#44 - Iran
Jeff Willner - 8 June 2002
(Mianeh, IRAN) – Persia. I had been looking forward
to visiting it for years. Even as the appeal of the trip was fading through
the rough sections of western China and the toll of nine months of rough
travel was wearing hard on me, I still looked forward to Iran. The ancient
city of Persepolis, grand mosques, the main square of Esfahan which was
said to rival Venice in sheer grandeur, there were so many things to
look forward to. A free spirited friend of mine who regularly quit his
law profession to wander the world had sent me a postcard from Iran years
ago, raving about the friendliness of the people and the beauty of the
country. I was definitely ready for some friendliness and beauty.
And our trip started well. The border
guards processed us quickly and we were across the border into the eastern
desert on a beautifully smooth highway, driving on the right hand side
of the road again. One of the first things that struck me about the country
is how middle class it seemed. And I mean that in the best possible sense.
Clean city centers, grassy medians, modern infrastructure, it was no
third world country. We wandered through the downtown of the first big
town looking for a place to stay and shopping the hotels was quite straightforward.
The decent ones had signs in Arabic and English, the clerks spoke English,
and the amenities were right up to western standards (if you didn’t count
the squat toilets).
Sally and Stacey had to wear head
scarves, though in Pakistan it was a bit hit and miss. Sometimes necessary
and sometimes not. On our first evening in Iran though, Sally and I left
our hotel room to get a bite to eat in the hotel restaurant. Forgetting
her headscarf, Sally headed across the hall with bare hair and I figured
it wouldn’t be a big deal. No way. The manager politely stopped her and
asked if she would mind going back to her room to put it on.
had done some reading on the internet and in our guide book prior to
entering Iran to make sure we would be
sensitive to the local customs – but we made a critical mistake. Not
only were headscarves and long pants necessary but in Iran a woman was
half naked if she wasn’t wearing an overcoat type robe (chador). The
closer we got to the northeast near Tehran, the more we noticed the stares.
At first we just didn’t understand the problem. But it became clear pretty
quick that every other woman in sight was wearing a chador. Unfortunately
one drawback of driving hard is there is precious little time for shopping – so
we decided to just press on.
fortress of Bam is a mountain of mud brick battlements protecting a lush
oasis in the middle of the desert. Thousands of palm trees fringed the
fort walls, gradually petering out into the baking hot rock. It was easy
to see how the fabled Silk route acquired its mystique. Tracing the silk
route backward we went up into the hills toward Persepolis. Ancient city
of the Babylonians and testament to the grandeur of the crescent kingdoms.
Further to the east we finally arrived in Esfahan.
City of poets, grand squares, hundreds
of fountains, and long arched bridges spanning its massive river, Esfahan
was legendary a thousand years ago. The on again-off again capital of
the Persian empire (Iran) it was gifted with architecturally ambitious
kings. At the heart of the city is Masjid-i-Shah, a 17th century mosque
and one of the best examples of Persian architecture. Around it is the
main square where horse drawn carts circle a long reflecting fountain,
and a massive arcade of shops selling all sorts of wonderful items. Families
eat ice cream in the shade and carpet dealers offer free tea to any and
I bought three little pictures
inscribed on genuine camel bone for just over $20. Stacey bought two
carpets for over $4000. My mind boggled. “You wait and see, when we get
home this will seem like a real deal!” After a year on the road I couldn’t
conceive of four thousand and bargain in the same sentence. Sally and
I were still bargaining for two dollar meals “One eighty five by Allah
and not one piastre more!”. Eight dollar cappuccinos and eighty dollar
bottles of wine seemed like a very distant memory.
wasn’t cheap to tour Iran. The oil economy means there are plenty of
people with money and the tourist trade was booming just with the locals.
But one place we saved a mint was on the diesel. It’s a huge country,
over 3000km to transit, and we had to fill the tanks a few times. After
pumping 80 litres into the tank at the first station I asked the attendant
for the price (there was no meter on the pump). “Oh, that’s about 4,000
Rials.” I stopped, puzzled. “You mean 40,000?” “No, 4,000.” I paid and
jumped in the truck. Sally was doing expenses and asked the amount. I
told her. She didn’t believe me. “Jeff, are you telling me you just paid
$2.20 for 80 litres of diesel?!!” Yep.
It was totally casual at the filling
station. Diesel is a greasy thick fuel and when a couple hundred litres
have been pumped over the forecourt it makes for slippery going. It was
just so pointless to be careful filling the tank. Ooops, missed the spout,
got to talking with the attendant, fuel tank is full and overflows everywhere,
pull it out. How many litres the attendant asks. A hundred and twenty
in the truck and another couple all over the place. He squints with the
effort of adding, that will be… $3.20. Sorry, I only have $3 on me. Yeah
that’s fine. Gotta love that oil economy.
all the places we visit Esfahan is my favorite”, said an overland driver/guide
we had met in India. “You will walk in the main square and be invited
to sit with a family having tea, hours pass just talking and before you
know it you are invited back to their house for dinner.” So we were a
bit puzzled by our reception. Possibly the political climate (the US
had recently included Iran in the official Axis of Evil) or the size
of our group (we were not in a big tourist mob) contributed to the attitude
toward us, but I think most of the frosty stares were because the women
were not wearing chadors. We did have an excellent evening smoking a
sheeshah underneath one of the long arched bridges with two Iranian families,
and many people were very friendly. But it wasn’t the kind of genuine
Arab hospitality that we had experienced in Sudan, Syria, or even Pakistan.
We were puzzled and even a bit hurt.
Unfortunately on our last day in
Esfahan Stacey and Sally were doing some sightseeing and a guy tried
to grab Sally’s purse. Not being a shrinking violet, she hung on and
tried to get a few swift kicks in. He dragged her to the pavement but
took off as soon as she started yelling for the police. To their credit
the Iranian police were very very upset about the whole thing. But the
snide comments about their clothes, the occasional wandering hand from
a randy young buck, and then the mugging were about enough for Sally’s
tolerance. “I’ve had it with this country,’ she said, ‘let’s get to Turkey.”
we bid Esfahan adieu, took the loop around Tehran (the Los Angeles of the
Middle East) and drove hard to the border. We blew by the Castle of the Assassins,
fresh wheat in the fields and the snow capped mountains with Iran’s ski resorts,
winding westward into the night heading toward the border. And almost as
if they sensed our mood, that we had given up on their country, four different
individuals tried to rip us off on our way to the border. It really was an
unfortunate way to end our visit. I hope to visit Iran again, there have
been too many wonderful reviews for it to be as bad as all that. And the
mystery of Persia still sings in my imagination.