Turkey and Iran

It has been our dream for some time now, to experience the Middle Eastern, especially Persian, culture. Our first destination was Istanbul, this is where our journey begun. Istanbul is a place where Europe and Asia meets, city of officially 15 million, in reality – much more inhabitants. Istanbul has a rich culture, beautiful architecture, including some of world’s most beautiful mosques, and very well preserved historical centre. This was the first place we encountered Islam and its customs. Although, the official religion in Turkey is Islam, the country seems to be much more liberal and tolerant than other Islamic countries. But the more you go east, the more religious it gets. It was surprising, how well, for example, Turkish merchant or taxi driver could spot a tourist from quite a far distance and try to offer his service in such an aggressive way. Later we realised, that none of this works as in Europe, and this is just how the things are in Middle East.

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Our 3 days in Istanbul passed very quick, so quick that we are sure – we’ll come back one day. But it was time to move on. We took a night bus to one of world’s natural phenomenon – a region in central Turkey called Cappadocia. Goreme is a town in Cappadocia, situated between rock formations famous for this region. It has approximately 2,500 inhabitants and nearly a half of them lives in caves and rocks. Goreme has a very special feeling, once we arrived, we immediately climbed one of the tops of the valley to get a view and an idea of the place we were. Calling for prayers from minarets, mixed with cold and arid wind and spectacular view over the area, will be something we will never forget. Life is hard here, locals make their living mainly out of tourism, since good soil for farming is scarce, but the landscape is something out of the ordinary. There are a lot of potteries, clay mines, and goat and camel farmers. Surprisingly many houses and cave houses have solar panels, which is a reminder of 21st century’s achievements. Land is dry, but thanks to the mountains, there are few rivers that support life here over 2,000 years.
After our stay in Goreme and enjoying the spectacular nature we headed to Turkeys capital and business centre – Ankara. Our stay was very short there, and we don’t regret that. We were happy to jump in Trans Asia train all the way to Tehran. The train was “once in a lifetime” experience. Why? Because we would not do it again. Simply takes too much time. But it was certainly worth it. In the train we met some Iranian people. As soon as we started talking to them, we understood the stories about Iranian hospitality. After 10 minutes of chatting, we were already invited to their houses and they offered to take us on tour.

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After 63 hours in Trans Asia train, exhausted, with 10 hours delay, we finally reached Tehran in late night. It is a city of 15 million, some say it’s much more. Our first experience in Tehran was not so pleasant, but keep in mind, Tehran is very different from the rest of Iran. As we arrived so late, we didn’t want to bother our host, so we decided to stay in a hotel. A taxi to hotel was something we never experienced before. The driver would not take us to our hotel; instead he would drive around other hotels and force us to stay there. And instead of 7 dollars for a ride, which was our first deal, he asked for 25. In the end we got away with paying 8 dollars. He would grab our hand and not let us go, until we give him the last dollar. After this incident, next day was not much better. Tehran is extremely polluted, loud and overcrowded. We wanted to do some sightseeing, but after few hours we were tired of crazy traffic and everybody staring at us.
But we must say, our Tehran saviour was our amazing hosts, Hossein and Phaezeh, very hospitable, kind and educated couple. We had some long and interesting discussions about Islam, how it is seen by the West, and why there are so many misconceptions.

The rest of our days we spent wandering around the streets of Tehran, observing and getting used to the country and its customs. After 3 days in Tehran we decided to leave and see the rest of the country. Our first stop was Isfahan. Isfahan – beautiful, peaceful, ancient and modern at the same time, home city for a famous healer and first surgeon Ibn Sina, city of many universities and much more. We spent in Isfahan two days on our way south and three days on our way back up north. We stayed with family from Couchsurfing, which was, surprisingly at first, not muslim. It was quite refreshing. Even though we enjoyed talking to strongly religious people, and they helped us to understand Islam, its customs and traditions more than any book beside Koran could, but at the same time, their restrictions, rules, different rights for men and women can take some of your energy away. Zahra, Abbas and their son Kiyan would like to leave the country and move to Canada or some other Western country.

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Thanks to our hosts, we visited main sights in the city, such as the beautiful Shah Mosque, Naghsh-I Jahan square, ancient Jameh mosque, bridges over Zayanderud river, Chechel Sotoun palace and many more. After Isfahan we were much more positive and we were looking forward to see more of the country. We headed into desert lands and our next stop was the famous desert pearl – Yazd.
Yazd became the city we enjoyed the most. It was not because of its stunning architecture, universities, or people, but because of the calm and relaxed atmosphere. We stayed in old town over the Christmas time. Build out of clay, mud and bricks, with small narrow streets, bazaars on every corner, and callings from the minarets and surrounded by Dasht-E Lut desert from one side and Dasht-E Kavir from other, this city stayed in our minds as a symbol of Persia and its culture. City itself is a home to almost 900,000 people. You can find a lot of ancient places around city, that belongs to ancient Zoroastrianism religion, like Atashkadeh (fire temple with fire burning constantly since 470 AD), Dakmeh (Towers of silence – a burial site for Zoroastrians, where they left their bodies to decompose and to be consumed by nature), and Chak chak (some 100km from Yazd, the holiest of all mountain shrines, where thousands of pilgrims from all around world gather every June).
One day we decided to go for a day trip to the city of Kharanaq. It is a beautiful and very ancient town that lies not so far from Yazd. It is near the sand dunes, which are consuming everything in their path, but still protected by hills. Kharanaq is a very special place to visit. It is a ghost town. City itself was built thousand years ago; it became very prosperous as a trading centre on Silk Road, until 1950’s when it’s last inhabitants packed their valuables and simply left. Nowadays, you can find maybe 10 last settlers, hoping to survive summer and in winter saving up water and farming. We were exploring ruins of this city for a few hours, some parts, cannot be even called ruins, because the buildings are still good but due to a change of climate, it is impossible to live there anymore. This was one of the strongest reminders of what can a climate change create, and how it looks, when people have no other choice, than to pick up their children and leave.

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After Yazd we decided to take a step outside of the classical tourist path and visit 2 smaller villages in the desert. First we visited a village of Fahraj. It has not more than 2000 inhabitants and its home of the oldest Mosque in Iran. There was just one small guesthouse in the village, so we stayed there. We spend most of our time with guest house worker Sharjah. He took us for a trip to Bafgh, city famous for its desert and huge sand dunes. Not only we saw sand dunes, but we also got a free camel ride offered by local camel farmer. Later we got invited for traditional lunch at his house. A quite funny thing is that, whenever we got invited to a house of somebody, suddenly a lot more other people – neighbours, friends and other family members arrived. So it happened this time too.

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After few days in desert villages we headed back to a big city – Shiraz. Shiraz is very modern city with few of the major Iranian universities, which means there are a lot of young Iranians living there. The city has many sights, spectacular bazaar and the weather is very warm. We spent 4 days there, and although we were advised to go there by many Iranians, it was not our favourite city. The main streets are filled with many western fast food places and, in our opinion, it is more of a place to spend money on shopping and restaurants than a place to go for a cultural experience. As we later figured, all these attempts to copy western society is kind of movement against political and religious system. On our way back north to Tehran, we managed to spare 1 day and visit Kashan. We named it the city of Mosques. Nobody knows how many people lives there precisely, but it is somewhere around 300,000, and there are over 750 mosques. It is quite a lot for a city of this size. Urbanization in Iran is very strong, since life in villages lacks all sorts of services, sanitation, or almost anything else. Most of the inhabitants come from villages around Kashan. We stayed in Kashan only one night, with a very friendly and “extremely hospitable” family. Their only son was studying at the university engineering and spoke a little bit of English, at least enough to show us the city and exchange information with us.

Very often we found out that people are living under constant threat from the government, even for simple things. This family for example had a satellite TV connection, which is, of course, illegal in Iran. If they would be caught, family would face a court, and most probably, end up in jail. Being a middle class family, where mother takes care of the house, only son studies at university, and father brings the money to the house, they were doing quite well. As an electrician, he is able to earn up to 800 USD a month, which is a lot, but they have to pay their debts as well as the others. Their uncle earns around 300 USD, leaving him and his wife with a baby with almost nothing left at the end of every month.

After we headed back north towards noisy Tehran to catch our flight to Dubai. We decided to stay 4 days in Dubai, as we had a connecting flight to Kathmandu and we met with Sona, Veronika and Oskars. The city is a big financial centre with dozens of skyscrapers and even the tallest building in the world. As we found out, the only entertainment for locals is to go to the shopping malls, and it is one of the main tourist attractions. Even though, we were not so much interested in what the city could offer, it was definitely an experience. It is always good to see contrasts, makes it easier to evaluate. The stay in Dubai was very relaxing after being in centre of attention in Iran for the last 3 weeks. The city is very multi cultural and we felt free, as nobody was paying attention to us.

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We couchsurfed in Dubai. Our host was Indian, so we took a chance and get some more tips for India. This month for us has been very rich and colourful; we have learned and realized a lot. There are so many misconceptions in the West about Middle East, especially Iran. We are looking forward to bring this message to public, as we have promised it to our Iranian friends. We hope that one day Iranians will be more secure and proud of their country, and we hope that one day people of Iran will be able to speak, act and just simply be free.

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