Monday, October 21, 2019

Maa Iran Doostim (We are friends of Iran)

     A couple weeks ago, we left Iran after our third visit in the last 2 years.  This time we invited 6 of our friends to go with us and it seems like there are now 6 more fans of Iran that will go back to the United States and tell people what the true face of Iran is.  The group consisted of both old friends and some new ones and ended up being a great mix of people.  Like our first time, this trip was a combination of mountains and nature mixed with culture and sightseeing.  
8 Americans in Iran                          

     The first couple of days were a little nerve wracking with the news.  As we flew into Tehran is when the oil refineries blew up in Saudia Arabia.  Our cell phones were full of news as Trump threatened that America was “locked and loaded!”  While we were worried it didn’t seem to phase the Iranians a bit.  There was no rushing to the stores to stock up on supplies and no one really seemed to care.  Over the last 40 years they have seen this sort of thing multiple times and actually went through a horrific war with Iraq in the 80s so they just took it all in stride.  Most Iranians think that Trump is a paper tiger who speaks loudly but carries a small stick.  After a week or so the news mellowed out after it became apparent that neither the US or Saudia Arabia was going to risk a full-blown war.  
Normal shopping day at the bazaar

    We spent the first week hiking in the Alborz mountains.  Tochal is a ski area that is on the mountain just on the north edge of Tehran and is 13,005’ high so we spent the first 2 days climbing this peak to acclimate.  There are shelters/hotels on the mountain so we did not have to camp or really rough it in any way.  That first night we had a perfect view looking over the lights of Tehran.  
Lights of Tehran at sunset              
In the spring the hillside is green and covered in flowers but this time of year all the vegetation was dry and brown.  In the winter there is a ski area with the 2nd longest gondola in the world (over 4 ½ miles long).  People are surprised to find out that there are 25 ski areas in Iran.  
Tochal ski area gondola                 
The first day had some steep rocky sections as the trail went up a canyon past some waterfalls and the second day was just high-altitude hillside.  
Steep rocky trail                                             
and waterfalls                                                 
           Dry upper Tochal mountain                     There was a weird moment at the start of the hike where everyone’s GPS went haywire and started telling us we were going a mile every 2 minutes or so.  It didn’t matter what kind of GPS it was (2 different brands of GPS watch and a hand held GPS).  We wondered if there was some sort of electronic warfare going on.  By the end of the day many of us were feeling pretty sun baked and dehydrated.  On the summit of Tochal we met the champion Iranian SkyRunner Iman Koushki who holds the speed record up Damavand (2 hr 41min), the highest volcano in Asia at 18,403’ which was our next project.  Iman had some of his coaching clients with him that included a young guy and 2 girls.  Turned out Kathleen and her had the same running shoes (Hoka Speedgoats) so they got excited about that.  
Iman Koushki on left                

     After a rest day between mountains we then spent the next 2 days getting up and down Damavand.  Kathleen and I had attempted a ski descent of this mountain on our first trip but the weather did not cooperate.  This time the weather was perfect.  Gorgeous sunny days and even though at that altitude it is always below freezing the lack of wind and sun made it very pleasant days to climb.  The mayor of the town at the base of the mountain (Rineh) came to see us off and wish us luck.  
Mayor of Rineh                      
Slow and steady was the name of the game that day and it allowed everyone to get to the summit.  Some of us felt the altitude more than others but it turned out that out of a dozen attempts by Iran Doostan groups (our tour company) that year we were the only team to get everyone to the summit.  It was the weekend so there were a lot of Iranians but we only saw one other foreigner, a Dutch guy.   We made many more friends on the summit and Kathleen and I even had a friend (Babak) we met on our first trip drive out from Tehran and then run up the mountain to find us.  
Mount Damavand (18,403')          
Halfway up with a pile of Iranians
Sulphur covered summit cone       
On summit with our friend Babak

     We all went to the Caspian Sea after this.  Kathleen and I had been there on our first trip and thought it worthwhile to visit but that time we went there from Dizin which was closer.  From Damavand the quickest way was back to Tehran and around the mountains from the south.  This ended up being more driving and traffic which in hindsight might not have been the best use of time.
Stormy Caspian Sea                   
We got to see an ancient castle/fortress called Rudkhan which was cool and the highlight of this area.
Rudkhan Castle                         

We also visited a village, Masouleh, that people have lived in for over 1000 years.  It is a stepped village where one persons porch is the roof of the house in front of it.  This is in an area of heavily forested hills and provided a stark contrast to the desert we would soon be in.  
Masouleh Stepped Village        
In the valley below there were rice paddies, tea plantations and multiple rivers.  This area was on the rainy side of the Alborz mountains, much like Seattle is with the Cascades.  
Iran is more than desert           
One of the cultural highlights happened while we were here.  We went to a restaurant that was next to our hotel for dinner and it turned out there was an Iranian birthday party going on.  They were a group of retired teachers from Shiraz on vacation. We were invited to join and made many new friends that night and learned some interesting things about Iran.  Anyone who had a September birthday (Kathleen, Amanda, Rich) was included in their celebration. 
Iranian/American joint birthday

     After the Caspian Sea we all flew south to Shiraz and the classic tourist route of Shiraz, Persopolis, Yazd, Esfahan, and Kashan.  This ends up being a lot of mosques, fancy houses, palaces, and gardens.  
Naranjestan Qavan, Shiraz          
Naqsh-e Rostam Tombs              
Tomb of Cyrus, Persargadae       
Wind catchers, Yazd                    
Towers of Silence, Yazd              
Zorastorian flame from 470A.D.
Si-o-seh Pol (bridge), Esfahan    
Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Esfahan  

By the end of 6 days of cramming a lot of sights in they all start to blur together.  Everyone was pretty mosqued out, especially Kathleen and I who had seen most of these before.  Yazd was a new city for us which is a cool ancient town.  The old city seems like it is from a different world at times.  Also seeing this many towns in this short of period meant a lot of time being driven in our bus.  Iran is the 16th largest country in the world so there are large stretches of road between the cities.  At least our bus was comfortable.  am
Excellent driver Amin                
Depending on the town and how conservative it was, people would get up in the morning and go for a jog.  In the parks there would be Iranians working out also – jogging, exercise classes, calisthenics, volleyball, and speed walking.  The women still have to be covered so long pants, sleeves, and head covering are mandatory.  One of our group would wear shorts and didn’t have any problems but one time when Kathleen was running, she was stopped by the Morality Police.  There is a special police force in Iran that enforces the Islamic rules.  Despite having her hair covered and long pants/sleeves she apparently had too much of her neck exposed.  We were stopped and politely told that this was inappropriate and that it needed to be fixed.  
Coed Iranian running club      
Another fascinating incident saw that says a lot about Iran was an attempted purse snatching while in Shiraz.  Iran is listed as one of the safest countries to travel (except by the US government) and is considered to be safer than Europe.  The biggest risk actually is riding in a car or crossing the street.   Purse snatching or pickpocketing is the biggest threat.  While in Shiraz from a restaurant window we witnessed an attempted purse snatching.  The lady held on to her bag and yelled.  Within 30 seconds a dozen Iranian men had tackled the guy.  By the time the police arrived the crowd had grown to about 50 people and they had beat him up a bit.  The cops had to rescue the guy.  We had been told that if you ever have a problem just to yell and make noise and people will come help and this very much turned out to be true.

     After 16 days everyone flew home.  Kathleen and I stayed an extra 1 ½ weeks to explore a new part of Iran that we hadn’t seen.  We flew to Kashan in southeast Iran.  We explored there and the city of Bam where there is a huge citadel though much of the city and ruins was destroyed in a massive earthquake in 2003 that killed over 26,000 people in the town.  
Bam Citadel                    
Ruins of Bam                  
We then spent two days exploring the Lut desert.  There is an area called the Kalouts where the sandstone has been eroded by wind and water into fantastic formations.  It reminded us of parts of Utah or Arizona but was also unique in its own right.  We were able to run in the desert in the morning.  By mid-morning it became incredibly hot there with temperatures well over 100F.  In the middle of the desert the surface of the sand has been measured at 159F in the summer.  It is the hottest place on earth.  The owner of the ecolodge we stayed at told us that he has cooked eggs by just leaving them in the sun but that next summer he wants to try cooking an entire chicken.  Early morning, late afternoon, and night time was when you could do something.  In the afternoon we would siesta and hide out in the air conditioning. 
Kalouts, Lut Desert                  
Lut PanBorama                         
Breakfast with a view               
Remnants of last springs floods

    Our last days were in Mashhad which is the holiest city for Shia Islam outside Mecca/Medina in Saudi Arabia.  There is a huge shrine there and the Islamic Republic government has put a lot of money into this city so it was very modern with a lot of construction going on.  We also spent a night in another ancient village called Kang where people have lived for over 2000 years. 
Kang reminded us of Nepal in ways

     Once again, we were met with 100% hospitality and generosity on this trip.  The Iranian people are fascinated to meet Americans and we have never come across any hostility even when talking to police, army men, clerics, and religious men.  Everyone is glad we are visiting their country and welcomes us.  While many people do not support the American government, it is one of the most pro-American countries we have ever visited.  If you get a chance to visit Iran we highly recommend it.  It is a fascinating and confusing country that proves that government and the people often have nothing to do with each other.