Act 5: Toudeshk
A dusty little mudbrick town at the side of the freight highway taking goods to the South sea ports shouldn’t be the site of a tourist trap, but it is. For some unknown reason countless people who like to cycle from Europe to India, via Iran. I say unknown, not because of the journey (which sounds amazing) but because you have to have a death wish to hop a push-bike on the roads of Iran. Apparently the roads have the highest death rate of any country in the world, which I can well believe.
“When I was a boy, and I used to piiiiss in my paaants,” said Mohammed, proprietor of the rustic little homestay, “I used to see all these people bicycle past the village and say ‘hello’. I asked my teacher ‘what does this magical word ‘hello’ mean?” So begins the well-versed entry opening to Mohammed’s spiel, delivered in the oratory style of a broken Winston Churchill or Hitler, about how his home-stay came about, which is lovely, but if he’s honest with himself it’s all about the cold hard cash. Blah, blah, blah, learnt English, opened a homestay, cultural exchange, yada yada. He says that he doesn’t do it for the money but I happen to know that he badgers all the hoteliers in Yazd and Esfahan, the nearest points on the highway, to send tourist his way.
Although you should take what he says with a pinch of salt – don’t fall for his pseudo-naive line of questions with regards to Western ‘funny time’, ladies – his eccentricities make him a fascinating host and the accommodation real does offer a glimpse into life in the Iranian desert. He established his NGO, Silk Road, when he was 14 (ahem, if you say so) to preserve and promote the heritage of his mud brick village and will take you for a guided tour. Back in the Silk Road days, the area was famed for its camels so a settlement grew up to cater for this trade, and the locals made ingenious adaptations to village life. A huge reservoir tower holds water channelled from the mountain spring behind, kept cool by two wind towers sucking cold breezes down and forcing hot air out. Compound-style homes are made from mud bricks and plastered-over with mud. The many cats find this easy to climb at the corners and nip over the wall to sample the meat curing inside, so metal plates are fixed here to foil them.
Mohammed’s sister and Mum make rugs, his sister-in-law conjures the most delicious food from eggplant. His brother and family, complete with three bambinos, live in-house and meals are taken en masse by spreading a tablecloth on the floor and helping yourself. Guests slot effortlessly into normal and very peaceful family life.
In the evening, after watching sunset from a nearby hill, I chilled out with the local ladies and kids over tea. In Iran, tea is drunk black and sweetened by adding a lump of sugar, not to the drink but by popping it in your mouth and drinking through it. This is terrible for your teeth. You’re winning if you hit 40 and still have a full set. All very lovely people, but I daresay from the number of deformities and midgets in attendance that they could do with deepening the gene pool a smidge.
The family offer trips to some apparently stunning dunes some 45km beyond, but I’ve seen enough dunes of late to do me for some time so I opted instead for bumming around watching the sky. Starry desert skies, shooting stars – nuff said.
Act 6: Yazd
Onwards to Yazd, a larger incarnation of the mud-brick town. Disembarking the bus triggered the mandatory flurry of taxi drivers around the white face until, as usual, the police moved them on. Was offended at the $4 price being bounded about to get into town so sat on a wall in defiance until a chap with a finely coiffured beard quoted me $2. Done deal. Turned out that the going rate is in fact $3 so my bartering skills are coming on. Jumped in his car where he in his limited English told me that he was a politics student and that this was a ‘big problem’ in Iran, before rearranging the green scarf – that represents the revolutionary opposition – on the dashboard. Found them at last! Didn’t linger with him too long though, not for fear of getting my lily-whites thrashed by the police, but more cos he didn’t speak any England.
Checked into my first Iranian hostel (an absolutely excellent one, Silk Road. It is housed in a former caravanserai – my favourite – and represents just how hostels should be done) and met the first Westerners I’d seen since Yerevan. Nice for a change, much as I love the full immersion, and nice to speak fluent English for an evening. Shame on me.
There are a few sights in Yazd which I duly took in. But I’ll spare you more mosque and bazaaar shots; I’m almost all mosqued out. Of note is Alexander’s Prison, hidden in amongst the winding mud-plastered alleyways, where Alexander the Great is alleged (probably falsely) to have kept his captives. It’s now a cafe and had a cracking art exhibition on the go when I had a looksee.
It didn’t take long to get bored of tramping the super-hot streets – we’re in the South now and temperatures are hitting Arabian highs – so I sought refuge in a carpet shop and spent the afternoon in the with the charming Babek and friends, learning about Iranian attitudes to gays and the availability of crystal meth over a glass of peach juice. Who knew? That said, the penalties for getting caught with what we in the West would consider hard drugs are far less than those for getting nicked with booze. Groping a tourist gets you 7 lashes, I’m told – so careful with them party hands, yeah boys.
Act 7: Shiraz
The final stop on the Iranian tour was Shiraz and the mighty Persepolis. Shiraz itself has lots of sights, including the obligatory bazaars and mosques, but also a few spectacular old merchants’ houses (now museums, one, Narenjestan, with very entertaining waxwork figures of prominent Persians through the ages) and my holy grail: a discoball shrine*. (*not its official title)
Shah Cheragh (King of Light) is a funerary monument built in honour of two big time brothers. You can read more about them here if you’re interested, but what matters to me is that the interior – dome, walls, the lot – are decorated with millions of tiny little mirrors. Glitterball fantastic.
I had a personal guide of Shiraz in the form of Parviz, a man with the kindest face, twinkliest eyes and crinkliest smile I have ever seen. Just look. Much as I like a silver fox, if only he was 40 years younger…
Parviz rescued me from the bus station – I know! A station! – where I was killing time at 5am waiting for life to start in Iran and some freaks to weird off. One bloke on the Toudeshk-Shiraz bus had tried to flummox me by insisting on checking my ticket and motioning for me to move from my rightful seat into his, next to his weird-ass friend: I ain’t falling for that again. Plus he was sporting the white trainers and jeans combination. No sir, we cannot be friends.
Enter Parviz, a former television journalist before the revolution banned him from further work in his field. He sent his son and wife to California when the revolution went bad, where they remain now, estranged from him and out of contact. Now he gets by doing bit-work and photo research, volunteering for the Red Crescent on the side. Unlike most of his countrymen, he doesn’t think that the current government should be ousted and replaced, believing that the Iranian people are too uneducated in the alternatives to be able to install a reliably better alternative. I’m not so sure, but it’s an interesting take from someone whose life has been decimated by the current regime.
The Iranians are big into their poets (they are pretty good) and like to commemorate the best with large shrines and celebratory gardens. Took a turn up at the Hafez shrine and garden one evening, which is a wonderful place to hang out, most popular with the locals and jolly civilised. Sunset is a big deal so people flock to these sort of places just before twilight to chat and drink tea, making them frightfully congenial.
Shiraz is conveniently located for a side-trip to Persepolis, which I wanted to see mostly cos I’d seen the animated film a few years ago (if you haven’t already, get it; watch it. Wonderful stuff) and wanted to see its namesake. It was built by Darius the Great, and family, back in the day and seems to be mostly an exercise in willy waving. It was built on a man-made/adjusted plateau at the base of Kuh-i-Rahmat mountain and used mostly at the New Year bash (Nowruz) for showing off new frocks (like the Oscars) and bringing foreign delegates to a showcase of Persian might, swagger and general excellence. Which was true until Alexander the Great arrived, burnt it down, and made off with all the treasure laden on 3,000 camels. Not, I imagine, at great speed.
You can still see well-preserved remnants of what would once have been a very, very grand reception hall, a palace, treasury, couple of Zoroastrian temples (they still had the good sense to worship fire) and a few triumphal arches. One of these arches was only half built when Alexander got to it which has allowed archaeologists to work out that they were built using wooden scaffolding and sculpted/carved from the top down, a fact that I found inexplicably fascinating. The stairs up to the palaces have super-fine, elaborate carvings of emissaries from all 28 territories then under Persian control, shown bringing gifts from their respective homes; the Ethiopians have a couple of giraffes in tow. The experts say that it’s significant that the ambassadors are depicted as willing guests, flanked by Persian flunkies, and not as disgruntled, subjugated minions. Not that you’d be able to tell from a carving and not forgetting that it was the Persians what carved it.
It’s a very pleasant spot to wander around with a saffron icecream anyway. Befriended a little family from Esfahan and stopped in the shade for a breather, some water and snaps with 2-month old baby Sepehr hidden under Mum’s chador from the heat. Started off on the journey back to Shiraz but it wouldn’t be Iran if I wasn’t dragged off to a mountain village for some tea, watermelon and a ‘meet the family’ first.
Back in Shiraz, I was hauled into an English class by Messi, celebrated amongst his classmates for fearlessly capturing tourists in the street and bringing them in for show-and-tell. Nipped in to let them test out their English on me then spent my last night in Iran chilling out in the park with the class, eating pizza and playing parlour games as the sun went down. Cracking way to wind up the Iranistan experience, especially since it required no mangled farsi.
Would I have preferred to travel through Iran with a buddy? Probably. Would I have had the same, most excellent experience? Almost certainly not. Will I be going back to Iran? I hope so.
Ubiquity stakes – limps. No idea why but at least 40% of the population have some sort of limp and I cannot get to the bottom of why.