Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Travelogue : Iran : Kashan, Abyaneh & Qom

03/06/09 : Kashan, Abyaneh and Qom

We paid an extra USD 50/pax for this excursion, with a van, guide (Mr Mehdi) and driver (don’t know his name, but his voice sounded like a typical villain out of a Hindustan film). It was worth it as the journey was far (about 500 km total). We started off at 8.30 am. Today, Raph’s assistant from the Iran office – Mr Fazaneh joined us.

Our first destination was Kashan. Kashan dates back to the Elamite period of Iran. The Sialk ziggurat still stands today in the suburbs of Kashan after 7000 years. Kashan is the first of the large oases along the Qom-Kerman road which runs along the edge of the central deserts of Iran. Its charm is thus mainly due to the contrast between the parched immensities of the deserts and the greenery of the well-tended oasis. We enjoyed the beautiful landscape of the mountains and a salt lake along the way. Couldn’t stop snapping away ;-)

Already halfway from Tehran to Kashan

Toll booth - if there is no one manning the booth, you go for free! Not expensive anyway. Petrol is only 35sen/litre

Kashan Fin Garden

First we arrived at Kashan Fin Garden. The garden covers a 2.3 hectares area with a main yard surrounded by ramparts with four circular towers. As usual, the design would have a mansion which combines architectural features of the Safavid, Zandiyeh and Qajar periods, fountains and moats flowing through. The cool water flowed from a spring on a hillside behind the garden. The water pressure is high enough to flow water to the pools and fountains without the need for mechanical pumps.

Mansion with fountain pool

The cooling pool...ahhh...

We could spend hours in the garden. It was hot outside, but the fin and cypress trees provided the shade. More on Kashan Fin Garden here.

The trees

Aksi! aksi! with Iranians (they're from Hamadan- birthplace of Ibnu Sina)

We then had lunch at a local restaurant where Mehdi told Raph to keep it down a bit (Raph couldn’t help it – he’s such a loud talker!) Apparently, Iranians like things prim and proper. They like to eat quietly. Hmm..

Borujerdi House

Next destination was the Borujerdis' House or Khāné-ye Borūjerdīhā. The house was built in 1857 for the bride of Haji Mehdi Borujerdui, a wealthy merchant. The bride came from the affluent Tabatabaei family, for whom Ustad Ali had built their house (The Tabatabaei House) some years earlier.

It is a traditional house, typical of Persian architecture. It consists of a rectangular beautiful courtyard, delightful wall paintings by the royal painter Kamal-ol-molk, and three 40 meter tall wind towers which help cool the house to unusually cool temperatures. It has 3 entrances, and all the classic signatures of Traditional Persian residential architecture such as biruni and daruni (andarun).

More on Borujerdi house here

Compound of Borujerdi House

The beautiful interior of Borujerdi house

The wind tower which helps cool down the house

Soltan Amir hamam
I especially liked the Soltan Amir hamam. Just look at the design! I didn’t feel like leaving, just wanted to soak in the hamam ;-) I liked the special dome like roof too, it looked totally unique! You just have to love the designs and architecture!

the unique roof: contrary to what i read on the internet, we were not charged extra to go to the roof

love love hamam ^_^

the beautiful interior


It was another 2 hours journey to Abyaneh next. It is a traditional village and is one of the oldest in Iran where mostly the old folks are still living there. The young ones have moved to the city and only come back for celebrations such eid. The old folks have a unique traditional wear, with knee-length skirts and cute white fruity-flowery head scarf. The weather is cool here, as it surrounded by the mountains and is located at the valley. The people here made holes, like caves in the mountains and keep their livestocks in there

There is a Zoroastrian fire temple here. Abyaneh resisted conversion to Islam throughout the ages, and stayed Zoroastrian until the time of the Saffavid Shahs.

mountain vista of abyaneh

the road to abyaneh

abyaneh traditional wear

the red brick houses of abyaneh

Last destination was Qom, about 2 hours from Abyaneh. Qom is a holy city for Shiites where they come for pilgrimage. It is the largest center for Shi'a scholarship in the world.

When we arrived Qom, it was already almost Maghrib. Mehdi asked us to visit the Fātimah al-Ma'sūmah (sister of Imām Alī ibn-Mūsā Riđā) shrine, but we politely declined. Also buried within the shrine are three daughters of ninth, Twelver Shī‘ah Imām, Muhammad at-Taqī. According to Mehdi, here at the shrine, Shiites pay their respects to Fatimah, make a tawaf around the shrine, and pray. Btw, females have to wear the chador to enter the shrine.

Fatimah shrine entrance

We had to do our last minute shopping at Qom bazaar as we just found out that the next day was a public holiday (Imam Khomeini’s 20th death anniversary). So all the shops, bazaars and tourist attractions would be closed! What a whammy!

We went straight to the bazaar instead to buy gaz (nuts), olive oil and soap, paneer, saffron sugar and Iranian tea.

It was almost 10pm when we finished, then we head for dinner. Luckily restaurants closed late, possibly because it was the eve of a public holiday, and coincidentally, there was a live telecast of a debate between Ahmadenijed and Mousavi. So everyone was glued on the TV set, including our guide and the waiters. By the time we were ready to go home (when the debate finished) it was already midnight. I bought some Rani juice drinks (later discovered that they are made in UAE actually hmmmph), then we took a group photo before going back. We reached our hotel at 2am. What a tiring, but fulfilling day!

Our waiter here is a Moussavi supporter. See the green ribbon on his wrist. He's a student studying medicine btw

To be continued : Tehran part 2


Monday, June 29, 2009

Travelogue: Iran : Tehran Part 1

02/06/09 : Tehran

After arriving in Tehran at 3pm from Esfahan, we stopped by the Iran Air office to get our Skygift card, then off to the hotel, with a detour to the Azadi (freedom) monument, previously known as the Shahyād Āryāmehr nearby Mehrabad airport.

Built in 1971 in commemoration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, this "Gateway into Iran" was named the Shahyad Tower, meaning "Remembrance of the Shahs (Kings)", but was dubbed Azadi (Freedom) after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Originally intended to remind coming generations of the achievements of modern Iran under the Pahlavi dynasty, it has become a symbol of the country's revival. It is 50 metres (148 ft) tall and completely clad in cut marble. Read more here

Azadi tower
That evening we went to the Leather Street (Moncherie) for a bit of shopping for leather goods (Mashad leather). We were supposed to go to Darban for dinner that night with our van, but it went kaput. So we took the taxi instead. A very modern taxi, complete with GPS!

very modern!
Darband was formerly a village close to Tajrish, Shemiran, and is now a neighbourhood inside Tehran's city limits. It is the beginning of a very popular hiking trail into the Alborz mountain Tochal, which towers over Tehran. A chair lift is also available for those not interested in hiking.
The Persian word Darband means "closed gates".
Darband is such a relaxing place to have dinner. There’s also a river flowing beneath the restaurant, we were enjoying our dinner with the sounds of the stream flowing. We enjoyed the setting and the dinner was delicious too! I especially liked the dezee (tomato stew), and the way it was prepared prior to eating. We recorded the dezee preparation ;-)
the restaurant ambience, we sit cross legged, enjoying our dinner ^_^
dezee.. yummy!

ready to be BBQ-ed
berries sold at stalls around Darband (very sour though...I couldn't take it)
Otw back, we saw people campaigning for the upcoming Presidential election (which unfortunately, turned out to be controversial). It was quite a scene – the youngsters were honking their cars, shouting, pitching for their candidates, it seemed like a celebration.
We reached back our hotel at midnite, with full stomach and ready to zzzzzzzzz...


Monday, June 22, 2009

Travelogue : Iran : Esfahan

01/06/09 : Esfahan

We found Esfahan cooler than Shiraz in the morning, with cool morning breeze. (Unfortunately, just as hot in the afternoon). Our hotel in Esfahan was Julfa hotel, which is in an Armenian quarters, nearby the Armenian Vank Cathedral. But later on that.

Dining hall

Our hotel- Julfa

Carpet covering the staircase

Pakciks making bread, at a bakery next to our hotel

Our guide in Esfahan was Mr Ali and our driver Mr Akbar. Akbar is a university student trying to get extra money by driving us around. We found Ali less friendly than Saba (and less patient), he was really looking forward to go back, as he said that our tour should end at 5pm. But we dragged him til 7.30pm Read on ;-)
Sio-se-pol Bridge
We started with the Sio-se-pol (33 arch) bridge. It is also called the Allah-Verdi Khan Bridge, is one of the eleven bridges of Esfahan. Commissioned in 1602 by Shah Abbas I from his chancellor Allahverdi Khan Undiladze an Iranian ethnic Georgian, it consists of two rows of 33 arches. There is a larger base plank at the start of the bridge where the Zayandeh river flows under it, supporting a tea house.

Sio-se-pol bridge
Unfortunately, it was the dry season, so the river was dry. We took so many pictures here that Ali felt that we weren’t paying attention to him. We never intended to, we just like snapping away happily. Btw, there was a Pak Arab who fancied K Liza and asked to take a picture with her here ;-)
Dry river

Ahem...K Liza with Pak Arab ;-)
Khajoo Bridge

Because we spent too long at Sio-se-pol, we missed the 10am “Shaking Minaret” show. So we proceeded to Khajoo bridge to catch the 11 am instead. Khajoo bridge was built in 1650 at the time of Saffavid’s Shah Abbas II. It connects 2 sides of the river with an accurate structural analysis. It also functions as a weir; the downstream side is formed as a series of steps carrying the water to a much lower level. Khaju is one of the bridges that regulate the water flow in the river because there are sluice gates under the archways over the river. When the sluice gates are closed, the water level behind the bridge is raised to facilitate the irrigation of the many gardens along the river upstream of this bridge. One of the bridges of Putrajaya – Putra bridge emulated the design of Khajoo bridge.

Khajoo bridge
KL street
We then stopped by Kuala Lumpur street ;-) Esfahan is the twin city of KL
KL or Esfahan?
Fire temple
Before we went to the Shaking Minaret, Ali brought us to the Zoroastrian fire temple or Atashgah Monument or Marbin Fortress. It was really hot already by the time we arrived, so this would be our Kerja Gila #2. And we had to climb up the steep hill. And Ali asked us to do it within 30 minutes. While he and Akbar sat and waited for us under the tree! According to the Zoroastrians, the higher they built their temple, the nearer they would be to their god. It sure was a quite a hike up there! But the vista was marvellous! We got to see the city surrounded by canyons.
The Atashgah of Isfahan is a Sassanid-era archaeological complex located on a hill of Atashgah. The hill, which rises about 210 meters above the surrounding plain, was previously called Maras or Marabin after a village near there. One part of the complex are the remains of a citadel of about twenty buildings (or rooms within buildings). Several buildings in the cluster have a classic char taq "four arch" floor-plan, characteristic of Zoroastrian fire temples of the 3rd century onwards and that are the actual atashgahs that housed sacred fires. Another feature of the complex are the remains of a tower-like circular building on the very top of the same hill. This structure, which was once at least twenty meters high, is known by the local populace as the Burj-i Gurban, or Burj-i Kurban "Tower of Sacrifice," and appears to have been a military watch-tower with a flare that could be lit to warn of an approaching enemy.
The fire temple

Aksi! aksi!

the vista
Shaking Minaret
Finally we arrived at the Shaking Minaret or Menar Jonban. It is actually a tomb of Ibni Mohammad Ibni Mahmoud, one of the mystic men of the 7th and 8th century Hijrah. There are 2 minarets at the tomb, which are 17m from ground and 10m apart from each other. When one minaret starts shaking, the other starts shaking with the same frequency simultaneously, hence the vibration can be felt in the whole structure. One grouse though – the shaking was done manually by a person in the minaret. No, it was not magic. And the shaking (every hour for a few minutes) could damage the structure.
the shaking minaret
Ali then brought us to a carpet shop (which was nearby the most expensive hotel in Esfahan –not sure the name ), hence the carpets would be expensive as well. Raph specifically said that we wanted to shop where normal Iranians shop, but no, he brought us to a high end shop. Oh well, he gets the paid the commission I guess. K Liza #1 & 2 both bought a ring each. (Yes, it was a carpet shop that also sold rings). Therefore, this was Kerja Gila #3: buying rings at a carpet shop??!!
the carpet shop
We made a detour to the hotel, and took some pictures. A really beautiful hotel, with a garden in the middle. I didn't jot down the name of the hotel though..
hotel mahal interior
the garden in the middle of the hotel
After dropping Ali (he wanted to go home), we went for lunch. Searched for rice as usual, and we were lucky. We picked up Ali again after lunch and proceeded to Imam square.
Imam Square
Imam square (official name) is also known as Naghsh-e Jahan Square formerly known as Shah Square.
It is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The square is surrounded by buildings from the Safavid era. The Shah Mosque is situated on the south side of this square. On the west side is Ali Qapu palace. Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque is situated on the eastern side of this square and the northern side opens into the Esfahan Grand Bazaar. Today, the Namaaz e- Jom’eh (Friday prayers) is held in this square in front of the in front of the Shah Mosque.
Chandeliers and carpets at the Esfahan Grand Bazaar
Shah Mosque
Shah mosque has been constructed during the Safavid period, in 1611 with seven-color mosaic tiles and valuable inscriptions. The portal of the mosque measuring 27 m (89 ft) high, crowned with two minarets being 42 m (138 ft) in height, frames the front of the mosque which opens into Naqsh-e Jahan square. The inscription above the entrance being made of white mosaic tile on ultramarine background, is written in Sols script by Alireza Abbasi. The master architect has designed two passageways being different in length on both sides of the hall to assimilate the axis of the mosque to the direction of kiblah which has an angle of 45 degrees, to cover the change of direction without losing the proportions.
Sols script inscription at the Shah Mosque entrance

Shah Mosque interior
The acoustic properties and reflections at the central point under the dome is an amusing interest for many visitors. There is a marked spot under the dome, right at the centre, where if you stand here, or stamp your feet on the marked spot, your echoes will surround the hall, like being heard in a modern surround sound system. We recorded our echoes here ;-)
the dome where your echoes will surround you
The architects of the mosque are reported to be the following masters:
Ustad Ali Akbar Isfahani
Ustad Fereydun Naini
Ustad Shoja' Isfahani
The mosque is one of the treasures featured on Around the World in 80 Treasures presented by the architecture historian Dan Cruickshank
Read more about the stunning Shah Mosque here (I thought it was more stunning than Taj Mahal! Anyway, Taj Mahal was built by a Persian architect – Ustad Ahmad Lauhari - so not a surprise there)
Ali Qapu palace
Ali Qapu palace is the entrance to the vast royal residential quarter of the Safavid Isfahan which stretched from the Maidan Naqsh-i-Jahan to the Chahar Bagh Boulevard. was built by decree of Shah Abbas the Great in the early seventeenth century. It was here that the great monarch used to entertain noble visitors, and foreign ambassadors. Shah Abbas, here for the first time celebrated the Nowruz (New Year's Day) of 1006 AH / 1597 A.D. A large and massive rectangular structure, the Ali Qapu is 48 m (157 ft) high and has six floors.
Read more about Ali Qapu palace here
Again, the entrance fee was Riyal 5000 for Shah mosque and Ali Qapoo palace each
interior of Ali Qapu
View of Emam Square from Ali Qapu palace
students looking for ideas
We found a Japanese tourist at Imam square, his name was Wakaru (or so I thought). I tried to introduce myself in Japanese (thanks to Nurul who taught me!). Maybe he was saying he understood me? (wakaru = understand).
Us with Wakaru-san
Then a drama unfolded. Ali couldn’t contact the driver – Akbar. So he asked us to take the taxi instead, and he said he would pay for it. But we didn’t want to take a taxi as we were promised a van, and we didn’t want to be separated. In the end, Ali contacted another driver, but Akbar did come, later. We saw Ali and Akbar in a heated argument, but we didn’t want to be involved. We went back with the other driver instead. We felt pity for Akbar as he might have not been paid – he didn’t finish his task. So we secretly told Akbar (without Ali seeing) to send us to the airport the next day, and we would pay him.
That night was a bit fruitful thankfully, I got to change some more money (ran out of it already!) and we got a jubah each.
02/06/09 : Esfahan – Tehran
Vank Cathedral

A short time only in Esfahan as we had to leave for Tehran at 11.30am. Our flight was at 1.30pm That morning we stopped by at the Armenian Vank Cathedral, nearby our hotel. We didn’t go in though; we didn’t have enough time, we just took some pictures with the pretty Armenian girls.
Vank Cathedral was one of the first churches to be established in the city's Julfa district by Armenian immigrants settled by Shah Abbas I after the Ottoman war of 1603-1605. Construction is believed to have begun in 1606, and completed with major alterations to design between 1655 and 1664 under the supervision of Archbishop David. The cathedral consists of a domed sanctuary, much like a Persian mosque, but with the significant addition of a semi-octagonal apse and raised chancel usually seen in western churches. The cathedral's exteriors are in relatively modern brickwork and are exceptionally plain compared to its elaborately decorated interior. Read more here

Armenian scripture
Vank Cathedral entrance
Aksi! aksi! with pretty Armenian girls
Shops only open at 10am, so there was not much time to browse through as we had to leave by 11.30am. K Liza managed to get 2 jubahs though. Bravo! ;-)
Otw to the airport, we saw a Gen2 car, so we quickly snapped a picture of it.
Gen2 in Iran
Iranian car: Saba brand
To be continued. Next post: Tehran