Things are pretty quiet at the hotel, with occasional visits from western tour groups just to keep us on our toes. On the 13th day of the New Year the streets are empty, the city is silent. This is Sizdah Be Dar - it is bad luck to be in your house, and everyone traditionally goes out with the family for a picnic, even just to one of the green patches in the middle of a roundabout. This is the end of the holidays and we have more time to ourselves. Khouroosh suddenly starts selling carpets in a run of good fortune. He is saving up for a trip to India and the timing is perfect. Some familiar faces reappear at the sister hotel, travellers who find themselves returning to the calm and comfort of Magi (this is the fictional name for the real place), drawn like us to the relaxed pace and charm of the town. We practice making delicious date shakes (12 pitted dates, a glass of milk, a teaspoon of sugar and some ice - mmmmm).
An interesting character, Puyao, appears from out of the desert to stay for a few days. He looks like a sufi mystic, dressed all in white. One quiet night he suggests an impromptu meal of steaks and a few of us enjoy a candlelit meal on the roof terrace accompanied by some very good Esfahani grappa. Another day we awake to a rain shower. The skies are grey and dull and everyone is very happy and smiling. We are in topsy-turvy land! We think we should start travelling again, but we don't want to say goodbye. One evening we are sitting in a large group with other travellers, stories are told, tips exchanged, suggestions for places to visit in far-off countries. Puyao, Khouroosh and Danny are sitting with us, but it's a conversation they are excluded from - we are all relatively wealthy and free in comparison to them and this contrast makes us feel sad.
Finally we make a run for it. Our goodbyes are not protracted, but we feel depressed to be saying them. Danny and Khouroosh have been good friends to us, Reza has been the perfect boss. Typically we can't find the Ghost to say goodbye, but he appears at the last minute. We move on to Kashan, a small desert town, where we spend a couple of days visiting some restored palatial houses and some Persian gardens. We are staying in a simple guesthouse with mattresses and pillows made out of concrete. In one of the rooms is a student who introduces himself in very British English. He looks familiar. I realise he is Paul McGann, as the Monocled Mutineer, but he calls himself Farhad. Over a cup of tea and a box of freshly-baked biscuits we talk politics and religion, which is inevitably rather depressing, but segue onto Lady Di and Prince Charles for some light relief. His English is good and he laughingly explains how, when something "fishy" occurs in Iran, everyone blames it on the British. Indeed, we are told several times how it was the British who helped the mullahs take over Iran after the revolution. "The Old Fox." This image of Britain as some sort of a global powerbroker comes as something of a shock - but then we do have a history of interference and meddling that continues to this day.
We return to Tehran to collect my new jumbo passport and we call in on Saman at his language institute. We are invited to sit in on classes of young children and adults. I'm introduced to a young woman who has just translated a Stephen King novel into Farsi. I think I offend her when I ask her "why Stephen King?" Saman's enthusiasm and sense of fun is infectious. He thinks Iran can change for the better, but he also would like to live in Ireland. We can picture him happily supping Guinness. Once again we feel sad when we say goodbye, and it drives home how fortunate and free we are. At our hostel we meet up with Martine and Guy who are travelling in the opposite direction to us, along a similar route. They provide us with lots of detailed and useful information and are very good company. They are only the third couple we have met who have travelled through the Stans.
Our last destination in Iran is Mashhad, the second city and home to the holy shrine of Imam Reza, the eigth imam of Shiite Islam. This is a major pilgrimmage site, and the city expanded greatly during the war with Iraq, with refugees fleeing the west. We are staying with Reza, a young businessman, and we arrange to meet at his office. We step off the night train and it starts to rain heavily as we climb into a taxi. I haven't got the office address down correctly and we start to walk around to ask directions. The roads are now rivers and we find ourselves wading along the pavements. A man in a 4X4 stops in the street and offers help - he waves us into his car, but we can't reach it across the water. In Iran many roads have large gutters, a foot wide and two foot deep. The man pulls his car over to the kerb for our benefit, but he hasn't accounted for a gutter, and his front wheel drops with a crunch. To make it worse he then drives his back wheel into the ditch. The car looks like a sinking ship, listing heavily. To our shame, we wave goodbye and scuttle off, trying to hide our laughter. After finally finding the office and drying out, we visit the shrine. Unfortunately Gayle needs a chador, and we find ourselves accompanied by a "guide" from the International Relations Office. "Do you know anything about Islam? Have you considered becoming a Muslim?" We are told they have two conversions a week. The guide looks at us with hope. I look at Gayle, who in her words looks "like a twit", the chador wrapped tightly around her face, flapping around her feet. I look back at the guide with a smile - no conversions today. Around the shrine, which we cannot actually enter, are a series of large courtyards, mosques and medressas. A huge gold dome covers the tomb, and large portals are also coated in gold. The site is still being developed and expanded. This is a very special place for the Shiites. The other imams are buried in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, except for the last one, Mahdi, who slipped off quietly somewhere unknown with a promise to return at a later date.
In the evening we chat to Reza who is divorced with a young son. His father lost land after the Revolution - it was split up and redistributed. The state, Reza complains, creates too many rules to live by, and these rules are inevitably broken in private. They have satellite TV, illegally, and he teaches his son to lie at school "If anyone asks, we don't have satellite." Reza had been a star mathematics pupil and competed with other clever kids. He only knows one other who has stayed in Iran. "This country is losing all its intelligent genes" he laments. He may emigrate to Australia. In the morning he kindly drives us at breakneck speed to a shared-taxi stand across the city, and sends us on our way to the border.
It's a bittersweet farewell to Iran.