The Islamic Republic of Iran (part 3): Persepolis and wine racks

Two months to get a visa, worth every minute. In February 2011 I traveled to Iran. Sadly, little has changed geopolitically or for the Iranian people in the intervening years. Two years of sitting on my to-do list is embarrassing, and with me on a contested regions trip this week, I have dusted off the pictures and present The Islamic Republic of Iran. See also parts 1, 2, 4, and the photo album.

The next morning we were off to Persepolis, the great ancient city of Persia. Persepolis is indeed majestic, though the loudspeakers promoting who knows what, and all the equipment and cables for the nightly laser show, somewhat detract from the experience. The hilltop view from the tombs is grand and the bas-relief carvings of the Apadan Staircase, with three tiers of figures in royal procession is exquisite, as is the nearby necropolis with the tombs of Darius, Xerxes and successor kings cut high into the mountain faces.

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Skipping over an afternoon dispute with the agency and the causes, the other two group members frustrated but silent, suffice it to say some issues were sorted out, and I extracted promises of no more cost-cutting surprises. As a US citizen I could not change my itinerary last minute (two business days needed to get government approval) to add a day in Yadz rather than the two lightly scheduled upcoming days in Esfahan, so I resolved to make the best of Esfahan.

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Esfahan is one of the greatest Islamic cities, the main square second only in size to China’s Tiananmen, loaded with mosques and palaces that we walked…very…slowly…through. There were undoubted delights, such as the 12th-century, mathematically perfect Taj-al Molk dome of Jameh Mosque, and the music room of the Ali Qapu Palace with its ceiling carved with cut-out shapes of musical instruments to aid acoustics. There were also marvelous murals at the churches of the Armenian Quarter.

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My best pleasures were again in personal interaction. The chain smoking frenetic barber that cut my hair to blasting music, the guys at the dessert café that started to wonder if I was nuts by my fourth visit in two days (smoothies and desserts to swoon for). And the grandfather and grandson next to me at the seemingly busiest pizza takeout place in the world, while I waited over an hour for over 30 customers ahead, before my order was ready.

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The second evening in Esfahan we all took a stroll criss-crossing the Zayandeh River on its famous, multi-level bridges, teeming with people after work and school. Old men with little stoves to heat tea and young couples seeking privacy in the most public of places. A few slick off-duty soldiers from the restive Baluchestan region bordering Pakistan told us through translation, “Please visit Baluchestan, it is safe.”

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When my groupmates tired and headed for their evening water pipes, I took a taxi to the oldest bridge, 12th-century Shahrestan Bridge, rewarded with an exhibition center behind, holding a home and food show. What a treat! The place was teeming with families looking for the newest thing. The first two halls had furniture and some artwork, even a gaudily framed “The Last Supper” to hang in your living room. Lots of furniture had built-in wine bottle holders and I suspect it was not all for the non-alcoholic fruit-flavored ‘beer’ served in restaurants.

The third hall had all manner of food: junk food, health food, frozen chicken nuggets, unusual sodas, and some things I couldn’t identify. I stuffed myself one interesting toothpick morsel at a time. Incredible people watching, and the pistachio ice cream was heavenly.

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Only downside was dealing with Esfahan’s notorious taxi drivers, one even followed me in to the hotel demanding double the negotiated fare and argued with the hotel manager, but it was it all washed down with yet another luxurious trip to my cherished dessert café: black cherry smoothie.

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