George Koo: Notes from a Chinese American tourist in Iran

A 17-day tour of Iran does not a country expert make, but it’s certainly enough to form some meaningful impressions of a country that has been virtually blacked out from Americans’ consciousness since the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. As our first visit to Iran, we took a custom tour from Kerman in the south to the oldest port on the Caspian Sea. Thus we got a more in-depth look at Iran than the more customary 10-11 day tours of “history and culture.“

On our first day, we landed at Tehran’s international airport from Dubai via Emirates Air. The morning flight was delayed and by the time we finished lunch, we only had time for one of Tehran’s lesser attractions, the Iran National Museum. As we entered the front garden of the museum, a group of young girls in their school uniforms on an outing saw us and came running to surround us and to give us a raucous welcome. Being on our first day in Iran, we were unprepared for the warm and enthusiastic response.

School girls at the National Museum

School girls at the National Museum

We soon got accustomed to being “accosted” by locals in public places. As we walked on sidewalks, cars would screech to a halt and the (invariably male) driver would lean his head out of the window and shout, “Hello, welcome,” and sometimes “where from?” before driving away. Females took a different approach; they would seek out the women in our group and invite them to be part of their family photos. Being a mixed group of Asians and Caucasians, I think the women viewed us as somewhat of a special souvenir to add to their photo collections.

The Iranians love to take pictures. The younger generation of men and women all seem to have a camera phone, many at the end of a photo stick. Marion of our group quickly caught on and would walk up to groups of women and proactively offered, “Would you like a selfie?” She would be promptly invited to be part of their group photo. They would take the photo with their phone and also one with her smart phone as reciprocating mementos.

Marion So (in white hat) with and Iranian architecture students in Tabriz

Marion So (in white hat) with and Iranian architecture students in Tabriz

We were to have interesting encounters with professional Iranian men and women at many of the famous tourist attractions. We met a pair of twins and their woman friend at the citadel in Shiraz and found out that the parents of the twins live in San Diego. We met two women at the tomb of Artaxerxes II high above the ruins of Persepolis. One of them, the audiologist, was to join us for dinner at our last night in Tehran. They had taken the bus from Tehran, close to 600 miles away, to visit Persepolis. A young couple was spending their honeymoon visiting Masuleh, the one thousand year old, mountainside village, and they approached me to have my photo taken with them.

Despite the rate of unemployment at over 20%, I got the impression that the Iranians who could afford it, like to spend their time off visiting Iran’s many parks, gardens and other tourist attractions. We saw them at all the stops on our tour. At no time did we feel unwelcome or receive any feelings of unfriendliness from the people we encountered.

Bashing DAESH

The closest conversation we had that could be considered as political was with a mullah at the Quran School in Shiraz with the help of Hassan, our guide who acted as our interpreter. The mullah said Islam is about peace and love of fellow humankind. He pointed out that the Jews, Christians and the Muslims all believe in the same God. He rejected DAESH, his term for ISIS, as an illegitimate form of Islam that must be eradicated. As for Israel, the problem is the continued occupation of Palestinian land by the Israelis. The beginning of the solution has to begin with the return of the land that belongs to the Palestinians, he said.

Mullah at a madrasah in Shiraz

Mullah at a madrasah in Shiraz

We stayed in Tehran, a car congested and noisy city just long enough to visit the Golestan Palace and the crown jewels collection before flying to Kerman, our southernmost destination, to begin our drive back north. From Kerman, our coach took us westward to Shiraz, then northeast to Yazd and west again to Isfahan, then due north to Tehran again. The last leg was northwestward to Zanjan and Tabriz before returning east and south back to Tehran by way of the coast of Caspian Sea. Each leg was 200-300 miles apart. Our zigzag tour left out the northeastern part of the country but covered the heartland of Iran’s historical and cultural heritage.

Tapping qanat tech

As we drove through central Iran and saw endless stretches of arid desert country surrounded by treeless mountains, it dawned on me that qanat was likely the most important engineering invention that the ancient Persians contributed to the world. Aside from being a handy word for the Scrabble player to know, qanat is an irrigation system that can draw water from snow-capped mountains down to towns and villages miles away. The channel has to be carefully sized and gently graded so the water flow will remain smooth (what engineers called “laminar flow”) and not surge or become turbulent and the channel has to be kept underground to minimize evaporation and contamination en route to the final destination. Regularly spaced vertical shafts from the surface allowed for maintenance of the qanats.

The 19th century Shahzadeh Garden in Mahan, where we had lunch on our first outing out of Kerman, was an excellent example of how a qanat can create a beautiful oasis in the middle of the desert. Gushing water cascaded down terraces feeding the flowers and trees that lined both sides of the fountains. The water then exited the garden at the bottom of the hillside and went on to serve the people in Mahan. We were to see other working qanats on other segments of our tour. The qanats reminded me of the karezes in Turfan that we saw while on a tour of China’s Silk Road — same idea with a different name that most likely originated from ancient Persia.

The Persian qanat is arguably even more significant to the development of the human civilization than the Roman aqueduct. Without the ingenuity of qanats, the arid and desiccated land of central Asia would remain sparsely inhabited to uninhabited, and could not become cradles of kingdoms and civilizations. The idea of the qanat spread from Persia to Syria, Egypt and Morocco in one direction and to Afghanistan and China in the other. The UN finds relevance in today’s working qanats as case studies to help solve the world’s challenges with polluted water.

By the time our coach pulled into Isfahan and drove along the river that bisected the city into northern and southern halves, the parks that lined both shores prompted me to modify my impression of Iran as one endless arid landscape. Tabriz to the northwest was even greener. From Tabriz as we emerged from a long tunnel on the way to Ardabil, we were surrounded by lush forest and were greeted by fog and rain. The countryside along the coast of the Caspian Sea was checkerboards of rice paddies as if we were in China. Because our tour included Tabriz and the Caspian shore, we formed a more complete impression of Iran than those that only saw Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan and Tehran.

China and Iran

From the sampling of exhibits from museums we visited, I got the impression that the Neolithic people in Iran were capable of producing sophisticated forms of pottery — to my amateur eye, every bit as advanced as those from China and perhaps even more advanced. Later, Persians got to be quite skilled working with stone as can be seen at Persepolis. By the same period as Persepolis, China had already developed the technology for intricate bronze casting that seemed to be missing in the Persian culture.

A Neolithic drinking vessel

A Neolithic drinking vessel

Persians’ skill at pottery making may have served as the basis to later develop the technology for producing brilliant blue and green ceramic tiles. This was to be an extremely useful attribute for producing the tiles needed to build mosques and mausoleums according to Islamic design after the Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century CE. In fact the mosques and mausoleums in Iran reminded me of the Islamic structures I saw in Samarkand and elsewhere in Central Asia. This should not be a surprise, since at times in history, parts of Central Asia were part of the Persian Empire and other times the ruling dynasty came from Central Asia.

Iran today reminds me of China in the early ‘90s. Iran’s highway system is already first rate and far superior to what China had then but most city streets are as unattractive as any in the third world, full of mom and pop store fronts, randomly arranged with no apparent logic. Some shopping malls are said to be under construction but we did not see any in actual operation. I did see a fair amount of construction activity in the cities, such as building metro stations and high-rise residential buildings.

A typical street in Tehran

A typical street in Tehran

No transgender toilet issue

Public toilets are reasonably available next to mosques and other tourist attractions as well as the customary service stations. Just look for the ubiquitous “WC” signs. It’s not always clear which side is male and which is female but it doesn’t really matter. Every stall has a door for total privacy. In a way, this is unintentionally more progressive than some parts of the US that debate about which toilets transgenders should go to. In Iran it does not matter. The bad news about toilets in Iran is that they are smelly, nearly as bad as those in China or India. Most are the squat kind and the western sit-down kind is not always available.

The hotels in Iran are not quite ready for prime time. Even the 5-star hotels in the big cities miss certain essential features such as washbasins with working stoppers or face cloths. The sewer system can’t handle toilet paper. The hotels seemed to work on fixed rules: If it’s April, there is only heat and no cool air. The bedding comes with a cozy comforter that can only render a warm room even more stifling.

If you can overlook some of the less than luxurious aspects of being a tourist in Iran, now is the time to go before all the tourist facilities get built up and the sameness of Europe or the US becomes part of travelling around Iran. It’s also possible that local Iranians will someday not find foreign tourists a novelty and lose their keenness to interact with them. Right now, the Iranians warmly welcome foreign tourists and Iran represents a novel destination for the international traveler.

At present, it’s not possible for Americans to travel in Iran as individual tourists but have to be part of a guided tour. I met a young man from China who was travelling by himself. He had quit his job as a water treatment engineer in Singapore to see the world. He had been through Nepal and India and had already spent 20 days in Iran riding public inter-city buses from south to north and found travel in Iran “easy.” I met Mr. Gong in Masuleh, a World Heritage village not on most tours. He will be crossing the borders to go on to Armenia and then Turkey and Lebanon to complete his personal journey. It’s nice to be young and adventurous.

In China, the foremost must visit attraction is the Great Wall. For Iran it’s Persepolis. Qinshihuang started the Great Wall and united China about 2,300 years ago. Darius built Persepolis as his seat to receive tribute from far flung corners of his empire 300 years earlier than the Chinese emperor. Despite being burned down by Alexander of Macedonia a mere two hundred years later, the remains continue to impress visitors with the grandeur of the Achaemenid empire and the artistry of the stone masons in that era.

Our tour was designed and arranged by the Seattle-based Caravan-Serai and our guide was Hassan Azadi, a veteran tour guide now an independent contractor living in Toronto who flies to Iran twice a year to work during the high season. Both have been outstanding to work with.

Sidebar: Medical prowess in Tabriz with an American aside

I had the dubious pleasure of having to take advantage of Iran’s medical care system. In the middle of the trip, I experienced pain and swelling on my right wrist. A week of icing and anti-inflammatory medication did not help. When we got to Tabriz, a major city, I asked our guide to take me to a hospital that deals with broken bones. I asked Michael, my brother-in-law, who’s a family practice doctor, to come along.

We got to Shahryar Hospital after 6 pm, Hassan checked with a few windows before finding the X-ray department. He made a prepayment and the female technician took two X-rays of my wrist. A physician on duty reviewed the results and determined that I had a hairline fracture in my capitate bone and recommended a CT scan of the region. Hassan again paid for the CT scan and another technician took the scan. By then it was after 7 pm and the doctors that would put on the wrist splints had left for the day.

The next morning, we went back to Shahryar and Hassan asked to jump the queue because we were part of a waiting tour group. The doctor in charge looked at the X-ray (didn’t bother with the CT scan) and his assistant proceeded to slip a cotton liner over my hand, wrist and forearm. The doctor then went on to apply a quick setting fiber cast over the lining. This middle-aged man had a twinkle in his eye and his demeanor was friendly and reassuring. As he was wrapping the impregnated fiberglass fabric around my arm, I joshed by telling him that I was a professional tennis player. He smiled and rubbed my elbow and said, “Ah, tennis elbow.” We were in and out in 20 minutes and I was, at last, pain free.

My entire medical bill including the unnecessary CT scan came up to $590. The day after I came home I contacted my health care provider, one of the best in the Bay Area, and found out that it would be more than three weeks before the orthopedic specialists would have an opening to see me.

Author getting his wrist cast in Tabriz

Author getting his wrist cast in Tabriz

Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, and a director of New America Media.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times. 

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