The boulevard of broken dreams

The dusty road through the dusty heartland around Yazd is not untrodden by tourists, but without the lure of significant sights they are disinclined to linger. No more so than today when an actual sandstorm is blowing out of lowering black clouds, obscuring otherwise photogenic mountains and thwarting a thousand potential photos. But this unprepossessing landscape has not thwarted the dreams of a surprising number of budding entrepenurs. Just look at our lunch stop, a huge caravanserai enthusiastically renovated only recently despite its location beside a 3000 year old village abandoned some 50 years ago when its water dried up. Could it be not ‘despite’ but ‘because of’?  Yet if this is the case their business model is even more opaque – Yomadic, with its off-the-beaten track ethos is the only tour in Iran likely to find the set-up at all compelling, and even we have turned down the opportunity to spend the night, a decision instantly validated by a quick trip to any of the bathrooms. The sole other visitors – a car load of more than usually haughty French and their guide have even brought a picnic to eat outside and only reluctantly buy tea to wash down the dust.

Caravanserai number 1: Even the chairs are not quite ready for prime time

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One look at the tea arrangements and the French dissolve in panic.

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But the 3000 year-old abandoned village is suitably photogenic

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I make my way down to an aqueduct that looks suspiciously Roman (the Persians had other ways of moving water) but no-one knows anything about it.

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On the other side of Yazd yet another caravanserai enterprise is in the process of failing even more precipitously. In preparation for our planned overnight Nate and Vahid have been calling ahead regularly to remind management of our needs for a towel each as well as clean bathrooms; maybe too assiduously for they have stopped returning our calls. All is explained when we arrive at the ancient ruined fort they are also promoting, for in addition to being padlocked the fort’s doors are sealed up with tape informing anyone interested that the electricity bill is well and truly in arrears (presumably the phone is also cut off). Only a sad and underfed donkey marks the ambitious ‘zoological park’ advertised to circumscribe the moat. Fortunately long experience with rural entrepeneurs has ensured the existence of plans B and C. Plan B suffices and we spend a cozy night at the only renovated caravanserai in Iran with a feasible business plan: reasonably comfortable beds and pillows, crisp, clean sheets and cozy blankets, heaters, a towel each and excellent food. Only the fact that the (impeccable) toilets and showers are at the opposite end of the building is somewhat of an inconvenience when it becomes my turn to get the 24 hour stomach bug that has been passing around the minibus.

The fort looks fascinating.

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Pity about the utility bills.

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Only the donkey remains from the wildlife park

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Our plan B caravanserai, at 4am during one of my trips to the other side of the building. Note the dinky sleeping cabins.

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Not surprisingly, absence of opportunities in the environs has led what tourists there are to descend on Yazd, which is coping only fitfully with this somewhat ill-deserved popularity. Yazdis are described as ‘shy’ which translates to gloomy, and they are less inclined to effusive friendliness on the street. Still Yazd is ripe for other night-time adventures  – Nate leads those inclined off to sneak into and up a poorly secured minaret for a bird’s eye view over the town, narrowly escaping detection by the security guards. A good time is had by all, especially those of us who turned down this very potentially once in a life-time opportunity.

Another once in a lifetime experience in Yazd. Synchronized calisthenics. Vahid represents us splendidly.

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They start off with literally 100 pushups.

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Vahid poses happily for pictures once the ordeal is over.

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But is less excited when Sam (our Australian marathoner) outdoes him even in a headscarf

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Yazd is rather more famous for its Zoroastrian Towers of Silence where corpses were left for vultures to pick off the meat.

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The practice ended about 50 years ago when the city started encroaching on the smell. There are still bones (hopefully not human) inside, but the vultures have left.

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Persepolis! Words can’t begin to describe. We are told bitterly that most of the good bits are in the British Museum.

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The tombs of the kings, note scale

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Springtime in Shiraz

 The stereotypes are right! Shiraz really does have it all. While its architecture is not as absolutely gorgeous as Isfahan and it is not as full of significant sights, we are by now totally mosqued out so it really doesn’t matter. While its artisans are not as ostentatiously skilled, the bazaar at half the size is so much more approachable and if possible even cheaper. While its streets are not as wide they are as clean and well-cared for plus they are replete with cozy hipster cafes serving hipster food, which we devour as ravenously as though we haven’t eaten anything for 10 days rather than vast traditional Persian meals twice a day. Best of all its gardens are a marvel and its citizens, knowing they have a reputation to uphold, treat us with such solemn and benign kindness, sprinkled so liberally with many sincere invitations (even our taxi driver to the train station wants to take us home for dinner and insists on giving us his business card so we can avail ourselves next time) that if we accepted them all they would be cooking for a week.

One last mosque. We get here at 7:30am to witness the sun rising through the stained glass windows and strong arm the self-absorbed selfies out of the way to get the full effect.

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The last inevitable school trip is taking it far too seriously to crack a smile for us.

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Shiraz is all about the elegance of flowers.

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Hipster culture means we are spared another Persian meal.

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Of course no wrap-up would be complete without a mail experience, and here Shiraz too, outdoes itself. Somewhat optimistically I suspect, I am hoping to divest myself of some of the weight associated with the remainder of my warm clothes (I can only imagine US customs interest in a package from Iran mail). Unfortunately Vahid’s confidence in where the post office is located, is not shared by a number of the people bustling around the area he has vaguely indicated, none of whom (unusually) speak English. Trying to interpret fish-like movements of the hands and equally vague ‘about 2 or 3km’ pronouncements gets me nowhere and in desperation I bring out my long-neglected GT in order to accost the little man on the corner innocently reading the newspaper.

Success! After a quick cell phone consultation he leads me purposefully to his car. This after all is Shiraz so I hop in thanking him profusely, and imagining another of the ‘and guess what it was just around the corner’ stories I have been hearing sporadically all week. But no! it is not around the corner, nor is it anywhere near Vahid’s vague gesticulations. Neither is it on this side of the bridge, nor in the upscale suburbs on the other side. A little later along the highway signs for the airport appear. ‘Not airport?’ I inquire a little anxiously fearing a misunderstanding; ‘Post, Post’ he assures me with the satisfaction of having acquired his first English word. Sure enough after about 30 minutes he deposits me with a flourish at the front door of the massive regional post office just before it closes for the weekend, firmly brushes off my attempts to pay him a legitimate taxi fare and tootles off, presumably back to the center of town to finish off his newspaper. I complete my transaction and hop on the sparkling new subway for the return journey.

My own expert parcel packer tells me I can track its progress on their website, but has no suggestions about what to do if it doesn’t arrive.

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It is our last evening and we are ending our tour at the garden tomb of Shiraz’s most famous son, the Sufi poet Hafez. Tout Shiraz is here to commune with the poet, smell the roses, eat ice-cream and meet their friends. Vahid tells us Hafez’s story and quotes some of his most famous verses. Even without translation there isn’t a dry eye in the house. ‘if you want to help us’ he says at the end. ‘Tell your friends that we are not terrorists and that Iran is a safe country, ask them to please come to visit’.

Hafez’s tomb. I am just trying to remember the last time I was in a community that had gathered together spontaneously because of poetry.

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Dave and I squeeze in one last overnight train trip back to Tehran. They conveniently overlook that it is illegal for us to travel unescorted.

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I am so, so sad to leave Iran. They are not terrorists, they are the kindest and most friendly people I have met in this whole trip and it is such a safe country I don’t think twice about leaving my purse on a seat while I go to the bathroom or hopping into a car with a stranger. I can’t wait to come back again. I am sure by then they will have discovered sushi.

Au revoir Tehran

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And onward through the heartland

There is probably more than one road from the sleepy market (or more appropriately bazaar) town of Khasan to Isfahan; the one we have chosen, a two lane highway which will allow us to visit the even more sleepy village of Abyaneh, goes directly past the infamous nuclear enrichment facility conveniently located a mere 4-hour straight shot from Tehran. Given the escalating rhetoric it is comforting how little seems to be happening on the other side of the six-ish foot walls. Presumably it is all underground and presumably also the distant row of mountains marching down the opposite side of the road are conveniently disguising a phalanx of missile batteries since the single policeman outside what must be the main gates is lounging with his feet up rather than standing armed against potential infiltration. Even so when Nate pops up to tell us quite firmly to put away cameras and cell phones until the second left turn –  taking ‘Sorry no photos’ to a whole new level, and his single directive of the whole trip – we all snap to it a bit nervously. Clearly there is more to Sgt. Sudoku than meets the eye since it is unlikely that the sheep, the only other sign of life, are providing the high level security vigilance necessary to detect a clandestine photo from inside the minibus.

Scenes from village life. All Iranians love Khasan even if they’ve never been there. It occupies that place in their hearts where delightfully sleepy little towns hang out.

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We surreptitiously climb up onto the roof of the bazaar to catch the sun going down.

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The bazaar is pretty sleepy too.

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Should you ever need it, don’t worry, he has it.

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Or he does

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A pot for every chicken

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Still waiting for customers

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Our sleepy hotel is pleasant too.

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Hipster coffee culture hits Khasan.

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On our way out of town, a perfectly lovely merchant’s house from the 17th century

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Notwithstanding its proximity to what could easily be the next ground zero, Abyaneh is undergoing a second home renaissance for congestion-weary Tehranis. But the orchard blossom is finished and apart from hopeful renovations there are no major sights to see so our main goal besides lunch (we are coming to the sad realization that in Iran tourists eat the same thing every day, and so our anticipation is rather less eager than it was yesterday) is to stretch our legs for a while in the photogenic hills, and have a wander round the charming streets where the old ladies drape themselves decoratively in the sunlight but then ruthlessly demand we buy their tasteless dried apples in return for a photograph. We find it all very pleasant.

Abyaneh, too close to ground zero for comfort.

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How the old ladies could look if they weren’t so belligerent.

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Sadly they are. Note, this is after she called me over and asked me to take a picture of her.

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Only the donkey is up for a photo op

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Not so the ebullient gang of teenage girls on a school outing to the underwhelming mosque, who have no interest in dried fruits and who, as a consequence are experiencing both extreme disappointment and acute boredom (as they tell us in impeccable idiomatic English, they are from a gifted school). To compensate and notwithstanding their demure uniform hijabs (their ring leader sports a gangsta baseball hat labeled ‘Baby’ in serious bling on top of hers which seems more like it) they pursue us raucously, jostling for photos until their furious principal descends in a chadored-whirl like an exhausted avenging angel, gives us the side-eye and packs them off back to the bus. ‘So, whatever’ says Baby as she flounces off in well-choreographed disgust.

Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths when they first arrived. Even their dragon lady principal on the right is looking forward to a nice day out.

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It doesn’t take long for it to all fall apart. Baby puts her hat on and all bets are off. Nate and Deborah can never pass up an opportunity to wind things up.

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Sometime in the last couple of thousand years every town in Iran has acquired a specific stereotype that everyone now perpetrates. So Tabriz is universally patronized for its slightly simple citizenry while Khasen is universally loved, even by people who have never been there. Likewise everyone disapproves of Isfahan, where we are headed next. Sure its architecture is absolutely gorgeous and it is full of significant sights, sure its streets are wide clean and well cared for, its food is good and its artisans are the most skilled in the whole of Iran but ‘I have never, ever met a nice person from Isfahan’ Vahid tells us solemnly. ‘Once I thought I might have, since the guy at the coffee shop is OK, but it turns out he’s from Shiraz’. Every single Iranian we ask tells a similar story. Sadly, Isfahan seems to be the Wall Street of Iran.

This is rather unfortunate since we are all desperate to exchange money. Ordinarily we would have three options: a bank (legal); an exchange office (also legal and preferred since it inexplicably offers a higher rate than the bank) and the black market (illegal). However the day before yesterday the government intervened to prevent collapse of the rial and halted all legal rial/dollar exchanges, catching us all on the hop. So first order of business is to find the black market in Isfahan. Luckily, just as we are admiring the glorious sunset over the Shah’s mosque in the main square, the black market comes loping out of the shadows and finds me. In the way of black markets everywhere he has a huge wad of cash in his left sock, but rather than dragging me down a dark alley (the usual M.O.) he cheerfully fishes it out in full sight of the several hundreds of his townsfolk picnicking in the garden, and gives me 20% over the official bank rate, definitely raising questions as to his Isfahan origins. Even the policeman idly watching us out of the corner of his eye leaves us to it, suggesting he too is probably not from around here.

The fabulous main square in Isfahan. The black market goes into hiding during the day,

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The Shah’s mosque. The cupola is carefully designed so the light falls onto the ceiling in the shape of a peacock.

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Just in case you missed it

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A subtle symbol of power for the Shah to contemplate as he prays: The tree of life arising from Noah’s Ark.

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An acoustically sophisticated ceiling in the Shah’s palace

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Exquisite artisanal objets in the bazaar

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Not all Isfahan folks are Gordon Geckos. This mister heard Jill and I speaking English and promptly closed up his shop so he could squire us around. He was crushed when we pleaded a previous engagement.

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