Planes, trains and automobiles:
…ok, no planes but I did go on a bus!
The 07:40 train left Qazvin on time and safely cocooned within the air conditioned carriage with far too much leg I dozed the 2 hour ride to Tehran.
Impressed with the train I went to the information booth on the main concourse to see what time the train departed from Tehran to Esfahan. As much I liked the train, waiting 13 hours for the next one was just a little too long to spend in a train station.
So, one overpriced taxi ride later I was standing in front of the southern bus station. Finding a bus to Esfahan was easy. Any “tout”, sorry “bus operator” worth his salt can spot a backpacker a mile away. After spending 50000ir and waiting 40 minutes I was on the road to Esfahan.
Buses in Iran fall into two categories
The merc’s are old and soon to be exported to Bolivia whilst the Volvo’s are usually modern with air con! Of course they cost more; glad I am able to afford the extra £1.25. However, just because they are newer doesn’t mean that they don’t beak down! Yep, halfway along the journey the bus overheated and sitting on the side of the road for 45 minutes under a hot sun wasn’t much fun. Mind you it wasn’t as bad as staying in the bus with the air con turned off.
Back on the road I was sitting in seat number 13 for the 2nd time of the day, dreaming of cold beer and sky sports when a shout woke me up! The bus had arrived in Esfahan…well it had stopped by the side of the road somewhere. As I got off the bus, still half asleep, the driver started to pull away. Three loud shouts and 10 metres later he stopped. So I was able to retrieve my rucksack from the hold but I left my sunglasses behind!
Now I had been expecting to stop at the bus station and I had no idea where the hell I was…but I was convinced I was in Esfahan.
The previous night I had asked the manager of the Hotel Iran in Qazvin to call my 1st choice hotel in Esfahan to book me a room. There was no answer at the other end of the line but I was assured that getting a room wouldn’t be a problem. As the taxi pulled up alongside the hotel the reason for the unanswered telephone became apparent…it was shut and had been for a while! On to my 2nd choice, I grabbed my gear, paid the cabbie and went to the reception only to find that the hotel was full. The nice man behind the desk pointed my in the direction of a nearby hotel just cross the road. Slightly fancy but they are “only” charging £17 a night. Very expensive but the room comes with air con and a big TV with BBC world…so who cares!
Esfahan has the 2nd largest public square In the world (and yes I’ve already been to the 1st but can anyone tell me where the 3rd is?) and it was my 1st place to visit, once I had worked out how the hell to get out of the Bazaar.
In Imam square there are two mosques and a palace and oh happy days taking photos was allowed in all!
The square is on a north/south axis with the shortest sides heading east and west. First I went to the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque. This is actually a very interesting example because it doesn’t have a courtyard or any minarets. The reason is because it was built only to be used by the harem of the royal court and therefore there was no need for a call to prayer.
Inside the tile work is just outstanding and the interior of the large dome stunning.
From there I proceeded to the southern end of the square and the Imam mosque. Outside I started talking to a couple of young Iranians (men obviously) and if you think you have problems try being a teenager in Iran! All that testosterone with no release, well except via marriage of course!
Anyway, once inside the mosque the 1st thing that hits you is the size…it’s huge. As you walk closer to one of the walls in the courtyard the vastness of the tile work slowly diffuses into complex and intricate designs and the main blue colour softly fades to allow the yellows and greens to shine.
The odd thing about this place is that the entrance is offset to the courtyard. This is due to the fact that the mosque needs to face Mecca but the entrance needs to maintain the symmetry of the square.
The next place on the tour of the square was opposite the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque. It was the 16th century Ali Qapu Palace. From the wooden beamed and supported terrace amazing views of the square were found!
After all that culture a little bimble was in order. A short while later I stopped to chat with a local 22 year old man call Mehdi. He very kindly invited me to lunch at his house. This was an offer that shouldn’t be refused. The house was simply furnished with carpets and the occasional floor cushion. It was a great experience and a good opportunity to exchange differing cultural views on life. I was joined by his friend Jafar and by his brothers who popped in and out on several occasions. I even got to say hello to his mum and dad.
In the evening it was refreshingly cool, well compared to the afternoon anyway, and a walk along the river was appealing.
Esfahan has 11 bridges that cross the river Zayandeh (and only 6 of them are new). As the sun went down the lights came on and the bridges began to glow. I was crossing a bridge slowly making my way back towards my hotel when a conversation with an older gentleman started up. His name was Mansoub. Turned out he was retired but used to work for the national bank. During the mid ’70’s he spent two years working at the Kensington branch in London. In those days £1 was worth 125ir, so London was cheap. Now £1 gets you 180000ir. Inflation is a bitch sometimes
The bridge we were walking along had a tearoom at the end. So a long chat took place: religion, the revolution, Iran-Iraq war and modern day life were all subjects that were covered…very interesting.
By now it was 22:30 and I had been away from my hotel bed for 14 hours. It was only about a mile walk back but on the way I was joined by 4 lads. They were all in the early twenties and after chatting to a man who had lived in pre revolution Iran it was good to chat with people who have only known life after 1979.
Let’s just say that they aren’t that happy with the limitations imposed on them.
• One guy was 24 years old and literally the only physical female contact he has had in his life has been between him, his mother, sister and aunt.
• They didn’t bother to vote in the latest elections as they see no point to it. They all think that it has already been decided who gets elected.
• Too many rules, people telling only what they can’t do…mind you that’s a universal compliant of young people everywhere.
They did invite me back to one of their houses for whiskey and hashish but I made a polite refusal pointing out the jail term was quite long and as much as I like Iran I was only looking at staying here for 20 days!
Once again I got lost in the bazaar. I have found that if you try to get somewhere then you never wil find it, so it’s much better just to go with the flow and drift around the vast expanse. Turns out that all paths kind of lead to somewhere.
I ended up at the Jameh mosque. The mosque covers 20000 square metres which makes it the biggest mosque in Iran. At over 800 years old it covers all the main architectural eras of Islamic cultural, from the Seljuk, Mongol and Safavid periods. Each style blends and fuses with one another.
I was standing in the main courtyard with my camera to my eye trying to compose a shot when this Iranian woman just walked straight up to me and posed! After I had taken a shot she walked passed me and posed again and then just walked off with a smile on her face…bizarre!
Chehel Sotun Palace lies to the west of imam square and was completed in 1647. It was built as a pleasure palace and is set within a lush tree covered park. The approach is made via an imposing vista of a shallow rectangular pool around 50 metres in length. Half the building is enclosed and the other half is open to the air with a high painted wooden roof along with a mirrored ceiling. Inside the interior is covered with large frescos and amazingly detailed plaster work. There is also quite a shocking painting (well for Iran it’s shocking) of a woman with breasts showing having a man kiss her on the foot!
Following a slow and easy walk I ended up back at the tea house under the bridge. It was a nice surprise to see Mansoub sitting there. So more tea and another chat. After he left I started writing all of these words when again I was joined by a young Iranian. Following a two hour chat with him it really was time to walk back to the hotel. Damn….was I tired by the time I got back.
After a long lie in I had decided that yes I would buy a carpet. Having already been to one carpet shop, a visit to a couple more was in order to gauge the quality, choice and prices on offer. At the 3rd shop I found the one I really wanted. Its not that big but it is made of pure silk (and contains 140 knots per square centimetre which means it‘s really good…allegedly). I could have brought a nice woollen one of similar size for £50 but I think that spending £280 was better. When I finally stop travelling and have a wall to put it on I will enjoy it every single day!
Following the shock that I always feel when I spend money on things like that, a sit down in the nearby park with an ice cream was just the remedy. After about 5 minutes I was joined by a couple of local lads and a conversation happened. About 40 minutes later a young Iranian girl came and sat down next to me and started to chat. This was slightly shocking and after checking that there were no religious police around returned the compliment. When she had to go her friend took a picture of us on her camera phone. She very hesitantly put her hand on my shoulder for the pose.
And by the way a litre of petrol here costs less than one shiny British penny…hope that cheers you all up what with the petrol shortages you’re having…ha ha ha ha ha ha damn I have an easy life!