2010
03.31

SYNOPSIS: Update on Nicola.  First impressions of Kerman.   Meeting a Dutch couple over dinner and losing track of time.  After hours in Kerman  – not a good idea! 

I surrounded the Southern tip of the Zagros Mountains and turned to the middle of the country today.   I had originally thought I would fly at some point.  Flights in Iran are cheap and many inland destinations can be reached via plane.  But Nicola’s experience has damped my enthusiasm for this experiment.  By the way, as hoped, she and all her luggage made it home as scheduled.  Now she is recuperating from 24 hours in transit.   Aside from the uncertainties of the plane travel – delays are notorious – bus travel here is so convenient and so much more tangible that I think I will stick to it.  There are overnight buses, but I prefer the day buses.  I can actually see the landscape and get a feel for the country a lot better this way.  But perhaps, at some point I will try the train.

With the system of not mixing genders I often get my own double seat on the bus.  There are couples traveling and a lot of single men.  There are not many single women on the road.  According to Shariah (Islamic law) I will not be asked to sit next to a man I don’t know.  So, I get two seats for the price of one and can spread out.  I have my computer out, my camera, my notebook and I catch up sorting photos which is a never ending task, or write my blog.  The hours pass and I hardly notice.  This is desert area.  In the distance, on the way, I saw snow capped mountains, which means that we are high enough again for a relatively decent climate. But it is warm now.  The temperatures are definitely comparable to our summers, but mild comparatively speaking.  I was told that some desert spots around here reach 75 degrees Celsius.  I don’t even know what that is in Fahrenheit.  But it must be around 140-160 degrees.

I chose Kerman as my next destination in order to do several day trips from here.  It is a good hub even though it has not that much going for itself except for an old bazaar and a few museums which I will have to check out.  I wandered through town last night to get a feel for its layout.  There is one long-stretched out boulevard cutting through town along which many of the main businesses are located.  This makes the town somewhat inconvenient as things are not compactly centered.  I had to walk 2 km to the Internet Café…

I checked into a budget hotel near the bazaar.  Even though it is a bit run down, the room is big and I could live here.  But… the hotel staff does not speak English.  They could not comprehend as much as “Check out?” and me pointing to the watch or “How much?”  I had to give up or resort to more visual aids, hoping we would in the end come to a close enough understanding of what I was asking.  This was agony.   In a town where I need some help getting oriented with various safaris (the small buses that go anywhere once they fill), or hire an all day taxis, not to have English speaking staff at the hotel is detrimental.  Finally, the owner was on duty and he did speak some English.  But by then I had already made my decision to move.

I realize that there is some cultural arrogance involved for me to expect that people at the other end of the world speak English.  But English happens to be the most common international language and any business that wants to survive with foreign tourists needs to adapt at least in rudimentary ways.  For many tourists English is their second language, too.  It is almost the only way you can communicate across all these borders.  I checked around and found a different hotel in which the staff greeted me in fluent English and in which most other foreign tourists will also lodge since it is highly recommended by the traveler’s most trusted book, the Lonely Planet.  I will move tomorrow.  The hotel had a restaurant attached when I took in all those delicious smells I realize that I had not eaten all day, except for the two biscuits I got on the bus.

The big restaurant was empty, except for a young couple.  I almost left, when they invited me to join their table.  Ghazaleh, the wife, is Iranian by birth and has been in Holland since she was nine years old.  Bob, her husband is a lawyer who was born in Holland.  Both spoke flawless English.  They had ordered a “blind” dinner.  In other words, the cook in the kitchen cooked what he saw fit and Mohammed, our waiter brought out various courses as they were ready.  What a feast we had!  From a tasty spinach-based soup and bread, salad and some pickled vegetables, we moved to a delicious omelet.   We could have stopped there, but the cook was just warming up.  A plate of rice came out with a beef based stew.  I definitely was getting full at that point, but there came another bowl of cooked greens and beans to eat with the rice.  And I ate that, too.  On the side you always have yoghurt.  I was so full at the end of this meal but it was so, so good!  Everything had been prepared and cooked for us from scratch.

I finally had a good explanation for the food “limitations” when it comes to eating out.   The kind of a meal we had tonight is what Iranians cook and typically eat at home.  When they go out, they eat kebabs as they may not have a grill at home.  They also eat all the junk food outside their homes, like the burgers and pizzas you can get at every corner.  This means that as a visitor you really have to know where to get the good indigenous food or you find yourself limited to kebabs and fast foods.  I have been lucky so far.  With that restaurant at my new location, I will enjoy a few days of delicious Iranian home cooking.  Perhaps, I can even get some of the ingredients for Joe and Celibeth and the other cooks out there.  From Bob and Ghazaleh I also got a lot of good tips on what to do and where to go at my next destination:  Yazd.  It is great to have these exchanges and these recommendations first hand.  It was also wonderful that I did not have to eat alone.    You can much better enjoy a feast like this in good company.

When I left that restaurant I had about 3-4 km to walk to my hotel.  No problem, I thought.  I needed the walk.  Had I been in Shiraz or Esfahan I would have hardly thought about this.  But as I started to walk I realized that this town was different.  Just a couple of hours earlier, the streets were full of life.  In fact, the town was crowded with cheering and celebrating young guys whose Kerman football team had just beat another town.  Football is really big in this country; soccer that is, for the Americans.  I am always embarrassed when they list German football teams and names of famous players for me and I have no clue.  I would have no clue even if I still lived in Germany.  Sports are just not my thing.

At this hour, there was absolutely nobody walking around anymore.  All stores were closed.  For about 5 minutes I stood at the sidewalk.  Not a single taxi drove by!  I continued to walk.  Now I had cars pulling up with single guys in them rolling down their windows and calling something out to me.  Or they were just driving slowly along next to me.  Did they offer me a ride?  Did they think I was walking the streets?  Did they just do the usual “where are you from” thing?  Where they trying to sell me drugs?  One guy gestured me to follow him into a dark alley!  Bloody hell!  What to do?  This was no longer comfortable.  I waved these guys away and yelled at one of them who would not stop following me.  He finally took off.  I realized that I’d better get off the street as fast as I could.

After 15 minutes, in the distance, I finally saw a couple walking.  Where there is a woman, there is some hope, I thought.  So I rushed after them asking where I could find a taxi.  No taxi, they indicated.  I had to call one.  No phone, no Farsi, I indicated.  Ok, follow us, they said.  All of this really not in so many words.  But I knew we were communicating.  I had my hotel card in hand and the word taxi is thankfully a very international one.  They took me down a dark alley but I felt OK with that.  Around a corner we went and into a small hut where three guys were sitting around – taxi, they gestured!  These were taxi drivers?  Not really, but they were guys with a car trying to make an extra penny.

Well, I had enough witnesses to trace my whereabouts and so I went with one of the guys to an unmarked car.  If it hadn’t been for the woman who was part of this, I would have thought this is the biggest set up to get me mugged, murdered, who knows what.  But wouldn’t you know?  The guy drove me home safely to my hotel which was way off the main road.  Since even the main road had turned into a road for weird single men driving around in their cars I don’t want to imagine what was going on in the side streets… How bizarre.

Mind you – I had not been in any real danger by any American or European standards.  I most likely would have gotten home just fine if I had kept ignoring these guys following me.  I was just uncomfortable.  It was midnight when I got to my hotel.  I had lost track of time at that wonderful dinner.  It is very unusual for me to be out at night at all and even more unusual for it to be so late.  It had happened last night, but I was with three good people and there was life on the street at that hour in Shiraz and I was only ½ block from my hotel.  Today, I was 4 km away from home and alone.  I promised myself this was the last time I would be so careless.

Good night.

2010
03.30

DELAY

Hello valued readers,

Elisabeth is having trouble finding open  internet cafe’s due to the holiday as well as other difficulties transfering her documents. There may also be a transit delay for the weekend due to her being in a remote area.  Please be patient as she is still writing daily. We will have plenty to read from her soon.

Thanks,

Corey

2010
03.30

SYNOPSIS: My visa was extended; details on the process.  I met a guy from Denmark and did some sightseeing with him.  An update on Nicola’s journey.  Beware:  This is a long blog.  I had 8 hours to write it on my bus ride to Kerman…  Is 30 days enough?  No rhyme or reason to the visa extension process.

I have no direct news yet from Nicola, but she and her bags arrived in Teheran on time to transfer from one airport to the other with about 3 hours to spare to make her flight to Moscow – that’s the news from Mozaffar, our contact in Teheran.  What a relief!  That flight officer must have come through on his promise.  I am sure Nicola will catch up on some sleep and let us know how the rest of her journey went.

I was up today by 6:30 AM to be at the other end of town on time:  At the police station which was listed in the Lonely Planet and which corresponded to the note I got from the Tourism Police yesterday.  I had to take the final steps for my visa extension business.

To quickly recap the visa process:  I applied months before this trip for a visa for Iran.  The actual visa request had to be initiated by a “sponsor” in Iran through the Iranian government.  A sponsor can be a private family if you are related to someone, but better is a professional, licensed agency, such as the one Mozaffar works for.   I will see if I can link it to this blog at some point.  The visa is handed out only a few weeks before you intend to enter Iran.  Since I was traveling for such a long time, this meant that I had to do this en route.  I chose Dubai for the pickup, but in hindsight, the embassy in Damascus would perhaps have been better as I it would have allowed for a bit more leeway in case anything went wrong.  The agency works on the process and takes responsibility for the traveler once in the country.  This was one of the more expensive visas at $300.  This process is different from all the other visas I had gotten for which I had sent in my passport to the respective embassy and had gotten the visa stamped directly into my passport before I started the trip.  All I had in my hands until hours before my flight to Iran was a confirmation number from the Iranian government.

That number presumably is available to the office for which pickup has been arranged.  God forbid their computers are down at the crucial moment…  Hopefully, fax or phone will then fill in the gap.  The visa issued is good for 30 days.  Iran also issues visas on arrival at the border for just about anyone except American passport holders.  Remember, I am a German citizen and a few things are different for me.  A visa on arrival is limited to 14 days.  If you want to stay longer than 30 days on a regular visa, one thing is crucial:  If the visa is extended, it starts from the day of issue not the day of expiration.  This was a bit of a dilemma for me.  I would have liked to ask for the extension the day we arrived in Shiraz, but that would have put me short by about 4 days at the end.  I had to count carefully to use up my old visa as fully as possible, allow a few bridge days in case there were delays, and apply at the right moment to get me through to my flight.  I almost counted wrong at one point forgetting that March had 31 days…

Well, to make a long story long:  I arrived with a lot of other people at the building for “Alien Matters” – I was reminded of why my nickname in the States is E.T. – the Registered Alien.   I found myself surrounded by what looked like Afghan or Iraqi immigrants.  There were almost only men.  I looked for a “women” entrance, but there was none.  Everyone headed in one direction towards a manned copy machine.  So I put myself in cue and did what everyone else was doing:  Had my passport copied.  I also was handed a standard “Request for Visa Extension Form” with all the others plus a pen.  Very thoughtful and very organized.

We all headed up to the third floor filling out the two forms.  I started one form until a kind soul pointed out a stack of carbon papers – I was supposed to put that between my two sheets.  Stupid me.  By about 8 PM a stern looking officer came to the crowded hallway and took our forms one by one.  A long queue formed.  He spotted me – not hard to do among all the Afghan men – and called for someone.  That was Officer English-Speaking.  A very kind man who checked if all my forms were in order:  Passport, copies, filled out forms, Melli-Bank receipt (the $20 were accepted – I don’t know if I overpaid or not).  Then he asked for two passport photos – I was prepared.  But he was not happy.  I wear no hijab on this photo!  But this is the photo in my passport, the photo I supplied to the embassy, the photo Mozaffar has, the one I left for the records in the Dubai embassy and most of all, it was the photo that was on the Iran visa itself!  No pleading helped.  He wanted a photo of me properly covered.   Mind you – this photo is not going into my passport.  It is held strictly at this and may be a Teheran office.  What on earth?  Can we not risk any officers to look at a photo of a woman with hair?  What is the reasoning behind this if not that?  For identification purposes, my original photo would be a lot more effective.   Go figure!

I was quite discouraged expecting this to be the first in a line of delay tactics.  Following directions, I trotted to the square I was told and to the photo place I was given, to have my photo taken the Iranian way.  I got the quick photo processing.  That only took ½ hour and cost $2.  My scarf was carefully arranged to mimic a full head scarf.  Thank goodness, I wore the black one.  My red shawl would never have done the job.  Who knows, I might have found myself on the way to the bazaar to buy a suitable headscarf…    I have all of 6 mug shots now with a pretend full black hijab!  That is 4 extra.  Too bad, I smiled.  Still, this looks quite severe.   Perhaps, I should auction these off some day to benefit the Arts Club!

With photos in hand I went back.  The queue had dwindled down and Officer Stern was now at his desk accepting forms.  First, I went to see Officer English-Speaking who happily stapled my new photos to my papers and sent me on to Officer Stern.   That one did not exchange a word with me, but took my papers, put a big stamp and a signature into my passport … my heart made a joyous jump – is this the approval?   No.  It wasn’t.  The passport went onto a big pile which hardly could balance on its own.  All passports with forms in them…  I sat down, waiting for further instructions.  But Officer Stern was not communicating.  With a sinking feeling I sat down staring at the pile wondering what would happen next.  Just before the pile tipped over, a clerk came and picked it up.

From all I knew, this could be an all-day affair, a week’s affair, an in-vain affair.  Dozens of Afghanis had accumulated smoking outside the building, and standing around in the hallway.  It looked like they were there for the long haul.  But low and behold- 10 minutes later, Officer English-Speaking walked in with my passport in hand asking “Is 30 days enough?”  I thought I didn’t hear right.  Was that really the question?   Not a long interrogation why I wanted to stay, what my father’s name is, who I am, where I am going, where I was,  who I was with, why I was alone, what I was doing?  Is 30 days enough?!  I assured him it was and … he handed me my passport and wished me a good day!

I practically danced out of the police building.  Could this be?  It was just about 10 AM and I had a visa extension!  Thanks Ganesh and St. Christopher – this was a miracle job.  Thanks, Officer Stern and Officer English-Speaking.  Thanks, Shiraz.  And thanks, Mozaffar.  I suspect some of this has to do with the reputation of the sponsor I have.  That would be an interesting aspect to find out more about.  The Lonely Planet had predicted that Shiraz was the best place for a visa extension.  How good it was became only too clear when I heard that very night that a woman in Yazd had her passport taken by the police and been told to come back after 10 days!  I forgot to ask what nationality she was and who sponsored her.  I could not ask if she had already had an extension or what else was specific to her case.  There are so many aspects to this.  I heard this from a third party.  It is hard to believe that I got the same thing accomplished in 2.5 hours.  This certainly did not happen on my account or merit.  Once again I got lucky.  I was in a festive mood all day!

My stomach was growling and I headed back for a late breakfast to the hotel.  The night before, I had seen a Danish guy check into room 230.  I noticed that his key was not on the shelf.   What would be the harm to knock on his door to find out if he would do some sightseeing with me?  Travelers you meet this far out are usually pretty unique people.  Henrik the Dane took it in stride that I invaded his space.  We had some tea together, told each other a bit where we were coming from and where we were going and agreed on calling a taxi to do a ½ day excursion together.  I wanted to see the Sasanian castle, palace and town of Firuzabad, about 120 km South of Shiraz.  Henrik had just arrived and was up to whatever was there to be seen.  Bahrouz, the taxi driver who had been such a good sport going to Korangun with Nicola and me picked up the phone and was happy to take us out.  Within an hour we were on our way.  Bahrouz stopped at his home and picked up a fully prepared picnic basket and his eleven year old son, for the excursion.

Our destination:  Firuzabad.  Once again we were heading towards the Zagros Mountains.  On a high corner cliff, there was a fortress built by the first Sasanian ruler Ardashir Barbakan in the 3rd Century B.C.  It is hard to tell how much has been built over, but presumably much of the substance is original.  A massive restoration project is under way now for which the Germans built huge cable cars transporting materials and scaffolding up the mountains.  This was happily pointed out to me by the guard when he realized that I was German.  From the fortress, we continued to the palace and town, about 6 km further.  The Palace was also from the 3rd CBC and was interesting architecturally speaking.  It showed a very crude pendentive, an architectural feature that was developed together with a squinch to solve the problem of placing a round dome over a square base structure.  A prime example for this development is the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from the 5th Century AD.  But this was either a lot older, or that part of the palace was rebuilt later – hard for me to assess without primary sources.   This squinch & pendentive structure ultimately developed in the Islamic world into the spectacular “honey-comb” structures known as muqarnas which can be found in just about every mosque and archway.

As interesting as the architecture were the people.  We were in a Quashqai village; one of the settlements built for Nomads.  Women were walking around in their absolutely gorgeous, glittering, huge skirts without their chadors.  These dressed are so incongruous with agricultural work and the dusty streets, making the women looking like colorful birds going to a party.  We were in traffic and I often could only catch a glimpse of them – if I could have just sat in a corner in that village, invisible…  But at the palace I was able, thanks to my zoom lens, to get a couple of images, often from the back only.  Some men wore their traditional felt hats.  Somewhere I will have to find some of those and bring them home.

The highlight of the trip was the Sasanian town about 3 km further from the palace and away from the new town.  Dating from the same period, nothing much is there to be seen, except a brick tower of uncertain origin or function.  But I found that fascinating.  Just like the desert towns in Syria, you walk on some rolling hills knowing that all the history and all the artifacts are still there, untouched from thousands of years ago.  Anyone in the field of archaeology could still have virgin territory here.  Just compare that to Egypt which has been dug up over and over and over – but even there, some rare new finds are made occasionally.  What is particularly fascinating is that the town was arranged in a perfect circle; a fact which still can be made out from the highest point, presumably, the temple.  That area is the only place where stone-cut blocks are littering the landscape in contrast to the rest of the buildings which are made of smaller stones like the fortress, the palace and the houses.  We had a good time.  The weather was perfect.  It was particularly nice that Bahrouz had packed lunch for us all.  I called him a restaurant on wheels.  There is your Iranian hospitality!  How many taxi drivers will do that for you anywhere else!

At night I said good-bye to my favorite guys at the Internet Café:  Ali, the owner and Saeed, his main staff person.  It is heart-breaking to see a PhD in ancient Persian linguistics and a physicist with a degree staffing three computer stations to take in a few dollars per hour…    Ali speaks German and English among a few ancient languages.  Saeed is very shy, but he speaks English, too.  He just has to dare a bit more.  Both were extremely helpful to me and Nicola.  If you are ever in Shiraz, here is how you find them:   Off the main Zand Boulevard is busy Pirusi street.  Walk it South on the West side until you almost reach a little alley marked with a “Mosque” sign.  Just before that to your right is a small shopping complex selling washing machines and appliances.  Go up a few steps into the complex, turn towards the right where you will see a few steps going down leading into a dark corridor.  Yes, that’s where they are located.  They are completely hidden away from sight with no English sign.  I told Ali that he had to change that ASAP if he wants to attract some foreign tourists.  He promised.

Across the street from my new hotel is a burger joint at which huge lines were forming every night as if they were selling hot cakes.   Ali told me it is the most famous burger eatery in town.  How could I miss it?  I ended up eating the famous 110 burger – me, a burger… yes, I know… – with three highly educated, young guys talking politics, religion, and social issues until midnight.  Wow, that was interesting!   All I can say is this:  If what I heard tonight is representative of the educated youth in Iran, there is hope for all of us and war is the very wrong answer to whatever problems the West has with Iran.   As if that isn’t plain obvious even without traveling here and meeting all these wonderful Iranian people.

Being out until midnight was the last thing I had planned on.  I still had to pack for tomorrow.  I had been up by 6:30 AM today and would have to be up at 5:30 AM tomorrow…   But things happen.

And if I would have had to write this blog at the end of the day you would have gotten the usual 2 pages as I restrict my writing to two hours.  But I had an 8 hour bus ride to get through today as I am in transit to Kerman, my next destination.  After I briefly visited the Pars Museum and the castle in Shiraz, there was little else that could keep me there.  Let’s see what’s around the next corner, now that I have 30 more days to go!

Good night.

2010
03.29

SYNOPSIS:  Today was a day of taking care of business:  Changing hotels and flights, exchanging money, getting the visa extension process started.  As always, a few unexpected things happen.  how many officers does it take to answer one question?

It was with some hesitation that I left Nicola at the airport a couple of hours ago, knowing that she had a big extra bag to take to Teheran with all of our shopping stuff and that she had just heard the news that her flight was delayed by 2-3 hours…  That meant that all of our efforts this morning to get her on an earlier flight had been in vain.  I could see how stressed out she was at the thought of not making her connection to London via Moscow tonight.  Not a pleasant thought indeed.   But my presence would change nothing and the taxi was waiting and so I went.  At least we had attracted enough attention right away so that one officer from Qish Air (is that really the name of an airline?) promised Nicola to personally try to squeeze her on an earlier flight.  Of course, this is still the height of Noruz travel and all and everything is booked to the brim.

I am alone again in my hotel room, as I had been before Nicola’s arrival.  The silence is a bit strange.  It was nice to have a travel companion with whom to share the enthusiasm for Iran’s incredible historical treasures; someone who would help answer the never ending question “where are you from “ and  someone who would endure some of the stares with me.   Nicola, however, was rarely ever the object of the stares.  In fact, some Iranians we spoke to expressed surprised when they heard that Nicola was also a foreign visitor.  That’s how perfectly Nicola blended in.  Following a recent website’s visual advice she had bought exactly the right clothes – much of it at thrift shops – to look like a native.  Long men’s shirts and narrow pants seem to be the secret and her Queen of England-style head scarf topped it all off to perfection.

So, this is for all of the women who are thinking of traveling in Iran:  You can avoid almost all the stares and the attention if you blend in.  But you will also miss out on a lot of fun, well-meant interactions, and some extraordinary encounters.  This seems to be a mixed bag.  Inadvertently, I dressed to be myself and to wear what I would wear at home; but even at home my clothinging is not mainstream.  I came with modest clothing but it was not modeled on the Iranian uniform.  Instead of a tight scarf, I swirl around a long, thin shawl in a way that I can be comfortable.   But I get for it what I get, sometimes more and sometimes less:  A lot of reactions.  After almost 30 days in Iran, I have accepted this mixed bag and am ready to go on alone which will increase again the amount of both types of encounters without question.  In Nicola, I had a bit of a shield.

Aside from her perfect clothes another factor surely played a role:  After 32 years of service as a British police officer she is quite proud of her crowd demeanor as well – when she puts “it” on, nobody will mess with her.  One look at her and the message is clear:  Stay away!   Leave me alone!  One older guy this morning, however, must not have looked carefully.  He had just pestered me a bit more obnoxiously than we usually tolerate and he was one of those creepy ones.  I had given him a friendly “Good bye”, which I hoped was sufficient for him to get lost.  But instead he moved over to Nicola’s side.  You should have seen her:  Before he got out half a word she yelled at him to disappear or she would call the police.  She stressed the word “police” a number of times until the guy hurried off, most likely completely shocked by this explosion.  Nicola reminded me in the taxi to the airport not to leave this incident out of today’s blog.

When this happened, we had just come out of the Shiraz headquarter of Melli Bank.  Following instructions in the Lonely Planet, we had tracked down this particular building of Melli Bank.  It’s their headquarters. But aside from a tiny Latin sign you would never know.  They don’t seem to expect non-Farsi speakers around here.   I need to extend my visa tomorrow in order to stay 30 more days until my flight.  To be honest, I put the cart before the horse…  I have a flight home from Teheran at the end of April, even though I don’t know if I will still be in Iran.  Getting a visa extension may be a piece of cake or a Herculanean task.  It’s anyone’s guess.  It may work in Shiraz, or fail in Teheran, or vice versa.  There is no clear-cut rule.  I am counting on Ganesh for this one and on all the good will of the police officers and on my convincing them to understand that another month in Iran is absolutely essential for my work and the education of all of my students.  And if all else fails, I will call my powerful friend Akbar in Teheran to pull some strings.  Or perhaps, I should try to pull a Nisreen-style fit?  Do you remember her wonderful number at the Iranian embassy in Dubai?

I was lead from the front room to a side building to a guy who seemed to be in charge of the visa extension fees.  At the time, however, he was handling a huge brick of money.  If you don’t watch out, that’s what you get when you hand over a hundred dollar bill!  How much does a visa extension cost?  I asked him.  Do you have a number?  He asked back.  What number?  OK, no number.  What do you want to pay?  Seriously, that’s what he asked me!  What do I want to pay?  Have you ever been asked at the bank “How much would you like to pay”?  It was a first for me.  I was so confused, that I had to laugh.  Did he want a bribe?  Did he really not know what the visa extension costs?  I suggested to call the visa extension office at the police for whom this payment was, to find out the amount to be paid.  He asked:  Do you have their number?  And he was not kidding!  How on earth would I, a traveling foreigner know the number of their police department?  There is only one bank that takes these payments and one office that does this business and he does not know?  He suggested paying $20.  If it was not enough I would have to come back, he explained.  But if it was too much, there would be no refund.  I was willing to pay that much, bribe, or fee, or whatever.  It was a step in the right direction.  I hope that the receipt will do the trick tomorrow and that it is enough.  Two years ago, as stated in the Lonely Planet, $10 was enough…

As we left the bank, we spotted a booth labeled “Tourism Police”.  This was what we needed.  These guys could surely tell us where to locate the visa extension police just in case the Lonely Planet was outdated on that, too.  We headed on over and asked the first officer draped with a beautiful … what’s the name for this… Scherpe in German* – well, a decorative band that made his uniform look very festive.  He spoke no English.  By the time we left, seven officers, including some higher ranks had gathered around us – nobody able to speak English, nobody able to answer the question.  Finally, the big shot among them offered a street name which he wrote down for me in English and in Farsi.  Somewhere on that street, presumably, there will be the visa extension branch of the Shiraz police, somewhere on the left side.  I hope that Lonely Planet will be more helpful.

Much could be added in this blog about the process of getting a flight ticket canceled and another one issued.  There is always this strange phenomenon in banks and the like, even in some stores:  You are being sent from one counter to the next, from upstairs to downstairs, from one branch to another and from one person to the one over.  It is almost as if as many people as possible are employed for each fragment of a job.  Perhaps, this is indeed the system?  Labor is cheap and if you employ all the people in no matter how many menial jobs, at least they are not out on the streets either rioting or begging.  That certainly was the system old East Germany.  So much rings a familiar bell.

By now I hope that Nicola is in the air somehow going somewhere with all of her bags.  I hope that a solution manifested itself as it always seems to do.  This morning, when we had to change hotels and decided to walk the 3.5 blocks, we found out how hard that was with our entire luggage.  But getting a taxi and getting stuck in one-way traffic seemed even more pointless for these 3.5 blocks.  Just as we were resting and cursing the idea to walk, there was Mr. Do-you-need-a-cart?  Unbelievable!  Out of the blue he manifested himself with just the right sized equipment.  And for a tip he hauled our luggage much faster than a taxi could have and certainly much faster then we two old ladies could have, over to our new destination.   These things never cease to amaze me!

Have a good and safe flight, Nicola.  Things always work out!

Good night.

* And if Nicola were here, I would have a competent proof-reader and native speaker to help improve the writing style of this blog as I had over the last ten days.  As it is, you have to be patient and forgiving with me again.

2010
03.28

SYNOPSISNicola’s final day in Iran.  She is writing today’s blog about an excursion to Sasanian Bishapur and Elamite Kurangun.     Nicola’s final day starts badly but gradually gets better.

Tonight Elisabeth is busy with some hotel arrangements and a very slow internet connection at the local café-net so I am writing this blog, my final entry.  This morning we awoke to find that not only had it rained heavily overnight but half the tent people of Shiraz were camped in the foyer of our hotel and Monsieur le proprietor was knocking on our door telling us we had to leave.  Well, Elisabeth was not having any of that, especially as he was trying to send us back to the budget busting four-star establishment where we had spent our first night in this fair city.  Suffice it to say, a compromise was reached and we were moved to a smaller room in the same hotel.

That and the rain prompted us to decide to go on an excursion for the day to get out of a Shiraz bursting to the seams with poor bedraggled tent families and so we asked for a taxi.  Our driver arrived promptly, although it was by now ten o’clock, and seemed to understand where we wanted to go. He also knew a few back doubles to get us out of the city faster and so, thinking we were in good hands, Elisabeth and I settled down to squabble like kids on the back seat over whether we would get any decent pictures of the Zagros mountains through the lowering clouds.

We were heading for two sites, the Sasanian city of Bishapur and the Elamite rock carvings of Kurangun. These two destinations are to be found to the East of Shiraz, the first some 130 kilometers and the next a further 70. We had a pretty good drive through the mountains as the road was good and the traffic reasonable – but the view through the drizzle not up to much. It took only about two and a half hours to reach the first destination which Elisabeth had actually planned to see after heading on to the second. At this point considerable confusion arose with our driver completely at a loss to understand why we wanted to leave straight away when there was a whole cluster of sites around the royal city of Shapur the First, powerful ruler of the third century AD.  Our driver, Berouz, appeared to have mistaken our second destination with another important Sasanian site not too far from Bishapur and knew nothing of Kurangun.

At this point I capitulated and agreed to visit Bishapur first, not much caring which sequence we used and considering anything achieved to be a vast improvement on huddling in a crowded bazaar in a soaking wet Shiraz. The ruined city of Bishapur itself is extensive: with roads, palaces, humbler dwellings, fortifications and what are claimed to be baths all pretty minimally restored and comprehensively grazed by the local sheep and goats.  The site is in a remote plain where the mountains separate and the amount of stone rubble around suggested that it has not been so much used as a quarry by the locals as have similar sites in Western Europe from the same period.

The similarity of Bishapur to a Roman city can be explained by the frequent contact between the two Empires at the time and the fact that the Sasanians made use of captured Romans (including at one stage an actual Emperor) in the design and construction of many of their building projects.  Indeed, so like to a Roman site was it that, with the ruins, the rain and the sheep, I could almost believe myself back in one of the British shore forts of the fourth century.  The Romans left their mark on our landscape as well. The place was not deserted as there were several Iranian families visiting; although, for some, practicing their English on us and asking us to pose for photographs seemed to be the highlight of their day.  Well, that seems to be the price for being the only foreigners in town – even a seventeen hundred year old town.

Back at the entrance our driver had found out from the information kiosk exactly where Kurangun was and was adamant that it was too far; he appeared to be offering us various alternatives.  He should have realized that “adamant” just doesn’t work on Elisabeth and so, with an agreement to pay a higher price and only a cursory look at the Sasanian rock carvings on the other side of the river, we set off through the mountain pass in search of the elusive Elamites.  We knew by now that we would probably be sacrificing a look at the celebrated, seven meter tall freestanding figure located in some caves an unspecified distance in the opposite direction but decided on sticking to our original plan.  After all, however fine it was, it was still Sasanian and something more than fifteen hundred years older was too tempting to miss.

The road was good and the now fully visible mountains magnificent.  Our driver sped along as if anxious to labour the point that we had chosen a destination unreasonably far from home.  We saw more and more nomadic people, the women wearing beautifully coloured swirling, gypsy skirts and minimal headscarves; such a welcome change from the ubiquitous black chador.  Two small towns and an hour later we approached a wide gravel river bed surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery.  Berouz, our driver stopped to speak to a couple of locals about directions and it was charming to see how the traditional courtesies of handshakes and fulsome greetings were still employed in this remote region. After all, just how many strangers had passed that way today?  We were to have our answer soon enough.

After two more sets of directions appeared to confirm that we were heading the right way the worst happened; someone sent us back the way we had come. At this stage I thought that all was probably lost; zigzagging across the valley to look for some obscure rock carvings was just not feasible given that it was now mid afternoon and we had at least 200 kilometers to travel back to Shiraz.  Within minutes of turning back we had stopped at a small parking area beneath a steep, rock strewn hill with no signs and no apparent path to the top.  A few children were playing on a rock slide part way up and a mixed herd of sheep and goats was grazing nearer the top.  Before we could even formulate a question our driver set off up the steep climb ahead of us putting Mr. Middle-aged-spread from the Esfahan Fire Temple to shame.

The total height from the valley floor to the ridge above was about perhaps two hundred meters and there was absolutely nothing even faintly archaeological to be seen.  At one stage Elisabeth pointed out to the driver that I was a grandmother but it was just caution over not losing my footing that meant that I was bringing up the rear.  Berouz called to us from the top and just over the ridge we were treated to an absolutely splendid view of the valley and the surrounding mountains.  Then Elisabeth shouted “there it is” and we looked along the ridge to see a narrow, cut platform with low relief figures carved into the rock face behind.  We photographed them from a distance and then scrambled round to see them close up; no easy feat considering they overlooked a sheer drop to the river below.

The Kurangun relief has been exposed to the elements on top of this escarpment for three and a half thousand years; it is weathered, damaged, lichen encrusted and not terribly big but on either sides of two seated figures (whether royal or divine it is difficult to be sure) are the remains of a two tiered processional staircase.  These are the same staircases as the ones used by Darius the Great at Persepolis to show his majesty to the world, the style pre-dates him by at least a thousand years.  It was a wonderful feeling to be so in tune with ancient history in such a remote spot; it really did show no signs of any other visitors having been there in recent memory.  After all, it has the cultural distinction of not being included in the Lonely Planet guide book.

As we looked back down the hill we laughed to see a procession of local children and teenagers following us up.  They joined us at the top and asked all the usual questions which we were happy to answer while we took in the view.  I should mention that our guide, Mr Skeptic, was now snapping away with the camera on his mobile phone with every indication of delight.  In fact I would go so far as to say he was filled with national pride over our enthusiasm for such a little known corner of his country.  This certainly made our long journey back go much more smoothly, with a brief stop for tea and the purchase of fruit.

We made it back to Shiraz by shortly after seven, paid him a generous fee and agreed to call him for the trip to the airport tomorrow.  I am absolutely delighted to have finished this brief visit to Iran with a glimpse at the most ancient of its civilizations, just as it begun at the ziggurat of Choqa Zanbil.  Nearly as delighted, that is, as I am to be going back to my home and my new baby grandson tomorrow.

Good night.

2010
03.27

SYNOPSIS:   Shiraz – what Iranians think and what we think.    Devotion and enthusiasm for a city with a past.

We have now had two days to get to know Shiraz a bit better and we are not sure how much we are going to like it.

Today, we visited the two most important sites in town “The Shrine” and “The Tomb”.  Everyone knows what you refer to even though the city is full of both.  The shrine which stands out is the Aramgah-e-Shah-e-Cheragh shrine, considered one of the holiest Shiah shrines in the country.  It has a huge courtyard, two bulbous domes unique to Shiraz, a noticeable museum; and altogether houses three different tombs.  Aramgah was one of Imam Reza’s brothers.  Imam Reza himself was one of the twelve holy imams or saints in Shia history who is buried in the holy city of Mashad.  In fact he was the eighth imam and because he is the only one buried in Iran, he is the most important one for the Iranians; and his brother is the next best to the real thing.  Put this together with Noruz and the fact that it was Friday today and you get the picture:  a huge crowd was pouring into the shrine.

For the first time we were asked to leave backpack and cameras behind in the depositary, we were searched with the help of an interesting new device – a bright green feather duster – and as always had to wear a chador.  I had just passed muster and entered the courtyard when a woman next to me opened her purse and pulled out a huge hand gun!  My heart stopped until I realized that this was the toy gun for her son!  I could not believe my eyes and I also could not believe how this object had gone through inspection.  A toy gun is no joke, at least not a realistic looking one like this.

Inside the vast courtyard I was ordered by several female guards to cover all of my hair; hard to do as the chador kept slipping back from over the scarf I was wearing.  No photography was allowed and respectful “Islamic behavior” was requested.  But I guess that could be interpreted one way or another.  As respectful as we were, we observed little kids with baseball hats, women without socks, tons of people photographing with their cell phones, and several women with their hair showing.

We knew that strictly speaking non-Muslims were not allowed in the shrine.   But we were going to give it a try.  We debated whether I should go first, catch the usual attention so that Nicola could slip by or if she would go first unnoticed and I would go second and expect to be turned away.  As my shoes come off faster, I was in first, walking with determination and without looking at any of the attendants right in.  No problem.  I waited and waited for Nicola to follow, but she never came.  The shrine was perhaps the most splendid I have seen anywhere:  Larger and with more tiny silver mirrors than you can imagine, arranged in the honey-comb arch fashion known as muqarnas.  The silver-grid shrine was in the center.  Women had access to their half, men to the other.  A man was praying out loud on the other side and many women joined in the prayer hands held up high.  But many other women were texting or talking on their cell phones, resting, and taking pictures, of course…  Nicola had been stopped and asked if she was a Muslim.  She was not prepared to lie so she was turned away.

We noticed several interesting rooms going off the arcade around the courtyard.  Since we had been stripped of our camera you have to take our word for it.  There was the “Religious Questions (Women)” room; it was closed.  There was the “Narcotic Police” room – the problem must be significant enough to address it here…   And there was the “Ethics House for Kids and Teenagers”, whatever that could be.

The museum on site was surprisingly significant.  It housed some very fine prehistoric artifacts, lots of ceramic and silver ware but most impressively many finely illustrated ancient Korans. The museum itself was located in a mansion-style house with fine woodwork and stained glass windows.

On our way to “the tomb”, the Tomb of Hafez, Iran’s most beloved 14th Century poet, we encountered more of the tent community in Shiraz. We passed families eating dinner occupying the entire width of the side walk!  This was not a fun spot to be.  Hard stone only blocks away from a park, yet, there they were…  Lining government buildings, parks, mosques, wherever you looked, brightly colored tents were sprinkled throughout town.  It is amazing that the town is not turning into a filthy trash heap.  There is no evidence of litter anywhere.  And city ordinance does not seem to prevent or hinder any of this.  Nicola termed them Polyester Nomads; a fitting description.

The line to Hafez’ tomb was forbidding; yet it moved along swiftly enough for us not to give up.  I had heard how much Iranians love Hafez and and their other great poets.  The first time I realized how real the devotion to these poets is, was in Kermanshah.  Taxi driver Kover had taken me home to visit his sister.  I had not been in the house for more than a minute when she came to show me her stack of poetry books!  I was amazed.  I asked her which one was her favorite and she went right to the page.  I cannot imagine any German or American kid having stacks of poetry books around like this.  And she could quote these poems by heart!  We met one woman at the tomb and asked her what made her come to Shiraz during Noruz; she was from Tabriz.  She said that all of her life she had wanted to be in Shiraz and this year her dream finally came true!

The place was packed!  People were crowding the gardens and there was no way to get near the actual tomb without having to elbow your way through loving devotees.  The tomb stone itself was located under a relatively modern cupola surrounded by rose gardens.  Hafez’ poetry of love and wine seems surprisingly un-Islamic.  Yet, he lived as a Muslim during post-Mohammed times.  How this all fits together is a mystery to us.  It must be that his poetry can be interpreted in a very, very broad way.  Perhaps, he was not talking about love at all but about devotion to god?  Perhaps, he was not talking about wine at all but about paradise in which wine and rivers of honey are flowing according to the Koran?  Go figure.  There sure is no more wine in Shiraz these days, so Nicola and I resorted to non-alcoholic beer – really a kind of a lemon drink – with our pizza and sandwich for dinner.

To us, Shiraz is a noisy town with a few shrines, mosques, and tombs.  It is lacking the beauty and the artistic vision of Esfahan. It’s not a bad town, but we cannot quite share the raving enthusiasm Iranians seem to have for this city.  Perhaps, we are missing something that cannot be seen.  Perhaps, knowing the poetry of Hafez or believing in the authority of the imams would make a difference.

Good night.

2010
03.26

SYNOPSIS: What a day we had:  Persepolis and a few other sites, posing for photos, a stupid driver, two hours with the Iranian Security Forces, contemptuous looks, a shoe shine and a creepy guy.  Christmas songs at Persepolis and the police – your friends and helpers.

Where to start?  So much happened today.  This was the big day to go to Persepolis known to the locals as Takht-e-Jamshid.  Up at 5 AM, out the door at 6 to beat the traffic and the crowds; we did it.  Our driver, Amir, was a pompous young man.  Already, when making arrangements with him on the phone he got me frustrated because instead of answering a question like “how much do you charge per hour?” He would answer “no problem”.   Then he showed up at the hotel last night unannounced and we still did not communicate.  He spoke English quite well, but had nearly zero comprehension skills.  He could not make sense out of a simple question like “should we wake you up?” “No problem” was not helpful.  Perhaps, I should mention that he was late.  We should have followed our inner voices and been on guard when Amir dropped us off and as a meeting point suggested “the coffee shop”.  That was all we had to go by when we parted.

We had gotten there in good time only to find out that a long cue already had formed at the ticket office and of course, hundreds of people had camped out right at the grounds around Persepolis.  Soon a second, but shorter line formed.  I could not figure out why nobody moved from the long line over.  But Nicola got the system:  One line, the long one we were standing in, was only for men!  We moved to the shorter line.  We were not the first visitors, but definitely among the first 100.  Not bad given the 200,000 who would follow us today.

We entered through the magnificent Gate of all Nations but hurried on to the famous staircase of the throne hall.  The sun had risen over the mountains shining on to the site.  But it was already too late for the few minutes of perfect shots for the famous staircase with the visiting dignitaries from the 23 vassal states from the Achaemenein.  Persepolis was the heart of this empire which at the time was the largest the world had ever known.  It is significant to note that the vassals are shown as dignitaries and not as captives. Lucky for mankind, much survived the devastating fire from Alexander’s time.   Since the site was buried under rubble and sand, the preservation of the reliefs is magnificent.  To protect it from exposure and curious visitors’ fingers, it is kept under an awning.  As soon as the sun rises beyond a certain point, shadows fall onto the carvings marring every photographic image of them.  It did not help that we changed the clock by one hour just four days ago.  That hour was crucial.  I was disappointed that we were too late, but that’s life…  There is always Google…

We still had some room to walk when we started.  By the time we left, four hours later, Persepolis felt like the bazaar in Esfahan.  You got shoved around, pushed along, and there was hardly a square foot to be had to yourself.  Mind you, Persepolis, since ancient times was associated with the Iranian New Year.   It is believed that the famous staircase depicts the dignitaries who presented gifts to the ruler during the Noruz festival.  This is where everyone goes this time of the year!  We even met some people whom I had already met in Esfahan who recognized us.  It is a small world.

Speaking of meeting people:  We had a near constant stream of “Hallo”, “Where are you from?” today and patiently posed for numerous pictures, answering the same question over and over.  Behind our backs, there were countless snap photos.  I don’t mind those.  I do them myself.  The constant questioning was tiresome, but we did our best.    A few incidents stick out though:  I sat on a ledge off the beaten path minding my business, when an old woman plunked down next to me, put her elbow onto my shoulder and called a whole clan over to be photographed with me!  No introduction, no nothing.  All of a sudden I had an elbow on my shoulder!  That was something.  At another place a man practically ran up to me holding a little baby.  I thought he had an emergency.  He shoved the baby into my face gesturing with his camera that he wanted my picture taken with his baby!  Those of you who know me may recall that I don’t like babies!  There I stood with a stranger’s baby in my arms faster than I knew what to do.  Nicola who loves babies was nowhere to be seen.  I must have looked sufficiently unhappy since a woman, perhaps the mother of that baby, came to rescue me.  I thanked her profusely and walked away.  How bizarre!  But all of this attention was good natured and we endured.

You can look up all the history of Persepolis on line, so I will spare you more details.  We had one of the best views by climbing up to the tombs of Artaxerxes II and III carved into the surrounding cliffs.   From there you can overlook this magnificent site.   We had been so spoiled all along being the only people even at UNESCO world monuments, that today was a real challenge which for me, spoiled the experience a bit.  On the other hand, it gave this visit also a very special flair:  This is what Persepolis is during Noruz!  We can say that much – we were the only foreigners.  We looked high and low for some other “real” tourists.  Of course, everyone there was a tourist, but an Iranian tourist.  I even resorted to the pestering “Where are you from?” question myself asking a woman who I was sure was not an Iranian – wrong!  She was from Teheran.   This would explain some of the attention we drew.

As we strolled along, early on music began to play over some loudspeakers.  That was disgusting, loud and disturbing.  We both were reminded of China – they play this tinny music everywhere.  Nicola expected it to turn into the theme music of the recent Alexander film, but it did not.  I thought it felt more like Christmas at an American Mall.  No wonder – one of the instrumental pieces indeed was an adaptation of the Noel melody.  What on earth?! This was awful, but the music, like nothing, else gave this visit its final touch.  What an experience!

After four hours in the full sun, we were ready to call it a day and headed out to “the coffee shop” to meet Amir to continue our trip.  But there were three coffee shops we could identify and a hotel with a coffee shop in addition to it.  We tried to remember in which direction Amir had gestured when we made the arrangement and settled down.  But right away something did not add up and so we started to take some action:  My first task was to go and find the car…  Can you imagine a parking lot with 1000 cars and I am supposed to find a car which I did not park?  I don’t even know the brand of my own car!  I certainly did not know Amir’s car.  But I had collected visual clues in the morning:  It was white, short, had writing on both sides of the back, had a hatchback, and it had a red stripe and three letters on the passenger door.  With those clues at hand I wandered the aisles.  And won’t you believe it – I found a car with all the marks and left a note on it.  My backpack was in it; that is if I had the right car…

We then split up and walked the other coffee shops, relaxed a bit, stood in line for the bathroom – just imagine 200,000 people with facilities made for a fraction of that…  No sight of Amir.  Nicola then made a brilliant move involving the tourist information.  More than two hours had passed.  She had Amir announced over the loudspeakers!  In the meantime, I found a helpful soul – one of those “Hello, how are you?” guys whom I asked to put his curiosity to good use and to make a few phone calls on our behalf.  He did, but unfortunately, he confused our Fars Hotel with the much better known Pars Hotel and all the information we got from him was more misleading than helpful.  When he asked me how old I was I decided it was time to part with his services.

By now we had caused so much commotion that the non-English speaking staff at the Tourism office involved some security guys.  We thought they were some sort of Tourism Police, but it turned out they were a lot more than that.  Most likely the plain clothes security big shots – they definitely gave orders to the armed guards who at one point turned up asking to be helpful as well.  They filmed us!  Good grief – now our faces will be stored in the Iranian secret police vaults.  And they went to work at full force – they asked me to find the car again, traced the license plate and found out it was not registered to Amir.  They traced Amir and found out that his real name was Mahid!  Now they were going at it!  All the time though, they were the most helpful, most concerned, most attentive three guys we could imagine at our side.  They even brought us ice cream!  They were really worried about our impressions and kept assuring us that their biggest hope was that we would not walk away with a bad experience from Persepolis.

Once they found Amir, and they found him – they really gave him a hell of a time.  He had been sitting at a different coffee shop and claimed to have been looking for us as well.  That he was at a different site was obvious.   But he was not the type of a guy who would overwork himself looking for us…  We, in the end, had chosen the wrong coffee shop.  So much was clear.  But we had worked out butts off for 2 hours and the police added another 1.5 hours to that to find him…  The end was good, all was good.  At least for us it was.  I am not so sure if this whole ordeal will not have further consequences for Amir.  I hope not.  We bailed him out and assured the officers that all was well, we were happy, grateful, and obviously not in any danger, nor had we been cheated by a crook.

Amir was rather shaken up by this.  I only remember how we felt about the police in East Germany.  We sarcastically called them our “friends and helpers” when all we wanted was to stay as far away as possible and out of their radar.  I really, really hope that Amir, or Mahid, or whatever his name is, will be OK.  We continued our journey to two nearby ancient relief sites: Naqsh-e-Rajab and Naqsh-a-Rostam.    They were more impressive than Bisotun and the reliefs I saw in Kermanshah, combined.  The late afternoon sun made them glow.  Timing could not have been better.  Everything happens for a reason…

By now we were exhausted, dusty, and tired.  Back in Shiraz, we walked the last kilometer as it looked like traffic was locking up again.  I should not have spoken so soon about the Shirazians:  There is no new tone here (Day 68).  In fact, in just 15 minutes we got a full range of nasty remarks, rudeness, and more contemptuous looks than in a long while.  It was massive.  I shrug it off, but Nicola observed some of this from a distance in more detail as most of it was directed toward me.  Of all things – I had my shoes shined.  You should have seen the dust on them from Persepolis!  But, either Madams don’t get their shoes shined around here or it was again my baggy red pants that caused the disapproval.  The shoe shiner had to shush a few teenagers away; an old crone would not stop sneering at me behind my back, and a really creepy, skinny young man with dyed hair and makeup kept following me asking for “love”!  We would send him away and he would circle back.  I finally found the right weapon for him – whenever he would come near us, I raised my camera.  He immediately cringed back and disappeared, only to show up again a few minutes later.  But my camera in hand, he finally disappeared for good.  I wish I had captured him.  But my camera cap was on…

What a day!

Good night.

2010
03.25

SYNOPSIS:   Nicola was resting for a day.  I ventured out people watching and when permitted, photographing them.  Curious looks on both sides.

We switched hotels this morning, no easy task when the town again was clogged with hundreds of thousands of cars and people. The ten minute walk from one hotel to the other took the taxi almost half an hour.  But it transported our luggage which, as you know, got very heavy due to the shopping spree in Esfahan.  Nicola wanted a day of rest and read up about Persepolis for tomorrow.  So I ventured out on my own exploring our new neighborhood.

What is going on?!  In the span of one hour I got two compliments for my unusual clothing, one from a woman, one from a young guy on the street!  The baggy pants, mind you!  I got curious looks and some smiles as well as some “Hello”, “Where are you from?”  But none of the rude remarks, the snickers behind my back, or the dreadful stares I have gotten used to since Teheran.  This was delightful!  The town was packed with Iranian visitors.  In the afternoon I kept walking around and encouraged by the friendly reception, I started to approach people asking if I could take their pictures.  Some of the most wonderful older females were happy to engage in conversations with me (hand and feet more than verbal), but would not allow me to take their picture.  Others, when they saw me taking pictures of people jumped in and wanted their pictures taken as well.  Hardly anyone spoke English, but my big camera said it all.

Just around the corner from our hotel, which is splendidly centrally located, there is tent city!  I can’t believe that the city is not enforcing any restrictions, but hundreds of people are camping out along the sidewalks, in little parks, and always near the mosques.  First I thought they were visiting the shrines, but I think the concentration around the holy sites has a lot more practical reasons:  every shrine and mosque has plenty and clean toilets!  I so wanted to photograph the inside of some of the tents but the people I asked, would not allow me to take their picture.  People had rolled out carpets inside these small tents; they had cookers there, toys, shoes, clothes and food.  Little communities had formed around central outdoor cooking areas.  Despite all of this outdoor living, the parks were not littered as one would expect and except for the crazy traffic things all seemed quite orderly.

From all I could tell, lots of minorities were among the people walking the streets.  There were tribal women, Afghani men, and Asian minorities.  However, the crowds were so thick that I did worry about my backpack being picked a bit.  But nothing happened.

Nothing else happened today.  Rather than boring you with anything else, I will pull out some of the photographs of people and leave you with a feast for the eyes.

Good night.

2010
03.24

SYNOPSIS:   We were in transit and experienced some of the Noruz frenzy people had been warning us about. Today’s pictures are provided in part by Nicola – she had the window seat in the bus.   Where there is a will there is a way even during Noruz.

Everything went according to plan until 10 km outside of Shiraz, when the trouble started.  Traffic condensed into bumper to bumper.  Not like in the States that is.  A three line highway turned into five rows of tightly packed cars, half off the road, which moved at a snail’s pace.  Dozens and dozens of cars lined the side of the road.  We speculated that they had run out of gas, had overheated, or were just fed up going this way and waiting it out.   People either prepared for this ahead of time or they had picnic gear along, but hundreds of people had little mini tents set up of the sort that do not take stakes but unfold in one piece.  People seemed to have a good time.  Nicola remarked that they were going back to their nomadic roots.  I think they much rather would have been home but they certainly knew how to cope.

The last 10 km took us two hours in the bus…  But we made it, got a taxi and went to our hotel.  There, the trouble continued.  The hotel clerk pretended not to know anything about our reservation!  It was 11 PM and we had no place to go and were loaded up with luggage to our teeth.  Nicola was quite on the mark thinking that he perfectly well knew who we were and had given away our reservation.  This was the bird in the hand versus the two birds in the bush scenario.  This reservation had been made by the owners of our last hotel.   Once again I have to sing the praises to a one star hotel that operated as far as we were concerned on a four star level.  They spoke English, they bent over backwards to get us bus and hotel reservations.  They were full of knowledge about their town, their history, what to do, how to do it.  From the top down to the last chamber maid they were friendly and helpful even if they did not speak any English in the “lower ranks”.  We had toilet paper, towels, a clean room, a refrigerator, a filling breakfast, laundry done in a day, etc.  Even a TV was hanging in the corner of our room, but we ignored it.  Simple accommodations but a staff that made you feel safe, welcome and taken care of:  Go Iran Hotel in Esfahan!  Two thumbs up.

To think that they had lied to us about the reservation made no sense.  We had a handwritten note from them with detailed instructions, phone numbers, address and a name.  And the clerk at the Fars Hotel in Shiraz made way too much an effort to place us somewhere else and to promise us a room for the next day, for people he claimed he never heard off.  We got a second taxi driven by Mr. Clueless.  First he had never heard of the 4 star Apadana Hotel we now had to move to, and then he tried to cheat us on the price.  Oh, well – it was the mood of the hour.  We were in bed just before midnight and thanked all the gods for the miracle that we had gotten a bus at the height of the Noruz travel frenzy, had made in one day despite the heavy traffic, and had a bed to sleep in.

Good night.

2010
03.23

SYNOPSISToday’s blog is written by Nicola.  She will tell you about our final day in Esfahan which we spent shopping, visiting one more palace and people-watching.  Shopping amongst the new year crowds in Esfahan.

Elisabeth has quite a bit of catching up to do so I am writing today’s entry. This was our last full day in Esfahan so we permitted ourselves a break from cultural pursuits and went shopping. And to my mind there can be no place in the world more suited to the acquisition of exquisite treasures; the type of objects that you never knew how badly you needed until you saw them piled in such dazzling profusion.   From amongst these riches we selected delightful miniature paintings, finely decorated enamels, beautiful block printed cotton tableware, the finest saffron and, of course, the ubiquitous carpet.

Surprisingly enough, we managed to keep rigidly within both our predetermined lists and budgets; or perhaps it would be more correct to say we kept one another in check. Rather the opposite of the image of two ladies on the splurge, I’m afraid, but this is no country in which to find oneself short of money for essentials and we both have the responsibility for balancing our own books when we get home. Never mind, even without the guilty thrill of an illicit purchase, we definitely had fun. In the Noruz crowds we also had to watch each other’s backs whilst juggling money, cameras and bags of purchases. There was no evidence of pickpockets but then there seldom is.

Those crowds were out in full today and it was a great pleasure for us to mingle with so many families out to enjoy the holiday. It looked very much as if all the tour companies had listened to the advice about not traveling in Iran over this period as I saw absolutely no foreigners today. Mind you, most of the crowds enjoying the sights and the bazaars seemed to be as much tourists as Elisabeth and I, people from out of town obviously visiting for the holiday. And some were in a greater hurry to part with their money than we were. Whilst we were sipping tea in one of our favorite carpet shops an Iranian family came in and, within minutes, left again with a hideous rug bearing a disneyesque rendering of a scene from the Omar Khayam. It certainly wasn’t cheap either.

We posed for the usual pictures and video camera scenes and wherever we went people wanted to know where we were from and practice their English on us. There was also an assortment of attempts to communicate in other European languages, a testament to the standard of education amongst city dwellers. Of course we had fun amongst the crowds as well as answering well meant questions; Elisabeth was wearing her baggy, nomad trousers again and, frankly, it’s better in those circumstances to just go with the flow. I met a young man walking a sweet little puppy through the crowds and as companion dogs are such a rarity in Iran given the disapproving view that Islam takes of dogs in the home, I stopped to speak to him. He was not as friendly as the puppy and seemed rather embarrassed to have it with him at all. Perhaps it was his Mum’s.

Later at Chehel Sotun, the Palace of Forty Columns, we solved the mystery of the white noses. Traveling around Iran we have seen so many young people, boys as well as girls, wearing thin strips of plaster across the bridge and down the sides of their noses. There being no obvious swelling or bruising to be seen, I hazarded a guess that it might be some fashionable remedy for congested breathing but Elisabeth struck up a conversation with a pretty young girl wearing one of these contraptions when she posed for yet another photograph. The girl shyly said that she had broken her nose and so we concluded that plastic surgeons in Iran are currently doing a roaring trade. The best that can be said is that the damage appears to be pretty minimal.

I shall follow Elisabeth’s example and leave out the tourist brochure description of Chehel Sotun, the Safavid ceremonial hall. Like so much in Esfahan it is a treat for the eyes, its twenty beautifully proportioned columns reflected in a long pool to make up the forty that give it its name. We had cause to be grateful to our hotelier for advising us to look out for the paintings of foreign ambassadors, with the details of their alien Jacobean clothing faithfully rendered. We might easily have missed them in the rush of the crowd to get inside to see the huge, sumptuous paintings of Shah Abbas and his successors, their glorious heyday and subsequent downfall. The latter superimposed with rather less artistry by their conquerors.

Without the holiday crowds we might even have failed to see this beautiful building at all. We had confused it with the Hasht Behesht Palace on our Mosques, Monuments and Mausoleums day earlier in the week and were too late for the regular opening time today. The queues of people at the ticket office told us that opening times had been extended and for that reason we were happy to share it with them. It would certainly have been a shame, not to say an embarrassment, to have missed it.

Now it’s time to pack up ready for another long bus trip tomorrow. I might just manage to fit in a non-alcoholic beer and so I’ll finish as Elisabeth does by wishing you

Good night.