I enter Iran via the Bajgiran border with Turkmenistan. They accept my visa without issue. The customs officer is a friendly barrel-shaped man who has only one question: “Do you have any drugs or guns?” When I affirm that I do not, he lets me pass without a bag inspection. I cross into Iran with nary a trouble—the first of many surprises I will encounter in this misunderstood country.
Meet my minders
The government of Iran closely controls who enters the country, and access is particularly restrictive for Americans, Brits, and Canadians. A stipulation for citizens of these three countries is that a certified guide must accompany us at all times. I’m not entirely sure what this accomplishes—after all, I doubt a Canadian tourist is any more likely to undermine the regime or steal nuclear secrets than a French one—but rules are rules, so I was forced to book a fully-planned tour and hire a private guide.
I am met at the border by my father, Tom, who flew into Mashhad airport earlier in the morning, and will be accompanying me on my two-week tour of Iran. He is flanked by our guide, Ehsan, and our driver, Mr. Mamsoori. Why are the guide and driver not the same person? I don’t know either.
We drive down from the mountains into northeastern Iran. Our first stop is the city of Mashhad, Iran’s second most populous city (after Tehran), and its holiest.
Pilgrimage to Mashhad
According to the Shi’ite faith, eighth Imam to follow Mohammed was Imam Reza. He died near Mashhad (some say he was poisoned), and the mosque that surrounds his tomb is the largest in the world. Being both an imam and a martyr has made Reza a very popular figure indeed, and millions of Shi’ite Muslims make the pilgrimage to his tomb each year.
The super-sized complex of mosques and squares that surrounds Reza’s tomb is vast and beautiful. The space is fairly quiet when we visit, but I’m told that in busy periods the squares can be entirely filled with praying pilgrims. Non-Muslims are technically not permitted to enter the main mosque, but we are not stopped when we remove our shoes and enter the building. Ehsan reassures us that as long as we act respectful, we probably won’t be evicted or jailed. Oh, and if anyone asks, we’re Sunni Muslims from the Netherlands.
We go in search of an English language pamphlet and end up inside a big room with a video screen and stacks of books overseen by a narrow spectacled man.
“Hello. Where are you from?” he asks in English.
“We’re from the Netherlands,” I reply.
After watching a video explaining the details of Imam Reza and his tomb (thankfully in English, not Dutch), the narrow man gifts me a sort of handbook (I call it The Shi’ite Faith for Sunni Dummies) and ten beautiful postcard-sized photographs of the tomb and surrounding mosque. “Photos are not allowed inside,” he explains, “so we give you these.” He sighs that there is much misconception about Shi’ite Islam in the world, and that education and awareness are the best tools to combat extremism and hatred.
In fact, it’s cameras that are not permitted in the Imam Reza mosque, but taking photos with a cell phone is apparently acceptable, and I’m glad, because the mosque is absolutely stunning. The ceilings and walls are covered with intricate mirrored tiles angled to scatter the light like a thousand crystal chandeliers. Men bow to pray in the many carpeted alcoves and chambers; women pray in a separate set of rooms. In the center is the tomb of Imam Reza, surrounded by ornate metal lattice. I watch as pilgrims intertwine their fingers with the lattice and quietly weep for their lost leader of 1200 years ago.
An almost-abandoned village
We drive outside of Mashhad to the village of Kang, a tumbledown collection of old mud brick buildings on a steep slope. The village is largely abandoned, with only 20% of its original population remaining, the rest having moved to the more prosperous cities. Those who remain are very poor, surviving mainly as hired agricultural labourers. Chickens roam the streets at will, and the occasional donkey lumbers by, lead by its owner. Otherwise we are alone.
While wandering the steep stone alleys we meet a woman and her elderly mother. They invite us to join them in their home for tea and a light lunch in exchange for 50,000 rials (approximately $1.50 USD). She and her three children live in a dark mud brick hovel that shares a wall with the new mosque. We are lead onto the slanted balcony and take a seat on some threadbare pillows. The mother brings us a pot of herbal tea made from hand-collected flowers and leaves, as well as dishes of walnuts, mulberries, and dried apple. We open the walnuts by smashing their shells with a metal pestle. The children look on curiously, and are delighted to see photographs of themselves on our cameras. I wonder whether they too will leave the village to seek the opportunities of the city, eventually leaving Kang to the ghosts.
Iran is a country of contradictions
When I first crossed the border into Iran I was ushered into a small room in the customs hall to buy health insurance. All tourists in Iran must purchase a policy, the agent insisted, regardless of where they have other coverage. Sure enough, a sign stuck to the wall of the customs hall said that all tourists must buy the local insurance. No matter—the $8 USD fee seemed reasonable for the full suite of benefits afforded.
I ask my father whether he was required to purchase the same insurance. He was not. When I mention this to the guide he gives me a puzzled look. Is it a scam? No, he says, after inspecting the paperwork, it’s quite legitimate. We visit the local branch of the insurance provider to purchase the same coverage for my father. The agent is nonplussed—he has never heard of it. After 15 minutes of phone calls and animated conversation, the agent informs us that mandatory tourist travel insurance does in fact exist, but he doesn’t know how to sell it to us. Never mind, we decide.
“Iran,” Ehsan informs us sagely, “is a country of contradictions.”
And is it ever. Ehsan’s words should be emblazoned above the border crossings: Welcome to Iran, the country of contradictions. It should be stamped on coins. It should be adopted by UN resolution.
Take our guide and driver, for instance. The Iranian government requires that Canadian tourists be watched by a certified guide at all times, presumably to protect the country from espionage and sabotage. But our assigned guide is young and modern, with little love for the regime, a liberal outlook, and aspirations to emigrate to the USA—exactly the sort of ideals that undermine the theocratic government that certified him. Our driver is assigned the task of taking us from place to place, both within cities and between them. But he hasn’t the slightest idea where anything is, doesn’t own a map, and is flummoxed by the GPS. (Nonetheless, our driver is a delightful person, always ready to please us with an impromptu roadside coffee-and-cookie picnic. He’s just a terrible navigator.)
Ordering food at a restaurant is particularly arduous. Regardless of what you order, the server usually must make a quick round trip to the kitchen before informing you that whatever you ordered is sold out. Once you settle on something that they do have (invariably a type of kabab), they then proceed to bring you a series of things that you didn’t order. Once when I ordered a chicken kabab I was brought a salad, tubs of yougurt, a beef kabab, and four cans of Pepsi—everything the restaurant offered, except what I ordered. Paying is equally difficult because the person at the cash never knows what you ordered, and rarely knows how much the items cost anyway. It’s not clear whether you are supposed to pay before or after eating, and trying to do either always results in confusion. Tax and/or tip are sometimes, but not always, included in the menu’s prices, and even after the bill is printed it’s unclear. All told, it usually takes longer to pay for the meal than it does to eat it.