svetlana baghawan maverickbirdI love highways and road trips and my last Iran trip had centered around both. A stunningly diverse and safe for solo women travelers’ destination, Iran’s smooth and well connected highways, make it an ideal road tripping country. There is no better way to experience a place, enjoy i’ts breeze in your hair, smell the countryside, share tea with friendly strangers and see the land reveal itself in different shapes, sizes, textures and colours; than road trip. I had spent my last Esfahani day at a relaxed pace, paying cursory visits to the other attractions of the city, while my mind had raced towards the unknown Iranian territories.

Esfahan, being the chief jewel of the Persian crown had held way too many beautiful places and from the stunning 20 columned Chehel Sotun to the incredible Vank Cathedral, the city had been a potpourri of architectural delights. The beautiful gardens and lovely wall frescoes of Chehel Sotun had been charming, while the ancient Vank Cathedral had taken my breath away. The magnificent Ali Qapu Palace, which had belonged to the powerful Safavid dynasty had been truly magnificent and it had been the perfect blend of antiquity and atmosphere.

Famous for it’s grand architectural style, Ali Qapu Palace’s highlight had been the interesting music room with sitar like grooves embedded on the stucco ceilings. The design had provided excellent surround sound system and the beautiful old building, shooting up to  impressive 6 floors had been the first Persian skyscraper. The fact that such feat had been conceived during the 17th century had made it all the more fascinating and the palace also had a veranda on the third floor, which used to have a fully functioning fountain. It had been another interesting facet of the Ali Qapu Palace and the fountain used to keep the royals cool, while they had enjoyed the stunning views of the Naqsh-e-Jahan Square down below. Apart from the little architectural details, beautiful murals and frescoes had once covered every inch of the grand palace, but sadly, ruthless vandalism over centuries had nearly wiped out all traces of it’s painted glory.

The cruel scratching and senseless squiggles filled historical monuments had immediately reminded me of India and sadly the comparison had not ended there. The Zeyendeh river over which the famed Khajou Bridge had arched broadly, had been parched and the cracked, dry river bed had once again brought back sad memories of my own country’s countless dying rivers. Human wrath against nature had suddenly seemed like an alarming global phenomenon and it had been the sad sight of the dry river bed that had actually hastened my departure from Esfahan. It had been a hot noon afternoon, when Ashkan and I had driven around Esfahan and even under the spell of heavy siesta, the ancient city had been irresistibly beautiful. It had indeed been the half of the world and that the city had held it’s ground proudly even before the Islamic invasion of Persia had given the grand old dame, a tough cookie charm. Despite the shimmery noon heat, exploring the emptiness of Esfahan’s streets during siesta time had been very relaxing and I had stared in awe at the countless murals of Imam Khomeini decorating the city. Their stark crispness had been in sharp contrast to the pastel coloured sensual softness of Chehel Sotun’s frescoes and to me, they had seemed like pages from Iran’s history.

TRAVEL TIP – Nearly every attraction in Esfahan remains closed from 1330 or 1:30 pm till 1600 or 0400 pm. Esfahani afternoons are terribly hot and it is best to plan visits to the city attractions before or after the closing time. Alternatively, you could relax inside the cool interiors of one of the city’s stupendous mosques or rest in the shade in the public gardens.

Our last Esfahani day had ended with a sublime sunset over Khajou Bridge and before dusk, we had bade the legendary city good bye. It had been a pleasant moment, to see Esfahan again come alive with crackling spontaneity and we had driven out with sweet spots in our heart. Our uplifted mood had however, prompted a meal disaster and Esfahani sunset joy had made us drive up to one of the city’s poshest restaurants for dinner. The venue had been the ghastly Zagros restaurant which apart from it’s spectacular hill top location, had nothing else to offer and it had been Ashkan’s generous decision to treat me a grand dinner there. Hospitality flows through Iranians like blood and even though, it had broken into his own allowance, his warm generosity had genuinely wanted me to have the best. Hence, we had weaved through brain numbing Esfahani evening traffic and managed to reach Zagros with hearts, full of eager expectations. The reality had been terrible and the restaurant had opened up the snooty, superficial Iranian local side to me.

Gone were the warm smiles, heart touching kindness and instead, the oddly decorated restaurant had been filled with fake smiles, ludicrous gossip and loud French perfume. Freshly sculpted, plastered faces had dotted the scene and the service had matched the ridiculous environment.  Plastic surgeries had raged through Iran at that time and taped up noses, chins etc had meant moneyed people. Despite it’s grand clientele, Zagros Restaurant service had been sickeningly slow and the food had been pathetically below average. By then, I had known a good melt in your mouth kebab from a poor rubbery oily one and Zagros restaurant failed badly in its culinary prowess. Nonetheless, it had been an eye opening experience to the other world of Iran, the world of the rich and playful, where English had slipped out with smooth accents and foreign homes had been just another possession.

No description of Iran can be complete without mentioning its floral beauties and from Tehran to the tiniest hamlet, flowers had been an Iranian’s pride. In Esfahan too, roses had seemed to grow out of thin air and the gorgeous blooms had luxuriously survived even at truck pit stops amidst fuel fumes, dust and pollution. Zagros Restaurant too had been prettily decked with cypresses and flowering shrubs and the night Esfahani air had been mildly scented. In retrospect, the dinner had not seemed so unpleasant and we had driven around Esfahan underneath a star crowded sky. Our next day had started early, and we had left Esfahan soon to continue deeper with our road trip.

The enchanting old city of Kashan had on our mind and the drive had been a most breathtaking one. Located at the edge of Dasht-e-Kavir Desert, alluring atmospheric Kashan had been famous for a Rose Festival, covered bazaars and cluster of beautiful 19th century houses. In ancient times, it had been highly coveted by the Mongols and in a ruthless siege, they had nearly wiped it out from the face of the earth. A lovely oasis city, Kashan had been on the way to Yazd and one of Iran’s most famous historical villages, Abyaneh had stood near it’s periphery. Because of it’s off tourist circuit reputation, loveliness and desert landscape, I had been very excited about Kashan and the surrounding western Iran desert had been spectacularly beautiful. The highway which had lead us out of Esfahan, had passed through huge stretches of rocky mountainous space and endless caravans of vacationing families had filled it to the gills.

The crowd had slowed down our 2.5 hours of drive and we had lost our way thrice before reaching Abyaneh. The old village had been our intended midway stop and we had plans to lunch there before proceeding towards Kashan. A beautiful heritage village, Abyaneh had been tucked away in a remote corner of Karkas Mountains. A patchwork of narrow lanes, mud brick houses and clusters of purple grapes, rich iron oxide in the soil had rendered it a vivid red hue and the village had overlooked a forested valley. Believed to have been built by fleeing Zoroastrians during the 7th century Arab invasion, Abyaneh had been the last surviving remnant of that conquest and till today, it’s residents had not moved beyond that time. Famous for still preserving the culture of it’s 7th century founders, Abyaneh had been a black hole in Iranian travel landscape. Despite facing strong pressure from government to change, residents of Abyaneh had fiercely continued to sport their distinctly different traditional costume, practice Old Farsi and lived a 7th century life. All this had made me terribly excited about Abyaneh and the village’s photogenic charm had been undeniable.

Thus Ashkan and I had inched our way through Iranian highway traffic, with bold, brown mountains circling upon us from a distance. The desert colours had been starkly pretty and the blue sky had blazed with head. Entertainment within the confines of our little car had meant playing Ashkan’s shrill Farsi songs on constant loop and by then, we had mastered the art of holding monologues in our own language. It had worked out to our benefit since, neither of us had understood a word of the other language but had somehow reached a decision, by pretending to shake our heads gravely to everything. The songs too had to be silenced for that purpose and finally, even the air conditioning had stopped working.

Given the noon heat and the amount I had shelled out for air conditioning, it had been a positively volatile situation, guaranteeing frayed tempers, when thankfully our language differences had made quarreling impossible. Now what do you do on  hot desert afternoon, when your car air conditioning stops functioning and you have no way to vent out? You breathe deeply, try to count the positives and look outside the window, right? And that is exactly what I had done, till Dasht-e-Kavir desert had swallowed us up in it’s vast sweltering midst and we had gotten terribly lost in one of Iran’s most highly protected secured areas. Natanz Nuclear Facility had ominously stretched on both our sides and we had looped around it blindly, until sharp orders and big guns, had pointed us to stop and surrender. Strange and impossibly frightening, it had just been the beginning of a nightmare.

RESPONSIBLE TOURISM-BECAUSE I CARE

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It was difficult to leave Esfahan

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And all it’s dazzling splendours

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The power of beauty

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Is sometimes too strong

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And Esfahan was

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An enchantress

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Impossibly splendid

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Sensual and historic

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It was easy to lose time

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Among Esfahan’s quirks

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But the unfamiliar had

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Beckoned temptingly

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And so we had left

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Half of the world

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For Iran’s feisty secrets