As I sat on the footpath trying to cool down an elderly, yet surprisingly spritely, gentleman on a modern mountain bike stopped to ask, in very good English, if I was OK. I replied that everything was fine, I just needed a break. After the usual chit-chat I told him I was looking for the Kosar Hotel. Semsary, or Sam as he preferred to be called, gave me some simple directions to the hotel and began to pedal away.
After riding about 50 metres Sam returned and said he was heading home for lunch, and then asked if I would like to join him. With nothing better to do I gratefully accepted his offer. We headed off in the direction of Baghmisheh, a modest residential district on the eastern outskirts of Tabriz several kilometres away. As we wound our way through the chaotic traffic Sam would occasionally catch a tow from my panniers when we rode up some of the steeper hills. Sam’s wife, Agdaz, had prepared an enormous lunch – enough for six people not just the three present. After lunch, Sam and I swapped life stories – his far more dramatic than mine.
Sam was in his sixties and a retired officer from the Iranian Air Force. But in his youth, he had served his National Service in the Iranian Army during the Iran/Iraq War where he had seen several of his closest friends killed in action. This was to affect him deeply.
Thanks to his regimen of daily cycling, swimming laps three times a week and light gym work at home, Sam was incredibly fit for his age. He had little interest in motorcycling but his enduring passion was mountain climbing. Sam had climbed all of the major peaks in Iran – most of them well over 4500m. But the one climb that he was most proud of was scaling Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Not because of its difficulty but because he had led an expedition of disabled Iranian war veterans, sadly both young and old, including several amputees with prosthetic limbs and one who was completely blind. In his retirement, Sam had made it his own personal mission to provide some form of rehabilitation for disabled war veterans.
It made my able-bodied travel seem quite unremarkable.
As lunchtime meandered into late afternoon I made to bid my new-found friend a fond farewell but Sam would have nothing of it. He insisted that the traffic to the hotel in the city centre would be very dangerous at that time of day and that I should stay the night. I began to politely decline his offer but was really very relieved when Sam became more insistent and I didn’t have to go searching for the Kosar in peak hour traffic.
Sam and Agdaz’s home was quite roomy and split over three floors. They had three adult children who were all away with either work or study. The entire second floor was unoccupied and given over for my personal use including the ensuite. I don’t know what the Kosar Hotel was like but I doubt it could offer the same hospitality.
Unbeknownst to me, as well as becoming my host, Sam had immediately appointed himself my personal tour guide, interpreter and historian. In the time it took me to have a shower and put on some clean clothes Sam had come up with a plan for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening as well.
First I would take him for a ride into the city where we would park the bike at his mother’s family home (what about the “dangerous” traffic? I mused). From there, we would be able walk to many of Tabriz’s major museums and historical sites. When we were finished seeing the sights we would then have dinner with some of his family before collecting the bike to ride back to Baghmisheh (about 5km). Not quite what I had planned – but then again, I didn’t have a plan anyway and I was a guest in Sam’s house so I was happy to go along with his well thought out itinerary. And I was certainly very happy to leave the decision-making to somebody else for a change.
Sam was a very energetic and enthusiastic tour guide and a great ambassador for Tabriz. Having spent most of his life there he knew the city and the city’s history like the back of his hand.
The first stop in Sam’s guided tour was the historic Tabriz bazaar which dates back to the 13th century. It is the largest covered bazaar in the world and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. As we weaved our way through the crowded labyrinthine alleyways shopkeepers would call out the traditional “salaam aleikum” to greet Sam as he introduced his strange new friend from Australia.
After leaving the bazaar we strolled a few short metres to the stunning Jameh Mosque. While the exterior is quite impressive it is the interior which leaves one speechless. Extensively damaged by the massive earthquake of 1673 it was restored to its former grandeur.
Very close to Jameh Mosque is Constitution House. This modest building houses the museum dedicated to the history of Tabriz’s central role in the fight for democracy in the violent aftermath of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905-07. Two local brothers, Sattar Khan and Baqer Khan, are still revered to this day as Iranian heroes for helping to break the stranglehold of the corrupt Qajar dynasty.
Tabriz has been the capital of Persia many times in its history, the most recent being during the Safavid dynasty in the early 16th century. But Tabriz has always maintained very strong ties to neighbouring Azerbaijan. One fact I soon learned about Tabriz was that many of the locals are not ethnically Iranian at all, but Azeri with many still speaking Azeri as their first language.
From the museum we headed towards the Ark of Tabriz. Unlike the Ark in Bukhara, the Ark of Tabriz was not a complete citadel but started life as a mosque in the 13th century before eventually becoming a military post and ammunition dump for the Qajar dynasty. Unfortunately, very little of it remains except for the grand entrance portal which is in the process of being restored.
Next on the itinerary was the historic town hall and its collection of small museums. Unfortunately it was now early evening and the museums were closing.
Sam took me to meet some more of his family where I was offered a huge feast and showered with gifts to take home to my family. As I rolled out of the door under the combined weight of gifts and 9 courses of food Sam broke the news that “that wasn’t dinner”. We were going to have dinner with some more of his family at his mother’s home. After a brisk 10 minute walk we were back at Sam’s mother’s house. It was now almost 10pm when, to my horror, I discovered the entire family had been waiting for us before they had dinner!
I was the guest of honour but I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly eat any more. (I was beginning to feel like Mr. Creosote – “Just one leetle waffer!”) Fortunately Sam explained the situation about the “pre-dinner” dinner after he got roused on by his 80 year old mother for being late! The rest of the evening was spent simultaneously avoiding the waves of food that kept appearing on the horizon and playing various games with the children including an embarassing loss to Sam’s 10 year old nephew at chess!
Eventually, after the torrents of food subsided, I thanked Sam’s mother profusely for her generosity and explained that it was time to leave. Sam and I jumped on the bike and headed back to his home in Baghmisheh.
I may have doubted the tall tales of Iranian hospitality before, but today certainly put an end to that. And as I collapsed into bed I wondered what Sam would have in store for me tomorrow.