Posts Tagged ‘Silk Road’

Nick Smith’s feature on Iran in Geographical magazine, June 2009 (full text)

May 26, 2009

A new dawn for Iran?

Ever since the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s Iran has been something of a closed book to the west. But as the election of Barack Obama as U.S. President heralds a softening of attitude towards Iran, travellers are starting to rediscover a country radically different from the image presented by the media. By Nick Smith

Sitting in a teahouse in Esfahan smoking an apple-scented ghalyan, Hassan tells me he is quietly optimistic about Iran’s future. ‘For us Persians it has been a confusing time. When America invaded Iraq, we were happy.’ Hassan seems to use the words ‘Iran’ and ‘Persia’ interchangeably, but as I get to know him better it becomes just about distinguishable that the former refers to the modern political state, and the latter to the geographical region and cultural empire he still lives in.

Hassan regards himself as informed on international issues. He’s been a shop assistant in London, a taxi driver in California, and fought in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. These days he is retired, and prefers to spend his time drinking tea and talking with the increasing numbers of foreigners who travel to see the most splendid city in Islamic Iran. At the end of the 16th Century, Shah Abbas – the greatest influence in the creation of modern Iran – made the remote desert town of Esfahan his capital, commissioning beautiful works of art and grand architecture. Esfahan has been described for centuries by the people who live there as ‘half of the world’, and it is easy to see why.

For several mornings Hassan and I listened to news reports of the run-up to the Presidential election on an old valve radio in the teahouse in a side-street running off the Royal Square. On more than one occasion, he confided in me that his only real worry was that once America withdrew from its occupation of Iraq, it would turn the spotlight on his homeland. ‘I always believed that my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ he said, crunching his way through a plate of saffron-flavoured sugar crystals. But for Hassan, this simplistic expression of ‘realist statecraft’ might at last be coming true, because with the subsequent inauguration of Barack Obama as America’s 44th President, the pressure, for the moment at least, is off.

In his inaugural address in January, Obama made it clear that his foreign policy in respect of the Middle East would differ radically from that of his predecessor George W Bush. ‘To the Muslim world,’ said Obama, ‘we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.’ Less than a week later, he elaborated on this, saying: ‘My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.’ Not so much as a whiff of the ‘axis of evil’. The Wild West rhetoric of Bush’s post 9/11 pronouncements – ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’ – now seems to belong to a different age.

Meanwhile, former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has said that Obama’s inauguration raises hopes for a peaceful solution to the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme through diplomatic engagement. According to Blix: ‘Bush was the worst for treating people without respect. The policy was that the US was the good guy and they would keep order among the unruly children of the world.’ While back in February 2008, Bush was steadfastly refusing to rule out any ‘options’, his replacement will, as Blix says, ‘be more ready to enter into direct talks. We should get a much more creative and positive attitude.’ During my recent visit to Iran, I only saw one piece of evidence to suggest international relations are strained. As I drove past a heavily guarded power station on the highway between Yazd and Kashan, I saw clusters of mobile rocket launchers and gun emplacements with their sights trained north, scanning for incoming air raids from Israel.


Iran’s image is changing. This is happening because of the popularity of films such as ‘Persepolis’ and the trendy contemporary books such as Reading Lolita in Tehran. And although you can’t easily read Reading Lolita in Tehran in Tehran (much less Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita), the rules are starting to relax. The increasing ease with which you can travel here means that it’s becoming popular again. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Iran was the Middle East’s top tourist destination, but numbers dwindled following the overthrow of the Shah. Three decades on and the tourism industry is booming again. Statistics released by the Iranian tourism office show that the number of foreign tourists has doubled in the past three years.

‘Roughly one million tourists visited Iran in 2004,’ says Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Chief of the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO). Mashaei highlights the improved facilities provided to tourists and recognises the contribution electronic visas are making in simplifying the immigration procedure. To date, 250,000 e-visas have been issued, while reports of visa applications quadrupling from territories such as South Korea are becoming the norm. Iran’s ‘20-Year Vision’ document projects investment of over $32 billion in the country’s tourism sector. The document also predicts that Iran will account for two per cent of all international tourists by 2025.

One of the reasons for this is the success of the touring exhibition The Glory of Persia, which recently moved from Japan to South Korea. A dazzling exhibit of artifacts dating back to the 6th century BCE, the exhibition introduces Iranian history, culture and art to other nations. The ICHHTO, which has also recently taken major Iranian cultural exhibitions to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Britain and Mexico, is now planning to set up camp in the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it is scheduled to host an exhibition in 2013.

More immediately, currently running at the British Museum is Shah Abbas: the remaking of Iran, the first major exhibition to explore the rule and legacy of Shah Abbas, Shah of Iran from 1587–1629. According to Sheila Canby, the exhibition’s curator: ‘Shah Abbas was restless, decisive, ruthless and intelligent. This exhibition will provide a rare opportunity to learn about this important ruler. Shah Abbas was a critical figure in the development of Iran and his legacy is still with us today.’

But it’s not just a question of Iran touring the world. Although independent travel in Persia is still difficult, travel companies at the more adventurous end of the spectrum are starting to turn their attention towards offering Iran as a destination for escorted travel. One such operator is Simoon Travel. Managing Director Amelia Stewart explains: ‘the reason we wanted to move into Iran was that we knew it would be so different from the much-maligned portrait painted by the Western media. We wanted to see for ourselves, and we weren’t disappointed.’

Simoon’s itinerary is based on a classic journey along an old Silk Road trading route from Shiraz north to Tehran. Enthusiasts for Robert Byron’s classic The Road to Oxiana will be familiar with the names of many of the places of archaeological and architectural interest… Persepolis, Pasargadae, Esfahan and Yazd. Those with a wider-ranging knowledge of Persian travel literature will recognise the trip as an almost exact replica of one of the legs of Michael Carroll’s ‘Travels in Old Iran’ from the 1960s, which he describes in his largely forgotten classic From a Persian Tea House. Travellers expecting a literary, cultural and archaeological feast won’t come away empty-handed: ‘One of the great things about travelling in Iran,’ says Stewart, ‘is that the people make it. They are so warm and welcoming, charming and funny. They will go out of their way to ensure your time in Iran is memorable.’


Many writers have tried to capture the magic of Persia. Isabella Bird, Vita Sackville-West and Freya Stark have all chipped in with their observations on subjects as diverse as the beauty of Persian gardens, traditional village weddings and descriptions of the qanats or ancient underground irrigation tunnels that deliver water from the mountains to the desert cities. Lord Curzon, the great imperialist and President of the Royal Geographical Society immediately prior to the outbreak of the Great War, wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, Persia and the Persian Question (1892). This had such a penetrative influence that even two decades later, writers daring to comment on Persia were openly apologetic to Curzon for encroaching on his territory.

One such was W P Cresson (a fellow of the RGS) who, writing in 1908 in Persia: The Awakening East, describes his arrival in Tehran in such wonderful prose it’s worth quoting at length: ‘since daybreak we had been hoping, at every moment, to catch our first glimpse of the towers and minarets of the Persian capital. From time to time, in answer to repeated questioning, our sleepy driver would wave his whip in a comprehensive sweep that took in the whole sky-line ahead, empty of any sign of habitation except the occasional distant village of high-walled garden, and muttering a reassuring “Tahran Anja” would lapse once more into a state of blissful unconsciousness.’

Arriving in modern Tehran today is nothing like that, although the reasons for wishing to go there in the first place are probably identical. Iran ranks 7th in the world in terms of number of UNESCO heritage sites, and knocks spots off the overcrowded commercialised mega-archaeology of Egypt, Greece and even Turkey… When you go to Persepolis today, or for that matter Pasargadae or any other of the wonderful sites of ancient archaeology, you’ll most likely find yourself on your own. As you wander around these old rocks and stones you can mentally reconstruct the scenes of Darius’s palatial splendour in his summer palaces. British-naturalised Iranian photographer and explorer Henry Dallal tells me: ‘when we were kids we all went to Persepolis on a school trip – it’s the greatest place on earth.’  

The more I traveled through Iran, the more I realised that every preconception I’d based on television news bulletins and the foreign pages of the broadsheets was almost entirely wrong. Our media insists on bombarding us with absurd clichés of rogue nuclear power reactors, public executions and starving, oppressed masses forced to eat the bark off the trees to survive. On the other hand, if you believe the romantic fiction of most guidebooks published today, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that modern Iran is awash with nightingales, pomegranates and poetry. ‘I don’t understand any of this,’ says Hassan as we embark on yet another glass of sweet tea. ‘We’ve only got one nuclear power station, and we use it for generating our domestic power. And I haven’t seen a nightingale in years. When you go home tell your friends to come and see Persia for themselves.’


Iran – Travel co-ordinates

Nick Smith travelled to Iran with desert and cultural specialists Simoon Travel who organise tailor-made and group tours to Persia as well as Libya, Algeria and Oman. Experienced guest lecturers often accompany the tours and groups do not exceed 15 in number. The company also works closely with schools to offer educational trips to these destinations. For a brochure call Amelia or Clare on 020 7622 6263 or visit

Nick Smith interview with Colin Thubron from 2008 (as published in Geographical magazine – heritage stuff)

May 15, 2009

Writer on the road

One of the true elder statesmen of travel writing, Colin Thubron muses on his new book, the dangers of vodka and why you’re never alone when you’re on the road.  Words and portrait by Nick Smith

Colin Thubron disappears into his kitchen to make coffee. He’s concerned that his telephone doesn’t seem to work properly since he tried to install broadband, and he is irritated on my behalf that crossing London on the Underground network has taken an unfairly long time and has made me late for my appointment with him. We’re in his smart west London apartment in a leafy avenue near Queen’s Gate, and while the silver-haired Thubron waits for the kettle to boil we make small talk about how difficult it is to hook up to the Internet. As he clatters around with mugs and spoons I surreptitiously scan his bookcases.

His book collection tells its own narrative of a man as fascinated with the progress of 20th century English literature as with travel. The novels of William Golding share shelf-space with the travel classics of Patrick Leigh Fermor, while the poems of T S Eliot are up there with histories of the Mughal princes.  This duality of the literary and the geographical is an important thread that runs through Thubron’s life. While it is true that he is one of our best loved and most accomplished travel writers he is also a novelist of some stature. He may well have won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1988 for his epic Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, but as recently as 2002 he was short-listed for the far more prestigious Booker prize for his fictional work To the Last City. His opinion obviously matters: there are new books scattered around clearly sent to him by publishers in the hope that he might favourably review them. And there are others by friends who are authors sent in the hope that he might simply read them (‘I wish I had time to read books by my friends’.)  Although he doesn’t mention it, his roots in literature are deeper still, being an indirect descendant of one of the real heavyweights of the English canon, the 17th century Augustan poet John Dryden. Watching over this literary melting pot in the corner there is an imperious stuffed eagle-owl he dragged back from Spain some years ago, in the days when you could ‘do that sort of thing without raising too many eyebrows.’

Thubron is of course currently in the spotlight on account of his much-anticipated new book, Shadow of the Silk Road. To say it has done well is an understatement with it being easily the best-selling travel book over the Christmas 2006 period, while its author has given an unprecedented three lectures on the subject at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Scenes created by disappointed punters turned away from the Ondaatje lecture theatre amounted to little less than dignified rioting. However, this is not to say that Shadow of the Silk Road has met with unmixed critical acclaim. His staunchest supporters admit he can be difficult to read and ‘old-fashioned’. But what seems to have annoyed some of the newspaper critics this time around is his decision to include imaginary sequences of dialogue between himself and ancient Silk Road traders, something that the Observer finds ‘embarrassing in their melancholic self-regard.’ Strong stuff indeed, and in no way justified as a criticism of a book that is not just about the objective realities of traveling.

It is also a view that overlooks the point that Thubron is an innovator who, in order to create the emotional and imaginative depth his books require, is happy to experiment by integrating novel writing techniques into his travelogues. This approach is in fact something of a revelation at a time when there are too many undistinguished travel books being put out by mediocre publishers. Some of today’s best authors slip anchor and quietly join another genre (William Dalrymple is now a best-selling popular historian; Philip Marsden is reportedly writing a history of the Battle of Magdala; Justin Marozzi a biography of Herodotus). Lesser writers continue to publish accounts of travel stunts contrived purely for the sake of writing about them. But Thubron, the elder statesman of his art delivers original, literary observation that will still be in print long after we have forgotten the names of some of today’s writers.

Is this alleged decline in travel writing simply down to the fact that there’s nowhere left to go? ‘I do think it’s a slight illusion that there’s nowhere left to travel’ says Thubron. ‘I remember doing a journey in the 1970s in which I took an old car across Asia through Iran and Afghanistan through to Kashmir, North Pakistan and Lebanon. All these places have become difficult, if not impossible, to travel in today. At that time China and the Soviet Union were off the map altogether and I thought I’d never get to explore them. And then suddenly the exact opposite happened – these two massive areas for exploration fall open, while the central Islamic countries are becoming harder to travel in. Things change all the time.’

For the past century, ever since Sir Mark Aurel Stein brought the region to the attention of the wider public, the Silk Road has been a rich hunting ground for explorers and writers. Since the Millennium there has been a major exhibition at the British Library, a television series on the subject by geographer Nick Middleton, as well as the much publicised all-women horseback ride along the length of the route by Alexandra Tolstoy and her three companions. So isn’t this rather over-exposed territory for Thubron? ‘What fascinated me was the countries themselves, the idea of inner Asia, central Asia, Northwest China, the Islamic countries… the sort of in-between countries, those porous borders, the cultural transfusion that resulted from the endless movement of people in antiquity. All that interested me a lot and came before any idea of traveling the Silk Road itself. Then later as a result of my research I realized that the one binding element between all these countries was the Silk Road and so I came to it in a secondary way. I realized by the end of the book that almost all political borders are fake and the real borders are elsewhere.’

The journey that makes up Shadow of the Silk Road was complete by Thubron in two legs, the first in 2003 and the second in 2004. It was impossible for him to get from China to Turkey in one hit because of the war in Afghanistan, a place where according to Thubron ‘it’s not a good idea to take a car.’ Despite the fact that he researched his subject for a year-and-a-half before setting out, the journey was planned in ‘rather a scattershot way’ with a broad idea of which counties he was to travel through, but only ‘the vaguest notion of where I was to go in them.’ He says that this is the only way to do it, having learned that if you try to arrange meetings, book hotels, stick to timetables then the only things you can guarantee are endless hassle, problems and disappointments. ‘You have to get out of that mood you have in England where you expect everything to work for you’ he says glancing mournfully at his telephone. ‘Why should everything work for you? If the buses don’t run, you miss the train, the camel goes lame or the car breaks down then you kind of have to accept that as part of the personality of the country you are in. Whether what happens is bad or good, it doesn’t really matter provided there’s a book at the end of it.’

The idea of there being ‘a book at the end of it’ is something that is always in Thubron’s mind and a driving force behind some of his scarier adventures. To be traveling alone, he says, means that there are always two of you on the journey. In this apparent paradox there’s the one who is physically doing the traveling and the other sitting on your shoulder with a notebook and pencil. And it is the latter who thinks, just as you are being mugged ‘hmmm, this is good copy… I think I’ll we’ll use this.’ It’s a tension between self-preservation and daring that not even the best of writers can resolve. After all, if you are traveling sensibly, at least in theory, then nothing much bad will happen to you. You end up looking for experiences or even worse manufacturing them, whether consciously or not. ‘I’m very ashamed of this,’ says Thubron, ‘but I am aware all the time I am on a journey that it is for a book. All the time there’s this dual business going on. You are going for experience and you push yourself to do things you’d never normally undertake. Maybe something dangerous. But that’s not courage.’

Rather than courage he sees it as application to his trade. While traveling as a professional writer he claims to imagine himself invulnerable in a way that he would not were he on holiday with his girlfriend, for example. Out on assignment he is looking for experiences in a way that others do not, experiences others would try to avoid. He cites as an example the moment he nearly died on the Silk Road journey. It had nothing to do with terrorism, insurgency, Islamic fundamentalism, gun-toting tribal warlords or even natural disaster. It was simply his inability to judge a mundane situation where both he and his Kyrgyz companions had been drinking vodka before getting in a car and driving away. ‘I hadn’t realized how drunk they were. Like most of the Central Asian peasants they were subverted by vodka. The whole car seemed to pass out at the same time, including the driver.’ The car veered slowly towards what Thubron says must have been the ‘only lorry driving in central Kyrgyzstan that night, and I don’t know how we missed it.’ 


Colin Thubron is slightly different from most travel writers today – he comes from a generation when his chosen genre was at its apex. The competition were far fewer in number , though his contemporaries – Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby, Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux – were a fearsomely talented and diverse bunch. But what he has in common with all of them is that he is a writer first and a traveler second. He elaborates by making the point that ‘years ago someone made the distinction between travelers who write and writers who travel.’ He his happy to place himself in the latter category and equally happy to admit to being the ‘someone’ who made the distinction in the first place. ‘Since I was a child I wanted to be a writer. I write novels and I wrote bad poetry as a teenager…’ The telephone rings and we look at each other significantly before agreeing that it must be working again. The interview has come to a close, but there is one last question. I ask him how when the day comes, he would like to be remembered. As a writer? He looks thoughtful before saying: ‘I suppose so, yes. Though it’s difficult to know what a writer is.’

Nick Smith’s recent Daily Telegraph article on traveling through Iran (full text)

May 14, 2009

Priceless Persia

Modern Iran can provide a desert adventure with a real difference. Nick Smith spent a fortnight driving across old Persia, soaking up the ruins, mosques and bazaars

My first encounter with Iran was reading Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, a classic that for many still defines the romance of Persia. Byron travelled to that most famous of ruined desert cities – Persepolis – and described in minute architectural detail the splendours of Iran’s great mosques in Esfahan and Yazd. Oxiana has proved so enduringly popular that Iran has become an imperative for the adventurous traveller. Anyone wishing to sample the splendours that await should pay a visit to the British Museum’s current exhibition Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran.

As a destination Iran can match the grand scale archaeology of ancient Egypt or Jordan, the souks and bazaars of Morocco or Tunisia, or the deserts of northern Africa. And yet, unlike these tried and tested destinations, Iran is blissfully free of package tourists. You will often find that you have archaeological sites all to yourself. Sadly too many people are put off travelling through this exquisite country because of concerns over safety.

My tour of Iran started before I even got to Heathrow. As I packed I listened to Radio 4’s Excess Baggage where John McCarthy discussed Iran with Amelia Stewart of Simoon Travel, a specialist in the region. We’ve all got the wrong idea, said Amelia. These days Iran is safe for everyone. Even women? Especially women. It’s always a good idea to check the Foreign Office ‘travel advisories’ before going anywhere further afield than Spain, but there’s hardly ever any need for special caution when it comes to Iran.

By pure coincidence Amelia was to be my guide for my fortnight in Iran. We met at Tehran before flying south to Shiraz to begin our winding journey across the high salt deserts of old Persia. This ancient Iranian capital city, despite its name, no longer exports fruity red wines, but is now famous for its serene rose gardens, the imposing architecture of the Regent’s Mosque and for being home to the tombs of the great Persian poets Hafiz and Sa’di. Most tours of Iran start in Shiraz because of its proximity to Persepolis, the ruined summer capital of Darius the Great. The bas-reliefs of the procession of the tributary nations on the stairway of the Apandana are a glorious reminder of the achievements of the ancient world.

After Persepolis my tour moved to the tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam, one of the most important Achaemenian and Sasanian sites in the country. Four immense royal tombs have been hewn out of a sheer cliff face in a feat of civil engineering to rival the Pyramids at Giza. Opposite lies the Cube of Zoroaster, thought by archaeologists to be another royal tomb or fire temple. We visited more Zoroastrian sites in Yazd where a sacred flame has burned uninterrupted for 1,500 years. Just outside today’s modern city are the gruesome Towers of Silence where bodies of the dead were, until the 1970s, left exposed to the sky to be picked clean by vultures and crows.

Threading our way through the great mountainous expanse of the Dasht-e Lut desert we stopped for the night at a restored Silk Road caravanserai at Zeinoddin. Here we drank cups of tea sweetened with saffron sugar before experiencing Iranian cuisine in all its glory. A local dish called fesenjan, a type of bitter stew made with pomegranates and walnuts, is served with rice and slices of watermelon, dates, cherries, peaches and dried apples. It’s all washed down with doogh, a refreshing mint flavoured yoghurt drink.

All roads it seems lead to Isfahan, one of the great cities of the Islamic world and the capital of the founding father of modern Iran, Shah ‘Abbas. Isfahan’s Royal Square boasts the two most glorious mosques in Iran – those of Shaykh Lutfallah and Masjid-i Shah – as well as the magnificent Ali Qapu palace. For the souvenir hunter the labyrinthine bazaar sell carpets, silverware and antiques. Horse-drawn carriages take tourists on trips around the city, while side roads dotted with comfortable teahouses drift down to the river where herons and egrets fish at sunset by Isfahan’s famous bridges.

Travelling in the Islamic world requires some knowledge of the basic etiquette, but you might be surprised by how liberal day-to-day Iran can be. Iran – or Persia as you will end up calling it – is relaxed to the point of being laid back, and the people are the friendliest you will meet anywhere. Complete strangers will ply you with tea and invitations to their houses. The only thing a Westerner could ever possibly feel uncomfortable about is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the generosity of the local people.