In the Persian Empire

My time in Iran is coming to a close now, only a few more days left. I have become captivated and enchanted by this extraordinary country. I was here for the same length of time in 1984, a few years after the Islamic revolution and in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war. It was a very different world back then and the only westerners allowed an ordinary tourist visa were those who held a Swiss and Irish passport. The rest were given only a transit visa and were escorted from border to border. A bit like travelling from ex West Germany to West Berlin and crossing East Germany. This was before the wall fell. I mentioned this to one of the young ‘uns on the trip and they said “Berlin wall, is that a bar?” I must be getting old.

I’m writing this after the trip ended and from contemporaneous notes. My intention was to expand on bullet points but never got around to this. Where necessary, I’ll leave the bullet points as they are and expand into notes and add photos when I have the time. This might take a year but keeps the memories fresh and alive for me. I usually do this on a Sunday morning and early afternoon.


Day 1

(25 Sept, Day 34 of my trip, day 20 of life on truck)

We left Ashgabat in Turkmenistan early this morning. Today represented a shift in travelling on Habibi, our truck. Half of the people left here. Normally they would all be replaced but because Iran is not issuing visas to UK and US citizens, only 3 people joined. This meant than these are twelve of us instead of twenty four. I must confess that I’m relieved to have the extra space.

Before we left Ashgabat for the border, a 30min ride away, we were warned about the dress order for Iran. Basically, a minimum of flesh. Women had to wear a veil to cover their hair and clothes. No shorts or singlets for men. This would be strictly enforced. And, music to my ears, no alcohol. This meant NO alcohol of any description.

The journey to the border was very beautiful. The two countries are divided by a mountain, 2000m high. We climbed this and the views were great, especially when we saw the white marbled splendour of Ashgabat recede into the background. It looked so out of time and place, in this ancient and timeless land.

We got to the border post in plenty of time but unfortunately two of our new joiners had left their passport back at the hotel in Ashgabat. Luckily, we were still in Turkmenistan so it was easy to arrange for a taxi to collect. A great opportunity for us all to practice patience and tolerance.

Exiting Turkmenistan was very convulsed. We had to go through debarkation, have luggage x-rayed etc. They were very strict and would only allow us to go to certain areas. Some people wanted to go to toilet but, ‘no, not possible, you wait’. So, we waited. Luckily, the wait was not too long and we were through to no man’s land where a Turkmen soldier finally checked our exit stamp before allowing us to enter it.

Entering Iran was a bit easier. As we approached the immigration building, we could hear music and what sounded like preaching. This got louder as we got nearer. I imagined that they are trying to convert the infidel. Not much chance of that with me. Maybe it was just the news or something else. Anyway, we lined up before two different officials and had passport stamped. We were in. Then we had to get our luggage off the truck, haul in back in to the customs hall and have it x rayed again. The speed at which this happened meant that they could only have had a cursory glance at whet was in the bags.

As we had no Iranian money and needed to have lunch, it was time for money change. The official rate was 42,000 Iranian Rial to US$. We changed on the blackmarket for 140,000 Rial to the $ right under noses of the Iranian security apparatus. I guess that this is tacitly supported by the regime here. I changed $50 and became an instant multimillionaire with 7,000,000 Rials in notes.

It’s odd getting a handle on constantly changing currencies and values. For example, in Turkmenistan, 4 Manat to the €uro was official rate but we changed on the blackmarket for 15 to the €uro, or so. In Iran, the US$ is main, unofficial alternate currency and widely accepted. The official Iranian exchange rate, as I mentioned, is almost 42,000 to the $. The blackmarket rate we got at border was 140,000 to the $, over 3 times the official rate. In cities, it is higher and can be 200,000 Rial to $, 5 times official rate. This must be unsustainable in the long term but works out great for tourists.

The notes, especially those under 500,000 Rial, are very grubby. There are no coins so you need lots of notes for everything. To confuse matters, there’s an unofficial currency called the Toman, which is 10 Rial. Most, but not all, people use this shorthand. When you buy something for, say, 50,000 Rial, about 1€ on official rate or 30¢ on blackmarket or real rate, shopkeeper might hold up five fingers and say 5 Toman. This means 5,000 Toman or 50,000 Rial. You’re never sure which. I always assume they mean Rial as they will correct me if I’m wrong. Generally, they pick the notes out of your wallet, if you let them. Our Iranian guide assures is that they are scrupulously honest. My experience bears this out,

We then drive to a small town for lunch, kebab and rice with coke. About $1 and tasty, my first experience of Iran. As often happens in small communities on the Silk Road, we were mobbed by children, who were delightfully shy and attitude free. In general, Iranian people very friendly and I witnessed this again and again. Then back in truck and off again, bellies full.

We drove again to Mashhad , the holiest city in Iran and checked into our hotel.

Meshad is the second-most-populous city in Iran and the capital of Khorasan-e Razavi Province. It is located in the northeast of the country. It has a population of 3,001,184 (2016 census), which includes the areas of Mashhad Taman and Torqabeh. It was a major oasis along the ancient Silk Road connecting with Merv to the east.

The city is named after the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam. The Imam was buried in a village in Khorasan, which afterwards gained the name Mashhad, meaning the place of martyrdom. Every year, millions of pilgrims visit the Imam Reza shrine. The Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid is also buried within the same shrine.

Mashhad has been governed by different ethnic groups over the course of its history. The city enjoyed relative prosperity in the Mongol period.

Mashhad is also known colloquially as the city of Ferdowsi, after the Iranian poet who composed the Shahnameh. The city is the hometown of some of the most significant Iranian literary figures and artists, such as the poet Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, and Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, the traditional Iranian singer and composer. Ferdowsi and Akhavan-Sales are both buried in Tus, an ancient city that is considered to be the main origin of the current city of Mashhad.

On 30 October 2009 (the anniversary Imam Reza’s martyrdom), Iran’s then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Mashhad to be “Iran’s spiritual capital”.

We went out that evening to an eatery mentioned in lonely planet as a must. It was called Hezardestan Traditional Teahouse

Tried to get sim

Chicken kebab sambo

Day 2

(26 Sept, Day 35 of my trip, day 21 of life on truck)

  • Slept in a fairly grotty hotel, badly organised but clean enough.
  • Shower wet room toilet
  • Fanlight window in doorway
  • Clock 90 mins back so went to bed at 9pm
  • Woke up 6pm, shower but no coffee
  • Walk with Phil 6.30 to find coffee
  • Awful smells
  • No coffee
  • Breakfast with Steven, exchanged concise like stories
  • Breakfast idiosyncratic!
  • Up and off in Habibi
  • Great mosque, holiest site on Iran. Burial site of 8th imam of shiite Islam
  • Woman had to wear coloured chadors
  • Conflict between liberal humanist European and theocracy
  • People seemed devout
  • Broken mirror glass
  • Lunch at Iranian service station
  • Well
  • Gonabad Qasabeh Qanat
  • Mountains 35km away
  • Guide, enthusiasm
  • Homestay
  • Meal
  • Old heritage village

Day 3

(27 Sept, Day 36 of my trip, day 22 of life on truck)

  • Reasonable nights sleep
  • Woken up by culturally insensitive Asian guy shouting in phone
  • Had great Iranian breakfast with great flatbread and different cheeses, delicious
  • Back on road, long drive
  • Arrived 1pm Mortzali gorge, steep dusty drive
  • Had lunch, I chopped watermelon for 1st time
  • Walked along riverbank up gorge
  • Met 3 young men horsing around in water, wearing singlets and shorts, very unusual for Iran, very handsome, they wanted selfie with me and squeezed right nt y personal space and put arms around me

Mortzali gorge

  • Met many Iranian people as this is Muslim weekend
  • Brought camera and took pic, nearly slipped in kneehigh with water, oops
  • Foot ok, no pain
  • Arrived at caravanserai 5pm ish, magical place, Cheri, our Iranian guide gave us the history, King lost in desert, found by shepherd who fed him, had an impression on him

Caravanserai

  • One of my highlights was staying in Caravanserai and this exceeded my expectations, brill.
  • Old man showed me around and although he didn’t speak a word of English and of course I speak no Farsi, yet he managed to explain a lot of the practical workings of the place to me.
  • Place also a Fort with battlements, slits for guns, holes to pour boiling water on attackers etc.
  • Slept well on pad on floor, like futon. Surprisingly good night sleep, no backache

Day 4

(28 Sept, Day 37 of my trip, day 23 of life on truck)

Woke at 6, had shower, took pics

Gets bright here at 5am to allow time for 1st prayer at 5.30am. Bloody religion. Gets dark at 7pm ish.

Back in desert again with mountains and hills in the background. Desert here seems different than  Iran, more bare and desolate, smaller shrubs and less of them.

Stopped at USA staging point for raid on Tehran to release hostages during Iranian revolution. A fierce sandstorm arose and downed most of helicopters. Sandstorm was naturally sent by god! Maintained by govt as propaganda.

Khanaraq deserted village

Adobe

Kids on bikes

Kids wanting to take selfie with me.

Interesting old village, no signs, prohibitions etc, just wander around ayor

Notation read – history of desert action and reasons why

Any soc hist?

Chak Chak Zoroastrian fire temple, name based on tears of daughter of king

Chak Chak Zoroastrian Fire Temple

Top of hundreds of steps, very tiring, knees twinged a bit but feet ok

r54rr Note: need to get fitter. Next trip next year, if I lose 1kg a month, that’s 10kg by trip, I’ll be down to 78kg, 3kb above target weight of 75kg. Adding regular gym and swimming to that and I should be able to manage trip well and not feel so, well, blobby.

Arrived in Yadz late afternoon and offloaded from truck to hotel. The hotel is in old part of city, the Adobe part of Yadz.

Yadz

Cheri, walked with her and we discussed freedom etc. Told her I was a gay man, she didn’t blink and said that it was cool here in Iran now to be gay

Meal, group of us in old Persian restaurant, I had camel stew, just like beef, didn’t get the hump, free tea bar with black tea, green tea, mint tea, hibiscus tea and hibiscus tea all is lovely ornate samovars. I choose hibiscus, very tart but just to my taste

Khanaraq deserted village

Day 5

(29 Sept, Day 38 of my trip, day 24 of life on truck)

  • Felt a bit crook
  • Simcard
  • Walked around town
  • Windcatchers
  • Group of schoolboys, apple butt, boy with old eyes, man on moped
  • Tea, boy on mobile phone, trying to catch eye for bill, mobile face w/ huge range of expression, very emotional present and congruent.
  • I slipped when I got up because bare feet in sandals were sweaty, boy laughed but looked aside, embarrassed.
  • Went home early as still feeling a bit off, 24ht bug going around, runs and headache, snoozed, didn’t eat anything and went to bed early.

Day 6

(30 Sept, Day 39 of my trip, day 25 of life on truck)

Woke up at 6am in good spirits and health OK, breakfast and then rush to get everything ready to leave on truck at 8:30am

Zoroastrian fire temple, calm, tranquil, reasonable, contrast with Islam. 2000 year old fire

Zoroastrian towers of silence, old  buildings, strong sense of presence

had lunch with Heather and Phil, in Abarkuh, kebabs and rice,

4000 year old cypress tree outside Abarkuh, had coffee there and got fridge magnet, Leonard Cohen “dance me tooth edge of love”, earworm.

Rolled up to campsite, km or so offroad, I had tent to myself because plenty spare, setup in strong breeze.

Meal great, barbecued chicken around campfire followed by tea and toasted marshmallows on fire, chatted with a few people and off to bed 9pm

Day 7

(1 Oct, Day 40 of my trip, day 26 of life on truck)99

Last night was pretty wild, warmish but with a strong wind. I had a tent to myself as we are down in  number to just twelve. I don’t think I tensioned the outer layer on my tent properly as it was flapping away like mad all night. It woke me up a few times but as the moon was super bright with lots of stars, it didn’t matter, I soon got back to sleep again. Out campsite was the bed of a dried out reservoir and was pretty stoney, some of them sharp. Although the tent had a strong groundsheet and I had my own one, I was dreading hearing a hissing sound telling me that my sleeping mat had been punctured. Of course it didn’t happen. It’s sturdily built, being Irish made.

Anyway, I got up, dismantled my tent and stowed it away, got onto the truck and off to Shariz. I slept most of the journey and was pretty groggy still from the bug I had caught in Yadz.

Wonderful pre-revolutionary restaurant in Shiraz

Had this interesting lunch in Shariz. It was a tradition dish called Dizi, a lamb, chickpea, tomato and potato stew. You pour the broth from the crock into the big bowl and tear up the bread into it. Then you mash what remains in the crock with the metal masher. You take a spoon of the broth and bread mix together with a scoop of the mash from the crock and gobble it up or down. It came with the tiniest limes I have ever seem. They were incredibly good., like taste bombs, good enough to wear as aftershave.

It was followed by Turkish coffee served as an Americano and minus the dregs. Delicious. It came with dark rich chocolate.

The place itself was like a museum of pre-revolutionary Iran and run by two delightful, smiling and beautiful women who push Islamic dress code to its limit. I spoke with the guy who ran it and he told me that the house was his grandmother’s who had bequeathed it to him many years ago. He told me that nearly everything there was there in his grandmother’s lifetime.

There were several cages of Canaries singing there little hearts out and jazz and showband music coming from an old valve radio in the background. The sun was streaming in and there was a lovely warm breeze.

Not at all what you would expect in Iran, this amazing and astounding country.

When I arrived and was seated, one of the women brought me a load of photo albums from the old days. There were some great photos in them from an era long gone. They were all of the grandmother as a girl and her children and grandchildren. The women in the photos had short skirts and plunging necklines around the time of the last shah.

I felt satiated and satisfied and still do.

Went to bazaar, got lost, got even more lost and then found myself again.

Shiraz a feat town, very laid back and sophisticated.

Women didn’t wear chador,

Cover arse

Football players, tights, no women,

Men who can’t keep their dicks in their trousers

Went to bazaar, huge and very ornate, grid pattern, got lost, hours trying to find way out, I’m sure I passes by this stall selling those pungent spices and herbs whose names I don’t know before

Early to bed

Day 8

(2 Oct, Day 41 of my trip, day 27 of life on truck)

Feeling like I need a holiday, some good old rain and a dash of misery, to much of having a good time here

Went to Pink Mosque with ‘gang’, I’m so not a group person, a bit meh, not another mosque, this one had great lighting through, summer and winter mosques, so many tourists

Went back to bazaar with trip mates but genuinely lost them in the crowds, rambled around for a bit and went back for nap

No thirst reflex so balance need for water against need not to be weeing like a watering can all the time, esp where toilets are not the most salubrious of places. Ended up dehydrated and with headache and listlessness, didn’t catch until too late, Frank copious amounts of water but still weeing Fanta.

Had lunch again in Arg cafe where I had Dizi a few days ago, not quite the same, a lesson?

Birthday meal for one of people on trip. Got to see how the gilded elite of Iran live

Day 9

(3 Oct, Day 42 of my trip, day 28 of life on truck)

Slept well but had erotic dreams about handsome young African man in Arabic dress, got wood, woohoo

Felt a bit under the weather today. I think I’m dehydrated or just in need of a holiday. We’ll, barring leaving trip, I’ve got to sick it up, as yanks say. Talking about yanks, there are nine of them on our trip, nor brits. They aren’t allowed visas. Lots of aussies, through. I find the accent grating. I’m sure they’re worried.

Visited Persepolis, intriguing, timelessness of place

Funky restaurant to have lunch. Owner first brought out platter to show examples of different food he served. We ordered a bit of each, to share amongst 12 of us. Great spread. No hot spices but food was delicious with lots of tastes I didn’t recognise. Lightly pickled veggies are popular here too and these too are tasty.

Bushcamped in a area that seemed like it was once  ultimates a good while ago. There were furrows, like it was once ploughed, but the desert scrug    B had colonised the area. Not sure if this is a result of global warming or geopolitical issues since Islamic revolution.

Went to bed At 9pm!, middle of afternoon.

Day 10

(4 Oct, Day 43 of my trip, day 29 of life on truck)

I Slept reasonably well.

Rush to leave. I miss my leisurely mornings with my pot of Barry’s tea with toast and marmalade and my Irish Times but understand perfectly that we need to hit the road ASAP. As it was, I was up at 6. 30am, had my tent unpitched, I think that’s the right word, and ready for breakfast at 7am. We were off at 8 and travelled for a hour or so before we came to a deserted Fort, caravanserai and village called Yadz-i-kast or Ayzdkhwast, it seemed to have both names. I must do some research later when I have good Internet connection.

At first I was a bit bored, JM&J, not more ruins. I took some obligatory photos of some interesting angles but more to practice photography skills that real interest in ten subject. The place was in the middle of nowhere but our arrival soon attracted some attention and several young men on mopeds came to have a look, shout hello, or hallowwww, and give those huge Iranian smiles. Soon an older guy came along on a moped and spoke with Sheri, our Iranian tour guide. It turned out that he was an architect involved in the restoration of the deserted Fort and village and offered to take up on a guided tour of the place. Naturally, he had lots of information and we spent an hour of so walking around this fascination site which came alive through his enthusiasm and knowledge. He explained the irrigation, water collection, cooling in summer and heating in winter; we were 2,000 metres high. As I had several times recently, I was so impressed by the ingenuity of these amazing and ancient Persians.

Yadz-i-Kast Deserted Village & Fortress

After the tour, out guide took us to a local home where we were all given chai and photo albums of the restoration work. The home was simple but very tastefully decorated and was structured around a big courtyard with a walnut tree in the middle and caged birds singing. Very timeless, it seemed.

All too soon, we were back in the truck and bouncing our way to Isfahan, the crown jewel of the middle east. We all fell asleep, like children being rocked in a cradle.

We arrived at the hotel early afternoon and checked in, stowed our bags away and all that kerfuffle.

Isfahan

I went for  a ramble around to get a sense of the city and was very different to what I was expecting. Isfahan (Persian: اصفهان, also known as Esfahan) is a city in central Iran, south of Tehran and is the capital of Isfahan Province. The Persians call it Nesf-e Jahan, meaning “Half of The World”. Due to its beautiful hand-painted tiling and magnificent public square, it is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. An ancient town and capital of Persia from 1598 to 1722, it was long noted for its fine carpets and silver filigree. Its architecture, tree-lined boulevards and relaxed pace make it one of the highlights of Iran. Sitting in  a cafe and watching the world go by while drinking green chai, not Barry’s tea, is a very enjoyable experience.

At 6pm, we gathered back at the hotel and Sheri took us out on an orientation trip to show us the main areas, mainly the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Also known as shah square or imam square. The square contains two mosques, a palace, and the bazaar. The square is the largest historical public square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I have been to both Tiananmen Sq and Red Sq but prefer this one because of its humanness and the fact that its used by locals and not inundated by tourists, like Red Sq.

Tiananmen Sq, in my view, is forever tainted by the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 where troops with automatic rifles and tanks fired at the student demonstrators trying to block the military’s advance towards Square. The number of civilian deaths has been estimated at 10,454.

The square is surrounded by buildings from the Safavid era. This a very popular place for locals to picnic on Friday and holiday evenings. It also contains a bazaar and a small workshops area where jewellery, paintings and lots of handicrafts are carried out. We went into one of these workshops and say a guy making a very detailed filigree piece of work. It was very involved and beautiful and I might buy a small one to bring home as a souvenir of my time here in my favourite city to date. They have a technique of working with tinned copper and hammer out the shape so it looks like a silhouette.

Day 11

(5 Oct, Day 44 of my trip, day 30 of life on truck)

I didn’t sleep too well and felt a bit meh. The last thing I wanted to do was join our group at 9am and spend the day traipsing around the mosques and palaces in the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. So I didn’t. I had a leisure breakfast instead, read my Irish Times and went out rambling on my own.

  • Zayanderud River
  • Bridge
  • Si-o-Seh Pol
  • Pol-e Shahrestan

Day 12

(6 Oct, Day 45 of my trip, day 31 of life on truck)

Slept better last night.

On road for a month now. We left Bishkek on 6 September. Gosh, it seems much longer and, to tell the truth, I’m a bit knackered now. We’ve been on the go non-stop. I’m glad I’m not the only one experiencing this as several of the others, even the young ‘uns, have admitted similar thoughts. Because of this, I had a Sunday day today even though it’s officially a Monday here but Saturday at home. This is because yester was the sabbath, or their Sunday. So, we get a 4 day weekend, not bad that.

I went out, hobbit style, at around 11am for 2nd breakfast to a coffee shop I discovered yesterday and had an Americano and pancakes with cinnamon and honey. They were delicious, although they oddly had a fried egg on top. Then back to the hotel for a snooze and a read.

I have 130,000,000, yes, 130 million Rial, I need to spend before we leave Iran in a few days time. I changed 100$ because I wanted to but some handcraft work while I was here. The exchange rate is so good and proves have dropped so much due to sanctions and restrictions on UK and US visitors that prices are massively slanted in my favour.

Day 13

(7 Oct, Day 46 of my trip, day 32 of life on truck)

Up at the ungodly hour of 5.30am to check out at 6am and leave for Tehran at 6.30am. Strange how unaccustomed I have become to alarm clocks. I have my life so arranged that I go to bed when tired and get up the next morning when I awake. I don’t need an alarm; I have a biological one.

Day 14

(8 Oct, Day 47 of my trip, day 34 of life on truck)

Tehran

Day 15

(9 Oct, Day 48 of my trip, day 35 of life on truck)

Day 16

(10 Oct, Day 49 of my trip, day 36 of life on truck)

Last day in Iran

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