Day 20: Dogubayasit to Tabriz Iran
Friday 12th October
I have been lucky to be task free on the bus but since Tuesday I have been a packer. Today is the first time we the team have had difficulty packing all the bags, rucksacks, sleeping bags and tents into the holds. Things this morning were made worse by the effects off the party last and the on some of the team and the excellent breakfast cooked by the new breakfast crew. This was the first hot breakfast since leaving home and although I can’t really say I’m missing them it was rather nice to have a make shift full English breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, beans and toast.
As we drove out of the campsite I was immediately struck by the enormous presence of Mt Aryrat looming over the road ahead and like a burkha clad beautiful young women had shed the veil of cloud that had kept its snow-capped secret from prying eyes the night before. She accompanied us for much of the way to the Turkish border; first on one side of the bus and then on the other as the vehicle snaked its way over the hills to Iran. We arrived at the Iranian side of the border at 9.00am and a sad to say goodbye to the beautiful and varied Turkish landscape and people. I will definitely make way back down this way Allah willing.
It’s now 2.05pm and we’re still in no mans land having had our passports and visas checked. We are now waiting to have the bus frisked and x-rayed by the guards. Just spent over two hours in a lounge area where the TV programmes consisted of an Iranian type soap, to be expected, football match, also to be expected, a documentary about the Cuban revolution, in line with Bushes propaganda about the country and Mr Bean, not to be expected a sign that all is not well in the Islamic world. Leighton has just announced to the exceptionally patient coach ‘welcome to Iran’. We have entered without the full search and I have used the time to bring my blog notes up to date for the very first time.
The road ahead, from the border, looks exactly like the one behind us with an horizon of large mountains. As we head down the road to Tabriz our guide Hussein takes the microphone and announces ‘welcome to this fucking prison of Iran’. ‘This f…… prison of the Mullahs’. ‘Wherever there is religion and the f……. British government there is f…… intrigue and we the people of Iran suffer. He then took us through some useful phrases and said he could arrange black-market booze if we wished.
For you interested in driving through Iran the coach has just taken on a hundred and fifty litre of diesel for two Euro. Wow! We have now been driving down the road to Tabriz for a couple of hours and mountains, not as high has in Turkey, line both sides of the road. These are very rolling hills that remind me of the coal spoils’ of South Yorkshire, once they’ve have been landscaped. Anne just described them like the wrinkles on a bloodhound’s face which I think is a better description. The further we travel into this forbidden land the fields seem to push the hills away from the road and the wide expanse is filled with shrubs interspersed with lines of beach and Aspen trees, the odd apple orchards and strangely at this time of the year sunflowers still in flower. Sunflowers bloom in October.
It’s now 6.15pm and the sun has set throwing the hills, the trees and the shrubs into a silhouette reminiscent of Tuscany. Peter Moore in his book The Wrong Way Home described them as ‘broken, twisted and foreboding’. Perhaps they would be if travelling alone, however, on a bus with your own makeshift family they are beautiful.
Our guide as suddenly changed into a traveling bank with an exchange rate not much better than the money sharks at the border. With just hundred pounds of sterling you can become a rial millionaire at an exchange rate of 18,000 to the pound. I have just bought a six pack of one and half litre bottles of water for a hefty 20,000 rial. I was convinced he was ripping me off till Mark looked at his exchange calculator and said about one pound twenty.
We arrived at Tabriz at about 7.00pm to find that the hotel was an oven. All the rooms had heaters blowing out hot air. Took nearly an a hour to cool the room down. After a shower we all set off to find food. We were advised by our guide that few restaurants would be open because it was Friday and he was right. The hotel had a restaurant that was opened but the menu consisted of soup and chicken and rice a combination very familiar to the Morris lads back home and one I still find hard to try again even after two years. On going to the hotel restaurant I felt physically sick because of the heat. We all decided to follow our guide Hussein to what we thought would be down town Tabriz. As we walked along we were seen as visibly different by the locals who wanted to say hello. After passing shop after shop of the most appalling furniture those in the lead disappeared into a pizza/ beefburgher bar. The general consensus was to stay and because we were told to keep together we were forced by circumstances to spend our first night In Iran, old Persia, eating the worse pizza I have ever had with two cans of Bavarian non-alcoholic beer. The bill for the two of us was 80,000 rial or just over £4. I returned to the hotel rather down, I could for the life of me see how they could have a good night out without a glass or two of wine. Before our food arrived an Iranian couple asked if their lovely young daughter could be photographed with us which then led to them sitting with us through the meal. We exchange basic information: names, occupations, they were both teachers him in the university and they wanted our address and email account. I am not sure why they wanted, it neither spoke much better English than our Farci but we’ll see. By the way in case you’re wondering my Farci extends from thank you Merci to bread naan.
Had the worse night’s sleep since leaving home. There were a number reasons for this. Firstly the room was boiling, secondly had to open the window which let in the din from god knows where because the streets were empty and three I was scratching from the first bites of the journey. Oh and I forgot number four I went to bed for the first time for many, many years without a drop of alcohol in my body. I’ll let you decide the main reason. Anne was very unkindly and in no doubt at 2.00am this morning as I tossed and turned.
Day 21: Tabriz to Tehran
Saturday 13th October
Day started with a simple breakfast of bread, butter, cream cheese, honey and tea and Nicecafe coffee. Had to load the coach risking life and limb on a busy road because of the open sewer or overflow drain on the other side preventing us opening the bay doors.
At breakfast we met our new guide Vali who will stay with us for the rest of the journey to Pakistan. Told us he is 56, married with officially four children and did a degree in aeronautics in the USA the great friend of Iran. ‘Ah! Ah! Ah!’ he said.
We’ve now travelled over two hundred and fifty klm to the first petrol station and a WC. Set off at a gallop to the WC because I’d been busting for an hour or so. Firstly my money (a great wad) and my passport flew out of my body belt as I ran across the forecourt and this put me behind the others and then I found myself in the most disgusting toilet since the drive down to the Amazon in 1993. What made it worse was because of my prostate it was the longest piss that I have had since 93 and I did it with my nose and mouth covered. I can’t help thinking there’s worse to come. What I have just found out from Mary is that the hotel supposedly in Tabriz was infact twenty klm outside, hardly a visit to this famous city. Also during this journey we saw numerous police patrols and we were stopped twice. As the officer made his way onto the bus the women raced to get their head gear on. After the first stop the police made the comment to our guide that they should show respect for Islam when in the company of the police. Noreen was still struggling to get hers on when the officer was half way down the isle.
We have now come to look round a Mosque that has the third largest dome after Ayasopha and the Blue Mosque. Once again like Ayasopha it was a monument to scaffolding. After the tour I bought a Persian penknife and Anne a silver ring for a Lucy. The knife cost 50,000 rial, about £4 and the ring 180,000 or ten pound.
We’re still on the road and it’s 6.15pm with a couple of hours to go. We’ll be back on the road tomorrow by 8.00am heading for; so no chance to see anymore of Tehran than we saw of Tabriz. These long drive days are beginning to ware me down a bit. Time is spent, on such days, playing quizzes, listening to music and watching videos: so far we have watched hours of Friends episodes, Braveheart and Bridget Jones. I can’t decide if it makes it easier or not.
It’s now 8.00pm and we’re still heading towards Tehran in a very slow traffic jam. About an hour a go Leighton put on a video called Coyote Ugly which is a pretty naf American film about some small town country girl going off to New York to be a songwriter. In order to survive she gets a job in a joint as a bar dancer and some of the scenes are a bit raunchy but nothing too sexy to us in the west. However, everyone at the front of the bus is made aware that something funny is happening by the laughter and screaming of the youngsters on the back seats. Travelling along side us in the next lane are two Iranian buses which keep overtaking and then falling behind as the lanes speed up and slow down. What is a bit of titillation must look like porno to the passengers on the bus. There are men, stretching their necks and contorting with mouths open as they try to keep in contact with the two bus monitors. I can’t imagine what our guide thinks of this is. It will probably drive him back towards the Mullahs’. Come to think of it it’s having the same effect on me. We have just passed an accident spot and the road has cleared and we’re moving again probably to the disappointment of the men on the bus momentarily living the American dream as they make their way to celebrate Eid in the big capital.
We arrived at the hotel to find the Ozbus 1 bus, the cause of our delay into Iran standing lamely outside, still waiting for someone to remove it over a week after it broke down. The Cousar Hotel on the other hand was far from the end of its’ life. The central area gave the impression of a middle range well respected stopping place with ornate roof and hanging chandeliers, plush carpets, well laid out seats and tables and plenty of guests. Our ensuite room was a pleasant surprise with a large double bed laid out with an imperial style bedcover and pillow of blue and gold motif. The large windows were fully laced with matching blue, heavy, drapes tied at the wall creating an arch. The room matched the elegance of the lounge area with a wooden control panel for lights, telephone etc, TV, fridge with non alcoholic beers and fruit juices and a blue tiled floor area leading from the large, solid dark oak door leading into the room and stopping at the bathroom/ wet room. The actual bed area was heavily carpeted.
We made our way to the foyer to find that most people had already gone to look for food and we were a little reluctant to make our way out alone into Mr Bush’s big bad Tehran. Nevertheless we made our way up to the nearest main road and spent the next hour trying to circumnavigate a large round about. It consisted of four maypole type structures with streams of coloured lights hanging down and framing a central large fountain. Although the four wide roads were linked by zebra crossings the series of traffic lights did not seem to be. Traffic flow was clearly the preserve of the knutters sitting at their steering wheels bearing down on us menacingly. The locals had two options. One stand stationary until every driver went to bed and then take the opportunity make for their destination before it started again. Two launch themselves in the midst of the sea of cars and put their faith in Allah. This is no problem for an Islamist but a major problem for an atheist like me. At one point we were marooned in the middle of a steady stream of cars all trying to deliberately keep going at all costs including our lives. At one point I got so angry I kicked a car that was passing at about twenty mile and hour within a foot of us and got a telling off from Anne for antagonizing them.
With the exception of the traffic there was no street life as such in the sense no cafes and restaurants or pavement life. The temperature last night was ideal and even with the anti alcohol laws I still expected to find a pavement culture. I am quite disappointed with this country so far. Perhaps I am not visiting the right places. I dearly hope this is the case. But in both the area around Tabriz and here in the suburbs of Tehran the centre of night life seems to be furniture shops. Tom Paine called the English pub the working man’s university but with no stretch of the imagination can I envisage revolution or dissent spreading from the armchairs and sofas starring out from every other store in the main towns of Iran.
I was glad to get back to the safety of the hotel; cars were not allowed beyond the foyer I was assured. The hotel had a pretty little coffee shop with a central fountain styled like some tiled Arabic chimney. No alcoholic beer so early to bed yet again.
Day 22: Tehran to Kashad
Sunday 14th October
Today’s breakfast was by the far the best yet anywhere on the journey. Once again this hotel showed its four star status with a choice of juices, teas and coffee, cereals with a selection of raisons and dates, three types of eggs: fried, boiled or scrambled either plain or with mushrooms and sweet green peppers and a selection of melon to finish.
When we entered the early morning traffic jam and made our way to downtown Tehran the city had a better feel to it: a vibrancy that is missing at night. I asked our guide about my observations about the lack of a pavement culture and agreed. But early the in the morning the place buzzes with office worker and academics pitying their wits against the traffic. We made our way round the main bazaar and although it didn’t exhibit the architectural features of the grand in Istanbul it was enormous taking the bus ten to fifteen minutes to circumnavigate it at a steady pace. Our guide announced we would very quickly get lost if we were allowed to walk round it. Some smart arse at the back quickly challenged his assumption saying ‘you underestimate our map reading skills’.
After a few minutes we stopped to look at the ? Palace in central Tehran passing the various embassy but the British. Barry asked the guide if we could go and see the British Embassy, a strange request I thought for a Republican until he explained it stands on Booby Sands Street. The guide promised but it never materialised; we quickly skirt the station the starting point for trains to Europe, Russia, Azerbeijan and Pakistan, the old airport now military and eventual the Holy Shrine the resting place of the young martres of the Iraq Iran War and Aoyttolah Amenii before heading out into a barren landscape of hills.
After A short journey we arrived at the famous town of Kashan. Had a rushed dinner and then went with Vali our guide to visit the bazaar. At first it looked a bit disappointed until we made our way of the main passage. Firstly he took us to an old Persian baths which had a coffee shop/ restaurant with Zoe and Kate sat eating a traditional meal and chi. He then took us to a large central area with an absolutely beautiful large dome which unfortunately has been left to the effects of time. I was beckoned by an old man who had an antique shop on one of the corners beneath the dome. He wanted to show me coins mainly from the Shah of Parsia’s period and The 1979 Revolution. I asked him if he had any older coins thinking a thousand year old. He nodded and pulled out a little round tin and handed me handful of very badly worn coins, two of which had been bastardised into pennants by adding silver hooks for chains. I asked him if they were very old and he nodded saying one hundred and fifty years old a thousand less than I had been led to believe. He told me I could have both for 250,000 rial and I bought them for my daughters. Had a they been very old I wouldn’t have bought them because I object to objects of antiquity going out of their country of origin.
On our way back to the bus Vali managed to locate a chouda for Anne who has been looking since we entered Iran. As you know women must wear head gear and cover their shoulders, necks and legs in Iran. Anne has been wearing a thick scarf, jumper and skirt and has been very hot. As she tried the robes on it caused much interests especially from some young female teenagers who had to help Anne them properly because a man, including the stall holder who sold it us, is not allowed to touch a women. Even though she looked like other women walking about in traditional dress she obviously stood out because of the attention and looks she received from both men and women.
Once back on the road we entered a most amazing gorge which ran for many miles with a lush green floor of fruit trees and vegetables, a stream which disappeared underground now and then and the odd citadel on the hillside. Our hotel for the night was modern and stood at the top of a hill looking out over the barren countryside and a very old mud build village below. Our rooms were beautiful once again and there’s no way we can complain about the accommodation so far. After booking in we made our way down the very steep hill to look at the village and immediately drew attention to ourselves by the fact we were there. This now well off the tourist trail. At first the village disappointed but then we were chaperoned by a young villager on leave from the army who took an instant attraction to Kate who does seem to charm the young men. He led us down some very dark street which led to an area consisting of newly made mud three story houses built into the very steep hillside. Running through the whole town is a water system of narrow canals running down the streets leading to a very beautiful wash house/ prayer room. As we attempted to photograph the interior we drew the attention of a very old little women with the most amazing voice. She looked and spoke for all the world like a witch straight out of Macbeth. She most have some power over the man who ran the washhouse because he immediately opened up and welcomed us in.
On making our way back to the hotel we encountered the lads playing young villagers at Volley Ball. Later we had a meal at the hotel which again consisting of soup, chicken and rice etc: this seems to be typical Persian faire. Again went to bed early, nothing to do but watch the lads playing a card game called spoons. Hotel doesn’t have internet access. Becoming more and more difficult to get access that is fast enough to make it worthwhile persevering.
Day 23: Kashad to Isfahan
Monday 15th October
The weather’s been better than I ever imagined it would be with hazy blue skies and fine warm evenings and today’s no different. Left our hilltop hotel and set out for one of the top tourist attractions in Iran: the ancient town of Isfahan or Esfahan depending whether it’s spelt from the Persian or not. I noticed Eid also spelt Id.
The beautiful gorge that led to last nights stop carried on for another half an hour up until we came to a plateau. Just before the top we came to a citadel standing guard on a barren outcrop above a long strip of green vegetation. I have never seen an oasis but this gorge had the right qualities.
We arrived at the Suite Hotel Isfahan just after noon and quickly found our way to yet another very clean double room with all the modern features. The double was enormous if I had a signal on the mobile phone it would have made conversation with Anne easier. We also had TV with BBC World News which seemed to be concentrating on Puten’s visit to Tehran. What a pity we missed one of the world’s great criminals by only day. Unfortunately I have to say the mod cons did not stretch to the internet access. I had to pay 30,000 rial for one hour. To gain access I had to create an account via the network wizard using an account number and password. This was made even more difficult because the keyboard had Farci scrip stuck over it and the spacebar and arrow keys did not work and neither did the 9 on the formula bar. After an hour I gave up only managing to read my emails, delete them and reply to two. I have tried at least three times to send a general message out to all in my address book and it is impossible so far. Last night it froze each time I tried to bring up my address book. It was good to hear from Pete and Val still in India and having a good time and Sharon Anne’s colleague from work spilling the gossip.
Anyway back to Isfahan and after a most unmemorable meal of awful soup which had the hallmarks of Bachelors, another absolutely dreary salad of two slices of tomato, shreds of white cabbage and lettuce with no dressing whatsoever and of course bloody chicken we set off on a guided tour with Vali. I have come to the conclusion that the only way to taste the real fruits of Iran is to get invited to someone’s house for a meal and there’s no chance of that on this schedule.
Out of 37 on the bus only five turned up for the tour of a couple of Chehel Sotun Palace, the Imam Mosque and of course the bazaar. Poor old Vali is completely wasting his time trying to impart his depth of knowledge and love for his country on most of the passengers. I have to admit he’s not pitching the information at the right level, it’s far too detailed. His descriptions of all the dynasty’s over the past one thousand years are completely wasted on anyone other than a graduate in Persian history. The palace was fine with some interesting paintings depicting wars between Persians, Turks and Indians and all riding horses that floated above the ground. I mentioned Stubbs to him and he dismissed him not really seeing the point.
On the other hand the Imam Mosque was gobsmaking in every detail. I had stood in amazement at the Ayasofa ands the Blue Mosque in Istanbul but in comparison they were made by mere mortals whereas this was drafted by Allah. The two large domes, angles, arches, pillars, minarets standing at one end of a 500 metre rectangle of gardens, fountains, polo pitch with stone goal posts and a palace strategically positioned for the Shah to watch the game were all in perfect proportions each other. The massive mosque complex was situated at 45 degrees to the rectangle facing Mecca. The two domes, arches, minarets and pillars were set out to create a square for outside prayer and all incrusted in the most beautiful blue Persian patterned tiles in perfect symmetry and interspersed by a freeze of verse from the Koran. At the far end away from the main entrance and in front of the myhre was situated four smallish stones positioned vertically below the apex of the dome. Standing on these stones Vali clapped his hands and the echo bounced of the dome, the walls and circumnavigated the arches and filled the whole space in eerie omniscience. I have stood in English cathedrals and amazed at the acoustics but this beggared belief. The whole complex was built for Shah Abas in the 16th Century.
Surrounding the main rectangle and situated in the outside wall were 300 shops selling everything from postcards, books, silverware, jewellery etc and of course carpets. Our next stop was to shop selling Persian carpets of the most exquisite quality. We were treated to a master class on the aspects of the Persian carpet from the thread, material and patterns by young man called Abde who had learned his trade from one of the masters.
We learned the difference between the threads; Persian (single knot) and Turkish (double knot) hence the reason that Persian is much finer. While he told us about the patterns; classical of Isfahan with their perfect symmetry and the cruder but no less beautiful nomadic designs from the Turkoman and Baluchistan areas. All the carpets to my surprise were made by women using either cotton (inferior), pure angora wool (better) and finally a combination of wool and silk; the best being pure silk. In excellent English he took us through the various patterns and the meaning of such symbols as the Turkaman cross, the tree of life, hands on the hips, the snake, animals strong like lions and weak like birds and the different flowers. Each carpet he pulled out to demonstrate outshone the one before for colour and quality. He would unfold the example and spin it through the air with a flick of is wrists like a matador flashing his cape at the beast and the object twisted and fell catching the light and changing colour before your eyes before settling on the floor in a triumph of craftsmanship the equal of a Michael Angelo. He finished off by unfolding a masterpiece of silk thread, colour and design made by one of the best makers in Iran and was a bargain at €4500 and I’m not joking. If I had the money it would be on its way home this morning. It’s not surprising then that I succumbed to his salesmanship and bought a beautiful example of a Turkaman carpet. Only hope the kids are in when it arrives.
After putting the price of the trip up significantly we made our way to the bazaar to see if Anne could put it up further. Although there were lots of beautiful objects to desire she resisted and we left no worse off. The Imam Mosque has to be seen to be believed and appreciated but there is one thing that is common to all the tribes, provinces, towns and cities of Iran which beggars believe to the unsuspecting visitor and that is the driving. Isfahan is no different for all its reputation of ‘being half of the world’ and the centre of Iranian art and culture and after our visit to the bazaar we were treated to an exhibition of driving by our taxi, at rush hour, that would make Louis Hamilton retire if it was regularly repeated on the formula 1 circuits of the world. Things were ok until he started the engine and ventured out on to the streets. We’d agreed a price of 15,000 rial which to my estimation meant our hotel was not too. After all a litre of diesel costs the staggering sum of 164 rial a litre. To put this into perspective a cup of tea, when we get back to the hotel if we ever do, costs 2900 rial. So the driver’s urgency and aggression is not based on a rising metre and the next pickup as back home but firmly embedded in centuries of riding the open spaces on a camel or a donkey. Once he entered the heavy traffic he honked, put his shoulder and arms outside to physically stop other cars from overtaking. The back end of a bus represented no more of an obstacle than the one way system he belonged to. In order to get round a bus in front he actually turned back on himself across the flow of the traffic. He had no more regard for red lights, which according to Vali means everyone has the right of way especially on the fading zebra crossings, than he did motorbikes which zip in and out and do set of against the flow. At one point early in the experience he attempted to cut off a motorbike which was trying to overtake and which was carrying two men and a women seated between them in the middle holding out to her side a baby feeding from a bottle. I couldn’t help thinking clever kid, no guarantee he’d make home for tea. In the middle of all this chaos is the poor pedestrian trying make his way through life. Being a pedestrian in Iran must be more dangerous than the life of a policeman or a soldier. The latter just stand around watching from every corner. After getting out of the taxi and start walking you get a false sense of security until there’s a road to cross. As we made our way confidently across a pedestrian crossing showing a green man walking a car driven by a librarian, teacher or some other professional attempted to kill us both together on the spot. When I went to kick the car and gesticulated to the driver through his window about the green man Vali informed it also means both have the right of way.
The rest of the night was boringly spent drinking tea, thumping and f….. and blinding at the keyboard and the speed of the internet access. Bed at 11.00pm came as a great relief.
Day 24: Isfahan to Yasd
Tuesday 16th October
Had another good breakfast and the bus tour of Isfahan to follow was cancelled due to lack of interest. Most of the lads went back to bed happily placing their don’t disturb cards on the way. As a result our departure time was put back to 12.00 noon. We went and had our first experience of an Iranian bank. The inside did not look like an English bank with cashiers but people sitting at desks. We were sent upstairs where a slip containing my name and two signatures and the name of the hotel were recorded and I was then sent back down stairs where I was given the cash.
The rest of the morning was spent trying to find a post office so that we can send postcards but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Iran is they don’t want anyone communicating with the country and vice versa. We have not seen a post office since entering the country and you can’t buy stamps when purchasing cards. In Turkey Anne managed to accumulate 14 stamps which are sitting in my wallet waiting for our next visit to the country.
We set off promptly at noon to head for the mud town of Yasd. Spent all the 250 kilometres writing this blasted blog. It’s becoming a pain and I’m seriously considering abandoning it altogether. It’s just too time consuming. If internet access is as hard to find and as slow in Pakistan then I’ll have to quit.
Yasd is an amazing town in the middle of a semi arid landscape. The old houses are made of mud with beautifully smooth arches and windows: architecture without sharp edges. The Hotel Mehr is something special being a mud fortified house from the outside but on entering you walk into an oasis with central courtyard of with may rooms all looking out onto the large rectangular pool bordered with flowers and large pots. Sitting in the water area are two large decking areas with rails round them and carpets to sit on and big heavy cushions to lean against. We were booked in for a buffet at 65,000 rial at 7.00pm but to fill the two hours before we were taken for a tour of the town especially the water museum by Vali. Within 30 yards of the hotel we entered the bazaar, a complex maize of undercover alleyways running off each other at 90 degrees. The first cloth material shop we came to Vali pointed and said ‘this is very famous Persian cloth’ and we both said together ‘paisley’ In surprise he looked at me and said ‘are you’ve heard of it?’. The thing that struck me was the amount of different patterns; simply hundreds of them. Grenoside could have bought enough material to make as many jackets as they wanted and the material would have cost about £100.
The water museum was based in a house similar to the hotel and told the story of qanats the system of underground drinking water. The men would locate water sources running out of the hills outside each village and then build a system of underground canals hundreds of yards long and 100 to 150 metres underground leading into the towns. These elaborate tunnels were cut out using basic cutting tools, and plumb lines using stones and what Vali calls carbon lamps which if I understood him properly they used them for light but also as measures to accurately take the water course to the town. On the way they would also build water mills to pump the water to the surface using the water as power. These canals once in the town would run from house to house providing underground fresh water to the door step so to speak. Water was also used in conjunction with large air vents built above the houses to keep the water cool to avoid warm conditions for bacteria and circulate fresh cool air in the very hot summers to all the households; in excess of 45 degrees. Vali told us the men who built and maintained them wore white garments and were classified as religious. This system was only abandoned 40 years ago.
The buffet meal destroyed my newly acquired impression on Persian food i.e. Kababs and chicken and rice. These were beautifully laid out on a raised area like a stage in a series of stainless serving dishes. The choice consisted of two soups, chicken vegetable and a thick pea and mint, like mushy peas, an aubergine and yoghurt and mint dish, a meat very similar to Rogan Josh and lamb cubes with whole baked tomatoes. The selection was delicious and only lacked a good bottle of wine. Anne had a bottle of Islamic non- alcoholic lime beer which she maintains tastes like shandy and I went for a vintage bottle of water as a mark of respect for the qanats. It also tasted better than Anne’s choice. After the meal we all sang happy birthday for only the second time since leaving London, lit a cake and shared our sobriety with Kate now a respectable 29.
After the meal and celebrations we held our second family forum to iron out any problems. Surprisingly there were few complaints, still a little apprehension about the route through Tibet and China. Having looked at the itinerary for the rest of the trip to Sydney a few of us are beginning to warm to route two flying from Calcutta to Bangkok. Route one includes two overnight drives not something I am looking forward. We also learnt a little more about the journey across the Baluchostan desert into Pakistan in three days. I thought we would be n convoy and would do the journey non stop but not so it seems. The motto of the journey as been ‘all things are subject to change’ and this means the information you’re given. We are now told we will have an army guard travelling on the bus and they will change each day. We may be stuck waiting for the next guard to turn up for duty. This seems more dangerous than making a run for it.
Some of the lads along with Kate went onto the hotel room and spent the night smoking from the hubbly bubbly thing, we went to our room early to carry on writing my blog and just bathe in the atmosphere of this beautiful hotel. I can’t wait until tomorrow to see what our next venue throws up in Kerman.
Day 25: Yazd to Kerman
Wednesday 17th October
This is now my third attempt at this blog. The other two have both been deleted as a result of my poor eyesight, the bouncing bus and my gross stupidity. I am really intent on making it has hard as possible.
Anne misread her watch believing it to be 6.30am. Her eyesight is no better than mine, it was actually 7.30am. Dozed back off watching the sun beam through what passes for Persian stained glass windows in a celebration of colour. Breakfast was another buffet, good but not as good as the hotel in Tehran which for me set the standard for this country. Nevertheless this is the most atmospheric and the favourite of the youngsters and has served the best dates so far coated in coconut. Unfortunately there was no cereal to go with them.
As soon as we finished breakfast Vali was waiting to lead any willing participants on another tour of the town. This time we are taking in the bazaar, the 750 year old Friday mosque (more explanation later) Alexander the Great’s Prison and the old town’s passageways. I have said all I can about bazaars. This was good. The mosque was beautiful, with blue tiles and underground wash house facilities and had the status of a cathedral with more than one entrance, learning and community facilities hence the status of Friday mosque.
The passageways and the houses were far more interesting. Made of mud and straw they were designed to make the most of shade and the water cooled air ventilation system I told you about yesterday. These alleys are ideal to sit and talk and relax in the blistering heat of the summer according to Vali. As we walked around I noticed a series of round wooden handles, like pick handles, set horizontal in the wall above head height. When I asked Vali what they were for he replied as though everyone knows. Those are where the house owner ties the ropes of the canvas tents that cover the courtyards for special occasions. All along these alleyways were very old doors that gave no indication of the interior. Each door had two knockers, one a single strip of metal and the other a curved knocker. The two knockers when used gave two different sounds one to let the occupants of the house know whether it was a man or women at the door. If it was a man then the man of the house would answer the door and if it was a women knocking vice versa. This custom is no longer followed.
After the prison which Vali doubts has anything to do with Alexander – he refuses to call him Great because he says even if he did enter Persia he was destructive and doesn’t deserve the term – he took us to see an old man in his late 80s who has spent his life manually operating a handloom. The man looked not a day over 100 and was deaf from his existence and therefore couldn’t hear me sing the chorus to Poverty, Poverty Knock which was probably a blessing in disguise.
Poverty, poverty knock,
My loom it is saying all day
Poverty, poverty knock,
The gaffer’s too skinny to pay
Poverty, poverty, knock
I’ve always one eye on the clock
I know I can guttle when I hear my shuttle
Saying poverty, poverty knock.
We arrived back at the hotel just in time to shower, get to the coach and fulfil my last packing duty. Thank goodness because it is totally disorganised even by my standards. After a short drive we stopped to look at an ancient burial ground in the middle of the desert outside Yasd,
This was an amazing site, between 2000 to 4000 years old and consisted of a series of multi- dome structures below two round citadel type structures high on the top of two hills and over looking the whole sight. The Asyrian placed dead bodies in the two towers and left them to the vultures to strip them bare. The bones were then carried down to the dome structures and finally buried. Each of the dome structures belonged to different tribes. Many of the group walked up to the top of the nearest tower which was no mean feat in the heat of the day about mid 80s. However, there were those who felt a game of football was more important.
The rest of the journey to Kerman took a couple of hours and was, therefore, classed as a short drive. The hotel was adequate but not in the class of the others in Iran. It does, however, have the distinction of being the first hotel room of ours to have sink plugs, two actually. Unfortunately the water supply was so poor, especially the cold, that to run a bath would have taken more than an overnight stop.
We were promised a feast by the owner and a few of the lads had been down to the kitchens and seen meat balls and come back with high expectations of a Macdonald’s type faire. It started once again with soup, followed by salad – interestingly as it was placed on the table the waiter said in English ‘this is salad’. This was followed by beef in source, chicken kababs and as much non alcoholic beer as we could drink. The salad waiter kept holding up bottles and saying ‘good beer’. When he said ‘this is called salad’ he was correct but not about the beer. This was by far the worst attempt at producing anything vaguely resembling alcohol. This stuff came straight out of camels and gives me the hump thinking about it. The dinner was interrupted by yet another appalling display of football by a group of overpaid con artists i.e the English team.
The football did, however, give us something to do that didn’t need alcohol and I have to say that the lads are being quite ingenious at thinking of games to play to kill the time between here and that unsuspecting bar in Quetta in three days time. Tonight’s little game was who would you eat first if we get stranded in the Baluchistan desert? Answers stretched from the largest to the prettiest and kept them amused for a couple of hours. Pre-dinner entertainment was provided by Ben who had allowed the young girls to straighten his very curly hair: I thought he looked like the incredible hunk whilst others thought he was wearing a wig. No surprisingly we went to bed bored at about 11.30pm.
Day 26: Kerman to Bam
Thursday 18th October
Today was another late start at midday with an opportunity to visit the bazaar, another Friday mosque, a caravanserai and a coin museum. If you’re interested and I’m conscientious I spend too much time outlining meals, breakfast was memorable because it consisted of fried eggs, really well cooked (unbroken yokes) and a kind of French bread.
The bazaar was amazing mainly consisting of – at least the area we went to which was just one small sector of over 1.5 kilometres of passages – herbs, fruit (poor quality), watches and radios that went out of date in the 1990s. One small passageway was a barricade of sacks overflowing with the most amazing smelling herbs. The air in this area filled my head and actually made me feel dizzy. This is the nearest I have come to intoxication in Iran. I new many of the herbs but there were sacks full of red, green and blue chopped flower heads which even after asking the stall owner still remained a mystery because Vali was unable to translate. It amazes me that the market is so central to life everywhere outside England. We’ve encountered healthy, thriving markets in Heidelburg, Prague, Vienna, Hungary, Istanbul across Romania and Bulgaria and every town, village and city here in Iran and I don’t expect them to disappear after here.
Last night was the first time that I got a sense that we’re at the edge of the world and on the brink of something wild and yet not frightening in a strange sense. I have never been to Pakistan or India but I expect them both to be more English friendly than here in Iran, not the people who couldn’t be more polite and courteous but the infrastructure such as internet cafes and the good old post office which is as mysterious to the Iranian authorities as the herbs in the market were to me today.
The mosque was again beautiful with the sunken area for the Imam to pray and the immaculate washrooms. Here in Kerman I made the important observation and a top tip for all travellers of the Islamic world: every mosque has excellent washing facilities with very clean and free toilets. When I made my observation to Vali he remarked ‘but don’t all English churches have them’? I replied ‘yes they’re called fonts’
We have now travelled almost the length of Iran and we have been accompanied by mountains on both side of the road all the way. The area leading into Bam is becoming more and more arid with the odd 5,000 ft mountain filling the horizon on both sides of the coach. I am looking forward to Bam an ancient mud city virtually destroyed by an enormous earthquake in 2003 and sadly killing over 50,000 of its inhabitants. Vali told me today he ran a camp for the Save the Children Fund. Perhaps organizations like this are helping to undo the damage done by British expansion in the 19th Century. It seems to me the only country more hated is Russia and perhaps this explains why the staff in last night’s hotel were cheering for England.
Looking up from writing I have just noted that the mountain range on our left has now made its way almost to road whilst those on the left are now a distant series of silhouettes. We have just come to a stop as the bus now has to go through a toll. The road has been so bad for the past hour or so it seems criminal that we have to pay anything. Don’t get the image that we have just come up to the kind of French type of fully automated toll booth. This was more like something out of a carry on film, like Carry On Up the Khyber, with a series of breeze blocks strategically placed to stop traffic and then direct them S shape to a large hut.
Day 27: Bam to Zahedan
Thursday 18th October
Since leaving Troy the weather has slowly got warmer and warmer until now it is well into the top 80s but not a serious problem as yet thanks to the bus’s air conditioning. This is the start of our last full day in this fascinating country and I shall miss it but not its drinking laws. I think the food has been poor compared with Turkey but would be more palatable if washed down by a good bottle of wine. I gather from Vali that Iran did make wine before the fall of the Shah and we have only been a few hundred miles from Shiraz which I presume, but can’t verify, is the home of the grape so central to the wines of the New World.
After another standard breakfast of fruit and boiled eggs I carried my bags out to the bus through a group of young soldiers some carrying machine guns. All replied to my Salem and smiled. We all expected to be escorted from the Pakistan border to Quetta not from Bam to Zehaden. However, it seems this stretch of road is one of the most dangerous roads in the world because it’s one of the main routes for coke etc to enter Europe. Vali told us that while he was in Bam, working on the relief operation, he was offered hard drugs every day and saw their effects on many in the area. The once great Silk Road is now a highway for drug smugglers and killers and bandits of all kind and if anyone finds this hard to believe then look at the young soldier lads with their Kalashnikov A47s and truck mounted machine guns. Most have their faces covered with Arab type scarves and I can’t decide if it is for anonymity or protection from the blowing sand. Whatever it is, it is very hard to distinguish them from Hamas fighters in Palestine. Strangely there’s a kind of attractiveness about these young warriors with their smart uniforms and and head scarves. I could see Fidel Castro, at their head, leading them in to the struggle for freedom from the Mullahs.
The drive so far has been pleasant and memorable not for any events but the scenery which is totally foreign to anything before. We have travelled along a winding road with desert on both sides stretching to the horizon and sand dunes at one point and camels sitting around a circular area of mounds of what must be food for them. After miles of the same, the armed guard changed from a car with five soldiers to a pick up truck with two inside and two on the back with a fixed machine, the road began to wind and climb through a narrow pass into a new mountain range. If we were to be attacked I think this would be the place as vehicles, heavy loaded in low gear struggled up the road.
Once through the mountain pass and back down on a flat plain the guard was reduced to one soldier who’s joined us on the bus. We are now less than 100 kilometres from Zehedan and presumably out of danger for a while. It will be interesting to see if the Pakistani soldiers are as polite and courteous as their Iranian counterparts.
Zehaden from what I can see is a reasonably new city with few interesting features although we did see a statute of a St George figure slicing the head off a dragon as we left. We were warned not to leave the hotel under any circumstances and with soldiers and police on every corner this appears to be a very nervous settlement. As we have crossed from West to East of this large and interesting country the military have gradually increased in presense until here in Zahedan they’re on every corner as though in wait for invasion from one of its many eastern neighbours.
The hotel looked quite modern from the outside and the back area was an interesting use of space with fountains, a play area, with swings etc for children and a series of wooden gazebos on decking with carpets and cushions for lounging about on. The first sign that not all was modern came as we entered the rickety lift for floor four, the second was stained carpets on our landing, the third was the heat and noise of the inefficient air condition system and the fourth and fifth were etc etc etc. It had all the hallmarks of a communist hotel past its best.
Within minutes of getting everyone booked in Leighton was in negotiations trying to get the price of an evening buffet down from the extortionate price of 112,000 rial to something nearer the normal 70,000. Eventually an a la carte menu in English was produced which consisted of the usual boring selection. It was not so much that people objected to paying the higher price but didn’t want to change money on their last night in Iran. I have 60,000 left and I can’t imagine being able to change them anywhere outside of Iran.
On arriving at the diningroom I was surprised to hear we could help ourselves to a buffet for only 43,000. This was to be our last meal in Iran and I can’t say I have enjoyed my first experience of this country’s culinary delights but the buffet was excellent with, of course, lentil soup, a fine array of salads with grated carrot, cabbage, tomato, cucumber, a pepper salad in a vinagrette and risoles and a beautiful chicken dish in a spicey sauce and a sweet to finish off of caramel.
After dinner sat outside on the carpets with Sue, Mary and Claire talking about who is doing what in the next two weeks: Mark flying from Quetta to Lahore, Barry setting off with others to Bangkok, Mac and Emmett flying into Laos and China and there may be others we don’t know of yet. The temperature was perfect and amazingly there were no insects of any kind not even moths round the lights above our heads. We made our way back to our room and another early night before the long and tedious journey in the morning.