2014 April. Jordan, Turkey & Iran

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Well Jane Yule and I left Melbourne Sunday evening whilst most of you were getting ready for an early night and work the next day. Don’t worry we went through hardship too, squeezed into a plane with 450 others and rocketed half way around the world. Each flight sending us further away from the familiar. Yes, The Jordanians couldn’t even stay in their seat till we arrived and not even a cabin announcement scared them, no the steward had to come down wrench their bags off them and snap shut the overheads. Excitable people out here.
Our driver for the next five days is Fadi, he’s driven for the Australian diplomats for a number of years and somehow they have survived, but me, I hate that “in god we trust” driving mentality. Over the next two and a bit hours we raced on a freeway cluttered with heavy trucks hauling superphosphate and everything else they need to survive in this rather stark, inhospitable land. The scenery was sand and after the long flight Jane’s conversation in the back started to wane as she stared out into nothing in particular. Meanwhile in the front I talked like a jabbering prisoner about to be executed as we passed all and listened to English pop from the sixties, seventies and early eighties, you know, Knights in white satin, Killing me softly with his song, the driving or music would kill me.
Finally we turned off towards Petra and the countryside started to get a little lumpy, eventually mountains appeared and finally a desert town. The streets narrowed, the driving got worse and we started stopping to ask where the hotel was, I felt like I was back in India. Robyn would have hated it, where’s the map she would have been yelling, don’t you know where you are going? The hotel was found not by asking but because the sign on the roof stood out like the proverbial dogs testicles. It was brash, shiny in that way that hotels seek to have more stars without understanding that a better build would have it standing longer; instead they were already doing repairs of the facade. Sorry to you non building people.

P1000014Modern Petra, the ancient city nestled further down in the mountains.

I’m scared to lay on the pristine bed for fear of falling asleep, at 3pm we ventured out, bought some tickets and worked our way down through the chasm to the old city of Petra. We were like fish swimming against the tide, the day visitors struggling to work their way back up, red-faced from the uphill walk, slightly sunburnt and silent in their exhaustion. It was hardly a recommendation but on we strode dodging mounds of donkey poo.

P1000037A donkey cart returns to the Treasury for more customers

Local donkey are flogged as they clatter up the hill carrying those who had surrendered to the long walk. You have to keep your wits about you, the cart drivers are not interested in anything else than getting one passenger to the top before chasing down another just like taxi drivers the world over. We just kept walking eyes open wide.

P1000041The tight chasm had us scurrying for cover as carts pulled by donkeys bounced and jerked their way back up the hill.
The chasm opens and closes, in fact it’s tight at times and there we gain relief from the overhead sun. Then you turn a corner and the bright light feeds all the way down to the sandy floor. There’s rugged beauty, wind and water shaped sculptures of the rocks then from nowhere is the effects of man, a flat facade, etched columns and depth. It’s just a sliver at first and then you are confronted by this perfect building facade chiseled into the soft rock,you cannot help but be stopped in your tracks. We wandered a bit, dodging more donkeys, carts, camels and touts. My favourite young tout called out “hey, we are brothers from different mothers” then told me he’d could only make it here after school so he has to be ruthless, my word not his but all done without any real pressure and a cheeky smile.

IMG_0370The contrast of natural rough rock and smooth hand chiselled stone is why the  Treasury is known the world over of man’s skills conquering nature.
Next morning we were at the turnstile at 7am both feeling a little better for a solid sleep in a proper bed. Our driver, Fadi has decided to join us and he is like an excited schoolboy. Unmarked and living with his parents he is naive but still prepared to talk with authority on anything Jordanian because he is and we’re not. He stops, often posing with this serious brow, wanting a photo taken before skipping off down the path.

P1000225Fadi our driver, he loved having his photo taken and strikes an imposing stance.

I wait to see his expression when we finally reach the Treasury building, a broad proud smile breaks out on his face and then he is demanding another photo opportunity. This could be a long day.
It is still early and the onslaught of tour buses are still sitting outside the hotels in the main town, their passengers still lingering over the bain-marie of stodgy sausages and pungent scrambled eggs, meanwhile we have the place to ourselves and keep walking. It is a massive old city and weird with nature and man combined with these chiseled facades, so perfectly proportioned. We climb the nearby mountain, half climb, half crawl and the occasional slither. Everywhere there are caves and signs of human existence. The path is now no more than a goat track and the easy to climb steps are now knee jarring drops on the downside.

IMG_0421What a bustling city Petra would have been in its day.

We are three hours in when Jane calls it coffee time and Fadi directs us to a small tent where a local man starts a fire to make us a coffee. It is only then that I realise he must also haul the water to his small camp kettle. We catch our breath whilst he fans the fire to bring the kettle to a boil, like all things produced with effort it is better than normal, although Jane sips just a little too low and cops a mouthful of thick coffee grinds, yuck.

IMG_0423Our local nomadic barrista prepares our morning coffee miles from civilisation.

On we walk past temples, churches, defiant columns and tombs. The main amphitheater still has that regal look to it and you can almost hear an ancient audience roar their approval at an act or song.
Jane and Fadi choose the smart way out of the valley, on donkey back. After a non too flattering mount they are off in a cloud of dust and I trudge back towards modern civilisation two hours up the chasm. I wander being continually side tracked by more and more old facades. The Royal tombs draw me from the main road even though my legs say enough is enough. Finally back near the top and almost midday I am confronted by an army of elderly tourists about to start their walk in. All I can think of is Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun… Jane and I eat lunch pool side and stretch our tight legs in the clean but freezing cold water.
The next morning our driver points us towards Wadi Rum, not for him a map or GPS, no he dials a friend. This entails some fumbling of the mobile some stabbing at the numbers, a slight veering of the car onto the wrong side of the road then a conversation which builds requiring the other hand to also leave the wheel to gesture……great. He is too proud to admit he doesn’t know the way and only seeing sights a second time brings him undone.

IMG_0492A steam train sitting in the most surreal location attacked during the 1917 rising.

We do get there, Wadi Rum is a mountain vista on massive proportions. It is overpowering, a series of steep crumbling ancient mountains. It is quiet except for the whistling of the ever-present wind, a wind which turns to a bone-chattering icy blast in the evening.

P1000174In contrast to the flat desert sands suddenly the mountains rear up on the horizon.

We head out for a sunset tour with a guide whose face shows the ravishes of time and the harsh conditions. Every drop of moisture has been sucked from his skin with deep cracks appearing every time he breaks into a smile or to light his constant cough of cigarettes. He speaks not one word of English, stops often for what can only be assumed are photo opportunities and loves holding Jane a little too tight in portrait shots with his de rigueur red chequered headscarf. He certainly looks the part and is a friendly old? soul.

IMG_0524Jane and our Wadi Rum guide, his skin so dry and hard from the extreme conditions. Actually his two packets of cigarettes per day didn’t help.

IMG_0529It’s not like he wasn’t warned.

We wait on a small mountain top for the sunset, the wind cutting deeper by the minute and the thought of climbing down in the sudden darkness a constant thought. The sunset goes to plan, they all do, and we head back to our tented camp, deluxe mind you with block walls and a hessian peaked roof too funny by half.

IMG_0556Sunset at Wadi Rum, probably the same yesterday and again tomorrow !

The camp Bait Ali is where ancient times meet the 21st century. There are one hundred sixteen year old school girls here for a disco and a mixture of Middle Eastern sounds squeezed into hip hop and hypnotic beats. It has the girls squealing and squirming from seven till ten when they are packed onto a bus to god knows where. In that time we have eaten, drunk a few glasses of red and watched a brazier with questionable hope of stealing some warmth from it. The smart move would have been to dance like a sixteen year old and cop the mirth of Jane ! The cold doesn’t go away as I lie in my bed looking up at the canvas ceiling and listening to the night outside.
Wake early to find our driver has stupidly and stubbornly slept in the taxi because they wouldn’t give him a free room, he hasn’t eaten either. I go to knock on the taxi window but am stopped by another driver who is sucking hard on a sheesha pipe, here try, he mumbles, leave him. I become Arabic and to save face draw on the long flex like a wimp but it’s enough to give me credibility with this guy who was born with four days of stubble on his chin? I send Fadi to my room to have a shower, the thought of him smelling like the local road kill on a warm day exceeds my feeling of humanity.
It won’t surprise you that the drive to the Dead Sea was rather boring with sand, the occasional Bedouin complete with flock and abandoned cars. Oh and then there are the traffic police who are more like revenue collectors with a constant stream of customers being waved in for a questionable fine. These guys are the real backbone of the country’s economy. By lunchtime we have dropped some hundreds of metres in altitude down along the rim of the Dead Sea. It has a shiny crust of salt glistening in the hazy heat.
We stop at a private beach, change and clamber down the steps and into the water, you can feel the pressure on your legs, a small cut on my foot stings from the intense salt. Fadi has drilled us “don’t get water in your eyes it will be most unpleasant “we bob about like corks but I find the whole experience rather unsatisfying as part of my enjoyment of a swim in the ocean is the feeling of full immersion. As I walk from the water both Jane and I feel a sticky oily sensation on our skin. “This is good, this is special minerals making your skin soft” retorts Fadi. No, I feel like a penguin caught in an oil slick is my take on it.

IMG_0576Jane and I trying to unsuccessfully immerse ourselves in the Dead Sea.

An hour later we are on top of Mount Nebo, near Madaba, evidently the last place Moses walked to before keeling over and dying. Our taxi struggled with the climb so I am far from surprised at Moses’s outcome. I can almost hear him gasp, “hey you can see Jerusalem from here” and although he was probably light-headed it’s true. I’m guessing you can tell it wasn’t a life changing experience although it was a lovely place. Completely buggered we drive quietly into Amman and our hotel whilst our driver, Fadi slinks back into his mother’s arms.

IMG_0580A local shepherd waits for the second coming of the Lord. Near Mount Nebo.

Final day and a Friday, the city is silent for their prayer day. Fadi returns and races us through the empty city streets towards Jerash, another city built by those master builders, the Romans. The Romans really did show the rest of civilisation how to set up a new town and always built a Colosseum and other forms of family entertainment from the outset. This one has a fabulous racetrack for the gladiator punter. We wander about simply enjoying the spring sunshine and piles of rubble.

IMG_0614The Romans really knew how to build an amphitheatre. Jerash.

By the time we return to the car the place is beginning to heave with locals setting out for picnics. We head further North to the border of Israel, and Syria and wander amongst locals enjoying their picnics a short throw from these two troubled neighbours.

IMG_0655Jordanians picnic amongst the wildflowers.

it’s hard to believe how much conflict has occurred in this hazy, barren region. We enjoy our own lunch feast in a sleepy village although the proprietor is a sharp Syrian who loads us up with charred meats, halloumi and dips. Then out comes the water pipe and a whopping bill, welcome stranger. Finally return to our hotel, throw down a couple of beers to wash away the day and head for bed, it’s a four am start tomorrow for our flight to Istanbul.

With the wilds of Jordan behind us it was weird to be in Istanbul, a city I have visited twice before. On my first visit the traffic snarl was caused by poor roads and the occasional donkey cart heading into the city. Not today, Istanbul is a sophisticated city bursting at the seams with a sleepless population of 22 million carpet sellers, the traffic snarl remains.
After having the luxury of seeing your hotel name being held aloft by a sleep deprived taxi driver we jostle our way through the aggressive city traffic to Sultanahmet, the old city. Hotel Basileus is a haven, not backpackers and not swish either but terrific staff and almost sound proof enough to muffle the early morning calls to prayer…almost.

IMG_0694I find the hotel I stayed in twenty years ago “calling distance” from Hagia Sophia.

We spend the afternoon wandering the streets but were drawn to the Blue Mosque – it has that ability. Then on to the Haghia Sophia where a queuing local crowd, the equivalent of Melbourne’s total population wants to check it out. At A$12.50 a pop, they were scooping up the equivalent of some surrounding countries annual GDP on a daily basis. The difference between the two attractions was that you don’t pay at the Blue Mosque simply tolerate the air thick with foot odour. At the equally impressive Sophia your shoes stay firmly on your feet and that’s worth paying for. Both are extremely beautiful and although I have visited them previously, both cannot help but leave you gobsmacked.

The other vivid memory I have of my last brief visit to Istanbul was pushing Robyn around the old quarter of Sultananmet in a wheelchair after she had fallen down a stone staircase at dawn in Cappadocia. I had been beckoned to fly to Turkey to accompany Robyn back to Melbourne. Even in a wheelchair she still navigated me through the streets to her favourite shops and restaurants in the days following her hospital release and surgeons approval to return home. Was that really seven years ago ?

IMG_0690The 15th century Haman, the holes in the roof allow beams of light like stars to light the interior.

Up very early the next day for a five-hour mini bus trip to Gallipoli. Tougher than the landing at Anzac Cove ninety-nine years ago, but more scary is the rocket launcher of a bus driver whose mantra is never, never be overtaken. It is a toss-up whether his driving will kill me or the questionable offerings at the petrol stop breakfast bar where the lentil soup is the colour and texture of a highway puddle. I hope the driver doesn’t eat anything here he’s already angry enough. Five hours later we try to stand as the door opens, our bodies locked in the foetal position throughout lunch. More lentil soup but this one has texture and warmth but breakfast and lunch, I know what I’m not eating for dinner?
I’d spent the whole journey down trying to fathom why an Afro-American couple, a Sumo sized Japanese guy who swallowed two seats on the bus and a loud Yank, there’s always one, would want to go to Gallipoli? We were finally split into two groups and they headed off to Troy to find a hollow horse and you could hear them saying “where are those Austrians going to ? ”

IMG_0740Lone Pine, Gallipoli, Turkey

We drove from one cove to another, alighting long enough to see sobering rows of gravestones and a peninsula that would be unspectacular if it were not for the senseless loss of so many young, naive Australian, N.Z and Turkish soldiers.

IMG_0723It could be Brighton Beach Melbourne but no its Gallipoli, a bloodbath for Australia

The trenches were barely spitting distance apart where most of the bloodshed occurred and you simply ask why ? The taking of this peninsula was Churchill’s plan to then sail into Istanbul and attack the Germans from the South. The Turks were a tougher foe than the Brits expected. So finishes Jeff’s short and questionable history lesson on Australia’s coming of age in the world. We were never so naive again.

IMG_0741 The distance between enemy trenches meant they could literally talk to each other.

The only winner here was Ataturk, who telling his soldiers not to fight but die somehow became Turkey’s greatest warrior. Proof of this Turkish pride was the procession of loaded buses stretched along the ridge line. Meanwhile in the background local Turks set up grandstands of temporary seating in readiness for Anzac Day in two weeks time.
The five-hour drive back to Istanbul was silent and brain numbing, I surrendered early as my body was tossed about and my eyes glazed over from oncoming cars. The spell was only broken when the sliding door opened spilling me onto the cold pavement outside my hotel. No, I can’t sleep, not without first sipping an Efes, the delicious local beer, besides tomorrow is our flight to Iran and two alcohol free weeks, agh that beer tasted so good.
For a holiday we seem to be getting up at work like hours. The flight from Istanbul to Tehran is seamless and again a limp placard has our recognisable name on it, a small island of letters amongst the predominate Arab script. Such a relief to have our organised driver standing waiting. It’s an hour to the city and we stop to admire a large monument which embraces both ancient Islam design and new age symmetry. However the real interest comes from actually reaching this monument positioned on a busy traffic Island. With newfound religious interest we close our eyes and step out amongst the cars that dodge you and the motor bikes which seem to line you up ! Add the fact that Jane is now wearing a head scarf which has dramatically diminished her peripheral vision and we had a real risk of adding to what must be a sizeable road toll.

IMG_0759Azadi Tower built of white marble and the West entrance to Tehran.

IMG_0752Poster of a young soldier/martyr with heavenly backdrops around the Azadi Tower.

On towards the city of Tehran, the chaotic traffic belching carbon monoxide at me which leaves my eyes streaming and my throat rasping. There is the outline of an imposing snow-capped mountains high above the city but the pollution almost hides what should be a dramatic backdrop. A short rest at the hotel before we meet a friend of a friend (thanks Johnny) for tea. We head out into the night, Mahdi negotiates a driver, not a taxi, simply locals who independently pick up extra money by taking passengers. We eat a terrific mix of charred meats, eggplant and rice flavoured with butter and saffron. Did I forget to mention the sheesha water pipes flavoured with Apple, cherry and mint before and again after dinner. When in Rome…..          About our route

We spend the next day doing the standard Tehran tourist haunts, The Royal Palace, the library complete with a young girl exhausted from her study laying head down in her notes. A fantastic collection of coins back through the ages with hand forged emblems to real works of art to teensy machine pressed purse fodder. The jewellery museum is high on everyone’s list: tucked in the basement of the finance office a stream of tourists pour into the building only open for two hours per day to ogle one of the world’s largest diamonds, 182 carats and crowns, brooches and rings worn by the early rulers of this land.
Mahdi meets us at seven pm to celebrate his news that his visa to Lithuania has been approved and he can now leave Iran to live with his Lithuanian wife there. We take the underground for half a dozen stops North and walk out into a much quieter Tehran, a quick negotiation with another non taxi and we are at his home in his parents’ car and off to pick up his best friend, Mahout. After admiring the Tehran tower from the freeway we head to the nearby mountains for a panoramic view and a chance for Mahdi to show us his rally car skills. At the top, more than half of Tehran spreads out in front of us and it is an impressive city, the lights manage to hide the dull smog of the day.

There is much debate between the two young men as to where we will go next but neither Jane nor I were ready for the final location, a strip of sheesha restaurants spilling down the mountainside sitting atop a raging river. Small cabins sprinkled amongst the nature with raised floors and Persian carpets. Young boys work as waiters between the cabins with extra ordering arranged by a handy phone hot line in each cabin. We settle in, smoke a pipe, snack forever on a huge picnic spread on the floor before finishing the evening with another pipe. The smoke is mild and no it’s not hashish but it’s midnight and I am quietly relieved when the boy raps on the door telling us to pack it in.

IMG_0808As a famous United States President once said ” I did not inhale.”

We race back through the now empty city, the roads which are clogged all day are suddenly a speedway. Even still it is one am when we finally shuffle through our hotel lobby counting the hours till our guide arrives to take us to Kashan.
Only good for sitting in the back with my headphones on this morning, somehow Jane is able to make conversation, a real trooper. Kashan is a small town by comparison with a few hundred thousand. It has some lovely traditional houses and a very old garden, the Fin garden built around a powerful fresh water spring it supports the very green oasis and the remaining water gurgles through the rest of town.
Our hotel here is shiny new but already falling apart. Jane’s imagination is unbelievable as she sips slowly on a non alcoholic beer and splutters through a cigarette, it’s only day three. I succumb to a chocolate milkshake, it is icy cold and wet yet I have yet to see one cow, I close my eyes and slurp away. After a few false starts and a fast reducing menu in the hotel restaurant I wander back up the hill and find a pocket of fresh bread stuffed with salad and mushrooms in a busy cafe, it’s enough and I return feeling very much the hunter gatherer.
Next morning we wake earlier than the majority of Iranians, in fact the breakfast room is deserted. The country doesn’t seem to get going till ten or eleven am, a handy tip for the Yanks. We belt South along the freeway towards a small to town called Abyaneh, a UNESCO recognised village hidden amongst a local red stone and covered in snow throughout the winter. The local touts are all women over seventy, I’m guessing here as they are well covered in a light floral shawl, and they all sell the same thing, dried fruit. As Jane suggested “you’d think they’d branch out a bit for diversity”. We pass a city that looked terribly like a sand castle city I built at Dromana as a kid, I’m sure they stole my design and like mine no-one lived there.

IMG_0942Crumbling Castle on the road between Cashan and Isfahan.

Finally arrive into Esfahan, a city which looks very European with its good proportions, wide footpaths and tree lined boulevards. We stumble out into the night and head for a Lonely Planet recommendation, a square in the middle of town renowned for its soup but instead we drink a yoghurt concoction and a deep drag on a fag. Doesn’t get much wilder than this although all around the young are preening (as best you can covered from head to foot ) and strutting their stuff ? Dinner avoids us, well proper food does, and we eat chicken burgers at a take away and regret it more with every mouthful. But the local cat, Slinky Malinki, savours our scraps.

Friday morning the city doesn’t move, it’s holy day, and we drive with new found authority wherever we want till mid day. We stop and listen to local men singing poetry next to the thirty three arch bridge where the acoustics resonate through the arches and across the bone dry riverbanks. The poetry is one thousand years old yet they sing it proudly and spontaneous clapping erupts from the punters.

IMG_0928Si-o-seh pol bridge. Isfahan, Iran

The afternoon is spent in the massive Imam square, part of it talking to the young locals, all keen to practise their English and all very proud of their country. Everyone of them announces “welcome to Iran” with a broad open smile.
We walk through the bazaar where Jane and I spend two hours in a carpet shop. The outcome seemed satisfactory to both parties and I learned much about the carpet industry. Jane weakened whilst I stood with my hand firmly on my wallet remembering a similar scenario in Turkey years before when mat upon mat were gracefully and majestically rolled before my eyes. Jane’s carpet is currently flying cattle class to Australia.

IMG_0883The Imam Square.

After two nights of eating poorly we head out determined to find better, Jane has the details, I have the hunger. A pre dinner plate of quality Iranian ice cream primes me whilst Jane sucks yoghurt through a straw. We climb the steps into a buzzing room of foreign tourists, the first time I have heard a noisy crowd in days, all with heads lowered and it’s not in prayer. I spot lamb chops and that’s that. We both order and are a little taken aback when thirteen sweet cutlets in a row appear on each plate and for the first time in Iran, knives at the table, not that I use them. Jane announces early that she won’t finish, I slow just enough to grunt that I will finish mine and I do. Then I sit back and look across the table at Jane’s lonely survivors, get a second wind and finish her last five. Yep, eighteen cutlets, I immediately feel rather sick and Jane declares my tally a local record and worthy of a skewer guard of honour as I waddle back down the stairs to the street and home. Needless to say my sleep pattern was disturbed somewhat. Pass the Quick-Eze…….burp !

IMG_0935Eighteen lamb chops later I found some fellow overeaters scared to open their mouths. 

We head further south the next morning, a very flat boring road full of belching diesel trucks. It is only broken up a by a tea break in Nain, the tea is presented with great aplomb by our guide, Arya. First class tea, not tea bag rubbish he announces and wins us over with a gaz, the excellent local nougat with pistachio. We then enter the local Mosque with underground rooms that have channels of water passing through them. Wind towers are used to draw this cool air up to the Mosque above. even on an early spring day the temperature here is searing hot.
We meet a local photographer fighting a one man war to bring more tourists to Nain. He has a way to go although his political beliefs were crystal clear ” we are the only Nation who have not succumbed to hegemony of the USA” he blurts. Right I think, grateful that he is shooting with a camera and not a Kalashnikov. His postcards were excellent but he’d left no room for writing anything other than the address, torn by his real love, the photographs on both sides. “Next time I will leave room for writing” he announces with a very serious face, I struggle not to break into a broad grin for fear he has a gun under the counter, feeling very much the imperial dog.
On we go with not even a tea house along this road, you can see our guide simply wants to get the three hundred and fifty kms out-of-the-way. Finally into Yazd in time for lunch. He has been banging on about the Silk Road Hotel where he is more family than guest, it does have a great atmosphere and spaghetti bolognaise on the menu although they’d run out, a good change from rice he exclaims. He is a small man who eats one meal a day but, when he eats, step back for fear of losing a limb, he appears to eat his body weight in rice daily. The place is full of Westerners all clutching at any food groups other than kebabs and rice although it’s available for the diehards.

Out into the blazing sun we go to walk off lunch and check out the local mosque, it is impressive but doesn’t really capture our hearts until we see it again a few hours later at dusk. The tinny squeal of the mosque speakers call one and all to prayer for the fifth time today. The flood lit dome roof and twin minarets reaching high into the sky shimmer a magical blue that takes your breath away and for a minute you are found turning towards Mecca. Hang on, suddenly you remember the fact that you’ve been drinking carrot juice, liquid yoghurt and countless cups of tea and decide to stick with the alcohol fuelled West. As for Jane, she is well and truly over the head-gear and unfortunately I am the only person within earshot who speaks English, I wish I could tell the locals her inner thoughts, but then again, maybe not.

IMG_0923Jane after a week of drinking carrot juice and wearing the head scarf.

Jane and I are staying at the Fahadan Great Hotel, the web site advises it is next to the Alexander prison, great I think to myself, might have tea with the murdering neighbours. The last laugh comes from the hotel reception who give me a room which is under two metres wide, an old passageway with a bed in it or if you want to more accurate a prison cell. this is taking the local atmosphere to unacceptable levels but I stupidly suck it up. I push apart the curtains hoping for a window to ease but I look straight into a table of women dining in the tented courtyard. That night I sleep with the a/c sucking in chilled air and by morning I have a banger of a headache and a runny nose, damn. When I broach the subject with reception they snigger knowingly and move me to a room I could dance in if I could…

IMG_0955The Fahadan Museum Hotel. Yadz. The silk ceiling billowed in the soft breeze.

Yazd old town is a myriad of tight narrow lane ways and over the next few days we become expert at finding our way. Past stairways leading deep down to places to escape the summer heat and into other house where they seem to be living in biblical times. “Can Jesus come out to play football” is the type of conversation that wouldn’t surprise me or our neighbours, Joseph and Mary. Motor bikes and the occasional car keen to get to prayer seem the only risk as we wander these unmarked lane ways towards the mosque and stalls of merry junk for the tourists.

IMG_0988Darkness & soft lighting brought an amazing image of the Mosque hovering space-like.

We visit the Fire Temple which I was hoping would be a massive cauldron atop a desolate hill-top to be disappointed at a flame behind glass flickering weakly, the locals have taken on my concept and building starts tomorrow on the alternative. The Towers of Silence hit the mark, two walled towers built atop neighbouring hills. Bodies of the dead were taken there and over time vultures would pick the flesh clean and six months later the families would, return to collect the clean dry bones. Evidently this practice only stopped when neighbouring residents rallied to complain of the smell ! When did this practice stop ??????
In the old town we fall in love with a young Afghani boy running a small jewellery shop, all of ten or eleven who has a cheeky grin and slick English for his age. For him we are a passing game, as much as he would love to sell us something he is simply happy to yell out hi each time we pass, Jane wants to buy something from him but there is simply nothing of worth, he settles for a few snaps standing proudly in his shop doorway.

IMG_0989That’s right puff your chest out like a real Iranian stallholder.

Arya, our guide is waiting the next morning for the final days drive to Shiraz and a chance for him to see his family for the first time in nearly two weeks. We leave Yazd early most of the craziest drivers still fast asleep but one or two wait along small side streets ready to simply launch themselves out onto the main road with the divine protection of Allah, their seat belt. We stop for a tea brew at a cypress tree which is evidently thousands of years old and who is around to question this. Back on the freeway we stick it in fifth gear and bounce along at the maximum freeway speed of 110 kms. Most freeways have been divided and at least three lanes wide much better than I had expected although they are often in poor condition in desert areas.
We try to eat lunch at a roadside cafe but the drone of nothingness and not even the custom of any local truck drivers has us pleading for something just a little better. And we get it, just a little better but when Arya doesn’t eat with us we crunch on the salad and play with the bread. Finally arrive at Persepolis and the tombs of four kings hewn into the face of a local mountain range. They are reminiscent of Petra and some sights in Egypt but their grandeur cannot be denied. The frieze of the king on his horse chiseled deep into the cliff face would be impressive to achieve today. Done on dodgy scaffold, half way up a cliff with chisels and hammer is remarkable.

P1000739Beautiful frieze of The King and his “I’m going to war”horse.

P1000750The magnificent 5th Century Empire at Persepolis.

Finally we roll down through the hills to Shiraz and triumphantly Arya announces that we have arrived in his city and we stop at the city gates to check the vista, never complete without a couple of minarets standing high above everything else and a mosque dome reflecting like your uncle’s bald head. Into the old city our hotel is labelled as another boutique hotel and I have worked out this is code for stick them in a broom cupboard and call it a worldly experience. Yet again I am snookered and find myself asking a table eating afternoon tea if they can move their chairs so I can open the door onto my room. it has two windows which face straight onto the same courtyard dining area. I feel like I am in table 5 not room 5 and also know that the two woman on the next table are far from happy with their boyfriends and life in Iran generally. I last there for two hours before Jane storms reception determined to upgrade me to a room you can swing your arms in !
Soon we are out into the night, a full moon and a dinner overlooking a garden, a shnitzel, a real chicken shnitzel, I almost weep at the variation from chicken kebab. The wine was thin, very thin actually I’m dreaming, it was a fine year of bottled water. A coffee, a bit of time listening to a guy tapping on a tamboree style drum before adrenalin has us running across the busy roads and home. I fall asleep thinking about the driving conditions, they are crazy, there is no pattern, no gaps and no rules, just never brake.
Walk through the old bazaar today before arriving at the mosque where a young woman, Jasmine escorts Jane ensuring she abides by all the local customs and there appears to be many. At the end of the tour we sit and talk with the minister for international visitors, a friend of Arya’s. He is frank and honest in his grilling by Jane and we walk away content, that is until I go to shake Jasmine’s hand. It appears she can hug, shake and do almost anything with a fellow female but males can only stand back and guess at what is under those multitude of layers.
Well that is the impression I get but the contradiction comes less than an hour later. In another mosque a woman asks Arya to photograph her however she is not happy with his shot. She asks me first in Iranian and then in English to photograph her against the coloured glass, she then tells me that she regularly comes to Shiraz in spring and autumn with her husband from Tehran. We talk of her work in a bank, she complains of her government’s strict rules and of wearing the headscarf both as a restriction on women and the discomfort during the oppressive summer heat.
I ask if we can be photographed together, of course she says stepping back to the glass whipping her head scarf off to display her head of thick, luxurious dark hair. I am gobsmacked as it is in a public place, a very public place, a mosque. Our photo taken she is replacing her headscarf and is seen by four other women walking within the mosque, words are exchanged. The others go to the far end and the three step forward, removing their scarves and are photographed by the fourth. not a revolution but an outpouring of frustration. Each city has unwritten laws of the head scarf and in both Tehran and Shiraz the more cosmopolitan cities we’ve visited the scarf is often worn back and showing more hair almost as a barometer of society’s acceptance and women’s intolerance of the law.

IMG_0325The Iranians were always keen to talk, they believe they have no friends in the world.

Late afternoon we sit clothed in an old marble bath house and listen to stories from Arya of the King who constructed this place and other stories of Shiraz. A woman walks towards us offering a mix of nuts and dried fruit and asks in stilted English where we are from, this has happened regular in every city. She has flown from Tehran for the day with her husband to see the tomb of the poet, Hafez. Jane offers her an Australian coin to drop into the bath,” make a wish” the woman turns and tosses the coin over her shoulder and explains that she wishes good luck to us all. She leaves but returns a little later with her hands filled with orange blossom. “Please take this and enjoy the aroma” and then she is off. Again these kind people leave us stuck for words.
Out again tonight with an Australian couple, Martyn and Lisa and their fifteen year old son, Alec who would rather be…..probably anywhere else in the world. But it would be good to hear his take on the whole place after three weeks, a young boy from Orange, N.S.W. We catch two taxis and watch as our driver a true professional darts down narrow lane ways before popping back into regular traffic then slips across five lanes to veer back before we have crossed the intersection. How can you not be scared, your eyes are the same size as your wide open mouth and any hunger for dinner has vanished.
A young German had recommended the restaurant… it is real Persian luxury he announces, with Persian prices. Our meal is taken on a plush white carpeted bed, fish, lamb, chicken, pomegranate and walnut and a lentil and rice bake. We lay about cross-legged till all has been consumed and then decide to leave if only we could. Five Westerners slipped from the daybed like geriatrics hoping the blood which had once been circulating earlier would return to our wobbly legs to get us home.
On our final day with Arya we visit a blur of historical sights including the poet, Hafez’s cask where a constant steam of locals stop to quietly touch the marble cask and show obvious respect for this poet of another era. It is the most popular site visited by domestic tourists here and a great favourite of our guide. He introduces me to a man who is evidently a descendant and acts as a prophet from the readings. He announces long sentences in Persian and I wait for the translation, I hope it is going to be good as there is much traffic to cross to return to the car and I don’t need the “your life will be cut short” version…. evidently my sister will have great joy. they both seem very pleased when I reply that today is her birthday, half a world away. “See, see” Arya explodes, “he is always right”, the beaming smile will not leave his face. I am not as excited at his other announcement that I will go to Iraq. Maybe in the future is my feeble response.
Just to round off the day we are taken for a spin around the posh part of town, university, library, rich people’s homes and Western department stores, his job is finished. Tomorrow he flies to Tehran to start the whole thing again with a group of twelve. We shake his hand and then hand him an envelope, partly in gratitude for twelve days of presenting his country and an equal amount for delivering us safely. Normally this finale would have finished with a round of drinks, instead we head to the cool rooftop to clink glasses of watermelon juice with some other Aussies.

P1000849The artistic beauty of the Domed roofs cannot be denied, they hold your eye.

Tonight’s it’s a three am flight back to Istanbul. They are still turning kebabs at every intersection as the taxi drives us through the streets to the airport. I try to stay in half slumber mode but the cost of an orange juice inside the airport wakes me. Twenty bucks for two freshly squeezed juices and the sly bugger waved Jane away with pay later…..gotcha ! A feeling of arriving home when we arrive back at our hotel in Sultanahmet. It’s easy sailing from here, a couple of days in a city I know fairly well and then some relax in Malaysia sipping tropical drinks and eating fresh Asian food, I yearn for something not presented on a skewer.