Red village in the desert
We leave Esfahan and drive north, back into the desert. About midday we stop in Abyaneh, a 1500-year-old village in the desert built from ochre-coloured mud bricks. The people here wear traditional clothing and speak a dialect of Persian that went extinct elsewhere centuries ago. The village is situated around a creek that percolates along channels cut into the earth. Women in traditional dress, all of them old and with the complexion of a withered-up apple, trundle up and down the irregular cobbled streets. Many of the women lean up against the slanted walls, looking like little piles of worn fabric, with dried apples and raisins spread out before them for sale.
Along the river valley just outside of town, gender-segregated groups of young teenagers gather for picnics on the grass. The women are dressed in jet-black chadors, marking them as coming from conservative families. Nevertheless, as I pass by, one jumps up and joyfully offers me a bite of her pizza. I decline, knowing that it would be viewed poorly for a man to join a group of young women, but again I marvel at the generosity and curiosity of everyone I encounter in Iran.
After exploring the village for a few hours, we continue driving north.
A sea of salt
Somewhere deep in the desert, just outside of Kashan, we veer off the highway and follow an unpaved washboard road into the desert. The land becomes even dryer and sandier than usual, and eventually the vegetation gives way entirely to expanses of flat, dry earth dusted with a layer of snow-like salt. Mr. Mamsoori entertains himself, and terrifies the rest of us, by driving the car at full speed over the sandy road, regularly bottoming out the suspension and sending clouds of dust flying. Occasionally we pass a large truck heading the other way carrying a load of crystalline salt.
After about 45 minutes we stop in front of a small concrete bunker surrounded by a berm of bone-dry sand. Beyond stretches a flat off-white sea of salt. Nodules of crystallized salt crunch beneath our feet as we walk, sounding like ice pellets on a frozen Canadian night. A shallow evaporation pool has been dug into the sand nearby, and at the time of our visit it still contains a finger-deep layer of sky-blue brine. The hot desert sun will finish it off soon, though, leaving behind large chunks of salt.
I worry about the integrity of our car’s undercarriage, which is caked worryingly with corrosive salt. Mr. Mamsoori seems unconcerned, however, as he snaps a dozen photos of himself with me, my father, Ehsan, and every permutation thereof, to send to his wife. Before we depart he heaves into the trunk his latest souvenir, three large gobbets of salt.
An inconvenient scheduling error
On the way into Kashan we pass through the city of Natenz, which rides high in international consciousness because it hosts Iran’s infamous underground uranium enrichment facility. Large areas next to the highway are fenced off with barbed wire. Anti-aircraft guns perch on hillocks, disguised rather unconvincingly with sand-coloured camouflage paintjobs. Men with assault rifles mill about next to the guns. I think better of taking any photos of the military facilities, and instead I snap a picture of the highway sign.
As we continue our drive north, we notice a critical error in our itinerary. April 27th is repeated two days in a row, meaning that everything on the schedule thereafter is shifted one day into the past. That means that we have one less day to get to the Turkish border than expected. We stop for the night in Kashan, but have no time to visit the city, and the next morning we set off again (Mr. Mamsoori somehow finds the time to buy a traditional Kashan knife). We decide to skip Tehran and head straight to Tabriz to make up our missing day. The travel agency is very reluctant to forfeit the hotel in Tehran, but eventually they relent and book us into a hotel in Tabriz.
The long drive to Tabriz is very long and uncomfortable. We stop briefly in Zanjan City to visit the archeology museum, which hosts artifacts from the people who lived here long before the Persian Empire. The museum’s main draw, however, is a set of 1700-year-old corpses that were found preserved in salt nearby. Desiccated flesh still clings to their bones, and their clothing is largely intact. It makes a macabre sight.
We arrive in Tabriz at night and check into a Western-style hotel with room service and a swimming pool. My father and I explore the city and are surprised to hear people speaking Turkish (or perhaps a variant), and to see clusters of young people hanging out on the street, as if preparing to go to a bar. We buy some juice and fruit at a corner store and some Turkish desserts, and retire to our room, delighted with the newfound culinary variety.
The following day we walk to the world-famous Tabriz bazaar. Unfortunately it’s Friday, Iran’s weekend, and most merchants have closed up shop. My hopes of buying a fine Tabriz carpet dashed, we wander the deserted corridors of the bazaar, snapping photos of the lonesome sunbeams that stream in through the ventilation holes in the domed brick roof.
We wander into a teashop to pass the time before heading onward. It’s an economy-class sort of place, with plastic tables, fluorescent lights, and a heap of soiled rags by the door. Unshaven men with black teeth and missing eyes dressed in the style of an unemployed pirate stare at us suspiciously as we wiggle onto a bench. When the heap of soiled rags gets up and walks out the door, we decide to forego the tea and leave Tabriz early.
The Garden of Eden
Our final stop in Iran is Kandovan, a delightful village carved into the soft volcanic tuff that protrudes up out of the river valley like mounds of cottage cheese. We are booked into the best (and only) hotel in town, a 5-star establishment where the rooms are hewn out of the rock itself.
Locals claim that the Garden of Eden was located precisely where Kandovan is situated today. I expect to see plywood Adam and Eve cutouts and roadside stands selling tarte de forbidden fruit, but they are mercifully absent. Tourists come here not for Eden, but rather to soak in the quaint village atmosphere, picnic by the softly babbling river, and scramble over the picturesque moonscape.
And the tourists do come, in droves; the place is overrun with Iranian families visiting on a day trip. The single cobbled street is choked with cars, and the walkways are swarming with people. Some frustrated drivers have even parked their cars in the river itself, the fast-flowing water reaching half way up the hubcaps. Souvenir shops line the streets, selling dried fruit, honey, sheep’s butter, and woven tribal rugs.
This being my last night in Iran, I can’t resist the temptation to buy a carpet from one of the souvenir stands. So few foreign tourists come here that the merchant isn’t quite sure how to deal with me, and I need Ehsan’s help to negotiate a price. I end up buying a beautiful Shasavan soumak from the Azerbaijan province of Iran, which is a tribal design carpet woven from wool with white silk highlights and embroidered embellishments. It’s not a typical Persian carpet, but beautiful nonetheless, and really, who else can say they bought a carpet from Eden?
As we turn in for the night, I catch Mr. Mamsoori struggling back up the hill carrying his latest purchases: a tub of sheep’s butter, two large jars of honey, and a wooden whistle.
West of Eden
As the sun rises over the Garden of Eden, my father and I climb into Mr. Mamsoori’s car for the final time. After a circuitous 300 km drive, we cover the 130 km to the Turkish border and say goodbye to our faithful guide Ehsan and our ever-cheerful, but directionally incompetent, driver Mr. Mamsoori. They have a long drive ahead of them; they plan to cover the 1600 km back to Mashhad in one go by taking turns at the wheel.
I wonder what the future holds for Ehsan, who I know longs to travel the world, yet doubts that he will ever have the means to do so. Mr. Mamsoori is doubtless more positive, returning home as he is with the haul of treasure he has collected over the past two weeks: two jars of honey, a jar of sheep’s butter, a wooden whistle, a bird-calling whistle, a knife, and two posters. As for me, I’m looking forward to leaving the pariah states of Central and Southern Asia and returning to the comforts of the Western world.