Visions of Mashhad – past, present and future

The brilliant travel writer Colin Thubron, in his 2006 book Shadow of the Silk Road, described Mashhad as “afloat with gold and blue domes … drenched in yellow and opal green … of almost unbearable opulence”.

He must have been referring to the VIP lounge at the city’s airport, which I had the privilege of visiting for a couple of hours yesterday as a guest of Emirates airline on their inaugural flight to Iran’s second city.

No, of course he wasn’t. I just made that bit up to get a cheap laugh. For one thing, I don’t think the VIP lounge was built back then, as it all looked comparatively new.

Mr Thubron was referring to the Gawhar Shad mosque, the 15th century shrine in the heart of the city that is the main attraction for the millions of pious pilgrims to one of Iran’s holiest sites. Due to visa technicalities, the Emirates party did not get the opportunity to visit Gawhar Shad.

But what the VIP lounge lacked in medieval splendour, it made up for in sheer quirkiness. For one thing, it was not the VIP lounge at all, but the CIP lounge. Nobody in the sizeable party that gathered to witness Emirati and Iranian dignitaries celebrating the first flight could explain why the unusual acronym. “Considerably important people”, perhaps?

That would be in keeping with what I noticed was a distinct determination on the part of the Iranian hosts to keep the event low key. I’ve been on many inaugural flights in the past, and could make you blush, dear reader, with tales of hedonistic extravagance at these events.

Mashhad was a refreshing change from these lush-ups. Morning prayer, some heartfelt speeches, some nice Iranian pastries and tea, and a cake with two-inch thick white icing that had been baked specially for the occasion. These were all that were needed for the simple souls that made the two-hour trip, and were much appreciated.

Quirkier still, it was the only business meeting I have ever been to where not one single man was wearing a necktie. The buttoned white collar and dark suit was de rigueur for the Iranians, and dishdashas for the Emiratis

After the formalities, the UAE media delegation were allowed to circulate relatively freely. I even made it outside the lounge for my first look at the real Iran: a view through a security grill at a row of Peugeots. Most of which, I was mildly surprised to see, looked pretty new and not at all old run-down heaps in urgent need of hard-to-come-by parts. That story was obviously propaganda.

Less so some of the planes I saw on the way in. They were in little groups dotted around the airport with nose cones and ailerons missing, like they were in the process of being cannibalised, and obviously hadn’t taken to the air in a long time.

The Iranians taking part in the ceremony were friendly and chatty, with good English for the most part and curious about Emirates and Dubai. One of them told me that the next time I was in Mashhad, I had to go to the Shandiz restaurant, which he said was legendary among Iranians and tourists alike for its shishlik kebab.

As the packed return flight banked away from the city I glanced back at Mashhad in the morning sunlight, and I swear I saw a shaft of light glint off a golden dome. Maybe it was the Gawhar Shad, maybe the Shandiz. I’ll have to go back to find out.

Source: The National | United Emirates

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