(18) Shiraz, Iran: Plans out the window

Tom decided to join me on a route to Shiraz through the mountains. Rather than going directly by bus, we were going to try to make in through a little used mountain route by a series of buses and taxis. I found out later that Tom didn’t think we’d actually make it in a day.

The first bus was easy, taking us to main town north of the route we hoped to take. It left pretty much right after we arrived. No time wasted.

When we got to Shahr-e-Kord, it got a bit complicated, especially with all the help people wanted to give us. People were convinced it was not possible to go where we wanted, or there was no bus, or did we want to speak to his mobile to his brother that speaks English?, or we should go back to Esfahan and catch a bus from there, or there was a bus in the late afternoon. We opted for a bus to the next town along the way.

The next bus had friendly and inquisitive people. As we didn’t want to ruffle too many feathers, Tom and I pretended we were married, but no, unfortunately we didn’t have any children. They wanted to know where we were going, but because of all the hassle at the last town, we told them that we were just heading up for the day for a picnic. This satisfied them. They kept repeating a word over and over again, and we had no idea what it meant. Turns out there’s a fort that’s a popular picnic spot, on the other side of town. Which meant it got a bit awkward when we asked to get dropped off in the town, instead of staying on with everyone else on the way to the fort. We found the easiest way to muddle through things is to pretend we didn’t understand them, but act very certain in what we were doing, even in we weren’t.

And then, the search for a way though the mountains began. We started approaching random taxi-looking cars on our path through town. They weren’t interested, or didn’t understand. Once again, we were told to go back to Esfahan if we wanted to get to Shiraz.

As we wandered down the street, looking for a bus/taxi area, a young boy with some sort of rifle inadvertently kept pace with us. He kept aiming up at trees around us. We tried to steer clear – crossing the street, pausing, speeding up – but he always managed to be metres from us. Eventually he dropped away. He never did actually shoot anything, let alone us.

Eventually, we make it to some sort of taxi office, where one driver finally appears to understand what we mean. We say words like “mountains”, make roller-coaster motions with our hands to indicate a rough road, and list towns that should be along the way (though our map in Lonely Planet is horribly inadequate). Our soon to be driver nods, and repeats our words and motions back to us. We think we’ve hit the jackpot, even though he’s asking a lot of money. We bargain down $5, and agree to get on our way.

We stop for lunch early on, and we act all generous by getting a Coke for our driver. When he pays for his lunch later, we keep an eye on the cash he hands over so we can assess what we should be paying. Tom and I develop the same game that Peter and I played in Turkey – the “how-much-is-this-going-to-cost” game. When we get up to pay, the driver waves us on. He has paid for our meal in the end. Generous, or so we think (read on).

Now, according to the guidebook, the first two hours of this drive are supposed to be phenomenal. We’re not sure where this mountain road is, but we most certainly didn’t end up on it. When the turn off to the first town we are expecting to head through comes and goes, we ask to stop. We had agreed on this town, had we not? Ah, but the road is bad/blocked/doesn’t continue south. Our respective English/Farsi language abilities are crap, so we can’t do much other than look really frustrated. We have no idea if he’s ripping us off, or saving us some trouble. We think the former.

The road is fine, but nothing dramatic as we had anticipated. We pass a picturesque lake, wander along broad valleys, finally make it onto some more scenic winding and ascending routes. We take stops for photos, but know overall this was not our originally hoped for route. Ah well. We stop at one point for a toilet and water break. Again, our generous (or so with think, read on) driver treats us to some bottles of water.

When we arrive in Yasuj, we make it clear we want to get to Shiraz. He tells us he’ll drive us for another outrageous sum, and we insist on getting to the bus station instead. We have no idea where it is in this town, and we don’t know if he knows either. Eventually we get to the far end of this spread out city, and it appears we have found some sort of bus station, or at least a bus stopping area.

When we get out of the vehicle, we are accosted by taxi drivers, but we try to push on, after tipping our driver – he bought us lunch and water, afterall. And then, our driver tells us we have to pay him more for lunch, and the water he bought us. The taxi drivers all get on his side – “He paid for your water and lunch, you owe him.” They tell us what apparently the lunch and water cost, though we know from earlier cash spotting that it’s an outrageous lie. We should have just walked away from the beginning, but we try to reason with them. We’re surrounded, and it’s going no where. Eventually, we push through, and get away to the ticket booth. Tom realizes that a pouch on his camera bag was open and some small change may have been stolen. My first experience with a real asshole in Iran. I would have expected it more in the main tourist centres, but we were totally off the main path. He wasn’t a scheming businessman. He was just an asshole.

Tom and I make it onto a bus to Shiraz leaving soon, and after getting some snacks and lemon beer, we’re set. We arrive in Shiraz in the dark, at some bus station that’s not in the Lonely Planet. We have no idea where we are, or how far to the city centre, or what a taxi should cost. We’re tired of getting ripped off, so ask at an electronics shop on the corner. They’re a great help and get us on our way for a good price.

Arriving in the main centre of Shiraz, Tom and I both comment on how we miss Esfahan. Shiraz is a city. Noisy, busy, city. Lots of people, lots of traffic, lots of lights. We make it to a hotel, pause when asked what our relationship is (“Uhhh….friends?”) and are happy to be able to share a room not being married. I’m glad to be here only one night – the plan for me is to see Persepolis the next day and then take a night bus to Tehran so I can meet Somayeh and her sister for our little road trip to the north. We find a great spot for dinner, and enjoy something other than kebab.

The morning sees us trying to find some information about getting to Persepolis. After the rip off the day before, we were hoping to get an idea of what the cost should be. The tourist information stand was a bit of a dud, but we make it to a travel agency and get ourselves sorted. The price is reasonable, and although we missed the scheduled tour bus earlier in the day, it only costs a Euro extra between us to just share a car and driver instead.

Now for some stupid reason, we end up at Persepolis at the hottest part of the day. The spot is wide open, in direct light, without any wind. It’s scorching, and bright. Approaching Persepolis was a bit strange. Like it should have been more built up, or busier, or something. I feel like if we come across a 2500 year old archeological site, trumpets should sound, or something. But instead we are 2 of about 20 people across the whole ancient city. And it only costs about 50 cents to get in.

The remains of Persepolis are spread out over hectares – pillars from old buildings, majestic staircases intricately etched with royalty and horses, tombs carved into the hillside – but two parts in particular formed my highlights. The first was the sculptured entrance to Persepolis. In and of itself it was decent, but what I loved about it was the centuries-old graffiti. Carvings that read something like “Sir William Billington and Expedition, 1809”. Even back in the day people liked to leave their mark. Somehow this graffiti was more romantic than what you might find at a modern day sight – “Carl and Sue were here, 2007” or something like that – but I can’t explain why.

My other favourite part was a rock overhang near one of the tombs. It was shady, what can I say.

On our way out we stop for some food, and all that’s available is hotdogs. We’re already later than expected to meet our driver, but we’re starving. It takes over 30 minutes (was he making the wieners from scratch or something?) and now we are way late for our taxi. The hotdogs are enormous and taste aweful, but we also scored some lemon beer, so it’s all OK.

On our way back to Shiraz, we stop at one other ancient site – a series of about 7 tombs carved high high into a sheer mountains side. Not sure how it was done, or who they are for, but they were pretty. An old Zoroastrian ossuary was nearby, where bones get picked clean by birds before burial. Apparently after death, the flesh belongs to the devil, bones to heaven.

Back in Shiraz I float the idea of going to a movie. Who cares if we don’t understand it. I just want airconditioning. Nothing’s playing quite yet, so we opt for a siesta instead. I call Somayeh to find out about our road trip, and it turns out her mother has had surgery on her hand, and so needs help around the home. Road trip is off. Another great dinner spot is found instead.

The next day I sleep in. Tom heads out early to get his visa extended, and we meet later to explore the limited sights of Shiraz. Which basically means walking from place to place until we find some shade. After picking up Tom’s visa extension, we find a sandwich shop and get some stuff for a picnic. We find a spot in the nearby park and make guesses as to how many people will bother us, or Tom more likely.

We get approached by one guy, someone working in the park, who chats to us briefly as he passes. Doesn’t count for intrusive. And then, Tom hits the jackpot. An albino man, covered in grass (I think he worked in the park), and seemingly a diminished mental capacity kneels down beside us. The first time he’s by he only remains for a few minutes before the first man shoos him away. The second time was much more interesting. He was not at all interested in me, and instead looked into Tom’s eyes, telling him that “In the name of God, I love you.” Except he said “God” like “guide” and we thought he was trying to get us to be his guide. We do a lot of smiling and nodding, until he takes Tom’s head in his hands, and kisses him on the forehead. It was a tender moment.

At this point after lunch, we are lying in the grass reading, and police officers come along. We are asked to leave. Apparently lying 2 feet apart in the grass is too much for them to handle. We are told to go to another park. As if the other park is where are the heathens go. We pack up and move along.

Next stop, bus tickets for the next day. Check.

Next stop, getting stopped by fake (we think) police officers. They pull over on the side of the road, flash a dodgy badge, and ask to see in our bags. We show them at a distance. They keep asking “No marijuana?” Sorry man, we’re not carrying. They leave. Shortly after, a man starts walking with us. We can’t decide if he genuinely just wants to practice English, or if he is going to ask that he becomes our guide. He speaks good enough English that Tom and I can’t conspire to drop him, but eventually he leaves us at the gates of our next destination without any hassle. Rare.

Next stop, the tomb of some famous Iranian poet. Not too remarkable, but we stop for water, then for shade. We pick up some burnt photo DVDs, check email, and head for an afternoon siesta.

Our search for a good dinner place on our final night was not as fruitful as the first two. We walk, and walk, and walk. Eventually we settle for a kebab place. English is not commonly spoken here, so we hesitantly approach the man at the counter and ask “Uhh…kebab?”. He replies fluently, “Would you like chicken or beef?” It was the nicest looking meal I’ve had in a long time, but the flavour didn’t match.

The next morning we have a slow start before catching our bus to Yazd. We have planned our ride to coincide with the hottest part of the day, and pray for a reasonable level of air-conditioning.

(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.