EMAIL: Salam from Iran
Shiraz Travel Blog› entry 15 of 20 › view all entries
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We're writing from the city of Shiraz in Iran, where grapes and wine of the same name originated. But let's pick up from where we last left off, which was in the very English city of Nuwara Eliya in the highlands of Sri Lanka ... a city is surrounded by tea plantations, and dotted with Tudor and other colonial residences and public buildings.
Clarifications & Corrections
For a start, some clarifications and corrections to our last email:
- Apparently the Kiwi cricketers had done better than we had indicated. Kim had trouble understanding the taxi driver, and I had trouble understanding what runs and wickets were.
- The artificial lakes we referred to are up to 10km long rather than 20km.
- Take a look at the Sigirya rock fortress which we climbed up! Click here.
Continuing Sri Lanka
OK, continuing on now ... We drove from Nuwara Eliya back to Colombo through more tea plantations and suddenly got held up by a road block set up in preparation for a Hindu procession to celebrate Vel. We were excited as we were told there would be "kavadis" which are normally racks attached to men's bodies with hooks and skewers. Was I in for a surprise when I saw lorries with racks instead, with men hanging from those racks by hooks! That's what I call a "reverse kavadi" if there's such a thing. Some pictures here.
The remainder of the drive to Colombo was less eventful, and we arrived at our charming colonial hotel (Galle Face Hotel) late in the afternoon. It is like Raffles in Singapore ... prior to its restoration! Waterfront location with salt-water pool. All very acceptable for a 3 star property. Then came our three course dinner at their verandah restaurant overlooking the Indian Ocean ... included in the price of the room but normally available for USD4!
We left the convenience and comfort of escorted / chauffeured travel when we flew out of Colombo bound for Tehran with a nightstop in Dubai. Also known as "Fly Buy Dubai", it is indeed a shoppers paradise ... a cellphone selling for NZD430 in NZ and NZD260 in Hong Kong retailed there for NZD160!! The city doesn't feel like it is in the middle east as more than half the population are Indian / Pakistani ... this is the first time I've seen any place voluntarily import foreigners to the point of being dominated by them ... other countries like Singapore or Australia's situations are due to colonial policies.
We arrived in Tehran on Friday and cleared formalities smoothly. We had been warned about not bringing in obscene materials like Vanity Fair, Esquire, AutoCar etc etc ... but there weren't any checks! We also became instant millionaires when we changed USD200 into about 1.6 million rials, in two huge wads. By the way, I'm one of three nationalities in the world that enjoy visa-free entry into Iran ... the others being Singapore and Turkey ... no Arab countries enjoy this status as I'm sure you know Iranians are Persians and very different from their Arab neighbours who are semitic in background. And did you know that Freddie Mercury is Persian? And "Iran" is a form of the word "Aryan", which the Perian people are ... all part of the happy Indo-Aryan family, and not just the definition adopted by Hitler.
Tehran is set on the foothills of snow-capped mountains and the adjoining flat. One of the mountains is like Mount Fuji or Egmont / Taranaki. The population is around 17 million. Our fears of the choking pollution and traffic were unfounded on our arrival being Friday (weekend) ... but the next day the wide boulevards were choked with Paykans (Hillman Hunters) and the blue skies and views of the mountains disappeared behind the brown haze.
The most dangerous thing we've done on the trip is cross the roads in Tehran! Traffic lights aren't heeded and then there are contra-flow bus lanes which run in the opposite direction to the normal traffic.
It is however, possible to get away from the din of the city. Many beautiful parks dot the city. The best park is on the foothills, close to the skifields. It is also the compounds of the former Shah's palaces (some of them anyway) ... beautifully kept green grounds with snow-fed streams, outdoor tearooms and of course the ornate palaces.
While we're on about the Shah ... we visited the treasury where his (and wife Farah's) jewels are kept. You enter the underground room through a one-metre thick vault to be greeted by the world's largest pink diamond (Darya Noor). Then lots of crowns, necklaces with stones the size of plums! And don't forget platefuls of diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Sapphire lovers miss out. They literally had too much money for their own good, and the government describes the exhibition as a reminder of what greed leads to!
Leaving Tehran, we flew to the Kerman / Bam area which is often described as the lawless "west" of Iran even though it is in the South East. Bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is the route taken by drug smugglers taking their wares from those neighbouring countries. The number of road blocks with serious prodding of luggage and fruit produce is testimony to this. Being a strict Muslim country, there are no sniffer dogs!
The region was the only place on our itinerary which had a travel warning from the Australian government (prior to the general warnings as a result of the Iraq war). There had been a kidnapping in 1999 that prompted this warning. We didn't feel unsafe at all ... I just read that there is one Asian kidnapping per week in Auckland, so I'm actually safer here.
Anyway, the highlight of the Kerman / Bam area is a city-fortress and citadel built from mud-brick and straw. About 1000 years old. An unexpected highlight there was the local hammam (Turkish bath) where I was scrubbed and twisted for 20 minutes, all for USD2. This was the most complete treatment ever received, making the efforts in Turkey and even Damascus look like tourist con-jobs. Never mind the fact that the same scrubbing pad had been used on half of the city before it touched me ... and the medieval toilets which were just holes in the ground!. Fortunately I only saw the toilets at the end of the visit.
Everything in Iran is cheap. Petrol is 7 US cents per litre! An 8 course meal in a spotless hotel restaurant cost USD4. Our accommodation in family run hotels and guesthouses are economical, and allow us to enjoy the full Iranian hospitality. Lots of cups of tea for free!
Our meals are noramlly washed down with local soft drinks or non-alcoholic beer as Iran is an alcohol-free country. International branded soft drinks are rare and the local brands include Iranda (looks like Miranda), Parsi (looks like Pepsi) and of course Zam Zam. Zam Zam is the name of the holy spring that came about when Abraham's biggest boy Ishmael stamped his foot in the desert (I'm not sure if he was throwing a tantrum). Before you say "see, children are such a blessing", Ishmael's divergent path with his brother Isaac is the cause of much of the world's conflict today. Consult your local religious adviser for more details.
Iranian hospitality nearly got 5 people in trouble on our first day. We were at the foothill palaces in Tehran when we couldn't get a taxi back due to a large exhibition nearby. A mature woman offered us a ride to the taxi stand, with her daughter and another mature friend ... all in a tiny Mazda 121. Suddenly a car packed with green-uniformed men zoomed past and the women talked worriedly and I heard the much-feared word "komiteh" or religious police. They quickly adjusted their headscarves. Nothing happened ... but they explained that a year ago, all five of us would have been questioned!
Things are getting more relaxed in Iran. We still can't wear shorts, but short sleeves are acceptable now for men. The legally-enforced women's dress code can be easily complied by any Western woman. Many local women wear jeans plus a thigh-length long-sleeve shirt. Plus a headscarf like those worn by Grace Kelly in a convertible (ie. tied round the chin). Whatever is being worn, some women still choose to top this off with a "chador", which is a black sheet gripped firmly around the chin by hand ... hopeless if you've got shopping to carry, in which case you switch to "hands-free mode", ie. clench it between your teeth. We have not seen a single woman cover her face, unlike in modern Dubai where it persists due to "choice" (probably meaning social and family pressures).
We did the hardest thing today ... an 8 hour bus ride from Kerman to Shiraz where we are now. Quite barren, with spots like Arizona or Nevada, then a pink lake where flamingoes congregate (seasonal) and salt is extracted.
Will write again soon!
Alex & Kimball