Actually, no. Carpets woven from silk and costing approximately £1,800.
Leaving home in the UK at 08.00am on Sunday morning we faced a long journey by road and air before we would arrive at our house in Iran the following morning but armed with plenty of books and with I-Pod fully charged I am well prepared. Tom and Tessa (our cats) are not happy that we are leaving them behind and sulk all the time we are getting ready to go. Tom heads for the top of the kitchen cupboards where he watches our preparations with disdain whilst Tessa prowls between the front room windowsill and stairs hoping that we will change our minds. They certainly know how to make you feel guilty but we know that Jenny, our next door neighbour, will look after them during our absence and at least they don’t have to go away from home and can fret in their own surroundings.
The flight from Heathrow to Tehran via a refuelling and crew-change stop at Yerevan in Armenia was a trial of constant turbulence all the more noticeable as recent flights to Iran have been smooth and pot-hole free. I found the repeated vibration and noise very disturbing and extremely stressful. I can’t maintain such a high level of anxiety for long before the adrenalin rush subsides and exhaustion takes over and it is at this point I calm down, simply too tired to care anymore and I am able to complete the 4 ½ hour flight to Yerevan without further ado.
Refuelling and changing crew at Yerevan took a surprisingly efficient 45 minutes before we took off again for the short 90 minute hop to Tehran. Iran only allows a few airlines to refuel in Tehran due to the economic sanctions and without these “technical” stops many planes flying this route do not have the range to travel there and back without a top up but in fact the short break was welcome and an opportunity to regroup before completing the flight to IKA.
No wind and no clouds meant a lovely smooth flight and landing at IKA and progress through customs was, as ever, smooth, efficient and hassle free, unlike the ridiculous check-in system at Heathrow Terminal 1 we had endured earlier.
Saeed and his taxi were there to meet and greet us as arranged but as we found out later he was only just on time. Earlier he had parked his car in a restricted zone outside Arrivals and after only a few minutes it had been lifted by crane and impounded. Thankfully he had the time (and money) to retrieve his car before we arrived so our departure from the airport wasn’t delayed. Amazingly he didn’t seem at all perturbed by this minor diversion and laughed it off good-naturedly. I can’t imagine that I would be so sanguine. Perhaps I need to be more “Iranian” and chill out more. Then again I wouldn’t have parked in the restricted zone in the first place.
We found the car, parked properly this time, and as usual, a welcome basket of goodies containing tea and food as well as blankets and pillows for our 4-hour drive home was waiting courtesy of my thoughtful sister-in-law. I drank my tea and snuggled down on the back seat for a snooze, the perfect antidote to Saeed’s driving which I know from previous experience can be erratic at best! I woke in time to see daylight breaking over the mountains and to realise that we were only 30 minutes from home. The roads were quiet but the town was clearly waking up for a new day when we finally arrived in Sede at 06.30 local time (03.00 hrs English time).
Now the fun begins.
This time next week I will be in Iran. Being the second month of the Persian calendar year, “ordibehesht” we can expect gorgeous spring temperatures of between 70-80 degrees with plenty of blossom on the trees and a general feeling of positivity following the end of winter. I have resurrected the Farsi lessons on my iPod, my case is 3/4 packed and I have chosen the places and sights that I want to visit whilst there.
It will also be interesting to see how the economic sanctions imposed on the country are affecting families and local businesses day-to-day. How much extra do we have to pay for fuel, rice or meat? Are there obvious shortages of certain food stuffs and what do I get for my Rials this time round?
I don’t want to spend all my time with family and friends talking politics and it is something I usually avoid but the opportunity to hear out their views on the current situation and how it affects them directly puts me in a privileged position of seeing things how they really are and not how they are portrayed on the news. It also gives me a dilemma. Undoubtedly the bullish attitude towards the sanctions would be to deny their impact on the Iranian people and to “Keep calm and carry on” regardless. However, this is unrealistic and a bit more transparency and openness will go a long way to us understanding what is really going on behind the façade.
In the meantime I know that I want to see more of Esfahan’s famous pigeon towers, go down to the Gavkhuni swamp where the Zayandeh-Rud (river) at places 800m wide dissipates into salt marshes, and visit the Flower Garden (Baq-e-Gol).
All this before breakfast on day 1!
The two mountain ranges of Sala and Sofeh shelter the city of Esfahan which nestles in a verdant plain irrigated by the silver ribbon of the River Zayande-Rood winding its way through the district. The plain itself is fairly well developed. Clearly the city of Esfahan, described by Fitzgerald as “Half the World” because of its wonderfully varied history and culture, has been built up over many centuries and there are now signs that the smaller towns and villages are themselves becoming suburbs of Esfahan rather than remaining individual settlements.
Driving into Esfahan from Sede, however, you are suddenly faced with a rocky outcrop which appears from nowhere. There is no gradual build up to this 13th Century citadel, and it rises from the plain with a suddenness that takes you by surprise. This bastion includes the remains of a Sasanid Koh-Ateshgah Fire Temple right at the top, and once seen from the road below, the urge to climb the dusty, rocky mountain to sit in the Zorastranian temple becomes an irresistible challenge. I recommend an early start to ensure that you make the most of the cooler conditions and there are fewer people around to interrupt the peace, quiet and photography. The dry heat in October however does not sap your energy nearly as much as the humid damp that we experience in the UK and I found the climb, which rises to 1600m above sea level, much more comfortable than I anticipated.
The religious philosophy of Zorastranianism still exists today and some of its best known beliefs are those of living by the very humanitarian values of “Good thoughts, good words and good deeds”. Out of the three, I am perhaps best at the good deeds, whilst the good thoughts and good words sometimes need more work!
The views from the top of Koh-Ateshgah make the sometimes tricky and earthy scramble well worth the effort and there are plenty of flat rocks along the way where you can admire the ever-widening views, drink some water, enjoy the cooling breeze and catch your breath. It takes surprisingly little time to reach the top, whereas the trip down I found much more hazardous and time consuming. Mountain goats get my respect.
Altogether, a couple of hours well worth spending at this historic monument and all for 65p for the both of us. This must be the bargain of the day.
After the excitement of the family celebrations over the weekend the second Monday of our stay in Iran was a public holiday and, with no one working, we all de-camped to the family orchard across town to relax and enjoy a family day out. I was told that we were to have a picnic and stay for the whole day. At first, it all seemed rather familiar and reminiscent of picnics at home as I watched food, baskets laden with goodies and utensils, blankets and last but not least 16 people cram into the cars for the short drive there.
I grew up in a rural area where there were plenty of orchards and I thought that I was heading back 40 years to familiar territory. As the roads narrowed we had to fold back the car wing mirrors so that they wouldn’t scrape the ever-encroaching walls. A white donkey tethered in the road hardly gave us a glance as we passed the double-gated entrances and 7 foot high walls of the neighbour’s orchards. Only then did I begin to wonder just what was waiting for me. It all seemed on a much grander and remote scale than I had imagined and it was clear that we were heading for a hidden garden gem. The anticipation grew and when we reached our gated entrance, I saw exactly what Feri takes for granted and just hadn’t thought to explain. The orchard is in fact 2 large separate pieces of land full of apricot, apple, pear, walnut, fig and sour cherry trees interspersed with grape vines clinging to the trunks, boughs and frames made to accommodate the branches heaving with fruit.
In amongst the trees however and suddenly making sense of the sheer amount of stuff brought with us is a small house; Surely, every man’s perfect retreat. This “garden shed” comes complete with fridge and cooking facilities, running water, toilet, cool stone terrace and BBQs galore. Now this is what I call a picnic.
After the men had unloaded the cars, and the girls organised proceedings, we all set about picking the ripe fruit both to eat there and to take home and store. Everyone joined in carrying baskets, boxes, climbing up ladders and using anything else that they found lying about to stand on. I was walking around the perimeter of the orchard when I came across Akbar digging a hole by a tree-root and, like a squirrel, he was burying pears wrapped in dried leaves and twigs in the hollow. Apparently the fruit keeps perfectly well protected like this and all he has to do is remember where he has buried his treasure when he wishes to retrieve it later. All this was great fun and it so reminded me of happy childhood days scrambling up trees to pick Victoria plums, damsons and greengages; Simple pleasures.
The fruit and vegetables picked, attention was turned to preparing the meals for the day. Everyone helps out but, in line with tradition, the girls sit together aside from the men and both groups carry out their communal chores in collective harmony. I joined the girls helping to clean and prepare the herbs whilst the men took charge of the kebabs, and meat for the BBQ.
Lunch was eventually served, which was as delicious as expected but, with all the ripe fruit about, we were inundated with wasps. I don’t like wasps very much and tried very hard not to make a fuss but I only managed to eat most of my meal before having to excuse myself from the group to find refuge from these “zanbours”. For some reason, perhaps even to them I looked and maybe tasted different, they were buzzing around me more than anyone else. With everyone now on wasp-watch, swatting the little beasties with shoes, scarves, whatever was at hand, I was able to return to the proceedings which had, by t is time, resumed outside. As the day cooled, I settled down to read my book thinking that the immediate threat of wasp-attack had receded. Not so. One persistent stinger managed to creep under my loose shirt and stung me 3 times before I could shake it out. I have to say that this has been the only unfriendly Iranian I came across during my two week stay, but even then I was assured by everyone that the wasp was also being friendly and giving me a “kiss”! Mmmmm….not too sure about that but next time wasps, beware, I will come prepared.
Although remaining warm, the evenings draw in very quickly in October and it is completely dark by 6pm. However, this is not a problem, and outside-living continues just as it would if it were daylight. More BBQs were lit, dinner served and eaten and it was after 9pm when we packed up the cars and went home. If only we had this balmy weather in the UK. Life would be so much more pleasant and family-friendly.
I can’t believe that this time last year I was in Iran enjoying two weeks of fascinating culture and family experience. One of my favourite memories is the pigeon towers. Here’s a reminder.
Here in the UK, we often hear complaints from local councils about the damage and inconvenience that wild pigeons create. Many people feed these urban pests and the very acidic and vast amounts of pigeon poo corrodes stonework of buildings, clutters drains and guttering and can make smooth pavements into veritable ice-rinks. The food left uneaten also encourages mice and rats, and dead pigeons can contaminate water supplies. So, what do the Iranians, and particularly those living around Esfahan, do about their pigeons?
They build Pigeon Towers.
There are many, many such towers in and around the Esfahan area and all are individually designed and architectually unique. Unlike the UK, pigeons are revered in Iran and are a sign of good luck so these pigeon-palaces are considered well deserved. I was lucky enough to see inside one of these towers which just happened to be undergoing some internal maintenance when we arrived.
The main purpose of these towers is to encourage pigeons to nest in the honeycombed interior, where each bird has their own “pad”, about the same size as a small shoe box. Not wanting to soil their living area, the pigeons then poo on the protruding lip of their nest, and the tower-keeper can then easily brush all the poo to the floor, sweep it up and use it as fertiliser for locally grown crops.
The Esfahan area is well-known for its melon and cucumber yields, and I can say from experience that they are deliciously sweet, crisp and full of flavour.
Power to Pigeon-Poo!
On our last full day in Iran, the family treated us to lunch out on a beautiful sunny holiday Friday, followed by a visit to the Esfahan Bird Garden just down the road from the Koh Ateshgah Sasanid fire temple which I climbed last October. From the road, the bird garden didn’t look much but its initial impression belied what we found inside the extensive grounds.
The grounds cover more than 50,000 square metres, most of which is sheltered by a net suspended high off the ground giving the 125 or so species of birds plenty of room to fly around freely.
We saw parrots, budgies, cockatoos, ostriches, owls, pheasants, peacocks as well as the aquatic birds in the large pool; pelicans, flamingos and storks and cranes all balancing on one leg and black and white swans paddling smoothly along in the clear water.
My favourites were the toucans which reminded me of those Guinness adverts of long ago and in Farsi they are known as Fala-Fala. I thought it was quite amusing to see two toucans perching on the branch; Fala-Fala, Fala-Fala. I know I’m sad but I won’t forget the Farsi name for a toucan in a hurry!
Another wonderful surprise and a perfect outing for a beautiful sunny and warm early spring afternoon. The trees are just breaking into leaf here giving the hedgerows and woodlands a lovely hazy-green appearance. The river however is extremely low as there is now a drought in this area threatening the production of those gorgeous melons and other orchard fruits that we picked in abundance at the end of last summer.
One positive thing may come out of the drought however. No fruit. No wasps.
Iran has a most wonderful history and ancient civilisation to discover and there are so many places you can visit if ancient history is what you are after. The golden-olden times are indeed fascinating and simply amazing but what also interests me is the everyday life of Iranians. I have put together some observations which hopefully give you an idea of what goes on a daily basis.
Sede, the town where we live, has it’s own variety of bread “Nun”Sede. Freshly baked and collected 2-3 times a day it is a tasty bread infused with carraway seeds. Truly delicious and I challenge anyone to arrive home with the full quota without sampling some on the way.
This is a charity collection box where people donate surplus cash, mainly for the benefit of orphans. They are spread across the towns and cities all over Iran. It appears however that more than 70% of the cash people drop into charity boxes is stolen by drug addicts. The boxes are vandalized and propped open by drug addicts who are desperate for money. Iran has one of the highest per-capita rates of narcotic drug addiction in the world.
I think the bus coding system is so sensible and makes your search for the right bus so much easier. The buses are colour coded for each area of destination in town and they certainly brighten up the traffic!
For a number of reasons which will become clear, my favourite restaurant in Esfahan has to be the Naqsh-e Jahan Traditional Restaurant (or Banqueting Hall as the sign outside reads).
Now this is not the most sophisticated place to eat, but I love it because it is situated right next door to the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and if you manage to get a “tahkt” or eating platform on the terrace, the dome of the mosque overlooks you whilst you eat. It is a wonderful view.
A tahkt is a raised eating platform surrounded on three sides by a frame and supporting cushions for your comfort. To eat on a tahkt, you first remove your shoes then climb aboard and wait to be served. The service in this particular restaurant was excellent, very quick and attentive. Nothing was too much trouble and photographs were invited which was handy.
The toilets were very clean, but the sign on the wall was amusing!
The view and the eating experience more than compensates for the limited menu; a choice of 8 starters and 8 main courses all traditional Iranian dishes and all delicious if my choice was anything to go by. The main meal is followed by “chayi nabaat” typically Earl Grey tea served without milk but with saffron infused crystallised sugar. Yes the opening hours are a little erratic, but it is well worth taking the small diversion from the main Naqsh-e Jahan Square to see whether it is open and serving lunch. I recommend a visit not just for the food, of which there was plenty for even those with large appetites, but also to admire the view and the internal décor.
A must-do experience for me and only a stones throw away from the Bazaar. The perfect location!
Today, as every other day if I could, I was found wandering around the Great Bazaar in Esfahan. I am fascinated by this place and I apologise for being so one-dimensional but what a fabulous place it is.
Today I went exploring into areas not previously visited and came across some different crafts and products in the making.
The furniture shop was interesting. The frames of the chairs and tables already put together by the wood turner on his premises waiting for the customer to order their personal suite.
The copper beater (chaser) was sitting outside his shop putting the final touches to a large plate with a soft-headed mallet.
The blacksmith was taking a break from his anvil to make a cup of tea.
And a young girl was busy painting a typical Esfahan blue-ware plate by hand. Very steady and perfect in execution.