The start of something wonderful - Iran!

Mashhad Travel Blog

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People i met here, who contributed to and improved my trip: Julia (Russia), Vali and Mehran (Iran)

Iran is a country that strikes fear into many people, with America branding them as a nation that belongs to the 'axis of evil'. Being an Islamic State certainly doesn't improve its image in the West, and the British government is one of a number of countries who advise against travel to Iran. Never one to be put off easily, i preferred to listen to the people who had been there themselves and I had heard almost entirely positive things. The exception to this was the attitude and behaviour of some men towards Western women. Nevertheless, both Julia and I wanted to see the country for ourselves and dispel the fact from fiction. The visa had also been a trying ordeal, to the extent where i had felt on the brink of not wanting to come to the country at all.

But now we were finally here, i was determined to approach everything with an open mind.

Our first interaction with the people occurred with the border guards, who proved to be helpful and courteous. Within 15 minutes we had cleared immigration, entered the country and even got some US Dollars changed into our first fist full of Iranian Rials. As always, we were left with the question of how to get to where we wanted to go. Unfamiliar with the money, the language and feeling a little lost and disjointed, we exited the building onto Iranian soil for the first time. The Lonely Planet said a taxi to Mashhad would cost $40, and this was the opening price that the taxi office quoted us.
Reading a little between the lines, we realised that it may be possible to get a savari - a shared taxi - to the nearest town of Quchan and from here we could catch a bus on to Mashhad. The only problem was where to find a savari, as the border was located at the top of a hill, with nothing in view for as far as the eye could see.

One guy in the taxi office spoke Russian, but no-one was going to help us find a savari, as they obviously wanted us to charter a car. In the end I decided to take a little walk to see if i could find anything out. I was delighted I did, as just a couple of kilometres beyond the taxi car park, there was a small village at the bottom of the hill, which was sheltered from view if you didn't go to the end of the car park and look down.
Julia and I picked up our bags and decided to walk down there, when all of a sudden the taxi price began tumbling down. A lift as far as Quchan was now $20, $15, $10 and finally only $5 for the two of us!

A Turkmen guy who spoke Russian and Farsi joined us on the two hour journey and this came in useful when we reached Quchan, as he helped us to get on the right bus to Mashhad. The trip took two hours and cost a bargain 6000 Rial ($0.60). Iran has incredibly cheap petrol and each person can purchase 100 litres a month for 100,000 Rial ($10) and after this the price goes up to 5000 Rial ($0.50) a litre, which is still extremely cheap. This is great news for locals and travellers alike, as it makes getting around the country affordable.

When we got off the bus in Mashhad we started to ask people where the nearest Metro station was located, but everyone looked at us like we were crazy.
A road sweeper even told us that we must have a map of Tehran, as there wasn't a Metro in Mashhad. I brushed this idea off, thinking he must be a fool. How could there possibly be a Metro line on the Lonely Planet Map which didn't exist? Even the LP couldn't mess up that badly... Actually they can!!! Later on, I found out that the Metro wasn't due to be completed for a number of years, something the guide book had chosen not to mention, cheers for that!

Walking around the terminal, a city bus pulled up and the driver jumped out to ask if he could help us. Not having a clue where we were or where we needed to go, he got his phone out and called Vali's Home stay, which had come recommended by friends and the LP.
He then just left his bus and walked across the car park to the taxi stand and told the driver where to take us. We thanked him profusely and he shrugged it off. Welcome to Iran, a country where a bus driver just ditches his bus to go off and help a tourist!

Arriving at Vali's we were greeted by his son and soon after Vali himself came to meet us. The three of us sat down on a carpet on the floor, which is the normal custom in Iran, whilst his daughter went to make us tea. Iranians drink tea by putting a sugar lump behind their front teeth and then sipping the tea through the gap in the front of their teeth, which seemed quite a novel approach. After chatting for some time we were shown around the house and then his wife prepared us a wonderful authentic Iranian meal (30000 Rial / $3).
The food was excellent and the portions were massive, leaving us thoroughly stuffed.

In the evening Vali asked if it would be ok to meet up with a 15 year old guy called Mehran, who was keen to learn English and wanted the opportunity to speak to an English native for the first time. This sounded like a great experience and we gladly agreed. A meeting place was arranged and Vali took us there on the bus, which was a good opportunity to see how Iran was quite unique from any other place that I had visited. The men boarded the bus at the front and the women at the back, thus segregating the two sexes. Many of the women wore black chadors (long black outfits), whilst every woman is forced to wear a mantor (a top like a dress), long trousers and head scarf. This law extends to foreigners and it would be something that Julia would have to adapt to, as 'fashion police' patrol the streets, keeping an eye out for anyone breaking this strict dress code!

Mehran was a bubbly, enthusiastic youngster, who spoke with an American twang.
His English was very good and I was impressed that it had only taken him a year to reach the standard that he had. What was even more impressive was the fact that he had tutored himself by watching movies and listening to people speak. He led us to Kuh-e Sangi Park and we discussed plenty of things along the way, such as his attitude towards alcohol and cigarettes. Unlike most Western kids of this age, he was against both, and this highlighted the cultural divide of Iran from the West. The government has actually banned alcohol within Iran and they seem to have instilled into many young minds that alcohol is a drug as evil as cocaine or heroine. I wouldn't quite go this far, but it was refreshing to hear someone young who wasn't obsessed with going to the park and getting drunk, like our English equivalents!

The park itself was pleasant and full of Iranian families, enjoying the warm summer evening.
We walked on stepping stones across small streams and climbed the rocky hill, where a war memorial was located at the top. The views across Mashhad were lovely and we sat at the peak for a few minutes to take it all in. After leaving the park we said farewell to Mehran and decided that we would walk home and use the internet on the way. By midnight we were home and in bed, it had been a memorable first day within the country.

On Thursday Vali's wife prepared breakfast (10,000 Rial / $1) for us at 08.00, and just after 08.30 we accompanied Vali to work. Running a home stay is still relatively new work for Vali, who still takes pride in his carpet shop, which is located just over the road from Mashhad's holiest site, Haram-e Razavi. After looking at some of the carpets that he was mending, we said goodbye for the time being and followed in the footsteps that millions of Muslim pilgrims make each year.

As if it wasn't already hot enough, Julia had to be dressed in the all enveloping black chador to gain entry into the Haram, whilst I had a long sleeved black shirt and trousers on. With a few days growth on my beard and Julia fully covered, Vali had commented that we could easily pass for Iranians and this proved to be true, as we entered Imam Reza's Mausoleum Complex with nobody even battering an eyelid.

Imam Reza was the eighth of twelve Imams and is therefore a key figure in the Muslim World. He is particularly revered in Iran, as he is the only Imam to be buried here, and most Shia Muslims try to make the pilgrimage to Mashhad at least once in their lifetime. Imam Reza was born in 765AD and assassinated in 818AD, on the orders of Ma'mun, who ruled the Abbasid Caliphate.
Worshipers therefore see Imam Reza as a martyr and his pious ways are still remembered today.

Sadly most of Haram-e Razavi was under scaffolding when we visited and we weren't allowed to take our camera in anyway. The first section of the complex that we saw was the Razavi Grand Courtyard, which had two fountains, although neither of these were working. Most of the lofty iwans and minarets were hidden behind the steel bars and wooden planks that were in place to carry out repairs, which sadly took away some of the splendor of the site.

Before taking a good look around we decided to go to the 'Foreign Pilgrims Assistance Office', to watch a video on the complex and also because we didn't really know where it was appropriate for us to go. The English speaking guide at the office seemed quite taken aback when i approached him to ask for his help.
He had to double check that we weren't Iranian, then he wanted to clarify that we weren't Muslims. Once this information had sunk in, he began to get a little worried and started asking where we had been in the complex, as it was forbidden to enter certain areas. We reassured him that we hadn't been anywhere yet and the reason we were paying the office a visit was so as we didn't stray from where we should be. He sat us down in front of a TV to watch a short video on Haram-e Razavi and soon returned with a bundle of literature and a free DVD.

With the video finished, we were escorted through the impressive Qods Courtyard, then across Kausar Courtyard to the main museum, where we were left with another guide. As the first guide left us, he told us that once we had seen the museum we must leave straight away, and not go wandering around any other areas! It would have been quite easy to disobey this request and i know plenty of people who have, but when it comes to issues like this, I prefer to stick to the rules and not cause any offence.

The main museum had a wide range of artifacts, although the guides English was dreadful. It was therefore a relief when he eventually left us to look around on our own. The 'zarih' was the most impressive thing to see in the museum, and this had served as the fourth tomb encasement for Imam Reza's shrine, before being replaced in 2001. Other mildly interesting exhibits included an array of medals, which had been donated by Iranian sporting heroes and some wonderfully carved doors.

Leaving the Shrine, there were several things that had left me rather unimpressed with Haram-e Razavi. Firstly there was the fact that we couldn't enter the main areas of the Haram, secondly most of what was on display was either incomplete or undergoing restoration and lastly was the fact that you couldn't take your camera in.
This final factor really irritated me, as they allowed people to take photographs and videos on their mobile phones, just not on cameras! No one could explain why this rule was in place, but it struck me as ludicrous, and left a slightly sour taste in my mouth.

It really was a scorching hot day, and as it was Ramadan, there were no restaurants open to eat or drink in. Thankfully there were still some small shops that were open for business and I was surprised to see Iranians openly buying and consuming food and drink on the street in front of the stores. There was no way we were observing the fast if Muslims weren't, so we bought some cans of coke and I was over the moon to see that they were also selling salt and vinegar crisps, which are my favourite! Hiding down a side alley we began to slurp down our drinks and munch on the crisps, when an elderly man passed by and started lecturing us in Iranian.
With an apologetic look on my face I muttered a few words in English and immediately the mans persona softened and he smiled and walked away - we really had to get changed and stop blending in so well!

Feeling slightly refreshed, we took a walk through a shopping mall and then went to Nadir Shah's Mausoleum. There wasn't a great deal to see, other than a statue of Nader Shah on horseback. To get to the next site we had to walk back to Imam Reza's shrine, passing a nice clock tower, and then catch the bus from there. On the way we went past a group of chador wearing picnickers and i thought it was a little ironic that such 'devout' Muslims should be pigging their faces so openly, whilst two Christians had to hide down a back alley and wolf down a quick snack!

Our last site for the day was the sombre Boq'eh-ye Khajeh Rabi, which is a mausoleum to one of Mohammed's apostles.
The building was beautiful, although rather similar to everything that we had seen in Uzbekistan over the last month. What was different, was the cemetery at the back of the mausoleum, where rich people paid upwards of $850 to be buried four deep for 30 years. It was sad to see people crying at the graves of the ones that they had loved and lost, as Iranian flags flapped in the gentle breeze.

Back at Vali's, two Polish girls joined us for dinner, which was again a scrumptious serving of Iranian national cuisine. Vali had met the girls on the street and brought them home, which is how he had started his business. I liked Vali's mentality, in his words he 'mixes hospitality with business' and he does it very well. Once we had filled our bellies, we retired to our room, where I wrote my blog and Julia read, before turning in for the night.

Deats says:
Thanks Cho, I think every country and their media has an agenda. Unfortunately most people are willing to believe whatever they hear. Better see it with your own two eyes and make your own mind up :)
Posted on: Apr 15, 2013
Cho says:
I enjoyed reading this, thanks for sharing. Like you, I get my information about any country from the people living there, NOT from the news media or government sources! What the media reports and what I actually experience are totally different. Thanks again.
Posted on: Apr 15, 2013
Deats says:
Thanks :) Iran is top of my list of places to visit, if you are interested in meeting people! The hospitality and kindness is second to none. There's also an awful lot to see, too!
Posted on: Jun 12, 2012
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