Thursday, June 30, 2011

Money Matters in Iran

Specimen of Iranian Riyals
While credit card and debit card are almost as good as cash in most countries in the world, that’s not the case with Iran. Credit card, debit card and travelers checks are useless in Iran! I was absolutely wrong when I thought I could fork out some Iranian Riyals from the ATM in Tehran airport. We changed some of our USD into Iranian Riyals at the airport on the night we arrived. The currency is not tradable outside the country so you have to be very prudent about the amount you’re holding. Changing Riyals to other currency at the airport can be very inconvenient with long queues and especially if you are in a hurry to catch the flight home.

You need cold hard cash in Iran because the economics sanction has somehow cut off Iran from the international banking network. The ATMs in Iran only accept Iranian cards. I peeked into my wallet and I had only 800 USD and 100 GBP and that wouldn’t be sufficient to pay for hotels, food and shopping in Isfahan, Tehran and Shiraz. Next…was to quiz the rest, how much cash they had. After discussing, we were in consensus that the money matters will somehow be manageable. Oh..ok I am not too worried about not having enough money in Iran….I have Iranian bankers to save me J!

Foreigners have to be prepared when it comes to money because any banking transactions to and from Iran are really not easy! Some blogs even advise travelers to avoid accessing U.S. bank account via Internet since the account will immediately be blocked by bank due to sanction. It was the only day when we bought some carpets in Isfahan, by chance…we were just lucky because the shop has an account in Dubai. That was the only time we swiped our cards. 

Now, there’s a little confusion about the currency. While the currency is quoted in Riyals often prices are quoted in Toman to knock off the zeros. I was puzzled for a moment but it didn’t take long to learn how to handle the currency. 
For example if you have: 100,000 Riyals = 10,000 Toman = 10 USD 
Remember you need your passport to exchange money and do it at banks or an authorized currency exchange counter, not on the street, and always keep the exchange receipts.

Cehelsotoon (Pavilion of Forty Columns) – Isfahan, Iran

View of Cehelsotoon from the entrance

Cehelsotoon Palace is the largest building in the palace precinct set in a walled garden. The palace was built in 1647 by Abbas II (1642-1666) during the Safavid period and reconstructed in 1706 after it was damaged in a fire. In front of the palace is a long reflecting pool. The front section known as the talar has 20 columns made of cypress wood supporting the flat wooden roof. The palace probably got its name from the reflection of the 20 columns in the long pool, which made up a total of forty columns….but some disagreed with this interpretation. 

Regardless how the name is interpreted, this building is  impressive especially with the tall slender columns and extensive use of small pieces of glasses on the entrance (iwan) deflecting the lights.  It is almost similar to the ceiling decoration in the shrine of Imam Reza’s brother in Shiraz but of course the d├ęcor in the shrine is in a more grandeur scale. Most of the interior surfaces in Cehelsotoon are painted with murals of scenes taken from the Persian literature. Some of the murals are faintly visible and hence cameras with flashes are not allowed to protect the paintings.

After touring the palace, we strolled around the walled garden within the palace compound. The garden is not too big but it gives a sense of tranquility walking among the tall pine trees and shades; the soft music on air gives a relaxing ambience. Several trunks of very old trees are exhibited in the garden. It is so huge that you can walk through the hollow trunks.

The entrance
The back door of the palace
Tall cypress columns supporting the flat roof
Beautiful Talar
A closer view
Intricate wood carving
Shimmering pieces of glasses on the iwan (entrance)
The garden and Cehelsotoon
The entrance - view from Cehelsotoon
The entrance building and its reflection
The walled garden of Cehelsotoon
Old tree trunk

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Repertoire of Iranian Culinary

Chicken Kebab with huge portion of rice for one person

There is so much to write about the magnificent Iranian cuisine. Food is almost an element of entertainment everywhere we go and we had fun feasting the Iranian cuisine. I’m indulging myself too much with food but how else can one be entertained in Iran! Iranian cuisine is diverse, with each province featuring their specialty dishes and culinary tradition. A typical Iranian meal is a combination of rice with meat, lamb, chicken or fish. On top of the white basmati rice there is always the flavored saffron rice. What I love most is the balance mixture of sweet, savory and sour in the dishes.
The succulent Kebab Koobideh in Babolsar, Mazandaran

I love the minced meat kebab (Kebab Koobideh) soft texture and had a taste of it at a party in Mazandaran. In Isfahan we had the special Tah Dig dish (crunchy rice from the bottom of the pot – kerak nasi) where in my culture it is considered rude to serve such rice to one’s guests :). Next is the famous Chelo Kebab (rice served with tender roasted kebab) which is almost similar to steak and the best we tasted in a traditional restaurant in Tehran. Served with succulent grilled tomatoes on the side of the rice, and butter on top of the rice, the dish is superb.   

Saffron and pistachio flavored ice cream with faludeh
in Sanandaj
There is an extensive list of appetizers and desserts but Doogh, the traditional Iranian yogurt drink we tasted in Kurdistan was quiet interesting. Doogh is a combination of yogurt, carbonated water, dried mint and a little salt which is delicious after you have acquired the taste. We spoilt ourselves with ice cream in every parts of Iran we went. Iranian ice cream has several flavors of saffron, rosewater, pistachios, walnuts and many others. The Bastani-e Za’farani (saffron flavored ice cream) has a unique taste. We had several variation of the famous Faludeh (a frozen sorbet made with thin starch noodles and rosewater) in Shiraz, Sanandaj and Persepolis. 

At one of the restaurant by the  street of Shiraz we had Aash for breakfast, the delicious thick gravy served with warm thin flat bread .  We were introduced to too much Iranian delicious food that I lost count of them and their names. But when I looked at the pictures again, I can still imagine the taste...and what a celebration of food I had in Iran!

Aash - Thick gravy served with bread
Warm delicious bread for breakfast
Chai (tea) for breakfast
The delicious creamy ice cream in Amol, Mazandaran
Lemon flavored Faludeh in Rahoullah Bazaar, Shiraz 
Ice cream and Faludeh in Persepolis
The famous Tah Dig with fish in Isfahan
Salad in Shiraz
Mazandaran flatbread
Fried fish at village restaurant
Mixed grill
Lunch in Shiraz
Delicious, healthy and colorful salad

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Experiencing Iranian Driving Culture

On a highway in Shiraz
I thought driving in Morocco is a dreadful experience, well not until I have experienced Iranian driving culture. Truly, driving in Iran can be a nightmare. With most traffic lights blinking like Christmas tree, it actually serves no function at all! All cars will race through the madness to get across to another lane and distance between the cars is almost an inch to an inch. Iranian drivers happily ignore signs and of course the dysfunctional traffic lights.

In one occasion, our taxi driver in Tehran got into the wrong junction and he drove backwards about 300 meters with amazing speed to get to the main road again. We were very frightened but couldn’t help bursting into laughter. That’s not it…even our Iranian friend drove backward on the highway to Kurdistan because he missed a junction to another highway. So backward driving seems to be a common phenomenon in Iran :).

Right in front of us
While the passengers’ vehicles were squeezing themselves to navigate the traffic, many vehicles transporting goods casually carried as much load as they could. Just next to our taxi on a highway in Shiraz were some Western guys in another taxi having a good laugh while taking a picture of an overloaded small truck. We had a good view of the overloaded truck right in front of our taxi. 

It was reported that road accident is the primary cause of unnatural deaths in Iran and about 17,000 people died annually. Although my friend offered that I drive on the Kurdistan highway, I declined as I do not wish to add on to the statistic! It is best to use a taxi or an Iranian driver who is much more accustomed to their driving culture. 
Persian family having a picnic by the road side
On the Kurdistan highway
A load..... just tied with strings!
Traffic in Shiraz

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

He made my table cloth - Isfahan, Iran

He made my table cloth
Isfahan is well known for its fine craft and watching a traditional artisan at work is an interesting thing to do. I wanted to buy myself something special and light to carry home from Isfahan. In the huge Bazaar-e Bozorg in Imam Square, I found this old man who skillfully made beautiful hand printed table cloth in his workshop. 

I had my eyes on a beautiful hand made table cloth which took the 78 years old Mr. Hassan 5 days to complete it.  The more colors and layers printed on the cotton material the more expensive it gets.  Made from 100% natural materials, the colors are drawn from natural sources. The vibrant pink is extracted from mixing pomegranate and yogurt, while the ocean blue is derived from lapis lazuli rock and the vivid orange is drawn from saffron.  How interesting! 

He priced the merchandise for  40 USD and I did not want to bargain that much for his skill and effort. Anyway, the translator told me that the old man is happy to sell it for  35 USD and I am perfectly contented to pay the price.  He printed his name at the back of the table cloth and the transaction was completed. 

Mr. Hassan's workshop 
The translator explains how the table cloths are made
The old man working on his wooden block
The table cloths he made
I paid him and the deal is sealed
My table cloth
Light, natural and easy to carry
His final seal on the merchandise

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fish picnic under the mulberry trees - Palanga, Kurdistan

Cleaning the fish
After a long walk, we finally arrived at the picnic spot....under the mulberry trees on the river bank.  It was scorching but under the leafy shades by the river,  the air was fresh and the gushing water from the mountain cools the environment.  Everybody was stretching their legs and making themselves comfortable while waiting for our fish to be grilled.  I think it is a village restaurant though it does not look like one. The Kurdish women were busy cleaning the fish, our main dish for the day.

The table was simply laid with huge plastic wrap...refreshment was served while waiting for the fish.  Soon the fish was ready....one big fish for each and every one of us. The fish was wrapped with a very thin layer of bread and then it was distributed on the table.  Ahhhh..... almost impossible for the ladies to finish it!  The bread was absolutely delicious and the freshness and sweetness of the fish invigorated our palate. It would be perfect I thought if I have some squeezes of lemon to balance the audaciously used of salt on the fish!

Everybody was enjoying their fish and as predicted the ladies could barely finish theirs. After the meal I opted for glasses of warm tea to wash down the fishy feeling down my throat :). Then finally comes the luscious watermelon to cool us off....and so we had an impeccable fish picnic under the mulberry trees by the river!

Tedious job
The fish
The red charcoal began to grill the fish
Delicious grilled fish wrapped in thin flat bread
Meal is ready for everybody
The girls weren't sure if they could finish it!
Feasting time
These boys had no problem with the fish :)
Sweet, succulent watermelon