2010
04.27

SYNOPSIS:  The inevitable happened – my time here is over.  A few reflections on the Iran experience.  And my thanks to all who made this trip possible and to all of you who read this blog.  The good and the bad, the expected and the unexpected and much gratitude.

On the way down the hall, I took out my hairpins and slowly, the headscarf slipped down.  Strictly speaking, I was still on Iranian territory and breaking the law.  But a few steps down, on board of the Lufthansa aircraft I was part of the free world again.  I was the first with the scarf off, but within minutes, many of them disappeared.  A few of the older ladies never took it off, not even after we landed in Germany and that is how it should be:  Do what is comfortable.

That scarf had been on my mind for a full two months.  I accepted it as an inevitable part of the Iranian experience but I never adjusted to it.  It was uncomfortable, it often was hot, but most of all, it was demeaning.  It was a constant reminder of who was in charge and that I was subjected to an extreme interpretation of a religious law as a non-religious person, a law that has no basis even in the Koran.   I think that much of our negative image of traveling in Iran stems from this rigorous enforcement of the dress code for women.

But the same powers responsible for this law, did seem interested in making sure that we visitors had an otherwise wonderful experience.  The passport and customs exit control was swift and without incident for all of the foreigners in line that I saw.   I had so worried about it and the possibility of being checked and questioned.  Were all my photographs going to be safe?  Would I be asked about my blog?  Would my purchases by scrutinized?  None of it.

 

So much I was ready for, did not happen:  I did not get sick, or lost, or pick pocketed.  But so much I was hoping for, did happen:  I had a wonderful experience seeing some of the most amazing cultural sights anywhere in the world. I did meet many wonderful people, and I had a safe and smooth journey.

Before I set out on this trip I heard over and over from people how brave I was.  Even as I was on the road, I heard that comment from natives, from fellow travelers who traveled in groups, or from single male travelers.  Nothing could be further from brave.  I had exactly one moment of bravery, which was also a moment of despair.  It was the day before my journey started.  I had kept myself busy with setting up a 3.5 months absence – getting down to the details of making arrangements with every bank and utilities company; anticipating every deadline at school and upcoming duty in advance, took weeks of tedious work.  I was not thinking about the actual trip until there was no way around it any more.  That was the day before I left and that’s when I panicked.  What on earth was I up to?!

I remember sitting down, looking over my tentative itineraries, trying to get through this panic attack.  That’s when Scheherazade crossed my mind.  I held onto her like a straw.  Instead of packing I wrote one of my first blogs about her.  If she could survive 1001 nights, I could survive 101.  I think I understand her secret now.  She just put one word in front of the other, spinning her story and before she or the king realized it, months and years had passed.  She faced a situation, she had a plan, and she dared to get started.  I put one foot before the other.  That is not bravery.  I just had to dare to get going.  Everything fell into place from there.  It was easy.  That first step though, was not.  By now 3.5 months have passed and I don’t know how many miles I put behind me.  But I know now that I can go anywhere and things will be OK.  And in shahallah, I will keep traveling more in coming years.

The reality of having been able to do this incredible trip has not yet fully sunk in.  So many things had to come together.  My biggest thanks go to the administrators at Washtenaw Community College who allowed me to leave during the winter and teach during the summer semester this year.  I could not have done this trip during the hot summer months.

My gratitude goes to all of the people on the way like Mozaffar, Akbar and Parvin and all the many strangers who talked to me, took me in for tea or food, and even to those who just stared at me.  My trip reinforced the notion that people do still reach out to each other in deep humanity and friendliness.  The photos of today are all about the people of Iran.  Some I met, some I just saw along the way.

My thanks go also to all of you faithful and valued readers!  Knowing that you would look in kept me on track.  Keeping the blog going through thick and thin was the hardest and one of the most time-consuming things to do on this trip.  I thank you for your loyalty and your interest.  Without you, I might have slacked off as I have on previous trips where I started to take enthusiastic notes for a few days or weeks, only to fizzle out soon after…

Every night I said thanks to my travel pantheon.  I am not religious, but I know full well, that the failure or the success of this trip and of my life, for that matter, depends on factors that go way beyond my control.

And so I will end this blog with a prayer of gratitude the same way I have ended every night on this 101 day long journey:

Thanks, Scheherazade, for giving me the courage to go.

Thanks, Ganesh, for removing all obstacles.

Thanks, St. Christopher, for holding your hand over me.

Thanks, Baishayaguru, for keeping me well.

THE END.

2010
04.26

SYNOPSIS:   I hired a guide to be able to move around Teheran more efficiently.  He ran me into the ground.  One museum after another, not to mention the toll the traffic takes on you around here…  Crisscrossing Teheran in metro, bus, and taxi.

Ahmed, my Teheran guide, was waiting in the lobby of the Firouzeh Hotel by 8 AM even though we had agreed on a meeting time of 8:30 AM.  Five minutes late is an hour lost, he exclaimed.  Now that is dedication and punctuality that beats me!  He crammed two days worth of sightseeing into one and after a whole day of this had me nearly crawling on the ground.  He kept on going and seemed just fine, ready to go on if needed.  How was he doing that?!  He wasn’t a spring chicken either.  Nine hours into this, after three metro rides, five taxis, two buses and hours of walking and looking I was done!  I saw three art museums, two palaces, the jewelry museum, the time museum, the carpet museum, a martyrs’ museum, the American embassy, and lots of traffic.  And I am way too exhausted to write about it in detail.

But I will try to pull together a few words about this or that before I conk out:  All the museums I have seen in Teheran are professionally run, well stacked and usually sufficiently labeled for foreign tourists.  What is missing in the museums all around the country has obviously been pulled into the capital city.  Nothing comes even close to a Louvre, a British Museum, or the Met.  The museums are small.  An hour is usually plenty of time to see the displays.  But the pieces exhibited are exquisite and representative of the culture of the country.

If you like jewels, there is nothing quite like the Jewelry Museum, housed deep down in the vaults of Iran’s Melli Bank.  It is only open two hours a day, four days a week and limited to 200 visitors.  A famous peacock throne, a jewel bedecked globe, dishes full of raw diamonds, dazzling crowns, dinner plates, goblets, uniforms, necklaces, tassels all made of rubies and sapphires…  Gaudy displays of ostentatious wealth.  An all time favorites of foreign visitors.

If you like parks and quiet, there are the palaces of the former Qajar dynasty, and the Shah family displaying their furniture, art collections, and way of life.  Again, it’s not Versailles, but it gives you a good insight into previous and relatively recent eras of Iran.   For the first time in all of Iran I saw a sizable collection of Western art:  17th, 18th and 19th Century paintings from all over Europe, particularly landscapes and animal pictures.  They were collected by one of the art loving wives of the Shah and are now on display.  It is good to see that the recent revolution has not taken the same iconoclastic approach as many previous overhauls have.  I hear that there is a huge collection of fine 20th Century art (Picasso, Impressionists, etc) valued in the Billions of Dollars which currently is stored in the museum vaults.  I guess, the clerics do not deem these appropriate for display, but at least they refrain from selling them off or worse.  The carpet museum made me drool…  I wanted to just roll up half of them to take home.  And there was the time museum with odd clocks and timing devices housed in a great 19th Century mansion.

The martyrs’ museum was just a quick detour.  It is interesting to see how completely occupied the Iranians still are with the Iran-Iraq war.  Thousands of people died and there are shows constantly on TV refreshing the memory of this conflict not to mention the ever present martyr pictures everywhere.  I wanted to go to that part of town because of the American Embassy across from the museum.  I almost wish I had been on my own because I could have played dumb.  There was no sign forbidding photography, but my guide Ahmed urged me not to take pictures.  I had to resort to shooting from the hip across four lanes of traffic…  That did not get me much.  Too bad.  In Farsi there is still a line of writing stating that the instigators of the hostage taking event at the embassy make their nation proud.  There is also still a faded sign right across the entrance of the metro station that states:  Down with the USA.  But along the endlessly long brick wall circling the embassy compound (a full city block) there used to be dozens of anti-American murals and statements.  Almost all of them are painted over with solid colors; little to none are left.  One lonely Statue of Liberty looking like a skeleton remains.  I was almost disappointed.

After I parted from Ahmed, I walked to the Teheran University to have a look at the campus. I was not allowed in.  There is one single entrance gate guarded by an officer who spotted that I was not from around here.  No visitors are allowed.  A student helped me to translate.  There may be a possibility if I came back the next day and went to a far away office to ask for permission and with that permission I could return… No, thanks.  Another disappointment.  But I can’t complain.  In one day I saw more than I thought was possible.  And I took some of the public transportation in the city which was interesting.

With Ahmed I took the metro a few times. It cuts down travel times by a huge factor.  Only three lines are available and a fourth one is being built slowly opening station by station.  There are women’s cars and men’s.  But since I ended up in the male compartment with Ahmed, I was immediately offered a seat.  It is OK to be in the “wrong” section.  But I saw a woman hurrying through until she had reached the women’s section.  She obviously felt better there.  The metro was crowded, but clean.

In order to guarantee efficient bus services that run faster than the ever congested street traffic, buses have their own designated lines.  A central island allows people to board the bus from the center of the street.  Buses also can run the opposite direction from general traffic – just imagine what that means for you trying to cross the street…  You can never be sure from which direction traffic is coming.  If it isn’t a bus going the “wrong” way, there are certainly enough motorcycles that do on a regular basis.  Nobody seems to ticket or stop them.

Speaking of motorcycles: I have to say that at least 25% of cyclists I have seen in the last couple of days in Teheran, do wear their helmets.  I think I know why I did not see any two months ago:  I was here during two major holidays.  Motorcycle traffic is blue color traffic for the most part.  There was little to none when I came here.

I was so busy today that I did not even have time to dislike Teheran.  To be fair – it is a city that has much to offer.  I also think that it is one of the more exciting cities to live in especially if you are a young person.  For me as a traveler, I am glad that I saved this ordeal for the very end of my trip.  I was a lot happier in the country side.  But I am glad I had at least this much time for it.

Good night.

2010
04.25

SYNOPSISMajid showed me rice fields and tea plantations.  The rest of the day was spent in transit.  Muddy rice fields and lush tea plantations – it’s the women who suffer the most.

Majid wanted to show me some local sights – a beautiful castle, a great view.  But I wanted to see rice and tea fields…  He was surprised, but happy to show me around.  With his cousin’s help, who owns a car, we drove into the countryside.  I had been on a tea plantation in China once.  It’s been a few years and I don’t remember the plants too well.  But I do not recall the same look.  Tea plants here are like shrubs.  They grow in thick rows of bushes, planted close together with narrow rows separating them.  That is to enable the women who plug the tea leaves to reach each of the shrubs.

Iran is known for drinking tea, even late into the night. I have no idea how they sleep given the hard beds and the black tea.  They seem to have grown immune to the stimulants in the tea.  I had to excuse myself as often as possible after 6 PM from any tea drinking.  And when I failed I paid for it with sleepless nights.  When I point out that there is caffeine, rather teeine (?) in black tea, they look at me in disbelief.  What am I talking about?!

It is interesting that I could not get my hands on any Iranian grown tea until here and now in the Gilan province.  Everywhere else the Iranians drink, buy and sell imported tea.  I have taken pictures of tea stands at the bazaar with more than 8 different tea imports and not a single local brand.  Most of the Iranians look down on their home-grown tea.  I really don’t know why.  I had it here and it was just fine.  Tea fields are everywhere in this area once you know what to look for.

And speaking of knowing and guessing – what I took for grape plants from the bus going down the coastal highway, are actually kiwi plants.  They grow very similarly on thin stems with wide reaching branches which are supported by ropes and posts.  Almost everyone seems to have at least a few plants in their gardens and some farmers grow huge plantations full of them.

And there were the rice fields.  This is the time for tilling.  Men do that.  I have seen them walk through wet and muddy fields behind a hand-held plough.  I have also seen huge tractors with special gear attached to their wheels turning the muddy soil.  I guess what you get depends on whether you have the money to rent one of those machines.  If not, you are stuck doing the dirty work yourself.   But the men wear boots working in these fields.  They also grow the small rice plants under plastic-covered tents until they are big enough to be spread out.  Majid explained that it is the women’s job to plant the small rice plants into the larger fields; all by hand.  It takes weeks working in the muddy water.  In order to move they have to be barefoot!  Many of them develop serious problems in their legs and joints…

Seeing what it takes to get a bowl of rice onto the table made me pause.  How much am I willing to pay for a pound of rice or a pound of tea for that matter?!  Majid confirmed my impression – this is a very poor area.  Most of the people around here are farmers.  The government does not subsidize their work and their products are too cheap for them to make ends meet.  It shows.  As excited as I was to see these fields, it made me sad to realize the shortcomings of this whole economic system.  We consumers are so removed from these products that we behave as if they fall out of the sky.  The work that is behind these things remains hidden to us.  The poverty associated with the producers is none of our concern.  I don’t think this will change any time soon.  But it was good to become aware of it.

Nine long hours in a crowded, overheated bus with no ventilation, and a crying baby were ahead of me.  The same movie I have already seen four times now (!) was playing yet again.  I will spare you the details.  I arrived back in Teheran.

Good night.

2010
04.24

SYNOPSIS:   This is about Majid and his family who live at the Caspian Sea.    From a Bush supporter to an Ahmadinejad fan – all under one roof.

I met Majid over the internet several months ago when I was looking still for travel partners and travel information.  He had responded to an ad and even though he could not travel himself had offered help and information on anything relating to Iran.  And of course he wanted me to visit him.  Red alert, right?  Yes, I emailed with him quite frequently to get a sense of weather he was a predator or real.  I decided he was real and that it was worth visiting him for an insight into an Iranian family and an opportunity to see that Northern area of Iran if ever so briefly.  His village was a detour for me, but it was within reach on the way from Masouleh back to Teheran.  And it was located at the Caspian Sea which intrigued me.

I arrived there in the evening and Majid, a young student of English Literature without much of a job, met me and showed me around town just before darkness set in.  We walked along the seashore and watched a fisherman throwing out his net.  I was much reminded of the Baltic Sea, or Lake Michigan.  She shore was rocky at this stretch.  People swim there in the summer time, Majid told me.  Men, swim here, I asked for confirmation? And yes, he had to admit, it’s only the men who swim here…

Majid is the oldest of five children.  He is just as old as my son, 28.  I was given the room of his three sisters to sleep in.  Only two still live at home.  One got married two years ago and I was subjected to about two hours of a video about the wedding…  It had its interesting moments – the dance by local women in local costumes.  Promptly, I was asked to dress up in the costume for everyone’s amusement and some photos.  I did.

A ¼ inch blanket was rolled out on the floor as my bed.  I am absolutely convinced now that the rock hard beds I have encountered all throughout Iran are a matter of choice.  And I bet you, it all goes back to the Nomadic roots.  There were three rooms to the house in addition to a bath, laundry, storage, and kitchen.  All were carpeted and lined with rows of cushions along the walls.   Two of the rooms were bedrooms for the children; one for the girls, the other for the boys.  The girl’s bedroom had a closet and a bookshelf.  The boy’s bedroom had a computer and some hooks.  This was the extent of the furniture, the furnishings, and the “stuff”.  A couple of pictures were almost accidental.  The largest room functioned as a family room and dining room and a bedroom for the parents.  An alcove had seating arrangements around the TV which was running all the time…  A corner was dedicated to dead relatives.  There were some grandparents and a small child of a relative that had died in a car accident.

During meals a bred cloth was rolled out on the floor.  Meals were taken sitting on the floor.  Both the bread cloth and these eating habits are further confirmation of the deeply rooted Nomadic traditions in Iran.  Only in the cities do people eat at tables and sleep in beds I was told.  Speaking of the cities and of more Western influenced habits:  The bathroom in Majid’s house actually had a Western style toilet built in next to the Iranian but it was crystal clear which one would be used.  The Western toilet was built into the corner in a way that sitting at it properly did not leave enough room for your legs!  In other words, it was useless and more likely built in for show.  I tried it but ended up sitting side-ways which made even me abandon this idea and using the squatter instead.

Safora, Majid’s mother even prepared most of the dinner on the floor even though she had a kitchen counter.  She squatted next to the samovar which was ready to dispense tea at any given moment and was visibly more comfortable on the floor than anywhere else.  Despite her (my) age, she could get up from a cross-legged sitting position into standing without any intermediary steps.  That takes something.  I tried…

In the kitchen I noticed a calendar, next to a clock, next to six pictures of Ahmadinejad.  I asked what that meant.  Majid explained that his mother is a fan of his and loves him so much, that she put up his picture in her area of the house, the kitchen.  She did this in particular as her husband, Abdulhassan, is not only a huge fan of America, but also an ardent Bush fan.  Wow.  That is the first time I have heard of a Bush supporter in Iran.  I asked if there are many.  No, not too many.  But Abdulhassan loves Bush because he believes always the opposite of what Iranian TV tells him to believe, he explained.  I guess that is one way of forming a political view point…  But he does not like Obama.  Why not?  Because he is black.  I asked how he could not like a black person even though he presumably has never met one.  Because he has seen enough bad stuff about blacks on TV…  Really?  He just told me that he likes Bush because that is the opposite of what TV told him – how does that not apply to Obama?  Cornered like this, Abulhassan ended our political discussion and we started the wedding video…

Good night.

2010
04.23

SYNOPSIS:  I roamed through the historic village of Masouleh all morning and ended up gazing across the Caspian Sea in the evening in a small village near Rasht.  What’s a roof to some is the garden to others.

The bed was rock hard again, the pillow was hardly better, and some Hungarian tourists just had to be up at 6 AM in the morning talking loudly at their balcony right above my head…    But I woke up in Masouleh, a unique village in the fairy tale mountains and thanks to the Hungarians, I did not even miss the sun rise.  There isn’t much sun in this remote valley.  Mist and fog shape the days, but there were about 15 minutes of sun early on and almost 2 hours, a bit later.  No wonder, the entire village hugs the northern cliff, undulating along the mountain side.  This exposes them to as much east to west sun light as there may be.

I hiked up the southern cliff for a full scale view of the village from a distance.  Really, it is at best 300 meters long and 100 meters high.  The cemetery is on the southern cliff.  I guess the villagers figured that in death you can live without the sun.  This village seems to have fully embraced the recent onslaught of tourism.  There are several tea, water pipe and coffee “hangouts” in simple and nicely appointed terrace restaurants.  And there are a good dozen trinket shops and about every other local woman will wave you into her living room, where she will present baskets full of things to sell; or she will squat on the road to catch you strolling along.  The “Fatimah” syndrome, if you remember the cave village of Meymand.  In fact, the villagers seem to be involved in a conspiracy to offer all the same crap no matter where you turn.  All the women knit the same hideous and useless socks, all the same size; and produce the same ugly knit-dolls.  What about some shawls or mittens, or even sweaters?  They all sell the same kitschy duck-hut-sun embroidery.  What about one of their charming stacked village?   But I did not care.  I was here to take pictures, not to buy stuff.  As friendly as they are and as eager as they are to sell you things, when it comes to having their picture taken, they are as shy as elsewhere.

By about 11 AM at least three full sized tour buses had spat out about 100 tourists who now were crawling all over the village.  More were on the way.  I escaped by climbing up as high as I could and I am glad, I stayed overnight when the tourists for the most part left (except for those Hungarians, the doctors from Hamadan and myself).   I was mistaken for a Hungarian all evening, but each time the villagers found out that I was German and traveling alone, they were more than happy to see me.  And, as anywhere, when I crossed path with some of the tourists, many wanted to have their picture taken with me.  No matter what the attraction, a foreigner is still equally fascinating.   I calculated that about 500 people in Iran now have my picture.  I wonder what that means.  Will somebody somewhere in the world walk up to me and say: I know you!  I have seen your picture on my cousin’s wall…?!

For the rest of the afternoon I traveled: one taxi, then another, then another, then a minibus and to top it all off yet another taxi.  These transit days are not my favorites.  With all my luggage and all the uncertainties of the next step, I am always glad when I have arrived after all.  But one thing is clear:  Traveling with nothing but a destination in mind is possible and affordable in Iran. At every corner when one mode of transportation ends, there is another one at hand.  Not to mention that the more time one has, the more affordable it becomes.  Since I am a bit more in a hurry now as the end is near, I have often opted for my own taxi rather than wait for it to fill with two or three more travelers.  I cannot imagine being on the road like this in either Europe or the U.S.  Traveling is such an expense and especially in the U.S. trains or buses run on such a limited schedule.  If all else fails, hitching a ride seems common, but not in the Western hitch-hiker tradition.  When a person stops, they usually act as a fill-in taxi and expect some sort of payment.  Owning a car is expensive in relationship to income even though filling the tank is negligible.

My destination was a small village near Rasht.  I am on my way to visit Majid and his family.

Good night.

2010
04.22

 SYNOPSIS:   In the middle of a fairytale forest I met an old friend.  On the road to Masouleh, I had a few thoughts about the connection between motorcycle helmets, the hijab, and religion.  Small, small world!

Twenty kilometers east of Ardabil, the bus entered a tunnel, not even a long one.  When we emerged at the other end my chin dropped.  We had exchanged rolling hills with ploughed fields, a few sheep and thin grass for huge mountains with full fledged forests!  And that within seconds!  This was an Iran I had not seen yet.  The Zagros Mountains and the mountains north of Tabriz all were rocky and harsh, snow capped with sparse if any vegetation.  Here, there was a lush forest showing off all kinds of hues of soft greens.  The trees could only have been sprouting their leaves for a couple of weeks and everything was still fresh, tender and subtle.  It seemed like a fairy tale world.

The wilderness was vast, but when we passed a small village I noticed that the houses were capped with flat or gabled metal roofs.  Gone are the days of domes, badgirs, and vaults frantically isolating against the heat.  Here, the heat in the summer is negligible, and the metal likely attracts heat to melt the snow in the winter.  The roofs were red, yellow, blue, even purple, brightening up the green surrounding it all.  We drove through this mountainous forest for about 50 kilometers, before we reached the coast of the Caspian See.  I could only see it in the distance, but the land flattened and became considerably hazy.

Home architecture once again changed; from metal to tiled roofs, from multi-story to single story, from gabled to hipped (pyramid shaped) roof lines.  The forest continued to our right, but along the coastal plain there was agriculture.  Almost all of the fields were muddy wet or fully under water.  It seemed to be on purpose.  Are they used for rice plantations?  And it looked like grapes were grown everywhere.  I am sure not for wine but for fresh fruit consumption and raisins.  Lots of bulls and cows roamed around freely.  So freely, that the bus almost ran over two of them!  Taking a turn on the highway, all of a sudden we were faced with two cows that had gotten themselves stuck between the bar separating our lanes from the opposite lanes and speeding traffic.  They were cornered and visibly frightened by the fast passing cars, but had nowhere to go except back into traffic… I wonder if and how they got back into their pastures.

In all my time in Iran I have not seen as much trash combined as I saw today strewn along the coastal road between Astara and Fuman.  Disgusting!  What accounts for that is beyond me.  Overall, the coastal strip, except for its well maintained fields, looked run down and dilapidated.  We were definitely going through some poor regions.   That surprised me as climate and the conditions here seem ripe for the rich folk from Teheran to flock here during hot summer months.  But perhaps, we were still a bit too far north for that.

At the entrance of one of the small villages we passed a big green sign:  Security helmets are required!  For quite some time I have been on the lookout for motorcycle helmets.  Before Tabriz I had seen none.  That was nearly 7 weeks into my trip!  In Tabriz, for some reason, I saw about 5 people all within three days who actually wore helmets.  Traffic accidents are high, fatalities range in the thousands annually – who would be surprised?!  All along, I have been frightened by this traffic.  If I ever was in any danger on this trip, it was because of this insane traffic.  I had heard that wearing helmets is the law, but I had not seen any helmets or any evidence for this law until this sign.  Wearing hijab is the law, too.  And of course, I have yet to see a single woman who would dare break that law.  So, how can you have two laws and two so vastly different scenarios?  The men (who almost exclusively drive the motor bikes) get away breaking the law on a daily and collective basis.  In other words, who cares, what the law is – the only factor that matters is the enforcement of the law!   Now that seems simple enough of a concept, but all of a sudden I did see a parallel:

For years, I have taken the stand that it does matter what the law or “the book” says.  For one hour in my monument class, I compare Christianity and Islam by looking at their scriptures comparing a few subjects such as treatment of women and violence.  People, after all, are universally similar.  Line up any group and you will have the exceptionally good and the exceptionally bad at both ends (what we call the extremists) and most of the rest of the people operate in the middle (what we usually label the moderates).  Therefore, if comparing people does not get you anywhere, what is left is to compare the doctrines they follow, or the laws, or the religions, etc.  But all this time I overlooked, that no matter what any book says, what really matters is weather that scripture is enforced or not.  The book can say what it wants.  It takes people to turn any doctrine into action, which, if you go full circle on this line of thought, should get the doctrine off the hook again …

I much apologize!  This is a very cryptic description of a complex issue that occupied me for hours on the bus.  I am throwing it out here for what it’s worth.  I will have to mull this over a bit more.

But the real surprise of the day was this – I get to remote Masouleh, my destination for today.  It’s a UNESCO protected village in these lovely fairy tale mountains that is well over 1500 years old.  I settled down in my hotel which is located way above the river, overlooking the village from one end to the other.  I met my neighbors on the terrace next door – three physicians from Hamadan with whom I had a cup of tea.  And then I went for a little stroll.  And ten minutes into this, I turn a corner and run into Mousavir, the receptionist from the Firouzeh hotel in Teheran whom I met two months ago!  He was born in this village and just visited his parents!  How is this for a small world?!  He remembered me and in true fashion immediately offered to help book a bus for me tomorrow to get back to Teheran.  He is just such an amazing person.

And then I wrote this blog, sitting on my terrace overlooking lovely Masouleh, listening to the rumble of the river way down.  It’s a cold night.  I am sure the locals got out their winter coats if any of them are still out.  There are no stars…  There should be.  I wonder if that means it will rain again?

Good night.

2010
04.21

SYNOPSISThe most important Safavid Shrine is in Ardabil.  I visited the main attractions in town and met two nice old guys who invited me to chat over tea.  A shrine is a shrine is not a shrine after all.

It was on my itinerary and following the call of duty, I came all this way.  But I quietly wondered if all the effort was worth it.  After all, the only reason I traveled this far was to see yet another shrine.  Seen one, seen them all – so far that was close to true.  It’s more or less the same scenario:  a domed building with a silver-grid shrine that houses a coffin.  Even the silver grid is the same everywhere.  And a coffin is a coffin.  And I have definitely seen enough silver-mirrored covered ceilings by now.  Unless you are a devotee and care about who is actually buried in the shrine, there is little variation.  The only thing that varies depending on age or location is the architecture of the shrine itself.  In Khuzestan the superstructure of the shrines were pinecone shaped, elsewhere they are more typical dome shapes.

What a pleasant surprise to find that the Sheik Safi-od-Din Mausoleum in Ardabil, a 14th Century architectural complex, was definitely worth all the time and effort to see it.  It was so different and interesting that I visited it twice, at the beginning and at the end of the day.  The Sufi Mystic and ancestor of the future founder of the Safavid dynasty, Sheik Safi, is buried here alongside a lot of other important Sufis, Safavids, and martyrs.  The exterior grounds consist of an ancient graveyard of martyrs.  Remarkably well preserved tomb stones date back as far as the 10th Century.  There is an assembly hall with balconies to separate the women, and a China Hall, literally built to house pieces of porcelain given to the Safavid rulers by the Chinese. Most of the China was stolen by the Russians during an invasion in the 19th Century.  Hundreds of niches built all around the octagonal interior ceiling wall are therefore empty and create a bizarre backdrop for the display of the shirt of the sheikh, some candle sticks, books, and indeed a few pieces of China.  There is a mosque, but it was not open for visitors, and a park.

The whole interior glows in warm yellow light.   The “no flash” photography rule makes it difficult to capture anything clearly.  Hand-woven rugs, some of enormous size, cover the floors.  Calligraphy and dazzling frescoes are found on ceilings and walls but because they are very dark, they are nearly impossible to capture true to their appearance.  By any standards this is a unique and impressive complex.  In the adjacent garden, old men gather and seem to sit around all day shooting the breeze.

Two of these men flagged me down when I strolled around there in the early evening.  One of them understood some English.  He was the extrovert and despite his age quite the charmer.   The other, a lot more reserved, was trying to remember, from the days gone by, what he once had learned.  He actually pulled together quite a number of English words.  They invited me for tea at their friend’s shop.  And so we communicated for a while about God and the world.  What they had to say about their world would surprise nobody in the West.  How they said it was outright funny.  The charmer, whenever he mentioned the name of Khamenei, spat on the ground, and when he talked about Ahmadinejad, he shook his fist.   The reserved one was a lot more willing to give his government some credit.  Things develop slowly.  Step by step, he softened the charmer’s non-verbal condemnations.  Neither one would tell me his name.  I don’t blame them.  The charmer almost wouldn’t stop shaking my hand when we parted – one way of expressing his discontent in a world where a man is not allowed to shake a woman’s hand unless they are family.

While processing today’s photos, I turned on the TV again.   It was a similar scenario as yesterday.  But in addition, there were some animated children’s programs; there was a French mystery, fully dubbed in Farsi; a Laurel and Hardy comedy, and more documentaries.  World news again focused on Iran related issues rather than covering the wider world.  I did not see any world leaders or people I would have recognized from the world stage.   I still don’t know what’s up in the world.  But my friend Maria told me in an email about the volcano in Iceland.  It looks like I might be stuck in Iran until the flight ban is lifted?  I might see Teheran after all.

Good night.

2010
04.20

SYNOPSIS:  A four hour bus ride put me back in time; it’s spring in Ardabil.  It was rainy today and early enough in the day, so I was flipping channels on Iranian TV instead of doing anything productive.  From badly acted soap operas to boring mullah talk shows.

Four hours on the bus going East today put me back a full season.  I had much enjoyed the spring weather in Tabriz.  Getting away from the hot summer temperatures was a relief.  But I had not expected that four hours on the bus going east would put me back almost at the end of winter.  Fruit trees are blooming, but most of the trees are barely budding in Ardabil.  It’s about 6 to 10 degrees Celsius (55 to 60 Fahrenheit) and I had to get out my long underwear and the coat again.  It just goes to show how vast and varied this country is.   Amazing.

I settled into my hotel – the Lonely Planet listed the hotel as being gutted.  That seemed to be a good sign since that was two years ago.  Indeed, the place is now fully renovated with pleasant indirect light, the softest pillows I have had anywhere in Iran and real blankets.  Light, fake wooden furniture gives it a friendly, modern, almost European-Ikea feel.  There is a coffee bar and a computer for guest’s to use.  But not a single word of English is spoken.  I already think that I am in the middle of a big miscommunication fiasco over the price of my room.  I will find out in two days when I leave… For now, I will just enjoy this friendly environment.  I strolled for a while through the covered bazaar and made a round through the center of town to get my bearings.  Tomorrow, I will check out the local sights.  Nothing much happened.  I turned down the invitation of three middle-aged Iranian men to join them for dinner.  I ran into them outside a restaurant the LP had highly recommended.  It had closed for good.  So much change in just two years.

Since there was nothing much else to do and since it was still early, I turned on the TV to see what’s up on the government approved networks.  I have been flipping channels for about three hours by now and have that bad taste of wasted time in my mouth.  I have 8 channels.  At 8:15 PM, about five of them were sending out prayers; it must have been that time of the day.   By now, 10:45 PM, only one of them seems to keep going with prayers and religious readings.  But two other channels are still clearly concerned with religious matters.  In one of them, a round table discussion is going on – the authority at the table is the mullah with his white turban and the brown overcoat – an easy way to distinguish the mullahs, or learned religious clerics, in public.  On the other channel, an older man is interviewing a chador-clad woman.  They could be talking about anything, but I am taking the visual clue of a golden dome of a mosque in the background as an indication for the content of the talk.

One of the channels is broadcasting ongoing news.   However, I am not getting much of a sense of world news.  The focus seems to be Iran:  Interviews with truck drivers, field workers, reports from a car factory, reporters in a crowd, scientists and their achievements, important looking people are talking, and Ahmadinejad speaks in front of a cheering crowd and so on.  I realize that in the nearly four months of travel I never had the time to linger at the internet to look for world news.  I am as clueless as can be.   I wonder what all is happening “out there”.

There is the documentary channel.  I watched a program for a while on suspension bridges. All in Farsi, but I got the visuals.  And then, low and behold, an program in English about wildlife preservation.

And there is the sports channel.  People are simply addicted to football (soccer) around here and it is amazing how many Iranians on the street can list, numerous German soccer teams and the names of the most famous athletes.  If I were French, I am sure they would rattle off the French teams.  Sport has always captured the masses.  The Romans had already figured that out and provided free games for the entertainment of their not so happy population to keep them off the streets.  It seems to work here, too.

Ah, and one of the other channels now is sending out a science show – judging from the astrolabe they are using as their backdrop.  Lots of talk though, not enough visual clues for me to follow; too bad.   More documentaries are running on bugs and an old village.

But I am sure most watched – aside from the sports channel – are the badly acted hour long soap operas on the next channel.  Exaggerated characters – the strict mother, the powerless father, the grumpy grandpa, the plotting children, the shrill-voiced aunt, the dorky uncle, good guys and bad – you get the picture; just mind-numbing dumb stuff.  But wait – this is interesting – the show just was interrupted by a commercial!  I guess, this is a good example of the bad influence American practices have on the life of Iranian people.

On channel eight there are still the readings from the Koran, overlaid by pictures of mosque architecture, beautiful nature photography, calligraphy, and praying people.  I guess, that channel does not change its program.  In one of the sections, a Persian miniature was animated, illustrating a battle from the Koran.  That was cool!   But even the religious channel had a commercial about drinking tea, about mobile phones, and about another TV show!  Why is it that the worst of our culture has to spread this way?

Since I did not take any pictures today, I looked for some of the door images I have been taking all along.  I am fascinated by these old (and some new) doors everywhere.  They have such character.

And no more TV for me for a while!  It’s as much a waste here as it is at home.

Good night.

2010
04.19

SYNOPSISI spent the day in five different taxis and saw all kinds of things along the Aras River which forms the Iranian-Armenian-Azerbaijani, perhaps, even some of the Turkish border – I can’t quite figure it out.  A wild-goose chase in border territory.

The river Aras fairs prominently under a different name in the Bible, and Jolfa is in an area – way at the Northern most tip of Iran – where first century Christians roamed, including St. Bartholomew, who founded the monastery I visited today.  That is, he founded a monastery there in honor of St. Stephanus.  What you see today comes mostly from the 14th Century; the local brochures claims 10th to 12th Century.  Major reconstruction was done in the 18th Century.

The remote mountain setting of this church is one of its main attractions.  But also, the remarkable preservation of its sculptures on the main tower makes it stand out.  Years of restoration work are paying off.  It looks like the bell tower is the last remaining part of the exterior to be done. The interior is less attractive with some fading frescos of puff-cheeked putties and a fake Raphael Madonna.  A monastic courtyard with cells for 16-32 monks, a vaulted prayer hall and other facilities form the main part of the complex.  All is heavily fortressed by a tall stone wall with watch towers at each corner.

The Aras River valley is a beautiful area with ever changing mountain formations in a variety of colors.  In the distance Armenian snow-capped mountains were visible; reportedly the area where Noah’s ark grounded.  I had heard that before in Jordan and I think there are at least three other places in the world that put claim on that event…  From a not too distant war dispute in this area some burned out trains are visible and manned military posts punctuate the river valley on both sides.  Conspicuous photography was not advised.  I got some discreet shots of the scenery.

I will probably regret this excursion as it cuts into my visit in Teheran, but every time I think of going to Teheran, I come up with another reason to postpone it, cut it short, or avoid it altogether…

I rushed out the door in the morning to catch a taxi to take me to the terminal for the 8:30 AM bus to Jolfa.  What I did not know is that the armed forces decided to organize a demonstration today at a roundabout near the terminal, so traffic came nearly at a standstill.  8:30 passed…  The next bus to Jolfa was 2.5 hours later.  But as it always happens when I think I am at a dead end, we inched along in traffic when a voice shouted outside in the familiar quadruple fashion “Jolfa, Jolfa, Jolfa, Jolfa!”  I jumped out of the taxi and followed the shouting man who took me to a shared taxi, ready to go upon me boarding.  What could have been easier?  At lightning speed – never less than 120 km per hour – we proceeded through majestic rolling hills to the border town of Jolfa.

There, barely out of that taxi, I was surrounded by a new hoard of taxi drivers trying to figure out where I wanted to go.  A shop keeper nearby helped me to convey the sights on my agenda to one of them and to negotiate a total price.  Within minutes I was on the way with my third taxi of the day – two more to go.  First, I went 35 km West of Jolfa along the Aras River and then 45 km East of Jolfa, along the same river.  First, I was on the well trodden tourist path to see the monastery, a caravanserai and a small road-side church along the way.  Then the driver wondered what I wanted out there going East.   But the Lonely Planet had a reference to the small town of Siyah Rud that was responsible for the silk production in the area – that’s what I wanted to see.

Did the Lonely Planet guys make this up?  Did they ever go there?  Granted, the LP said that one could see the silk production in May and June and it’s only late April.  But you would think that they would at least know what I was talking about once I got there since they are supposedly famous for it.  Ha!  They thought I was out to lunch!  Absolutely nobody in the village spoke a word of English.  My taxi driver was useless as well – I had to teach him “stop” and “photo” as I had taught the driver yesterday.  The villagers were wonderful but at a loss.  Here was a foreign visitor who had come especially to their town – they figured that I was there to see something important.  After I had drawn silk worm cocoons into the sand, pulled on everyone’s clothes identifying the varieties of wool, cotton, polyester and… silk, there was still no sign of recognition in their faces of what I had come for.  But they phoned somebody who came with a big key and they proudly showed me an old run-down hamam (bath house) hidden behind a big wall!  They were disappointed, that I still was not happy.  The crowd around me grew.  Finally, somebody figured out my drawings and with a big smile on their faces they pointed the driver in a direction North of town.  We arrived at a brick ware house…   That did not look promising.

But we entered the building across, and in a corner of an office, I saw an old display case with some silk worms in it!  Yes, we were on the right track after all.  The manager of the brick warehouse looked puzzled when the taxi driver explained something to him, but he took me to the warehouse.  A big key unlocked the building – it was filled with cement bags!  I pulled the man back to his office and pointed to the dusty display case of bugs.  That’s what I was looking for.  Happily, he pulled a drawer on his desk and there was a bowl full of old cocoons!  Yes, I smiled.  That’s it.  Where are they?  Who is growing them?  Who is processing them?  Three office mates now all got involved, making phone calls and  giving good advice but he still looked unsure of what to do with me next.  Finally, there seemed to be some promising news over the phone.  He rushed out with us and through the village we went from one house to the next – three in all.  Nothing, nowhere.  But in yet another warehouse he pointed to some old equipment in a corner which looked like it once could have been used for silk production.  I was not even sure anymore if we were looking for the same thing.  I finally released him of his misery.  We drove him back to his office and I went back to Jolfa with my puzzled taxi driver who had no idea why we had made this detour and wasted all of this time.  If I get this right, the silk production in this little town is ancient history.  But since I don’t speak the language, who knows what I was told today.  Lonely Planet, you owe me one!

Good night.

2010
04.18

 

SYNOPSIS: A visit of Kandevar and more.  Cave dwellers and cave tourists.

It was dark, but not too dark and I stared that cockroach directly into the eye – it was crawling up my arm approaching my face!  I almost jumped out of bed.  I had barely gone to sleep when a slight tickle had caught my attention…  I should have known that they don’t just live in the bathroom, but do come out at night and go everywhere.   What was a Western Madame supposed to do when attacked by cockroaches?  Run out of the room screaming?  Ask for another room?  Move to another hotel?  I was in no mood for any of that, so I grabbed one of my bathroom slippers and started to hunt.  But it was pointless.  That thing was gone before I could move the bed.  Back to sleep!  But that was impossible.  Now I felt tickles everywhere even though there was nothing!  I opened my eyes every few minutes looking for a big brown spot where there should be none and about an hour into this, there it was – crawling up the wall right in front of my face.   I slowly grabbed that slipper and zapped it!  Sorry, if there are any animal rights activists out there.  I zapped it and it felt good.  Even though I knew that this was not the end of the cockroach population in my room, I finally could go to sleep.  I don’t know how many more of them came to visit during the night.   I don’t want to think of it.  I keep telling myself that they don’t bite and that it’s all in my head.  Just one more night.  Perhaps, I should have chosen the scarf and the inconvenience of the other hotels after all…

In the morning, I asked the hotel to call me a taxi with a preferably young driver who could speak some English.  They sent a middle-aged guy who was so big that he needed almost a seat and a half, who could not even understand “stop”.  But I taught him that one.  And “picture”.  I am sure he already forgot.  To visit the village of Kandevar one needs to have private transportation.  Kandevar is the more famous of the two rock-cut villages of Iran.  It is far more touristy than Meymand which I visited over Easter.  I am glad that I chose to stay in Meymand and not in Kandevar for my cave experience.  Meymand’s primitive, small guest house was closed when I got there, Kandevar’s fancy hotel and restaurant were open and the staff was eager to show me around.  I would not believe it had I not seen it:  About 20 caves had been turned into deluxe hotel rooms.  The royal suite which I was shown was the top of the line with TV, bar (non-alcoholic beverages only), air conditioning, alcove seating area, and a Jacuzzi, going for a whopping $300 per night!  A full, first class restaurant was attached to the hotel serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Rock terraces provided a view of the valley, the river, and the rolling hills and if ever I am rich, that’s where I will go for a few days!  The simple rooms went for a mere $150 per night.  May be next time.  I bet you there are no cockroaches there.

The historical origins of Kandevar are still under debate.  One thing is clear, it’s old!  Sadly, over the last few decades newer brick buildings have been added right in front of the old conical cave dwellings to provide stores, bathroom facilities, and more modern living spaces.  And across the river a whole Disneyland area of stalls and entertainment for the tourists has developed.  But behind the new brick buildings, there are some older stone dwellings, and hugging the mountains is the old part, the bizarre looking zigzag skyline of rock-cut Kandevar.  There must be a reason why most of the dwellings are conical.  I wonder if that is the natural erosion at that part of the mountain which was just used as is, or if it was carved that way to provide for better insulation.  Some of the dwellings reportedly have up to four stories.  The lower ones are animal shelters, the higher ones living spaces and the rest are used for storage.  I just strolled around for a few hours taking pictures.

I climbed up to the highest point of the village – a tricky affair.  I realized that it is even more dangerous to go up a steep road which is made up of loose debris than it is climbing down the mountains at Abyaneh.  The difference is only that if you fall on such a road, it is unlikely that you break anything.  I have no idea how the villagers get up those irregular, unpaved, steep roads with something in their hands, like groceries, or perhaps a piece of furniture.  The photo opportunities were endless.  One thing became clear; the villagers are not amused by all the tourists crawling around taking their picture.  I had to be very discreet photographing people.  My zoom lens helped.

Back in Tabriz I strolled through the bazaar and visited the Koran Museum.  Wonderful pieces of calligraphy were exhibited there.  A most unusual object was an undershirt fully covered with tiny script of quotes from the Koran.  Some exquisite implements used by calligraphers such as pen boxes, scissors, and ink wells made for a good understanding of this uniquely Islamic art.  The exhibit was housed in a beautiful old mosque with some wonderful brick minarets.

At the bazaar the most important section, the carpet section, was still closed for the weekend.  But I found a store that sold Tabriz Kelims and I just had to buy one…

And so it got late again and it is time to go to bed… I am trying not to get freaked out over those cockroaches.  They do not bite and it’s all in my head!

Good night.