Thursday, August 12, 2010

Final Days in Iran (June 23-27)

Shiraz and Persepolis mark the southernmost point of our trip at 29 degrees north of the equator (Dunnet Head Scotland was our northernmost point at 58 degrees north). Now it’s time to start heading north again towards Turkmenistan. So on June 23rd we drive northeast towards Yazd and see a couple of nice things along the way. One of them is a beautiful cypress tree that is 4000-5000 years old. The tree is gorgeous, symmetric and surprisingly green and full of fruit.

In Yazd we check into Fahadan Great Hotel and it really is a great hotel. It is the grandest hotel of our trip so far (this and Hotel Venus in Pamukkale, Turkey are probably the nicest). Like our hotel in Shiraz, Hotel Fahadan is built in the model of a traditional Iranian home with a courtyard in the middle. This time, however, our room and bathroom are grand in the style of a real luxury hotel. The courtyard is beautiful and our room is filled with artifacts and artwork. The natural gas powered air conditioning also works great.

We are exhausted after a long day but Darius orders us drinks, which he calls the hotel’s welcome drinks. The hotel brings us drinks and an American flag in a little flag holder. Here we are in Iran, sitting on a beautiful Persian carpet in our hotel’s courtyard, sipping delicious ice cold extract drinks with an American flag in front of us. It is such a kind and welcoming gesture, but a bit much for me so I ask if the hotel also has an Iranian flag. They do so now I’m happy to sit in the courtyard with Kirstin and Darius with our two flags. I think this is the first time I’ve seen these two flags displayed next to each other. Wouldn’t it be nice if governments could act more like this?

The next day (June 24th) starts with more hospitality. After a nice breakfast we walk outside to our car and all three of us gasp and are bewildered when it appears our car isn’t there. Has it been stolen? After a few seconds we realize the hotel staff have wrapped our car with a cloth car cover! All the other cars don’t have covers on them but we are the honored guests and once again get super special treatment. Here’s Kirstin in front of our wrapped-up car.

Yazd is a city that has a large minority of Zoroastrians. After unwrapping our car we drive to the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence (Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun). Darius tells us about Zoroastrians: It is the first monotheistic religion and Zoroastrians believe in one main god with about 10 helper gods and they see life as a struggle between good and evil. They believe earth, air, water and fire are four sacred elements that must be revered and always kept clean. Darius says that because of this their society was probably the cleanest there was. Zoroastrians believe that dead bodies contaminate the earth so they used to lay them on stones inside of these towers and the vultures would pick the bones clean. Today Zoroastrians are buried in concrete coffins so their bodies do not contaminate the earth. We hike up the towers and enjoy great views of the Zoroastrian funeral homes next to the towers, the modern Zoroastrian cemetery, and the city of Yazd. After coming down from the towers we visit several of the funeral homes and the modern cemetery. Darius tells us that Zoroastrians are buried facing up, looking to heaven. Muslims are buried on their side with their eyes facing Mecca. The photo below is taken from inside one of the funeral homes looking up at one of the towers.

We eat lunch in a traditional restaurant in an old bathhouse and then visit a Zoroastrian temple and a traditional wind catcher (a device that funnels cool wind into a home to act as a natural and quite effective air conditioner). We decide to go back to the hotel a bit earlier today to catch up on e-mail, laundry, grocery shopping, write a birthday card and rest a bit. Reluctantly, Darius agrees. I’m sure he would have shown us 10 more things. When we buy some fresh and delicious bread in a tiny bakery around the corner from our hotel the bakers refuses to take any money, even after I offer money three times to one baker and then three times to another (more hospitality). So I bring the bakers some Starburst candy that we still have from home, and they accept this.

After a nice dinner in our room I wash our car with a guy from the hotel with the chamois cloth that the Bradburys gave me in England. This thing is great! Then I join Darius in the hotel courtyard, where he is smoking a lemon water pipe. Darius gives us 3 CD’s that he had copied from the cool café in Hotel Julfa in Esfahan, 2 CD’s from Hotel Fahadan in Yazd, a handkerchief from Hotel Fahadan and a few postcard pictures of the hotel. He and the hotel are so nice. We go to bed at 10:00, which is the earliest we have in a while, but it’s good because tomorrow we need to drive 920 km through the desert from Yazd to Mashad, which I estimate will take us 15 hours.

On June 25th we cover the most distance in a day during our time in Iran – 570 miles or 920 km. Darius isn’t feeling well (he thinks he ate something bad) but feels better as the day goes on. The road goes through a huge desert and the temperature reaches 105F. I drive for 11 hours, then Kirstin takes over for 2 ½ and then I finish the drive into Mashad. We get to our hotel just before 8:00 while it is still light out and traffic isn’t so bad. This is our last city in Iran. I’m really happy that we have made it through the traffic of all of the cities we visited without any accidents. I think we are going to make it! Not that I thought we wouldn’t but after what you see on the news and what so many people were telling us, it is a relief. We have dinner and go to sleep.

On the morning of June 26th we visit the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad, which is the most important Shiite Shrine in Iran. Imam Reza was one of the 11 Imams of Shiite Islam and is entombed here. The Shrine is one of the marvels of the Islamic World and Lonely Plant writes that this complex will most likely be seen as the defining architectural achievement of the Islamic Revolution.

Sunnis and Shiites disagree on who the successor of Mohammed is. Shiite Muslims believe there have been 11 Imams (leaders or saints) since Mohammed. The 12th one is the final one. He disappeared into a cave under a Mosque in Samara in 874 AD and will one day return with Jesus at his side at the end of the world.

As we approach the shrine it becomes clear what a big deal this place is. People from all walks of life are coming to the shrine to pray. Below is a photo of a clergy man just outside the gates of the shrine.

The shrine of Imam Reza is a huge complex, basically a small city that is filled with incredibly detailed artwork and architecture and is packed with pilgrims. Non-Muslims are not allowed in the tomb area but are allowed to visit the rest of the complex, provided they dress and act properly. For Kirstin this means putting on a chador, which can be checked out just outside the shrine. She doesn’t like the way it makes her feel, and I agree that unlike a headscarf and manateau, a chador is really very different from what women wear outside of Iran.

There is no way to capture the look or atmosphere of the shrine but the photo below is one part of one of many, many squares surrounded by architecture covered in millions or I think billions of small tiles.

After visiting the shrine we take a long walk to a “stone park” where we sit by some water, then climb the rock hill with beautiful views of Mashad and a lovely breeze at the top (photo below).

Then we take a long taxi ride to a pizza restaurant and back to our hotel. Kirstin and I go to an internet café while Darius buys his train ticket to get back home to Tehran after we will leave him at the border tomorrow.

The next day (June 27) we begin our drive to the border really early because Darius’ train from Mashad to Tehran leaves at 1:00 and he’ll need to take a taxi to the train station in Mashad to catch it. The drive out of Mashad goes smoothly and the road to the border is in excellent shape and we make great time. Below is a photo of the scenery on the drive.

As we approach the border I notice that the border in my GPS is a bit off. The map says we are in Turkmenistan but we have not reached the Iranian border point yet so we are certainly still in Iran. So don’t trust your GPS maps if you are near a sensitive border!

We arrive at the border just before they open at 8:00 a.m. Darius helps us with the border formalities on the Iranian side and then gives me the t-shirt that he bought in Esfahan (it has a Zoroastrian symbol on it and says “Persian”) and says since he has been wearing it during the trip it should remind us of him. I promise to send him one of my shirts when I get home. Kirstin and I give him a Michigan baseball cap and thank him for being such a wonderful guide. It is sad to see Darius go. We have had a wonderful time in Iran and a big part of that was Darius. So thank you Darius!

With Darius gone the gate is opened and we drive through but the Iranian soldier at the border gate tells us to go back. It turns out we didn’t get an exit stamp. The old man that opened the gate gets chewed out for letting us through. After a little waiting we get our stamp. Phew! At 9:30 we cross the border and enter Turkmenistan.

Iran has been a highlight of our big trip and an incredible experience. We will never forget our time here! We experienced fear in coming here, noticed censorship of the New York Times, Skype, Facebook and our blog while in Iran, and were told a million times that our lights are on; but we were rewarded with amazing Persian history, Islamic architecture, and a hospitality like nowhere else. The Iranians we met were able to separate political differences from person-to-person kindness better than any other people I’ve ever met. Most Iranians are deeply religious and we admired many of the things that Islam teaches. We survived the crazy traffic in the cities and Kirstin looked great in her headscarf and manateau. We had a wonderful time and a terrific guide, and we learned some things about Persian identity and ultimately about ourselves.

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