The End

And so it comes to this.

Almost six months of wending my way through the most unknown, most ignored parts of the world and I am almost at my final destination: Istanbul.

I’m on the slow train from Tabriz to Ankara – three days of increasingly frightening toilets, making friends in the corridor who, later, bring me plates of fruit and refuse to share my kilo of pistachios (they claim to have their own), and learning not a word of Turkish.

I’m surrounded by Turks, Baha’i Iranians taking their kids to school in Ankara, and Azeris from the north of Iran and from Azerbaijan proper.

With the latter I revived my failing Russian with a woman from Baku, and fell into rudimentary Farsi with the Azeri Iranians in my compartment (our accents defied much mutual comprehension).

It’s the opposite extreme to how I began, in China, unable to say much beyond “how much is it”, and surrounded by people who, although some wanted to talk, communicated in such a fundamentally different way to me that conversation was effectively impossible.

The sightseeing was incidental, and although I did force myself to see the obvious sights – the Terracotta Warriors, Samarkand, Persepolis in Iran – it was the unusual, sometimes crazy, often loveable, sometimes irritating characters (local and tourists) I met along the way who I will remember.

Some of them inspired me to comment. Others, although making a significant impression on me, weren’t interesting enough for a mention. Moreover, I held back from public naming for reasons of fairness, embarrassment or personal safety.

Even though I never had any problems with police, the only country I travelled through that doesn’t routinely disappear people was Kyrgyzstan (Turkey isn’t included in this list).

In saying that, this was still less a holiday than an ego trip.

Being “that crazy New Zealander who went to the Stans and Iran by herself ” in the hostels in Istanbul, as admiring (usually Australian) backpackers asked me to repeat stories and vow they’d never, ever be able to do something that brave, is quite a fillip to the ego.

Then there’s the knowledge that I did it: I bested five dictatorships (China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran) and one shaky democracy in the visa stakes, and occasionally in things they’d much rather I didn’t. Drinking alcohol in Iran, for example, and finding out the worsening social situation in Uzbekistan are two.

But I’ve also heard some horrific stories that I was lucky to avoid.

Stories such as my friend the Australian cyclist Dhieu who had to go into hiding in Uzbekistan thanks to a mix-up in the authoritarian bureaucracy almost had him deported, or the German man who was secretly jailed for two weeks by the Iranian secret police, the Basiji, who accused him of being an Israeli spy on the basis of being lost in central Tehran with a French tourist who had a Lonely Planet PDF on his computer.

There were the Uyghurs who were terrified of speaking out about their situation for fear of persecution (this post is from Urumqi but the situation is the same throughout Xinjiang province), and the Pamiris in Khorog who suffered again from the heavy military hand of their fearful dictator just as I was leaving the Tajiki mountain outpost.

These stories always caused we independent tourists to stop and consider whether we were becoming too comfortable in these seemingly welcoming countries. Usually the answer was, “probably, but I’ll deal with it if or when something happens”.

And now I’m sitting in the uber security of an Istanbulian hostel’s rooftop bar.

There’s a wide choice of beer and western spirits to hand and music playing that passed me by while I was in isolation, thanks to an Internet connection that is functional instead of a source of irate conversation; the mostly Australian backpackers ignore the Bosphorus views and discuss the best European countries in which to get the most boozed for your buck (it’s still Serbia).

I’m back, and it’s the most surreal part of my trip so far.

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Refugee train

Before I left for China I’d joked that I’d enter Europe as a refugee, saying that I’d jump on a leaky boat from Africa to London when I ran out of money.

Instead, I’m coming into Turkey on a train from Iran, chock full of Baha’i refugees on their way to Ankara.

The Iranian government, believe it or not, tolerates Jews and Christians because it views them as wayward sibling religions with which Islam shares a common history.

Baha’is, however, are not acceptable.

The Baha’i religion started in the 1840s as a reformist Shia sect. The founder, The Bab, preached equality between men and women and peace amongst all mankind, and was executed in 1850 by highly unimpressed Iranian authorities.

Today, Baha’i believers are the most persecuted of all religious minorities in Iran. Luckily for them they are no longer summarily executed and imprisoned for merely believing, as they were 30 years ago, but they can’t attend university, aren’t allowed to work for the government, and the police are allowed to raid their private businesses and confiscate property at will.

It’s nasty stuff and as a result the weekly Tehran-Ankara train is full of families getting their young children out of the country, university students seeking refuge in order to continue their studies, and people visiting brothers and sisters who have already left.

Australian MPs would be appalled that people who could afford a train ticket and looked like regular, middle class folk would be allowed to claim refugee status, but that says more about their lack of humanity and common sense than it does about these refugees.

I got on the refugee train in Tabriz, northern Iran, and shared a compartment with three cheerful women who spent the whole trip cackling away at some great joke and feeding me.

They were Baha’i and off to see their two sons and one daughter who were about to leave Turkey for US universities.

The next day as I was gazing out the window in the corridor a lady struck up a conversation with me. Her husband was a former banker and they were taking their two young sons out of Iran to go to school in Ankara, before departing on a world tour to see their two daughters already in university in the US.

It was the same with the Azeri-Iranians I met at midnight on the boat across the lake at Van, and they all had one thing to say: “Iran, bad. Turkey good.”

I was a little confused in all these conversations. I knew the Baha’is were persecuted, but not how much or why, until Fatima, a young woman visiting the brother and sister who’d already escaped, explained why.

Over a glass of wine (me, not her) in the restaurant car, she said basically the government thinks the Baha’i are making it up.

Furthermore, because Baha’ism is rooted in Shiism, the country’s religion, the ayatollahs reckon it could give people funny ideas more easily than religious rivals Christianity and Judaism.

Fatima had teamed up with two other young women who were taking the plunge. One, Bashari, was accompanied by her aunt and said she was leaving after some lecturers at her university, BIHE (Baha’i Institute of Higher Education and the only one Baha’i believers are allowed to attend) were arrested.

Degrees from this uni aren’t recognised in Iran so graduates can’t get jobs even in private companies, but foreign universities in the US, Europe and Canada do.

“I don’t plan on returning to Iran. I don’t have any good memories there,” Bashari says. Not surprising since recently several of her aunt’s relatives were arrested for communicating (read: proselytising) with Muslims, allegations which may or may not be true.

I asked Fatima if the Iranian government made it difficult for Baha’is to leave and seek refugee status. Na, she said, they don’t want us anyway.

As a heathen infidel, my first thought was why not just say you’re a Muslim and worship undercover?

But having spent the last four months in countries where the appearance, at least, of religious devotion is the norm, I’m aware of how difficult that is, especially in a country like Iran where people wear their religion on their sleeve.

It’d be like going on an extreme diet in secret: you’d have to eat normally in front of your friends yet try to stick to the strict regime without anyone finding out.

So the only realistic option for many young people is to become refugees. They have no education and job prospects in Iran, a real risk of being arrested for conspiring to proselytise, and why stay in a country that doesn’t want you anyway?

Land of cream and honey

“Haji! Lotfan, shir wa khame-asal!”

The young waiter acknowledges the man with a flick of an eyebrow and shortly whips across the room with a tray prepared by his father, the haji, pausing to pour a cup of hot shir on the way.

This is Rahnama dairy in the Tabriz bazaar, the main town in the north of Iran. It’s the most unusual eatery I’ve been to in Iran, because it doesn’t serve tea, nor the ubiquitous peasant stew dizi or kebabs.

Click here to find out what it does serve, and delicious it was too.

Tabriz: cow town

It’s a cafe that screams cool. Or it would if I could be sure the cans of sweet corn and aloe vera juice stacked artfully along the walls were ironic, rather than practical decoration.

Young women in skinny jeans and converse-style shoes enjoy cakes while the guys slouch nonchalantly in their chairs, dressed in tight t-shirts and facial hair fashionably coiffured.

There is a steady stream of confident, gorgeous young women and men with quiffs and just the right amount of beard.

Yet it’s me an old man stares at as I tap out this post on my iPad.

It could be because I’m a foreigner; it could be because it’s an iPad and the only maybe-legit Apple store I’ve seen so far was in Tehran; or it could be because I’m drinking a coffee.

I am the only person in this room chasing the dragon, as another traveller once described our rapidly falling standards of what constituted coffee.

Real coffee too, despite the enticement of the Nescafé Gold jars on the wall (where the boutique single-origin would sit if this were Melbourne or Wellington) and made by a barista who is complete to a tee in skinny jeans, goatee and almost-hipster friends who saunter in and out.

This is partly because Iranians aren’t coffee drinkers, and partly because Tabriz is milk city. It’s all about the cow here, baby. Shir, Persian for milk, is where it’s at.

I watched as a guy in his early twenties, in the jeans/tight t-shirt/converse shoes uniform, strolled in, leaned casually on the counter, and ordered a pint of steamed milk.

The old bloke giving me the eye had been sipping a hot milk with a friend.

Nosily, I looked around and saw the girls who came in before me had ordered milkshakes and two boys behind me were sipping on crimson fruit smoothies. A couple were having a deep and meaningful conversation over a cup of shir.

Amidst this milk frenzy, I had the best coffee I’ve drunk in five and a half months.

I swear these people don’t know what they’re missing.

Not rial money

“The rial isn’t real money anymore,” a shopkeeper said matter-of-factly, as he tried to talk me into paying dollars for the shoes on the counter.

In the month I spent in Iran the market rate for the rial depreciated about 65% against the US dollar, from being worth 22,000 rial to the dollar to 36,400 at one point. Just two weeks before I arrived, it was 18,000.

The official rate, offered by banks, is still just over 12,000 rials to the dollar but you’d have to be stupid to change your greenbacks there and in Tabriz, at least, even the banks don’t want rials.

The massive drop is because of the sanctions imposed by the US and although I cannot comment on the political why’s and wherefore’s due to the news bubble I’m in, I can tell you what is happening on the streets.

People are worried. More and more men with tense faces and bum bags filled with wads of dollars and euros crowd the outsides of official exchange shops, hoping to convince some shmuck to wear their commission as well as a lower rate than than advertised on the shop boards opposite.

The price of gold coins is rising too. I watched as man after man handed over millions of rials for one thin five cent piece-sized circle. You know the problem was big yesterday when people start putting their money into gold today.

Prices of ordinary products like juice, pistachios (200,000 rials for a kilo! It was an eighth of that two weeks ago) and clothes are rising daily as the cost of producing and delivering them grows, yet Iranians aren’t being paid more.

Even the tourists are starting to feel sorry for the Iranians as well as patting themselves on the back for their own good timing.

My friend dan bought a bag and some jandals in the bazaar in Tehran and said he didn’t bother bargaining for either – both cost him a couple of dollars each at the inflated market rate for rials and he figured the guy selling them probably needed the cash more than he did right now (given how lucrative that particular bazaar is, I somehow doubt it though).

An Iranian friend told me that this time last year his monthly salary of 300 million rials was worth about US$3000. Now it’s less than US$1000 and falling.

He’s fairly sanguine though. He says this sort of thing happens in Iran and all they can do is wait it out.

What it means for him today is that people, such as his parents, who are paying for their children to attend foreign universities are being stung. The vast majority who may have been able to make an overseas holiday last year are now stuck at home – even more trapped, one may say, than usual by foreign policy.

Elections are a mere nine months away and even though Ahmadinejad has been unofficially forbidden by the ayatollah from having anything to do with anointing a successor, you know that the irritation now is going to grow into a big deal at the polls, if something doesn’t give between now and then.

Persian torture

The pain was exquisite.

Tiny dots of hurt flashed over my face with each fresh assault, drawing tears from beneath clenched eyelids and toe-curling spasms from my writhing body.

My limited vocabulary of Farsi vanished, but I didn’t need words to express my agony to the torturers.

To be clear, I haven’t been arrested. It’s actually quite common for Iranian women to freely choose this kind of merciless physical punishment. Hell, it’s common for women the world over to bear, nay, sadistically request the services of professionals similar to those who went to work on me.

Beauty is pain, my friends, and salons are the torture chambers where we mould ourselves into the socially desirable.

Persian women are no different but instead of leg and bikini waxes they like a smooth face, not altogether surprising when that’s the only part of a woman’s body on show.

I was in Esfahan, couch surfing with a guy who is possibly the coolest person in Iran (and who has suffered in the past from a foreign journalist’s irresponsible and deliberate dereliction of their professional duty of care, so he’ll remain nameless), when I mentioned my growing desperation for a leg wax.

I was handed over to his mother, and that night we marched up the street to her salon: a brightly lit women’s-only club hidden down an alley, with a heavy curtain covering the entrance.

Inside there were three women colouring hair, tweeting eyebrows and threading several women’s faces. Threading is a technique where two strands of cotton thread are rolled over the skin, trapping the tiny hairs between them and pulling them out.

I was asked a couple of time, via sign language, whether I wanted to try it before they started on my legs, so I buried my misgivings and said yes. When in Iran, one must do as the Iranians do.

I knew it wouldn’t be as easy for me as the ladies in the salon made it seem, and now I can easily say that were Ahmadinejad and co to put these beauty ‘therapists’ to work in the notorious Evin Prison, they would have considerably more confessions.

The girl started on the left side of my forehead, causing that eye to gush tears after every searing movement. Other customers and the staff walked over to gawk as I stifled my gasps and tried to make light of the burning sensation on my face, and the growing unease I felt over whether this was indeed a good idea for my non-Persian skin.

About half way through the ladies started mentioning the English word ‘pain’ which I agreed to vehemently. It turned out my friend had called wondering where we were and his mother had asked for the English translation. They agreed that Iranian girls must have stronger skin than us Westerners.

Pure willpower got me through the ordeal. That and the fact that giving up after causing such a scene would just be embarrassing.

The final result was weird. My face was bright red, and would remain that way for several hours, my top lip was numb, and my skin felt like it had been stretched as if I’d been sunburned.

The ladies in the salon were all very complimentary.

Back at the house my friend was bemused and highly unsympathetic to my plight, saying I was much more beautiful post-plucking (a male, rather than Persian, lack of tact, I think).

A few days later a everything is back to normal. However, now I’ve tried it I’ll definitely not be pursuing any more Persian beauty techniques.

The dream

I’d like to call it a feverish dream, but this nightmare has disturbed more nights than just these few flu-infected days in Yazd.

It is a vivid exaggeration of the Persian culture of hospitality, a wild amplification of a strange culture which, in dreamland, is hard to take. The in-your-face generosity ruling my dreams is positively Uzbek in its aggressiveness.

The first time the dream came on was on Qeshm Island, a small, barren island at the very bottom of Iran with an oil refinery and fish cannery at one end and a nature reserve at the other.

It was 40 degrees in the shade and the seawater was the temperature of blood.

The friendly women who ran the homestay in Shibderaz, the village where I spent two restless nights, fed me dinners of canned fish (ironic for an area famous for its fresh seafood), tomato stew, lollies, sugared tea and coke.

It was the sugar that brought on the nightmare, pumping useless energy into my sleeping body and causing it to toss and turn. My subconscious struggled to escape from the half-formed islander figures crowding me with demands and instructions, until realising it was all just a dream.

The second time the nighttime anxiety struck was in Yazd, in a cool basement room where I was trying to sleep off an end-of-summer flu I’d acquired as a final souvenir from Shiraz.

This time, the dream took place in Yazd’s narrow, sand-coloured alleyways, but it was the same vision I’d seen in Qeshm.

I was hitchhiking and people were approaching me on motorbikes and in cars, or staff from a different hotel in a different town would appear in the Yazd reception.

They were forcefully helpful, telling me I needed to go to the bus terminal in order to get to an – unknown – destination. Sometimes they would pick me up and drop me off at the opposite end of town and all the while I’d be struggling to explain in Farsi what hitchhiking was and where I was going.

Despite being a dream it was genuinely mentally exhausting to be unfailingly polite in the face of an unceasing bombardment of generous offers and orders, and to be constantly searching my memory for the right Farsi words.

When I awoke it was a relief to be greeted with the usual level of Iranian hospitality: unstinting and undemanding (unless they want to feed you, in which case they can be quite aggressive).

None of the things I dreamt of are made up – they’ve all happened (except the bit about the Shiraz hotel staff teleporting into Yazd) – and occasionally the sheer volume of assistance on offer is overwhelming.

I’ve encountered enormous hospitality everywhere on my travels but no where else have I encountered such unthinking, freely offered generosity as in Iran. It’s made such an impression on me that it’s even managed to creep into my dreams.