The atmosphere on the bus is bleak as we find ourselves heading back to Tehran accepting that our trip is almost over. The weather seems to echo our mood and across the flat plains leaving Esfahan, the clouds start to swirl and gather. By the time we start the climb into the mountains the weather really starts to close in…
We weave our way up through the foothills of the Karkus Mountains and up into the small village of Natanz where the bus stops outside a mosque, the view of which is obscured by a row of trees. The trunks bend and lean as if they are gently losing the battle against the ‘bracing climate’ that I read Natanz is famous for. And indeed, as we step off the bus we are greeted by a chilly wind and everyone immediately rummages through their luggage for jumpers and scarves before we head towards the mosque.
It is essentially a shrine to Abdussamad Esfahani, a 13th century Sufi, built by one of his disciples in 1304. Instead of a smooth rounded dome we spy an octangonal and pointed roof which covers the shrine and the architecture of the minaret rises straight up and would look more at home in a skyline of an industrial city in Britain.
We pass through the tiled entrance and find ourselves in a plain plastered courtyard. There is beauty in the simplicity but I later learned that tiles had been chipped off the walls at the request of a 19th century British traveller who bought them.
At least there are some vestiges of painted decoration that he couldn’t chip off the walls.
The shrine itself contains some beautiful and intricate wood work – a lattice screen and various decorative elements and to look up is be lost in a honeycombed world of squinches lining the inside of the pointy roof.
We bundle back into the bus and continue to wend up the mountains to a town called Abyaneh. As the bus heaves its way up along the road we are suddenly overtaken on a bend by a car who beeps furiously at us cuts in front sharply and then slams on the breaks. The reaction of the bus driver was to break too but then he surged forward to nudge the car on the bumper in frustration at this dangerous manoeuvre. And that is where things suddenly got dramatic. The car in front screeched to a halt and a burly man jumped out of the vehicle and marched up to the driver’s side of our bus. He was shouting and in an instant his arm shot through the driver’s window spraying glass all throughout the front of the bus, shards of which pierced our driver’s face. The man continued to shout, now waving a bloodied arm, and our driver shouted back with trickles of blood on his forehead and cheeks. As I looked on in disbelief I caught sight of a police check point up ahead and realised they had witnessed the whole thing too. We were waved up the road by the sentries and the shouting match continued outside the vehicle with the police having to intervene threatening the men with batons. Once tempers had calmed we were allowed to continue our journey and all we could do was reach for some tissues to help stem the blood being lost by our driver. As a group there was suddenly a lot of mumblings as to how quickly it appeared to have been sorted and that there seemed no repercussions for either man. Traffic incidents and road rage seemed to be dealt with a lot more leniency in Iran…
When we pulled into Abyaneh we all got off the bus and headed into the old town. A notice told us that Abyaneh was “a virgin village with a smiling face” which was as intriguing a strap line for a town as I could hope to imagine. Boasting that was built from nature’s raw materials, namely mud bricks and wood, the town was perched on top of the mountain and had a very lost world feel to it. This was not helped by the dark clouds that sat heavily and suffocatingly, all around us. I learned that the local language derived from Achaemenid times and the local dress from the Sassanid dynasty. The lost world description suddenly didn’t feel so out of place. As we walked into the town we passed some more modern buildings that tried to emulate the mud walls and gypsum detailing but looked like something out of a set of a dystopian film.
The older buildings had far more character and charm but there was an overall sense of eeriness that I couldn’t shake. The higgledy-piggledy houses clung to the mountainside and as we passed along the streets ladies in bright flowery clothes wanted to make us tea or get us to try a hot soup. Having seen the soup I settled on the tea and in the biting cold it was warmly welcomed.
Just as it started to lightly snow we left the town and regrouped at the bus. There was no sign of our driver. We waited. And waited. I cruised past the tat stalls and soon discovered that unless I wanted to buy a cassette tape of sketchy Iranian music or a plastic bucket and mop I was going to be disappointed by the offerings on sale. I popped into the relative warmth of the small information centre only to discover that information was not really their forte, so I politely left none the wiser.
At this point our driver came around the corner and we all thought we would be on our way. But our cheer was short-lived. Behind our driver came a couple of police men and the other driver involved in the fracas who was now sporting a bandaged arm. This, we had not foreseen but his presence did explain why we were able to drive off at the check point – the incident had been resolved. We boarded the bus, as did our driver and the road rage man with the bandaged arm. Through our guide as interpreter we listened to and watched the oddest little ritual. The driver with the bandaged arm explained that he was sorry for his actions and he apologised for the distress it must have caused us. In turn, our driver lucidly explained that he did not accept the apology but would do so on our behalves so that we could get on with our journey. Then they kissed each other on the cheek and us, feeling helpless, just applauded the gesture. As we clapped the bandaged-arm man got off the bus and that was that. This, I am informed, is ‘restorative justice’. Just as at school when you were wronged and the teacher would get the aggressor to apologise to you in front of the class, Iran has a system of justice that works on the principle that some crimes can be personalised and thus the State need not intervene. I must say, it was a pretty impressive display and the literal ‘kiss and make up’ ritual was hugely effective. I bet it saves a mountain of paperwork, time and money and for petty incidents like this it seems a brilliant solution. However, I did respect that our driver did not accept the apology (he was still bleeding from the head, after all) but cunningly accepted it on our behalves so that we could continue our journey without further delay. Everyone was a winner.
We drive off, all a little stunned and while we had lunch our driver fixed the window with a sheet of plastic and duct tape. It begins to snow properly as we leave the the lunch spot and we begin our descent from the mountains to the noise of plastic flapping in the wind.
Along the way down we are reminded that this is ‘Nature Day’ in Iran – the one day of the year that Iranians are supposed to go out and commune with nature and embrace its wonders. This normally takes the form of a family picnic in the countryside and I assume it normally takes place on a sunny day. I salute the Iranians because in spite of the snow, the bitter winds and no views except of clouds, they were still camping out by the side of the road, huddled together and having a picnic. This is a nation of people who can and will endure.
The road to Tehran brings a respite in the weather. We are on the home stretch and the sun just breaks through the clouds.
Nail-biting stuff. I shall be sad when this ends. Great photos, as always
Last one coming up I’m afraid! (And then I return to my now overdue Uzbekistan Odyssey… I know I’m so confusing)
What a story about the bus driver!
Quite! Such a fascinating insight into Iranian law.
So perfect example of why I never drive overseas. Glad to see the story section of the photo book growing! Its going to be a best seller. Tina and I will be in Italy in April. Are you returning anytime in the near future? Michael
Michael, so lovely to hear from you. Yes the driving Story was pretty hair raising but for the rest it was all calm! Off back to Italy for a couple of things at the end of this month and then I’m sure I’ll be returning to Pompeii before too long… am delighted you are going to Italy soon and wish you the best of trips. Off to soak in the ancient Romans I hope!