Everything changes as my bus heads south of Tehran. Gone are the mountains and urban sprawl as it gives way to arid countryside.
Gone too are the headscarves worn in Tehran at the back of the head with sunglasses decorating the front. As we head toward the conservative city of Qom the black chador, meaning ‘tent’ in Persian, becomes universal. It is from Qom that the Supreme leader and the clerical guardian council exercise the final say over the Islamic Republic.
I don’t stop here but instead skirt the desert and head to city of Kashan about 3 hours trip away – famous for carpet weaving and a pleasant stop between Tehran and Esfahan.
I was staying at Eshan house – a lovely tranquil hotel with traditional courtyard and central reflecting pool with surrounding platforms for the obligatory tea drinking that goes on all over Iran.
Somehow I thought of Iran as a coffee drinking place but apparently not. At one point coffee was more popular drink but the British starting selling tea heavily some centuries ago and the Iranians have never looked back. Indeed in almost all accommodation there is a boiler with some treacle like tea ready to be diluted with hot water.
Kashan has a lovely little bazaar to wander through including a converted old hammam (bathhouse) where I stopped to have some cake and doogh, a yoghurt and mint drink that is somehow quite relaxing.
Walking passed the shops of spices, underwear and fabric for chadors – in the Henry Ford fashion of any colour as long as it is black.
Soon a teenager called Amir got chatting and practicing his English. Soon enough I was invited to his English class to help out as class guest for the lesson.
I kept my cool under rapid cross-examination. What was my favourite Iranian football team – Kashan of course!, what religion am I, did I think Iran was the best country, how many countries had I visited and all the rest. By the end it was time for photos and thank the female teacher (no handshakes here) and back to the bazaar with all the goodbyes and ‘thank you’s’ ringing in my ears.
Close to Ehsan house is the decommissioned Agha Bozorg mosque which still has a religious school (madrassa) and met another aspiring English learner who guided me around for some time and showed me to the local merchant houses.
Houses in Kashan have two knockers on the doors, the round one if the caller is a woman and rectangular if it is a man. This ensured that the appropriate gender answered the door and the custom of purdah was observed.
The beautifully restored courtyards with ponds and gardens of the Abbasian House were a fantastic spot to stop for coffee and cake and simply read for an hour or two and soak up the ambiance.
Then it was through to the Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmad with the connecting rooms where I met two lovely trainee tour guides Mohammad and Fatima and we got chatting for some time about Iran and their studies.
Just outside town is the Fin Garden – one of nine UNESCO listed Persian Gardens which represent the apogee of the type. Each garden is classically divided into four representing the thinking of the four ancient elements – wind, fire, water and earth.
In classical Persian times rulers were expected to be good gardeners – an allegory to good governance.
This particular garden was famous as it was here that an Iranian nationalist hero was murdered in the hammam on the orders of the ruler at the time and the area had dodgy wax models recreating the scene.
It was back at sunset to relax, Iranian style on carpets and cushions, and settle in to carpets and cushions with a comforting pomegranate based fesengan meat stew.