We left Esfahan reluctantly. We drove through a landscape of dun-coloured hills and mountains and far distant jagged peaks still streaked with snow. We were headed for Abyaneh, a small village near Natanz. Along the main highway outside Natanz, every lamp-post bore a large black and white photo. These were portraits of Iranian soldiers from the town: martyrs killed in the Iran/Iraq war of the 80s. Almost all were young – I noticed only one older man; some looked very young indeed. But the eyes of practically all of them seemed to gaze directly into my own eyes through the bus windows as we passed.
We drove past Iran’s uranium enrichment plant – ringed by high chain-link fences and with a very visible military presence – and somehow I didn’t feel the slightest bit tempted to take a photo.
Abyaneh is one of the oldest villages in Iran and tumbles down the flanks of a valley in the foothills of Mount Karkas. On the lower slopes there were pink plumes of tamarisk but as we wound our way higher into the mountains towards the village, tiny orange flowers that might have been poppies glowed in the sunshine. In places, entrance holes had been tunnelled into the sides of the hills; we found out later that these led into the winter quarters for sheep and goats – solid hillside protection, if a little claustrophobic, against the harsh winters.
Following years of isolation, the inhabitants of Abyaneh still speak a form of Middle Persian and retain their own traditional dress. These days, the village is almost exclusively populated by the elderly: a few old ladies in flowery shawls, one or two old men wearing extraordinarily wide-legged trousers – and at least one lunatic. The old ladies positioned themselves at photogenic vantage points along the crumbling streets with handicrafts, necklaces and beads laid out for sale; one old man was happy to talk to us (in excellent English) and explained that his trousers were cool in summer and warm in winter – especially with another pair of trousers underneath; the lunatic followed us round for a while, occasionally begging by thrusting an incredibly filthy hand under our noses.
A billboard on the mountainside advertised our hotel as the best in town. There was no other. We had a suite, comprising sitting room, kitchen and a bedroom with four single beds. One of the windows fell off its hinge when I opened it; the fridge door also fell off; the doors between sitting and bedroom wouldn’t close; nor did the curtains close – and just outside the window there was a floodlight set to beam all night on the hotel sign on the wall and keep us awake; the loo had a paper banner across the seat that proclaimed it had been ‘disinfected for use’… It hadn’t even been flushed.
Before our trip, we had been told that Iranian food was wonderful, that it was ‘to die for’. I usually travel ‘vegetarian’, having seen the fly-fests in meat markets in some of the less salubrious parts of the world, but for this trip I decided to risk iffy bowel syndrome and go for the ‘whole experience’… Many of the meals looked delicious on the menu – chicken in a pomegranate and walnut sauce, for instance – but this turned out to be a drumstick in a bowl of dark brown sludge that looked like – well, some things are best left to the imagination. Or better still, left unimagined. Let’s just say I found it particularly unappetising when I ordered it for lunch at the hotel in Abyaneh shortly after we’d checked in to our rooms.
In general, we found the meals in Iran a bit disappointing. Having read great reviews, we’d gone to the Shahrzad Restaurant in Esfahan (we were lucky and managed to get a table before the crowds started queuing) where I’d asked for the house speciality featuring lamb cutlets, a dish that is renowned throughout the region. Apparently. It wasn’t available. But we did have a sort of OK meal there – stylishly finished off with a chocolate served in a cloud of dry ice – in pleasant surroundings that had been traditionally and tastefully decorated. The following evening we went to the Bastani Traditional Restaurant, where ‘traditional’ had been laid on with a heavy-handed trowel, doubtless for the tourist clientele, and whereas the dishes looked appealing on the menu, once again they turned out to be variations on a theme of meat and mush. (Other than on menu listings – and seemingly pulverized into non-existence in the mush – fruit and vegetables didn’t seem to feature very highly in the Iranian diet, leading to the inevitable ‘abdominal complications’.)
We took afternoon tea one day (ice cream, in my case) in the gardens of the very grand Abbasi Hotel – just to see how the other half lives … I could get used to it … Decadence – just try me!
Our favourite restaurant of the holiday turned out to be a tiny restaurant near our hotel in Tehran, the Agha Bozorg Restaurant. We ate there a couple of times and it was full of atmosphere (and shisha pipes) and served up what appeared to be Iranian home cooking.
We could always have eaten Kentucky fried chicken, I suppose. Yup, there was the familiar sight of Colonel Sanders beaming down at us from the red sign above a shop … but it was not KFC. Iran is officially anti-American after all … so instead it was ZFC. Identical in every way except for that first letter! Copyright laws evidently don’t carry much clout in Iran.
Western-style fast food such as burgers and hot dogs is becoming popular in Iran, particularly with the young and possibly despite the government’s best efforts, although we didn’t see any sign of the Golden Arches themselves. We discovered Iran doesn’t really do fast food though. We nipped in to one place in Tehran for what we thought would be a quick lunch. We expected it to be much like McDonalds – you order, you pay your money, your food arrives, all in one smooth, swift transaction. Not here – it was a good 20 minutes or so before our hot dogs appeared, but of course before that there was plenty of opportunity for conversation – although the ‘conversation’ in this case was more like an interview or even cross-examination. We were by far the oldest customers there, but a man brought his teen-aged daughter over and installed themselves at our table. She speaks English, he said, but what he really meant was he thought it would be a good idea for her to practise her English on us. After some initial reluctance and hesitation, she managed to overcome her shyness and the questions started. Where were we from? What did we think of Iran? How many children did we have? How old were we? Etc …
The Iranian government might be anti-US – and we certainly saw enough official-looking anti-US propaganda painted on the walls of buildings – but the same cannot be said for the people. Everywhere we went we were greeted with friendliness and a willingness to engage with us.