Leaving Iran

Leaving the remnants of the Shahs final excesses behind I cycled across the plain and through the mountains of the lower Zagros that separates Persepolis from the valley in which the city of Shiraz nestles.

Hearing the word Shiraz you perhaps think of a nice glass of red wine. You'd be half right in this case. The region around this most fondly loved of Iranian city is reported to have produced the finest wines in the Middle East from the 9th Century onwards. But 18th and 19th century European tourists were raving about sweet white 'port-esque' vintages; it turns out the link between the city and the popular Syrah grape variety ends with the name. For all you Onophiliacs it's all rendered moot anyway as those much vaunted vineyards have been producing raisins since the Islamic Revolution.

Mention Shiraz to an Iranian however and they are likely to think one thing: Poetry. Iran is a country where poets are revered and where poetry remains a vital cultural currency. Tehran may have the jobs, Esfahan the architecture and Mashad the holiness but Shiraz has the verse.

Two names ring out above all in the pantheon of Iranian poetry. Hafeez and Saadi (Fans of Ferdowsi and Rumi may splutter.) and both are sons of Shiraz.

Even after all this time,
the sun never says to the earth,"You owe me."
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights the whole sky.

The sun was out as I wove my way through the late morning traffic to the old quarter where I left the main streets and picked my way along winding alleyways flanked by high whitewashed walls in search of the well hidden Niayesh boutique hotel.  Sounds expensive but fortunately it wasn't with a single room abutting the central courtyard kindly discounted to a manageable $5 a day.

That'll do

One effect of my chosen mode of travel is solitude. It's something I have come to treasure deeply but taking a break from it in Shiraz was a pleasant change.

Michael and Karin, a wonderful Swiss couple, were driving their camper van across Europe and Turkey to Iran and were about to start the road home. Finding people with a sympathetic sense of humor is always a tonic and wandering the bazaars and sharing meals over the next few days was very enjoyable.

Michael, Karin, van and an overly friendly Iranian wanna-be tour guide

One benefit of spending time hanging out at the hostel was hearing some of the frustrations of female travelers. Given it was winter I had been wearing trousers and long sleeved tops as a matter of course and so had conformed with dress requirements without even considering it. Legs covered to the ankle as well as head coverings for women was of course a more significant imposition and would have been much more so had it been summer. But misogynistic theocracy manifests itself in more insidious ways. For example, a woman cannot sing solo if men are present. I imagine this is only referring to performers rather than people going about their daily life but even so it is chilling. Prohibiting a person from song just seems so dehumanizing not to mention ridiculous. 

Yet the situation is not black and white. Women's access to education has improved massively since 1979 and especially following Khomeini's death in '89. 60% of Iran's higher education student body is female as of 2012. Under the Shah women attending schools was much rarer. As with much of modern Iran easy conclusions are hard to come by.

A festival whose name I don't recall, but beginning with H, took place while I was in Shiraz. Free food given to strangers and poetry recited in the streets. I was told the place to be was the Tomb of Hafez and so I took a walk.

A lovely spot north of the river

As evening drew in a large crowd gathered. Smiles and soft voices drifted around the gardens. I got chatting with one group who explained to me that Shirazi boys and girls would spend the festival trading verses as an opportunity to exchange phone numbers. Certainly an upgrade on the Door-Door I'd heard about in Tehran.

Impressed by the tomb's gardens I decided to explore Shiraz's reputation as a garden city the next day. Well known for its flowers, trees and manicured parks I was suitably impressed.

Especially by the ornamental cabbages

I spent a rewarding day wandering Eram and others just enjoying the tranquil surrounds.

Christmas was spent in the Zagros. Having left Shiraz I headed south, deeper into the mountains.

*picture kindly volunteered by Frederike and Guy at http://abikejourney.blogspot.com.au/

 I reached Firuzabad on Christmas eve and made camp. Christmas dinner was had at a nearby restaurant.

Dizi: My new favourite 

Named for the stoneware it's served in, Dizi is a hearty mass of mutton, chickpeas and flat bread. First you mash the contents of the pot with the pestle then pour out the liquid to eat as a soup before devouring the remaining stew. Delicious.

Swooping out of the mountains with my visa ticking down I passed the Kuh-e Puhal-e Khamir range

*picture kindly volunteered by Frederike and Guy at http://abikejourney.blogspot.com.au/

Before emerging into the Bandar plains and found myself, for the first time since Batumi three months and three countries ago, looking out on the open sea.

Having arrived in darkness and camped in a beach-side park I awoke early to see the gathering dawn and the moon about to set on my last day in Iran.

Off the coast Hormuz was visible. I would dearly loved to visit this curious island that embodies so much of the regions colonial history - from the arrival of the Portuguese through to Royal Navy control. But I had a ferry to catch later that day from the outskirts of Bandar Abbas.

Wandering around the park that morning I found another bicycle tourist. The meeting with this friendly German guy was fortuitous as I had run out of Iranian currency and was at a loose end until my ferry that afternoon.

I agreed to look after his bike, while he visited the embassy in Bandar Abbas in search of a visa extension; in exchange he would be my cycling companion to the port and offered some much appreciated bread.

Having completed his appointment we hot tailed it to the port only to find that the 14:00 arrival advised on my Shiraz bought ticket was four hours early. This was only the start of my Iranian ferry odyssey. I returned at 18:00. The ferry didn't end up boarding until 23:30. Fortunately I bumped into three people I had met at the hostel in Shiraz so I whiled away the hours chatting with them and arguing with ferry staff about their instance on relieving me of my multi-tool.

At approximately 00:30 the ferry pulled out. Yes it was ten and a half hours after the time I'd been advised to arrive but I was just enjoying having unimpeded access to chairs. A little less easy to swallow was the ferry policy which insisted on having a TV blaring all through the night voyage. Sleep was all but impossible to come by but they did serve a complementary dinner so it wasn't all bad. Although with the interminable Persian soap opera blaring and feeling sleep deprived I was verging on stir crazy.

Seeking to avoid an embarrassing breakdown I went out and watched the sun come up over the Persian gulf.

The Mediterranean is held often as a being a body of water of singular historical importance. A cradle to civilization, a mare nostrum for the glorious Roman Empire, crucial in stimulating trade & cultural dialogue. When I think of the Persian gulf little comes to mind except the gulf wars. Yet as I surfed my phone's offline wikipedia on deck  I began to realise that I was doing this sea a terrible disservice.

Where the Med has the Nile the Gulf has the Tigris and Euphrates, The Med can boast Ancient Egypt the Gulf can claim Summer. Classical Greece vs Babylon. The Roman Empire's coastal hegemony vs Sassanid Persia's envelopment of these coasts. Trade with India and visits from Zheng He's chinese fleet were occurring in these gulf ports long before the age of sail saw Genoese, Venicians and Spaniards leaving Mittle Mare for anywhere other than Europe and the nearest reaches of West Africa.

These waves have nourished more than their fair share of civilization and while my wild linkages to the Med lack meaning in the cold light of a post-sleep day the euro-centrism that my lack of appreciation for the Gulf's place in history betrayed was undeniably real.

Just as real was the realisation that I had just left behind Iran. Friendly, sophisticated Iran where ugly concrete sprawl meets unsurpassed architectural beauty. Strict Islamic rule abutting a sizeable urbane and liberal population. Big country, big history and a big impression. The question I kept returning to was why is Iran so vilified in the west? The same question a number of Iranian's had asked posed to me.

A hard line theocratic Islamic government? Saudi Arabia is harder line and yet is a key regional ally and trade partner.
A nuclear program occasionally suspected of being non-civil? Israel has gone further by developing and testing nuclear weapons but we remain best of friends.
Accused of harboring terrorists? Pakistan has been proven to do so and yet receives billions in subsidies/bribes/loans and military support instead.

Iran was placed alongside North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the Axis of evil; has been placed under a ferocious economic embargo and talk of a preemptive war against Iran are discussed seriously in hawkish circles of US politics.

Questions, questions, questions.

Not much in the way of answers.

The Arabian Peninsular emerging from the early morning fog.

A new day, a new land. I wasn't eager to cycle through Dubai but I did want to get off this bleeding ferry so I watched excitedly as the shore approached. We docked at 8:00 and waited. And waited. Hours passed and we were finally informed that we could leave the ship at 12:00, some 26 hours after I had first rocked up at the ferry port.

I dashed through the dockyard weaving my way past containers trying to keep up with the bus the other passengers were on as we made our way to passport control.

While waiting some more to be processed I took the opportunity to weigh my load.

Just under 55kg without much in the way of food. Yikes.

Cycling through Dubai has a fearsome reputation but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed following the coastline from Sharjah into the heart of Dubai. On the outskirts you can still feel a little of the pre-urbanized charm where sand dunes back onto rearing skyscrapers. I wanted to hate this city. It embodies a lot of things I find vile; avarice, sustainability and exploitation. But its difficult not to be impressed by the sheer ambition of the place. Thrusting is the word that come to mind.

Dubai, the epitome of globalization, was a world away from the externally imposed autarky of Iran. MacDonald's and Burger Kings, Dunkin Donuts and IHOPs, Tim Horton's and Fat Burgers and of course Starbucks. An American invasion in all its ubiquitous splendour. Not interesting but oddly comforting in its cookie cutter familiarity. The brands in the supermarkets were aimed at expats. A taste of home shipped to this corner of the Arabian desert and while it may be boring I lapped it up with a spoon. Not an indulgence I'd like to prolong but a brief visit after months of everything being different was, I must admit, pleasurable.

Not all of the cultural exports were appreciated

Less pleasurable was the next part of my ride. Leaving the beachfront I was forced to join a four lane motorway overpass in order to reach the Dubai suburbs my warmshowers host lived. Hairy, but not the worst road I'd been on. (Dubai would save that for my return visit.)

Arun, a friendly Indian white collar ex-pat, kindly let me stay on his sofa for a few days in this place out of place. A slice of suburban Americana with lush lawns, pools, SUV's and WASPS, in what a mere matter of decades ago was billowing desert.

My reason for a prolonged stay in Dubai was to visit my godparents who were serendipitously vacationing there.

A very different world to the one I had become accustomed to

Walking the beaches and checking out the Palm

This was about the extent of my exploration of Dubai. I just couldn't summon the will or interest to get out and about in this big bustling slice of modernity. Instead I mainly relaxed for a few days in Arun's suburban bubble before the feet began to get itchy.

*Alas, many of the pictures from Shiraz-Bandar Abas leg have been irretrievably lost due to memory card corruption. 

1 comment:

  1. You capture the contrasting worlds of Iran and Dubai in this absorbing post Tom, enabling the reader to journey with you. Amazing. Can't wait for Oman!