Iran, part 5 – Shiraz

There is something really romantic about the streets of Shiraz at night. It is full of little alleyways that weave between a web of backstreets, all dimly lit under fluorescent street lamps, highlighting the outline of arched windows and doorways. It is especially romantic when you’re standing there spellbound, snapping photos, and the silence is broken by the haunting, gut wrenching squall of a cat being quietly raped by another one in an adjacent alley. I’d always imagined that as the sound banshees would make, if they existed.

The morning we arrived, I began to shiver as soon as we stepped off the bus. The air here was, if anything, even drier than Isfahan, much to the dismay of my stubbornly chapped and bloody lips. We’d traveled another 600 kilometres further south. It’s hard to imagine how big Iran actually is until you paste a map of it over Europe (thetruesize.com):

Iran - Europe

In short, it’s massive.

We walked to the city centre in search of a hostel. It was around 6 am, so once again the streets were deserted, except for an old man stirring a gigantic pot of soup in preparation for hungry customers on their way to work. I could have eaten then and there, but as we were searching for a hostel, we kept going.

We found a place in a side street which was, to put it politely, like a rabbit warren. The young man showing us the room nodded and grinned, gesturing at the beds and bathroom. Denis took one look and uttered the following two words:”Fire hazard.”

He was right. There were no windows and you had to go down a stairway from the ground floor, then down a passage to reach it. We politely declined and went back out into the morning sunshine. Another hostel showed up on MapMe and we decided to go and have a look. It was in another one of those small alleyways that are littered all over Shiraz.

While we were looking at the map, a man in his sixties stopped and asked us where we were from and if we needed help.

‘We’re from Russia,’ said Denis.

We’re?’ I said, turning.

‘He’s not going to know where Ireland is,’ said Denis in Russian.

‘Russia? I was in Moscow during my youth. I went for flight training. I’m in the air force,’ said the man.

‘Really?’ said Denis. ‘What do you fly?’

I don’t remember what the name of the plane he flew in Russia, but he said that in the Iranian air force he used to fly a Hercules C-130 transport aircraft.

‘I’m going for another six months. I train new recruits now,’ he said.

We found the alleyway and said goodbye to the airforce pilot.

The hostel was run by a friendly, moustached man with greying hair and very little English. The inner courtyard was protected by a tarpaulin going across from roof to roof, while Persian style sofas, which were more like double beds with rugs on them, lined the walls; two long wooden tables stood in the middle, each laid out with a breakfast buffet.

(Above: Golshan Traditional Hotel)

We met an Argentinian couple who were travelling around Iran for three weeks.

‘How long does it take to fly from Moscow?’ Marco asked.

‘4 to 5 hours including a stopover,’ I said, taking a casual sip of sugary black tea. ‘Why, how long did it take you to get here from Buenos Aires? I bet it took ages.’

‘…. 27 hours…,’ said Marco, rather bitterly.

‘Wow, that’s a long journey! How come it took so long? You must have been exhausted,’ I said.

‘Well, we flew from Buenos Aires to Rome and then we had a twelve hour layover there before catching a connecting flight.’

‘What made you decide to come to Iran?’ I asked. This was a common question directed at tourists or which tourists directed at one another.

‘We decided we wanted to go somewhere different,’ said Marco.

‘My mother thought we were out of our minds,’ Valeria, his girlfriend, said. ‘”But why would you want to go to a war zone? What if Isis enslave you? I’ve read about what they do to women.” That kind of thing, you know? I told her that all that is happening next door. She didn’t believe me until I showed her a map.’

*

Shiraz is a large town. We visited the tomb of Hafez, the famous poet, as well as the beautiful Jahan Nama Garden nearby, where we were approached by a very friendly and rather inbred looking tomcat:

(Above left to right: Inbred Tom with undershot jaw; Jahan Nama Garden)

We also visited the famous Nasir ol Molk Mosque, also known as the “Pink Mosque”. It was constructed in the 19th century and took twelve years to complete.

Despite the hype over the Pink Mosque, I personally thought it was less impressive than it looked in the pictures online. Nonetheless, it is still very beautiful. Every morning from between 7:30 and 8:30, the sun shines through the stained glass windows, illuminating the columns within.

This sight grabs most tourists’ attention first and foremost, but there is another, far grander architectural sight called the Shah Cheragh mosque.

(Top left: Hafez’s Tomb. Middle and far right: Pink Mosque. Bottom left: Shah Cheragh Mosque)

At the Shah Cheragh Mosque, we asked the security guards at the entrance to the grounds if we were allowed in. They didn’t understand us, but gave up their chairs and offered us tea while they, as we were to find out, called a guide. We didn’t actually want a guide, but a young, bearded gentleman approached and led us in across the main square to a small office, where there was another pair of tourists speaking with an older bearded man.

‘That’s my father,’ said our guide (I don’t remember his name), indicating the older man. ‘He’ll speak with you and then I can show you around. Would you like something to drink?’

‘Yes, please/no, thanks,’ we said in unison. A tray of rosewater was brought anyway and set in front of us.

I sipped mine and felt my taste buds, which still hadn’t become accustomed to the exotic, if overwhelming flavours, explode and recoil under the earthshaking impact of sugary sweetness.

‘I don’t know how you drink that stuff,’ said Denis, observantly. ‘The smell reminds me of the perfume the alcoholics would drink in my hometown.’

‘I’m thirsty.’

By the time I’d drunk mine and then Denis’s (he’d stubbornly declined when I asked if he was sure he didn’t want his), I was starting to get a headache from the sugar rush.

The older man, now finished with the other pair of tourists, approached us and sat down opposite. He asked us the usual questions: “Where are you from?” “What brings you to Iran?”

‘Ireland,’ I said, somewhat resignedly.

He looked at me with polite interest.

‘Russia,’ said Denis.

‘Oh, my son has been to St Petersburg. He liked it very much. They’re good partners for us at the moment,’ he said.

He offered us advice on places to visit. It turned out that he worked in aviation, like Denis, and the tourism thing he did on the side, officially representing the state. That was self-evident by the way he and his son dressed and spoke. There was something distinctly less down to earth about them; there was no inclination towards humour or warmth, which we’d seen in the people we’d met so far. It was all quite formal. It’s interesting that representatives of the government, who were there to make a good impression on tourists and offer free tours, made less of a good impression than the warm, smiling people who’d say “hello” to you randomly in the street.

Our guide walked us through the mosque, which was a truly spectacular sight. A common feature of some of the more lavish mosques in Iran is that the walls and ceilings are covered in shards of mirror. Nowadays, this would appear to be cheap and tasteless, but back in the day, when mirrors were prohibitively expensive for us plebeians, owning one was a sign of higher social status; covering the interior of an entire building was a sign of colossal wealth!

I don’t recall a lot of what the guide told us, as I was too busy taking in the surroundings. However, I do remember that there was a tense moment when I asked him a question about religion. It wasn’t a particularly odd question, nor was it out of context, given that we were in a religious building; it definitely wasn’t offensive, but maybe he just didn’t quite understand.

‘The religion I was brought up on, Christianity, depicts the son of God on the cross. Is that odd to you as a Muslim, to see an image of the son of God nailed to a cross?’

The moment was tense and he stared at me. His English was definitely good enough to understand the question, as he was pretty fluent.

‘In Islam, we do not use images of God. Christianity is different.’

It was a pretty diplomatic response and in that typical fashion he avoided answering the question. As an atheist, I wouldn’t have found it offensive if he’d said he found it weird. I was just curious. I recall a Bangladeshi guy, Sujan, with whom I worked in Dublin, once asking me about Catholicism. When I told him that I didn’t believe in God his response was:

‘You don’t believe in God???’ he asked, in a thick Bangladeshi/Dublin accent.

‘Nope,’ I said.

‘Fair enough. I don’t get that, though,’ he said, lighting a cigarette.

We sat in silence for a few minutes, sipping tea, and then he said:

‘By the way, can I ask what d’fock is with tha’ guy wit nails in his hands?’

‘Sujan, you’re opening a can of worms, but he’s the “Son of God”.’

‘Jeeesus focking Christ… So if he was the son of God, why the fock did they do that to him?’

‘Good question. I think they thought he was lying,’ I said.

‘And for that they nailed him up???!’

‘Yup.’

‘Crazy people. Craaaazy people…’

‘Yup.’

He sighed. ‘You know, the first time I come to Doblin, and I saw old woman with this guy around her neck with the nails in his hands. I tell you it focking freaked me out, it did. Like she was part of cult. It’s so weird.’

*

Outside the Karim Kahn Citadel (see below) we were taking photographs, when an old man approached us.

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‘Where you from?’ he asked.

‘Russia.’

‘Ireland.’

‘Ooooh, Russia! Putin is good president!’ said the man. He turned to me and said ‘And Ireland! In Tehran Bobby Sands Street! Very good, very good!’

He chatted to us some more, shook our hands and walked on.

*

 

Shiraz was the most conservative city we’d come across thus far. This, once again, was displayed by the way people dressed, particularly the women. The chador was much more common there than it was in Isfahan.

Aside from that, the people were as friendly as Isfahan and Tehran. It was particularly pretty with its labyrinthine alleyways behind the main streets, which we both explored at night, taking in the aesthetically pleasing arched windows and doorways, the peacefulness punctured by the occasional passing moped and the hackle raising sounds of a feline orgy nearby.

On our last evening, we met the Argentinian couple, Marco and Valeria, in the courtyard of the hostel. Like us, they planned on travelling to Yazd the following day, via Persepolis. As the cost of renting a car and driver was a flat rate, with a maximum of four people, we decided to all go together and split the cost, which worked out at $35 each. The trip would take about 9 hours, so we were to leave at 8 am.

We were sitting at one of the long tables having dinner. I’d bought a bowl of the thick, spiced bean soup that was for sale on the side of the street, along with some flatbread. There was another guest sitting at the head of the table who, as he quickly told us, was from Turkey. He didn’t hesitate to explain how much he knew about, well, everything, including cooking, and would talk over any contribution Marco tried to add to the one-sided conversation.

‘In Argentina, we have a special method of making a steak, it’s..’ Marco would say, rather valiantly.

‘Yes, I know that technique,’ said the Turkish guy, interrupting, ‘but there is another system that I use in the kitchen which involves… it’s much better. In Okinawa I…’ And so it continued like this on almost every topic until I’d reached the bottom of my soup bowl. I was chuckling internally, as I could observe Marco growing ever more frustrated the more the Turkish guy talked. Every time he tried to put in a comment or a point of view, his sentence would trail away into nothingness as the passionate storyteller continued on.

Nonetheless, he did show us an excellent way to properly deseed a pomegranate. It should be cut into quarters, then each piece should in turn be placed in your palm with the skin facing up and struck repeatedly with the back of a spoon. It is the most effective method I’ve ever come across.

With that, we said goodnight and left Valerie and Marco with their companion. We’d probably walked about fifteen kilometres or so that day.

‘I wonder if they’ll get to bed?’ I asked Denis.

‘I don’t know. He did seem to know an awful lot,’ he replied, with a wry grin.

‘That was a very useful method of opening a pomegranate, in fairness,’ I said, recalling the frustrating memories of attempting to pick the seeds out individually.

‘That’s true,’ said Denis. ‘Well, goodnight.’

‘Goodnight,’ I said, and crawled wearily into my own bed.

Iran, part 3 – A Day in Tehran

There are a few ways to survive crossing the road in Tehran; one is praying, an act which even the staunchest of atheists would succumb to when taking that fateful step. The second is that you could wait for the endless stream of cars, trucks and motorbikes, some weaving dangerously from side to side under a heavy, creaking load, to peter out.

These are both options, but the more practical one for us was to wait for a woman and her kids to cross the road and use them as a kind of human shield by walking alongside them. We quickly came to the conclusion that women and children, grandmothers included, are far less likely to be run over; it proved to be the most effective means of crossing busy roads.

The traffic wasn’t just crazy in Tehran, it was the same all over. During the trip, it became a habit that when we wanted to cross a street, our heads would swivel automatically in search of women and children. I recall us trying to cross a large, busy road with trucks, buses and cars whizzing past and Denis saying:

‘Shit, we’d better wait for a family to cross.’

‘Yeah, good idea,’ I would say, nodding in full agreement.

Moscow is a vast city, but somehow Tehran seems bigger. Estimates put the population at around 18 million people, taking into account unregistered inhabitants. Denis had already been there a day when I arrived and we decided to see some of the sights before catching the night bus to Isfahan.

We were fortunate that it was a clear day, so we could see the mountains overlooking the city. One thing that became almost immediately apparent when walking the streets or taking the metro, was the level of curiosity towards two individuals, clearly not locals, taking pictures of seemingly banal things like propaganda posters warning parents of the dangers of social media. Perhaps it was partly due to the fact that there were not many other tourists.

We found Iranians to be extremely friendly and welcoming to foreigners. This was expressed not from a desire to sell something, but out of genuine curiosity. While walking along the street, someone would stop us and ask where we were from.

‘Ireland,’ I would say, and nine times out of ten this would be greeted with polite interest. ‘Beside Britain, but not Britain,’ I would then prompt. More polite interest followed by a slow nod.

‘Russia,’ Denis would say.

‘Ah, Russia! Welcome, welcome to Iran, enjoy your stay!’ and he would shake both our hands and walk off.

This happened so often, that I all but gave up on saying that I was from Ireland. During that first day in Tehran, we were taking a picture of a propaganda poster in the metro, when a passersby stopped to say hello.

IMG_4617.JPG

(Above: Government warning against social networks)

‘Where you from?’ he asked.

‘Ireland,’ I answered, hopefully.

‘Ireland? There is street called Bobby Sands Street in Tehran,’ said the stranger in broken English.

‘I didn’t know that,’ I said. This really did come as a surprise, as the previous ten or so people did not seem to know about Ireland. Now we’d met someone who knew Bobby Sands! Before I continue, I am going to assume that some people won’t know who Bobby Sands was. He was a political figure in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, who died on hunger strike while in prison.

‘It where British Embassy,’ he said. It should also be noted, that Bobby Sands Street, as it turns out, used to be called Winston Churchill Street.

‘And you?’ he said to Denis.

‘Russia.’

‘Oh, Russia! Vladimir Putin good friend!’

Denis turned and muttered in Russian, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country where I’ve been greeted by locals and told that Putin is a good friend.’

This was to become something of a trend throughout the trip.

*

I wouldn’t necessarily describe Tehran as a city of aesthetics. In fact, I can honestly say that it’s downright ugly for the most part. Nonetheless, there are some really beautiful sites which are worth visiting, Golestan Palace being one. This was the residence of the Shahs until the last one was toppled from power in 1979.

Golestan Palace

(Above: Golestan Palace)

What I’d been especially looking forward to about Iran was the food. It’s a cuisine that in the West people aren’t too familiar with; at least, not when compared to, say, Indian or Chinese food. Strange, divine, full of cholesterol fatty goodness, sweet, sour, nutty, fruity, juicy, salty, are all aspects that can be found in a lot of Iranian dishes. The main street food, though, is the kebab. We had a kebab almost every day while we were there. I think I probably had enough kebabs to make my arteries scream holy murder.

The first meal I had in Tehran was in a very basic restaurant in a side street where local workers ate. I recall how the owner asked us in Farsi what we would like (I assumed that’s what he’d asked) and a man opposite us pointed to a dish which another man was eating and indicated that it was tasty. It consisted of saffron coloured rice with a piece of fried fish and a bean sauce. We took the man’s advice and two portions came to about €3. The rice alone was an explosion of flavour.

I will not forget the first time I tried a kind of sweet and sour dessert/snack made from dried pomegranate (I don’t remember what it’s actually called); it came in sheet form and had a sticky, chewy texture. The reason it sticks to mind is because the second that my taste buds made contact and sent signals to my brain, my lips curled so far in that they sang melodies to my tonsils, while my eyeballs withdrew to examine the back of my skull up close.

Pomegranate

Sweet and sour is an understatement, but the thing is that it was oddly addictive.

*

So we wandered Tehran for the day and towards the late afternoon wevwent to the far north of the city where the wealthy inhabitants live. After exiting the last metro station, we found ourselves climbing a steep road leading up to lots of modern high rise apartment buildings.

Going inside one which we thought was a hotel, we asked the receptionist if we could possibly take a photograph from the top floor. He explained to us that it was actually an apartment complex, but that the caretaker could take us to the roof, if we liked. I can’t remember the caretaker’s name, but he was an Afghan with pretty good English and he was telling us about how he’d just come back to Tehran after being in Afghanistan for three years.

‘It’s too dangerous there. You can’t live, it’s just not safe. That’s why I’ve come back here.’

It was strange to think that we were in a country bordering Afghanistan, a place that had always seemed so far away. It was also odd to think that we were in a country that had been placed on Bush’s so-called “Axis of Evil”, even though so far it didn’t feel very evil and everybody had been very pleasant towards us. It just goes to show how skewed politics is, when compared to actually meeting regular people face to face.

The picture below doesn’t really portray the true vastness of Tehran, even though it was taken from the roof of the apartment complex:

IMG_4601

The caretaker told us that only the very rich lived in that district and that apartments were upwards of 250 square meters and began at prices of $800 a month.

On the way back to the metro, we stopped by the bazaar. One shop was selling freshly made halva which would make your teeth hurt from the sweetness. I bought two 500g tubs of it.

IMG_4614

Just outside the bazaar entrance, we stumbled across a restaurant buffet and didn’t hesitate to go inside. After several hours of walking, I could have eaten a horse between two mattresses. Instead, I had baked aubergine with beef in an oily, lightly spiced sauce, bean soup and bread; again, for a very reasonable price.

When we finally got back to our host’s, Alex (he wanted us to call him that, although it’s not his actual name) a couple of hours later, we gathered our things and he brought us to a kebab restaurant not far from the bus terminal. Surrounding us were tables occupied by families, all eyes on a stage at the far wall where musicians and singers were playing Iranian pop songs. Very conscious of the fact that I’d only just eaten barely two hours before, I managed to pack half a gigantic lamb kebab in, much to my stomach’s dismay as it yelled “stop what you’re doing, right now, or else!”

At the bus terminal, we said our goodbyes to Alex, and wished him luck with his trip to Europe. We found the bus and getting on I was awed to see how much leg room there was between the recliner seats. Thus ended my first day, lying stretched out as the bus whizzed us  off into the night on the road to Isfahan.