Delijan Fried Chicken


ESFAHAN, IRAN — The suburbs of Tehran slowly gave way to a semi-desert landscape of rock and scrub as I cruised southeast on the highway out of the city. Off in the distance to my left I could see the bleak expanse of the Great Salt Desert, and on my right entrepreneurs had painted bright red and yellow advertisements on boulders and stretches of concrete guardrail, but apart from that there was little to be seen. Iranian road manners tended to become less aggressive outside of populated areas, and the ride was pleasant enough, if not a little dull.

I was still a little rattled from my spill on the way out of Tehran, and my hip was aching, so I decided to wuss out and find a hotel in nearby Qom for the night. Qom wasn’t really on my itinerary. It’s the second-holiest city in Iran, a sort of second-tier Jerusalem for Shi’a Muslims, and is famous for its massive Hazrat-e-Masumeh shrine. It’s also the literal and spiritual home of most of the hardline clerics who’ve ruled the country since 1980. In other words, not really up my alley. But I guessed there must be a selection of decent hotels there, what with the constant flow of pilgrims to the city, and thought better to rest up there before pushing on to Esfahan the next day.

In the failing light the highway curved past a few dozen acres of anti-aircraft batteries, their gun barrels all trained on the same imaginary target in the sky, and I remembered reading something about a uranium enrichment installation being built somewhere near the city. I crossed a dried-up riverbed and into the city itself, and I could see that the guidebook was right: the Ayatollah Khomenei’s face was everywhere, and much unlike the scene in Tehran, all the women were wearing black chadors. And for all its presumed privilege as the home of the revolution, the cityscape was notably tumbledown and disorderly, with many vacant lots separating ramshackle two-storey structures. Large-scale trade in watermelons appeared to comprise a large part of the local economy.

I pulled over to fiddle with my GPS and find a place to stay. Moments after I stopped, a smiling, bearded man with thick, 1980s glasses leapt in front of my headlight. “Hello!” he said, offering his hand. “I am journalist! You are from Yugoslavia!”

People I’ve met east of Ukraine all assumed the ‘BG’ on my license plate signified Bulgaria, and not Belgrade, and he was the first guy to get it right. Well done, sir. I answered that yes, the Vespa’s registration was indeed Serbian, but I myself was from Canada. This confused him to no end, but he nonetheless wanted to help me find a hotel. Here I was in the least liberal corner of Iran, a city that traded on the vilification of the Great Satan (and presumably, the Great Satan’s little buddy to its north), and this ‘journalist’ who’d followed me now wanted me to follow him somewhere. Night had fallen now, and the highbeams of passing motorcycles flickered through the dust across an enormous nearby mural of the Ayatollah’s glowering face. I’ll admit that my spidey-sense was tingling — but I put those thoughts out of my head and took him up on his offer. My new journalist friend got in his Paykan, and I tailed him.

Of course, I was just being paranoid. The guy was the genuine article — an affable newspaperman on the lookout for fluff pieces for his paper. He led me to a clean and cheap hotel with parking, which was exactly what I needed, then sat me down for an interview. The bemused reception girl did a great job translating when his English faltered, which is just as well, because I’d never been interviewed about my trip before, and I needed time to come up with reasonable answers to questions like “Why do this tour on a scooter?” His only probing question was the very same one I’d had from nearly every Iranian I’d met: “Weren’t you afraid to come to Iran? Don’t you think we’re all terrorists?” Something tells me that that question is more about the satisfaction of the person asking it, rather than whatever the answer might be.

A quick visit to the Hazrat-e-Masumeh shrine before bed was in order, and I walked downtown. It’s the only major landmark in Qom, really, visible at night for miles around thanks to it being illuminated with klieg lights like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The streets fill with Shi’a pilgrims as you approach it, entire families sleeping on cardboard strewn across the sidewalk, and various Arab forms of dress start appearing, quite distinct from the more westernized Iranian wardrobe. While non-Muslims such as myself aren’t allowed in to see the shrine, you can walk into the courtyard of the complex to see the entrance. And it is impressive. The dome alone is encrusted with a stunning amount of gold.

I took a stroll through the massive bazaar adjoining the courtyard, past the candy section, and couldn’t help myself and picked up a box of pistachio butter cookies. While counting out my change, the candy shop man looked me up and down and asked, “Arab?”

“Excuse me?” I said. I didn’t understand the question. Was he trying to sell me an Arab? Was he running a side business, quite apart from the candy trade?

“Arab,” he said. “Are you Arab.”

Wow. That was a new one. “No,” I said, “I’m Canadian.”

“Aha,” he said, one eyebrow raised, as though he didn’t believe me. “Are you Christian?”

I replied that that was a personal question, and I didn’t want to talk about religion, and could I please have my cookies? This got him going; there was some palpable frustration in his face. “What do you mean? You have to be something!”

“In that case I’m a Protestant. Protestant Christian.”

He was happy with that answer and handed me my box of cookies. I ate half the box on the way home, and they were delicious.

THE FOLLOWING MORNING I pointed my bike towards Esfahan and gunned it. At one point along the way, the Hamburglar almost died, losing power like the engine was either flooding or being starved of fuel, and I lurched along working through all the gears and listening to the engine as I revved it in neutral. Just as I was about to pull over to start examining things, the problem went away and the bike seemed fine. I put that worrying little episode out of my mind, cranked the throttle, and my bike’s twelve furious horses launched me down the highway.

I pulled over for lunch in a sleepy town called Delijan. Now, just like elsewhere in Iran, roadside diners there are pretty much limited to one meal: chicken, beef, or lamb kebab; grilled tomatoes; some excellent flat bread called sangak; and rice, all washed down with an Istak-brand malted beverage. Now, don’t get me wrong — this is a fine meal. I ate it often, and never had a stinker. But a man can’t eat that three times a day. The other lunch options in Iran are to hit up a fast food joint for a pizza or a hamburger, but I’d experimented with that earlier and the results weren’t pretty. I decided to get a little adventuresome and try the third way, which was something called “Kentucky.” You see this stuff advertised everywhere in Iran, and if you guessed that “Kentucky” means fried chicken, you’d be right. Sort of. I placed my order and sat, and waited. Eventually, this landed on my table with a thud:

I went for the breast first. It was encased in a thick armour of bright red batter, provenance unknown, and the plastic cutlery they issued was hopeless in sawing through it. It was like going at a redwood with a length of dental floss. After snapping my knife in two and losing all the fork’s tines inside the deep-fried sarcophagus, I tried picking it up and tearing it apart with my bare hands, which, despite its enormous heft, yielded little in the way of actual meat. The leg wasn’t much more charitable, and I got off a few bites of chicken mixed with shale-like batter flakes before giving up. The whole production — the insane size of it, the ornate salads, the sauces painstakingly drizzled on everything (but plain old ketchup, weirdly, on the chicken) — was either a mockery of American excess, or just a horrible mistranslation of it. And so, when the guy behind the counter wasn’t looking, I dumped the mangled but otherwise uneaten pile in the THANK-YOU bin, thanked him for the delicious lunch, and marched right on out of there, hungry and defeated.

I filled up with yet another shockingly cheap tank of 95 octane gas (8 litres for $3!) and resumed my ride towards Esfahan. It was good to be back in the saddle again, and I rolled down a lightly populated valley while watching dust devils a thousand feet high cruise eastwards across the road ahead and into adjacent fields.

With the sun going down, I reached Esfahan and quickly found my lodgings. They were a stone’s throw from the 16th-century, Safavid-era Naghsh-e Jahan Square, which is second only to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in terms of sheer size. After dropping off my gear, I walked over to have a look, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it’s very much a living part of Esfahan’s urban fabric and not a closed-off tourist attraction as I had feared. Teenagers on motorcycles did laps of the square, families held picnics in the well-irrigated grass of the Persian gardens, and functioning bazaars spilled off in all directions behind the hundreds of pointed arches lining all four sides. The Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, the main attraction, was particularly impressive.

The next day I dropped by to get some photos in the sunlight, and the square didn’t disappoint.

During my wanders through the mosque I got to talking to a local religious scholar. He was a nice guy, roughly my age, and eager to tell me about the building. I fear I may have been rude in testing out the dome’s unique acoustics rather than hear the rest of his lecture. But seriously — the echo in there is very, very cool.

Symmetrical pointed arches are a common motif in Esfahan, and this extends to its famous bridges, the longest of which — the 33-arch Allah-Verdi Khan Bridge — was next on my itinerary. It’s normally just used to get from one side of the river to the other, like, well, a bridge; there‘s no tourist infrastructure to speak of up there, and nobody trying to sell you things. There is one teahouse remaining at the north end of the structure, the others having been shut down one by one since the revolution, and it attracts a mostly older crowd. The landscaped embankments of the river itself, meanwhile, seem to be where Esfahan’s younger set does its flirting and canoodling.

On my last day in town, back at the main square, I spotted the first overland bike I’d seen since I said so-long to Miriam and Christian back in Georgia and Armenia: a BMW GS with Touratech panniers and French plates. I stuck my card into the accelerator handle along with a little note, and hoped that I’d make friends with the owner at some point.

All the walking I’d done had worked up a terrible thirst, and I got out the Lonely Planet to see which of Esfahan’s famous teahouses they recommended. One by one, I went to each address, only to learn that each one had been recently closed down “for renovations.” One sly bazari lowered his voice, though, and filled me in on the obvious: they’d all been shut down indefinitely by the government, because they didn’t want young men and women socializing, in public, over cups of the demon tea. I find this tragic, insofar as this Persian architectural treasure is well over a half-kilometre long, and can reward you for an entire day of wandering, and now has not one single establishment where you can cool your heels and have a drink of water or tea like a civilized person. Trust me — I looked. For liquid refreshment, you have one option, and that involves venturing a few blocks beyond the bazaar into a courtyard full of junk, and then down into an unmarked cellar full of yet even more junk. Inside, Iranian men of all ages and backgrounds sit at tables and furiously huff on their shishas. They give you the stinkeye when you enter, but eventually warm to your presence. In lieu of any place to go on the square, this is an excellent bit of local colour.

After a few days in Esfahan, I’d noticed that one thing was conspicuously missing: I didn’t have any new Iranian friends. Elsewhere in Iran it was a simple matter of venturing out in public, and I would be chatted up by charming and open-hearted folks; here, not so much. Maybe it was luck of the draw, but then again maybe it was the fact that Esfahan is fairly well-touristed and maybe, just maybe, there I wasn’t so special. Either way, I made the most of my newfound anonymity and rested up for the next leg of the trip. The next day I’d ride 250km east into the desert towards Yazd, home to Zoroastrianism and one of the world’s oldest cities.

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