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Esfahan – Boozing, chilling, carpets and beauty

May 31, 2011
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We arrived in Esfahan at the break of dawn, and there was a chilly bite to the air. We headed for the first hotel on the budget list in the LP, which turned out to be a very popular travellers hideout, evident by the number of stickers on the window depicting bike and road trips. We checked into the cheapest room, ‘the carpet room’, which was a converted storeroom with four roll out beds on the floor. We had company-two French guys who were travelling round Iran. Eddie and Piero were entertaining characters, telling us about their times in India and selling metal sculptures back in France. They were heavy smokers, and thus heavy snorers, meaning our first morning we didn’t get much catch up sleep.

I was eager to get out and see the city so after a couple hours rest i headed straight for the centrepiece of Esfahan – Naqsh-e-Jahan square. Built by Shaykh Bahai in the period of Shah Abbas it is the second largest square in the world (after Tianemman square in China) and used to be the site of polo matches in the 1600’s. At the head of the sqaure is the Shah Mosque –the most blinding and epic mosque i have ever seen. Flanked on the east is the Ali Kapu Palace and opposite is the Sheikh Lotf Allah Womens Mosque. The square is laid with grass (which you are allowed to sit on!) and a beautiful pool and fountains. I sat there for four hours just gazing across the water at the Shah Mosque, receiving offers of nuts from passers by. It was a spectacular morning.

As i was finding in Iran, and most particularly in this square, you can’t stay alone very long before someone approaches you to start a conversation. Soon I was chatting to some girls, sitting in the square and eating ice cream. Their names were Zohreh and Semaneh, and both were architects, and seemingly unperturbed about the issues around talking to a guy (let alone a tourist) in public. It was great, and quite a refreshing alternative to the image i had about women in Iran. They had friends who lived in the city and invited us to a social gathering later. I of course was more than happy to oblige, and we traded numbers.

A few hours later i received a call from their friend Reza, who spoke fluent English and was the owner of the flat we would be meeting in. He invited us to meet with him and his housemate Mahdi for some dinner at a great little kebab place they knew. It was great to meet these guys – both were architecture students, the same age as us, and had many interesting stories to tell about their life in Iran. We got on like a house on fire, finding many similarities in our lives despite having different backgrounds and cultures. They invited us to their house for some tea and cake, and also made allusions to the acquisition of alcohol – as you can imagine we jumped at the prospect of an Iranian drink…

The next night we were invited by Reza and Mahdi to be guests in their house, so we moved out of Bahodir hostel (just as Mathias was arriving!) and set up camp on the floor of Mahdi’s apartment. They have quite a lucky living situation – two young guys living right next to the square, with no other family present in the house. This is something of a rarity in Iran – everyone lives with family until they get married. Because of this they must be careful with regards to their neighbours – as far as everyone else is concerned, the parents live there also and are present in the house. This means when there are guests (particularly girls) we have to stagger our entry, often waiting for 15 minutes outside in the square before we can walk down the street and into the flat.

That night Julian and Reza went to the Armenian quarter to pick up some booze. They came back with a bottle of home made wine and a bottle of Aghi Saag – which is kind of like Raki or rice wine. It was rocket fuel, but great with juice or cola. The wine wasn’t so much to my taste, being more like vinegar, but by the end of the night it we were just downing it so it didn’t matter. We had a great night playing drinking games and listening to Iranian rap, a commidity banned in Iran – meaning all the artists live abroad and export their music back to Iran via the internet, but they can never play live here, as all live music that isn’t about God or the government is banned.

The rest of our time in Esfahan was spent partly in a hangover recovery state, and a lot of lounging in the square. I met many architects in this city – it seems its the place to be if you are a young architecture student, with 8 schools based here. One afternoon while I was sitting and writing my journal, i was approached by some young guys who offered to take me to a lecture. It was a memorable experience, if quite an exhausting one. Their university was right on the edge of town, so 6 savari rides away, then a long walk to a building in the middle of nowhere, that was their university. I sat in on their class, which i think was about Islamic geometry in architecture. The professor didn’t even seem to notice i was there – i was quite happy just to sit back and soak it up. The lesson was in Farsi do I didn’t understand a word, but I enjoyed the experience none the less.

I took the time to see some sights when I wasn’t sitting on the grass in the main square, and the most spectacular was arguably the Jameh Mosque, closely followed by Esfahan’s bridges. The mosque is a veritable museum of Islamic architecture, and is the oldest mosque still standing in Iran. It was originally built in 771 and has been constantly updated and modified over the ages, meaning it contains the history of every epoch and era in which it was standing,from the Seljuks right through to the Monghols and the Safavids. The recent resoration effort is beautiful – they have peeled back the layers in certain places giving you a glimpse into the previous guises of the building. The detailing is beautiful, and the patterns in the tiling are mesmerising – often patterns depicting poems in Arabic line the ceiling of the Iwan’s – beautifully exploiting the abstract nature of Arabic calligraphy. I spent a good few hours wandering around with some architecture students who had adopted me as their english conterpart – keen to practice their english and show me the mosque of which they were immensly proud – and rightly so.

A visit to Esfahan is not complete without sampling the life on the bridges to the south of the city. We walked down there on several occaisions, and they are truly spectacular. The bridges themselves are full of life, and consist of lots of covered and hidden arches that you can sit in and relax, enjoying the view over the Zayandeh river. The most notable bridge is the Shahrestan – with a sad and a happy side (the emotion depicted by the speed of the water I think) where you can walk, drink tea, and listen and become involed in the lively poetry recitals that take place under the arches. You could spend all day here, it was like a paradise.

I did have a mission while i was in Esfahan, and that was to go rug shopping for Mum. Upon entry to the Imam mosque on the second day, i got talking to a young guy called Ali outside the mosque. He was very friendly and spoke with ease, eventually inviting me into his carpet shop for a tea. I took up the offer but was just going in the the free tea initially, thinking a carpet shop in this location right next to the main attraction of the city might be a bit of a trap. I couldn’t have been more wrong (or i got totally trapped!) I ended up spending 4 hours in the shop with Ali, Mohsen and the other guys, sitting on the floor, talking rubbish and even eating lunch. They didn’t really want to talk about carpets. I really appreciated their genuine attitude. They loved carpets, and had some of the most fantastic carpets i had ever seen, but they seemed more interested in just chatting and hanging out than actually trying to make a customer out of me. Safe to say by the first day in the shop i decided this would be the place to make the purchase. There was no hurry though – and i was intent on being a slow customer. The next three days i was in there for the majority of the day, just drinking tea and gettin to know the guys in the shop. I could have worked there – they even jokily offered me a job. I was very tempted. They don’t really do much all day, just sit around, relax, talk to a few tourists, eat, maybe sell a carpet or two, then relax some more. The easy life.

By the end of it though i was getting closer to finding the right carpet for mum. I took some photos of ones i thought she would like and we narrowed down a decision together, eventually deciding on a great, huge carpet that would be perfect for her new flat. We negotiated a good price, and they even agreed to let me smuggle some stuff back to England that i didn’t need anymore (dead weight on the bike, mainly a redundant bike lock and books). I left there a very happy customer, and pleased to have a had a great time in a shop and made some new friends.

Our last night in Esfahan, and I really didn’t want to go . i felt completely at home here – the beautiful city, the relaxed atmosphere, and our new friends. Reza and Mehdi showed us a great time, and it was like we had been friends for years. On the last night we all cooked together, making curried meat balls and khoresht gheyme and nearly missed our bus to Shiraz. I wouldn’t have cared so much if we did…

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Charlie permalink
    June 21, 2011 2:20 am

    Hey, great to read of your progress and all of your experiences along the way. I can’t even remember how I happened on your blog, but I’m glad I did. I’m looking forward to the next batch as you make your way through central Asia. Take care, but take it all in. Good luck with it all.
    Charlie, Newcastle, NSW, Australia

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