Isfahan City Tour and Night with local Couch-Surfers
We met at 9am with our local guide Mehdi for a city tour of Isfahan. Actually it was only Isabella, Jason and me who went since the others have already visited most of the sights yesterday. Isfahan is with a population of 1.6 million the third largest city in Iran. In ancient times it used to be an important city of the Persian Empire and one of the largest cities in the world. The city was also an important stop along the Silk Road. This makes it an interesting place to visit since many of the places, bridges, mosques and minarets are very much intact.
We started our tour at the Naghsh-e Jahan Square which is one of the largest inner-city squares in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the square three major buildings are situated which are the Shah Mosque, the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque and the Ali Qapu Palace. In the center of the square is a park where you can sit and relax or go around in a horse-drawn carriage.
First we visited the Shah Mosque which still seems to be used for special religious ceremonies. It also features a very efficient sound system. When you stand in the middle of the dome and whisper something it gets repeated seven times or so and people standing in the courtyard just outside the dome are able to hear what you are saying. I tried it out with Isabella and it was really working. Furthermore, the mosque is covered with beautiful tiles in green, blue, white and golden color.
The next stop was the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque which I personally found even more breathtaking than the Shah Mosque. It was once built as private mosque for the royal court and is therefore smaller in size and more splendiferous. It appeared much more yellow / golden and had beautiful illumination effects. There were also many inscriptions in white color on blue ground on the walls of the dome which are the names of some spiritual leaders or so.
After this visit we rested in a little tea house where we had black tea and local sweets. It was very nicely decorated featuring a collection of lamps on the ceiling and lots of kitschy items on the walls. When entering the tea house there was one entrance for families and another one for individuals. We chose the one for individuals since we aren’t a family yet. Here we also spotted 2-3 couples using the tea house as dating location. The tea house was again on the basement of the building thus hidden from the public and the police who like to hunt for religious misbehavior such as being too close together or holding hands in public. Therefore, tea houses and coffee shops in the basement are a very popular spot for young people in Iran.
The third stop on our tour was the Ali Qapu Palace which is also situated at the Naghsh-e Jahan Square. It had a number of floors and from the very top one you had a good view on the square. I even climbed over a barrier which was put in place for construction purposes just to get a good shot of the huge square. Especially interesting to see was the music room on one of the upper floors of the palace. Here musicians actually performed for the king. The room is nicely decorated and you can spot the shapes of all kinds of local instruments on the walls.
Next was the Chehel Sotoun Pavilion which is situated in the middle of a beautiful park. The pavilion was used for receptions and entertainment purposes. It has nice wooden columns on the outside and colorful frescos in the inside. After this visit it was time for lunch which we had in one of the restaurants of the square. It had very colorful walls and windows and seemed to be a popular spot for the locals. I had chicken kebab with rice, probably the best one I had in all of Iran. Mehdi and Jason had some non-alcoholic beer with peach flavor which tasted more like juice than beer.
The last stop of our tour was the Vank Cathedral or simply called the Armenian Church. On the way there we ran into a school class and I took some time to talk to the girls and got my picture taken with each of them. Due to the low number of tourists coming to Iran people are still very much exited when they see you and want to talk to you and get their picture taken with you.
The Armenian Church was my highlight of today’s tour. It’s very much different and its architecture seems to be a mixture of a traditional church and a mosque. The walls were decorated in beautiful frescos and reminding me a bit of the churches I have seen in Ethiopia.
In the evening Patricia, Jason and I went out to meet some of the local couch-surfers. Couch-surfers are people who have signed-up on the couchsurfing.org website and either host people for free on their couch or travel around the world and sleep on couches rather than hotel beds. Jason is a member of couch-surfing and therefore got in contact with them in Isfahan. Each Thursday they meet behind the artist’s house and go for a walk along the river and the three of us joined them on the walk together with a number of other travelers from all around the world. In total we were maybe 30 people or so and I really much enjoyed talking to a number of them. One of them was an Iranian fashion designer and she showed me a different way of wearing my headscarf which I applied straight away.
Jason ended-up being chased by a guy who seemed to be gay so after finishing the walk he and Patricia went back to the hotel. I continued with maybe 15 couch-surfers to a garden type of restaurant half an hour outside of town. It had a nightclub type of atmosphere but obviously there was no alcohol and no dancing since this is strictly forbidden in Iran. Instead we were chilling-out, smoking shisha and drinking black tea. The atmosphere was very much relaxed, headscarves went further back and boys were spoon-feeding ice crème to the girls. So this is what young people do when going out at night. I also heard gardens outside of towns are a very popular meeting spot since they are a bit far away from the public and the police. People just try to avoid meeting in larger groups since this would gain the attention of the police and cause trouble. So life in Iran is actually not that bad. People are good in finding their ways around the strict rules and enjoy themselves.
Mohammad, one of the couch-surfers, and his friend drove me back to the hotel. There were already two people waiting for me. The first one was our local guide Mehdi who earlier on this day invited me to his room. The receptionist said he’s worried because I was out on my own and called him to inform him I’m back in the hotel. Mehdi than called my roommate Isabella because he wanted to “talk” to me and woke her up in the middle of the night. I wasn’t around since I spent time with Habib I met two days ago. However, it was interesting to see I could have won the bet to have sex with the local guide (see post of Apr 23) but I decided not to since there are things in life no money and no bet will pay for.