Friday, 13 June 2014

TEA AND RICE GROWING IN IRAN? - Tehran, Rasht, Tabriz and around







Sangan

We never realized, before Iran, how much we take the internet for granted. We are by no means addicted to the web, but after three months in Iran with little access to banking, blogs, Facebook, booking tickets or planning onward trips, we were beginning to feel out of the loop. Internet cafes were not bad, but the workers were usually unwilling or unable to do anything about the filters for many websites. As we’ve said, many households have internet, sometimes with a VPN (don’t ask us what it stands for, but it breaks through the filters somehow!), but as these people had kindly given us a place to sleep and fed us, we felt it would be rude to spend time on the internet in their homes, ignoring them! Most of the time we stayed with local people, time was spent chatting or sightseeing, which was obviously fantastic, but it didn’t leave a lot of time for catching up on personal stuff.

This partly influenced our decision to make an uncharacteristic (for us) long bus trip from stinking hot Ahvas in the south-west of Iran to Tehran, the capital in the north. Although, as previously stated, we don’t like big cities, we felt this one might be a necessary evil. Our friend Mostafa from Qeshm Island had recently migrated to his place in Tehran for the summer (it is extremely hot in the Persian Gulf at this time of year). However, we discovered on arrival that he didn’t live in Tehran at all, but in a village about one hour away from the city. Best laid plans! Although we had a lot to do, we decided a few days with easy-going Mostafa might be very pleasant..... and it was. Sangan village wasn’t the most beautiful place on earth, but we enjoyed hanging out with Mostafa, eating very well, indulging in the occasional tipple, and giving him a hand getting his house in order. The perfect temperature was a joy, with delightfully cool nights and sunny days. It is a huge fruit growing area, with the majority of trees being cherries, with some walnut and other varieties mixed in. Mostafa has a problem with his leg, but we were able to get out for a few walks and visit some attractive natural parts of the area.


Rich and Mostafa walking along the river, Sangan

One of few traditional buildings in Sangan

Tunnel in the pathway, Sangan


Spiky wildflower, Sangan

Walking in the hills, Sangan

Common local transport, Sangan
Butterfly, Sangan


On one walk through the village, we met a family from a nearby place, who were practically peeing their pants in excitement about seeing and talking with us. After a quick chat and exchanging emails, we went on our way. The next day, we received this e-mail, which we wanted to include as a very typical message we receive here all the time on our phone, or e-mail.:

Hi my friend,
I'm Nahid from Iran. I saw you today in Sangan (in Can road).You gave me your email address. Do you remember?! You and your husband were so kind and friendly. I really like to invite you for a lunch or dinner, my house is about near Sangan (in Ayatollah kashani Street).Do you accept my invitation? Because I really like to know about your culture.  I’m looking forward to hearing from you.
By the way, I don't know your name!!!


Tehran

Before too long, we knew we had to get back to the dreaded big city, so we left Mostafa for a second sad time, and set off to stay in our first mosaferkhaneh (basic local’s guesthouse). It was surprisingly good, with very friendly staff, a big bright room with three beds, a fridge and clean shared bathrooms and toilets. At AU$15, we couldn’t complain!

Unfortunately, the cheap hostels in Tehran are  mostly around a big, busy road full of hundreds of car parts shops, and we disliked the walk everyday to get out of this area. We actually really hated the traffic in Tehran. Maybe it was because we had been in many smaller places, but it felt overwhelming and constant, and difficult to even cross the street. It really spoilt the atmosphere of the city for us.

Unfortunately, one of the main reasons for us coming to Tehran was internet, but the internet cafes we could find were no better than the rural areas we had been in, and we were no better off. So, we decided to see a few sights, and then leave the place.

We discovered a lovely, peaceful park near our hotel, and escaped there a few times to drink coffee by the lake, and chat with local people when the traffic noise got too much, and the surprisingly first-rate Modern Art Museum served the same purpose. We loved looking at many great masters’ works- Picasso, Warhol, Matisse, Dali, Monet and many others. It’s a pretty interesting place, as during the Ahmadinajad years (the previous president) all the great paintings were locked away in a basement, deemed too western for Iranian eyes! We were happy they had been let out, and put on display for a tiny entrance fee. 

The National Museum was another sight we enjoyed. Actually, it was fascinating, as we had been in Iran for a while and knew a lot of the history and had visited many of the sites where many of the items displayed had been found, so we could relate quite well to the exhibits. We were especially amazed at the finds from Persepolis- it actually would have been better in some ways to skip the site, and visit the museum, as the quality of discoveries were spectacular.


Amazing Persepolis reliefs, National Museum, Tehran

Persepolis finds in National Museum, Tehran


We left Tehran without too much sadness, and headed for Rasht, a big town near the Caspian Sea coast about 6 hours north of Tehran. Rasht is famous for rain, and for that reason the Iranians love it. It certainly was green as we drove to the town, with HUGE olive and garlic growing areas all around.

Rasht

We had contacted a woman who we had met in Zahedan, who had offered us a place to stay in her town, but unfortunately it ended up she had rather a lot on her plate, and it really wasn’t the best time for us to be there. But we made the most of our few days there, and found Rasht to be extremely friendly town, and so pleasant after Tehran, with little traffic, large shady street trees and wide footpaths making it easy to walk around.


Artists at work, Rasht

Local Rasht man

Garlic for sale, Rasht



Lahijan

Our day trip to the small town of Lahijan, the main tea growing area in Iran (yes, tea!!) was delightful, and one of those days in Iran where we veered off the plan and go with the flow! We had been dropped by the cute little minibus 20 minutes walk from the centre, a kind man had escorted us into the attractive town, we had checked out some unusual murals on a mosque, and were trying to peer into a ruined old hammam (bath house), when two brothers invited us into their office, which was part of the hammam. Although they spoke little English, we understood that their father had been the engineer  for the reconstruction of this building, and many others in Lahijan before he died. Now the hammam was a mess. After some chai and looking at photos of the restoration, we stood up to say goodbye, but the brothers had other ideas! They spent the next few hours showing us around the atmospheric back streets, small mosques, a traditional house, a grand tomb out of the town, and their land high on a hill. It was a great example of communication with little common language skills. After a kebab and mirza ghosemi (to die for smoked eggplant dish) lunch together, we gently refused their gifts (humungous bag of tea, a seedling, cigars, various bags of fruit and some sunglasses!) and said farewell. We will remember them as some of the kindest people we met in Iran- and that really is saying something!!


Traditional old house, Lahijan

With the kind-hearted twin brothers, Lahijan

Old mosque, Lahijan



Masouleh

We decided to get out of our Couchsurfer’s hair, and set off for Masouleh, a small village a couple of hours from Rasht. We were dubious about visiting this place, as many Iranians had told us how “beautiful” it was, and we thought it might be touristy and tacky. We were very pleasantly surprised, however, when we were dropped at the quaint little village after a gorgeous drive in a share taxi through lush, green rice paddies!! It was so strange to see rice growing in what we had always thought would be a dry and barren country. The done thing in Masouleh is to stay in one of many rooms the villagers rent out, as the hotel is terrible. We quickly found such a place, with plenty of room for sleeping on the rugs, heaps of bedding, a small kitchen and bathroom, and then set out to explore the attractive area. 


Our room, Masouleh





The village was made up of tiny cute houses mostly made from wood and stone on different levels disappearing up the hillside, each roof forming the path of the layer above. We walked around a great deal in the few days we spent there, and although it was so small, there always seemed a new part to discover, each more enchanting than the last.



Old doorway, Masouleh

Masouleh street

Houses in a beautiful setting, Masouleh

Masouleh house

Quaint village houses, Masouleh

Tempting stairway, Masouleh

Sal in a pumpkin

Staying alone, we were able to make our own timetable, and we enjoyed getting up early for a change on the clear mornings, and setting off into the GREEN hills (many alder, birch and hazelnut trees, with some walnut) for walking and then coming back for a midday relax before the afternoon mist rolled in. 



Masouleh village viewed from the hillside

Wild poppies, Masouleh

An early morning break, Masouleh


Walking in the hills, Masouleh

So much green, Masouleh

Look familiar??



We also enjoyed cooking for ourselves in our kitchen, and the self catering came to a high point the day we had fresh bread, tuna, fried mushrooms, boiled eggs, yogurt, crisps, oliveyeh salad (sort of like our potato salad), tomatoes, olives, goat’s cheese, pomegranate juice, with local ginger cake for dessert!!


Masouleh in morning sun.....

Masouleh in afternoon mist


Our evenings were usually spent having tea, shisha and ash (soup) and people watching from one of the many teahouse/restaurants in the main “hub”. It was lovely to see the mist come down into the valley, and all the lights come on in the little houses. As it was a public holiday, there were quite a lot of Iranian tourists around, but it was certainly not crowded, and very easy to escape the visitors.


Scenic spot, Masouleh tea house

Our man preparing our kelyun

Busker, Masouleh
Old woman knitting on roof, Masouleh

Old boys, Masouleh



Tabriz

The road to Tabriz gave us flashbacks to Baluchistan with barren hills and mud house villages, but gradually gave way to green hills and farms with massive snow capped mountains in the background.
Things were moving in a bit of a rush now, and we hadn’t had time to search for a Couchsurfing host, so we again stayed in a basic hotel- this one quite funny, as it was filled with old Turkish people, and it was the first time we had to pay for a shower!! The room was very cheap, so it wasn’t expensive, but we wondered if there were people who stayed there for the price and didn’t shower!!



Our hotel room, Tabriz
Weird toilet seat over Iranian toilet, Tabriz hotel


We immediately liked Tabriz. It was an easy city, with a huge mix of people, including a lot of Azeri people. Funnily enough more Azeri people live in Iran than Azerbaijan, and a large number of them in Tabriz.  All the interesting and useful things were contained within walking distance of the city centre where we were staying. The bazaar is the main attraction- we loved wandering around the old sections, with the carpet section being especially photogenic. 


Fat for sale, bazar, Tabriz

Carpet section, bazar, Tabriz

Some fellow travelers in the bazar, Tabriz

Old Tabriz lady in the park

Blue eyed sandwich man, Tabriz




Other times in Tabriz were spent at the Blue Mosque (beautiful from the outside, but closed on the day we were there), trying to find our information about getting from Tabriz to the Armenian border, and FINALLY made some progress with my blog at a great internet cafe.


Blue Mosque, Tabriz

Blue Mosque, Tabriz

The damaged exterior of the Blue Mosque, Tabriz


We only had a couple of days to spend in Tabriz, and would love to visit again on our next trip. We eventually discovered the difficulties of hiring a taxi to the border, and after a false start where the driver began driving down the highway towards Tehran (the opposite direction to the border), we ended up at the bus station, and very quickly arranged two seats in a share taxi to Jolfa (a border town with Azerbaijan, and another place we unfortunately had to miss out), and then just the two of us to Norduz, a strangely out of the way border post (hence no public transport there) which was actually quite busy due to an Iranian holiday.

As we’ve said previously in posts, the best thing about Iran by a mile is the people. Everyone knows they are friendly, but until you are here, you cannot imagine the genuine hospitality and consideration they show their guests. It’s true they adore foreigners, probably because they so rarely see them, and it was not at all uncommon in our travels for complete strangers on the street to welcome us to their country or tell us they love us!

As for the sights, it was the desert, especially in Sistan Baluchistan that captured our hearts. The ragged mountains, the gorgeous colours, the desert castles, the mud brick villages, the total lack of other tourists and the more than welcoming locals, made our time so special in this area. Other highlights were the unique culture of the Persian Gulf towns, the unique cave village of Meymand near Kerman, and the completely different, green and lush village of Masouleh in the far north of Iran.

In some ways our three months in Iran flew, and in other ways we seem to have packed such of lot of adventures and fantastic experiences into such a short time. Literally just after Richard was finally granted his visa in Delhi, the rules for UK passport holders changed, and now, like the Americans, Brits are only allowed into Iran as part of a tour group, and no independent travel is allowed.  So, although we would absolutely love to return to this amazing country as soon as possible, it very sadly will not be on the cards for us until the government changes the visa rules.


The lush mountains..........

....and the dry desert- hard to believe it's the same country





FOOD

We had heard mixed reports about the food in Iran- some raved about it, but most said it was pretty average. Maybe we are easy to please and needed a change from Indian food, or maybe it was because we stayed in people’s home so often, that we found the food to be unbelievably delicious and varied.

Often several dishes (khoresht or stews) are served with either rice with a crusty top or one of many different kinds of bread (our favourites were lavash and sangat). Ingredients for the stews include eggplant, chickpeas, beans, tomato, pumpkin (kaju), and lamb, chicken, beef or fish in coastal areas. Other common dishes include kashk, a yogurt based sauce in any number of different styles; ash, a soupy dish with meat and vegetables; various kinds of kebabs (our favourite was the yogurt marinated lari with beef or chicken); biryani; zaresht polo, chicken and rice with delicious barberries which we think might be unique to Iran; kukoo, an frittata-type dish with egg and potato; olviyeh, a potato and egg based salad eaten in long bread rolls; fessun jun, an unusual sweet dish made with chicken, pomegranate and walnuts; and ghormeh sabzi which is close to a national dish, and Sal’s overall favourite.


Typical Iranian feast,  Chabahar

Simple but tasty omlette breakfast, Zahedan

Healthy breakfast, Zahedan


Kebab man, Bandar Abbas

"Light" dinner of salad and rolls

Another feast

Yet another Iranian feast

A variation on the Turkish dish, dolmade

Iranians love their rice with a crust

One of the many varieties of ash, a delicious soup



Farm feast

The best fish dinner ever!!



The mixed green herbs (mint, basil, garlic chives and other unidentified salad items) that accompanied many meals were also great.

Alcohol is strictly forbidden, although we’ve already talked about its availability. Iranians love a malt drink packaged to look exactly like beer, and actually tastes quite a lot like beer, but of course has no alcohol. We couldn’t really get into that one. Alternative options included doogh, a fermented, salty yogurt drink, often mixed with mint-(it’s better than it sounds); carrot juice and ice cream (again, sounds weird, tastes great!); banana and melon shakes; and any number of delicious juices. But tea is the number one drink in Iran, sometimes made with cardamom and sweetened with various kinds of sugar. It is served in every home, and we came to the conclusion that Iranians have bladders of steel due to drinking copious amounts of tea since a young age! We were forever running to the toilet.


Fake beer

Iranian juice

Fruit was abundantly available cheaply, varied from region to region, and included pomegranates, strawberries, sweet oranges, mulberries, melons, dates, grapes, apricots, figs, sweet and sour cherries.
Desserts are popular, with ice cream leading the way, and falooda a close second. Most ice cream is flavoured with rose water, cardamom, saffron or pistachio, and falooda (a noodle like substance made of corn starch, eaten through most of Asia and the Middle East, but originating in Iran,) comes in different varieties depending on the region. Dates and fruit are often served after a meal as a dessert. Kolompe is a famous date biscuit from Kerman we became addicted to while there, and klucheh fuman it’s walnut yummy counterpart in the north near Rasht.


Massive strawberry, Kerman

Yazd ice-cream


Mulberries are very common in Iran

Ginger cakes, Masouleh


Iranians love to eat, and that includes in between meals. Popular snacks include sandwiches (baguette rolls filled with hot meat and salad), falafel in bread rolls, tomushi (a thin pancake similar to the Indian dosa with various savoury fillings), olives, tokh me (sunflower or pumpkin seeds), nuts (especially walnuts), chocolates, biscuits..... it’s no wonder we’ve left Iran with huge bellys!


Iranian snacks

Oliveyeh salad (like potato salad)

Enjoying felafel, Ahvas

Felafel toppings

Rich's favourite, famous Iranian carrot jam!


Fast food is very popular, and when we weren’t staying with families we indulged in pizza and lamb and chicken kebabs, which were all excellent.

Food is always eaten sitting down together as a group, usually on the floor, with a plastic sheet as a table cloth. Sally struggled with the speed with which Iranians ate, with them preferring to chow down the meal quickly, clear up, and then sit back and relax. Rich struggled with his knee becoming painful after sitting for long stretches, although, of course, Iranians were very sensitive about this, and always offered for him to sit on a chair!



TRAVEL COSTS

Because we stayed with local hosts for most of the time in Iran, we had a different experience to if we had been travelling as we usually do, and the matter of costs was totally skewed. Some days we didn’t spend a cent (or weren’t allowed to!), and other days we spent more than we ever would in SE Asia. The four or five hotels we stayed in charged between 250,000 rial (US $8.30), and 700,000 rial (US$ 23). A meal in a basic restaurant cost between 50,000 and 200,000 rial (US$1.50- US$6.50) for the two of us with soft drinks. A smoke on a shisha with tea in a cafe cost about 50,000 rial (US$1.50). Fruit and snacks were very cheap, as were juices and other drinks. Travel was quite cheap, due to the price of petrol being 30 cents per liter. There are many different types of buses to choose from, but we usually just got on the first one going. The VIP buses with only three seats across seemed to cost a bit more. Share taxis are very common, and only cost a bit more than buses, but the drivers are invariably mad, and we avoided them like the plague.Trains were the cheapest form of transport, but also the slowest. The biggest expense by far for us was the entrance fees. We didn’t notice this at all during the first month of our trip, as things in the south and east are either free or very cheap (or people were so happy to see us they didn’t charge us at all!), but when we reached the more popular destinations such as Yazd, Shiraz and Tehran, we had to be more careful. Although not terribly expensive (most sights were 150,000 rial (US$5)), the prices added up if we both wanted to see several things on one day, or in one city. It is the result of a recent Government idea to charge foreigners eight times more than locals for most tourist sites.



Inside Iranian train carriage
Typically nice Iranian bus

Inside typical Iranian bus

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A last few oddities, we couldn’t fit in elsewhere!

We heard that in big cities in Iran, if you are caught driving your dog in your car, you could be fined, have the dog taken away, or even the car!

Nose jobs are hugely popular in Iran, and so many, mainly women, walk around proudly displaying their bandages. Apparently it’s a bit of a status symbol!

When registering a baby’s name, the list to chose from is strict, and it cannot be a Western name!

When getting married, all couples must legally sign a pre-nuptial agreement, in which the man promises to give the woman money and gold if they get divorced. This could explain the low divorce rate!