Day 23: Visiting Mashhad
From the religious point of view, Mashhad is the most important city in Iran. During Iran’s public holidays such as Noruz (New Year, comparable to Christmas), hundreds of thousands if not millions of pilgrims travel to this city, and this not only from Iran, but from all Shiite countries. Therefore the city center around the Imam Reza Holy Shrine is targeting the pilgrimage tourism with all the ups such as diversity of stores, restaurants, and annoyances such as aggressive beggars, vendors, and so on.
Getting Visa from Turkmen Consulate
However, before sightseeing, we started the day by visiting the Turkmen Consulate, because from the Embassy in Switzerland we only received a letter of invitation (LOI) by e-mail (while already travelling in Iran). We wanted to convert this LOI into a real visa here in Mashhad to reduce the time at the border, where this would also have been possible. The process went extremely smooth. Just like in the Embassy in Geneva, the Turkmen employees of the Consulate were very friendly and helpful and against Lonely Planet’s information also speak English. It took us 20 minutes in total and we had our visa printed in our passport.
At the consulate we also met Olivier and Herni, two French guys who are travelling with their camper from France around the world. They also managed to get the Turkmen transit visa, which, as we heard, is unfortunately not always so easy. We heard stories of many cyclists whose visa requests got refused, or they had to apply three times to get the visa.
Visiting Imam Reza Holy Shrine
The main attraction for me as tourist is the Imam Reza Holy Shrine complex in the city center. It is a collection of many courtyards, mosques, museums, tombs and a library. When starting our visit, we were first asked if we are Muslims. Because we were not, we were had to wait at a special entrance for a guide who took us through the facilities. Also, we were not allowed to bring in cameras, however smartphones are allowed to take pictures and videos. This is beyond my understanding, but the consequence is that most of today’s pictures are not of the same quality as usual.
Once Lucie was cloaked in her Chador, we entered the first courtyard which had enormous dimensions and hosts 100’000 people during holidays for praying. After that we went on to more and more courtyards, each of them a little different. And we also visited a relatively newly built mirror room of gigantic dimensions which was very impressive.
However, we as non-Shiite were refused entry to the tomb of Imam Reza. Our guide, who was critical of the whole system in Iran, let us know that this rule was introduced recently by one or two persons, despite all the guides trying to convince the management to do otherwise. So much about tolerance for other religions which always gets praised.
On the other hand we got a special privilege as a tourist: We were lead into an office where a well-educated Islam expert was justifying the Islam as it is lived in Iran to us for almost an hour in perfect English. The guy was an excellent speaker and well trained in convincing people and finding answers to all kinds of questions. I have met such guys before, not just in Islamic countries, but also in Europe with other religions. The best is to not start arguing with them, they are trained better than I am. In addition, I had enough contact with police lately already, therefore I refrained from asking critical questions about the linking of the religion with the political system. We were left with a nice present in the form of a booklet from the Department of Propagation and Islamic Relations. Maybe I am going to read it on the next bus right – maybe not.
After that, we enjoyed an evening with our French friends in a local restaurant. My dinner consisted of bread and water because I still had problems with my stomach, the others had some typical mutton ragout which actually smelled good, but I didn’t want to risk messing up my stomach again because in the following two days we have to cycle a total of 200 km to the Turkmen border.