Monday, 14 October 2013

On the Tourist Trail - Esfahan to Shiraz (Iran Part 6)

It was not far at all from Toudeshk to Esfahan, so we ate an unhurried breakfast before packing and getting on the road. The ride involved little stress, and we arrived in Esfahan quickly. The city is famed for its beauty, and we were immediately greeted by tree lined boulevards and lush green parks. We couldn't wait to get exploring.

When we arrived at our hotel, we discovered there was an issue with our booking made a week previously (this seems to be a common problem in Iran). Instead of the double room we had reserved, they had put us in an apartment. This was all very well and good, but despite admitting their mistake they wanted us to pay the full apartment rate, which was considerably more. After a polite argument, they eventually agreed to let us take it for $2 more per night than the double room. It ended up being a total bargain, as the apartment was amazing.

It had been a while since we had enjoyed such comfort, so we ended up spending the evening cooking an extravagant meal and lazing around. We haven't had our own home for so long now, and it felt great to have this space. Sightseeing could wait for tomorrow.

We slept comfortably, and I was delighted in the morning when Oli offered to go out and get the breakfast bread whilst I enjoyed a lie in. Every region of Iran seems to have its own type of flat bread, and the local stuff here (sangek), was amazing. It is baked in a furnace with loose stones on the bottom. The bread is then fished out with a hooked pole, and needs to be bashed on a wire rack in case any pebbles have clung on. It was an excellent accompaniment to the rest of our morning treats.


The main tourist centre of Esfahan is Naghsh-e Jahan Square, typically Persian gardens ringed by the bazaar. Breaking this up on three sides are the Sheikh Lotfolah Mosque, the Imam Mosque and the Ali Qapu Palace. Whilst touristy, it is still a beautiful and peaceful space. We strolled around and indulged in a little people watching.


As we haven't really done any souvenir shopping on the trip so far, we decided to have a wander through the bazaar and look for a few little gifts for ourselves and the family. Esfahan is famous for its handicrafts, notably delicate enamel work, printed fabrics, and miniatures painted on camel bone. The detail on the tiny camel bone boxes was unbelievably intricate, but the price (whilst very fair for the level of work) was a little too high for us. We treated ourselves to a beautiful enamel plate instead, and managed to avoid being pushed into buying carpets with the handy excuse of having no home to put them in. Having said that, we were definitely having fantasies of returning with a van one day in the future...

Our shopping expedition had lasted a surprisingly long time, and when we emerged from the bazaar the heat of the day had taken hold. We bought ingredients for that evening's meal, and then headed home for an afternoon siesta. Having our own apartment was certainly tempting us into laziness.

We left our sanctuary again as the sun was low in the sky, and walked back to the square. The golden light looked amazing against the patterned blue tiles of the mosque, making the colours seem richer. There is also a large pool at the centre of the garden, which was incredibly atmospheric in the glow of the sunset. We stayed in the square until darkness fell, then wandered back home to enjoy our dinner.

Not wanting to waste the evening, we decided to walk down to the river to see some of Esfahan's landmark bridges. The river bed itself was completely dry, and a small group of young people had a campfire going. It was definitely a good place for it, as they had a good view of two of the bridges. A typically well maintained park runs along the river, so we approached the Pol-e-Khaju bridge through it. Built in the Safavid era, it also functions as a dam capable of regulating water flow. We sat on the edge of the river for a while, chatting and enjoying the quiet atmosphere.


We allocated the next day for sightseeing, so were up, breakfasted and showered by a reasonable time. Our first stop for the day was the Imam Mosque. Deceptively small from the outside, it opens up into a sprawling complex set around a large square. We have seen a lot of mosques so far on our travels, but we were still struck by the beauty of the tiling and the staggering scale of the work that must have gone into its construction.


From here, we walked the very short distance to the Ali Qapu Palace, which was originally built under the decree of Shah Abbas. Part of the building is still under restoration, but even through the scaffolding we were rewarded with fabulous views over the main square. As a change from tiling, the palace walls and ceilings are decorated with delicate yet grand patterns and murals.

The main feature of the palace is its music room, set high on the sixth floor. The space is designed with acoustics in mind, with seemingly endless recesses cut into the walls and roof. The recesses themselves are designed in the shapes of musical instruments and what appear to be wine goblets, and are painted in deep reds and blues. It seems that as with almost everywhere in the world, the old ruling classes knew how to throw a party.


We finished our tourist experience off with one last loop of the bazaar, then went home for a rest. We had decided that as it was our last night in Esfahan, we would treat ourselves to a nice meal out. We did a little sneaky Tripadvisor research, and had good expectations for the place we picked out. In the event, the food itself was okay but a bit disappointing. It seems that the best food in Iran is home cooking, which has been excellent from all our hosts. Bizarrely, a lot of people here love bad western fast food, such as hot dogs and weird pizzas. It seems a shame when the traditional food is so delicious.

We woke up early the next day, as it was a long drive to Shiraz. Oli again kindly volunteered to go and get the breakfast bread. The stone method of cooking described earlier produces excellent bread, but is also slow and creates queues. Oli patiently joined the line, and things were apparently progressing steadily until an older lady wearing the full chador appeared. She said something to the people waiting, at which point everyone hastily separated into gender specific queues. Oli was surprised to see that she took advantage of this reshuffle to push to the front, grab her bread, pay up and leave.

It is not the first time in Iran (or indeed the world) that we have seen such outwardly religious people behaving badly. It seems that some people have missed the point of their religion, and focus on the most obvious and visible pious aspects, rather than all that junk about being a good, kind and generous person. In Ardabil we had also witnessed an Imam barge to the front of the line at the hotel reception, and rudely berate the staff in Azeri Turkish until they agreed to give him a discount. Even as non-religious people, the lack of appreciation or understanding of the basic principles annoyed us.

The drive to Shiraz was long, but the roads were excellent as expected and the majority of the ride passed quickly and without incident. However, when we were only a few kilometres from the city, the traffic slowed suddenly, and we found ourselves in the midst of a serious jam. Rather than patiently waiting and filtering past whatever the obstacle was, people had instead converted the three lane highway into an eight lane melee. We inched along, battling to hold our ground, whilst other drivers even bumped along on the gravel by the side of the road. Eventually, the issue became apparent – a banana truck had lost its load in the outside lane, and the seller was patiently collecting his produce whilst a lone policeman stood idly by, half heartedly waving a flag. At this point, the traffic reached a choke point, as all the vehicles that had impatiently driven off-road were trying to barge back in, whilst simultaneously braking hard and eyeballing the accident scene.


We continued along the road for a few kilometers before reaching a police check point. These are frequent along the main routes, but are often unmanned or staffed by one or two guys happily waving everyone through. So far, the police had left us alone in Iran, so we were surprised when they waved for us to stop. It turned out all they wanted was to ask some questions about the bike and to get Oli's email address. Not too keen to give it to them, we made up a fake email account and we were allowed to continue on our way.

The rest of the ride went smoothly, and we found our hotel relatively easily (albeit with a sneaky deliberate trip the wrong way down a one way street). It was very basic, but incredibly cheap for Shiraz and also had a secure place to put the bike. The staff were kind and helpful, and although it was a noisy place we felt like it was a bargain. We grabbed dinner from the local falafel joint, and collapsed into bed.

We were meeting a Couchsurfer (CS) the next day in the afternoon, so spent the first part of the day in Eram Gardens. The gardens are located in the fancy part of the town, with wide boulevards and some very expensive looking houses. We were annoyed to note the usual dual pricing for Iranians and Foreigners, but had no choice other than to suck it up, and pay the inflated price for our tickets.

Eram gardens are thought to have originally been constructed in the 1700s, but the architecture and ornamental layout date from the mid-nineteenth century. It is a beautiful and peaceful space, green and tree filled with numerous water features. We sat for a while under the shade of a tree, admiring the brightly coloured flowers before wandering around and exploring some of the many paths. The peace and tranquility was spoiled somewhat at closing time however. The security guards all seemed to have deep love affairs with their whistles, and told everyone to take their leave with a series of piercing shrieks. Ah well, it was nice while it lasted.


We walked from here to the old part of the city, where we were meeting Narjes, a fellow CS member. Although we hadn't been able to find a host to stay with in Shiraz, we were still keen to meet people and get a local perspective of the area. We wandered through the bazaar area of the old town, and first stopped at the Vakil Mosque. The mosques here are quite different to the others we have seen in Iran, most notably the colours used. Rather than blue being the dominant shade, this one was coloured with bright pinks and yellows, and we enjoyed the alternative style.


After the mosque, we wandered through the bazaar. This is definitely more of a working market than Esfahan, and although there are still some tourist shops, it seems to be predominantly used by locals. We stopped off at an ice cream shop, where Narjes treated us both to a local dessert. I tried the carrot juice with an ice cream float, which was not only a lot nicer than it sounds, but also very refreshing. Oli had faloodeh, frozen rice noodles with a liberal dousing of rose water. This was also amazing, and I pinched spoonfuls of it from Oli until he told me off.

From the bazaar, it was just a short walk to the Nasir al-Mulk mosque, which is famed for its signature stained glass windows. Although the best time to see this is in the morning sun, it was still beautiful in the afternoon, and the colourful windows lent a soft splash of colour to the peaceful prayer space. We sat for a while, admiring how the different shades played on the pillars and mosaics.


We slowly wandered around the city, taking a detour to see the poet Hafez's Tomb. The entrance fee was expensive, so we stingily just looked at it from outside the fence. We finished the day off by sitting in the park and enjoying deep chats about all aspects of life with Narjes. It was really interesting explaining how things might be seen differently in Europe, especially relationships, marriage and religion. We have found so far in Iran that people are not only keen to explain about Iranian culture, but also to understand ours in return. Although on the whole we have been honest with everyone about our religion (or lack of), and the fact that we lived together before we were married, we have not felt judged by anyone, even though things are done differently here. After the three of us had put the world to rights, we sadly bid goodbye to Narjes and made our way back to the hotel. We swung by the bakery on the way home, and were pretty impressed with what a dollar bought us.


One of the main reasons people come to Shiraz is to use it as a base to see the ancient city of Persepolis, 60 km away. Built by the emperor Darius around 500 B.C., and continued by Xerxes, this was a marvellous and ostentatiously built ceremonial city. Our route to the ancient site took us back past the checkpoint where we had fobbed the policeman off with a fake email address, so we were pleased to see that he appeared to be absent. We easily made it to our destination, parked the bike up in the shade, paid the standard higher ticket price for foreigners, and found ourselves in the midst of the ancient city.

Whilst not as extensive or intact as Ephesus, the architecture and the style are completely different. Many of the carved reliefs are still remarkably intact, and provide interesting and informative illustrations of ceremonial life at the time. The height of the pillars and the level of preservation was impressive, and we happily spent a few hours slowly exploring.


As we were leaving the complex, we spotted some two hundred year old graffiti on the main gateway. Apparently Western people in the 1800 - 1900s thought nothing of defacing ancient historical monuments, and were keen to leave their mark. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see, and made us wonder if people might see modern inscriptions in the same way a few centuries on.


On our ride home, we had to pass back through the police checkpoint. Again, we were relieved to see that our friend was not present. We drove steadily through but at the last moment he appeared, shouting to us and waving. Not wanting to get into an awkward conversation about the mysteriously invalid email address, Oli hit the gas and off we went unhindered.

Back in Shiraz, as it was our last night, we thought we would attempt another meal out. We had heard that the food at the Niayesh Boutique hotel was decent, and also that there was a veggie option available. We were not disappointed. The atmosphere was lovely, and the food was the best meal out we have had in Iran. Even better, our extravagance cost us less than $7.

We could happily have sat for hours longer in the relaxing Niayesh courtyard, but instead walked home. An early night was needed, as we needed to be fresh and ready for the beast of a drive to Bandar Abbas the next day.

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