With time left on our Iranian visas we opted to head into the less visited west of the country, towards the Iraq border. The region has a long history and the best way to reach it from Shiraz is a ten hour bus to the city of Ahvaz from where you can take a shared taxi to Shushtar. The drive passes through mountainous landscapes before turning biblical, bringing back memories of the illustrated children’s bibles we grew up with. Low sand coloured mountains fall to wide fertile valleys where green wheat sways in the breeze. Pale blue streams lined with reeds and shepherds tending their flocks of woolly sheep complete the seemingly ageless scene and it’s even been suggested this area may have been the original Garden of Eden.
Stopping for a free lunch of chicken and rice lunch (included in ticket price) we’re given a bowl of gormesabzi (herb bean stew) which nobody else did before a girl in kitchen randomly asked Matt for his WhatsApp details. Coming into Ahvaz oil fields begin to appear, flames burning in the distance as sunset arrives. Our throats become scratchy from the pollution in the air and we pass down a street filled with roadside restaurants all displaying huge salad bars. Close to the frontlines of the Iraq/Iran war in the 80’s Ahvaz suffered from an attempted annex by Iraq and you still sense a strong military presence. There’s no reason to linger here.
A few months earlier we’d seen a picture of the Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System, an ancient Roman system of irrigation canals, weirs and waterfalls. For millennia the system controlled the irrigation of the Khuzestan plains and images of the startling blue water against a backdrop of sandy rock and manmade falls was what drew us here. Though with overcast skies and recent heavy rainfalls the sight was a little less impressive than some of the photoshopped images would have you believe and the piles of rubbish swirling in the water didn’t help. Still it’s a unique slightly mesmerising sight. There’s a couple of ways to view the sight, first being from the Shahri’ati bridge, secondly by paying the IRR200,000 (USD$7) entrance fee to enter the actual sight and lastly by climbing the back streets to the free renovated Marashi House. This last option gives you the best views from a high vantage point.
After a brief wander around town we made our way to the bus station to find ourselves a taxi willing to take us to the nearby city of Andimeshk taking in a couple of the other ancient sights in the area. With Matt circled on all sides with taxi offers Sarah looks on from the outskirts, shaking her head at quoted prices until we finally settle for the price we want and hit the road. Our driver Ali has his mug of chai resting on his dashboard, his thermos resting beside his leg and spends his time refilling the mug and dipping into a bag of sugar cubes wedged in the centre console. He continues to eat them even after he’s finished his tea.
Choqa Zanbil, our first stop, was somehow lost for almost 2,500 years and once you arrive you can understand how. The giant zigguraut, a stepped brick pyramid, is not exactly visible across the rolling landscape. Built to reflect the importance of mountains to early Iranian inhabitants, small temples on the outskirts were dedictated to both male and important female gods. The sight was only rediscovered during a 1935 aerial survey by Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
The zigguraut itself was dedicated to the chief god of Elamite pantheon Inshushinak and when built the area was fertile and forested. Apparently they didn’t pray enough to the gods of rain as it’s not mostly scrubby desert. Qanats, underwater canals, brought water from 45km when the climate began to dry but obviously this wasn’t enough. Look out for the stip of red bricks containing cuneiform writing. There’s some signage in English though for the IRR200,000 entrance fee we’re not sure it was really worth the trip out here unless lonely archeaological finds really float your boat.
Shush (Susa), once among the greatest of ancient cities now just another small town of low-level buildings indistinguishable from others in the area. But it has quite the history. It’s a Proto-Elamite city, the oldest civilization in Iran, existing between 3400BC and 2500BC. Alexander the Great once married one of the local kings daughters here, it was burnt to the ground by an Assyrian king on 640BC, by 310AD it had become a Jewish pilgrimage sight and it was evacuated when the Mongols arrived.
Now the sight is a popular Muslim pilgrimage sight, were visitors crowd the small mirrored interior of the Tomb of Daniel. They kiss the green draped silver boxed in grave…yet little do most of them know that Daniel was actually a semi-mythical Jewish figure who may or may not have been a eunich and who’s most memorable feat was supposedly being thrown in the lions den and surviving the night. The tomb is unique as there’s no dome but instead a tiered cone, but you really need more time to explore the cities other sights (including the old palace) as the tomb is not really worth the detour on it’s own.
Our final destination for the day was the town of Andimeshk from where we’d planned to take the train the following morning on a scenic trip to Dorud. Dropped at the station we ask the ticket desk, who confirm there is a train at 6am, then head to the only hotel in town Hotel Ostam. It was here that we realised we’d lost our GoPro camera, the only obvious place being in the back of the taxi earlier. With no way to contact the driver and knowing he’d probably already be back in Shushtar 110km away we went to bed thinking we’d never see it again. Waking at 4:40am we walked in darkness through the rain to the station, only to be told by the guard there was actually no train to Dorud that day. Having already checked out we had no choice but to dump our bags and pull up a bench for a few hours sleep.
By 8am we’d decided to take the evening train back to Tehran rather than risk another 5am disappointment. We’d also asked around the security guys if by chance we’d left the camera behind while in the station yesterday. After a few hours a guy approaches us pointing to the numerous security cameras. Before long 12 people are surrounding us in deep discussion about what to do about our lost camera. We now have hours to spare so it’s suggested one man, a ‘taxi’ driver, could take us back to Shushtar to look for the guy. Not an easy task when half the taxi drivers are named Ali and drive a silver Peugeot. Still, we risk the IRR700,000 (around USD$20) fare on the basis that we know where we met him and would recognise the bell hanging from his rearview mirror if we saw it.
Long story short, 110km later we direct the driver, who speaks no English, to the bus station entrance where we met our man. A crowd soon gathers trying to direct us into another taxi or a bus and it’s hard to get our story across until an English speaking gentleman arrives. Communicating it to the group shouting commences that we didn’t take an authorised taxi (who wanted to charge us double) and it’s our own stupid fault. While Sarah stays with the taxi Matt heads up the road a little and returns to say the drivers car is parked in exactly the same place as yesterday, so we must be able to track him down. Sure enough with the crowd and the shouting our man must have got wind he was being hunted (after all how many taxi drivers in Shushtar could have dri[ver a dreadlocked Aussie and his wife to Andimeshk yesterday??) and approaches us with our camera in hand.
It was around about now, at the end of our third week in Iran, when scratches began to appear on our rose tinted glasses and the true colour of the country began to filter through.
The man at the small shop at the Shiraz bus station who tried to charge us IRR50,000 for two packets of nuts which were clearly labelled at IRR20,000 each and when we signalled that we could read the numbers made us cross the shop to get the additional change without so much as looking in our direction or breaking from his phone conversation.
The taxi driver in Shushtar who drove past our requested hotel 200m down the road to one which was double the price before trying to extort more money when we asked him to drive us back to the one we’d asked for.
The ticket sellers at Choqa Zanbil ziggurat who didn’t have IRR100,000 change for our IRR500,000 note so borrowed IRR50,000 off our taxi driver, who then demanded we pay it back on their behalf later in the day (we didn’t).
After tracking down our driver to retrieve our GoPro left on the back seat the day before, we found that he’d snapped the waterproof housing trying to pry it open the wrong way and gone ahead and deleted all of our photos and videos.
When we were subsequently dragged to the police station in Andimeshk, after having taken it upon ourselves to track down the taxi driver 110km away, we were made to pose for photos as if the policehad located our lost property and were handing the camera back to us. We were refused a copy of the police report on the grounds it was ‘illegal’, rather than that it was falsified, showing that they’d been of immense assistance when in fact they’d been of virtually none.
People in this region began to stare rather than smile as they had in the north and most people didn’t even bother to say Salam or Hello before gesturing, pulling and shouting
“Mr, Mr here, here! Picture picture”.
Sometimes they wouldn’t speak at all, just drag Matt towards their mates camera phone and assume he’d be happy to pose.
Whilst not wanting to distract from the majority of Iranian’s who are welcoming, friendly, generous and really do want you to have the best time in their country, just like the hijabs which slip further and further back with each sentence of a young Iranian women’s conversation, so the longer you spend here the more you’ll be exposed to the realities of a country which sometime has as warped a perception of the West as the West has of it.
We spent the afternoon buying chicken kebabs from where we had dinner the night before and as a downpour began the old man who worked there offered Sarah a lift back to the station. Her dodgy afternoon mood didn’t improve when he then tried to get her to give him a kiss before she left the car. When the rain stopped the muddy brown skies were like looking at a reflection in a muddy puddle, and as the room filled then emptied again when the next train departed we wondered how many times the women must have to dye their hair to achieve some of the shades of blonde which flashed from under the colourful headscarves. The station guards took pity on us and handed up hot tea and lettuce through a trapdoor to their office and Matt spent a long time outside chatting to an obviously gay young man, not something often seen in this country. Eventually we board the 9:20pm train and settle into our 6-berth compartment for the ride to Tehran.
Tips for Shushtar and around
- A VIP bus departs for Ahvaz at 9am from the Shiraz bus terminal, we bargained our tickets down 30 minutes before departure to IRR400,000 each. A cheaper overnight bus leaves at 8pm. There’s also a direct bus to Shushtar which departs at 5pm.
- If you take the bus to Ahvaz you’ll need to take a local taxi to a different bus terminal from where you’re dropped off. It should cost more than IRR120,000. From here you can take a bus to Shushtar or if there are no more buses for the day a seat in a shared taxi (IRR300,000 for the whole taxi).
- We stayed at Hotel Shushtar (IRR600,000 private double). Hotel Jahangardi up the road is posher but charged IRR1.1million.
- A private unauthorised taxi from Shushtar via Choqa Zanbil and Shush to Andimeshk cost us IRR600,000. For an authorised taxi and to spend more time in Shush (we just made a brief stop) expect to pay more.
- If you stop in Shush to visit the Tomb of Daniel the entrance is free. There’s a museum nearby which charges a fee but for the Tomb alone you don’t need to pay. Beware of English speaking locals loitering about who’ll chat your ear off then ask for a donation.
- A twin room with private bathroom at Hotel Ostam in Andimeshk cost us IRR700,000. There’s a restaurant on sight, average WiFi and nicer rooms in a higher price range also available.
- The 9:20pm train from Andimeshk to Tehran costs IRR435,000 for a 6-berth bed.