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14 September

Half the World in One Day

Sep 14, 2005

Dear friend,

Since last letter from Peshawar, Pakistan, I’ve rode around Islamabad, a brand-new planned city that Pakistanis joke that it’s 8km away from Pakistan; visited the excellent museum of Lahore; attended an overnight Sufism drum carnival in a rural Punjabi town; watched the bravado between Indian and Pakistani soldiers during their border-closing ceremony; took the legendarily dangerous (fortunately it’s merely “legendarily”) border-crossing journey from Pakistan to Iran; stayed overnight in a temporary house in the post-earthquake Bam; walked through the lively covered bazaar in Kerman; visited the ruin of Persepolis built more than 2500 years ago; got lost in the maze of adobe alleys in Yazd; and finally I arrived at Esfahan.

As French poet Renier described Esfahan with his famous half-rhyme “Esfahan nesf-e jahan” (Esfahan: half the world), it’s one of the finest cities in the Islamic world. Or rather, Robert Byron ranked it “among those rare places like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity” (He, of course, didn’t foresee how these two South European cities had degenerated over centuries)

I had a very nice day spent in Esfahan and I’d like to share with you my interesting experience, as well as those not so great ones… Read on.

A pleasant day should start with a sunny morning, that’s why I arrived at Imam Square to enjoy the morning sunshine. Imam Square is one of the largest squares in the world, second only to TianAnMen Square in Beijing. 8am sees Imam Square waking up: girls elegantly slide around on bicycles; boys line their bicycles in a circle and play soccer inside; Horse-cabs begin to add rhythm to the square while store-keepers one by one start their business.

Imam Square doesn’t have one great mosque. It has two. The Imam Mosque on the southwest is for the public whereas the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in the east used to be a private praying venue for the royal family.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was built between 1602 and 1619 by the tyrant Shah Abbas I, who killed at least two sons and blinded another. He dedicated this mosque to his father-in-law, a Lebanese Islamic scholar. Because it’s a royal mosque, it doesn’t have a minaret (to call on prayers) or courtyard (to accommodate them), which is very unique. From any position in the Imam Sq one could see its beautiful dome with cream-coloured tiles that change to pink during sunset. Inside the mosque remains some finest Safavid-era mosaic, arabesque designs and magnificent ceiling. I actually visited this mosque twice, in the morning and evening, for full appreciation.

Complementing the beauty of Sheikh Lotfollah is the overwhelming richness of Imam Mosque. Its amazing pattern decoration, blue-tiled mosaic and architectural elegance makes it one of the most beautiful mosques in the world.

Imam Mosque was also built by Shah Abbas I, who never saw its completion. It took 25 years to finish this architectural miracle, designed by the renowned architect Ali Akbar Esfahani. Legend has it that the tyrant was so impatient with the slow progress that he kept demanding shortcuts. Ali didn’t adopt any of his foolish commands and chose to disappear for a while so as to avoid being executed. That’s how this great mosque came into being instead of degenerating into a mediocre one.

To closely observe its blue-tiled dome, I bribed two workers (with about $2), who led me to sneak up onto the roof. There are actually two layers of domes and the hollow space in between is to make loud echoes: there are 49 echoes!!!


Before leaving Imam Square at 10am, I decided to visit a traditional Persian teahouse to have a last bird eye’s view of the square from its rooftop. I chose Qeysarieh Teahouse, one of the most famous, where I met two Iranian girls from Tehran. Slim yet healthy as most Persian girls are, they look like…well…the French princess and her maid in Brave Heart. In decent black hejab (scarf), they were enjoying qalyan (water pipe) when I entered the room. Before I found a table, they waved to me to have tea together. I went over and the story started.

We had a pleasant chat, though they spoke broken if not shattered English, before moving on to do souvenir shopping, ride a horse-cab and have tea again. We enjoyed our time very much but after a while I noticed that they were discussing something privately in Farsi. Before I proposed to part with them so that they could continue with their own schedule, they invited me to their friend’s house. I never waste such opportunity to visit local family during travel, thus I accepted their invitation almost instantly.

We walked a long way, bumped into a very handsome young man (seemed to be a stranger), who joined us and led us to another teahouse before he drove us to his flat. It was quite far away from downtown. In the car I was wondering whether they were a group of gangsters pretending not knowing each other and attempting to kidnap me or rob me. However, as you know, I am an adventurous traveler (or you might call it intrepid/stupid:-) I didn’t stop the car and jump off. Instead, I stayed on and wanted to see what’s gonna happen next.

So the story continued to unfold.

We arrived at a condominium-like building and sneaked into a flat on the third floor (I was told this was to avoid neighbor’s notice, who might otherwise call the police). I first went into the washroom, hung my sweater there and hid my passport, credit cards and cash in it. The trick is: if they really plotted to rob me, they wouldn’t get much from my pocket and chances was that I could leave safely with my invaluable sweater in hand.

When I stepped out of the washroom, I was stunned.

In full Islamic female dressing code just two minutes ago, one of the two girls was in shorts while the other was busy changing into an erotic panty. What followed was the most audacious practice one could imagine.

All at once, I landed in a sex party.

The feeling was like Tom Cruise knocking at the door of a villa and was led into a Shamanism ritual in Eyes Wide Shut.

I wouldn’t have been so stunned if this took place in Amsterdam, Tokyo, or even Singapore or Shanghai. But this was in Iran, a country where one of my friends was arrested merely because he took picture of a lady on the street (he had obtained her approval in advance!!)


On hindsight, I reckon what happened was: after chatting and shopping, one of the girls wanted to develop an intimate relationship with this somehow interesting foreigner, and the “maid” agreed to help her friend. Since they are from Tehran and have no suitable venue in Esfahan, they wandered on the street until this handsome stranger offered one. To reward this offer, they had to include him into this party.

Though a single and non-believer, I admit that my behavior is against moral principles. By frankly confessing it, I sincerely wish my sin would be redeemed by no matter how small a portion.


Five hours later, I was back in downtown Esfahan. My next destination was sunset over the Zayandeh river. While I was bargaining with a taxi driver (what a shame: it was all about 20 cents:-), a private car stopped in front of us and the driver in full chador (black cloak to cover Muslim lady) offered me a free ride.

I had planned to go to Chubi Bridge and have a sunset dinner there. However, when the car approached the elegant Si-o-Seh Bridge, I saw the sunset perfectly shining on this 298m-long fairytale bridge of 33 arches (Si-o-Seh means 33). I put my right palm on my chest to express my gratitude to the girl, and jumped off her car swiftly. It was no more than two minutes, but when I returned to the western side of the bridge trying to revisit the glorious sunshine, the sun had just set behind remote forest and the perfect view had gone.

Well, I was not at all disappointed. Isn’t this exactly the beauty of sunset?

Catching the tail of sunset, I strolled along the river and crossed back and forth each time I saw a bridge, as Iranian families rowed on the river, took pictures by the bridges or had picnics in the riverside parks. It was such a touching scene of lively humanity that made me feel delightful. I smiled to everyone, and said “Salam (Hello)” to whoever greeted me with their smiles.

When I was tired, I sat on the bank and saw the sun gradually disappear from behind the horizon while lamps along the river lit up one by one. In between, a school girl in white hejab came to give me a palm of sunflower seeds, a passing young wife shyly gave me some peanuts and ran away, and a middle-aged lady in chador forced me to accept her biscuits. I was fed by so many people with so much food. Forget about dinner in a teahouse under one of the bridges lah.

It must have been one of the most merry evenings I have spent during this journey.

When I left the bund and entered a CoffeeNet (local term for Internet Cafe), I found that all the terminals were occupied by chadors. The girl in charge apologised to me, I smiled back and said “Khoda Hafez (God Bless You or Goodbye)” to her.

Back in the cool air of “nesf-e jahan”, I spoke to myself: let’s call it a day.

* This was the one word telegraph the British general Charles Napier, who, without approval from London, conquered and included Sindh into British India in 1843, sent London to report both his achievement and fault. The Latin phrase means: I have sinned (Sindh).

Best regards,

Wang Yi

The Rogue Nation Traveler

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