Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Yazd

The desert city of Yazd has been around sine the 2nd century AD and therefore the old quarter was laid out without the car in mind! The city is famous for the Bagirs or wind towers that cover the cities rooftop skyline. It’s an old fashioned air conditioning system that traps the slightest of breezes and directs it to the rooms below.

Arriving in the evening on Tuesday meant I got the short straw with regards to the room. Unlike a Victorian prison cell I don’t even have a view or a window hence the no view. The mattress is concaved but comfortable. It’s clean and safe and the courtyard’s daybeds are the place to lie back and chill out in the cool of the evening.

On my 1st full day here (Wednesday 30th…happy birthday dad, see I didn’t forget!) I was up early and bimbling.

The hotel is yazds (geddit!!!) from the Jameh or Friday mosque so I went there 1st.

The main entrance has a huge tiled frontage with two large needle like minarets shooting 48 metres skyward with a small multi angled star shaped pool at the front. Upon entering the small courtyard (well compared to the one at Esfahan it is) the tile work is reserved for the side with the dome. The other three sides have simple white painted cloisters, perfect for avoiding the heat of the sun.

I left via the right hand exit and went into the old city.

Due to the climate the main building material is adobe, or mud and straw to the common man. Each house is built around a central courtyard enclosed by high brown walls. Walking around this quarter is a lesson in the futility of direction.
The lanes and alleyways twist and turn seemingly at random and all the while the width expands and contracts with no sense of why. Occasionally you’ll walk around a ninety degree turn (with your ear always tuned to the sound of a high revving motorbike ridden by someone that treats the whole area as a racetrack) and enter a wide courtyard. There will be several paths leading off them…go ahead, pick one!

There are several buildings of note and I believe that I came across most of them by chance

Alexander’s prison

Despite the name it’s actually a 15th century school of theology. It got the name from a famous Persian poem that made reference to a deep well in the courtyard that was used by Alexander the great as a prison (some 1800 years before…yeah right?). Inside is a simple courtyard with a small dome on one of the corners. The “prison” is now a tea room.

Tomb of the 12 imams

Near the prison is a small squat building with a dome and it’s in need of some interior restoration if the truth be told. Despite the name none of the imams are buried here.
I did meet an English couple who are on a 15 day tour of Iran. For 890 euros they get guided round Iran via public transport, staying in “local” hotels and carrying there own bags. Much better way than travelling in a mini bus on mass. We had a small chat and they asked me for my blog address. Maybe I should get a publishing deal?

After leaving the tomb I visited two merchants’ houses. One had been restored and was somewhere that I could live quite happily thank you. Whilst the other was interesting because it was in the process of being restored and the interior had been stripped back exposing the construction detail.

The water museum

Why would you have a museum of water I here you ask?
The answer is Qanat! This is the 2000 year old Iranian way of getting water from where it is too where you, your house and crops are. They are basically small underground tunnels dug by hand that transport the water along a shallow gradient. At the last count there were over 50000 in the country. Here in Yazd is where the highly skilled and well paid craftsmen traditionally come from. Inside the museum (which is under a courtyard garden…so nice and cool in the midday heat, yes I’m English but there are no mad dogs in Iran) are displays of the equipment used. Like a pick, a shovel and a bucket. More interesting are the photos that show the men at work and along with the construction diagrams.

In the cool of the evening I was on a fruitless quest for a new card reader as I had foolishly broken mine earlier in the day. It was proving hard, each of the camera and computer shops said NO!
On the verge of giving up, once again a conversation started with a local who wanted to practise his English. After explaining my predicament he took me to the electrical bazaar and at the 4th shop I was able to get a new one.
To show my thanks we headed to an underground hamam that had been converted to a teashop.
He’s studying to become an English language teacher and learning new idioms will help him, or so he thinks. I think that knowing how to say “Alright geezer” and “Am I bovvered” won’t impress the examination board! As I enjoyed talking to him I agreed to meet up the following night.

Tonight Chelsea is playing Liverpool in the 2nd leg of the champions league semi final. Sitting in front of a large TV with a cold beer in my hand would be usual right about now.
Instead I am reclining in one of the daybeds in the hotel courtyard. I have a star filled sky above me; the sound of water trickling out of the fountain and the delicate perfume of my sweet tea drifting in the nearby air…wouldn’t want it any other way!

Thursday 1st of May

Today was a day for not doing much at all. This is something that I like doing the most. In the morning I drifted around the newer part of the city, where they built their houses out of brick. Bizarrely they still used mud to stick the different courses together…strange ways indeed.
Towards midday I ambled to the bank to exchange some Yankee dollars into rials. By mistake I changed more than I intended too. Looks like fate wants me to stay in a mid range hotel in Shiraz after all.
In the evening (yes I realize I haven’t mentioned the afternoon but how interesting can it be to read about my siesta) I had pizza…pepperoni pizza and the slightly charred circles of meat almost tasted like crispy bacon!

Tomorrow I need to book a bus for Saturday’s journey to Shiraz and of course a hotel for once I get there. The rest of the day will be spent lounging, drinking tea and reading my guide book to India. I think I will need to book a hotel in Mumbai within the next couple of days.

• Chelsea won and to make it better my Iranian friend supports Liverpool.

• If an Iranian asks you what your religion is don’t answer with the word “atheist”...trust me one this one!

So there you go…that was Yazd.
Pop by next week to read about the continuing adventures of Sfau in Shiraz…with wine, singing, poetry and dancing girls……………………what do you mean I’m 1400 years to late!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, 25 April 2008

Esfahan

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

• Mercedes
• Volvos

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!


Saturday 26th

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!



Sunday 27th

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.

Monday 28th

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.
Weird experience…

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!

Monday, 21 April 2008

Qazvin

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) Fran├žois (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, Fran├žois 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.


It was a long drive back to Qazvin and I arrived at the hotel at 20:00. The plan was to get the early morning train out of here but damn was I tired. Plus there was champion’s league football on the telly!

Thursday 24th of April

I woke up at 09:46...I’ll catch the train tomorrow!

Friday, 18 April 2008

Tehran

The airplane rumbled across the tarmac of Tehran’s international airport runway 20 minutes ahead of schedule. So it was only 02:10 in the morning then!
Going through passport control took awhile but not as long as the luggage!

At 04:30 my head hit the pillow and all the lights went out.

The hotel is located “down town” in “petrol head heaven” a short walk east from Imam Khomeini square. If you want a spare part for your car, then you will find it here…or in the shop next door, or maybe across the road, or even around the corner ….

Later on in the day I went for a little walk around the neighbourhood. Crossing the road scared the s**t out of me and the pollution blocked my nose. After a couple of hours it was time for a siesta…which lasted till the late evening.

Saturday the 19th

Because yesterday was the official day off the traffic levels were lower…bugger!!!! I am not joking about how difficult it is to cross the roads here. Imagine playing frogger but you are the frog! However by the end of the day I’m sure I’ll be only a little scared as opposed to really scared.

The 1st thing that I am having “trouble” with is the money. There are about 18000 rials to the pound, so everything sounds really expensive. I paid 15000 for a kebab and drink, which works out at about 85 pence but it sounds a lot more. Then because there are so many noughts around the locals use the word “toman” to mean 1000 rials. So that shirt I brought didn’t cost me £2.5!

Over breakfast I was reading the local English language paper (always good to read the news from a different perspective) and saw that there was a photo exhibition in the arts museum. So after changing my money in the bank, that was my 1st port of call. The walk was long but enjoyable and due to the fact that every one looks at my strangely I wasn’t bothered in the slightest with the locals in this part of the world.

The photos on display were worth the walk. They definitely inspired me but for some reason I’ve become all camera shy. I only took 7 photos today (normally it would be at least 100). Hopefully it will change tomorrow because there are some really good street scenes around the place. I saw one guy loading 8 car tyres onto the back of his 125cc motorbike…I kid you not!

I walked to the national museum of Iran and then wondered why I did…very poor display!

In the evening I went for a walk with my camera. After taking 3 pictures outside a mosque I was told politely to put it away.
I get the feeling that Tehran is not going to be a camera heaven; I don’t have high hopes for the rest of the country.