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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

August 30th: Mashhad in Iran

On August 30th 1978 I was in Mashhad.  I was travelling with friends across Iran on my way to Afghanistan and India.  It was Ramadan and the political situation was dangerous.

We had arrived in the morning on the night train from Teheran.  Teheran had been tense, with Ramadan and a night curfew. The slums in the suburbs we passed through in the train were impressive.   There was a noticeable roughness in the streets of Teheran, which I had not noticed on previous visits, and there was the familiar huge contrast between rich and poor.  I had heard about a bombing and when I saw an ambulance and fire engines on the street I thought that maybe they were going to another bomb.  I saw an interview on the English language TV channel saying that there was a new government, all tried hands, loyalists.  Something was clearly going to happen.

In the evening in Mashhad we visited the area around the shrine of Imam Reza, with a friendly hustler from the hotel.  I was struck by the changes from my previous visit in 1972.  All the streets around the shrine had been knocked down to create a circle of grass around the shrine and to allow for many new buildings, including a museum, which we were able to visit, and some extensions to the shrine had been added; 500 kilos of gold courtesy of the Shah were being added to the golden dome.  Many Afghans were working on the building and sleeping outside, cooking food as we walked past after sunset.  They stopped and waved and smiled at us, recognising fellow foreigners.  The hustler took us, inevitably, to the carpet shop of his patron, who told us he represented the Islamic opposition.  "When water stagnates in one place for 37 years," he said, "the stink is terrible."

In the morning we visited the shrine again.  My friends went in to see the museum, but I stayed outside with their little daughter who was not allowed in; I was surrounded by women and children from all quarters; there were many Arabs in town.  There was talk of demonstrations and so we went back to the hotel.  In my hotel room in the afternoon I wrote in my journal:
Keeping inside at midday, eating in our room, keeping away from the demonstrations, one of which we were told was going to pass by the hotel.  Trucks full of soldiers and bayonets and machine guns, brimming with bullets, tension on the street.  People massing at one point.   The bazaar was closed all day, many shops didn't open - it is Thursday, the museum was open from 8 to 9.30 instead of 10.30, but who knows what's really happening.
In the evening we went into town, and as we walked in the centre, with all the soldiers out on the streets and the tension in the air, we felt the seriousness of the situation.  There was talk of the afternoon demonstrations from people as we passed; they had cordoned off some of the main streets and the ends of the bazaar, thrown plenty of soldiers and guns onto the streets and kept them either at the ready or moving about, a big presence.  As we approached the narrow street of the carpet seller, we were told that in that street someone had stoned a policeman and been killed.  There were police and soldiers all over, and gangs of youths hassling more than usual.  Closer up, the atmosphere was even heavier with an ambulance further off and the street was cordoned off.  There was what appeared to be a body lying in the street. So we left and went for an evening meal downtown on a square which was nearly deserted except for the army.  The restaurant was partially open and the table was right between two trucks each with a machine gun on top.  We watched the police come and go and the few cars they let through and the servicemen with the guns while we had the usual chelo kebab.  Everything downtown was shut as we walked back, they had even moved away most of the street hawkers.  

Shrine of Imam Reza, 2006:  Picture by Eliza Tasbihi, CC


  1. Chris,

    Your comment on my article about the travelogue was serendipitous. I am writing about the old Hippy Trail at the moment, and have enjoyed delving briefly into your record of it here.

    You mentioned going back to India for the first time in 30 years. Where are you going and how long will you have in the country? I think your generation established a way of understanding India, and travelling through it, that has been inherited by people in places like Goa, Gokarna, Hampi, Pushkar and Manali. I personally don't like these communities much, because the people in them are too self-indulgent and have no interest in urban India, but perhaps they're less like the travellers of the sixties and seventies than I imagine. I'd be interested to know what you think, when you get to them.

  2. I'm going to spend a couple of months in South India, especially Tamil Nadu. I want to show my daughter some of it - she's eighteen and on a gap year before University. I hope that her first experience of third world travel will be straightforward India and not Goa (or Gokarna) and not the Banana Pancake trail you've described or the hostal scene of South America and so on. We leave tomorrow and I don't imagine I'll post anything until I get back. Maybe you'll find some of the Links I researched on the blog header useful.

  3. Have a great time! I look forward to reading about it.

  4. wow..iran ..thats interesting........just noticed you called india third world...wish u did not....we are the driving economic power in this recession now!!

    1. Sorry, I probably should not have used that phrase. India as always is multifaceted. She can see a country that is developing and is quite different from Europe and the US. Third World is my 30 years ago language.