> On The Silk Road - Mashad


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Across to Iran and everything changes. On the Iran side there is a brand new, aircon customs hall with no-one in it but an eagle-eyed intelligense man. He disappears with my passport for 30 minutes and then grills Hamid (the fixer for Iran) about whether I am a spy. Hamid tells me later that for some reason they are paranoid about brits at the moment (more so than yanks)! The intelligense guy lets me go and there is the now rictual Examination of Carpets by customs (I think my name must appear on a list of known carpet smugglers) and we are off. The Intelligense guy actuall phones all the check-points and tells them to stop us and make sure I am still in the car! We even have to stop and wake one set of guards up - they fell asleep waiting for us:)

On the way (about 200k) there are some amazing desert mountain scenary and a well preserved silk road caravanserie.

Mashad is the most holy shrine in Iran and a point of pilgrimage for Shiite muslims. A pleasant place of trees and avenues. It is a relief to get away from the Stalinist architecture!

Went to a very "as seen in Lonely Planet" teahouse last night - but it was still a pleasant place for chai, sweets and a water pipe :) On the way home - pilgrimes were setting up tents in the parks for the night and everyone is very pleasant and nice.

I forgot to mention the interesting discussion with Hamid about whether Animal Farm or 1984 is a better description of this country! He thought Animal Farm! (he started the conversation as well).

I also forgot to mention being served last night by someone so similar to a famous author of iran descent not popular in his native country - that I almost asked how his next book was going.

Mashad is an attractive but not stunningly interesting place. The only attraction is the tomb of imam Raza (the eighth shiite imam). More about this later.

This morning I spent about 1 hour looking for the internet. I had turned down the offer of a guide from hamid and I think the gods of travel were angry - anyway it is difficult when the only persian you know is "coffenet koja st" (where is the internet cafe) in a country where they are not sufficiently tourist savvy to understand that you cannot understand a long description!

After that - I went back to the "as featured in lonely planet" teahouse to see if salm ... the waiter had finished his next book and to get some food. Spent about 1 hour trying to persuade them that I actually wanted something more than tea (the gods must have been really angry) and finally got some abgosht - a wonderfull soup stew mix (you get a watery sort of stew - take the meat, potates and chick peas out and what is left is a soup. Beak the bread into the soup. Grind up the stewy bits in a handy pestle that is provide and spread on more bread eat with tea and pistachio and salad and honey/almond sort of sweet things).

After that I head for the SITE in mashad. The tomb is a huge complex that takes the whole centre of town and is mostly still being built. There are a few Timurid era buildngs at the centre but they are off limits to non-muslims and there are all sorts of restrictions about the rest I approach a huge building site surrounded but religous guards - decide better of it (how religous guards can look formidable when they are using rainbow coloured polyester featherdusters to direct people I do not know - but they managed it!) and slid around the corner where I bumped into the genuine article teahouse and spent the hot part of the day with a waterpipe and tea joking with the lads in international sign language (well - actually they were doing most of the joking and I think I was the butt of most of them).

So far I have really enjoyed Iran and found it be a very friendly place with excellant roads (that was such a relief ...) and very modern.

I know - I can feel some blood boiling in the female side of the distribution list and muttering of oppresion and hejab. I cannot argue - but over all the atmosphere is lot better than a lot of countries and there are women in all sorts of jobs - just dressed in the full black outfit.

Incidently - that is yet another reason for not bringing G on this trip - she would be in prison by now for attacking a religous personage with her umbrella. Actually - that would not be an issue since she would already be in prison in Uzbekhistan for poking one too many farmers with the umbrella and informing them in strident tones that "that donkey is overloaded - my man" :)

Saw my first Persia cat yesterday - only it was not Persia, more a sort of tabby tom with fghters shoulders!