Day 464: Persepolis

09.04.10:

Last night’s taxi took me to the coach station and within minutes, I was hurtling down through the good night towards Shiraz near the Gulf. When I arrived in the morning, I knew that there were defo no boats to Kuwait, but I was having trouble working out from the ferry company website when the boat did actually leave. It took me a couple of hours and a few phone calls to find out that the boat left from a place on the Shat-al-Arab waterway called Khorammshahr tomorrow morning.

I booked a ticket for the overnight bus to Khorammshahr and elected to spend my afternoon wisely by visiting the nearby ancient Zoroastrian site of Persepolis.

Zoroastrianism was the religion of Persia before the Arabs turned up and ruined everything (much in the way the Italians and spoilt all our Pagan-y fun in Blighty). The Zoroastrian god was (still is!) Ahura Mazda, and as such remains the only deity to have a car manufacturer named after him.

Now you’ve seen 300, right? This is Sparta and all that jazz? Good. Well you know that freaky guy who looked (and sounded) like Purple Acky and had all that metal in his face? That was Xerxes, son of Darius of X-Factor fame. Persepolis was their capital until it was mercilessly vandalised by the Greeks under a certain Alexander The Great. The great big nancy.

The site is awesome – even though much of it has been destroyed, what remains is enough to keep you occupied for hours. For a history buff like me, it doesn’t get any better than this: ancient ruins, intricately carved murals, mysterious engravings (cuneiform!), mighty tombs carved out of a rockface… it’s like the best of Greece, Egypt, Armenia and Petra all rolled into one.

After getting my fill of touristy-goodness, I headed back to Shiraz to hop on that bus for Khorammshahr. On the way I met a guy from Belgium named Maxim. He had been in Iran for a month, travelling about, and had fallen in love with the place. He wasn’t CouchSurfing, but over the last 30 nights, he had only spent one of them in a hotel. The Persians are that friendly that pretty much every night he had been here he had been invited to stay with a family.

Persia, man – I take my hat off to you. You are the friendliest bunch on the planet (and I should know!). Once I finish The Odyssey, I’ll be back here in a FLASH.

Day 465: Breakfast Of Champions

10.04.10:

In what has to be the most touching thing that’s happened to me in the last 16 months of traversing the globe, last night on the bus from Shiraz, the little old lady (she must have been in her nineties) sitting in front of me who didn’t speak a word of English, turned around and offered me her phone, gesturing for me to listen to it. I put the phone to my ear and the voice on the other end introduced himself as Hossein. He explained that he was an English teacher in Khorramshahr and that I was sitting behind his grandmother.

“She’s concerned that the bus is going to get into Khorramshahr very early – at 5am, and that you’re not going to have any breakfast. She wants you to come to her home so she can make you something to eat. Would that be okay?”

If you want any more proof that the Iranians are the most beautiful people on the planet, I humbly suggest you visit the place yourself. Iran has gone straight into my top ten countries in the world, above Australia and above the US. I gratefully accepted Granny’s offer and after a short night’s kip on the bus we were picked up from the drop-off point by Hossein himself.

Hossein took his grandmother and me to her place where she laid out a Persian breakfast fit for a king – bread, eggs, jam, honey, yummy stuff I didn’t catch the name of, and more sweet sweet tea than even I could drink. Granny’s gaff was perfect for a energetic little old lady – filled to the brim with souvenirs, nick-nacks, ornaments, flowers, photographs and memories.

Hossein and Grandmother Iran

After breakfast, I said my heartfelt goodbyes to Granny – she said that I should come back to see her as soon as I’m able and that I should bring my mum because she really wanted to meet my mum. A dearer old lady I doubt I’ll ever meet. Hossein then took me to the port so I could buy my ticket to Nation 155 – Kuwait. After Hossein sorted out all my passport formalities, and while we were waiting for the ferry to arrive, we went for a walk along the Shat-al-Arab waterway.

This narrow river forms the southern border between Iran and Iraq. In 1980 Saddam Hussein (of Saddam Hussein fame) decided that Iraq should have full control of the waterway and began one of the longest, bloodiest and most pointless wars of the 20th century (and, let’s face it, there are many to choose from). Over one million people died in a ten year war that saw trench warfare and gas attacks used for the first time since World War I.

The West, which was still pissed at Iran over the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when the Shah (the King) was deposed by a bunch of religious zealots seemingly hell-bent on dragging Iran back to the 14th century, officially supported Iraq in this patently unfair landgrab. Unofficially, the West supplied both sides with weapons, prolonging the war and keeping the Islamic forces fighting amongst themselves in good old fashioned divide-and-conquer style.

So did Hossein hold any ill-will towards the Iraqis? Surprisingly, no. He has friends and family in Basra. Again, I’m reminded of what my Algerian friend said to me – that politicians are very good at making enemies of people. Houssein remembers the war, though – being evacuated from his home in the night and the fear of not knowing what (or why) these things where happening. As a consequence of the war, taking pictures of the port or of the waterway is strictly forbidden and I was made to erase some footage that Hossein and I shot in the parking lot.

By 10am, the boat was ready to leave. I said my goodbyes and great thanks to Hossein and shuffled onto the ferry that would take me to my next nation.

The journey was fun – it was a mega-fast catamaran. I was given free cups of tea (of course!) and once we were out of the Shat-al-Arab I went out on deck and felt the wind on my face as the hazy grey skyscrapers of Kuwait loomed in the far distance.

I was so happy. I had come so far in the last month – through some of the trickiest countries in the world to get into overland with a British passport – Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran… and now, at last, I would be stepping into the Arabian peninsular. I have already been to Saudi, and in my mind, getting around the six other nations – Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman and Yemen, would be a piece of cake with no advance visa required for any of them.

By 2pm, we were in dock in Kuwait City. Being the only westerner on board I had to go through a bit of a rigmarole to get my visa (they weren’t expecting me!) but sure enough it came through and – even better – it was free! The customs guy welcomed me with a cup of tea (It’s as though cups of tea are mandatory for all crazy travelling guys) and then asked if I was a tourist. I said I was, and he disagreed. “No, you are not a tourist… you are a traveller!”

This worried me a bit – did I need a traveller visa? Would he pop me back on the boat to Iran for being – you know – scruffy-lookin’?

“Tourists wear fancy clothes and stay at fancy hotels and do not see the world – you, my friend, you see the world.”

Phew – it was okay.

“Of course it is okay – you are British – you are most most welcome in Kuwait. You know Margaret Thatcher?”

I smiled and gave an uncertain nod. Maggie Thatcher ain’t too popular a character around my neck of the woods. I didn’t know where he was going with this…

“She is the Mother of Kuwait! – when Iraq invaded, she was the first to say no and the first to come to our defence. We in Kuwait will always be very grateful!”

I should explain that the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by the Iraqis is still a bitter subject around here. During the aforementioned Iran-Iraq war, Kuwait (and Saudi) supported Iraq on the grounds that Iraq was mostly made up of Sunni Muslims whereas Iran was overwhelming Shi’ite. And what thanks did Kuwait get for this assistance? No sooner had the war against Iran finished, Saddam turned on little old Kuwait and attacked it with such venom, such ferocity it still has the power to shock twenty years on – men were dragged out into the streets and beaten to death, women were raped, the Kuwaiti towers used for target practice, millions of tons of oil were dumped into the Gulf and over seven hundred oil-wells were set on fire, turning day into night.

Whatever you may feel about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, know two things – first up that the first Gulf War was completely justified (and legal) as the international community has a duty to step in when one sovereign nation is invaded by another (which is why civil conflicts are so difficult to tackle) and secondly, Saddam was an utter ba****d – and don’t let any snivelling apologists like the ghastly George Galloway persuade you otherwise.

If the UN had any teeth (or balls for that matter) then leaders like Saddam, Mugabe, Kaddafi, Kim Jong-Il, Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Pinochet would have been arrested the minute they stepped foot outside their own country and thrown in jail where they belong. But no, they get given diplomatic immunity like Josh Ackland in Lethal Weapon II. A very warm welcome to the United Nations, don’t forget to pick up your freedom to murder with impunity card on the way out…

I jumped a taxi (which ripped me off) to the Kuwaiti towers. There I met with Michael, my couchsurf host from the Philippines. After dropping my bags off at his place we set off to the marina to scout out boats going to Bahrain.

To my dismay, there weren’t any. The guidebook was wrong. The ferry had stopped two years ago and nobody – really, nobody – was interested in going to Bahrain for a myriad of reasons. This was the start of my downfall. As the ground began to give way beneath my feet, a neon sign flashed up EPIC FAIL in my head.