Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year.

New decree on rent increases in Dubai

Source: WAM (Emriates Govt News Agency) abridged
H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, in his capacity as the Ruler of Dubai, today issued a decree setting the maximum allowed increase in property rent values in 2010.
For properties rented in 2009 and before, the maximum increase in rent value shall be set as per the previous relevant similar decree for 2009.
The decree approves the Real Estate Regulatory Authority's (RERA) price index which shall be followed as the reference for setting any increase in rent values in 2010.
The new decree prevents any increase in rent values as long as they are less by a maximum of 25 % than the average rents of properties of similar specifications.
The maximum allowed rental increases shall be as follows: - 5% increase if the rent value is 26% to 35% less than the average rent of properties of similar specifications.
-10% increase if the rent value is 36% to 45% less than the average rent of properties of similar specifications.
--15% increase if the rent value is 46% to 55% less than the average rent of properties of similar specifications.
--20% increase if the rent value is less by a percentage that is more than 55% of the average rent of properties of similar specifications.
The decree goes into immediate effect and shall be published in the official gazette.
The decree also defines a new formula for lower rent values which allows a proportional increase in rents for 2009. According to the new formula, the increase in property rent will rise in proportion with the drop in 2008 rent value in the average annual rent for the same property.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Kiwi dairy company doubles investment in Middle East

Source: Arabian Business
Fonterra Cooperative Group Ltd, the world’s biggest exporter of dairy products, said its investment in the Middle East and Africa doubled since 2006 as it seeks to tap demand for powdered milk and increase exports to the region.
Fonterra wants to boost production at a newly acquired plant from a Saudi partner as part of the Auckland, New Zealand based company’s five year expansion plan in the Middle East, said Amr Farghal, managing director of Fonterra’s Middle East, Africa and Commonwealth of Independent States businesses.
Speaking in an interview, Farghal said: “The Middle East, Africa, and CIS region accounts for around 20 percent of sales in the Asia Middle East consumer division, and it is one of our key focuses for expansion."
Fonterra reached a final agreement last week to take full ownership of Saudi New Zealand Dairy Products Co after buying a 51 percent stake from partner Saudi Dairy & Foodstuff Co for $33 million (NZ$45 million).
More than half of the production at Saudi New Zealand’s plant, which started in 1996 and processes about 30,000 metric tons of New Zealand milk a year, is exported to the Middle East including Gulf countries, Africa, and former Soviet Union countries, Farghal said.
Demand for New Zealand products will increase if a free trade agreement is reached between the country and Gulf states, Farghal said. He expects an agreement to be signed in April.
Saudi Arabia’s population is growing about 2 percent a year, increasing demand for milk powders and cheese sold by Fonterra and rivals Nestle SA, Kraft Foods Inc and Almarai Co, the kingdom’s biggest food processor.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

A virtual Christmas card

Rather than writing my usual 'what we did this year' letter, I've put together a 'virtual Christmas card'.  Its better than the usual tome tucked inside the Chrimbo cards because there are no typos and it has music too. 
Best wishes to everyone who reads The Caro-Van, thanks for all the comments over the past year and I look forward to doing it all again in 2010.

أجمل التهاني بمناسبة الميلاد و حلول السنة الجديدة

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Facebook is 'down' in the UAE

Facebook is 'down' in the UAE....again.  Nobody seems to know why.  Something to do with Iran maybe?  Anyway if you add an 's' to the url https// you'll get onto the log-in page.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Sydney Harbour plan like 'worst of Dubai'

Source: Sydney Morning Herald 22 Dec 09
THE State Government is poised to waive planning rules so a developer can fill in part of the harbour to build the city's biggest hotel in what critics have dubbed the worst of ''Dubai architecture''.
Under the agreement negotiated by the Government's Barangaroo Delivery Authority, Lend Lease will construct a 150-metre-long peninsula extending into East Darling Harbour as a base on which to erect the 230-metre-tall hotel.
The authority's chief executive, John Tabart, also revealed that Lend Lease had been allowed to increase the floor space in the building by 15 per cent in addition to the 30 per cent rise allowed last year in an effort to make the project financially viable.
By allowing Lend Lease to build out from the existing shoreline, guests will be able to enjoy views to the Opera House.
Although the concept plan for Barangaroo does not allow reclaiming the harbour or building higher than 180 metres, the authority has approved Lend Lease's non-complying design on the grounds that it is so good it is likely to win planning approval when a development application is lodged.
Sydney has previously filled in its waterways for projects including the airport's third runway, but architects warned it was another thing to allow a developer to build a hotel in the harbour.
''There's not really any excuse for intruding on publicly owned water. The precedent that sets is not a very good one,'' said Peter Webber, a former NSW government architect and emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Sydney.
Philip Thalis, who won the original design competition on redeveloping Barangaroo, said it was ''privatising the harbour''.
''It's a catastrophic mistake for Sydney. It's like letting them do that at Circular Quay. It makes the Cahill Expressway look positively benign … It's the worst of Dubai 'look at me' architecture,'' Mr Thalis said.
But the chairman of the authority's design review panel, a former government architect, Chris Johnson, said the building had ''a good pizazz about it'', and while it was not good to fill in the harbour this was ''the exception to the rule''.
He said his approval was on the basis that the building was ''incredibly well designed and incredibly accessible to the public'', and that it should include viewing platforms and a series of other public spaces that could be ''a bit like the Ivy in George Street''.
The proposal was warmly embraced by former prime minister Paul Keating, who has fought successfully for the northern headland to be returned to its pre-settlement shape. ''The scheme is a scheme right outside the paradigm - this is what Sydney needs,'' he said. ''It needs to be grand to do the job.
''What Lord [Richard] Rogers [the architect] has offered is a fan structure that breaks the geometry of the grid and which has at its foot a hotel as an exclamation mark.''
Developer groups were enthusiastic about the plan to fill in part of the harbour.
''We do support the plan for the infill of the harbour,'' said Stephen Albin, NSW chief executive of the Urban Development Institute of Australia.
The acting head of the NSW chapter of the Property Council of Australia, Glenn Byres, said: ''This is the imaginative, iconic design that the site deserved.''

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Australian fined for swearing at Dubai police officer

Source: The National 18 December '09
An Australian private security consultant has been fined AED2,000 ($545) for swearing at a police officer, according to a report on Friday.
The man was on his way from Afghanistan and was arrested at Dubai International Airport on October 11 while en route to London, The National daily reported.
Dubai Court of Misdemeanours ordered the consultant to pay the fine after he denied charges filed against him on December 9. The man had faced a possible six-month jail term and a AED5,000 fine, The National added.
“[He] was in transit on his way to London when he tried to use an ATM machine at the airport,” his lawyer told the court. “He was irate and tired and when the officer came to him he had no intent to offend him or insult him.”
The accused allegedly used foul language when the officer grabbed him from behind. “We explained to the court that the words used were not to offend anyone.
The plaintiff just understood the words out of context and thought it was a direct insult to him,” the lawyer said.
The Australian testified that when he arrived from Afghanistan at about 8pm he headed to the ATM. He said that a man in a blue uniform, who did not identify himself as a police officer, blocked his way and told him he could not use the machines, according to the Abu Dhabi-based daily.
However, the officer, contradicted the Australian’s statement before prosecutors and said that the accused was trying to go into the arrivals hall without giving a reason. Later the Australian asked to speak to the officer’s supervisor and then swore in public. The police official said he was cursed at and was insulted.
The lawyer of the accused clarified that his client had no criminal intent, adding that the Australian consulate in Dubai issued a letter of apology to Dubai Police.
The National added that the consulate expressed its respect and appreciation to Dubai Police and its staff.

2009 Dubai Motor Show

Photos from the 2009 Dubai Motor Show are here.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

"Sheikh Issa was drugged" claims lawyer

Source: The National
A member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family who is accused of torturing an Afghan man was drugged against his will when the incident took place and cannot be held responsible, a government-owned newspaper on Tuesday quoted his lawyer as saying at his trial.
"My client does not remember what happened that night. He did not have the mental capacity. Because he was drugged against his will, he cannot be held responsible," The National quoted Habib al-Mulla, lawyer for Sheikh Issa bin Zayed, as saying.
Allegations against the sheikh, who is the brother of UAE president and Abu Dhabi emir Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, emerged after US network ABC aired a video in April that appears to show him beating a man with whips, electric cattle prods and a wooden plank with protruding nails.
Assisted by police, Sheikh Issa is seen to pour salt in the man's wounds and run over him with a sports utility vehicle.
The victim needed months of hospital care following the incident. He was reportedly an Afghan trader who lost a load of grain worth 5,000 dollars.
In a rare trial of a high-ranking member of the ruling family, Sheikh Issa stands accused of endangering a life, causing bodily harm, and rape for the incident which allegedly took place in 2004, The National said.
Sheikh Issa's lawyer said that one of the sheikh's seven co-defendants was responsible for Sheikh Issa's medications and drugged him, then videotaped the incident and tried to blackmail him, The National reported.
The paper said that Mulla presented a letter that was allegedly from the lawyer of the co-defendant and his brother demanding 68 million dollars for the tape to be destroyed.
Mulla also argued for the charges to be dismissed on the grounds that the UAE's Federal Supreme Court had previously ruled that video evidence of a crime scene was inadmissible, the newspaper reported.
The trial was adjourned until later this month, when a forensic expert is to testify on the potential effects of the drugs Sheikh Issa is said to have been given, The National said.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Iran: Photos of Abyaneh

To see more photos of the picturesque mountain village of Abyaneh, just click here.

Abu Dhabi bails out Dubai

Source: Sydney Morning Herald
Abu Dhabi has stepped in to help fellow United Arab Emirates member Dubai with a $US10 billion ($10.9 billion) injection, of which $US4.1 billion was allocated to troubled state-owned conglomerate Dubai World to pay immediate obligations.
The move was the least expected of all options Dubai had on the table after requesting a standstill on $US26 billion in Dubai World debt on November 25, alarming markets and shaking the image of the emirate as a regional business hub.
"The government of Abu Dhabi has agreed to fund $10 billion to the Dubai Financial Support Fund that will be used to satisfy a series of upcoming obligations on Dubai World," the chairman od the Dubai Supreme Fiscal Committee said this afternoon in a statement.
"As a first action for the new fund, the government of Dubai has authorised $US4.1 billion to be used to pay the sukuk obligations that are due today."
The local sharemarket jumped on the news, with the benchmark S&P/ASX200 adding 0.4 per cent to close at 4654, after only minutes earlier having hit the day’s low of 4608 points.
S&P futures jumped to be up 0.7 per cent, reversing early losses and pushing Treasury futures to session lows. Hong Kong's Hang Seng index shot up 300 points in the last minutes of morning trade to finish in positive territory, while other markets across Asia also pushed higher.
Abu Dhabi is the largest member of the United Arab Emirates federation and a big oil exporter.
"We are here today to reassure investors, financial and trade creditors, employees, and our citizens that our government will act at all times in accordance with market principles and internationally accepted business practices," Sheikh Ahmed bin Saaed al-Maktoum said in the statement.
"Dubai is, and will continue to be, a strong and vibrant global financial center. Our best days are yet to come."
Excess funds would be used to cater to Dubai World's needs up until the end of April 2010, the statement said.
Dubai has announced a bankruptcy law that it said could be used in case Dubai World and creditors failed to reach an agreement on debt maturing in the future.

"Dubai will announce a comprehensive reorganisation law, a framework that is based upon internationally accepted standards for transparency and creditor protection," Sheikh Ahmed said.
"This law will be available should Dubai World and its subsidiaries be unable to achieve an acceptable restructuring of its remaining obligations."

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Sheikh Issa on trial in Abu Dhabi

Source: Financial Times
Abu Dhabi authorities have put on trial Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the ruling family caught on tape apparently torturing an Afghan business associate, the Financial Times can reveal.

Sheikh Issa, one of 19 sons of Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates and Abu Dhabi's late ruler, is charged with causing harm and endangering life.
This unprecedented trial, held away from the public eye, will be seen as a barometer for the rule of law in Abu Dhabi, where the lines between the government and ruling families are blurred.
A former aide, Bassam Nabulsi, leaked a video this year that appeared to show Sheikh Issa brutally torturing an Afghan commodities trader, Mohammed Shah Poor, in 2004.
Mr Nabulsi, a US citizen, is suing for damages in a separate case in Texas, claiming Sheikh Issa had him tortured and imprisoned after he threatened to reveal the tapes' existence.
The graphic scenes - censored in the UAE - appear to show Sheikh Issa beating Mr Poor with nails, suffocating him by shoving sand in his mouth and driving a 4x4 vehicle over his body, helped by security guards.
In April the video was broadcast on US television, prompting politicians to question a nuclear cooperation agreement with the UAE .
In May, Abu Dhabi authorities detained Sheikh Issa , who does not hold a government position, and began a criminal investigation, saying "all persons are equal before the law". Despite concern about airing the ruling family's dirty linen, the government has pressed on with the trial.
A spokesman said it would be inappropriate to comment while proceedings are in progress.
The trial of Sheikh Issa and the security guards began two months ago. It has been held discreetly at courts in Abu Dhabi's second city, al-Ain. Sheikh Issa is being detained, according to his lawyer, but his whereabouts are unknown.
Habib al-Mulla, Sheikh Issa's lawyer, says his client does not remember anything about the events captured on video, arguing diminished responsibility.
Mr Mulla claims Mr Nabulsi and his brother manipulated events and used the videos to blackmail the sheikh. "He was drugged with prescriptions provided by the Nabulsis," Mr Mulla said.
Tony Buzbee, Mr Nabulsi's lawyer, rejected those claims as "ridiculous".

Iran: Isfahan photos

Photos of Isfahan are here.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Friday, 4 December 2009

Iran: Out and about in Tehran

After breakfast of bread, fetta cheese, tomatoes and cucumber we headed up into the hills of Tehran to see Niyavaran Palace where the last Shah and his family lived. Snow had fallen during the night and the footpaths were crunchy with ice. There are 4 separate museums on the site and we started by going into the Ahmad Shahi Pavilion which was the home of the Shah's son until the time they left Iran in early 1979. The upstairs area of the house has been closed to visitors for some time apparently. We were able to look round the downstairs area including the living area which is full of his personal possessions and books. There are some weird things on display including an enormous polar bear skin floor rug complete with head that had been a gift from Canada and a piece of rock from the moon which was gift from Richard Nixon.We then scrunched through the snow to Sahebqaranieh which is a Qajar era palace from the late 1700s. The palace served as the Shah's office during his reign and contains many priceless paintings. There is a room directly off the main audience room of the palace which is fully set up as a dental surgery. I guess the Shah must have expected serious dental problems. In the bathrooms there are gold plated taps and towel rings - did I ever tell you about my optician in London who rented his surgery rooms from an Arab family? There were solid gold taps in the 'special client' bathroom. Anyway, back to the Shah's office palace, in the Waiting Room there are photos of some of the notables who've visited including Eisenhower, Nixon, Ataturk, the Queen and Hitler.

Next stop was into the old part of Tehran to visit the Golestan Palace buildings. There are several buildings set around a lovely garden. I was really happy because there was a folkdancing troupe from Mashad performing in the centre of the garden, accompanied by 3 musicians on nai, daf and tar. In one of the buildings is an audience hall where the first Pahlavi shah crowned himself Bonaparte-style. The hall is magnificent, the walls are covered in mirrors and the effect is stunning.

Final stop for the day was the National Museum of Iran where we saw many pieces recovered from the Sailk Hills site in Kashan that we'd visited a few days ago.

In the evening we had dinner at the restaurant in the hotel, listened to live music and enjoyed a performance by a male singer. Female singers do not perform in public here, nor can you buy CDs by female singers as they're banned (Iranians buy them in Dubai and bring them back.......)

Tomorrow we fly back to Dubai and I'll do a summary.

Iran: Kashan-Qom-Tehran

Our day started with a visit to the Fin Gardens in Kashan. It is a wonderfully restful place to visit with many pools and fountains which are fed by an underground spring. There is an open 2 storey pavilion which was built for Shah Abbas I and is 400 years old while behind it is another smaller pavilion which is relatively new being only 200 years old. Also in the grounds is a large bathhouse best known in Iran as the place where a former prime minister and education reformer, Amir Kabir, was murdered in 1848.
From the Fin Gardens we drove to Qom, the most holy city for Shia Muslims as it contains the Nazrat-e Masumeh shrine, the grave of Fatimeh, the sister of the 5th Imam. Times have changed; when I was in Iran in 1978 access to Qom was forbidden to non-Muslims and at that time there were signboards on the highway informing non-Muslims that they could not go within 5 miles of the holy city and there was a special bypass on the highway that skirted the city. Nowadays there is access to Qom but travellers must dress conservatively, act discretely and enjoy whatever level of access may be given to them ie sometimes photography is ok, sometimes its not. Ayatollah Khomeini lectured in Qom before his exile as the city is a theological centre for Shia Islam with numerous colleges and madrassah. On the streets of Qom the women were 100% wearing chador and to get into the Hazrat-e Masumeh shrine I had to borrow one. A chador is like a large piece of bedsheet that's worn over the head and falls loosely to the ground. It's held closed across the front of the body by one hand or in some cases by the teeth. Give me an abaya any day!
Inside the shrine we were able to take some photos and then we were invited in to the majlis to meet Mullah Hosseini. Mullah Hosseini had spent the last 20 years or so living in Dubai and he had been a member of the 'clergy' at the Jumeirah Mosque. The Mullah speaks perfect English and, while his secretary took copious notes, he discussed Islam's relationship with the nations of the west, western perceptions and prejudices against Islam in general, Iran's face to the world and inter-Islamic relations. A fascinating discussion and a memorable experience. After the serious discussion was over we talked about Dubai. The Mullah knew Ravis restaurant well and he confessed that he misses Lal's supermarket in Satwa.
From Qom it was a long drive into Tehran. Not in distance but in time. Everything anyone has ever said about Tehran traffic being wild,demented uncontrolled, gut wrenching and terrifying is true. At one point Jess and I could no longer watch and we were highly mature, shut our eyes and hid under our coats. I cannot begin to describe the sheer terror of being a passenger in a car in Tehran. Jess and I were in the backseat without seatbelts as they're only mandatory for front seat passengers but poor Colin, he may have had the seatbelt but he also had a closer view of the mayhem that was going on around us. Except for when he put his hat over his face because he couldn't handle it any more!
In the evening while Colin went out to buy sharwarmas, Jess and I went for a walk around the area just to window shop. Our walk involved crossing the road several times and I'd figured that the Cairo technique of crossing one lane at a time, checking for injuries and then crossing the next lane as so on until reaching the far shore, seemed to be the best approach. Eeek, it was at this point that I discovered that since being knocked over by the stupid Nissan Sunny on a Dubai pedestrian crossing, I'm not so gung-ho about traffic. I stood cowering on the roadside, Jess was in 'let's do this thing' zone so she was ready to tackle the challenge. A local couple came along to cross the road, we quickly put them between ourselves and the oncoming traffic and following their lead we safely negotiated the first crossing. The subsequent times we crossed on our own with one of us saying "I'm scared Mum, I don't want to do this......" and that was me!
Anyway we made it back safely to the hotel, ate the largest shawarmas in creation and tomorrow we have a full day seeing the sights of Tehran.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Iran: Isfahan-Yazd-Kashan

Isfahan Day 2

Today started with a visit to the 900 year old Jameh Mosque. Over the centuries additions have been made to the mosque by the various dynasties that have ruled Iran, so we saw both coloured mosaics and in the older parts the beauty was in the simplicity of colour and the geometric designs. In the original parts of the mosque there's very little mosaic work, the designs, calligraphy and geometric patterns are all formed by bricks. Each dome has a different design and the pillars are marked with patterns. The bricks that formed the huge interior walls have been arranged in designs. It amazed me that, back when there were no CAD drawings, no calculators, no electricity even, people designed these intricate patterns, someone worked out how many bricks they'd need, someone else had the skills to translate that into a precise plan and others had the skills to turn that plan into a reality – the Project Managers of the day I guess.

In the middle of the mosque's main courtyard which is surrounded by 4 porches or iwans, is a stone platform which pilgrims used to practice for the haj to Mecca. A mullah would stand on the platform and instruct the pilgrims on what actions to perform and what to say.

From there we went to see a minaret that's now in the middle of the suburbs but used to be part of a caravanserai (a place where travellers could stay overnight). Its surrounded by a small park and Hushang bought bread and we sat in the park enjoying the autumn colours of the trees. Very, very nice. From there we went to see one of the few surviving synagogues in Isfahan.

A short drive took us back to the Zayandeh River and the Khaju Bridge which was built by Shah Abbas in 1650. We were lucky enough to come across an impromptu performance by a local man singing an ancient love song in a strong and well trained voice. A small crowd of men of various ages had gathered round, including a couple of soldiers, and they listened intently as the men sang of his beloved compared the lady's voice to a nightingale etc. We he finished everyone clapped enthusiastically and it was interesting that the young people enjoyed the performance of a old classical song as much as their elders.

From the bridge we went to the “40 Column Palace” Chenel Sotun. There are 20 columns at the front of the palace but its called 40 Column because the columns are reflected in the long pool in front of the building. Inside the palace are vibrant wall paintings showing various battles scenes together with scenes of receptions for important visitors with dancing and music. The Afghans invaded in the 18th century and covered the paintings in whitewash as they did not approve of such displays of frivolity. Fortunately the paintings survived underneath and are now on view again though restoration work continues.

We then headed back to Naqsh-e Jahan Square to see Ali Qapu Palace which was built in the 16th century. Its 6 stories tall and originally served as the gateway to the park palaces, the last surviving palace is Chenel Sotun. We climbed up several flights of stairs to a large terrace which overlooks all of Imam Square, giving a wonderful view. Isfahan is preparing for the visit of Mr Ahmadinejad later in the week so we watched from the terrace as scaffolding was erected in front of the Imam Mosque and huge pictures of Mr A. and various clergymen were attached. We then went up a few more flights of stairs to the music room. The stucco walls and ceiling of the music room have cut-out shapes of kitchen items and musical instruments and its these empty areas give perfect acoustics for live performances.

To end a magical day we walked to the Abassi Hotel Teahouse to have more ashe reshre, the nomad stew.

We travelled a couple of hours by road to Naem where we visited the 10th century mosque. Under the mosque is a complex of underground tunnels used for prayer during the heat of the summer. We then travelled to Meybod where Hushang showed us windtowers and an ancient icehouse where water was frozen during winter (pretty darn easy believe me) and then stored underground for use during summer. We went across the road to visit the old caravanserarai which has been transformed into an arts centre and restaurant.

From there we continued to Yazd which is one of the oldest towns in the world. We first went to the Amir Chakmaq Complex in the central square, the main building is a takieh a building used during Shi'ite ceremonies to mourn the death of Imam Hossein. Outside the takieh is a huge palm shaped frame called a nakheel (same as Arabic) which is carried around the city during the Shi'ite Ashura ceremonies. We climbed up on to the terrace of the takieh to look at the badgirs or windtowers that are on the roofs of most of the houses in the old part of the town. We then went out of town to the Zoroastrian fire temple, where the sacred fire has been burning for 2,000 years. We'd already been out to see the Towers of Silence where up to the 1960s Zoroastrians left their dead to be disposed of by birds of prey.
From there we moved on to the Jamah Mosque which was built in the 15th century and has a gorgeous tiled exterior with mosaic inscriptions from the Quran. While Hushang went off to prayer we took lots of photos which will be on Smugmug as soon as possible when we get back to Dubai.We then went for a walk through the old part of Yazd which is full of narrow alleys, hidden courtyards and motorbikes coming at you from every angle. We visited an old traditional house which has been transformed into a magnificent hotel, then spent a few minutes at Alexander's Prison which isn't a prison and Alexander was never there........We stayed the night at the Dad Hotel, booked for no other reason than the name. Its not actually “Dad” but “Daad” which means justice and is the family name of the hotel's founder. The site was formerly a garage and photos of the restoration process are on the hallway walls. The hotel was beautifully presented, comfortable and worth a return visit.

We left Yazd for a 4 hour drive to the village of Abyaneh which is about 25 miles as the crow flies from one of Iran's nuclear reactors. The military was in evidence in the area, both in the number of checkpoints on the way to the village and also the many artilliary, tanks and anti-aircraft guns clearly visible just off the road. The village is high up in the mountains and we started seeing flurries of snow as we approached, by the time we arrived the snow as falling with a vengence. The houses in the village are all a pale red colour as they're made from local clay bricks. The area was hard to reach for years and its isolation has resulted in the residents speaking an archane version of Persian that died out years ago in the rest of Iran. We wandered around the village meeting several groups of young Iranian tourists on the way. We went to the Zeyaratgah Shrine which is dedicated to the grandson of the 5th Imam, there was a separate porch covered with photos of local boys who has died in the Iran-Iraq war. The mixture of red buildings with white snow covering every available inch of their rooftops had an almost fairytale quality.
It was a long afternoon drive to Kashan a town that's been occupied since 4th century BC. We looked around Khan-e Tabatabei, which is now a museum/craft shops and previously the home of a wealthy merchant. The entrance to the house is through a nondesecript door off an alleyway but once you're through the door it was a different world. The house is magnificent, comprising over 40 rooms and over 4730 sq metres with 5 separate courtyards. Several of the rooms had delicate leadlight windows.
As the light faded we went briefly to Tappeh-ye Seyalk (Sialk) an archaeological site dating from 4th century BC. The site is still being excavated by a German team.
Later in the evening we had dinner at an outdoor traditional Persian restaurant where we sat on a carpet on a raised wooden platform eating kebabs and rice which went down a treat. Colin and I are both now hooked on doogh which is like a mint flavoured laban. The owner was very friendly, like everyone we're met so far. Tomorrow we head for the holy city of Qom and then on to The Big City - Tehran.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Iran: First day in Isfahan

After a slow start to our first day in Isfahan, we visited the Hamman-e Ali Gholi Agha which was a bathhouse and is now a museum, and from there to the shaking minarets at Manar Jomban. The minarets are on top of the tomb of a local holy man who died in the 14th century and when someone pushes hard against one of the minarets it will start to sway. After a short time the movement transfers to the second minaret. Bells are attached to both so people on the ground can hear as well as see the movement. We then headed into the centre of Isfahan to visit Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square to see the Imam Mosque. The mosque dates from the 1600s and is breathtaking, stunning and every other awestruck word I can think of. With its exterior of blue and green tiles inlaid in intricate geometric patterns with sections of mosaic calligraphy easy to see why its considered to be one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. Inside there are 4 porches or iwans with walls and ceilings covered in mosaic tiles. The acoustics inside the main sanctuary give echoes so that a speaker in the main area can be heard all over the mosque. Further through the mosque are two madrasehs with lovely gardened courtyards. From there we ventured into the Bazar-e Bozorg which abutts the Imam Mosque. The oldest parts of the bazaar are believed to be more than 1,000 years old and are formed by covered laneways with domed ceilings. There's no doubt that you are walking with history here and it would be no surprise to see Ali Baba emerge from any of the dark corners of the bazaar.

In the evening we walked down to Si-o-Seh Bridge which is known as the 33 arch bridge over the Zayandeh River in Isfahan. The bridge was built in 1599 and is both a bridge and a dam. It gives beautiful views of the city and is beautifully lit to showcase its arches and brickwork. Its also a great place to watch the people passing by.

Here I have to say that driving in Iran, from what I've seen so far, is terrifying. Its makes Dubai driving seem orderly and safe in comparison. Iranian roads are full of ancient 'Paykan's, an Iranian manufactured car which looks like a Hillman Hunter from the 1960s.
Also, the chador is very apparent on the streets of Shiraz and Isfahan, in Isfahan it seemed like probably 50% of women were wearing the flowing black cloak over their street clothes. All women must wear hijab to cover their hair. Many Iranian women wear brightly coloured scarves pushed well back on their heads to show off their hairstyles. For us as foreign visitors we've followed the local ladies, none of the complex pinning, tucking and folding that we're used to in the Gulf, in Iran you just put a scarf over your head, throw the right half over the left shoulder, then the left half over the right shoulder and its done.

Photos are here