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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Trip to Iran: The Places

Whenever I mentioned to anyone that I would be going to Iran, the response would be a short “Why”. And having come back from that place, I can understand that there are enough reasons why one should avoid Iran as a holiday destination.

Of course, there is this inconvenience for women having to wear scarves and long sleeves and men being barred from wearing shorts in public. But more importantly, there are enormous challenges when it comes to eating out in Iran as restaurant food there means beef kebab, mutton kebab, chicken kebab, mix kebab, royal kebab, special kebab, and jumbo kebab only. And after 20 consecutive kebab meals, I felt like taking a somersault dive into a pool filled with curry or soup. Another issue with Iran is the system of public toilets. Being an Islamic country, there are no urinals for men. While this established potty parity between males and females, it also meant that every time I had to urinate, I would have to smell the lower intestines of the men who have visited the place before. And then there are the other oddities about Iran. For instance, the time indicators at traffic signals obey divine forces rather than physical laws and take abnormally long time to display the next second after another. There are the energy saving lights that go off when people approach them and crude traffic lights that are not fixed on poles but kept on ordinary plastic chairs kept at the side of a road.

But if one can brave all this, I would recommend Iran as one of the must see places in the world. Iran offers amazing diversity and in a single day’s travel, one can see rain forests and parched deserts, witness heavy snowfall and baking heat, walk inside glorious mosques and Zoroastrian temples, shop at thousand year old bazaars and Rado store, and talk to shia mullahs and skinheads. As every moment provides a photo opportunity, one is overwhelmed by this flurry of sights, sounds, and smells. At night, sleep comes in early as the brain begs for more time to make memories out of these experiences.

Iran is most well known for its historic monuments and I encountered so many during my trip that soon I started mistaking garbage dumps as historical ruins. The ruins of the Achaemenid palaces in Persepolis require some imagination to figure out how grand the whole complex may have been before Alexander destroyed it. One does get an eerie feeling walking through the compound which had been built by humans over 2500 years ago. All the same, the Achaemenid rulers were surprisingly unimaginative with their names and kept choosing from Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes. The same habit has continued to present day where almost all streets, train stations, airports and squares in Iran are named after Imam Khomeini.

Then there are the countless mosques of Iran. Given the abnormally young population of Iran it is certain that their infrastructure will start cracking up as is already evident from the horrendous traffic in Tehran that beats even Mumbai by some margin. But one infrastructure that is completely prepared for this demographic challenge is the network of mosques in the country. There are so many mosques in Iran that many are filled only by tourists or at most by four to five worshippers. The pick of the lot are the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and Imam Mosque at Esfahan and the Jame mosques at Shiraz, Esfahan, Yazd and Kashan. As one walks inside them, the elaborate mosaic tilework, the high roof of the dome, the towering minarets, and the echo from the domes, leave one mesmerized taking her into a psychedelic spin.

There are the king’s palaces and rich men’s houses in Kashan and Tehran dating from the 19th century. Interestingly, many of the rooms in these complexes are completely covered with mirrors. May be narcissism was an acclaimed behavioral trait in those times in Iran. There are the historic bridges in Esfahan which look beautiful when lit up after sunset. And several tastily done parks, clean streets, and tree lined boulevards make taking a walk in Iran a very pleasant experience, provided it’s not scorching afternoon. Every few meters in the streets, there are drinking water booths and billboards having quotes from the Quran. These quotes are both in Farsi and English but the translator seems to be a person who got excellent grades in Middle Age (Shakespearean) English while failing the spelling test. May be the weird translations are intentional to prove that only Arabic was the language of the gods. (I am not sure if the Farsi texts made sense)

The streets and alleys are lined with numerous bazaars with medieval era walls and roofs which are still untouched by Gucci and Chanel (except in northern Tehran and Tehran airport). The bazaars sell everything from pink wigs, diode valves, ammeters and rifles and calls of Chand (how much?) come from all directions. The shops again show a lack of imagination when it comes to naming and I came across shops like Far away International Call Shop, Friendly Internet Café and Touristy Tour agency.

In our present political systems, it is unlikely that tax money would be used by Governments to build anything as grand as the Achaemenid palaces or the Safavid mosques. Moreover, the magnificent sights of Iran will disappear one day, if not from Israeli missiles then from earthquakes which have already vandalized the historic city of Bam. So if you get a chance, do consider Iran as a holiday destination.

P.S.: Pictures from Iran: Alborz mountains, Kashan, Yazd, Esfahan, Nain, Persepolis, Shiraz, Tehran , Roads, Abarghood;


Anu said...

How I envy you...:-)

Anonymous said...

i'm sure that the minor discomforts are small in comparison to the inspiration and learning the trip has given you. yes i agree with anuradha that this is enviable. to walk where the kings of a great civilization once graced, it's almost tantamount to a quantum leap experience.

Anonymous said...

sound so much like India