Becoming a Nomad

Day 144 (1st of August, 2016) – Isfahan, Iran

I awoke from my twenty hour hibernation to a familiar feeling of a swollen throat and chesty cough. There wasn’t much I could do outside of taking some medicine, so I settled in for the morning of blog writing.

Today was a free day for me in Isfahan. I sketched out my rough plans before heading off just before lunch.

First, I took a stroll down the main street of Chahar Bagh. This is one of the longest streets in Iran spanning over 30km. Eventually, I found my way to a restaurant called ‘Shahrzad’ which is rated very highly in many travel journals as offering some of the best food in the city. After a twenty minute wait to get in, I was greeted by a luxurious Persian interior.

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I ordered a mix kebab and mushroom soup, which I greatly enjoyed. The food lived up to its stellar reviews.

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After the lunch, I continued down Chahar Bagh to the south. I was aiming to make my way towards Julfa, a trendy youth area connected to the Armenian Quarter.

It turned out to be a longer walk than I had expected, and I even crossed some of Isfahan’s wide “rivers”.

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On the way to my destination, I must have been greeted by at least a dozen locals wanting to talk to me about where I was from. I dismissed the first few thinking that they were trying to sell me things, but after a while I started to realise that these people just genuinely wanted a conversation.

I have never been to a place in the world where so many people want to go out of their way to welcome you to their city and wish you a good time. The Iranian people are really living up to their reputation as being among the most friendly in the world.

That perception was tarnished a little, though, when just before arriving in Julfa I heard a deep voice mutter “go back to your own country, man”.

I was a little taken aback when I heard it – it was so out of the ordinary compared to what I had just been experiencing.

I turned around to look at the elderly man and thought that it was wise not to confront him about it, so I kept on walking. It’s especially offensive for someone to say that when you’ve gone so out of your way and spent so much money just to appreciate that person’s country and culture. You are doing nothing but admiring it, and yet you are told to “go back to where you came from”. What crime was I committing? Was I actively harming anything, or taking away from its ‘Iranian-ness’?

The whole incident made me realise that the rhetoric you hear about xenophobic and racist sentiments only breeding more hate is very true. I’m sure that if I had been a more aggressive person, I would’ve confronted that man and it would have spiralled out of control very quickly.

Julfa was much quieter than I expected it to be. It was set amongst sand-coloured streets adjacent to a huge Armenian Christian Cathedral (not everyone here is Muslim).

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Feeling the need to check in with the family back home, I started asking different cafés whether they had any Wi-Fi available. None did, but one café barista offered that I use his hotspot.

When I walked in, we got talking. It turns out that he’s planning on going to Melbourne next year to join his cousins in running a café which is becoming quite successful there. The barista was really passionate about his coffee, and he brought me behind his machine to show me all of his tricks. He made me what was seriously the best coffee I have ever tasted. Maybe it was mind-over-matter with all of the passion that he put into it, but I seriously enjoyed it nonetheless. Makes me wish that more café staff were this charismatic. At the end I made sure that I got a photo with him (on the right) and his boss (on the left).

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As I tried to find my way out of the Armenian Quarter, I finally accepted a Persian rug salesman’s offer to view his stock. He was a funny guy and assured me that he had many relatives in Sydney (I’m convinced that this was a sales tactic).

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Returning to my hotel, I was told that I would be charged a fee for an extra night’s stay for checking out late. Infuriated, I emailed the tour company and demanded that they pay it considering the five hour delay yesterday morning when I was left stranded at the bus stop. Despite no reply, my extra night’s stay was mysteriously paid for.

I decided to head back to the Imam Square in the evening to see what the fuss was about the Isfahan Bazaar. The 11km stretch of stalls is one of the biggest in all of the Middle East.

The square itself was really buzzing as it became darker.

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The bazaar was chaotic and confusingly large. I’ve never found myself surrounded by so many things I’m not interested in.

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After shaking off the many handicrafts, rug and jewellery salespeople, I left to find dinner. I stopped at a traditional banquet hall and ordered a special type of BBQ meat which was served on the bread which I’ve been seeing everywhere. It was sickeningly oily, but I liked it a lot.

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Eating with your plate at sitting level takes some getting used to, though.

At 11:30pm, I boarded the five hour bus to Yazd.

Day 145 (2nd of August, 2016) – Yazd, Iran

When arriving in Yazd at 4am, I was thankful that my guide showed up this time. I was quickly taken to my hotel to nap for the morning before we started our tour at 11am. Unfortunately, my room wasn’t ready and I was told that I would have to sleep in the courtyard. This wasn’t all bad news – there were plenty of comfy beds in the communal area.

The lack of shade meant that my nap didn’t last too long, and at 8am I was woken up by the burning of the sun on my neck.

I went up to the rooftop for some breakfast.

I began to realise how amazing this hotel really was. All of the walls were made out of what seemed to be dried mud. It kept really cool despite the debilitating heat outdoors.

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My guide collected me so that we could head to our first destination – the Zoroastrian Fire Temple. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions, and its concepts of heaven and hell heavily influenced the development of other religions. Today there are only 2.6 million Zoroastrians alive, most of whom live in Iran. It served as the state religion in Iran during the pre-Islamic era.

It became instantly apparent how hot it was as soon as I left the hotel to get into the guide’s car. Asking what the temperature was, she told me that it was predicated to reach 50 today… Being located in the middle of the desert, apparently this isn’t unusual for Yazd.

The Temple itself was very simple, but extraordinarily fascinating.

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The religion’s main message, as printed at the top of the building below, is “good thoughts, good words, good deeds”.

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My guide, who was a Muslim, expressed her admiration for the Zoroastrian people. She said that in Iran they were always the happiest and most peaceful of all the groups. She also made note that their religion was always about celebrating happy events rather than mourning deaths, as many Islamic holidays are based around.

Inside the temple was a cauldron with flames leaping out of it. Apparently, this single fire has been burning since early BC years. There have always been people in charge of ensuring that it never goes out.

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To Zoroastrian people, fire is the most holy of the elements. People have to pray in the presence of fire or some other source of light.

After a brief stop at a telecom shop to figure out the problems with my SIM card, we continued on to the Tower of Silence. This is another Zoroastrian sacred site. It consists of two raised, round structures for excarnation. Similar to sky burials in Tibet, this involves returning dead human bodies to nature by offering them to the skies so that vultures can eat the flesh, and then giving the bones back to the Earth itself.

Below the towers are the remnants of small structures such as wind towers, water wells and dog chambers.

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The dog chambers would be used when someone died of a heart attack or in some other sudden way. The body would be placed in the chamber with a lump of meat. If the dogs ate the meat, then the person was deemed to still be alive. If the dogs ate the human too, then it was confirmed that the body was dead.

Here I am in front of a set of wind towers. Yazd is well known for having the most wind towers in Iran due to its hot weather.

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You could spot the small city of Yazd from the towers.

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Next, we drove to the Dowlat Abad Garden. This is a typical Persian garden which was built by the mayor of Yazd many centuries ago as a method of attracting the King of Persia to come and visit the city. Some of the buildings in the garden are still used as residences today.

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A lot of locals come here just to listen to the water because of how much of a rarity it is in this part of the country. The greenery is in stark contrast to the dry landscape beyond.

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Inside the main building is a complex system of wind tunnels and pools which blow air against the walls and lower the temperature of the structure.

The stain-glassed windows are beautiful and in their original condition.

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I returned to the hotel for an afternoon sleep like the rest of Yazd. The temperatures get so hot in the middle of the day that very few people stay outdoors.

After a short sleep, I used the remainder of the evening to continue planning for travel at the end of the year. I’m quickly realising how much more expensive Europe is than Asia and the Middle East…

Day 146 (3rd of August, 2016) – Yazd, Iran

Since I was still feeling sick, I decided to sleep in to try and really kick it out of my system. By the time I had woken up and packed up to check out, lunch wasn’t available at the hotel. Instead, I went searching in the town of Yazd for something to eat. Unfortunately all of the food stores were closed, but I stumbled across a convenience store where a 16 year old boy convinced me to eat canned baked beans with him.

We sat and talked for some time. It was my favourite lunch of Iran, funnily enough. The store was ice cold which helped combat the atrocious heat outdoors, and the boy and his young brother were incredibly generous. He kept on asking to see pictures of Australia, and I happily obliged.

I left after about an hour, but not before snapping a picture of the two of us.

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Right as I was walking out, someone asked if I was Australian. They had heard my voice from a distance. Standing before me was another lone traveller from just outside of Melbourne. We agreed to meet for dinner at my hotel that evening.

I decided to spend the late afternoon strolling to Yazd’s main monuments – the Jame Mosque and the Amir Chakhmagh complex.

The Jame Mosque can be seen from the rooftop restaurant of the hotel, but this time I got a closer look.

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The Jame Mosque is known as the ‘Friday Mosque’ in English, but this is actually a mistranslation since ‘jame’ sounds very similar to the Farsi word for ‘Friday’. This building was constructed in the 5th century. That alone is difficult to fathom considering its grandness and isolation. The two ‘minarets’ on either side of the entrance are 48m tall.

In Shia mosques unlike Sunni ones, you only need to take off your shoes in the main hall.

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During my trip to Iran, I’ve found an interesting feature of all of the mosques to be the lowered pulpit. The priest or cleric delivers ceremonies standing in a coffin-like hole in the ground to symbolise humility and insignificance in relation to God.

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Like all the mosques here, the hall was filled with intricate Persian rugs.

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The view looking down the quiet main street of Yazd was remarkably peaceful.

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In the distance you can see the beginning of the Amir Chakhmagh complex, which is where I walked next.

Its symmetrical sunken alcoves were particular striking. I found a shop were I could resupply on water and spent the sunset watching its colours change.

Back at the hotel, I settled in for another evening of holiday planning. It’s getting to the pointy end of booking things for the Christmas period, and I’m neck-deep in trying to figure out the obscure transport connections for Aimee and I’s journey in Scandinavia.

While I was working away, this little guy kept on crawling past.

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For reasons beyond me, the hotel keeps three or four turtles in their main courtyard.

Once it got dark and the calls to prayer began screeching over the town-wide speakers, I moved up to the restaurant with my new friend from Melbourne. He’s 27 and has just finished a contract doing social work in Europe. He’s now floating around, taking jobs where he can and just generally travelling the world.

We exchanged some of the most fascinating stories. He had returned from China not so long ago, and it was interesting to hear the perspective of an Aussie without any Chinese skills as he navigated his way through some of the untouched provinces.

He mentioned to me that he had come to Iran from Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. He was trying to make his way to Armenia and Georgia from here.

“How are you getting around such an unusual string of countries? Are you just booking transport as you go?” I asked.

“No, I cycle.”

This guy has ridden his dodgy mountain bike across half of the face of the Earth. I was beyond impressed. He told me how he thought it was the best way to travel, and he shared stories of all the things he’d seen which he would’ve missed if he wasn’t on his bike.

When I asked if he’d ever met any other Australians doing this, he told me that there’s hundreds of Australians cycling through Turkmenistan at any one point. He went out for dinner with dozens of them when he was passing through.

“How far do you ride in a day?” I asked.

“110 or 120km on a good day, so at that rate I should be out of Iran within about 10 days. I’ll take it as it comes.”

I’ve never met a more relaxed person. I could never handle the isolation he puts himself through, but he seems to really love it. He’s caught such a serious case of the travel bug that he openly professed that he never wants to step foot back in Australia again.

With the dinner over, I hauled my bags to my third and final overnight bus to Shiraz.

Day 147 (4th of August, 2016) – somehwere outside of Shiraz, Iran

I wasn’t expecting my sleep on the bus to be very high quality, but it still hit below my expectations. I only caught about two hours of sleep, and I was a wreck upon arriving in Shiraz.

Luckily, my guide’s enthusiasm cancelled out my dreariness. He was unusually delighted that I was in his city. He immediately took me to buy some stew and bread, then we went to his apartment to eat.

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We got along superbly. He also managed to make me two of the best Turkish coffees I have ever tasted.

He was so enthusiastic, in fact, that he took great pride in showing me his ‘speakeasy’ setup.

“Watch this,” he said proudly.

Suddenly, the lights were switched off and the couches rolled back. A strobe was flicked on along with kaleidoscopic disco lights and the music began blaring through the hidden subwoofer. He started breaking into the most horrifyingly confusing dance I’ve ever seen. Then he switched the music off.

“Cool, huh?” he said.

It was pretty cool.

“How often do you host parties here?” I asked.

“Every week. Want to see my alcohol stash?” He didn’t care for my answer.

Remembering that alcohol is illegal in Iran (on the same level as some illicit drugs), he revealed a cupboard full of Shiraz (which originated in this city), vodka and home-brewed beer.

He gave me a taste of his beer. It was shockingly strong, and I thought I was drinking a spirit rather than a beer, but he was very proud of it so I put on my best smile.

“If your nomad tour doesn’t work out tonight, you should join me and we’ll host a party. I’ll invite chicks and everything. No hijabs either.” he suggested.

I wasn’t about to get Schapelle Corbied, so I thanked him for the offer and stuck with my nomad plan. Although I must say, it would have been a cool story to say that I attended an underground, illicit doof in Iran.

We jumped in the car to embark on the one hour journey to Persepolis, and all the while he blared club music out of his car’s speakers.

Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the largest city of Persia and the ancient capital of the Achaemenid Empire which reigned from 550BC until 330BC. It was built by kings Darius I, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I.

While walking up part of the mountain, I spotted a group of French and Irish tourists looking for a guide. I suggested to my guide that we let them tag along so that he could make a bit more money.

The site is very sizeable covering 125000m2. Probably more impressive is that much of it is cut out of a mountain – a job which warranted the hundreds of years of construction. None of the builders were slaves, though. All were covered by insurance and had modern rights such as maternity leave.

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The ruins are grand from the outset, with bulls (symbolising power) carved out of grey limestone marking the outside gate.

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As I grow older, I find myself having a greater appreciation for the significance of sites like this (and even more so when journalling about it afterwards).

As I walked through the gate, I scoffed at the amount of graffiti on the side of the structure. Looking closer, I noticed the year ‘1898’ inscribed next to one of them. I pointed it out to my guide, thinking that the graffiti artist was joking around. He explained that they were the carvings of British convoys who had visited freely before the site was heritage listed.

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Whilst the roofs and many of the walls had collapsed, what was remarkable was how many stone pillars have survived.

Lining hallways and streets were yet more carvings. The comparative wealth of the Persian Empire compared to other parts of the world is hard to comprehend. I guess it’s the ancient equivalent of the imbalance of wealth in the developed world today.

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This carving had the head of a human to symbolise wisdom, the body of a bull to symbolise power, the tail of a lion to symbolise… (I forgot, sorry), and the wings of an eagle to symbolise sharpness.

When leaving, the French and Irish tourists somehow got away without offering any sort of tip or payment. My guide was clearly dejected – they had asked many questions and had definitely increased his workload. We cut our losses and moved to the next site: Naqsh-e Rustam.

Upon arrival, we spotted the group from Persepolis. I convinced my guide to approach one of them ask for money. He was hesitant since he thought that it was rude, but a bit of nudging resulted in him giving it a shot. He returned with 20.

Naqsh-e Rustam is often simply called ‘necropolis’ (since it is, indeed, an ancient cemetery with elaborate tomb monuments). It was constructed during the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods of the Persian empire. It houses the tombs of Darius I, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I and Darius II. All of these people lived in the 5th and 6th centuries BC. The tombs are carved at a considerable height in the rock face.

My guide was very passionate about his photography, and I gave in to his requests to take ‘more natural photos’ of me after I’d shown him my collection of middle-of-the-photo-hands-on-waist portraits. This was the result.

It’s not all over for the hands-on-waist shots, though. Here’s one of me in front of the Cube of Zoroaster, a building whose function still isn’t known. Some historians believe it to be a form of physical calendar.

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And me mid-blood nose in front of one of the carvings.

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Despite the cloud cover, the heat was getting to my guide and I. We drove back into the Shiraz proper to buy some traditional Iranian ice-cream. It consists of lemon juice, ice and starch.

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While eating, we took a stroll through the Shiraz Bazaar, and I once again found myself surrounded by an array of Persian rugs and fabrics which didn’t garner my interest.

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We also saw the Shah Cheragh (King of the Light), a mosque containing the funerary monument of the brothers Ahmad and Muhammad, sons of Mūsā al-Kādhim (the seventh Shiite Imam). The two took refuge in the city during the Abbasid persecution of Shia Muslims.

The tombs themselves were incredibly ornate and surrounded by many thousands of mirrors which created a fascinating lighting effect.

Before long it was 2pm, and my guide drove me to the travel agency of a different company where I was switching for a night to go on a nomad tour.

Amazingly, there is still a decent population of nomads living in the Iranian countryside. Typically they only move twice a year – in summer and winter. The nomadic tribe which I stayed with for the night was located a few hours south-west of Shiraz, approaching the Iran-Iraq border and near the Gulf of Persia.

Unlike the guides I’d had so far, this time I was accompanied by someone with very limited (if any) English. This is him.

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And this was the campsite.

Goats, chickens, dogs and donkeys were roaming around everywhere, occasionally walking into my tent.

Soon, the nomads had me participating in this odd practice of fondling a goat.

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It was getting intensely hot out in the sun, and so I asked if there was any drinking water available. I was directed to a skinned goat which kept the water cool.

I quickly found myself being passed between each tent and observing what the families were doing. They lived very simple lives, but they were all remarkably happy. Here, some women are making carpets.

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This was the cheese which we would end up eating for breakfast.

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The milk is mixed in the skin of another goat.

The next person I was passed was coming back from a walk where he was scouting for a suitable location to move to during the change of season. He let me ride his donkey.

The children of the nomads would occasionally ride by on their motorcycles.

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One of the men took me on a walk around the campsite to see the crops and eat what we could from the ground. One such food was this.

He insisted that I get a photo in front of this remarkable plant. I began to suspect that “photo” was the only English word this man knew. Beats my Farsi, though.

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As you climbed over the row of hills, you could see the crops in the valley beneath.

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They included watermelon, tomato, cucumber and eggplant crops.

The man tried to teach me how to split a watermelon. My attempt went awry.

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As it began to rain, we braved the half an hour stroll back to the tents. Dinner didn’t come until 11:30pm. In the meantime, they invited me to try their water pipe. I did and it was nice, but it certainly didn’t live up to all the fuss these things get.

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For dinner, they slaughtered one of the chickens and cooked it up with some rice.

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I had a surprisingly good sleep in weather which had turned to bitingly cold.

Day 148 (5th of August, 2016) – Shiraz, Iran

After a brief breakfast just outside of the nomad camp, I was driven back to Shiraz. Here I met my guide, Mohsen, and we continued on our exploration of the city.

While speaking to him, I realised that I’m coming to value these one-off friendships more and more. My friend Dan Street mentioned this to me over a call some time ago in Xuzhou, and it’s got me making more conscious observations of why two people would care about each other when they know that they’re with each other for such a limited time. It’s easy to put down the guide’s care for you to their want of a good review or a tip, but there’s something more than that. There’s also something behind why I make decisions on how I treat people like this thinking that they’ll have long term consequences, when I know that this is objectively not the case.

I think it has a lot to do with an innate human desire to get along and put others before yourself. There’s a plethora of examples of geopolitical conflicts which would indicate that this isn’t the case, but yet again, I’m coming to realise that people on the ground are distinctly different from their governments. And, as a matter of fact, even the individuals who make up governments are distinctly separate entities from the government as a whole (except in the case of a single dictator).

Mohsen drove me to the Karim Khan Citadel first.

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This structure was built during the Zand dynasty of Iran during the 18th century, and it served as Karim Khan’s living quarters. Following the defeat of the Zand dynasty by the Qajars from the north of Iran, it became the governor’s seat. It has also been used as a prison in the past.

Inside, I had the opportunity to visit the king’s chambers and baths.

When I asked Mohsen whether there would be a power plug on the evening’s train back to Tehran, he realised that I wanted to charge my laptop. He kindly offered that we return to his apartment so that I could charge it up. While back there, we had very interesting discussions on Mohsen’s ruthless ‘catch and release’ regime with the women. He especially regretted Iranian society’s rush for people to get married, and said that all of his breakups had come after two months when the woman would deliver an ultimatum to marry or leave. It sounded remarkably similar to China.

After a few Turkish coffees and a taste of his home-brewed Shiraz, he presented me with a glass of traditional ‘farewell tea’. It was a deep purple and had a sweet aroma, but not in the Western sense of the word ‘sweet’. It was very exotic.

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On the way to the train station, we made sure to stop by two more sites of Shiraz. The first was the Tomb of Hafez.

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Hafez is the most famous Persian poet, and his works are still learned throughout the region today by schoolchildren. I quickly discovered that this was a figure similar to Shakespeare in the Western world.

His beautiful coffin was surrounded by real-world weeping mourners. It was very, very foreign. It reminded me of the stories I’ve heard of tourists who’ve visited the North Korean statues of the deceased Kims and witnessed hordes of people crying. But this was far less eerie – these people were crying not because they had been brainwashed, but because they were genuinely saddened at the loss of such a genius.

The coffin was inscribed with one of his poems in the centre, but around the edge was a poem professing the greatness of the Imams, thereby indicating Hafez’s belief in the Shia sect of Islam. In reality, it is common knowledge that he was Sunni. The Shia message was only inscribed on the coffin to prevent extremists from destroying it, since they could never bring themselves to smash through inscriptions which glorify the Imams.

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My guide began reciting Hafez’s poetry as we looked at the coffin, and soon a crowd had gathered to listen to him. He continued for ten odd minutes. I didn’t understand a word, but it was certainly aurally beautiful. Rhyme does transcend language.

We also briefly stopped by the Tomb of Saadi, another famous Persian poet.

At the train station, I was able to board the sixteen hour train to Tehran early. The cabins were very similar to the soft sleepers in China.

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Day 149 (6th of August, 2016) – Amman, Jordan

The 6am arrival in Tehran was plagued by yet another no-show from a guide. This time, I was left with a phone threatening to run out of charge and a “24 hour” tourist agency helpline which wasn’t answering. Understandably, I was irked. Four days of sleeping on overnight transport in one week doesn’t help your mood.

After three hours, my driver showed up. Through his limited English, I tried to point to the clock and explain to him how long I’d been waiting for. In the very kind Iranian way, he profusely apologised. But, just like the guide in Isfahan, he quickly fell back on the blame reflex and said that my last guide had failed by not texting him before he went to bed.

At this point I was fed up that no one was taking responsibility for leaving a customer stranded, and so I rang the tour company. This time, I got through.

I proceeded to, in no uncertain terms, roast the tour company manager like he was a Woolworths chicken.

I feel bad about it in retrospect, but I demanded that a hotel where I could shower would be arranged free of charge to make up for the hassle. I was driven somewhere where I could shower, and we moved on to the airport where I waited five hours for my flight. Just before moving through customs, I received a call from the tour company.

“You know how you said that you were going to leave a one out of five review on Tripadvisor?” the voice on the other end of the line croaked.

I must say, I had forgotten saying that, but it didn’t seem out of character for me at the time.

“How much money will it take to stop that?”

I was a little taken aback. Some simple maths later, and I had come to a number. If you consider that it was a US$980 tour where the customer was left stranded for a combined 8 hours (rounded up to one day), it meant that meant that US$122.50 (AU$160) should be refunded. Within half an hour, a driver arrived at the airport and handed me an envelope of money.

“Don’t write a review, yeah?” he indicated.

“Yeah, sure.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, was and will be the dirtiest money I ever make.

Boarding the flight to Amman, Jordan via Sharjah, UAE was a big mess.

Strict Muslim women aren’t allowed to sit next to men who they aren’t married to. I hadn’t predicted the chaos this would cause in the seating arrangements. Despite boarding on time, we took off a full forty minutes late because of a yelling argument around me regarding the seating configuration. A horde of thirty or so women donning their Hijabs, Niqabs and Burqas were all refusing to sit down until the seating arrangement abided by their morals.

I was part of a four-way translating line. The hostess, who was Chinese and had poor English, was speaking to me in Chinese. I would translate to English. The man next to me would translate that English to Farsi (since the women were all Iranian and Iraqi). Occasional mistranslations complicated things even further.

To make things even more entertaining, this was many of these peoples’ first flight. As the plane zoomed down the runway for take off, the women began standing up, opening their tray tables and screaming. Many people were shouting prayers or holding up their Misbaha (Muslim Rosary beads), and shrieks of fear were being thrown all around the place. It was like being on a rollercoaster. I have never been on a louder flight in my life.

I decided that I could interpret this in two ways. I could be annoyed because of the possible missing of my connecting flight, or I could sit back, accept that there was nothing I could do, and giggle (on the inside, of course).

I chose the latter. I think it will be one of my longest-lasting memories from Iran.

Arriving in Iran, I was slammed by another hefty visa fee and half an hour of questioning by one of the customs officers in a private room. It seems that Iranian visas arouse a lot of suspicion around these parts, and I should expect similar delays when entering Israel.

In the arrivals hall, I was greeted to a transfer service to the best hotel I will stay at on this trip. I’ve decided to stay at a 5 star hotel just for one night to guarantee good internet for my scholarship interview tomorrow. Nothing would be more embarrassing than an unstable connection for an important event.

The car, which was fitted out with wifi, refreshing towels and nostalgic 80s music (I like to pretend I was alive back then) was a real treat.

The driver was kind enough to stop past a few currency exchange places so that I wouldn’t be hit by the fees at the hotel after he figured out that I was a backpacker. Unfortunately, it seems that nowhere in Jordan accepts Iranian Rials. I think I’m going to have a tough time changing that money anywhere.

The driver told me some incredibly interesting facts about this place. Jordan couldn’t be in the midst of a more complicated warzone, but it is a definite safe haven. Just forty-five minutes away from my hotel is Damascus, Syria. He said that along the border if airstrikes are occurring, you can sometimes hear the result. Half an hour away is the Dead Sea, the lowest elevation on land in the world at 429m below sea level. Three hours away is Iraq. Even closer is Saudi Arabia. Forty-five minutes in a different direction is Jerusalem, Israel.

And yet, Amman is an international hub. As we drove down main streets, the driver pointed to the amount of foreigners roaming the streets and mentioned the huge amount of Americans, Australians and British that live here. He also said that Jordan had recently received an influx of two million Syrian refugees, and that was evident by the extensive number of Syrian number plates on the highways.

Back at the hotel, I couldn’t have had a bigger smile on my face.

A warm shower, a soft bed, good internet. All rarities on a budget gap year.

Day 150 (7th of August, 2016) – Amman, Jordan

The morning was spent indulging in an excellent breakfast before settling in for a few final hours of study before my interview.

I was very happy with the interview itself. I got asked a lot of questions which really made me think, and I think I answered them to the best of my ability. I’ll find out in the next few days the result of the interview. I’ll make sure to keep this blog audience updated on the result (good or bad).

I was also lucky enough to have an op-ed piece I wrote published in today’s Sunday Telegraph on page 31. After commenting on the journalist Angela Mollard’s piece last week on the recent tragic teen suicides in Sydney, I was contacted by the newspaper to see if I could do a piece of my own.

Since I have good internet at this hotel, I want to cut this blog off halfway through Sunday. My tour group through Jordan and Israel begins at 7pm tonight, so I will spent the rest of the day looking for a Laundromat and figuring out the cheapest way to get to the other side of town.

I hope all is well wherever you are, and I can’t wait to blog all about Jordan and Israel in the next edition.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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