We awoke today with a sense of excitement knowing we would see one of the sights we were most looking forward to on this trip. As we both harbor a deep interest in ancient history, the chance to see the seat of the ancient Persian empire, Persepolis, was something special to us.
Persepolis was the nucleus of the ancient city of Parsa, which was the architectural center of the Achaemenid dynasty, the founding dynasty of the Persian empire. Iranians consider it the representation of “the cradle of their nationhood and culture.” Consider that a few decades ago, Iran celebrated its 2,500th anniversary as a Persian nation. Meanwhile at about the same time, the USA was celebrating its 200th anniversary. Iranians are very proud of their ancient roots and their cohesive existence as a culture through such a vast stretch of time.
Below are some pics of the "Gate of All Lands." Dignitaries and important visitors from other nations had to pass beneath these arches to the audience palace where they could be received. The hallmark of the early Persian empire was the freedom it gave all the nations under its control ... they each were allowed their own cultural freedom and national identity. One could consider Persepolis a kind of ancient "United Nations," the center where they all met for discourse and interaction.
The palaces in the acropolis were built during the years 522 to 486 BC by Darius the Great and succeeding kings of the dynasty. Parsa was burned down in 330 BC by the famous Macedonian, Alexander the Great. Animosity still seems to exist today against the Greeks for this sacrilegious act of destruction (some say it was on purpose, some say by accident, but either way, Alexander was responsible). I find it interesting how such feelings can persist for so many generations (this of course is not a unique phenomenon in the world), how a national psyche can be nurtured over millennia regarding ancient foes.
Standing among such ancient grandeur really gives one a sort of glorious feeling. As if you can briefly grasp how epic the history of human civilization is. I dunno ... I can almost hear triumphant symphonies playing in the background. It's not my nation, not my culture, not my heritage or history, but I feel so proud of it anyway -- just proud of "civilization" in general for its vision, creativity, artistry and diplomacy in the ancient world. One thing the locals are quick to point out about Persepolis is that unlike places such as Bishapour, Persepolis was not built with slave labor, it was a work force free in will.
Imagine … once all of the stone surfaces -- walls, steps and stairways, arches -- were covered in bas relief figures, like these below, and cuneiform writing. In the first photo you can see how the original stone was once a polished black. It must have looked such a splendor. How I wish for a time machine!
A short drive away is the necropolis containing the tombs of several of the Achaemenid kings, including Darius the Great and one whose name I love to say, Xerxes. The Persians were Zoastrians in religion, and a small number of practicing Zoastrians still exist in Iran today. Their ritual for burying the dead was different from any other religion (and actually, the way I personally would very much prefer to be dealt with upon my death). The tombs all have a high shelf in front of the entrance. On this shelf the body was left in the open air to decompose naturally, the flesh to be carried away by various birds and insects. Only after the bones were completely picked clean were they gathered and buried in a simple fashion in the tomb. Later we would see towers for this ritual that were still in use until 50 years ago. But the ancient kings received little more fanfare than any other person at death, excepting of course (the rather large exception) for the elaborate facades carved into the rock cliffs for the tombs.
I really liked these tombs, known locally as Persian crosses. I’ve always wanted to see the Valley of the Kings and the ancient tombs of Egypt, and this felt like being given a small taste of what that might be like. One thing I like about the ruins here and around Bishapour is the evidence of the sudden flight of the people whenever they were conquered by an invading force. In several places, large rock carvings or reliefs had begun and were abandoned suddenly and never finished, such as this large blank space which had been prepped for carving and hastily left behind. Somehow to me this gives the ruins some sort of kinetic energy ... evidence of motion.
We ended our day at the humble ruins of Pasargadae and the tomb the revered king, and founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, Cyrus the Great. Reza was keen to have our photo taken here and published on the blog. I think the monument to this legendary founder is a source of great pride to the Iranian people. Even Alexander the Great spared the tomb while wreaking havoc on the rest of the area and destroying the cities. He actually greatly admired Cyrus the Great. Sometimes it's known as the tomb of the mother of Solomon because the caretakers of the tomb lied to the invading Arab armies who would have destroyed it, and told them it belonged to a figure in Islamic history, King Solomon's mother, and it was therefore protected. Pretty clever of them, eh?
The pittance of remains of the city of Pasargadae were somewhat less than impressive except for the very worthy contemplation of the fleetingness and relative insignificance of human achievement in the face of the long stretch history, which lies ultimately at the mercy of far greater powers than humanity -- nature and weather and time. Erik and I were both thinking the same thing while there – Shelley’s famous poem (one of the exceedingly few poems I ever bothered to memorize): “'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
So Shiraz … lovely city. Reza says it’s his favorite city … among other reasons, because the girls are so pretty.
The first thing this morning, we visited a nice garden with some beautiful poppies in bloom. So nice to have a little interlude of summer, as when we fly back home we’ll be re-entering winter for another month or so. (and FYI, the poppy photo below looks fake or like I jacked up the saturation, but that's just the plain photo ... the flowers were that brilliant)
Then we meandered through the Shiraz bazaar – the old covered alleyways of the traditional market. I wanted to buy a cooler shirt, a “mantou,” which is the name for the requisite type of top for women – long-sleeved shirt that is long enough to cover your butt and buttons all the way up your chest. This is the other maddening dress code for women in addition to the hijab (head covering) … it drives me batty to already be warm inside the hotel room, then to have to don a long-sleeved shirt, of all ridiculous things, and a head scarf. I’m pretty much in a bad mood every day when I close the hotel room door behind me. But within 5 minutes the discomfort is totally forgiven as I become enthralled with the sights. For example ... these from Nasir-al-Molk.
Anyway, I wanted a mantou of lighter, cooler fabric than any I’d brought with me, so Reza helped pick one out for me as well as a new scarf. (Later I would wear that mantou around Reza’s friends and the girls, according to him, liked it and were all clamoring to get one as well when they found out how cheaply I’d acquired it [$10]).
He also mentioned that Shiraz is known for its turquoise. Somehow I ended up inside a jewelry shop in the bazaar and left with a sweet little turquoise ring. While we waited for it to get sized, we talked with the proprietor who sported a most excellent moustache and long, pointy shoes with curled-up tips. He had an interesting collection of stamps including several anti-American ones that were amusing. Too bad I couldn’t mail some postcards with “death to America” stamps on them … that would have been pretty cool. :) ha ha. But it would have confirmed the misperception that Iranians hate Americans. Nothing could be further from the truth as far as we can tell. Anyone who finds out we’re American is quick to express their pleasure at seeing us in their country, and they often express the hope that “we” (our governments/countries) can be friends. They clearly perceive that Americans view them with animosity, as they also often say things like, “See, we’re nice people, we’re not so bad!” Anyway, the anti-American stamps weren’t allowed to be used anymore.
We toured a beautiful little mosque, Nasir-al-Molk, very small compared to most we see. I think the small size accentuated the beauty – the same care in the architecture and tilework and woven rugs as in a large mosque. The rugs, individual people make them and donate them to the mosque, they can take up to several years to make. They hold up remarkably well because of the quality of materials and knots.
Later in Esfahan we would see the carpet weaving process which is quite impressive … up to as many as 169 knots per square centimeter, making for such plush carpet. The handmade carpets typically use natural dyes for the coloring of the wool which don’t fade, even in direct sun. Vegetables, fruits, roots and nuts are the primary ingredients in the dyes. At the moment we’re in Isfahan and currently contemplating buying a small carpet … very small because the prices are pretty astronomical by our humble financial standards. But they are so nice. We’ll see ……
Then we stepped into a theological school where people can get degrees in religious studies. The men walking around inside wore one of two colors of turbans to signify their completion of studies, either black or white. We learned that the color of the turban denotes whether or not you are descended from the prophet Mohammad. Black means you are descended from this line. People can trace their lineage back that far through scrupulously-kept records.
Reza then explained to us two things that I have been wondering about. First, I’ve always heard that Muslims don’t depict animals or people in their decorative artwork, only geometric designs. Why? I wondered. The Sunni apparently believe that the angels are kept away by animated depictions which is why they don’t have such depictions in their artwork. Iranians are overwhelmingly Shia Muslims, though, and don’t necessarily believe this. The second note of interest was to learn the reflecting ponds are typically so large in order to reflect heaven; there is supposed to be heaven on earth, so pools reflect the sky, clouds, heaven.
And then - surprise! - another palace of mirrors awaited us! Narenjestan (Orange Garden) Truly Iran is the land of mirrors. So opulent and spectacular the way they use cut mirror pieces and colored glass. Here's a a nice bunch of pics for you. (you can me more mirror-laden palaces in my Tehran post)
After a siesta we saw the tomb of a famous Persian poet, Hafez. The Persians take their classic poets very seriously and find them and their words and techniques still relevant today.
Then we walked through a mausoleum with spectacular mirrored interior, even more so than the one in Tehran. We met a friend of Reza’s, Samira, who took me through the women’s side of the mausoleum (most religious things are separated into women’s and men’s sides). This time I had my chador more under control than in Tehran. When I walked inside, the sparkled dome was so shocking in its sparkly-ness that I literally almost jumped back and mumbled something like “whoa.” Samira laughed and said she was always amused at the reaction of tourists who are as similarly shocked as I was. (no photos allowed) She is also in the tourist industry, which is how she and Reza know each other.
Then the four of us went out to eat at a restaurant with very modern architecture, as Samira is from Shiraz, she selected for us some signature dishes from the region. And Reza suggested we try orange blossom water, which though sweet, was pretty darn yummy. The Shiraz region is full of many orange trees. When we were staying with the nomads, Erik and I spent some time just wandering around the hillsides and we kept hearing this buzzing sound as if hordes of insects were nearby. We wondered if they could be bees, and later found out (and passed by in the car) there were 500 beehives a little ways away and they feed the bees on the orange blossoms, so the honey has a distinct flavor. The orange water was yummy but very sweet!
It’s not really correct to say I “woke up early” because I’d been awake since my watch said 3:15 a.m. unable to convince body to go back to sleep on the hard ground. But around 6 or 6:30, Erik got up to pee and I had no reason to keep lying on the ground now that it was light, so I got up and dressed and I figured I would either walk around or maybe write some. But I noticed Erik standing up at the nomads’ sheep pen looking inside so I walked over to him. The man was preparing the sheep and goats in their night pen to be let out so he could walk them out to pasture. He and his spinster daughter were milking some sheep. The man had a hooked stick, he would walk around the pen and grab a sheep by the leg with the stick to single it out then hold it still while the daughter milked. Then he separated the baby goats and sheep who wouldn’t be able to keep up with the herd. One baby goat was sick and needed a shot of penicillin (that word we understood from the old man). I held the baby while the man first stuck in a shot with a bent syringe that didn’t work, and so he had to go get a new syringe. I could feel the little nubs where the goat’s horns would come in while I held him still and petted him. So cute.
The man left to go walk to the mountain and back with his herd. Mr. Qajar had brought him a knee brace and a walking cane. I imagine that when he called, he asked what gifts the family would like in exchange for hosting us. The man was super pleased with the brace and cane.
Dogs clearly don’t usually get human attention in a good way. Erik and I tried to give some to two dogs that seemed to belong to the family camped on the other side of us. They wanted desperately to be petted but were extremely caution, approaching us obsequiously, crawling on their bellies toward us. But once I proved myself a copious source of scritching, the cream-colored dog and I were best friends, and she rolled over to have her belly scratched, licking me in joy.
Farshad made omelets for us for breakfast. My favorite. The nomads brought us the fresh sheep’s milk Erik and I had watched them collect and Farshad boiled it for us to drink. Not my favorite.
So it was a short visit with these traditional tribal people, but enough to get a flavor of their ancient existence. It used to be that nomads made money making carpets from the wool of their sheep, but it’s not such a lucrative business anymore. Their wanderings are not so nomadic as they used to be, traveling only between two places now. And this year they transported their sheep from one camp to the other with a truck rather than walking them by foot. So times change inexorably. They are the modern nomad. But even they will cease to exist before too long.
Near the nomad camp beside a river is an ancient ruin called Bishapour. The Persians defeated the Romans in battle here and they used the Roman soldiers they captured to build the city. There are several reliefs carved into the steep rock walls beside the river to let everyone approaching the city through the valley know that this king had defeated the Romans. We are steadily introduced to many common motifs in the stonework and tilework around Iran coming from different dynastic periods. One of these is the Persian king when triumphant steps on the body of his defeated foe. (this becomes relevant in our own lives in a few days …) And a ruler holding a ring out in front of him symbolizes pledge and promise either to gods to rule his subjects honorably or with another ruler in peaceful gesture.
Bishapour was built mostly with the labor of Roman soldiers captured during the battle. A watchtower dominates the hilltop at the mouth of the narrow valley where it opens up onto the plain where Bishapour is built. Reza mentioned that highly defensible structures such as a fortress are often named “virgin” castles, bridges, etc., (e.g. The Virgin Fortress) reflecting a culture of familial over-protection of women and how difficult it is for a single man to get to a single woman.
There isn't much left of Bishapour and excavation is slow, with funds allowing only a couple months each summer. But it was nicely preserved in the sacred temple area and there is always something vaguely romantic about a rubble ruin on a wide open windswept plain.
The reflecting pool inside the temple was made with extraordinary pains to ensure the water entered the pool (via an underground channel dug to the river 250 meters away) with steady and gentle stream so as not to disturb the calm, glassy surface which was supposed to reflect the bull head stone carvings looming over the pool. The water was blessed once a week in the reflecting pool and then channeled out to the crops and city. Below, the square depression is the reflection pool, the stairs are leading down into it, and the dark corridor is what you find when you enter one of the doorways surrounding the pool.
A man who worked at the ruins attached himself to us for awhile, explaining aspects of the ruins as we wandered through them. At one point, he shuffled his foot in the dirt, then bent down and brushed the dirt away from a patch of ground with his hand to reveal of a bit of rock mosaic flooring. After he told us about it, he brushed the dirt back over it and patted it down, and we walked on. A simple, small gesture that was strangely one of my favorite moments there ... it just makes you think -- you never know what ancient wonders you could be standing right on top of in a land with such ancient history.
After returning from the nomads and Bishapour to our hotel in Shiraz, we went out to dinner that night across town. As we approached Reza’s car, he said to me, “There is a little something for you in the car.” I opened the door and there was a beautiful tiny box sitting on the back seat right in the middle. A birthday present from Reza! So sweet. When I saw the pretty box sitting there for me, I had to swallow a little tear – it was such a lovely gesture. Reza is going to be laughing as he reads that sentence. The gift itself was beautiful, but even if it had been ugly or weird, the gesture alone was a gift.
Some random notes: Huge herds of sheep are continually crossing the roads and highways. I’ve been in other countries where you occasionally have to wait for sheep crossing the road, but never so often and never for anywhere near so many sheep. Here they are even crossing 4-lane divided highways and causing very large traffic jams as shepherds lead their flocks casually around.
If we thought it was a bit of a hassle getting a visa to Iran, I retract any complaints about the time it took and the amount of paperwork. That’s nothing compared to the process an Iranian must go through to obtain a visa to America. You need to have a letter of recommendation and a financial sponsor in America, and worst of all, you must travel to an American embassy in another country and be interviewed in person! Most people go to Turkey or Dubai … but imagine having to travel, on your own expense, to another country to obtain a visa to the country you want to visit and must have an interview.
At police check points, all buses and trucks must stop and hand in a tracking device on their vehicle which tracks their maximum speed, average speed and number of hours on the road each day. If they have exceeded speed limit or driven for more than 8 hours in a day, they get a ticket. The driving time max is for their safety. Also, tour guides must stop at certain check points – they must submit their itinerary to the government and the police and must follow it exactly and at these check points they submit a type of tracking number to the police who make sure they are sticking to their itinerary.
Tomorrow the shining city of Shiraz awaits our eager eyes. I have so many photos from Shiraz ... here's one in preview. :)
Certainly today has to be the most exotic of birthdays, even since my resolution to be always traveling on my birthday. I spent it with Qashqai nomads in the Zagros mountains.
We woke up in Shiraz, and first off went to the tour agency we booked our guide through to pay them … with the sanctions imposed on Iran it has become a cash-only society because they can’t utilize banks outside of Iran … you can only have credit cards issued by Iranian banks for use only in Iran. So we were very relieved to unburden ourselves of all that cash to keep track of. We were ushered into a conference room to sit at a large table with several people. Then a man came in with tea and candy for us. I was expecting something rather involved – maybe we had to sign some papers, talk about details or something. Several people came in to greet us. But in the end, all we did was hand over our envelope of money after drinking our tea.
Then Mr. Qajar, the owner of the tour agency who sat with us at the head of the table in the conference room in a crisp pin-stripe suit and argyle socks, said he was coming with us to see the nomads. For a minute I had a flashback to China when the hotel manager in Datong spontaneously jumped in our taxi with us and spent the whole day as our guide. But this, it turned out, wasn’t spontaneous. Mr. Qajar was in fact the one who had the 4x4 vehicle and all the camping gear we were told would be supplied for us to spend the night with these nomads.
So we went around the back of the building to find he had stripped off his coat and tie to load up this vehicle. We then drove to pick up Farshad, who Mr. Qajar said would be helping us. And THEN, guess what! I got to see the inside of an Iranian medical clinic! Yep, it’s my new traveling theme ... to see hospitals from the inside. ha ha. This time, however, it was not I who needed the medical services. Reza, our guide, is sick with a sore throat and aches and fever, so Mr. Qajar insisted we stop by this clinic for him to get an injection. So for once instead of sitting on a gurney with a doctor, I spent my time sitting in another conference room (administrative room) drinking tea and eating sweet biscuits. The directors insisted on entertaining us thus while we waited for Reza to be treated. We just sat and killed time with Mr. Qajar and the tea until Reza was fixed.
We stopped along the way to the nomad’s camp at Mr. Qajar’s favorite restaurant along the roadside. While there, being my birthday and all, we tried a hooka with peach flavoring. It seemed the previous smoker had had a mint-flavored bowl. So it was a peachy-minty flavor and quite tasty.
I confess this nomad experience was different than I expected, as it was billed as a night spent with nomads to witness their daily lives. I kind of thought it might be a little hokey with the “nomads” more like performing traditions for the sake of tourists to see. I thought it would be a large camp of nomads with probably some kind of posh tents set up for tourists to stay in. Maybe they weren’t even truly nomads anymore. Still, I felt it would be an interesting experience since I know absolutely nothing about traditional Iranian cultures.
But au contraire … it was a much more “authentic” experience than I imagined. Mr. Qajar had called ahead to make sure these nomads were where he expected them to be (for everyone on the planet has a cell phone, of course). We drove into their encampment, a couple hours’ drive from Shiraz, which was largely permanent structures they had recently built to inhabit during their yearly time in this location – they only travel back and forth between 2 locations. This was an extended family unit of about six separate but related families. Mr. Qajar picked out a grassy spot along the side of the little path into the camp and parked the vehicle, and proceeded to set up run-of-the-mill 2-season camping tents just like you would take backpacking or camping in America.
So we literally would just be hanging out one-on-one with these folks and full-on camping … even rougher conditions than usual because they didn’t have any sleeping pads for the sleeping bags. The hard ground was a bit of a bother on my body which turned a year older that day, but the uncomfortable sleepless night was completely worth the whole experience. Because of the sanctions it’s difficult to obtain and repair camping equipment. The tents had seen better days and had been repaired by Mr. Qajar himself with his own ingenuity.
After setting up our tent, Erik and I meandered around the forested landscape for awhile on our own. It's quite fetching, with beautiful cypress trees and steep mountain faces rising up all around us. Herds of sheep and goats were grazing near our camp.
When we strolled back into our camp, Mr. Qajar told us a family was waiting to meet us, and that we should walk up the hill to their house. So we did. But we really had no idea what we were supposed to do, how long we were supposed to stay, and we had no common language with the nomads. But it was cool. They had us try fresh sheep cheese and hard yogurt balls and weeds growing on the ground, plus lots of tea, of course, and pumpkin seeds and other seeds and unknown little balls of sweetness. Not being a fan of sheep dairy products, it was difficult for me to swallow down the cheese and yogurt but I managed. Fortunately, the one thing they would have taken offense at is if I had refused tea, but unlike coffee which I’ve had to refuse before (for example, in Brazil), I could happily drink plenty of tea.
Erik and I were greatly amused by the young sheep and goats hanging around us, so adorable jumping around, playing and climbing on top of everything, eating trash and weeds and spindles of wool … one of the daughters of the man was a spinster, literally, as she was unmarried due to some sickness (which seems to affect her mentality, perhaps) and she spent the whole time she was near us spinning wool.They keep newborn sheep and goats under a little basket during the day because they’re too little to keep up with the rest of herd as the man leads them across several miles of terrain from morning until evening. The tiny one below in the basket below had been born only the day before.
After Reza and our other 2 companions came up to hang out with us and the Qashqai family, one of the man’s sons came up and introduced himself. He shook all the men’s hands and walked right by me as if I didn’t exist. Reza said to me, “Don’t be offended.” I wasn’t because I’m aware that men and women who aren’t related don’t speak to each other in the traditional Muslim cultures. But it was strange to experience it firsthand after only reading about it … to be passed over as if I’m a ghost, a nonentity.
Farshad made a wonderful stew back at our camp while the lady of the house, who is one of the man’s daughters – his wife was run over by a vehicle while she was walking along the side of a road and was killed several years ago – made a large pot of rice. We ate the rice and stew together along with tea inside the “house” – the main structure which has carpets on the floor where the family sleeps and eats. The best part was “rice bread” – they fry bread in oil on the bottom of the rice pan and then make the rice on top of it, so the rice never gets burned, it’s perfect and the bread ends up kind of carmelized and crispy and delicious.
The Qashqai man told Erik he was drinking his tea wrong (and I was, too). You are to pour the cup of tea into the deep saucer the cup is served in and drink from the saucer! And if you want sugar in your tea, you don’t drop it into the cup, but hold a chunk of it between your teeth and drink the tea so you suck it through the sugar. Actually I’m very fond of this method -- the tea cools off immediately and you modulate the sugar intake with each sip. How brilliant.
The family was shy about having their photos taken, so I don’t really have any except a couple when they are working. The man is 69 though his birth certificate says 59 because his parents lived in a village and it took them 10 years to get to the city to get a certificate. He has never been to school, but his children have. He brought out his American shotgun to show us, he was clearly somewhat proud of it; it had a beautiful leather casing handmade by him (or family) on the butt.
Mr. Qajar told a story (a joke) that had everyone in stitches laughing … one guy bets another he can bite his own eyeball. It turns out he has a glass eye, so he takes it out and puts it in his mouth and wins the bet. Then he says he can now bite his other eye. The other man thinks there’s no way this guy can have two glass eyes, so it will be impossible. But the guy takes out one of his false teeth and sticks it in his eye.
That night there was a wedding taking place in the town across the valley, and we could hear the music blaring and firecrackers and celebratory gun shots. So under the stars inside our little tent I could hear sheep and goats baahing and bleating in the night, cow bells ringing on some of the goats, a donkey braying, crickets chirping, a pack of dogs barking and howling, Erik and Reza snoring, and modern dance music blasting through massive speakers. And meanwhile the nomad family and their chickens nestle into sleep while their campfire dies down.
In 1392 Erik and Shara flew across the ocean blue … oh, darn, we missed such a clever voyage by one year; in fact it is the year 1393 according to the Iranian calendar when we arrive in Iran. But as their new year begins at spring equinox, it has only just turned 1393. In addition to the utterly different calendar system, they have an unusual time offset from us as well, being past GMT by 3.5 hours … I hadn’t actually realized that any time zones went by half-hour increments off GMT.
We flew into Tehran through Moscow, and I can see how someone could actually live in the Moscow airport. We only walked from one terminal to another and hung out in terminal F, but this was an interesting and lengthy jaunt. I’ve never seen so many shops … you basically have to walk through a never-ending shopping arcade to get to the gates which are interspersed throughout the shops. Rows and rows and rows of sunglasses, a hundred times more duty-free liquor than you could shake a stick at, nesting dolls, Faberge eggs by the dozens opening up to reveal all manner of little things – castles, flowers, dancing couples, and pictures of the last Tzar, Nicholas II, and his family – high fashion clothing, perfumes, and the occasional small restaurant or bar. And it’s all virtually deserted. The walkway connecting terminals is like a 6-lane freeway on pedestrian scale, but virtually empty; the paths through the shops feel almost like alleyways, and the poor clerks and shop assistants must be bored beyond stiff … pretty women dressed all professionally with high-heeled shoes stand idly outside the store or busy themselves rearranging the lipsticks on a shelf. Feels a bit like the Hotel California. Compared to the dumpy and cramped little terminal we flew out of at JFK, this is The Ritz. Foreigners often have such high expectations of American facilities; surely any Russian flying out of Moscow to that JFK terminal (T1) must laugh a little derisively.
While sitting at a pub in the airport, I made note of some selections from the menu: “cheesecakes of cheese pancakes with sauce chocolate,” “pork skewers with potatoes on a rural,” and buckwheat porridge with onions.
We definitely got the red carpet treatment, well maybe not exactly red … as Americans entering Iran in the Tehran airport. Though we were one of the first people off the plane we were the very last people to leave the airport … after taking a long look at our passports, then extra paperwork needed to be filled out by immigration officers, then we were escorted in the “the little room” to have all of our fingerprints recorded. But everyone was very friendly about it … it’s just the requirements for us.
Reza is our awesome guide with excellent English and extensive knowledge, and easy-going. He will be with us the entire trip. I was quite nervous ahead of time how we might get along with someone for 16 days. But it’s going to be no problem at all as far I can foresee.
Tehran is not much to see as a city, very drab buildings shrouded in pollution. Some days the pollution is so bad that children are kept home from going to school. But the few old palaces and the mausoleum we did visit were beyond opulent. I’ve visited many palaces in Europe that I had always thought were opulent but really this was quite extraordinary. There are rooms with the ceilings and walls made of mirrors … cracked and placed into intricate designs. When you walk into these rooms and stairways it is though you are walking in a room of diamonds. Literally sparkling like diamonds – remarkable and even magical if you forget the country’s money was used for this ridiculous opulence rather than for feeding and caring for the people. Unfortunately you can’t take pictures inside these rooms. Though if you used a flash in one I think you’d be overwhelmed by the effects reflecting off the mirrors.
Here are some examples of outside spaces and peeking inside a door into one of these mirrored stairways at Golestan Palace.
Some other images from the Golestan Palace. The mother and daughter on the stairs had rented costumes to pose for photos; I asked them if they would mind if I also took their picture and they said OK. They looked so sweet in their period costumes.
Reza keeps saying Iran is a land of contrasts. One of these is the coexistence of incredibly ancient civilization history with very recent nobility history. So one of these palaces was that of the ruling dynasty until the revolution in 1979. Typically in Europe the palaces you tour of former nobility haven’t been inhabited by families actually living there for hundreds of years. Whereas this was abandoned only a few decades ago. One of the bedrooms of the last shah had daggers of mirrors hanging down in the shape of a star. The carpets were woven each completely unique and some as large as 140 square meters, the designs in the carpets reflecting/copying the design on the ceiling. One family business, all they did was make carpets for the royalty. Too much to write in the time constraints of a small post, but here are some pics from those palace grounds.
A couple things to note in these pics ... First is to notice how they used stained glass to color the mirrored pieces. The light coming through the colored windows reflects off the mirrored bits making them look like colored glass. So pretty. The second pic is just to document the first of I-don't-even-know-how-many photos I took of myself reflected in mirrors. I could make a whole gallery of pics of me with a camera to my face in a mirror ... for one thing, they're fun to take, and for another, you actually can't help it most of the time ... so many mirrors everywhere there's nowhere to hide yourself while taking the shot.
Having to wear a head scarf at all times, as every woman in Iran is required to do including foreigners, is, frankly, annoying. I like a cultural experience, but this is one I could do without. It’s hot and always falling off – clearly there is a technique the Iranian women employ but I don’t know what it is yet. I dread the hotter weather that is predicted. I am always conscious of whether it has fallen down.
We visited a mausoleum where Reza asked a random lady to escort me through, because women and men have to visit separate sides of the mausoleum, so Reza could not guide me. I had to wear a chador, which in this case was just a large piece of fabric the lady showed me how to properly drape over myself. She told me that as a first time visitor, if I made a wish inside, it would come true. But I was too preoccupied with trying to keep my chador together to remember to make a wish. My impromptu guide asked the shoe-check lady if I could take a photo … normally you can’t. First photo is mine, but second one Erik got inside the men’s side before he realized he wasn’t supposed to take photos. After we left the mausoleum and returned our chadors, the lady asked Reza where I was from. When he told her America, she said, "Oh, we are enemies!" At first I was horrified until I realized she was laughing and she was just kidding. She, like nearly everyone, recognizes the difference between individual American citizens and our government.
We walked through one of the traditional bazaars. The largest one in Tehran. We changed some of our US dollars with a money changer walking around the courtyard outside the bazaar. Reza said they give the best exchange rates, and that they are also like stock market traders. The crowd in the photo below is basically like a Wall Street where people are trading in gold and some other things. Very old school, eh!
Some obligatory photos from the bazaar.
Do you know what the green things are in the above photo? I certainly didn't ... they're almonds! I didn't know they started out green. Silly me.
Tehran traffic is hilarious in that it’s total chaos. Clearly, having only two lanes for each traffic direction in the city is a complete waste of pavement. The dotted lines might as well be the graffiti of hooligans for all the respect they receive. One way streets also mean nothing, particularly to motorcyclists, who not only lane split but drive between the bumpers of cars perpendicular to traffic while going the wrong way on the streets. And pedestrians are even wackier than any others I’ve seen. No rhyme or reason whatsoever to where and/or when they choose to cross.