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My travel: Impressions from Persia

It was with some trepidation that I approached the Iranian frontier from the small, Turkish border town of Dogubeyazit. The seeds of war were seemingly being sown as the row over Iran's nuclear programme intensified. I had been warned. The news that morning had shown damming reports of the programme and the world was frighteningly poised to act. Friends and family questioned my imprudent endeavor, warning me that by going to Iran I would put myself unnecessarily at risk. I pressed on nonetheless.
2000 years ago, the Silk Road passed through the indomitable Persian territories. Ordinary traders risked their lives to bring luxurious goods, such as Chinese silk and Indian spices, across the barren yet daunting Pamir mountains, heading further through the territories of present day Iran on the last stage of their journey towards the West. The Persian influence on this trade made it a country of huge strategic importance. Today Iran is still placed at the crossroads of commerce between East and West, only this time the goods are not silks and spices but oil and gas.
I crossed the border effortlessly and was warmly greeted by a young, sprightly man from the Iran Tourist Office. Thrilled to see a foreigner, and keen to practice his English, he managed to detain me a further hour before I was set free into a sea of black chadors worn by women in accordance with the Islamic law that governs the country. A combination of luck and dogged determination sent me to the Maku bus station and within minutes I was on a decrepit bus slowly heading for the former Silk Road town of Tabriz.
Of all the negative media and political reports one gets in the West of how dangerous Iran is, not one mentioned the biggest danger you face here - the crazy and dense traffic. Regardless, my bus driver seemed more interested in drinking tea and talking to me than actually watching the road.
The recent tension could be felt around the city and, as I walked through the enormous bazaar, the gold merchants were trading hard. As is tradition in arduous times, the locals were depositing their savings into gold nuggets, considered a much safer savings than leaving it in the bank.
I walked around the narrow alleyways brimming at every point with shops selling carpets, jewellery, clothes, stationery, meats, spices and pretty much anything you could want. For centuries such bazaars had been powerful centres in the city where Silk Road traders could gather and sell their wares. The wonderful architecture, smells and noises easily take you back to those days. People seemed bemused to find a lost foreigner wandering alone and were immediately inquisitive. Despite the language barrier, I was led here and there, offered tea and coffee and introduced to almost everyone. The bazaar is as old as the city itself and although rebuilt in the XV century has been in existence for over a thousand years. Marco Polo visited it on his travels and, as Tabriz was located en route for the trade caravans arriving from the east and west along the Silk Road, it was the focal point for the exchange of Asian and European goods. At one point up to 22 caravanserais surrounded the bazaar equipped to receive and provide for arriving merchants.
My next stop was a 24 hour bus journey away to the south; Shiraz. This southern corner of Iran, once famous for its wine-producing grape is also home to the legendary city of Persepolis, built by Darius I in 512 ВС as his summer capital. Sadly not much remains of this once major architectural spectacle other than a few marbled columns still protruding from the dusty earth, but given the length of time this city has stood, it's an amazing and enduring testament. Later that evening I hadn't walked more than 10 minutes when a group of young Tehrani engineers on holiday approached me wanting to practice their English. Having nothing better to do, I was happy to oblige. They suggested we explore Shiraz's sights. It was getting late by now and I wondered how much sight seeing we might actually be able to do. In a country where the words "night life" hardly exist and the idea of a disco is unthinkable, what life exists after dark is to be found in a city's monuments. I was taken on a whistlestop tour of 6 different mausoleums, museums and statues. Each person wanted to share their knowledge and educate me about Iran's remarkably cultured and diverse past. We spent the evening sitting in various monuments, quoting the Iranian poet Hafez, singing songs and eating ice cream whilst meeting local girls. It was another horrendously early start as I made my way, sleepily, to the main bus station to catch the bus to Yazd. The buildings changed from modern styles to lower level mud-brick houses, blending into the desert scenery. It was only a 7h journey, but it was hot, sweaty and generally uncomfortable. We sauntered on through countless villages, with the dusty desert surroundings broken only by the occasionally dry tree or shrub. We passed a couple of ruins, former Silk Road caravanserais, and arrived in Yazd by lunchtime. I had hardly deposited my bags at the hotel before I was off to wander the ancient, narrow lanes of Yazd's old town. It was like going back several hundred years to a forgotten city. Low-level mud-brick buildings closed in on you from every side and I quickly became lost in the never-ending maze of alleys. Occasionally a blue-tiled mosque would appear with majolica tile-work so fine that you wondered if it was a mirage. No matter how many of these I saw in Iran, I would marvel at every one's beauty and magnificent architecture.
Yazd is quite simply one of the most charming cities in Iran. Its informal and relaxed atmosphere are contagious. Walking in the street gets a mixture of confused and helpful faces coming up to talk to you. Here Iranian hospitality was at its best. Sitting in my hotel's courtyard with a cup or tea and a water pipe became an obsessive evening habit before meeting up again with some new Iranian friends I'd made earlier that day. Yazd also plays host to one of the largest communities of Zoroastrian worshippers. Dotted in the desert around the city one finds an enormous collection of Zoroastrian relics from towers of silences where the dead were placed as part of the funeral ceremony to fire temples in the rocks at Chak Chak. It was a religion that I knew little about before visiting Iran, but whose influences along the Silk Road are astoundingly still seen today in the architecture and art of the nearby countries.
The harsh desert climate would have been formidable to traders of the past and throughout the surrounding desert crumbling caravanserais can be seen as a reminder of its past prominence. Nearby the now almost dead village of Kharanaq, built up around an ancient Silk Road caravanserai, sits with its mud walls lamentably disappearing into dust. Presently only two families remain and while the people of the past may have moved into the towns and cities, the physical remains of the past linger on remarkably.
If there is one place you have to visit, it is Isfahan. Some of Iran's most spectacular monuments including the Jameh Mosque and Imam Square should not be missed and its tree-lined boulevards are a seductive invitation to stroll and soak up the atmosphere. Except for the noisy traffic one could be forgiven for thinking they were in Paris.
It was Friday, the Iranian weekend, and annoyingly everything was closed so I wondered how to fill my day. I hadn't walked far when a rather unusual cry of "monsieur" stopped me. It was the first French spoken to me by an Iranian and I was immediately intrigued. Ali insisted on taking me for lunch and then showed me a little of the sights. We toured the spectacular bazaar, strolled along the river bank, visited the Armenian quarter, bought a carpet and took several cups of tea along the way.

My last few days were spent exploring Kashan and Qazvin, also Silk Road towns, in northern Iran. Brief as my time was, it had been enough of a taste to want to see and discover more. I had misunderstood Iran before my visit, had thought of it as a faraway place where Koran-wielding and beard sporting men shout, "death to America" at every opportunity. But now I struggle to understand how Iran, so beautiful, rich, refined and welcoming has acquired such a bad reputation. As I write these final lines, world leaders are still debating whether to invade Iran. Hopefully common sense will prevail and ensure that the wonderful people who took me into their homes as a friend don't suffer.

Discovery Central Asia #17

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