance, as reported by the guidebook, but perhaps we didn’t stay long enough.

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Hafez’s mausoleum and surrounding gardens

You might have thought we would be through with mosques after the mosque-fest of Esfahan, but we were very glad to see the Nasir-al-Molk mosque in Shiraz, which has an incredible Winter Prayer Hall. In this room, light passing through the ornate stained glass windows falls on beautiful carved pillars and ornate ceiling tiling to give an amazing effect.

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Winter Prayer Hall in Nasir-al-Molk mosque

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The outside is pretty nice as well, especially the pink colours of the tiling

We also hit the Aramgah-E Shah-E Cheragh, one of Shi’ism’s holiest sites. It is a huge mosque complex with an interior covered in various shades of reflective mirrors and glass - deco that looks more like a 70s night club than the usual Iranian mosaics we have become used to. Men and women are strictly segregated but we both made it inside to see pilgrims flocking around the tomb of Sayyed Mir Ahmad, martyred on this site in AD 835.  At the front of the mosque, an Imam sat behind a desk with a microphone spoke a sermon that reverberated around the whole complex over loudspeakers. We obviously had no clue what he was saying, but in any case many of the worshippers seemed more keen to snooze in corners of the mosque than to listen.

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Aramgah-E Shah-E Cheragh

We also saw the fort that sits in the middle of Shiraz, the Arg-E Karim Khan. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but inside it has some tranquil gardens and really beautiful old hamam area in the basement. We also stood and watched a craftsmen demonstrating how to make intricate Iranian wooden accessories. It was funny that the technique and result seemed to be almost identical to what we had admired in Hakone in Japan – two ancient civilizations independently producing the same craftwork.

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Inside Arg-E Karim Khan’s gardens

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The Iranian handicraft and the craftsman – strikingly similar to what we saw in Japan

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The beautiful hamam area underneath the building

After a couple of days in the heat of Shiraz we felt we had done the sights and were happy to board a plane back to Tehran and the comfort of Eric’s home. We were booked on Air Mahan and were pleased to see that our plane was an old Airbus and not one of the ubiquitous Russian planes used in Iran. “In the name of God, welcome to Air Mahan”, the captain bellowed over the PA at 35,000 feet: a strange greeting to European ears, but it felt good to have God onside under the circumstances. The inflight entertainment on the big screen was a bizarre mixture of live shots from the Air Mahan cockpit showing our flight in progress, spliced together with archive footage of fighter jets pulling hair-raising loop-the-loops. It was hard to keep track of which clips were the live ones from our flight and which were part of the featured kamakazi entertainment: needless to say, quite disconcerting! We were relieved to land in Tehran without having pulled any actual 360 degree loops, as far as we were aware…

Posted by Grantandhelena 10:30 Archived in Iran Comments (2)

A stop on the Silk Road

Yazd

sunny 32 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

There are some places that ooze history and few more so than the town of Yazd in central Iran. Some claim that Yazd is the oldest inhabited city on Earth and it is widely believed that Yazd has been continually  inhabited for an astonishing 7000 years. Alexander the Great is said to have been here, Marco Polo passed through, saying of Yazd that it "it is a good and noble city, and has a great amount of trade". We couldn't have put it better ourselves. Yazd has always been a stop on important trading routes, including the Silk Road, and unlike many other old cities in the region, it has been spared destruction by the Mongols (largely because of its remote, desert location). Throughout the centuries and millennia, it has been fighting the unforgiving desert, using every trick at hand. As a result, the city has unique architectural features. The setting is absolutely stunning, with the open desert and 4000 metre mountains that appear as if from nowhere as a backdrop. It is known fondly by many other names such as "Bride of the Desert", "Pearl of the Desert" and "Crossroads of Iran".

As if that wasn't enough, the desert city is also the centre of Zoroastrianism in Iran, the ancient religion whose followers used to give their dead to the animals and the main religion in Iran before the Arabian conquest in the 7th century brought in Islam. In short, there is plenty to explore in Yazd and it was hence a given stop on our tour of Iran.

Our Yazd adventure started already in Esfahan. When Fatemeh and Ali heard we were heading to Yazd, they offered to show us around the city where they had grown up. As if that wasn't enough, they insisted on picking us up in Esfahan and giving us a lift to Yazd - a six hour drive. During our two days in Yazd, Fatemeh and Ali showed us around, took us for meals, and invited us to their parents house for lunch.  We can not stress it enough - if there was a world championship in hospitality, the Iranians would win, thanks to people like Fatemeh and Ali.

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On the long, flat road to Yazd

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Ali showing us the old Narein Castle in Meybod, outside Yazd - like most other old structures around here, built of mud

Yazd is full of fantastic historic accommodation. The "khan-e sonnati" are traditional houses that have been turned into hotels. We had booked ourselves into the Silk Road Hotel and were not disappointed when we arrived. A beautiful courtyard surrounded by the different rooms - just what you want when you are stopping on the Silk Road!

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Silk Road Hotel - an atmospheric stay along the road it has taken its name from

The hotel was full of travellers and even a few Westerners. There were even two Swedes there, a father and his daughter. The father's accent gave him away -  it transpired that he originally was from Sollefteå, hence practically a neighbour! 

As mentioned, Yazd is full of historical hotels and while ours was more of a budget option, there are plenty of options for those who want to spend a bit more (still being very reasonably priced) and stay in more luxurious khan-e sonnati. A VIP suite in one of the top hotels will cost you USD 150 per night. This place should be packed with tourists!!

A recurring experience during our tour was that Ali and Fatemeh would stop in front of a simple, modest door of what looked like a simple, modest building and say "let's go in and have a look here!". We would follow, not really knowing what to expect and then suddenly we would find ourselves in the most beautiful courtyards, surrounded by lovely hotel rooms. Yazd really is full of surprises and thanks to our guides, we got to see a lot of these hidden treasures.

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Now this might not look massively impressive from the outside...

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...but inside it is a completely different story

Touring the hotels was also a good opportunity to look at one of the famous features of Yazd - the ancient and ingenious air conditioning systems. Being in the desert, there was always a need for a cooling system. In Yazd, they constructed wind catchers ("badgirs") that would collect the desert breeze and channel it down to cool water basins, then circulate around the building. It still functions and it's completely environmentally friendly - how cool is that! The towering wind catchers are part of what gives Yazd its distinct look and yet another nickname: "The City of Badgirs".

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The Yazd ancient air conditioning system

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A wind catcher/tower

Yazd is a city full of atmosphere, and we really enjoyed wandering the narrow streets of mud architecture, feeling like nothing there had changed for thousands of years. We also walked through the old bazaar and saw the squares where the caravans used to arrive with their camels and goods. We also noticed that Yazd felt much more traditional than Tehran. Most women were dressed in long black veils and many also covered their faces when walking the streets. We probably shouldn't be surprised that the capital feels much more modern than the rest of the country.

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The streets of Yazd

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Sadly some of the shops are not in use anymore, it's been a while since any bike was repaired in this shop

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Iranians love their nan (yes, same word as in India) 

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And these are the pans on which you make one kind of nan

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We stopped into a Hamam (bath) that has been converted into a restaurant - again, didn't look much from the outside but inside, massively impressive - the light passing through the coloured glass in the cupula is reflected back off the water and onto the ceiling

It wouldn't be sightseeing in Iran without visiting a mosque. We went to the beautiful Jameh mosque where we got into conversation with  an Iranian documentary film team, who were filming a "drama documentary" about a holy man. They were extremely friendly and very happy to see foreign tourists in Iran.

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In Jameh mosque with the Iranian TV team

The Zoroastrians

While feeling more conservative than Tehran, it is also said about Yazd that it is more tolerant thanks to being the centre of Zoroastrianism. We admit that we didn't know much more about Zoroastrianism before than that it existed. Now we know a bit more. It is believed to be the first monotheistic religion, founded in Iran around 3500 years ago. It has influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam (and the three wise men are believed to have been zoroastrians). As mentioned, it was the dominating religion in Iran until the 7th century. One remnant of Zoroastrianism in the Iranian society today is the Iranian new year, when Iranians jump over fire. 

Today, there are estimates that there are around 200 000 Zoroastrians in the world, of them around 5000 in Yazd.  However, the real number both globally and Iran could be higher as many keep their faith a secret.

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The woman on the left is Zoroastrian, which you can tell from her type of clothing

Zoroastrian morality is summarised in: "good thoughts, good words, good deeds", good transpiring for those who do righteous deeds. Those who do evil have themselves to blame for their ruin. Their god is Ahura Mazda. 

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The Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda

Of the four elements, fire is the most important to Zoroastrians and they usually pray in the presence of fire. In Yazd we visited one of the Zoroastrians most holy sites, the Fire Temple. The fire is believed to have burnt for more than 1,500 years.

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The Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd

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The very old fire

The purity of the elements is very important for the Zoroastrians and therefore they would not bury nor burn their dead, as it would contaminate the soil and the air respectively and "spoil the good creation". Instead they would put the dead bodies on high towers called "The Towers of Silence" and feed them to the birds. This tradition ended in the 1960s (yes, health and safety legislation seems to extend even to Iran!). Now their dead are instead buried in special, lime mortar-sealed cemeteries.  

The view from the Yazd Towers of Silence is impressive, which admittedly would have been wasted on those who occupied the towers. Today it is totally deserted. There is no museum, no entrance fee, and anybody can visit but still we were the only tourists there. A recurring feature in Iran but nonetheless  sad for such an extraordinary sight.

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On the way up to one of the Towers of Silence

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Ali and Helena

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Ali and Grant

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Impressive views!

Our last day in Yazd had quite a busy schedule. In addition to our Zoroastrain sightseeing, we were also invited for lunch at Fatemeh and Ali's parents' house, with some of their friends. Just like the previous week in Tehran, Fatemeh cooked for us. The food was delicious and plentiful, and we had lots of laughs.

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Lunch in Yazd

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Ali showing the impressive watering system in his father's garden - this is the first garden in the neighbourhood to receive ice cold water from an underground well before it flows on to neighbouring properties

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Fatemeh and her father

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Tea in the garden

A trip to the desert

We couldn't come so close without properly going to the desert. Together with a Swiss couple staying at the same hotel, we booked ourselves in on a desert tour which would include camel riding and sunset over the sand dunes. Fabienne and Ruedi were three months into their cycling tour - going from Switzerland to Mongolia along the Silk Road! We were obviously massively impressed while perhaps not so jealous. They are far from the only travellers doing this and mentioned many cyclists they kept bumping into along the way. In addition to exchanging travelling stories, we talked about stupid people mixing up Switzerland and Sweden.

The excursion, however, could have ended before it had even started when our car suddenly got a puncture. A quick check confirmed what we suspected - no spare tyre. Our driver insisted on driving on until what was left of the tyre suddenly rolled out in front of the car. It was definitely time to stop.

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Puncture along the highway in the desert

Our guide/driver couldn't have handled it any better. Within 20 minutes we were in a taxi with a driver who knew where to drop us and our guide would join us later with the car.

We arrived at a tiny village in the middle of the sand dunes and without our guide we had no means of communicating with the villagers. He had obviously phoned them up as they quickly found a few camels for us and off we were!

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Camel ride in the desert

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Our fellow tourists for once in a camel saddle rather than a bike saddle

Next up was the sunset. We had been warned that the sky might not be clear due to "sand from Iraq" but it was clear enough. We trekked up the highest dune and sat and enjoyed a  beautiful sunset before drinking a cup of tea and heading back to Yazd, where the night bus waited to take us to our next destination.

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Scenes from the sand dunes from where we watched sunset

Posted by Grantandhelena 05:27 Archived in Iran Comments (3)

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

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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

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)

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