Saturday, 3 November 2007

Persia (Chapter 6, Tabriz, Persia)

Our view of Tabriz was clouded by the trouble we had in getting there. The road from the border held all the ingredients of purgatory: dust, heat, corrugations, and some of the longest miles we had ever travelled. At least it was not monotonous and neither of us could complain of feeling 'liverish' since leaving Europe. Already the luxury of metalled roads was just a dream. Water began to be a problem and we gave up indiscriminate drinking, particularly during the middle day.

At the point where aching muscles and burning thighs cried . Stop', a cluster of twinkling lights on the horizon of darkness spurred us on to a last grand effort. Distances in the Persian night we found hard to judge and our estimated half-hour to the comfort of civilization turned out to be one and a half hours before Tabriz engulfed us with friendly bustling crowds and busy streets.

Immediate needs were food and somewhere to sleep. We found both in a modest hotel, a balconied wooden building huddled cosily around a delightful and typically Persian garden. In the centre, a lily pool was floodlit with coloured lights strung from the cypress trees. On crazy paving, dining-tables were laid out among the flowerbeds. The night was warm, pungent with the heavy aroma of exotic blooms and filled with the whine of hungry mosquitoes.

Although it was ten o'clock, a swarthy, solicitous proprietor ministered to all our wants and, after installing the scooter safely in a garage and putting our gear into a balcony room overlooking the pond, we took our places, quite alone, at one of the garden tables, to be served in due course with one of Persia's favourite repasts-shishlik. Tender cuts of mutton roasted over charcoal and skewered on sticks were surrounded by gigantic side dishes, with the most comprehensive salad one could wish for. There was enough food to satisfy six normal adults. However, we were not normal, we were not in a hurry, we had eaten very little in the past two days, and it would be some time before another feast like this would be placed before us. We ate the lot.

Physical exhaustion is not an unpleasant state, provided the stomach is full and there is a comfortable bed near at hand. We reached the stage where we could not take another lettuce leaf, or another sip of the clear, ice-cold water, when to utter a sentence of more than two words was an effort. Nine days of scootering over ruts was more than enough to make us ready for blessed oblivion. I think we would have got it, too, had the bedrooms been provided with mosquito-nets. The Persian variety of mosquito is highly pestiferous, with a vicious whine that cannot be ignored, for it heralds a needle-jab somewhere on the anatomy. There were a great many squadrons active that night and we arose at nine o'clock the next morning, hollow-eyed as ever and well peppered with burning itches. These were not malarial, just painful. The gargantuan meal, the comfortable beds, and the bites cost us about thirty shillings.

The next morning I got busy on the wearying business of changing money again; this time, liras into rials. While I was in the midst of negotiations, a dark little man wearing a fez attached himself to me and despite my repeated assurances that no guide was needed-or indeed wanted-he insisted on accompanying me in and out of the bank and on a tour of the shopping area in search of yet another water bottle. My companion tried to sell
me a taxi ride, periodically pointing to the garishly painted, lunatic-driven cars, for twenty rials to anywhere in the city. Ten rials, I learned later, would be ample.

Tabriz was hot, interesting, and a blend of ancient and ultramodern. The shops and bazaars were well stocked with internationally familiar goods, and street vendors, carrying overflowing trays of cheap Japanese brie-a.-brae, were everywhere. One cinema exhorted the inhabitants, with lurid posters written in English, to see Hollywood's latest spectacle, 'Big Men in Small Planes'; there was no queue.

I still had my faithful follower who gave up trying to sell taxis and began tempting me with hand-made carpets, the cheapest and finest in all Persia. If I would just accompany him to the house of a friend, I would be 'left gasping' at the beauty of his work. No carpets, I said. We walked on together in silence. From nearly every shop and emporium a wireless blared the dreadful wail that is so unacceptable to western ears. Urchins darted between and around us with trays of sweets and cigarettes; at one time there were five bright-eyed little faces under outsize turbans, begging me to try their wares. My self-appointed guide was cursing them and lauding his friend's carpets in the same breath. I gave up looking for a water bottle. We got nearer to the hotel and my companion hastily switched from carpets to silverwork-the most fabulous filigree on earth, he assured me. He flatly refused to accept my indifference to his offers, and would not believe that a visiting infidel could be in Tabriz and remain uninterested in its fine craftsmanship. If Nita and I had owned a van instead of a scooter, with money to spare, we would have loaded the thing down with Tabriz workmanship, for what I did see was excellent. But we had to stick to essentials. I reached the hotel without spending and the little middle-man, puzzled and bewildered, slipped away into the crowds.