Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rasht and Masuleh

Rasht is a perfect example of flexible travel and the power of word-of-mouth recommendations. So much of what I do and where I go is not really decided very far in advance and can be easily altered if I receive enough inspiration and encouragement from others. I hadn't orginally planned all of my Iran trip, especially the northern section, in much detail because I hadn't been sure if I'd get a visa extention or how long it would be if I did. Thus far on the trip I'd been either seeing places I knew of and had always wanted to see, were really famous or were Unesco sites (always a reasonable recommendation if you have no idea what else to do in a country). Rasht was a name that kept popping up as a city that the Iranians (and a few travellers) kept recommending as a destination too. They hadn't really been able to say why other than because it was different from the rest of the country.
I peeked in a guidebook and read that it's famous because it rains there and so has a more tropical and humid climate than the rest of the country; Iranians go there to see rain. I thought this sounded like the stupidest reason to visit anywhere but reasoned that since it was just off the coast of the Caspian sea and near a few other locally famous tourist attractions, it would make a reasonable base for a couple days. So I found a couchsurfing host and jumped on the bus 4 hours from Zanjan to Rasht, not knowing exactly what I wanted or what to expect.
The first thing I found didn't surprise me. I found more excellent hospitality from an excellent host, Farnaz, and her family. The second thing I found, humidity, tried to kill me. 40C and dry is something you can get used to, 35C and humid is so much worse and sucks all the energy out of you when you aren't used to it. The humidity and rain in the area is the result of Caspian Sea water that falls on the north face of the Alborz mountains, giving the land a very different look from the rest of the country. Getting off the bus in Rasht, I felt like I'd stepped sideways half a continent and was back in Malaysia or some other tropical Muslim country.
Rasht is the rapidly-growing capital of Gilan province, a province that historically has been more isolated than most other areas of Iran and has fostered many rebellions and uprisings in the past. There is a bit more of a Russian influence historically and in the architectural style and I guess it's not too surprising therefore to learn that at one point in 1920 it declared itself the independent Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran. It didn't last long but I was surprised to keep running into pro-communists today in Rasht. In fact, I think the groups of people I met were the most rebellious and anti-government that I met while in Iran. They were certainly the most outspoken critics and also the most paranoid at the same time and I was warned of the continued and escalating restrictions and violations by the current government, especially since the failed 2009 rebellion. Ok, no big surprise there, but it was interesting to hear it all again from the new perspective of people that have actually been harassed or jailed because of it. But maybe it's this underlying rebelliousness that makes Rasht a little more relaxed when it comes to some of the cultural restrictions, for example they weren't as afraid of getting in trouble with slack headscarves as people in Isfahan were.
I saw a little of the city but mostly the cafe culture as there aren't many historical sites that are very notable. The one thing I really couldn't understand about Rasht is how the city with the most rain in Iran was the first city I visited that didn't have a covered market but was open air instead.
Rasht is not actually on the coast, but is close, so my hosts and their friends took me on a trip to have a day at the beach. The Caspian is not known for beaches or for being clean though I guess there must be a few nice spots somewhere. The beaches around Rasht were flat, unshaded and wide so that cars were driving on them, huts were set up for rent and lots of local tourists were out having picnics and swimming. Women either don't swim or are completely covered as you'd expect. The water was salty and warm and the day was fun and I have to comment again about how simple the entertainment in Iran can be. The amusement parks are so small, with wimpy rides and the people at the beach were happy amused by renting small motor boats to drive them around in circles for a few minutes before coming back ashore. It reminded me of the contrast with the western lifestyle with its many entertainments that just keep getting bigger and better, pushing us to become more thrill-seeking without actually giving us true satisfaction for any real length of time.

Once again at the Caspian Sea.

A typical Caspian beach.

The following day Farnaz took me to Masuleh with a group of her friends. Masuleh is a 1000-year old village in the mountains near Rasht, famous for it's unusual architecture. It's on the few places in the world where a village climbs a hillside so steeply that the roof of one home forms the pathway for the home above it. Talk about maximum utilization of space! The setting is really pretty too with misty green mountains rising around the village on all sides. From below the view is quite strange because you see all the people on levels above you standing on the roofs of the buildings you're looking at. From above you don't really notice that you are standing on a roof because it looks like a pathway or terrace under your feet. There are of course no safety barriers at all and in the densest section of the village there are cafes set up on the terraces so you're literally having tea on top of someones shop or home. There were a few spots where you could see abandoned homes with holes in their roofs and I wonder if that is a constant fear for the locals, hoping your neighbour doesn't fall through the roof on top of you while you're sleeping.





While not really internationally famous, Masuleh is well known in Iran and during the day there are many day-tripping Iranian tourists and our group of 9 was just one of many there that day. Again I had a lot of fun but thought the whole thing was a little rushed or too short. They wanted to hang out drinking tea and enjoying the view while I was more tempted to run around exploring every nook and cranny and weird view I could find... They more or less won, mostly because my knee wouldn't really allow me to run up and down a hill all day anyway.

Our group.

We stayed longer than we should've and ended up missing the last transport back to Rasht. Farnaz is a go-getter and resourceful and figured that 10pm in a village with 8 others was a great time for her to start her hitching career and prove she could be a real traveller. I was very impressed when a little while later she announced that we were going to get a ride back with an empty cargo truck. It was open in the back and the driver was nice enough to give us a broom to sweep out the sawdust and clean the inside a bit. I wasn't fooled and knew the ride would be dust hell inside so took a strategic position near the front to try to get some fresh air.
Within seconds of leaving, everyone was screaming with joy as we were tossed around in the back as the driver (like most Iranian professionals) drove like a madman downhill on a very windy mountain road. The dust was terrible as I expected and when we were finally dropped off 45 minutes later everyone's eyes were red and we had to run into a restaurant to wash our eyes so we could even see again. The ride didn't take us the whole way, but just to a nearby town where we were able to continue our journey by shared taxi.

Hitching in the back of the truck.

After such great experiences travelling together Farnaz asked me if she could continue travelling with me for a little while as she was on summer break. This was bound to add all sorts of complications, especially in a country where a female will get a lot of suspicion and restriction travelling around with an unrelated male, particularly a foreign one. Thinking it would be fun to travel with someone again and teach them the ways, I agreed and a whole new adventure started....


At 1:38 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seeing the Caspian beach reminded me of how Villa beach looked like years back.I could only imagine (how dirty it has become.) :(

~ bff


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