9. Iran 5
Esfahan to the Armenian boarder (Kurdistan)
Justine – Waving goodbye to Esfahan, it was time to head North again. Kabylie’s speed in the heat meant that there was no time for us to continue to Shiraz and Yazd, but we hoped we could visit some of the Kurdish areas we had had to miss on the way down. Picturesque Abyaneh Village yielded us a gorgeous camping spot by a stream and it was nice to see the women retaining their traditional dress.
The lovely Mohamed and Shiva invited us to stay at Mohamed’s family farm near Hamadan. After another long drive we arrived and were delighted to discover a vast swimming pool and 6 ostriches. We were royally entertained by them and their family and explored the farm. It had an unimaginable number of entrepreneurial ventures, from milk to strawberries, vast man-made lakes for fishing, gigantic underground warehouses and tunnels for potatoes and 30 skidoo’s which are used on the grass when the snow melts. Tragically, the ill-positioned power-station nearby (located here to avoid Sadams bombs in the 1980’s) has used up most of the underground water. The 20 metre well which used to facilitate all these ventures is now 120 metres deep and running out, a fate that has affected all the farms in the area.
We headed west into Khodestan (Kurdhistan) to our next stop Takht-e Soleimen, a sacred Zoroastrian site over 1500 years old. The countryside was utterly beautiful and covered in apple orchards and wild flowers. As usual, a few hours were added to the journey due to Hossein’s faulty internal compass, but the beauty of the place eased Tom’s frustration.
We found an utterly sublime place to camp, amongst the fruit trees in a wild flower meadow. The only problem was that it was private property. We paid the first farmer who came but not long after a second irate farmer who claimed to have rented the land of the first turned up shouting. It is at these times that you love having a guide for as we hid and made faces at each other, poor Hossein had to deal with the grumpy farmer. He eventually persuaded the farmer that we were a very strict Christian fundamentalist family and Tom was not ready for his wife and daughter to be seen by strangers, hence we needed somewhere surrounded by trees to camp. Surprisingly the farmer seemed to buy this tale!
The sites of Takht-e Soleiman and Zendan-e Soleiman (Soleiman’s prison) are truly wonderful. Both were built around natural volcanic lakes whose calcium deposits made the hills they are situated on. Takht–e Soleimen still has its azure blue lake, with the Zoroastrian ruins of a royal palace around it, and later mongol buildings.
Zendan-e Soleiman on the other side of the valley and is an I credibly bizarre cone, which rises out of the flat land around it like the hill in the film Encounters of the Third Kind. The lake that made it has emptied leaving a cavernous, sulphurous crater which is the same depth of the mountain. Around this there was once a fortified Zoroastrian town topped with a religious sanctuary dating back to 900BC. After the hot climb up the steep sides, it is a dizzying experience to peer over the edge down into the crater. It was certainly a good place to throw sacrificial people over the edge even if it was not a prison. Neither has anything to do with King Soleimen, but when the Arabs were invading in the 7th century, the temple guardians cunningly invented a tale of King Soleimen having made a pit stop there and this prevented the Arabs from destroying it.
We walked back to our lovely orchard flower meadow and the kids and I explored the intricate irrigation system of little streams and mini sluice gates directing the water to all the farmer’s thirsty trees. The water came from the Takht-e Soleimen crater-lake above us and had made a calcified channel called ‘dragon stone’ presumably because it looks like a nobbly dragons back snaking down the hill.
The irate farmer returned that night, having forgotten he had agreed to us staying. He was the only person in the entire country who had not welcomed us with open arms – what on earth was wrong with him! Why would he not want complete strangers trespassing on his land? Eventually he left with Hossein sternly telling him that he had disgraced his country by not welcoming us. I feel very sorry for any Iranian who travels abroad as they will feel very let down by the welcome they receive from other countries.
We stopped in Zanjan for our last Iranian bazaar stop. The Bazaars of Iran really are wonderful mazes of shops and stalls selling everything imaginable. Vaulted passages lead into old caravanserais or mosques and every corner you turn leads you to another section, either the metal workers, the fruit and veg sellers, the necklace section, or the ‘loo slipper’ section and as I have mentioned before, Iranian loos are pretty grim affairs. The OK ones in hotels often have a pair of plastic flip-flop slippers which you put on to walk to the loo, leaving your dirty shoes by the door. I thought it was a good idea until Petra said ‘oh great, I get to use the slippers everyone else has peed on and then I will pee on them too for the next person – how right she was. I find it very surprising that glamorous Iranian women put up with the loos always being dirty and stinky. As you stand in line waiting to brave it yourself, a very well turned out women exits and you are lulled into thinking ‘oh hurray, it must be a clean squat and drop’ but no, it is grim and as you stagger out holding up your trouser legs and looking hassled, you marvel at the serenity and glamour of the women.
I cannot imagine that any country has better markets than Iran and it is a tragedy that there in no room in my ‘cubby-hole’ (we each have a shoe-box sized cupboard for personal effects) for more than a copper water-melon scoop.
Our last stop in Iran was Babak Castle, near to Kaleybar. Babak was an Azeri (Azerbaijani Iran has a huge Persian Azeri community) hero from the 9th century AD. For 21 years he fought against the Islamic invasion that swept through this part of the world. His headquarters was Babak Castle, perched on a mountain top wrapped in swirling clouds.
We realised it was a three day holiday commemorating Ayatollah Khomeini’s death when we could not find anywhere to camp. Iranian picnic tents lined the roadside and we even passed a car dragging a mini ferris wheel up the mountain road to attract the younger holiday crowd. We eventually found a hotel, which let us camp out the back and we and our tent became the main attraction of the village.
The village police man came first, to eye us suspiciously. After seeing we had the kids and admiring Kabylie, he kindly instructed the rather avaricious hotel owner to let us stay for free and to let us have hot showers – oh how I love Iranians!
A steady stream of visitors came to visit us, one with kids of Petra and Hector’s age. They made an assault course together. Language is no barrier when you have piles of sand to jump off and rusty barrels to walk on. They were the first children we had encountered. There do not seem to be many children about in Iran. With such high unemployment for the young, the birth rate is dropping. If your family did not fight in the Iran/Iraq war and you are not overtly religious, you are passed over for many jobs. On the subject of the Iran/Iraq war, in every village and town, there are posters of every person who died lining the central reservation. These ‘martyrs’’ pictures are constantly reprinted and have been on display since the war ended in 1988, to keep the memory alive. Martyrs’ families were given housing, jobs and their children sent to special, superior schools. It made us question how we treat our own soldiers after war.
We had heard from Mohamed and Shiva quite how ghastly the war was during their childhoods and the deep scar it has left. At Mohamed’s family farm, they often had two hundred people staying for months at a time having evacuated the city due to bombings. The farm house is not big and there were people lying like sardines in every room and they had to keep slaughtering animals to feed everyone.
Back to Baybak and our camping……. After a night of much thumping music and merriment from all the Iranian picnic tents, we set off early for yoghurt and honey breakfast before we began our hike up to the castle. We set off in the sun but within 20 minutes, the swirling clouds had descended from the castle and the whole mountainside was cloaked in mist. Deep rumbles of thunder echoed down the valley and bolts of lightning flashed overhead. As the rain came down, Tom highlighted the fact we were totally unprepared with no rain coats, no warm clothes and no water or food. The kids and I wanted to go on and democracy won over caution. As luck would have it, there was a tiny hut on the hillside where an old man sold cinnamon chay (tea) and biscuits. We huddled inside until the rain lessened and then continued with our 2 hour hike. The castle was worth the wet as it was a magnificent setting, commanding the valley.
We spent a second night in the hotel garden and were plied with bags of unripe plumbs and rose-petal jam by a rather weird man who had taken a liking to Tom. We went through Kabylie looking for all the things we no longer needed, which we could give to Hossein. Tom was keen to get rid of most the school box as it weighs the car down considerably, but I was sure that anything we got rid of we would then desperately need.
The three hours drive to the Armenian border took us along the Aras river, the biblical river Gihon. The river cuts through a wonderful red gorge. On one side is Iran and on the other first Azerbaijan and then Armenia. On the Persian side, picnickers paddled in the river shallows and relaxed on the bank. On the other side we looked over ruined villages, watch towers and a blown up railway. The bitter fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh was very evident and had flared again only this April.
Stopping for ‘tea and pee’ as Hossein would cry, we feasted our eyes on the last of Iran and stocked up on their gorgeous crunchy small cucumbers before stopping at the border. The place was like a ghost town. No queues of trucks or endless traders like when we entered from Turkey. The only other person was a German backpacker who was walking across and who we offered a lift to, if he could face waiting for us as we cleared Kabylie.
We said our farewells to Hossein, and all felt rather sad to see him and our last Iranian moments go. We would however have his catch phrases ‘listen gentleman’, ‘you do your job’ ‘let me tell you something’ ‘Pee and tea’ within our family lexicon for the rest of the trip.
Our passports were thoroughly scrutinized and our names searched on several computers to make sure we had not committed any misdemeanors before we were free to drive across the bridge over the Aras river. It lacked the gravitas of other border crossings where each side has a vast flag at each end of the bridge or crossing, almost in competition with each other as to whose is biggest. The Armenian flag was there, but very small and fluttering next to a Russian one. The border guard who checked our passports was also Russian and there was a big photo of Vladimir Putin air brushed to look as if he was 21 gracing the walls. It seemed rather strange to have a foreign power so in charge at another country’s border, but their history is very intertwined and perhaps that is the aim: to tell the world clearly to back off. Armenia has Russia behind it. With such a tragic history, this is understandable.
Soviet administration greeted us with sour faces, gold teeth and flesh. Having not seen any for a month, the skimpy tank tops and overly tight leggings seemed rather indecent and one could not help thinking that the bingo-wings might have looked better covered with a chador. The bureaucracy was also indecent. A great empty hall welcomed us with ten numbered glass booths along one wall. What followed was a ludicrous dance between the booths. Once Tom had filled in one paper at booth 1, he was told to go and wait at booth 3, where the same admin girl would pop up 10 minutes later, stamp something and tell him to go to booth 2. 10 booths later and not one smile, Kabylie was scanned on the most high tech, space age bit of equipment ever. We wondered if it was drugs or weapons they were looking for but the uncommunicative grunts from the officials told us they were not going to tell us.
Our guide book had told us Armenians are incredibly friendly so we were feeling rather let down that no one had come up to us to invite us to their home or buy us lunch. Darn it! Iran has now ruined every other country we will go to. The constant smiles, genuine interest in us and immense hospitality of the Iranians lulls you into a state where you think the whole world is like this. The contrast with the Russians could not have been more stark.
In fact the Aras river could not have divided two more contrasting places, full stop. If the stereotypical image of Islam is hot and dusty, Christianity is wet and green. Armenia was the first country to become Christian in 301 AD and within half an hour of crossing the border, as we climbed out of the desert the landscape turned suitably Christian, wet and very green. In hot dry Iran, every square centimetre of grass has a goat or sheep eating it into the dust whereas Armenia is greener and lusher than you can imagine and there is not a sheep or goat in sight, just the odd spoilt cow not sure where to munch next. We can only surmise that the ancient pastoral traditions were broken by the Communist’s collective farms and few have returned to them. As a result, huge areas of the south of the country lie fallow which leaves them free to be populated by the most spectacular wild flower meadows we have ever seen.
The scenery is breath taking. Verdant green mountains plunging into deep canyons with the remains of the winter snow clinging to the highest peaks. Everywhere you look is a wild flower meadow, with perhaps 40 different types of flower, either in clusters of colour or mixed across the breeze-rippled fields. When we drive through the long grass looking for a suitable roost for the night, the smell of fragrant herbs crushed by the tyres is magical, as is the hubbub of insect life, from the loud drone of the glutenous bees to the busy cicadas rubbing their legs together.
The most eye catching of all are the butterflies. I have never seen so many of all colours and size, fluttering in big groups and then settling on the ground. I have no idea if this is some group mating dance or some sort of parish council meeting but it is certainly wonderful to watch.