After the grime and grit of big city Tehran arriving in the small picturesque city of Kashan, with it’s crumbling mud-brick buildings and desertscape surrounds, was a breath of fresh dusty desert air. Using our astute bargaining skills we negotiate our way into a laughing taxi drivers cab and direct him to well known Ehsan House. A stones throw, or a couple of good parkour rooftop jumps, from the main sites this is one of the poshest places we’ve stayed in a long time and has the price to match. We score the last double room available which doesn’t require taking out a loan, struggle up 1ft high stone steps, and find ourselves in a room where our USD$40 seems to have bought us about 40 square inches of space. Still, it’s clean, it’s on the rooftop, the views to the courtyard and pool below are amazing and the afternoon breeze blowing across Kashan’s rooftops caresses our faces as we envision the sunsets to come.
Having blown most of the days budget already we head out on foot to wander the dusty auburn streets of the old town area, making our way towards the cities old historical houses and city walls. With the Nowruz holiday still in full swing we wind our way back to the bazaar in the early evening and find it full of vivaciousness. Smiling families stop to greet us, meet us, stare at us, photograph us, pose with us and in general make us feel like minor celebrities. The main section of the bazaar consists of one long domed corridor a couple of miles long and we walk the entire length of it having our photo taken no less than 50 times. We spot a few memorable characters and return the photo requests, one guy in particular with whom Matt had mutual hair admiration. We called him Iranian 80’s Ted Danson.
Off the main thoroughfare we ducked into an old mill, waltzed past crumbing old caravanserai, teeny tiny entrances to ancient mosques and found ourselves mesmerised by an exquisitely decorated domed courtyard and spellbound by the slightly trippy green lit entrance to a large mosque at the end of the bazaar. Reaching the end we turned tail and headed back to the hotel posing for another couple of dozen family photos along the way.
Trying to stay fit on the road for such a long time is hard enough without the extra burden of a restrictive dress code every time you walk out the door. Not keen on attempting downward facing dog in a headscarf Sarah opts instead to drag the yoga mat onto the rooftop before sunrise where she can secretly get a workout in under the fading morning stars in a singlet and headscarf free (rebellion!).
Venturing back to the historical area of town we track down the bookshop near Tabatabaei House from where tour organiser Hossein operates. Recommended by both our taxi driver and the Lonely Planet, he’s the go-to guy for tours in the surrounding Maranjab desert (see tips below). The romantic notion of spending the night in an old caravanaserie, where explorers, traders, slavers and camels had come before us, was high on our list of things to do here in Iran and the Maranjab Caravanserai seemed like a good option. Settling on an overnight trip which would drop us in Esfahan the next afternoon we arrange to meet at 2pm the next day and head around the corner to the restored Sultan Amir Ahmad Baths. Dating from the 16th century they’re impressively decorated but slightly small and at this time of year very crowded. We find ourselves cornered time after time to pose for more and more photos before making our way to the roof for some striking views across town.
Not wanting to pay 150k/200k to enter each of the historical houses we picked the baths for the mud and glass domes on the roof which you can walk around and the view back onto the distinctive Boroujerdi House. If you’re visiting the baths you may want to take a moment to reflect on the propaganda (for want of another word) poster regarding the hijab. Apparently it’s like an oyster shell protecting the beautiful and vulnerable pearl inside. In our opinion there’s nothing similar between an oyster shell and a piece of fabric and if you’ve ever tried to shuck an oyster you’d know that. Also try shucking a hijab off an Iranian woman and see how far you’d get. We can guarantee she’ll put up more of a fight than a shiny static little pearl.
Rising early again the following morning we headed south of the baths searching out the old city walls. Heading down a few back alleyways we stumble across what looks like a giant beehive but is actually an ancient fridge known as a yakhchal where ice and occasionally food was stored. From here you can easily follow the walls to an opening where a field of green crops is surrounded by high mud walls. We spot an easy way up and walking along the top we have the place all to ourselves to enjoy the early morning sandy views interspersed with lofty minarets and turquoise domes. For the first time we feel we’ve finally left the ex-Soviet realm behind and arrived in Persia.
The Persian hospitality extended to us continued in Kashan. Stopping to observe the bread making process at a small local bakery we were beckoned to stop and wait as the man in charge created a loving little piece just for us and wouldn’t accept any payment. An older gentleman came out of his shop to offer us biscuits, we were dragged into a shop in the bazaar and fed olives by a smiling teenage stall operator who just wanted to say hi and when Sarah complimented a local woman’s scarf at the baths she immediately offered to give it to her. And the free love didn’t stop there.
Making our way back through town from the old walls we found ourselves at the rear of the Imamzadeh-ye Sultan Mir Ahmad shrine, which we hadn’t intended to visit but couldn’t resist as we were happily ushered inside by the cleric. After a brief and friendly tour of the small yet beautiful space, including four old and unique carved wooden doors, we’re asked if we’d like to see a surprise. Obviously yes! Escorted through a back curtain where leaning against the wall we find a huge metal…something. Unsure exactly what we’re looking at our host explains that like the Christian religion sees ceremonies where people carry replicas of the cross through crowded streets, so here the tradition has been somewhat emulated with this monstrous creation of peacocks and bells.
Unable to imagine anybody trying to carry such a huge, heavy piece of religious paraphernalia, he explains that he disagrees with such a tradition as it’s stupid to put your body (and your back!) at risk of injury just for your faith. And so this icon has found it’s home leaner here against the wall where the occasional visitor is allowed a peek and it’s preservation is guaranteed against unnecessary destruction. Invited into his office for tea we’re handed a couple of books as a parting gift all the while feeling such a sense of peacefulness in this gentle man’s demeanor towards others.
Part of our desert tour included transport to and from one of Kashan’s big attractions, the famous 16th century Fin Garden. Considered the finest example of a Persian garden we fork over the IRR200,000 entrance fee each and spend more than half our allotted hour posing for photos with the locals. Again. Spying a small photography exhibit we squeeze inside and get mobbed. Babies are handed to us, flash bulbs go off in our face, people jostle to be the ones standing next to us in the family photo…and we struggle to get away so we can spend at least some of our money’s worth actually checking out what we’d come to see. We end up allowing an extra 15 minutes to get to the exit (the gardens aren’t even that big) and it ends up taking us double as we’re dragged in every direction for more and more photos. We finally leave convinced we’ll leave Iran with natural facelifts from all the smiling and while waiting for our taxi we pose for three more photos.
Back to the hotel to grab our bags we check out of luxury and spend an hour feeling like a sideshow as we wait in the middle of the busiest street for our tour guide to arrive. Random people ask for our email address in the hope we can teach them to ‘speak English beautiful’, the local cross-eyed motorbike guard plays his small wooden flute and chases away smart arse children and we’re given free tea from a stall nearby as we pose for yet more photos with the locals. Eventually our ride arrives and we hit the dusty road to our first stop certain that half the population of Kashan are comparing who has the best photo of us and the billboards get changed to Matt’s image for the latest aftershave campaign.
Our first stop is the town of Nushabad where we visit the 1,500 year old Ouyi (or ‘Oi’ in Aussie) underground city. The city was built for the cities inhabitants to escape enemies during periods of instability in the region. As the story goes ‘Ouyi’ was the codeword used by soldiers who would hide around corners in dark corridors and ambush approaching enemies who didn’t return the call. Entrances were hidden behind ovens in peoples houses and people’s grandparents would tell stories of an underground city for years, which their grandchildren didn’t believe, before it was accidentally discovered during construction works as little as 10 years ago. We also sat inside a huge old water reservoir capable of holding 1.32 million litres of water. Huge crowds of holidaying Iranian’s meant we were ushered through fairly quickly and there was no real chance for decent photos.
The Shrine of Helal ibn Ali in Aran & Bidgol city was next with its huge beautiful interior. Like most shrines and mausoleum’s in Iran decoration includes surfaces covered in mosaic mirrors which distort your reflection as a reminder that you’re only part of the whole and you should visit looking for something else other than yourself. Inside you’ll see bare columns and walls were others have been completed. Helal ibn Ali is supposedly a direct descendent of Mohammad who was pursued by government forces and found peace and comfort in the city where he lived the last three years of his life and wished to be buried.
Our next couple of stops involve a walk up some unimpressive sand dunes where overcast skies affect the view, and a salt lake where recent rains have seen the usually white surfaces turn brown with mud. The only excitement comes from Sarah losing a bet which saw her eat a handful of fresh salt and our guide telling us they joke about those from the north of Iran being gay saying
The birds fly with one wing up there, they use the other wing to cover their arse
Passing a half dozen dark brown camels on a mission we wonder if they’re secretly park of the Iranian ‘drug mules’, the ‘drug dromedaries’. Apparently smugglers would teach camels how to walk home alone, surgically stuff their humps full of opiates and send them on their merry way across the desert.
Arriving at the caravanserai we’re shown to our room where we choose a piece of carpet and lay out a couple of blankets and pillows on the carpet. As the sunsets the atmosphere is festive as the Nowruz holiday is coming to and end and locals are out to enjoy every last minute of it. We’re invited to smoke weed and take LSD with a group who’d driven their 4WD’s from the Caspian (1,600km in two days) just to go 4WDing in the desert. We opt instead to join the seven young men sprawled on the porch outside our rooms. Spreading blankets down, pouring us tea and sharing a bag of mixed nuts we spend the night in animated and hilarious conversation. Watching the dynamic of the group as they interact and take turns being the butt of the groups jokes we’re reminded of mates back home and in London and it’s easy to see the bonds of friendship even if we can’t always understand the conversation.
The heartwarming evening turns heart wrenching when we learn one of the group is currently a political prisoner and has been for the last four years. Arrested at 19 he was originally sentenced to 20 years, appealed and had his sentence reduced to seven, of which he has three to go. He is granted leave during the Nowruz holiday to visit family and friends but would be returning to prison when the holidays ended in a couple of days. The sadness experienced by the group when telling us this was obvious. Their heart bleeds for their friend and we could only join them in their sadness when learning of his crime. As a teenager he had a blog and expressed anti-government views. Enough to see him spend some of his most formative years behind bars. All we can say is his spirit left a very big impression on us both.
After a simple breakfast of fried eggs and bread we head off early, pass a small village with it’s dominating silver dome shining in the morning sunlight and are warned not to take any photos as we reach the infamous Natanz Nuclear Plant. This facility is apparently the reason for all those sanction though we did have to wonder why, if they were trying to hide their development of nuclear weapons, they would choose to build it right by the roadside.
Around lunch time we arrive at the small pre-Islamic town of Abyaneh with it’s charming red mud buildings and local costume. When the Arabs invaded in the 7th century part of the Zorostrian population fled here to avoid the forced conversion to Islam. It’s a great little city to wander around though like everywhere outside Tehran it was packed with holidaying Iranian’s due to Nowruz. Part of our itinerary promised a ‘staircase view’ of the village yet when we’d walked the length of it and got back to our taxi he told us it was ‘only good in the morning’ and refused to take us.
The final stop was the Natanza Mosque where a local guy on a group tour who spoke English showed a little trick of acoustics. If one person stands beneath the large open archway at the rear wall and another descends the stairs in the courtyard to a small pool of water and splashes about, the sound can eerily be heard by the person beneath the arch.
Battling 60 mile winds across the desert highway to Esfahan our driver continued to blast terrible new J-Lo music as he threatened to fall asleep. A huge gust of wind shook car into the next lane and thankfully woke him up enough to make the last 30km to our hotel.
Tips for Kashan and the Maranjab desert
- If you want to enjoy a beer in the desert bring your own.
- While our two day tour through Hossein wasn’t badly priced (about USD$60 for two days including dinner and breakfast and drop off in Esfahan) we never did visit a castle in Nushabad and we weren’t shown the staircase view of Abyaneh, which was very disappointing. We did visit a fire temple (in Abyaneh village) but it wasn’t the one pointed out to us in the bookshop back in Kashan. Also we didn’t have an English speaking guide the second day, only a driver, which made conveying what we’d paid for and expected very difficult.