Mansions, black crows and "where are you from"?

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June 29th 2010
Published: June 29th 2010
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Sa-lam again from Iran and chet-ou-rey? - how are you?

I’m having a wondrous time here in Iran, this place ticks all of the boxes; good weather, layers upon layers of history with accompanying ancient ruins, inquisitive people, friendly people, hospitable people, that happened to be rather oppressed because of a culture dictated by religious fundamentalisms and utterly foreign to a Western traveler like myself. I’m in my element.

Travelling south from Tehran on a modern Volvo coach I headed for the town of Kashan, bypassing the city of Qom. Why? Its where the hard-line mullahs who run Iran all live and thus is a conservative place for anyone to stay. When I say conservative I mean unsmiling sombre mullahs in beards and robes walking around and women covered form head to toe in black chadors holding tight around their chins. Plus, the only other reason you'd come here is to see the pilgrimage shrine of Fatima, the sister of Shiite Islam's Imam Reza - but which is only open to Muslims, of which I am not - so it had little appeal and I bussed past it.

Kashan is a big enough city, bloody hot when I turned up mid-afternoon. The taxi dropped me off on a street and led me on foot down an alleyway. We then came across some big wooden doors and stepped down several steps into a dark passage and into the reception area. The reception guy then took me to see several single rooms that were laid out around a lovely bright courtyard with a long pool of water. The hotel was converted from a traditional 19th century Iranian house that Kashan is famous for. I chose the cheapest room (150,000 Rial - 15 US Dollars) from a selection of classily restored traditional rooms. In the corner of the courtyard I climbed up some steep steps and through old wooden doors and into a white washed rooms with nice alcoves and Persian rugs and French doors that opened onto the courtyard.

The rest of the day as well as the following I took tours of the historic, beautifully restored and huge mansions of Kashan. Hidden away behind doors and portals are revealed huge multi-storied mansions with courtyards and hundreds of rooms. Its places like these that make you forget about the run-down and grubby Iranian street outside. The Persians knew how to do sumptuous back in the day and this was clear to see in the houses I visited.

I think the highlight was probably the bathhouse - something I’d not seen before and also the ancient city walls. Only a history bore like myself I suppose would really appreciate something such as this but after knackering myself out walking around multiple houses with multiple levels with literally hundreds of rooms I managed to find the energy to seek out the city walls of Kashan. Since it’s ancient origins (4th Century BC) Kashan has been destroyed a couple of time, notably by the Arabs in the 7th Century (which brought Islam to Persia). Legend has it that the Arab commander got his men to collect scorpions from around the desert and throw them over the walls. The ruined walls I was now standing on were rebuilt during the Seljuk period (1051-1220) and overlooked the city as well as backed onto people’s houses and city mosques. The circular wall had a large green patch in the middle that was being cultivated by a farmer. In the dusty crevices below the walls I came across refuse and plenty of used needles, presumably local heroin addicts, of which there are many in Iran apparently.

Back at the hotel I got talking to a Spanish girl from Barcelona who was in Iran to attend a friend’s wedding. Reception recommended a restaurant and so off we walked into the night time of Kashan. As we walked the streets, Giselle in her head scarf it was impossible not to notice the stares of both men and women towards both of us. Kashan is clearly a very conservative place as there were plenty of head to toe black chadors as well as stares from women toward Giselle. The women in black chadors are known pejoratively as 'pecking crows' here in Iran. It’s at once funny and uncomfortable to be stared at by everyone as you walk down a street but more disconcerting for a woman. Giselle told me that she’d gotten used to it by now but several men had followed her around the bazaar that day and she had had to tell the man very firmly to stop before buggering off.

The streets of Iran are very busy after nightfall; the midday to five o’clock period is almost a siesta because it’s so hot during that time. It seems most people do their shopping at this time and the shop lights are bright and the streets are full of speeding cars. The restaurant was very far away; the food was average and overpriced (rice with chicken kebab - again) and both we both complained of not getting enough vegetables in our diets. We got a taxi back to the hotel and Giselle spoke to the driver but he didn’t seem to hear her so I repeated the instructions and off we went. Clearly, taxi drivers in this part of the world are perhaps not used to taking instructions from women accompanied by a man.

The next day another serendipitous moment of which Iran seems to be producing many. I was looking to take a day trip south to a town called Abyaneh but the taxi trip on my own was too much so I wanted to share the taxi fare. At breakfast I got talking to a bald Chinese looking man and told him about it and asked him whether he wanted to go. As we were both going south to Esfahan he agreed and so we got our stuff together, checked out and got to the nearest square and hailed down a taxi. After a bit of Farsi, Pidgin English, hand gestures and the easiest of languages; the showing of actual money we agreed on a fare of 150,000 Rial, 1500 Tomans or about 15 US Dollars. And off we went in our yellow taxi to the mountains of the Kuh e Karkas. On the barren desert road we came across lots of anti-aircraft batteries sitting on lumps of soil - which I assumed were something to do with the nuclear facility that was nearby. It reminded me of Israel’s aerial attack of Iraq’s nuclear plants in the early 1980s, Iran was clearly taking precautions, but how much use they’d be I wasn’t so sure.

The town itself when we got there was wonderfully breezy and the red mud bricks of the houses were unusual set in the hills of a mountain. Yang and I walked through the town, being watched by bemused Iranian tourists. We then walked over the dried up river and climbed up to a ruined castle where we got a great view of the town and the surrounding hills.

We didn’t have much time in the town itself so walked back down and popped into a ‘fast food’ joint. We queried the Western burger and burger shite menu which included a ‘ham sandwich’ - we didn’t think pork was served in such a Muslim country as Iran. We found out it was beef though. After we ate our ‘hamburgers’ - kebab meat in a baguette with salad - we popped outside where a thunderstorm started. To see such a heavy downpour after the past few days of dry hot weather was awesome. I think the locals enjoyed it too.

Back in the taxi we journeyed back to Kashan and I got to know Yang a little bit more. A Chinese Singaporean and a merchant seaman for 35 years he was now enjoying his retirement by travelling (backpacking) for several months of the year. He was unmarried and didn’t have any kids and so it seemed like a perfectly acceptable thing to do. He had been all across the world in his travels and he reckoned about 80 plus. And most remarkable of all was his plain living only town pairs of trousers, two shirts which were hand-washed every night in a hotel or hostel. He had two light bags with him and that was it. I envied his lightness of load compared to my hefty backpack and added rucksack. Mind you I couldn’t now do without the technology of laptop and camera. Yang forwent a camera so amazingly he didn’t have any photos of his extensive travels. I didn’t know whether to pity or envy him.

At the bus station in Kashan we paid the driver who seemed to turn very jolly indeed and suddenly wanted his photo taken with his car. This I duly did and I have the proof, why he wanted one I don’t know - we didn’t exchange emails.

We only had to wait a short time in the bus terminal for a bus going to Esfahan - which we jumped on. Much to the bemusement of the bearded religious book carrying students who stood with us. A 60 year old Chinaman and a young white westerner must have looked rather incongruous in these parts. Well it was gonna look weirder because we quickly agreed to share the costs of a mid-range hotel room once we got to Esfahan - our next destination. What lay ahead was four hours on a desert road to Esfahan, the jewel in Iran’s crown.

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2nd July 2010

these blog entries are really interesting. you're wasted in admin. hope the travels are still going well. you've timed it perfectly, coming back to a tory gov't. oh sorry, a coalition. but yeah just to say i'm really impressed with the blog -- although it does lead me to believe that you are in london researching this and writing it as an elaborate fiction.
6th July 2010

thanks meave - glad you enjoy the arse that I write whils I'm travellling. I wish I had a dictaphone for all the conversations I'm having whilst travelling here in Iran. Priceless. I'm beginning to miss England a little bit - y'know Shepherd's Pie and all. I look forward to the dole queue when I get back....meh

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