“Welcome to Iran”

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It was an early start for our drive to the Iranian border and then on to Mashhad, as we needed to be there before noon.

The roads as usual made the going slower.

It was harder to get out of Turkmenistan than it was to get into Iran, as there was the usual formalities, questioning and searching. I never did find out what they were searching for.

The customs officer on the Iranian side was obviously a football fan. He had great pleasure in reminding us that even though Australia and Iran drew, 2-2 in their 1997 final group game at the MCG. Iran then went on to play in the World Cup in 1998 and Australia didn’t.

He obviously had a long memory.

Needles to say, after a certain amount of harmless gloating, we easily passed through the baggage search.

The roads in Iran were a vast improvement on what we had experienced in all the Stans, especially Turkmenistan.

And so were the drivers.

We had been told that it was a free-for-all in Iran and I was expecting the chaos we had experienced in China.

It was nothing like that.

Our first stop was Mashhad which has a population of 3 million, but over a year 20 million pilgrims come to visit the Imam Riza Shrine. This is the holiest place in Iran and one of the the most important in the Shi’ite Muslim world.

It has been levelled and rebuilt countless times over the centuries. The current complex is huge covering 598,657 square meters and contains the largest mosque in the world.

No cameras are allowed in the shine however you can still use your mobile phone to take snaps. As a memento we were also given a boxed set of glossy photos.

Thea had to wear a white Chardor. This made her look even more like a tourist as she was a splash of white in a sea of black.

We were ushered around by our guide Hadi, the first stop being the ‘Foreign Pilgrims Assistance Office’ where we were shown an introductory video. He is a volunteer at the shine and a devout Muslim.

He made sure we didn’t miss a thing.

Hadi was a guide who came with more than just knowledge. For the two days he was with us he provided tea and and a variety of biscuits breads and sweets.

He insisted we try everything and then have seconds – there was no refusing Hadi.

His son was our driver and he would prepare the tea while we were off sightseeing.

The poets of Iran are revered almost as much as the spiritual leaders and therefore their tombs are high on the agenda of places to visit.

Our first poet experience was the Ferdowsi (940-1020) Mausoleum at Tush. It was started in 1305 AD and has undergone many repairs and restorations since then. The current building is an elegant marble edifice, constructed in 1964, with a distinctive Art Deco feel. The crypt is spacious with high-relief sculptures of his stories, all in a Monumental style.

Ferdowsi was a highly regarded persian poet who wrote the Book of Kings, the worlds’s longest epic poem.

Just near the Ferdosi Mausoleum is the Razan Gate, a preserved part of the Tush fortifications. Unfortunately these weren’t strong enough to stop the Tamerlane forces in 1389, who subsequently sacked the city.

In Neishapur we visited the Tomb of Omar Khayyam (1047-1123) the famous Iranian mathematician, poet, historian, astronomer and all round Renaissance Man, centuries before that period. His tomb is a ten pointed decagram in a very 70s style.

We also went to the tomb of Sheikh Attar, also known as Attar of Neishapur (1145-1221) He was a Persian Muslim poet, theoretician of Sufism (the mystical dimensions of Islam) and Hagiographer (concerning those with secret powers). Little is known about Attar and it wasn’t until the 15th century that he really became famous.

From the moment we set foot in Iran we were made to feel at home.

For months people had been questioning our need to visit this ‘Islamic hot spot. It’s a country that is portrayed by western media as an evil society, hell bent on destroying the west and all that it stands for.

Nothing is further from the truth, well at least as far as the people are concerned. They welcome westerners and you are constantly greeted by an enthusiastic ‘Welcome to Iran”

Yes there are differences, but accepting those differences is part of being a traveller. You learn not to judge but to observe and to adjust.

A friend, who lives in Switzerland, once said: “A meal without alcohol is breakfast.”

Iran is an Islamic state and alcohol is banned, so for seventeen days every meal was breakfast.

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