Car­a­vans and pic­nics: A le­gacy of road­side feasts

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By MIKE PETERS

In many imag­i­na­tions — and in the movies — the great trade routes from East to West are dot­ted with car­a­vanserais, way sta­tions built about ev­ery 30 kilo­me­ters, or the dis­tance a loaded camel could cover in a day.

But mod­ern trav­el­ers along the old Silk Road can see stand­ing ex­am­ples to­day, in­clud­ing a par­tic­u­larly fine one along­side the grand bazaar of Esfahan.

Th­ese mud-brick rooms, ar­ranged around court­yards, were places to ex­change goods and sto­ries, and to share care­fully packed foods with lo­cals who could pro­vide fresh pro­duce and meat.

A twist on that tra­di­tion sur­vives on the mod­ern road­side — where the Persian car­pets are out, and so are the pic­nick­ers.

At a river­side park I vis­ited sev­eral years ago, they were scat­tered on the ground, tran­quil is­lands of teasip­pers.

Across town, they were jammed to­gether like sar­dines on the edges of Imam Khome­ini Square.

But for most Ira­ni­ans trav­el­ing by road, there’s no need to wait for a for­mal des­ti­na­tion.

On any road­side, in the shade of a soli­tary tree or, in a pinch, on a sunny high­way me­dian, trav­el­ers un­roll brightly colored rugs and sit down for a light meal.

“Wel­come to the Axis of Pic­nic,” my smil­ing guide said dur­ingmy 2008 trip to Esfahan.

It’s a play­ful al­lu­sion to for­mer US pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s fa­mous char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the coun­try as part of the “Axis of Evil”.

Be­fore us, ev­ery­day Ira­ni­ans were sprawled and snack­ing, seem­ingly obliv­i­ous to any po­lit­i­cal winds.

My guide took his own car­pet out of the trunk, and the blue-and-yel­low ex­panse of lamb’s wool seemed large for two trav­el­ers set­tling down with Nescafe and snacks.

But in a cul­ture that prizes hos­pi­tal­ity, a mod­est party can blos­som.

We shared ear­lier pic­nics with folks likeHos­sein. Ashy young man in a small vil­lage who was ea­ger to prac­tice English, which he spoke with a mys­te­ri­ous In­dian ac­cent. Later, on the road to Te­heran, we would chow down with a car­ful of fel­low trav­el­ers, all new chums — on the shady side of a gaso­line sta­tion.

Leg­end says that Cyrus the Great, af­ter win­ning a great battle on the plains of Pasar­gadae that would begin the Persian Em­pire, promptly laid out lunch for tri­umphant Per­sians and the van­quished Medes alike.

True or not, a 2,500-yearold tra­di­tion has a lot of stay­ing power.

For mod­ern Ira­ni­ans, al­most any road trip means pack­ing at least bread and cheese, some fruit and snack crack­ers, says Rah­manMehraby of the tourism web­site Desti­na­tioni­ran.com.

If a gas grill and a cooler live in the car trunk — and they of­ten do— a “spon­ta­neous” pic­nic can turn into a full-fledged ke­bab party.

“You have a say­ing that it is bet­ter to travel hope­fully than to ar­rive,” says Ali, a com­puter hard­ware en­gi­neer who was en­joy­ing a long week­end in Esfahan with his wife, Sarah, and a cooler of cubed lamb, yo­gurt, cu­cum­bers, toma­toes and melon slices.

“When we are in the car with our pic­nic,” he says, “we are al­ways trav­el­ing hope­fully.”

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