Friday, August 6, 2010

First Days in Iran (June 15-17)

First Day in Iran

On June 15th we entered Iran and what a day it was! We experienced more and had more adventure and stress thrown at us than during any day of our trip until this point, even after driving through 9 countries in the past 41 days. Today was a really, really challenging day that took all the strength I had.

The day started very early at a campground in Dogubayazit, Turkey, where the night before we ate dinner amongst roaming farm animals, went to sleep in the middle of a concert, and woke up at 4:30 a.m. to a flock of very loud crows. Our day continued at the Turkey-Iran border with all the Boris and Muscle Man Carnet de Passage commotion (see last blog entry). And then we had an 8 ½ hour drive through Iran, mind you the first time I’ve driven here! Iran is certainly one of the more difficult places in the world to drive until you learn their system of how things work. It’s much like learning a foreign language – easy and makes some sense once you know it but you’re totally lost in the beginning.

Our itinerary had us driving 580 km to Takab today but since IranianVisa, our visa and guide agency, put our guide on a late train to the border without telling us or adjusting our itinerary, our 3:30 p.m. start from the border would make reaching Takab impossible. It took us the next 8 ½ hours to go 300 km to Orumiyeh, when our first day would finally end at midnight. The road surface is pretty good for the most part but the roads are small and winding so progress is slow. The scenery is beautiful though – dry, mountainous terrain, small villages, no trees. Here some sheep are being led across the road.

Car in the gutter

I had read that in Iran many street gutters are on (not below) the surface and one must be careful not to accidentally drive into one when parking or entering/exiting a driveway. The gutters are concrete gullies about 18” deep, 18” wide at the top and slightly narrower at the bottom. As you can imagine, it would be very bad if one or more wheels were to fall into such a gutter.

What I didn’t expect is that when these gutters cross the road sometimes not the entire length of the gutter is covered with a grate. So I’m driving through a village with two lanes on our side of the road and a car behind me obviously wants to go faster than me so I move over to the right lane. Just then one of these gutters crosses the road and I don’t see (until the last instant) that the grate covering the gutter doesn’t extend to the right lane. I can’t swerve back because the car is passing me so I hit the brakes to try to stop or at least slow the car down before this 18” trench. Thankfully the pavement here was good and I am nearly able stop the car, but the front right tire drops in. Thank goodness we have big tires and our 4Runner has lots of ground clearance so the body of the car remains just over the edge of the gutter by a fraction of an inch. In 4WD I’m able to back out and breathe a sigh of relief. I tell myself that I can’t let something like this happen again – this could have been really bad!

Armenian Church

Along the way we stop at Qareh Kalisa (Church of St. Thaddaeus) near Maku. It is an Armenian church that many ethnic Armenian pilgrims from Iran and Armenia visit every year. It is also Iran’s best maintained medieval church. It’s great to see it; I’ve never seen a church in this style before.

Speed Limits in Iran

As we drive further I learn about speed limits in Iran. As in much of the world (unlike in the US), speed limits are normally not posted – you just have to know when which limit applies. The default limits in Iran are 60 km/h in a city or village, 95/85 out of the city during day/night, 110 km/h on 3-lane roads and 120 km/h on expressways. These are the limits unless another speed is posted.

Just when I think I have it I get pulled over for speeding. I was passing a truck in a 95 zone. To get around the truck safely before the next corner I accelerate to 110 as I pass it and this is when I was caught. Darius our guide thankfully jumps out of the car and talks to the cop and gets me off. Thank you Darius!

So why am I one of the slowest cars on the road and I get pulled over for speeding? What’s the scoop, Darius? He explains that in cities the limit is 60 and often posted at 40, but you should generally go 70. The lower limits are not enforced and are only warnings to take care. It is fine to pass slower cars and trucks on 2-lane roads, even in the middle of a city or village, but the 95 limit out of the city is a hard limit. Don’t exceed 95 even while passing. See, easy, once you know.

Dinner on the Street

At about 8 p.m. we stop in one of the towns along the way for a quick dinner. We buy some barberie bread (translated, barbarian bread) and non-alcoholic fruit beer. The bread is fresh (it came out of the oven just a couple of minutes ago) and the beer is really, really tasty. Normally I don’t like non-alcoholic beer but this is excellent. It tastes like wheat beer with a bit of fruit syrup. There are all sorts of flavors to choose from. The bread is incredibly cheap, something like $0.10 per loaf. In a typical gesture of Iranian hospitality, the shop owner we buy the beer from brings stools out for us to sit on, even giving us his own stool. Below you can see our dinner in front of the shop.

After dinner it is dark and my neck hurts from our border experience, from driving so much and the remnants of the flu I had in Turkey. Kirstin doesn’t want to drive so I take 2 Advil and get back behind the wheel. Darius kindly offers to drive but he isn’t insured under our insurance policy so I’m stuck and bear down to the task at hand. We have a long way to go.

I drive through my first city in Iran in the dark with people, cars and motorcycles everywhere. Darius begins to explain in great detail about accidents in Iran. For damage to cars the police decide who is at fault and they must pay. If you injure a pedestrian, motorcycle or moped the car driver is always guilty. If case of a death the driver must pay “blood money”. For a man with a family blood money is about $80,000, for others it is about $40,000. The driver must pay unless the family refuses because they don’t need the money or say that no money can replace the lost person. I try to drive really carefully. It is crazy driving through cities at night. I can’t explain what it is like but for a Westerner it is nerve racking scary!

At about midnight we get to our simple but clean hotel in Orumiyeh. What a day! We survived the border and out first day in Iran. Sleep!

World View of a Patriotic Iranian Veteran

On June 16th we drive from Orumiyek to Takab. On the way Darius tells us about the First Gulf War (known as the Iran-Iraq War in the US), Iranian history and Iran’s often strained relationships with other countries, from his perspective. He is a veteran of the First Gulf War and is proud of his country, Persian history, and is generally supportive Iran’s current government. I don’t agree with everything he says but it is great to hear his perspective. He is a good, honest, trustworthy, caring person and a patriotic Iranian. I find what he says very interesting and try to put my head around what he says.

I have been trying to reconcile how it is possible that Iran is filled with so many wonderful people while Iran has such a poor reputation in the world because of the actions of its government and Darius’ explanations help me with this.

Why Does Everyone Blink their Headlights at Us?

Today we figure out why everyone keeps blinking their lights at us. Every day dozens, perhaps even a hundred people flash their lights at us or signal with their hands out of the window that our lights are one. Even pedestrians tell us through the window. They are concerned that our lights are on. Our car has “day running lights”, which means the headlights are always on, on a slightly dimmer brightness than when you turn your lights on. This is intended to be a safety feature and is even required by law in many countries.

But the majority of Iranians feel we are wasting our lights or energy. It’s really funny how different things bother different people. Darius doesn’t wear a seatbelt, motorcycles, mopeds and bikes don’t use helmets, roundabouts have no right of way, and neither do intersections! Cars and trucks don’t use lights at dusk, some not even at night. Some people use them but turn them off when you come near. Almost nobody uses blinkers. But everyone is concerned that my lights are on! Everyone has their pet peeve and for Iranians it is having your lights on during the day.

Takht-e Soleyman

At about 4:45 we get to Takht-e Soleyman. It’s an old castle and holy place for Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism is the first monotheistic religion. They are dualists – the world is a struggle between good and bad. They believed there are 4 elements that should be revered: earth, air, water, fire. At Takht-e Soleyman there is a deep well that makes a really cool crater lake, a natural gas vent that can sustain a flame, and lots of earth and air.

Then we visit Zendan-e Soleiman, a 97m conical peak with a dizzying void in the middle, very close to Takht-e Soleyman. Zendan-e Soleiman means Solomon’s prison. We hike to the rim and peer inside. Wow! On the way down we are invited to tea by the Kurdish caretaker. He has picked some herbal flowers and makes tea with it. He is an adorable, handsome Kurd with smooth, dark, healthy skin and blue eyes. He lives in a village about 5 km away that he walks from and to each day. He is really kind. He lived in Tehran for a year but decided to come back to his village.

After visiting Zendan-e Soleiman and having tea we head for our hotel in Takab. We check in about 10 p.m., park in the underground garage (super tight and steep drive – I need 4WD to get out of the cement drive the next day), have some soup, salad and yogurt for dinner.

Oljeitu Mausoleum in Soltanieh

On June 17th we are on the road at 7:20 a.m., then stop later in the morning to eat the take-away breakfast our hotel prepared for us the night before. The first half of today’s 400 km drive is on a beautiful winding road through the mountains and the last half is on a good expressway where we can go 120 km/h. During the day we stop in Soltanieh to see the Oljeitu Mausoleum, the world’s tallest brick dome. The dome is a beautiful blue dome on a tan structure that used to have blue tile on the outside and still has lots of decorations on the inside. The Mausoleum’s sponsor was Mongol Sultan Oljeitu Khodabandeh, who changed religions several times. While he was a Shiite he and his favorite concubine wanted to move the remains of Iman Ali from Najaf (in present day Iraq) to here to make it the 2nd holiest Shiite site (after Mecca). Khodabandeh didn’t succeed and was eventually buried here himself. This is our wonderful guide Darius, standing in from of the mausoleum.

Stani and Darius find a way to get around our Tour Agency

At this point Darius is able to reach IranianVisa (our tour agency) on his cell phone and is informed that since we are behind schedule (because they didn’t get Darius on a train to the border on time) and they can’t change our reservations in Esfahan (I think they would have to pay something to change the reservation), they have cut our hiking trip in the Alamut Valley. I’m pretty upset by this because this hike is one of the few things that I really wanted to do in Iran and since January I’ve been telling IranianVisa that I really want to spend 2-3 days here. After all the driving we have been doing I want to use my legs again. When I call IranianVisa they conveniently won’t pick up the phone and then won’t return my messages.

But Darius and I find a way around these bozos. We agree that I’ll pay the hotel we are staying at in Qazvin for an extra night out of pocket and we simply won’t show up at our next hotel (which I paid IranianVisa for). This will give us a full day to hike the Alamut Valley and see the Castles of the Assassins. Then we’ll drive all the way to Esfahan the next day. Darius will cover for us with the police if there are any questions about why we aren’t saying where IranianVisa has us staying. As Americans we need to stick to our pre-approved itinerary and I’m told the police check on this. But in reality we are more closely sticking to your original government-approved itinerary, just not the latest modification from IranianVisa. Thank you Darius! We are going to hike in the beautiful Alamut Valley! I can get back to enjoying our trip.

Shopping for a headscarf, a Manateau, Bread and more Hospitality

After seeing Oljeitu Mausoleum in Soltanieh and fixing our itinerary we drive to Qazvin and check into our hotel there. We visit a camping store and buy a map of Alamut Valley. Darius would like to smoke a water pipe and we are happy to explore the city on our own a bit so we split up for a few hours. In a candy store Kirstin gets an ice cream and I get an Iranian sweet. The store owner asks where we are from and when we tell him United States he exclaims “America!” and then greets us warmly and gives us a special discount for being Americans.

Kirstin needs a proper headscarf and manateau in Iran (she has improvised until now) so we find some clothing stores and go shopping. The store owners don’t speak English and we don’t speak Farsi so it’s an interesting experience. Image buying a type of clothing you’ve never worn before and you can’t speak to the sales people. But the sales people are very nice, in one of the shops the owner finds another shop owner that speaks some English, and some of the other women customers are also very helpful. In the end Kirstin is able to find a nice headscarf and manateau.

Many people might not know what a manateau is. It’s sort of shirt or blouse that is long enough to cover the behind of the wearer. Contrary to what you may think, it can actually be quite stylish. The clothes that women wear in public in Iran basically falls into one of two categories. The more conservative outfit is a chador, which translated literally means “tent”. It is a black sheet that is worn over the head and body. Under this the woman wears pants and a blouse. It covers everything except the feet and face. Wearing a chador is considered form of modesty by many women, while others, including many westerners see it as oppressive. The other type of outfit is a headscarf and manateau, which as I said, can be very stylish. To me, women wearing manateaus in the cities look as stylish as women’s fashion in Europe. Below are photos of a woman wearing a chador and Kirstin wearing a headscarf and manateau.

Now that Kirstin has something to wear we go looking for food. We find some groceries but our best find is Sangiak bread, which is traditionally baked on a bed of stones. In our bread shop there is a large oven, similar to a pizza oven with a large rotating plate (~2.5m) with dimples on it. The woman next to me helps us figure things out. You wait in line, tell them how many breads you want (they cost $0.30 each for a thick 3’ by 1’ piece), you wait for it to cool, then put it in a bag or walk off with it. Back at our hotel we make a stop in the hotel parking garage. The parking attendant speaks no English but clenches his hands together and says America-Iran, meaning we are friends. Even the parking guy is so kind and welcoming to us. What would the average person on the street in the US say about Iranians? The hospitality here is incredible. More than in any other country I’ve visited, Iranians separate how they feel about the actions of foreign governments with citizens of that country.

1 comment:

  1. Kirstin and Stani,

    What a great adventure. Great blog. . . Lisa