Day 7 – Mashhad, Iran

13 May

A late start was just as well as I didn’t really see the 5 star Hotel Pardisan at all. Breakfast was a blur,  but the bed was comfy.  9am and we were off to the Holy Shrine.

Only water, sunglasses and mobile phones were allowed inside. Money was discouraged in case of pick pockets.  It was great for the men as we discarded our bags and placed our trust in the bus driver to keep our stuff safe.

The woman however had to don a chador – a long veil that covers everything except their face. Our guide helped to make sure that no hair was on show and pinned them in, in the middle of the taxi rank, much to the hilarity of everyone in the street.

We were approached by a family from Shiraz who had come all the way for the special day to celebrate the third Imam’s (Hussein) birthday.

Our guide introduced us to the mausoleum and shrine of Imam Reza, the 8th Imam. We debated whether to lie about being Bosnian Muslims – certainly the ladies would have had no problem, but the men weren’t really passable. To get in unaccompanied meant we eventually decided on the phrase “new to Islam” which wasn’t a lie, if not exactly the truth.

After a quick pat down by security who  insisted I drink the water, we were in.

Wow, what a fantastic place!

This is the second holiest site in Islam, rivaling only Mecca.

Tiles everywhere in an open area that rivaled any of Rome’s great piazzas. Huge tiled archways in every direction. Two minarets on each side in varying states of restoration.

So of course our first stop was the carpet museum! Containing 3 floors of carpets from all the regions of Iran, it was rather interesting.  Several could easily have gone into my bag including several pictorial carpets or wall hanging door opening carpets with a slit down the middle.  That is, if my bag was empty and three times the size.

Everywhere we went we were stopped and questioned as to where we came from by the genuinely interested and friendly locals. They thought that British people hated Iran in much the same way that you probably think of Iran as someplace to be scared of.  I tried my best to reassure them that we didn’t, and they were showing by their attitude that we had nothing to fear.

After the carpet museum, we headed across the atrium to a more general museum with different sections.  We only managed the first floor before closing time.  This had a lot of pictures of the shrine from the early 1900’s and indicated how it was still growing in size.  Various parts of the shrine are replaced at regular intervals and displayed in the museum.  This could be because of wear or because of the explosion inside the shrine 15 years ago. That’ll be why there was such strict security then!

Out into the sun, and we moved from courtyard to courtyard at speed trying to distinguish our guide, dressed in black, from the thousands of other woman all dressed exactly the same.  Henry T would have been proud.

Mastaneh, our guide, managed to take us everywhere but for the actual mausoleum itself it was impossible for her to escort the men as it was gender divided. She seemed to pick a random man out of the crowd and he graciously agreed to escort us non muslims into the second holiest place possible.  Somewhere we were not supposed to go.  Inside was room after room of heavily mirrored walls and hundreds of men praying. No sooner had I accidentally kicked over some prayers stones than Max suggested that we should watch out for these.

Several similarly crowded rooms later and we reached the large box which hundreds of men were clamouring to touch it with more than a hint of religious fervour.  Some threw money inside the tomb. Others prayed loudly. Some others even took selfies! We weren’t that brave. We backed slowly out of the room joining the crowd that was pushing us in this direction, leaving our minder praying quietly.

Exiting and rejoining the women, we find that they had had a similar experience, but they had not been able to touch the tomb due to the throng.

We were guided on to another level of the shrine site by the volunteers who were directing people with their neon green feather dusters.

We visited more mirrored halls full of people before visiting the foreign pilgrims department who wished to give us “new to Islam” a bit more information.  Thankfully, this was in the form of a brochure that we could take away.

After a thoroughly enjoyable time there we headed out of Mashhad to the village of Anbaran, near Torqabe town for lunch.

The restaurant was raised carpets where we were served with a mixture of things including skewered fish kebabs, lamb and dizi – a self pounded meat stew. We also sampled doogh, a milky mint drink.

Outside we were gobsmacked at a ball that was spinning on top of a jet of water. We were also offered some fizzy doogh which wasn’t as good.

Back in the bus, we stopped at a bazaar where everyone else bought saffron. I have my eye on a turquoise plate.

Next stop was for ice cream.  After a lot of debate we each ended up with a vanilla, chocolate and saffron with pistachio nuts sandwiched between two wafers.  Those that had room (me) also tried some white gelatinous noodles with jelly.

Next on our tour of Mashhad was a stop at a park containing a museum about Nader Shah, the Iranian Napoleon. Max rescued us.

Our last stop of the day was to Mashhad railway station, which had separate doors for men and women. We shopped, mostly for crisps and drinks. I managed orange biscuits and strawberry beer (non alcoholic) and I couldn’t resist Iranian haribo!

Queuing is not an Iranian tradition.  Pushing is. We got to the train intact and found our cabins.  Fitting the luggage in was a tight squeeze, but the restaurant car was ready to feed us chicken and rice. Hmmm.

Hoping the other three blokes don’t snore …

Whatever happened to the promised watermelon?

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