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“Visiting the Once-Forbidden Lands of Central Asia and Iran”
by Diane LeBow; photography by John Montgomery
John and I recently spent a month visiting whole new worlds for us. Always we try to go to destinations before the tourist brigades arrive. In fact, we saw few tourists and only a handful of Americans during our time in Iran, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The names along our route had beckoned me for many years: Tashkent, Samarkand, Ashkhabad, Yazd, Shiraz (sorry, no wine-making there these days), Persepolis, Isfahan, and of course Tehran.
Since magic carpets from Turkey to India, Afghanistan, Morocco and more leave no more floor or wall space for a newcomer in our home, John and I decided we would eschew any tea ceremony in a “Best Carpet Shop” along our route.
After a stop in Istanbul to see old friends and re-visit this vibrant city, off we flew to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I’d been to Tajikistan but had no idea what some of the other “stans” would surprise us with.
The Silk Road dates back to the 2nd C BCE and stretched from Xian, China to the Mediterranean. Its camel caravans traveled each day from one caravansary to the next, these motels of the desert, offering shelter and food for the merchants and their livestock. The Silk Road was the equivalent of our truck and train routes today until 14th century ships and sea routes replaced them.
There was a lot of history to absorb. Warriors and rulers crossing these lands included Cyrus the Great, Tamerlane, Darius, Xerxes, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Arabs, and finally the Russians. Equal to the complex history are the brilliant arts, architecture, tiling and mosaics and the seemingly infinite numbers of gorgeous mosques.
Tashkent, one of Uzbekistan’s oldest cities, surprised us with its chic shops and modern urban life. In Samarkand, we enjoyed lunch at the home and workshop with famous ceramicists, the Narzulayev family. We bought a beautifully decorated blue bowl and noticed that on the walls hung photos of Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright, who had lunched and shopped here in years past.
Turkmenistan was traditionally a land of nomadic horseman. Very special to me, as a former horse trainer, was our visit to a woman-owned-and-run stud farm (what fun to write that) whose owner is breeding back to re-establish the famous “golden” Akhal-Teke horse, which dates from at least a thousand years ago.
The country’s capital, the white marble and gold city of Ashkabad, made us feel that we had entered a cross between a set from the Wizard of Oz and Disneyland. The city however is almost a Potemkin town in that few inhabitants reside in the sparkling and majestic high rises as the majority of Turkmen farm or raise livestock. Both the current and former eccentric rulers used the country’s vast oil and gas reserves to build this fantasy city as well as attempt to create enormous pine forests–on this barren desert land. But they’ve had little success getting people to move into the city.
Iran: Yes, I did have to wear a scarf on my head and a long shirt or “manteau” that would protect Iranian men from swooning over my derriere. However, we were not prepared for being surrounded throughout each day, not by Revolutionary Guards or enraged locals chanting “Death to America,” but rather curious and welcoming people. These ranged from school children to older adults. “Where are you from?” each new group would surround us. “USA,” we replied with some trepidation in our first day there. “Welcome. We are so glad you have come to Iran.” The difficult part was breaking away finally, after lots of photo-taking–us, them, all of us together. “What part of the USA?” “What is your profession?” “Do you have children?” As we’d depart–each time–they would shout after us, flashing peace signs: “We LOVE you,” and we’d respond in kind.
These folks, like most Americans and people around the world, want to enjoy fulfilling lives in peace and wish all of our governments would get out of the way. Here in Iran, the people we met are frightened that the USA or Israel is likely to bomb them at any moment.
One of our favorite Iranian towns, Shiraz, known as the “City of Roses and Nightingales,” was the home of poets, including Hafez, and gorgeous gardens. At UNESCO World Heritage site Persepolis, we walked up the broad staircase in the footsteps of the rulers of the Ancient World, who came here bearing gifts in homage to Darius the Great.
Our last couple of days in Tehran with a young guide (who plans to move to L.A and told us it was easy to make a lot of money in Iran, but not specifying how), in addition to visiting the amazing Archaeological and Carpet Museums, the Arts Forum, and more, we went to the top of the brilliant Borj-e Milad, or Tehran Tower, at 1,427 feet one of the ten tallest towers in the world, with its magnificent view all over Tehran and its surrounding mountains. A brilliant new moon shone overhead as we made our way through Tehran’s worse-than-LA traffic jams and smog back to our hotel to pick up our luggage and head out to the airport and our midnight flight. There was not an Argo-like police car in sight nor chasing our plane as we lifted off.
Well, yes, we did buy a gorgeous Persian silk carpet–but only a small one.