Day 76: Mashti Biedjee
Mashhad Travel Blog› entry 108 of 260 › view all entries
Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Reza (Iran)
At around 4:30 we stopped at a police checkpoint. Obviously the foreigner had to step out and have his passport scrutinized. I love it how policemen in these remote places are completely clueless about what to do in such a situation, so they just resort to writing the passport details on a piece of scrap paper. Needless to say this was the end of my night's sleep and the remaining 7 hours of the journey I spent mainly admiring the views and getting slightly annoyed at the horrific music the driver was playing at loud volume.
I did doze off eventually and arrived in Mashhad surprisingly awake and refreshed. Well, good thing I did, because I only had one day here.
I spent the next hour or so getting to know my host, while enjoying a delightful cup of saffron tea (Mashhad is famous for its saffron, over 90% of the world's saffron is exported from this place). Reza is a lovely guy who is actually one step ahead of all the people I have met in Iran so far. Virtually everybody I have met while in Iran wants to leave the country. Reza has already left Iran. He officially lives in Australia now, but he had to come back to Iran for family matters. He intends to go back to Australia (and take his six year old son) next year though.
Reza recommended me a good place to have Dizi for lunch (or, well, breakfast, in my case), so I left my bags with him and took a taxi to the city centre.
Dizi is probably the most interesting Iranian dish I have had during my stay here (I won't say the most tasteful, but definitely the most interesting) and I loved having one as my final lunch in the county. And what better place to have a Dizi than in a tiny local café that normally no tourist ever sets foot in.
Mashhad only has one noteworthy sight, but this is immediately the most visited sight in the whole country. Mashhad is Iran's most holiest city and every year millions of pilgrims visit the place.
The majority of Shiite Muslims believe that after the death of Muhammed the rightful spiritual leadership of Islam passed on to 12 successive descendants of the prophet. With the exception of the first, Imam Ali, these were not recognised by the caliphate and each of the twelve were hunted and killed, thus creating the rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
The eighth Imam, Reza, is the only of the twelve buried in Iran and given the Iranians reverence for anyone dying a violent death it should not come as a surprise that Reza is buried in a huge and lavish shrine, the Haram-e Razavi, occupying over 300 square metres in the city centre.
With Mashhad being the second-largest city in Iran, having the usual Iranian traffic issues, the addition of millions of tourists creates obvious challenges. The main thoroughfares of the city pass through right underneath the Haram, and there is a massive underground parking garage.
Around the Haram are huge modern shopping streets as well as a bazaar, selling anything from religious relics to typical tourist junk.
Mashhad, the most religious and thus most conservative of Iran's cities, not a place where you would expect a Western-style shopping mall in the city centre.
There is a strict no-photography policy at the shrine, so I had to leave my camera at the entrance (strangely enough camera phones are allowed though).
Inside it was a bit of a disappointment though. Like the shrine of one of Reza's brothers in Shiraz, the Haram is a huge, over-the-top collection of buildings, with more arches, domes and minarets than you can shake a stick at. The shrine in Shiraz had had a nice shady park in the middle, a nice place to sit and soak up the atmosphere. The Haram in Mashhad on the other hand has about half a dozen large courtyards, all of which are little more than large slabs of concrete where very little shade can be found.
I walked around the outer plazas and made my way to the inner part of the complex. Non-Muslims are not allowed in this section, but I was able to wander around freely around the inner courtyards and peek inside the shrine. I played the dumb tourist, removed my shoes and walked into the gold-domed shrine. Inside all was glittering gold. Seeing how people responded to seeing the tomb of Reza was quite impressive. Hundreds of people throwing themselves at the golden cage containing the body, tossing money, scarves, children towards it, to touch it and, I suppose, soak up the holiness. After about five minutes an usher came towards me and told me -not in particularly friendly terms- that I was not allowed in here.
So I made my way to the outer courtyards again, and wandered around the museums and mosques on the outer parts of the complex.
They say that in the future when historians will look back on the Islamic Republic, this complex will be seen as its greatest architectural achievement. Somehow I doubt it will stand the test of time and will stand up in comparison to the monuments in Esfahan or Shiraz
After Mecca in Saudi Arabia and Karbala in Iraq, Mashhad is the third-most important pilgrimage site for Shiites and they are supposed to undertake the pilgrimage at least once in their lives.
I went to the house of my CS host Reza (isn't it ironic that he is named after the Imam, buried in his hometown) for a shower and a change of clothes.
I'd wanted to go back to the shrine at night, as it is supposed to be even more special after dark, but in the end I never got round to doing it. Reza had cooked a lovely dinner (a Persian omelet, seemingly simple, but utterly delicious, and most important of all: something I had not eaten before in Iran) and to be honest, I was happy to spend my last evening in Iran doing what I had enjoyed most in Iran: just talking to the people. Reza is looking to travel in the summer season, but he hasn't yet decided what to do: travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing, or go to Georgia and Armenia instead. I was happy to give him tips and advice on either itinerary.