Sunday, November 02, 2008

A road trip through the Caspian & Iran's English countryside: My Report on Iran # 6

I want to try to give you readers back home a sense of what it's like here in Iran. Strangers come up to you on the street all the time, give you a big hug and say, "We love Americans." People in Iran consider driving to be a sport -- the Iranian version of bullfighting. 70% of the population is under 30. More people than you would expect speak English. And everywhere you look, there is something scenic going on.

There is so much to see and do in Iran. This place is a tourist paradise. "Iran never disappoints".

After spending two weeks in the desert oasises of southern Iran, traveling up to the northern part of the country was like going from Arizona to San Francisco. Tabriz was so foggy and temperate that I kept looking around for cable cars, french bread and a big orange bridge. Having lived in Berkeley for most of my life, I felt right at home in Tabriz. You would too.

The one big difference between the Bay Area and northern Iran -- aside from the fact that everyone here speaks Farsi -- is that I couldn't find any reliable internet connections in the north. Everywhere I went in Shiraz, Tehran and Esfahan, there were "Coffee Nets" -- but not here. My kids must all think that I'm dead.

After I left San Francisco, er, Tabriz, everything changed once again and the landscape we drove through suddenly became like a clone of the English countryside -- thatched-roof cottages and all. All those years of British occupation has still left its stamp on Iran.

And the Mongols have left their stamp too.

One place I went to was a troglodyte village up in the mountains that featured a four-star hotel dug into a cave. The village -- not the four-star hotel -- was built into the sides of a mountain as a hideout from the Mongols way back in the day. It was really funny to look up on the rocky cliff walls and see windows.

Next came Iran's version of the Swiss Alps and a border-crossing into Azerbaijan. At one point I actually found myself in the pine forests of the former USSR.

"Iran never disappoints."

During all of my travels throughout Iran, every restaurant I stopped at had chicken kabobs on the menu but after the first couple of times, I wised up. While the pilafs, stews, eggplant dishes, anti-pasta and soups in Iran are positively wonderful, every single chicken kabob that I've tasted here has been stringy, tough and DRY. "Chicken on the menu tonight AGAIN?" I'd complain -- and then order the lamb-pomegranate-walnut stew instead.

But on the main street of the small northern country town of Fuman, I found a tiny family-owned restaurant that finally knew how to Do Chicken Right and I got so excited that I rushed off to the kitchen to demand to meet the chef! Boy was he surprised. But I got to see what his kitchen looked like and it was small. This was no Chez Pannise we're talking about here but who cares. That chicken was good! So. The next time that you are in Fuman, be sure to eat at the Restaurant Pars on the main street, four blocks down from a plaster statue of some mythic queen driving a chariot. And tell them that Jane sent you.

But the highlight of my entire trip -- aside from the food, the ancient mosques and all that Ozymandias stuff -- was the Caspian Sea. Before coming to Iran, the only thing I knew about the Caspian Sea was its proximity to some infamous pipeline and its murky connections with Bush's attacks on Afghanistan.

Sorry, guys, but I didn't see no pipeline.

"The Caspian is 75 feet below sea level and has no outlet," said the clerk at my hotel, "but the water from the Volga keeps pouring into it nonetheless." Imagine a bathtub with a stopper covering its drain and its water tap turned on full-blast. That's pretty much what the Caspian Sea is like. And there's only a ten-foot high breakwater standing between the full force of the Caspian and my hotel room. And it's raining. And the wind is raging off of roiling sea at approximately 60 miles an hour. Awesome.

I walked out onto the breakwater at dusk and it was almost like being on a levee in NOLA during a hurricane. I got that Katrina feeling right away. It was one of the most powerful and surreal moments of my life. Me against the elements!

Iran never disappoints.

But then reality set in and I realized that if I were to get swept away into the pounding surf of the Caspian, no one would ever know what happened to me -- let alone be able to e-mail my family -- and so I went back into the hotel.

Forget about the politics of Bush and Ahmadinejad and everything you've ever heard about Iran on Fox News. This country is amazing. You just GOTTA come here. I gotta join the Iran Chamber of Commerce! I gotta write a book about this place.

PS: The night manager of the Laleh Sar-ein Hotel in Sarein asked me to give his establishment a plug -- so here it is. It really is a nice hotel. Plus it's got internet. "Sarein is famous for its curative hot springs," said the night manager, "plus it is right down the road from Iran's most popular ski resort." Then he gave me a DVD but I couldn't get it to play.