The excitement today on the way to Kashan was to be seeing a nuclear plant. Habib has been saying for days that we are going to see one, and we must NOT take a photo or the bus will be stopped, our cameras will be inspected, we will be held for days, and the seriousness of his face suggested that far worse could be on the cards. I think that after seeing us all in action this week he doesn't believe we can help ourselves. I have never considered that I might be excited about seeing a nuclear power plant but after the buildup, I was beside myself. Well, almost.
Habib has to stop every hundred kilometres or so to check in to police and/or highway officials with paperwork, so I think the tourist industry is highly regulated.
When we actually did pass the nuclear facility on a long flat plain, it turned out to be underground, so there was nothing really to see except more desert. The only evidence were gun mounds here and there with some very old looking guns covered with army camouflage netting draped over poles. A couple of soldiers standing about looking desultorily at the guns. I don't think they got the memo about the risk posed by passing tourists.
We stopped at the bottom of the red village of Abyeneh for a cup of Habib's coffee and some delicious pastries again. Over morning tea, Ali told us that petrol in Iran is 10c a litre, diesel 30c. Imagine.
On a nearby plane tree, a little graffiti. Hoda said it means 'meadow of wild flowers'. Even in Persian graffiti, there is poetry.
The village is perched on the side of a hil. It was a thriving village once, but the younger generation left for the big smoke, and it was almost abandoned. Those who are left depend on tourism. The hill is so steep in parts that the roof of one house is the back yard of another.
Ali took us on a hike in the heat through the village, then down bush tracks.
Past lilac-coloured flowers of salvia growing in a gully.
And the spent flower heads of a small clematis.
We crossed the gully and walked up a hill on the other side to look back at the village. It's quite camouflaged against the mountain behind. The red is a lovely contrast with the lavender mountains in the distance.
Way off on the other side high up beyond the village, I could see a white dot. When I zoomed in, a man was sitting on rocks, looking down. He'd had quite a climb. You can see traces of building there against the rocks.
It's cold here in winter. Animals are sheltered in caves. There's little doorways like this all over the lower hills.
Further up the hill behind us, you can trace the water by green growth. We walked back into the village.
This man was riding a donkey while his wife walked behind. Maybe she can't ride a donkey. I know I'd rather walk. I couldn't believe he had on a beanie and jumper in sweltering heat. I wondered why.
I spent a while trying to capture two wasps drinking from a tap. I suppose they are using it to make mud for a nest.
Old doorways in Abyeneh.
The man's donkey now parked in the street, snoozing.
Would you call these minimal windows? They're probably on the western side to keep out the heat.
I don't know how you'd keep whites white in this village.
Speed limits on the divided highway vary and closer to Kashan there were different speeds for different lanes. We were there by lunch time at a restaurant on the edge of town.
After lunch at a road restaurant we went to Tepe Sialk, the site of a 5500 year old ziggurat - it's the oldest known of these tiered pyramid-like mounds made by an ancient Sumerian civilisation. It's thought they were temples bringing these people closer to the gods. They chose this place because of the excellent water supply nearby: the Cheshmeh ye Soleiman or Solomon's Spring has been bringing water to this area from nearby mountains for thousands of years.
The archaeological dig in the 1930's was done by French nationals and most of the finds are in the Louvre. The ziggurat itself has been reduced in size by centuries of weathering. Today a really hot wind was blowing and the landscape felt desolate. I'm constantly reminded what things would look like without water.
One of the most famous gardens in Persia or Iran is the Fin Garden and it was on the agenda next. It also depends on the same qanat as the Sialk Ziggurat. Although you wouldn't know it from this photo because I stood and waited for an opportune moment, it was full of people on the hajj holiday, mostly locals picnicking and sitting on the sides of the shallow channels dangling their feet in the water. Guards were circulating telling children to get out of the channels. Why, I wondered. That's what they're for.
It has a typically Persian design, with the entrance in the middle of the bottom of this plan, a central viewing pavilion and swiftly flowing channels following the rectangular grid.
This is the vaulted iwan at the entry to the garden. You can't see the garden until you have passed through this space.
The main axis from the front gate is a water channel with bubbling jets leading to a square pool in front of a pavilion in the centre. All gravity fed from the qanat.
The water continues straight ahead underground then until it reaches the pavilion on the far wall. This decorative work is under that pavilion's dome.
Channels follow the rectangles as on the plan. There are hedges and very tall trees planted all along the edges which give good shade.
The bathhouse where the Qajar chancellor was murdered in 1852 by an assassin sent by Nasereddin Shah is on the left. The chancellor was persuaded to sign his own death sentence while he was drunk.
I've been looking forward to seeing the mansion of a wealthy family in Kashan, so imagine my surprise to find we are staying in one. It's called Ameri House because it belonged to the governor of Kashan, Agha Ameri who made his money from tolls paid on the silk route between Kashan and Kerman (map above) to ensure the safety of the road. If you were travelling on that road and had paid your toll, you were under the protection of this man. If it takes 8 hours to drive today, imagine how long it would have taken on horseback and camels.
The complex is actually owned by the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organisation and was run as a museum until it was leased to a hotel company who has started to develop it as a hotel. There are 85 rooms in seven co-joined houses each with a courtyard. So far they've renovated 16 rooms. They have something of a problem with the stairs which are very steep. They're real muscle stretchers and I can't imagine how the staff manage suitcases up and down. I'll be sore tomorrow. Some of our party had to step across a void to get to their room!
We're in the royal suite no less and our courtyard belonged to Agha Ameri himself, or so the fellow who brought our suitcases said. He probably says that to every guest! That's our door on the right.
And that's our helper - he's must be incredibly fit! I'm just sorry that we have such a short time here to explore.
Our bedroom and bathroom are both roomy and very comfortable. Design-wise it's a little odd. If you're having a shower you drench the loo.That arched wooden trellis work is actually a hidden door to steps which lead to the roof. I think we have a secret passage out! I actually went up the very steep stairs and found the door at the top barred. -:( I had imagined myself walking all over the roof, finding hidden meeting places.
An official guide took us on a tour through the mansion. Agha Ameri's daughter married a financial wizard who took over the business from her father.
These incredible looking spaceships are skylights over the bath house where Agha Ameri allowed his neighbours to bathe once a week. So he didn't have to have smell them?
We left the compound and went through another gate back inside into the biggest of the courtyards, this one under construction. We saw 4 of the 7. There's so much building going on here. Rooms are full of gravel, bags everywhere, a whole underground room in a basement under that iwan, full of electrical goods and other construction supplies. The company undertaking this development needs very deep pockets.
There was with an iwan at the end, the fanciest we saw, decorated with blue and white scenes almost looking like delft - can you see them in every V? Extraordinary. Two courtyards were for the servants, two for the family, and the central courtyard leads to all 7.
Imagine the artist up there painting all of these scenes and the fine blue borders. The junctions are marked by a silver star and I think the raised dividers look as if they were once red.
This is the pond in our courtyard.
In a basement now used for a carpet-making display.
The mansion was once connected by a one kilometre long underground tunnel to just outside the city walls. We were shown the beginning of it, where there was a room where the family could keep provisions and shelter for a while if necessary. There was an open well in the middle of this tunnel so that those who did't know the way would fall in.
The outside of this building and the wind catcher have beautiful decoration and architectural detailing.
Such intricate detail for the eaves of a building. Love the turquoise tiles.
We saw the bathhouse which will be turned into a hammam for the hotel.
In my wanders by myself I discovered a formal dining room with patterns of mirror mosaics on the ceiling, very similar to the one in the Golestan Palace. I wish the photo could really capture the sparkle.
It's very prettily lit at night.
We went out to a fish restaurant for our farewell dinner as this is our last night together. We had a crumbed white fleshed fish from the Caspian Sea. There was a flurry of email exchanges.
I was very glad to see the lights of the' royal suite'. It's been a wonderful trip but now we need to pack our suitcases for the flight back to Tehran in the morning, and then to Muscat via Dubai. Oman here we come!
Just a final quote from Hafez for you:
The earth would die if the sun stopped kissing her.
After thank you's and goodbyes to Habib, Ali the guide, Michael and Hoda and to our fellow travelling photogrphers, we flew to Tehran, with comfortable time to make our connection for Dubai.
Iran has been amazing. The people so warm, so friendly, so open and welcoming. The desert, the the water, the gardens, the architecture, the history. The domes of the mosques! I've absolutely loved it. At no time have we ever felt in danger. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite. They're the friendliest people of any country we have ever visited.
I’ve had an email from a friend who lives in Boston who wanted to know if we had seen any sign of unfriendliness to Americans. On the contrary, we’ve been mistaken for Americans, and welcomed warmly anyway. Citizens make a distinction between the governments and the people. Ali even said that once, on students day, when students were stomping on American flags and shouting ‘Down with the US’ they approached him with his American tourists and welcomed them warmly to Iran. Then continued on their 'down with the US' march. Isn’t it a pity that governments don’t take the same attitude as the ordinary people in all countries?
I love the camera in the nose of the aircraft, don't you? I took a photo as we landed. It looks as if the runway is about to disappear forever, covered by shifting sands, with the merest suggestion of buildings off in the distance. The more I look at this photo, the more I like it.
This really tickled my fancy at Dubai. I was trying to connect to the airport wifi, but could only see these two networks. Don't you love what the second person called his wifi? -:) There's a wifi network back in Brisbane, which I see when my laptop is searching, called 'No Free Wifi for You'. It always makes me laugh.
On the aircraft to Muscat we sat next to a Canadian muslim couple, he originally from Africa, his family migrated there from India. She has taken a job as a teacher at an international school in Muscat and will stay for 2 years.
While we were speaking as the aircraft was loading, another couple walked down the aisle who looked for all the world like two movie stars except they were walking in the wrong direction. He was tall elegant and slender in a long white gown, white arabic head-dress with a black encircling rope round his head. Followed by his tall and equally slender wife, all in black, long gown and diaphanous piece of black fabric draped over her head so that you could see a hint of her features. If they hadn't been walking to the back of the plane I would have thought they were the king and queen of some tiny Arabian fiefdom. How fabulous! We in the west could learn a little about elegance.
When we landed at Muscat, all hell broke loose. There were hundreds and hundreds of people crushed into the arrivals hall, with all luggage on the same carousel. People were running into each others' legs with their luggage trolleys (those lucky enough to be able to find space to bring one to the carousel), men had their prayer mats down squashed against the wall praying, women were sitting on the low benches waiting for their husbands to find luggage. There was a crush of people between John at the carousel and me waiting with a trolley. It was impossible to see where to go even when we had our luggage, so we just followed the crowd and ended up at customs. I couldn't believe Oman could have such primitive conditions. What were all these people doing? I was dreading trying to find an ATM for some Omani rials. We just needed to get out of there.
As we finally walked out of customs by ourselves along a wide roped off corridor, I could not believe the hundreds and hundreds of people waiting in the reception area. All of them with eager faces, all turned in our direction. Not many signs. It was the most fabulous photo you can imagine. Mostly men, mostly in long white gowns, most with caps or turbans. I cannot tell you how much I wanted to take it, and how close I came. But I didn't know why they were all there, what might be happening that they were all crowded in so tightly, and I suddenly thought there might be a possibility that they would find it intrusive. Although the atmosphere wasn't threatening. But at that second there were a lot of them and only two of us.
It was bedlam outside the building. Very hot and sticky, a crush of people, cars, taxis, luggage trolleys. A total traffic jam. I couldn't believe my eyes. Was this normal? We had arrived at 5.45pm and it was now well after 8pm. Finally a very kind gentleman explained that 600 people had just arrived back from Mecca for Hajj, and their families were all there to greet them. He assured me things would be better when the new airport is finished soon. Now I knew the reason, I felt better.
The taxi company employee explained that all taxis were stuck in traffic. I sighed. I had thought we'd be at the hotel having a long alcoholic drink by this.
Suddenly a resourceful taxi driver arrived on foot, red-faced and puffing. He had managed to get out of the jam and had parked 200 metres away. If we'd run after him, he'd push our trolley and he'd get us out. My heart jumped for joy. We'd been warned not to take unauthorised taxis. We looked at the taxi company man and he nodded. Yes, go!
So here we are. At the Ritz Carlton Al Bustan Palace. The scale of the lobby!
The luxury of quiet. Our suite has a bedroom, sitting and dining room, two dressing rooms, a bathroom and a very large powder room. And a coffee machine. And a choice of pillows. And lovely toiletries. And lots and lots of room. And cold drinks in the bar frig.
Oh yes. I'm going to like Oman.
We have a photographer coming at 5am to collect us for a dawn photography shoot. A rest in the middle of the day, then a sunset shoot. Sound wonderful? You betcha.
Until tomorrow buddies, I wait you...