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Posts from the ‘Iran’ Category

Fatima Masumeh Shrine and Truck Breakdown

We left Tehran at 8am towards Isfahan. The traffic was crazy. Thousands of cars were flowing through the streets without paying attention to any kind of traffic rules. Where there were two lanes marked on the tarmac three had formed and no red light seemed reason enough to stop the flow. Our drivers Jason and Sam seem to enjoy this chaos. Everything seems to work out magically. The biggest challenge was finding the right direction. I couldn’t see any sign pointing towards Isfahan. Our local guide Mehdi joined Jason in the cab helping him to find the way while Sam was taking notes and pictures which could be helpful for future crews going through the city.

In the late morning we stopped at a big mosque called the Fatima Masumeh Shrine. It’s located in Qom, after Mashhad the second most sacred city in Iran. When we arrived at the entrance of the mosque, Jason and Mehdi went through the gate but we women were stopped by a guy holding a rainbow-colored feather duster. Since it’s not allowed in Iran to touch people of the other gender, people use feather dusters to get your attention. After touching us with the feather duster the guy was signaling us we are not allowed to go in but we couldn’t understand the reason. We assumed we are not dressed appropriately but didn’t know what to change. When Mehdi realized we aren’t following him anymore he came back and talked to the guy with the feather duster. It turned out we should use a different entrance. There we received a chador which all women entering the mosque are required to wear. While my manteaux and headscarf doesn’t make me appear particular beautiful and sexy the chador took all remaining beauty away and made me look like a moving curtain.

The Fatima Masumeh Shrine complex was very beautiful with its blue, yellow and greenish mosaic stones and a golden cupola. There was also an outdoor praying area for women shining in silver while the men’s one was shining in gold. Here I also saw men carrying what seemed to be a dead body. While watching the locals I lost eye contact to the people in my group. I waited 10-15 min in the place I saw them last in case they come back and look for me. Since this wasn’t the case I decided to tour around on my own and return to the truck afterwards.

I walked towards one of the entrances of the indoor section of the mosque. People were kneeing in front of water taps washing their faces to be clean for entering the mosque. Before going inside I needed to take my shoes off and put them into one of the plastic bags provided. While being in the mosque you carry your shoes with you at all times so they don’t get stolen. Inside the mosque there was one big open space praying area for mixed-gender as well as separate rooms for men and women. I went into the ladies section which was much more crowded than the common space. Women were sitting on carpets, reading religious books, praying and talking. Some women had even brought their kids and were breast-feeding them. It was a very homelike atmosphere. The highlight of the ladies section was a shrine made out of gold and silver. Here it was very crowded and the women were pushing themselves towards the shrine just to touch it for a few seconds. After touching the shrine they were touching their face in order to transfer something intangible from the shrine to their own body. Just for the experience I did the same. It was really crowded and it took me 2-3 min of squeezing until I was able to touch the shrine.

After I finished looking around I went back to the truck. Sam was waiting in the parked vehicle but the others were still touring around the mosque. I few minutes later everybody was back. The other guys had made a different experience than I made. They were talking to one of the mullahs who were answering religious questions. I heard the questions of my fellow traveler Andrew were a tiny bit too provocative making the mullah a bit upset.

At lunch we stopped at a roadhouse where the boys had chicken with French fries and the girls a salad. About 150km away from Isfahan our truck broke down. It was the wheel rotating the belt of the engine which broke into half. The main issue was we didn’t have the necessary spare parts to repair it since this part of the truck breaks down very seldom. We waited maybe an hour or so until Mehdi managed to stop a public bus. While we and our leader Jason continued travelling towards Isfahan, Sam and Mehdi stayed behind to fix the truck. They were hoping they get towed until the nearest town which is 60km away, get the spare part there and repair the truck. The public bus was very modern featuring air conditioning and a TV. It was very cheap too costing only 37,000 Rials (2.20 USD) for the 150km ride to Isfahan. This price even included a cherry juice and packaged strawberry cake. When entering the bus it was crowded and there wasn’t any free seat for us. Nobody of the younger guys got up to offer their seat to the older people in our group and so we all sat down on the ground. I was sitting on the stair in front of the bus right next to the bus driver where I had a panoramic view over the scenery we were driving through. The hilly scenery was actually more interesting than the TV program which was some kind of sad depressing movie.

We arrived in Isfahan around 6:30pm and took a taxi from the bus station to the hotel. The taxi driver tried to convince us the hotel we going to isn’t nice and we should better go to another one. Probably he’s getting a commission when bringing guests to specific hotels. Despite what the taxi driver was saying the hotel was really nice and probably one of the best ones I have stayed in on a Dragoman trip.

For dinner Andrew took us to a restaurant recommended by his guide book. It was a very posh one and the interior reminded me of dining in the Persian times. I had some traditional dish consisting of chicken with walnut sauce which was delicious. When the bill came we were surprised by the total of around 800,000 Rials (47 USD) for feeding five people. Food is very cheap in Iran and you can have a proper lunch or dinner for only three USD. Jason got his calculator out and with the help of the restaurant manager he was able to understand the bill. They had charged us for all tiny bits and pieces of our dinner and added 15% tax and service charge on top.

Back in the hotel I was hanging out in the lobby. I really love the nighttime since the whole world is moving slower and the hidden dark side of people shows up. I watched how alcohol got delivered to some people in the hotel, found out how prostitution is organized and how people enjoying themselves with “unlawful” stuff (taking of the headscarf, drinking, dancing) in hidden areas. This night I also met a local Iranian guy called Habib with whom I had some entertaining time this and the following two nights.

Golestan Palace and Sam in Concert

Today we had a free day in Tehran and different people were up for different activities. Andrew, Patricia and Emilie hired a cab to go on a day trip to the Caspian Sea, the largest sea on earth. They started at 6am and it took them four hours each way. They especially enjoyed the winding roads up and down the mountains, walking along the shore of the sea and a theme park which Andrew named “Iranian World”. Alistair, my fellow traveler from Scotland, was up for some serious walking and he covered a fair amount of kilometers on the cities ground, also walking towards the mountains. Isabella has spent a couple of dollars on a very detailed map of the city to go on a self-guided walk visiting a number of sights. I wasn’t up for more serious sightseeing and just wanted to soak-up the cities atmosphere. Therefore, I joined Jason to visit the Golestan Palace and to stroll around the streets.

We got a hand-drawn map from the receptionist of our hotel to make our way to the palace. When we started to walk we ran into Isabella and the three of us joined efforts to find the palace. We did pretty well and with the help of two maps and asking five different people we managed to find the way.

Walking to the palace was an experience in itself. The traffic in Iran and especially in Tehran is simply crazy. Drivers seem to stick to no traffic rules and just drive wherever there seems to be a space to drive. This includes the sidewalks which aren’t just used by pedestrians but also motor-cyclists so you continuously need to watch-out you not getting hit by a motorbike. Crossing the street is also a life threatening activity. Cars simply won’t stop even when there is a pedestrian crossing or a red traffic light. Honestly, all traffic signs seem to be considered decoration only and nobody takes them serious in any way.

When we arrived at the palace we found out it’s actually not just one big palace but a number of smaller palaces and museums. We weren’t in the mood to visit every single building in the complex which would have taken hours and so we just had a look into maybe five of them. They were all very shiny using lots of mirrors, marble and gold. Especially mirrors were used very extensively and some rooms were completely covered in them. I would go completely mad if I needed to spend a full day in such a shiny room full of mirrors with the need to look at me at all times.

Since we didn’t know the exact way back to the hotel Jason and I just strolled around in the streets soaking-up the atmosphere of the city. We walked through a number of streets which all were dedicated to the sale of specific goods. There was a street for everything such as a street for electrical components, a street for women’s shoes and even a whole street full of shops selling sexy underwear. Now I know what Iranian women wear underneath their long coats…

The only street we couldn’t find was a restaurant street and so it took us some time to find a place for lunch. We ended-up in a tiny restaurant selling street food. They had chicken kebab for sale of which we had some together with bread and salad. When we wanted to check-out the owner of the shop charged us double the amount we usually have to pay for this type of meal. I don’t mind paying money for good food but I don’t like to be ripped-off. So I started a big discussion with the restaurant owner also involving another guest who was a local which was charged significantly less for his meal. Jason was a bit impatient to have a discussion with the owner and so we ended-up paying whatever he requested from us.

Since we didn’t know the way back to the hotel and were just strolling around in the streets we got kind of lost. Luckily I had taken a picture of Isabella’s map with the location of the hotel on it and was showing it to a couple of locals trying to find out directions. Interestingly most people weren’t able to read English characters but Farsi only. However, somehow we managed to get directions and after walking for a while we magically ended up on the big street leading to our hotel.

We finished our self-guided walk with some relaxing time in a Shisha bar. As most popular locations in Iran the Shisha bar was situated at the basement of a building. The major reason is basements have no windows and are less easy to access than locations at the ground floor of the building. Therefore, couples can date here in a more relaxed environment without the fear of being caught by the police which is also watching religious matters such as people comply to the Muslim dress code or don’t hold hands in public. Here in the basement bar we spotted quite a number of couples enjoying a milkshake and a Shisha while holding hands.

In the hotel I ran into our local guide Mehdi. He had more or less taken a day off to spend some time with one of his female friends in the city. They were also strolling around the streets but got stopped by the police because they were walking together too closely. Luckily Mehdi could somehow convince the police he and his female friend are engaged and also managed to avoid their parents got called by the police to confirm it.

While relaxing in my hotel room I spotted an arrow on the ceiling of the room. This arrow is very convenient for Muslims spending the night away from home. It’s pointing them in the direction of Mecca to which they need to address their prayers.

In the evening we went to the same restaurant as last night. I had chicken which was delicious but just too much so I shared it with three other people. There was also the same folk band playing the same sad songs as last night, what a depressing job. After dinner we chilled-out at the coffee-shop associated with the restaurant. This time they allowed our driver Sam to play the piano which he’s very passionate about. It was the first time we actually heard him playing and were blown away by it. Sam plays purely out of memory without the use of notes. He started off with some classical pieces to not chase away the other guests and then slowly moved to Jazz type of music. Sam played so good that even the folk musicians in the restaurant next door stopped playing and came over to the coffee-shop to listen to his play.

Soltaniyeh Dome and Museum Tour in Tehran

On our way from Zanjan to Tehran we stopped in Sultaniyeh to visit the town’s dome which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Sultaniyeh Dome is currently under restoration and the inside of the dome is covered by a massive scaffold why we could only imagine its full beauty. The dome is one of the largest brick domes in the world and contains the mausoleum of Öljaitü who was an Iranian ruler. The inside of the dome is covered in beautiful mosaics and from the top of the dome you have an excellent view over the city and the surrounding mountains.

When we arrived in Tehran we checked-in to our hotel which was situated right in the heart of the city. Our driver Sam went to park our truck in a secured parking area which took a while since the traffic in Tehran is crazy. As soon as Sam was back our local guide Mehdi took us on a tour to visit some of the city’s major museums.

The first stop of our tour was the Jewelry Museum showing major parts of the Iranian Crown Jewels. To go there we split our group into three taxis out of which two actually arrived at the museum. The third taxi got lost somewhere in the city. Although I wasn’t too keen on visiting the Jewelry Museum the visit was actually worth it. It’s said the collection is the largest jewelry collection in the world. I’m not sure if this is actually true since everything I saw was in just one room located in the Central Bank of Iran. But the items displayed were very shiny and different, all in a special Persian style. When we finished our visit the guys from the third taxi showed up and we continued our tour.

The next stop was the National Museum of Iran. In this museum I had an actual interest and was hoping to learn more about the country’s history. In fact the museum was rather small and there were no explanations to the exhibits displayed, at least not in English. Therefore, we could more or less only walk through the exhibition and imaging what everything was about. One of the most interesting exhibits was probably the “Salt Man”. It’s the head of an approx. 37 year old man which was found in a salt mine in 1993. Scientists determined the body of the “Salt Man” is approx. 1,700 years old and he must have been a highly ranked man due to his long hair and beard and a golden earing.

The third and last stop of our museum tour was the Glassware and Ceramics Museum of Iran. Same as the Jewelry Museum I wasn’t too excited about it until I actually entered the museum. It’s located in a beautiful building which used to be the Egyptian Embassy for many years. The building features nice woodwork, red carpets and candelabra which gives it a very special atmosphere. The glass and clay work displayed in the museum was also very shiny, well presented and a joy to look at.

After we visited the three museums we had the feeling we have already visited the major sights of the city. Tehran is with its nine million inhabitants a pretty large city but it has no special flair which makes it enjoyable to walk through the streets. It’s all very business-like and except for the city’s parks there are not many spots where you would like to spent a couple of hours and watch the world passing by. Interesting to know is there are mountains very close to the city. In winter-time you can go skiing or snowboarding in the Dizin ski resorts which is with 3,600m one of the highest in the world.

In the evening Mehdi took us to the restaurant of a four star hotel which is supposed to be the best restaurant in walking distance to our hotel. While Patricia and Emilie sampled some eggplant dish, I had fish and the boys had meat with French fries since they cannot see rice anymore. There was also a local folk band playing in the restaurant which was partially enjoyable and partially annoying since the tune sounded very depressing. We also went to this specific restaurant since it features a piano. Our driver Sam is a passionate piano player and he was very keen on playing the piano for a bit. Unfortunately he wasn’t allowed to do so since there was a wedding and they considered piano music inappropriate for this occasion. We will try again tomorrow…

Rock Formations of Kandovan and Historic Bazar of Tabriz

Everybody except of Sam was meeting at 8am to go for a walking tour around Kandovan. Sam is a night person like me and likes to sleep-in whenever possible. Other people with a different biorhythm get up earlier such as my fellow traveler Andrew. When meeting at 8am Andrew had already finished a self-guided walk around the village. During the walk he made friends with some local people who even invited him to their house.

Mehdi, our local Iranian guide, was walking with us through the village. The rock formations and rock houses very much reminded me of what we saw in Cappadocia a couple of days ago. Just the village of Kandovan appeared more authentic and less touristy than Göreme. Many people still live in rock houses as their grandparents did hundreds of years ago but you could also spot some modern devices such as flat-screen TVs and mountain-bikes. Very close to the village was a little hill and after climbing it we had a wonderful view over the village. It appeared very much remote and unreal compared to the fast-moving cities back home. The people living here have a much more basic life but seem to be more relaxed and happier than what is considered a successful person in the Western civilization.

We ended our walking tour in a small coffee shop were we relaxed over a cup of tea, a Shisha with apple flavor and inspiring conversations with fellow travelers. My water pipe didn’t produce any smoke in the beginning but after putting on some more burning charcoals it was working properly. The Shisha was quite strong and after smoking for a while I felt a bit dizzy.

In the late morning we continued our travel towards Tabriz where we stopped for lunch. While some of us went for the known chicken or lamb Kebab others were more adventures and tried Kofta which is basically a giant meat ball consisting of ground lamb meat, rice and spices. Interestingly the Kofta dish came without any rice or vegetables so we were exchanging parts of our food. As one of the locals spotted Jason eating Kofta with rice he actually came to our table to explain we have to eat the plain meat ball and are not supposed to have any rice with it. Also Patricia struggled with her meat ball since it was simply too much food for a lunch type of dish. In the end most of us ended up eating only half of our dishes and we decided to share dishes in the future not just for sampling different types of food but also to not waste any food.

The main reason why we actually visited Tabriz was Andrew who had read in one of his many guidebooks that the Historic Bazar of Tabriz is very fascinating. So after lunch we went to have a look at the bazar. While walking there we ran into a booth selling soft ice crème and I couldn’t resist having one. What looked like vanilla turned out to be rose flavored ice crème which wasn’t quite what I expected but nice.

The bazar of Tabriz was truly fascinating. It’s one of the oldest bazars in the Middle East and the largest covered bazar in the world. It even became an UNESCO World Heritage Site a couple of years ago. I joined Sam walking through the different sections of the bazar. There was one for gold jewelry, one for spices, one for shoes, one for cheap Chinese stuff and so on. The bazar is actually quite large and you need to remember the directions you are coming from otherwise you get lost in what feels like a labyrinth. Actually my fellow travelers Isabella and Alistair managed to get lost and we waited nearly half an hour for them finding their way out of the bazar.

In the afternoon we drove to Zanjan were we spent the night in a lovely hotel. Compared to other overland trips this one feels much more luxurious than the ones I have done before in Africa and South America. During our whole 3.5 week journey from Istanbul to Ashgabat we only camp once while on other overland trips we camp maybe 60% of all nights. The major reason is security or camping is simply not allowed in a number of areas. I really start to miss this basic life in nature.

Crossing the Border into Iran

Today was the day many of us were looking forward to since a long time. We are crossing the border into Iran and are very curious what will actually expect us and how it will differ from the picture we have about the country so far. When talking to family and friends most of us experienced warnings to travel to Iran because it’s considered a dangerous country. When most of us think about Iran we think about the conflicts with Israel, Iraq and the US. We also think about the country’s nuclear program or the recent closure of the British embassy in Tehran. On the other side Iran, also known as Persia, has one of the world’s oldest civilizations which makes it very interesting to visit from a historical point of view. My fellow traveler Andrew has actually studied Persian history and is therefore very keen on visiting the major sites of the country. Actually most people visiting Iran are experienced travelers and a bit older than the people travelling for instance to South America. Central Asia isn’t the location people pick for their first ever overland trip. They have either seen major parts of the world and now come here to see this one or they have a special interest in the region as Andrew has.

Compared to other Muslim countries Iran is also special because of its Islamic government. While most countries keep their politics and religion separate it isn’t the case in Iran. This is also expressed by the countries full name which is “Islamic Republic of Iran”. The Islamic government has a significant impact on the daily life in Iran since the laws of the country do also contain religious aspects. One of laws demands all women over the age of nine to wear a headscarf and long loose-fitting clothes in public. It’s also not allowed to come too close to somebody of the other gender such as holding hands or kissing in public. The compliance with these rules is actually monitored by the police who is not only following up on crimes or traffic as it is the case back home but also on religious matters.

To comply with the law we needed to adjust our usual appearance to what we know is demanded in Iran. For the boys it meant dressing up in long sleeve shirts and trousers. We girls needed to cover up to a larger extend meaning wearing long loose-fitting clothes and a headscarf. I dressed up in the outfit I bought in Istanbul consisting of a manteaux (a kind of trench coat) and a two layered headscarf. Underneath I was wearing a t-shirt, leggings and socks so except for my face and my hands no other part of my body was visible. I guess with this outfit I will be on the save side and a bit more integrated to what the local people are wearing. I have heard some travelers got actually refused entry into the country because the immigration officer didn’t consider their outfit as appropriate. I hope none of our outfits will cause trouble.

On the way from Doğubeyazıt to the border we passed Mount Ararat the highest mountain in Turkey. While yesterday the mountains peak was covered in clouds we were luckier today and could actually see the peak. Shortly before the boarder we tried to visit the second largest meteor crater in the world but the street leading to it was guarded by the police. They requested from our leader Jason to leave his passport behind with them in order to go and visit the site. For understandable reasons Jason didn’t wanted to leave his passport behind so we skipped the visit and continued towards the border.

First we needed to stamp out of Turkey and didn’t expect any problems on this side of the border since usually immigrations and customs only care about you when entering the country but not when exiting it. At this border it was different. The immigration officer stamping us out was checking if each of us had a valid visa for entering Iran before he actually put the Turkish exit stamp in our passport.

There was also a check by customs which required our truck to drive through a massive x-ray machine. I wasn’t sure what they are looking for. Probably there were checking if we carry any halal goods such as alcohol or pork meat. But why they check for these items here at the Turkish side of the border but not the Iranian one? While everybody was still busy with immigrations I went with Jason, Sam and a local guy who popped out of nowhere in order to help us to get the truck x-rayed. The customs officer required us to remove our entire luggage from the truck before it drives through the x-ray machine. He also asked Jason how many there are of us and he answered: “There are three of us HERE” which was correct but probably the officer wanted to know the total number of people which is nine. However, the officer didn’t question Jason’s answer and so we only unloaded some of the daypacks and Jason’s sleeping gear which seemed to be sufficient luggage for three people. I also remembered a leftover pork sausage in our fridge and quickly removed it. In return to the support of the local guy, who showed us around at customs, Sam was changing a few US dollars with him into Iranian Rials.

The whole procedure at the Turkish side took approx. one hour and we expected it will take much longer to pass the Iranian immigration and customs. Surprisingly the immigration at the Iranian side was very efficient. We didn’t even need to fill-out an arrival form as it is the case with all other countries I have visited so far. Instead the immigration officer took our passenger list and scanned the bar code of our Iranian visa which seemed to provide all required information to him. Another interesting fact about the Iranian visa is that it’s advisable to women to submit a passport photo with a headscarf together with the visa application. I took mine in a photo booth in Germany to avoid any strange views when going to a professional photographer. With the visa application you also need to submit a reference number which your local tourist agency in Iran applies for you and a statement you will insure yourself with a local Iranian insurance company upon entry of the country.

We passed immigrations like nothing. At the Iranian border there was also our local guide waiting for us. When I understand it correctly all tourist groups are required to have a local Iranian guide while being in the country so we had no other choice. The name of our guide is Mehdi and he will be with us during our entire stay in Iran. He actually looks quite okay which doesn’t make it too difficult to win Jason’s bet (see Apr 23) if you want to do so. Mehdi was only wearing a t-shirt and from now on all boys in our group stopped wearing long sleeves at the top and changed to more comfortable t-shirts. Regarding customs there was no check as we would have expected them to search us for halal goods.

The more difficult part was getting the truck paperwork done. As every person carries a passport the truck has a Carnet de Passage and need to pass customs. Here they required from our driver Sam to pay an amount of around 800 to 900 USD to insure the truck while being in Iran. Paying this amount of money took maybe three hours since the counter, where we were supposed to pay, was closed for lunch and Sam was send around from one guy to the other all secretly trying to get a bribe for helping the truck crossing the border.

The whole process of crossing the border on the Iranian side took approx. four hours. I killed most of the time by listen to music and talking to some of my fellow travelers. It was also interesting to experience the toilets at the border since you weren’t allowed to enter them in your own shoes. They literally made you taking off your shoes and put on some filthy plastic sandals in order to enter a toilet which was completely under water. We also changed the time at the border but instead of setting it ahead by full hours we needed to set it 1.5 hour ahead.

As soon as we crossed the border we stopped at a petrol station to fill-up the tank of our truck since petrol in Iran is incredible cheap compared to Turkey. One liter of diesel only cost 3,500 Rials (0.21 USD). We also change some money in a town close to the border. It was no proper exchange bureau but more a dark backstreet office which our local guide pointed out to us. Then we continued our journey to Kandovan where we arrived around 9pm because we lost quite some time with border crossing procedures.

Before we were checking-in to our hotel we went for a group dinner to a small restaurant. It actually featured no tables and chairs but raised podiums where you sit on without your shoes so you better have no smelly socks. The food and drinks are put directly in front of you and you need to watch out to not touch them with your feet. The only available dishes on the menu were chicken and lamb kebab. I had chicken since I don’t really like lamb unless the meat is really good. Whenever I’m not sure about the qualities of the meat I go for the save option which is chicken. This choice was a bit difficult for our vegetarian Alistair who ended up having plain rice for dinner. There was also some strange bread which is popular in Iran and which is served with nearly every meal. It has no real taste and looks like a bathmat with knops. We finished our dinner with a cup of tea which is a popular drink for the Iranians as well as for my fellow travelers from Britain.

The hotel for the night was an accommodation in a cave. There was one for us girls, one for the boys and one for our crew members and the local guide. The cave actually offered some kind of privacy provided by a curtain covering the entrance. Our girls cave featured two beds which Emilie and Patricia used while Isabella and I prepared our bed on the ground.