“Would you like a…beer?” asks the guy in a hushed voice. I’m boiling. It’s about hundred degrees Celsius outside, the red plastic chair feels uncomfortable and I’m about to rip off my burkha in a fit of childish temper tantrum. I look around. The small kebab shop in middle-of-nowhere, Iran, doesn’t seem like the likely place for a secret drinking den. In fact, it and the dusty road dotted with small huts looks like just about anywhere in the Middle East. However, my companion, a burly bloke who’s been talking about beer non-stop, answers enthusiastically for both of us. Tomorrow, I’m getting rid of the burkha. I feel slightly silly wearing it; no modern or fashionable girl in Iran wears one, and as a foreigner, they are slightly bemused by me wearing it. At the border crossing a middle-aged woman pulled my hair covering off, and seemed disappointed not to encounter blond hair; nevertheless, she insisted on a photo of me- the first of many.
The beer arrives, and to the disappointment of my companion, it’s tepid non-alcoholic beer, mango-flavoured. I don’t care; the sweat is now mixed with dust from an earlier sand storm and I’m ready to drink anything.
Women in Esfahan
Tea and cake break
Two girls chilling out at a mosque
Travelling in Iran has helped me understand how animals in zoos must feel. Everything I do is a source of amazement to locals- is she ordering that? What kinds of shoes is she wearing? Do people from Europe like ice-cream too? Really? I am both the paparazzi and the celebrity; I’m endlessly taking photos of doors or kids to the amusement of Iranians, and they constantly ask me to stand in photos with them. I was afraid that I might not be able to visit the amazing mirror-covered mosques of Shiraz as a non-Muslim, but the resourceful women pulled me into the back room and covered me head to toe in a chador, and guided me through the sights, explaining everything enthusiastically in Farsi. The west might have shuts its doors on Iran, but the Iranians are opening all possible doors for me.
Mosque in Esfahan
...and a mosque in Shiraz
I’m painfully aware that two weeks in Iran is nothing. The country is vast with so much to offer that I feel like a child in a sweets store. The itinerary is focused on the south; Esfahan, Shiraz, Persepolis and Yazd, and when I’m asked what my favourite place is, I genuinely cannot answer. In Esfahan we stumble upon a few western tourists, all with a guide on organised trips. I leave my travel buddies to haggle over carpets, and escape to one of the unassuming looking buildings next to Imam Square. Inside, a peaceful and lush courtyard completed with a fountain, goldfish and tortoises awaits, and I sit on a colourful Persian rug and order a spiced cinnamon cake. I have no idea where I am. Maybe at a museum? A palace? It’s hard to care when it’s so relaxing. Even the sellers in the bazaar around Imam Square and it’s majestic blue mosques only make a half-hearted attempt in flogging their goods to me. I’m left completely alone to marvel at the intricate turquoise and yellow walls.
Detail of a wall- so beautiful!
In Shiraz, I encounter a small doze of reality- one of my friends get a mild case of food poisoning, and we need to find an English-speaking doctor from the government-run hospital. When we get refused entry at the palatial foyer, I’m a bit stunned; an armed guard guides us to a small door at the side, covered with a heavy curtain- the women’s entrance, mixed with damp and sweaty smells. A stern woman looks at us disapprovingly, and we get veiled to our fingertips- my friend’s a bit weak so I’m holding up her chador as well as my own. We look like two rubbish bags floating through the hospital corridors. My friend gets a doze of antibiotics and a drip on her arm for the morning, and we escape the formality of the Iranian government back to the streets where girls wear jeans and their scarves bob along at the back of their head, showing highlights and red lipstick.
The one concession we decide to make is to go on a guided tour of Persepolis and Necropolis, mainly so that we are able to get something out of it. As lovely as people are, they sometimes forget that we have no idea what they are saying, and so most things we just agree to by nodding and smiling. Persepolis, though, is somewhat of a let-down; there are only a few bit standing. I had expected some sort of reconstructed pictures of what the place had probably looked like, but none were presented. On the upside, Necropolis, with its massive rock-carved tombs is breathtaking. The sun is merciless and the giant rock face in front of us vibrates in the heat, as the guide, interestingly enough, seems to just read out the notes already in place.
Climbing up to Persepolis
Standing guard in Persepolis
Necropolis, the grand burial ground of dead kings
During our last night in Esfahan, a man invites us to dinner. No one knows who the man is, but he seems to be a friend of the receptionist in our hotel. We vote, and decide to go along. As we are six, he bundles three of us into his car, and three into someone else’s car. We slalom through the traffic and the host pays, worryingly enough, more attention to us than his driving. His house is tucked away on a back street, opulent, but in almost hotel-style in its clinical tidiness- wonderful rugs, paintings and ornate but uncomfortable high-backed chairs. His family, son, daughter and wife, usher us to sit down. We sit on one side of the large living room. They sit in the other. We are given endless bowls of fruit and nuts, halva, sweets and gaz, a sort of nougat with pistachios when the questions begin to flood- which of you are married? Where do you work? How much do you earn? – questions which we are, to say the least, mildly uncomfortable in answering. I reach for an almond and ask where the rest of our friends are.
“Your friends?” our host asks, “Your friends? They are probably dead by now”.
My hand stops halfway between the bowl and my mouth. I look at the two people I’m with and become painfully aware that I a) do not know where I am, b) have no idea who this person is and c) I really didn’t want to die before getting to North Korea. Our host stares at us, silently, before bursting to a hackling laugh. His whole family join in. He slaps his cousin in the back, and says, “Iranian humour, you see”.
Spices at the Bazaar
Chai being served at the bazaar
The non-tourist part of the market. Even got my bum pinched here. Very unusual for Iran!
Yazd is a different world compared to Shiraz and Esfahan. We move from the luscious and green cities to a brown and sandy town, full of narrow, winding roads reminiscent of North Africa, a skyline dominated by wind-catchers, ancient and natural air-conditioning systems. We get lost, but it doesn’t matter; everywhere is beautiful. We give up on the very old guidebook and just flow through the streets. General good mood prevails- people smile at us, we smile at them; they shake our hands and welcome us to Iran. I never thought I’d feel so comfortable being lost in a city where I can’t read the signs or understand anyone.
Windcatchers on top of buildings
Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, where the dead were left so vultures could dispose of the body
Yazd is a centre for Zoroastrianism, the first monotheist religion in the world, and we visit some of the holy sites as well as more mosques and bazaars; it is a very pleasant few days. On the night train to Tehran I chat to a middle-class chap in the next row, and he points at a picture of the Iranian president, “The donkey of Iran”, he declares. A bold statement, and even I look around nervously. “Please tell people in the west that we are very nice people, not terrorists”, he says. His wife and I talk about the scarves and the hijab. Iranian women are feisty things who are keen on hearing my opinion on the scarf. In the restaurant car, I order chicken with rice, a staple dish, and the man answers, 75,000 fish. Fish? Fish. He points at the money. Ah. I draw a picture of a fish, and say, “This- fish. That (pointing at the money)- Money”. It takes a while to sink in. Finally, the man bursts into a laugh. Actually, he’s laughing so hard he has tears in his eyes. He realises he’s just asked me for fish. He tells this to everyone in the restaurant, still laughing, and soon all the tables are laughing. I point at my purse, faking stunned, and show, no fish. The man is in stitches. I offer him 75,000 rials for my dinner, and he waves it away. No need, it’s on us.
Typical tea break
The day before we cross the border to Turkey we realise we still have, like, shed-loads of money. We’ve spent hardly anything. We sit down for a strawberry beer and contemplate. Unfortunately it’s Friday and most stores are shut. We try to tip the nice boy in the juice bar, but he insists we take our change. We insist back. The store is humming with various coolers and fridges and sports the same ubiquitous red plastic chairs. As we are leaving, he chases us down the street with our change. We cannot get rid of this money, it seems, so we flood a tiny chemists, one of the only shops which is open. We buy just about anything we can- I buy two pairs of socks and a deodorant, because, well, you always need them. One of the other girls buys hairclips. The shopkeeper is an elderly man, who probably didn’t expect six westerns to buy his store empty, but he keeps his cool. I’m the last person to pay, and he insists, no, these are on me. I’m desperate, I want to give him money, and finally he agrees. At the hotel, I leave a tip for the room cleaner and tell my friend to clear out quick before the cleaner realises and tries to give it back. We flee to the street and hail a taxi to the Turkish border.
And of course, just like all good backpackers, we then haggle on the taxi price for ages.
Scenery from along the way