Esfahan: Half the World
In Esfahan we found a hotel not far from the Si-O-Seh Bridge. We quickly unpacked, showered and went in search of a restaurant with servings to match the immense hunger which we had accumulated from days on the road with depleting food supplies. Esfahan, a Unesco World Heritage site, challenges the likes of Rome and Athens on a cultural level but when it comes to culinary experience, well it’s up there with Bruce’s Midnight Burgers. We stocked up on the usual chicken and rice but were blown away to have the extra indulgence of a fresh green salad.
Dizzy from all the vitamins racing through our bodies we walked the main drag soaking up the diversity of predominantly Middle Eastern visitors enjoying the buzz of the city. The most popular “joints” were the fast food places proudly showcasing food as diverse as fried chicken and beef burger.
It was clear that the locals had an eye for tourists as we could not walk 5 meters without a “hello” or “where you from”. We also seemed to be the source of much amusement (Freddie thinks it’s got something to do with Guy’s orange beard) as groups of passing young people would shoot a last minute “hello” then giggle with nervous excitement before running off. In the following days we soon found out the locals’ interest was sometimes deeper than their giddy greetings indicated.
The next day we headed down to the river to explore the magnificent bridges that Esfahan is famous for. We soon realised that some of the most beautiful bridges were further down stream, so we walked the lovely garden paths that extend for most of the inner city.
En route a smiley old man in a wonky grey suit with a walking cane came up to us and exchanged pleasantries. He soon prompted us for a photo and we happily obliged. But as Guy went back to take a photo of the man with Freddie, he put his arm around her a little too tight. Ok, the locals are super friendly here, but then the penny dropped: the hand was wandering! Freddie was shocked and abruptly shoved him with her elbow. It seemed the photo was a mere excuse for a little canoodling. It was at this point that we realised Iran was not as sweet and innocent as we had once thought, perhaps it’s the impact of tourism on a big city. Later we were told from some Teheranis that Esfahan has a reputation for such schemes, and we did experience several more of these “over friendly” encounters.
Thankfully we also met some locals who were friendly to us for the right reasons. A GP on a “Cannon Dell” mountain bike was interested in our impressions about Esfahan, an Afghan arts student was keen to practise his English, and some energetic female science students quizzed us on all manner of subjects. We enjoyed meeting and chatting, it was more casual than some of our previous experiences where a chat often turned into a full day event. One common theme with most of the women we meet in public is that about 5 minutes into the conversation a timer seems to go off in their heads and and they start fidgeting before they quickly make their excuses and leave.
On our way back to our room we ran into Amin, a member of staff at the hostel. As he was local we asked him if he knew of anywhere we could get some laundry done.
“Sure, follow me”, declared Amin.
So we followed him for about 1 kilometre down a side street before arriving at a small suburban laundry. We gratefully handed over our bags of dirty laundry before walking back to the hotel with Amin. Later Guy went back to pick up the load but a small surprise awaited him. The bill came to 280,000 Rials – $28! What a shock, this was almost a day’s budget, down the drain. We hadn’t bothered to check the price as we assumed that it would be reasonable, especially as we were with Amin. Guy was outraged and reluctantly handed over the cash, one bill at a time, hoping they would show some mercy and announce that it was enough, but no, they demanded the full amount.
Back in the room we tried to understand how it could be so expensive. Dumping the clean clothes on the bed revealed the answer; they had been dry cleaned. The lot: Underwear, socks, cycling gloves, all our old tatty clothes had been lovingly dry cleaned. It all made perfect sense now – the bemused look on the proprietor’s faces as we handed over our crappy laundry and why they didn’t know what to do with the washing powder we gave them. Worst of all Guy felt rather humiliated after arguing about the price when they had just dry cleaned his undies, probably by hand. To make up for this extravagance, we decided to downgrade from the second cheapest hotel in town to the cheapest.
Having moved hotels, we walked around with our dry cleaned underwear on. We felt on top of the world so we decided to tackle the star attractions of Esfahan. There aren’t that many sites that we can say honestly make your jaw drop but walking into Imam square (formerly and more popularly known the locals as Naqsh-e Jahan square – pattern of the world) for the first time is a truly memorable experience. It’s over half a kilometre long, making it the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. 400 years ago it was regularly used for polo matches, and the goal posts are still standing. The perfectly domed mosques and towering mosaic facades at the southern end are the real centre pieces and are so beautiful to look at it’s almost impossible to turn away. One of the first things you notice is the alignment of Imam mosque is not flush with the side of the square, as it is facing Mecca.
After coughing up $0.30 to enter the Mosque, Freddie was given a Chador to wear as all women must be covered up from head to toe before entering the holy site. As it was the first time she had to don such an outfit, she was a little unsure as to the correct procedure and ended up looking like a laundry bag with eyes, much to Guy’s amusement.
Regarded as one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, it’s impossible to do it justice through photography. Standing from a distance the grandeur and architectural symmetry is mesmerizing. Close up the exquisite detail of the rich blue tiled mosaics comes to life with fine floral designs and intricate geometrical shapes laced with flowing Persian calligraphy.
Standing under the 30m high dome (aptly named the flower basket) and looking up we were nearly lifted off our feet as we tried to comprehend the immensity of the dome and how it can be supported. We never noticed it but apparently there is a slight mismatch in symmetry as to reflect the architect’s humility towards Allah. Stamp your feet and the sound resonates throughout the mosque. Up to 46 echoes have been recorded, only 7 of which are audible to the human ear. We can only imagine how intense an experience it must be during a sermon.
Walking back out from the dome we noticed a rather large group of female high school students approaching us. We knew from past experience that even a small group can be overwhelming, especially as there seems to be some fascination with Guy, we think it’s the beard. Anyway they moved in, flanking us on both sides. We glanced around for an exit point but we were trapped. Within moments we were surrounded, phones came out as pictures were snapped, questions were fired from all angles and the fever pitch was so intense you couldn’t decipher anything from the noise. It was very odd, we really felt like we were the members of some pop band, such was the interest. Soon a teacher wearing a bandage from a recent nose job appeared, and – get this – told us off for wasting their time! They were very busy and had many sites still to see that day, we do apologise.
Weary from our encounter with the The Mob, we set about to find the famous teahouse that overlooks the square. Unfortunately it was closed down, a disturbing trend in Esfahan. We strolled around the square, poking our heads into the little shops under the arches. Close to the mosque there was the usual tat, but further away tucked down small winding alleys some real little gems appeared. There were some truly exquisite handicrafts, from elaborately engraved silver plates to finely painted porcelain vases. In the early evening the little workshops above the shops come to life as the craftsmen work on their trade. At one shop we noticed some lovely hand painted pieces in the typical Esfahanian style. Out the back we could see the artists painting the intricate designs with such delicacy. They invited us in and were happy for us to chat and take photos of them whilst they worked. It was refreshing to actually see the artists and craftsman working, a real testimony to the authenticity of the products.
Trying to find our way out we stumbled across a small shop selling hand painted cloth. The owner came over and asked us to come over for a closer look. Inside was his father sitting cross legged at a table working on a pattern depicting a traditional Persian scene. His father seemed to be a bit of a legend as he has been working there for over 65 years and was known in the art world. A TV crew from Tehran were there filming him. Rather embarrassingly they made us sit down and engage in small talk with some young Teherani girls who were also visiting, both parties feeling rather self conscious.
Just out of the bazaar and feeling inspired to buy something truly authentic as a reminder of our stay in Iran, we noticed a shop front displaying finely painted miniatures that were hand painted on camel bone. They instantly conjured up images of Persian culture so we thought it would be the perfect souvenir. Hossein started painting when he we 13 and has been mastering the technique for over 50 years. Looking though a magnifying glass we found it virtually impossible to imagine how such minute strokes can be achieved. Hossein uses brushes of the finest cat hair and said he prefers the hair of stray cats as they have not been stroked as much as they domestic counterparts, and their hair is therefore finer.
There are many magnificent sights to visit in Esfahan, such as the impressive Jameh Mosque, the Lotfallah Mosque with its beautiful dome and the harmonious Chehel Sotun Palace with its lovely garden and intricate frescoes depicting Shah Abbas’ life. Esfahan really deserves as much time as you can throw at it.