Iran (1/2)

bishapour
February 10th, 2017
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I’ve recently returned from spending nearly 3 weeks exploring Iran. It was an amazing, fascinating trip, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I had the luck (or misfortune, depending on your perspective) to be one of the last Americans entering Iran. Literally 5 days before I was to enter the country, Trump’s “visa ban” happened, and Iran promptly retaliated by banning issuance of new visas for Americans. Thankfully, I had obtained my visa nearly a month earlier, so I was ‘safe’. What follows is a trip report for the first half of the trip (heading south from Tehran towards the Persian Gulf). You can read about the second half of the trip HERE.

tehran

My flight arrived in Tehran just before 1AM, and the “Foreignors” line was short. I asked the guy if i could take my passport, he waved his hand, i grabbed it, and walked away. The entire thing took less than 15 minutes, but i was super nervous when they started talking and had all the forms out. Initially i assumed i was all good when guy #1 stamped my passport, but later, i started to wonder if it wasn’t an entry stamp, but instead a rejection stamp, and the paperwork was for deportation. I found the guy holding the sign with my name, and we walked into the cold, to his car. At this point it was after 1am, and the guy drove like a complete lunatic. He was speeding, playing with his phone, drifting all over the freeway, cutting other cars off. The airport was nearly 30 miles from the hotel, so it wasn’t a short trip either. Thankfully this is not the person who would be my guide for the trip. When we reached the hotel, he woke the front desk guy, they talked a lot in Farsi, and the driver shook my hand and left. I was escorted to my room (317), and that was it. Oh, but they kept my passport, which i was super uncomfortable about. my room is fine, nothing fancy. The pillows are heavy, and feel like they are full of wet sand. I fell asleep pretty quickly, and slept until my alarm went off at 8am.

golestan palace

I was briefly awakened at 5:30am to weird music from outside. It took me a few second to figure out that it was the call to prayer, and then i went back to sleep. Breakfast in the hotel was kinda meh. It was a buffet, but very limited options. There were sunny side up eggs, of varying doneness, this weird orange soup with pinto beans, super sweet OJ, flat bread, hard boiled eggs, pre-packaged individual serving halva & labneh, and sliced tomatoes & cucumbers. After i ate, got my passport back by claiming that i needed it today. The stamp from the airport last night is super boring. My guide (Mehdi) showed up on time, and seems to be a nice guy thus far. He’s friendly, speaks good english, and is able to carry on a conversation. I paid him for the tour, and we headed out for the day.
We took a taxi to the Iran Natl Museum, because there’s no where to park nearby. For the record Tehran taxis drive as crazy as everyone else in this city. The museum itself looked kinda like the SF armory on the outside. Inside was a lot of ancient artefacts, but there wasn’t much organization, it was just one display case after another of random stuff from 2000+ years ago. Also the signs, which were in english as well as farsi, didn’t provide any background on anything, beyond super brief descriptions. Medhi was able to explain stuff and answer my questions. Also, while we were there a huge Chinese tour group arrived.

Next we walked about a half mile, through a park, to a huge palace complex which dates back to the 19th century. As we were walking i noticed that there was a little bit of snow on the plants. The palace was pretty, with tons of mosaics, including rooms with mirrored tile work on all the walls. While we were there Mehdi commented that winter might be the ideal time of year to visit, as its not oppressively hot, and most of the tourists are gone. After the palace we walked a few blocks to this huge super busy basement lunch buffet place. Mehdi commented that lunch tends to be the big meal of the day for most iranians. The place had live music, including a singer. The music sounded ok, with a distinctively mid-eastern sound. The crowd definitely was very into it, with lots of clapping. The food was pretty good too, with lots of pomegranate & safron based dishes. There was also this one thing that kinda looked like cornbread, but was baked and made with safron rice, bits of chicken and pomegranate, with a brown crispy crust. Following lunch​ we walked a few blocks to find a taxi not in heavy traffic. We passed the german & turkish embassies, and also the site where that huge building fire happened in january.

In late afternoon we went to this large park that has a huge pedestrian bridge over a highway. There were tons of people everywhere. From the bridge i could see the huge snow capped mountains, north of the city. Also, random people keep walking up to me and saying stuff in farsi, apparently thinking i’m iranian. Mehdi finds this all hilarious, but i’m mostly just confused. After dinner we drove to dinner, which took nearly an hour because traffic is insane. Dinner was pretty good, i had lamb kabobs.

snow

I got up, had some mediocre breakfast, and checked out of the hotel. Medhi & i walked several blocks to where all the foreign exchange shops were, and i turned in $300 for 4,220,000 Iranian Rials. Yes, i’m now a millionaire. And yes, there is a 1 million rial bill. Then we walked back to the hotel, and started the drive west towards Hamedan. it took nearly 45 minutes just to fight through the horrid Tehran traffic. The first hour looked like we were driving I-80 across Nevada, with broad valleys full of sage brush, and distant snow capped mountains. all the while we were gradually climbing elevation, such that the snow is gradually working its way down the mountains. By the time we were an hour away, deep snow was everywhere, and it looked magical. It was also -10C outside, which was way colder than i ever anticipated when i packed. There were also random people pulled over to the side of the road playing in the snow. Some of the women even had their head scarves off (*gasp* *shock*).

Btw, i’m going to take credit for accidentally exposing Iran to Hamilton. As we were driving, Mehdi said he wanted to hear American music and asked if i had any on my phone. I said yes. What i failed to consider when i hit the random button, was that it included the hamilton soundtrack, plus a lot of songs mentioning booze, drugs & and sexual innuendo. To add to the hilarity, after every song, mehdi asked if it was either​ Katy Perry or Rihanna who was singing, and he was dead serious. So yea, he’s heard about how a bastard, orphan son of a whore looses fingers in the cannery on the way to christmas town. Also, he claimed to like a lot of what was playing, although i’m pretty sure hamilton absolutely​ confused the hell out of him.

we arrived in hamedan just before 2pm, and checked into the hotel. this place looks as if it were designed by a drunk chinese hooker. Colors, styles and patterns conflict with each other. No words can fully describe how hideous this place really is. There is literally red LEDs running around the perimeter of my bed. This is also the place where the wifi was ‘down for maintenance’ all day. And the water supply to my toilet was off until we complained twice. And they got this coffin sized elevator which has a manually operated external door.

next we walked to get lunch where i had a lamb shank with a crazy huge serving of rice with this green herb mixed in. It was tasty. Our server got very excited when he learned where i was from, until he got the courage to ask why trump banned them from entering the US. That lead to the fun discussion about trump, and what a horrible person he is. Following lunch we walked to a shrine/museum for this local scientist/doctor from around the 10th century who discovered a bunch of medicinal uses for lots of plants and flowers. It was kinda small, although looked impressive from the outside.

After that (it took maybe 20 minutes tops), we walked back to the hotel, and got in the car to drive to the outskirts of hamedan where the this 1000BC era city on a hill top was being excavated. It was prolly the highlight of the day, as there was a lot to see. They had a huge chunk of the city fully dug up, with streets and walls of building. They also had a decent sized museum with all the artefacts on display, including coins, pottery, and bronze trinkets. At this point it was nearly 5pm, the sun was setting, and it was starting to get windy and much colder (around -15C). Mehdi suggested that we go to a cafe to get something warm to drink. Apparently coffee is just starting to get popular in iran now, and all these trendy coffee shops are opening up in the more urban areas, catering mostly to younger people. We drove to an area that was near 2 large universities, and sure enough half the businesses were cafes and coffee shops. We went into this small cafe that was packed. I got a sour tea that was made from hibiscus (and oddly served in a french press), and it super sour and delicious. While we were there we had the most surreal conversation about how credit cards work, and the purpose of paypal. Apparently there are now a bunch of russian online banks offering pre-paid visa cards to iranians, and mehdi was debating getting one so that he could buy stuff on Amazon (although i didn’t​ think they could ship to iran, so i think this plan is going to end in disappointment). It was such a strange conversation.

For dinner we went to an ‘italian’ restaurant, which is the option that i chose, from ‘burger place’, or kebab place. All things considered it wasn’t awful. I got a steak pizza, and mehdi got a ‘mexican’ pizza (which is apparently a normal pizza with a few jalapeños on top). Oh and the pizzas came with these huge ketchup packets that people like to drown there pizzas in. I didn’t touch it, and got a weird look as if this was the most normal thing ever. One thing that is confusing me is how eating meat & cheese (or pork) is permitted. My pizza definitely had real cheese and something that might have been pieces of beef on it, and mehdi’s definitely had cheese and what looked like salami. Once we got back to the hotel i was completely exhausted, and went to bed around 10pm.

Breakfast this morning was somehow more disappointing than the tehran hotel. Not only were the food options more limited, but there was a mouse scurrying around too. So yea, the hotel in hamedan was a dump. After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel, and drove a few minutes to the tomb of Esther & Mordachai (of biblical & Purim/hamentoshen fame). apparently homedan uses to have a sizable jewish community, it has dwindled to less than 20 people.when we arrived this old dude who claimed to be a rabbi (but looked like any random iranian old man) gave us a tour, in very broken english. It was interesting, as in addition to the tombs, they also had a synagogue with hebrew inscriptions. At the end the rabbi asked if i had any pens to donate. Mehdi explained that this guy has a ‘pens of the world’ collection.

tomb

Next we started the 3 hour drive to khoramabad(the K is silent). The drive was incredibly scenic as we crossed several mountain passes with tons of snow. Several of them were at nearly 8000ft. We arrived just after 1pm, and checked into the hotel. The Atr hotel looked decent (no bright red walls with naked cherubs painted above the bed), but once again the wifi was broken. We went to lunch at a restaurant on the top floor of a different hotel, which happens to be a rotating restaurant. I got fesanjeen, which was tasty, but the service was incredibly slow.

Falak-ol-Aflak Castle

Shapouri Bridge

Following lunch we drove to the center of the city to the ancient falak-alaflak fortress. The fortress looked amazing, with huge turrets and views across the valley to the distant snowy mountains. Most of the open rooms in the fortress were occupied by the museum of anthropology & archeology. The museum was really interesting, as it provides a lot of interesting exhibits related to the tribes of Lorestan province (where we were locates).

While at the fortress, and again afterwards, i had a number of encounters with iranians, who were super excited to run into an american. Despite my best intentions, i suspect that my honesty resulted in reinforcing all the common misconceptions & negative iranian govt propaganda. The first group that i encountered were these 3 army soldiers on leave. two of them were 19, and the third was 20, so super young, and naive. None of them spoke a word of english, so mehdi was translating. First thing was that they refused to believe that i was my actual age. When i pulled out my driver’s license to prove that i really was born in 1976, that backfired, because then they were in awe of me being from california, and immediately assumed i lived on a beach with half naked women following me around. But worse, they decided that its because america is such an amazing place, that i live a perfect stress free existence, which prevents me from aging like normal humans. I gave up the debate at that point, because it was obvious that nothing i could say was going to change their minds. Next they wanted to know what army service was like in America. but when i told them that i really didn’t know much because i was never in the army, and it was voluntary, that blew their minds again. They could not fathom how the american military could be so powerful if no one was required to serve. I attempted to explain the draft, but either something was being lost in translation, or they just didn’t understand how any of it worked. Btw, 2 days ago mehdi explained how all iranian males were required to serve 21 months in the military. the conversation mostly fell off at this point, as they start to argue amongst themselves over how nothing and everything that they thought they knew was true.
later in the museum we ran into an older man who worked in the museum, who had a very different view of america. He felt strongly that having an open democracy was wrong, because most people can’t be trusted to elect their own leaders, or you end up with trump in power. The guy had a valid point, and i felt like an awful person for attempting to defend a system that made it possible for trump to win. I tried to explain how democracy can be flawed, but most of the time, it works out in the voters best interest. But there was clearly no way to win this debate without using examples of how awful the iranian govt has been to its people, and i was definitely not going to touch that topic. So yea, it was an unfair debate, despite the guy having valid points.
finally while walking back to the car from the fortress, we went through a large market area. We passed this shoe store, which i suspected, and later confirmed was selling cheap knockoffs of popular western brands (Nike, Adidas, erc). The guy running the store suspected that i was a foreigner with a guide, and asked mehdi where i was from, and of course that immediately took us down the rabbit hole to crazy town. The guy was fixated on my nike sneakers, and was convinced that i must have bought them illegally from the factory where they were made in china, because no one buys real, authentic nikes at full price. When i insisted that they were the real thing, and i bought them at home, he demanded to know what i paid. In hindsight, i’m not sure what the best answer was for this question. It seems like no matter what number i gave him would have nor been what he wanted to hear. I told him the truth, which blew his mind, because the nikes in his store were selling for between $5 & $10/pair. Surely no one can afford to pay $60, and anyone who can, must be super rich. Therefore, all americans must be super rich. after that we kind of went in circles debating whether nikes cost a lot because people could afford them, or people earned a lot more in order to afford nikes.
In case i’m giving the wrong impression, no one that i spoke with was angry, or rude, or seemed hostile. They mostly had looks of disbelief, but they always sounded calm, or semi-confused.after all the ‘americans are rich, eternally young, stupid people’ debates, i was thirsty, and mehdi wanted caffeine (he was doing all the translating), so we went to a cafe for something to drink. While we were there we had a long discussion about how cell phone plans work, and the cost of cell phones in iran. Apparently, mehdi’s cell plan costs 1/40th as much as ours. And nearly all the cell phones sold in iranian are slightly crappier versions of what we have in the US, for less than half the price.
For dinner we went to another traditional persian place. I got 2 kebabs (lamb & beef), and mehdi got ‘shrimp nuggets’. These nuggets looked like shrimp shaped mcdonalds chicken nuggets. Mehdi said they tasted weird. When i asked if had ever tried shrimp before, he said no. So, i can’t tell if they were actually made from shrimp, and he just didn’t like it, or if they were some artificial shrimp abomination (krab!). I noticed that a family ordered a large soda bottle of a white liquid. I asked mehdi what it was, and he said it was a fizzy yogurt drink that makes people feel relaxed & often sleepy. This really sounded to me like they were getting fermented, alcoholic yogurt, but i was unsure if i should mention that, so i said nothing. But seriously, what kind of magic yogurt makes people sleepy? Also, the family was giving it to their kids. are people seriously not aware that they are getting​ drunk? How can this be legal here? I have so many questions that i can’t ask. I’m now tempted to order this stuff to find out, you know, for science. But at the same time, the thought of drinking fermented runny yogurt sounds nauseating. Also, slight tangent, but at lunch today, mehdi asked if i missed alcohol. How much of an alcoholic does he think i am if i can’t without it for a few days (or even weeks). I tried to explain that i don’t typically drink more than once or twice/week, and i could certainly handle the 3 week trip without having any, but i’m not sure if he believed me. I really wanted to ask if he’s ever tried alcohol (he has mentioned travelling as far away as thailand & china), but again this felt like one of those questions that might not be appropriate.

tomb of daniel

beer

Breakfast this morning was somehow even more disappointing than the previous day. At the rate things are going i’m going to wake up to a few crumbs and a cup of dirty water.
we checked out of the hotel and began the 4.5 hour drive south towards ahvaz. The first 90 minutes were on a stretch of freeway that medhi said was known as the oil highway, because it was built completely with oil money about 3 years ago. The highway ran through a huge mountain range. Since they were throwing money at the project, the engineers decided to build the road as flat & straight​ as possible. Any time a mountain got in their way they built a tunnel through it. I counted 25 tunnels in about 100km. It was crazy. When we weren’t in a tunnel the scenery was amazing. It looked kinda like wyoming, with huge buttes and mesas everywhere. Once we finishes the mountains, we descended onto this flat plain, and everything changed. It got dramatically warmer, there was no snow anywhere, and it was green farmland stretching in all directions. Basically it was iran’s version of fresno.

Just after 11am we reached the ancient city of Shusha. It had a real river running through it, palm trees everywhere, and was a pleasant 19C. The big attraction here was a UNESCO site preserving a few ancient historical sites. The first was the tomb of daniel (from the bible). It looked really cool from the outside, with this spiral tower, but the inside was boring. Next we went to the grounds of the ancient city of Apadama, which was one of Xerxes many palace cities, similar to Persepolis. There wasn’t much to see, as it wasn’t well preserved. For lunch i had chicken kabobs, with Iranian (non-alcoholic) beer. The beer wasn’t awful. It also wasn’t great, but i think it might have tasted better than the crap your father drinks.

Chogha Zanbil

Chogha Zanbil

After lunch we drove for about another hour, to the site of a massive 3000 year old ziggurat. This was definitely the highlight of the day. It looked kinda like one of the ancient aztec temples, with multiple levels. The saddest part was that the parking lot was nearly empty. Tourists don’t seem to exist in this country. Everywhere that i’ve been so far has been nearly devoid of visitors.
It then took nearly 90 minutes to make the drive to ahvaz, mostly due to horrible traffic. Along the way we passed this massive complex of oil refineries (think NJ meadowlands, only with palm trees and farmland), which Mehdi said was repeatedly bombed by saddam hussein during the iran-Iraq war in the 80s. Apparently i’m just 100km east of the Iraqi border now., with kuwait just 90km beyond that. Ahvaz is this massive sprawling city, with tons of people and traffic, and shops. Its also pleasantly warm here, so i’m done with winter weather at least for the next week, as we will continue to head south east towards the persian gulf. Also this part of the country has a lot of arabs, and feels in a lot of ways similar to dubai and oman. mehdi said the​ the dialect spoken around here is much more similar to arabic than farsi. for dinner tonight​, we went to this long street that was nothing but assorted food stands, and i had falafel sandwiches.
Also i tried Arabic coffee today, and it was amazing. It was aromatically fruity, tasted kinda tart.

In the past 3 days, i taught myself arabic numerals. Its kinda useful, because other than highway signs, just about everywhere else uses only the arabic version (restaurant menus, hotel room numbers, etc). Thankfully the numbers for 0, 1 & 9 are identical to our numbers, so i only needed to learn 7 digits.

Shushtar

doogh

We had breakfast at 9am, and it was actually decent (for iran). Nothing amazing, but at least it was better than the 2 previous days. After breakfast we drove about 90 minutes north to the ancient town of Shushtar, which had a UNESCO site for a 1100 year old dam and mill. They dammed a river to create diversion channels to power a series of grain mills. It looked impressive, with s series of man mad waterfalls where the water re-entered the river after the dam & mills. Next we went for lunch, and i got the local speciality, which was a stew made with chickpeas and eggplant in a spicy red sauce. It was really good, and a nice change of pace from the non-stop kebab parade. Before the stew, they also brought us a spicy soup made with onions & lentils. And i got the fizzy yogurt drink! However, it was not alcoholic, and did not make me feel relaxed or sleepy, so i suspect that’s all just a myth. It basically tasted like a runny plain/sour yogurt with a slight mint flavor. Once i finished eating i went to the bathroom, and when i came back i saw all the restaurant employees (all 4 of them) standing at our table talking to mehdi. Of course they were talking about me. Apparently, i’m the first american ever to come there, and they were super excited and honored to have me there. Plus each one of them wanted to have their picture taken with me. Mehdi joked that they will all likely post it to facebook & instagram, plus he thought he restaurant had its own instagram account.

Shushtar

We spent much of the day driving. I’m starting to learn that Mehdi’s driving time estimates are for ideal conditions without stops. So his 5 hour estimate for today was really closer to 9.5 hours once we added in traffic (which always exists), rest stops, and stopping to see stuff. I’m not complaining, he has never rushed me for anything, and we’re doing everything on the official itinerary. Most of the driving today was through verdant narrow valleys, surrounded by very steep rugged mountains. It was amazing scenery. We ended up having a picnic lunch about an hour after stopping in a market in a small town to pick up food. We got cheese, flat bread (which was kinda like a drier, more brittle tortilla), cucumbers, apples, and pomegranate juice. The total worked out to about $3.20/person, which is crazy. The juice alone would have cost 2x that at home. So food is really cheap here, even when we eat in a restaurant. Every time Mehdi gets an espresso or latte, its costing him less than a dollar.

Bishapur

At Mid afternoon, we made it to the ancient city of Bissapour, which was built in the 3rd century AD. It was amazing. Lots of well preserved structures, including a huge temple, and several 25ft tall pillars. Also, apparently the romans attempted to invade this area at one point, and left a lot of influences on the architecture. It was also nice that other than 1 family wandering around we had the entire place to ourselves. As we were getting ready to leave, one of the guards asked where i was from, and of course that prompted the usual excitement. He spoke very little english, but that didn’t stop him from grabbing his tablet and showing me random photos that he had taken of the site, and randomly saying ‘california amazing place’.

the remaining 110km drive to shiraz took nearly 2 hours, because the road crossed a mountain range, and it only had 2 lanes. Thus we were stuck behind the usual slow moving trucks climbing the hills. At one point before the sun set, the road passed through this narrow notch in the mountain that looked like it had to have been dynamited. Mehdi insisted that it was a natural gap in the mountain that has existed for thousands of years, as there are written reports of Alexander the great passing through that spot. The hotel looks amazing. Its a converted old residence, so the entire layout looks as it did 200 years ago. Its actually a guesthouse/b&b type of place.

notch

shiraz hotel

for dinner we went to Haftkhan, and it was easily the best restaurant i’ve been to so far. There are a ton of photos online. The food was so good. They brought out this flat bread with a walnut & cheese spread. Then we got this fancy yogurt and a cucumber & tomato salad. I got a quince lime drink, made with rosewater & honey, which was really yummy. My main was the baked rice with the crispy crust with chicken inside, and it was 100x better than the one that i tried in tehran last week. Also there were live musicians singing & playing traditional persian music. Additionally, all of the seating was on raised, carpeted platforms with pillows, so it was kinda like sitting on the floor, only much more cozy. It was such an awesome experience.

Nasir ol Molk

Nasir ol Molk

We headed out at 7:30am today to go to an old mosque that is especially pretty in the morning. It has stained glass that faces east. We arrived, and there were a few other foreign tourists, but it wasn’t bad. It was quite pretty inside. Afterwards we returned to the hotel for breakfast. Its amazing, a hotel with a truly great breakfast. They had cheese, omelettes, pastries, and non-crappy bread.
following breakfast, we drove to this huge garden operated by the university of shiraz. It was ok, but i suspect it would have been a lot nicer later in the year when half the trees aren’t lacking leaves. Amusingly this is apparently where teenagers go to make out, as the morality police won’t patrol in there. At one point we walked past this group of teenage girls who were giggling and whispering loudly. Mehdi said that they were debating where i was from, and daring each other to talk to me.

when we finished there we stopped at the tour company’s office (they are based in shiraz), and mehdi introduced me to everyone, including the woman who I had been exchanging all the emails with who arranged the entire tour. They were all super friendly, and had tons of questions about america. They also commented that i’m the last american that got a visa through their company before it all ended. They said that they’ve heard rumors that iran might resume issuing tourist visas for americans in the summer, if the US travel ban remains lifted.

vakil

vakil

next we went to the zend complex, which is this huge brick fort like structure (with turrets) from the 19th century. Unfortunately, it was used as a prison for a large part of the 20th century, and the inmates defaced much of the original artwork. It was still interesting for the structure of the building, but most of tbe rooms were empty with blank walls. After that we visited the Vakil mosque, which was really nice. Its a 300 year old mosque, with dozens of stone pillars, and pretty art everywhere. On the way out we ran into this older guy who knew mehdi, who spoke perfect, nearly accent-free english. He told me that before the revolution, he used to visit the US every year. He was telling me stories about how much he missed los angeles, but doesn’t​ expect that he’ll ever be able to go back again.

Then we wandered through the bazaar, and went to lunch in this small place in the bazaar. We got this shirazi specialty, which was a stew made with lamb, tomatoes, lentils, potatoes and chick peas, served in a clay pot. It was really yummy.
After lunch we went to a shrine for a poet from the 14th century. It was kinda boring, since i didn’t know any of his poetry, and couldn’t read any of the examples on the walls. But there were tons of people there who seemed to be really into him.
next we drove to a smallish mosque, where all the internal walls had small mirror tiles, making the entire thing sparkle. It was amazing. Also, it wasn’t crowded so i was able to wander around without feeling like i was getting in the way of others. One thing that is semi-annoying is that i always have to remove my shoes before entering every mosque.

Ali Ibn Hamzeh Holly Shrine

lunch

Shah Cheragh

After that we drove to the largest mosque in the entire city, which was super crowded and crazy. We had to go through security just to enter the complex, where this guy half-heartedly frisked me. Afterwards, mehdi commented that they must have assumed i was iranian, as they always pull aside foreigners for extra searches, and occasionally refuse entry just because. The layout of the complex was a huge open square, with the huge mosque occupying all of one side, and then random rooms on the other 3. There were people everywhere. Then the call to prayer went off, and it was kinda this sea of people all walking in the same direction. We went inside the mosque for a while, and i saw/heard the imam speaking for a bit. It was all super intense.

we’re sitting in the car, and mehdi mentions that tomorrow (my friday) is a holiday, the anniversary of the revolution. That’s when the govt encourages people to go out into the streets with banners and signs, and there’s a lot of rallying. Its the holiday when the people with the ‘death to america & israel’ signs are out. he also so said we’ll likely not see much, since we’re going to spend most of the day outside shiraz, at Persepolis, plus most of the people will be in a part of the city that we won’t be near. But he was clearly trying to warn me in advance in case i did see stuff. So tomorrow might be really interesting, more than i ever anticipated. After that he invited me to his family’s apartment tonight​ for dinner & to celebrate his sister’s birthday. I agreed, since it sounded like an amazing opportunity. When we arrived, his mother, sister and brother were there. Although his mother didn’t speak much english, his brother and sister spoke it fairly well. It was a really nice experience. We had dinner, then they had a cake too.

shirazi ice cream

persepolis

While eating breakfast, we met 2 other guests, a woman from china & a woman from the Philippines. They were both surprised to see me but for differing reasons. The chinese woman thought that Americans were forbidden to enter iran. The Filipino woman thought that all Americans hated iran. It was so weird.

the drive out to Persepolis took about an hour. When we arrived we met another guy who was a guide in training, who looked to be maybe 20. He was mostly silent, although occasionally he would mention a random but of trivia. I finally found all the tourists, and most were chinese. It definitely wasn’t super crowded, but there were well over 100 people when we first arrived at 10am.
Persepolis itself was both impressive and disappointing. The stuff that they had was in really good preserved condition. But there was so much that was obviously missing or destroyed. We spent about 3 hours exploring the site. My favorite part was this huge, long relief showing members of all the nations (of the time) arriving and presenting gifts for the king. It was kind of like a UN or Olympic ceremony parade, which the people from each nation having a very distinctive appearance.
Next we drove about 2 miles away to the necropolis where the tombs of the kings of the era were carved out of huge rocky cliffs. it was nice, although this huge obnoxious chinese tour group was making a ton of noise. we went to lunch at this buffet place which had absolutely amazing fesenjeen. I got persian ice cream for dessert, which was this odd combination of fine rice noodles in a frozen sugary syrup, with lemon juice on top. It wasn’t bad, but calling it ice cream seems like a bit of a stretch.

Persepolis

Persepolis

Dinner was at a real burger place, although it was still kinda odd. The bun was a kaiser roll the size of my head. But the contents were normal sized. Plus the burger had parsley on it for some reason.

Much of the drive today was through arid desert, with rugged mountains. Lots of dry washes, with occasional date palm groves. Also i started to see signs warning about camels. It seemed like we were travelling through some of the poorest areas, as the few towns and villages that we passed still had mud brick homes, with lots of sheep and goat herders. We stopped for lunch at a highway rest area, and i got lamb kebabs, rice, salad and water for the high price of about $3.75. As we drove, the weather got kinda crappy, and it was windy and overcast by the time we reached the persian gulf. Although it was also warm & humid.

The ferry held about 25 cars, and took about 15 minutes. i noticed that it had 1 small life boat, and 4 life preservers. i learned that Qeshm is 1 of 2 iranian islands that do not require a visa for foreigners.

After dinner tonight we went to a huge iranian ice cream chain, and i got pomegranate orange sorbet. OMG. Its like my long lost ben & jerry’s cran-orange, only even better. It had huge pieces of pomegranate, and was super sour.

I saw my first “Death to usa” bumper sticker today, on the back of a truck.

ferry

Hundreds of other photos from the trip are posted HERE. You can read about the second half of the trip HERE.

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