Shiraz (25 September 2015)
Finally I got to board the plane. It was after 1 am Doha time, which meant after 6 am Singapore time, and I had not had much sleep in the past few hours. But this surely was a small price to pay for a two-week holiday that I was finally able to give myself. And I was going to visit Iran at that!
I joined a group tour. I had been on a group tour before where I was the only Asian in the group. This group however was full of Singaporeans and some Hongkongers. That actually felt somewhat scary. I know my own species. It did not help either when I learnt that the group would comprise mostly of people who were at least 40. Would we even have anything to talk about?
The plane had barely started moving when some TVB-esque drama unfolded. One lady tried to move some bags in the compartment above me to fit hers and the owner of one of the bags, who was sitting next to me across the aisle, got upset about it. “You cannot anyhow move the bags!” she said. I could tell that the bag owner was from Hong Kong.
Shortly after the real fight started. The bag shifter had apparently stepped on the bag owner’s toes. The bag owner got really angry about it and scolded the bag shifter for not apologising. The bag shifter countered that she had stepped on her toes because she could not see behind her head.
So there would be Hongkongers in my group huh?
We arrived at Shiraz Airport at about half past 3 in the morning local time. I was kind of dreading getting off the plane because that meant me having to smile at people and say hello at that ungodly hour. I had to keep reminding myself that I could not avoid my tour mates forever. In any case we all had to disembark. Head scarves suddenly appeared like in a dream and I could no longer see the ladies’ full heads.
I sat in a corner and looked for my group while waiting for the bags to arrive, all the time making sure that S the tour leader was within my field of vision at all times. The ones I noticed all looked Singaporean. There were two couples probably in their early 40s. Then a man on his own, probably the single guy “in his late 30s or early 40s” that S had told me about, and a lady on her own. The single lady looked really familiar.
The scary “You cannot anyhow move the bags!” Hong Kong lady was there with the rest of her fellow Hongkongers. Someone who looked like another tour leader spoke to that group of Hongkongers and then went to speak to S. I panicked a little.
I mustered whatever energy I had and joined the group. It just would not do for me to be on my own. I really had to at least try to be sociable even for just a bit.
The bags finally arrived and a nicely dressed local man who spoke English really well was helping us with them. S seemed familiar with him. He sounded a little too smooth for me.
The guide for my group turned out to be a lady N. I am quite embarrassed to say that I actually felt ‘impressed’ that a lone Iranian lady was allowed to guide a tour with both men and women. Iranian society is not as repressive as one might think after all.
The “You cannot anyhow move the bags!” Hong Kong lady was in the smooth talker’s group with her friends. It also turned out that the bag shifter was in my group. Just as well for everyone I suppose.
Our first day’s programme mercifully started at 11 am. I almost did not want to go down for breakfast, since it meant that I had to get up and be ready earlier, but I wanted to see what they had to offer in terms of food.
We were each given a city map though I am not sure why. I knew that we would be driven everywhere and so there was no need at all for us to navigate the city on our way. I noticed from the map that Shiraz was a small city and if we really wanted to we could have walked to all the sights on our own. But the Singaporean agency we had booked with specialised in luxury tours. No chance on getting our shoes dirty on the streets!
The first attraction we were taken to was a local garden, the Eram Garden. It was an old garden though rather well maintained, or well refurbished depending on how one looks at it. This garden is now maintained by Shiraz University although centuries older than the University. It was built in the classical Persian style with its straight line perspectives, trees and shrubs neatly planted and a decorated structure at the end of a long water feature which split the garden into two.
The garden one was in a style used by gardens from Central Asia to Europe. I was definitely reminded of the Taj Mahal. The style had in fact started here in Iran.
What a nice way to start my visit in Iran, in a very pleasant Persian garden, if only I could find my camera. What a nice way to start my visit in Iran, with a panic moment. I had to rely on my iPhone for pictures, and I prayed hard that it would be an arrangement only for the day! I could not remember at all where I had put my camera but fortunately I could not imagine how I could have lost it either.
There were some huge cypress trees in the garden that were supposed to be quite famous. Or maybe it was the way they were laid out that was famous: two parallel rows of cypress trees almost touching each other. In Persian thought such rows of cypress trees were beautiful and poems were written about this. Unfortunately I was not tuned to think like a Persian yet and so I did not find the scene special. Beauty of course often lies in the eyes of the beholder who has been conditioned by culture.
It was time for lunch. I had barely digested my late breakfast and it was time to eat again. We were taken to a rather posh looking restaurant in town. Despite the sanctions that we all knew at least a little about, we were beginning to realise that Iran was a far wealthier country than we had thought. The restaurant could not have been cheap but it enjoyed a thriving business that day from mostly locals.
We were introduced to a salty yoghurt drink of Iran they call doogh. I did not like it. I just did not think that yoghurt ought to be salty. Well, alright I do not come from a yoghurt consuming culture so I admit that I do not know much about yoghurt in general. But I know for sure that I much preferred yoghurt that was sweet and/or sour.
I had my misgivings when I first learnt that I would be visiting the next two sights. They were the final resting places of two superstars in the Persian poetic world. I did not know them or any Persian poem. I could not even speak Farsi to begin with. Poetry is a play of words and how could I appreciate Persian poetry unless I appreciated the language first. In any case, these two superstars were Shirazi and the city was understandably proud of them.
Hafez was a 14th century poet who probably deserved more than a superstar title based on what I had heard about him. His compositions were simple and yet amazing they say. Apparently every educated Persian kept his works at home and recited them as proverbs and sayings. His sarcophagus, with beautiful calligraphy on top, is today kept in a little garden under a stone pavilion.
Next to the garden is a tiny cemetery for more ordinary folks. I suppose it must have been an honour to be buried next to a cultural megastar like Hafez.
The other Shirazi poet, Saadi, who had lived a century before Hafez, did not sound as influential although he had a much bigger garden and an actual mausoleum.
A man was singing in the mausoleum before Saadi’s sarcophagus. I did not know that it was alright to do such a thing in a place as solemn as a mausoleum. But there he was, singing as if it was the last he would ever do. N explained that he was in fact putting music to Saadi’s poetry. He was paying tribute to the great poet interred there. And according to N, the impromptu singer was actually pretty good. What a treat it was!
We had been talking about Iranian dessert before we visited Saadi’s mausoleum. And again as luck would have it, there was a faloodeh shop right across the road from the mausoleum’s entrance. N bought everyone faloodeh, a Shirazi speciality, to try.
It was a cold dessert and very refreshing in the dry heat of Iran. The white stuff was, I later found out, made of vermicelli, and the whole thing was soaked in some slushy syrup. Lemon juice and some lightly floral-scented water could be added if desired.
My first bite of the faloodeh was not too promising, though not repulsive either. It felt a little like I was eating sweetened moth balls but without the smell. I think most of my group mates felt the same way about the moth ball description. Everyone also felt that the dessert was much too sweet although it did not taste all that sweet to me. Most did not like it. I insisted that it “grows on you”.
I think I did look like I really enjoyed the dessert, much to everyone’s incredulity. So T, the other single guy, gave me his bowl. He only had one mouthful and decided that the experience was too ‘special’ for him. I finished that too, against my better judgment. The law of diminishing marginal utility then suddenly applied at a dizzying rate when I was near finishing the second bowl. Not long after I had cleaned that out, I started feeling somewhat disgusted with myself and the whole experience. I doubt that I would have faloodeh again anytime soon.
There was still some daylight left and we made our way to Shah Cheragh. We were supposed to have gone to Vakil Mosque but this was closed to visitors as it was a Friday.
Shah Cheragh was a huge shrine and mosque complex and the shrine held the tomb of two brothers who were considered martyrs by Shia Muslims. People often visited the shrine to ask for various favours.
The ladies had to put on chadors before entering the compound. The ladies looked like they were trying to hide from some imagined cold weather with long flowy blankets. We men looked drastically underdressed in comparison.
The mosque was a cavernous white space but subtle in decor.
The same however could not be said for the shrine. My eyes felt quite shell-shocked when they first set their sight on the interior of the shrine. This was in utter sharp contrast with the subtle mosque.
The walls of the shrine were covered in mirrors. Thousands upon thousands of pieces of mirror. It was sometimes difficult for me to focus on anything because of the glare in there and the many bright chandeliers in there offered no help. This shrine was said to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the country. It was however much too loud for my liking. I am not sure that it felt anything like a conducive place to pray in.
Men and women had to visit the shrine separately. The tomb was mostly on the men’s side and one side of it was part the wall separating the two sections. The men were escorted by a volunteer at the shrine while N took the ladies to their side. According to N, photography was generally not allowed in the shrine although with that volunteer we were free to take as many photos with our phones as we liked if we did it discreetly. The locals however looked hardly discreet as they snapped picture after picture without a care in the world and they were not escorted.
Still, it was interesting to see all the men praying in the shrine here and there, and people touching the tomb asking for favours. I went to touch the tomb too and asked for a lot of money. I said my wish in Mandarin so that the locals would not understand me. T thought I was mad.
I was glad to leave the glare of the shrine finally and enter the inner courtyard which was pretty with the mosaics with calligraphy and geometric patterns. This was much more attuned to my taste.
The day waned and it was time to get ready for dinner. Actually it did not feel like we had done a lot that day and we could have done a lot more. A couple from Hong Kong, AH and TH, felt that it would be a waste to spend the 1 hour before dinner at the hotel and decided to take a walk nearby instead. I thought the same way and joined them.
The Quran Gate was just outside the hotel. This used to be one of the entrances to Shiraz and it got its name because they used to house a copy of the Quran on top of the gate. Nowadays however, the area is a hang out spot for locals. That evening families sat along the pavement having dinner picnics.
I had read about Iranian hospitality and friendliness and that evening we experienced for ourselves what that meant. We were a hit with the locals. We had barely walked more than 50 metres before we had been offered tea, watermelon and potato chips. Some came up to us to ask to have photographs taken with us or just to talk to us. This is most certainly not what one might have expected to encounter in an Axis of Evil.
I just wish that more Singaporeans would come here and see how different the country was from what we have been made to believe by ridiculous misrepresentations in so many places. Before I had left Singapore, everyone who knew I was coming thought that I was stark raving mad. They insisted that it was a war zone and there was a high chance that I might be kidnapped. Someone even forwarded me a newspaper report on that mistaken gunning down of tourists in Egypt. Putting aside the appalling lack of knowledge in geography, the strong bias against that part of the world among many Singaporeans was incredible. They refused to believe me when I told them that according to many sources, which they could easily find on the internet, Iran was a safe place with hospitable people.
There was just one more bit of sightseeing to complete before dinner. N had decided to take us there at night after the crowds had left since it would most likely have been difficult or even impossible to visit with the Friday congregation in the day.
The Ali Ebne Hamzeh Mausoleum is another mausoleum of another holy man with more mirrored interiors. The blinding effect of the interior was even worse this time because we had grown accustomed to the dark of the night outside. How does one pray in peace in such a place? Or is this supposed to be penance for sins? To feel the pinch in your eyes while you pray to show that you are truly repentant for all the naughty things that you have done?
Notwithstanding the glare I took my time to gawk at the religious men praying in the shrine and fondled the tomb while asking the saint for more money to land on my lap (T had reminded me to do so). I did promise to return to thank him in person if he would make my wish come true.