By Rail and Road Through Iran
Boarding the overnight express to Shiraz at Tehran railway station is a ceremonial affair. Triumphal music starts up as boarding is announced and passengers descend to the platform to be greeted by officials resplendent in red sashes flanking a profuse display of flowers.
The train is modern and comfortable. The carriage attendant delivers a tray of complimentary juice, biscuits and tea. Having expected gender segregation, I am surprised to be sharing a compartment with an older couple and their twenty-something-year-old daughter. Indeed, there are a mixture of men and women throughout the train; although, where a compartment is mixed, the occupants appear to know one another.
The father and I try conversing, but without a common language we give up after about 10 minutes. While the sense is that the girl understands English, both she and her mother avoid eye contact with me throughout the journey. Generally, a stranger in Iran might receive cautious glances from women, but seldom direct eye contact and never an open greeting unless within the formality of a hotel or shop.
The train departs on time at 4.20 pm, gliding past lines of concrete houses and other structures on its way out of Tehran. The rain has cleared the air, enhancing the bland hues and textures of the buildings. Selling exterior wall paint cannot be a profitable business in these parts. The train moves quickly into the khaki sweep of the desert, which is punctuated by patches of irrigated crops. At one point, it actually snows.
At the first stop, about two hours out of Tehran, a few passengers board the train. There are small wheat fields and flocks of sheep, which are possibly the main occupation in this expanse. A boy holds up his phone to film his mother, who is covered from head to toe in a chador, as she boards the train.
The train conductor arrives to collect the tickets. ‘Welcome to Iran’, he says. ‘You are the only foreigner on our train tonight.’ As ever, Iranians seem genuinely pleased to meet visitors.
The dining car is festive and dinner is the standard fare for travelers in Iran: lamb kebab and yellow rice. There is alcohol-free beer. A young boy, who speaks some English, comes down the carriage to chat to me. He starts by asking the two questions customary to every Iranian I meet – “Where are you from?” and “What do you think of Iran?” – then blurts, “Do you drink alcohol?” I play it safe: “No, I don’t.” He runs back to report his discovery to his family, who wave a greeting across the carriage and laugh at the joke they have played on the boy.
The sun sets at around 8 pm and the train stops shortly thereafter at a small station. Some passengers disembark for the prayer rooms, more women than men, and a queue forms for the women’s room. Most people stay on the train and some of the men hang out on the platform, chatting and smoking.
The next morning, it is still dark at 7.30 when the train arrives at the new railway terminal on the outskirts of Shiraz. Taxis are a fixed rate and there is an official dispatcher, which takes the aggravation out of getting into town. The city is booked out for the Nowruz holidays and I am lucky to find a room amid scaffolding in a hotel that has not properly opened yet.
A one-day visit to Shiraz is a whirlwind. At the magnificent Shah Cheragh mosque, young English-speaking guides explain the workings of Shia Islam. The delivery is insightful and interesting: I am fascinated by the notion that a 12th Imam walks unnoticed among us. Later I ask about the significance of the bright green household dusters carried by the attendants: “Those are to point the way to visitors,” I am told.
The mosque holds the tomb of the sons of the seventh Imam, who were killed on this site in AD 835. The shrine is one of the most revered in Iran and the men clamour around and reach over one another to touch the railing and drop bank notes into the tomb. Some take selfies while doing so; others make phone calls. Women have access to the tomb from the other side, out of sight. At desks set up to one side, young mullahs counsel similarly young devotees in designer t-shirts and jeans. Some men seek secluded spots to read or sit quietly in contemplation. It is hot outside and carpets laid out in the shade in the courtyard enable those wanting to rest to take a short nap. As ever, the ambience is relaxed; you pray at your own pace.
A quirk of travel in Iran is the need to carry cash as international bank cards are blocked by sanctions. Iran has its own effective card system. I saw someone pay for a cup of juice with a card, no problem for a small cash transaction. Iran’s tradition of selling freshly squeezed juice in street shops is a delight. Pomegranate and watermelon stand out: the former is pure juice, but the latter has sugar added. “Iranians love sugar,” a juice seller tells me.
Persepolis, the ancient capital
Persepolis is an hour’s drive from Shiraz. Built 2,500 years ago as the ceremonial capital of ancient Persia, it is immense and overwhelming: a vast terrace carved into the rock, with a grand stairway wide enough for horses to climb; a citadel with a magnificent entrance gate guarded by giant stone bulls; columns topped with two-headed griffins, winged bulls, lions and eagles. The site is filled with local tourists enjoying the holiday, picnicking in the carpark and among the trees below. Tour groups, led mostly by young women, push through the crowds in a steady procession. Selfie sticks glint like swords conveying a sense of spectacle. Persepolis needs much more time than the few hours I have to really appreciate it.
There are hexagonal metal charity collection boxes everywhere in Iran; at entrances to metro stations there are often six or more. “Iranians believe regular donations bring goodwill to the family,” a stranger tells me. “In the sense of what goes around comes around”, he adds. In Tehran, I saw a man with one leg and one arm being led through a metro carriage by an older woman. Every single person gave him money; those whom he passed came back down the carriage to hand over a donation.
I take the 5 am bus to Esfahan the next morning. The journey will take seven hours, alternating through farmland and desert. At lunch, the two drivers invite me to join their meal of chicken and rice accompanied by a can of Coca-Cola. Yes, the quintessential American drink, made in Iran, and one of many small ironies that can be encountered there.
“Isfahan is half the world”
Isfahan is arguably Iran’s most delightful treat. The city earned the moniker “Isfahan nesf-e jahan” (“Isfahan is half the world”) because of its presence in the 16th century as the crossroads for merchants traveling east-west between China and the Ottoman Empire, and north-south between Russia and the Persian Gulf. Isfahan was also reportedly the first city to reach one million inhabitants.
The magnificent Naqsh-e Jahan Square is filled with families enjoying the holiday, strolling, shopping or riding the carriages that run around the square. The horses have little bells attached to their harnesses and their sound, in rhythm with the thrum of hooves on the paving, adds a musical note to the sense of festival.
The turquoise tiles in the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque are an exquisite Persian masterpiece. This was a sacred place for the harem of Shah Abbas; a tunnel gave access to the Ali Qapi palace on the other side of the Square. Indeed, the seven-storey viewing platform of the palace enabled the Shah to enjoy his other indulgences: polo games and parades in the square below.
The Shah Mosque, built around the same time in the early 17th century, is still active. I stand in the vivid blue in the entrance and gaze up at the dome, which invokes a feeling of being drawn upwards; this was done intentionally by the architects, who used a new tiling technique to create this sense of heavenly transcendence.
Strolling in public with ice-cream, or chatting in coffee shops, is as exciting as the nightlife gets. In spite of restrictions on internet access (Facebook and other sites are banned), Wi-Fi is widely accessible and mostly free.
The seven-hour journey back to Tehran is again in a modern and comfortable train. The policeman who examines my passport at the railway station resembles someone out of central casting, with three-day stubble and all. I suggest a photograph. “Unfortunately, it’s against regulations”, he smiles. In the station concourse, a large billboard equates the dangers of smoking with immorality.
It is hard to articulate what to make of Iran. The country is not what I thought it would be and many of my preconceptions were turned over in the first few days. At first glance, Iran looks quite normal and is much more progressive than one might think: it does not feel like a serious, religious nation. However, the huge abnormality in society quickly becomes evident. Women have a distinct place and the constant adjustment of the hijab is a regular reminder of the system’s restrictions. One senses a deeper, more fundamental conflict between traditional and conservative views on society; maybe one that will take years to reconcile and arrive at a model that accommodates all views. Perhaps Iran will blossom when its women are truly emancipated.
There is also a deep complexity to Iran: the Sunni-Shia divide seems much deeper than relatively more recent conflicts with the US and other Western countries.
Most of the Iranians I met were educated, sophisticated, charming people and proud of their long civilisation. My lasting impression is of people eager to lose the stigma of sanctions and reintegrate back into the wider world. Every second taxi driver or hotel hand seemed to be an engineer waiting for opportunities to improve (Iran is among the top five producers of engineering graduates every year, of which 70% are women).
On my way to the airport the next day, I stop at the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. There is a typically pragmatic ambience: visitors picnic in the carpark and an unfinished shopping mall attached to the mausoleum sells souvenirs. Cameras are not allowed inside, but mobile phones are widely used. An invisible line separates men and women down the middle of the field of carpets. It is a somewhat forbidding atmosphere; one senses a caged presence lies inside the green and gold latticed tomb. Portraits of the Supreme Leaders smile down on visitors: the result of an official decree to soften the stern images of yesteryear. As ever, the attendants with green dusters show people the way.