Iran: Train to Kerman & on to Bam
The next leg of my journey would take me the furthest distance from Tehran, to the oasis town of Bam in the southeast of the country, just past the Payeh Mountains. I wanted to take the train for this long journey as far as Kerman and from there take a bus to Bam. I had returned from Mt Damavand on Thursday evening and had checked back into the Mashad Hotel on Amir Kabir Street after my unfriendly parting with Hamid. The two Singaporean cyclists, Alex and Jo whom I had met before departing for Mt Damavand had checked out; I presumed that their Pakistan visa fiasco had been sorted out and that they were now on the long road southwest to Zahedan. That evening I made some enquiries about the train schedules and soon found out that the next train to Kerman wasn't due to leave until Sunday evening; this gave me a slight headache as to what I would do with myself for the next three days in Tehran.
That evening, at the hotel I met Ben, a young Canadian lad who had spent the past few months in Yemen studying Arabic. He had been thinking about going to climb Mt Damavand, so we stopped and chatted for a while. Tomorrow, he and a South African, Andrew planned to go to Mt Tochal for the day. Still suffering from my disappointment at not reaching the summit of any mountain so far on this trip I decided to join them for the day; I agreed to meet Ben at the reception desk at 08.00 in the morning. He shortly left to go to a party with some new friends he had met in the city and I retired to my room to catch up on some sleep after my uncomfortable nights spent on Mt Damavand.
The following morning Ben was nowhere to be seen, I found out from the hotel manager that he had never returned home last night from the party. I soon met Andrew though and the two of us set off, retracing my footsteps from earlier that week to the Tochal telecabin. Being a Friday the whole of Tehran had shut down and the roads were the quietest I had seen them, it almost felt as though I was in a different city. The telecabin was operating today and large crowds of people were gathered around the bottom of the mountain, a steady stream of people taking the telecabin up the mountain, while others hiked along the dirt road, which snaked upwards. We bought a ticket to the top station, the point I had reached on my previous climb, and from there hiked to the summit. We followed the dirt road up from the top station at a steady pace. The weather had deteriorated since my last visit to this mountain and as we neared the summit, after climbing for almost two hours, we were caught in a cold, windy snow shower. It seemed strange that only a few hours ago we were running around Tehran in t-shirts feeling hot, now here we were wrapped up in fleeces and Gore-Tex jackets bracing ourselves against a biting wind. The final slog up to the summit was hard and I could definitely notice that we were climbing at altitude as I gasped to fill my lungs with the thin air. At last I stood at the summit of Mt Tochal, a respectful 3,962m above sea level.
We climbed back down as far as the mid-station of the telecabin and from there rode back down to the base of the mountain and made our way by share taxi and bus back into the city centre. It was dark by the time we reached Ferdosi Square and stopped for a well-deserved dinner and some fruit shakes.
There are some good museums in the city, about the only attractions worth stopping to visit in this metropolis. I spent a couple of hours wandering around the excellent National Museum of Iran. The collection included pottery, ceramics and carvings arranged in date order recovered from some of the most important archaeological sites in the country, including Persepolis, Shush and Rey. The carvings from Persepolis were the highlight for me. It was hard to imagine that these carvings were 2,500 years old; it looked as though an artisan had only finished working on them yesterday. It also helped that by coincidence I arrived at the same time a British tour group were being led around the museum. I followed a couple of steps behind learning a lot more than if I had only read the cards on the displays, which were not that informative. The most unusual exhibit had to be the Salt Man, a miner who had died at Zanjan in the 3rd or 4th century and whose body had been preserved by the salt. In a glass case a withered face stared out complete with long white hair and beard, together with his leather boots, tools and a walnut.
I also visited the National Jewels Museum housed in the vaults of the central branch of the Bank Melli on Ferdosi Street. Armed guards patrolled the gates and the entrance along the side of the building. Security was tight and everyone was searched as they entered. I queued to purchase a ticket and then walked through a metal detector and down the stairs to the basement vault. The vault was dimly lit and glass display cases lined all the walls. We were warned as we entered not to touch any of the display cases, as this would set off the alarms. Security guards hovered around in the dark corners of the vault watching us as we gazed at the impressive array of jewels on display. Every ten miutes or so the defeaning alarms would go off; I'm sure it was the security guys doing this as I saw one give a display case a nudge, which set off the alarms. I never expected to find such a huge collection of jewels here in Tehran. Some of the many highlights were the Darya-ye Nur (Sea of light), a 182 carat pink diamond reputed to be the largest uncut diamond in the world. The Globe of Jewels, made in 1869, weighing 34kg and made out of 51,366 precious stones (who counted them all? Probably an insurance agent) is a sparkling masterpeice that has to be seen.
My three days in Tehran slipped past quicker than I thought. Soon it was Sunday evening and I took a taxi south, through the pain-stakingly slow, sea of rush-hour traffic to Rah-Ahan Square and the central train station. I expected the train station to be a similar chaotic mess as the rest of the city but was surprised to found an orderly, but very busy station. A huge chandelier hung in the main hall of this modern looking, functional building; there were signs in English, and a large and informative departures board. I sat on the floor, as all the seats were taken and waited for my train to begin boarding. Twenty minutes before departure we were called to board the train. At the entrance to the platforms I was stopped by the police and briefly escorted to a small office nearby to have my passport and ticket inspected. I think I was stopped more out of curiosity than security and soon the police wished me a nice journey and I joined the crowd heading along the platform to find my sleeping berth for the night's journey. Wherever I went in Iran people stopped to talk to me, eager to find where I was from, why I was in Iran and what I thought of the country. The attention was often too much and if I stopped to say hello to everyone I would never have got anything else done during the day.
There was very little fuss or chaos as everyone boarded the train, very different from the many train journeys I had taken on the African continent. This station almost ran with European efficiency and at exactly 19.20 the train departed on its journey of just over 1,000km to Kerman. I settled into my rather cramped six berth, first class compartment and met my travelling companions for this leg of my journey. Lying in one of the top bunks was Hussein, an old man with a thin, bony and unshaven face. He read a newspaper and occasionally joined in with the conversation the other four passengers were having. These included Ali, another old man wearing a smart blue shirt and trousers sitting bolt upright next to me. He didn't look very well as he stared into the middle distance in a fixed gaze and showed signs of possibly multiple-sclerosis. His hands trembled quite noticeably, especially when he fiddled with the foil wrapping of some pills he took, washed down with a small bottle of water. Sitting opposite me was Hamid, a student in his early twenties who carried as part of his luggage, a traditional Persian guitar. It wasn't long only he began entertaining us with some tunes, which caught the ear of another passenger passing in the corridor who joined us and played as well. The two of them spent most of the evening playing the guitar and learning from each other while keeping the rest of us enthralled with their musical ability. Masood, in his thirties who looked very Afghan with sharp facial features, seemed rather indifferent to my presence at first but by the end of the trip we were good friends. The most annoying passenger, but the most ordinary looking was Mohammed. He was a businessman, in his late thirties, early forties wearing a business suit and heavy rimmed glasses on a rather podgy face. He had that slight overweight businessmen look, his stomach bulging over the belt of his trousers.
Nobody in the compartment could speak any English; it was Masood who did the introductions for me. Between us though we could understand each other in a basic way. When Mohammed found out that I was English, his face beamed in a rather annoying Benny Hill way, and he shouted out, 'Manchester!' followed by, 'Chelsea!' and finally, 'Beckham!' They were the only three words he said to me for the next fourteen hours of our journey to Kerman. After the first two hours it became very tedious. He would catch my attention as though he had something important to say and then shout out, 'Beckham!' Finally he disappeared with Masood and Hussein to the restaurant car for the evening. I made myself at home for the night in the other top bunk and found myself asleep surprisingly quickly as the train rattled down the tracks through the night.
I woke just after sunrise and went and stood out in the corridor while the others slept. I gazed out of the window at the passing scenery, an endless barren rocky desert with a backdrop of jagged, harsh looking mountains. It looked as though we were far from any signs of civilisation. At 08.10 we slowly pulled into Zarand, our first stop of the morning. By now everyone in the compartment was awake. Mohammed had appeared and greeted me by saying, 'Chelsea!' Once he had disappeared along the corridor to the toilet at the end of the carriage Masood looked at him and then looked at me and pointed at his head. At least it wasn't only me who thought that Mohammed was acting slightly mad. By 09.30 we had arrived at our destination, Kerman the train inching its way along the platform until it finally came to a halt with a screech of brakes. A mad rush followed as everyone poured out onto the platform and made their way through the station building and out into the large car park. The station was in fact 8km outside of Kerman. Most of the stations in Iran are a long distance from the towns they serve, often in the middle of nowhere and Kerman was no exception. Masood grabbed my arm and dragged me through the crowds and onto one of the many waiting shuttle busses to the city. He even paid my bus fare and made sure I got off the bus at the right place, Azadi Square. At Azadi Square we shook hands and parted with big smiles and went our separate ways. It was strange; when I first boarded the train last night Masood seemed the most hostile towards me, now he was the only one helping me find my way into the city.
In hindsight I should have at least stopped for a night in Kerman and explored the bazaar and had a cup of tea at one of the fine teahouses. Instead I took a share taxi from Azadi Square to the bus terminal, eager to complete the remaining 200km of my journey to Bam, this historic city in the desert. I had a few hours to wait for before the 13.00 local bus to Bam departed. The bus trip took most of the afternoon; local busses are not the fastest way to get around the country. I sat next to a young boy who began asking me the usual questions in his broken English. He passed the answers back along the bus to the other passengers; I turned around and saw them all leaning into the aisle listening to his translation of my answers. The bus finally terminated late in the afternoon at a traffic circle outside the centre of town by the Restaurant Arg 2000. The first taxi driver who approached me offered to take me to Emam Khomeini Square for 50,000 rials; after walking around the traffic circle I found a share taxi for 2,000 rials.
On the short trip into Bam, about 3km, the driver opened a box of Mozafati dates, which Bam is famous for and offered them to me. I have to admit I do have a fondness for dates and congratulated myself for arriving in Bam during the harvest season. These dates were huge and sweet, three or four times the size of the dates we get at home in the run up to Christmas, which are imported mostly from Tunisia. At the bustling Emam Khomeini Square, next to the town's small bazaar, I finally gained my bearings and realised that I had just driven past the guesthouse I intended to stay at. I walked back along the road to 17 Shahrivar Square, where I turned off towards Sayeh Jamal od-Din Street and Akbar's Tourist Guest House, arriving as the last rays of sun illuminated the town in a warm glow. I slipped off my boots before entering the guesthouse and received a warm welcome and a cup of tea from Mr Akbar, the owner before being shown to a dorm room for 25,000 rials a night.
There were plenty of travellers at the guesthouse from all corners of the world. I soon met Jane a very independent Australian with her very cute three-year-old daughter Noa. There was also a couple from Hong Kong and a lone Japanese traveller. That evening two German cyclists, Andreas and Marcel, whom I had met in Tehran arrived; they had hitch-hiked on the back of a truck some of the way hoping to meet up with the two Singaporeans, Alex and Jo in a couple of days time. A Swiss couple on a motorbike checked in too that evening on their way from China back to Europe. It seemed like everyone who was touring through this country was suddenly in Bam. When I woke up on my first morning I discovered that Andrew, the South African I had climbed Mt Tochal with, had arrived on an overnight bus from Shiraz. He stopped in Bam long enough to see the old city before continuing on an arduous bus journey to Quetta in Pakistan.
Bam is an oasis town situated south of the Dasht-e Lut, a sand and stone desert covering some 150,000sq km of the central Iranian plateau and southwest of the Payeh Mountains. It is a much quieter place than the 80,000 population would suggest and about as different as the metropolis of Tehran as you could possibly get. Most of the streets were lined with trees, eucalyptus and date palms; crystal clear spring water ran along roadside channels, irrigating the many gardens around the town. Away from the modern concrete buildings of the commercial district in the centre, there were still many traditional mud-brick buildings and gardens enclosed by mud-brick walls, some crumbling from neglect. I found a very different atmosphere in Bam compared to Tehran. The community appeared very conservative and religion the focus point of daily life. The fashionable headscarves of Tehran were replaced completely by the traditional black chador, an image I had expected to see everywhere before I arrived in this country. Bam is most famous for it's old city, Arg-e Bam, a site well worth making a detour to this far corner of the country to see.
The old city is in the northeast corner of modern Bam surrounded by huge fortified mud-brick walls and covers an area of approximately half a square kilometre. The city is thought to either date back around two thousand years to the time of the Parthian Empire or fifteen hundred years to the Sassanian Empire. However old the city is as I walked along the narrow lanes and twisting alleys I was soon overcome by the sense of history of the city, which seemed to ooze from every building. Today the old city is deserted but it didn't take much of a leap of the imagination to see how this was once a busy, bustling, thriving city. The main gateway leads straight to the bazaar, stretching 115m into the city. The bazaars position here was strategic, it allowed outsiders to enter the city for trade, while keeping them away from the residential areas. Dominating the skyline, sitting on a rocky hill in the northeast of the city is the impressive citadel, looking almost like a fairytale desert castle. It has to be the finest mud-brick building I have visited, the architecture was truly magical. The lines of the walls flowed organically with the rocky hill the citadel sat on. Row upon row of battlements filled the sky stretching up towards the tower, the highest point of the citadel and a wonderful vantage point for views across the city and surrounding desert. From the top of the citadel I looked down on the domed roofs of the garrison and the stables, which once housed three hundred horses, the whole building a masterpiece of design. On the rooftops of the houses below the citadel, badgirs (wind towers) reached up into the sky all facing north to catch the wind and provide an early form of air-conditioning for the residents of the city. Badgirs are still in use today in many of the desert cities of Iran, giving these cities a unique skyline.
Encircling the old city are the fortified city walls lined with battlements and about thirty-six towers. The ramparts, dating from approximately the 9th century, stretch for 2km around the city and are only broken by the citadel. Before the Arab conquest and the arrival of Islam as the state religion Bam was a very multicultural city. The residents consisted of a mix of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians and evidence of this can be seen at the ancient synagogue, just south of the gatehouse to the citadel. A much larger mosque is situated in the south of the city, with a beautiful multi-domed roof. I spent a whole day in the city wandering around the alleyways where the echoes of my footsteps mingled with the echoes of history. The silence and peace just added to the atmosphere of this most remarkable city.
I met up with Jane and little Noa for lunch at the teahouse above the gates to the citadel. This is a wonderful atmospheric teahouse, beautifully decorated inside. We sat on a bed couch on the small balcony at the top of steps leading to the entrance and enjoyed a pot of tea and some delicious date cookies. For lunch we had a bowl of pureed aubergine, mixed with herbs and topped with sour cream, a traditional Iranian dish, which was delicious with freshly baked bread. The food here may have been a bit pricey compared to other restaurants, but it was very good and worth every rial. Jane went back to the guesthouse in the afternoon with Noa, for her afternoon sleep. I ended up asleep as well on the bed couch at the teahouse for the next two hours, at last with a stomach full of good food. By the time I woke, cloud had begun to gather on the horizon and there was no sun set that evening. I returned though the following afternoon at about 16.00 to witness a perfect setting sun cast it's orange glow over the city and the citadel, bringing the buildings to life in long shadows and warm ochre colours. It was worth returning to see.
The following evening, just as a group of us were getting ready to leave the guesthouse to venture into town to find a restaurant Alex and Jo suddenly arrived on their bicycles. They both looked absolutely exhausted after cycling the 198km from Kerman in a day, against some tough winds, which blow relentlessly across the desert plains. We hardly gave them enough time to gather their breath before we dragged them out to dinner with us. We were all eager to hear about their cycling adventures from Tehran and the obstacles that lay ahead cycling through the lawless province of Baluchestan and across the Pakistani border to Quetta. Two months later three western tourists, two German and one Irish were kidnapped cycling this route near the town of Nosratabad, between Bam and Zahedan. We returned to the guesthouse in a taxi, seven of us in a Paykan and Jo still on his bicycle; his bicycle almost seemed to be part of him now he had cycled so far.
A day later, it was with a heavy heart that I left this diverse, welcoming group of people and continued my journey alone, thanking Mr Akbar for his hospitality over the last few days and catching a taxi at dawn to the impromptu public transport terminal at the Restaurant Arg 2000 traffic circle.
Continue reading this journey: Bandar-e Abbas & Hormoz