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Published: December 6th 2007
Well, we’re sitting here looking out over the snow covered mountains and town of Zanjan as the sun slowly sets, everything shrouded in the white of recently fallen snow, turning what is quite likely a fairly non-descript concretish town into something altogether quite pretty. We caught the train up at the crack of dawn yesterday morning and the snow started about halfway here, a constant and fairly heavy flurry that whipped around the train and blanketed the surrounding countryside in a good foot of snow. It was lovely walking around town with the flakes spiralling down and certainly puts a different aspect on Iran after the fairly warm weather that we’ve encountered so far in the desert regions…
We left Yazd five days ago, after another couple of days walking the ancient laneways and having managed to catch a session of the ‘zakyuneh’ which is an amazing age-old Persian sporting tradition. Basically, a group of fifteen or so men, aged from ten or so right up to the sixty year old blokes, stand in a sunken pit and practice various callisthenics and feats of strength, such as sort of bench-pressing doors and swinging these massive (and quite heavy) clubs. It’s all accompanied by two guys banging out a constant and increasingly frenetic drumbeat while reciting various poems, usually by Hafez. It’s quite the spectacle and made us both feel exhausted just watching…
From Yazd, we caught the overnight train back to Tehran and then connected with a red-eye to Kashan. This smallish town is renowned for its opulent houses and we spent the best part of a day wandering through them. The bigger ones have five, six or even seven courtyards, all with mirrored pools and fountains, pomegranate and orange trees and dozens and dozens of rooms, all magnificently decked out with stained glass windows and hundreds of tiny mirrors to reflect the coloured light. Truly stunning, yet I fear that they may have only increased Jane’s expectations for when we are back home and house-hunting ourselves.
And after the opulence of our hotel in Yazd, we were been blessed again in regards to our hotel there - it was actually one of the aforementioned restored historic houses and we often found ourselves spending the late afternoons basking in our beautiful multi-roomed pad with arched ceilings, little niches in the walls, the gentle tinkle of the fountain outside, Persian carpets on the floors and these wonderful circular windows that let the afternoon light in a stunning array of fragmented light…
We also managed a trip out to the village of Abyaneh, a few hours drive from Kashan. It was a beautiful little village, all of the mud-covered houses are red due to the high iron content of the surrounding soil, and we spent much of a day wandering down the cobbled streets, exchanging pleasantries with the generally elderly population (not much a raging night life for the little ones it seems) and wandering over the nearby hills to an ancient fire temple and crumbling castle.
And then to Zanjan. We’re only here for a couple of days and managed to head out to Soltaniyeh this morning, which is a tomb built by the Mongols in the early 14th century. It was originally intended for Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed and one of the most revered of the Shi’a, but the Sultan who’d ordered it built decided to convert and become a Sunni (having already had a bash at Buddhism and Christianity) and thus wasn’t that interested in Ali anymore, so he had himself buried here instead. It houses the largest brick dome in the world and besides the immense scaffolding that supports the structure both inside and out, is really quite impressive.
Oh…and a word of caution if you ever happen to find yourself in this part of the world. With our few words of Farsi, and more often than not, our hosts quite limited English, a lot of our communication is conducted through sign language. Thus, for the first few days, much of my strangled communication was accompanied by a big thumbs up - the universal sign of ‘good’ and a symbol of our thanks. Well, almost universal. In Iran, this appears to be the equivalent of the middle finger. So there am I, extremely grateful when someone has gone well out of their way to help us with some matter or other, repeatedly saying motashakkeram (a polite form of thank you), grinning wildly, while telling them to piss off with my hands. After a surreptitious conversation with a young guy, having received quite bewildered looks from numerous other Iranians, it became quite clear that this probably wasn’t the best thing to do.
The hardest part however, is trying to counter a couple of decades of ingrained habit. I guess you don’t really realise how often you actually use hand gestures in your daily life, especially when oral communication is so limited. So after a couple of repeat offences, where my thumbs involuntarily sprung forth, I eventually reverted to that other hand signal of the forefinger touching the thumb and other fingers splayed - A OK.
Another big mistake. Loose translation - “You’re an asshole.” Obviously this is just as bad, although again it took the repeatedly confused and often hurt looks on the other Iranians faces before I realised this. So there am I, for the first two weeks in Iran, smiling profusely and all the while telling the locals to get stuffed.
All sorted now though, I generally just keep my hands thrust into my pockets for most conversations…
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