I’m currently in Mashhad, eastern Iran, and this will be my last report from Iran. Tomorrow I am going to head northwest (i.e. completely the wrong direction), to the Turkmenistan border, near Ashgabat. I’ll take this leg easy, over 3 days, to rest before some longer days in Turkmenistan – will be over a week on the bike, 100km per day.
After getting an overnight bus from Shiraz to Tehran, I spent a few days getting my Turkmenistan visa. Note to future applicants – make sure your US dollar notes are absolutely immaculate, with absolutely no marks or exchange dealers stamps on them. I had a real problem with this, as I had some OK notes, but they had small stamps on them. Eventually used one of my crisp $100 bills – this actually worked out well, as I got some small change back, that should be useful over the next few weeks. Be prepared to wait too – we were told to come back at 15:00, but it wasn’t until around 18:00 they were ready. Apparently this is because it’s supposed to take 3 days, but the local consul tries to get Ashgabat to rush their end, to issue them the same day – sometimes it’s a bit of a rush.
But anyway, I now have that stamp, and since I need to enter Turkmenistan on the 29th, I got another overnight bus, from Tehran to Mashhad. This is a very holy city to Shiites, with Imam Reza buried here. As a result of this, it feels different to the likes of Tehran, Tabriz and Shiraz. It feels the most Islamic of all the cities I have been to in Iran, with nearly all women wearing the chador, and far more men in traditional dress. More turban-wearers too, which doesn’t exactly thrill me, given the opinion that most of the population I’ve met seems to have of them.
While on the bus here, I was chatting to Ejaz, sitting next to me. On finding out I was going to Mashhad, he took the prayer beads off from around his neck, and gave them to me. He also gave me another set he had, specifically to bring them to Mashhad. Very touching really, and now perhaps I will fit in that tiny bit more, walking along, swinging my prayer beads.
Sometimes when you are looking for a specific hotel, you will be told that it has been knocked down, or has burnt down, or something. However in this case, it seems that the Tous Hotel actually has been knocked down, as there is a large construction site there. But no problem, I found another place, reasonably priced. The room is below ground level, and doesn’t get much natural light – suits me well though, since sunrise is around 4:15 here – now I can actually sleep in. Apparently daylight savings time is no longer used in Iran – most guidebooks are out of date on this detail.
So, a few thoughts on modern Iran are in order. Firstly, the popular image of terrorists, and nutters running around beating up women because they display a stray lock of hair, is largely wrong. Most Iranians are normal people, looking to get on with their lives, concerned about the normal things – jobs, family, getting married, etc. Iran feels much more developed than other countries in this region, although poverty is certainly there. But the infrastructure in cities is quite reasonable, and I’m not expecting to see much better before getting to China.
But yes, the political rhetoric is certainly there – e.g. the enormous billboard covering the side of a building in Tehran, of the Stars and Stripes represented by falling bombs and skulls, with “Down With USA” written across it. But this is peeling and fading, and no-one seems to take much notice. I didn’t see much in the way of posters outside of Tehran – apparently this is where the army is strongest. Similarly the news is full of it – seen today: “US Congress approves war funding bill giving, Bush a blank check to pursue adventurism in MidEast” – but no-one seems to take much notice of that, they’re all watching their satellite TV (which is banned, but everyone seems to have it).
People think of women in this region, and they think of the headscarf. Yes it is compulsory, and yes I think it is wrong, and about oppression, not religion. But it’s interesting to see how it is worn – for many women, the headscarf sits a very long way back on the forehead. No doubt there is a direct correlation between how much hair is shown, and how much power the mullahs are wielding at that time. The women here are strong, opinionated, and well-educated. In Turkey it is extremely rare to talk to women, but here it is quite common.
The real shame is the way the government has stuffed the economy – a major concern of nearly all Iranians I spoke to is the lack of jobs, especially for the young. Sure, it’s fine when diesel only costs you $0.02 per litre, but if you don’t have jobs for people you get problems. This is where the drugs problem is coming from – it’s easier to get heroin in Tehran than a beer. The government prefers to take the stance they do, and effectively discourage foreign investment, than try and look for a future beyond oil. On the news they celebrate Iran-Turkey trade of $6B, and foreign direct investment of $1B. But when you consider the size of the population, these numbers are a pittance.
And people here know it – they know there are problems, but they have the knife to the throat, and there is a limit to what they can do about. One of the most depressing elements is that almost every English-speaking Iranian I have met wants to emigrate. A country cannot advance with that sort of brain drain, and it will have massive repercussions on Iran for years.
It’s all a pity really, as Iran is a great country to travel in, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance. Doesn’t have to be by bike, either. The people are welcoming, intelligent, and generally too ready to help. I just couldn’t live in a non-free country, that’s all.
Oh and whatever you may have heard about the Iranian drivers is true. I have decided that they are indeed the worst I have ever seen, worse than Libya and Egypt. Just no cultural driving education, and everyone does whatever he wants on the road, leading to mayhem. They can’t see that their actions make things worse, they don’t help them get anywhere faster. How I haven’t seen (or been involved in) more accidents is completely beyond me. The accidents certainly happen though – over 20,000 deaths per year I’ve heard. Can’t say I have a lot of sympathy for them.