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.
We surreptitiously climb up onto the roof of the bazaar to catch the sun going down.
The bazaar is pretty sleepy too.
Should you ever need it, don’t worry, he has it.
Or he does
A pot for every chicken
Still waiting for customers
Our sleepy hotel is pleasant too.
Hipster coffee culture hits Khasan.
On our way out of town, a perfectly lovely merchant’s house from the 17th century
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.
How the old ladies could look if they weren’t so belligerent.
Sadly they are. Note, this is after she called me over and asked me to take a picture of her.
Only the donkey is up for a photo op
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.
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.
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,
The Shah’s mosque. The cupola is carefully designed so the light falls onto the ceiling in the shape of a peacock.
Just in case you missed it
A subtle symbol of power for the Shah to contemplate as he prays: The tree of life arising from Noah’s Ark.
An acoustically sophisticated ceiling in the Shah’s palace
Exquisite artisanal objets in the bazaar
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.