Central Asia Travel Diary

A 4 am wake-up on my alarm clock forced me out of what was probably the best bed of the trip into perhaps the best shower of the trip.  The reason for the early rise was our planned 5 am departure for Esfahan, a city of 1.5 million people (Iran's third largest city) in central Iran -  a city with huge influence in the late 1500s and early 1600s.

Esfahan is 400 kilometres from Tehran, and the trip took just under four hours along a superb, smooth 6-lane expressway.  The scenery on the way was more interesting than I had expected, as the road passed through some rocky mountainous areas, often with rocks of bright contrasting colours, and past small villages.  Most of our trip was done at about 150 kmh; we occasionally slowed to 140 kmh and sometimes touched 170 kmh.  It was good that our three weeks in Central Asia had already made us relaxed towards travelling without rear seat belts.  The drive was done in one of Iran's new indigenous cars, the Samand (http://www.farhangsara.com/cars/paykanx7.htm).

We arrived in esfahan at about 9:15 am, driving through the suburbs to the old city centre.  Our first visit was to the Chehel Sotun Palace, built in the late 1600s.  The name of the palace means "40 pillars", although the building has just 20 wooden pillars of Lebanese cedar; the balance comes from the beautiful reflection in the long pool (reminiscent of the Taj Mahal) that divides the two long approach paths.  Perhaps the highlight of the visit to the palace was entering the grand hall which was decorated with six amazing historical frescoes showing significant events in Iran's (then Persia's) history during the 1400s and 1500s.  It was also interesting to see the intricate restoration work being done on some frescoes in adjoining rooms, painstaking work being done by three women.

Having completed the visit  to the palace, we walked a couple of blocks to the historic centre of Esfahan, Imam Square.  With a length of 512 metres and a width of 163 metres, Imam Square is the second largest square in the world, second only to Tian An men Square in Beijing.  Imam Square was created in 1602 and has changed very little since that time.  It is bordered by four significant buildings, three of which we entered after a stroll around the middle area of the square.

The first building we visited was on the western edge of the square, the Ali Qapu palace, built in the 1590s.  Although six stories high (it was Iran's first 'skyscraper'!), it looks as though it has only five floors from one side, four from another and three from yet another side.  A highlight of the palace visit was the view from the elevated terrace which overlooks the entire expanse of Imam Square, but we were also deeply impressed by the music room on the top floor, which featured acoustic walls and ceilings made from plaster in the shapes of various household utensils – my description of this room does not do it justice; it is one of those places that must be seen to be understood and appreciated.

Our next visit was to the southern side of the square to enter the Imam Mosque.  Built between 1611 and 1629, this huge mosque was an architectural gem, vast in scale and yet intricate in detail with its blue and white tiled facades, walls, ceilings and domes.  The interior ceiling was 36 metres high, creating a vast chamber with fantastic acoustics that allowed a single person to stand on a central stone and be heard throughout the huge interior.

Because daily prayers were due to begin at a little after midday, we then moved fairly quickly to the eastern side of Imam Square to another mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.  Smaller in scale than the Imam Mosque (though very large nonetheless), this mosque was built as a private mosque between 1602 and 1619, and featured a unique cream coloured dome above a fabulous blue and turquoise tiled façade.  The interior was exquisite and in excellent condition.

By now it was time for lunch, so at our driver's (Ali's) suggestion, we headed to the restaurant Shahrzad in Abbas Abad Street.  The interior was sumptuous, with stained glass windows, mirrored walls and ceilings and, most importantly, excellent food at a very affordable price.  We both enjoyed a great lunch of spiced rice with chicken, accompanied by bread and followed by ice cream, which together with drinks cost the two of us just 90,000 rials ($US10).  The personal attention of the restaurant's owner, complete in suit and tie, was a delightful extra touch.

Following lunch, we had three brief stops at some of Esfahan's famous old bridges over the Zayandeh River.  The first two bridges featured covered or cloistered walkways – the 298 metre long Si-o-She bridge (built 1599-1602) and the Khaju Bridge, built in 1650.  The third bridge we saw was Esfahan's oldest bridge, the Shahrestan Bridge, built in the 12th century on the site of a 5th century original.

Our final stop in Esfahan was at Iran's largest mosque, the Jameh (or 'Friday') Mosque.  Built in stages between the 1100s and 1400s, the mosque covered over 20,000 square metres in various architectural styles.  In the middle of the main courtyard was an ablutions fountain designed to replicate or imitate Mecca.  During our walk around, we were invited into a small room at the side of the main courtyard known as the Room of Sultan Uljaitu where we saw an exquisite carved timber nave with fine Koranic inscriptions, apparently made in 1448 and still in great condition.

By this time, it was 2:45 pm and time to head back to Tehran, or more specifically, to Imam Khomeini Airport to catch our flight to Dubai.  We arrived in perfect time – 6:15 pm, this being the required three hours before departure at 9:15 pm.  The new airport performed very efficiently, although it was not being over-taxed with demand, there being just two flights departing that evening.

Our flight to Dubai was very smooth and comfortable, and the food was great.  For those interested, it was on an Emirates Airbus A330-200, registration A6-EAQ.  The only remarkable thing about the flight was that as we were on final approach into Dubai, the pilot aborted the landing suddenly by turning on full power just before touchdown, climbing steeply, then going around for another approach.  The reason given for the manoeuvre was 'congestion' on the runway.

Tuesday 25 July 2006

Tehran to Dubai via Esfahan

Inside the Chehel Sotun Palace, Esfahan
Revovating the Chehel Sotun Palace
Exterior of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Esfahan
Jameh Mosque, Esfahan
Jameh Mosque, Esfahan