Mashad is known as Iran’s most conservative city, and on the streets that’s certainly noticeable. Most women wear chadors and it even looks like there are just fewer women out on the streets. Except that is near the shrine where I have to slowly shuffle past security amongst a never-ending stream of visitors until I’m fished out of the stream by some women who instruct me to wait until a personal guide shows up. She takes me past some museums and a specially trained cleric whom I can ask theological question, though unfortunately for him I’m much more interested in the actual history of the shrine itself. I can’t get to the actual shrine itself though – I’d have to convert to Islam first which seems like more trouble than it’s worth.
The stifling strictness of Mashad ends at the front door. The place where I’m couchsurfing seems to be the gathering place for the city’s secular. In the evening I join some people going to a casual get-together where on offer to the guests, alongside the expected chips and fruit juice, are bottles of vodka and weed. Virtually the last things I was expecting to run into in Mashad. The next evening I end up exchanging old Soviet jokes with jokes about Ayatollah Khomeini with some people who invite me over for dinner.
My impressions are balanced out by meeting up with another guy I met through couchsurfing. He grew up in a very traditional family, and takes me over to meet his sister to show her that women can travel by themselves. I spend some time at his mother’s house too where several generations while away the hours in the living room by drinking endless cups of tea.
Together with him and a cousin I spend a day visiting an old caravanserai and Nishapur, once one of Asia’s most important cities until it was burnt down by Genghis Khan’s hordes. Though its current incarnation doesn’t reflect its former status well, just thinking about the city’s history leaves me in awe.