Friday, 19 October 2007

Hitchhiking from Kashan to Yazd (6 September)

The Kashan hotel guy told me that the best way to get to my next destination, Yazd, was to grab a shared taxi out to the main north-south freeway and flag down a bus heading to Yazd from Tehran. This I did but when I got to the tollgates on the freeway I saw that 10-15 others had the same idea. In the first hour no less than 15 buses went straight past us, all full or uninterested. I decided to hitchhike and soon had roped in the toll collectors to ask the cars where they were going and whether they had space for me.

Finally a guy driving alone, Farazdah, agreed to take me…along with an off-duty soldier and a family of three. A little cramped we set off and soon Farazdah was burning up the excellent road between Kashan and Yazd. The landscape was dusty and mostly flat, flanked by the magnificent brown of the Zagros Mountains to the west and the odd military installation and village along the way. I tested out some Farsi phrases on Farazdah and the others who, politely and grinning, corrected my pronunciation and urged me on.

The mother peeled cucumbers for everyone and coated them in salt – actually really good when you are driving through the desert. After 2 hours we dropped them off and then the soldier too, who waved a thick wad of notes in Farazdah’s face who, in true Iranian taroef-style, refused to take money. I found out that Farazdah was heading to his family home in a village on the way to the border with Turkmenistan. This meant he had to drive 1-2 hours out of his way to drop me in Yazd but he refused to let me get out at the exit and insisted he take me all the way. He played some brilliant, uplifting girly anthem style techno, featuring the singer Nushafarin, and we bopped along for the final stretch of the trip.

Soon we were in Yazd and Farazdah insisted on taking me to the Jameh mosque. After a quick peek inside he dropped me at my destination, the Silk Road Hotel, a restored traditional house with huge courtyard, open roof with rooms along the sides and a restaurant with a great reputation. I decided on the dorm in the converted cellar and bid farewell to Farazdah. He refused 5 times to take any money despite going out of his way and driving me so far. Night fell and as I relaxed in the Silk Hotel courtyard with my fake beer, I gazed at the minarets of the Jameh mosque peeking over the top of the roof, the stunning blue tiles bathed in bright spotlights. Nice.

Kashan: the most beautiful houses in the world (4-6 September)

Kashan is 3 hours south of Tehran and is renowned for its architecture and carpets. I explored four of the most beautiful houses I have ever seen, built mostly by rich carpet merchants – Tabataei, Ameriha, Borujerdi and Abassi. Most of these have courtyards and often winter and summer sections, underground cellars, entertaining areas, wind towers to cool the house (badgirs) guest houses and servant quarters. Most are made of wood with stonework and stained glass etc. The houses have murals, reliefs and frescoes depicting daily Persian life, heroic legends and families. One has an exquisite carpet pattern carved into the ceiling. Another’s stained glass window casts a brilliant pattern of blue, yellow and red on the ground which slowly crawls across the room as the day passes. In the Abassi house I met Fabrice, a French guy, who insisted I learn how to count in Farsi and taught me on the way back to our hotel. The language is brilliant – ancient, passionate and colourful.

Iran: first impressions, access of evil, those mosques and the Persian legend (3-4 September)

The first signs I had to adjust for Iran was the bustle of activity as our plane descended for the landing in Tehran. Women, previously with big bold hairstyles, striking makeup and those Persian eyes, were enveloped in a swirl of brightly coloured and plain scarves, hijab and even the full chador. Even so, as we touched down I prepared for my assumptions to be blasted to smithereens. I was not to be disappointed.

Immigration and customs were a breeze and the airport was clean and efficient. The taxi driver who dashed through the dark freeways and streets of Tehran towards my hotel was probably the oldest living Persian and his car definitely was and after an hour circling the same streets I eventually jumped out and found Damir, a Croatian, banging on our hotel (the Naderi on Jomhuri Eslami Ave) door. I joined him on the doorbell but no matter that our noise was enough to wake the dead, there was no signs of life. By now it is 4am so we settled on a twin in the new Naderi and crashed out.

Slightly dazed and later that morning, we plunged onto the streets of Tehran and were soon wide awake. Tehran is a busy, crowded city similar to Jakarta but more highrises, cars, buses, trucks and motorbikes etc (mostly French made) with some of the maddest ever drivers. As an example they actually accelerate into crowded intersections to try to frighten other drivers to gain the best position and passage through.

We made a quick stop at an internet café to report our safe arrival etc and had the first encounter of the power of the regime. The Iranian Government has blocked Facebook, YouTube and a variety of other sites. Apparently Iran admires China’s ability to control the web and sought their assistance to restrict the access of evil the web provides. Funnily enough, in turn this has led to savvy café managers in Iran to cooperate with Chinese hackers to bypass the filters. I soon learned how to track down these cafés.

We wandered south along Ferdosi towards Imam Khomeni square and I noticed more and more images of the 12 (Or is it 13? Or 14?) imams, often flanked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, his successor Khameni and President Ahmadinejad. Their sublime and youthful faces would follow me, much like Syria’s Asad, all over the country. Also almost every town has an Imam square, Imam Mosque and Imam boulevard. The main one in Tehran has a serious-looking, squat 20-story government building with giant antennas and satellite dishes on top. It is not marked on the map in Lonely Planet and I couldn’t find anyone to tell me exactly who worked there.

The main streets south of Jomhuri were lined with many shops – selling suits, spices, carpets, brassware, bread, sweets (more on this later), juice in blenders and sewing machines. People are busy but there is virtually no hassle to buy. We headed further south past the Golestan Palace and Den of Espionage (former US Embassy where CIA executed the coup) to the Tehran Bazaar. Here was our first dose of Persian architecture in Iran – the Imam Khomeini Mosque. With its magnificent arched entranceway and serene courtyard, cooling vines, turquoise and yellow pool plus the niches inlaid with stunning blues, turquoise, greens and yellows. We met a local guy called Majid and whilst I think Damir was a bit apprehensive at first, the legend of Persian hospitality was on my mind. So we let him draw us in with his tales of the mosque’s history and he was soon keen to show us around the bazaar where he worked. Now I am keen to buy a carpet so thought I could bear a session. But first Majid insisted on taking us to another of the mosques deep inside the bazaar, this one glittered with mirror and glasswork and contained the mausoleum of Imam Reza (I think) which the faithful touched with their hands and foreheads. We stopped briefly at Majid’s shop and in the alleys and shops around it I saw the most amazing collection of carpets - old and new, big and small. The bazaaris (shop owners) play an important economic and political role in Iran, handling much of the foreign exchange and 25% of retail trade. Once they shut this down completely in response to a road they didn’t like, creating chaos and sending a clear message to the government. Nice.

Not being ready to buy a carpet, we were taken by the arm by a friend of Majid through the winding alleys and lanes to the south of the bazaar where we found the famous Khayyam Restaurant – we flopped into expansive cushion chairs in the richly decorated room with high ceilings and murals (or were they frescoes?) and sipped on mint tea, accompanied by dates, cucumbers, sticky pastry wrapped sweets and of course, the qalyan. Qalyan is Farsi for my trusted friend, the nargileh, sheesha, hookah or waterpipe.

Heading back to the Naderi we had our first encounter with the security forces when a passing police car called us over and pointed to Damir’s bag. As Damir motioned to give it to them I stopped him, remembering tales of fake cops (in a marked police car?). It turned out they were just advising him to keep his bag safe and beware of bag snatchers. We scoured the city streets for a decent meal but had to settle for some take away lamb rolls and fizzy orange drink. Checked email to find my dear friend, Lana, had been delayed in Tokyo so decided to head south the following day and wait for her to arrive to explore Tehran and beyond together.

London: inspiring grandparents' friends, listening to Nelson Mandela and that Iran visa (27 August - 2 September)

Back in London I had more fun with Vic and Dave, was inspired by my grandparents' friends, Olive and Philip, and saw Nelson Mandela speak plus celebrated Carolina's birthday...

(More to come here)

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Paris: parents, paintings, ponts and my new hat (19-27 Aug)


By chance my favourite parents were travelling through France and Italy in August so I decided to meet them in Paris for a week. I also had the sheer joy of playing over the weekend with a friend from London, Carolina. The highlights:

Bus: soaking up the sights (literally with the rain) as mum, dad and I cruised around on an open top bus. After two months in the Middle East without a drop of rain this was welcome...for the first day.

Wandering the Latin Quarter: we met an old family friend who took us on a fascinating tour of the Latin Quarter, starting at the Pantheon. The walk included ancient roads, quirky cafes, Marie Curie's institute and the history of Paris' universities – which were split up by faculty into different universities in a bid to prevent the students from getting too well organised.

Sarkozy fever: love or hate him people are talking about the new president. One of his new projects (probably to soften the socialist attacks) is the Velim bikes which you can hire from automatic bike racks almost anywhere in the city using your credit card and then return them to racks at dozens and dozens of other points around the city. Great idea!

Wanderings and explorings: the streets of Paris - including Montmatre, Left and Right Banks, Notre Dame, Lourve, Musee D'orsay, Rodin, Monet, petanque in the park, crossing bridges over the Seine, and so many museums and galleries and parks and lanes. Sooooo good....

Food and drink: being cooked an amazing slow cooked dinner by John-Pierre, whilst being serenaded with opera and delicate French wine. Dinners and lunches with mum and dad in cafes around the Rue De Dominique near the Eiffel Tower. Grabbing hot crepes dripping with chocolate. Finding any excuse to stop for a fabulous coffee. Finding every excuse to stop for a wine and beer. Spending a few rainy afternoons and evenings in the apartment quaffing wine with my parents and solving my problems (why always mine?).

Playing with Carolina: she happened to be over from London so we had a fab time cruising the town. The best bits (apart from Carolina's banter of course) include the flashy brilliance of the modern art of the Pompidou centre (love the big red Rhino, white canvas, airport security inspired plane plus the bar on the roof). The architecture and views from the roof of the Notre Dame were brilliant. Carolina tracked down the best ice cream in Paris like a bloodhound (we had to walk half way across the city and then wait in line for at least an hour but it was well worth it.

We also did a day trip to the magnificent Royal Château of Fontainebleau which included a very delicious and relaxing picnic next to the pond from where we were chased away by castle guards. The best has to be eating at Julien's (thanks Sarah P for the recommendation) somewhere in north Paris where Carolina and I gorged ourselves in this 1940s style restaurant decorated with giant murals and delicate fittings and quaffed inspiring wine whilst complimenting each other on our taste and banter. Brilliant.

Next: back to London to pick up my Iran visa and play for a few days.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Damascus final days (13-18 Aug).

All Syria photos are here:

Shopping: found the most brilliant nargileh plus hand painted ceramic plates and much more.

Clubbing: in Syria’s only club until 4am with Amak burning up the dance floor with Indonesian traditional dance moves and me trying to keep up.

Star Crossed Lovers café: beers, nargileh, politics, banter, religion, travellers and music – brilliant combination enjoyed every night.

Indonesian Independence Day: Amak took me to the Indonesian Ambassador’s residence where I got my Indo fix of food, kretek and banter. Discussed the challenges for illegal Indonesian (female) workers and fended off vigorous and spirited attempt by a guy to convert me to Islam.

Bosra: great day trip to this southern city with Olly (Brit with VW van driven from Germany), Alex and Amak to see huge restored Roman theatre with capacity for 15,000.

I shared a cab to the airport with a Spanish television journalist and tried to turn my thoughts to the coming reunion with my parents in Paris but wave after wave of Syria memories washed over me. Loved it all.