08.01.2017 - 10.01.2017 10 °C
Off to Isfahan, the bus company were expecting us and had us squared away in no time. By 10:30 we were on the road (it was actually the 11:00 o'clock bus) trundling through a landscape of rugged mountains and flat plains. It is quite awe inspiring landscape, the mountains seemed to emerge out of the flat plains with almost no rise in between; jagged peaks and sheer cliffs. The country is almost monotone; brown cliffs, brown sandy plains with brown tussocks and bare deciduous trees - it is the middle of winter after all. The only relief comes from tired looking pines of varying types and the occasional interloping gum tree; where in the world do they not turn up? Sadly much of the roadside is littered with rubbish, which creates an unfavourable impression of the edges of a tip. It reminds us of Australian roadsides before the don't rubbish Australia campaign, only worse.
We passed through many tired villages, wondering how the locals could eke out an existence, the land seeming endlessly barren and dry. Occasionally though, there would be a few green fields growing some type of low lying crop, irrigated presumably by pump water. Eventually we stopped for a rest at a roadside cafe and were urged by the driver to get out for a cup of coffee. We followed the other occupants of the bus through one door of a fairly ramshackle building and walked up to the counter where Ian ordered coffee. The attendant pointed out the door and indicated that the coffee shop was at the other end of the building. It was then that the penny dropped, we had followed the others into a prayer meeting... Quickly retracing our steps we walked onto the tiled verandah, where Ian, not noticing the water on the tiles did his best impersonation of a gymnast doing a floor routine, only pulling up just short of decrutching himself. He quickly recovered, somewhat red faced and we proceeded to buy our coffee. We will have tea from now on, coffee is not exactly what the grey liquid appeared to be. About 15 minutes later the passengers filed out, together with a Mullah, resplendent in his traditional garb, with a hat that resembled half a large Easter egg, gift wrapped and placed on his head. What really set it off though was when he lit up a fag and puffed away while chatting with some of the men.
The countryside passed by hour after hour, changing very little until we finally arrived at Isfahan and caught a waiting taxi, which took us into the city and eventually our hotel.
Isfahan is enormous, making Shiraz appear a backwater. In contrast it is highly westernised with large freeway systems, high rise apartments and modern buildings. It wasn't until we closed in on our accommodation that we again found the ancient roots of the city. Once again narrow winding alleyways and frenetic traffic. We arrived at our guest house, the Dibai Hotel and were delighted to find it was beautifully traditional. Carved ceilings, ornate plastered walls and of course a lovely courtyard, from which we can see a tower which appears to be centuries old.
As we had only eaten a snack on the bus, we determined to go and find dinner, so essayed forth into the byzantine alleyways and onto a boulevard, which surprisingly led right on to Imam Square or more correctly Naqsh-e Jahan Square, a UNESCO site. We had hardly stepped into the space when we were accosted by a shopkeeper, who introduced himself as Saeed. He insisted that we join him in his shop for a cup of tea and then while we chatted, he told us that he knew of a traditional restaurant we could go to. Not only that, he walked us right down the street to it! He offered to take us up, but we said we were happy to muddle through and he left us to it. It was at this stage that things became downright ridiculous. We realised that we didn't have enough cash on us for dinner and so decided instead to go for a wander around the square. Ian was embarrassed at having to pass Saeed's shop again, without having been in to the restaurant, so walked over to explain the situation. It is an example of these generous and friendly people that Saeed insisted on lending Ian 700,000 rials to go and have dinner, saying he could pay him back the next day. And he wouldn't take no for an answer!
Cashed up now, we went up to the restaurant and were seated in a private room, where the owner, Mohammed, commenced taking our order. Language was a problem as his English was limited and our Farsi, non existent. We can now say thank you, motshakarem. The solution? Mohammed pulled out his iPhone, fired up Google Translate and then commenced the oddest conversation, with him speaking into the phone in Farsi, the phone speaking to us in English and then vice versa. We all had an hilarious time, what with explaining our wish to have a traditional meal, him advising which to choose and then moving on to talking about our children and god knows what.
We were then served the best meal we have had in Iran; chicken and lamb chabobs (kebab), yoghurt, olives, onions, oranges, an amazing stew of walnuts, lamb, saffron and pistachios, pink fermented cabbage that resembled rose petals, a type of sweet pea leaves that tasted of aniseed and more. And all of this washed down with a strange fermented milk and mint drink with a kind of fizziness to it, Door (which came back to bite Ian on the bum in the following days). It tasted amazing! Cath looked like she was ready to give birth by the end of it, big food baby! The meal was followed up with a pot of tea, served with saffron sugar sticks, chocolates, dates sprinkled with icing sugar and pistachios and nougat. All up about $20 Australian, 500,000 Rial, 50,000 Toman- still haven't quite figured the Toman/Rial thing out.
We had a quick look at Imam Square to walk off some of dinner but the cold night hurried us home to bed.
A bit of sleep in, on day 2 of Isfahan, before we headed off to breakfast in a beautiful underground room, Soufi the owner of Dibai house has done an amazing job of restoring this traditional Persian house but without kitsch, it is a truly beautiful space. Breakfast done and we were off to the Square to repay Saeed and have a wander; after sitting in a bus all day our legs desperately need a stretch. The Imam square is huge, one of the biggest city squares in the world and surrounded by a traditional bazaar. Again we were met with locals wanting to enquire where we were from and nearly caused a riot amongst a group of primary school girls on excursion; the poor teacher was left with no students as they rushed to greet us, suddenly we were in the middle of a pink sea of niqabs all shouting out their names and asking a million questions about Australia. We finally broke away from them and studiously avoided any other school groups in the square.
We met a young local man who advised that we head to the Armenian quarter for coffee and to see the Christian Armenian Church. Cath, ever the trip advisor had already done the research and was interested to visit and wish the Orthodox Armenians merry Christmas. Orthodox Christmas being this week. It was lovely to see Christmas decorations in the street and a bit weird to see Santa in the church grounds- no nativity here. We were left feeling quite sad after visiting the church- constructed in 1655 after the first Armenian expulsion and the museum which outlined the Armenian genocide of 1915. A quick walk through the Armenian quarter fixed that; it appears there is quite a bit of money in this area as the shops appeared upmarket. A quick lunch and we decided to see if we would find our way home along the river.
River, what river? There clearly has not been water in the Zayanderud river for sometime, it is as dry as bone and many locals have given up using the bridges and just cross the river bed. Cath being a river girl, was quite disturbed that they could let this happen and the Si-o-se Pol bridge, famous for its arches and acoustics is a disappointment without water. Using only our noses as the offline map program does not appear to like Iran very much we found our way to the hotel for a little afternoon nap, some housekeeping and to escape the cold.
Dinner at Dibai House promised to be a mix of Spanish, where Soufi now lives in Ibiza, and Iranian but did not really excite us. A fairly pedestrian meal and perhaps we would have been better trying some of the street food but it was just too cold to go out again. Cath even pulled out the thermals for the first time, not so sexy!
Our third day in Isfahan is a national day of mourning, as a former president is to be buried in Tehran. Many of the shops are closed and people are able to spend the day picnicking in the square. As the bazaar is less crowded it is a good opportunity to wander without crowds. It is another sunny but cool day and perfect for an afternoon sitting in the sun, reading and a chance for Ian to rest his back after a mishap when dressing, oops.
A very cold night and we are both rugged up in the thermals to take a quick walk down the street and grab some fast food, pizza Iranian style- hmm interesting but not really to our taste- serves us right for not going with Iranian food but then the locals all seem to love fast food including their own version of KFC.