When you travel, you notice a lot of things; the architecture, the food, the people, how things are different and how things are similar. From the get go I was seeing new things. One of them, which became sort of like a game for me and my travel partner, was counting the number of people, men and women alike, who showed evidence of recent nose jobs. About ten times a day one of us would say:
‘Oh look, there’s another one.’
It would be a young man or woman with a bandage on his or her nose walking serenely down the street. Obviously, surgery to alter one’s features is not something new in the West, but here the frequent evidence of a recent nose job was quite baffling.
Isfahan could not be more different to Tehran. For starters, it was much less polluted and as it was located close to the desert, the air was so dry that I got used to walking around with constantly chapped, borderline bleeding lips. It was also far, far prettier.
The bus from Tehran took about 6 hours and we arrived at 7 am. I got off, hot and sticky, into the cold morning air. We decided to walk straight to Naqsh-e Jahan square, one of the UNESCO heritage sites, built in the 16th century:
Walking through the town, you might have thought that we were in an Italian town. In a funny kind of a way it felt Mediterranean. One thing I noticed was the lack of calls to prayer. In Istanbul the calls to prayer happen five times a day without fail.
The streets were just waking and traffic was building. Shop owners were opening up, but there was no sign of tourist activity like one would see in other places. We wandered around snapping photos before going to find a hostel or hotel.
What is worth noting is that wifi is not really a thing in Iran. If there is wifi in a hotel or public place, the chances are that it’ll be erratic or very slow. People travelling there should download an app called MapMe, which functions in the same way as Google maps, except that it does not require internet or 4G to work. You download the app and then you download a map of the country you are visiting. It is incredibly detailed; we were walking through a random park and it showed where the closest drinking fountain was.
On the way to the hotel, we saw people out doing exercises on public exercise machines. I saw a woman doing exercises while wearing a chador, the full length cloth that covers the entire body, apart from the face; it’s sort of like what nuns wear. We also passed Hasht Behesht Palace:
For the price we paid, the hotel was very good value. We sat in the apartment sized twin bedroom/kitchen and ate breakfast.
‘I wonder what Iranian television is like?’ said Denis, picking up the remote control.
He switched on the TV and flicked through the channels. Some were of religious men preaching, others were news programs; one program was showing the step by step process of how fake grass is made in a factory. He carried on flicking.
‘Oh my god, of all things to be on the television at ten in the morning!’ Denis exclaimed.
‘What?’ I said, turning to look at the screen. There was Brendan Gleeson dressed in police uniform in what was none other than the Irish black comedy gangster film about drug smuggling, The Guard. I’d never seen it.
‘How have you never seen this? You’re Irish! You’d better not watch too much, or it’ll give away the story,’ said Denis.
‘I don’t think it’ll give away too much, since it’s dubbed into Farsi,’ I said.
I was mulling over how they had managed to dub Irish slang English and the fact that conservative Iranian national television was showing a comedy/thriller film about drug smuggling at ten in the morning. The paradoxes were mounting. On one channel there were severe looking bearded men, no doubt preaching Islamic moral code; on the next it’s a pasty, Irish ginger man saying something along the lines of ‘Oi’ll give ye me fist ta think abou, ye little bollicks!’ This translates roughly into: ‘Think very carefully, or my fist will help you think, you shrivelled up pair of testicles.’
We carried on watching while eating blood oranges and pomegranates for breakfast.
Naqsh-e Jahan square is not just a square. Behind the fronts of shops lining its edges is a sort of long inner arched street with stalls and displays on each side.
These sell a variety of things from pottery, clothing and sweets, to jewellery, kitchenware and carpets. More than once we were asked where we were from.
‘Ireland,’ I would say, resignedly.
A polite nod.
‘Oh, Russia! Putin is best president!’
Out of curiosity, we went into one of the carpet shops. Even though we made clear that we weren’t buying, the owner, who’d been sipping tea, eating sweets and playing a game on his phone when we went in, seemed glad to tell us about his trade. The prices ranged from expensive to eye-crossingly expensive. One rug was a vast, silk woven piece, which had taken several years to make and cost a paltry $100,000.
Another shop that drew my attention was a junk shop, which appeared to have everything for sale, from marble doorhandles and old currency, to old fashioned razors and stamp books. While looking at a display of old coins, the owner asked me where I was from.
‘Er.. Ireland. Do you kno..’
‘Oh, Ireland! Bobby Sands! You know there is Bobby Sands Street in Tehran?’ he asked.
I told him that I did know, but that it was only upon coming to Iran that I found out.
‘Yes, was Winston Churchill Street, but now it Bobby Sands Street. Ireland was UK, now no longer. This year 1916 anniversary, yes?’ he said, grinning.
This volley of information made me feel like I’d been punched in the face, but in a sort of pleasant way. What were the odds that the owner of a junk shop in Isfahan would know about the 1916 Easter Rising?
On the second day, we were in a shopping centre looking for a loo, when Denis was stopped by a young guy and asked where he was from. I was too desperate to pause, so I beelined for the door with the ‘Men’ symbol on it. When I came back out Denis said ‘This is Arosh.’
We introduced ourselves. It turned out that Arosh was from Tehran, but was visiting Isfahan to take part in a video games exhibition and wanted to show us. As a gamer myself, I thought it might be interesting, so we went up to the fifth floor where it was being held. There were all sorts of games on show, including an Iranian version of Counter Strike. Apparently, many Western made games are unavailable in Iran, so domestic games developers make their own versions of Western games. From what I gathered from Arosh, copyright laws have little effect there and are not enforced, so this has allowed domestic developers to make their versions without interference.
One of the games I tried out was a fast paced iPad game, which involves falling babies and voodoo dolls; the object was to swipe them right or left into the monsters’ mouths. On each side of the screen was a monster, one which ate the babies and one which ate the voodoo dolls. If you accidentally feed baby eater a voodoo doll, he feels sick and you lose points, while if the doll eater eats the baby, he also feels sick and you lose points.
As well as games, Arosh had some graphic art pictures on display, one of which was of a barber shop run by hedgehogs. In the foreground was a cool looking hedgehog with a gold chain around his neck, smiling while clipping the prickles of a young hedgehog.
‘My God, I know who would Love that! My lady, she’s mad about hedgehogs,’ I said, before I could stop myself. ‘Are they for sale?’ I asked Arosh.
‘You can take it,’ said Arosh.
‘No, no, I can buy it, obviously. How much is it?’
‘No, they’re not for sale, but you can take that one, it’s not a problem.’
I didn’t feel at all comfortable with this.
‘Look, I’m happy to buy it from you, that’s not a problem.’
‘No, honestly, I won’t need it anymore after this exhibition, and the guy who made it is in Dubai now; he won’t need it anymore either.’
I didn’t know what to say. I felt that he was taking offence at my offer to pay for it, and I felt it would be offensive to turn down his offer. ‘That’s very kind of you,’ I said.
I gave him a box of Russian chocolates which I’d brought in the event of extreme Iranian hospitality, something that is rather famous. We agreed to meet Arosh in Tehran on the day we were due to fly back to Moscow.
That day we walked all over the city, visiting the Armenian quarter, which was located close to Khaju Bridge. Along the river on the way there, there was a long park where lots of families were sitting on Persian rugs and having barbecues. I spent most of the time salivating heavily from all the smells wafting through the air.
We came to an underpass, where there was a group of young buskers, one of whom was playing a guitar, the other a violin, while the rest sang in harmony with the main singer. Words can’t do them justice, but to say that they were good is an understatement. You could take all the buskers on Grafton and Henry Street (Dublin) combined, and the quality would still be nowhere close.
As we approached the Armenian quarter, we came across a little delicatessen and had a look inside. I bought a tub of olives in crushed walnuts and what I think was pomegranate molasses. Why I think it was pomegranate molasses is that, once again, it was so sour that my mouth was like that of an old man who’d just removed his dentures. Still, I guzzled the entire tub.
At the centre of the Armenian quarter, there there was a small coffee shop run by two well dressed guys, one with a neat beard and the other clean shaven.
‘They look like they’ve been together for years, like a proper couple,’ said Denis, conversationally and none too quietly, as we sat at the counter sipping our coffees.
‘Do you reckon?’ I have a terrible gaydar. ‘Hang on, they’re Armenian, keep your voice down!’ I hissed. We’d become so accustomed to speaking Russian and nobody understanding us that we’d forgotten that this rule might well not apply to Armenians.
As it turned out, they did speak some Russian, but if they heard us, they showed no sign of it.
Later on, we were at Naqsh-e Jahan Square again. We still had a few hours before getting the bus to Shiraz and were chatting about something when a voice called in Russian ‘Are you from Russia?’
Turning, we each uttered ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The speaker was a young chap who was clearly Iranian.
‘Where did you learn the Russian?’ we asked.
‘Oh, you know, online, but mostly through talking to tourists,’ he said, airily. ‘I also speak English and German. My name is Hamid.’
Hamid’s English was also very good. He’d been to Russia before, he said, and hoped to go again.
‘I spent like a thousand dollars on brand clothing when I was there. You can’t get that stuff so cheap here,’ he said.
I nodded, mutely. I had never ever spent $1000 in one go on brand clothing, nor did I think I ever would. He took us to a very nice tea house across the river where there were lots of Iranians chattering and eating sweets with their tea. I don’t remember a lot of the conversation, as I was in a haze of tiredness by that stage. He walked us back towards the centre, and we crossed the famous arched Khaju Bridge. Hamid explained to us that young people often hung out there to smoke hashish.
‘Aren’t the laws against that pretty strict?’ I asked.
‘For a first offence, you get three months in jail. But it’s all straight from Afghanistan, so it’s the best quality.’
We said goodbye and exchanged emails. On the way back to the hotel, Denis and I stumbled across the Russian consulate and decided to take a picture of the sign, at which point an Iranian guard emerged from a booth on the opposite side of the deserted street, bearing an AK47, and ordered us to stop and delete the pictures:
So that was that, Isfahan was done; we were travelling another 500km south to Shiraz. Another night, another bus with recliner seats.