Iran Isfahan tiles

Iran trip diary 22 April - 8 May 2017

May 27, 2017

By a guest recently returned from Iran

We were led by Frances Fedden of Kudu, and Mahmoud of Tehran, an official guide. Frances is an expert on all things Persian Empire, and Mahmoud must be the best guide ever. Fluent in English, knows everything and everybody and can fix everything, even to the extent that one wondered if he was something else in disguise. Frances was wonderful, calm, helpful, especially in one’s hour of need, had everything worked out, bought the nuts and raisins and reminded us gently of our next move.

Day 1.  Arrive Tehran airport 6.45 am after 6 hour flight. The airport lies 1 or at worst 2 hours southwest of Tehran, so it was sensible to head off down South to Kashan without delay. Actually it took till after 8 am to get into our lovely bus, as there weren’t enough passport police in the booths to cope with two planes landing at once, but scrutiny was fairly disinterested when your turn came. Get Rials at the airport, and at least twice as much as you expect to need. After three hours, including a comfort stop, we arrived at the oasis town of Kashan for two nights in a delightful converted old house, now looking just like a Moroccan Riad. On the way we noticed how dry the landscape was away from the mountains, how many old Hillman Hunters or French cars there were (Peugeot has a factory here) how water shortage rules life in the country and how Iran ranks second only to the US in Pistachio nut output (above Turkey and Egypt), as it grows happily in dry salty soil. Kashan is famous for two things. It is a centre for carpets and textiles, Davoud Alliance who took over the UK sewing thread industry comes from Kashan, and it has an ingenious irrigation system. This is based on feeding springs high up in the nearby mountains into conduits which are led down into the town, first, though, through the most beautiful gardens of a Palace in various channels, which was our first moment of sheer joy. Kashan is being renovated (weekenders from Tehran ?) in a kind of Bollywood way, but the ten or so old town houses are being turned into boutique hotels like ours.

Day 2 revealed more of Kashan’s attractions. A bazaar built into a former caravansari (fortified stopovers for camels and merchants on their way east west or north south) with lots of carpet shops or workshops and series of beautifully decorated domed ceilings. We had tea in an old bathhouse run by a proud third-generation Persian gentleman. Round about this point we learnt two more things.  Iranian steps are twice as tall at least as European ones and are real knee crunchers, and some buildings are fitted with tall wind towers which ingeniously but scientifically draw the cool breeze down and send the hot air up, and it really works. Then another surprise. A local Ayatulla had died the day before and suddenly the bazaar was filled with his funeral procession. Funerial music from speakers mounted on an old pram proceeded a mock black coffin looking like a miniature gypsy caravan carried by men in black (he was actually buried yesterday) followed by more men in black beating their chests in rhythm and declaiming Islamic verses, including our bathhouse tea man who managed a polite bow in our direction between chest beatings as he passed. A real treat, and a good start.

Day 3 started with a 7 am alarm call and turned out to be the low point of the trip, lucky to have come so early. Abyaneh is a very old Adobe-style, or pueblo ? village near the top of a long fertile valley about two hours off the main road, so positioned because just above it there is a fairly potent spring, enough to water the whole valley, clearly a prize position over the centuries. On a hillside with narrow streets lies this historic old village, which to all guides is a tourist must-see. The trouble is most of the houses are falling down or derelict, being made of mud straw and timber, and the few inhabitants who remain look at you with distain and hold out pathetic baubles they hope you will buy. It is ugly and gives you the feeling you would rather not be there, and it is not really that interesting. We had a sort of a walk on the other side of the valley, looking for flowers, which was fun, but … What was worse, the hotel turned out to be substandard, built on the side of a hill with huge stairs up to it, hard mattresses, and no milk for breakfast. More later.

Day 4. We were warned this would be one of the long drives. 6.15 alarm call, 8 am in the bus. After a stop in Natanz to see a lovely old mosque doorway, and some posh new houses (more weekenders ?) and passing the nuclear enrichment facility surrounded by anti-aircraft guns, we headed up into the hills and arrived at Chelgerd at 5.15 pm. This village/small town is really a ski resort set in a bowl high up in the mountains surrounded by an almost circular wall of snow coloured mountains. Fantastic position. The hotel, owned by a stationary member of the nomadic tribe of the area, was very comfortable. We had trout for dinner and then watched a DVD of a film made in the late 1990’s of the nomads trekking across the mountains to their summer pastures, somewhere in this area. Full of drama, very good film.

Day 5. We took the bus round to the other side of the hill to find a sea of lovely Fritillaries literally stretching all over the hillside. Our driver walked up the hill and found a snake, but others weren’t so lucky. A very beautiful sight, and a lovely walk. Some of the party got off the bus at the top of the pass and walked back, the last third of which was on the road, and underwhelming. If a really good walk could be found to occupy another day in Chelgerd, I for one would have willingly swapped the visit to Abyaneh for it, it is such a breathtaking place and good hotel.

Day 6. Another long drive, to Yasuj. Alarm call at 6.15, off at 8.07. Got to our lunch spot far too early at 11.30, so we could have had an extra hour in bed. After lunch we stopped to look at another adobe village (and the toilets) which was not a very pleasant experience, we felt resented by the few remaining and destitute looking inhabitants, and were glad to get back in the bus. A more scenic drive now, following the river round its gorges, past oak forests and through 8 tunnels. More nomads on the roads now, driving their flocks of sheep and goats, and by 5.45 pm we were in the middle of Yasuj in a traffic jam. The hotel was another of these fairly new large 4 star jobs, with lots of busses outside, but we had a good dinner of trout and chips, and just to entertain us more we discovered there was a wedding going on behind making a fiendish noise until well past midnight. Apparently the driver and his sidekick went and joined in, and maybe we should have done, too. But didn’t.

Day 7. Left at 8.30, bound for Shiraz. Lovely scenic route through the mountains. We had lunch by a stream near the remains of Bishapur Palace, and some well-preserved bas-reliefs on the rocks over-looking the stream, along with a few local families. A very hot day, touching 45 degrees in the sun. The afternoon’s drive was quite exciting, as you approach a continuous very high vertical wall of mountains, thinking how on earth do you get through this, when suddenly a very narrow vertical break appears right down to the road – apparently a natural phenomenon. The Persians probably held up Alexander here for weeks, throwing stones down from the top, until he bribed a shepherd to show him the locals’ way round/over. It is called the Persian Gate, or the Father of Life Pass. Once through it we climbed a few hairpins to the top and arrived at our hotel in Shiraz at 6pm. I should say here that the coach is very comfortable and the long drives are softened by dozing, reading the guide book or just admiring the mountains. Iran is a huge country and there is no other way to travel. That was the mountains.

Day 8 We stayed in Shiraz for three nights, ie the night of Day 7, two full days, and off the next morning on Day 10. The first of these days was spent at Persepolis. It is one of the wonders of the world, absolutely huge, and astonishingly well preserved, thanks, curiously, to Alexander setting light to it, which meant that the ash from the roofs covered the walls and carvings, which were discovered only recently. You get the best out of the site by doing your homework before (on the bus?) to get some idea of what it must have looked like before being burnt, as you are otherwise wandering through large collections of columns not sure what Mahmoud said it was. And it was ALL roofed over 60 feet up at least. Incredible. But the carvings on the staircase are worth the trip by themselves. Long, continuous and perfectly preserved, now also under cover. After lunch at another of these clever multi-coach restaurants, which was a pretty good buffet, actually, we went to see something called Necropolis – my notes say large carvings, but a bit dull, and I can’t remember anything about it. There’s appreciation for you. On returning to Shiraz we went to see Hafiz’s tomb. He was the greatest of Persia’s poets, and his tomb is beautifully set in a quiet garden. The locals come and touch the marble slab, and mutter, or in Mahmoud’s case, declaim, some of his poetry. Actually a very moving few minutes. After that we were swept off to a carpet shop where the owner gave us a very full and interesting lecture on the different types and qualities of Persian carpets, which was really fascinating, and ultimately expensive. Delivered to your door in three weeks, payment by credit card via Dubai. Today was our first experience of the ordinary man and girl in the street wearing their interpretations of Iranian fashion. I also have a lot of notes about cars, if you are interested.

Day 9. In Shiraz. It is a rather beautiful city, set in a bowl surrounded by mountains, and one of the most beautiful parts is the Eram Gardens. There are turtles in the pond, and nightingales sing in the trees above you head, while you smell the roses. Just magic. The Lonely Planet guide book says there are 18 things you must see in Shiraz, and we must have seen at least 16 of them. Too many to go into much detail, but they are all fabulous. They include two more beautiful gardens with Palaces or Pavillions in them, one particularly beautiful and fascinating, the big bazaar, “one of the most elegant and photographed Mosques in Southern Iran”, and of course the two tombs, of Hafez and Sa’id, another of the literary greats. Having spent a few days in the mountainous countryside, rather than just got off a plane, Shiraz was an especially exciting experience, with its beautiful gardens and old buildings.

Day 10. Shiraz is 900 km from Tehran, and our most Southerly point. We now head NorthEast to Yasd. 8 am departure. On the way we hear that the French are regarded as archaeological thieves, that our average altitude is 1200 metres, the peaks of the Zagros are at 3 to 4 km high, while the Caspian Sea is at -28 m, and how important the 8 rivers are, coming down from the mountains. (Shiraz is on one of them). Zoroasterism is becoming more popular, the economy is static, the birth rate is stable, life expectancy for men is 71, for women 76. We arrive at Pasargarde at about 10, and leave at 12 for lunch. No notes, see guide book. After lunch out into the “desert” (not the real desert) there is an 11thC mosque, more wind towers, an adobe village in ruins and an old caravansari. At 5.40pm we arrive at a place called Taft which is one centre of Zoroasterism, with an everlasting fire temple. This is a little room with a sort of cupboard in the middle with a door each side. Through the windows you can see the famous bowl smouldering away as it has for thousands of years. There were some books there with English translations of some of their prayers, which we read with great interest. Zoroaster is worth doing some work on – it pre-dates and is very similar to the Old Testament, with Ahora Mazda as the single God. We finally got to Yasd at 7.45pm.

Day 11. A beautiful day after overnight rain. Yasd is also an interesting place, an historic crossroads for the traders, as Marco Polo would attest.  Off at 8.30 am on foot to see more Towers of Silence, a Fire Temple, the big Square where we had a coffee stop, a pretty, white painted small mosque, bought sweets at an old-fashioned confectionery shop, and spent time in the Water Museum. Now for water fanatics this was a real treat. Incredibly, they have been channelling water from the mountains some distance away through underground sewers, completely unsupported, into the town, and then distributing it via a ”water King” who decided who gets what when, depending on need, and you can see these channels, or Qanats in the cellars where they create a nice cool atmosphere. The museum explains how this is done, with all the kit displayed and lots of photographs. Definitely a box to tick. After lunch another impromptu treat. We went to one of the more ordinary gardens, but which had a demo wind tower to show us they really do work, and there were a group of students singing and dancing across each other beside the long pool water feature. The bigger the audience the more they danced. We had to be dragged away. Next up was the Big Friday Mosque (Friday is when Things Happen) which as always was architecturally brilliant, with some nice tiling. Then a walk through the old town, and Alexander’s Prison, now a shopping centre. The day finished at 6.30 pm, and we had now spent $150, mainly on little presents, and nicer head scarves.

Day 12. Off again, heading for Na’in for lunch and then Esfahan. On the way we stopped at a Pottery factory, which was a great mistake, as we had to borrow 500,000 Rials for some must-have bowls. We arrived at Esfahan (1600 m) at 5.30 pm. It is like Shiraz, but cooler, with lots of trees and gardens.

Day 13. We stayed here last night, ie day 12, today (13) and tomorrow (14) then leave for Tehran. That is to say we have two full days. The guide books go bananas over Esfahan, there is so much to see. First a peculiar Palace with a huge portico over-looking a garden, with inside frescos of our hero beating an Indian King called Ghurkani. Then the famous big square with a Palace on one side and two mosques on the others and the bazaar on the fourth. It would be more breathtaking if the square, actually a large rectangle the size of four polo fields (its original intention) were clear and not cluttered up with ornamental pools and shrubbery, which probably are there to prevent mass demonstrations.  There is an arcade all the way round, with shops, and to say that everything is just beautiful would not go near doing it justice. It is, or should be, one of the wonders of the world. Towards the end of the afternoon Frances and Mahmoud took us to a little tea-house just off the square with lots of Victorian glass lamp shades hanging from the low vaulted roof. We were the only tourists there and were quickly drawn into conversation with everybody else there, one of whom turned out to be a military Hercules pilot on holiday.

Day 14. Today we walked along the big river, between two ancient bridges, and then went to the Armenian district to have coffee and see the Cathedral, which was small, crowded and had huge murals of something like the twelve Stations. The museum had a collection of very old illustrated books and the shop had some silver Zoroaster tie pins. After a visit to the royal palace we got back to the hotel to pack, have tea and take a nap. By now we are very tired.

Days 15 &16. To and in Tehran. The day in Tehran was a good finale to the trip. It was mainly museums, where a lot of the artefacts found at sites we had visited were on show. First the carpet museum, which drew together all the many different carpets made in Iran, both tribal and from the urban centres, then a little museum set up by the last Shah’s wife with different floors for pottery, paintings etc, then we had lunch at the Artists’ Club, looking out over its garden. After lunch we took in the main archaeological museum, which took quite a long time. We could have opted to go to the Shah’s Palace but were too tired and the bus took us back to the hotel. The evening before we were taken high up the mountain on which Tehran sits to  a little group of restaurants sitting precariously either side of a little waterfall, and were it warmer we would have had an alfresco dinner by the water. Our last dinner was in the hotel, with speeches of thanks etc, and a warning to set the alarm for 4.30 as we had to be at the airport by 6.30. We made it.

The trip was very well organised, and led. There is a huge amount to see and learn, the mosques and palaces are invariably very beautiful, and the mountains are well worth the extra time as a sort of introduction. We enjoyed it very much.