Desperately Seeking Mahtab - Part 2

Iran, October 2011

 

Playing Happy Persian Families.

Day Six – Wednesday 19th October 2011

 

I woke up with a headache today. I must have had one too many of those lemon flavoured non-alcoholic malt based drinks (i.e. one) the night before. But my heart went out to the bloke we met in the bazaar who was getting married. I bet he felt like shit this morning.

 

Today was another big bus day which began, as ever, straight after an early breakfast. Big bus days meant lots of desert too and quite a bit of the scenery today was just a touch on the monotonous side though there were intermittent points of interest such as broken down trucks, drive-in highway mosques, old abandoned fortresses, ancient looking dwelling places, interesting looking but indecipherable graffiti, and far off across a dusty plain we saw a flock of camels. The Police Stations, of which there were many, always looked quite interesting too. At these we had to stop every couple of hours for Kevan the driver to get his log book stamped in a tacographic kind of way. I was quite touched by the fact that the Iranian Police, despite having a reputation bordering on harsh, considered our safe passage through their country to be paramount. I was tempted to take a photograph of one of their billets but on the Exodus ‘Journey to Persia’ itinerary the timings were a bit too tight to fit in a diplomatic incident.

 

We also saw a power station but nuclear enrichment was an aspect of Persian life that we weren’t scheduled to cover. And besides, I had been to many power stations before in Britain (a hobby I don’t share with many) so I knew that once you’ve bought uranium in one power station gift shop you’ve just about done it in them all.

 

I gave my iPod a good blast of rock legends Shahram Nazeri, The Kamkars, Chengis Mehdipour and my old favourites Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Akbar Morsedi as the bus sped across what was arguably one of the world’s biggest beaches. I searched through some of my Western music for some appropriate lyrics to scribble in this journal but unfortunately I didn’t have Take Me I’m Yours by Squeeze and I couldn’t remember them off by heart apart from the opening lines that go:

 

I’ve come across the desert to greet you with a smile.

My camel looks so tired it’s hardly worth my while.

 

Actually I had decided to learn the Quran off by heart as doing so seemed to pull a few strings in those parts. So far all I had managed was:

 

In the name of Allah the Merciful Beneficent.

 

Rock the Casbah by the Clash was a little too confrontational and I couldn’t make the words out anyway, and Maria Muldaur’s Midnight at the Oasis words were just too drippy for words.

 

By late morning our cavalcade had rolled into the slumbering town of Na’in, an important transit point at the geographical centre of Iran and the start of the desert road to Tabas and Mashad.

 

In downtown Na’in we visited the tenth century Jameh Mosque which had no iwan (an arched entrance) and apparently was especially noted for its fine mihrab (a niche or depression indicating the direction of Mecca) and beautiful stucco decoration. The nearby old baked clay traditional houses and fortress were fascinating to look at and walk among but it was such a shame that no effort was being made preserve these things. Iran had no Ministry of Tourism, no shortage of such magnificent structures and no interest in securing their existence for future generations of foreign tourists to gawp at and take photographs.

 


 

Holiday Disappointments – No 7

 

Just as the Persepolis experience was tainted for Mike and I by our in depth discussion of Leeds United, thanks to a lot of help from Mike and the wealth of jokes stored in his brain, I will never be able to think of the beautiful town of Na’in without thinking of Tommy Cooper.

 


 

Further along the way we stopped in the village of Rafsanjan where we visited the simple workshop of a weaver. An eighty year old man still wrapped up in his work, quite literally, sat in a hole behind his archaic loom and answered our questions about his life and weaving via Farzaneh. During his working life my travelling companion, Tony, had crossed continents selling textile manufacturing machinery but he had to admit that his wares weren’t as state of the art as our host’s. Listening to Farzaneh talking to him in Farsi was amazing. I could have listened to them all day. It was like music. In fact I decided there and than that as soon as I got back to my Wiltshire Wilderness home I was going to book up on a course of evening classes in Farsi at Chippenham College. The Farsi became even more intense when we were joined by the weaver’s daughter. She certainly wasn’t shy. And then, when Mrs Weaver the weaver’s wife appeared as we went outside there was an absolute Farsi frenzy. I was quite surprised that these two Moslem ladies allowed us to take their photographs. For all their strict Islamic ways, the girls liked a bit of fun in Iran.

 

Another fabulous lunch was presented before us at the Na’in Tourist Inn in Na’in. I had lemon barley soup (Robinson’s I presumed) followed by stewed beef with raisin rice. Saliva continued to drip from my drooling jowls as I wrote this and memories of the richness of the fare came flooding back.

 

Jo told me about all her travels over lunch. By that I meant that while we were eating she told me of her travels, not that she had been travelling while we had been eating. So there was another person for me to be in awe of. It’s so strange that when I am back in Britain people I know consider me to be some sort of great adventurer but when I go travelling I meet such wonderful people whose globetrotting trotters I don’t feel worthy to pare the callosities from.

 

Two more hours followed in the bus across the desert. Despite this having been something that I knew about before I even booked my place on the trip it was the aspect of my Persian experience that I was least happy with. Still, a numb bum is worth putting up with if it’s the only way to get to a place as spectacularly beautiful as Esfahan.

 

I nearly didn’t get off the bus on our arrival in Esfahan, well not alive anyway. While I was standing in the aisle waiting to disembark I was just about to take a photograph of an amusing English translation of a verse from the Quran when it was pointed out to me that the plaque it was written on was fixed to a fence at the other side of which were armed guards patrolling a government building. Even though I was brought up in Leeds there are still a few people in the world I am afraid of and the Brothers Kalashnikov were amongst them so I took my finger off my shutter release button and went off to change my underpants.

 

Seconds later I was nearly involved in another near death experience as Rajid the taxi driver drove us through the crowded streets of Esfahan at lightning speed, narrowly missing a multitude of pedestrians, motor cycles, buses, cars, lamp posts, monuments, dogs and lollipop ladies. He was going so fast that Andy’s bag fell out of the boot onto the road so he had to do a handbrake turn, drive over the central reservation of the boulevard, shout back louder at an angry policeman in a police car than the policeman had shouted at him and then double his velocity to catch up with the other three taxis in our cavalcade once he had retrieved his lost cargo. And all this took place because, as it had been at the Golestan Palace in Tehran, it wasn’t safe to try to get our bus through the mad throng of city traffic.

 


 

Amazing Holiday Facts – No 5

 

There were millions of Hillman Hunters in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Actually the name for them there was Paykan, which is a Farsi word meaning arrow and they were all made inIran. My Lonely Planet Guide (which was almost, but not quite, as knowledgeable as Farzaneh) said that for thirty five years the Paykan was almost the only car you’d see on Iranian roads. They were replicas of the 1966 Hillman Hunter, an uninspiring vehicle if ever there was one. What a thing to say, I thought. Cheeky git! My first ever car was a Hillman Hunter and Farzaneh learnt to drive in a Paykan too. For these reasons I will love them forever and every sighting of one was a soppy trip down memory lane for me. The taxi ride in Rajid’s Paykan had been an extremely special moment and not just because I had feared that it would be my last ever taxi ride.

 


 

The Setaneh Hotel was the ‘Hotel of the Trip’ competition winner by a million miles. Just like myself it was stylish but not quite luxurious so I felt well and truly at home there. The mere fact that there was a tin of pineapple chunks in the minibar won it for me. As well as being a little more plush than the other hotels we had stayed in it had a unique ambiance and elegance and a gorgeous young receptionist with a lovely smile and a big scar on her face and it had very comfy leather sofas in the foyer where you could sit and sip coffee and watch Central Asia and its wife go by.

 

Imam Square in Esfahan is the second largest square in the world, surpassed only by Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Farzaneh had been doing such a good job that I didn’t like to tell her that it was more of a rectangle than a square. Perhaps I should have done because; if Tiananmen Square really was geometrically square then Imam Square surely must have been the biggest rectangle in the world.

 

Any road, whatever the shape, I went walkabout with Liz and Andy in the evening. Liz was so funny in the way that she kept saying ‘so funny’ when anybody else would have laughed. I wondered if that when she was sending text messages she wrote SF instead of LOL to express her level of amusement.

 

Just when I felt I needed a cup of tea a young Iranian gentleman asked us where we were from and if we would like to visit his tea shop. Funnily enough, the tea shop turned out to be a carpet shop but, in his defence, he did keep to his promise and provided us with a cup of tea each. With none of us really in need of a carpet we sat there for a while feeling a bit awkward and then one of the young proprietors came out with the remark of the trip so far.

 

He said, “Have you never been in a carpet shop before?” So we must have looked as awkward as we felt. But the staff there were all lovely, friendly people striving to make a new business succeed to the extent that I was tempted to buy one of their sodding (but very beautiful) carpets even though I didn’t really want one. To get out of the place without appearing ungrateful or ungracious we had to promise to buy a carpet from them the next time we were passing and that we would tell all our friends about their fine emporium and that we would put a Fatwah on Allied Carpets in Britain to reduce their overseas competition. I felt a bit mean really as Allied Carpets had already gone out of business months earlier.

 

Gianfranco Zola is alive and well and weaving carpets in Esfahan.

 

By dark, with its lovely fountains and its two mosques, Imam Square all lit up and fancy was one of the most spectacular city scenes I have ever set my eyes upon. The palace and the bazaar were quite beautiful too. Miles and miles of bazaar type tunnels extended from their entrances on the square back to god knows where, which was impressive in itself but the array of wares on display was quite incredible. Some tat but mainly good, well made, hand made, unusual stuff and all too big and bulky to fit into a suitcase. There was also some mild but friendly persuasion to buy but no full on hustling or pestering.

 

We had some gooey egg plant, onion and garlic gunge, the name of which escapes me, to eat. We ate it in the square. A sort of night time picnic, just like the Iranian folks were having. The gunge didn’t look all that clever but it tasted top tasty. Andy was keen to introduce us to falafel so we went to a non-alcoholic beer and falafel bar where we shared the biggest butty ever made, washed down with lashings of cantaloupe flavoured alcohol free lager.

 

Our bellies full, we sauntered off for a bit more bashing about the square which, by then, I had become totally smitten with.  Most of the shops, except for those that sold Gaz (nougat) had closed for the night. I suppose the Gaz shops must have had some sort of late licence.

 

Some Iranian ladies sitting on the grass by the fountains kept shouting at us. All a bit of fun, I thought, as they were laughing as much as they were shouting. But then an Iranian man came up to us and apologised for their ‘cheap jokes’. My only regret was that I hadn’t understood what they were saying as I enjoy nothing more than a cheap joke. Though this may have been for the best as I would have been upset if they had been poking fun at Leeds United’s appalling defensive record.

 

Back at the hotel we marvelled at the lift music (it seemed like there was someone in there with us playing a concert grand piano) and the lady’s voice saying ‘third floor’ and ‘have a nice day’ in English and in Farsi (I think). Then I went back down to the foyer for a cup of sweet, milky coffee (just as I can’t stand it) and wrote in my journal without disturbing my room mate Andy who had a lot of pineapple chunks to get through and needed to be alone. As I sat and wrote, occasionally looking up to observe the people who were wandering into the hotel from the darkness of the Persian night, I felt totally at peace with the world. I reckoned I could put up with the awful coffee if I’d been allowed to stay there forever.

 

And then, eventually, I went off to bed to dream of Persian ladies with lovely smiles and big scars on their faces and Leeds United beating Doncaster Rovers six nil. I didn’t find out the real result until I had returned to England but, in reality, Leeds won three nil so part of my dream came true, which was nice.

 


 

Day Seven – Thursday 20th October 2011

 

I started writing about this day with a degree of trepidation as it was such an eventful one. I saw so many interesting things and met so many interesting people and I didn’t want to miss a single detail about such a brilliant day, though those bits I forgot to write about will never be forgotten in my impressionable little mind.

 

Well, top of the list of good news today was the fact that we didn’t have to spend any time at all on the bus. So Kevan the driver could have a day in the bar chucking back the cantaloupe alcohol free beer with his mates and I didn’t have to fret over the struggle to take photographs through dusty, reflection infested windows as we drove over bumps as bumpy as a badger’s bumpy bits. Also, my arse didn’t get numb and sweaty once today.

 

Our walking tour of Esfahan began at the Chehel Sotun Palace which was built as a pleasure pavilion and reception hall and dated back to 1614, though what we saw was what had been rebuilt after a fire in 1706. Farzaneh told us what a nasty piece of work Shah Abbas I had been, which wasn’t really evident from the scenes in the magnificent frescoes that adorned the walls and depicted scenes mostly of parties and picnics. The inclusion of Turkish dancing girls in the later frescoes suggested that Shah Abbas II (his son, coincidentally) was a bit more down with the kids on the street.

 

I began to suspect that Angie was getting a bit fed up of me because I kept talking to Mike about football and distracting him from the job of digesting information about Persian monuments and monarchs. I thought that perhaps I should start talking to someone else about football but who else in Esfahan would have been on my wavelength. Most of the local people that I spoke to had heard of Leeds United but none of them understood the pain and the passion. Which leads me on to . . .

 


 

Amazing Holiday Facts – No 6

 

At least half a dozen of the Iranian people that I spoke to today knew of the existence of Leeds United. Whenever they started a conversation with me they always asked where I was from. When I told them I was English they would ask me which town in England I was from. For simplicity’s sake (the real story of my nomadic life is a bit complicated) I always told them I was from Leeds and not surprisingly as they are (potentially) the greatest football club in the world, their response was usually, “Ah, Leeds United” which made me feel all proud and soppy.

 


 

Amazing Holiday Facts – No 7

 

The once popular Iranian car, the Paykan, was manufactured on a massive scale from the design of the 1966 Hillman Hunter. The Hillman Hunter was named after Norman ‘bites yer legs’ Hunter who played in the great Leeds United side of the 1960s and 1970s. The Rootes Group also manufactured cars called the Hillman Bremner, the Hillman Lorimer, the Hillman Giles and the lesser known Hillman Haddock.

 


 

A magical holiday moment was meeting a squad of Esfahani school children at the entrance to Chadar Bagh in Imam Square. Over a thousand(ish) beaming little brown eyed faces all wanting to practice their English and have their photographs taken. One little seven-year-old with attitude asked me if I could speak Farsi. Good on the girl . . . I bet she doesn’t end up working in Tesco’s.

 

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, halfway upImam Square, built between 1602 and 1619 during the reign of that old rascal, Shah Abbas I was stunningly beautiful but I knew that it would be even before I stepped inside it. They always are in Iran.

 

The Imam Mosque at the southern end of Imam Square was equally beautiful but much larger and with a portal built at a bit of an angle to the main mosque so as to fit in with the design of the rest of the square. So although the portal was built to face the square, the mosque was oriented towards Mecca. I wondered which way the mosques that were actually in Mecca were oriented.

 


 

Holiday Disappointments – No 8

 

I completely misread my Lonely Planet Guide. I was sure that it had said that I could expect to see a lot of minibars in Iran but really it said minbars. A minbar is a pulpit in a mosque and a minibar is where tins of pineapple chunks are kept. Silly me!

 


 

The day, I felt, was really turning into a Shah Abbas I theme day as we climbed the steps to the elevated terrace of the sixteenth century Ali Qapu Palace. Ali Qapu means ‘Gate of Ali’. I made a mental note to tell that to my mate Alison when I got home. She’d be so pleased. The climb up the steep steps was well worth the trouble though, as the views across the square and in the opposite direction towards the mountains were incredible. Here I had one of my ‘don’t want to go home’ moments and wondered about the possibility of renting a room to lodge in at the Ali Qapu Palace. More steep, windy stairs took us up to the top floor music room with no views, or music, but a gorgeous ceiling.

 

Readers of this book in England need to pay particular attention to this paragraph. The food in Iran was absolutely, mouth wateringly delicious. Apart from one mouldy grape in Shiraz and the lack of a tin opener to get into the pineapple chunks in the Esfahani Setaneh Hotel, I had thoroughly enjoyed every last morsel that I had eaten. But the chicken with plums and rice at the Bastani restaurant near the Imam Mosque really hit the mother of all spots. I couldn’t really eat all of it but, displaying great perseverance and intense reluctance to waste any part of such a magnificent dish, I managed to force every last bit down and then spent the rest of the day wobbling around the city like Tinky Winky. Readers of this book from outside of England / the United Kingdom need to know that Tinky Winky is a legend of children’s television and a fat git.

 

Now I hate to moan about fellow travellers. In fact I’m not moaning. I’m just telling it as it happened. But as we walked past Flying Carpet, everybody’s favourite carpet outlet and tea shop, one of our friends who we had met during the previous evening’s Persian retail therapy experience suggested that we might go inside to have a look at their fine selection of floor coverings. Our American travelling companion replied that she wouldn’t go in because their carpets ‘weren’t very nice.’ I loved the bloke’s response. He said, “Thank you for respecting our culture.” What a star. Liz went back and apologised to him on rude Connie’s behalf. Liz was another star.

 

And then Farzaneh said we could have the rest of the day off. I had really enjoyed the company of my Exodus friends but I also enjoy a bit of time on my own. So, once liberated, I was off like a rat up a minaret to the far away CD shop in the shopping precinct opposite the famous Abassi Hotel which took me fifteen minutes to walk to and the CD shop was the only shop in the entire precinct that was closed. The man in the book shop next door gave me a cup of tea, tried to sell me a book about Persian carpets and told me that the lazy CD shop owner would probably turn up for work at about 5.00 p.m.

 

So I turned back and wandered the lovely boulevards in the warm Esfahani sunshine. For me there is no greater feeling in the world than being free to explore a city thousands of miles from home all by myself. Love it! Love it! Love it!

 


 

Amazing Holiday Facts – No 8

 

There is no Amazing Holiday Fact No 8.

 


 

Just like the twelve inch extended disco mix of Two Tribes by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the Bazaar-e Bozorg went on and on for what seemed like eternity. I spent most of the afternoon exploring its tunnels and alleys, marvelling over the vast array of goods on sale there (a large majority of which were hand made) and talking to its wonderfully welcoming and hospitable traders.

 

Top of the friendly traders’ league was enamel man Elias. I felt as though he should have been putting more pressure on me to buy something from his shop but really he just wanted a good old chinwag. I bought a blue enamelled copper vase from him but he was almost as crap at haggling as I was so we soon arrived at a mutually acceptable price and then he put the kettle on for a brew. I was sorry to say goodbye to Elias but Esfahan was a big place and I only had one afternoon at my disposal. So many emporia, so little time!

 

A couple of doors along from Elias another proprietor asked me where I was from etc. He told me he had never heard of Leeds but he had a friend who lived in Luton. He had never been to England but his friend had told him in letters that Luton was a very beautiful place and one day he would like to go there. In fact he said he would like to go anywhere in the United Kingdom except Manchester. He didn’t like the people from Manchester because he couldn’t understand them on account of their ‘thick voices.’ I told him I was going to set my friend Liz on him. He seemed quite pleased at the prospect.

 

Further along the bazaar I found the real life Tin Pan Alley where dozens of people were clattering away with hammers making real life pots and pans. Then I got lost. Stalls selling fruit, vegetables, spices, shoes, toys, jewellery, carpets and chadors gave way to eerie dark arches of shops selling automotive parts, gas canisters and corrugated iron sheeting which in turn gave way to small courtyards which, despite being out in the open, provided no through route back to Imam Square or the streets. I didn’t panic. I just kept walking and eventually I came to a sack of walnuts that I recognised from earlier in the afternoon and I knew then that I was back on track.

 

A man in a security sort of uniform told me he was a policeman and then asked me if I’d like to go into his brother’s shop to buy some glassware. I declined but asked, after a short introductory conversation (I had established that he was a big Leeds United fan), if I could take his photograph to which he agreed. Taking photographs of government buildings or people in positions of authority could cause the photographer big problems in Iran so I was delighted that he had gone along with my request. He grabbed a passing boy of about eight or ten years to stand beside him as I took my picture. I asked him if the boy was his son. He replied that he had no idea who he was but that he had looked as though he would enjoy having his photograph taken.

 

By this time I was ready to return to the square to take some sunset photos and to listen to the fantastically haunting call of the muezzin. But I missed both as I engaged myself in an hour long discussion with a couple of teenagers about the contrasting politics, culture, weather and price of petrol in our respective countries. The time I spent with these two interesting, charming and respectful kids was absolutely priceless. They were called Ali and Saied and they wrote in my book for me.

 ali & saied 2

The wise words of Ali and Saied.

 

I momentarily broke off from my walking tour of Esfahan to send a reassuring text message to my holiday insurance underwriters advising them that I should live until there is any flower.

 

En route to the CD shop for the second time I was accosted by another carpet salesman looking for someone to have a natter with over a cuppa tea. I told him I was off to buy some CDs of Iranian traditional music so he offered to give me some advice on what to look for. He recommended the work of Shajarian who was very popular in Europe. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that I had already downloaded some of his music onto my iPod. A little bit of politics, a little bit of “Where do you live?” and a little bit of “Ah, Leeds United” and I was on my way again.

 

This time the CD shop was open for business. The CD shop man knew exactly what I was looking for and played a few tracks for me to listen to. All good stuff and dead cheap too. A major success and a welcome addition to my ever expanding music collection.

 

My new purchases were Leyla Khatoun by Tahmoures Pournazeri and Zakhmeh by Farhang Sharif, but nothing by S Club 7.

 


 

Amazing Holiday Facts – No 9

 

I missed the call to prayer because I was busy talking to Ali and Saied. I had wanted to record it on my mobile phone and use it as my ring tone. Saied said he would email it to me. Loads more conversations with Iranian people later I found myself in a Gaz shop trying to buy sweets for my lovely children back in Britain and the Netherlands from two men who spoke no English. I tried to tell them that our Seán didn’t like nuts in the hope that they’d be able to come up with a suitable alternative to their Gaz / nougat malarkey for him. The only way they could even attempt to do this was by giving me a sample of everything they had in the shop, the lion’s share of which did contain nuts and the rest of which just didn’t taste very nice but I didn’t tell them this in case they thought I was related to Connie. There were no other types of sweet shops in the whole of Iran so in the end I settled for a couple of boxes of their sixty percent cut (referring to the pistachio content, this being the purest that money could buy) for my daughters and thought I’d just get a big bar of Dairy Milk at Chippenham station on the way home for the lad . . . I was sure he’d never know the truth.

 


 

Holiday Disappointments – No 9

 

Usually whilst on holiday I’m the top photograph taker but there in Iran I was no match for Tony. With his finger permanently poised over his shutter release button, he was a snap happy legend. He had taken so many photographs that he had a callus on the apex of his index finger. With slightly more than eleven hundred images under my belt I was going to finish a very poor second to Telephoto Tony.

 


 

Amazing Holiday Facts – No 10

 

Most of the young women in Iran looked a lot like Amy Winehouse except they weren’t covered in tattoos and they weren’t dead. I strongly suspected that there was no reason for anyone trying to make them go to rehab . . . no, no, no!

 


 

And finally, a late night writing session in the Setareh Hotel coffee shop, as by then had become tradition, and a lovely smile from the receptionist with a lovely smile and a big scar on her face.

 

After Shah Abbas the Great, Farzaneh the Guide was the star of our show. I wrote her a letter on Setareh Hotel notepaper and put it in with the tip that I gave her. I hoped that she would one day take me up on my offer as I quite fancied being a tour guide despite the fact that there were no mosques in Chippenham . . . yet!

 


 

Day Eight – Friday 21st October 2011

 

Today began with a little plastic carton of carrot jam. I can’t recall that ever having happened before in my life. I spread it on a piece of naan. I loved that naan with breakfast idea. It didn’t fit very well into the pop up toaster but nevertheless it was truly scrumptious.

 

 

Carrot jam.

 

The Jameh Mosque, a short bus ride from the hotel, for me won the ‘Mosque of the Trip’ competition. The whole building, with four contrasting iwans and a magnificent ablutions fountain in the centre of the courtyard, was stunningly beautiful. But the fact that the north and south iwans were built in the eleventh century made visiting this place an unbelievable experience. It was just about impossible to take a bad photograph there. The enormous magpies flying around the minarets made it even more photogenic. I had a great deal of photographic evidence in this respect. However, despite the monument’s phenomenal age and beauty, like many places we had visited in Iran, it had some very dodgy light fittings. These were often very ornate, sometimes even chandeliers, but always fitted with a dozen or more low energy light bulbs and each of a different size and shape. They were works of art in their own right and a fusion of contemporary and modern in the sphere of illumination.

 

 

Magpies and minarets at the Jameh Mosque.

 

The Vank Cathedral in the Armenian quarter of Esfahan caused a great deal of infantile sniggering amongst the infantile members of our group, especially considering that our wonderful guide lady always pronounced a ‘W’ as a ‘V’. Good job it wasn’t the other way around, eh? The frescos on the interior of the church were superior to any that I had ever seen before. Particularly the one depicting Heaven, Earth and Hell. The Hell bit looked even more sinister than I could imagine Hell to be myself. I decided that perhaps I would prefer to spend all eternity with Cliff Richard after all. The saddest thing was that we weren’t allowed to take photographs and they didn’t sell postcards. On the way out I discovered that video recording was permitted provided that an official permit was purchased from the Cathedral shop beforehand. That would have been perfect. I would have got photos of tormented souls with blood spewing from their bottoms and I’d have got something official to stick in my journal.

 

This being too good to miss or forget, I stole a picture from the World Wide Web when I got home.

 vank 2

Vank Cathedral’s Heaven, Earth and Hell fresco.

 

By way of consolation I did manage to purchase a CD of traditional Armenian music, much to the amusement of some of my less sophisticated travelling companions and the rather startled man who worked in the gift shop where I bought it.

 

Next up was a visit to three beautiful old Esfahani bridges which spanned the broad majestic baked mud where the Zayandeh River used to flow before it was redirected to supply a series of reservoirs many miles away. Ever optimistic, I hired a pedalo and sat in it, waiting for the tide to come in. This day being the Moslem Sabbath, all my Islamic friends were off work and gathered in the parks on the banks of the sun parched mud. The parks, however, were very green and flowery and everywhere I looked there were people having picnics, flying kites or just enjoying the hot autumn sunshine.

 

Lunch today took place at the famous Abassi Hotel, opposite my CD shop. When I had seen it the day before I couldn’t work out why it was famous because it seemed to be just another brick building, like those in Tehran that bore a remarkable resemblance to Barking Town Hall. But once inside I was hit by the full impact of its majestic splendour and a chicken sandwich to die for. I also had my first ice tea of the trip which turned out to be just cold ordinary tea in a posh glass but the opulence of the surroundings more than made up for it. It was in that very hotel that leaders of the OPEC nations had met for cups of cold tea and a chicken butties as they held the world to ransom over crude oil prices.

 

I had another of my ‘can’t believe I’m here’ moments as it really was such a beautiful place. Also I had never, at any point of my adventure, disliked any of the members of our group but by this point we seemed to have all really got to know each other well and Farzaneh too, so we were more like a group of old friends than mere travelling companions. This really was the date on top of the date and walnut cake of what had already been a marvellous trip. A lunch of style and hilarity that I will always remember as long as I am alive.

 

Full as a gun with nice chicken and ice tea, I waddled off down to the hotel bookshop to buy more postcards which I never had any intention of sending. I always just stick them in my journal for sentimental reasons. I would have scanned them all and included them in this blog but there were so many and there were website memory limitations to worry about, so I didn’t.

 

One of the cards on sale literally caught my eye and I couldn’t resist buying it. The picture on it was of a Moslem lady posing topless. She was pouting for the camera too! I was shocked but I had to buy it. I showed it to Liz and we giggled together. I went to the cash desk to pay for it and had to hand it over to a very attractive, sophisticated looking and well spoken Moslem lady shop assistant so suddenly I felt very embarrassed. Even though the picture must have been painted hundreds of years ago and was really quite innocent, under the circumstances I felt like a dirty old man buying pornography from the top shelf of a grubby little newsagent’s shop (again). It is a Moslem custom for a man to not make eye contact with a woman so, by adhering to the ways of my hosts and lovely hostess, I managed to survive the sordid experience.

 

Esfahani porn.

 

And then Liz went out into the lush and bounteous hotel garden and told everyone in our group who were gathered there about what I had bought. So, lovely ladies, particularly Ann and Farzaneh, with whom I would never dream of discussing anything rude, suddenly wanted to peruse my purchases. My reputation was in tatters but everyone laughed (at my expense) so there had at least been some point in my turning up on this trip.

 

Our tour of Esfahan, a city with which I had fallen in love, was drawing to a close. All that remained was a drive out to another fire temple on the outskirts of town which looked as though it was not all that difficult to climb up as ladies in chadors were scaling it but, despite the promise of a fantastic view from the top we had to give it a miss because we were booked in for the four o’clock showing of the Shaking Minarets.

 

Several people complained that the Shaking Minarets were a big disappointment but I loved them. Really the attraction was just a fat Iranian bloke standing at the top of one of the minarets at the fourteenth century tomb of Abu Abdullah and shaking his huge arse about so vigorously that both minarets began to shake (not sheikh) too. Some of our party had expected something a bit more spiritual. I had expected something a bit more Shakin’ Stevens so I was quite pleased that this relatively upmarket affair outmatched my expectations. If only the mosque had had a green door my holiday objectives would have been well and truly met. Good or not, it stimulated our conversation to the extent that we discovered new depths of sarcasm for several hours afterwards. In fact, we were still talking about it almost until the point when Mike stopped clicking his fingers and singing This Ole House (by the baggage collection carousel at Heathrow Airport).

 

Then we were dropped off back near Imam Square and I went walkabout on my Todd again to buy a saffron ice cream (lush), to wriggle out of buying some more postcards, and to record the call to prayer from the Imam Mosque on my mobile phone for use in the future as a ring tone and wake up alarm and hopefully irritate the people at home more than I did already. Just as I started recording it the postcard seller man who had been hounding me for a couple of days turned up and asked me again to purchase some of his fine wares. I couldn’t say no as I had been promising him that I would eventually, as soon as Farzaneh gave us some time off and because I had genuinely wanted some. So I quickly completed the deal and had to start my recording again which was spoilt the second time around by the bells on the tourist horse and cart thingies that were parading around the square. But the horses didn’t actually speak or try to sell me anything so I just carried on regardless.

 

The Imam Square after sunset was an absolutely amazing place. With the outline of the mosque silhouetted against the vivid orange sunset, the eerie sound of the Adhan, the hustle and bustle of Iranian passers-by, the fountains sparkling in the fading light, and the mouth watering smell of the Esfahani street food cooking at kiosks on every corner, I cherished every second that I spent sitting there alone and taking it all in so I was deeply saddened when I eventually had to go.

 

On my return to the hotel, Andy told me that Col. Gadaffi had been shot dead near his home town of Sirte. The whole world, according to the BBC, seemed to be really excited about this and, although he had been a horrific bloke, I couldn’t join in the jubilation as I considered the current political situation in Iran and wondered what would happen next in Libya. But no matter what, I knew I would never forget what I had been doing the day that Gadaffi died and how amazing it had been that a Third World dictator had managed to survive in office for forty two years despite having Colin as a first name.

 


 

Day Nine – Saturday 22nd October 2011

 

I had developed a soft spot for Iran from the minute I had arrived there but I fell in love with it while I was in Esfahan (even though I had really struggled not to call Esfahan Estefan . . . move over Gloria love). So driving away from Estefan’s Esfahan’s fair city this morning I felt that heavy heart, gut wrenching end of the holiday feeling. And, as our flight was scheduled to go at 4.00 a.m. the following day, I couldn’t even take comfort from being able to say that we still had one whole day of the trip left.

 

Still, the last day did turn out to be a pretty full one. I always cope better with the abject misery brought on by the thought of a return to England if my last day away from it is packed with fun and adventure to make it memorable.

 

The first few miles of the road to Kashan were rather interesting as they provided striking views of power stations and rock formations (words that I thought would make a good title for my first album when I become a rock star) and lots and lots of desert.

 

I loved the desert and it loved me.

 

I’ve come across the desert

To greet you with a smile.

My camel looks so tired,

It’s hardly worth my while

To tell you of my travels

Across the golden East.

I see your preparations

Invite me first to feast.

 

Take me I’m yours

Because dreams are made of this.

Forever there’ll be

A heaven in your kiss.

 

Amusing belly dancers

Distract me from my wine

(slight inaccuracy . . . what wine?)

Across the Zagros Mountains

Are memories of mine.

I’ve stood some ghostly moments

With natives in the hills

Recorded here on paper

My chills and thrills and spills.

 

It’s really been some welcome

You never seem to change.

A grape to tempt your leisure

Romantic gestures strange.

My eagle flies tomorrow

It’s a game I treasure dear

To seek the helpless future

My love at last I’m here.

 

Take me I’m yours

Because dreams are made of this.

Forever there’ll be

A heaven in your kiss.

 

How amazingly apt those lyrics were. I found them eventually by cheating on the internet. But one thousand thank yous to you Messrs. Difford & Tilbrook.

 

We also passed the world infamous nuclear enrichment plant that the Yankee Doodle Danglies were cakking their kecks over because of this weapons of mass destruction phobia that they’ve got, having made a bit of a mess with a couple of them themselves back in 1945. No one seemed all that bothered as we were clicking away at the place with our cameras. Farzaneh said our schedule was too tight for us to be able to stop and have a look round the gift shop and besides, my Mum’s already got a bit of uranium on her mantelpiece anyway so there’d have been no point.

 

Farzaneh’s catalogue of sweeping generalisations about the characteristics of the inhabitants of Iranian cities continued today when she announced over the public address system on the coach that the people from Kashan were all very timid. She added that in the aftermath of the 2003 earthquake that wiped out the entire city of Bam, killing 26,271 people, the Tehranis sent food and water, the Shirazis sent medicines, the Yaz’dis sent earth moving rescue equipment, the Esfahanis sent tents and blankets and the Kashanis shat their trousers. How refreshing it was to discover that cheap, sick jokes aren’t just confined to my own little world.

 

Farzaneh and me.

 

The Lonely Planet book said that Kashan and its environs had been home to human settlements since at least the fourth century B.C. Apparently archaeologists had established this by carbon dating the many relics of soiled pants that they found when they cleared away the mounds of fossilised human excrement. We only had a couple of hours there as we desperately didn’t want to miss our plane back to Britain and the drudgery of everyday life so we only had fleeting visits to the Tabatabei Residence and Fin Garden.

 

The former was a beautiful house built by a carpet merchant around 1880 with a rabbit nibbling the ornamental cabbages in the garden and a postcard seller who not only wanted to talk to me about Glory Glory Leeds United but also disgraced former hero, Harry Kewell. I spat at the ground and did the throat slitting hand gesture. The postcard seller endorsed my distaste with the Farsi words for Judas scum.

 

The latter of the two venues we visited was put down a bit by our lovely guide for not having many flowers but what they had done there with running water, trees and fish was a joy to behold, far more so than anything any daffodil or dahlia could ever be part of. It was also the place where Amir Kabir (dear dear Amir Kabir), Prime Minister of Iran from 1848, was brutally murdered in the bath house. Farzaneh strangely didn’t use her customary throat slitting hand gesture to emphasise his death, probably because his death was actually caused by his wrists being slit and she hadn’t mastered that hand gesture yet.

 

On the way back to the bus we popped in to see the rose water factory where a duck was swimming around in the stream that cascaded down from the beautiful aquatic features of Fin Garden. The duck had a ridiculous haircut, as if it had a pompom stuck on top of its head. I’m sure it would have made a bit more effort to avoid its bad hair day had it known that so many of us would be taking its photograph. Still, I suppose it got enough pleasure out of its life of swimming around and pooing in the water that was going to be turned into rose water to make up for the embarrassment caused by its iffy quiff.

 

The day, by then, could be described as a proper little wildlife safari what with the rabbit, the fish and the duck. Apart from the scary big magpies and a hare we hadn’t really seen any proper wildlife during the trip.

 


 

Amazing Holiday Facts – No 11

 

On the last day of the trip I found Mahtab in the middle of the desert near Qom. I was so pleased as I’d come across the desert to greet her with a smile. Sadly though, the Mahtab that I found was the Mahtab Service Station on the motorway to Tehran and not the Mahtab Facebook friend. I was absolutely thrilled that such a place had come into my life on the final day of the Desperately Seeking Mahtab tour but a little disappointed that Farzaneh had not been amazed that I had known that Mahtab was the Farsi word for moonlight. My quest for fluency was underway, even though I had a long way to go.

 

Mahtab Services (eat your heart out Tibshelf).

 

Motorway service stations in Iran were much the same as in Britain except that they were called Travellers’ Rest Areas, they had exceedingly nice coffee shops with waiter service and a free chocolate with every cuppa and there were in excess of fifty cubicles in the gents’ lav. And incredibly, though not just in service stations, there was always a queue of people waiting to wash their hands after using the lav . . . a sight I have never seen on British shores.

 


 

Holiday Disappointments – No 10

 

Farzaneh told me that a little bit of Farsi that I had translated for my journal on a translation website before I came away had been a load of old troutfishswallop.

 

I thought I had established that

 

من می دانم که ملت جایی که مردم هستند مردم مهربان و بقیه جهان ، به نظر می رسد راه درازی را ور.

 

meant

 

I know a land where the people are kind and the rest of the world seems far away.

 

But Missy F reckoned that it was a very rude message about what people from Wiltshire get up to with over developed root vegetables. She couldn’t possibly have been making it up!

 


 

Amazing Holiday Facts – No 12

 

I had been so disappointed and whingey, whiney, moany at getting absolutely no Iranian coins in my change during the whole ten days of struggling with this currency that, in the coffee shop at the motorway services, Andy gave me some that he had been given in his change when paying for his coffee. And then Jo gave me some that she had got in her change when paying for her coffee. And then a couple of minutes later a waiter gave me some coins in my change as I paid for my own coffee. And the moral of the story is that one thousand Rial pieces are just the same as Leeds buses, but shinier.

 


 

Amazing Holiday Facts – No 13

 

The holy city of Qom has a website. It is www.qom.com . . . probably!

 


 

Holiday Disappointments – No 11

 

Just a few miles up the road from the Mahtab Moto malarkey, there was a salt lake. The largest salt lake inIran, apparently. However, there was no sign of any salt, no sign of any water, no sign of a city named after it and no sign of those crazy horses, the Osmond Brothers. Come to think of it, the Osmonds would probably have felt quite at home there in the alcohol free oasis that was the Islamic Republic of Iran. Perhaps they might have reconsidered progressing with their nuclear programme if America had threatened to drop Little Jimmy Osmond on them.

 


 

Driving into Tehran on the coach brought a lump to my throat. Farzaneh saying that she couldn’t join us for dinner at our hotel brought a lump to my throat. Chewing a huge piece of pistachio Gaz that Alex had given me brought a lump to my throat. Going up with Andy to the eighth floor terrace of the hotel at sunset to take photographs from exactly the same spot as where we had taken them at breakfast time on the first day brought a massive lump to my throat and a certain moistness to my eye. I really was sure that Iran was a very special place that didn’t deserve the reputation that the West had given it, that I would always speak out in its favour and defence and that one day I would return there.

 

I got another lump in my throat when Farzaneh showed me what she had written in my journal as I sat alone with her in the hotel reception just after she had returned from her home to go with us to the airport. She had taken my book to her house to write in it which was a bit of a bugger because I had had hours to kill waiting in the hotel while most of my travelling companions slept and which would have been the perfect time for a bit of journal writing, especially as my emotions were on such a homeward bound, sad to leave high.

 

But the inconvenience was a blessing really. I spent the bulk of the spare time talking trips with Mike and Angie, those wise old, well travelled ambassadors of Exodus Travels and a dozen other similar tour companies. I spent another hour taking photographs of the complimentary prayer mat in my room. And the words that Farzaneh wrote in the meantime were precious. She was a lovely and wonderful woman who I wanted to take home with me . . . the perfect holiday gift for my children. I hoped that she would visit Britain one day as I really would have loved to have reciprocated her gesture by being her guide. She deserved a bit of travel fun without the hassle of having to show people around places she’d been to a thousand times before and remember when places had been built and burnt down by Alexander the Great. Her life had obviously been tough but she was so very determined to get what she wanted from it and she deserved happiness more than most. Though I did suspect that she was much happier than most other Iranian women.

 farzaneh's words 2

Farzaneh’s words.

 


 

Day Ten – Sunday 23rd October 2011

 

The final lump in my throat came at the airport as we stepped down from our bus for the final time. Farzaneh waited until a policeman had disappeared from the scene before she could give us all a goodbye hug. Physical contact in public between men and women was forbidden in her country. So sad. And then she was gone. Even sadder.

 

I didn’t write about the airport or the journey home because I never do. The holiday is always over at that point. But I will say that I spent the whole of my time on the return flight reflecting upon a wonderful trip in a wonderful country with beautifully friendly people, gorgeous food, amazing architecture, fascinating history, even more fascinating culture, lovely weather, a lovely collection of people in our group and a really special tour guide.

 

Thank you Mike, Angie, Jo, Ann, Alex, John, Andy, Liz, Connie, Tony, Kevan, Farzaneh and all the good people of Iran. It was wonderful to have known you.

 

Shab be Kehyr Iran. Doset daram!

 


 

Amazing Holiday Facts – No 14

 

I managed to write the whole of this journal without mentioning nutty Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadineja . . . except once . . . this once.

 


 

Farzaneh’s Favourite Poem (unabridged)

 

Another Birth

 

My whole being is a dark chant
which will carry you
perpetuating you
to the dawn of eternal growths and blossoming
in this chant I sighed you sighed
in this chant
I grafted you to the tree to the water to the fire.

Life is perhaps
a long street through which a woman holding
a basket passes every day

Life is perhaps
a rope with which a man hangs himself from a branch
Life is perhaps

a child returning home from school.

Life is perhaps

lighting up a cigarette
in the narcotic repose between two love-makings
or the absent gaze of a passerby
who takes off his hat to another passerby
with a meaningless smile and a good morning .

Life is perhaps

that enclosed moment
when my gaze destroys itself in the pupil of your eyes
and it is in the feeling
which I will put into the Moon's impression
and the night's perception.

In a room as big as loneliness
my heart
which is as big as love
looks at the simple pretexts of its happiness
at the beautiful decay of flowers in the vase
at the sapling you planted in our garden
and the song of canaries
which sing to the size of a window.

Ah
this is my lot
this is my lot
my lot is
a sky which is taken away at the drop of a curtain
my lot is going down a flight of disused stairs
a regain something amid putrefaction and nostalgia
my lot is a sad promenade in the garden of memories
and dying in the grief of a voice which tells me
I love
your hands.

I will plant my hands in the garden
I will grow I know I know I know
and swallows will lay eggs
in the hollow of my ink-stained hands.

I shall wear
a pair of twin cherries as ear-rings
and I shall put dahlia petals on my finger-nails
There is an alley
where the boys who were in love with me
still loiter with the same unkempt hair
thin necks and bony legs
and think of the innocent smiles of a little girl
who was blown away by the wind one night.

There is an alley
which my heart has stolen
from the streets of my childhood.

The journey of a form along the line of time
inseminating the line of time with the form,
a form conscious of an image
coming back from a feast in a mirror

And it is in this way
that someone dies
and someone lives on.

No fisherman shall ever find a pearl in a small brook
which empties into a pool.

I know a sad little fairy
who lives in an ocean
and ever so softly
plays her heart into a magic flute.
A sad little fairy
who dies with one kiss each night
and is reborn with one kiss each dawn. 

by Forugh Farrokhzad

 


 

And finally . . .

  

A message to America from the people of Iran.

 


 

Amazing Holiday Photographs

 

You've read the book. Now see the pictures.

 

Just click on here for photo fun:

 

The magic picture book of the Islamic Republic of Iran

  


 

And special thanks to Lalla Essaydi for 'lending' me her lovely photograph of Mahtab. That's not really her, I must confess. For the sake of Mahtab's privacy her real image has not been included in this blog.

 


 

Go back to Desperately Seeking Mahtab - Part 1