By the time we entered Iran on February 5th, 2020 we had heard so many amazing and positive things from every traveller we encountered, that we felt sure we would be let down. In a way we were. But it was not due to the fault of Iran but rather Covid-19 made its way into the country.
When we crossed into Iran from Pakistan, a group of border guards wearing face masks were waiting for us. As they locked their eyes onto my Chinese ones, I could see them enlarge with anxiety. “Where are you from?” shouted one. “China” I replied. At the utterance of the expected, everyone quite comically leaped back a metre. The guard who asked the question told us not to step forward, his thermometer pointed at us like a gun. As if that would protect him. They took my passport holding it at the tip of one corner like it was infectious. It was long though before they relaxed, casually putting their masks under their chin and posing with our yak horns. Before entering the building for immigration, a lady in a black khimar (long, cape-like veil covering hair, neck and shoulders, but leaves the face clear) disapproved of my top. Judging from the way she looked at my chest area I presumed it was too tight for her standards. This was the beginning of another kind of adventure.
The drive to the border town of Zahedan did not change much from the arid desert landscape of Balochistan in Pakistan. After all, people in this area referred themselves as Balochi or Sistani Persian first and Iranian second. One of them being the beautiful Bahar Pourkarami of Sarboog Hostel by whom we camped for a few nights. This family-run hostel really felt like a home away from home. Bahar and her family were so warm and welcoming that they temporarily melted away all the corona virus negativity. It was a sanctuary. See you again in Sistan-Balochistan Bahar and Moied!
Of all our travels, Iran has the greatest disparity between the government and its population. What is presented in news around the world speaks little of how people live their lives in Iran. Just like a schizophrenic, there are two personalities: a public façade and life in private quarters. Women obediently wear their hijab or headscarves in public but took them off at home; while alcohol is illegal by law, Iranians consumed them better than anyone we know; and not to mention the prohibition of dancing and playing music, especially western ones, yet people relish in them like everyone else in the world. Suppression of social liberties and inequality for women are also impressions formed from news cuttings over the years, yet I saw a sight that I had been deprived of for months in Pakistan and India: young women out and about. Even if they were in a black khimar or niqab (veil that leaves only shows the eyes) their presence made a positive difference. I am by no means disregarding the inequalities that women face in Iran, this is a mere comparison of what is apparent in the eyes of a traveller.
It was in Zahedan where we got our first dose of Iran’s taarof craziness. This complex ritual of politeness takes hospitality to a whole other level. Taarof between friends or a host and guest is meant to demonstrate friendship is above anything else. One of the rules of this special kind of hospitality suggests, that a host is supposed to offer anything the guest fancies from his/her house, and the guest is equally obliged to reject it. It goes back and forth a few times, say three, before the guest gets the hint that the host’s offer is genuine. In reality, it gets quite confusing. For example, when we tried to buy bread or a sim-card, staff refused our money many times. It was both odd and counterintuitive to insist on paying when the alternative was so much more enriching.
We planned to be in Iran for at least one month because of the geological diversity it offers. Iran has great mountain ranges in the west, lush forests in the north, deserts and salt lakes in the east, and beautiful coastlines along the Caspian Sea in the north and the Persian Gulf in the south. A month is not nearly enough. Although it was a race against Covid-19, we did have a blast in the Lut Desert or Dasht-e Lut for good old times. The dry, salt plains of the desert were untamed, where nature reigns the land in her magnificent ‘sandcastles’ and, like an empress, marks it with stunning yardang (huge rocks shaped by wind) sculptures.
What made Lut Desert special was the chance meeting of an Iranian tourist group, who came down from Tehran. They wisely hired a local guide for the Lut is known for acting as a channel for Balochi smugglers transgressing from the nearby Afghan and Pakistani borders. It was also known for its mines set up by the Iranian army to deter opium smugglers. As the daring, foolish visitors to their homeland, they kindly took us under their wing. Moteshakkeram to everyone who gave us courage and support to surf the dunes of Lut and for showing us how Iranians have a bloody good time!
Crossing Kerman in the south, we intended to visit the island of Hormuz on the Persian Gulf, but a storm had another plan for us and we made it to Qeshm instead. The island has long been established as a trade centre and since 1991 it was granted the “free trade zone” status. The effect of this special status translated to Chinese knockoffs filled the shopping centres in Qeshm city, where domestic tourism flourished. Walking down the aisles took us back to the yaxiu market in Beijing. However, it was in the west where the island’s beauty was found. The Chahkooh Canyon and rock formations, the Geoparks and camping at virgin beaches were only a few reasons to what made our stay there memorable.
Aside from natural beauty, as one of the world’s oldest civilisations, Iranian cities are full of wonders. Our first stop was Shiraz, the city of poets, literature, wine and flowers. We enjoyed the strolls through the old city, trying different coffees and teas in the cafés around Vakil Bazaar and getting overwhelmed by the varieties of carpets on sale. Shiraz is known for its gardens and although Eram Garden is an impressive complex, I preferred the little quaint courtyard gardens seen in old houses.
Since the Islamisation of Iran in the 7th century AD, Iran became a major centre for Islamic culture and learning, art and architecture etc. The mosques all around the country are testaments of artistic and architectural feat dedicated to this religion. They also act as a record of Iran’s interactions with the rest of the world. The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, for example, shows the peak of westernisation of Iran during the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925). Although it is a traditional mosque, the interior tile design is full of bright-colour floral designs and illustrations of European landscapes rather than the turquoise coloured geometric designs seen in Vakil Mosque. For this reason, it gives the mosque the most magical pink hue, especially at sunrise.
Yazd was another fascinating city for its unique architecture. Straddled between Kavir Desert and Lut desert, Yazd has adopted to its harsh surroundings for generations. Nicknamed as the “City of Windcatchers”, tall towers dominate the skyline whose ingenious design channels cool air through the buildings. I loved getting lost in the labyrinth of the mud-baked buildings and enjoying the evening breeze on the many roof-top cafés Yazd offers.
Yazd is also the last centre for Zoroastrianism, before Muslim Arabs conquered Iran and converting Iran to Islam. Just outside the city in the small town of Chak Chak lies the holiest mountain shrine for Zoroastrianism. In my ignorance for this religion I could only enjoy the coolness, calm and great view the shrine offered to its guests.
By the time we made our way to Isfahan the fear for Covid-19 had spread across the country which severely impacted my life to say the least. Hiding behind a headscarf and sunglasses only got me so far and for so long. I have never been bullied in school nor have I ever faced discrimination that was too impactful to affect my life, but I think I got a taster during the last few days in Iran. Women pulled their children closer to them when they saw me in the distance; “Chine” was whispered when I walked past; and the worse was when three men behind a food stall pointed and shouted: “Corona! Corona!” At that moment I instinctively looked behind following the finger and was shocked to learn all this was directed at me. It was a sign to leave. We raced up north with a heavy heart because there was so much more that we both wanted to see, to experience. But we do not regret leaving because when we crossed over to Azerbaijan, the next day the border was closed. A close call.
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