AT THE BORDER, I had no real plan apart from to go to Tabriz. Perhaps I would be driven further. Petrol (gasoline) is very cheap in Iran, so much so that I heard that it was smuggled over the border in spite of all the difficulties and dangers of being a gas-smuggler.
The cheapness of fuel kept the costs of being driven around Iran down to a reasonable level, though it was still costlier than the bus. At least once you’d paid for the car and the driver, filling up the tank wouldn’t blow an additional hole in your wallet the way it does in New Zealand.
The first thing we did, very shortly after hitting the road, was to pick up the driver’s brother in a border town. He was to be my guide. There, I was confronted with a cigarette smuggling ring. I saw men stuffing cigarettes down their trousers.
They do this at great risk. So much for respectability! I was a bit nervous at being in possession of a thousand US dollars in cash in what seemed like bandit country. But they were honourable bandits, and so we carried on, the driver, the driver’s brother, and me.
In Tabriz I spent my first night with the driver’s wife, mother-in-law and mother. And the very first thing his wife said to me was, “If you don’t wear a hijab [headscarf] in Iran you’ll be killed.” She didn’t speak much English but she just sort of got her finger and put it across her neck and said “You’ll be killed.” So I thought, hmmm.
It was in Tabriz that the driver’s brother helped me to change my thousand US dollars into 40 million Rials. That was a whole sack of money. ATMs can’t be used by foreigners unless you have organised a MahCard, which you can do online from overseas.
In ignorance of that, we were doing everything the old-fashioned way, with bank tellers and folding money and someone who understood the local language.
I always get a local SIM when I travel, and I was lucky enough to get one from a store in five minutes, beating the queues.
Everywhere, you saw an official, composite image of the Imam Khomeini seated cosily in front of his successor as Supreme (holy) Leader, Ali Khamein’i (no relation), as Khamein’i looks now.
Before the 1979 revolution, Khomeini was known as the Ayatollah Khomeini: Imam is a more senior religious title, bestowed after the revolution, when Khomeini became Iran’s first Supreme Leader. In the West we still think of him as the Ayatollah, the title he held when he was getting the most Western press. Khomeini died in 1989 and was succeeded by Khamein’i, who obviously didn’t have a white beard back then.
So, that was interesting.
And the driving in Iran — yeah, well. The bus service that I was to use was safe and reliable. But private motorists drove fast. Really fast.
In Tabriz, we went sightseeing, my first chance to see Iran. I stayed with a Azeri, the ethnic group most common in neighbouring Azerbaijan. His wife discussed the prostitution that was being practised in Iran by way of temporary marriages, which she objected to. It was the first I’d heard of that!
Later on I was to meet a woman who explained to me that the custom of temporary marriage also enabled people who didn’t actually want to get married right now, to have relationships, since premarital sex was technically illegal. She was living with her boyfriend, but they hadn’t bothered to get a temporary marriage. She came from a wealthy background and was headstrong. She said the authorities would have to catch her in the act to prove anything!
Tabriz is the capital of an Iranian province called ‘East Azerbaijan’. Azeris are a majority here, too. The Azeris are not related to the Persians but rather to the Turks. On the other hand, the Kurds, who straddle the Turkish border, aren’t related to the Turks but rather to the Persians. Contested for centuries between old-time Turkish and Persian empires, this region is very mixed and remains so for hundreds of kilometres on either side of the official frontier.
The Kurds don’t have an independent country of their own. The reason the Azeris do is because there used to be a region of the former Soviet Union known as Soviet Azerbaijan, on the other side of the Soviet/Iranian border from the Azeri districts of Iran. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the former Soviet Azerbaijan found itself an independent republic. Such are the accidents of history. If there had been a Soviet Kurdistan, it would probably have become independent too. But there wasn’t.
Tabriz is full of heritage, and I’m annoyed I didn’t spend more time there and take more photos (I’ve got a lot more for the other cities).
By the way, you can look up the monuments of every city on Wikimedia templates, as well as the usual guides. It’s a really good idea.
And there’s new stuff as well. We saw an interesting monument and park that had apparently only just been created in an eastern part of Tabriz. The white monument we saw didn’t come up on the template for Tabriz, which also makes me think it is new.
Iran has had a massive programme of building new houses and parks going for some years. The Iranian government takes the cities very seriously. Partly, this is because Iran has had such a massive population explosion over the last few decades, with just about all of the new population appearing in the cities.
Anyhow, here’s a photo of me beside another monument, a statue of the poet Khaqani, who lived in Tabriz in the same general era as Hafez and Sa’ad in Shiraz.
In those days Iranians were few, and the cities were small. And yet they managed to produce one of the world’s most amazing cultures, and even a large empire which, though it was frequently conquered by outsiders because Iranians were so few in number, always bounced back.
For the next night I stayed with another local family so as not to impose on my driver’s one. Airbnb doesn’t operate in Iran. Hawkers on the street offered accommodation, though you took your chances there, and there was also social media: Snapchat and Whatsapp. The Iranian government keeps trying to censor the local Internet and because of that you can’t easily use Facebook directly, though I was able to use it Express VPN for ten dollars a month. TripAdvisor is widely used in Iran; there’s no ban on that.
Word of mouth also seems to convey a lot of information. That was how I got my second place. The man of this new house was a business owner recommended by my driver and his brother; the ones who had been recommended to me by my Kurdish guide in Turkey.
I slept on the floor in the children’s room, and the businessman’s wife was lovely. You should have seen what they grew. They had a veritable oasis, with plenty of fruit and olives.
The next morning I was offered some hash by the businessman and I thought, hmmm (once again): this is really interesting, to be offered hash in Iran. And it wasn’t the only drug I was offered either. I read a blog that said prostitution was quite common as well.
So, what you get in the international media in terms of Iran being strait-laced, and what you get in terms of actually visiting the country, are two different things.
I guess it was like America during Prohibition. Literally so, for later on I ran into people who seemed to have no problem getting hold of booze, which is officially banned in the Islamic Republic of Iran as well of course.
So I wasn’t particularly impressed, and I said to both my guide and my driver that I wanted to go to somewhere a bit more authentic and less Westernised. I said that I wanted to go to Alamut, a famous scenic valley with a ruined castle overlooking it, several hundred kilometres further on down the road.
Our growing band of travellers now included the businessman and a further addition. his mistress. We all went off down the road in the direction of the Alamut Valley in the one car. That pissed me off a bit, considering I’d just met the businessman’s charming wife, and yet now I had to be nice to his mistress, of whom he was very protective. Bloody hypocrisy! Plus, things were getting a bit crowded by this stage.
Our original plan had been to hit the main road leading south-east to Tehran and then turn left after a short while to Gilan province and Rudkhan Castle, near the border with Azerbaijan, and from there to head for Alamut along the beautiful shores of the Caspian Sea.
But the roads were too bad up there apparently, and it was going to take about two days to get to Alamut Castle that way. So, instead of the scenic route, we just kept on down the main road.
Even on the main road, it really was a long drive. We left at about ten o’clock and were still driving at five o’clock. Still, the drive to Alamut was fantastically interesting.
They had photos of heroes lining the road the entire way. Iran was severely affected by the war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988. Nobody really knows how many people were killed in the war, but the government of Iran admits to losing 184,000 troops on its side. The war was triggered by Saddam Hussein making a grab for Iran’s oilfields, which are in the predominantly Arab part in the southwest, close to Basra and also close to Kuwait.
The war endered in utter stalemate and a UN-brokered peace deal that enforced a return to the way things were before. So, it was all for nothing in the end, except insofar as Saddam had been prevented from winning by Iranians, who got no credit for it from the West.
At the time, Iraq was egged on by the same Western powers who would later turn on Saddam. For, in the 1980s, Western governments disliked the Ayatollah Khomeini even more than they disliked Saddam Hussein. Of some relevance here was the fact that the Ayatollah’s regime had lately taken the occupants of the American embassy hostage, in the hope of achieving the extradition of the recently-deposed Shah. I’ll have a bit more to say about all that further on.
Continuing along the road toward Qazvin, where we would soon turn off toward Alamut, we noticed that there was a bit of forest along the way. It wasn’t the scenic route, but it was a really interesting journey. Or maybe it was just that I was new to the country.
To be continued . . . If you want the whole story more quickly, check out my short book Iran: Make Love not War, now on sale with 281 pictures and maps. Click on this image for a link to where you can get a copy. I also have my first book as a free download on my website a-maverick.com if you sign up for the newsletter.
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