Iran - Kavir desert & Esfahan
As I mentioned in the previous post, due to the slight misunderstanding with the police, I was forced to spend the night in Semnan (the birthplace of none other than Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad I hear). At this point let me note that the President in a theocracy doesn't matter that much, the Supreme Leader is calling the shots while being conveniently shielded from international publicity/exposure. He's the numero uno of the country, he is appointed FOR LIFE and is NOT elected by the public. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Ali Khamenei, the guy who after Khomeini and his "revolution" is running the show in this country since 1989!
Back to the trip. After being let go for the second time by the "foreigners' police" I left Semnan as fast as I could. It was a cold morning, and I soon felt weak and had to stop for breakfast. Last night at the hotel I hadn't left my room - heck, I had even put a chair under the doorknob. Talk about paranoia. I was being haunted by thoughts of being taken in the night and getting a filing in - so much for Mr Krishnamurti's teachings on fear. So I had consumed the chicken my extremely attentive and just plain nice hosting mom had given me for the road as it was, cold, with the fat solidified and stuck to it. With my fingers.
Now it was time for breakfast, but as I was out in the open and out of that godforsaken place and nicely warmed by the sun, I felt less vulnerable and I allowed myself the luxury of stopping by the roadside for some proper breakfast. The butter was kept frozen cold even though it hadn't been in a fridge for 24 hours, and I had to thaw it a bit to enjoy it. The solution was funny but elegant:
Eating was very good for my psychology, as was finally entering the desert. I stopped to gaze at the camels - what a bunch of funny animals. They seem not to have a care in the world.
This camel is certainly a size 47:
The desert was beautiful, but not as I expected it. It looks more like a vast plowed field, not a sea of sand as I thought.
The rock and soil formations change in color from place to place, with some being truly beautiful, with an extra-terrestrial quality to them...
A river of salt, still as death, running over the dry soil.
This is one of those signs that just magically make your day and you find yourself roaring with laughter on your own, in the middle - oh, let's say of a desert, with nobody but the sky to listen.
Mo'alleman did not have any sleepover facilities (I enquired and got told "mosque" and I thought "not tonight mate"), so I rode on till the next human settlement. I reached Jandaq after sun down.
Luckily the road running through the desert is excellent - as most of the Iranian road network, so I wasn't too worried about riding in the dusk. For my sleepover I asked around at Jandaq, a sleepy desert town, the guy I was talking to rung a friend of his who appeared within 4 minutes with a friend of his on a motorcycle, and off we went...
I followed them for 5km into the desert, over twisting dirt paths with no signs whatsoever, apparently random, cursing myself every second for not taking the time to turn on the GPS before we left civilisation, so that if anything happened I could find my way back... but it was too late, we were already in the proverbial middle of nowhere, I could sometimes barely see the distant lights of Jandaq but nothing else - it really is pitch black at night in the desert.
I decided to take a couple of snaps as evidence for whoever found my body. This is how far away we were from Jandaq:
Luckily my paranoia was just that, paranoia, and when the diesel kicked in and the light came on...
... I found myself in the courtyard of the prettiest ancient desert house... a fire was lighted instantly, over which I warmed my fingers and had some simple food I was carrying with me.
Then hot wood was taken from the fire and positioned underneath a special table covered with a thick blanket and I was shown hot to sit with my back on a pillow and my legs under the blanket, my naked feet hanging over the hot wood and that was niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice. Simply divine after a cold day on the bike, with whatever had happened with the police and whatnot.
Out came the dry dates (which I found out I absolutely adore), the chai, the fruit, the biscuits... from "oh boy, we're being jumped out here" Hollywood-fueled fear to "This is life!" and smiley faces and a lot of much needed relaxation. The proprietor was very friendly but with limited vocabulary, so we enlisted the help of all books we had handy to communicate:
These books sometimes provide a keyhole to the local society... would you find this in a language learning book (presumably for children) in your country?
The next day I greeted my hosts, admired their (simple but undoubtedly more reliable than mine) panniers
and headed for Esfahan. I got there in the early afternoon, ran straight into a guy beating the living lights out of a poor car driver (punches in the face in broad daylight in the middle of the road - sensational stuff) and marveled at the continuing extreme resourcefulness of fast food restaurants to wet their clients' appetite:
Luckily another very kind couple was available to host me and they stopped whatever they were doing and came out near the river to pick me up and take me to their home... I spent a week in Esfahan, meeting lots of people, drinking a lot of tea, walking as I haven't walked in years, trying to take in the magnificence of its buildings...
... mostly lingering around the impressive Naghsh-i Jahan Square...
... (renamed Emam Square after the "revolution" that appears to have parallels to Mao Zedong's "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" that erased thousands of years of Chinese history & culture), indulging in local delicacies under the auspices of my splendid hosts:
A pigeon tower - used in old times to collect pigeon droppings (poo) to use as fertiliser.
I was quite annoyed at the seemingly random places motorcycles could NOT be used... why, I wonder?
We also visited the Birds Garden of the city, which was to my surprise really nice!
(I couldn't help thinking of the while observing these guys...)
More interesting inmates:
A younger version:
Flirting or itching?
The royal version of what the good doctor would call "Rats of the Skiessss!":
A ponderous old gentleman:
An interestingly decorated cock:
A black swan taking his/her morning stroll:
The message here is "I can see you looking at me"
A hunter, trying to preserve his/her decency by looking far away into the horizon...
More excellent English - thank you, all your base are belong to us:
By that time I had realised that my phone was not receiving any international SMS messages, and had significant trouble sending them too. I read the SIM instructions and realised the Chinese company that operated this Iranian network had put support issues in the hands of fantastic personas, so I wasn't likely to get much help anytime soon:
Dates. Awesome. Bought a whole kilo of 'em out of the bazaar around the main square, and am still munching on them here in Pakistan, after having given some away to people...
Taken to a nice restaurant by my polite hosts, I once more marveled at the cluelessness of the people composing & printing the English menus:
The music room of the Shah's palace on the main square. Fascinating.
Esfahan stretches one's ability to take in one more building, one more mirror-adorned living room, one more narrow bazaar alley, while trying to stay out of the way of small motorcycles buzzing around (on what's left of the sidewalk)...
... braking for nobody, honking at anyone who dares claim the pedestrian sidewalk from them.
Decoration of the Masjid Mosque, which is still under heavy construction:
Almost gothic halls, where light plays its own games...
On the way back from the mosque, we bumped against an old mansion being restored and begged our way into one of its mirror rooms. This is the ceiling:
More beauty and attention to detail around the main square:
Can you imagine how much work decorating this dome was?
Souls wandering the corridors of old palaces:
More places around town that motorcycles are not welcome. Grrrrr...
Time for some religious propaganda (come on, you could see that coming...)
Well, that's good to know. Do whatever you want, pray, sorted.
The police would have a kick with this one:
Oh, that's also good to know. We take credit only for the good - the bad is all YOUR STUPID FAULT:
I looooooove religion. Especially when messages like these are plastered all over buildings around major cities. So... discreet.
Another message about the police and an interesting new word for my vocabulary:
So, in Iran motorcycles larger than 200cc are not allowed (genius!), so mine naturally drew a lot of love... here I'm giving a ride to a family member of my hosts:
Street shops in Esfahan at night:
The main square at night:
Esfahani art - splendid displays at the bazaar:
Details of the above display. Looooots of work has gone into this...
More lovely displays in the bazaar - this time metal work:
Esfahani sweets - apparently some of the best in the country:
Night in downtown Esfahan:
It was once more a wonderful feeling to be taken in so kindly by a family, even though I sensed that (at least initially) some of its members had severe reservations about "hosting the tourist".
Some of these concerns I understand (potential trouble by the government, who appears to have instructed people not to mingle too much with foreigners for fear of being charged with something surely involving spying/treason). some not so much (a sense of "doing something wrong" according to Islamic rules when the husband is not around and the women are forced to interact on their own with the stranger.) I have to admit that in Tabriz I never felt like a tourist, and was never labeled as one. I was heartily greeted by everyone I met, who was genuinely interested in knowing about me and other cultures I might be able to provide a window to. But in Esfahan, I was a tourist. Repeatedly labeled as one, I thought about what bothers me so much about being called "a tourist"... I'm not sure, but something about not having caught a plane from London to meet an organised group to do sightseeing and then piss off out of the country makes me feel that being called the same as such people is unfair. This is more than mere tourism, although it's a fine line and the language barrier doesn't make it easy to get such details across.
Before I forget, something quite funny one sees in all major Iranian towns: Open-air "gyms", for the population to get its exercise. Unbearably funny to watch old people exercising away in public:
One cold and wet morning I attempted to leave Esfahan, simply because I had set my mind to it. Must-leave-today. I was late to start, and the weather was really atrocious... I was following the road south to Shiraz and planned to cut through the mountains east to Yazd. By the time I reached Shahreza, a mere 70km south of Esfahan, I had to stop by the side of the road, take my gloves off and without turning off the engine attempt to thaw my frozen fingers in the hot exhaust fumes. If you've done this, you will know it's painful. Something about tissue and nerves shutting down to protect themselves from extreme cold, and then loudly complaining with intense pain when they get re-activated.
So anyway there I was, on the side of the highway having fun with my exhaust, when a truck stopped right beside me, the door opened, and the driver beckoned to me to jump in the cabin. My initial reaction was (of course, as a European!) "no no thank you I'm fine" thinking "I'm not out of my mind to jump into this stranger's truck!" - and there were two of them in the cabin... but a few seconds later and after the driver and his friend insisted and gestured "it's cold out there, in here we have heating!" I said "oh, sod it" and jumped in.
It was Paradise. The good man put the heating at full blast, surely to their discomfort but also surely to my great comfort... they served me hot tea from a thermos and sunflower seeds to munch on. We spent a good quarter of an hour in that truck, introducing each other, our families, our jobs, our daily lives, our habits, our countries, religions... the driver told me he was recently married, what job his father did, and I shared with him my side of the story... they advised me not to take the road I was planning to, as it had no petrol stations, restaurants, mechanics, nothing, and it would be cold and wet and dark. Instead he begged me to return to Esfahan, get a good night's kip and the next morning take the direct route to Yazd through Naein. He knew what he was talking about, and I took his advice. Other than a stockpile of sunflower seeds they gave me a tiny donkey doll (one of those soft decorative cloth animals), laughing, pointing at the donkey and saying "police!", which only resulted in all the three of us cracking up... it was such a basic scene, in the cabin of a truck, shielded from the cold, refreshed for life by the hot tea and the discussion, that I had no hesitation to follow his advice.
After heartily greeting them and sharing a few of my dry dates and pieces of chocolate with them, I swallowed my pride and called my host family in Esfahan. Two hours later I was sitting in their living room again, eating delicious hot food, while my clothes were drying next to the gas water boiler.
I spent the afternoon walking around Esfahan for one last time and getting drenched with rain (too much optimism when it comes to the choice of clothing...), met a friend for another installment of a good chat, had dinner with her family and then returned home for a magnificent sleep. I was exhausted.
Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at December 27, 2009 12:49 PM GMT