I saw the Sea, and now I’m leaving Iran

Yesterday was a really looong day. We were on the bus at 7:30, for what turned out to be a 12 hour saga, culminating at the Caspian Sea. For reasons unknown, the official itinerary for the trip says that the travel time from Tehran is about 4 1/2 hours. With the best of luck, the route we took is at least 7 hours, not including stops! and we did stop.

For the first few hours, we were in the Tehran vicinity, passing through industrial areas, suburbs and very little of interest. BRown and gray were the only colors out there.

IN the city of Rahst, we stopped for lunch. Soufie prepped us by telling us that this place specializes in fried Caspian white carp, and suggested that we try it. He did warn that it has lots of bones. Most of us agreed to go with the carp, though a few held out for lamb or chicken. What arrived first was plates mounded high with the most aromatic rice I’ve ever tasted. It was lightly smoked during the drying process, which gives it a most unusual and wonderful flavor. I really wanted to bring some home, but alas, it was not to be.

After lunch we drove up into the mountains, where the landscape changed so dramatically it was hard to belive we were still in Iran.OUr destination was the small village of Masouleh, reputed to be very charming and old fashioned with interesting buildings. It was more than 60 km from Rahst, and it took more than an hour to get there. We passed many many rice paddies, which was a surprise to most of us. Iran certainly eats lots of rice, but we didn’t know they grow it here. The country we had seen we so arid it was impossible to imagine rice growing. It seems to be in small, family farms, with women doing most of the work planting the seedlings.Folks who had been to asia reported that it looked pretty much like China. Then there were tea “farms”, with rows of intense green tea bushes spreading out into the distance. We saw some tea being harvested, by hand,into what looked like burlap sacks. I saw more of those same sacks in a couple of small towns, on the backs of donkeys, heading to sell them, I supposed.

As we drove higher up the mountain, the weather grew colder and wetter. By the time we arrived at Masouleh, it was 4pm and raining steadily. We all sat on the bus and wondered what to do. We got out, stood around and realized that it would take at least an hour just to walk to the intresting part of the village, and back again, and it was raining . I ended up talking to a small group of 15 yr old girls, as usual, handing out some post cards, and eliciting smiles and waves. We all retreated to the bus, and agreed to skip the hike in the rain, and drive back down the mountain and on to the sea. If we wanted to see the Sea before dark, we had to hustle. Our poor driver, after negotiating the narrow winding road, had to turn around and do it again!

We did reach the Sea before dark. It’s not really all that exciting. Flat, not much different from one of the Great Lakes. We continued on to our hotel, expecting the fun of staying in a 1930’s era hotel which is a bit run down, but still “princely” according to Denise who had stayed there a few years ago.

It was quite a drive along the shore of the Sea, through many small villages, to Ramsar. By the time we arrived, it was 8pm. We got off the bus, gathering our small over night bags and waited for our room keys.Much to our dismay, the old nice part of the hotel was closed,only the ugly 1960’s vintage gigantic mess of a hotel was open. Very unhappy, we proceeded to our rooms and then to a poor dinner in the hotel dining room. This place should go down in the record book of bad hotel design. To get to the elevator, there is a flight of steep stairs. Then, the elevator does not stop at the floor with the restaurant, one must either walk up or down a flight. The place was nearly empty, and the hallways smelled odd, like some sort of disenfectant or maybe mold? We grumbled our way back to our rooms.

In the morning, at breakfast, everyone remarked that much to their surprise, they had slept really well! Mysteries abound. After breakfast, we went to the actual water, took some photos, one or two people insisted on taking off their shoes and wetting their feet. It’s really not all that much. Back on the bus, heading to Tehran.We did stop at the Shah’s Caspian sea palace, not bad. A little boy, around 6, smiled at me, so I gave him a post card. He then followed me around for the next 20 min, trying to tell me something! he was very cute!

The countryside up there is really lush, green fertile. The road back wound through very steep mountains, back and forth. There is a new highway being built, and the construction of it makes me think of the 3 Gorges Dam project in China.The terrain they are working in is really difficult, the amount of earth being moved is phenomenal. I can only imagine how long it will take to finish. We had lunch in a restaurant , outside, looking over the deep gorge, with a river racing at the bottom, draining from the snow and ice just slightly above us.

We arrived back in Tehran at about 6pm, just time to write this last entry, shower and repack. I have three long flights ahead of me tomorrow, starting with the Tehran – Frankfurt flight at 3:30 am! We leave for the airport at 11:30, after our “good -bye” dinner. Then it’s Frankfurt-NY, then NY-San Francisco. I expect to be home Monday evening, exhausted beyond words. It’s been a great experience, both intellectual and emotional, and I’m so glad to have been able to come here.


Published in: on May 4, 2008 at 2:35 pm  Comments (3)  

On the road to Tehran

We left Isfahan with a bit of sadness, most of us wishing we had at least one more day. It’s such a lovely place, and we explored only a part of it.

The drive to Tehran was an all day affair, with stops. Our first stop was a tiny mountain village, Abanaya. It sounded so quaint in the Lonely Planet guide, and in our itinerary from Distant Horizons. Turns out it is a major tourist destination for Iranians. As we arrived in our big blue bus, we noted 4 o5 five other tour buses parked in the town’s only car park. We walked up and down the town’s only road, some stone paved areas, mostly dirt and stones. Women wearing white clothes strewn with bright red and pink flowers were sitting on the edges of the “tourist walk” hawking all sorts of stuff. A fast moving stream flowed alongside the walk way, and a group of art students from Shiraz were sketching the rustic buildings along the water. I did not find it all that charming, but then a young man came up and said hello, holding the hand of an elderly lady. His name was Eshan, and he was from Hamadan and wanted to talk with an American. He introduced himself and his grandmother, and told me that he was in computers. Turns out he graduated with a degree in “IT” as he said, and earned a Microsoft certificate in Systems Analysis, and is also an inventor of some kind. Between the language difficulty and the crush of people, and my need to some what keep up with my group, I don’t think I really heard all that he had to say. He was very sweet and continued to walk along with me for quite a while, towing the grandmother along. I gave him both a San Francisco pencil and a post card, and wrote my email address on the card. I would enjoy exchanging notes with him, he is 26 and very sincere, and wants to come to the US to work in the computer business. Any offers?

We got back on the bus and headed north again. We passed through Natanz, where the Iranian nuclear industry is headquarterd, according to one of our group. The military presence was more pronounced there, and we were cautious about taking photos out of the bus.

While Abanya was pretty high up in the mountains, and there were green trees all around, the rest of the area was almost unrelieveably gray and brown. Mountains have a very rough, jagged look with very little vegetation visible from the roads. It seems like we will be on the road forever.

Around 1:30 we pulled off the road into a small hotel/restaurant in the city of Kashan. Kashan has a reputation for being a lovely city, but I didn’t see anything particularly lovely. Perhaps we just didn’t get there. On the other hand, we did see many people, families and single folks, lying on carpet covered raised platforms, right next to the sidewalk in some cases, in sort of “rest areas” with tent coverings in other places. It seems like a tradition in many areas to take an afternoon rest, outdoors, in public, where you can chat with people. I thought it looked absolutely wonderful. After lunch, we headed to the famous “Fin Gardens” for a brief visit. On the walk from the bus to the entrance, I passed a whole platform covered with hrose petals. The scent was like the lovliest perfume, light and sweet and lingering. I was just astonished by the lavishness of it all, and took several photos, not capturing the scent of course!

I entered the gardens, nice but not as transporting as those in Kerman. I chose to sit on a bench in the shade and people watch. Naturally, I was the one watched. After a while, and older woman with her daughter walked past, stopped and walked back, and the woman sat down next to me. She smiled, I smiled, and she asked “Where from?”. “America” I answered, to her big smile. We talked for a bit, her daugher(18) helped to translate. She asked about our politics, being very clear that she did not like her government one bit. “Clinton,Obama, Maccain, all good , yes?” she said. NO I answered. “Clinton and Obama are good, Mc Cain is just like Bush, more war” She nodded. One more convert to the Democratic side, some day! I gave her daugher a pencil and her a post card, and headed back to the bus.

I was walking towards the bus, when I remembered that there was rose jam to buy, next to the rose petals, so I made a detour. I heard my name, and looked around. It was Eshan, from earlier in the day in the tourist village. He was happy to see me again, and wanted to introduce me to his parents. I really had to go or the group would be angry, so I begged off. Small country sometimes.

We spent another few hours on the bus,and then Soufi asked if we wanted to make a stop for coffee or tea, and bathrooms. Naturally we all agreed.

Not far from the highway ( a big 6 land divided highway) was a rest area, with restaurants, bathrooms and shops. Honestly, if you changed the lettering on the signs, it could be a rest area on the Illinois Tollway! Fast food, junk sales, lots of young people on their way somewhere. We took over a small coffee place in one corner of the building, ordering coffee, tea, ice cream. I had a “beer” since I was mostly thirsty, and hot. It was fascinating to observe the teen agers, acting like teenagers everywhere, shoving and yelling and being obnoxious. What a view into the life of average folks, or at least those who live in the more urbanized areas and have cars and some discretionary cash. Not average Iranians, really.

As we neared Tehran, traffic increased and slowed down. We stopped a bit of distance from the Imam Khomeni Mausoleum complex, but Soofi did not want to really make a stop there. A few people, not me, persuaded him to go into the complex and let them visit the interior of the place. I decided to stay back, I was tired and had seen sooo many mosques, mausoleums, etc. The complex looks like Disneyland gone Islamic. Huge minarets, with neon lights all around, gigantic dome,with another under construction looking like a line drawing of a dome, only the metal work was finished. Families were picknicking on the ground in the parking lot, families were camping out in the parking lot too. The car and bus exhaust was so bad my throat was closing, so I held my cotton scard over my nose and mouth to breathe through. I couldn’t imagine sitting around there for hours, eating!

When the folks who had gone in came back, I naturally wished I had gone too. They said that some young women were weeping at the tomb, while others were more interested in taking picture of and with the Americans. The site is becoming a sort of outing place. Soofi is disgusted with the carnival atmosphere and says that the Ayatollah Khomeni would never have approved of the place, and he won’t go in. I understand how he feels, but many people like to pay homage to the man who changed Iran so thoroughly in 1979.

We finally reached our hotel in Tehran at about 8:30pm. This time I have a nice room, with airconditioning that sort of works, and a view out over a park and the city from the 10th floor. We are all clustered on one floor in the hotel, which makes things easier for everyone. Dinner was quite late, for those of us who had dinner. Some people had eaten quite a lot of ice cream at the afternoon rest stop, and were not hungry. I had eaten very little, and was starving!

I did sleep well last night.

Today we toured the two palaces of the Palavhi Shahs in the north of Tehran. In the Green Palace, so called because of it’s greenish marble facade, the most outstanding room was a reception room done all in mirrors. When I say all in mirrors, I really mean it! Walls and ceiling were totally covered in a mirror mosaic! Gaudy doesn’t begin to convey the look. The persian carpet on the floor was a rich dark one with a small pattern, nicely grounding the room. I can’t imagine how it would feel to sit in that room so much reflecting light would be crazy!

As you can imagine, it was all a bit too much, like too much candy, and I welcomed the cool moist air outside, and the tall green trees all around. The palaces are in a huge park with running water trees and flowers everywhere. Lots of Tehrani’s take advantage of the outdoors there on Friday, the sabbath. Tehran seems quiet today, like Sunday’s used to be in the US years ago before Kmart and everything else decided to be open all the time. It’s really nice that nearly all the stores are closed, a few restaurants are open, and most of the museums. People really do have a rest from the daily grind.

We visited a few more museums after lunch, then headed back to the hotel.I have to repack. We are leaving early in the morning, 7:30, and are to take only an overnight bag. The rest will be checked in the hotel for our return the next night. I’ve got to go and get organized. We have only a few more days. Tomorrow and the next day we are along the Caspian sea, then home!


Published in: on May 2, 2008 at 5:36 pm  Comments (2)  

Isfahan, shoppers paradise

We started our second and last day in Isfahan at the “new” Friday mosque. New in this case is 16-17th Centuries. The mosque sits at one end of the enormous Maidan Square, one of the largest public squares in the world. It is lined with arcades of shops, two mosques and a palace. The green grassy areas are well used by local people, and there are horse-drawn carriages making the circuit all day and into the evening. The sound of the harnesses jingling is a cheerful note, adding to the geneally festive feel in the area. Children run around, couples eat ice cream, eveyone seems to be enjoying themselves here.

The mosque is most impressive, as they all are. I’m not going to go into detail here, I’ll add photos when I return. My enthusiasm for mosques is focused on the continually creative and inspiring tile patterns in the structures. The color palette changes with the centuries, moving from mostly blue and white to blue and yellow, to reds,pinks and yellows. The patterns change,but continue to include calligraphic elements. Allah, Ali, Mohammed are woven into brick work, tiles, wooden grillwork, everywhere. While there are no actual human images in the tile, the variations of writing the important names in Islam constantly remind the worshipper of his purpose.

Also around the square are lots and lots of shops. They sell everything from tee shirts, post cards and silly whistles, to serious miniature paintings, inlaid wood boxes and frames, and Persian carpets.One must look carefully to distinguish the good from the crude in almost every catagory. I bought a simple miniature, a drawing really not a painting, on camel bone in a simple frame. It reminded me of our guide, Soofi, in the gesture of his hand. It was only $20. Some, by really accomplished artists can be had for thousands of dollars.

The night before, I had looked at lots of carpets at three different stores. Nothing jumped out at me as something I really really wanted, and had a place for. I decided that I did not need a carpet, I had not brought enough cash for one, and that was that.

Then, on the way to meet the bus to go back to the hotel for a simple lunch, I spied some people from my group in a very small store on the Square. Soofi was with them, and I knew that the couple were serious carpet buyers. I entered the store out of curiosity, not to buy. I looked at what they were considering, and had no interest in it. Our styles are very different. Soofi explained that this dealer,who he knows well, does not bargain. He sets a fair price, and that is that. The dealer said that he could in fact take a credit card, through a friends business. That was when I saw the carpet. It was hanging high up in in the store, tied to a metal rod and hanging from hooks. In his small space, he found ways to display quite a range of carpets.

In short, I now own a lovely Korestan carpet in tones of greens, rust and some ivory. It has lots and lots of peacocks! As soon as I saw it, and loved the colors, I realized that it will look fantastic next to my bed. I’m really pleased with it and can’t wait to get it home. All in all, 4 carpets were sold that afternoon to members of our group, with prices ranging from $1100 – 9000 dollars. The carpet dealer had a very good day! I can’t say that I feel any more expert about the carpets of Iran, but I am confirmed in my preference for tribal/nomadic carpets over the more refined city carpets. Perhaps it is because of what I grew up looking at, or just my inherent feelings for the bolder shapes and colors of the less formal rugs. Knot count per centimeter bores me, the more exhuberant tribal carpets excite me.

In the evening we had dinner in a revolving restaurant on top of a different hotel. Calvin Trillin always as warned against the revolving restaurants, and generally I think he is right. In this case, the food was pretty darn good! I had fessengen, the rich,dark pomegranate, walnut and something else sauce in which chiken is cooked. It was really delicious. Watching the city of Esfahan spin around as we ate was entertaining. The views of the river were great, and the city has lots of lights on buildings at night, making a lovely panorama.

I repacked my stuff for an early departure, and hit the sack. Hit the pillow, to be precise. This country believes in pillows heavy enough to use as sand bags against flood waters! You put that pillow where you want it and there it stays, you can’t push the thing off the bed in your sleep, it’s like a barrier wall. The air conditioning didn’t work very well, so I put a chair in the door to the balcony to keep it open as well as leaving on the AC. I still tossed and turned quite a bit.

News from the US, via CNN or BBC seems to focus on extreme horrors. The Austrian incest, the Texas poligamy case, Rev. Wright, rising oil prices and falling dollars. It is so jolting to turn on the TV, yet I can’t seem to resist it.

I’m back in Tehran this evening, exhausted. I’ll write more tomorrow.


Published in: on May 1, 2008 at 7:02 pm  Comments (1)  

Isfahan the beautiful

To start, Isfahan smells wonderful. There are trees everywhere, grassy parks with fresh cut grass and lots of flowers and the general central part of the city smells like a garden. The air here is different, more humid than the rest of our Iran experience. I found that I didn’t need to drink quite as much water today. The weather is overcast, but quite warm.Pool,Esfahan

Our main guide, Soufi, is down with food poisoning. Apparently, lunch yesterday got him. We mostly had a lamb and eggplant stew over rice, and he ordered chicken kebab, usually a staple here. This one was something else. Poor Soufi! This morning he showed up at the Friday mosque, looking and sounding like someone who should be flat in his bed!

The local guide, Eshan, is a terrific substitute.Eshan in Esfahan

He is irreverant, funny and extremely honest about his opinions about just everything. From the inaccurate (in his estimation) historical references in a mosque, to politics, to literature and films he is not shy to make his opinions known. He is about 5’9″ tall, plump with very dark black hair and eyes. He says that he is Baktieri, from the nomad tribes, and that his family moved to Isfahan when he needed to start school. He studied art in university and has a lively understanding of the paintings and sculpture that we see with him.He has a wife and two young sons.

The day started with a garden, and a museum. The museum was in the garden, and featured 16th and 17 cen. fresco paintings inside, and mirror work outside in the porch area. Eshan says that the mirrors are polished stone, probably mica, that doesn’t tarnish. It does still look pretty good after 400+ years!

The interior of the building has frescos from the early 17 cent, when some European artists were invited to Persia to teach their form of painting, including the concept of perspective.The results are both wonderful and sometimes humorous. There is one painting of a lady having a meal or tea with a european gentleman, and the details include a funny hat and very curly long hair on the man, who is clearly enjoying himself. Most of the paintings are of Persian scenes, with bright colors.ceiling fresco, Esfahan

Our next stop was the Armenian neighborhood ( since the 1400’s Armenians have been here) and the main church of the community. Inside the church were murals depicting various biblical scenes, and one fabulous Last Judgement painting. The devils and the torture the poor souls were undergoing were luridly painted and very ghastly. There was a small group of teenage boys there who were giggling at all the naked flesh shown, I was in awe of the sight of someone’s intestines being uncurled from his body!

As we entered the complex, 5 girls were leaving for lunch. They stopped and talked to me and another woman, Susan, from Santa Rosa. They asked the usual identification questions, where are we from, how do we like Iran. Then one woman asked If I liked Bush, I said no. How about Ms. Rice? Also no. I repeated my phrase that most people in the US now do not like Bush. She then asked what do the American people know about Iran? Very little I had to tell her. Our media covers only the government, nothing at all about the people, which is very sad. I hope to find some way to encourage more information about what Iran is really like to be on the media, any ideas are very welcome. I added that in America, I can disagree as publicly as I want with my government and nothing will happen to me. That is something that sets us apart from Iran where dissent has very strict limits. One can complain about government inefficiencies, but not about the officials.Bridge in Esfahan

Our lunch spot was just a short walk away. Most of us ate from the salad bar, intending a lighter lunch than our usual. But, one look at the dessert bar, and we all lost our good intentions! Desserts here are nearly always creme caramel, jello or ice cream. The array here included layer cake, mousses, puff pastries with chocolate sauce, and much more. We all indulged, and waddled out!

A nice nap would have been very welcomed by the group, instead we went to the “old Friday mosque”. This is a complex of buildings dating from the 10t Cent to the 16th Century. It features gorgeous ancient brickwork, carved stucco and tile work.9th Century brick,Esfahan

Eshan talked to us about the Persian influence on Islam, and on the architecture of mosques in Iran as opposed to in Arab countries. He argues that the Arab mosque is very simple, with one entrance and few attached buildings, one minaret. Persian mosques have multiple “porches”, two minarets and a much more complex architecture. He attributes all of this to the Persian ability to appear to acquiese to the invading culture, but to actually subvert it into something that reflects the underlying Persian culture. It’s a complex argument which he illustrated with the model of the mosque and lots of arm waving. He may be right.ceiling tiles,esfahan

Whether the Persian culture will be strong enough to throw off the current rulers and open up more to the West, and inevitably to American culture, and still retain their core values is an open question.

Some of us then accompanied Eshan to a carpet store in a mall of sorts across the street from the hotel. We were treated to tea and a short illustrated lecture on Persian carpets. After looking around a while, Denise asked if I wanted to go with her to another store where she has bought carpets before. I had decided not to buy a carpet here, I don’t really need anything, etc. but I went along with her and 3 others.

Her store was in the complex around the Maidan, the huge public square with mosques and a palace on each of it’s 4 sides. We dashed in, due back at the hotel by 8 for her to lecture to the group about carpets. I looked a quite a few, saw one or two I liked, but not enough to buy. I went home resolved that I did not need a carpet.

After dinner it was laundry time, and I was exhausted. This city is full of surprises and many opportunities to spend your money. Despite the lack of American tourists, the Italian, Germans and others are filling in the shops pretty well. I have done my part to help the Iranian economy


Published in: on April 30, 2008 at 11:07 am  Comments (2)  


I was just too tired yesterday to deal with the internet. But, it was a great day all in all. We left early, 7:30 from Shiraz heading for Persepolis. Two women in the group had decided to leave earlier, and took a taxi at 6:60am in order to be there when the gate opened. They had some time to wander on their own, and were happy to have done it. I’m fine with seeing it as long as I did. A person could, however, go there many many times over many many years and not understand it all.Persepolis gate

Unlike Pompei, and unlike Leptis Magna ( in Libya), Persepolis’s purpose is less well understood. It might have been one of several places where the king held court. It might have been other things. What it is, however, is dramatic. Built between 655-600BC, more or less, it pre-dates the ancient Greek cities by at least 200 years. The symbols of Persepolis, the Man-headed Winged Bull,Horse pillar

similar to the Assyrians, and the sort of Ram headed beast, two heads on one body, are very powerful images of strength and power.There is also a repeated image of a lion eating the hind end of a bull. Apparently that symbolizes the Persian New Year, with the lion representing the new year the the bull the old year. Which leads to an interpretation that the place was built to celebrate the new year, could be.

The site is on a huge raised platform, approached by a double staircase of 110 steps on each side. You can go up either way. It’s a lot of shallow steps.Then you walk through a “gate” or what was in theory a gate with those amazing winged man-headed bull creatures on either side in bas-relief. There is so much sculpture, most in low relief, it is awe inspiring to imagine the time spent in creating it all. As Denise, our lecturer pointed out to us, there are several versions of “King on High” as she calls it. \"king on high\" carving

These picture the King, Cyrus the Great, initial builder of the place, on his throne with attendants. Below him are two layers of men, representing the various “countries” that Cyrus’s army has conquered. They are individualized by different beards, clothing, hats, shoes and sometimes mustaches. The platform has legs, and the legs are shown not touching the ground. The men are holding the King up in honor of his power over them, it’s pretty amazing to see. There was just so much to see, and it kept getting hotter and hotter. From the platform, in-between columns with different kinds of capitals, you can see mountains. All around the area are green fields of wheat. In the very old time, there must have been similiar fields in order to feed the thousands of people who must have come to see the king.

It was all quite wonderful, and I have lots and lots of pictures. We stopped to see the tombs of several kings quite nearby, each of which has wonderful carvings below them.Kings tomb, PersepolisCarvings on Tomb

Then it was lunch time and we ate outdoors and had a lovely time. The bus ride to Isfahan loomed ahead, 6 hours. We all survived, some nap time, some talking time, some reading time. We stopped once to use toilets at a middle of absolutely nowhere small hotel/restaurant. It was clean and fine, even if all the toilets were the squat sort.Outside of hotel rooms, and occasional others, most toilets here are the squat variety. they can be surprisingly OK, if well ventilated, some even have a flush mechanism. I”m getting used to it, although I do prefer “european ” style faciilities!

We arrived pretty bedraggled at the ultra-elegant Abbansi Hotel in Isfahan. We staggered to our rooms, and had a pretty poor dinner in the main dining room. My room was pretty icky, like a 60’s motel. Turns out 3 of us got stuck in the “new wing”, but were moved later today in to the big main building. I”m on the top floor, in a still modernish room, but I have a patio looking across the street, more space and a much more convenient location.

I’m going to do today separately, in case I run out of time on this computer in the hotel. One has to buy a certain amount of time, and it’s hard to tell when it will stop!


Published in: on April 29, 2008 at 5:59 pm  Leave a Comment  


After our change of plans yesterday, we had the whole day here in Shiraz. As in most of the cities we have visited, with the exception of Tehran, mountains form the backdrop of Shiraz. There actually are mountains quite near Tehran, but the smog is so bad that they are barely visible. Here, right out of my hotel room window, I see the edge of the city with barren hills rising up in receding layers of shades of brown.

Shiraz is a big city compared to Yazd, it has about 1 million people. There is the very old center, and the rest. We are mostly interested in the center. Our day began in aGarden Palace in Shiraz garden.I’m starting to think that a garden, with water, trees and flowers may be the true symbol of this country. The actual garden, or the yearning for a garden as expressed in so much of Persian poetry ,seems to represent the connection with nature and the recognition of the importance of nature in man’s soul. The planning of gardens represents also a commitment to the future, since much of what a gardener does is not for immediate enjoyment. There is a house in the garden we saw this morning, covered with tile murals of images from mythology (persian) and of flowers. Shiraz is known for floral imagery in carpets as well as tilework.

Denise, the lecturer on this trip, asked me if I wanted to make a wish. I said yes, of course, and she led me to a very tall cypress tree. We each touched it, and she said that the last time she was here she had wished to return, and here she is! I’ll wait and see if my wish comes true, and no, I won’t tell what it is!

Our next stop was a walk through the “nomad’s bazaar”, a smaller area than the mainShiraz Bazaar bazaar and catering to the shopping needs of the nomadic tribes in the area. We saw a few nomadic women and children. The difference seems to be that they really like gaudy fabrics. Gold stuff, bright colors, netting all seem to please the nomadic crowd. I got some really good pics of people and the stuff too.Banana vendor in Shiraz bazaar

Then we walked to the “Friday mosque”, or congregational mosque where on Fridays, the holy day of Islam, an important preacher gives a sermon. They are in every city, along with many other mosques, and are usually the most elaborate.

This one was in several parts. At first, we saw an area mostly from the 19th Cent. with tilework full of pink peonies and roses, and with little lozenge shaped paintings of what look like English cottages and churches. Not my favorite style.

From there we walked further into the complex and saw a large open square with arches all around, a huge egg shaped dome and several minarets, and on another side, another large dome with a different pattern of ornamentation. We were on ly allowed to stand in one corner to take photos, since we are not muslim and we were stared at quite a lot!

In another courtyard was a 13th century structure, square, with lovely white marble columns all around. It’s original purpose is unclear but it is simple and clean and lovely.Shiraz,Friday mosque

Finally, we got to the main bazaar. Wow, what a place. The buildings are varied, some wooden roofs, some high brick domes with skylights. At one end is an old caravanserai with shops all round on the ground floor , and a pool and trees in the center providing shade and a cool feeling despite the heat of the sun.Main Bazaar ShirazCaravanseri courtyard,Shiraz Bazaar

I asked our local guide, Ameen, a young man of 22 studying economics at the university, where I could buy some old silver jewelry. He took me to a friend’s stall, where I bought a couple of small inlaid boxes, and then he took us to another shop, out in the courtyard. There I found two really old, really dusty silver ( I hope) chains with amulets hanging from them. I also bought a really odd, small thing. It is horseshoe shaped, copper and maybe zinc, with a pattern of tiny holes hammered into it. I’ts only about 1 1/2″s across. The storekeeper said it was pre-Islamic. I showed it to Denise, but she said it was unfamiliar to her. Whatever it is,it is lovely and I’ll enjoy having it. The shopkeeper was a charming man, wearing a grey fez style hat and several necklaces of different stones. He spoke excellent english. In the shop at the same time was a young iranian-american woman. She said that he was quoting her the same prices as he was giving me, and that she thinks he is honest. That helped me to go ahead and buy a few things from him. I enjoyed the experience and felt satisfied.

Our lunch was one of the best meals we have enjoyed. It was in a Sufi-style restaurant. I’m still not sure what that means, but the food was good. Especially fun was the bread baker you walked past as you entered the place. He was rolling out small rounds of dough and baking them in a wood burning oven. The bread was fantastic, and we all ate too much. It was flat and crisp and sometimes charred. Yum! I had a special dish of layers of rice with chicken in between. The rice was cooked with lots of butter, and browned on both top and bottom forming a crispy crust. It was good, but rich and heavy. I didn’t finish even half, unusual for me!

After lunch we went to a small museum in a garden. It was hot inside, and I thought I’d go and sit in the garden for a few minutes, perhaps draw a bit. No such luck. I was mobbed by 10 yr old girls saying hello, over and over and over! I felt trapped on the bench by 20+ girls all yelling at once! I had to say goodbye! I left shortly after that with another woman from the group in a taxi and spent a quiet couple of hours in the cool.

Tomorrow, we are leaving at 7:30 to get to Persepolis before it is too hot, and so that we can arrive in Esfahan at a reasonable hour. I hope to get a good nights sleep.

I see that Obama is pushing on, that’s good. Politics seems far away most of the time, except on the bus. This hotel has no english language channels, very surprising. In a way I prefer it, it keeps me more “in country”.


Published in: on April 27, 2008 at 3:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Yazd to Shiraz

Yazd Fire TempleOur travels today started with more Zoroastrians in Yazd. Who knew that there were so many fire temples? This one was right in town, and much larger with it ‘s own lovely garden and pool. It is behind a high wall which removes it from the busy street scene. The building dates from 1937, but the fire has been going since 1450 or something like that. It is a bit more organized than the homey little fire temple we saw yesteday. This too was built with money from the Parsi’s of India, they are quite generous it seems.

We hung around a while, then decided to take a group photo on the steps of the temple, with the Zoroastrian symbol of a winged man on the front. There was a group of high school age girls there, in green tunics hearing a lecture on zoroastrianism and laughing with a group of German tourists.They were much more controlled than the somewhat younger girls we have been encountering.Girls on steps of Temple,Yazd Why are the girls so much more likely to approach us? I’m not sure. Perhaps it is because some of us women and in the habit of smiling at the girls we meet, or perhaps we are less threatening than men, and young women are more willing to approach us. Boys do talk to us, but much less than girls. I’ll try and understand the difference. We have left the smaller towns and will be spending most of the rest of the trip in the larger cities, and that may make a difference too. I’ll report what I see!

We made another stop, this time at a house that was undergoing restoration, on theWindow in restored house,Yazd outskirts of Yazd. As I got off the bus, my left foot hurt, not where it was bothering me earlier on the trip,on the top. This time it is just below the ankle bone, maybe a bit in front. It hurts when I walk, not a good thing for me. I”m hoping that I can get some ice tonight, and take more ibuprofen. I’ll still keep going, but I’d prefer not to be in pain.Under the badgir, Yazd

The big blue bus headed towards Shiraz. The countryside was incredibly barren, with areas of green where there is irrigation. Sufi told me that before the revolution Iran bought a lot of irrigation technology from Israel, now they have copied the process and make t he parts here.

We drove for several hours, going gradually higher. On the side of the road I spotted a familiar building shape, a caravanseri! It was not in as good shape as the one we saw the other day, but still there is was. And about 20 min later, another one. They were built about 25 miles apart, and some remain in place giving the highway we were speeding along in a huge bus the context of ancient history. 500 years ago, and more, people were travelling by camel along the same path between Yazd and Shiraz. I find that humbling.

We stopped to pee once, then stopped for lunch at a hotel. Another lunch of chicken or lamb kebab and rice. Good soup this time, though.

Our goal was Pasargadae, the tomb of Cyrus the GreatCyrus the Great\'s tomb,Pasargadae and also the remains of several palaces perhaps built by him, perhaps by his son or grandson. They all date from around 650 -600 BC. There was a bas relief carving, perhaps of Cyrus that was stunningly beautiful. It showed a man with an Egyptian style headress, and wings, and was about 5 feet tall. Fish carvingIt had formed part of a gate to the complex. The afternoon was really hot, so I sought out whatever shade was there when I could. I am drinking lots of water! Sufi and Denise, the lecturer, debated a bit over the interpretation of some other carvings that show a human’s foot with a big fish on one side and the legs(and balls) of a bull on the facing panel. What does the fish mean? is it really a bull or some other mythological creature? How will we ever know? I can’t say that I care, really. I enjoy seeing the things, and understanding the context, but I’ll leave the rest to the academics.man with headress at Pasargade

Now it was the long ride, another 2+ hours into Shiraz. One of the group decided to propose a change of itinerary. Rather than drive out from Shiraz again tomorrow to Persepolis, then the next day spend the morning in Shiraz and fly to Isfahan while the bus is driven there, suppose we spend all day tomorrow in Shiraz, then get up early, go to Persepolis, then on to Isfahan on the bus? We all voted and decided to make the change after conferring with Sufi and Leo that it was all right. So, democracy prevails in Iran after all!

We arrived at our hotel around 8pm. I washed my face and returned downstairs to dinner in the main dining room. Again, the salad buffet, again the long table seating 20, again rice and grilled stuff. This time I had grilled shrimp, not bad. But lord, the music! There was a violin player with an electronic piano set to a thumping bass and awful sound effects. Along with the ghastly lighting and the fact that I sat across from this really peculiar couple from Florida, I have had enough with the hotel dining rooms for a while. Tomorrow evening, I’m going to round up another person or two and head out to some alternative place. I must see what this country is like when I”m not a part of a group of 20.

Mostly the travel part is OK, I can’t imagine negotiating all of this by myself, the language alone is really daunting. But I”m becoming a bit claustrophobic.

I have a nice room, with a view of Shiraz and a big bed. I”m looking forward to a good nights sleep, and much less time on a bus tomorrow!

I can’t post photos, since I didn’t bring my computer. When I get back, I’ll add photos in the appropriate posts. I haven’t really looked at them myself yet, I’m trying not to use up my batteries that way.I did bring extra special long life batteries and an extra memory card.

Thanks to everyone who responds to either the blog or the new email address karenslateriran@yahoo.com. I enjoy hearing from you.


Published in: on April 26, 2008 at 5:44 pm  Comments (1)  

There really are Zoroastrians, and other Yazd stories

Friday Mosque, YazdFirst thing this morning we visited the Friday mosque in the old city of Yazd. Since it was Friday, most stores are closed for the Moslem sabbath, but the mosques do a brisk business in worshipers. Our always entertaining guide,Soufi, pointed out the trulyMr. Soufi shows us the tiles amazing inlaid tile work on the facade as well as the more spiritual aspects of the mosque. His explanations of Islam’s deep connections to nature, and how the visual aspects of the mosque’s decoration describe that connection are critical to my understanding of this country. He is a remarkably interesting man, curious and full of energy.

From the mosque, where we spent the better part of 2 hours, we headed into the old city of Yazd. Some shopping was done by various members of the group. Most of what is for sale near the mosque is from India/Pakistan or China. We did stop at a textile shop where I bought two nice silk scarves, which the shop keeper said were made in Iran. You can always use another scarf! and they pack so well….

Lunch was in a converted hammam, or bath-house, below street level. It was lit by skylights and was all tiled in blue and white. The food was quite good, esp. the yogurt soup and the locally made ice cream, both rose water and cardamom-pistachio flavors, I preferred the cardamom. We then walked some more, looked at carpets, walked more and nearly melted from the heat. This is spring, but it’s summer to me! without a thermometer, but with an internal sense, I’d say it was close to 90degrees. I drank lots of water, but still it was way too hot in the sun.

Eventually we met up with our bus and drivers again, and headed off to the village of Taft, about a 25 min ride (just time for a short nap) where we were to see a ZoroastrianAhuramazda symbol Fire Temple and walk through a neighborhood of it’s adherents. We walked down an unpaved lane with the occasional smell of burning wood. At one gate, a tiny old lady let us in to the grounds of the Fire Temple.

Her grandaughters had met us and alerted her to our arrival and they stayed around watching and talking with us.Fire Temple care-taker and girls

The temple was a mass of incongruities. The building seemed to be a combination of 400+yr old stone steps and 50’s era aluminum door and window panels. The rooms are small, carpeted, and hung with photos of Zoroastrians around the world, but mostly from India. The Parsi sect, former Persians, are generally wealthy and support their co-religionists back in Yazd. In the middle of the building was an enclosed room with a metal stand in the center, about 4 ft tall. On the top was a round metal dish emitting a bit of smoke. It was explained to us that the fire is down under the ashes and that it has been burning for something like 1500 years.Our first Fire Temple

On Fridays, Zoroastrians make fires in several other spots in the area. Their actual beliefs and current practices are still mysterious to me, but it was fun to see the temple.

The little girls were wonderful, playful and curious. They were dressed in bright colors, with their heads covered with scarves, but not black. I gave them one of my postcards of San Francisco which seemed to please and excite them. When we left and walked back down the lane, the girls were following us for a way, and then, when the older one saw her father, invited us in. We couldn’t accept, but thanked her. In a few minutes when we were nearly at the bus, we heard the sound of a motorcycle and looked back. There was the father and all three of the girls, come to say good -by to us! It was really sweet.girls and dad

We made one more stop, at a famous Persian garden and to tour a house on the grounds that was cooled by a badgir, the Yazd special designed wind tower.This house, once owned by a provincial governor had elaborate gardens with a long pool, many divans for lounging and a huge garden of fruit trees and flowers. I immediately felt cooler in the lovely shade there.badgirs, Yazd

The interior of the house was designed to function with the garden as a total cooling system. The wall of the garden separate it from the hot street,the trees provide shade and humidity, and the water, usually running water, helps to cool the air. The badgir, a tall tower with internal vertical divisions inside, both draws in the hot air from outside and pulls cooler air through the house. The idea is that outside air comes down, is draw past a pool in a lower level of the house, then is pulled back up through the house cooling it off. I can say that it seemed to be working this afternoon!Inside the house, under the badgir

We returned to the lovely Garden Hotel, where dinner was eaten outside on a terrace overlooking the garden. I”m pretty tired from the hot sun, and I’m looking forward to a bit of reading time. Tomorrow we will drive to Shiraz, stopping at Pasargardae, the tomb of Cyrus the great, from about 600 BC. I”m pretty excited about that, and about Shiraz.

Relaxing after dinner in the garden


Published in: on April 25, 2008 at 4:57 pm  Comments (3)  

In the Hotel garden, at night

Last night, after I wrote the posting, I sat outside in the garden of our hotel with a couple of people from our group. The smell of honeysuckle was almost overwhelming. Both Iranians and visitors were enjoying the balmy night air. A young Iranian couple with a small son sat near us. We started to talk, and found that we had much in common. The wife, who spoke little English, is a high school art teacher, and her husband showed me some photos of her paintings on his cell phone. He works for the Iranian Oil industry but was an English major at university. I brought them some of my postcards of my art work, and she gave me a scarf clip for my always falling down scarf, and then she gave me a commemorative coin having to do with Ali, the main figure in Shiite Islam. I asked for their mailing address, and will send them a card from San Francisco. All in all, a lovely exchange. I went up to be feeling great!

This morning I had breakfast outside in the garden. Finally, this feels like the MIddle East.

About Comments, I’ll allow most of them to be public, but not those that are more like personal emails. Since I can’t access my regular email, I appreciate you writing to me via this site where i can read what you write to me, but can’t respond individually. I’m going to try to set up a Yahoo email with my name clearly on the address if I can. So if you get an email and it looks like it could be from me, try it before deleting!


Published in: on April 25, 2008 at 3:55 am  Leave a Comment  

Kerman to Yazd, all in a day’s drive

I”m sitting in the lobby area of the wonderful Garden Hotel in Yazd, the Zoroastrian center of Iran. We arrived just before sunset, and headed directly to the Towers ofYazd tower of silence Silence, one of the attractions of this city. The towers were the places that bodies were left to be “naturally” decomposed and picked at by vultures rather than buried. The Zoroastrians believed that putting dead bodies in the ground polluted it. Many issues arise with this philosophy, but that’s not for me to handle.

We started out the day early, bags out at 7:15am, on the bus by 8. The first stop was the 16th century mosque complex, very beautiful tile and designs in stucco. Then we walked through the bazaar,smelling spices, looking at 22ct gold jewelry and photographing everyone and everything in sight!

The bazaar was quite large, but not much organized by type. The spice vendors were mostly in one area, but the rest was a mix of clothing, shoes, hardware, jewelry and you name it. The building has a very high, arched ceiling with openings for light to come through. It’s very scenic. After wandering through lanes and looking at goods, weKerman bazaar entered a large open courtyard with arches all around. It had been built originally as a combination of caravanseri, madrassa and administrative offices. Some areas have been restored, some are in a less re-constructed state. It’s great to sometimes see the actual very old stucco, with the simple colors, and the structure behind what is usually covered up.

Our guide, Soufi, is passionate about his country and it’s cultural heritage. Sometimes I wish he would stop talking and just let me soak in the visual images without the framing of when it was made and where in the historical context it fits. I really do,mostly,enjoy his commentaries and often engage in further dialogues about some areas, esp. religion. He is writing a book about comparative religion/psychology and has read widely.

Soufi lead us back into the bazaar and down a flight of steps back in time to a tea house with live music. It was about 11 am, and there was a trio of young men; one amazingKerman tea house singer and a terrific rhythm player and a string instrument player. I can’t tell you exactly what the instruments are called, one looked and sounded much like a hammered dulcimer, one was lute- like. The drummer had several different types of drums.

We sat at a table, and some sat on divans and we all drank cups of sweet cardamom flavored tea while  listening to the musicians play traditional persian music. It was so absolutely wonderful that I felt transported to a dream place. The setting, a round room with a pool in the center and raised areas for customers to sit, felt like something out of a fairy tale. The walls were tiled, there were pierced brass hanging lights in each of 3 seating areas, and the divans were covered with brightly colored rugs and locally woven cloth. The area where the tea was prepared featured a huge metal samovar, with live fire heating it from below. The waiter carried trays of tea glasses up and down steps and never stopped to negotiate the terrain, he had obviously done this thousands of times. Sitting there listening to the musicians, I again felt the draw of the depth of persian culture. This scene has been repeated for hundreds of years. I guess the main difference is that there were women in the tea house (our group of Americans), which would not normally have happened before. The other customers were all men, however, so perhaps change is slower in reality.Me, in the tea house in Kerman

We left Kerman, drove to a lovely place for lunch, and then on to Yazd. We made one other stop, for pistachios.. a major crop in this part of Iran. We were driving past field of pistachio trees, and wanted to sample the local product.

The hotel in Yazd is built around a lovely,fragrant garden. We checked in, had a good dinner,and spent some time outdoors. Unlike the last few places, this actually has individual working air conditioners!! I”m very excited about getting a good nights sleep without traffic noise from open windows.Garden Hotel courtyard in Yazd

This country is amazing, every day is a new discovery and a new chance to give Iranians a better idea of what Americans are really like. Some days, it’s exhausting!


Published in: on April 24, 2008 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment