Subject: 10 days in Iran!
Hi Ziners!

Originally, I had thought of going to Iran over the Christmas holidays or sometime next year. However, turned out a Middle East tour planned for May petered out and Iran was available. And I have absolutely no regrets in going. It was a great tour to a most interesting country.

First, it was made clear that the Iranians are Persians, NOT Arabs. Their opinion of Arabs is about on the par with their opinion of Turks. I heard more Turkish jokes in two weeks than I'll hear in a lifetime. Also there are populations of Armenian Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians stashed away in this very Muslin country; while their women are required to be covered in public the same as Muslim women, they are free to practice their religion. There are also areas populated by Nomads and Kurds.

Second, there appears to be a liberalization occuring, both in dress and thought. The four of us in the tour group were certainly free to come and go as we wished, saw women who were wearing light weight finger tip coats with colored scarfs and hair showing rather than the long, loose black hejab with complete head covering. While black was the predominate color, pink and other pastels were making its way into local fashion. Jeans and tennies were the choice of most younger women. The Japanese-American wife of an Iranian born man, who had been coming to Iran yearly since their wedding five years ago, remarked on the changes.

Anyway, there were no religious police, no minders, and there was a great deal of overt friendliness. I experienced no problems as an American; in fact, it seemed many had been to the US or had a family member in the US or were going to visit relatives in the US. I did see several signs: Down With the US. Also we passed the former US embassy in Tehran, a huge complex, which had a negative sign on the cement wall re: the US (forgot the exact wording). One advantage to the poor relations between Iran and the US: no MacDonalds!! But there were fast food places; had pizza and ice cream the last night in Tehran.

Generally, food was excellent. A lot of kabobs and rice and salads. Routinely, breakfasts were the thin crispy Middle Eastern bread (fafalfel?) with goat cheese, butter and jam and tea. Several times we also had a watered down orange drink and an egg. Hotels were listed as "simple hotels", equalling 2*. Actually they were quite clean and comfortable with insuite facilities, a TV and refrigerator. In fact, everything, including the Asian/Eastern toilets, was immaculate. Shop keepers cleaned off the sidewalks in front of their businesses; there wasn't a trashy plastic baggie in sight.

There were four of us on the 10 day Imaginative Traveler tour: a Aussie/Brit woman who was my roommate and two guys named Mike: Mike 1 was an Indian/Brit and Mike 2 was a Yorkshireman Brit. We spent a great deal of time together and remained friends throughout the trip. The tour leader was a very knowledgeable Iranian whose day job was operating a computer company. He had been doing tours for seven or more years, had a sense of humor and was open to discussing about anything. He also had a phenomenal amount of knowledge of Persian history. He arranged a number of add ons to the scheduled itinerary. We started in Tehran, which didn't impress me that much; Noise and pollution, the hallmark of many Asian/Middle Eastern cities - also California cities. Enroute to Kashan, we stopped at the Khomeini Shrine, a work in progress. What impressed me was while the adults were soberly viewing the casket and studying the Koran, little ones were making use of large open space as a play area - with no censorship by parents or authorities. We stopped for tea at the Fin Gardens, a lovely oasis, before checking into the Kashan hotel.

From Kashan we went on to Yazd, the center of the Zoroastrian religion, the predecessor to Islam. There for two nights, we visited the Zoroastrian fire temple and the ancient Zoroastrian buriel ground as well as the water museum and the main Mosque. In the evening we observed a Zurkhaneh session - an ancient sport verging on theatre but a bit of a religious experience. A very vigerous aerobic routine done to drumming and singing. Absolutely fascinating to watch.

Then off to Shiraz, stopping to spend time at Persepolis, remains of one of the finest cities of the ancient world. In Shiraz we visited two shrines to Saadi and Hafez, famous poets of the 13th and 14th Century, a Madrassa and a magnificant mosque (which required the women to wear full chador; I couldn't figure out how to keep it together, particularly as it was way too big for me, which made life interesting. The tour leader found my efforts particularly hilarous!)

It was in Shiraz that we starred at a family gathering. The patriarch of a large family threw himself a partyat our hotel restaurant to celebrate his return from Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Our Gang of Four was having supper out of the mainstream. However, several people came over to talk with us, the middle aged man seated near me turned out to have gotten his Masters in Engineering from the University of Washington and away we went. The entire family came over to try out their English. Finally the patriarch came over to find out what had happened to his party - he was a grey haired, distinguished appearing gentleman probably in his late 60s/early 70s. For two and a half hours, we were helping people with conversational English. In fact, early the next morning one young woman and her mother left off a book on Iran for our Yorkshireman.

From Shiraz we drove to Esfahan, stopping at the 6th Century ruins at Pasargad and the tombs from the 4th and 5th Century, cut high in the cliffs at Naqsh-E-Rustam. Esfahan was the most beautiful of the Iranian cities: a river through the city with lovely old bridges - a bit of the Parisan touch. We were really busy sight seeing and checking out the bazaar. Went to the Armenian Orthodox church, the Pigeon tower (a place devoted to the collection of pigeon poop!), several mosques and a magnificant Palace off the Iman Square (a polo field in years gone by but now a landscaped rectangular square surrounded with shops. Nearby was the bazaar, the best in Iran. It was here we all spent money for gifts and goodies. I did my usual and bought a rug which I toted home. The Yorkshireman bought two kilms and a rug. And so it went. Food there was great and we celebrated the Yorkshireman's 48th Birthday the last evening.

Then caught the night train to Tehran. The four of us shared a compartment and slept, more or less, until we arrived in Tehran about 6 AM. Got to the hotel, had breakfast and then to the rooms. That last day we went to the archaeological and Islamic museums; then onto the Shah's palaces, which pretty well concluded the tour. At tea, we had a long chat with our tour leader about the trip, life in Iran, politics, whatever. Then we all went out for a bite to eat and a walk about before getting ourselves organized to catch our respective flights home.

It was a great trip; enjoyed it all immensely, and found the people friendly and interesting. And yes, I wore a long dark linen duster and head scarf. One unnerving bit was entering the country when the visa control people took me aside for half an hour while they walked off with my passport for further inspection. I was a little tense, but it all worked out. Same thing happening coming into the US: at Passport control, I was "selected" for baggage check and questioning (very polite but "what were you doing in Iran?")

Costs: Tour was $879 + $180 tipping kitty; airfare $1566 BritAir SFO-LHR-Tehran; Tehran-LHR-SEA-SJC; $100 for meals, entry fees and the like.

Jo in Sunnyvale, No.Calif