Sunday, June 14, 2015

Iran Adventure

Sitting on the plane on the way home from Iran, Neilesh and I wondered how we would describe this two week trip through central Iran. Vacation wasn’t the right term – the trip was rarely relaxing and occasionally unpredictable. Adventurous? Yes – that sounded right. During our time in Iran, we were constantly on the go, seeing mosques, palaces, walking through old villages, or interacting with locals. The bus was our home, traveling from one city to the next. We were constantly stimulated by tantalizing new sights and sounds: hearing the Azan or “call to prayer” in the evening, inhaling scents of rose water as we walked through markets, or seeing shimmering glass in palaces or mosques.

We were a diverse group of 4 Americans, 2 British, 2 Swiss, 2 Australians, and 1 New Zealander. This was the first trip to Iran for all of us except Larry, an 86-year old American who first visited Iran 50 years ago. Larry deserves special mention of the participants for his can-do spirit that should be an example to us all. As a 26 year-old, he drove from Oslo, Norway to Delhi, India with his friend, passing through Iran on the way. He considered his 2015 Iran trip as his final trip, as he now suffers from macular degeneration and is legally blind. Despite his poor vision, he signed up for the Intrepid trip and all the challenges (like walking, climbing steps, and dealing with the heat) that this trip would entail. To his credit, Larry went everywhere we did and never complained. He even climbed to the Zoroastrian temple in Chuck-Chuck (near Yazd), which was a steep climb up endless stairs on the face of a mountain. I can only hope that at his age, I’m doing the things that he’s doing. As cliché as it is, anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Larry is proof of that.

Traveling with Intrepid was an excellent way to see the country. I have traveled with Intrepid three times (Thailand 2004, Eastern Europe 2005, and Iran 2015), and have had great experiences all three times. I was especially thankful that my traveling companions were knowledgeable about Iran prior to the trip and could ask intelligent questions of our guide Mostafa. I also commended our Shiraz-e guide, a veteran of hundreds of tours, for his open and honest discussion on many topics about Iranian society in which we were interested. He also noted that it was unusual to have 4 Americans on a trip, and we certainly made his life exciting in good and bad ways.

The first question I get when I tell people that I went to Iran is “Why Iran”? That’s usually followed by “Was it safe?” The second question is easy to answer – yes it was very safe. The first question is more involved – no explanation is usually needed when you go to the Bahamas, for example. Iran has fascinated me for years, and these are the reasons I traveled there:

1       I have grown up with Iranians in the Bay Area and studied and worked with them in my career, especially in Los Angeles a.k.a. Tehrangeles. I wanted to better understand their culture.
Indian culture has been significantly influenced by Iranians , especially in Northern India. Most of this influence came during the Mughal period. The greatest example of this influence is the Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jehan. Secondly, the Parsi’s are a community of Iranians who settled in India after the Islamic conquest of Iran in 642. Parsi’s have had a significant influence on India as well – some of the best known Indian companies are headed by Parsis. Lastly, Hindi uses many Parsi words. Many of these Parsi words actually come from Arabic (because of the Islamic conquest of Iran in 642). Traveling to Iran would allow me to understand more about the country that has had such a significant influence on India.

3      Iran’s place in the world is changing. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has been isolated from the world. Sanctions have crippled the economy, and one sees almost no Western brands in the country. However, I believe this is about to change, especially if the nuclear deal between Iran and global powers goes through as many expect it will. A nuclear deal will likely result in the lifting of all sanctions on Iran. Given the ingenuity and intelligence of the Iranian people, I expect the economy to flourish under the new environment. This will also mean more tourism. Traveling to Iran now allowed me to experience the country before it became more touristy. Also, it allowed me to witness a society in transition; a society that was optimistic about the future.

We spent 15 days in Iran, visiting large and small cities in Central Iran. Neilesh and I also spent 1 day in Dubai on the way to Iran, and 1 day in Dubai on the way from Iran. These were nice additions to our trip because we could re-connect with one of our HealthCare Volunteer colleagues (Adil Shafique) who runs a technology company in Dubai. It also allowed us to contrast our experience in Iran with our experience in Dubai. The two places are very different, as I’ll explain later.

We flew from LAX to Dubai on Emirates, and then the next morning flew from Dubai to Tehran. We did not have to pick up our bags in Dubai during our layover. Highlights of the trip are bolded.

Day 1: Tehran – We were delayed at immigration for about 20 minutes. Apparently, this is standard procedure, as American Immigration officials hassle Iranians in the US. This made us late to our group meeting at the Parastoo Hotel in Tehran. Later that day, we visited the Goltesan palace – a UNESCO world heritage site.

Day 2: Persepolis – We flew from Tehran to Shiraz. We visited Naqsh-e Rostam and Persepolis, the ancient Iranian capital during the Achaemenid empire around 500 BC with Kings Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes. Persoplis (which means ‘Place of Persians’) is also a UNESCO world heritage site (in fact it was elected to UNESCO in its first year of eligibility in 1979 – it’s that old and amazing). Persepolis may be the most important site in all of Iran.

Day 3: Shiraz – Today some of us did an optional tour in Shiraz. We visited Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque and Khan Madraseh, Bagh-e Eram Gardens, and Tomb of Hafez (the highlight of the 3).

Day 4: Nomad Stay – We drove into the nearby mountains to stay with a nomadic family who speaks a type of Turkish (although they are Persian). It was nice to escape the heat in the mountains for an evening.

Day 5: Eghlid – Eghlid is a small town. This stop was mainly meant to break up our journey, although we did see a Zoroastrian tower of silence.

Day 6: Caravanserai Zein-o-din  – Caravanserais are places where caravans could rest on their long journeys. Now, they have been converted to unique hotels. Located in the middle of the desert, the views were stunning. I walked through the desert towards some ruins. We also got great pictures of the sunset. At night, the hotel staff (who is from Balochistan) performed some traditional dances for us. This day was one of highlights of the trip.

Day 7-8: Yazd – Our trip continued as we drove to Yazd, another desert city. Yazd is home to many ancient Zoroastrian sites. The city’s architecture is also unique, with ‘wind towers’ to cool homes. On our 2nd day in Yazd, I took an optional tour with Neilesh and Larry to see some unique sites: Kharanaq-Chak-Cahk-Meybod. Kharanaq is an ancient and abandoned village; Chak-chak is an ancient (and the holiest) Zoroastrian temple which has water the never stops dripping. Meybod is an ancient fortress (claimed to have relics from 4000 BC, but I’m not so sure).

Day 9-11: Esfahan – From Yazd, we made another epic drive on a public bus (but a very nice, spacious one) to Esfahan. Esfahan nesf-e-jahan, as they say, which means “Esfahan is half the world.” Esfahan was rated as the best Islamic city at one point, and the stunning architecture in the main square makes it clear why. My favorite site in Esfahan was the Lady’s Mosque in the main square.

Day 12: Abyaneh - Abyaneh is another mountain village. Again, we appreciated the cooler weather. We took a nice walk through the town, and had tea at a nice hotel with good views of the valley.

Day 13: Kashan - This was our last stop before Tehran. On the way to Kashan, we passed the Natanz nuclear site. In Kashan, we had dinner with a local family, and got to have good conversations with our hosts.

Day 14-15: Tehran – We visited the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeni  (some say Imam, but I was taught that there are only 12 Imams in Shi’ite Islam and he’s not one of them). This was closed for renovations. We also visited the Iran-Iraq war memorial. We Americans also visited the former US embassy.

Over the next several articles, I hope to write in more detail about different topics: religion, language, food, etc. while weaving in my experiences from this trip. Time will tell where Iran ranks in all of my trips, but I know it will be near the top (at least in the cultural category).

I came away from my Iran trip with tremendous respect for the Iranian people and their ancient culture. I believe the country has a bright future ahead of it, especially if a nuclear deal is reached. I am excited to see what a renaissance of Persian culture will look in the coming years.

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