Local women in traditional black chador – they must be airconditioned!
The days were starting to slip away from me in Mashhad. I had been travelling in 35-40° heat almost everyday for 6 weeks now and I was finding it very difficult to muster the energy or the enthusiasm to go out sightseeing during the heat of the day. In any case, many places in Mashhad were shut from about 1pm until 4 or 5pm to escape the heat also.
The one place in Mashhad that I really wanted to see was the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza. The shrine was only a 20min walk from Vali’s. But the problem was we were still in the holy month of Ramadan and the usual daily crowds of thousands of people had become daily crowds of TENS of thousands. The only solution seemed to be to visit the shrine late at night.
And so it was that late one night Simon, the Farsi-speaking Ulsterman, and I walked up to the shrine and managed to join a crowd of Shia pilgrims and make it all the way in to the inner sanctum where the gold lattice cage covers the holy tomb of Imam Reza.
We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
How would I spend my first day in Iran?
The question sounded ridiculously common-place.
I wandered aimlessly around the streets of central Mashhad for a few hours just to get a feel for the city and its people. Despite the picture painted by the Western media, Iran didn’t appear to be full of terrorists or religious fanatics. The streets of Mashhad were populated by ordinary people going about their ordinary everyday lives.
My first day in Iran? It should have seemed a bit more exotic – but, disappointlingly, it wasn’t. Apart from the giant posters and murals of Ayatollah Khomeini (and his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei) and the greater number of women wearing the chador I could have been in any big city in Asia.
It was another scorching hot day. I arrived at the Iranian border post at Sarakhs (not to be confused with Sarahs on the other side of the border) about 1pm and it was a great relief to finally leave the twilight zone of Turkmenistan and to be entering Iran.
But with all the bad press Iran receives in the Western media I wasn’t sure what sort of reception I would receive at the border post. I needn’t have worried. The Immigration officers were very professional and one was particularly interested in my travels through Central Asia. Also I had to dig out my carnet again which I hadn’t needed since I left Pakistan. Again I needn’t have worried. The Customs officer was a woman and she was the first person I had met that actually knew how to process the carnet without help. The entire border crossing was conducted in a very logical and efficient manner – completely different to the nightmare in Farap when I entered Turkmenistan. All up, it only took about an hour in total and, suddenly, I was in Iran.
The rocky ridges of the Koppe Dag range made a pleasant change.
Something else that was completely different was the terrain. Shortly after leaving Sarakhs the countryside changed from low dunes to barren rocky ridges. I had not seen anything other than flat semi-desert plains since entering Uzbekistan from Tajikistan several weeks ago. It certainly made for a pleasant change of scenery.
My goal for the day was Mashhad – still almost 200km away. Depending on the road I reasoned I should make it before sunset.