Hello Sir, How Are You? (Iran)

May 2004


A group of Iranians arrived; it was Thursday and that was similar for Saturday in Europe according to the Iranian calendar, so people were going to the mountains for the weekend. The first thing they did after entering the shelter was to take out some biscuits and sweets and offer us. Without speaking much English, these people were extremely hospitable, allowing us to call Mohammad on his mobile and not accepting any money in return. They stand amazed at the pile of garbage left by the Swiss and I do not know for which reason they expressed their regret that we had to see that garbage in their country. The Czech guy felt bad, turned white and vomited because of the effort and altitude, however he refused to take a shot offered by the Iranians and we soon started, as both Bogdan and myself intended to reach Tehran that very evening. We said good bye to them all: Mount Damavand, the Iranians and the Czech couple which intended to reach only the base camp that evening. As we went down, it got warmer and we met more and more Iranians going up. We found the base camp deserted, then we trekked down across the barren hills to the asphalted road and further to Reyneh, where we found the old man that had offered us his services the day before. He could not drive us to the capital, but he found us a car and driver. We got in the city at 9 and in Mohammad's place at 09.30 PM. Ayazou, his wife, cooked some delicious rice which seemed to be a national dish.

The following day was to be Bogdan's last one in Iran except for the next one on the bus. He had his ticket done and then we surfed through the city, shot some pictures and watched Tehran on a Friday morning (the equivalent of Sunday here), with its wide avenues and well developed North section of the city. Eventually he was off to the bus station, while I, together with Mohammad and his wife, went to Karaj, a 4 million people "small town" close to Tehran, where Mohammad's parents and sister lived, for it was his sister's birthday and we were invited. My Iranian day continued with something I had unconsciously lasted for: a traditional family meeting meal. In the large living room, they lay a large table cloth on the carpet and then they arranged on it large bowls with different meals, from sheep or three kinds of rice to baked aubergines and marinated onions. Everyone would sit on the floor Turkish-like, except for Mohammad's mother which was very old. The afternoon went on with the members of the family exchanging views and stories about recent happenings or events. They were always very hospitable and asked every five minutes if I was OK. After the meal was over, they packed the "table" and lay down some blankets, sheets and pillows so that people could go for a nap. The house was as community-oriented as possible, with no door and almost no wall separating the living from the kitchen, a large window separating the living from a bedroom and another very large one opening to the wide balcony. Basically everything would happen in the central living space. The blind-folded traditions that one would have expected had been broken as well: while Mohammad's mother was wearing a chador and everything, his wife, as well as his sister-in-law could not care less about this formality, preferring to wear jeans and T-shirts, only using a chador when outside. The time to go soon arrived and we were off to Tehran, then off to the bus station, as I was going to Shiraz in Southern Iran. I boarded the bus at sunset and, just before it started, a young man asked me in a perfect English whether I wanted to switch seats with him, as they were four and wanted to stay together. Then we spent a couple of hours talking: they were students in Shiraz. The bus was crossing the desert and I soon fell asleep, just to wake up hours later almost frozen. They had turned the air conditioning system of the coach at maximum.

Eventually, after trying to sit or sleep in all positions and after putting on me all clothes I had in the backpack, dawn came and the driver told me that I should get off if I wanted to go to Persepolis. So I did, I walked for a couple of kilometers along a busy road and eventually I reached the wide and empty parking lot of Persepolis museum: it was almost 8 AM. The former fortress, the impressive gate and the ruins of the palaces best preserving the sculptures, bas reliefs of the Persian culture, all were impressive. The heat and the very strong sun rays were at least just as impressive, but these could not keep me from visiting two other sites before going to Shiraz: Naqsh-e Rajab and the tombs in Naqsh-e Rastam. On the way to Rajab, a car stopped to give me a ride. When getting off, I had to pay about 3000 Rials. Just like in Romania, hitch-hiking was paid for, it therefore did not exist, being replaced by a strange form of pay & go. The tombs in Rastam, carved about 20-30 m. above the ground level in the vertical wall of the mountain slope, were impressive. Another tourist asked me to make a picture of him and then we shook hands: he was from Germany and we were to share the makeshift taxi to Shiraz. Once there, I had to ask about the bus ticket to Yazd, while my newly made friend recommended a flight instead: "it is cheap, extremely cheap, about USD 15-20". Well, it might have been, but the bus was more convenient as I was to get there in the morning, and it was nevertheless ten times cheaper, at less than USD 2. I had my ticket done with a very helpful clerk that did not let me go until he made sure I understood everything there was written in Persian on it. Then we headed to the city centre. At a first glance, Shiraz was a provincially - looking city if compared to busy and modern Tehran. Yet it was this very provinciality that helped it preserve its authenticity and great atmosphere. Its bazaar went way beyond its physical limits, it could be felt in the streets, with merchants selling everything, with that never - ending noise that had already turned into music for me, with the same crazy traffic where pedestrians, cars, coaches, hand - pulled carts would move and mix together into a street that stretched over the sidewalk or onto a sidewalk that stretched over the street, take it as you wish. After visiting a few mosques and wandering through the superb Orange Garden, after losing my way a few times in the bazaar area with old mud brick houses and narrow, labyrinth-like streets, after looking at a few groups of foreigners buying that polished crap we nicely call artifacts, I eventually went down in a teahouse, enjoyed a few glasses of tea, being overwhelmed by the smell coming from a neighbouring table where a couple was enjoying a narghile, and I wrote down the day's story.

The time to go arrived and I headed for the bus station. This time the very cheap ticket also reflected the quality, i.e. the simple, 30 years old Irannational bus, a Mercedes license. However in this one there was no risk of frost-bites because of the air - conditioning system, as there was no such system. The bus was supposed to reach Yazd at 5 in the morning, yet it did at 4 AM. I spent the rest of the time until dawn on a bench with one of the passengers of the bus which could hardly speak English. He was a student in the Mechanical Faculty of Yazd and he said that Shiraz was much better than Yazd. Well, I was about to find out the opposite... After passing through the empty railway station, I went for the centre.

Yazd had a best preserved desert town atmosphere, with clay houses, small or inexistent windows, flat roofs and very ingenious wind towers which would capture the weakest wind blow, bringing it in the house and therefore creating a natural air-conditioning system of the Middle Ages. The city was set around narrow and twisted streets that would go on forever. As one of the guidebooks said, getting lost in this labyrinth - like city where everything shared the colour of the desert was the very Yazd. I then went for the Zoroastrian remnants that made Yazd famous. First there was the Fire Temple with its eternal flame and the portrait of Zarahustra. Then I tried to find Lions' Fortress, which I could only reach after asking (or being asked what I was looking for) a few people about its location. Wandering through the old town, one of the caretakers of Alexander's Prison and also a sort of cultural counsellor around the city hall, offered to show me the places, such as Khan-e-Mahmudi, a former hammam nowadays under restoration and meant to be turned into a teahouse, Jami Mosque and other sites, including the two Towers of Silence. The tour took a couple of hours and revealed places I do not think I could have found by myself, as both guidebooks I had lacked in precise information in many situations or were even inaccurate every now and then. The tour was given to me on a motorcycle and this way I could enjoy at most the old centre, as many young people would wander along those narrow streets on motorcycles and many of the covered passages and bazaar avenues would be blocked every now and then by their vehicles. The heat that lay over the city best fit it, with that dust stirred by people and their modern, black Arab horses, with those women dressed in black as if they were ghosts sliding along the hay-like walls, with that black and yellow omnipresent atmosphere. Leaving my makeshift guide, I went into a teahouse also hosted in a former hammam. I had a tea watching my tour through Yazd as if I was in a cinema and then I decided my next destination: Isfahan.

I boarded the 06.30 PM bus to Isfahan. Then the bus started crossing the desert in the sunset light, with that never ending reddish, dry, flat ground, those dry mountains on the horizon line, those few and ever dryer clouds bearing almost the same colour with the ground, that grey-orange sky and the huge, ever dryer sun sinking between the scarce and half dead bushes. Even on that highway, at over 120 km/h, one could not feel he / she was moving at all, for the desert itself was moving too. Just like in Jack Kerouac's novel, one does not feel the heat like a different entity invading or affecting himself, but rather he feels himself becoming part of the heat, being given a strange or maybe perfectly natural feeling of adherence to what we might consider in the first place as a bad and unwanted experience. The bus got to Isfahan at 10.30 PM. Trusting the guidebook without a certain precise reason, I went straight to the hostel they recommended there, to be given a triple with the great honour of paying the price for a double room and then to just find out that its window opened in the interior garden, just next to the few tables there. Few tables where some other travelers spent long hours talking politics. I was enchanted to the bones about their long, useless and definitely misplaced chat or rather gossip that showed nothing but the extent to which people go when they miss too much a beer or a glass of wine. They eventually ceased after 2 AM and the Isfahan leg of my trip could therefore start with a well-known, but rarely understood, line: "My freedom ends where your freedom begins". Even if someone speaks English or French and not Persian. And even if the topic aims as high as Philosophy, Art or Middle East Politics.

The following day was dedicated to Isfahan. Lonely Planet quoted a minimal 3 days stay in this city, while Bradt recommended a minimum of 4 days. I was to "do" (for what is to "do" a city?!) in a day and a few hours. Actually I do not believe in this "must see" or "must do" term. A sightseeing place is what one finds and thinks about it, nothing more and nothing less but a personal point of view. Some go to Paris for sightseeing and some to do their shoppings, others simply go there to be able to say that. Different persons, hence different reasons and impressions.

I started my tour with the oldest mosque in the city, to which I was shown by an old man which insisted to show me some other old house probably built by some rich merchant in the 19th century by the decorations it bore. Then I crossed the bazaar. It was impressive as, at least to me, it was more than the ones in Shiraz or Yazd. Here the bazaar was everything, it contained everything, from restaurants, shops and merchants, tea houses, fountains, barber's shops, as well as craftsmen of all guilds in the world. It was a place to visit for tourists, a place to play for children, a place to do the shoppings for the locals, a place to bake bread for bakers. The busy bazaar halls would get even busier with some motorists that would noisily make their way among people, heaps of merchandise, other people, respectively other heaps of merchandise. The place was simply fascinating. I went on and, after visiting the wide Jameh Mosque surrounded by its tourists-meant-for bazaar, I entered the super Imam Square, bordered by two next-to-incredible mosques. The whole square was surrounded by bazaars and shops. Tourism was there as well, just in the middle of the square there were horse-pulled carts, Vienna-like, meant for visitors. After visiting the mosques and admiring for an hour the superb mosaics I could and shall never attempt to describe in words, I went for a break on a teahouse overlooking the square. Tea was always brought in a teapot together with a small glass and a sugar box. The place was filled with water pipes, old pictures, traditional carpets and other such things. After a while, I went and visited three of the palaces that made Isfahan's glory. The wooden pillars, the astonishing frescoes and the mosaic made of small mirror pieces, just like their location, made them all worth. Sightseeing was the most expensive thing in the country, as most tickets to more or less everything in Iran, with very few exceptions, cost the equivalent of USD 3.5, i.e. RLS 30,000. However this was the last thing to complain about, as the places were absolutely superb.

Then I went to the river, trying to change some dollars on the way in a bank. This was - officially - more or less impossible as that hour because - firstly - only the central branch of that bank could change money and - secondly - that could only be done in the morning. So I headed to the old bridges on the river. These were very interesting, with their many arches being reflected in the river and their impeccable architecture and did nothing but underline the value water was given on these territories ever since their inhabitation. Noticing a fancy-looking hotel, I entered and the receptionist there happily changed my money for a small commission. On my way along the river bank, I could notice many Iranians with their families having a picnic on the grass near the river. The atmosphere was extremely relaxed and pleasant. As most of the bridges hosted a teahouse, I stopped in the one on Chubi Bridge and stayed there for an hour or so, enjoying a tea and a water pipe. A man from a nearby table asked whether I enjoyed Iran and especially Isfahan, being very happy when I told him I liked his country very much. The hospitality of these people was overwhelming.

Later in the evening I walked across the Armenian quarter of the city. Back to the hostel, the front desk clerk asked me: "Have you seen any bird today?". I had not or maybe I had, but that was another story. Noticing the other tourists were probably elsewhere enjoying their political debates, I went to bed and woke up only in the morning. I went to see the Armenian churches in Jalfa Quarter. They were amazing, especially Vank Cathedral bore some exquisite frescoes showing the life and deeds of St. Gregory the Illuminator I had been told about a year ago in the Armenian church of Yalta, Ukraine. Back to the centre, I went straight to the bank to sort out my financial problem. I was spared waiting in line with the other Iranians, because I was a foreigners. Even at this formal level, hospitality existed and worked. Yet it co-existed with bureaucracy, as I had to wait for about 15 minutes until formalities were done. I left with a heap of bills (as the biggest bill in Iran is of lightly more than a dollar equivalent) and with three forms filled in. I took a shared taxi and went to the bus station. The driver spoke English quite well. He had worked within the airline industry and was nowadays retired, working as a taxi driver. He charged me very little and asked me whether I was having a good time in his country. Then he negotiated for me with the other drivers for a ride to Abyaneh, where I wanted to go next. However they would only go to Natanz Town, just like the bus, so I opted for the latter. The bus station was very modern and well organized, while people working there were very helpful. I got on the bus to Natanz: "a very good bus, a Volvo". We soon started. The coach was indeed pretty new and it also had - like always - a TV set and a vide player. Unfortunately for the others, the video player would not start working. Although he was driving the bus at more than 100 km./h., the driver took off the video player and started to look at it, trying to sort out the problem and driving the bus with his feet alone. About 10 minutes later the video player eventually started working and the traffic on the highway could eventually have the full attention of our driver. I got off in Natanz and some local people showed me an office next to the main square: it seemed to be a travel agency. The man there, learning about my destination, made a short phone call and an old man immediately appeared, taking me to Abyaneh Village by car. The scenery on the way was simply fantastic, with the reddish and dry mountains surrounding us and with the valley we were following hosting every now and then a small community whose existence was permitted by the existence of the water. The vegetation in these communities was quite dense and the contrast with the neighbouring mountains - total. Between two such communities there was nothing but the dry mountainous scenery, the road and the telegraph wires. Eventually we reached the village. People had built mud brick houses on a pretty steep mountain slope raising from the green oasis down the valley. As the slope was pretty steep, the houses had been built virtually one on top of the other, the the roof of a house serving as basement for the next one. Especially the balconies, made of poplar tree branches exquisitely arranged, were very appealing. Above all houses there were the ruins of the local fortress made of stones and reddish mud. A local woman dressed up traditionally was riding a donkey. The best thing about Abyaneh was that it had not been touched by the tourist plague (yet) and that its life was genuine. The time to go soon arrived and so we did. The return trip from Natanz to Abyaneh was about USD 6 and the old man asked for 6 more to Kashan, which I refused and preferred therefore to wait for the bus. Meanwhile the travel agency clerk offered me a tea. The bus eventually arrived and the driver did not accept any money for the ride to Kashan.

I reached Kashan in the afternoon, I rushed to the bus stop from where I could go to Fin Gardens. The gardens were not very well maintained, but they were superb, with many water channels going in and around a few small summer pavilions bearing beautiful ceiling works. Back to the city, I started wandering along its narrow alleys and twisted streets, then I met a few small children which were very happy that I made a picture of them and then I reached the ruins of the local fortress. Then I visited the best sites (for me) in Kashan: the three "khan" buildings, i.e. mansions built by local merchants and generally set around a central water pool surrounded by lush vegetation. They all bore impressive baroque decorations, carvings and frescoes, while in the small rooms the light was exquisitely filtered through very interesting stained glass windows. The image was completed in some cases by mosaics made of mirror pieces. While walking through the city, just like in Isfahan, people would stop me and, noticing I was a foreigner, they would ask me: "Hello sir, how are you?", the short conversation usually going on with their curiosity about my impressions on their country. As evening came, I went to the mosques, to find the most beautiful of them all still open: Agha Bozorg Mosque. The caretaker was an old man, a teacher from a local school and he happily gave me a tour in French. The mosque was impressive through its settlement, with the low garden in the middle and the imposing dome. The scent of normality was brought by some children playing football to the back of it. Then I slowly went to the square from where I took a shared taxi to Qom, as there were no buses running at that hour.

One of the other passengers of the taxi, a very polite young man, asked about my itinerary and whether I liked his country. Then he incidentally said at my reply about the Iranian hospitality, that "all people in the world do things out of interest, because they want something out of you". I did not and still do not agree, but his words would make some sense later on that night. Everyone got off the taxi when we met the highway to Tehran, while I continued with the driver which agreed to take me to the centre, as I intended to spend the night in Qom. Actually he left me far away from the centre, in some remote square in the faubourgs of the city and then he doubled the amount asked for in the first place. I started walking to the centre, asking for directions every now and then. People would tell me which way to go, most times asking me where I came from and they would be very nice and helpful. I could not blame all the nation for a bastard, I could not simply hate these people. After a walk which took more than one hour, I got to the centre, marked by a huge, impressive and very well lit shrine, as Qom was host for the second most important pilgrimage place in Iran, after Mashhad. There were thousands of people coming and going, walking around, praying. Although it was midnight, shops were still open, coaches were running, the scenery was just fascinating. The former river bank had been covered up in concrete and turned into a huge parking lot for coaches of pilgrims. Looking for accommodation for the night, my second try was successful and I got a room just across the parking from the holy shrine in a poor and pretty dirty hotel meant for pilgrims. The place was noisy, with shared toilets and no showers whatsoever, but it provided nevertheless very good means of experiencing the way these pilgrims coming from all over the country and not only, used to travel and stay. I bought myself a water melon, ate some of it and went to sleep on that poor bed in the noise provided by that unique place.

At 6 AM or so I was awaken by hard knocks on the door... (click here to continue)


THE IRANIAN SECTION 2 (you are here)


Friendship and a very human life approach is what I found in Iran beyond all monuments. Being offered a glass of chai, some bread or simply a good word by a total stranger while on a bus, sitting in the park or traveling across the bazaar, these are among the things I shall never forget, things that have already made me return to Iran and shall do so again with great pleasure and interest...