The morning started off with the traditional sweet Persian breakfast of cucumbers, tomatoes, flat breads and jams, something that as now taking its toll on sugar intakes across the team. We explained to Reza over breakfast the scenario “5 Fools and No Mechanic” had found themselves in, after some broken English explanations, he agreed that extra time could be taken this morning to try and assist the Swiss. Returning to our hotel-apartment, and some nifty VPN connection work, we managed to make contact again with both Mathjis (the Dutchman intended to drive one of the Swiss cars) and the Swiss Team Captain. Unfortunately, even after much deliberation and brainstorming, he Swiss could not justify the risk to their vehicles or us at the border crossings; reports from the Public Notary they had met with described vehicles and their drivers being held at the border for several weeks with high risk of vehicle seizure and hefty fines. The Swiss gave up, and considered the best course of action was to reverse course and head back to the Turkish border and try their luck through the Caspian Sea ferries.
Feeling as though the risk factor of the Mongol Rally had been lost on the Swiss, we headed out with Reza; destination Imam Reza Shrine. We had driven both under and around the Shrine upon entry to Mashhad, and while the scale was somewhat apparent, walking up to the Shrine built up both the atmosphere and the vastness of the 2nd most important site in Islam. The crowded streets changed hands from street merchants and general populace, to a dedicated, religiously driven flow of devotees, both too and from the holy site. Instead of the common greetings and curiousness we had become so used to in the Iranians, we were subject to a London commuter sprawl – everyone with heads down, or in a deep religious focus. Entrance to the shrine was a more thorough security process than we had previously been subject to; security guards would pat everyone down and scan for any metallic objects. Cameras (through, not smartphones) were not permitted on site, catching us short, where Rhys had a small rucksack and was refused entry. We headed across to a bag collection area- a temporary scaffolding structure outside the shrine that didn’t resemble anything official. With a pretty significant amount of trust on this not very official looking setup, our bag, as with everyone else’s, was filed away.
The Imam Reza Shrine dates back to the Qatar Era of Iran; the original site built in the 16th Century, it now stretches across 600’000 square feet, with 10 open public squares within the site, the majority of which could fit the Shah Chirag Mosque within their walls. Small English towns could fit within this site; walking across just one of these courtyards in the heat and bright reflective surfaces all around resulted in almost blindness and a constant thirst for water. We moved through passed the inner-courtyard, catching a glimpse of the inner temple, but that was it – entrance for non-Muslims, especially given the upcoming birthday celebrations for the Imam Reza, were forbidden beyond certain walls. We were guided by our Reza to the International Relations centre – a small hallway and prayer room where we were greeted by the shrines representative – a rounded, middle-aged man who had a good grasp of English, sat us down to watch a factual video of the shrine; providing us small gift bags with a tourist’s guide of the entire site. After a short discussion with the shrine’s representative, we were introduced to a cleric who was willing to answer any of our questions – quietly spoken, he offered a more personal viewpoint of the shrine and the upcoming celebrations for which there was heavy decoration across the entire site. Our questions probed more towards how the site had developed, over any religious context, much we feel to the cleric’s disappointment. We finally headed across to the library of the shrine – a building of the complex that dwarfed many British university or city libraries; the tour was a quiet and prompt affair as many students were actively studying in each of the book halls. With Reza and our own appetites craving lunch, we headed out of the site – taking half an hour even as the crow flies – towards a restaurant in the city centre.
Restaurants in Mashhad from looking in through windows, and our eventual decided watering hole take on a different approach to catering – it was akin to school dinners or a military programme of feeding hungry mouths – the menu was limited and everything cooked in quantity to cater for vast numbers of pilgrims, though it seemed as with the rest of Iran, availability of even a limited menu was guided by food supply to the restaurant. Even with several revisions to our order, Rhys found himself without a meal – vegetable rice had run out, the last falafel had been sold off as we entered the restaurant, and any amount of trying to convince the waiter into ordering “a kebab without the meat” was met with confusion. It was at this last stage of the Iranian tour that Reza finally took note of Rhys’ Vegan Passport phone app – a multi-lingual guide for the travelling non-meat product consumer that could be shown to anyone abroad in the hope that they could offer meals without meat products in them. Rhys had been showing this application at regular intervals to restaurant staff all through Iran, but only now had Reza realised what this truly meant. It took a lot of patience from Rhys to explain this “belief”, after mentioning it so often throughout the tour.
After lunch was finally dealt with, we headed for the Nader Shah museum – a war and memorial centre dedicated to 2 historic figures – the namesake, Nader Shah, a brilliant military mind who maintained the borders of Iran (then the Ottoman Empire) through the Qatar Era, and a Mashhad Hero (NAME) – the first pilot of Iran who fought through the First World War for Germany. He was unfortunately beheaded following unrest against the authorities shortly after the war. Tired from the long walks and heat of the city, we returned to the hotel by the whim of a crazy taxi driver, taking all manner of shortcuts and dodging oncoming traffic as he whisked us to the hotel at great speed. Rhys at this stage was rather unhappy and disturbed by the scenes at the shrine, also having been stared at threateningly by so many at the shrine, decided against a night time return visit, instead backing up photos and photos form the past week and moving a film in the hotel room. Oli in the meantime took a power nap and shortly after wrote letter templates for the border crossing the next day – the invitation to Turkmenistan, citing all the key visitation points of the intended journey in the following week.
With the letters complete and the media backups underway, Thomas and Oli headed out to find Reza a thank-you present for his time guiding us through Iran, providing his extensive knowledge of the sites and cities. Settling on a box of assorted chocolates for his family, a prompt return to the hotel and avoiding Reza at the hotel reception kicked us off for our night time tour to the Imam Reza Shrine. Again a different atmosphere – one not driven by intense sunlight and heat, filled the shrine. Staying close to our tour guide, we ventured inside the inner courtyards and the inner tomb room itself, to witness a scene of pure committed devotion to the Imam’s tomb; devotees being pushed, shoved, carried across others simply to touch the shrine and pass on their prayers and wishes. We stayed for a relatively short time, sitting down inside the inner shrine for a couple of minutes only to witness the push and pull of the crowd around the hallways.
The experience of the shrine, both day and night, was a numbing one; an impression left on naive Western minds to a concept of religion so devoted and so heavily engrained on people’s lives and ideals and until that point, really not been seen or witnessed.