Iran is an old land. Its rich and tumultuous history, both ancient and contemporary has defined a specific character. It is also a very complex country, where anything and everything about the current state of affairs is subject to an infinite amount of discussion. Rivers of ink, both liquid and digital, have and are being consumed to debate about the multiplicity of topics that are of current concern. Be it political, religious or cultural, from dress-codes, to the treatment given and received by visitors, to foreign policy, there is always a subject to discuss. Coupled to the many external stereotypes, it generates a deluge of opinions both highlighting and refuting the perceived and real preconceptions. It’s not surprising that with so much controversy, most Iranians ask you what you think of their country.
Because of this, I will try and steer away from the debate. Rather than asserting any opinions about a region I only had the fortune to visit briefly I will try and give an objective viewpoint. My perception of Persia.
After having passed through the immensity of Tehran, and our adventure in the mountains (see Damavand Dreams) it was time to hit the road and see some more of the country. With a surface just under three times that of France, we were going to be hard pressed to see as much as possible. For this trip we had therefore decided to try and visit some of the main cities, and will hopefully return with more time to dig out all those lost gems we missed on this first tour.
After arriving at the bus station, we were to have our first good surprise. The prices between cities are state regulated, and remain very reasonable. This fits in with the different expenses you can find when traveling in Iran. As a rule of thumb, transport is exceedingly cheap, food is well priced and lodgings can be expensive. From the station, there are regular departures (especially from Tehran) and they are relatively punctual. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, by taking the larger buses (known as VIP) you can get a relatively good night’s sleep. The seats are comfortable, and there is a lot of room. Because of these advantages and the distances we wanted to cover, we optimised our time (and budget) by always taking a night bus, thus saving the cost of a bed and half a day’s travel.
Our first destination was Esfahan, known poetically as “Half of the World”. Arriving at the bus terminal, we decided to walk into town. It was a few kilometres, but we had time and were thus able to check out the shops lining the side of the road, selling all sorts of stuff, including saffron ice-cream. We finally made it to the centre, and after dropping our stuff off, set off to check out the sights. This was when we finally realised that, as we had been told, everyone had left Tehran. They all seemed to be in Esfahan! The streets were packed with families, walking, shopping, joking, taking pictures and in general enjoying the Noruuz (New Year) holidays. It definitely gave it a festive feeling, and it was hard to imagine without all the people in the street. During the next few days in Esfahan and elsewhere, we would constantly see families out altogether, often buying ice-cream, or having a picnic together. The later seems to be something of an Iranian institution. In any of the parks people will be sitting together, eating and having fun, the kids running around and playing. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a beautiful setting or half of a roundabout in the middle of the road: you we probably find an elderly lady preparing some tea and biscuits for the rest of the family. Often there will be some tents or “chadors” set up too, so that those that have eaten too many sweets can chill out and get away from the sun. Visiting the country during its main festivities is, I imagine, very different from the rest of the year. On the downside, multiple services, such as money-changing bureaus or airport desks are closed, making it harder to get stuff done. But on the other hand it allows you to really see what Iranians do during their free time, and the amount of internal tourism that takes place, imposed partly due to foreign restrictions.
The main sights of Esfahan are centred around the Naghsh-e Jahan Square. Of these, I’d like to highlight the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and the bazaar that encircles the square and extends beyond it, creating a maze of alleys and dead ends to the north. The mosque is best visited in the early morning (Iranians are definitely not early risers, or at least not during the holidays). This is especially true because it is quite small, and therefore probably becomes very crowded in the later hours. Both its cream coloured outer dome and blue decorated interior are impressively intricate. The rays of sun poured down from the windows high up. After spending some time analysing the crystallographic patterns and perfect symmetry of the tiles, you take in the complete design and motifs that have been copied and re-used to decorate many of the Persian rugs and prints sold outside. The other mosque which also gives onto the square is the Shah Mosque, which is larger and contains multiple sections, also decorated in blue and yellow.
Entering into the bazaar, the hundreds of little shops sell their wares to all who pass. The printed blankets and tablecloths are especially abundant. They are prepared on white cotton by stamping a carved design again and again over the surface of the cloth. Depending on the pattern, different sections must be used to complete the picture. Complementary stamps are used for the different colours, and they need to be aligned perfectly with each other for the picture to come together and the lines not to overlap. We saw many families buying them to decorate their homes and offer as presents, showing that this traditional technique still finds its place into many households.
Upon a recommendation, at one point we decided to go into the gardens of the Abbasi Hotel. Entering the sparkling lobby, it was something out of an old film. We had in fact walked into the Persian version of Gustave H.’s Grand Budapest. Crossing the golden room we made our way into the interior courtyard, surrounded on all sides. The bird song and the splash of the fountains definitely make it a relaxing place. On the far side, a small kitchen serves tea, ice-cream and “ash”, a type of bean stew with sour cream. Sitting down with our tea and soup we looked around. Numerous families were enjoying the garden, the children playing between the plants and the adults, as always, snapping hundreds of fotographs on phones and cameras. After this surreal experience, completely isolated from the world, it was time to move on…
Further south, Shiraz is home to the Mausoleum of the King of Light, one of holiest Shiite shrines in the country, as well as being close to one of the most important and famous Persian sites: Persepolis. Arriving under a torrential rain, we were welcomed into our hostel with some breakfast (remember the night buses!). Having met a couple of Malaysian travellers we enjoyed the refuge from the downpour chatting between cups of tea and carrot jam.
Walking around the streets of Shyraz, we once again got sucked in to the winding streets of the bazaar. Spending the day in town we sampled some of the foodstuffs, including one of the best and cheapest falafels I’ve ever had and dizi, a type of traditional stew. As always washed down with some refreshing malt beer. Back out in the street we finished off with some sweets, made from pistaccio (of course) and coconut. The biggest danger in Iran is probably getting diabetes!
One place that is worth seeing is the Nasir-al-Molk Mosque, or pink Mosque. Thanks to its spectacular and unusual coloured glass (most mosques don’t have any) the early morning sunlight it transformed into a rainbow of colours that light up the interior. The inner yard is also worth the seeing, where the central basin reflects the façade, creating a beautiful image.
One afternoon we managed to make an express trip to the ruins of the empire of Darius and Xerxes. We were accompanied by our newfound Asian friends, and a genial tour guide. With his hat, white moustache and a welcoming smile, his American accent gave him away as a remnant of another age. The fact that it was the holidays, coupled with the Iranian’s pride in all things Persian, meant that the site was completely packed. Picking our way through the crowds, we admired the constructions left by emperors long gone. With its almost mythological relationship to the Greeks of Thermopylae and Alexander the greats Macedon’s (which sacked the place in 330 b.C) it is a centrepiece of antique history. Unfortunately it is hard to imagine the full scale of the place and I’d have liked to know more about it prior to the visit. Nearby, a huge carving shows Azura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god, handing the ring of power to the King of Kings.
Arriving under the magic light of a new morning, we were greeted in Yazd by empty streets and an still calm. The streets of the old town, twist and turn, and you never knowing if the path will end in a dead end. The architecture is very special. The streets are narrow, and often roofed by arches and passageways that communicate one house to another. Due to the high walls, the life of the inhabitants remains protected and mysterious. Everything is a pale ochre colour, smoothed over. And then there are the wind towers or badgirs; large square structures that are used as natural air coolers, They combine the effects of the wind with a pool in the centre of the house, which together with the air convection and the evaporation of the water keep the interior cool. They spring up above the roofs of the town, like large, beautiful chimneys.
Behind the mysterious walls, there are often little gardens and central courtyards adorned with fountains and pools. Having stumbled in to one of these, we were offered tea and biscuits for free. Other visitors were sitting around and enjoying their refreshments. We never did understand what we had walked into, but by all means it was very pleasant.
Beneath the city of Yazd there is another miracle, the qanats or water tunnels, which bring the water down from the mountains. These structures are a few meters beneath the surface, and are painstakingly dug by hand for hundreds of kilometres. The trick is to keep the tunnels almost horizontal, with only a very slight gradient over the huge distances they cover. The labourers enter via small wells, placed along the line. By keeping the water deep down, it does not evaporate, and can flow in the hottest of summers. There is a small museum showing both the process of digging the qanats and an original tunnel down in the basement.
The landscape around Yazd is stunning. From the flat, desert plain, steep mountains rise up vertically in the distance. The snow-capped mountains beckon from afar and offer multiple hikes and even possible ski routes. By timing the snow conditions right, it would be great to set up camp in one of the little villages and try some original descents in. Sitting on one of the rooftops drinking tea, we watched the sun sink behind the peaks, the wind towers standing out against the chaotic skyline.
After dark, one last discovery awaited us: the zurkaneh training gym. Inside a group of men were standing down in a pit ready to start excising. Once the beat of the drum and the droning chant started, they we soon doing press ups, jumping and turning in the small arena. They used different weights, both metallic and wooden (known as meels), and moved with the rhythm of the singer. It turns out that these movements are but the training that forecomes Iranian wrestling: an ancient and ritualised combat sport.
Our final taste of Iran was quite different, and in full circle it took us back to some of the best of the country: mountains, food and great hospitality. It started with “halim”, a dish made out of turkey meat, sprinkled with sugar and eaten for breakfast. Excellent! Accompanied by coffee, tea, lentil soup as well as bread, jam and cheese the setting was fantastic. After crossing a little bridge, we were eating in a restaurant perched on the side of the gorge we had been driving up. Our destination: Dizin ski resort. Our hosts: Mehrshad and Negin. Friends of friends, after picking us up in town, they were taking us to carve up the local slopes. It was to be the start of a great day with this incredibly fun couple.
After our epic breakfast, we continued up the winding road to the ski resort. It was snowing slightly, and we were excited to see the slopes. Standing in line with a colourful line of skiers, we checked out the crown. It was a mixed bunch, mostly young people with pretty decent gear. We got into a tiny pink cable car that took us to the top. From there we could see down and appreciate the size of the place. It is comparable to a medium sized station in the Alps, and being so high up, it is very open. There was lots of snow, and after starting with a few centimetres of fresh powder during the day it turned into agreable slush when the sun came out. We saw some pretty good skiers, including several people ski mountaineering. After all the descents it was time to go back into town for the best kabab I have ever tasted, in the Shandiz Mashad restaurant. This isn’t your sorry corner-shop kebab, but rather extremely tasty lamb and beef, roasted on huge skewers, accompanied with home-made butter and saffron flavoured rice. It was the perfect meal with which to end a great experience and say goodbye. Until next time! Merci!