The shrill beep of the alarm woke me up at 08:01 precisely. Due to the fact that the toilets are shared and the only “English” one (I’ve yet to learn how to squat properly) was one floor down I had to get dressed, go for a walk just to sit down again.
The bags were packed and as I was checking I began wondering how to get to the western bus station, then I had an idea…Taxi!!!! For only 70000 rials or £3.89 it was a bargain. Once at the bus station, the bus I wanted turned out to park up by the taxi rank. Slightly confusing but I was soon pointed in the right direction.
It was an easy if somewhat warm two and a half hour ride to the city of Qazvin, where I am staying for the next few days. This city is about 170km north west of Tehran and according to the guide book “if you drop your wallet in Qazvin, don’t bend to pick it up” and also “its where birds fly with one wing” the city suffers from constant jibes about its men folk’s alleged sexuality
The difference from Tehran was noticeable straight away. The air quality was so much better and the sky was blue in colour! I could have walked the mile and a half to the hotel but instead I got a taxi. This only cost 20000 rials…the bus from Tehran cost 18000. I’m still trying to work out that one.
I’m staying at the Hotel Iran near the main square and for 180000 rials (£10) I’ve got a single ensuite room! According to the lonely planet it should cost 40000 rials but as its 4 years out of date and with inflation hovering around the 18% mark prices do increase somewhat. Still cheap!
After a quick shower I went out for a bimble around the centre of town. I popped into a local corner shop for a coke (yes they may hate America but that doesn’t stand in the way of a refreshing cold drink and they have the old style ring pulls…how great is that!) and they also sold Bavarian alcohol free beer…not sure how desperate I would have to get to drink that stuff!!!!
In the evening in the hotel lounge I meet a couple of fellow travellers who were looking for someone to join them on a day trip the following day. I said yes, so I had a plan for tomorrow.
Tuesday 22nd of April
Into the assassins’ lair:
The day started early at 07:30 when Oman (Canadian) François (Italian) and me jumped into the car and along with the driver Mehdi we headed out of the city and into the mountains.
History time…beneath the awe aspiring peaks of the Alborz in the area of Alamut lie the shattered remains of over 50 castles. Known collectively as the castles of the assassins (Dezha-ye Hashish-iyun in Farsi). From the late 11th century these heavily fortified liars hid the followers of Hasan-e Sabbah known to the crusaders as the “the old man of the mountains”. His heretical offshoot of Ismailism spread rapidly and turned into a mercenary organisation whose much feared followers were dispatched to kill or kidnap leading religious and political figures. They believed that their actions would transport them to paradise. This belief was reinforced by showing them beautiful secret gardens filled with young maidens whilst stoned on hashish. This preparation before their homicidal assignments led to their popular name Hashish-iyun, which is the root of the English word assassin. The castles were finally taken and destroyed by the mogul leader Hulagu Khan in 1256
So, now you know…
We were going to see two of these castles, Lambesar and firstly Hassan Sabbah castle near the village of Gazor Khan. The road was tight, twisting and rarely had crash barriers on the edge. As I was in the front seat I had a good view of the drops below. Gong round some of the tight corners I noticed that Mehdi usually had his hand on the handbrake…just in case! We stopped in a little village (this area has 360 of them and Mehdi was telling us the names of each one we went passed. Some of them had a few 100 houses others 10 or 12) for breakfast, tea and had a chat with the locals.
After a couple of hours we came to a stop on a bridge over a deep and tight gorge and Mehdi was pointing up at a rocky outcrop nearby. After several false starts we all managed to see the castle perched on top of it. They built them in inaccessible places and then hid them well.
With the car parked, the walk up the hill started. 30 minutes later we were standing at the main gate of the castle. The views across the mountains were just stunning. Standing there, slightly out of breath you could understand why it took the Mongols a while to take the castle.
The ruins of the castle are being excavated by a team of Germans who were mapping at the layout as we walked around. The main section is covered in scaffolding and a corrugated tin roof. However the major reason to come here is just for the views. With mountains all around, with the traces of the winter snow still visible on the peaks and ridges. After a good look round we all sat down for tea and cakes with each of us lost in thought and wonder at the scenery.
The road to the next castle was just as much “fun” and along the way we stopped for lunch. Which as you might have guessed was a very tasty kebab.
Lambesar castle covers a much greater area than Hassan Sabbah and we covered it all. The approach to the castle takes you across a dried up river bed. Then Mehdi instead of using the well constructed metal stair case to get to the main site decided to climb up the rocks nearby. Just to give us a sense of the approach I guess!!!
At the highest point is a small squat keep that is still intact, at least from the front view anyway. From there it was all down hill traversing across several key defence points. All the time we were looking down and picking up bits of broken pottery (glazed and unglazed) that litters the site.
By the time we arrived at the bottommost defensive tower the sun was high in the sky and the heat was radiating down. So, the walk back up the steep hill was fun!
With the windows down, the car ride back to the city was cool. Although I did forget to slap sun block on my right arm…Doh!
When we got outside the hotel, François and I wanted to go to a couple of sites the following day. When Mehdi found out how much the hotel had charged us for the day we did a deal direct with him. He got more money and we paid less. A win-win situation. (This day cost for 3 people 675000 rials, for tomorrow with two people and twice the distance it would be 650000 rials or £36...always good to cut out the middle man. If you ever find yourself here, give Mehdi a call on 09126823228 and get yourself a good deal)
Wednesday 23rd of April
It was a 180km drive to the 1st port of call and after leaving the hotel at 7am we had breakfast before we got to the site.
Within the town of Sultaniyeh (literally the “town of the sultans“, built by the Mongols in the early 14th century) is the UNESCO site of Oljeitu Mausoleum.
This place dominates the town and the skyline with its blue brick dome, which is the world’s largest at 48m high and 25m in diameter. It originally was built to house the remains of Imam Ali, the brother-in-law of the Prophet but the sponsor of the project, the Mongol Oljeitu Khodabandeh converted from Shiite to Sunni Islam and instead decided to turn it into his mausoleum and was buried here in 1317.
At the present time it is undergoing a long and extensive restoration which diminished but didn’t detract from the view of the building both inside and out. When it was 1st built the outside of the building was covered in tile work but now only a few examples remain. On the inside the entire area is enclosed by scaffolding from the floor all the way to the apex of the dome. In spite of this, just like the Ayasofya in Istanbul, the view is still amazing. On all the walls and supporting columns are painted murals and tiles work going all the way to the top. Taking the spiral staircase to the 1st floor allows you to circumnavigate the building inside and outside. Within each aspect the brick, tile and woodworking detail is second to none.
From here we headed to our next and final destination.
It was a long drive across arid mountains, idyllic wheat green valleys complete with goats and donkeys, aluminium mining towns and mud brick villages to the UNESCO site of Takht-e-Suleiman (throne of Solomon).
This was the spiritual centre of Zoroastrianism in the 3rd century AD and was the state religion of the Sassanisn Persian period.
Zoroastrianism is the worship of earth, wind, fire and water and here at Takht-e-Suleiman each of those elements abound. At the centre of the site is a small crater lake and nearby was a volcanic gas vent whose gases were channelled into the fire temple close by.
Although it is called the throne of Solomon there is no historical link at all. During the 7th century the name was invented by the Persian guards to protect it from Arab invaders. As the Arabs had great reverence for biblical prophets they left it untouched and the name stuck!
Walking around the site was fantastic. The site sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains and there was no such thing as a bad view! All the time as you were exploring the site you heard the scurrying of lizards and the blare of traditional Iranian folk music from the loudspeaker, which surprisingly added to the ambience.
Thursday 24th of April
I woke up at 09:46...I’ll catch the train tomorrow!