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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

A Breath of Fresh Air

I wrote this post this past Saturday evening

My throat feels clearer and cleaner after having left Tehran. When you are in the city the pollution does not seem to be as oppressive as it certainly seems now that I am away from it.

I spent a week in Tehran – for me, quite a long time to spend in one place while traveling. The city doesn’t seem to have had any real plan for development and it seems as though the transportation infrastructure in particular has been organized by scores of people, none of them talking to one another. The metro system is great in the places it goes to, but doesn’t really cover much ground, and the areas it does cover are adequately covered by surface busses which run most of the way in their own lanes. In fact, just about where the metro ends, above ground the bus lanes end as well, getting anywhere outside the real core of the city via public transport a real chore. One day in the process of navigating my way around somewhere in the sprawl of north-east Tehran, I fell into a deep whole left by road works. Thankfully I wasn’t seriously injured and could have inflicted some serious injuries on myself if it weren’t for the wooden pallet which I had stepped on to cross the hole grabbing my torso after the rest of my body went through. The scrapes are still visible, but thankfully I didn’t end up at the bottom of the ten or twelve foot deep hole. I will be returning to Tehran before too long, though.

Hamadan
I decided to leave such danger behind and make my way to Hamadan, about five hours from Tehran by bus. I had not been out this way last time in Iran and had the impression it was a bit of a hidden gem. Hardly. The site has a good history, but most of it is buried beneath the present city. The central square, predictably called Imam Khomeini square is ringed by some nice buildings and was covered in picnickers when I arrived Friday evening, making it feel quite welcoming. But, once most were back to business on Saturday morning, the city was left to stand on its own and with only a few unremarkable monuments, had little to keep me interested. Ibn Sina, commonly known in the West as Avicenna, and a man whose work I do my best to respect and admire despite being subjected to torturous ‘lectures’ (cough…make that reading from notes) this past winter, has a monument close to the centre of the city.

Kermanshah
The traditional male Kurdish clothing I saw in Iraqi Kurdistan is visible on some men in Hamadan. They became more and more visible as I moved Saturday afternoon from Hamadan to Kermanshah, another three hours or so away from Tehran, moving towards Iraq. The signs on the highway marking the distance to Karbala begin between Kermanshah and Hamadan, as Iranians routinely make the pilgrimage to the shrine there. Kermanshah is a much larger city than Hamadan, but with the same sort of atmosphere I found in Hamadan. This evening a Kurdish man was very impressed that I knew all of two words in Kurdish (‘zhor’ [very] and ‘spass’ [thanks]) and couldn’t believe that I knew what the sole of his typical Kurdish canvas shoes were made of. His friendliness was much appreciated as I have not yet been struck by Iranian hospitality on this trip as I was on the last. Of course, to characterize the people I’ve talked to and dealt with as unfriendly would be unfair, but while I was in awe of the overwhelming sense of hospitality and welcoming atmosphere amongst Iranians on my last trip here, so far I wouldn’t have as positive comments.

Off the ‘trail’?
Perhaps this can be explained by my different route this time around, as both in Hamadan and Kermanshah the people seem to be deeply suspicious of foreigners and I have not yet seen any other foreigners in either city. The vast majority of tourists in Iran take a tour of the cities and sights I saw last time around, a good number of them transiting between Turkey and Pakistan. Hamadan and Kermanshah are off that main trail which goes directly south from Tehran to Esfahan, and many avoid Tehran altogether or spend just a short time there as I did last time. I certainly hope that it is an unfamiliarity with foreigners in these cities off that trail that is the cause of my different impression on this visit.

cheers