Doğubeyazit to Istanbul, Turkey
Standing at the Esenler bus terminal in Istanbul after a 23-hour bus journey, I felt a sense of going full circle.
Istanbul is the endpoint I had in mind for this journey, a city straddling both Asia and Europe, and the Silk Road to its most logical conclusion. While finally reaching it is still an accomplishment I can be proud of, it felt a little anticlimatic, given that I skipped the rest of Turkey yet again and took a direct bus over. But four years ago, I found myself at this very station, taking a bus to whatever was available and feasible (which ended up being Macedonia and Kosovo) in a moment of grief for a friend lost days before our reunion and intended trip. But at the same time, I was confounded by this bus station, with destinations every which way — to Europe, but also eastwards towards Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and connections to other points further. I saw flags around that I didn’t recognise. It may seem tenuous as I didn’t visit any of those places save for Iran, but it really was that one glimmer of curiosity that planted the seeds for this Silk Road trip.
But anyways, where did I leave off? Right, Iran. After crossing into Turkey, I made a brief stop in Doğubeyazit, the town closest to the border.
Sanandaj to Tabriz, Iran
The words “Kurdistan” and “Azerbaijan” typically don’t bring Iran to mind. Kurds are often associated with separatist movements in the countries they live in: Turkey (where the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK, engage in acts of terrorism), Syria, and Iraq (where there’s already the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region). Azerbaijan… well, they already have a country to the north of Iran.
To my pleasant surprise, both of these minority groups seem generally happy as part of Iran. (There is still a Kurdish movement for autonomy/independence and incidents of violence, but much smaller than those of neighbouring countries.) Locals are as nice as always as in the rest of Iran, if not nicer, and as much as I heard “welcome to Kurdistan” and “welcome to Azerbaijan,” from my experience, they’d happily add “welcome to Iran!” in the same breath.
After Uzbekistan and Shiraz, I’ve probably seen enough blue-tiled mosques for a lifetime. But even to the jaded eye, Esfahan enthralls.
The most dominant landmark in Esfahan is the Naqsh-e Jahan Square (also Imam Square), the second-largest square in the world after Tiananmen in Beijing. Surrounded by the bazaar and several mosques and palaces, and filled in with fountains, topiaries, and plenty of green space, it’s the centre of activity in the city and full of locals and tourists alike, especially in the late afternoon. It’s great to see such a large public space be used as such: picnickers, bikers, horse carriages, and pedestrians are all active even after dark.
Yazd to Shiraz, Iran
It was quite refreshing to leave Mashhad for Yazd. Skipping over the desert in an overnight bus, I woke up to an old city of mud walls and badgirs (wind towers, designed for the hot desert summers). Though a little empty, perhaps due to the late time of year, the people there were much friendlier, beginning a trend I would see magnified to the highest level while continuing through Iran.
I also reunited with Tom, who I had travelled with in Uzbekistan. While sights in Yazd are few and the old city relatively comparable to those in Uzbekistan, we still found some enjoyment in wandering around and taking in the vibe, even if we admittedly didn’t find it all that interesting.
After a rooftop sunset and an evening at a zurkhandeh, a somewhat touristy spectacle where we watched people exercise in rhythm to an Islamic prayer, an hour involving drums, singing, weights, shields, chains, and a whole lot of spinning, we set off the next day for a little day trip around the area. Zipping through the desert, we made a quick stop to wander through the ruins of Kharanagh village, a rather underwhelming stop at the Zoroastrian cliffside temple of Chak Chak, and visited an Sassanian-era mud fortress in Meybod that could date all the way back to the 1st century AD, before returning to Yazd to take the first bus to Shiraz the next day.
Iran has two very wildly diverging reputations in the world.
To the Western powers and its media, Iran is the enemy. A state sponsor of organisations deemed terrorist, anti-American and anti-Israel. Located smack in the center of the Middle East, stoking up conflicts, secretive with nuclear ambitions. Anti-women, forcing all of them (whether local or foreigner) to wear a hijab, enforcing gender segregation. A theocratic regime enforcing Islamic principles on all its people regardless of religion, with “religious police” running around.
To virtually any traveller you meet, Iran is the nicest country in the world, hoping to break free. The sights are beautiful, the country safe, and the locals keen to counter the ridiculous claim that they’re terrorists: in welcoming foreigners with legendary friendliness, helpfulness, and hospitality far beyond what you’ve ever encountered elsewhere; in the youth pushing the limits of Islamic dress and straining against the theocracy, partaking in banned social mores (drinks, drugs, sex) behind closed doors; in the wishes for reform and aspirations to be friendly to the West.
And so, my first impression was confusing.