Traveling Iran, Part Two: Irrigation, Development, And Health Care

Today we go back to Iran, where Dr. Koo and his extended family took a three-week tour in April.

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George at JZGLast week, Dr. Koo shared about his arrival in the capital Tehran and the interactions his group had with the people of Iran. Today Dr. Koo writes about their tour from Kerman to Zanjan by sharing some thoughts on this country: its infrastructure, its health care (when Dr. Koo needed to become the patient), and its comparison to Dr. Koo’s native China.

Traveling Iran (part 2 of 2)

Tapping qanat tech (for a green Iran)

The 19th century Shahzadeh Garden in Mahan, where we had lunch on our first outing out of Kerman, was an excellent example of how a qanat—an irrigation system that draws water from snow-capped mountains down to towns and villages miles away—can create a beautiful oasis in the middle of the desert.

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Shahzadeh Garden in Mahan (

Gushing water cascaded down terraces feeding the flowers and trees that lined both sides of the fountains. The water then exited the garden at the bottom of the hillside and went on to serve the people in Mahan.

As we drove through central Iran and saw endless stretches of arid desert country surrounded by treeless mountains, it dawned on me that qanat was likely the most important engineering invention that the ancient Persians contributed to the world. We were to see other working qanats on other segments of our tour.

By the time our coach pulled into Isfahan and drove along the river that bisected the city into northern and southern halves, the parks that lined both shores prompted me to modify my impression of Iran as one endless arid landscape.

Isfahan (
Isfahan (

Tabriz to the northwest was even greener.

Tabriz (

From Tabriz, as we emerged from a long tunnel on the way to Ardabil, we were surrounded by lush forest and were greeted by fog and rain. The countryside along the coast of the Caspian Sea was checkerboards of rice paddies as if we were in China. 

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View of Caspian sea, northern Iran []

History and Development: Comparing China and Iran

From the sampling of exhibits from museums we visited, I got the impression that the Neolithic people in Iran were capable of producing sophisticated forms of pottery. (Later, Persians got to be quite skilled working with stone as can be seen at Persepolis.)

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museum artifact

Persians’ skill at pottery-making may have served as the basis to later develop the technology for producing brilliant blue and green ceramic tiles for mosques and mausoleums according to Islamic design after the Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century CE.

In China, the foremost must tourist attraction is the Great Wall. For Iran it’s Persepolis. Qinshihuang started the Great Wall and united China about 2,300 years ago. Darius built Persepolis as his seat to receive tribute from far flung corners of his empire 300 years earlier. Despite being burned down by Alexander of Macedonia a mere two hundred years later, the remains continue to impress visitors with the artistry of the stone masons in that era.

Persepolis today []

Iran today reminds me of China in the early ‘90s. Iran’s highway system is already first rate and far superior to what China had then, but most city streets are as unattractive as any in the third world, full of mom and pop store fronts randomly arranged with no apparent logic.

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Some shopping malls are said to be under construction but we did not see any in actual operation. I did see a fair amount of construction activity in the cities, such as building metro stations and high-rise residential buildings.

I met a young man from China who was travelling by himself. Mr. Gong had quit his job as a water treatment engineer in Singapore to see the world. He had been through Nepal and India and had already spent 20 days in Iran riding public inter-city buses from south to north and found travel in Iran “easy.” I met Mr. Gong in Masuleh, a World Heritage village not on most tours. He was about to be crossing the borders to go on to Armenia and then Turkey and Lebanon to complete his personal journey. It’s nice to be young and adventurous.

Sidebar: Medical prowess in Tabriz with an American aside

I had the dubious pleasure of taking advantage of Iran’s medical care system. In the middle of the trip, I experienced pain and swelling on my right wrist. A week of icing and anti-inflammatory medication did not help. When we got to Tabriz, I asked our guide Hassan to take me to a hospital that deals with broken bones.

We got to Shahryar Hospital after 6pm. Hassan checked with a few windows before finding the x-ray department. He made a prepayment, and the female technician took two x-rays of my wrist. A physician on duty reviewed the results and determined that I had a hairline fracture in my capitate bone and recommended a CT scan of the region. Hassan again paid for the CT scan, and another technician took the scan. By then it was after 7pm, and the doctors had left for the day.

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The next morning, we went back to Shahryar, and Hassan asked to jump the queue because we were part of a waiting tour group. The doctor in charge looked at the x-ray (didn’t bother with the CT scan), and his assistant proceeded to slip a cotton liner over my hand, wrist and forearm. The doctor then went on to apply a quick-setting fiber cast over the lining. This middle-aged man had a twinkle in his eye and his demeanor was friendly and reassuring. As he was wrapping the fiberglass fabric around my arm, I joshed by telling him that I was a professional tennis player. He smiled and rubbed my elbow and said, “Ah, tennis elbow.” We were in and out in 20 minutes, and I was, at last, pain free.

My entire medical bill including the unnecessary CT scan came up to $590. The day after I came home I contacted my health care provider and found out that it would be more than three weeks before the orthopedic specialists would have an opening to see me.

If you can overlook some of the less than luxurious aspects of being a tourist in Iran–toilets that they are smelly; hotels not quite ready for prime time–now is the time to go before all the tourist facilities get built up and the sameness of Europe or the US becomes part of travelling around Iran. It’s also possible that local Iranians will someday not find foreign tourists a novelty and lose their keenness to interact with them. Right now, the Iranians warmly welcome foreign tourists.

At present, it’s not possible for Americans to travel in Iran as individual tourists but have to be part of a guided tour. Our tour was designed and arranged by the Seattle-based Caravan-Serai, and our guide was Hassan Azadi, a veteran tour guide, now an independent contractor living in Toronto. Both were outstanding to work with.


Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, and a director of New America Media.

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