Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)

Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)
Where it all began: Xian, May 2002

Monday, July 27, 2009

Half the World, Half the World Away....

Esfahan, Monday July 27th

I am on my third afternoon in enchanting Esfahan, known in Persian as "Half the World", and after two days of seeing the multitudinous sights and soaking up the atmosphere of the wonderful Naqsh-e-Jahan (pattern of the world) square, I'm having a quieter day: fixing my stove, trying to deal telephonically with the dimwits who run the DBS Bank customer service desk in Singapore, re-stringing my travelling guitar, reading and generally chilling out. Now it's time to bring my blog up to date.

It took five days of cycling to get from Shiraz to Esfahan, along a route rich in history, both ancient and medieval. The first day, I got up early (as usual) to beat the heat and was climbing a steep incline to get out of Shiraz before 7 am. The road was crowded with drivers who had the same idea, and it made for an unpleasant two hours of diesel fumes and incessant grinding engines before the road, and I, descended steeply onto the flats of an agricultural valley. I noticed that my new bike's wheels have less rolling resistance than my old bike, as my maximum speed on descents has increased by at least 10 km/h; I was surprised to look down at my cycling computer and see that I was doing 66 km/h! The rest of the day I stayed in this valley, passing through the 10 km traffic jam of Marvdasht (I think that in Iran, a city is only an excuse for a good traffic jam) and making it to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire, by 11, just in time for the blistering heat of midday.

I loved Persepolis. I had been looking forward to seeing it ever since reading about Alexander the Great in high school. Alexander captured the city in 331 BC, after routing the Persian army for the decisive third time at the battle of Gaugamela in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. He despatched fast horsemen to secure the city and its immense treasury (3000 camel loads of gold, silver, bronze and precious gems), and made his own way there at a more leisurely pace. He and his army spent some time living there, but one night, either as a drunken accident or as a deliberate act of revenge for the Persian destruction of the Acropolis 150 years earlier, the city was burned to the ground and abandoned forever.

The city is impressively situated on a raised platform overlooking the plain, underneath barren stone cliffs. The city was used for annual gatherings of the nobles of all parts of the immense Persian Empire, and tourists today follow the same route as those Medes, Elamites, Phrygians, Ethiopians, Arabs and Cappadocians did 24 centuries ago, climbing the gently-angled ceremonial staircase up into the city and then passing through the immense Gateway of all Nations. This gate, with a very Egyptian flavour to it, has been graffitied by generations of travellers, including the infamous African explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Luckily, plexiglass now protects the stone from similar vandalism today.

Once inside the city, there are tons of massive ruins to see. The Persian emperors were clearly trying to impress their allies and underlings, and they built on an Egyptian scale, with huge courtyards of columns, and immense palaces. The most impressive sights, however, are the carvings on the staircases of the Apadana Palaces, where envoys from all the 30 or so nationalities of the empire are shown bringing gifts to the emperor. I spent a long time looking at and photographing the reliefs; they reminded me a bit of the carvings at Angkor Wat, although not so extensive. The other highlight for me were the imperial tombs of the later emperors Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III, carved into the cliffs above the city, providing wonderful panoramas out over the extensive city.

I was pretty flattened by the heat, but I revived after some lunch, and cycled a few kilometres up the valley to see some smaller sites. Naqsh-e-Rajab has four impressive Sassanid carvings (from five centuries after Persepolis), showing the early Sassanid emperors Shapur and Ardeshir getting crowned by the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. I was intrigued to see the changes in the 500 years separating the Achaemenids from the Sassanids. The depiction of Ahura Mazda is quite different from that shown on the Achaemenid tombs that I had just seen, and the artistic style has changed from quite Assyrian to much more Roman. As well, the writing system used for Persian has changed from ancient Babylonian cuneiform to a curly alphabet that looks like a precursor of the Arabic alphabet, and the other official languages of the empire (other than Persian) are now Parthian and Greek, rather than Elamite and Babylonian as they were in the time of the Achaemenids.

I then zipped across to the cliffs on the other side of the valley to Naqsh-e-Rostam, where the great Achamenid Persian emperor Darius (the founder of Persepolis) and his successors Xerxes, Darius II and Artaxerxes II had their tombs. They're so identical in style that, except for Darius' tomb which is identified by a lengthy cuneiform inscription, archaeologists still don't know whose tomb is whose. As well, there's another enigmatic building, a big cube with slit false windows, whose purpose is unclear but which seems to have been a tomb for somebody important. Underneath each tomb is a later Sassanid carving, as if the Sassanids wanted to emphasize that they were the successors of these world conquerors. Having read the Histories of Herodotus several times (if you love history and haven't read Herodotus, now is the time!), I found being at the tomb of Darius (whose life and accomplishments make up a lot of the pages of Herodotus) quite moving. Of course, the emotionality might have been due to incipient sunstroke too.

While I was sitting there sketching, a young Iranian woman came running up the steps to talk to me in English. She was a young medical researcher from Tehran, and she had some interesting points of view. She lamented the current state of Iranian culture ("Culture? What culture? We used to have a great nation and high culture, and now we are nothing"), the economy ("we have all this oil, but the people have no money at all") and politics ("Of course Ahmedinejad is a madman, but he's still a better leader than the others would have been. My friends and colleagues mostly voted for him, because it was a choice between the bad and the worst, and he's merely bad.")

That night, searching for a place to pitch my tent, I found a perfect historical spot: the ruins of Estakhr, the last capital city of the Sassanids, laid waste by the rampaging Arab armies in AD 637 and not excavated since. I put up my tent in corner of the city wall and fell asleep, pondering the rise and fall of empires, oblivious to the modern traffic 100 metres away.

The next day, I followed the valley uphill, along a quiet side road parallel to the expressway, making for a very pleasant morning. Eventually, where the agricultural land ran out, the two roads merged and I rejoined the chaos of the main road through a tunnel and out into a bleaker, more desert-like world that led to Pasargadae, the first Achaemenid capital. It was again like a giant convection oven as I toured around the slim remains of the city founded by Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid empire. His tomb, a huge but simple structure, has stood the test of time better than the rest of his city, which consists of a few fallen columns and the foundations of a few temples, as well as another enigmatic cube. The signboard says that this one is believed to be the tomb of Cyrus' son Cambyses, and Wikipedia says that it was definitively identified as such in 2006. I liked the austere empty feeling of Pasargadae, and rode off satisfied with having seen it. I had planned to ride another 30 or 40 km, but only12 km down the road, I passed an actual river (well, a large irrigation canal) and decided to camp beside it instead, since running water is at such a premium in Iran.

I awoke well-rested, which was just as well because the next day was unexpectedly hard, at least until the afternoon. The road just kept climbing and climbing, interrupted by brief downhills, and the wind was persistently blowing hard in my face. It took forever to climb the 600 m to the crest of the pass, which (as it turned out when I looked at a decent map later) was over the main range of the Zagros Mountains, although it just seemed like a series of rounded desert hills. I was quite discouraged by the snail's pace I was setting, and wondered glumly if my forty-year-old body was too old for this bike touring gig. Luckily, about ten different cars stopped that day to give me cold water, fruit, juice, cake and encouragement. Then the downhill started, and I zipped along without pedalling for thirty kilometres with a tailwind and felt very positive about the whole experience. I made it to Abadeh, the first real settlement I'd seen since Pasargadae, and rewarded myself with a night in a hotel, where I slept like a log.

The last day and a half into Esfahan were a haze of downhills, tailwinds and excessive heat and traffic, with little scenery and lots of noise. I camped out the last night before Esfahan behind an abandoned factory that turned out to be home to a small colony of tramps. They were quite friendly, but I must confess to having slept nervously under the stars.

After several days in fairly desolate surroundings, it was a relief finally to get to Esfahan, and its leafy streets, air of civilization and tremendous architectural gems. Esfahan is one of the crown jewels of the Islamic world. As the capital of the Safavid Empire in the 16th and 17th century, it was adorned by its rulers, particularly Shah Abbas I, with a series of wonderful buildings and gardens. The Naqsh-e-Jahan square ("The Pattern of the World"), renamed Imam Square, is a magnificent public space, and I keep going back to it every day to watch the ebb and flow of the people, along with the play of light on the mosques that line its sides.

The Jameh Mosque is huge, impressive and one of the most beautifully conceived mosques I have ever seen. I spent a good couple of hours prowling around it. The Imam Mosque is also gorgeous, but it's under scaffolding which ruins the beauty. I think the real gem of Esfahan, however, is the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, a small but perfectly conceived structure with the most mesmerizing ceiling (like an Escher drawing of infinity) and a delicate interplay of light through the latticed windows over the blue, green and yellow tiles inside: simply magic!

The atmosphere in the Naqsh-e-Jahan is excellent as well, with thousands of local Esfahanis and Iranian tourists coming out in late afternoon to see the sights, picnic, take horse carriage rides, or shop for souvenirs. I sit out every day at 6 in a second-story teashop to watch the show. They say that this is the second-largest square by area in the world, after the Stalinist space of Tien An Men Square; I'm not sure I believe it, but it really is a magnificent place to see, and I'm off again as soon as I finish posting this!

Esfahan, strictly speaking, isn't really on the Silk Road route that I started to ride in 2002; most classical and medieval traders would have passed further north, at the latitude of Tehran. However, when I was last in Iran in 2004, everyone assured me that Esfahan is the main reason to visit Iran, so I decided to add on this spur, from Bushehr up to Qazvin, to my original route just so that I could see Esfahan and Persepolis. I have to say that I'm glad: Esfahan is the Islamic world's equivalent to Florence, a city full of some of the most important architectural and artistic products of a major civilization.

My search for guitar strings brought me to Jolfa, an ancient Armenian quarter. The Armenians have always been famed as musicians in Turkey and Iran, and so the guitar shops are all in Jolfa. I bought my strings from George, an Armenian guitar teacher, and rode around the tiny but uber-wealthy neighbourhood, full of ritzy cafes and expensive grocery stores. The Armenian cathedral is a strange mix of Islamic architecture (iwans and tiles and arched doorways) and Christian iconography inside (brilliantly coloured frescoes reminiscent of Greece and Cyprus). I toured the cathedral and the museum next door with two Turkish backpackers who kept muttering darkly about what they viewed as incessant propaganda about the 1915 Armenian genocide. They were planning on going to Armenia on the way home; I wonder how they will be received there.

So having basked in a bit of culture for a few days, it's time for me to hit the road again early tomorrow morning, heading for Natanz, Kashan, Qom and Qazvin. I hope to be able to take some slightly less busy roads, but I'm not sure such a thing exists in this automobile-obsessed society. I will post again, probably, from Qazvin. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures, enjoy the summer, and talk to you all again soon!

Ha! Figured out how to do this! I will continue to fill this in as the trip progresses.

Riding Day No.
From Bushehr

Final Elevation

Daily Destination
Estakhr (ruins)
Past Pasargadae
Past Shahreza

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