Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Iran Post 3: Cars and Trucks and...Blue Cows! (click on photos for more detail)

 Traveling in any country is an interesting experience with modes of transport and road systems.
Iran was no exception. Roads were well signed,
often in English.
There were traffic calming devices everywhere. Roads were generally in good shape.
Lane sharing

Leaving Tehran
However, people drive very creatively and make the most of any corners that can be cut. In cities, traffic lights are obeyed, but traffic lanes are totally ignored. Pedestrians are very brave and assertive: they cross when and wherever they can. Shepherds move their herds as needed.
Hamadan: everyone makes accommodations
Sharing the road with pedestrians
Motorcyclists maneuver in the smallest spaces in the cities and are ubiquitous in the rural areas.
Near Ali Sadr Caves
Very few bicyclists. While lane discipline is an oxymoron, people are much more forgiving and indulgent of drivers' needs than in US cities.
Congestion leaving Tehran
You suddenly realise you need to turn left but you are in the far right of four to six lanes (the road is actually only two to three lanes)? No problem....just nudge!

There are police checkpoints all along the major roads checking for speeding, up-to-date insurance, or license. People are very helpful to motorists requesting directional information.
The owner of this business offered us lunch and a bag of apples
We ended up with a flat tire and had several offers of help along the roadside, including being offered apples and lunch!

Trucks of all varieties carry all sorts of goods. We did not see many container trucks until we got further south. These trucks were heading to ports on the Persian Gulf such as Bandar Abbas or Hormuz.
We saw trucks servicing the agricultural sector, building and construction industry, goods transport.
But, best of all were the Blue Cows. These pickups were the vehicle of choice all over the countryside and in towns. Their drivers have a bad reputation for being rude, inconsiderate, unreliable. However, these pickups really were workhorses. Here is a series of sightings.
Leaving Kalaybar

On the way to Tabriz

On the way to Kermanshah


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Second post on Iran: Buildings (click on photos for greater detail)

Milad Tower, Tehran, 2007,435m, 6th tallest in world
The first post gave an overview of landscapes and domes. Here is an overview of buildings. I was quite surprised in my observation that there were few attractive buildings in the 4000km we traversed. The old mosques were indeed exquisite examples of incredible tile work.

The palaces (as is usual with palaces) were magnificent, over-the-top in expensive materials and designs and many were exquisite examples of gaudiness.
Golestan Palace, Tehran: tiles! murals! mirrored balcony!
In general, we saw few attractive, innovatively designed new buildings, the exception being in Shiraz. We same numerous villas in Tehran, in the country-side to the north, we saw some in Esfahan and they may well have been beautiful on the inside. But, the urban landscape was generally not appealing.
one of four sides of the Bazaar, Hamadan

The old parts of Kashan and Yazd did have beautiful traditional houses, but as is tradition, they were courtyard homes behind high mud-and-plaster walls. New construction of residential and non-high-rise commercial buildings were not attractive; high-rises in general were also lacking in eye-appeal.
New construction across Shordabil Lake

In towns and cities, there was                                                        
Construction near Shordabil Lake, Ardabi
 a real sense of Soviet Realism or at least,1960's Brutalism! It was pointed out to me that given Iran/Persia's history, it has been over 2000 years of invasions and earthquakes and perhaps this has shaped the public's lack of attachment to general external architectural design.
Caravanserai/hotel at Bistoun;background is inscriptions by Darius the Great
Interiors of the remodeled or renovated traditional houses or caravanserai were exquisite.
Breakfast at Negrin Traditional House, Kashan

Interiors in most of the more modern hotels were nothing to write home about, whether they were 3,4,or 5 star. Much of what I observed, I came to understand, was from the eye of a tourist from somewhere else. How I saw/perceived things may not have been how local people did. Certainly in villages or small towns, this could be reduced to socio-economic differences.
New villa and hotel in countryside near Rasht
Where we saw poverty in rural areas or small towns, our guide did not see what we saw: she saw people who were land-rich and that the condition of small shops and businesses did not tell the whole story. Because of the droughts in recent years and the results of sanctions, there has been tremendous population movement from the countryside to the cities. Tehran's population has swelled to over 8 million in 2011 from 4 million in the late 1970's. This is true of many of the cities, especially after recent earthquakes. This makes for a cultural sea-change that has effects rippling through local politics, commerce, education, and the arts.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

First post on Iran: amazing landscapes, people, architecture (click on photos for greater detail)

I had no preconceived notions about being a tourist in Iran, other than that my parents had a great trip there in the early 1970's.  Several things surprised me. Much of Iran is at the height of Denver, with spectacular mountains rising out of deserts, plains, forests. Our guide described Iran as being the shape of a cat: the head up in the northwest, the body following the twin mountain ranges the Alborz and the Zagros, ending with the tail at the Persian Gulf. We spent 18 days and nights in the country, covering around 4,000 kilometers.

The map above shows our general route: Tehran north to Masouleh (on the map Masulé), to Ardabil-Sareyn, Kalaybar, Tabriz, Zanjan via Takab, to the Ali Sadr Caves and Hamadan, Kermanshah, Broujerd, Kashan, Esfahan,Yazd, Persepolis, Shiraz. We hiked to ancient castles in the forested mountains near Masouleh (Roodkhan Castle)
Roodkhan Castle
in the pouring rain; to ancient castles in mountainous sheep country outside of Kalaybar in the driving wind, hail, and lightning (Babak Castle);
Babak Castle
to the Towers of Silence where Zoroastrians left their dead for the vultures (near Yazd). We drove through orchards of apple, almond, and other fruit trees. Through desert populated by goats and sheep. We saw the history of the ancient Greats: Darius, Xerxes, Alexander. The mosques (and many, many fewer than what we saw in either Syria in 2010 or Turkey in 2012) of every era with incredible tilework and, my favourite, brickwork. The Temples of Anahita and other Zoroastrian sites. A synagogue with the Tomb of Esther. And amazing traffic and air pollution. The effects of sanctions on the general populace are to be seen everywhere. The effects of sanctions on the wealthy and the ruling class, not so much: we saw plenty of Mercedes, BMWs, other luxury vehicles in both Tehran and Shiraz.

Some of the highlights in particular were our interactions with people. We only were able to have a few substantive conversations with strangers, but those we had were most insightful. We encountered singing and dancing Kurds in the Ali Sadr Caves. Attending a demonstration of traditional Iranian body building/conditioning dating back to the archers of Darius the Great puts Crossfit routines to shame.
Zanjan to Hamadan
These two photos are of the landscape driving from Zanjan to Hamadan and of spices in the bazaar: a riot of colour: incredible!
There are visual treats wherever you travel in Iran, whether they are natural or man-made. Attention to design and detail are evident in the domes of mosques, the traditional houses of Kashan and Yazd, the displays of wares in the shops and bazaars, magnificent carpets, pottery, enamel work, stained glass windows, textiles, and copper. It is surprising then, that in general modern architecture is lacking in interesting design and very much lacking in the quality of finishes. It is not clear if this is the result of sanctions (exit of talent and lack of access to quality materials).
Spice shop in bazaar in Esfahan
Domes play an important architectural, engineering, and artistic/cultural role in Persian society. Mosque domes can be plain or decorated with tiles on the outside and the interior of these domes are usually tiled, sometimes bricks and tiles, but in earlier times were decorated with only brick patterns. Palaces have domes. Merchant houses have domes. Hammams (bath houses) have domes. From an engineering point of view, domes are important for maintaining interior climate controls in buildings.
Brick designs in dome, Blue Mosque, Tabriz
Dome in Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmed, Kashan

Kashan is a city with a number of traditional houses and buildings restored and maintained for both private use and public visits. The Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmed is a traditional bath house with examples of beautiful interior domes; these domes are also used to maintain comfortable interior temperatures.  From the roof of the hamman the domes and water tower can be seen. Water towers (the most numerous and famous are in Yazd) are also used for cooling interiors: at the base of the tower, underground, is a cistern.
Hammam domes & water tower, Kashan
There are two mosques in the Naghsh-e Jahaan Square in Esfahan, the Imam and Sheikh Lotfo-Al-Lah mosques. The exterior and interior of the latter are phenomenal. The interior dome has the design of the feathers of a peacock tail.
Sheikh Lotfo-Al-Lah mosque, Esfahan   

Saturday, April 5, 2014


                                                                   Each April a new cycle
                                                                   A new memory
                                                                   Remembrance and sigh         
                                                                   Never forgotten and always young
                                                                   For us to carry forward
                                                                   Thank you, Ariel

Monday, July 1, 2013

Rock, Sand, and Moss Gardens

Zen Rock Garden, Ryoan-ji, Kyoto
Note: to see the raked designs more clearly, click on the individual photo.
One of the delights of touring in Japan is to visit the gardens on temple and shrine grounds. They reflect the philosophies of the various Buddhist and Shinto sects, the visions of the designers, and the patience and perseverance of the monks. The first set of photos are of the most famous Zen rock garden in Japan, Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, laid out in the 15th century. There are 15 rocks set in waves of raked white pebbles, surrounded on three sides by clay walls and on the fourth a wooden veranda.

In spite of all the tourists visiting these sites and taking photos, it is possible to sit on verandas or other viewing platforms and contemplate what the the garden designer was attempting to communicate. The individuals responsible for the maintenance of these gardens leave no footprints, keep the setting serene.

View from the veranda at Ryoan-ji.

Close-up of large rock at Ryoan-ji

Nanzen-ji Temple is a Rinzai Zen temple set in a grove of cedars . It was founded in 1239. 
Nanzen-ji Temple, Kyoto

Sand cone at Nanzen-ji

Small side garden, Nanzen-ji

Big rock, Nanzen-ji

Entrance to Komyozen-ji temple

Rocks laid out as character for 'light'

Moss garden at the rear of Komyozen-ji temple

Play of light on moss and sand garden
The changing angles of light during the course of a day, whether there are clouds drifting by, or rain coming down, how these textures and shapes are seen and experienced is always new and different. It was a marvel that the sharp sides of the cone at Nanzen-ji never seemed to collapse or loose grains of sand. How do those monks do that?! How often must the sides be smoothed down? Do they dampen the sand first?

There are three reasons to visit Dazaifu in the Fukuoka/Hakata area of Japan. The first is the Kyushu National Museum; the second is the Tenmangu Shrine and Museum, the third is the Komyozen-ji Temple. The gardens from the latter are featured in this post. The temple was completely uninfested with tourists! The
temple was founded in the middle of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) by a disciple of the founder of Kyoto's Tofukuji Temple and belopngs to the Tofukuji school of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Both the rock and the moss gardens are some of the best we saw. The rock garden is at the entrance to the temple. The fifteen rocks form the Japanese character for 'light'. The rear garden, of moss and rock, is laid out to represent large bodies of land and water. The play of light through the trees was magical. During the autumn season, the changing colours of the maples are apparently stunning.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Kawara: Japanese Roof Tiles

Our trip to Japan in May 2013 had many highlights. I will be doing a series of posts around themes of interest to me: many of these themes were a complete surprise. The first of these was the magnificent art and craft of roof tiles, called kawara. The purpose of Japanese roof tiles is to prevent evil from coming into the home, temple, castle. The origin of Japanese kawara was brought from China via Korea in the late 6th century with the arrival of Buddhism. It is thought that the oldest kawara were used in Asuka Temple in Nara Prefecture (south of Kyoto). These tiles were made under the direction of four tile craftsmen sent from the southwestern Korean kingdom. At that time, Japan's political center was in Nara and the court officers were determined to rule the nation with the power of Buddhism. Kawara have evolved from being traditional roofing material to being waterproof, having unique designs, and remarkable durability.
Hachimangu Shrine, Kamakura
Some very old temples keep kawara from different time periods on a single roof and the tiles can range in age from 100 to three hundred years old. Recently, new features have been added that include a fixed structure to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, and heat-insulation capabilities based on the way they reflect sunlight.
The shrine on the left, Hachimangu Shrine, is one of the oldest in Kamakura and is an example of how the tiles are laid and the various types. An example of a modern roof is seen in a school/temple complex, also in Kamakura (below). There is a wide range of tile designs with a variety of symbols, meanings, and  types of protective capabilities. These include the sun (gives energy to the home), moon (protect and purify the home), star (power to make wishes come true), symbol of a king (wealth and honor), "magical mallet" (symbol of wealth), shoki (an ancient Chinese guardian), Buddhist sutra (intelligence and peace), lotus flower (purity and life), drawstring bag (brings money into the home), water (wards off fire), dragon (prosperity and success in business),and five-color cloud (five happinesses of life: intelligence, longevity,financial wealth, health, and having a fruitful life and natural death).

The photo, below, of Nijo Castle, built in 1603, shows end tiles, finials, and regular roof tiles.  The next series of photos will be close-ups of tiles in various locations.
Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Daisho-in temple, Miyajima

Sumiyoshi shrine, Fukuoka
shrine, Dazaifu
interesting finial
Kofukuji, Nara
Shrine, Kyoto

Kofukuji, Nara
close-up of roof tiles, Nijo Castle, Kyoto