(17) Esfahan, Iran: An Officer and a Gentlewoman

I left Tehran with plans to spend just 5 days in the south, so as to join up with Somayeh and Nasi to do a northern road trip. The overnight train was the first in Iran which didn’t end in an invitation to a home. I had been spoiled with so much hospitality previously, that I was almost disappointed on this ride – no food shared, and in the morning when I was keen to get off my 3rd level bunk, no effort to make room on the seats down below.

The train arrived at about 6:30am, and as I was arranging a taxi into town in my half-asleep stupor, I met Tom from New Zealand, who had heard me say something in English and figured correctly that we were headed in the same direction, even to the same hotel. Our first choice was full, and the second attempt resulted in confusion with our desire to share a room. Once we viewed the room and checked in, an attendant tried to take away my pack from my bed to bring to another room. “Mostarak” we tried to explain (shared). He went downstairs, back up again, and then tried to take Tom’s pack away from his bed. Eventually we realized that as an obviously unmarried couple, sharing a room was not going to be possible here.

Finally, we had success. A beautiful traditional house outside of the main area of town, with rooms around a green courtyard. I find it funny how quickly one can come to trusting a fellow traveller. I had known Tom for a bit over an hour by the time we settled in, and already we were sharing a double bed.

Tom, as Peter had been, was another great travel partner. We both are comfortable with long silences, enjoy eclectic music genres on iPods, and can handwash in sinks like nobody’s business . Tom, however, is even better at sleeping anyplace-anytime than I am. (Those close to me will find this hard to believe, but really, it’s true).

We found breakfast after our extended hotel search at a little spot offering “Olden Food” (which thankfully was made fresh) and headed for a walk around town. It was Friday, meaning most holy places and many others would be closed for the day. Lonely Planet really should have a section for each town that lists “What to Do Here on a Friday”. It seemed that everything was closing up as we arrived, even in the Christian quarter of town.

Esfahan is where we established our daily routine, which generally involved exploring sights in the morning, practicing the Iranian art of picnicking in the park for lunch, napping in the heat of the afternoon, and heading back out for sights and dinner in the evening.

Our first picnic in Esfahan we were joined by an “actor” from Tehran. I’m not sure if he was actually an actor, but he was definitely a character. Soon into the conversation he establishes that Tom and I are friends and not married.

“I am single”, he shares.

Wow, this guy is forward.

And then he breaks out into song, asking “Good?” before he even takes a breath.

Ah, he means he is a singer. (Like the actor bit, still questionable).

He breaks out into song again.

“Good, or very good?” he asks.

I let Tom have this one.

“Is Iran better than other countries?”

I let Tom have this one too. I actually let Tom have a lot of the questions. It’s usually men that approach us; typically they are quite forward, often have something to sell, and are pretty hard to shake off.

Another example. On our way back to our room for a siesta, an older man approaches us, apologizes for interrupting, and asks if he can speak English with us.

“In other countries, men and women can know each other before marriage. In Iran this is not possible, they do not know each other.”

I can see this is probably going to go nowhere good.

“In other countries, men and women can live together, have sexual relations. I think all the problems of marriage are solved by sex.”

It was like bargaining. He started off at 100% but we got him down to 70%. Still, he wasn’t going to concede.

The conversation went on like this for about 10 minutes, the three of us walking down the main street.

When he finally left, two young men that had been following us since our last conversation started move in. This conversation lasted just as long, but was focused more so on Enrique Iglesias. I’m pretty sure they were disappointed Tom wasn’t more of a fan.

In addition to the personal conversations, we’ll get entertaining and less time-consuming gestures of welcome by people riding by at about 50km/h on motorbikes.

“HELLO WELCOme to Esfah…”

The women that approach, however, are much more pleasant. They usually approach quite shyly and are genuinely apologetic for taking my time. School girls like to get pictures taken with me, whereas women like to ask “What is your idea about Iran?” or if I’m married or what my religion is. And then they’re off before I really get a chance to engage them further, and I rack up another point in the “unobtrusive conversation” competition Tom and I soon start.

Day two in Esfahan is spent wandering the (now open on a Saturday) sights. Tree-lined streets, exquisite mosaics, impressive mosques, dinosaur statues. You know, the usual. The region of Esfahan that hosts the main attractions is very scenic. I’m sure there’s a downtown somewhere that is not all that appealing, but the area we saw was lovely. I think our impression was also helped by staying at such a lovely guesthouse – even our afternoon naps and clotheswashing were in green, quiet settings.

Probably my two favourite sights of Esfahan were the artisan areas of the market and the inner dome of the main mosque off Imam Square. The artisan area was off the main market rows. Initially unassuming, each little square box off the narrow lanes held one or more people working away hard preparing the precursors for the lovely items displayed in the main market area. Shaping copper vases, hammering designs onto tar-backed metals, painting and etching plates. Hammers, blowtorches, brushes all working away.

The mosque’s inner dome was literally breathtaking. I’m neither a religious nor spiritual person, but every once in a while I come across a sight that gives me a feeling of something, I don’t know, more or bigger or powerful, and I tear up. The last time this happened I was in Peru overlooking concentric stone circles near Urubamba. This time I walked into the inner dome, and it was a sight I can’t really explain. Pictures don’t do justice, but I’ll use them to remind me of the feeling that I had.

In the evening we met up with Erika and some of her friends for a great dinner at a traditional restaurant (raised platform, seated on carpet with pillows). I met Erika in Tehran at the Tajikistan embassy; she’s in Esfahan for 9 months studying Farsi. It’s probably the loveliest place in Tehran to do it. Between us and her friends, Farsi, Italian, French, English and New Zealandish were floating around over dinner. I say New Zealandish because whenever Tom talked to Erika’s Italian friend, Erika would have to repeat in English or French for the meaning to sink in.

In order to meet up with Somayeh and her sister for the northern road trip, I couldn’t stay in Esfahan longer than two days, and had plans to try to get to my next destination, Shiraz, via a longer, less easily navigated, mountain route. Tom was also interested so our travels together will continue.

Overall, I highly recommend Esfahan. Lovely sights, great accommodation options, and while the tourists are aplenty, only about 10 of them are from outside Iran, so the crowds of picnickers in the parks make for interesting photographs. Lonely Planet gives a recommended route for tourists on a transit visa in Iran for 5 days, and even they recommend to spend two of them in Esfahan. You just might want to avoid Fridays though.

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