x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A tasty morsel of Iran

On the road For Luke Jerod Kummer, Kish was an intriguing hint of Iran and he looks forward to meeting up with his friends on the mainland one day.

A rusting ship idles close to Kish's shore.
A rusting ship idles close to Kish's shore.

Even a measly US$9.50 (Dh35) was too much to pay for another sleepless night at the Khatam Hotel on Iran's Kish island. But when I went to check out, the front desk clerk said he couldn't let me leave and he wouldn't return my passport. I would have to speak to the manager at 4pm, he said. While I had come to Kish (island.kish.ir) purely to have a good time, the reality is that the majority of people arriving from outside Iran are here at least partly out of an obligation to renew their visa. And some of them languish for weeks before that process is completed. Places like the Khatam Hotel profit from this captive market by making this period as tolerable as possible with such offerings as $3 (Dh10) bus tours of the island. But after trying to leave I was ordered "go to your room", and felt more like chattel than a tourist on a chartered holiday.

I called my friends who had joined me on the plane but stayed the previous night in a double room at the nearby three-star Eastern Sun hotel (0098 44 341 00 4) for $87 (Dh320). They had slept well and in the morning visited a beach where they saw a dozen sea turtles by the shore. I was jealous and wanted to get on with actually seeing what Kish has to offer outside the Khatam's confines. They were changing to another hotel where there might be a balcony and a pool, and I told them to make the room a triple because I was planning a jailbreak.

We met up at the Parsian Hotel Apartment (0098 44 24 9 91 5), situated on the island's much more developed eastern shore that is cluttered with newly built malls and hotels. We sat at the cafe there for an hour while a fairly smart room with private balcony was tidied up. At $87 (Dh320) split three ways, it was a far better option than lingering at the Khatam. That night we took the suggestion of a taxi driver and headed to a restaurant that he called inexpensive and authentic: Hafezeiih (0098 44 42 414), behind the Marjaan Mall.

In the darkness by the sea we found a series of gazebos with Persian rugs on their floors and groups of young people inside lounging on cushions. We found an empty one and made a perch. When no waiter arrived after 15 minutes, my friend Jeremy went inside to try and order. He came back a half-hour later, saying that his English had been absolutely useless but finally a stranger came along to help. The same guy spotted us a few minutes later and we asked him to join us. He politely declined, but stood next to the gazebo and spoke with us for a while, which we were pleased to do because he was incredibly friendly. When we invited him again to share the meal he had helped procure, he said, "No, please. It makes a problem for you. With the police or something."

The odd thing is that he then proceeded to casually but probingly question us about why we had to come to Kish, what we thought about Iran and the government, where we worked, and for which company exactly, until we felt a bit like we were already being interrogated. Whether his intention had been completely friendly or snooping, we'll never know. But if he was sent from the security service, then I commend their extremely soft approach.  

The fare of skewered shrimp and lamb kebabs was similar to the previous night, but also absolutely delicious. We left around 11pm, and bumped into a group of chatty young people from Tehran who were in town for an energy conference. They invited us down to the beach for shisha and tea, and we spent the next four hours talking and laughing about life in the UAE, Iran and the West. There was no similar tinge of dodginess as with the other man. In fact, soon my friends and I agreed that we'd never encountered more pleasant people than the ones on this odd little crumb of Iran. Even the taxi drivers - the usual ruffians of any country - didn't try to rip us off.

The next day we woke up early to a sumptuous complimentary buffet breakfast of lavash bread, sliced fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, stewed lentils, fried eggs and squares of salty feta. Properly nourished, we walked across the street to the beach and found a man renting well-maintained bicycles for $3 (Dh10) per hour. We committed to a half day and without us asking he lowered the price to $2 (Dh7) per hour.

The oval-shaped Kish Island is only 15km wide at its broadest and we planned to circle around it. It didn't take long to find lovely deserted beaches, a pier leading to an old lighthouse and then ruins of the ancient fishing village of Harireh. The stone ramparts and stairways of a port, mosque and bathhouse look their age of at least a millennium old, but it is also clear that considerable reconstruction has been done so that the site stands today in a state of attractive partial decay, like Iran's more famous city of Persepolis but on a much smaller and simpler scale. It goes to show that when Iran looked to develop Kish as a tourist destination it invested not only in gleaming hotels but also in its legitimate cultural attractions, which have traditionally been the great draws for visitors arriving to the mainland. And, pleasing to me, the site does not charges an entrance fee.

Next to Harireh is another interesting free site - Derekht e Sabz, which is an ancient, sprawling banyan tree that people tie pieces of string to for good luck. While we were poking around the gardens there we got a call from our new friends from Tehran. The six of them were keen to get together again and met us at a nearby grocery store. We explained that we had planned on riding to a half-submerged ship that has become an attraction on the other side of the island.

They wanted to come along but how to do it with nine people and three bikes? Easy - we commandeered a passing public bus for a private ride with the offer of $7 (Dh26). Once we piled inside the driver was also enticed to blast Iranian pop tunes while one of our new companions did a hip-shaking, shoulder-rolling version of the Dance of the Seven Veils. The bus bumped along until, beside where the sun was dipping into the watery horizon, we saw the hulking heap of rust that is the remnants of a 140m-long Greek fishing ship that ran aground more than 40 years ago.

The ship was less than 100m from the shore, and Jeremy, a former scuba instructor, suggested we swim out to it. The two of us stripped to our shorts and put on snorkelling masks and began wading into the water. We soon noticed an intimidating obstacle - the entire sea floor was carpeted in black urchins. We lay flat on the water and began swimming slowly towards he boat, careful to not kicks our legs into the clusters of spikes. As the waves rolled in and out, our bellies undulated dangerously close to these venomous pin cushions and the experience felt like manoeuvring through a mine field. The light was fading quickly and we hurried back after touching the boat's side.

We arrived just before our friends left for the airport to return to Tehran. We all agreed we'd like to meet up again on the mainland someday. Indeed, for my western friends and I, Kish had been an intriguing taste of Iran that has whetted our appetites. lkummer@thenational.ae