Thursday, 27 October 2011

IRAN. Through the eyes of the locals.

Azadi tower
Sorry guys, this will include lots of reading but Iran impressed me a lot, no chance to make it shorter.

I couchsurfed all the time there and probably because of that I didn’t meet even one foreigner during my whole stay. For that reason I had a lot of time to ask all these questions I had about the country because the truith is that in Europe, we don’t know anything about it. Or just accept the easiest version – a land of terrorists and criminals. Before leaving Spain, I remember telling the people what countries im going to go to and the reaction when mentioning Iran, was always the same: “Iran!?! Why? Don’t go there! Be careful!”.  But what I found, was just people like all of us, educated and curious about the rest of the world, and incredibly nice to the foreigners. One common thing was that all of them hated the government and very few of them saw a way out of the current situation. No wonder most of the young, educated Iranians want to emigrate (buying just one way ticket)...Sad but that’s the Iranian reality.
My only inconvenience was the dress code – it was hot, and the fact that someone tells you how to dress up, was even more annoying than the heat.
And the lack of ATMs... There are a lot of ATMs in cities in Iran but none of them accept foreign credit or debit cards, the only option for us is the cash. It was quite frustrating cos i didn’t have much cash left. And I was told that  crossing the Armenian-Iranian border (the most beautiful border i’ve seen so far, but It wasn’t allowed to take photos there), at the Armenian side there was an ATM but NOOOOO, no ATM there. So I had to be very careful how I spend my money, especially going to Turkmenistan afterwards where I knew I would come upon the same problem.
But what I received there, was just hospitality and generosity that Europeans would never show to a stranger (unless they are “imported” Europeans). I got that everywhere and from everyone – buses, trains, street, my hosts, their families and friends....By the end of the bus journey from Yerevan to Tehran, the whole bus knew I was from Bulgaria and they all were so friendly and nice. Even at the border as my shirt wasn’t long enough (apparently it has to cover your ass and half of the thighs at least) I was given an appropriate shirt by a nice family from my bus. Another girl gave me her scarf (she had another one) because mine was falling down all the time. And everyone was giving me their phone numbers in case I need some help...So nice..

Another sad thing is that it’s very difficult for the Iranians to travel abroad. As in the “Stans”, Georgia, Armenia is a question of money, lots of Iranians can afford it but their visa applications get  rejected (the other option is to book an organised trip but that’s way too expensive). I remember Fred who hosted me in Yerevan – he applied for 3 European visas (one of them was Polish) and all 3 of them were rejected. Really frustrating, only because he is a holder of an Iranian passport!

Alcohol of course is forbidden but somehow available to everyone if you wanna get it, quite pricey though.

Education is quite expensive, much more expensive that it is in Europe...but somehow many of the young people manage to go to University. To find a proper job afterwards is another story :(.

Some gestures of love I found there :)
Girls painting the walls in Golestan palace

Golestan palace

I arrived very early in the morning after a 24 hour bus ride, dropped my things, chatted a bit to my host Araz and went to the city centre. It was the last days of Ramadan so I had to hide if I wanted to have some food or drinks on the street, not allowed. He put me in touch with Somi – another couchsurfer in Tehran. We met after she finished work and my day changed completely. Until then I was just exploring on my own, still in the initial shock by the chaos and the completely different culture...but when I met her after work, everything changed. She was like a breath of fresh air, very flexible and wanting to show me everything. We were taking buses and metro like crazy, I still don’t know where exactly we went but I loved every single minute I spent with this girl. We had many things in common and shared the passion of travelling.  Imagine my surprise the day after, when I run across her at Azadi tower. A city of 10 million people and I happen to meet the only person I know! Such a coincidence!
Having dinner with Somi in a cozy restaurant in Tehran

Tehran from above
Araz and his shisha
Araz was one of the most experienced couchsurfers in Tehran. He is addicted to his shisha and all these card and word games, he can even tell your future (well, kind of J). I really enjoyed the talks we had together with his friends and felt sorry I had to leave so soon. It was really nice to meet his friend Bahar just before leaving for Esfahan. Bahar, if you are reading this, I’ll keep my promise and you will be the first one to know. U know what J.
One thing he gave me and that Im very thankful for, is all the Lonely Planet books, for all the countries in the world (digital of course). It’s such a priceless gift, considering I can’t carry the real books for all the countries Im going through. Since then I’ve been sharing them with many other travellers I came across.
With Bahar
Crossing the streets is a nightmare in Iran. Almost anything goes on these roads. The volume of traffic can be overwhelming and make crossing the street seems like a game of Russian roulette, only in this game there are a fewer empty chambers. Its such a chaos of cars, buses, bikes and motorbikes (and all versions of them), lights and beeping, no rules at all, very few traffic lights, the zebra crossing doesn’t mean anything... Every time I tried to do it and just do one step i had to go back and wait for someone more experienced than me I can attach to.
Metro of Tehran
I was amazed how everything is separated in the metro and buses. Last two wagons in the metro were only for women and in the buses women always get in from the second door and stay at the back of the bus (there is actually a bar that divides the bus into 2 sections).

ESFAHAN - the city of mosques, palaces and Islamic architecture

Imam square

I went on the train to Esfahan sharing the compartment with 5 Iranian women. One of them spoke English and as all the Iranians they were extremely friendly and smiling so the time went by...then we slept till 7,30am (I was on the 3rd “floor” but it was quite comfortable). And then I met Puya. Actually he found me at the bus terminal as we agreed previously, but due to some “technical” problems I couldn’t call him and just sat down on a bench there playing with my netbook and waiting to be found J.
Puya's lovely house

He took me to his house where I met his family. His mum was very nice to cook for us whenever we were home and I also spent some time with his younger sister who showed me around the city.

Chehel Sotoun

Puya's beautiful sister
Khadju bridge

At night we walked around the city with his friends – 2 couples: Happy and Sad, and Khosro and Scheherazade (these are my versions of their names of I was unable to remember them while I was there, now thanks to FB I know everything). They all were trying to outdo each other in generosity and hospitality giving me quite a lot of information about Iranian and Esfahan history, habits and their lives.
They asked me a lot of things about Bulgaria and Spain and how people live there. We ended up at Happy and Sad’s place, drinking weird alcohol and playing some games. Happy (Farnaz) gave me a really nice scarf, which I wore aIl the time and which I still have in my backpack, knowing that probably I won’t use it until the end of the trip, but I refuse to get rid of it J.
At Imam square

Bridge of Khadju

Soffeh mountain was just behind Puya’s house so my last night in Esfahan me and him hiked up with a bottle of cognac. On the way there, we were meeting people he knew and I was getting their attention as a foreigner. Anyway it was nice to speak to different people. When we got to the top, it was already dark and we just sat down on the rocks, watching the city from above, drinking the cognac and listening to a girl near us singing some beautiful songs in Farsi.

View of Esfahan from Soffeh mountains
As we agreed the night before with the others, we went God knows where (another town near Esfahan) to have a party in other Puya’s house. He was living there with his girlfriend without being married, something unusual in Iran...Lots of people showed up. So first was the drinking, then dancing, then some barbeque chicken on the roof...and then everyone got extremely hungry and ate everything available in the house and after that everyone was dead. 

Barbeque on the roof
Alcohol hunger, attacking the last thing left -  bread
Give them a bit of alcohol and they will giggle like kids for hours :)
Most of the people stayed overnight as they were too drunk to drive but Puya and I had to leave due to my early bus to Shiraz next day. But anyway, im in touch with almost everyone and im sure thats not the last time we see each other.

SHIRAZ - the city of poets, literature, wine and flowers 

The tomb of Saadi
I got hosted by Parisa, a beautiful Iranian girl studying and working as an engineer. I spent all the time with her and her lovely family as I happened to be there during the holidays after Ramadan. They treated me like I was part of their family, took me to Persepolis, the tombs of Hafiz and Saadi and even to her grandma's house. 

Parisa and her sister Sara explained me something I didnt know much about in terms of the Iranian culture - arranged marriages. In traditional Iranian families, arranged marriage proceedings begin with khaastegaari, or formal marriage proposal, by a delegation (usually of parents and elders) from the man's side. Both of them got a few of these proposals but their answer was always NO.

A man can have more than one wife. Although marriage law dominant in Iran, allows a man to simultaneously have up to four wives, polygamy lacks popular support and is rarely practiced in Iran. 

Within a relatively short driving distance from Shiraz are the ruins of Persepolis. To the ancient Persians, the city was known as Pārsa, which means "The City of Persians" and it was built 512 BC and in 331 BC it was set on fire and savagely destroyed by Alexander the Great. What we see today is just a glimpse of the glory of this wonderful place which is for sure worth a visit.

At Persepolis
Parisa & Sara at Hafez tomb

Its pretty normal to pitch the tent in the park
Everyone is helping :)
The happy grandma, she sent them to buy me pistachios for the bus trip, so nice
Setting the table
Lunch with the whole family...
The Qur'an Gate was part of the great city wall


Through the desert on the way to Mashad
Imam Reza Shrine

Mashad is a long way from anywhere you're likely to want to visit, and the city itself has little of interest other than the shrine. I got there during the holiday after the Ramadan s there were thousands of Iranians visiting the shrine for pilgrimage. It is the largest mosque in the world by dimension and the second largest in capacity.

In any case, entrance to the Shrine has nothing to do with being Iranian or not - Muslims, of any nationality, are permitted to enter, while non-Muslim Iranians are not. When entering the mosque, you will be searched, and your lack of language abilities may become obvious here. I managed to get in at the second try cos the first time i dint have socks on so I had to go and buy a pair (I looked incredibly sexy afterward in my pink sandals and black socks, flowery cloak "chador" and black scarf...). You may be asked if you are Muslim, and it's up to you whether you want to perjure yourself or not. If you say you are not Muslim, you will be assigned a (free) guide who will escort you around the mosque compound - however, you will not be allowed to visit the shrine itself, which is a shame as it offers a fascinating insight into Shite devotions.

However, I managed to get inside the Shrine, perhaps because I look Iranian and I also told them I´m from Turkmenistan so they thought I was Muslim. Once inside, to my relief, I barely merited a glance from the thronged pilgrims, who were too busy going about their, um, pilgrimage stuff. But it was so impressive and beautiful...people were actually crying there..And I was so scared to be caught that im not Muslim and after one of the guards (Moral police) hit me with his blue stick I almost panicked until I realized he was telling me to pull my scarf down cos my hair was visible...
Imam Reza Holy Shrine

Imam Reza Holy Shrine
And something im really proud of: my last day in Iran I managed to cross a big street by myself, without waiting for other people and being really brave!

At Mashhad´s bazaar

My host was Rana - an incredible Iranian girl, an English teacher in the University in Mashad. She wasn´t  as nice as the other Iranians I´ve met (cos sometimes they are way too nice) which made her even more real. Sober-minded and down to earth, but a rebel by hearts, Rana was so not meant to be born in Iran...too many rules and taboos for her free thinking soul. Even though she loves her country and its people, I don´t see her staying for much longer there. She told me a lot of stories about going to jail and dealing with police when caught out with her boyfriend (just being in the same car for example), because they are not married. 
We had really late girly and not that girly talks in the dark in her room analyzing our lives...and I definitely wanna stay in touch with her. She was also really helpful with all the hassle I had to go through on my way to Turkmenistan...and not only :)
Happy happy Rana
Rana & me
Locutorio :)
My new and last outfit


  1. Leni so far my favourite story and absolutely beautiful photos. Last outfit looks fabulous on you!:)

  2. I loved my part :D and I'm in Australia now! Your predictions ;)

    1. Im really happy for you Rana, shame you arrived a bit too late in Melbourne

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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