8. Iran 4
Kashan to Isfahan
Justine – We left our lunch party in Kashan for another social engagement. We were meeting Shiva and Mohamed, acquaintances of Sally and Mike’s who they had met several years back in connection with the Alamut castles. At hearing we were in Kashan, they had immediately leapt in their car to come and join us – a mere 5 hour trip from Tehran.
Mohamed and Shiva were to give us the most wonderful two days firstly visiting an ancient Persian rose garden that sits on a huge hill. The interior of the hill is in fact a huge swiss cheese of secret tunnels carved out by the followers of Mithra, the god of light and pre-curser to the Zoroastrians. Shiva and Mohamed are both academics and bough to life the history of the area, showing us the first Zoroastrian fire temple, over 2000 years old and on which all other four arched, domed temples are based. It was not the Romans who first achieved the arch, but the Zoroastrian Persians.
We camped in the desert hills and by the light of the fire and the moon, Saro, Shiva’s daughter demonstrated the ingenious Iranian collapsible bbq, roasting baby aubergines and tomatoes and then mashing and garlic to make Mirza Ghasemi which we ate with flat bread. Yum!
We had hoped to get up and milk the sheep belonging to the local shepherd, but milking was around 4:30am and we over-slept. The kind shepherd, however bought us a jerry can of fresh frothy milk. We drank creamy sheep milk and ate a delicious breakfast of cucumbers, cream cheese and tomatoes before walking down to the rose fields below. Damask roses are grown around the whole area to be distilled into rose-water. The smell was intoxicating.
Mohamed and Shiva drive a Paghan (Wild Goat) an Iranian built Land Rover and Mohamed is nearly as nuts about the cars as Tom. Both Mohamed and his friend Amir know a lot about engines so the three of them peered and prodded Kabylie’s engine trying to work out what was wrong. The conclusion was the carburettor, so as Amir put his artistic skills to use writing poetry by the great Persian poet Harfez on the doors of Kabylie, Tom changed the carburettor.
After breakfast I asked casually if there were any camels near to Kashan as Petra were desperate to ride one. Mohamed enthusiastically cried yes and quickly called someone on his phone. In less that half an hour we were in a convoy headed into the desert.
The reason we were so keen on finding camels was the disappointing news that our Turkmenistan transit visas had not been granted. The fact that frequent calls to the embassy had yielded nothing but ‘call back in a week’ for over a month now, had indicated the possibility of a ‘no’ response being a reality. Transit visas are regularly refused, so we had known all along it was a possibility.
We had been thinking of our options for some time, either to reapply for a tourist visa, which meant the expense of a guide to take us the whole way across the country, or change route completely. One of the realities of doing an overland trip is needing to have plans A-Z as there are so many variables, from borders closing, to natural disasters, health and security incidents or the car breaking down – the list is endless.
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The issues floating about in our personal cauldron of decisions were (in no particular order) a) temperature –the kids, car and ourselves starting to suffer and it only gets hotter in June, July and August; b)Speed – it turns out Kabylie likes to travel at a relaxed pace with time for regular tinkering, which is not suited to short visas and deserts. Also in altitudes over 3000 meters, Kabylie really struggles through lack of power and in some parts on the route we would go to 5000m ; c) Security – recent incidents in the Ferganna valley on the Uzbek/Kyrgyz border, creating risks we are not sure we want to take with kids; d) schooling – lack of reliable and fast internet, making home schooling in a foreign language trickier than expected. We are unable to access resources and the teachers we set up to assist us before leaving France. e) Guide – for a large part of our proposed route to Singapore it is necessary to have a guide, either due to our nationality (as in Iran) or to a state regulation as in Turkmenistan, China and Burma. Though our guide in Iran has been great, it defeats the point of travelling in your own vehicle. We cannot stop where we want as the guide fires off or says we have to keep going and you are dictated by their route and timings. Also personalities can clash and you can end up being driven mad by them. All this is before you add in the huge expense of having to have a guide for extended periods. f) tent – our wonderful flying saucer tent , though a cosy nest for us all, attracts a huge amount of attention and we have a constant stream of curious visitors. This has been rather lovely in Iran where people are really respectful of your space but in Asia, there is no doubt we will be surrounded by hundreds of people on a daily basis and the two inviting ladders which support our tent would be an unwanted invitation to many people. A campervan which has a door that closes and can keep people out and you can just drive away from a tricky situation is more conducive to peace in certain countries.
Thus with all these considerations, we have decided that the most fun, comfortable, safe, educational and enjoyable thing to do is to change route. Sadly trans-shipping Kabylie from Dubai to India is not really an option as we would arrive in the Monsoon. Getting a ferry to Russia does not light our fire so much, as it involves long stretches of driving between places of interest, which is tough on the kids. Travelling through Pakistan poses risks we don’t want to take with the our children. We have decided therefore to head to Armenia and Georgia, (luckily Mike came armed with guidebooks for many countries. Being a seasoned overlander himself he well knows the need for alternative routes!) After Armenia and Georgia we will try and get a ferry across the Black Sea to Bulgaria or Romania (we are not sure if this is possible as we have had no internet in Iran to research it) and then we will travel through Eastern Europe for the kids to be back in school by September. Our new route seems to tick all boxes as hopefully we will have had a fabulous 5 month adventure, the kids will have only missed 8 weeks of school, Kabylie will be in one piece and we will still be able to afford the occasional plate de jour in France having not spent all our money on guides.
Sorry for the interlude on our route, but for those of you following our tracker, you needed an explanation as to why we seem to have lost all sense of direction!
So back to Kashan and the need for camels. As our route through Iran would no longer take us through the baking desert to Yazd and up to the Turkmenistan border, Petra and Hector were most despondent that they would not get to ride a camel. Luckily Kashan borders the desert and in no time Mohamed was leading the way past wonderful ruined caravanserais and forts into the barren sands.
As Tom drove, the rest of us rode on the roof of Kabylie, and soaked in the desert atmosphere. The occasional whack by a flying locust was a surprise, and we wondered squeamishly how grim a plague of locusts must be, but in small numbers they are rather beautiful and look like fairies as they come in to land.
As the sun went down we made camp by a camel herder’s hut which had the exact profile of Mary and Joseph’s stable in Bethlehem as portrayed on Hector’s advent calendar last year. Before the full moon came up, the stars began to twinkle over the hut and a herd of camels grazed in the distance. You could almost imagine the three kings paying us a visit – Lo and behold, Kashan is actually where the three Magi came from so we could have been camping exactly where Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspard pitched their camp on the way to bring gifts to baby Jesus.
Next morning, six camels awaited us adorned with Persian rugs and tufty
head-collars. Ibrahim, the camel owning friend of Mohamed, unbeknownst to us, had been up the entire night looking for his cousin who had the saddles in another town – another example of Iranian hospitality, no thought to say ‘sorry our camels are not available to ride to tomorrow’. Instead Ibrahim did not go to bed to make sure we could have our camel ride.
Before mounting, I was wishing we were doing a proper 5 day camel trek, but ten minutes in, I was most grateful it was only two hours. Knobbly saddles and what to do with one’s legs? Apart from the discomfort though, it was magical to be slowly padding across the desert in a camel train. The kids were utterly beside themselves and within five minutes Petra had named them all, made up their life stories and was pleading for a 5 day camel trek.
We had been surprised by the whack of locusts, but we were even more surprised by the huge bangs of rockets being fired from the top of a nearby hill. The Revolutionary Guard have taken over a part of the desert to test weapons and we were gently padding across the boundary of that testing zone!
After a fabulous desert experience and an atmospheric explore of a ruined caravanserai, we headed on to Esfahan. It was a long hot journey and by the time we arrived, Petra was ill with sunstroke and a migraine. Hossein our guide cannot multi-task and either drives erratically in and out of the hard shoulder at speed, or if he is talking, he slows down to not much more than jogging pace. He was in deep conversation with Mike for most of the journey, much to the irritation of Kabylie and her passengers behind. The minute you could see Mike’s face profile through the back window and Hossein’s hand gesticulating, we knew our speed would diminish considerably!
Esfahan was gorgeous. Full of incredible monuments, beautiful tiled mosques and palaces, and the wonderful bazaar and vast square, second only in size to Tiananmen Square. My favourite site however was the pigeon towers.
Esfahan used to be home to 42,000,000 birds kept in over 3000 towers. The birds were used or indeed their pooh was used, to fertilize the city’s famous watermelon fields. Modern fertilizers have left the towers redundant, but more than 700 remain in the city’s environs.
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Our three nights in Esfahan soon went, as did Sally and Mike, who sadly had to leave the retro-road-trip to return to cooler climbs. We were very sad to see them go as we had all shared a wonderful adventure together. There is something very special about travelling as multi generational family.
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This one missed the last blog post but the Caspian Lagoon also got the selfistick!