Thursday, June 24, 2004
and back to Tehran
The tendency to talk a great deal of the traffic and chaos in countries like Iran is quite strong. I have been guilty of it, as have others. On the one hand, it’s a bother, but on the other hand, there is something about it that makes the day that more exciting. I suppose it is part of what makes places like this interesting and exciting – the feeling of being in a chaotic place seems to make each day more exciting. It is probably unfair to call it chaotic, but no better word comes to mind at the moment. To my eye what is chaotic at first is likely fairly ordered to one is more used to it than me. For example, while I have written of the kind of ordeal to cross the street, characterizing it in such a manner is probably unfair. To many here it is would probably seem silly to cross a street only at a light and only when the white walking-man appears on the light on the other side of the street. They would probably see the streets of Montreal, where pedestrians obey few rules, as having a much more clearly thought out set of rules and common practices. That said, I saw somebody today reversing down a busy downtown highway because they missed their exit.
Since I last posted anything of any real size I have covered a fair bit of ground. I left Sanandaj for Khorram Abad, a small city set in a valley of sorts between two large mountains. There is little to grab a tourist but seemed to be a good place to break my journey. The castle there, Falak-ol-Aflak, was built in the 12th century and was the centre of a group who ruled Lorestan around that time. Falak-ol-Aflak was fairly predictable but inside it housed a pretty good collection of photos from around the region of the Lors.
Khorram Abad does not have much to grab one for too long, but is quite a conservative place these days. Because of this, I had some trouble getting a place to stay without paying considerably more than I budgeted as most of the cheaper places don’t take foreigners. In the end I found a place, and the guy there could write fairly well in English, but couldn’t speak it much, which is relatively common here in Iran. He insisted on bringing some friends around the following day to take me on to Falak-ol-Aflak. When they asked what I thought of Iran, the discussion somehow turned to how Emam Khomeini’s and his successor as Supreme Leader, Emam Khameinei’i have their pictures posted everywhere. They asked what I thought of them – my response that Khomeini always (always!) looks down on everyone angrily while Khameinei’i looks a bit goofy, a but dumb elicited a great deal of laughter. However, it fast became one of those situations that I dread, where a host is being most polite but a bit of a bother, particularly as there were three of them, all continually asking the same simple questions they knew in English and obviously not listening to the answers as I would soon get them again from one of the others.
I felt as though I had to get out of Khorram Abad – despite my well-meaning host, I couldn’t really get free from him. So, I took a series of shared taxis to Esfahan through the afternoon and arrived there around 6:30pm. Esfahan is probably the most often visited place for tourists in Iran thanks to the number of old bridges spanning the river there and the stunning square in the centre of the city. I passed through twice last time I was in Iran and still felt compelled to go back. It was good to run into some other foreigners there as I hadn’t seen any the previous week, since leaving Tehran. It was a bit worrisome to talk to one of the guys sharing my room as soon as I arrived. He was forced to return home to Beijing after a few more days rest as he had been stabbed in an attempted mugging the previous Friday morning. Friday mornings here are a bit like Sunday mornings used to be back home, with few people out and about, most still at home save for the few who go to prayers. Because no shops were open, his bag slung over his shoulder must have been a good target for the two teens on a motorcycle coming down the sidewalk. He said he lost a lot of blood when they stabbed him after he resisted and was taken to hospital. The doctors were making him rest about ten days before he could return home, his trip cut short because he could not walk well thanks to a wound in his leg, nor carry much weight due to his arm being in a sling. Some in the city were quite embarrassed at what had happened – a government official came by to give him some money, a carpet shop gave him a small carpet for free, and he got his trip home at a significant discount. Rarely a day goes by here in Iran that you do not get asked what you think of Iran and Iranians. I think Iranians are well aware of how they and their country are seen in the West by the vast majority of people and hope to set it right, so their traditional sense of hospitality is heightened even further. No doubt also on their minds is the money tourists bring in to the country, particularly in a city like Esfahan. I have seen only one tour group so far on this trip, whereas two years ago I saw perhaps eight or nine. I was here a bit later two years ago, but suspect the drop is due to the perception that the Middle East is not a safe place to travel. In Pakistan last year I was told by some local people that 2003 was actually quieter than 2002. It seems as though September 11 had a bit of an impact but it was not until the war started in Iraq that people came to be so reluctant to come to this area.
Esfahan was even more stunning than I remember it. Emam Khomeini Square is fantastic and the people of Esfahan particularly friendly. As I mentioned in my last post, I ran into somebody I met when I was here before. I had just been walking around the square when Babek invited me into his shop for tea. I was skeptical, but it turned out that while he was a carpet seller, it wasn’t his shop and didn’t want to sell any carpets – he was happy to take advantage of people in tour groups and rich Arabs from the gulf. Now Babek and a number of his friends who were once carpet sellers are all unemployed, a sign of the decline of tourism here.
Iran charges foreigners significantly more than local people for admission to museums and monuments, a practice not terribly uncommon – India is perhaps the best-known example. I’m of two minds when it comes to this. On the one hand, I realize that I am far better able to pay an inflated price for admission to such places. On the other hand, oftentimes in my experience the inflated price has been set very arbitrarily and the same price in two different places can get you radically different value. Many times, it seems like the prices have been set here at one level for absolutely everything. The same seems to be true in India. Most governments where this practice is most common justify it by saying that it goes to restoration and upkeep. This is hardly the case here in Iran as the scaffolding does not seem to have moved in two years at any of the places I saw. In my view, places such as Emam Khomeini Square in Esfahan (a UNESCO world heritage site) are for the world to enjoy, but it seems here that they are being exploited by the government with the proceeds being mixed with general revenues. I am not sure if there are rules governing such sites, but if there are they certainly do not seem to be enforced here. The dual-pricing policy seems to be particularly problematic as the Iranian prices – roughly 1/10th of the foreigner price – is not low enough to allow all Iranians to enter as it is still to expensive for many families. But, it is not too expensive for rich Iranians, with the result all to often being that some monuments and mosques and even museums are seen to be playgrounds for children. With this now dangerously close to turning into a rant of sorts, I’ll end it by proposing that children be barred between certain hours. This could be part of a wider no kid policy which would see people with babies and children to go into special compartments in planes, buses, and trains. I would enjoy the peace and quiet. Air Canada is clearly incapable of running a good airline with their cranky staff but if they were to impose such a policy, I’m convinced the results would make shareholders happy.
Train to Tehran
I took an overnight train back up here to Tehran. For just ten percent more, I got a half-decent sleep that I wouldn’t have got on the bus. Money well spent. There was a bit of confusion when the two New Zealanders I was with and I got into the cabin as it was in the family section as one fellow was quite bothered that we had got assigned the berths we had. If the three of us had a common language between us besides English, we would have used it – he was one of those people who talks a lot but says nothing and unfortunately he spoke quite good English. In time, he took off with his sister and was replaced by worse: two boys of perhaps twelve, fuelled by gobs of sugar. Again, dangerously close to a rant. Sorry.
As soon as I got to Esfahan the hotel guy remembered me from when I last stayed there. Because that place attracts most of the foreigners who make it to Esfahan, he must see a couple of thousand foreigners a year and so I was surprised that he recognized me. The same thing happened in the internet café there in Esfahan and again when I returned here to Tehran and bumped into the guy who manned the desk at the hotel I stayed at here two years ago. To have run into Babek was not a huge surprise, but to have these people all recognize me certainly was.
Democracy in Iran
Sort of…and just for me. To my surprise, the Canadian Embassy here managed to get me my ballot. I went in and cast my ballot earlier today. It certainly seems like we might be voting again before too long though. Next time, maybe the televised debate will feature all the leaders of parties who field candidates in all ridings.
Police…In one of my recent posts, I added a link to a BBC story about water pipes being removed from public areas, including tea houses across Iran. We heard it first from an Iranian in Esfahan but I have yet to read any mention of it in any of the propaganda-filled newspapers in English here. There was an article about smoking rates among women, particularly young women and mentioned the growing popularity of water-pipes amongst the young. It seems to me that banning them is a move more geared to stopping debate and open discussion at tea houses than something for health. It could well be related to some sort of wider clampdown coming up. As I noted in one of my earliest posts here in Tehran, some things in some places seem to have become quite liberalized. Family sections in restaurants still exist, but are hardly enforced. Contact between men and women is more common and some men have grown their hair long. But, in Esfahan, the police are waging a seemingly futile campaign to clear motorcycles parked in the streets and on boulevards while trying to better regulate pedestrians crossing the street. And in Tehran, police are deployed to keep bus lanes clear from motorcycles using them to go the other way. The increased use of police forces could well be related to the upcoming anniversary of last year’s riots at Tehran University. Vans full of police and military in various uniforms are by no means uncommon, and the increased police presence in some places at certain times seems is very obvious. I wouldn’t characterize the increased presence as a simple case of more officers in a given area. They always seem to be posted to a particular point in a team of two, often less than 100 meters from another team of two. I can only guess, but would assume that this increased presence is related either to a coming clampdown on liberties or to the anniversary, or both. The funny thing about Iran and I think I may have mentioned this before is that they do sometimes seem to try to run a police state while other times it seems like they are closer to the “world’s only democracy” that they claim to be. The trouble is, they just aren’t very good at running a police-state to the extent that I am often amazed at what I hear come out of people’s mouths, even when around other Iranians that they don’t know. I don’t want to downplay that they do persecute significant numbers of people for their views, often putting them to death, but at the low-level, amongst the people, there seems to be little fear of that the government might do to them. But, the infrastructure seems to be there to run a stronger police state should they want to again as there are innumerable military and police forces still around, all with some overlapping responsibilities between one another. And, I wouldn’t say it is unlikely that they will someday make a resurgence – stories from Iranians of things that have happened to them and their friends. One told of a friend who had his nose broken by the police for wearing white pants and a white shirt several years ago. Another held a foreign passport and this was all that saved him from getting whipped eighty times as his friends did for being found by the police in a group of young men and women, all unmarried.
I’ve watched a few matches from Portugal over the past few weeks. Iranians seem to be fairly interested in the tournament and many men seem to have been staying up until the end of the second match late in the night. The games are also replayed here the following day which makes for a good distraction to get out of the midday heat. Unfortunately here in Tehran there doesn’t seem to be anywhere that I can watch the matches to pass the evening away and as a result I missed all the games for the past few nights.
I plan on going out to Mashad, in the extreme northeast of the Iran, and home to one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. I deliberated for quite some time when I was here in Iran last as to whether I would go there or not but given the distance involved elected not to. I suspect it will be somewhat similar to Qom, a city that was the base of Khomeini before getting exiled in the 1960s (Qom is just south of Tehran and I visited there two years ago). From Mashad I will continue going east into Afghanistan but expect to be flying between places there given the long distances and poor roads between places of interest. I am not too sure what kind of access I will have to the internet but will of course do my best to post with my progress. I will still be typing my travelogue and thoughts of Afghanistan as I go and will post them to my blog as soon as possible, but this may not be until after I leave there. After Afghanistan I will be heading up to Central Asia – to the ‘stans – before heading back to North America at the end of the summer. I’m not sure yet which of the ‘stans I’ll be getting to – that question will have to be answered in time once I figure out whether the planets are aligned in such a way to allow me to get the visas! I picked up my Uzbekistan visa today which is great news, but still have to find a way to get there.