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Journey to the East| Intellect may find the door, only the heart may get you inside智慧可寻门径,唯有心灵得入内

I have now been cycling eastwards beyond Türkiye for more than two weeks. It felt like crossing another boundary: not merely like passing Edirne, which marks a passage into the Islamic world, nor like crossing the Bosporus into Asia, or the Euphrates into the ancient universe of Mesopotamia. I transgressed a boundary with immediate topical consequences: into Iran. From millennia-old frameworks of religion, worldviews, and narratives about East and West encountered in the highlands of Anatolia, I moved into the tensions and clashes of today, with the secretary-general of the United Nations recently warning of a terrible escalation that could endanger the entire region or worse. This isn't just any escalation, but the exacerbation of the exact rhetorical projections that have so long fueled violence and human suffering, and the utter incompetence to hear the other. In this century it is probably American President George W. Bush who articulated this sentiment once again calling Iran as belonging to the “Axis of Evil”.


Seen from mainland Europe with its Christian foundations of neighborly love and its postwar pledge of “Never Again”, this scenario already seems insane, but being among the Iranians, surrounded by their beautiful traditions, it is sheerly unbelievable that hatred still bangs the drum. I am deeply touched by the love they can summon in simple encounters, and I wish humanity could experience more of the Iranian soul, if only the thirst for enmity would subside.


I entered Iran near the Great Ararat at the Bazargan border and cycled all the way to the capital, Tehran, through Khoi, Marand, Tabriz, Miyaneh, Zanjan, Abhar, Qazvin, and Karaj. Visiting bazaars in several cities vividly brought to life the notion of major stations on the Silk Road, centuries before it was known by that name. These places not only provided a stage for exchanging goods but also for blending the worlds behind them. The photos accompanying this blog post showcase the vast complex of a Caravanserai in Qazvin, an amazing hive of shops, storages, warehouses, camel stables, barbershops, bakeries, and much more. A microkosmos of Eurasia in which everyone and everything is exposed to everyone and everything.


But there is more than just interesting blends and cross-pollinated cultures. I traveled to Khoi to learn more about the Sufi teacher Shams-i Tabrizi, known for his mentorship of the world-famous poet of love, Rumi, in the early 13th century. Arriving late after a long ride across the mountains, I was astonished at how the receptionist at my hotel insisted on taking me to a small restaurant he personally liked to ensure I got good food. There, a few friends engaged in a lengthy conversation about many topics, translated by the local English teacher who was personally called to facilitate the chat. I inquired about the tomb of Shams, which I had heard was nearby, and they promised to take me there personally the next morning. True to their word, they guided me there, serving not just as navigators but as knowledgeable experts in Sufism and its love poetry.


The other day, having planned to reach Tabriz from Marand, I began with a challenging climb in heavy rain and headwinds. Once I reached the top, I tried to find a dry place to quickly take some pictures when I was invited into the old car of a driver who spontaneously wanted to express his concern and share his hot tea. From then on to Tehran, this kind of encounter happened several times and profoundly impressed me as a genuine expression of the people's spirit of empathy + action.


One example went much further than the offer of tea. It was the offer of awe. One day, on route to Abhar, after having visited the turquoise faience covered dome and palace of a Mongol ruler and direct Genghis Khan descendant in Soltaniyeh, I tried to find my way back to the main road when a man chased after me on a motorcycle, warning that I was about to miss something important. His name was Salimi, and he pointed at it, tucked in the hills in the distance. Gratefully, I accepted his offer to bring me to perhaps the most explicit case of encounters between East and West in Iran: the Dragon Valley. He told me how Khan Öljaitü had commissioned Chinese craftsmen to carve out in the rocks the remarkable curvilinear shapes of two dragon figures, each representing the East and West, in direct opposition of each other. It struck me as more than coincidence that I was taken to this remote place, by someone knowing nothing of the purpose of my Journey to the East.


The roads to Tehran were often busy and dusty. The daily distances were usually quite long, but the literal and moral support of the Iranians was heartwarming and provided insight into alternative paradigms of kindness. That the West, without little scrupule, is squeezing this nation with economical sanctions that can be seen as an re-enactment of centuries-long contempt is the saddest revelation I have encountered so far. I’m so glad I was able to enter this node of world history, providing the stage of profound human interactions and what they can yield.



Journey to be continued...

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