Iran - April 2007 - Notes

Sunday 8th April
Iran is two and half hours ahead of the UK and we arrived at about 1.45am to be met by our guide Mohammad Ali Asgarian and the rest of the party of nine plus ourselves. Our suitcases took almost an hour to arrive on the carousel and we finally reached the Laleh Hotel about 4am. We did not sleep much as it was light by 6am. The altitude of Tehran is about 4000ft.

Monday 9th April
Up for breakfast about 8.15am and away at 10am to visit the Sa'ad-abad Palace complex which was the summer home of the Shah, in a large parkland area in the higher northern part of the city. The first building we entered was the White Palace built in 1926 and outside were two bronze boots, all that remains of the larger than lifesize statue of Reza Shah Pahlavi. Inside, some of the 54 rooms have brocade covered walls and paintings, mosaic mirrors, enormous carpets, French furniture, and German porcelain table settings. Then on to the Green Palace uphill through the park gardens. This building was used for special guests where the three rooms are covered in mirrors.
Back to the coach for the short journey downhill and then back up to Park-e Jamshideya, a steep valley into the snow capped Alborz mountains where several restaurants cling to the hillsides. Here we had a good lunch outside.
We returned to the city centre to visit the National Jewels Museum housed in the vaults beneath the Melli Bank where we had to go through security gates without any bags or cameras. A beautiful display of the Crown jewels and other precious and semi precious pieces, amazing colours and workmanship many dating from Safavid times, 16th and 17th Centuries, plus a version of the Peacock Throne. The Darya-ye Nur diamond is a companion to the Koh-i Nor gem now in the Tower of London.
We had a quick look at the Bazaar and then returned to the Hotel. For dinner we went out by coach to an outdoor restaurant where we reclined on couches, or sat cross-legged for those who could manage to sit that way. Being rather tired and rather cold the meal of a fatty stew with vegetables and nun bread was not that welcome and we were not that happy as the journey there took almost an hour, the driver having missed various turnings. However, we slept well that night. Having looked at the Lonely Planet Guide since we came home we have found out that the meal is called 'dizi', and is an economical Azari meal. We would probably have enjoyed it rather more later on in the week!

Tuesday 10th April
We were up in time to get the 10am flight to Shiraz, altitude 5000ft. The plane was quite full, a snack was provided and one interesting point in this country of religious observance was the request of a mullah to be moved from sitting next to an infidel. He was then accommodated in the business class seats. Our cases came through quickly and we were on our way in a coach to lunch at a Sufi restaurant which served traditional food before visiting the Bagh-e Eram Botanical gardens.
Here there were various flowering trees, flower beds of pansies and marigolds, cypresses and a long series of waterways leading up to the pavilion, a 19thC Qajar Palace. On to the Madraseh-ye Khan theological school dating from 1615 which is under restoration after earthquake damage. There are now about ten students. Here, the colours used in the tiling of birds and roses, pinks, yellows and blues, are of particular interest. Some of us went up on to the roof for a view of the city.
Next on to the end 19thC Nasir-ol-Molk mosque with its deep blue tiling and winter prayer hall. Here the carved pillars, mosaics and stained glass windows are notable, the colours of the glass are said to repel mosquitoes. After a quick look in the Bazaar we went to the Bagh-e Naranjestan where the late 19thC pavilion was used for receptions and as the Governor's Residence. The full height mirrored entrance hall is between small family rooms with tiling, wooden panels and stained glass windows. Again, the gardens were planted with various flowers and trees.
Dinner was taken at another traditional restaurant where we were able to see the method of baking the nun bread, a version of flat, unleavened naan bread.

Wednesday 11th April
We were up early to go to Firuzabad, some 60 miles over the Zagros mountains southwest of Shiraz. Once out of the built up areas which are watered, the countryside is dry and stony but with fields of barley and other crops in the irrigated fields. Bird towers can be seen in some places where pigeons were kept to provide guano for fertilising the fields. The mountains rise steeply and the road goes through a narrow defile in the chain, the strata of limestone of varying hardness is twisted a little and uplifted. We passed the remains of two older bridges on the way. We stopped in a layby for a cup of tea and to look up at the Qal'ah-e Doktar (Maidens Palace), a three storey fort built by Ardeshir in the 3rd C AD. We saw groups of sheep and goats moving up the valley bottoms on the spring migration to greener pastures.
Next, to Ardeshir's Palace near Firuzabad, of the same period but with very thick walls, arches and barrel vaults. An open dome with what is considered to be the earliest instance of squinches and other architectural features. There is a lot of restoration work going on on the site with possibly a small fire temple nearby.
After lunch of barley soup, salad and chicken on saffron rice at a restaurant on the outskirts of the small town we went back to Shiraz stopping at the Qash'qai winter village of tents near buildings meant to serve as settled places for these nomadic people. The men had already left with the herds of sheep and goats but the women remain behind to carry on with dyeing wool for carpets and for the children to finish the school term. We were given a talk by one of the teachers. Apparently many of the children go on to high school in Shiraz and do well in adult life. Others from the age of 6 to 12 years miss schooling to help their families in the farm work.
For dinner we went out to another Soofi restaurant where there was live music to accompany another good meal. Finally, to round off the day we went up to the Qu'ran Gateway where Ali and the driver brought up the tea flask so that we enjoyed hot tea while looking out over the lit up city from the floodlit walls. It is a place for romantic young lovers.

Thursday 12th April
We were up early to go in the coach to Persepolis, the city built of stone, started by Darius 1 in 518BC and completed by later kings over the next 150 years. Alexander the Great sacked the complex in 330BC burning the wooden ceilings to the ground and stealing the gold on the walls and elsewhere.
Early heavy morning rain had cleared by the time we arrived and we walked round the ruins in sunshine. Up the Grand Stairway, through the Gate of All Nations built by Xerxes and into the Palace of 100 Columns, where the doorways are carved with reliefs of great variety. There are remains of statues of cows, which look more like horses but have cloven hooves. Then up the hillside to see the tomb of Artaxerxes II with its Zorasterian reliefs from where we looked over the whole complex to the mountains beyond. Back down again to see the Apadana Palace and the staircase with its famous bas-reliefs. Surprisingly, we found that the stairs are not as long or the carvings as big as we thought but still amazing in their detail and designs. These same designs are repeated in various places on the walls elsewhere and are in much poorer condition. The lion of summer bringing down the deer of winter and the various animals carrying gifts for the king showed the many countries which paid tribute to the Persian Kings. We wandered around looking at the other parts of the complex until we went back to the coach to go to another two tomb sites, Naqsh-e Rajab which is almost hidden from the road and Naqsh-e Rostam where the four tombs carved in the cliff face are believed to be of Artaxerxes 1, Xerxes 1 and Darius 1 and 2. The Kaba Zartosht before them is thought to have been a fire temple. Then on in the rain to a nearby country restaurant for lunch where we sat under awnings among the crowd of other diners, plus ducks in the pool who came for scraps. After the hour long journey back to Shiraz we went to see the tomb of Hafez, 14thC, perhaps the most famous Persian poet, in a lovely garden where there were lots of people plus groups of school children. After a cup of tea we went on to the tomb of Sa-adi, 13thC, another famous poet, where there is a larger garden. In both places there were many flowerpots of flowering plants alongside the water channels, on walls and stairs, with trees of various sizes, some in flower as well. The tomb of Sa-adi was against a backdrop of the nearby mountains and cypress trees. Our last visit was to the Mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh, (died in Shiraz 835AD) or King of Light Mosque, where the large courtyard is a meeting place for those entering this important Shi'ite shrine. We went into the Mausoleum, where women have to wear a chador, ours were of light coloured sheeting. The walls and celing are covered in mirror tiles around the tomb, there were groups of women sitting in their area while the men were engaged in prayer etc.
Then, on to the airport for dinner before we took the plane for the half hour flight to Isfahan and the Abbasi Hotel.

Friday 13th April
The Abbasi hotel has been built in the ruins of an old caravanserai with funds which also help in the restoration of the Madraseh-ye Chahar Bagh next door. The courtyard is now a garden of fountains, trees and flowers which our first floor room overlooked. Breakfast was served in a large room on the same floor with paintings and elaborate tiling as decoration.
Isfahan became the new capital city of Shah Abbas the Great from the late 1500s so there is much of great interest and beauty to see.
We walked on foot around the corner to see the Hasht Behesht Palace (Eight Paradises) built in the 1660s in a setting of tall trees in a colourful garden. There are mosaics and interesting ceilings inside.
Next along the same road to the Chehel Sotun Palace, (Forty Columns - meaning many columns as there are not quite that number - in fact, eighteen columns and their reflections) built in 1647 but rebuilt in 1706 after a fire. Again it is set in a large garden with flower beds, water channels and trees coming into leaf in various colours. From the 'talar' terrace with its slender wooden columns one enters the Great Hall where there are rich frescoes of court life and various Safavid battles. Along the passages at the sides of the terrace there are small rooms with more paintings of the court, some of which being slightly suggestive, have survived the religious disapproval of recent years.
We then walked through to Imam Square, (Meydan-e Imam, also Naqsh-e Jahan Square or 'pattern of the world'). Begun in 1602 it is 512m long and 163m wide with the centre open area grassed and with fountains surrounded by two storey arched arcades of shops and taller buildings. Horse carriages takes people for trips around the square at a good speed. At each end there are marble goal posts used for games of polo 400 years ago. Being Friday the square was full of people and a noisy demonstration was going on so we went to the 'Flying Carpet' shop to look at their wares, have an explanation of the various styles and their origins and, needless to say, make purchases. We bought a small carpet from Qom and a country rug with a horse on it for Juliet. Lunch was taken nearby. We then went by coach to visit Vank Cathedral, the Armenian church in the quarter of Jolfa, but it was shut for the day so we went on to see the Manar Jomban (Shaking Minarets) on the outskirts of the city. Dating from the Safavid times, when one minaret is leant against the other starts to sway but, as this is demonstrated only on the hour, we had just missed the time. So, next we went the short distance to Ateshkadeh-ye Isfahan, an ancient crumbling mud brick fire temple overlooking the Zayandeh River where there were family groups enjoying the sunshine in the grassy park.
On the way to the outskirts we drove by the Zayandeh River to see the c1650 Khaju Bridge where a centre pavilion was built for Shah Abbas 2 and his family to enjoy the scene, and the river is dammed with weirs to control the flow. We walked across the bridge looking at the people sitting on the stone sides and on the banks of the river. A number of them were enjoying pedalos. We also got out to see the Chubi Bridge built in 1665.
Our last visit of the day was to the 800 years old Jameh Mosque which is the biggest in Iran. It was rebuilt in 1121AD with later additions and the central ablutions fountain is similar in design to the Kaaba at Mecca. The Winter Hall is lit by alabaster skylights and there are many interesting features in the different iwans. Dinner that evening was in the Shahrzad restaurant where the wall paintings, stained glass windows and mirrorwork added to the atmosphere.
Back at the hotel we talked to an Iranian girl who was studying English at university. She was eager to talk to English people as they do not have much opportunity, their studies being mainly geared to translation.

Saturday 14th April
No breakfast for M. as we both found two main meals each day were rather more than we needed.
The weather was rather mixed with several heavy showers during the day during which we visited the various places around Imam Square. The Imam Mosque at one end of the area has a magnificient gateway started in 1611, and the main courtyard of the mosque is offset from this portal to point in the direction of Mecca. The blue mosaic tiling and proportioned Safavid era architecture are amazing. In the main Sanctuary off the south iwan the main ceiling of the dome is 36.3m high while the dome above is up to 51m. This hollow space means that when one claps or stamps just below the centre one hears multiple echoes, Ali sang a short Persian song and clapped his hands to demonstrate but to us it was not that apparent, we were not really in quite the right place. We walked round the whole mosque looking at the different designs and colours.
Next, we went to the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque set in the centre of one long side of the square. Again, built during the reign of Shah Abbas 1 between 1602 and 1619, the dome is tiled with cream coloured tiles in contrast to the deep blue of the Imam Mosque. Steps lead up to the entrance and there is no minaret or courtyard, just an interior reached by a twisting corridor to see the mainly yellow mosaics. Apparently it was not a public place of worship but used by the women of the Shah's harem.
Afterwards we walked across the centre of the square to see the Ali Qapu Palace built at the end of the 16thC and intended as the gateway to the royal palaces in the gardens behind. It is six storeys high with a first floor terrace overlooking the square, (we both thought the square was smaller than we imagined from the various pictures we had seen, perhaps the result of wide-angled camera lenses). There was restoration work going on and scaffolding round most of the wooden pillars but we did get a good view of the square. We went into the Throne Room off the terrace and then up the stairs which had tiled treads to see the small rooms which were used by the royal family,. Here the mosaics and paintings on the walls have been damaged over the years. On the top floor the Music Room has a plaster ceiling which is cut out into various shapes such as vases and is said to enhance the sounds made by the musicians.
Walking through the arcades to the opposite end of the square we went to a restaurant for lunch, sitting on loungers once again and then on to a teahouse just by the Qeysarieh Portal at the entrance to the Bazar-e Bozorg. This was up some very steep stairs. We enjoyed tea and cakes and bought two small china teapots as gifts. As it was still raining we wandered around the shops in the arcades buying some sweets before going into another carpet shop, partly to shelter from the rain. Here we were shown yet more examples of carpets and rugs while enjoying yet another cup of tea.
Our last visit of the day was back to the Vank Cathedral which was now open. It is dedicated to the Saviour and inside the small interior the walls are painted with biblical stories, some about the Prophets, the life and death of Jesus Christ, and also Saint Gregory who is special to the Armenian Church. Across the courtyard we went to see the museum of Armenian items, both sacred and secular, plus many handwritten books some of which are very old.
Dinner was taken in the Abbasi Hotel and was buffet style so we were able to choose just how much and what we wanted.

Sunday 15th April
We were supposed to leave at 8am for the drive to Yazd but eventually got away 3/4hr later in a rather dirty coach with uncleaned windows which meant we could not take good photos. as we went along. We drove out through the outskirts of Isfahan where there were good conditions for fruit and vegetable growings using the guano from the bird towers, pigeon cotes built high to avoid snakes taking the eggs. We passed through a mountain range and then desert with oases of fruit trees, poultry factory farming and settlements of old domed houses. On to Na'in for lunch in the Tourist Hotel after our visit to the craftsman weavers in a town reknown for its carpets. Here we saw the husband weaving natural coloured mid brown baby camel wool on to a black cotton warp, brushing it afterwards to produce a very soft fine cloth. We went into the house to see his wife weaving a small carpet in natural dyed silk and wool in a very intricate design, a selection of which we were able to see while we had a cup of tea in the larger reception room. We then went to see the 10thC Jameh Mosque, where there is no iwan, only arcades, but a fine Mihrab, pillars of bricks in various patterns and walls of stucco decoration. There is a water source down a number of steps which provided for the people.
Finally, on to Yazd with time to see the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence where the dead were laid out by the priests for the vultures to strip the flesh before the burial of the bones. The two hills are quite high with a steep climb upwards, M stayed below while the others walked up the incline and enjoyed the peace and quiet as the sun sunk lower into the sky behind the smaller hill. There was a very narrow opening into the flat top which required help from Ali to get through and look out over the nearby city. Back at the bottom again we went through the group of various buildings to see the present day Zoroastrian cemetery, there are still about 5000 followers of this ancient monotheistic religion in the area today.
Our stay for two nights was at the Moshirolmamalek Hotel, another place with a pleasant garden of flowers, trees and water channels bordered by recently built rooms and restaurant. Ours was almost finished in local style with barrel vault ceiling in brick and tiles. We noticed just how dry the air was as garments washed in the evening were completely dry in the morning.

Monday 16th April
Today was spent visiting the various sites in the city and we were pleased to see a far better coach for our use as Ali had arranged for another to come from Tehran overnight, the driver was very much more pleasant as well. The day was sunny and by midday it was very warm. The old city is one of the oldest on earth according to Unesco and built of sun dried mud bricks with 'badgirs' or windtowers on many roofs.
Our first visit was to the garden and Ateshkadeh Zoroastrian Temple where the Sacred Flame of cedar wood burns. It is said to have been burning since about 470AD, transferred to Ardakan in 1174, then to Yazd in 1474 and to the present site in 1940. The temple was built using funds from India, over the entrance is the Birdman symbol of the religion, one hand holding a ring of loyalty, the other indicating respect. The wings have three layers meaning think, speak and act decently.
Then, on by coach to the Amir Chakhmaq Complex, passing through the small bazaar and to the three storey takieh, a building used in rituals to commemorate the death of Imam Hossein. We went up the stairs into the narrow platforms of each storey, looking out over the small domes of the bazaar on one side and then over the square in front of the gateway to the city of roofs, windtowers and domes. To one side was the palm shaped nakhl, the large framework which is decorated for use in the Shia celebrations.
On to the Water Museum where the exhibition of the qanat system of underground conduits bringing water from the mountains explained the construction and maintenance. We also had a quick look into a factory where they grind leaves for the production of henna and other powders for medicinal and cosmetic use (there was so much dust in the air that photos of the enormous wheels were impossible).
In the coach again to see the water cistern and windtowers with a walk through the old town of adobe houses where many of the alleys are covered over to provide shade. We went into the 15thC domed school known as Alexander's Prison and had a fruit drink down in what had been a water well and is now a small cafe. The well may have been built by Alexander the Great and used as a dungeon, a subject for debate! Next into the nearby 11thC Tomb of the Twelve Imams, built of brick but which does not contain their tombs. Nearby was a shop selling Zoroastrian carpets, rugs, tiles and pictures. Their women can be recognised by their patterned headscarves and embroidered dresses in pale or red colours, and we did see some around the old town.
We walked back to the Jameh Mosque where the portal is flanked by two minarets which are the highest in Iran at 48m and the tiling everywhere is again amazingly beautiful. We went into the Winter prayer room with its brick roof and also went down the very long steep stairs into part of the Zarah Qanat which is now used for ritual ablutions. Lunch was back at the hotel and, after relaxing in the garden for a while, we left at 3.30pm to visit the Bagh-e Doulat Abad, a quiet garden with a pavilion built for the Governor about 1750. It has the highest windtower which has eight sections and we could feel the effect of cooler air as we stood under it. Ali and the driver then cut up a water melon he'd bought earlier and gave us slices as we sat in the quiet garden with its water channels and sections of vines and fruit trees.
After we left, we had a quick look at the bazaar and took photos of the Amir Chakmaq gateway now lit up by the low sun. We spotted ice creams for sale so bought two huge cornets costing about 11p each before going to see the Zurkhaneh or House of Strength.
This gymnasium is used by men probably five times a week where they perform a system of exercises to the beat of a drum and the calling of the King or Commander. The movements represent those which would have been used in fighting with various weapons on foot and on horseback. It dates from ancient times when conquerors stopped the indigenous men from carrying arms. However, they still wished to preserve their ability. There is also a mystical and religious element to it, the leader will sing epic songs, or recite poetry while the athletes swing clubs, perform pressups in various positions and also twirl round in a similar way to dervishes, all of which goes on for almost an hour to the rapid drum beat. It was all very interesting.
We then returned to the hotel where the buffet dinner was served in the restaurant.

Tuesday 17th April
We left Yazd early to drive to Kashan with a stop for tea in the fields on the way where a farmer's wife was collecting lucerne to take back for the sheep. There were trees of quince, pistachio nuts, apples and also fields for wheat. In Kashan we went for lunch at the Delpazir Restaurant which is run by an Englishwoman, Jane Modarresian and her husband - rather a surprise! Then on to the Bagh-e Tarikhi-e Fin Gardens which are mainly trees and grassy areas around a pavilion and in front of the palace. These are the remains of Abbas 1 and other Safavid buildings which have been rebuilt during Qajar times, 1800AD onwards. The pavilion is built over natural springs bringing water from the mountains behind and also to the bathhouse where several rooms are worth a visit. Here Amir Kabir was killed in 1851 as his modernising ideas did not go down well with the royal family. While we were inside a group of teenage schoolgirls were chasing two young fellows in a rowdy way, perhaps they hoped to get caught in one of the little alcoves - not quite the impression given of how modest young Iranians girls behave.
We then walked in the Bazaar and saw the city walls where a group of school children wanted to talk to us in the gardens. One of the towers looked rather like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Next into a dyeing workshop in the old town where wool, much of it from Australia, was dyed for use in the carpet industry. Then on to a private house where the women knot larger carpets in two halves on one frame at the same time, before the completed article is sent to another craftsman to be clipped and finished for sale. We also went into the Jameh Mosque, an early building with a tapered minaret and with a statue of a horse in the centre of the courtyard. The lower parts were shut so we could not see very much there.
Our hotel for the night was at Abyaneh which is at the end of a long valley up into the mountains. The Natanz lowland area on the way is the location of the Iranian nuclear industry, there are a few fenced industrial complexes to be seen and also gun emplacements on the low hills, presumably to attack any low flying aircraft. At the start of the road into the mountains we had to pass through a checkpoint but fortunately only Ali and the driver had to produce their documents. Unlike a previous coachload of French, we did not have to show our passports. The road goes winding through red craggy rocks which have been eroded by the wind in places and through small settlements of ochre coloured houses. Finally we reached the hotel in the village which is at about 7200ft., the snow capped mountains rise to over 12000ft on Mt. Karkas. The hotel is being enlarged but our room was reasonable once we could get the electricity to work, the key card kept falling through the slot. The evening meal was the usual fare and we all asked for some ice cream to finish it off.

Wednesday 18th April
We were up early again for a walk around the village which is on the steep hillside. The houses are perched on ledges with steep steps up from the one narrow lane through the centre. The road on which we had come is wider but finishes there. The village is a Unesco World Heritage site, the houses are of red ochre mud brick and clay with wooden balconies and overhanging canopies. The Zeyaratgah Shrine has a small pool and we looked over the wall at the valley below where the fruit trees were in bloom but the other trees were still bare. We also went into the Jameh Mosque where there are various wooden carvings. We then drove back through the valley again, passing the checkpoint without any delay and on to the town of Natanz to see the early 14thC Jameh Mosque with a large plane tree outside and next to it the tomb of a Sufi mystic Abd al-Samad. We also went into the pottery workshop across the road and along to a large courtyard building under restoration.
We returned to Kashan so that we could see the two merchants houses. The Borujerdi house, early 19thC, was built for a rich person dealing in handicrafts and has a summer and winter house either end of the long courtyard. The summer house has lovely stalactite work. The Tabatebei house, built for a carpet merchant, is larger and has intricate stonework carvings, stuccowork and mirror tiling. Lunch was in a hotel near the Fin Gardens before we took the main road back to Tehran. We stopped briefly in Qom so that we could see the large square in front of the Hazrat-e Masumeh, the burial place of Imam Rewza's sister, Fatemeh, who died in 9thC AD. There were many clerics and the women all seemed to be in black chadors walking around in this pedestrian area and, as unbelievers, we were not allowed into the shrine itself. Qom is the second-holiest city in Iran.
The volume of traffic into Tehran was so much that we went straight to a restaurant for dinner before returning to the Hotel Laleh for the night.

Thursday 19th April
We were up early yet again to take the coach on the long drive to Rasht, visiting the Alamut region on the way. Luckily we noticed that our cases were not on the coach which meant we had to wait while the porters retrieved them from the store. There were only four of us on this trip, Ed. and P Housely and ourselves, so we had the coach virtually to ourselves. We travelled along the main road to Qazvin and then took the route up into the Alborz mountains. The road rises gradually up to the pass at more than 7000ft where we were almost as high as the snowline, there was still some at the side of the road. Then, down again into a countryside of broad fertile valleys and small villages where the views were great as we went up and down the narrow road with fruit tree blossom, fields ready for sowing, and flocks of sheep on the high pastures with shepherds and their dogs. The road was wide enough for vehicles to pass but at times the sides were steep and showed traces of rockslides. Across the Shah Rud at Mo'allem Kalayeh and then at Gazor Khan we took the side road to the village below the Alamut Castle, actually a misnomer as the whole region is called that. The remnants of fortresses in this area of the mountains is known as 'The Castles of the Assassins', because the followers of Hasan-e Sabbah, 1070-1124, and the founder of the Ismaili sect of Islam, lived on the higher points around. Hasan was called the 'old man of the mountains' and lived at this particular stronghold. The village below has typically poor houses, mostly inhabited by the elderly although there were a few children to be seen. There is also a research foundation further up the rough track which leads to the path up to the ruins on a bluff overlooking the valley. We set off up this track and as we were now quite high again it was rather cold in the strong wind. P and I stayed at the point where it became a path with various stepped sections while Ali with Ed. and A went on upwards, they did not go all the way up to the ruins after all, there wasn't really enough time. When we got back to the coach we had a picnic lunch which Ali had brought with him, nun bread filled with cheese and salad plus hot tea.
There is only the one road into and out of this area so we took the same long, winding road back and enjoyed the sunlight now coming from the west giving us another aspect of the scenery. It soon became dark as we reached the main road near Qazvin, there was quite a lot of traffic, and the journey to Rasht was quite long. As we were running late we stopped for an evening meal at a roadside cafe, basic but good enough. The road to the Caspian Sea drops by some 4000ft going through Rudbar and down the valley of the Safit Rud, being dark we could not see very much at all of what must be quite a scenic route with several tunnel sections. We finally arrived at the Hotel Kadus at 10.30pm. One point about coach travel is the need to stop for checks on the driver's tachographs on main roads and also that in built up areas there are a large number of road humps which means slowing down to almost a stop. This all generally lengthens the journeys.

Friday 20th April
We were up in time to go to Bandar Anzali which is Iran's main port on the Caspian Sea although we only had a short sight of it from the road behind the shore, shipping goes to the Russian ports. We arrived at the fish market where there were different types of fish for sale including white fish, sturgeon and their roes in various shapes - caviar in fact . There were also stalls of fruit and vegetables. Then on a small speed boat for the 3/4hr long trip around the lagoon to see the blue lotus flowers and the birds. However it was too early in the year for the flowers and the many speedboats put paid to any chances of seeing the birdlife, it was happier well away from the noise of the main waterways. It was then time to visit a restaurant for a very good lunch where we enjoyed olives, salad, walnuts, yogurt and sturgeon steaks.
Our last visit was to the village of Masuleh up in the mountains. We passed through the flat lowlands where the rice paddies were mostly flooded and with polythene covered nurseries for the young rice plants. Houses are scattered around although very few are now thatched with the traditional rice straw and there were sometimes people working in the fields. Gradually the ground rose upwards and we went up through the misty valley to Masuleh itself passing weekend houses along the river banks and where there were waterfalls in places. The cream coloured houses are stacked up each side of the wooded valley and often the paths are on the roofs of the houses below. P and M. stayed at the end of the roadway enjoying tea and conversation with a dentist and his family in a small cafe while E, A and Ali explored the streets above looking at the gifts shops etc. Here the trees were still bare as it is 3500ft above sea level and the misty rain obscured most of any views. Being Friday there were lots of people around enjoying their day off work.
Back again to Rasht and evening dinner in the hotel.

Saturday 21st April
We were up early again to catch the flight back to Teheran and had some reasonable sights of the mountains as we went over. We were met at the airport by the same coach and driver, he had driven back overnight, and we wondered how their working hours added up? We checked back into the Laleh Hotel and met up with the third couple again and then visited the Carpet Museum along the road. Lots of modern carpets in the traditional designs and some older ones, Ali said many older examples had gone to Europe. It was interesting to see the designs of different cities and hearing from him about their background. We went off to lunch then back to the hotel where three of the party went off to the bazaar and A and M. went for a walk in the nearby Laleh Park. It is a place for young couples to meet, talk and flirt, something rather difficult to do in the current religious climate. It was pleasant and quiet away from the noisy traffic on the roads. We enjoyed an icecream back at the hotel, sorted out our luggage and then for dinner we went to Sofre-Kahaneh Sonatee Ali Ghapoo restaurant, or Paradise Garden, where the waiters dress in traditional costume and there is traditional live music. A good meal to end a very enjoyable trip.

Alan and Myra Gentle - April 2007

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