Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Edge of the Desert - Kashan (Iran Part 4)

We left Tehran at a relaxed pace in the afternoon, and began our hot, windy ride through semi-desert. It was not too far to Kashan, and we made it in very good time. Abbas had arranged a host for us, and we happily found his street without much hassle. Mohammed, a fellow CS member, lives with his sons near the centre of the town. Their flat was brilliant, a beautifully decorated bachelor pad. Easily our favourite room was the bathroom; everything in it, including the shower gel, toilet paper and towels, was pink. We rested for a short while with some food and cups of tea, and Oli fell asleep on the floor. Ever the parent, Mohammed popped a pillow under his head and covered him with a blanket. Oli slept like a baby, and woke up after an hour confused but relaxed.

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Feeling suitably rested, Mohammed told us he would take us for a walk around the bazaar at night. It was a beautiful old building, mostly consisting of a seemingly labrynthine network of covered walkways. As we wandered through the passages looking at the various wares, the space suddenly opened up into an intricately tiled area with a towering domed roof, all the more spectacular due to the element of surprise. Although we weren't at the bazaar at a busy time, we could imagine how this area could provide a welcome relief from a hectic outing.

Our walking tour continued with a quick visit to a traditional wrestling club. This is one of Iran's most beloved sports and has been a part of the national consciousness since ancient times. Sadly we didn't see any actual wrestling as the meeting was not due until later in the evening, but it was great to see the arena itself.

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Back at the flat, we were joined by several other members of the Kashan Couchsurfing community. Although it is not a large town, the group is fairly active and close-knit, with most of the members regularly hosting visitors. They were all kind and interesting guys, and we enjoyed discussing the differences between their town and the places we had lived and travelled. I made the mistake of letting everyone know that Oli is actually Oliver Kaan, same as the famous German goal keeper, which amused everyone very much (perhaps apart from Oli himself).

After our guests had departed, Oli and I both enjoyed hot showers in the pink bathroom, and were ready to crash out. As is fairly typical in many Iranian houses, the lounge also functioned as the sleeping area. The street was wonderfully quiet and our floor beds soft and comfortable, we had an excellent night's sleep and felt very well looked after.

We were up at a respectable time the next day, munching a tasty breakfast in preparation for a day visiting the sites. We had met one of Mohammad's friends and fellow couchsurfer, Javad, the previous evening, and as he had the day off he had kindly decided to guide us. We were joined en-route by an Italian Couchsurfer, Daniel, who had been living in China and was working his way back home the long way.

Kashan is known for its historical houses, now mostly functioning as museums or hotels. Tabātabāei house is a beautiful example, and its elegant buildings are embellished with beautiful and lovingly maintained plaster work. The buildings themselves surround courtyards, at the centre of which lie tranquil pools acting as psychological counters to the desert heat. The wealthy people of the period certainly knew how to live.

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A short hop from Tabātabāei house is the old hammam (bath house). As well as being a wonderful example of traditional architecture, it is also an interesting and visually stunning place to visit. It has stood in Kashan since the 16th century, so is a site steeped in history. Javad a fellow Couchsurfing member, was very knowledgeable about how the bath house functioned in the past, and gave us an informative tour. The highlight of the visit however was the roof top. This consists of a series of domes, studded with convex pieces of thick glass to let light in without allowing dodgy characters to spy on any unaware bathers. The views over the city alone were worth the price of entry, even if it does cost seven times as much for non-Iranian visitors. The entry fee for foreigners such as ourselves is only just over two dollars, but we still felt a little cheated by the price hike.
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We walked back home to hide from the heat of the day, stopping off on our way at a bakery. They were making a crispy bread in the tandoor oven, and gave us some pieces to munch as we walked. Once back at the flat, Oli was tucked in to bed again by Papa Mohammed, and we rested with cups of tea.

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The day cooled off considerably after 3 p.m., so we headed out for our final tourist stop of the day. Fin Garden is located around 6km out of the centre, but is easily accessible by bus. Completed in the year 1590 and now a UNESCO world heritage site, originally it was built as a playground for the royal family, but is now more of a museum. It is a green, tree filled space, but the main focus points are the water features. Spring fed, these flow and bubble through the garden.

At one point, the spring water flows upwards through a large well, spilling over the pool and flowing through channels. It is supposedly lucky to throw money down this hole, but as coins are not widely used in Iran people had attempted to aim their paper money instead. Judging by the amount of notes sunk to the bottom, the success rate for this appears to be low indeed.

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Old structures still stand intact within the garden boundaries. One of the most notable is a domed open area, covering another spring fed pool. The art work decorating the ceiling here is some of the most beautiful and intricate we have seen on the trip so far. Delicate patterns wind their way across domes and down the columns, and some sections depict myths and stories. The colour and detail must have taken an enormous amount of time and skill, it was impossible not to be impressed.

The site is also home to a bath house, and it was here that the political figure Amir Kabir was assassinated under direction of prominent members of the royal family in 1852. Slightly oddly, this was depicted with full sized waxwork figures, which did somewhat take away from the calm and dignified atmosphere of the remainder of the garden haven.

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Having had a good overview of Kashan, we caught the bus back to Mohammed's flat. Oli, Daniel and I had offered to make some food for our hosts and the rest of the CS crew, so stopped by the shops to pick up some supplies. We were excited to learn that Daniel would be making pasta, as an opportunity to eat this prepared by an actual Italian was not something we were expecting to find in Kashan. For our own contribution, Oli and I made an aubergine gratin with a tomato, parsley, cream and crushed walnut sauce. It was an experiment, but thankfully it turned out great. We felt proud when we were asked if it was an English or Turkish recipe, and could reply that we had thought of it ourselves.

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We passed another enjoyable evening talking about all sorts. Daniel has certainly led an exciting life, and although he was around our age, has lived in many interesting places. He told us he generally works for around a year doing graphic design, and then goes travelling for six months. He was definitely making the most of the world, which was quite inspiring.

The next day we were sad to leave. Mohammed was a great guy, and we got on with him well despite the fact that he didn't speak much English. He is a kind, funny person, mad as a box of frogs (in the nicest possible way), and always playing practical jokes. Hopefully we will see him again some day. Kashan itself is an interesting town on the edge of the desert, and well worth a stop or a detour on the way from the more visited cities of Tehran and Esfahan. The mud brick walls and houses provided a tantalising sample of desert life, and made us all the more excited to get to our next destination, Yazd.

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