Day One – Friday 14th October 2011
What a perfect start to a trip. The morning was one of a beautiful sunny nature that had followed on from a spectacular sunrise that I witnessed somewhat less than deliberately. I'm not very good at sleeping when there are planes to be caught to Central Asia. So I was up and about and checking my travel documents a thousand times plus once for luck, long before my alarm went off.
As is traditional for such adventures, my car arrived five minutes early so I said goodbye to all the loved ones I was leaving behind (i.e. Eddie, my cat . . . and tolerated would be a more appropriate word than loved), hopped into the waiting taxi and sped off to Chippenham railway station, observing with thoughts of cynicism, the Christmas lights in their embryonic stage on the way. The driver just couldn't get his head round the concept of going to Iran for a holiday but did his best to join in my state of excitement by asking me what the beaches were like in Iran and saying, "Adios" as we parted at the station forecourt.
Fifteen minutes later my train stopped in Swindon, the place where East meets West. There was no going back. My adventure was well and truly underway.
The journey went perfectly smoothly which was a shame because I find it easier to describe events when something goes wrong. In fact, it really pisses me off when everything goes to plan.
So after travelling in two trains and a lift but no moving walkway I found myself at Deathrow Heathrow. I love being in airports once I’m actually past all the formalities and frisking and growling from security staff. No matter how many times I fly, each airport seems to present a new moment of uncertainty. Because I ventured through the x-ray machine a second earlier than I was supposed to, I had to undergo a full body search. I asked the security lady is she could check me for prostate cancer while she was up there. She said that wasn’t included in her trade union negotiated job description but she did find a few coppers of loose change and the television remote control.
Once I was fully installed in the departure lounge I was completely happy in my happy little holiday world of my own. I was well and truly on my jollies, I had survived the intense trauma of travelling to the airport on public transport, I had provided the powers that be with all the appropriate documentation for me to be allowed to leave the country (though why they want me in the country in the first place always beats me), and I hadn’t had to nip back home to turn off the gas so from this point absolutely nothing could go wrong. Normally I would have had a pint of something fluid and strong to celebrate but, travelling to Iran, it would have seemed quite discourteous. Totally against my nature, I drank one and a half litres of mineral water while I waited for the boarding gate to open in an attempt to flush out almost fifty four years worth of alcohol from my body. One must respect the culture of the countries that one visits, you know!
My mobile phone suddenly came to life with a flurry of ‘bon voyage’ messages from friends and family including Andrea and Pip, two of my travelling companions from my previous Exodus trip to Cuba. But only two out of those seventeen companions who told me to keep in touch and that they would love me forever as we cycled from Havana to Santiago and back. I assumed that the other fifteen must have been on their way to Tehran too and were too busy with full body searches to have time to bid me farewell.
I had spent a lot of time hanging around Heathrow Airport down the years. The first time had been just over thirty five years earlier when, as a rookie merchant seafarer, I was flying off to Sri Lanka to join my first ship. The place had changed a lot since my first visit. All sorts of shops had appeared as well as a Caviar House and Prunier, and automatic flushing toilets. Back in 1976 I had a minced beef pie and a bottle of Cresta and I had to cope with the shortcomings of my nervous tummy just sitting on a bucket. In fairness I must add that the bucket was a bit more upmarket than your average bucket as it bore British Airways livery.
People watching! That’s the thing I like to do in airports. Who needs a book when there are people of all shapes, sizes, colours, nationalities and designer sunglasses to look at? My favourites were probably the Polish sounding people who sat near to me with plastic carrier bags containing enough duty free posh vodka to fill the dry dock at Gdansk shipyard and a shoe horn in the shape of a Household Guardsman. Why? I would have had to drink as much vodka as they had bought before I’d be tempted to part with money for such a hideous object.
I was also sitting very close to a brood of brand spanking new Dixon’s electrical retailers staff taking part in their induction course and scribbling away furiously to get the answers to their written test down on their Dixon’s notepaper with their Dixon’s pens. I was invited to join in but declined, insisting that I was very much a Comet man.
The best shop in the airport terminal was undoubtedly the luggage shop. Now I knew Heathrow had a bit of a reputation for losing luggage but surely it wasn’t so bad that they had to provide an outlet to refurnish their victims with new suitcases. I wondered if the luggage that they sold was luggage that previous passengers had lost. I wondered if passengers on incoming flights could buy a suitcase full of dirty knickers to replace the one that the baggage handlers had lost. I had friends who would probably have appreciated a suitcase full of dirty knickers as a present from one of my travels.
Holiday Disappointments – No. 1
On the rare occasion that I have ever been allowed a window seat on an aircraft, I have always had to sit by the wing so I couldn’t see what was down below anyway. This flight presented no exception to the rule. I continued to hope, as I had done for years, that one day I would fly away on my travels in a rocket or other such vehicle without wings to obstruct my view.
Our flight was a frenzy of free wine. I had three bottles. They were only very small bottles but they numbered two more than I had been expecting. As I knocked back the drink I chatted to my new travelling companion, Connie, who was going to be on the Exodus trip with me and coincidentally was sitting right beside me. An amazing American lady of eighty four years who had been everywhere except Libya, the Moon and Swindon.
The ‘plane stopped to refuel and stock up with free wine in Yerevan in Armenia. Another country to add to my list of places I had seen or landed at but not really visited. Still, it was a bit exciting being in this mysterious place in Central Asia in the middle of the night even though I could only view it from the aircraft window restricted by the wing.
At Tehran Airport I met Andy from Kidderminster in the passport control queue but I lost Connie. She had so many stamps and visas in her passport that the passport checker guard man’s head exploded so she was sent off to another part of the airport while the rest of us reclaimed our bags, changed our money (I got over four million Rials, just to be on the safe side), met Farzaneh our tour guide, and stood around nervously smiling at each other. At three o’clock in the morning we were all too tired for proper introductions and I didn’t like the look of them anyway and I didn’t have to worry about upsetting anybody and not being included in rounds for drinks as there wasn’t going to be any alcohol on this trip. Connie, looking a little flustered, eventually rejoined us but an Indian bloke without a visa that we had been chatting to in the passport control queue did not. I suspected that by the time we had boarded our bus to out hotel the Indian man was on the plane back to San Francisco, the quaint little Indian town that he had said he was from.
Almost an hour on the bus and two seconds in the shower later and I was nicely tucked up in bed in the Hotel Mashad where I was sharing a room with Andy. It was 4.30 a.m. and I was in Tehran in Iran in Central Asia and I was absolutely thrilled to my very core to be there so all was well in Terryland.
I closed my eyes and went to sleep knowing that when I awoke the next day my ‘Journey to Persia’ with Exodus Travels would begin. I had fallen in love with Exodus Travels during my ‘Cycle Cuba’ trip seven months earlier so I was quite confident that the next few days would be filled with places and moments of utter fascination and excitement, and I simply couldn’t wait to get started.
Journey to Persia
(except the bit from Esfahan to Tehran
was in a bus rather than on a plane).
Amazing Holiday Facts – No 1
The chambermaid had left a chocolate on my pillow. I’ve never had a chocolate on my pillow before. No rose though. I supposed that I would need to become better acquainted with her before that would happen. Womenfolk were not as approachable in the Islamic world as they were in Britain despite their liberal approach to chocolate.
Day Two – Saturday 15th October 2011
We breakfasted in the rooftop restaurant over looking the hustle and bustle of the huge sprawling city with vast, steeply rising mountains immediately beyond. Farzaneh said we could go skiing in those mountains if we wanted to but it was very expensive. The fact that they were sun parched and arid might have presented a bit of a problem too. A large meal of fried eggs, beans and pita bread followed by a cuppa tea and a bitta cake was most welcome as I told everyone who asked me that I had slept very well but didn’t want to sound negative at this early bonding stage of the trip by adding the words ‘but not for very long.’
The breakfast waiter said that this was very nice tea and handy stuff to carry around whilst touring in Iran. He always kept one in his handbag (his Zanbagh) . . . ho ho ho ho ho . . . oh no . . . I’ll get me coat!
After nourishment I took some photographs of the city and the mountains from the eighth floor rooftop terrace. Starting a new batch of holiday pictures that I knew I would treasure forever was almost as exciting as the realisation that I was in Central Asia and having a fried egg for breakfast.
Packing to leave the Hotel Mashad in Tehran didn’t take anywhere near as long as packing to leave Chippenham had done, probably because I had only really unpacked my toothbrush and my Bert Weedon Islam-in-a-day teach yourself book.
So soon we were out in the thick of the utterly chaotic Tehran traffic in our trusty tour bus and soon after that the thick got thicker as the bus driver, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, had to park up and our party of twelve did the rest of the journey to the Golestan Palace in an eight seater minibus. Actually there were more than eight seats but not all were immediately noticeable. The little ledge on which the driver kept his tin full of change was something that my arse found sufficiently comfortable to be deemed a location for sitting as we weaved our way through the tsunami of taxis, bazaar traders’ vans, motor cycle riders, motor cycle stunt riders and fearless pedestrians. Farzaneh, also struggling to find a conventional seat, sat mostly on me. A lovely, smiling, friendly lady but in truth I hadn’t expected such close contact so early on in the trip.
Farzaneh the boss lady said there were thirteen million people living in Tehran and I counted all but half a dozen of them travelling along that street in the opposite direction to us. She also said that in the six months of the Islamic year so far, there had been two thousand six hundred deaths inIran caused by road traffic accidents. At this point I decided that it was probably for the best that Iranians didn’t have access to alcohol.
To ease the tension levels during the journey, our driver took his CD of Iranian traditional music out of his car stereo and replaced it with a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. However, as the driver had said that he had been a performing violinist in his former job, who was I to argue with his choice? He gave me his business card bearing a picture of him, in action, with fiddle and bow but I had to give it to Farzaneh later on because she had lost her own (card, not fiddle) and needed to phone him for a lift back to the bus. So my dear readers will never see how our Iranian, Stradivarius wielding, heavily moustachioed, minicab driver looked. I spent much of the remainder of the trip devising a plan to get on television’s Stars In Their Eyes programme as him to put the matter straight.
Visiting the Golestan Palace made the journey more than worthwhile though. Described by my trusty but Lonely Planet guide book as a monument to the glories and excesses of the Qajar rulers we went into the bit called Shams-Al Emarat containing a sequence of mirrored and tiled rooms housing an impressive display of collected photographs, furniture and pottery from all corners of the world and Derby. Yes, Derby, honestly.
Mike and Angie were from Essex (the posh end, not the end that I knew and loved from the days when I went to live there to find love, peace and inner harmony amongst the natives in the 1980s) and Mike commented that there were terraced houses in Ilford (my end of Essex) with front hallways decorated with mirrors in almost the same style. A major difference was, however, that none of the mirrors in the Golestan Palace bore the image of Elvis Presley.
The bravery we showed on the return trip in the Minibus of Death to where our coach was parked and our driver quivered and sobbed in a pool of tears was rewarded by a stop at a rather stylish coffee shop for a very nice cuppa and a big wadge of Central Asian chocolate cake and a good old natter with the rest of the members of the group who, I had learned by then, comprised of:
Jo and her Mum, Ann, who lived in Southampton and Shropshire respectively. Liz who was an orthopaedic surgeon (a handy person to have around on a trip like this, especially after the minibus ride) from Oldham but who lived in Oxford. Alex was from Brazil and his partner John from near Southampton. And there was Tony who hadn't spoken very much and who was very tall. These all in addition to Connie, Andy, Mike and Angie introduced in earlier paragraphs. First impressions suggested a nice bunch of people to be exploring Persia with.
The rich yumminess of the chocolate cake, the opulent surroundings, the stunning beauty of the waitresses and the comfort of the apparently quite rare European style toilets were all very nice, but less than twenty four hours into the trip I had become nervous of the hand held bidet shower contraptions installed by the sides of sit down sanitary earthenware. A good idea in principle but I had to ask myself where they had been and whose bottoms they had squirted and how much disinfectant they had been in contact with, even though I already knew the answer. Actually they looked at first glance a bit like microphones . . . khazi karaoke . . . what a splendid idea!
They stuck this on me as I went through Customs at the airport.
But what I forgot to say about the Golestan Palace was that the part of it in which political dignitaries had once been invited to stay looked a lot like Barking Town Hall. It really did and I wasn’t just saying that to butter up my new found Essex friends. Also we had to wear blue polythene elasticated slippers over our shoes to stop the carpets getting mucky. The blue slippers, with pointy toes, I thought looked rather stylish and somewhat Ali Baba on me. The armed security guard in the khaki military uniform looked quite menacing and authoritative from the ankles up but a complete lass from the below the sock line. I would never describe myself as a fashion guru but even I could tell that polythene slippers and a Kalashnikov AK47 just didn’t go together. I was tempted to point this out to him but thought better of it as polythene slippers and bullet wounds probably didn’t go very well together either.
In the afternoon we visited the National Museum of Iran containing artefacts from the pre-Islamic period, the head of a man pickled in a salt marsh for three hundred years and our Indian friend (whose name turned out to be Sunda) from the early morning passport control queue at the airport. He had managed to get an entry visa in the end, very easily and very cheaply because he said his Mum (who was with him) used to go out with the Indian Ambassador to Iran. Lucky Indian Ambassador to Iran, I say.
Museum number three was the Glass and Ceramics Museum which was very beautiful and very small but I was gradually approaching the top end of the weariness scale so I was glad to get back on the coach for a spin round Tehran in the rush hour traffic en route to the domestic airport.
The journey took in the spectacularly impressive Azadi Tower (Tehran’s modern day equivalent of the Parisian Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile) at sunset and some Anti-American Graffiti which sounded to me like the sequel to an American teen movie.
Then it was airport time. What we really needed after a night flight, hardly any sleep and a long day going round museums was another flight to perk us up so Auntie Farzaneh booked us in on a seven hundred kilometre soiree down to Shiraz.
Tehran’s second airport was much larger and much more efficient than I had expected. I felt quite guilty that a mild and very uncharacteristic attack of xenophobia had caused me to have fears about the internal flight that we were about to embark upon. I blamed racial stereotyping in the Western media for corrupting my normally wide mind into a narrow one temporarily. The post Islamic Revolution brainwashing that I had undergone in Britain turned out to be a total waste of time really as Iran turned out to be as modern and technologically advanced as many countries I have visited in Europe and was by no means a member of the Third World. To rectify my embarrassing situation I looked up at a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini hung high on the wall of the departure lounge and said, “Sorry mate.” And do you know what? I was pretty sure that he winked at me.
The airport terminal building lacked a few of the outlets that you might have expected to see there. We had to resort to fast food for victuals in the form of Khomeini Fried Chicken with fries and a large pomegranate juice to go. Also I couldn’t buy a postcard but that had been the case in the whole of Tehran for the whole of the day. I had wanted to contact my lovely children to let them know that I was alive and well but I couldn’t send a text message on my mobile phone, an email or even a postcard. I decided that at the next hotel I would ask the chef if I could have a couple of empty baked beans tins and a piece of string. Iran may have been technologically advanced but it was internationally isolated.
We flew with Mahan Air, not with Iran Air which would have sounded a bit too much like Ryan Air for comfort. The plane was modern, large, clean, comfortable and full. The cabin crew were friendly and efficient. The in-flight meal was tasty and healthy and included all sorts of nutty things and fresh salad. And the journey took seventy minutes. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the quality of the experience was far superior to that on the flight from London to Tehran . . . apart from the free wine!
And at the end of the journey I was in Shiraz at last and desperately seeking Mahtab.
Day Three – Sunday 16th October 2011
Strange it was to wake up in the same city as Mahtab, my Facebook friend. So near but yet so far. We had discussed on-line the impossibility of perhaps meeting up. I knew it would be difficult but having learnt as much about Persian culture and customs as I had done in the hours since my arrival, by the end of the first day I realised that there had never really been a chance of a rendezvous. I had suggested that she come to the Eram Hotel with some members of her family for just a cuppa and a chinwag. She didn’t say why she wouldn’t be able to but she did say she didn’t think it would be possible. This was such a great shame.
As well as being the home of Mahtab, the city of Shiraz was also the original home of Shiraz wine but since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 all the grapes produced there had been made into raisins. Another great shame. I found this quite ironic too because, back in Britain, whenever I fancied a glass of wine but knew I should refrain, I usually had a bowl of Tesco Fruit ‘n’ Fibre instead which contained loads of raisins.
Holiday Disappointments – No 2
I came so close to having my second fried egg of the trip at breakfast today but the man in front of me in the sunny side up queue must have come over a bit peckish as he took the last fifteen that remained in the serving dish. Why on earth would anybody want that many eggs? I reckoned it would be a long time before he had to crack open his packet of Imodium tablets. I consoled myself with a plate of mushy dates and lemon curd instead and wondered what Mahtab would have been having for her breakfast as I tucked in.
Amazing Holiday Facts – No 2
The contents of Farzaneh’s mind. Any question we asked her she had the answer to or an opinion about. She was incredible and delivered her knowledge with a delightful sense of humour too. As the bus set off from our hotel this morning for a full day’s monumenting she told us that Farzaneh was only her nickname and that her real Moslem name meant wise and innocent and then she let out a hearty laugh, deeming her enigmatic too.
Farzaneh also told us that there were no gypsies in Iran. So where did the people buy their clothes pegs and their lucky white heather? I instantly recognised a void in the market and my plan to pursue an alternative lifestyle took a turn for the better. Iran does, however, have Armenian nomads who camp wherever they like and do the manual work that Iranians would rather not do themselves. A scribbled postcard to my friends in Krakow soon put pay to that.
Holiday Disappointments – No 3
Me! A disappointment for Mike though and not for myself. As we were walking into the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site of Persepolis we were talking about football and Leeds United in particular. After twenty minutes of analysis of this mighty club’s ups and downs down the years Mike concluded that whenever in the future he thought of Persepolis he would involuntarily think of Leeds United. I think Angie was even more disappointed as she made absolutely no comment at all.
A budgie's favourite verse of the poetry of Hafez.
The little pink sheet above contains a verse of poetry written by Hafez, the fourteenth century Iranian poet. Now I’m not averse to a verse so I had no hesitation in forking out fifty thousand Rials for it to be plucked from a box containing many different coloured slips of paper bearing Hafez verse by a budgie so it was worth every single one of those Rials even though I can’t decipher a single word of it.
I couldn’t help but wonder if Mahtab had a budgie. Mahtab means moonlight and is such a lovely name. If I had been going to have any more kids or pets (which I certainly had no intention of doing, not even a budgie) I would have called one of them Mahtab. Sigh!
For me the trip really kicked off today as we were out of the city with a bit more to see and do. Shiraz was itself a city (the City of Poetry, no less) but much smaller and slightly less chaotic and polluted than Tehran.
The bus ride of about an hour to Persepolis was much more than worth it. The scenery en route was truly amazing despite it being so arid, with strangely wonderful rock formations poking up out of the ground in all directions. On occasions such as this I wish that my knowledge of geology had been a bit deeper. But to store any new knowledge in my brain I would have had to delete some of the old stuff so sadly, the lyrics of songs by S Club 7 and the names of non league football grounds would have to make way for all the stratigraphic and petrologic malarkey.
The ruined city of Persepolis was a thoroughly wonderful place. My Lonely trusty Planet guide book described it as the embodiment of the greatest successes of the ancient Achaemenid Empire . . . and its final demise. The monumental staircases, exquisite reliefs and imposing gateways leave you in no doubt of how grand this city had been and how dominant the empire that built it. It was true . . . they didn’t. Well not for me anyway but I suspected that some other members of the group were less than convinced as I heard upstart upstate New York Connie mutter something under her breath about the expansionist foreign policy of the modern day United States making the Persian Empire look a bit crap. But on occasions such as this I wish that my knowledge of archaeology had been a bit deeper. I’d have written pages about this place if it had have been. I took more than two hundred photographs to make up for my inadequacy.
The ancient tombs carved into the cliff at nearby Necropolis were almost equally as impressive. They were hot and dusty and massive and as ancient as you can get. All that was missing was Indiana Jones. This was why I had come to Iran.
Equally enjoyable but in a totally different way was lunch of local cuisine in a quaint little garden restaurant that Farzaneh oft frequented. Lamb cooked in spinach and egg plant with stewed lentils were just two of the sumptuous dishes that we had. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more of that. Only wimps let the hot weather impair their appetite!
In the afternoon we motored back in our motor coach to Shiraz for more wine monuments. First of all we went to see the tomb of Hafez the poet surrounded by beautiful, oasis gardens which managed to retain an air of serenity despite them being so busy with admirers of the great man going to pay homage. It was amazing how much respect Iranian people had for him in the twenty first century, seven hundred years after he had lived there. And it was here that I bought my pink sheet of verse from a budgie . . . I’m not a Moslem and I don’t speak Farsi so I paid my homage in my own way. Blessed are the budgies.
Then, driving past the Karim Khan Castle, we journeyed on to the gorgeously colourful Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque, otherwise known as the Pink Mosque because of the hue of its ornate tiling. This became the scene of another frenzy of photography and it was here that I noticed that my new chum, Tony, was taking more pictures than I was. I was pleased rather than envious about this as I often worry that people think I’m some sort of nerdy anorak when it comes to shutter action. I am some sort of nerdy anorak but only in terms of the lyrics of songs by S Club 7 and the names of non league football grounds.
Despite the day having been another very busy one, we had a fair bit of free time to ourselves in the evening. So Jo, Liz, Andy and I walked miles through busy streets awash with Shirazis doing their evening shopping and promenading. We were in search of a suitable cheap and cheerful fast food outlet where there would be tables to sit at and where we could see the food we were ordering because none of us had a bloody clue what to ask for. After an hour of tramping the pavements and dodging the psychopathic traffic we ended up at a slightly more up market slow food outlet directly opposite the front entrance of our hotel and there we ate like Shahs.
Such an outing on any other trip would, I was sure, have involved the drinking of some alcohol. A glass of cold beer at the very least. So, no matter what we talked about, the conversation generally came back round to alcohol. Liz confessed to having had the temptation to drink her nail varnish remover.
I must stress that I loved every second that I spent in that little restaurant, except for the bit in the gents where I turned the tap on too far when I was washing my hands and the water splashed all over my trousers so it looked as though I’d weed myself. Being so far from home, in a busy city, on a warm night, where everything was so completely different to what I was accustomed to and with three lovely people and experienced travellers who I had known for less than forty eight hours was my ideal way to spend holiday time. It’s strange but I often feel like I’m only in my comfort zone when I am out of my comfort zone. These were special moments indeed.
But as well as it being a successful evening on the food and socialising front, I also managed to put to bed two other problems that had been taking the edge off the trip a bit for me. First of all I discovered that if, when trying to cross what I would call Hades but what a level headed Iranian person would call a busy street, it was a jolly good idea to adopt an Iranian family and to tag along with them. They seemed to be quite good at making sure their kids weren’t mashed to a pulp by a lorry so I found that if I crossed the thoroughfare just a couple of feet behind them I had a decent chance of avoiding a horrible death on most occasions.
The second thing I had been struggling with was money. I had bought U.S. Dollars in Britain to change into Rials in Iran and, whatever you converted into whatever, the word ‘million’ always had to be included in the dealings. Any road, I worked out on the calculator on my mobile phone (which pleased me as there is little else you can use a mobile phone for in Iran) that ten thousand Rials was about sixty two pence. Simple eh?
So after a delicious meal we went back to the hotel where Mahtab wasn’t waiting in the foyer but they were showing Tottenham Hotspur versus Newcastle United on telly. They must have known at the I.T.V. (Iran Television) scheduling department that Spurs fan, Mike from Essex would have been staying there that week. I had visions of Mahtab turning up to see me on her blind date in her posh party chador, seeing that the match was being televised and grumbling, “Football, football, football. All we get is bloody football.” as she turned around and went back home to watch Middle Eastenders.
We went back to our rooms and I wrote in this book for an hour. I would have loved there to have been an earthquake on any of my trips abroad. I’d only want a minor one mind, because I’m a bit of a coward and it definitely couldn’t be in Britain because I’m also quite selfish and I wouldn’t have wanted structural damage to my own house. Perhaps I had just got it lodged so firmly in my noddle that there might be an earthquake while I was in Iran that I thought I felt one or perhaps my body was just shaking with the need for a drink. But I was sure that, as I was sitting there writing, I felt a couple of slight tremors.
Holiday Disappointments – No 4
I stuck my Shiraz postcards in my book in the wrong order. I get a bit too excited about these trips sometimes and just get carried away with myself.
Amazing Holiday Facts – No 3
There were old Hillman Hunter cars everywhere I looked. Andy said that when they stopped making them in Britain in the 1970s they sold the whole production line to Iran. I now wished that I’d hung onto my Electric Blue model (I think David Bowie bought it eventually). That was my very first car and the one in which I had most of my driving lessons and the one I drove around in without a valid M.O.T. certificate for two months after passing my test simply because I didn’t know what an M.O.T. certificate was. Apparently it’s nothing at all to do with the Leeds United squad’s 1972 top ten hit single Marching On Together, but it should be. I reckon that it shouldn’t matter what state your car is in as long as you can sing a couple of verses of that rock anthem.
I wondered if Mahtab knew the words to any Leeds United songs.
Holiday Disappointments – No 5
In a bit of a Tony Bennett moment, I left my shoes in Tehran. Farzaneh phoned the hotel we had stayed at to ask them to keep an eye out for them and keep them safe until we returned at the end of the trip. Instinct told me that I would never see them again as Iranian people’s need for Western style shoes was probably much greater than mine and I shouldn’t have been so slack and checked the room properly before we checked out. But I loved those shoes . . . from Clark’s in Chippenham . . . like Crocs but made from leather . . . and so comfortable . . . and reduced in a sale too . . . ah well, never mind.
Day Four – Monday 17th October 2011
This morning we waved Shiraz, the City of Poetry and Mahtab, goodbye and wandered off across the desert in the direction of Yaz’d (not Yazz).
Not long after boarding the coach, Farzaneh’s information stream was in full flow. She gave us the rundown on the general characteristics of people from various cities in her country. Apparently, Tehranis were generous, people from Shiraz were lavish, and the good citizens of Isfahan were a tight with their money like the Scottish. I bet if I hadn’t been on that coach she would have compared them to Yorkshiremen rather than the Scots.
The misunderstanding of the day came early on too. Connie thought Angie said that she had bought her scarf in Iraq (pronounced Eye Rack in the good old U.S. of A.) because it did look quite Eastern and exotic but in actual fact she had bought it in the Tie Rack shop in Southend. Oh, how we laughed!
To bring us back down to earth, Farzaneh told us a bit more about the Eight Years War fought between Iran and Iraq. It came at a very unfortunate time because Iran was just finding its feet in the wake of the Islamic Revolution when Iraq, heavily supported by the U.S.A., attacked. It was an horrific conflict in which the combined number of dead from both sides amounted to more than one and a half million. Since hostilities ceased the relatives of the Iranian dead, who were considered martyrs, have received some benefits such as easier entry into Iranian universities but this has seemed to cause some resentment amongst the families who didn’t lose a loved one in the war. Clerics told the people that the dead would go to Paradise because they were fighting to defend their country so many volunteered to go to the front, including nomads and Armenians. The two countries are friends now because a lot of the Iraqis, especially clerics, went to Iranto escape Saddam’s regime in their own country. And pilgrims from both sides visit each others countries to go to religious shrines and holy places.
Continuing on a serious note, but nowhere near as serious as a holy war, Terry the geologist spent much of the day staring out of the bus window at the stunning mountains and the stark, flat desert between them.
The day comprised largely of bus ride but we did have some very pleasant and interesting stops, so read on if you will.
We stopped at Pasargadae which pre-dated even Persepolis. There we saw the simple but imposing tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, and the remains of several of his palaces, all located in the vast but beautiful Plain of Dasht-e-Morghab.
Here I had the pleasure of bumping into Hassan Marshad, the motor cyclist. I was taking a photograph of his most unusual Honda bike when he came up to me and asked if I would like any information. Not being mechanically minded I worried about what would happen if I said yes but he merely showed me the useful devices he had added to the machine since he had purchased it. Such enhancements included a fire extinguisher, a gas cylinder for inflating his mattress and a windscreen wiper. If ever the Iranian Film Board decides to make its own version of Inspector Gadget then Hassan would be the obvious choice to take the lead role. He later joined us for morning coffee near to the tomb, together with a lovely family of touring Iranians who seemed keen to adorn us with compliments. I didn’t doubt their sincerity but it did feel make me feel a bit uncomfortable as these platitudes reminded me a little of those dished out by Oscar Wilde to the Prince of Wales in the famous Monty Python sketch. I hasten to add that at no point did any of them describe any of us as a stream of bat’s piss, though I wished that they had.
Recognising the need for light heartedness, Hassan told me a joke and drew enough confidence from the fact that I had laughed to enable him to tell it again to the whole group. He did, however, apologise to me first for repeating himself. Hassan’s joke went like this:
If your nose runs and your feet smell, you were born upside down.
More uproarious laughter!
Hassan Marshad . . . man of so many talents.
Our next stop was at another Hassan’s place, which turned out to be a vineyard and Hassan II confessed to having made a little wine, just for family and friends! He also said he was a big fan of Joan Baez. So an all round hippy if you ask me. Farzaneh laid on a picnic under the shade of the cool Iran trees in Hassan’s garden . . . a real desert oasis, miles and miles from anywhere. Naan, cheese, dates, melon, huge sweet tomatoes and Hassan’s wise words made up the perfect lunch.
“The Earth is just one place. If you go to the Moon you cannot see man’s borders on Earth. All men have the same coloured blood.” He said philosophically. This had been a picnic to cherish for a lifetime and I rounded off this most memorable occasion by using a squat toilet for the first time in my life.
We also stopped in Abarkuh to see the ice house there but not the famous four thousand year old cypress tree as Connie had seen it before . . . back in the days when it was a sapling.
The scenery got better and better as we approached Yaz’d and the sun set and Iran bathed in crimson sunlight looked absolutely bloody gorgeous to me. If I had been lifted up at the moment as we drove through the mountains on the approaches to Yaz’d and dropped back home I would still have been able to say that I had enjoyed an absolutely monumental trip. Who needs alcohol and swimming pools?
The Parsian Hotel was very nice. Not luxurious but clean and comfortable and I was never more than a couple of metres away from an electronic knob or switch or lever which never did anything but kept me intrigued and amused nonetheless. Troutfish was served for dinner, as I sat amongst some lovely company at a table beside the ex-swimming pool. Ayatollah Khomeini must have recognised, like my mother, that it is not wise to swim on a full stomach . . . or ever if it should involve baring as much as an ankle or a wrist. At the top of the list of amenities, though, was the minibar in our room. By 7.30 p.m. Andy and I had already amassed a bill running into tens of thousands of Rials on the strength of us each having a can of lemon flavoured Halal non-alcoholic beer. Oliver Reed would have been so proud of us.
Day Five – Tuesday 18th October 2011
This morning at breakfast Farzaneh told us about the problems presented by being a career woman in Iran and how her father, at first, wasn’t happy about the unorthodox way that she wanted to live her life but eventually he had accepted that she was never going to learn to cook and sew like her sisters so he gave her his blessing and told her to crack on with it. Despite what I have heard about the role of women in Iranian culture, Farzaneh seemed to be fairly happy and successful. I was really pleased that we had a female guide on our tour as I suspected a male wouldn’t have told us so much about what the women had to contend with in day to day life. She also talked about problems that exist within relationships and mixed sex platonic friendships. Whenever I visit another country anywhere in the world I always feel that I am lucky, as a British citizen, to be able to take advantage of the freedom that I have and need. But the reason I visit other countries is because I like to see the many things that they are lucky enough to have that we cannot enjoy at home. Our hosts did not have freedom of speech or to travel but neither were they threatened by an excessive crime rate or drug culture.
A very short bus ride took us to the Jameh Mosque which had one of the tallest tiled entrance portals in Iran and was incredibly beautiful from a distance and from close up. It was built in the fifteenth century and I absolutely loved it. In fact, in all my days of wandering I have yet to visit a mosque that I haven’t fallen in love with but this one was a bit special.
Moseying around the courtyard in the mosque I got chatting to a student of architecture, like you do. He was keen to practice his English on me but he practiced his architecture on me too, telling me some of the differences between Western designs and those of Persia. For example, every building in his country was designed to include some sign of life in it, like a small depression in the roof which would fill up with rainwater and from which the birds would be able to drink. He had a huge bandage on his right wrist because he said he, ‘had been doing falling over’ just as Lola would have described a tumble in the hit BBC Television children’s series Charlie and Lola. It seemed like Lola had fans on every continent.
All over the place there were cleverly designed, and not always very old, wind catchers to direct the slightest of breezes into a mosque or house to make it cool. They’re called badgirs in Iran. I said that in Yorkshire they were called cooling towers and sophisticated Mike said that in Essex a wind catcher was more commonly known as a duvet.
For a couple of hours we walked around the almost deserted labyrinth of back streets of the Old City, losing ourselves amongst the myriad of old baked clay buildings. Not only were we in a different land, we were in a different time where only the tangled web of overhead telegraph wires and an abandoned shopping trolley suggested that the twenty first (or more accurately the twentieth) century had arrived.
Amazing Holiday Facts – No 4
According to my Lonely Planet Guide, Yaz’d was the oldest living city on Earth, having been continually inhabited for seven thousand years. I hoped that it would continue to be inhabited for another seven thousand years. Before I went away, people at home in Britain had asked me if it was safe to travel in Iran and would I be afraid? I knew it would perfectly safe be but I had one fear and that was the fear of what might happen to that beautiful country and those beautiful friendly people in the future. As it had said on the side of the tall building in Tehran a few days earlier, ‘Down with the U.S.A.’ for their leaders are the mad men with the nuclear weapons and it is they who are most likely to determine whether human life will continue to exist in Yaz’d for another seven millennia.
I bought a ceramic tile. It was beautiful and the man who sold it to me was the man who had made it. Connie had bought a similar one in a shop just around the corner and paid less for it than I had. She suggested that I had been ripped off but I liked the shop, I liked the man, I liked the tile and I had enjoyed the experience. No one could spoil it for me. Not even Connie.
How beautifully civilised it was to have morning coffee in the beautifully ornate Traditional Hotel in Yaz’d. I sat and talked to Ann (whose eightieth birthday it was today) about her many travels during her lifetime. I looked at this amazing building, drew energy from the location and concluded that I wanted to one day be like Ann . . . or Connie or Tony who were all octogenarians and who all had decades worth of travel stories to tell. I felt as though my life had changed in this way when I was in Cuba but in the seven months since then I had wondered if my dreams were evaporating a little. But today in the courtyard of Yaz’d’s Traditional Hotel they became well and truly cemented as my future and I had an apostrophe frenzy.
The Exodus ‘Journey to Persia’ Posse
Middle (left to right): Me, Mike, Farzaneh, Angie & Alex.
Front (left to right): Tony, Connie, Ann, Jo, Liz & John.
Up on the roof of the Traditional Hotel I saw a skyline adorned with more mosques than I had ever seen in my life before or in all my life all put together. I was up there alone. To merely take a photograph would not have done the scene justice so I recorded a short video on my camera. As I was taking in the panorama the muezzin began the call to prayer. Spine chillingly beautiful and a moment I will treasure forever . . . just me, the mosques, the muezzin and the pigeons.
Today was a full on day not just of mosques but also badgirs, qanats and Zoroastrianism which I enjoyed from start to finish. But there was so much to see and learn I must a must apologise for any detail I have missed, especially to Farzaneh who didn’t miss any of the detail. I felt a bit guilty too for not listening to Farzaneh all of the time but I had to keep wandering away a little to get the best photographs and a holiday’s not a holiday without sharing a few smutty innuendos with fellow travellers while the tour guide is trying to give a serious account of a significant period of her country’s history.
Liz and Jo turned out to be bigger culprits or childish giggling as they brought us crashing back to Western reality during our visit to the premises of the sugar refiner man. There they made crude comments about the phallic shape of the cylindrical blocks of unrefined sugar. I wished that I had been wearing the hejab myself to hide my blushes.
Bash-e Dolat Abad was cool in both senses of the word. It was once the residence of Persian King Karim Khan Zand. Built around 1750 it consisted of a small pavilion in a quiet garden and boasted the tallest badgir in Iran at over thirty three metres. There now, that sounded more like I had been paying attention, didn’t it? Well I thought I’d better as I’d heard a rumour that Farzaneh was going to set a written test at the end of the week.
We ate lunch in a restored hammam which was also cool in both senses of the word. I had a dish called abgusht which comprised of a hot iron crucible containing a lamb and potato stew (rather like Betty’s hotpot in Corrie) in two layers. The first, rather runny layer was decanted off into a bowl and eaten like soup. The second layer was mashed up with a large metal implement resembling a piston rod and eaten with rice from a plate. Well lush it was! Alex and John had camels’ testicles but no one told them. For a starter we all had chilled yoghurt, nut and raisin soup which I have mentioned last because, although lovely, it was more like a dessert than a starter.
To round off a most splendid repast in style, Connie shouted, “Asshole” at the driver of a car that came too close to her just outside the restaurant. Magic moments indeed!
Our next stop on the Zoroastrian Trail was the Towers of Silence. Two towers built on hill tops where the Zoroastrians laid their dead so that the vultures could pick their bones clean, thus preserving the purity of the earth which would not have been possible with a burial. At the foot of the Towers of Silence were the ruined fire temples in which they used to worship. An incredible scene in which Jabba the Hutt wouldn’t have looked out of place. And all so close to the city suburbs too.
Holiday Disappointments – No 6
The old man with the donkey who apparently always sat by the entrance to the Towers of Silence didn’t have his donkey with him today. When we asked him where it was he said it was sleeping. But Farzaneh’s much used throat slitting hand gesture to denote death told us the true story.
The final monument of the day of many monuments was Ateshkadeh housing the Zoroastrian eternal flame that had been burning continuously since 470 A.D. It was refuelled constantly with branches from apricot trees. Mike said it was like Trigger’s broom (as seen in television sitcom Only Fools and Horses) and I suppose he was right.
I’ve been to bazaars before and they’ve always been crap. In fact, shopping in any form has always been crap as far as I could make out. But the bazaar in Yaz’d was quite fascinating. Miles and miles of tunnels and arches crammed with Persian wares and hundreds of Persian people out with their Persian shopping lists and Yaz’d Bazaar imprinted Bags For Life.
My shopping list was as follows:
Black cloth for making chadors
Pots and pans
Knife block in the shape of a man
Crappy plastic toys
And they had all of it in stock!
Outside the bazaar we bumped into a man who was getting married in the morning, and his blushing bride, and his mother in law, and the bridesmaids. We took photographs of various computations of family and guests but we weren’t invited to either their stag or hen night, much to our disgust.
Dinner was enjoyed by the pool at our hotel once again. It took about half an hour to eat it and an hour to pay for it as we flapped and fannied about with copious piles of indistinguishable banknotes and the counting fingers of every member of the population of Yaz’d. I was glad I wasn’t the only one in our group that had trouble understanding the Rials, Tomans and Dollars problem. I just called all the available currencies and denominations Bimbats and let the Iranian man at the till each time take whatever he needed from my wallet.
A 12p bank note.
Go to Desperately Seeking Mahtab - Part 2