From Shiraz, we took a long road trip, driving to Kerman. A note about air travel … it’s like a blast from the past. In the old days, Americans dressed up to travel on a plane, and when it landed the passengers clapped. None of that is so today. But when we landed in Tehran, and again when we landed in Shiraz (having flown from Tehran), the Iranian passengers all clapped. And everyone was dressed nicely, both men and women.
But that’s actually true in general … because of the dress code for women, you don’t see any of them (nor men) wearing sweat pants and casual slobbish outfits (as I’m prone to wearing). They’re all dressed smartly or wearing chadors. I noticed fancy, stylish shoes, even very high heels, sticking out from beneath even the most plain and traditional black chadors. Women in Iran find a way to make an individual statement either in their clothes or shoes, or in their makeup (which they’re now allowed to wear) or hair. They have more personal freedoms in Iran than in some other Muslim countries. They can also drive a car and leave the country without a male escort, unlike their counterparts in more conservative Muslim regions.
I was very concerned about the hijab, or head scarf, at first. I didn’t know how strictly its use was enforced, and Erik seemed to fear I would get thrown in jail if I was seen with it off. But the rules are more relaxed than I thought. For one thing, only the very back of the head needs to be covered. Many women wear these little puffy things clipped to the back of their head (at first I thought all these ladies had a pony tail of massive tresses beneath their scarves, but then Reza explained the puffy accessory) and their scarf rests only on that back lump. Sometimes they have headbands and glitter on the front of their hair. If an official from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Custom sees a woman whose scarf has fallen off, they will point it out to her and ask her to put it back on. So the first warning is very mild. Only once did Reza point out to me that mine had fallen down (though it fell down often) and I should put it back up because we were in a mosque complex in a particularly conservative town.
I also noticed that I was not the only one whose scarf falls off from time to time; even the Iranian women were often rearranging them on their heads. Once I started to notice this, I felt better, because I was appallingly inept at keeping mine in place.
One great thing about the several road trips we made was that I could take off my scarf while driving in the car on the highways. This was such a treat. But one time a hilarious little episode happened when a car full of men passed us and noticed me with my bare head. They were a bit excited and rolled down their window and took a picture of me as they passed! Reza said we should pass them back and take a picture of them as we passed. So Erik took one while the men hooted and held up the peace sign (as I was clearly a foreigner). So Erik’s in the passenger seat in front taking the photo while Reza is laughing and driving, and I’m torn between laughing and feeling embarrassed. (but naturally, laughing won out)
So anyway, back to the road trip to Kerman. We passed by an expansive salt lake, but sadly, it was mostly shrouded in haze, we could only just make it out. The water in places looked reddish with shores of white salt, and tall mountains in the background. Such a shame we couldn’t see it better. We saw some enormous piles salt, though, which had been harvested, sitting along the road side. I imagine their technology is far more advanced than what I witnessed in Uganda.
We saw an old royal hunting lodge along the way. Like so many ruins in Iran, it seems so lonely and isolated on the plains. In days past, this area was filled with a species of zebra that was popular to hunt. Now there are only a few left in a protected reserve.
Here is an assortment of photos taken through the window of the car to give you an idea of some of the typical scenery we drove through in Iran. It was early spring, so some greenery but not tons. Most of the time the tallest mountains were obscured in haze. Reza said they usually are this time of year. The little huts are where shepherds or farmers might rest or stay for a night. Like in the cities, no one bothers to drive inside a lane on the highway either. Their technique is to straddle the dotted line until a vehicle comes up behind them, then ever so slowly migrate into the right lane to facilitate the faster vehicle's passing. Twice we were almost run off the road by large 18-wheeler trucks neglecting to migrate, or changing migration direction after we're already beside them.
We had a picnic lunch at some random little roadside store/café which had wooden beds with carpets on them outside – this is the equivalent to picnic tables in America -- just a flat surface with a rug (like you can see me sitting on smoking the hooka). Reza says Iranians are world-champion picnickers. So we often joked about competitive picnicking as well as competitive tea drinking, as they are certainly champions of tea, as well. We seemed to drink it perpetually, and Reza even had a thermos of hot tea in the trunk any day we were on the road.
We often stopped at a roadside convenience store (better termed a stall) for some water or a snack. There were often open sacks of nuts and seeds, dried fruits and sweets. It seems to be perfectly fine to graze from these sacks and bins. Many times Reza took something and told us to take some and try it, with the owners standing right there without a care. Once I tried some chocolate-coated popcorn from such a sack. I thought it would be disgusting but it was actually quite good (not good enough to buy some, though). They sell crystallized sugar in giant hunks, it looks like it’s actual rock crystal just mined from a cave or something. They often infuse the sugar with saffron (turning it a light yellow) or other flavoring. If a convenience store can’t make small change for you for your purchase, they’ll just throw in some extra goodies like a candy bar or gum roughly equivalent to the change you are owed. This happened to us several times.
So a light picnic lunch on the way to Kerman, which happens to be Reza’s home town. The nice upshot of this is that he took us to his parents’ house, where he currently lives when he is not busy guiding tourists (which is nearly all the time he is guiding). He was very excited for a home-cooked meal, and we had the honored treat of indulging in his mom’s cooking for dinner, which was outstanding. Perhaps the best meal we had in Iran.
It was interesting to see inside a private home in the city. The main room was very large but it had only a couple couches lining a portion of two of the walls, and a small TV. The rest was just open space covered in several large rug carpets. They eat on the floor, as is traditional, by putting down a cloth and then a plastic cloth on top so it’s easy to clean up. His mom’s kitchen is quite huge with a 6-burner stove. It was strange, by typical Western sensibilities, to see such a large room furnished so sparsely … as if it was meant for a dance hall or something. Like so many moms around the world, Reza’s was tiny and adorable and very kind.
Later that night, Reza took us with him to his friend’s apartment for a small party of sorts. He hadn’t seen his friends for awhile and would be traveling for another solid month after guiding us, so this way he could see his friends and we could get the experience of talking with other Iranians. All of these friends spoke English, and the hosts, a married couple who were teachers, spoke exceptional English. The guy was heavily into American television shows and movies -- it was his primary occupation outside of work -- and they had a gigantic television screen. It’s not difficult for him to download these from the internet. Many people, it turns out, even secretly have satellite dishes. They're technically illegal, as the government doesn't want their flock tainted by filthy foreign films, but just like the citizens find a way to access illegal social media, they find their way to worldwide television, as well ... the average, especially young, person in Iran doesn't live in a bubble, and they feel connected to and amiable with, not opposed to and filled with animosity toward, the Western world. This is one point I want to really drive home to my American readers in particular. Anyway, our host seemed very pleased to discuss these shows and movies with us. Reza told our hosts how much I hated wearing the hijab (headscarf) and they immediately told me to take it off ... in fact the hostess was not wearing one when she greeted us. It was nice to feel comfortable. (Reza's mom served us dinner in full-on chador garb.) We talked a lot, laughed a lot, drank a lot of tea.
It was a late night, we got back to our hotel about 1:30 a.m. but had such a nice experience, one which most American visitors to Iran don’t have the opportunity to enjoy since we are restricted to moving around only with a tour group or guide. Only by luck -- because there were just the two of us, and we happened to get along brilliantly with our guide, and we happened to be in his hometown -- did we get the privilege.
The next day we drove to the ancient citadel of Rayen, a mud-walled city over 1,000 years old and a playground of little labyrinths. We had originally planned to see the old city of Bam which is the exact same style and time period but five times larger. However, it was decimated in an earthquake in 2003 in which 50,000 people died, including several of Reza’s friends. Reza said the completion of its rebuilding is still years away.
Rayen is a walled city with watch towers spaced along the perimeter. During its time, it was a stop along a merchant route, and any merchants wanting to do business within the city had to spend a couple days in quarantine in a small building outside the city walls so they wouldn’t bring in any diseases. Pretty smart thinking for those days.
I was a bit quiet that morning … you know, some days you’re just quieter than others. Reza asked me, “Are you OK?” Erik, overhearing, said, “She’s in heaven. She loves this kind of stuff.” Haha, and he was correct. It was loads of fun exploring. Even though you could see nearly the entire complex from above where it doesn’t look very big, once you get down into it, it’s larger than it looks and really is like a maze ... got lost a couple times.
In addition to the above-ground maze, there is a whole other level of labyrinth below the ground -- of rooms and courtyards and corridors, and even secret passageways. A strange black-shirted figure kept appearing in the doorways. Must have been a Persian goblin or something.
There is a section we explored that you can’t see in the overview photos. Parts have been fully restored and other parts lay in ruins, which I always think is interesting when parts are left un-restored and you can compare it directly to the restorations … interesting also to see which parts and features are the last to deteriorate. In Tunisia, it was always the bathtubs in the ancient Roman and Punic ruins which remained in tact when everything around them had crumbled away. Here it was mostly the frames around windows and niches.
More awesome sights were to come this day, but I think you’ve had quite enough for this post. Will return with Kerman Part 2! We'll close with a common theme in our travel photos ... the "Where's Waldo" shot. For some reason I am often wearing red while traveling, and when Erik takes a picture of me from far away we sometimes call them Where's Waldo shots.
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. Looking at the outside decorations and painting, you can probably guess why it's also known as "the pink 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 see 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.
Read a formal essay I wrote about this night at Wanderlust: A Travel Journal