Day 54: Two kinds of Iranian people: the nice and the not-so nice

Zanjan Travel Blog

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Engelab square

Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Farshad, Ahmad (Iran)

Well, I finally made it to Zanjan. As I didn't want another bus disaster I had taken the train this time. The two-hour train rise was more comfortable -and more importantly- faster than the bus. They even served free breakfast (water, juice and some cakes), all this for the astronomical sum of $ 1.75!

As I walked from the train station towards the centre I was approached by a soldier. He spoke good English and wanted to see my passport. Sure, why not, so I handed it over to him. He asked me where I was from, what I was doing here, where I had been in Iran so far, the usual stuff. Then he ordered me to follow him to the little army post at the train station.

Rasul-Ullah mosque

Inside at least five people were needed to discuss the contents of my passport at length. All the while no one said anything to me to explain just what the issue was.
Then someone got the genius idea of making a photocopy of the visa page and after a handshake from the superior officer I was free to leave again.

I can't say I was completely at ease about all of this. I've been in Iran for four days and this is already my second encounter with the police. So much for keeping a low profile. Not that I had much to worry about, but still, it wasn't pleasant. I was worried about my visa as well. I had been granted a three-month visa (with max 30 days stay in Iran) in March, which means that the expiry date of the visa is June 7th, even though I am planning to stay until the 21st.
My hotel did not have a sign in English, so I had to take a picture of it in case I wouldn't be able to find it again
The visa doesn't really specify whether June 7th is a final entry date, or whether I have to be out of the country by June 7th. After a similar issue with my visa for Nepal I figured it would be wise to check the need for a visa extension once in Tehran.

But first Zanjan. The cheapie hotel listed in my guidebook was full, but the owner recommended another place, a few doors down. This place was a typical Iranian 'mosaferkhaneh', or traveller's house. These are the most basic forms of accommodation found in Iran (strictly men only). It only had a name in Farsi, so I had to take a photo of it in case I couldn't find it any more.

I went out to explore the city. As I walked along the main square I was approached by two men who spoke English, Farshad and Ahmad.
Having Dizi
They were both university teachers on their way to have some lunch, would I like to join them? Well, I certainly would.

The lads were very pleasant company. Ahmad was just a waterfall of words, spawning out tons of information at rapid speed. Farshad was the quiet balance, much more modest and gentile in his manners. They were an odd couple. Ahmad is married, had a kid and spends his free time mountain climbing or paragliding. Farshad on the other hand is a 35 year-old single, hoping to one day marry a Christian girl (the rigorous laws in this country have put him off Islam).

In a tiny restaurant in the basement of a small mall we had Dizi, the traditional �poor man's food�.
Dizi: babyfood for grown-ups
Dizi is a hearty stew served in a clay pot. It has a special way of eating it. First the broth is poured out of the pot into a bowl which you eat with bread soaked in this 'soup'. Then the remainder of the stew (chick peas, potatoes, tomatoes and mutton) is mashed using a small metal pestle. The resulting mash is very tasty, though it eerily resembles baby food. As Ahmad explained, mashing it before eating helps digestion and eases the chewing. Hmm, next thing you know they are going to add enzymes to advance digestion.
While I liked the flavour, I had a hard time getting used to the mashed texture of the food. I prefer my food chewy, I guess.

Iranians are quite obsessed with health, or at least healthy food and eating the Dizi was as much a culinary experience as it was a lecture in healthiness.
Having Dizi with Farshad (left) and Ahmad (right)

After lunch the lads went back to work and we agreed to meet up again for dinner tonight. Meanwhile I was going to take a little trip to Soltaniyeh, a village 45 kilometres from Zanjan. Soltaniyeh is the site of the Oljeitu Mausoleum, a mausoleum built for Mongolian sultan Oljeitu Khodabandeh in the early 14th century. The mausoleum is the tallest brick dome in the world, surpassing what was though the maximum limit of brick domes. For that reason it is inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage list. Locals are quick (and perhaps a bit sad) to point out that while it may be the largest double-layer brick dome in the world, it is only the world's third-largest domed structure after the Aya Sofia in Istanbul and the Cathedral in Florence.

Whatever its ranking on the list of top domes, it is an impressive building considering it is nearly 700 years old and is one of the very few surviving buildings from that era in the area.
Having my picture taken with all the staff and patrons of the little Dizi restaurant
Uzbek sultan Timur laid waste to pretty much the whole country in the late 14th century, but spared this building.

Inside the dome is somewhat less impressive, as these days extensive scaffolding is needed to prevent the structure from collapsing. Not quite the ingenuity of the Aya Sofia then after all.

Inside there is access to a small catacomb (they called it museum, but there was very little to see) and you can climb up to the roof of the main structure, to the base of the dome. From here you have excellent views over the flat surroundings of Zanjan and Soltaniyeh. A view enriched with a dazzling display of lightning in the distance. The locals were very happy to have rains so late in the season. I wasn't all that happy though, I still had to walk back a fair bit back and didn't bring my umbrella.
Oljeitu Mausoleum, the world's tallest brick dome (or is it?)

In order to get back to Zanjan I had to find myself a shared taxi again. However, as the driver on the way over had dropped me off at the mausoleum, I had no idea where the taxi stop was. I figured I just wait at the main intersection in town and hail the first cab I saw. Well, easier said than done, as the first taxi to appear didn't see me. Since drivers here don't use their mirrors he didn't see me waving in the middle of the road as he had sped past me. Fortunately another driver did see me and as Iranians are nice people he sped after the taxi, forced it to stop and told the driver to turn back for me and pick me up.

The taxi came back but as it turned out he wasn't a savari, a shared taxi, but would only do trips as private taxi. And since I paid 50 cents for the 40-minute trip to get here, I didn't want to pay $ 5 for my return trip.
Inside the Oljeitu Mausoleum. Scaffolding is needed to keep it the structure upright
Yeah, I know, travelling in cheap countries can make you a bit tight-fisted.
He told me to get in anyway and drove me to the edge of town where several savaris and a bus stood waiting. Here I could get a shared taxi back to Zanjan. Again, I was just flabbergasted by how friendly people are here. Even taxi drivers. Rather than trying to score a fare out of me (for example by saying savaris don't exists) he just drives me to his colleagues, for free.

As I had plenty of time, I took the bus instead of a taxi. An old, battered, Mercedes bus, which probably had already been depreciated before the revolution. When we arrived in Zanjan I wanted to pay the driver, but he gestured that I did not have to pay. This is a typical thing with Iranians, they even have a word for it: Ta'arof.
decorations inside the Oljeitu Mausoleum
This is a weird formal politeness where people are supposed to refuse payment, even if they really do expect to get paid. I had read about this, so I tried to follow the etiquette correctly by looking offended and offering him the money again. Again he refused. After my third attempt I realised that this was not Ta'arof at all, but in fact he genuinely wanted to give me a free ride!

I met up with Farshad and Ahmad again to have dinner in one of Zanjan's traditional restaurants. In Iran there isn't really much choice in terms of restaurants. If you want to eat out, you either go to a fast food place (serving horrible pizzas, burgers or sandwiches), or you go to a traditional restaurant, which is generally quite fancy and serves kebabs and a few Iranian dishes.

If you just want to go somewhere for a drink, well, you don't really have much options.
View from the roof - the locals were quite happy to have rain this late in the season. A certain traveller wasn't all that keen...
Bars don't exist in this country, as socialising and having fun is highly discouraged.
And having a drink in a restaurant before ordering dinner isn't really an option either. I had already noticed so far that it is nigh impossible to order a drink first and then your dinner. Dinner and drinks are pretty much always served at the same time in this country (as are starters, main course and desert). The best solution the guys could think of was to buy a drink at the supermarket and drink it in the park.

As I still had to get used to the time Iranians eat dinner (usually not before 10 pm) I convinced the guys to just go to the restaurant instead and try to have a drink there.

We went to a traditional restaurant inside the bazaar, occupying an old hamam - another pastime no longer allowed under the Islamic regime.
Taking the bus back to Zanjan
Food was excellent and we had a really nice time. Though I have to get used to eating while sitting cross-legged on a daybed, rather than at a table.

Like all Iranians I have met so far Farshad and Ahmad were pretty much against the current government and even against Islam. The way religion is forced upon the people has a completely opposite effect and they had turned their back on their religion, even though law requires that if you are born a Muslim you are required to practice it.

However, not all Iranians are like this. The ones that are better educated are usually the ones speaking English and the ones you are more likely to meet as a foreigner. Most people however don't speak English. And I had noticed that here in Zanjan the average local was a bit more hard line than for example in Masouleh or Qazvin.
Sa'adi street, Zanjan's hippest shopping street

And the religious fanatics and the more liberal minded Iranians hate each other, as I would soon find out. I had asked Farshad and Ahmad if they had any idea how I could get transport to Takht-e Soleiman, another UNESCO site in the area to which there is no public transport. I didn't mind hiring a taxi and driver for the day, like I had done in Alamut, but I had no idea where to find one and what a normal price for the day would be. They walked me back to the hotel and offered to talk to the hotel owner (who didn't speak English) if he had any ideas. As we arrived at the door Farshad backed away upon seeing the hotel owner though. �I know this guy, he is very religious. I can't go in�.
Dinner with Farshad and Ahmad
So Ahmad walked in with me and it was shocking to see the scene that unfolded. The conversation lasted no longer than a minute (which is incredibly short for Iranians, where a simple shop transaction can take up to ten minutes) and the owner made it very clear to Ahmad that if I had any questions I could speak to the owner's brother who spoke English and there was no reason for Ahmad to come in here and talk to people. The hatred on his face was shocking to see. It was an eye opener. Not only to see that the Iranian hospitality and friendliness towards foreigners does not extend to people of their own nationality. But also the fact that these are people from the same town and background, who seem to be worlds apart. If it ever comes to nationwide protests against the government (which it will) then civil war in Iran is not unlikely.
In front of the Oljeitu Mausoleum
I realised now that solving the problems in Iran is not as simple as just removing the government. The problems are much more deeply rooted than that.

alikohan says:
well, we do not care about islamic rules at all and mostly people do not like to be looked as a Islamic nation than an Iranian or a historic nation. after revolution iran totally got transformed from its real culture to an enforced imposed foreigner culture in which people really do not care about it except those religious who are everywhere i believe
Posted on: Oct 15, 2010
Biedjee says:
I know it is an unwritten rule throughout the Islamic world that strangers are to be treated as guests, but this is not always the case. It is certainly adhered to regarding foreigners in Iran, but amongst Iranians themselves the religious and to some extend also the economic difference is dividing the nation. Quite a few people I met lamented the fact that many Iranians are not particularly nice to their fellow Iranians.
Posted on: Oct 15, 2010
alikohan says:
sorry if im doing a correction here on your comment just for information, its a "rule" in our culture to treat nice and try our best for "strangers" not only foreigners. this stranger can be from another "district" inside a city or from another "city" inside the country, or can be a foreigner from another country.
Posted on: Oct 14, 2010
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Engelab square
Engelab square
Rasul-Ullah mosque
Rasul-Ullah mosque
My hotel did not have a sign in En…
My hotel did not have a sign in E…
Having Dizi
Having Dizi
Dizi: babyfood for grown-ups
Dizi: babyfood for grown-ups
Having Dizi with Farshad (left) an…
Having Dizi with Farshad (left) a…
Having my picture taken with all t…
Having my picture taken with all …
Oljeitu Mausoleum, the worlds tal…
Oljeitu Mausoleum, the world's ta…
Inside the Oljeitu Mausoleum. Scaf…
Inside the Oljeitu Mausoleum. Sca…
decorations inside the Oljeitu Mau…
decorations inside the Oljeitu Ma…
View from the roof - the locals we…
View from the roof - the locals w…
Taking the bus back to Zanjan
Taking the bus back to Zanjan
Saadi street, Zanjans hippest sh…
Sa'adi street, Zanjan's hippest s…
Dinner with Farshad and Ahmad
Dinner with Farshad and Ahmad
In front of the Oljeitu Mausoleum
In front of the Oljeitu Mausoleum
One of the surviving minarets
One of the surviving minarets
decorated domes inside the mausole…
decorated domes inside the mausol…
Rakhatshor-Khaneh, the ancient lau…
Rakhatshor-Khaneh, the ancient la…
photo by: Biedjee