By Antony Bambrough
Photos by Wendy Gootjes
It was an idle day a few years ago when I decided to travel to Iran- a place one simply does not go to alone.
I did a lot of research on just trying to get a visa on an American passport, only to find out that with very few exceptions an American passport holder must travel with a guide, solo or otherwise. My only option then was to reapply for my Australian citizenship, the country of my birth. 6 months of waiting gave me what I wanted the most, a passport and the opportunity to get that elusive visa.
During the course of planning my trip with the help of those lucky travelers who had written about their trips on the excellent travel website Lonely planet, I had developed an e-mail correspondence with a Tehrani couple, Farnaz and Payam, who helped me finalize my plans with timely calls to hotels and Iran Air.
I decided the best option for me was to fly Iran Air from Frankfurt in order to arrive at a suitable hour to be met by my two new friends. On our descent into Tehran I felt quite confident that going through customs would be not much more than a formality. I had my passport stamped, and I was through! I was greeted by Farnaz and her husband Payam at arrivals and off we went to my hotel.
The following two days we visited the Shah's palace and Golestan place. They were quite spectacular with their rooms of bejeweled mirrors and ornate furnishings. The grounds of both were quite wheelchair accessible, and I could do quite well on my own. The next day I took a taxi to the airport for the midday flight to Kerman.
Kerman is located in south central Iran, and as I was riding in the taxi to my hotel, I felt I was in the depths of the country. The hotel had 6 or 7 steps in front, but the manager rounded up some employees and together they lifted me into the lobby as if they had done this many times before, although I hope was the first to experience such ceremony.
Later that day, I was lifted down the steps and off I headed toward the bazaar. It is quite old, some parts of the ceiling hundreds of years old. Continuing through the bazaar, I felt a light hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see it was a university student dressed in a black chador from head to toe. She introduced herself, and just wanted to speak some English. She spoke somewhat haltingly, but I had no problem understanding her. . She asked me my name, my job, and my impressions of Iran. These were, I learned in time, to be standard questions.
It was nice that we could talk so freely. I did not think Iran was the kind of country where a woman would initiate a conversation with a stranger.
On the way back I met a man at his shop who actually went to university in the state of Minnesota, a state I lived in for many years.. Needless to say, we struck up a good conversation, and he invited me to go with him and his family to an outdoor flower show that evening. The show was for both flower and plant enthusiasts and people who just wanted to go out for an evening walk. I was accosted by a steady stream of university students, both men and women, who just wanted to speak a little English.
My day trip out of Kerman took me to the town of Mahan, the site of a very impressive and old mosque. It was also the first mosque I had ever entered. I managed to get over a step or two to get in, but it was worth the effort. I was free to wheel anywhere I liked, no questions asked. Later, on the sun splashed courtyard, I shared an ice cream with a local family who were also having a look around.
The next adventure was to get on a bus bound for Yazd. After my taxi driver found which bus I should take, I waited in the terminal, ticket in hand. When it was time to board the bus, I "sat" myself up the two steps and managed to climb into the nearest seat. I had folded the wheelchair and entrusted the employees to put chair and luggage underneath.
The bus was ¾ full, men and women sitting quietly sipping tea and snacking on biscuits that were provided to us. We arrived in the evening to the distinct sounds of the call to prayer. It was the first time I could clearly hear it from a nearby mosque. The steward got my wheelchair ready and wheeled me over to the taxi rank. We drove to the old city and I got off in front of my hotel, just next to the Friday mosque. I could not be placed in a better location.
After a restful night and a full breakfast, I was lifted to the street and I wheeled off to take a long look inside the Friday mosque. I "hopped" over a step here and there, but help was never far away. As a matter of fact. The caretaker, a very old man, noticed me and pushed me slowly around the entire mosque and its courtyard. I believe he felt obligated as an Islamic duty. What I appreciated about this mosque and subsequently others was that one could walk anywhere amongst people at prayer, yet feel a solitude and calming effect all mosques seemed to provide.
The following day I took a taxi to the Towers of Silence, a group of Zoroastrian burial mounds and other small buildings. They are located just on the southern outskirts of Yazd, resting quietly on an expanse of gravel. I was able to maneuver on my two back wheels as the two small front ones got caught in the looser soil. It took some time and effort, but over the course of 1 hour I saw everything I needed to see. It was eerily quiet, partly because I had the whole site to myself.
Next stop Shiraz. Fortunately, I was able to organize a ride from a couple from Europe in a private car. I met them at their hotel and we had a nice drive to our respective hotels. I invited my new acquaintances to dinner that night, and we made plans to hire a car and driver to Naqsh e Rostam and Persopolis.
We first stopped off at Naqsh e Rostam, a series of Elamite rock carvings depicting the tombs of Darius 1 and 2, Ataxerxes 1, and Xerxes 2. Although the ground was a bit uneven, I could manage quire well, and I was able to see everything easily. We had the place to ourselves as well, giving a very peaceful feeling amongst the giant rock engravings. An hour later we were on our way to nearby Persepolis.
Our helpful driver from Pars travel agency dropped off my companions in front of Persepolis, and our driver and I went to the side so I could enter without going up steps. We met up, and our guide walked with us as we went around the home of the Achaemenid empire. We explored the main attractions-the court of Apadana, the Apadana staircase, and the many structures depicting kings and members of their court. We left as the sun was setting over the sire, and it was quite beautiful in the waning light.
While in Shiraz I decided to pay homage to Hafez, one of Persia's most revered poets who roamed the city in the 14th century. A few visitors lifted me up the 3 steps onto the grounds. I wheeled through the small courtyard up a ramp which led me to Hafez' burial spot. There I noticed several people who were visibly moved while paying their respects to this great man.
My last destination before Tehran was Isfahan. Again, I took the bus. The station in Shiraz is very large and busy. Fortunately, the taxi driver took the time to locate the correct bus for me. Another quiet trip, The steward was very attentive, supplying me with cups of tea and glasses of water. When I arrived, I was whisked off to the taxi rank, and soon I was at my hotel, conveniently located close to the Emam mosque.
The first foray into the streets of Isfahan brought me into a sports shop where I thought of buying some sneakers. As I was about to make an attempt to discuss this with the shopkeeper, a university student followed me in and offered to help me decide the style I might like and my shoe size. What might have been a lengthy discussion about shoes turned out to be quick and painless, thanks to her.
My first excursion in town was to try to follow a map to the Friday mosque. I did not get there directly, but I eventually found my way. I discovered that I could enter the mosque via a ramp which was flanked by merchants selling their wares. I wheeled in and spent a couple of hours exploring some of the best examples of Islamic architecture ranging from the 11th to the 18th century.
The highlight of Isfahan for me was spending time in the Emam mosque and its busy rectangular shaped grounds. I was given an informal tour by a student who led me around this 17th century mosque. Around the courtyard one can find quite a few shopkeepers selling carpets, jewelry, and trinkets for taking home. I bought myself a dagger with some engraving on the blade, a couple of ornate jewelry boxes, and a wall hanging for very little money.
I especially enjoyed my Friday evening in the Emam courtyard. It is a very long area with lots of grass to sit on and enjoy a picnic. Surrounding this grassy area is a pebbled path where it is possible to take a horse and buggy ride. This was the best opportunity to see people relaxing and having fun before heading back to work on Saturday. Isfahan was a thoroughly enjoyable city. I would have liked to have stayed longer, but it was time to return to Tehran, and then home.
Looking back on my trip I realized I was one of the few who had traveled to a country that is looked at more with suspicion than with curiosity. However, the saying that "seeing is believing" is especially appropriate for Iran. In every town and city I was made to feel very welcome in a typically gracious manner. I would recommend a trip to experience an unforgettable journey.
About the author:
Antony Bambrough, 46, lives in New Jersey,(next to New York City) and works as a substitute teacher in his town of Fort Lee ,NJ. "I like to swim, read, and watch soccer. I hope Iran gets into the World Cup!"
... Payvand News - 4/25/05 ... --