IT WAS WELL AFTER MIDNIGHT as we queued in the arrival hall of Imam Khomeini Airport waiting to be stamped into the Islamic Republic of Iran. It had been twenty years since we first had the urge to visit this corner of the world, our first trip thwarted by trouble in Pakistan, and subsequent prospective sojourns rendered unappealing due to the various travel obstacles heaped upon the country. But with some motivated effort and determination we were finally there, armed with fistfuls of foreign currency, a fifty day visa, and a bag full of frumpy clothing.
Despite how Air Asia had terrorised us in the lead-up to our departure, not least cancelling our return flight, and issuing us with three sets of different outbound tickets, our journey had been seamless – it seems that it is just the administration that lets this airline down.
We only had time for a quick freshen up between flights and the boarding gate at KLIA2 was our first introduction to Iran. Most of our fellow passengers were Persian, there were maybe half a dozen of us Westerners, and a sizeable Malay contingent. The Malaysian ladies were the only cloistered women, the rest of us transformed before landing. Gone were the skinny jeans, tank tops and blonde tinted locks once we’d all been warned to cover our heads and dispose of any alcohol we may have been enjoying.
We had lost all sense of time after the two back-to-back long haul flights and a gain of five and a half hours to meantime. And it had been over twenty-four hours since we last breathed fresh air before entering the terminal at Kingsford Smith, so we were relying on culture shock to get us through the coming day.
Surprisingly alert, we claimed our bag and tended to our most urgent needs – toilet and money. We were happy to not only be able to change our Australian Dollars, but to get a good rate for them – so we cashed up.
Dave was long-faced at finding out that we’d have to wait for a SIM card, the Irancell system was down and that was that. We passed the remainder of the night in the arrival concourse, sipping tea and people-watching, a strong brew coursing life into us as the passing parade kept us entertained almost until dawn.
We had noticed Ismaeil earlier, assertive in a flashy black velvet suit, spruiking for passengers to Shiraz or Esfahan, stalking periodically up and down the concourse for a couple of hours. During that time we’d had quite a few pleasant chats with the English speaking taxi drivers, so everyone knew of our intention to go to Esfahan. It was almost 6 o’clock when this news reached Ismaeil, and he approached us with Reza, a serious punter for Esfahan looking to share the cost. Communication was limited to Reza’s rusty attempts at English and my freshly learned selection of Farsi words, but we got by and even though we had no intention of taking a taxi for a 400 kilometre trip, the established price of 140,000 Tomans was only ten dollars more than the anticipated bus fare and would save us hours of negotiating the public transport system in Tehran – priceless travel experience no doubt, but the lure of being in Esfahan in just four hours was too great and we agreed to ride together with Reza and his wife Parvin who were keen to get going. They were on their way home from visiting their son in Hong Kong and for them taking a cab home 400 kilometres from the airport was just what one does. So we all piled our stuff into the boot and we were off in an instant.
Ismaeil was a prolific talker, and his voice as well as the occasional selection from his music collection was the soundtrack of our journey south through gibber desert, with barren mountains eventually rising to the west. We took a rest break at a truck stop about halfway, and the mountains reached higher capped in snow. It was very cold.
Ismaeil maintained his verbal barrage and indulged in a tea drinking ritual which he performed with dexterity as he drove along at 130 kilometres per hour. Not fussy about the leaves, he simply dunked a teabag, but he was most particular about sweetening it, and he pulled out a selection of sugars which he kept fastidiously in a little box – these went into his mouth one by one before he poured tea over them.
We drove on, understanding many of the words reaching my ears even though my brain wasn’t able to unscramble the conversation. The landscape was starkly beautiful with tiny turquoise shrines sitting in patches of random greenery in the brown vastness, before we crossed a pass at 2200 metres and made a slow descent to Esfahan.
Our new found acquaintances didn’t know what to do with us once we’d reached the city, so after a roadside halt to to make enquiries, it was decided that we would continue to Takht-e Jamshid on the metro. Fortunately a helpful passerby was going that way, so we bade fond farewells and followed a kindly gent to a metro station so new that no information we had gathered mentioned its existence. We bought a ticket from a patient young man as we got our heads around chopping a zero off Rials to make Tomans, and sought help about which train to board. We were now of course completely illiterate, there were few signs transcribed and we could only read Farsi numerals, which was of limited use.
Soon we found ourselves in downtown Esfahan, again enlisting the help of a shopkeeper to find the hotel we were looking for “bebakshid agha, hotel-e persia kojost?”. And so we were escorted to our address and then shown to a room in the blink of an eye, dispatched by Solaiman at the reception desk who told us that the budget-breaking two million Rial room price included breakfast.
Our next priority was nourishment, it had by this time been over twenty-four hours since we had eaten and I was fading fast. We headed back out with high hopes, our noses lifted to the wind. We made our way to Naqsh-e Jahan Square, perhaps too hungry to fully appreciate its greatness and certainly disappointed that we’d passed no sign or sniff of food along the way, granted that 10:30am wasn’t a mealtime, but still…
In Hafez Street just behind the Mesjed-e Sheikh Lotfallah we finally stumbled into an eatery serving biryani. The smell of lamb was very heavy in the air, and even though its not my favourite thing, it served the purpose and we scoffed down two loaves of taftoon topped with minced offal and lamb fried in a special little grill pan. Served with yoghurt, a plate of fresh basil and chunks of orange, we ate until full then eyed off the bowl of haleem being consumed at the next table. The polite patron offered me his spoon for a taste test – I must have looked hungry…
Satisfied we wandered back through the bazaar, bought some fresh green plums sprinkled with salt, and sat in the square munching on them and chatting with anyone who cared to sit with us. We waved to the tourists promenading in horse-drawn carriages, practised our Farsi on Yusuf, watched Ebrahim show off his calligraphy skills, posed for selfies, and went on a scouting mission with Miryam to look for the illusive SIM card for Dave’s phone. But it ended in tears after we realised that “the line is down” really meant ” we can’t officially sell to foreigners”. We moped around the bazaar and cheered ourselves up with delicious discoveries, again in Hafez Street. A little sweets shop served us fireni, a scoop of rice flour milk pudding with honey – and doogh, THE most wonderful yoghurt creation we’d ever tasted, the icy drink seasoned with salt and dried herbs, the tangy yoghurt carbonated so that it fizzed.
Back in the square our enthusiasm had now improved and we sat some more, admiring the artistry of of the four hundred year old buildings and relaxing like the locals in the lengthening shade. More women were clad in chadors than I had expected, they appeared to float with their cloaks billowing like black ghosts. There were some women so beautiful that they looked good even in the unforgiving attire that we were all forced to wear, but the unfortunate majority of us looked like my famously unattractive primary school craft teacher, Mrs Pickard. Foreigners looked much worse than our Farsi sisters – after forty years of practice they wore their scarves with aplomb, as if they had some secret like Hollywood tape to maintain modesty in any situation.
The warmth with which we were greeted and welcomed by the people of Esfahan added even more to the great atmosphere as couples and groups sat together smoking fragrant qalyan and having picnics complete with carpets laid out on the lawns for reclining on. Horse bells jingled, laughter rang out, and the exquisitely tiled masterpieces of architecture looked over it all, glowing in the afternoon sunlight.
After being awake since midnight we headed home to retire early. I crashed, but on the pretext of going out for toothpaste, Dave returned an hour later looking like a Cheshire cat – he’d managed to get an illusive SIM for his phone. We slept for ten hours.
We woke with the sun at 6:30am, still tired somehow, but we came to life in the breakfast room when we realised how hungry we were. The hotel sobhune was a rudimentary offering, but the bread, sangak was delivered fresh and warm, served with an egg and homeopathic quantities of labne, butter and carrot jam. We washed it down with the requisite cups of tea and headed out for more exploration.
Our first discovery was rather horrifying. At the money exchange down the road they were able to accept our Australian Dollars, but for the piffling rate of 31,000 Rial, 25% off the airport rate one day earlier. The 40,000 Rial that they were offering for the US Dollar was 30% below the web rate. With no access to further funds in Iran we reeled back in horror.
Wandering into the Bazaar-e Bozorg we wondered how best to budget for this prospective calamity. It was already 9 o’clock and the market was far from bustling, most of the shops were still closed and the lanes and passageways were trafficked by clergymen going to and from the madrasa. We lost our way, taking turns through ancient wooden doors to khans and inhaling the heavy scent of frankincense as the shopkeepers prepared for trade. We ended up at the Jameh Masjed sitting to rest on the stoop, ruining the photographs of the French tour group who noisily passed through. We chatted with Ali, pining for his girlfriend in Thailand, and full of information about the politics of the overnight deflation of foreign currency.
The bazaar had more life on the way back, the sight and smell of dried herbs was nice, but the absence of fruits and vegetables was curious. We bought a bag of mixed dried fruits, apricots, cherries and succulent salted plums, then started looking around for lunch. The smell of food hadn’t permeated our nostrils all morning so we headed back to Hafez Street where we found a very friendly eatery serving the haleem which we’d spied the day before. It was a sticky glue-like porridge made of lamb, wheat and turmeric, served with taftoon, onion and fresh basil. We enjoyed the friendly atmosphere in the shop more than we did the haleem, but at least it was cheap at 6000 Tomans a serve.
Next we returned to the tourist office, disappointed that Maryam wasn’t in attendance, but looked after with the same degree of dedication. Our enquiry about the fluid currency situation spurred everyone into action and we were led into the Ali Qapu Palace, past the ticket booth after some words of explanation and into a garden cafe with an ‘exchange’ sign displayed. A phone call was made and an eyebrow raised at the request for Australian Dollar exchange, then we were on the move again, taken into the charge of one of the waiters who led us out into the square and across its magnificence to a mosaic shop. There we were met by a group of men, one of whom led us down the marble steps into the back of his vaulted shop. The black market business was done swiftly and we were relieved to exchange three hundred Australian Dollars for twelve and a half million Rial – just off the web rate now declared illegal. It was obviously worth the risk for these defiant black marketeers, with the Australian Dollar trading below the governments radar of the more desirable currencies.
We stopped for a rest in the Bagh-e Honor behind the palace, and spent the time socialising, first with Ebrahim and his gorgeous family on holiday from Semnan. He invited us with such genuine hospitality to his home, showing us pictures of his garden, that we were checking our map to see where Semnan was after we’d said our goodbyes. Within minutes we were then chatting with Hosain and Hosain, serious political conversation in the garden of roses, with long-tailed magpies calling in the trees.
Continuing on, we walked through the Hasht Behesht garden with its pretty little palace set amongst the pine trees, and across the Si-o-seh Pol, a Safavid-era bridge over the Zayandeh River which hadn’t flowed once in the past nine years. We walked in the shade of the mulberry trees which lined the avenues tantalisingly laden with not-quite-ripe fruit. Esfahan wasn’t a particularly bustling city, the buses weren’t full even at peak hour, the traffic flowed freely, nobody seemed in a rush to be anywhere.
Finishing our walk in the Armenian quarter of Jolfa across the river, we sat near the cathedral enjoying our dried fruits and making more friends, “aks begiram?“
There was no better place to spend the evening then Naqsh-e Jahan Square, so we headed to Hafez Street for refreshments before finding a spot to relax. In the same friendly place where we’d had lunch, they now had a huge cauldron of ash reshteh bubbling out the front. We couldn’t pass without trying that out, and it was quite good, fat noodles in a thick bean soup full of the dried herbs which we’d seen in the bazaar, celery, coriander, leek, fenugreek, parsley. Of course we also returned to the doogh shop and enjoyed a nut-filled pastry with our drink.
To cap off our day we chatted with some charming ladies and their children before being presented with plate of sliced apple and cucumber from another group of nearby picnickers all wearing chadors. Later when I returned the plate, my efforts at speaking Farsi were met with gushes of delight, and we happily walked home through the bazaar, now alternately atmospheric with areas of evening activity, and quite vaulted passageways as the light faded to darkness.
We decided that we were ready to move on the next morning. We were starting to find our Persian feet and were up for the next challenge – finding our way in small town Iran.
After breakfast we went for a last look at Naqsh-e Jahan Square and splashed out the exorbitant fee to enter the Mesjed-e Sheikh Lotfallah – the most beautiful mosque in the world. It was as if the artisans efforts had been concentrated into an essence in this small beauty. A winding entrance way tiled with midnight blue and gold mosaics gave our eyes a chance to adjust to the dim interior, then through a door the worship hall opened out, illuminated by latticed stone openings high above. Every surface of the interior was decorated with opulent tile work – even the floor was covered with turquoise ceramics. We entered with the first rush of sightseers, everybody entering with subdued reverence creating an atmosphere akin to an elevator, a dozen of us pushed ourselves to the rear wall as if in a centrifuge. The dome above us glowed like pearl where the light hit it, large archways leading our eyes up to it, outlined with turquoise swirls. For ten minutes the silence remained unbroken, then as if woken from a spell, a tour guide began speaking and everybody relaxed, moving around to inspect the mihrab and to take it all in from different angles. It was like going to a museum, but instead of looking at the artwork we were inside it. We chatted animatedly with an older lady from Shanghai travelling by herself for a month in Iran, and found our way to the underground vault where the women of the harem once prayed, visible through large grated tiles in the floor.
Back outside the light of day snapped us from our reverie and we set to launching further into our adventure. We packed our things together and opened hotel payment negotiations with Solaiman, finally settling our bill in US Dollars with the change paid in Rial at the favourable rate of 56,000.
Out on the street we got ourselves to Terminal Jey with unexpected ease, first taking a share taxi for 10,000 Tomans at Takht-e Jamshid, then lucking a bus about to depart for Naein. We managed to execute most of these interactions in Farsi, only struggling at the end to understand how much was the bus fare. “Chehel dah” equals fourteen, equals 140,000 Rial – “doh nafar“.
We were pleased to be on our way so easily, and pleased to notice greengrocers in the eastern part of the city – there were fruits and vegetables out there somewhere.
It was 140 kilometres across the desert to Naein. We refuelled at the old caravanserai of Kuhpayeh for 25 Australian cents per litre, and had reached our destination by 1 o’clock, passing only the occasional village of silver domed roofs set within patches of green orchards.
FROM THE BUS STATION IN Naein we had no clue which direction to head to find lodging so we just started walking toward the town centre. Naein appealed to us immediately, the people greeted us warmly and we saw hopeful signs of food as we walked. Pine trees shaded the footpaths, growing from canals flowing with clear, running water.
By the time we started asking advise about a prospective hotel we had overshot by half a kilometre, retracing our steps to Mosafkeneh Gholemi securely padlocked shut. In the shop next to the padlocked door an old man told us that someone would come at 5 o’clock. We went to find lunch.
Not far back along Imam Khomeini Avenue we found a kebab shop and enjoyed kebab koobideh, minced lamb kebabs with grilled tomatoes, fresh sangak and basil salad. Everyone in the tiny shop watched us eat as they waited for theirs to be prepared.
We returned to the hotel hoping that we had misunderstood 5 o’clock to maybe mean five minutes, but alas it seemed that we had a long wait ahead of us. We looked in the adjacent laneway and pressed our noses to the window of the attached ice cream shop, also firmly closed, when young Mobin casually strolled by on his way home from school, turning to ask us almost as an afterthought “sleep here?”, he beckoned us to follow. Dutifully we fell into step with him, walking a couple of blocks away to what was apparently his family home.
His mother, Zari welcomed us inside, looking only mildly surprised at what her son had brought home. She was the principal at the local primary school, and so could speak English, with us occasionally filling in the odd Farsi words that we knew or even common words familiar to us from the Malay. She fed us melon and pistachios from their garden, while Opti, her younger son entertained us with his pop gun.
It eventually became apparent that we weren’t going back to the hotel. Zari’s husband Reza, a literature teacher at the high school came home, delighted to find two Australians in his living room, and after greeting us with gracious hospitality went back out to get more refreshments. Reza was very happy-go-lucky, dancing around the house and singing his conversations, and we felt very comfortable in their home with scarves removed and wearing house clothes which would have been considered arrestably indecent on the other side of the front door. Even though they were very moderate moslems, Zari sometimes wore a chador when she went out, depending on where she was going.
In the late afternoon it was decided that an excursion to the garden was in order, so we all piled into the family jalopy and drove off toward the desert, stopping for saffron ice cream on the way. The garden was hidden in the middle of nowhere behind mud brick walls, a little oasis with pomegranate and pistachio trees, and a small plot of wheat. We walked around the fertile orchards and the laneways which connected them before piling back into the car and heading for the Narej Fortress. We explored the crumbling two thousand year old remains of the ancient Parthian structure with the boys as the afternoon faded to evening.
Back at home we shared a meal of fresh fava beans, baghali, cooked by Mobin to a soft deliciousness that rendered even the pods edible. We’d never tasted anything like it and we all ate with gusto, especially Mobi and Reza. Tea flowed into the night – black chai, rosella tisane, and strong mint tea – “good for sleep”.
By this stage we were overwhelmed by this family’s spontaneous hospitality shown to complete strangers. Blankets were laid on the Persian carpets in the living room for us to sleep on and we didn’t stir until the sun woke us to a very cold morning.
Thursday being the start of the weekend everyone was slow to stir, but Zari prepared the Iranian breakfast that we were accustomed to, and after we’d eaten we were granted leave to go off exploring armed with a list of the places that we should visit. After taking a good bearing of where we actually were, we set off surprised by rainfall once we’d reached the Mosallah Shrine. We sheltered in the pistachio garden in which the shrine was prettily set, with its wooden walls and blue tiled dome, checking out the step well and wind towers.
Next we set off for Mohamadieh, the neighbouring village just a couple of kilometres away across the desert. It was an other-worldly place set around a mud walled citadel which we climbed for a sensational view. The village was watered and cooled by a labyrinth of qanats, subterranean waterways cooled by wind catching towers. At the northern edge of the village were a series of hand dug caves, abandoned by their ancient Zoroastrian inhabitants to be taken over now by carpet weavers, their looms clanking loudly from the depths.
We walked back to town pausing at a random shrine where pilgrims camped in the surrounding pine garden, then continued on to the Masjed Jameh, an eighth century mosque, one of the first built in Iran. It was fun exploring the underground chambers and the ladies hidden mezzanine, and the stucco work around the mihrab was still in amazing condition.
Finding the old bazaar was an adventure in itself and we traipsed all over town looking for it, along the way being warmly invited into a tiny gaz factory, operated by Mustaba, who turned out to be Reza’s brother! Clearly we would have to find more appropriate gifts for our hostess than gaz. We consumed way too much of the delicious pistachio nougat, with Mustaba feeding it straight into my mouth as he plied us with tea and love.
There was more love when we got home where we were met with the aroma of home cooking and ate lunch together picnic-style on the kitchen floor. Zari had prepared ghormeh sabzi and it had been in the slow cooker rendering itself into melt-in-the-mouth deliciousness, fenugreek greens with lamb and kidney beans. She served it with rice and a potato tahdig crust, torche litch chopped pickled vegetables and torche bademjan soured eggplants, and a fresh salad. Now we understood why Iranian food was acclaimed.
We whiled away the afternoon, relaxing with our family, and later again enjoying baghali together, the fresh fava bean season is very short lasting only a few weeks, so everyone wanted to exploit the opportunity.
We spent another comfortable night on the carpets in the living room, waking to find that Reza had gone to his mothers house to tend the goats. We had to work out how to get ourselves to Yazd, another 160 kilometres further out into the desert. There was no bus service from Naein to Yazd, and it seemed that it was difficult to intercept something passing through, so when Reza returned he drove us to a police post way out of town.
And so we found ourselves on the side of a desert highway (cool wind in our hair), surprised to be in the company of the homeless man whom we had first met in the kebab shop two days earlier, and had since greeted on the street periodically. There was nothing there, just the police post set back from the road and a few trucks stopped for a rest break.
We didn’t wait long for a mahmooly bus to pass by and it stopped without hesitation, the driver confirming that he was going to Yazd and kindly accepting our friend aboard too.
AFTER JUST OVER TWO HOURS of driving through empty desert punctuated infrequently with the odd town rimmed with green, we stopped at a random bus station in the middle of nowhere – we were there.
The warm midday air belied the sight of snow-capped mountains in the distance to the west as we stepped off the bus wondering about our next move. From the polite gaggle of taxi touts we singled out softly spoken Saed, who took us the remaining ten kilometres into Yazd, quietly suggesting that we really should go to his friends hotel for a quick look before he dropped us at our requested landmark. We knew that budget options were few, so we acquiesced and I waited in the car as instructed while Dave went to check out the benchmark for our hotel scouting. The nameless hotel in Alleyway 34 was actually a great find. It had only been open for three weeks so everything was brand new and Rasul, the owner, was open to negotiating the room price which dropped from US$45 to 30 with some concerted effort.
Our cosy room in the refurbished traditional house had its own bathroom and a warm floor, and we could take our breakfast and relax on day beds in the courtyard which the eight rooms were set around. Once unpacked and settled we stepped back out to explore Yazd – to arrive in a place which we have never been to before is one of our favourite things in life, and as we passed the Masjed-e Jameh Dave was suddenly awestruck about where we had taken ourselves and a look of euphoria passed across his face – culture shock weaving its magic.
We headed to the Amir Chakhmaq Square noting the large number of ice cream and cake shops along the way. Beneath the hosseineih was a small vaulted arcade with carpet shops and kebabis, one of which we were lured into by the sight of glistening skewered liver and the smell of grilling meat. We met a friendly Polish couple and settled ourselves on a takht, a daybed to enjoy our meal. The liver kebabs were tasty, but the dizi we ordered was the star of the show. We spooned chunks of slow-cooked lamb, potato and chickpeas from a deliciously oily soup in a claypot and pounded it into bubble and squeak to scoop up with sangak, the rest of the bread we tossed into the soup to take up the rich juices.
Full, we sat for a while in the square congratulating ourselves on this new discovery, relaxing in the shade with a young boy who opened the conversation with an adorably shy “welcome in Yazd”. Then we enjoyed carrot juice and rose ice cream treated to us by a couple of Afghan tourists.
We wandered off to check out the old city, passing back past the slender portal of the Masjed-e Jameh, shocked at the sight of a defiant older tourist not wearing her headscarf and attracting plenty of tut-tutting disapproval – here it was about as inappropriate as wearing a bikini in the Pitt Street Mall. Entering the narrow mud-walled alleyways of the old city we walked aimlessly, sticking our noses into places of curiosity and surprisingly running into the French tour group from the mosque in Esfahan – they probably recognised us from their photos with us on the stoop!
We found paradise inside one of the dwellings that we ventured into, a winding entryway opening into a garden courtyard set out with daybeds around a goldfish pond shaded by lemon trees. A nightingale sang in a cage and a few local tourists browsed in a ceramic gallery in one of the adjacent rooms. To the rear was a wind catching tower which we could stand beneath to feel the cool breeze being funnelled downwards. Wooden doors channelled the cool air like the ancient equivalent of switches on an air-conditioner. From the roof we could see the vista of the old city, sand coloured mud buildings with a skyline of decorated wind-catchers popping up, and turquoise domes and minarets adding pops of colour.
Towards sunset we called into the Tourist Library, another traditional house where we sat on the rooftop sipping pomegranate juice and saffron tea as day faded to night and the turquoise domes lit up. We met Milad and his friend Reza who kindly invited us to lunch at his house the next day.
We walked home in the dark, the narrow streets now packed with people out enjoying the Friday evening, and just made it home before the surprise of a thunderstorm – and more rain!
The sky was blue in the morning. Out in the courtyard a breakfast feast was laid out for the hotel guests. All the rooms were full and except for Mylie, a native Iranian who had been living in Germany for sixty years, we were the only foreigners. The others slowly made an appearance to enjoy a buffet of fruits, vegetables, carrot, sour cherry and melon jams, eggs, cheese and sweet sesame halva with piping hot sangak bread. From the rooftop we took a bearing of where we were and set off for another walk around the old city, through the covered bazaar to the shrine of Imam Zadeh Jafar. We were welcome to enter this holy place and I wrapped myself in a chador to follow the mirrored hallways to the tomb sanctuary, spectacularly decorated with tiny mirror mosaics on every surface, the dome twinkling above from the light of a flamboyant chandelier. Inside a green and gold cage were the remains of the imam, apparently more revered by women who kissed the grill and were allocated a larger space for worship than the men. I sat quietly absorbing the scene, a lady next to me reciting prayers as a constant stream of worshippers passed through. People were happy to see us inside, smiling and offering warm “salom”. As Dave waited outside the women’s room a lady gave him blessed dated as she passed along the mirrored corridor in the dreamlike atmosphere.
We found our way back through the bazaar to the Masjed-e Jameh, our agreed meeting place with Reza, to find that it had now come to life and was teeming with tourists, foreign and local. We found Reza and Milad amongst the crowds, first chatting with a Swiss couple on a crowd-pleasing tandem bicycle, then we found a taxi to take us to Reza’s house out in the suburbs on the edge of the desert. It was a second storey apartment much like Zari’s place but completely devoid of furniture, everybody made themselves comfortable on the carpets with cushions and bolsters. Reza’s wife Razi welcomed us warmly, kissing me in greeting, and introduced us to her two beautiful children, Fati and Taha. The aroma of ghormeh sabzi filled the house and we got to know our new friends better. Reza was from Shiraz and moved around from city to city with his family. Milad was living in Tehran, visiting Yazd for the first time, and although they seemed like old friends they had actually only met a few hours before they met us – such was Reza’s gregarious nature, making friends easily.
Lunch was such a treat, laid out on the floor was chelo, saffron rice with tahdig, salad Shirazi with tomato, cucumber and onion seasoned with sour grape juice and dried thyme, and of course, the ghormeh sabzi, slightly different to Zari’s version with different greens but equally delicious. Homemade doogh rounded out the meal served with warmth, generosity and love. Razi even sang to us a Persian love song after we’d eaten, she had the voice of an angel, and I think Reza knew how lucky he was.
Milad was returning to Tehran by train later that evening so we decided to go together to see the city from a viewpoint before he left. We made use of the box of gaz which we had bought from Mustaba in Naein, gifting it to our charming hostess, before the four of us went off, again in a taxi, to Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun, the towers of silence used by the local Zoroastrians as a burial site until the 1960’s. Our taxi driver dropped us off at a point where we could enter without paying at the entry gate, and we laughed together as we climbed the rocky hill to the highest of the two crumbling towers. It was a quietly eerie place with a great view over the city and the neighbouring tower, with the snow-capped Mount Sir rising up to 4000 metres behind. It was a location fit for purpose, easy to imagine vultures circling and picking off the flesh and bones of the dead. We sat for a time continuing philosophical conversation, with Milad’s fine command of English filling in the nuances with Reza.
Returning to the city we lucked a bus going our way, changing once to another which took us all the way to the Amir Chakhmaq where we sat relaxing for the remainder of the afternoon. Reza made friends with anyone within earshot, Milad left us at 5 o’clock to catch his train, and our social group disbanded to go our separate ways.
We had had a really great day and we reflected upon it at home on a takht in the courtyard. We dined on Yazdi-ash which Dave fetched from a shop serving only this single dish of beans and vegetables seasoned with dried herbs, as traditional music drifted into the couryard along with the sound of Persian language now becoming familiar to our ears.
Numbers were way down at breakfast the next morning, a back-to-work Sunday after a long weekend, there was only us and the family of four who had the day before floated the idea of exchanging money with us.
It had rained mud again the previous evening, but the sky was blue when we stepped out, confirming with Rasul that we would stay another day. We strode off for a longer walk to Atashkadeh, the old Zoroastrian fire temple.
Yazd had that same unhurried air as Esfahan, everywhere wide, clear footpaths made for a pleasurable pedestrian experience, and once we reached the temple and recovered from the assault of the 150,000 rial entry fee, we enjoyed sitting in the pine garden in front of the Achaemenid-style building, the smell of wood fire in the air from the eternal flame. Inside we could view the flame, apricot and almond wood burning in a large urn which had been alight since around 470AD. But despite its 3500 year history, the religion was almost dead in Iran and we saw no sign of active worship.
We wandered back, getting distracted in the Khan Bazaar with its flashy jewellery shops and fabric stores busy with lady shoppers fingering coloured chadors sparkling with sequins. The coppersmith’s alley was like Aladdin’s Cave crammed with shiny wares, and ringing with the sound of copper being skilfully beaten on anvils into everything from decorative trays to gigantic cauldrons. Further along were tiny steel foundries, tapestry weavers, and a sugar manufacturer turning out slabs of saffron-flavoured crystals.
We lunched at Shahid Beheshti Square in the Baharestan Restaurant, but qeimeh khoresh, lamb, potato and lentil stew, and roast chicken was nothing to get excited about. Afterwards we feasted our eyes in the confectioners shops along Imam Khomeini Avenue crammed with cakes, nougats, cookies, candies, lavashak fruit pastes and pashmak. We bought green cherry plums in a fruit shop and were fed chunks of rockmelon by a fruiterer in the bazaar who also gifted us a watermelon to take home, insisting that 500 Tomans wasn’t worth the trouble of a transaction.
We mooched around the old city for the rest of the afternoon, returning now and then to our home base which now had a name on a signboard out the front – Almas Yazd Traditional Hotel. Some conversations that we had throughout the afternoon indicated that the currency situation had deteriorated. A ministerial imam had called for the death penalty for any broker dealing on the black market and was baying for blood, calling for two examples to be brought forward.
We were the only punters at breakfast the next morning. Up early we toasted our nan with the usually stoic kitchen hand, and it was the first time we’d seen her smile in three days.
We had packed our things and were off by 8 o’clock, efficiently negotiating with a wizened old taxi driver to take us to the bus terminal for 10,000 Tomans. More negotiating was necessary at the terminal, unable to shake off a tout we at least hammered him down from 720,000 to 650,000 rial for our VIP tickets, motivated by the unknown confines of our new state-imposed budget.
Our bus was on its way to Shiraz by 9 o’clock, passing the hidden green valley of Taft, and heading straight towards the mountains which the highway weaved through, undulating to 2500 metres across broad valleys carpeted with tufty grass. Around Abarqu we crossed a vast plane, the barren earth crusted with patches of salt, then the Zagros Mountains came into view. We whiled away an hour talking with Titsa from Holland who was travelling with her son, as we continued on wending our way through passes and along valley floors green with spring growth.
AFTER FIVE AND A HALF HOURS Shiraz appeared suddenly, opening out in front of us as we passed through the Quran Gate, a narrow pass in a rocky gorge.
The bus station was conveniently located just across the river from the old city centre and we found the Pardis Hotel nearby – hardly paradisical but as good as one gets for US$24 in Shiraz. The hot shower was down the hall, breakfast needed supplementation from the nearby providores of ash at the soup shop and panir from the dairy shop downstairs, but Sara and Baharam at the front desk were most courteous and helpful.
It was 2:30pm by the time we stepped back out, slightly awed that we were in a place as exotic-sounding as Shiraz. We crossed the River Khoshk, an unimpressive trickle, and headed for the bazaar quite desperate for food. We walked for fifteen minutes before we found a street vendor selling felafel and were already sold before he gave us a taste test. We wolfed down his Persian bastardisation of the Arab classic sitting on a bench in the plaza.
A little further along we entered the Vakil Bazaar, immediately impressed by the two storey vaulted ceilings and the quality merchandise displayed in luxuriant abundance. Carpets, kilims and fabrics, jewellery and artifacts, household goods, qalyans, spices, dried flowers, herbs and nuts, we walked through too dazzled to take it all in.
At the far end of the covered market we emerged onto Ahmadi Street and were drawn to the mausoleum of the Shak-e Charagh. It was an extremely busy shrine with heightened security due to the risk of Isis attack. But once we were inside, me cloaked uncomfortably in a chador, we were warmly welcomed by Vahid, a chaperone who vetted us for suitability to visit the inner sanctums. We were herded together with a Russian couple, a Taiwanese lady and an Indonesian man as he tried to explain to us what we were seeing, with interest waning quickly for most of the group. We picked up another member, Jean Pierre, a youthful seventy-one year old cyclist, and as the others dropped away we three were quietly invited into the vestibule of the tomb of Sayyid Mir Mohamed. The mirrored tiles were stunning, shining back at us from the carpeted halls. We walked and talked some more, Vahid taking us up to a viewpoint looking out over the onion dome and minarets of the main shrine. We went into an office for tea and a snack, our conversation turning to politics and including another volunteer who offered to take us and Jean Pierre inside the main shrine. It was forbidden for non-muslims to enter but he told us that if we were discreet no-one would mind, and gave us instruction on our plan of attack. He watched over our shoes, told us what to say if we got caught and I shrouded myself completely to enter to the women’s room. The mirrored tile work inside was breathtaking, beautifully inlaid on every surface, it was like being inside a sparkling diamond. Nobody in the crowd inside noticed me in my shroud, and Dave remained inside for long after I came out, finally emerging in deep conversation with Amir, a charming young man from Shahr-e Kord who next took charge of us, our original group now disbanded. We had been inside the shrine complex for three hours!
Amir showed us around the old city, bought us delicious bastani, Persian ice cream, and gave us his number should we need anything. We were already having a great day, but then we chanced by a gold exchange and stuck our heads in for an update on the currency situation. It hadn’t changed, but our casual enquiry about Australian Dollars revealed a boon – they were at that stage unaffected by the restrictions! So our humble ‘Aussies’ were worth as much as a greenback! We exchanged another $200 and wandered off in the direction of home feeling more at ease.
Musicians played traditional music in the square outside the Masjed-e Vakil and we paused to sit, admiring the portal of the mosque before continuing on back through the bazaar. Amongst the crowds of shoppers inside we were surprised to see a group of Bandari ladies wearing traditional metal burqa face masks.
It was getting late so we bought some sustenance on the way home – fresh camel milk from Hassan in a dairy shop, and ask-e kashk, a deliciously thick soup made with dried yoghurt powder and artfully topped with yoghurt sauce, mint oil, caramelised onion and fried eggplant. We had just got home when thunder started rolling and it rained all night.
It was still raining in the morning when we stepped out wondering how to spend our day. There was even some light hail and we passed the neighbouring baker who gave us a loaf of nan hot from the oven and we munched on the soft doughy goodness as we walked to the local bus stand adjacent to the main terminal still deciding whether to take a gamble on the rain clearing. By the time the old Irankhodro bus heading for Marvdasht was cranking into gear it had cleared to a drizzle so we climbed aboard for the fifty kilometre ride back toward Yazd.
It was bitterly cold when we arrived an hour later looking for something for breakfast before we continued. A small eatery rustled us up some eggs with lavash and the all-important glass of chai, but we were disappointed to be ripped off for the first time on this trip. The overcharge by seemingly nice people left a bad taste in our mouths as we continued on our way, accepting the offer of a taxi driver to take us the next fifteen kilometres to Persepolis for roughly the correct fare. The drizzle was clearing to patchy sunlight as we funnelled in with the masses, struggling to carry our things after having our bag taken off us.
The ruins of the palaces of Darius the Great and Xerxes built in 560 BC were impressively located at the base of barren cliffs. Huge stone door jambs, columns and stairways carved with cuneiform inscriptions and bas relief depictions of glorified court life remained for us to see after 2500 years.
In the cliffs behind, two rock cut tombs made a good focal point to launch our exploration and we poked around the site variously eavesdropping on the odd tour group and sitting to contemplate. Much of the site was annoyingly off limits with ropes and barricades watched over by sentries in pill boxes. But the magnificent Apadana staircase, the unquestionable highlight, was open for us to view after having been buried in desert sands for two millennia, every detail preserved down to the individual hairs on the Babylonian envoys heads.
There was almost no-one around by the time we left, after four hours we were historied-out, and retraced our steps to Shiraz, scoring a better deal for the taxi ride back to Marvdasht, and lucking a ‘Noddy’ bus about to depart.
So it was 3 o’clock when we found ourselves back at the bus stand in Shiraz wondering where we might find lunch. We tried a different direction then the previous day with more success, although we did walk for about two kilometres before finding a kebabi open for business. It was exactly what we wanted and we swiftly ordered chelo kebab which came with the works, the kebab sprinkled with coriander, the rice fluffy, parsley, mint, onion, tarragon, basil and chive on the side, and a cabbage salad with herbed mayonaise. Yoghurt with shallot pulled it all together, and we washed it down with mint-flavoured doogh.
To wind down the day we crossed the old stone bridge to the Imamzadeh Ali Ibn Hamza, the shrine of another eighth century hero. This place was quietly beautiful with orange trees, pines and a palm in the pretty courtyard filled with inlaid tombstones set around a pond and the green-tiled dome rising above the shrine. Inside the mirror work sparkled like a holy disco ball, but it was reflectively quiet, and as I sat absorbing the atmosphere a lady named Sohala came to sit beside me and pray. Thankfully my Farsi was up to simple conversation and she invited me to pray with her – I was definitely having a moment. And as I left, pausing for a last look, the muezzin began the call to prayer from the adjacent mosque enchanting the scene further.
On the way home we bought strawberries and melon, and were invited into a bakery where huge globs of dough were being expertly slapped onto a revolving stone in a furnace.
Stepping out into the freezing cold at 6:30 the next morning we went for a bracing hike across town to the Quran Gate. It seemed curious that there were so few mosques in this Islamic Republic, and we had infrequently even heard the call to prayer. A climb to the top of the gorge afforded a fantastic view of Shiraz with the garden of Hafiz tomb beneath us and the city sprawling across the valley to the barren mountains on the other side. It was wonderfully quiet and solitary – in stark contrast to the Masjed Nasir-al-Molk which we visited after breakfast. An unashamed tourist trap teeming with hundreds of people cramming into the prayer hall which the morning light streamed into through stained glass windows, turning the interior into a kaleidoscope. Needless to say, it brought out the narcissist in everyone, the exquisite pink rose tile work on the ceilings went almost unnoticed to the swarms of people posing in the coloured sunlight. Ladies wearing chadors looked particularly striking as their black cloaks turned to luminous rainbows. As the sun climbed and the light retreated, so the crowds thinned and we too drifted away, wandering off toward the Vakil Bazaar.
The streets were busy and the covered market was thronging with shoppers whom we joined for some retail therapy. We did some snack-tracking buying nut mixes, a sheet of apricot and plum lavashak, dried figs, green almonds, and a plate of hot fava beans sprinkled with cumin and vinegar. We bought a litre of doogh from Hassan in the dairy shop and had faloodeh at an ice cream shop behind the old fortress, choosing the busiest shop, Jamshidian for our sugar fix. The crunchy noodles chilled in sweet rose syrup were topped with mastic ice cream and finished off with a squirt of lemon juice.
Deep in the heart of the bazaar the Zand era Saray-e Mehr provided a place to sit and soak up the atmosphere. Tall orange trees filled the courtyard which was lined with curio shops and artisans workshops. Caged finches and larks sang and turtle doves cooed in the trees as customers browsed, coming and going from the surrounding arcades.
WE WOULD HAVE PREFERRED AN earlier start the next day, but our choices for onward transport to Shooshtar, our next destination 520 kilometres away, were limited. Our enquiries at the bus terminal turned up a direct bus at 4pm, to arrive at 2am, or a morning departure to nearby Ahvaz at 9 o’clock. Neither option was appealing, but hoping for the best, we bought tickets for Ahvaz, taking them home to double check with Baharam that the squiggles on our ticket matched our expectation of where we’d end up.
The bus didn’t actually depart until 10 o’clock, not a good start for the first nine hour leg of our journey. One million Rial was a big outlay for our two Asia Safar tickets and we would have rathered speed over comfort, but comfort was what we got. Eventually heading northwest we first climbed, passing nomad encampments, then descended spectacularly from the mountains to valleys with orchards of almonds, oranges and pomegranates. It was slow going with frequent stops to pick up passengers and a lunch break at Nur Abad.
We dropped down the river valleys, most dry but some flowing with turquoise blue streams in beautiful contrast to the green fields and tan mountains. Shepherds tended their flocks through the scene as they would have done for thousands of years.
By the time we had reached Behbahan we were almost at sea level, close to the Persian Gulf, driving through rocky desert, naked hills folding into crinkled mountains raw and exposed. As we neared Ahvaz the landscape flattened and was strung with power lines criss-crossing the desert like a steel forest. Oil wells pumped crude to refineries on the horizon and fire balls shot from gas flares.
It was 8 o’clock by the time we’d skirted the city, modern and rebuilt after being all but destroyed in the Iran-Iraq war in the mid 1980’s. We were only about 100 kilometres from Basra in Iraq, and Ahvaz had a definite Arab feel to it with many men on the street wearing jalabiyas, and a parching heat in the air.
The main bus station, where we were taken wasn’t where the Shooshtar buses departed from, and we were annoyed at having to take a taxi ten kilometres back across town to a point which we’d been within spitting distance of half an hour earlier. We shared the taxi with Dutch couple Hank and Helen, who despite their hippy-trail travelling pedigrees decided to abandon their plans and follow us to Shooshtar, quelle horreur! But we shook them off once we’d reached the other bus stand when it was understood that buses to Shooshtar had finished for the day and only savaris were running at that late hour. I neglected to translate the bit about there being no buses the next morning because of Friday prayers. They ditched and went to a hotel, we ploughed on taking a savari dar bast for 400,000 Rial, and I was so thankful to myself for all those hours spent listening to Farsi language tapes. I couldn’t speak much, but it was enough to not only retrieve the necessary information but charm my way to it!
So at 8:30pm we found ourselves in young Amir’s taxi heading one and a half hours down the highway to Shooshtar wishing that we’d taken the 4pm direct bus option instead – ahh hindsight…
The hotel which we asked Amin to take us to, the very nice-looking Sarabi House, was full, so at 10 o’clock on a Thursday night when Shooshtar was in full party mode, we were wandering the streets looking for a room. Luckily our next find, Hotel Shooshtar, had plenty of vacancies and was great value at just 800,000 Rial for a very clean room with a bathroom. I got to practice my Farsi again with Ahmed at reception, then we had a cold shower and fell into bed at 11pm, naked under a slow-moving fan.
THE TOWN HAD SOBERED WHEN we stepped out the next morning. There was little sign of life at 7 o’clock as we took a stroll to get a bearing on where we were. We found breakfast in a soup shop, minty ash-e berenj, and nan from a baker across the road, practising ta’arof with each transaction as our payment was initially politely refused. We sat eating our breakfast picnic on a bench overlooking the Gargar Canal and the third century water management system built by the Romans under Sassanid orders. It was an impressive looking system of weirs, tunnels, canals and waterfalls, an ancient hydro and irrigation complex carved from stone. The sound of water sluicing attracted birds, night herons, geese, swifts and the colourful flashes of kingfishers.
We moved on, walking downstream where the thirty metre deep canal, hand dug two millennium ago, filled with a palm garden – an exotic spectacle. At 9 o’clock the day was already heating up as we continued our exploration heading off through the old city toward the shrine of Abdolah. We entered the cool of a covered market checking out the lowland produce on offer. Fruits and vegetables were more plentiful and the array of pickles was extraordinary. Everything torche was available from pickled green olives, peppercorns and chillies, even apricots, plums and barberries. A taste test revealed that this skill was taken very seriously as a pickled green almond exploded with flavour in my mouth. A few stalls along a baker was churning out koluche, a big sesame biscuits stuffed with caraway flavoured date paste. We ate them hot from the oven with a thoughtfully offered glass of chai.
After paying our respects at the shrine and obliging several photo opportunities, we checked out the Sassanid era Lashkar Bridge over another canal connected to the ancient irrigation system. A large population of turtles lived in the stream below the small weir and an appealing tea house was set along the banks, unfortunately closed for Friday prayers.
Wandering back via the market, we bought oranges, melons and mulberries, and sampled dates and tahini pekmez paste. We checked out the fresh carp available in the fish market and stopped for a carrot juice with ice cream to beat the heat. It was almost 3 o’clock by the time we were looking for lunch, selecting a likely-looking eatery hidden behind a doorway in Shahrivar Square. Run by a trio of matter-of-fact business ladies, they sat us down with a feast of rice and ghormeh sabzi with salad, onion, chilli, yoghurt and thick minty doogh.
The heat increased into the afternoon as we set off to explore some more of the town. We walked to Pol-e Shadorvan, a ruined Roman era bridge over the River Karun, and from there we spotted the Qaleh Salasel on a small knoll. Above ground the castle was ruined but subterranean passages were deep and cool. From our vantage point we could see the Band-e Mizan weir which we made our way to, and found a quiet spot to sit under the acacias away from the paparazzi to enjoy the scene. In front of the distant crenellated hills was the blue and silver domes of a mosque amid the mud brown of the town. Tall reeds vegetated the river behind the weir and attracted bountiful birdlife, bee-eaters, stilts, sandpipers, reed warblers, coots, plovers and nightingales. Shepherds herded their flocks across the weir and fishermen threw their nets into the canal.
In the evening the hydraulic rock cut waterfalls were illuminated and there were still a few families out promenading at the end of the weekend enjoying the view from the weir.
Saturday, the next morning, it was back-to-work for us too. A travel day, but with a leisurely start. We weren’t sure where we would end the day, the outcome would be dependant on transport connections and on-the-spot decisions. We walked across town to the bus station after a good breakfast of ash and lavash, the bread gifted to us after we lost a passionate round of ta’arof. A minibus going our way left at 9:30am and we were efficiently herded onto it when it was time to go – those who had waited the longest got first pick of the seats. The ticket seller yelled at the seemingly reluctant driver for a while, then we were off, shooting across the fertile plains for an hour to Dezful, leaving Khuzestan behind and entering Lorestan province.
In Dezful we stopped at a random intersection, and our driver, still cranky, was offering us no hints as to our next move. Everyone alighted, and fortunately two of our fellow passengers were also heading toward Andimeshk so we took a savari together, the cheerful driver taking them to the airport and us to the train station after a scramble for our dictionary to avoid the ‘chicken dance’. Our eyes were on stalks as we entered Andimeshk, on the lookout for suitable lodging, but it turned out that we didn’t need it.
At the station we were told that there was a train to Dorud in an hour, and we decided to catch it despite our unpreparedness for a seven hour journey. With due haste we found the nearest kebab shop, run by affable Hassan who spoke English with great enthusiasm. He really looked after us, grilling plump tomatoes to go with our succulent kebabs and procuring chai for us from a neighbouring shop. We had ten minutes to spare back at the station where we were quickly directed to a man selling tickets, warmly welcomed to Iran by a fellow passenger, and escorted to a carriage where our comfort in the old rattler was ensured.
On a smooth wide gauge track we climbed from our starting altitude of 175 metres to 1500 metres in a relaxed space of big bouncy seats with passengers boarding and alighting at random stations and track side halts in the wilderness. Vendors plied the aisles selling cakes and biscuits as outside the window the rural scenes unfolded, tinged with green from the recent rains and blooming with wildflowers in moist gullies. Low hills gradually became high mountains as we climbed into the Zagros, the layers of strata swirling above us as we swept over bridges and through tunnels ever more spectacularly. High pastures supported flocks of goats and their shepherds who lived in tiny stone villages.
It was a really social atmosphere in the carriage as passengers swapped seats to talk to each other, and hung out the windows. Sahar, a sweet young woman from Sepid Dasht kept us company with hours of conversation via our dictionary until we reached her stop where the tracks spiralled three times around the village, and we took on volumes of passengers lending an overtly human smell to the confined space. The air cooled and the landscape became forested, and when we finally reached Dorud an hour earlier than expected it was rainy and freezing cold.
Alighting with the masses we marched from the station like an army on the battlefield meeting its enemy, a line of taxi drivers shouting a war cry and ready to fire. The savari stand was on the other side of the city so we engaged one to take us there, amazed at how the climate had changed. Patches of snow lingered on the mountains above and a fierce wind blew, sending shock waves through my body like icy needles – I adjust more readily to heat.
At the savari stand we waited a while for two other punters wanting to go to Khoramabad, but it was already past 6 o’clock, and although we were enjoying getting to know the drivers in their toasty heated booth, we really wanted to get going so we bought the extra tickets and set off dar bast.
Sajod drove as though he were immortal, weaving through the highway traffic at high speed showing us pictures on his phone of his family, his Farvahar tatoo, and alarmingly his membership of the Iranian chapter of Narcotics Anonymous, while proclaiming his firm dislike of the Ayatollah. I lamented my lack of a seatbelt as we careened over the mountain highway undulating westward, dodging trucks at breakneck speed in the evening drizzle.
THE WHITE KNUCKLE RIDE LASTED almost an hour. Happy to arrive intact at the savari stand, we were handed over to the even more affable Iskender, who drove us in relative safety into the city and dropped us off at the likely-looking Hotel Karoon where charming Nariman welcomed us warmly to Khoramabad and showed us to a very comfortable 1.2 million Rial room including breakfast. Of all the possible scenarios for our day, we hadn’t considered this one. We had had a great day, with transport connections we couldn’t have hoped for, and were surprised to be laying our heads down in Khoramabad that night.
It was raining and icy cold when we woke the next morning, and we didn’t venture out from our cosy retreat until 11 o’clock when it eased to a spit. We took a casual stroll through one of the old neighbourhoods being met with friendly welcome, then following the instruction of Hasan, our elderly hotelier who spoke impeccable English, climbed the hill opposite the hotel for a spectacular view of Khoramabad. The forty minute hike took us to the roof of the city where the sweet fragrance of wildflowers filled our lungs and the township spread out beneath us with the focal point of the 1600 year old castle of Falak Ol Aflak sitting on a knuckle of rock in the centre. A dramatic escarpment hemmed in the outskirts, and we could trace the old caravan route past an ancient beacon and bridge leading down the wide valley to the west.
In a small eatery back in town we wolfed down two 8000 Toman servings of dizi, served with such enthusiasm by Nadel that he smashed our ‘bubble and squeak’ in demonstration, broke bread into our soup, and suggested a tangy plate of torche to jazz it up. Walking it off we roamed around the old town, following a row of amber trees past the 800 year old wooden doors to a caravansaray, where we were welcomed in by a jeweller who made us understand that his father had visited Sydney forty years ago with a troupe of Iranian wrestlers.
We bought strawberries and green cherry plums in the bazaar, and chatted with butchers busily displaying mounds of stomach and skilfully de-boned heads hanging from their tongues. We checked out the old men selling antiques to each other on a street corner, and were excited to spot a pair of mongoose in the garden beneath the castle. Everywhere people were friendly, wanting to chat with us, and we spent most of the afternoon happily wandering.
AS ALI BORJA CHEERFULLY SERVED us our breakfast in the big downstairs dining room the next morning, the night watchman was expressing his concerns for our welfare as we prepared to launch ourselves from Khoramabad on our onward journey. We had thought him to be quite gruff, but his concern was touching, and only assuaged after he found an English speaker to ensure that we had received travel advice from Hasan.
Stepping out into a calamitous thunderstorm we hailed a taxi and the driver, Alif, had to negotiate floodwaters to take us to the Terminal Shomal, dodging submerged manholes which had blown their covers in the intense deluge. At Shomal, the city’s northern bus station, we found two lonely minibuses and an Irankhodro, which we were directed to for the first stage of our journey. It was almost ready to depart, full of passengers delighted to have us aboard. Fashad, an English teacher, gleefully took on the roll of spokesman, relishing his first chance to speak English with a native speaker.
By the time we had reached Nur Abad, everyone in the rear of the bus had become firm friends and we were all a little sad to say goodbye. The lashing rain had eased, but it was really cold with what looked like a fresh dusting of snow on nearby mountains.
We were on our way again by 10:30 after some well animated negotiations with a savari driver, with confusion on our part and frustration on his. We shared the savari with Mehdi and another passenger who we picked up on the side of the highway. This ride took us towards the mountains of Kordistan, awesome as the clouds cleared and lifted to blue skies, green fields and snow speckled craggy peaks.
We were dropped off at the Terminal Kaviyani in Kermanshah where we were met with a wall of confusion at the savari stand which Mehdi had kindly scouted out for us. There was no shortage of vehicles willing to take us, but the quoted fares were very high and we couldn’t communicate that we didn’t want to return to Kermanshah. So Dave ferreted out a minibus stand in a far corner where a rusty old Irankhodro was leaving for Sanandaj in an hour – a simpler if more time-consuming option. A string of friendly bystanders kept us entertained, not least an elderly gent named Ahmed who gave us his number should we need him.
There were no obvious lunch options at the vast terminal so at 1pm we departed hungry, but glad to be on our way. We drove for an hour through a wide green valley, the driver dropping us off at the savari stand in Kamyaran as instructed by one of our friendly bystanders earlier.
Then the challenge was on again as we were surrounded by a small scrum of drivers keen to take us on the final leg of the days journey. 300,000 Rial was the best deal we could negotiate for the fifty-five kilometre ride to Palangan dar bast. A well placed falafel stand saved us from starvation, and a Kamyaran falafel was far better than a Shirazi one, with elastic lavash bread, delicious pickles and a full salad. We chomped as we set off, the driver Ifah already not endearing himself to us as he threatened to light a cigarette almost immediately after we left.
We drove up a verdant valley towards mountains still crusted with winter snow, the landscape becoming more beautiful the further we went, and Ifah alarming us more and more with his poor driving skills, veering onto the wrong side of the narrow country road as he sent what could have been his ultimate text message. In his final act of bastardry he took us to the fish farm a kilometre downstream of Palangan and instructed us to walk the rest of the way – we wished him well on his return trip.
PALANGAN WAS A VILLAGE OF LESS than one thousand inhabitants, wonderfully friendly and living a life of rural splendour. The village was crammed into a tiny ravine, stacked up the rocky cliff faces above a stream of snow melt, stone wall dwellings with sunny porches and balconies, and special rooms for the livestock which was regularly herded up and down the stone pathways. A pungent farmyard odour filled the air. The men wore traditional Kordish dress, flamboyantly baggy trousers and wide cumberbunds, and the old men sometimes wore a goatskin vest. The ladies wore long fitted dresses and tiny black velvet vests, some of the older women with head jewellery under their light scarves.
We found our way to the main stairway up through the village and at a small shop found Saleh who gestured that he had a room to rent. Just what we were counting on – not expecting to find a hotel in such a place, we were hoping for an opportunity to spend some time in rural Iran. The 400,000 Rial suite on offer was very basic and neglected, but there was a warm shower, a gas heater, a semi-functioning kitchen, and blankets for us to make ourselves comfortable on the carpets. There was no lock on the door – that was unnecessary.
Food was our next issue, and a walk further up the road revealed few options. In a small store we found fresh dates and yoghurt, and serendipitously a roving greengrocer pulled into the parking area at the end of the road and we joined the gaggle of ladies doing their weekly shop, buying the fruits and vegetables that would sustain us for the duration of our stay – 6000 Tomans for as much as we could carry.
Everywhere we went we were greeted with a warm “slom”, a smile, and a soft “khub-i”. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the village, finding our way around the narrow cobbled paths to vantage spots on mud and straw rooftops until the sun dipped and the lights came on as people went home and the cows and goats were put to bed.
We woke to the sound songbirds, tits and wagtails, then cows lowing, roosters crowing and goats bleating. We lit the heater and made ourselves a breakfast of dates and yoghurt, tomatoes and cucumber, and fresh corn grilled on the gas stove as inspired by Mobi a few weeks earlier.
All was quiet out in the village, with just a few shepherds taking out their flocks, and we set off for a walk up the ravine beyond Palangan. It was like some idyllic paradise as the trail petered into a goat track as we passed lush stone walled gardens of almond and fig trees with wildflowers blooming and nothing but the sound of the river. Above us from the rocky walls of the gorge gushed springs which flowed as waterfalls into the rushing olive green water below. We walked for an hour until the ravine closed in and the trail ended, and we sat for a while contemplating the remote and beautiful nature.
Palangan sat at an altitude of one thousand metres, so once the sun entered the gorge the day warmed up with clear blue skies. Wandering back we took a longer route through the village on the opposite side of the river then settled ourselves at a little fish restaurant for lunch after a few impromptu photo shoots. Even our adopted dog was included!
Huge daybeds with carpets and cushions for reclining on sat on a terrace next to the river, the perfect spot to enjoy a grilled trout. Our fish was summoned from a tank, dispatched, and expertly splayed and de-boned, lightly seasoned with turmeric, cumin and salt, then grilled over charcoal. It was so large that we needed nothing with it, just an onion and a loaf of lavash to mop up the juices. We finished our 3300 Toman meal with a cup of saffron ice cream, and reinvigorated set off in the other direction past the pomegranate orchards at the end of the gorge to the pastures beyond, following shepherds tracks until we reached a high point looking down on the next ravine cut by the Sirvan River. An old man led his flock down a precarious cliff side, as surefooted as his sheep, crickets chirped, the occasional donkey brayed, and animal trails striated the green hillsides dotted with shade trees.
On the way back to Palangan we met some interesting characters – three men with a drone making a documentary in the village, and we were interviewed for our impressions. We also met an Australian man, Alistair and his girlfriend, travelling by hire car, and our jovial conversation attracted a crowd of young listeners trying to copy our vernacular.
As twilight fell we positioned ourselves at the bridge in the village to watch the animals come home. The cows arrived first, pausing to water themselves at the troughs, then the goats and sheep dividing themselves into ever smaller flocks as they made their way to their own pens through the lane ways up into the village.
We made an early start the next morning in order to catch the daily bus to Kamyaran. We had improved on our makeshift breakfast with some lavash saved from our fish lunch, and labne cheese to go with our tomatoes, cucumbers, yoghurt and Bam dates. At 7 o’clock the Irankhodro began loading. A pack donkey turned up with goods which were stacked onto the roof along with a goat, and inside everyone except us was wearing Kordish outfits, laughing together and, soon enough, enjoying the ride.
In Kamyaran we ended up at the same savari stand, but with a much smoother transition to our next transport, quietly ushered to a savari waiting with two lady passengers for Sanandaj. I was welcomed into the back seat with “slom”, happy smiles,“khub-i?”.
Even with an older man behind the wheel, the seventy kilometre drive to Sanandaj was more hair-raising than it needed to be. Happy to arrive safely we then had to deal with the taxi drivers at the bus terminal who were most insistent on taking us back to Palangan. We ended up in the vehicle of an unlikable man, heading into town with Dave on his phone explaining to some random guy that we REALLY didn’t want to go to Palangan. We could only shake the pain-in-the-arse when we closed the door to our room in the Hedayat Hotel which we had asked him to take us to.
IT WAS A BIT OVERWHELMING to be back in a big city after a few days in the village. Sanandaj was the capital of Kordistan and a thriving city of four hundred thousand. Our 1.2 million Rial room jutted out over Ferdowsi Street, the main thoroughfare, which thronged with trade and pedestrian activity.
Eager to explore, we stepped out into the crowded street, shuffling off in a random direction. The city was prosperous, with bountiful produce all around us, sweets, nuts, fruits and vegetables at every step, and a handsome well-dressed population, the men favouring their traditional trousers and the women as fashionable as the clothing boutiques we passed.
We didn’t get very far, as we sat with old Hossein and Haji on the portal of the Qajar era Masjed-e Jameh drawing a small crowd, we were messaged by Kian, the documentary director whom we had met in Palangan, and he came immediately to whisk us off on a tour of Sanandaj, scolding us for going to a hotel instead of staying with him.
That afternoon he drove us everywhere in his car – to the top of the treeless 2500 metre Abidar Mountain for a view of the city and the stark circle of mountains surrounding it, back to town for carrot juice with rose flavoured ice cream, to a bakery in the outer suburbs for khalana, a delicious pastry-like bread filled with green onions and painted with butter. In his rather luxurious apartment in Payam he made us feel at home, and we watched some of the drone footage he had take with his crew the previous day in Palangan.
We were granted some free time in the late afternoon so we went for a stroll through the old covered bazaar close to our hotel. It was a sensory overload, as if we had just arrived in Iran all over again. The shopkeepers and street vendors were outstandingly friendly, inviting us for glasses of tea, speaking to us in English if they could, and Farsi if they couldn’t, everywhere welcoming us to Kordistan with warm smiles. We took photographs and were photographed, pausing frequently to chat and check out the goods being purveyed from fresh green chickpeas and hand woven shoes to a row of old men breaking sugar into cubes with small axes.
At 8pm we met Kian again, he collected us in his car at Azadi Square and took us back to his place to meet his lovely wife Dima. We looked through the family albums in what was to be a game of ‘memory’ for the evening ahead. It was almost 10pm when we went to his grandmothers house where the extended family were meeting for dinner, and we were treated to Kordish hospitality at its finest. We were both curiosity and honoured guests to aunts, uncles, sisters and nephews and we spent a wonderful evening together, with young Dina and Pejma acting as chief translators as we all learned about each others lives.
The food was a magnificent feast with trays of salads, dishes of khoresh with tasty dried limes, bowls of torche, a delicious milk soup with corn and chicken, plates of tahdig, roasted chicken and mushrooms, and rice with saffron and barberries, as well as wobbly sweet puddings. The spread filled the floor of the living room with the twenty or so diners sitting around it cross-legged enjoying the food which was served at 10:30pm. But it wasn’t over yet. Everyone sat back to repose and continue our conversations while more treats kept coming. Tangy fruit pastes, roasted pistachios, almonds and pepitas, then trays of cakes, and finally fruits and more tea, served like a palate cleanser in lieu of wine between courses.
We staggered home exhausted, driven back to the hotel by Kian at 1:30am where Hosro had to unlock the door for us.
I erred again the next morning at breakfast in the downstairs dining room when, bleary-eyed, I forgot to wear my scarf, but luckily Dave remembered before we went outside! Still feeling spent after our late night we had an easy morning, sitting in the courtyard of the Asef Khan, an old Persian mansion of understated opulence, and wandering in the bazaar again where we found a simple lunch of dizi.
Kian collected us again in the afternoon and we went back to his apartment for a rest. I slept for a solid two hours, still trying to catch up from the previous night – we couldn’t keep up with the Kordish lifestyle.
In the evening we were kindly invited to dinner at his parents place, an identical apartment in the same building, but traditionally furnished only with carpets. This was a family meal rather than a party, with just us, Kian and Dima, Aysha and Talib, Kian’s brother Adib, and cute little niece Aruna. Again we ate at 10:30pm – mushroom, tomato and chicken kebab which Adib grilled on the balcony, a tray of cabbage salad, plates of herbs, basil, coriander, chives, pickled cucumbers and mistletoe, and best of all, a dish of the forest greens which we had seen in the market, collected from nature and sauteed with egg and love. Kian was actually researching for a documentary on the medicinal properties of these greens, so we were all expecting to wake up looking twenty years younger the next morning. Afterwards we ate cakes, melon juice with ice cream, koluche (walnut-filled biscuits), and the strawberries and gaz which we had brought along. The warmth and generosity with which we were welcomed into these peoples lives was heart melting. Even six year old Aruna made us feel that spontaneous friendship was in the Kordish blood.
At 12:30am Kian announced that we were going to a wedding – a bit late even by local standards. By the time we got there the guests were already leaving, so we only had time to congratulate the happy couple. Never mind, we went to another wedding, but that was also winding up, so after a few phone calls we came up with a third and arrived just in time for the finale. The bride and groom were dancing in a cloud of smoke mist, then female guests and children danced around them offering gifts. We were met with looks of delighted surprise, and it was wonderful to see women looking beautiful in dresses with their hair down enjoying themselves freely.
Again we arrived back at the Hotel Hedayat after 1:30am, waking the night watchman and surprising a drunk on the street outside who rubbed his eyes in disbelief at the sight of us, comically mumbling something which might well have been about having to give up that illegal hooch.
Our hotelier Hosro forgave us all our misdemeanours, feeding us breakfast again the next morning and wishing us well on our onward journey. We were gone by 7:30am, hailing a taxi on the quiet Friday morning streets in light drizzle. Tofir picked us up, chatty and honest, he saw that we were looked after at the Saqez terminal where we had the option of an Irankhodro minibus leaving at a time unknown, or a savari going immediately if a lady could be convinced to join a threesome of us and a chain-smoking Mehdi heading for Bijar. They failed to convince her but I somehow succeeded with my broken Farsi and we were off, shooting down the highway once the seating arrangements were sorted out.
We drove for two hours through a landscape of bald green mountains with rocky outcrops blackened by the rain. Poplar traced waterways along shallow valleys and the traffic was reasonably light as we rode in fear, tailgating and overtaking trucks in blinding water planes.
We were in Bijar at 10 o’clock, taken to a terminal at the far end of town where the likelihood of onward transport looked remote. But by 11:30 we were on the road again after enough interested parties for Zanjan had turned up to make a savari foursome. The weather had closed in and the lady next to me in the back ensured that everyone was buckled in, then prayed aloud to her prayer beads for the entire 140 kilometre journey, leaving Kordistan behind and entering Azerbaijan province.
WE WERE IN ZANJAN BY 1pm, scouting for a place to stay, and finally settling on the upmarket Hotel Ghasr, where we negotiated a reasonable US$30 for a well-heated room with breakfast, a shower and TWO toilets – never had that before!
Seen as it was a rainy afternoon we abandoned our plan to visit nearby Soltaniyeh and instead snuggled down in a hammam converted into a gorgeous little restaurant tucked into the bazaar. Haji Dadash had a menu of traditional Persian dishes that we’d been longing to try so we didn’t hold back. As we prepared to enjoy lunch our takht was spread with food – ash (lentil soup) and bastrami (unidentified meat slow-cooked, with rice and potato tahdig), salad, and kashk-e bademjan (smoked eggplant with spices, kashk and mint oil) served with freshly baked nan. We washed it down with a jug of doogh and paid 485,000 Rial for our priceless meal.
We saw the sun filtering through the skylights of the hammam, and as we paused outside taking a photo and re-thinking about our abandoned plan, we started chatting with a shopkeeper in the bazaar and another couple just leaving the restaurant. Nadr and Moradi asked us where we were going and spontaneously offered to take us there so that we could spend the afternoon together. Now we were experiencing Azari hospitality!
We all jumped into their car and drove forty kilometres across the wheat fields to Soltaniyeh, the turquoise dome of the Olijeitu Mausoleum visible from afar. Our new friends were local to Zanjan, Nadr a jeweller and Moradi studying architecture, tut-tutting over some of the shoddy restoration work going on in the seven hundred year old gonbad. We spiralled around inside the Mongol edifice, meeting the same faces over and over, locals from Zanjan, tourists from London and Baku in Azerbaijan.
We then went for faloodeh at the locally famous Ali Baba Ice Cream Salon, and regretfully had to decline Nadr’s kind dinner invitation, desperate to catch up on lost sleep.
And sleep we did, not emerging from our room until 7 o’clock the next morning when we thought we should see something of Zanjan. Before breakfast we took a long walk around town, checking out the colourful old mosques, shrine and labyrinthine bazaar, hauntingly devoid of life at that early hour.
After a full Iranian breakfast over an impassioned political discussion with our hotelier, Javd, we headed off, the weather looking a little brighter than the day before as we found Yacob, a friendly taxi driver at Enqalab Square to take us to the bus terminal. Our timing was good as we lucked a mahmooly about to depart for Tabriz, so we rolled out of Zanjan at 9 o’clock in the comfort of a bus for the first time in almost two weeks.
The four hour trip was beautifully scenic, with crinkled hills eroded to reveal bands of colour, green pastures with shepherds roaming, and small plots of what looked like crocus flowers. Trees dotted along the course of the rivers we followed down wide rolling valleys with the occasional village set in the folds.
TABRIZ WAS AN EASY CITY to arrive in. There was an obvious city bus stop right near where we alighted from the mahmooly, and number 104 came along within minutes, sweeping us into the city centre for just 500 Tomans. I sat in the front section as an honorary man and in just fifteen minutes we were in town, dropped practically at the door of suitable lodging in Ferdowsi Street. We wasted no time settling into a simple room at the Hotel Khorshid for 700,000 Rial, briefly disturbing Aposali from his home-cooked lunch.
We too were hungry and went for a wander along Imam Khomeini Street looking for food. Tabriz had a definite Anatolian feel to it, the local Azeri language sounded Turkish to our ears, and we passed doner kebabis and locantas before being beckoned into a hole-in-the-wall eatery, attracted by the smell of a hot plate with sizzling meats. We squeezed inside for two servings of ghosht, some animals respiratory system chopped up and fried with onion, tomato and spices, served with sheets of fresh lavash. When we reemerged it was raining, with some thunder and hail, enough to send us scarpering home, and we tucked ourselves in for the afternoon, watching the rain fall and noticing our view of the snow-capped Mount Sahand to the south of the city.
We were feeling fresh in the morning, the air was cold when we stepped out at 7:30, heading for the Grand Bazaar to look for breakfast. Everything was still closed with one shining exception – a dairy shop just opening its doors and attracting a crowd of regulars. We managed to squeeze ourselves in and joined in the house speciality, asal khayme. Customers came to buy butter and yoghurt, cats played outside after lapping up their offerings, and we ate fresh clotted cream with honeycomb and warm nan, washed down with hot milk, sweet without the need for sugar. Afterwards we sat outside with the old men drinking chai and chatting as best we could, enjoying the atmosphere of our surroundings.
Later, once the bazaar had opened for trade, we wandered for hours losing ourselves in the seven square kilometres of five hundred year old vaulted alleyways, pausing to rest in the treed courtyards of caravansarays, and stopping frequently to check out the goods and produce for sale. There were characterful arcades full of carpets and shops devoted to selling tassels, wools or cottons, sections for meat with butchers carving up all kinds of odds and ends with customers and cats looking on with interest. There were laneways full of honey shops selling apiary supplies and golden honeycombs still on the frame. We saw rows of shops specialising in dried herbs, flowers, teas and spices with their bounty displayed in sacks and chests. There were shops providing a place for men to sit and smoke qalyan, the sound of their bubbling water pipes filling the air. We saw fruit and vegetable markets with new season garlic added to the usual staples, and one arcade hundreds of metres long sold only gold, the current price displayed on LED signs, the busiest section of the bazaar.
Labourers pulled carts supplying goods, tea vendors plied the lanes, shoppers contemplated purchases, and we took in the scenes, unchanged for hundreds of years. We ate lunch in a dizi restaurant hidden up a spiral stairway in a quiet saray. Inside it was packed with diners, even at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, enjoying trays of the best dizi we’d sampled, full of flavour and served with Turkish flare, spicy green chilli, cacik and ayran.
We were invited into shops for a social chat now and then, buying coconut and pistachio biscuits from Mohamed who gave us bastane khosh, the best milk barfi we’d ever tasted. Squeezing into a one metre square antiques shop with old Reza, he told us how to get to Kandovan while I held hundred year old Rouble notes in my hands. And into a sesame shop where the government received yet another bollocking from the young proprietor as seeds were pressed into oil and ground into tahini paste. We met a friendly Iranian/Korean couple from New Zealand, and plenty of would-be guides, but otherwise people mostly went about their business paying little attention to us. We spent the entire day in what is one of the worlds greatest markets.
We were at the dairy shop before it opened the next morning, waiting patiently with a small group of employees and dedicated customers. The dairy smell hit us with some strength as the door was opened and we all filed inside to the relative warmth. Our 5000 Toman serves of asal khayme were just as good as the day before, and afterwards we were welcomed to the regular chai bench with a nod and a handshake.
After a day of dithering over whether or not to make a side trip from Tabriz out to Kandovan we decided to go for it. We packed our things and headed across to the city bus stand where we struggled to find someone to point us to the bus for Rahahan, a terminal on the western side of the city. By Iranian standards Tabrizis were a cool breed, generally curt, almost grumpy toward us and each other. But our bus number 111 had a friendly conductor who gave us the word at Rahahan, and we easily found the Irankhodro minibus to Osko with the engine running waiting to depart. Our bus driver also looked after us, dropping us off at the savari stand in Osko, thirty kilometres south of Tabriz.
There Mohamed scooped us into his waiting taxi, and after a little negotiation, paid him 20,000 Tomans to take us another twenty kilometres down the road to Kandovan, which he introduced to us with a dramatic flourish as we rounded a corner after paying a 2000 Toman entry fee – “Kandovan…”.
THE UPPER VILLAGE WAS CARVED into tuff cones, hollowed out by troglodytes, with doors, windows, balconies and chimneys betraying their presence. Mohamed handed us over to his friend Ramazan, a shopkeeper with a suite to rent, and we were as pleased to meet him as he was to see us – we needed a place to stay and the only hotel was the five star ‘Laleh’ down the road. His 800,000 Rial pad tucked into the lower stone constructed part of the village was fine for us, though hotter water and a bukhari might have encouraged a longer stay. At 11 o’clock it was only 8 degrees and the snowy foothills of Mount Sahand looked within walking distance.
We dropped our bag and set off to explore, checking the view of the pre-historic settlement from the orchards, spread fantastically down one side of the small valley. In the cobbled laneways of the village life went on, donkeys carried building materials to new constructions, ladies hung out their washing while others welcomed tourists into little shops in disused rooms of their cave homes, selling local honey and dried fruits. Some were multi-storey dwellings with animal pens and stables complete with carved out troughs on the lower level, human living quarters above. Stairways led up through the tuffs linking houses like a warren, adding to the surrealness of the place.
We ate lunch in one of the little eateries on the other side of the stream. Chelo kebabs on a carpeted daybed, our siesta repeatedly interrupted by excited groups of girls who lined up for photographs with us, “aks begiram?”. For some reason we were more approachable for this constant request than the few other foreigners we saw, who were largely left alone. But we enjoyed the interaction and sometimes we met interesting people, like a couple of medical tourists on vacation from Iraq.
In the afternoon we escaped the crowds and hiked up the valley for several kilometres until we neared the snow fields. We spoke only to a toothless shepherd whose donkey we spooked, and we returned ‘off piste’, bush bashing down by the stream disturbing partridges and snow pigeons.
The hoards were abating when we got back to the village, the sun was lowering and we stood again at a viewpoint with a French couple whom we had met the day before inside the mosque at the bazaar in Tabriz. But the cold was debilitating and we had to keep moving in order to withstand it, following another trail beyond the mineral spring we walked a little further but then the sun was gone and we had to retreat to the relative warmth of our suite. In this fabled Garden of Eden, Adam would have been doing a ball-shrivelling nudie run, with not a fig tree in sight. At 2000 metres he probably wouldn’t have survived the night anyway – it was 3 degrees when we poked our noses out the door in the morning and found no sign of life in the village.
Kandovan was slow to wake, and it was half an hour before a vehicle appeared, Karim from the shop downstairs arrived with a load of clotted cream and our passports – a good start. We’d given up on the idea of breakfast, instead focusing on the issue of getting ourselves back to Tabriz.
We were lucky, hitching a ride with a local farmer. Squeezing into the cabin of his ute, we were on the road by 8 o’clock, leaving the village with the flock which we passed on the way out. It was watched over by three shepherds, two donkeys, and two ferocious-looking sheep dogs, one wearing a black collar studded with rusty steel spikes.
The young farmer took us as far as Osku where we found a vehicle at the savari stand waiting for two more passengers, so we were off straight away and back in Tabriz with plenty of time to continue our onward journey. In fact the savari deposited us downtown at a rapid transit bus stop where we were waved straight onto a bus without the complication of a ticket. Not able to be separated because we didn’t know where to get off, I again braved the mens section where I was gallantly offered a seat and we were befriended by Sena, a law student on his way to class. He not only advised us when to get down, but got down with us, found us a taxi, and paid for it to take us to the bus terminal. He then disappeared into the crowd with a wave like a guardian angel.
At the terminal we were pointed to the Safar window, but the next departure to Kaleybar was in four hours, so we re-directed ourselves after a look at the map to the Hamsafar window for an immediate departure to Ahar, halfway to our destination. It was a clear, beautiful day, and as our coach rolled out of Tabriz we could see the city spread beneath towering red hills and a distant snow capped masif to the north west toward Azerbaijan.
It was a scenic trip, with more coloured hills then the Alborz Mountains came into view as we neared Ahar, where we changed to a taxi for the next sixty kilometres to Kaleybar.
Esmael was our driver, talkative though nothing he said was intelligable to us except that he disliked Khomeini and hijabs. We wondered how he had lived to middle age when his driving skills indicated a very poor instinct for survival.
We arrived in Kaleybar with teeth clenched, and then bared after he reneged on our deal, refusing to hand over the change from our fare. Dishonourable Esmael tried to enlist the help of some taxi driving brethren, but they weren’t backing him up and we ended up re-negotiating with neither party happy, me slamming the door and he roaring off to his fate.
EVEN WITH A BAD START Kaleybar was a welcoming place. We soon found Feisi at the Hotel Kaleybar with a big mustachioed smile, and a great room overlooking the town for one million Rial. He made us comfortable with blankets and towels then sent us off for nahar, lunch, but it was actually breakfast because at 2pm we still hadn’t had a chance to eat yet.
At the bottom of the main street, Khiabun-e Moallem, we found a little restaurant run by a beautiful lady named Nasri. She fed us delicious food, ghormeh sabzi with chelo garnished with green olives and parsley, served with yoghurt and cabbage salad, all for 210,000 Rial. Then we did some shopping, stocking our fridge for what we decided would be a two day stay. We bought tomatoes and cucumbers, melon, strawberries, green cherry plums, oranges and saffron ice cream. Lavash, fresh peynir and a bucket of local yoghurt with a thick skin on top, possibly the most creamy delicious yoghurt we’d ever tasted, over a kilo for 6000 Tomans.
We enjoyed the proceeds of our shopping sortie at breakfast time the next morning, sitting at the dining table in our enormous room looking out at the view down the valley. It was cool when we stepped out at 7am, disturbing Feisi who was asleep on the couch in the lobby and had to unlock several doors to let us out.
We found a taxi just up the road, Ali driving an old Peugeot with just enough oomph to make it six kilometres up the valley behind Kaleybar to the trailhead for Qaleh Babak.
From 1800 metres the track climbed steeply, we hiked for an hour up stone stairs through a thicket of oak trees then across a bald slope to a cleft in the rocky mountain dramatically revealing to us the ancient castle perched spectacularly on a granite tor. It took another half hour to reach the qaleh, the stronghold at 2300 metres where Khorramdin Babak held out against the caliphate for twenty years until 839AD. We were completely alone for almost two hours, sitting on the ramparts above an abyss of several hundred metres, with just the sound of the breeze, the haunting caw of rooks overhead, and distant cuckoos, their distinctive calls echoing across the mountainside.
Eventually came the sound of human voices and, like Babak before us, our defences were breached and it was time to share our outpost. First came a group of three men from Azerbaijan, then a local foursome with a picnic, and large group from Meshginshahr who entertained everyone with a karate demonstration. More groups began arriving and the paparazzi was getting a bit much, though we were receiving gifts for our compliance – sweets, wafers, and half a box of kurma, succulent dates from Bam. We fled the castle, finding our way across the rocky mountainside to a quiet spot amongst the springs and juniper bushes where we could then contemplate the scene from the enemies perspective. We climbed higher on the neighbouring peak for an awesome view across to the castle, sounding as it might have done under siege. By noon the crowds had become maddening on this Mehdi’s Birthday public holiday, and we saw an opportunity when we spotted a group of intrepid hikers from Ahar descending by a different route straight down the gully below the ruins. We followed hoping for more adventure on the return leg.
Below the gully the trail descended into oak forest, at first with just spring buds on the limbs, then small leaves increasing in size the further we dropped in altitude. The mountain springs ran together to form a stream which we followed circling way below the Qaleh Babak, it’s defensive location we were now more able to appreciate. The track was easy to follow but very steep as the woods thickened around us to include blossoming fruit trees. We scrambled down beside waterfalls and around a deep gully, occasionally passing ascending hikers, and eventually picnickers on the lookout for good lunch spots.
After two hours we hit the road at picnic central at 1600 metres, from nature to civilisation in a few steps, suddenly surrounded by people enjoying the mid-week holiday. We continued walking down the road passing cars on their way up, picnic-mobiles loaded with carpets and food on the roof, calling out the window, “welcome to Kaleybarrrr…”.
We followed the road for some time before we were offered a lift, a family of four in a tiny Saipa who re-shuffled the children and picnic accoutrements to fit us inside, kindly dropping us in town with a wave and a “khoda hafez”.
By now it was 3 o’clock and we had only survived on the gifted dates and a handful of cherry plums, so we headed straight for Nasri’s little restaurant at the bottom of town. Along the way we passed the usual well-wishers and two old men sitting outside a shop who called us over offering Dave hearty handshakes. But my extended hand was rudely waved away by each of them, as if I somehow disgusted them. This happened to me occasionally, once every couple of days, my hand offered in friendship rejected in the name of religious zealotry. Usually I was offered some kind of apology as they held up their palms as if I were a leprotic pariah, but these two were unapologetic. Each time this happened it made me feel dirty and untouchable, but also worried for them, that they could be so easily swayed to such abject rudeness for the sake of religion.
But Nasri made me feel better, welcoming us in, happy for our return custom she and her husband invited us into the kitchen so that we could see what she was cooking, and today opted for qeimeh, split pea and beef stew with straw potatoes on top, and torshe, marinated chicken kebabs with a vegetable and pearl barley soup. Everything was presented with care, our rice garnished with carved vegetables, pickles and barberries. We tried a bottle of ‘Tarmita’, carbonated sour cherry juice, and were served saffron tea after our delicious meal. Nasri and her husband had won our hearts.
The next day was back-to-work for most, so we were able to buy hot barbari nan from the bakery to have with our breakfast before heading off from Kaleybar. Feisi told us that there was a morning bus, so we set off to find it, asking advice along the way. There was no bus station but we found a coach to Tabriz parked at the bottom of town and so we took that as far as Ahar, on our way at 8:30am and able to enjoy the scenery from the relaxing safety of a bus. All along the way we passed families picnicking amongst the green fields and wildflowers, bracing against the cool wind, feasting on hampers carefully packed into carpets.
In Ahar we and two ladies were ejected at a random intersection where a taxi waited in prey, taking the four of us, after a requisite ‘selfie’, to our various destinations, ripping us off as was apparently the custom in Ahar. But at least the savari stand for Meshginshahr was user friendly, and we were very soon on our way again, our driver using sufficient restraint that we were able to enjoy the trip. Our fellow passengers, a sour-faced lady in a chador and an unshaven man, reeked of garlic (as we wished we did) and the man kept up a constant banter with the driver as we followed a long gorge which ultimately brought us closer to the soaring peak of Mount Subalan rising majestically to the southeast.
Just before Meshginshahr we passed through a village apparently known for it’s fresh meat. The road was lined with dozens of restaurants and eateries each with a holding pen of live animals, and roadside butchers graphically dispatching cows and sheep. Scores of dripping fleeces hung from poles as livestock was being skinned, carved and readied for barbecuing on smoking braziers.
In Meshginshahr our driver helped us find a taxi with another friendly driver who took us to the well-hidden Ardabil savari stand and clued us up on how much our next stretch should cost. For 8000 Tomans each we squeezed in with two nice ladies for the final ninety kilometre leg of our day.
WE ARRIVED IN ARDABIL AROUND noon, dropped off close enough to walk to the city centre. Negin Hotel was fine for a night, 1.3 million Rial for a room with soft pillows and breakfast, so we put down our bag and set off to explore Ardabil. The first thing we found was lunch, a bowl of milk soup ash-e doogh with dried herbs and chickpeas, and pearl barley soup.
Down by the Baliqli Chay, which was really just a trickle, we found Shah Abbas Restaurant, a six hundred year old converted hammam where we relaxed for an hour or two over a pot of chai, reclined on carpets in one of the domed bathrooms. Stone platforms surrounded a bathing pool where the patrons chatted socially with each other, smoking qalyan, the sound of Azeri language, gazal music, the bubbling pipes and a caged finch singing in one of the other rooms made for a very pleasant afternoon tea.
We mooched for the rest of the day, mostly checking out the old covered bazaar and Ardebil’s local specialities. Honey was the headliner, with countless shops selling jars of nectar, frames and boxes of honeycomb and blocks of beeswax. In the market we bought sticky dried red plums from the artistic mounds of preserves on offer and inhaled deeply the wonderful aroma of smoked dried fish. In Mohamed’s tiny eatery amidst the butchers selling lamb, offal and chickens feet, we tried qeimeh mahaleh, straw potatoes fried with tomatoes, offal and spices, only 5000 Tomans and just delicious with a loaf of lavash and doogh. A few blocks away, opposite the pretty Sheik Safi-O-Din mausoleum, we ate pest, a local halva served hot, sprinkled with coconut and spices, black and rich with honey and butter. Wherever we went we were greeted with surprise, even though the eastern Azeris occasionally looked more like us with fair hair and hazel eyes.
The hotel staff were asleep in various states of repose around the lobby when we went downstairs at the alotted breakfast time in the morning. We managed to rouse the loudest snorer who woke with a start and ran like a headless chicken to a car parked out the front, returning a while later with armfuls of sangak. Meanwhile Dave unlocked the front door to another staff member who at least switched on the lights and started making noises in the kitchen before other guests turned up, looking expectantly at the buffet table. As the food started coming we realised that it was worth the wait. As well as the usual tea, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese and eggs, there was vegetable and bean soup, dried dates, flaky sesame halva, a tray of clotted cream and a huge block of local honeycomb, sliced up chunks oozing with sticky, waxy goodness. The sangak was crispy like toast with soft yeasty bites inside and we had glasses of fresh hot milk. There were sounds of approval in Japanese, French, Farsi and, of course Australian accented English. Sometimes the best meals come when one least expects them.
We gathered our things and checked out, unable to extract any advice from Fatimah at the reception desk, we enlisted the help of a policeman at Fajr Square who stopped a taxi for us, sending us in the right direction to the bus terminal and transport to Rasht.
The terminal was a confusing arrangement of ticket offices covered in squiggles, but with some help we found what we needed and boarded a bus bound for Mashad, 1500 kilometres away in the far east of the country. Our destination was a mere 250 kilometres, six hours down the road and we could just sit back and enjoy the ride.
From the flat 1500 metre high plateau which Ardebil sat on, we dropped dramatically over the edge, zig-zagging down a mountainside, verdant and attractive to Friday morning leisure seekers picnicking amidst piles of their predecessors rubbish, plucking purple flowers and shopping at the stalls selling fresh berries, honey and fruit pastes.
At the bottom of the mountain we followed the international border with Azerbaijan, a barbed wire fence labelled with skull and cross bone signs, which ran next to the roadway with frequent Iranian sentry posts. On the other side low forested hills eventually gave way to a town, and at sea level we were driving through flooded rice fields to Astara on the coast. Several kilometres further we passed a lagoon with a cormorant rookery, and finally the Caspian Sea came into view, languid and fronted by tiled, pitched roof houses with kiwi fruit trellises. The road hugged the coast for the rest of the journey passing more rice fields busy with tilling and sowing activity, and stands of birch and pine forest, until finally turning inland to Rasht.
Again we were disappointed not to be taken to a bus terminal, instead unceremoniously dumped on the side of a road where we were at the mercy of a handful of taxi drivers. After some initially unwelcoming demands for money, one of them took pity on us, walked us to a nearby intersection and handed us over to a friendly share taxi going our way. So we were soon in Shohoda Square, the streets quiet on a Friday afternoon, looking around for a place to spend the night.
Dave checked out a few hotels with local English teacher Sa’eed tagging along, the two of them deciding that Fars Hotel was the one for us, 900,000 Rial for a basic room just off the main drag in Reza Mehraban Alley. We said goodbye to Sa’eed who stopped short of making himself comfortable in our room, then at 4:30pm went to look for lunch.
We had gone to Rasht to sample Gilani cuisine, but at that hour the restaurants were closed and we had only walked a hundred metres before Sa’eed was with us again, impossible to shake, so we made the most of his company, finding out about onward transport options from a bus ticket office and going together to a simple eatery which was able to offer us some local food left over from the lunch time rush. We tried fesenjan because that was all they had, and it was okay, chicken cooked in a thick black gravy of ground walnuts and pomegranate with rice, salad and raw garlic and onion on the side. I also added two new phrases to my vocabulary – ‘khosh mazeh’ and ‘khoda shukt’. Fortunately Sa’eed got a call from his friend and had to go, so we got to spend the evening as we pleased, people watching in the square, which by 6 o’clock had transformed into a lively promenade with music and a street market. We made plenty of new friends – two couples, one from Rasht, the other visiting them from Ardebil, Zariah and Davoud! I photo bombed a pair of twin girls and their mother who later gave us hot kokok pancakes, and we chatted at length with Mohamed, a local language enthusiast.
Rasht made a very good first impression with it’s friendly people and vibrant pedestrian malls ringed by grand buildings and lined with palm trees. The market held the promise of good food with lots of fresh garlic, vegetables, green olives and fish, in particular fish roe displayed in their orange sacks.
Our cheap room above the chai kaneh was actually really comfortable, the bed was soft, and the sound of tinkling tea cups and laughter didn’t disturb us. Breakfast wasn’t included so we could leave at our leisure, so we said goodbye to Majid at 7am, opting to walk across town to the Fuman savari stand. There we sifted through the savoury and unsavoury drivers, waiting just a few minutes for some other takers for Fuman, thirty kilometres across to the foothills of the mountains.
There we walked again, across town to the next transport point stopping to buy koluche, the towns speciality, sugar and walnut stuffed pastries hot from the oven, 1000 Tomans each. Further along, a streetside chai stall provided a spot to enjoy them with a glass of tea before finding the next savari stand and our onward transport. On this day we were lucky with both of our drivers, who drove shockingly badly by Australian standards, but very well by Iranian ones, so we could relax as we passed through tea gardens and then climbed for another thirty kilometres up into the mountains to Masouleh. Javad from Hamadan, our fellow passenger in the back was as happy as us to drive past the toll booth with a wave from our driver who kindly set us down at the second entrance to the village.
MASOULEH WAS A PERFECT STACK of mud-walled houses nestled into a leafy valley. Buffed and polished for the local tourist industry, there was no sign of goats or the odour of cow manure here. We didn’t need to walk far before we were offered a suite, Mohamed Reza politely called to us as we walked past his sister’s shop, making the universal gesture for sleep… “house?”, and after a brief negotiation we were settling in to a full sized apartment with a living/dining/sleeping area, a fully equipped kitchen, a bathroom, again with a choice of two toilets, and a balcony overlooking the laneway next to the stream. 800,000 Rial was an excellent mid-week deal.
We went out for a walk, but trouble was brewing. Dave had been feeling seedy all morning, nausea, a bad taste coming from his stomach, and by mid-afternoon we were thinking giardia as his condition worsened and he became house bound. The village did have a clinic with a pharmacy which I found after some enquiring, but it was already closed by 4 o’clock and the best information I could get was to try again tomorrow.
We spent a comfortable night in our apartment, the bed AND the pillows were soft, and the only sound all night was the stream rushing outside our room. That was joined by birds singing to herald the morning and we woke fresh with clear minds to re-plan around Dave’s incapacity.
First I returned to the pharmacy for drugs but came back empty handed and confused after a long explanation in Farsi about seeing a doctor in some unheard of city not on our map. Reluctantly we packed and left for Rasht, bidding farewell to Mohamed Reza’s lovely sister and jumping into a savari back to Fuman. There were five passengers squeezed into this one with two men in the front passenger seat, so it was pretty cosy.
In Fuman we started looking for pharmacies, collecting a hanger-on during our search, another Mohamed Reza, this one a friendly Albanian, “Do you speak Albanian?”. At the second pharmacy we tried we hit pay dirt, the pharmacist spoke clear, precise English and sold us a pharmacopia of drugs for under 10,000 Tomans, including the sought after Tinidazole.
Heading for the Rasht savari stand, still with our Albanian friend in tow, we had a change of heart and paused at a well placed eatery to re-assess our plan. Frenky and Jalid were very pleased to have us in their tiny establishment and together they fed us a sensational breakfast. Frenky was a great communicator and the table in front of me was soon loaded with plates, ghormeh sabzi with liver and lobia, hearty qeimeh with hunks of potato, eggplant torche, yoghurt with cucumber salad, and baghaleh cooked with dill on rice. She understood that Dave was sick and went to buy fresh sangak, serving it to him with a hard cheese and sweet tea which she sugared herself. He took his medicine and we re-charged ourselves. Frenky kept up an interesting conversation, outspoken she confided her thoughts on her country’s sad situation. She was so lovable, enveloping me in hugs and kisses before we left, she and her loving husband Jalid like two peas in a pod, happy together in their successful little business in Fuman.
With the drugs we needed, and still mobile we decided to turn back to Masouleh, re-tracing our steps through the market, doing some shopping to stock our kitchen. We bought fresh broad beans, a huge bagful for 1500 Tomans, tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese. Waving “salam” to yesterdays chai man, we returned to the savari stand where we surprised the same driver that had just brought us to town waiting for the next foursome going to Masouleh. Luckily he was a good driver, and this time we shared with a soldier and an old man who busked with a flute in the village. Mohamed Reza’s sister was also surprised and delighted to see us back, and our suite was still available as we left it!
So, Masouleh take two. We went out for a walk…
It was by now midday and the bazaar area was getting pretty busy, rooftops were peppered with tourists waving selfie-sticks, and posing for formal photographs in traditional Gilani costumes. We met people from Tehran, Kerman, Shiraz, even St. Petersburg, and the local villagers, despite this daily invasion were cheerful and welcoming, taking the time to stop and ask us where we were from and how we liked their village. We strolled along with me sucking on a deliciously salty sour cherry popsicle, smiling for photos with bright red lips.
A thunderstorm came in the afternoon, sending day-trippers squealing with joy, and us to our cosy nest where we cooked our baghaleh and watched the storm which sent a deluge of water down the mountain, swelling the stream to a raging torrent. We wondered how Ivan and Dimitri, the Russian hikers were faring.
The weather had cleared in the morning and Dave was feeling good, so after a breakfast of fresh barbari from the village baker, we set off on a hike hoping to reach the high summer pastures. A trail leading off up a ridge between the two waterfalls looked inviting, so we followed it with a village dog for company. She followed timidly at first, then led with authority, making it clear if we were going the wrong way by laying down facing the right direction and looking at us with doe eyes.
We zig-zagged steeply up through overgrown fields, past springs and fenced paddocks following the sound of sheep bells tinkling in the distance. We made a few turns at forks in the trail according to our dogs instruction and we were soon in the forest with clearings revealing waterfalls and the trail ahead. Winding our way higher around several ridges we crossed the waterfalls and entered a dark forest. Along the way we got barked at by a fierce-looking sheepdog, and our dog barked at some local stockmen who passed us.
After two and a half hours of leisurely hiking we climbed a final ridge at the top of another waterfall and suddenly we were in a hidden valley, a summer pasture green with grass and coloured with wildflowers. A stream meandered across it and shepherds huts were dotted around the meadows. It was like a Shangri La, one could never guess that it was there looking up at the fortress like mountain from below.
There was nobody around, the shepherds were all out with their flocks and we just sat for a while, while our dog explored. The walk back was even more leisurely, we stopped for a picnic at one of the waterfalls watching a dipper in the stream, and picked up another dog, the ferocious sheepdog who we threw a scrap of bread to as we ran in fear, and thereafter followed us wagging his tail. Gazing back up at the trail we marvelled at how concealed and inaccessible the high pastures were, especially from Masouleh one thousand metres below.
We said goodbye to our hiking buddy at the picnic spot where we’d found her sitting outside a tent seven hours earlier. The tent was long gone but she found something better than bread to eat, and so did we when we headed back into the village.
In a little eatery on a rooftop above the bazaar still serving lunch at 3 o’clock, we ate a delicious meal of mirza qasemeh, smoked eggplant cooked with tomato and egg, served with rice and a green olive and walnut paste salad. We tried an Iranian faux beer which if one thought of it as lemon soda, was quite good – a not-too-sweet malt drink. We indulged in some people-watching for the rest of the evening. At 5 o’clock day-trippers were still arriving in numbers, not going home after work but going out to play seemed to be the fun-loving Iranian way.
After three days in Masouleh it was time to move on. We left early before the village was awake, and as the first load of workers arrived on a well-timed local minibus. We caught it back to Fuman, waved aboard enthusiastically by the elderly driver and the passengers as they alighted. We zipped back down the mountain, picking up a few more punters along the way by blowing a horn which sounded like an attention-getting whistle – apparently only amusing to us.
In Fuman we grabbed a couple of koluche on the run, so hot and delicious that they almost burnt our tongues, then looked around for the Rasht savari stand, here arranged by city arrival point. Hojad, a friendly shopkeeper helped us to choose the right vehicle through mouthfuls of koluche and then we were off.
THE DRIVER TOOK US TO Sabz Meydan, close to the city centre and from there it was a casual stroll to Shohoda Square stopping for a breakfast of lobia and barbari nan in an alleyway en route, secreted into a mezzanine ladies level up a perilous flight of stairs in a teashop.
Although Majid wasn’t in attendance when we arrived, the same room waited for us at Fars Hotel and then we had the entire day to mooch in Rasht. We scouted our onward transport for the following day and we did some light shopping, buying 200 grams of local Lahijan tea, tippy golden flowery broken orange pekoe, at 120,000 Rial the finest quality we could find, and one gram of saffron, also a good grade for 100,000 Rial. We paused for a rest in Golsar at an ice creamery where we had sour cherry sorbet and the best pistachio ice cream that we’d ever tasted, 9000 Tomans for this pit stop.
We burned it off, covering a few kilometres on a city walk then returned to the Karavan Restaurant for a big lunch. We had fried trout with sour orange, and kebab with fish egg, walnuts and broad beans, but for 500,000 Rial it was pretty disappointing with the fish over-fried and the roe over-salted.
A stroll through the bazaar entertained us for the rest of the afternoon. We spent a couple of hours at the first stall we came to, buying strawberries and mulberries while chatting to Salud, a local student who was a fruitarian, and Milad who owned the adjacent toy shop. Friends were phoned to join us and we drank tea together until we continued our stroll, greeted with good cheer and warm welcome. We spotted Sa’eed at one stage, ducking for cover, but luckily he was preoccupied with another foreigner.
As we headed back to Shohoda Square we ran into Hossain, a young man who we had met on our first night in Rasht, and another couple of hours dissolved in interesting conversation as the plaza came to life, busy with people promenading, enjoying themselves and eating ice cream. We ate more ice cream ourselves, down at Sabz Meydan we tried mixed nuts, chocolate and banana flavours – it was so good that we didn’t even feel guilty, and on the way home we met Shamiak, a musician whose artistic freedoms were repressed by the government, and Said who was denied sexual freedom. It was our greatest pleasure to meet all of these people and to be able to spend time talking with them, people from all walks of life with differing faiths and views – but one thing which united them all was their dislike of their government…
And they were united with the rest of the world in their dislike of the American government, especially as news broke the next morning of Trump pulling out of the nuclear deal. “Trump diwangi” we heard as we caught a savari to the bus terminal and waited for an 8 o’clock departure to Tehran.
We found a glass of chai to have with our komaj, sweet date bread, for breakfast, before we rolled out of town blissfully unaware that my glasses were still in the ticket office. It was only a couple of minutes until I realised, but it was too late, we were already hurtling towrds the hostile outskirts. I raised the alarm and fortunately an English speaker was at hand, a lady with a fluent command of our language took over from the surly conductor, speaking on his phone to the nice ladies at the terminal office who found my glasses and packed them off with the next Royal Safar departure to Tehran. I considered the rest of the trip without my glasses.
It was a five hour bus ride to the capital, climbing steadily from sea level into the Alborz Mountains to 1300 metres, then crossing an undulating plateau, with the conductor periodically coming to us shamefully asking for money, rubbing his grubby fingers together like a beggar.
WE DROVE FOR AN ETERNITY through the city which presented itself as a huge traffic snarl beautifully situated beneath a range of snow-dusted mountains. At the Terminal-e Arzhantin we were directed to the Royal Safar office to wait by the detestable conductor, pacing up and down for an hour until the next bus arrived from Rasht. The wait was interminable, but my glasses made it to me, even if I had to buy them from the unscrupulous conductor who I hoped put the proceeds towards a packet of cigarettes.
Our day wasn’t improving as we left the terminal looking for the metro station, finding ourselves walking for a kilometre along a six lane roadway. But then things improved, we found the subway, bought a couple of metro tap cards and dived in, ready to test our navigation skills. It wasn’t actually that hard, in Tehran some signs were anglicised and the system was colour-coded.
We got down at Imam Khomeini Station and started looking for a suitable hotel, settling on the first one that we came to, Hotel Baharestan, which had a spacious room for 1.3 million Rial with all the basic facilities we needed. It was by now 3:30pm and we still had lots of things that we needed to do.
Re-launching ourselves back into the metro, we used three different lines to get ourselves in the peak hour crush to the railway station at Rahahan. There we had to overcome the problem of buying train tickets without our passports, which had to be kept at the hotel. Dave found a photo of mine on his phone along with a snap of his drivers licence to buy tickets for the Friday morning departure to Sari.
Back into the metro we went, this time popping out at Ferdowsi where we found what until recently had been the money changing centre of the country. Most of the exchanges were closed by order of the government, but we found a jewellery shop willing to give us an agreeable 40,000 Rial for our Australian Dollar, down to our last million we were almost broke. Back into the metro we returned to home base, Imam Khomeini Square, realising that a komaj and a glass of tea at 7am wasn’t much sustenance for a big day out. We were so hungry that we settled for a juju kebab and called it a day at 7 o’clock, tucking ourselves into our room for a fresh look at the city in the morning.
We only had to walk a few hundred metres to find breakfast, an omelette at a simple street side chai khaneh, then we headed off to explore Tehran. We had taken to the metro like ducks to water and we used it again to get ourselves to Tajrish, twelve kilometres away in the far northern suburbs. It was the peak hour crush again but at least everyone smelt fresh in the morning. We were there in just thirty minutes, the station was deep underground and took us to Tajrish Bazaar which was just opening for trade. The market specialised in household goods and foodstuffs, fresh and preserved. Variety was greater in the capital with new season apricots, and the aroma of saffron coming from the spice shops.
We walked on, continuing uphill to Darband, the mountains hidden in fog and cloud. Eventually the road turned into a path which followed a tree-filled gully, noisy with the sound of a rushing stream. Teashops lined the waterway, daybeds cosy with carpets and cushions invited a relaxed lunch, so we worked up an appetite, climbing to the top of the valley with numerous other hikers, some out for a casual stroll, others equipped with picnic and camping gear. Amongst the people we chatted with were quite a few young women defiantly not wearing head scarves and that freedom was really nice to see.
Having had the chance on the way up to reconnoitre the best looking teashop, we ordered dizi for our lunch, settling ourselves on a stream side takht and enjoying a refined version of this Persian staple with vegetable pickles, basil and yoghurt to go with the lamb stew.
Our energy stores renewed, we walked downhill back to Tajrish where the market was now in full swing. The attractive vegetable section with it’s wooden roof was a noisy hub with vendors loudly imploring customers to buy, and the alleyways which ran from it were crammed with shoppers. We bought saffron ice cream and a lady gave me a bunch of flowers, a gift welcoming me to Iran.
We decided to take a bus back to the city centre to see the streetscape above ground, the Tehrani bus system also user friendly with signs in Roman script, and we got down at Teatr-e Shahr, walking the last few kilometres home from there. Passing Ferdowsi Square along the way we decided to change some more money, this time on the black market. For a crisp $100 greenback we got 6.5 million Rial – 50% more than the official rate. We dealt candidly with two men in full public view on the street, the illegal transaction sealed with handshakes all round. And further along we randomly ran into Sina, the young man who had helped us on the bus in Tabriz! He was in Tehran for the book fair and, like us, leaving the following day. In a city of nine million what must the chances have been of us running into a familiar face?
We moved like a well-oiled machine to get ourselves to our train for an 8 o’clock departure the next morning. Diving into the metro at 6:30am we performed our triple line change with smooth precision, and on a Friday it was less of a crush. We were at Rahahan with an hour to spare, so we took a leisurely breakfast of adas, lentil soup and omelette in a nearby chai khaneh, then checked in with the police before boarding the Raja 218.
Our allocated seats were very boring, away from the window in a compartment with four stoic characters, but even before the train moved out of the station we were invited to move in with Shirin, Giti, Fahimeh and Shoreh, a fun group of ladies on a short holiday to Gorgon.
The scenery was immediately spectacular, with the city of Tehran creeping up the lower slopes of the mountains to the north, then the formidable looking peak of Damavand rising in snow covered splendour to the east. As we passed into the rural outskirts our new companions started preparing their breakfast feast of lavash with cheese, halva, walnuts and plenty of laughter.
Soon we were in the desert, scarves came off, and snacks came out – fruits, nuts and lavashak as everyone showed off their family photos and called friends and relatives, one who we spoke to, Fahimeh’s friend Fahiba, lived in Milson’s Point – cause for much hilarity.
When the train entered a wide canyon and began an ascent everybody enjoyed the wonderful views from the open windows, the cool breeze on a beautiful day, the stark rocky mountains streaked with bands of colour, and the floor of the canyon green with trees and pomegranate orchards. Towns and villages rolled by, some of them spectacularly located with chocolate-coloured rivers lined with poplar trees.
At Firouzkouh we had climbed to 2000 metres and from there we fell back to sea level, descending dramatically, first corkscrewing to the head of a valley and zig-zagging down a series of switchbacks, spiralling through tunnels cut into the mountainside and crossing arched bridges, the tracks visible in multiple layers beneath us. Everyone was out of their seats, socialising in the aisle and enjoying the Trans-Alborz railway experience.
We had a lunch of juju kebab delivered to us from the pantry car while our lady friends had a picnic to a backdrop of spectacular mountain vistas. In Pol-e Safid we took a twenty minute break and watched one of the two locomotives get detatched, thereafter no longer necessary on the gradual descent to Sari. Through the lowlands we passed rice fields, forests and towns, all too soon arriving at our destinaton and having to bid fond farewells to our companions.
IT WAS 3:30PM WHEN WE checked in at the stations police post and began our search for a hotel, heading into town on the lookout and asking advice of anyone we met along the way. We found what we assumed to be the city centre, quiet on a Friday afternoon, and just when we needed one the most, an angel who could speak English stopped her car to offer help. Manajeh and her husband Ismael were on their way home from their garden with their three year old daughter and they spontaneously bundled us into their car to help us in our search.
Hotel Sarouyeh was where we ended up, with some nursery rhyme singalongs along the way. We couldn’t have landed at a better place, Farzel was a great host, showing us to a comfortable room and offering us all the help he could, making us afternoon tea, picking azgil loquat fruit for us from his tree, and introducing us to Sasan, a temporary apartment boarder in town from San Francisco. We went for a walk around town, indulged in a muz shake, a rich concoction of banana ice cream, banana and chocolate, and spent the rest of the afternoon with Sasan gaining a deeper insight into the county’s dire political situation and trying in vain to get our internet working after our SIM registration failed catastrophically.
The next morning got off to a smooth start. We left the hotel at 6:30am walking across town to where Farzel had identified the Terminal Rahband to be, and finding the small garage without any trouble. After initially lying to us, the savari drivers pointed us to the minibus office, and we just had time for a breakfast omelette in a teashop before the daily 8am departure to Orost.
Our very professional and cheerful driver, Bogheri, reserved us a seat with our bag and reassured us that he would look after us on this leg of our journey. The 120 kilometre trip took us up a succession of rural valleys then over a pass into a more barren landscape with fresh snow visible on a nearby mountainside… “barf!!”. All along the way we set down passengers until we were the only ones left, finally bumping our way up into the village of Orost after three hours of travelling.
WE WERE EXPECTING SOME KIND of accommodation to be available in Orost but on arrival in the tiny village it didn’t look promising and Bogheri was unsure of what to do with us when we indicated that we wanted to spend the night there. So he kindly took us to his parents house at the far end of the village. For one million Rial it was decided that we would sleep in the spare room and his mother, Bohji, would provide us with food. Clearly we were pioneer travellers in this corner of Iran.
We had intended to stay for a couple of nights but due to the circumstances we would obviously have to make do with one, so we headed straight off on our excursion to Badab-e Soort – the reason for our visit. The weather looked ominous when we set off on the six kilometre walk to the springs. We hitched a lift with the local high school English teacher for the first couple of kilometres, then set ourselves a cracking pace down the beautiful valley to the east following a dirt road as thunder cracked behind us and rain closed in. We just reached the carpark when the drops began to fall and luckily there was shelter in the ute drivers hut and we holed-up there for an hour or more as a series of storms passed over. We waited with two other groups who arrived by car, sight-seers from Tehran.
When the weather cleared sufficiently to continue they all jumped in a ute, and we set off again on foot, scrambling up a slope scarred with a cascade of limestone. We reached the top way before those in the ute, finding a spring trickling over the hilltop into picturesque terraces of travertine pools. Their orange colour indicated that the weather had warmed to spring, but at 1800 metres it was frigid on the windswept hilltop with more storm clouds rolling in across the surrounding mountains.
There were some hardy caretakers encamped up there in a makeshift teashop, so we were able to enjoy a bowl of hot ash-e doogh as other parties began arriving. Most were from Tehran but we also met a pair of Dutch motorcyclists, and we apparently just missed a group of German diplomats.
The weather closed in again and we made a concerted dash for home, almost reaching the Orost road before it hit. We were just diving for cover behind a boulder when a farmer happened by, and were lucky to hitch with him back to the village and the warmth of our room. A kerosene heater had been lit in our quarters so we snuggled in for the rest of the afternoon, nestled in bucolic splendour with the sound of a distant hoopoe, nearby roosters, ripening wheat and lentil plots, budding fruit trees, mud brick houses and a granite mountain range across the valley.
A thoughtfully provided loaf of nan with cheese and watermelon got us through the afternoon. And an evening meal of abghosht was shared with us, and we saved some of the lavash for a light breakfast the next morning.
There was some blue in the sky so we decided to make the trek back to Badab-e Soort again. We had walked there by 9 o’clock and had the place all to ourselves, the stepped pools glistening in the morning sun. We were better able to appreciate the natural wonder in solitude, calculating the tens of thousands of years that it had taken the minerals to deposit the walls to each pool in that splendid mountain setting.
The walk back was beautiful with the sun behind us, a friendly shepherd picturesquely tending his flock, and just as we reached the fork in the road to Orost, Bogheri came along in the daily bus from Sari – so we didn’t have to walk the last few kilometres up to the village!
Back at home we had a proper breakfast, sitting on the takht on the balcony we enjoyed nan with cheese and homemade white mulberry jam, then a second course of rice with a delicious chicken khoresh. Bogheri had a pretty good life, living with his wife in Sari and driving the minibus everyday to his parents house in the mountains, having a nice home cooked lunch with them, then returning to his wife, collecting passengers, many of whom he knew by name, along the way. His love of his job was obvious as he literally went out of his way to provide a great bus service – even to us.
So once we’d all eaten we headed off, jumping back into the Irankhodro and driving back to Sari and the Caspian heat.
WE WALKED THE FEW KILOMETRES back across town to Teleqani Boulevard where Farzel was pleased to have us back. His offsider Mahmoud was an English speaker and gave us plenty of tips on how to spend our afternoon in Sari. Hungry again we headed for the bazaar and found a chai khaneh serving abghosht and wolfed down a double serve. We stumbled upon some ancient looking brick shrines, then had carrot juice with rose ice cream, by now a firm favourite, in an ice creamery. The lady proprietor took a promotional photo of us enjoying our treat and we shared our table with a boy on his way to English class, finding out as we left that he had paid our bill!
We bought half a kilo of strawberries, tut feranghi, from an old lady on the street for 5000 Tomans, and walked to the river for curiosity sake rather than need of exercise.
We had to return again to the Terminal Rahband for our onward transport. There were no buses to Semnan from Sari so we were forced to take a savari – our least favourite mode of transport. We waited for over an hour for our car to fill, and had started to consider alternative plans, when suddenly we were off, collecting the other two passengers along the way.
It was 200 kilometres to Semnan, with me sandwiched between Dave and Mahin in the back, a nice lady travelling with her husband, who would have liked to chat, but conversation was limited to our inadequate Farsi. It only took three hours, retracing the route to Orost for the first hundred kilometres, then striking off across another series of valleys, high and desolate corners of the Alborz Mountains. Our driver on this our last savari ride was exemplary, almost over-cautious, so the trip was thoroughly enjoyable. But we were faced with the usual confusion on our arrival, with the added complication of no map and no phone, therefore no internet and no way to contact the family that we had travelled to Semnan to visit. The Irancell block on our phone was irreparable, we couldn’t re-register or get a new SIM, the thirty day limit was unextendable. We took a taxi to the bazaar, the only landmark we could think of.
MEHMANPAZIR KUMESH WAS NEARBY, A rock bottom lodging choice that we didn’t want to have to make. Dave went off to explore but the situation was grim, the nearest alternative hotel was kilometres away and the city had shut down for the afternoon siesta. At 2:30pm we struggled to find even a kebabi open, and even though we had eaten nothing all day but a rudimentary hotel breakfast of a fried egg and nan, still failed to appreciate kebab kebudiye, the only saving grace was the sweet old man, Khosro, who prepared it for us.
Semnan was a desert city, it’s people not immediately likeable, with few greetings reciprocated and even some frosty stares. Ali at the Memanpazir Kumesh, which we unfortunately had to settle for, was an ungracious host, only reluctantly allowing us to use his old rotary dial telephone to call our friend Ebrahim. Crude but effective. We arranged to meet, then went off to explore.
There was some fine old architecture around the bazaar area, mud bricks, turquoise tilework, vaulted ceilings, wooden taqiyeh, wind catchers and a thousand year old minaret, all of which came to life in the late afternoon with trade and social activity. The courtyard of the newer 200 year old Imam Mosque was a nice place to sit, by the ablution pool in the shade of pine trees, as were the parks dotted around town. It was hard to believe that the small city was surrounded by barren desert.
We ate a picnic breakfast in the park next to the hotel the following morning. Unable to find even a chai khaneh for a cup of tea we bought cheese at the dairy shop, tomatoes from a greengrocer, and a one metre long loaf of sangak from the baker. He made it right before our eyes, asking if we’d like it crusted with sesame, massaging it into shape with his fingers and stretching it across the rocks in his pit oven until it was crisp. And after our second round of ta’arof on this quick shopping outing, he refused payment.
We had a nice mooch around town for the morning, a walk to the railway station to find that taking the train on to Tehran wasn’t a practical option, then some gift buying – some good quality gaz and nokhodchi from a sweets shop, and fruits from the bazaar. When we returned home the grocer next door handed us a note from Ebrahim with an urgent message that we should not eat lunch before he collected us at 2 o’clock. A double blessing because it meant that a home cooked meal awaited us, and we couldn’t find anywhere to eat anyway – even Khosro’s kebab shop was closed!
Ebrahim picked us up on his way home from work at the bank and we drove to his house in the northeast of the city where his wife and children were waiting for us. His apartment was luxurious, on the second of three storeys shared with his wife, Azam, his son Farzad and his two young daughters Farezeh and Hannaneh. His older son Fokhrudin lived with his wife Akram in one of the other three apartments. All of them we had met in the pretty garden in Esfahan five weeks earlier when their casual invitation to visit had been accepted on the spur of the moment – at that time we’d had no plan to visit Semnan.
After an absolutely delicious lunch of fesenjan, lamb slow-cooked in a rich walnut gravy, saffron rice, tahdig, yoghurt with spinach and sweet flower blossom water, we readily agreed to sleep for an hour. We had learnt our lesson about how exhausting Iranian hospitality could be…
The rest of the day passed by in a blur. Seven of us piled into Ebrahim’s brand new Khodro and drove to the western outskirts of the city where we surprised his brother Ismael in his garden. So close to the desert it was a little oasis, many gardens together separated by mud brick walls and filled with green. After introductions we set to raiding the neighbour’s white mulberry tree, Farzad climbed to the high branches and we started filling a bucket from the lower ones, as many going in our mouths as in the bucket. That’s when the said neighbour arrived to check on his garden! He jokingly offered us vodka and made jokes about shaking my hand – his brother was a hardline clergyman.
After melon, mulberries and tea on the porch of Ismael’s man shed, which he had built himself, we piled back into the car to visit Ismael’s lovely wife in her spice shop back in the city – a flying visit. Next we surprised Ebrahim’s mother at her home, scrambling for her chador as we all barged in on her quiet evening alone. So more tea with cookies and dates, and much imploring to eat. We left mother in peace and continued on our social way, next visiting her brother, uncle Olam Hussain in his clothing store and his daughter Maboubeh in her cosmetics shop next door. We were so well received that they abandoned their businesses and we were all invited to uncle’s house behind the shops, a spacious haven with a courtyard and the ladies could relax without scarves. Uncle’s house was a riot of laughter, I suspect not just because of our unannounced arrival. Plates of fruits came out along with sisters, nieces and cameras. Fokhrudin and Akram turned up and we spent most of the evening at this unscheduled house call, enjoying the company of Ebrahim’s extended family.
It was quite late by our standards when we left, and Farzad was at home making kuku for dinner, a meal which we all shared at 10 o’clock. We had been eating all afternoon and into the night, so I couldn’t imagine where they were getting their appetite to eat more, but eat they did. The kuku, potato fritters, were served with sangak, salad, yoghurt and spinach, and of course more tea!
All the time Ebrahim was apologising for his struggle with our language. The electronic dictionary was a lifeline, and he told us that in all of his 51 years he had only ever used English on one other occasion. That was twenty years before when a random German traveller had visited his bank for currency exchange and got stuck in Semnan due to bad weather!
The children all played musical instruments and we were treated to an impromptu performance by each of them. Hannaneh played the tombak, Farezeh and Akram the santoor, Farzad played sitar, and Fokhrudin the tar. Hannaneh was an expert, her tiny fingers tapping out a traditional beat which everyone enjoyed. Our conversations into the night were recorded for posterity and the questions we were asked were varied and interesting, about sport, religion and politics, and so our insight into the Iranian psyche deepened. It was midnight when we all went to bed, with us uncomfortable about displacing Ebrahim and Azam from their room, but as guests we were certainly unable to argue.
There was no sleep-in in the morning. Ebrahim had taken the day off work and the girls had to go to school, so first we drove them to calss at 7 o’clock, then stopped for fresh barbari which we had for breakfast when we got home, still piping hot served with leftover kuku and cheese, bergamot jam and tahini – as always picnic style on the floor.
Our morning excursion began by taking Farzad to school for an exam, and then going into the city to visit the 600 year old hammam attached to the southern takiyeh in the bazaar. It had been restored into a small museum, but Ebrahim still remembered bathing their with his father when he was a boy. Outside in the bazaar we happened to run into Ebrahim’s older sister, wife of a clergyman, cloaked in black, muttering prayers as she met us, her vacant look suggesting that her religion had sucked the life from her.
Back at home the slow-cooker had been working it’s magic in a pot of abghosht and the whole family sat together to eat, the girls preparing the pickled garlic, purslane and eggplant, Azam ladling the soup and Farzad mashing the meaty dip for the crispy taftoon bread. We again took advantage of an invitation to sleep after lunch, then we all went out to Ebrahim’s garden for the afternoon. When we got there we understood why it was his pride and joy.
Ten kilometres to the north of the city in a village in the desert was his beautiful oasis. Accessed down the narrow mud walled laneways on a hillside above the river was a terraced Garden of Eden. There was a cottage, an outdoor kitchen, a toilet, electricity and running water from the qanats in the village. At the bottom of the garden lived chickens and a duck, and set in tiers were fruit trees and plots of herbs, walnut, pomegranate, sour cherries, plums, mint, dill, coriander, tables to sit at, takhts to recline on, bordered with travertine and stones. Ebrahim visited his garden most afternoons, and on Fridays the family would spend the day there, toiling and reaping the rewards of their labour.
The desert mountain backdrop was wonderful and we all took a stroll down along the reed-filled stream to raid the neighbours white mulberry trees. They were practised at this activity, prepared with a chador for everyone to hold out to catch the sweet, juicy shah tut as it fell by various methods – shaking the branches with a pole, or throwing a volleyball into the canopy. Then we would sit together on the chador and eat, feeding each other the juiciest specimens.
It was cool in the late afternoon so to keep warm we did some work in the garden, the men fixing the cover on the tank, and us women folk gathering herbs. We worked until dark then retired to the cottage, lighting a fire, preparing dinner and enjoying the very social environment. It was after 10 o’clock by the time we ate, deliciously smokey chicken kebabs, fresh salad herbs, rice, yoghurt and lavash soaked in the juices from the kebabs, served with generosity and love.
When we drove back to the city it was late, a dark moonless night, the girls asleep in the car, the eve of Ramazan, a fasting custom which Ebrahim and his family had abandoned six years previously after being struck by the pointlessness of it. He didn’t want to starve his children and turn his life upside down for something which he considered served no purpose.
So we all ate a delicious breakfast together the next morning in the sunlight of a beautiful cloudless day. Azam cooked the eggs that we had collected from the chicken coup, every meal which she had prepared for us was the best example of that particular dish which we had tried in Iran, and her omelette was no exception, served with salad herbs and sangak we all ate until full, then said our sad goodbyes.
Ebrahim had implored with us to stay another day but time was marching on and we felt that we had imposed enough, so Ebrahim dropped us off at the terminal on his way to the bank.
For once it was easy for us to find a bus to our destination, men were screaming ‘Tehran! Tehran!” to us as we drove in and we were on our way by 7:30, speeding out into the desert, the magnificently barren Alborz crinkled in the morning light to the north, cloud just sweeping the top of a high peak.
Our final bus ride in Iran was a good one, we sat up front, the driver and crew were really nice and the panoramas were stupendous. In Garmsar we boxed the block, crossing over the rail line which we had travelled on a week earlier, and Tehran’s snowy backdrop was in clear view as we approached the city. Our bus took us to Terminal-e Jonub and the conductor made sure that we were looked after, finding someone heading to the metro for us to follow.
SECOND TIME ROUND IT WAS easy, we didn’t even have to change trains, it was just five stops to Imam Khomeini station and at 10:30 the morning peak had passed. With four nights to spend in Tehran we had a bit of a look around at the line of hotels in Saadi Jadid Street and found a better option at the Sabalan Hotel, one million Rial for a comfortable room on the fourth floor overlooking the busy street activity. We settled ourselves in for our last stop.
It was noon when we headed out toward the bazaar naively looking for lunch. Any teashop, eatery or restaurant we passed was closed for business, some selling fruits in the doorway, most just standing around waiting for the hours to pass. We searched the bazaar, stumbling through the stationary arcades, looking in timchehs, finally deciding to conserve our energy and head for home, hoping for a miracle. At 2pm we sat forlornly on a bench wondering if we would starve for the next four days, when the obligatory helpful English-speaking passerby put his kind face in front of mine and asked how he could help us. Morteza walked with us to the nearest hotel restaurant, the Amir Kabir, sympathising our hunger and laughing at the absurdity of it. He confirmed again that nobody actually fasted except the hard core fanatics, it was all just a farce and behind closed doors nobody was hungry. Certainly we saw plenty of smokers on the street, as well as eaters, some trying to be clandestine, others unselfconscious. Some of the bazaaris unashamedly offered us taste samples or fetched us a glass if we showed any interest in a water fountain. Anyway life was going on as usual inside the Amir Kabir restaurant, the traditional subterranean saray doing a roaring trade. We sat with the dozens of other late lunch diners around a courtyard pool and ate baghali polo and tahchin, crispy rice with barberries, chicken, pickles, fried eggplant and salads, a life-saving feast for 430,000 Rial, and a lunchtime ritual we repeated because we really couldn’t find any other places to eat.
Not wanting to get caught out again, we devoted the rest of the day to buying and squirrelling food. Sorties in three different directions saw our fridge filled with a cache of breakfast goodies, strawberries and apricots, tomatoes, cucumber, melons, halva, fresh dates, walnuts and creamy local yoghurt and peynir from a dairy shop we found way out near Shohoda Square. There we sat on the doorstep self-consciously eating saffron ice cream wondering about the inappropriateness of what we were doing when we were kindly delivered two complimentary cups of chilled doogh on a tray…”befarmoid…”.
The next few days were a relaxing mix of wandering, browsing, shopping and sight-seeing. The weather was good with no rain and blue skies, so the snow capped mountains of the Tochal range were ever present, visible through the smog haze.
Browsing in the Jomeh Bazaar was a great way to idle away a Friday morning – what could be more exotic than a Persian flea market? A multi-storey carpark in the Lalehzah neighbourhood was transformed into a bric-a-brac market where random vendors sold everything from antiques to makers wares, the really old to the still-being-created. More interesting items that we spotted included Nazi memorabilia, crackly Iranian vinyl, tribal jewellery and tarnished samovars amid the more mundane contents of peoples garages. One of the vendors we spoke with, Nagi selling serving trays, had just spent three years on Manus Island, the horrible experience a huge setback to his life, but he was still undeterred about wanting to reach Australia. Shoppers ranged from serious collectors and barterers to casual browsers with plenty of activity in the haberdashery and ladies clothing stalls.
For a leafy respite from the smoggy city we visited Park-e Shah, a shady sanctuary with lawns, fountains and caged exotic birds. People strolled and lay on the grass, children played, and cats stalked in the hedgerows. We passed our leisure time there in long conversations with the people that we met – wild-eyed Bahram who was able to cover dozens of topics in exhaustive detail due to his stash of Swiss Ritalin – softly spoken retiree Shabon, who asked us to help him translate a passage of text from an English book he was reading – and Morteza, who had helped us find the Amir Kabir Hotel, having a quiet snack with his girlfriend.
The fasting month caused problems not just for locals but for us too. We saw plenty of people openly eating on the street, but the penalties for eateries serving dine-in food were severe. At the local coffee shop in Naser Khosro Street the religious police reportedly felt the espresso machine for tell-tale heat. We ate wherever we got the chance, sneaking a quick koluche in a stairway, travelling around with snacks in our bag on the lookout for good hiding spots to eat them, and seizing the opportunity to try the local soups. The ash-e berenj at the Javed Restaurant opposite the Grand Bazaar was the best we’d had, only available in take home packs for iftar from 6pm in preparation for the 8 o’clock finish line.
Tehran’s Grand Bazaar was a bit too grand for our liking. Except for a few nice timchehs the architecture was utilitarian and the territory that it covered, vast. We walked for kilometres through tracts of underwear, frumpywear, and sportswear, fabrics for suiting, shirting, dressing and partying, all the while feeling as vulnerable as ten pins with speeding wooden trolleys being bowled at us loaded with hundreds of kilos of goods, pushed and pulled invariably by Kordish labourers. We got lost at one stage, finding ourselves in the wholesale cigarette market, less interesting than the sight of a woman in a black chador entering a lingerie shop selling g-strings and arse augmenting underpants. We bought some stainless steel skewers in the homewares alley, but didn’t find the market as captivating as other more inspiring regional bazaars that we had visited. Still it was a good way to spend a morning and some of the bazaaris were very friendly, even if we didn’t want to buy a carpet souvenir.
Up early one morning we decided to visit the grave of Ayotollah Khomeini, and the experience was not at all what I expected. We took the metro to Imam-e Motahari and the huge mausoleum confronted us as soon as we exited the station. Tipped with a gold dome and minarets it loomed over the surrounding plain and as we drifted towards it people greeted us with warm surprise. A man spontaneously gave me a red rose, others were eating picnics in the corridors, and we were able to enjoy a cup of tea ourselves. After stowing our bag we entered at different gates, got frisked, I got wrapped in a chador and we rejoined each other at the tomb, me still chatting with the Mashadi lady who had helped to dress me. The atmosphere inside was casual, with a few visitors circling the tomb or sitting quietly, some mourners kissing the silver grill, others reading qurans set out in rows, or even taking selfies.
For something completely different we stopped by the Central Bank at the bewitching hours between two and four o’clock in the afternoon when they opened the vault for the public to view the crown jewels. The wealth of gold and gems was astounding, the royal baubles of the Shahs, the world’s largest pink diamond, magnificent pearl jewellery, the peacock thrown, and a globe made of five kilograms of gold and 50,000 emeralds, rubies and diamonds encrusted into it in the form of the world.
We took it easy on our last day, trying to manage our time and finances for our imminent departure. Hossein at the front desk of the hotel was beside himself because he thought that our visas had expired, despite our re-assurances he was eyeing us suspiciously waving our passports around like they were suddenly worthless. Calculating our monetary needs to finalise our hotel bill and cover expenses unknown to the airport, we marched off towards Ferdowsi Square to find a black marketeer, but we walked no more than fifty metres before we were asked the question. It seemed that all the people who used to be employed in the recently defunct exchange bureaus were now self-employed on the street, and a cheerful character named Hosain gave us 1.54 million Rial for our odd change totalling US$28. With time on our hands we mooched around the neighbourhood for a couple of hours, sitting by the peacock enclosure in the Park-e Shah and ambling through the Bazaar-e Bozorg before going home to pack.
It was a simple procedure to get ourselves back to Imam Khomeini International Airport, first taking the metro to Shahed-e Bagheri then a minibus on to the airport, a rusty old green Nissan which sped along the highway into the desert until we passed by the terminal where it stopped to deposit us two on the side of the highway, the other passengers re-shuffling to allow our exit.
We scraped together our last Tomans in the only restaurant in the arrival hall, open for business behind screens with a limited menu. Then we shuffled through with the other passengers for Muscat, the Oman Air flight our first on a full service airline in years. Scarves were removed discreetly as we took our seats and the vast majority of women were transformed by the time we disembarked – relaxed…
The onward overnight flight to Bangkok was professional and comfortable, with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner only half full, so we arrived as fresh as is possible, deposited from one world into another.
WE HAD NEVER USED SUVARNABHUMI Airport before, but it was easy to navigate, and we had put ourselves on a bus, the S1 to Banglamphu within an hour of touching down, excited and happy to be in familiar territory. The culture shock started to kick in on the bus ride, crossing a bridge over a khlong as a ferry sped by fishtailing in the chopped up water. The sight of women looking beautiful wearing whatever they wished, and the food… the food.
We got down from the bus with a smile and a wave from the conductor, “Wat Bowoniwet”… “korp koon ka”, and walked with purpose toward Thanon Samsen, wavering at a noodle shop, tempted by kway dtee-o nam, and a little further on succumbing to the sight of a steaming tray loaded with slow-cooked pork, “sawatdee ka, kao ka moo”… “sorng jahn”. We melted just as the pork did in our mouths, served with rice and garnished with pickled greens, gai lan, tiny raw garlic cloves and vinegared chilli slices – 40 Baht per serve. Our priorities were different here. We knew where to find a room, so breakfast took precedence. A few steps along we found a vendor who was new to us serving drinks, so we sat again for a cha yen see kee-o and kafae yen, caffeine prepared with considerably more imagination than a tea bag in hot water.
Stomachs full, we headed to our old standby hotel where we found a vacant room and set to enjoy the rest of our day in the Thai capital. On Thanon Ratchadamnoen we caught bus number 2 to Pratunam, inhaling deeply the wonderful food aromas along the way and returning the wide Thai smiles that we were offered, “sawatdee ka!”. A few minutes into our bus ride the heavens opened, the driver called out “fun lair-o” as he saw it coming and everyone scrambled to close the windows as it started pelting down, the classic monsoonal deluge. It made getting down at our stop a bit messy but then we stayed under cover for the next few hours, shopping in the Platinum Centre and following the covered skyways and connected malls all the way to Maboonkrong, browsing, soaking up the happy-go-lucky atmosphere, and buying a few treasures – underwear, shoes and kway dtee-o nam neu-a, beef noodle soup with a rich broth, bean sprouts and basil leaves, the kind of dish that foodies would drive to Cabramatta for, available at the MBK food court…
We caught bus number 15 back and strolled along Thanon Khao San and down to Phra Sumen on the river, our favourite local park. We had fresh passionfruit juice and pineapple, the taste of the tropics, but cracking thunder warned us home and we wandered back buying more tasty morsels along the way, tao-fu fa in it’s spicy sweet ginger sauce and sai grob, juicy pork sausage with fresh cabbage and ginger.
We slept off our two hour jet lag with an early night and woke up fresh for a 6 o’clock walk to the street market in Soi Kraisi where we joined the rows of monks looking for breakfast. We sat and savoured a bowl of johk, rice porridge with egg and balls of pork, while the monks received so many alms that some of their minders needed wheelie trolleys to carry the bounty. The sight of a policeman supplicating on the ground before an older monk amid the traffic in busy Thanon Phra Sumen was a powerful image.
We spent the morning mooching around our neighbourhood, straying as far as Khlong Maha Nak where we sat in the shade admiring the skill of the longtail ferry drivers maneuvering their vessels down the choppy narrow waterways, the deck hands shimmying along the outer ledges, hovering over the filthy canal water like acrobats, collecting fares. Further along Thanon Nakhon Sawan, Nang Leung market was a good place for a second breakfast. At 10 o’clock a stall named Rattana was just setting out it’s trays of dishes, so we ordered khao raat, selecting a couple of delicacies from the stir-fries, curries and braises. The stir-fried fish with orange chillies and bamboo was delicious, but the green beef curry with green eggplant and basil was sensational, spicy, lip-smacking.
Struck by the heat we walked home in slow motion, weaving our way along streets and down alleys, mixing it with the traffic with a sense of safety. After getting used to the poor driving habits of Iranians we felt safer in Bangkok where the drivers dodged pedestrians rather than aiming for them.
We checked out of our hotel at noon and caught bus number 49 from Thanon Wisut Kasat to Hua Lamphung, Bangkok’s main railway station. With a few hours kill until our 5 o’clock departure we deposited our bag and went for a walk through Chinatown. At that time of day the district was building up to the evening pandemonium, noisy, chaotic and hot. We poked our noses into the Kamalawat temple and Talaat Phahurat checking out the street food on offer along the way. In the gateway of a Vietnamese temple was an old man selling dumplings from a push cart, his kanom jeeb were delicious, bite sized morsels filled with pork and dried prawn carefully dressed with a variety of condiments, three Baht per mouthful. Along Thanon Yaowarat we stopped at ‘Nai Ek’ for kway jap nam sai, slices of braised beef tongue and crispy skin pork in a pepper broth with rolled rice noodles, 50 Baht for a bowl of deliciousness.
Pausing to watch some workmen from a bridge we got to chatting with Wichai, a local man who we were happy to test our Chinese with, attracting other interested passersby in a city where we were otherwise anonymous.
Our train left on time, to the sound of rolling thunder outside and food vendors inside, their sing-song voices describing the tasty meals and snacks they were selling. We topped up on rice with pork and basil with a fried egg as we left Kreung Thep behind, the train making a slow turn around the city to head south, and darkness falling as we reached Nakhon Pathom.
Our berth was fairly luxurious by railway standards, the purser came through and made up our bed at 7:30 and from the comfort of our pillows we watched the lights of small towns pass by as we rolled off to sleep somewhere between Petchaburi and Hua Hin to the gentle rocking motion of the carriage and the distant sound of the horn from the locomotive. It was quiet all night, the other passengers slept as soundly as us, and we didn’t even hear the disembarkations.
When we peeked out the window at dawn we saw mist shrouded rubber plantations, and at Thung Song Junction our bed was turned back into seats. We were right on schedule as we branched off onto the Trang line for the final few hours of the fifteen hour, eight hundred kilometre journey.
IT STARTED RAINING AS WE approached our stop, so not bothering to search around in the wet, we returned to the same hotel that we’d stayed in sixteen years earlier when we had visited Trang for the Vegetarian Festival – the Kohteng Hotel, straight down Thanon Rama VI.
We dashed back out for breakfast at a noodle shop across the road, thick rice noodles and sweet sour broth with bean sprouts, crispy skin pork, offal, sausage, red roasted pork, yellow wantons and fried prawns, exceptionally good and only 40 Baht. The rain stopped by mid-morning, allowing a look around town. Trang hadn’t changed much and and we found our way to the municipal market to buy fruits – mangoes, finger bananas, guavas, rose apples. There was truck loads of fresh produce available, an abundance of everything needed to create delicious food, fresh curry pastes, gapi, vegetables, fish, meat, and the local speciality moo grop muang trang, crispy skin pork. There was also prepared dishes in take-home bags and we grabbed some gai tort, fried chicken with sticky rice and sweet spicy sauce, then found a shady spot in a nearby Chinese temple to eat, twenty Baht per serve and absolutely scrumptious.
It poured with rain for the rest of the afternoon leaving us housebound, but at 5:30pm it miraculously cleared just in time for the night market on Thanon Reunrom to set up for the evening. We made a thorough patrol before settling on a ‘khao raat’ stall with a dazzling array of dishes. Star of the show was gairng som, a sour orange curry with fish and melon, good with put pak, fak thong kai, and bpree-0 wahn, assorted offal in a sweet and sour sauce. Served with rice and salad vegetables, green water weed, cucumber and wing beans, it was a delicious meal, as testisfied by other satisfied diners, “ah roooy”. After another patrol we finished off with a bag of jackfruit, some hot kanom bueang, crispy mini crepes with meringue, coconut and prawn floss, and a slice of Thai tea crepe cake, layers of thin rainbow coloured pancakes with a strawberry sauce.
We left the next morning after a leisurely breakfast and a long walk around town. In a nameless coffee shop down near the railway station we enjoyed a feast of dishes, rice with spicy pork and pineapple yellow curry, salad vegetables, haw mok, and moo pa-loh, pork and eggs cooked in a soy broth, and banana steamed with sticky rice in palm leaves. Further up Thanon Rama VI in the crusty old Yue Chiang coffee shop we drank a head spinning brew of local coffee whilst chatting with a couple of American ‘Captain Obvious’ types.
In contrast to the previous day, the weather was clear and sunny, convenient for a travel day. We took a minibus transfer from the railway station to the pier, just three passengers in the low season lull.
At Kuan Thung Khu a little wooden ferry boat was readying for it’s once daily departure to Koh Mook with a flurry of activity on the pier as passengers boarded and last minute cargo was loaded. We grabbed a quick lunch of gai yahng with sticky rice and som tum, the Muslim girls dispensing it with good humour considering that they were possibly fasting, the peanut sauce on the grilled chicken a nod to their heritage.
The boat left twenty minutes early, chugging down the estuary past what used to be the beach at Had Chao Mai where we’d stayed all those years ago, pre-tsunami. That was when I realised that my camera had fallen from the plank we were sitting on into the dark bowels of the bilge below deck – this was bad. We had to wait half an hour until we reached the island before we knew the fate of my precious new camera, ultimately retrieved by pulling up the decking boards and fishing around in the murky water under flashlight. The deck hand held it out to me dripping, his face registering the disaster. The inglorious end of my camera.
It did help that we had arrived on a beautiful tropical island – a bit.
THE WHITE SAND BEACH OF Sivalai stretched away to the east of the jetty, a small fishing village sat to the west beneath swaying palm trees, colourful fishing boats floated in the bay of Ao Kwan, and limestone outcrops rose up at the northern end of the island. We found accommodation in the village, Coco Lodge had a range of bungalows on a lawn shaded by coconut palms and cashew trees. Muriel, a French long-stayer, showed us a few to choose from and for 500 Baht we got an elevated hut with a balcony, a couple of hammocks and a big outdoor-style bathroom with plants growing in the sandy floor around the shower and a skirting of shells and starfishes. For the duration of our stay there were only ever one or two other bungalows occupied. The beach front of Coco was only attractive at high tide, but there were shady sea almond trees and bamboo lounges, and the outlook across to the mainland was beautiful. At night time the noise from the surrounding gardens was a lullaby symphony, with a chorus of crickets, droning insects and frogs, with the occasional solo from the geckos that lived in our thatched roof. If it rained the sound was amplified as the bullfrogs and toads joined in.
The house dogs were lazy creatures, not interested in following us when we went out, but happy to sit on our verandah or the bamboo lounges by the sea. More interesting fauna we spotted on the walk to Had Farang where we saw a poacher butchering a small mammal which he hastily covered at the sight of us. Birdlife that we saw included sunbirds, rollers, doves, brahminy kites, pheasant coucals, bitterns, a sea eagle, and a pair of pied hornbill in the garden right in front of our bungalow.
It rained most days, usually with thunder and impressive black clouds in the late afternoon or evening, but we got reasonable doses of sunshine, and some cloud cover was welcome on longer walks.
A half hour hike to the windward side of the island took us to Had Farang, a wildly beautiful beach, a ghost of it’s high season self. Everything was closed, but the wide stretch of sand crammed between two rocky headlands still looked appealing with low waves rolling in from the Andaman Sea.
Sivalai Beach, just a five minute stroll along the waterfront from Coco Lodge, for all it’s idyllic beauty, was infested with sand flies and I got ravaged on day one, leaving my entire body covered in itchy red spots and ruling out the pleasant activity of relaxing on Sivalai’s white sands.
In the opposite direction to the north of the island was Had Lo Dung, a nice forty minute walk through rubber plantations and jungle along a dirt foot track. The beach there was small and isolated, backed by the jungle and heavily shaded by sea almonds, tamarind and coconut trees. Birds chirped, monkeys moved through the forest canopy, and a sheer limestone crag towered over the beach. Swimming there in the jade green water was sublime, looking back to shore at the jungle and the karst, and out to sea to the crags jutting up from the mainland and Koh Lanta to the north. There was a fresh stream flowing behind the sands which we could rinse off in after our swims, and beach-combing for coral and hermit crabs kept us amused as we dried off. This was our favourite spot on Koh Mook and we didn’t have to share it with anyone.
As is usual in idyllic beachside locations, eating options were limited. We gave the Coco Lodge restaurant a chance, but bland traveller fare was a disappointment, so we sought options elsewhere. A lot of the restaurants were closed for the off-season, but ‘Ma Kin Ni’ in the village was open and became our stand-by for lunch. There a couple of expressionless young women spoke clear easy-to-understand Thai and knocked out some good dishes from their rudimentary al-fresco kitchen. Nuan, an old uncle who hung around the restaurant over-compensated for the ladies stoicness, and for under 250 Baht the two of us could dine a-la-carte on authentic southern Thai food, yum talay, gai put khing, put pak raum, and tom yum goong delicious to the last slurp.
Many of the ladies in the village cooked meals, snacks and sweets to local tastes, and these supplemented our meals well. Little packages of fish curry, rice, egg and chilli fish sauce, freshly fried banana and taro, steamed sticky rice parcels with beans and pink banana, and sweet coconut milk dessert soups with sago and red beans or fresh corn, all made good breakfasts or iftar snacks. Yummy little Thai tea popsicles sold by a mobile ice cream vendor on a tricycle were a serendipitous winner.
The morning we left was a beautiful day. After five days we were sufficiently chillaxed, so we said goodbye to Muriel, Jair and Pom Pom, the hairy dog who’d kept constant vigil on our doorstep every night. Mists lay around the crags on the mainland as we headed toward it on the little wooden ferry. At Kuan Thung Khu all the boat passengers crowded into the minivan, the same vehicle which had taken us outbound, for the one hour drive back to town.
TRANG SEEMED MORE LIVELY AND cosmopolitan after the island life. We decided to spend a few more days in the city, so we settled ourselves into better lodging at the Station Hotel where 340 Baht bought us an exceptionally spacious fan-cooled room.
It was 10 o’clock, so we had a late breakfast at the Yue Chiang coffee shop, gah-fair yen, iced coffee and pat jang, pork, egg, lotus seed and sticky rice steamed in lotus leaf. Finger licking good, and a great atmosphere with a couple of old men at the next table noisily checking off their lottery numbers, and a customer picking up two whole roasted pigs, carefully wrapped in paper and laid out on wooden pallets.
Next we stocked our fridge with fruits from the market, finger bananas, pomelo, mangoes, rambutans and a young coconut. For lunch we headed to the vegetarian restaurants behind the town hall, and the food was as good as we remembered. Delicious green curry with green and pea eggplants, a sour yellow curry with bamboo, stir-fried gai lan with bean curd, and chunks of smokey fried tao-hu with diced vegetables in a thick sauce – all for 60 Baht.
This was the theme for the next few days as we filled in the time between meals pottering around on city walks and shopping here and there. From Robinson’s to the municipal market we collected treasures edible, practical or wearable, and explored the streets alive with the relaxed Thai lifestyle.
For breakfasts we were spoiled for choice, but the ‘dim sum’ restaurants along Thanon Phetkasem were hard to beat. Thai-style ‘yum cha’ included Chinese favourites, xiao bao, rice flour dumplings, yong doufu, congee, and baozi to name a few, but with some Thai flare, a plate of moo grop muang trang, marinated spit roast pork was de rigueur, there were no chopsticks, but little forks, chilli sauce was provided for dipping, and everyone drank milky iced tea or coffee with their jasmine tea. At Pong-O Cha marble tables and wooden chairs set the scene, and the other diners were a mix of just-climbed-out-of-bed and out-for-breakfast. We were amongst the latter, spending up to 200 Baht on a long indulgent repast. Across the road a more casual al-fresco ‘yumcha’ experience was equally delicious and even more friendly, patrons sat for extended periods sipping beverages under the pandan trees. Strolling through the market on the way back we bought hot patangko, Chinese donuts with pandan flavoured kaya, and some pantry essentials for Home, Thai tea dust, ground coffee and fresh gapi.
For a short day excursion we took the train to the end of the line in Kantang. The fare was five Baht for the twenty minute ride through rubber plantations to the historic station established for the export trade. We had time for a good look around the port town before heading back on the same train, the humble beginning of the almost one thousand kilometre haul to Bangkok, but a casual and breezy ride for us as far as the first stop, Trang.
Of course we returned to the night market on Thanon Reunrom with a fair degree of enthusiasm. We enjoyed a sit down meal of kanom jiin, I chose the spicy fish curry, and Dave had a green chicken curry with eggplant and melon splashed over thin rice noodles garnished with a huge selection of fresh salad vegetables and pickles, sweet and sour green papaya and carrot, vinegared cucumber, pickled mustard greens and spring onion. It was the Rolls Royce of kanom jiin, and only 25 Baht per serve. Grazing on, we savoured charcoal grilled pork sausage, sai grob with raw cabbage, chilli and basil, and a slice of fak thong sun kaya, sweet pumpkin steamed with coconut custard, tasting even better than it sounds.
A tasty alternative to the night market was a stall which set up each afternoon in front of the Yue Chang coffee shop. One had to be quick to get in on the action, and timing was everything. Within the space of ten minutes an empty, but promising-looking table covered in newspaper was loaded with pots and trays filled with freshly cooked dishes of curries and braises, platters of fried fish, bags of soups and packs of salads. A scrum quickly formed on the footpath outside the shop and the tide began to fall in the pots. We were politely welcomed into the jostle and came away with a take home feast for 160 Baht, panaeng neu-a, braised mushroom with baby corn, long eggplants fried with pork, and a fried fish slathered with yellow bean sauce.
With one week left before our scheduled flight Home from KL we decided to head for Penang to confirm our desire to live there.
To make the trip in a single day involved an early start and multiple modes of transport, but Dave was keen for the challenge so we were off just after 6 o’clock, kick-started with gah-fair rorn and pat jang at the Yue Chang. We were too early for the blue city bus so we had to engage a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus terminal, at 80 Baht for a two and a half kilometre trip, a reminder as to why we never used tuk-tuks.
At the bus terminal it was apparent that buses were becoming a thing of the past. There was one preparing to depart for Phuket, but for all other destinations minivans left when full and we were on our way within minutes as we were amongst the last few punters to fill one bound for Had Yai. For two hours we drove through plantations and low jungled mountains into the interior, everyone in stone silence.
Once we reached the city we spent half an hour navigating through it, setting down passengers along the way until we reached the Had Yai bus terminal. There we changed smoothly to another minivan heading south to the border at Padang Besar. We followed a winding back road for an hour before being set down on the side of the road and pointed in the direction of the border post.
After having our passports stamped in a room off the immigration hall we were then free to wander stateless through a big iron gate which represented the border. We stepped from Thailand into Malaysia and walked for a kilometre through a no-mans-land of parked container trucks with odd passing car or motorbike.
Eventually we came to another group of buildings like a glorified toll-booth, and we were processed through immigration barely breaking our stride. A little further on we spotted an overpass which led to the train station, and our timing was great for the 12:25 commuter to Butterworth, with just enough time for a banana leaf package of nasi lemak on the platform before our train rolled out.
It was another two hour ride through the lush Malaysian countryside with the pleasant company of Norris, a project manager from Melaka travelling from Bukit Kayu Hitam to Penang for the weekend.
In Butterworth we were funnelled onto a shuttle bus then the ferry across to the island, the last step before finally a walk through Georgetown to find somewhere to stay.
WE STROLLED ALONG LEBUH CHULIA then down Love Lane in the afternoon heat. We turned into Jalan Muntri and found the 75 Travellers Lodge with friendly old Leow sitting behind the desk. He showed us to a simple 50 Ringgit room, and his pride in the new bathroom along with his smile sold it to us.
We threw down our bag and went to eat, by now 4pm we had a brief discussion about what to call the meal and decided that it was lunch. The discussion about where to go was even briefer as we headed for the Nasi Kandar Line Clear, set up in the same alleyway off Jalan Penang since 1930. Despite Ramadan we were warmly welcomed to the Mamak stall, and our plates were loaded with sotong, gulai ikan, rendang gravy, sayur and steamed okra. For 27 Ringgit we ate a feast, then stopped a few doors down at the Kedai Kopi Ho Ping for an iced nutmeg juice, satisfying a long-standing craving. Yes, we definitely still liked Penang…
We had already satisfied any sight-seeing interests we had on previous visits to the island, so we really just wanted to kick back, explore different neighbourhoods and eat our favourite things.
On Sunday morning the flea market in Lorong Kulit was a great place for a browse and a socialise. Ever practical, we bought an oilcan for ten Ringgit, and spent time chatting with the vendors, many from Indonesia, some retired, and all of them hungry. We caught bus number 200 back to Lebuh Pantai where a different kind of market set up on Sunday mornings. Children played on a giant snakes and ladders board, homeless dogs and kittens tore at my heart strings pleading for a new home, and masseurs performed a horrendous-looking procedure with two meat cleavers on patrons protecting their bare skin with bathroom towels.
To beat the heat we browsed in shopping centre malls and air-conditioned shops. There was only one brief shower during the entire week that we were in Penang, so the heat had built up to oppressive levels and was only really bearable until mid-morning and then again at sunset. We made forays on foot and by bus to the suburbs of Tanjung Tokong, Pulau Tikus and Tanjung Bungah to check out the amenities and environs with a view to prospective livability. All ticked some boxes but none ticked all, and we decided that ‘Rapid Penang’ wouldn’t be able to meet our basic transport needs.
A two day excursion to Batu Ferringhi was a breath of fresh air and a good insight into the expatriate lifestyle. Couchsurfer hosts Rachael and Chris kindly invited us to stay with them in their comfortable condo at Miami Beach. They were living the life, working on-line from their tropical hideaway on a high floor catching the sea breeze. The cove that they lived in was very isolated along windy Jalan Batu Ferringhi, so the only distractions were the monkeys in the nearby jungle and the swimming pool. There was a casual al-fresco restaurant on the sand in Miami Cove and watching the sunset there would have to rank as a daily highlight. We got along well with our Australian cohorts, spending hours in easy conversation getting to know one another.
To fill in a day while we were staying with them we took ourselves to the main beach a few kilometres to the west. A tourist trap for holidaying Arabs, it didn’t hold much appeal, but it was pleasant sitting on the sand in the shade watching parasailers and banana boats go squealing by. We continued around the coast by local bus to Balik Pulau up and over the mountainous spine of the island through durian forests, the trees dripping with ripe fruit hanging in the canopy. At Balik Pulau we just had time before the return bus for a quick lunch of nasi kandar, an excellent fish curry and stir-fried cockles, then a durian – a one kilo sized fruit for ten Ringgit, sitting in the shade at a roadside stall with other aficionados, the elder amongst them extolling pearls of wisdom about how to select the best durian. We returned to Georgetown dreaming about our retirement plan.
Having already reconnoitred alternative lodging we re-located ourselves to the Broadway Hotel on Jalan Mesjid Kapitan Kling. Rahman at the front desk was surprised and delighted at our return, and we were comfortable in an 80 Ringgit room on the third floor with a view across the rooftops of heritage terrace houses to Penang Hill.
We snack-tracked far and wide over the week of our stay, some snacks so substantial that they qualified as meals. At the night market in Lebuh Kimberley the popiah was scrumptious, teamed with rojak and air tauhu, and the bonus entertainment of our popiah chef getting involved in a neighbourhood dispute which almost came to blows.
Lorung Baru pasar malam was another great evening eating venue with street carts plating up top class dishes. We shared o chien, oyster omelette which I was proudly able to order in Chinese, and iced sour plum and lime juice, amazingly delicious. Also good was the home made durian ice cream from a mobile vendor on Jalan Armenia, red bean popcicles at the Ban Heung edible souvenir shop, and organic black sesame bean curd at trendy B&M, a cafe on Jalan Burma – a bit expensive at five Ringgit per bowl, but worth every Sen.
Breakfast venues varied from scruffy hawkers centres and Chinese coffee shops to an airy ‘yum cha’ restaurant. Tai Tong was a reliably good favourite with gas-fuelled steaming trolleys pushed around by friendly grannies offering plates and steamers full of delicious dishes, stuffed eggplant, turnip cake, pork buns, siu mai dumplings, anything one could want to get the day off to a good start. At Pasar Chowrasta we also breakfasted with the Chinese community, slurping kari mee, wantan mee and rich, dark kopi ais. The Pulau Tikus morning market had a more suburban feel and we soaked up the atmosphere along with plates of char kway teow and char kway kak, the smokey wok breath washed down with iced coffee, sweet chrysanthemum tea, and putu mayong, steamed pandan flavoured rice noodles served with grated coconut and sugar.
In Little India we ate vegetarian meals at Krishna and Shusi banana leaf restaurants, South Indian curries as much as we could eat, slapped down in front of us for six Ringgit each. Along Jalan Chulia the Wai Kei Cafe attracted queues of hungry customers drawn to the display of roasted meats out the front. An old man worked constantly with a cleaver to keep up with the demand. I had poached nasi ayam, and Dave’s roasted duck rice was superb, even the kopi pang was sensationally smooth and chocolatey.
Taking up the floor space of two line houses and the alleyway outside, Penang Road Famous Laksa churned out delicious bowls of asam laksa. Thick with fish, spice and starchy rice noodles, it was a crowd pleaser, as was their iced cendol which we tried as we passed Lebuh Keng Kwee another time.
We opted to travel by bus on to KL, five hours down the Lebuh Raya in first class comfort for 38 Ringgit. In the early morning cool we walked to Komtar via the Chowrasta market for a bowl of kway teow th’ng, then got transferred from the Billion Stars ticket office in a minivan driven by a Tamil guy looking like an extra from a Tollywood dance item.
Our bus left from the terminal at Sungai Nibong fashionably late, then crossed to the mainland on the Penang Bridge, thirteen kilometres over the sea through a heavy sea mist. The view out the window barely changed for the remainder of the journey, the lush foliage along the highway varying only between teak wood, palm plantations and overgrown jungle on the mountain passes.
KUALA LUMPUR APPEARED AS A super modern jungle of high rise towers, one of which our bus was swallowed by when we reached Sentral. Soon after we were cheerfully farewelled by our driver, and ourselves consumed by the city as we dissolved into it, taking the light rail to Pasar Seni, then finding a room in Chinatown at our usual digs on Jalan Sultan.
It was hours past lunchtime but I was set on a meal in Brickfields, so we traipsed back to Sentral on the train and hoofed it through the aromatic desi suburb to Jalan Scott where the beautiful Sri Kandaswamy Koval temple sat nestled into trees at the end of the street. Even at 4 o’clock in the afternoon Vishal’s was serving banana leaf meals to hungry patrons, and we ate a mountain of rice with vegetable curries, fried baby eggplant, bhindi, spinach kootu, shredded papaya and potato sambar. And a sweet lassi, all for twenty Ringgit.
We dawdled home, shopping for fruits, yummy chiku, belimbing and jackfruit, some jeans for Dave, and cups of cool soy milk on Jalan Petaling.
We stuck with our Chetty theme for breakfast the next morning with roti canai and an ‘idli set’ at Vinny Jeyaa in Jalan Hang Kasturi. The teh tarik was milky sweet and frothy, setting us up for a day of modest activity. A couple of hours exercising and relaxing in the beautiful Tasik Perdana gardens, another couple of hours shopping in the Chow Kit district, eating a kilo of rambutans as we browsed the lively alleyways of the market, marvelling at the quality and value of the produce compared to Penang. We walked along Jalan TAR with the throngs of shoppers getting in on the Hari Raya sales, and bought a pair of Levi’s for five Ringgit at the baju bundle. We lunched on lala mee, clam noodle soup at the Kedai Kopi Lai Fong, so packed with diners we shared a table with two girls from Johor, one of them just back from six months study in Sydney.
Browsing the malls of Bukit Bintang let us escape the worst of the afternoon heat, and in the evening back in Chinatown we snacked on doufu fa sweetened with palm sugar, and nasi goreng, well fried and tasty with dried prawn floss, snake beans, egg and chilli sambal.
With a midnight flight the last day of our trip was long and leisurely, and we were up early to make the most of the cool morning hours. We started with a bowl of pork johk at a stall in Jalan Hang Lekir operated by a third generation since 1949, and walked it off with a lap of Chinatown up to the Masjid Jameh at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers, then another walk around Taman KLCC accessed via the air-conditioned skywalk and the bus.
Back in town a ‘snack pagi‘ was in order so we downed a couple of fresh roti canai with dahl and teh tarik, then we couldn’t go past the Bunn Choon Egg Tart in Jalan Balai Pos where we had to wait for a batch of tarts to come out of the oven. The traditional dan ta had perfect flaky pastry and eggy custard, while their black sesame version gave the pastry an extra dimension.
We mooched some more around our ‘hood, scouted alternative lodging options, bought some gritty kopi asli in the KK Mart, and I couldn’t resist another pair of five Ringgit jeans at the baju bundle shop on Jalan Petaling.
We checked out of our hotel at noon and found space for a bowl of laksa at the hawkers centre in Madras Lane. Dave went for the kari mee, and I could never resist asam laksa, especially where I know how good it is with chunks of sardine, slivers of pineapple, sprigs of mint, and fat slippery rice noodles in a thick fishy soup. Satisfied, we then hoofed it to Pudu Raya terminal for the twelve Ringgit bus to KLIA2, our accumulated shopping from Iranian saffron to Cameronian tea just able to be crammed into our bags without overflowing into excess baggage.
The ride to the airport was enjoyable, sat up front with the driver, Muniandy, a handsome 65 year old who chatted with us as he negotiated the light Sunday afternoon traffic. When we reached the airport we said goodbye with an invitation to visit him at his home near Batu Caves, and our interaction was a very nice last impression of Malaysia.
With nine hours until our flight we passed the time easily with a visit to the bustling Mitsui Plaza, a browse around the check-in mall, and a meal in the upstairs medan selera. The food at the ‘nasi campur’ counter was serendipitously good, Dave going for the dendeng daging with kentang goreng and tempeh, while I had the ikan patin and daun ubi – all for 26 Ringgit.
The check-in counter and then the immigration desk were the next steps toward the reality of our other life, the cold of winter, the return to work, a year long slumber dreaming about The Next Trip…