Iran: More Than Meets The Eye

Iran has a complex place in the modern world. Its reputation proceeds it as a country replete with incredible ancient architecture, huge lively bazaars, colourful spice markets and genuine local hospitality. At the same time, at a governmental level at least, it has carved out a fairly unconverted position of serial antagonist and global pariah. Thankfully while spending nearly a month in the country we encountered only the former. While the complex world of geopolitical wranglings continues unabated, you’ll be welcomed with nothing less than a friendly smile, a handshake and a “Welcome to Iran”. It’s a pleasure to travel, and with a black market exchange rate of more than double, it’s a pretty reasonable price to do so.

An old man we helped out after finding him stuck in the sand
A little “down with America” style propaganda

Flying above the arid deserts and into Tehran it didn’t take long to feel welcome, as the customs officer assessing our visa applications, rather than grilling us about our itinerary, he generously offered us tips and advice about his favorite places in Iran. Swiftly getting approved and ushered through security, it wasn’t long until we were zooming down the wide highways into the nation’s sprawling capital city. Tehran is a fairly modern city with a fantastic metro network meaning you can get anywhere you want, quickly and cheaply, albeit a little squashed, but you’re sure to get into a few conversations along the way. We spent some time wandering the streets and parks, eating falafel, tasting the amazing variety of fruit juices and exploring the manic grand bazaar. We even succeeded in applying for our Turkmenistan visa while there. Martina did have a couple of hassles with a monster lady in her dorm room. Some creature who looked like a petrified cat with newly implanted DDs was equal parts distressing as it was comedic.

To get a taste of the venom spitting anti-Americanism, the old American embassy is quite intriguing. As recently depicted in the movie “Argo”, the embassy served as the stage where 52 diplomats were taken hostage for 444 days in 1979-81 during the Islamic Revolution, and US-Iranian relationships have been frosty ever since. The “US den of espionage” as it’s now known features some of the old encrypting equipment, real cables and memos and some stellar anti-american propaganda, in the premises and on the street itself, it was probably our favorite “sight” in Tehran.

Beautiful ceilings everywhere!
Si-o-se-pol bridge, Isfahan
Grand Bazaar, Tehran

We passed through a small town called Kashan which offered a couple of nice historic houses, but was also stiflingly hot, and we discovered that just because Tehran has shops open during the day, doesn’t mean a little desert outpost will. We traipsed around in the 45deg heat, as the only ones crazy enough to do so, while baffled locals looked on at our stupidity from the air conditioned comfort of their cars. Thankfully, it had a good coffee shop to get some respite. Onward we ventured to Isfahan, something of a tourist hub in Iran, it’s a beautiful city with parks and the famous UNESCO protected Naqsh-e Jahan square (meaning “pattern of the world”) is the second biggest public square in the world, behind Tiananmen square. Surrounded by a shopping bazaar, its jewels are the Aali Qapu palace and incredible Masjed-e Shah mosque. The mosque is in impeccable condition, with the elaborate tile work leaving us transfixed. We also stuffed our faces with falafels at the best shop we found in Iran, thankfully a short walk from our hostel.

Aali Qapu palace, Isfahan
Naqsh-e Jahan square, Isfahan
On the salt pan in Varzaneh
Camping under the stars in Varzaneh

After Isfahan we made our way to Varzaneh, a tiny little desert town, not overly used to tourism. People were trying to give us free baked good, carrot juice and tea, when they weren’t ripping around doing wheelies on their motorbikes. The people were incredibly friendly everywhere, and as we were the only ones in town, we were treated like local celebrities. From here we did a trip out to an old salt lake, which was not quite as mesmerising as Uyuni, Bolivia in scale, but looking around you still felt so small. Into the desert we headed, we hadn’t seen any tourists in the last few days, so the illusion of tranquility, (and ability to get a pretty Insta shot, perhaps an original of Martina looking back at the camera taking Mark’s hand atop a dune into the sunset) was shattered, when a load of young Germans pumping terrible music approached. Eschewing the literally hundreds of other dunes, they pulled up at the one we were on. Although, watching people shamelessly and selfishly trample on the peace & quiet, and barge into the exact spot someone else (in this case us) was trying to take a photo, just so they can quench their thirst for THE shot, is ceaselessly entertaining. The night under stars however was great, with a BBQ dinner and no-one else around, just us and the milky way.

The empty streets of Yazd at midday
Jameh Mosque, Yazd

To Yazd, another city with fairly big reputation. At this time of the year however, with oppressive midday heat and, Muharam, a period of mourning observed by Muslims for the 3rd Imam Hussein, grandson of Mohammed, in full swing, the city itself was eerily quiet during the day. Strolling the main street during the day was akin to a scene from an apocalyptic blockbuster, with just the odd street cat (not so many street dogs in Iran), a wind blown plastic bag and a couple of fluttering flags for company, trying to find a place to eat was mission impossible. We did stumble on one very impressive mosque that was off the tourist trail, where we were invited in for a look around, but it was at night, looking at the mourners during their evening processions that was most interesting.

Waiting for their turn at the Pink Mosque
Mourners with hipster beards self flagellating during Ashura

Shiraz, which lends itself – somewhat ironically – to the wine grape, is a very religious city, and was ramping up for Ashura, the crescendo of the previously mentioned period of mourning. This meant in the evening the streets were packed with black clad mourners, some self-flagellating all the way to the city’s main mosque. There is also plenty of free lemonade for the neutral observer while you roam the streets and take in what is going on. The main attraction in Shiraz is the “Pink Mosque” with its beautiful stain-glass windows illuminating the prayer hall. It is beautiful, but the traction it it has made as a place to get THAT Insta shot, means there are plenty of people there running for their place in a bay with a window, where they will spend the next 3 hours (this actually happened) while all that most normal people want to do is get one quick picture and move on, but hey, I’m sure that person’s 300 followers appreciated it. Persepolis, an ancient ruin destroyed by the marauding armies of Alexander the great make for a nice day trip, even if you get there at midday and it’s 40 degrees. With Roman looking pillars still standing, you can even use some VR goggles that rebuild the building to give you a better perspective to the size and scale of the originals, pretty sweet.

Holy Shrine, Mashhad
Holy Shrine, Mashhad

It was getting to the end of our stay, and we made the very long trip up to Mashhad, it was to be where we would pick up our Turkmenistan visa (very exciting). We stayed with a beautiful couple Hamed and Elham and loved chatting about all things Iran and everything else.We learned a lot about what it’s like to live in Iran, the good the bad and surprising. We hung out with some friends and even had some Iranian beer, produced by adding yeast and sugar to the non-alcoholic versions available at the store, and left to ferment for around a month, eventually coming in at around 4-5%! The holy shrine in Mashhad is the main attraction. The largest mosque in the world by footprint, it can hold up to 600,000 worshipers. A lot of the time in Mashhad’s active mosques foreign visitors are required to take a guide, and can’t see everything, but, perhaps on account of Martina wearing her borrowed chador (a figure covering garment) we slipped past the goal keeper and were able to go everywhere. The place is obviously massive, and we easily spent 2 hours exploring the immaculately pieced together artworks that are the ceilings, in an Islamic version of St Peters Basilica or Sistine chapel in the Vatican. The mirrored domes were like nothing else though, and the pure scale was mind blowing, if in Iran, it’s worthy of the trek to see it.

Incredible mosaics are par for the course in Iran

So, all in all our impressions of Iran from travellers were fairly well founded. A country whose citizens belie the headlines with a hospitality and humility that is hard to be beaten. Our whole time in Iran was made even better with the fact we managed to have some friends from Switzerland there at the same time, and even bumped into our friends that got hitched in Georgia. What ever the preconceptions you might have about this country the only way to find out what a genuine warm Iranian welcome feels like is to come and find out for yourselves!

Join us next time as we race through Turkmenistan from South to North and make our way to Uzbekistan, until then.

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