Realised that the blog titles have been dull. Apologies.
I hope that you’re sitting comfortably; this is a big ‘un… Suggest you make a pre-emptive cuppa.
Iran: An overwhelming experience in many ways. In terms of beauty, sights, people, hospitality, generosity, and, to a degree, attention. So much so that it’s difficult to know where to begin in describing it so I’ll run with the old favourite of chronology allowing haphazard tangents.
Act One: Tabriz
As every border so far, the frontier journey between Armenia and Iran takes you through some spectacular mountain passes. Took a little while to cross as, despite all the Ts being crossed and Is dotted on my paperwork, the jobsworth at the immigration desk decided that a staple notch on one of the pages was cause for concern. But cross I did. Unlucky punks; I’m in.
There are no buses or onward forms of transport from the border post other than taxi or hitching a lift with a truck – much freight traffic still passes through Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Turkey on its way to Europe from India and China. The Silk Road is far from dead. Of course, goods in transit also include contraband such as drugs and people. I was told by the manager of one cheap hotel that I stayed in that their place is frequently used by human traffickers who smuggle people from Africa and Asia into Europe, getting them over the Turkish border and then on to Greece and the EU. A Nigerian lady and three Chinese dudes were in residence at the time, proving his point. That everyone seems to know so openly about it and that the Iranian government grant visas with ease to people from smugglee countries strikes me as an amusing two-fingered salute from Ol’ Dinner Jacket to the West.
Hopped a shared taxi to Tabriz, skirting past the border with Azerbaijan and the River Aras on the way. The North West of the country is the Azeri heartland where a mangled version of the little Turkish that I know is spoken and the locals consider themselves distinct from the Persians to the South, who they strongly pooh-pooh. One told me that it was the Azeris who masterminded the Iranian Revolution but that the Persians hijacked what was originally a good idea and mutated it into its current form. But being an Azeri, he would say that.
Not for the first or last time this trip, I was dumped at the side of a highway, on a roundabout, at night, nowhere near any visible signs of life. Put on the ‘utterly lost’ face amid a crowd of kindly but incomprehensible people trying to work out in the local lingo where I wanted to go. Before long I was plucked from the mellee by a kindly man with his English-speaking (sort of) wife on speed dial. This is a common occurrence in Iran; I’ve lost count of the number of phones I’ve been handed with a stranger at the other end asking me in broken English how they can help – that’s how nice they are. I’m putting the Iranians up there with the Nepalese as the nicest people in the world.
My obliging friend drove me into town and found me some cheap digs. Suffice to say that accommodation standards (within the budget bracket) are not nearly as high in Iran as in all other cities to date. I’m going to be generous and say that this is from the country’s trying economic state and a lack of competition. It’s not that the Iranians don’t know know good taste; I’ve been in plenty of lovely homes. They just choose not to apply this to most of their fleapits. I for one consider access to a shower to be part and parcel of the accommodation experience – this is not universally held.
Anyway, settled in, I set about exploring the city. Headed primarily for the tourist office and bazaar and was promptly adopted for a complimentary tour of the bazaar (being investigated by UNESCO for World Heritage status and one of the biggest in the world), caravanserai (this is the old silk road; I love the silk road) and carpet shops. Merchants buy unfinished rugs from the ladies in the provinces, stretch them out on frames to hammer the stitches into square lines, shave the excess threads down and then wash and prepare them for sale. Laborious work but some of the bigger rugs are going for $85,000 so I suppose worth it.
The Blue Mosque is a repieced version of an impressively tiled one that one stood in the same place but an amount of artistic licence has been used in the reconstruction. I sat in the beautifully shaded colonnade that had been built around it to take a break from the scorching heat and was approached by an old dude with a smattering of English (as well as circled by curious students from respectful distances) to ask who I was and where I come from.
“Are you hungry”, he asked. “No thanks, I’ve just eaten” (carbiest street food in the world – boiled potatoes and egg double-wrapped in bread). “I know; I watched you”. That’s a bit creepy, mate. Nevertheless, tea was shared and broken conversation was had.
But here I also met the lovely Mohammed who invited me to his graphic design office to teach me a little about local history and poetry and nibble on ghorabieh – delicious biscuits that are like an upsized macaroon. Despite my lack of culinary prowess, I might give them a bash when I get back home.
The nearby Azeri museum houses an interesting collection of artefacts.
Guys, if you want to leave a legacy, make pots. Lots of them. Curators fecking love them (and coins). For me, the most interesting was the sack of animal fat wrapped in cloth found in the skull of a skeleton and presumed to be one of the world’s first false eyes. Downstairs is an exhibition of the least subtle sculpture I have ever seen. Just look at it. It’s like a Hollywood movie cast in bronze. How the artist got a gig in one of the city’s museums I know not.
Here too one plucky student asked if they could have a picture with the strange white gringo. Of course. This opened the floodgates and I was surrounded by about 30 of them immediately, asking questions in farsi and wanting pics. Lovely and friendly, but induced light perspiration. I never was one for the stage, annual family nativity excepted. Later as I tried to take some time out in Goli Park another 30 or so smiling faces surrounded me asking where I was from and my idea about Iran – park police had to move them on.
Question – why is ‘I love you’ the third expression that English students internationally are taught? It’s lovely that they all want to chat though, and those that do speak a bit more of my lingo are marvellous for deep chats. One asked me about what I want to do next and I casually mentioned Argentina/Uruguay. “But Laura, these are third world countries?!”
Two words, Iran – toilet and paper. Give me a shout when you’ve sorted that out and ousted the weirdest of beardies and I’ll think about an upgrade. Until then, you’re staying 2nd world in my rating system.
In the search for a sim card (number 4 of what will doubtless be many), I enlisted the help of Hamid, the owner of a local electronics shop and was prompted invited to a small gathering with his family and pals at his place that night. Why the devil not. Rocked up at about 8pm and enjoyed an evening of local delicacies, pizza and… bootleg brandy. :) Just the ticket after an introduction to Iranian driving, which I can comfortably say is the worst I’ve experienced in the world. And I’ve lived in Arabia and been in a car with Mum.
Enjoyed myself so much that I accepted another invitation for a BBQ at their mates’ house the following night – the perfect introduction to Iran and Iranian hospitality.
Act Two: Qazvin and Alamut
After a few days and sufficient exploration, it was on to the fabled castle of Alamut, where the Assassins used to hang out, back in the day. We English-speakers derive the word assassin from this group of terrorists – the Hashishiyun – who I suppose were among the first known terrorists, brain-washed and doped into believing that their leader would be able to fast-track them into paradise. I can’t believe that people keep falling for that.
Getting to Alamut necessitates going through the nearby town of Qazvin, aka Weirdsville. Just as well that the drive through the valley and castle are as beautiful as reported cos it needed to seriously outweigh the hassle of getting there, in what shall be known as the Day of Freaks.
First, the night bus from Tabriz. Got on, got settled in my seat. A wide-eyed member of the bus station staff warned me to not speak to anyone but the driver, even if I wanted a wee or cup of tea (as is customary to serve on the buses). Some dude came up and motioned to sit next to me. Seemed weird as unrelated ladies and gents aren’t supposed to have to sit next to one another, but we were both farangis so figured it was the done thing. He turned out to be Bulgarian and pretty drunk, as he loudly announced to the bus in Turkish, a language that everyone else speak. Drunk is punishable by the religious police. Asked me where I was going and, upon learning that it wasn’t Tehran like him, encouraged me to join him and ‘get a room’. Thanks but no thanks. Ipod in, hood up, loud huffs, craning looks around appealing to fellow passengers, fail, face averted in pretend sleep.
Two hours later and the bus conductor comes back, gives him an almighty bollocking and send him back to his rightful seat. Cheers. It’s 3am so I decide to get a little shut-eye. Arrive at my stop at 5am – I say stop, obviously it’s just the side of a highway with taxis as the only visible signs of life – to be awoken by the driver. How? With a pat on the boob. Dear Drive, even us Western slags deem that a little inappropriate. Ho hum. Got trailed around the site itself by a young engineering student with a lively interest in Western dating habits. ‘Laura, I didn’t know that British people were so serious!’ he laughed.
No no. That is my ‘you’re doing my tits in’ face.
But Alamut was emphatically worth it. Just have a gander. Spectacular.
Well, men worldwide are cut from the same cloth. Sometimes it’s deeply annoying; most of the time it’s just youthful banter. They’re only human. My personal favourite was a Wayne’s World-esque schwing and crotch grab in the streets of Tabriz. I feigned disgust but actually, that’s hilarious. However, the majority can safely assume that I don’t want a kiss or a massage. Thank-you please.
But by the same stroke, the attention means that you can experience true hospitality. It’s difficult to draw the line between being open to hospitality and experiences and laying yourself open to silly situations, but now wilier in my character judgement skills, it is easy to tell whose intentions are good and whose aren’t. Though Eddie P would still be aghast at the number of strange cars I’ve hopped in, I have been adopted by numerous families and taken home for tea, cake, dinner and parties.
The trick lies in bolting for regular breaks at the hotel or some other sanctuary so that you can keep up a smiling front in the face of relentless curiosity and retain good humour. This is how poor old Sienna must feel…
Kipped a night in Qazvin and bid the city a not-so-fond farewell as I was trailed to the bus station in the morning by a string of freaks and weirdos. Thankfully, no sooner as I settled into my seat, I met the lovely Arpani, a lady from Tehran. Spoke to most of her family on the phone and was invited back for a spot of lunch. Stayed overnight.
Took me a while to get used to the scarf. For one thing, it’s effing hot. If the ladies have to wear head to toe black, the gents should have to wear winter woollens. What’s more, all the glamorous girls wander around with the scarf draped lightly and effortlessly over the top of perilously high hair-dos. At first I was convinced that the dark arts, or at least velcro, were involved as I seemed to be the only one constantly fussing as my veiled fluttered backwards down my head. Voicing my complaints to the locals, I was told to ‘fuck them; they know you’re a tourist; they won’t mind’. Well that’s not really the point is it. And anyway, they do mind cos I got bollocked by a couple of locals a) for having a chink of flesh showing twixt trouser and hoodie and b) for showing waistband. Waistband. Jeez.
I discovered the answer: Static. Ladies, if you need to work the scarf, wear your hair high and get a polyester scarf on the go. No clutching it around your chin or – gasp! – tying it like Granny Goggins.
Right, that’s your lot for now. Parts 2 and probably 3 are incoming.