A journey through Iran
Half a year ago I traveled around in Iran with friends. It’s about time to write something about the journey and maybe inspire someone to visit this secluded country.
I got up at noon, packed the rest of my backpack and walked to the Central Station in Gothenburg where I met Pär and Hanna. A few hours later we arrived in Stockholm and went for a walk. We entered the Old Town and I was shocked to discover that my old favorite ice cream place had become a Ben&Jerry. Don’t get me wrong, I love B&J, but the old one had a lot of charm.
Stunned as I was, I still managed to grab a hot macchiato at Espresso House next to the Sci-fi bookstore. We brought our coffee cups across Stortorget and sat down next to the statue of Gustav III with a nice view of the Royal Castle.
Walked all the way out to Kastellet before we realized that it was bloody cold despite the sun, so after a long walk we had some hot food and cold drinks.
After having the last bacon breakfast for three weeks, we got a cab to Arlanda airport and found our rather high-security gate. As soon as we got into the air a new world opened before our eyes. First out was trying the Zam Zam, a fairly decent coca cola copy brewed in Iran. After a weird sugar cake and yogurt I finally got my first Delster, “non alcoholic beer”, with pineapple flavor. The drink was somewhat disgusting in an interesting way!
Touchdown in Tehran, the capital of Iran. Imam Khomeini Airport was not the jolliest of places late in the evening and there was a tedious passport control (after all, the Swedish Godzilla had arrived). We changed Euros into a bucketful of Iranian Rials, since no European credit cards work anywhere in the country. Then off and away into the enormous city.
The first thing I noticed was the traffic. I’ve seen some crazy shit in my days, cities such as Cairo and Bangkok are downright hilarious when it comes to traffic regulations and public safety, but this was probably even worse. I loved it. We passed the imposing burial shrine of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, the infamous poster boy of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
We quickly dropped our bags at the hotel in Gohar Shad Alley and went looking for food close to midnight on deserted streets. It immediately struck me that the streets were completely empty on this fine Saturday evening in a city of millions. I guess everybody were at home, since there is no nightlife to mention. In fact, my Lonely Planet has a chapter “Nightclubs” for Tehran but the paragraph only consists of two words: “Dream on”.
Woke up in Tehran, hot as an oven and covered in mosquito bites. After a horrible excuse of a coffee at Jamali Alley, the morning was kick-started with a fierce taxi ride through Tehran. I enjoyed chatting with the driver who really hated the city and played loud music. Passed the gigantic Azadi Tower, which looked more like a white Sauron tower than a monument of freedom.
And as expected, the ride actually ended up with a car crash, making a big dent in my passenger door! Yie-ha. That was our cue and we sneaked off into the airport. The building had separate entry doors for men and women, which would be a recurring theme during the following weeks.
A short plane ride later we arrived at the airport of Shiraz. The aptly named Dry River had indeed dried out, but provided an interesting view as we entered the city by car. Left the backpack at the hotel and walked across Hamzeh Bridge, thankfully the traffic was a bit less insane than Tehran (but only a bit less).
We saw a great dome in the distance and Hanna got covered with a chador for proper cover before we entered the magnificent Imamzadeh-ye Ali Ebn-e Hamze. The walls inside were covered with mirrors and the tomb of Emir Ali was located in the center.
The ground outside the entrance was filled with tombstones for which families of the deceased paid a small fortune. A woman released gold fishes into a nearby pool, left-overs from celebrating the new year last week (according to their calendar the new year corresponds to March 20 of the Gregorian calendar), where gold fishes in a bowl represents a happy life.
Walked north through Melli park where we saw a lot of tents. The Iranian people sure loves to picnic. It got me thirsty but unfortunately there is no Shiraz wine in Shiraz! Most of the vine ranks were ripped up after the 1979 revolution, so the remaining vines in France are said to be brought there by crusaders. What to do? I tried the odd local specialty Faloodeh, some sort of frozen starch lime juice with rose water. Not bad!
Had a look at Aramgah-e Hafez, where the beautiful tomb of national poet Hafez brings lots of people.
Getting past the crowd to touch it made me hungry, and after a long walk westbound we found the best kebab in town near the Gas Park. The fitting end to the evening was a furious cab ride home; it cost 20 000 rial but was more entertaining than any roller-coaster I’ve ever tried.
- Related blog post: Kebab Jihad in Iran
After an omelet we got lost in the Vakil bazaar where we found several unexpected items, such as a coffee cup marked “God Jul”, a Slipknot necklace and a swastika. We got very used to hearing “Hello! Where you from?” in there.
I saw a bunch sheep heads on display at the butcher, not knowing what awaited me on a plate in Tehran three weeks later. I’ve been told that Shiraz is one of the oldest towns in Iran and it sure felt a lot more conservative than Tehran.
Pär read about a place in Lonely Planet which was described as “in theory, non-Muslims are not allowed”. So naturally we had to go there. It turned out to be Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh, a sanctuary where Sayyed Mir Ahmad was murdered in 835 AD. The imposing building was split into different sections for men and women by a wall, so a chador-covered Hanna had to go by her own. I found it sad that the entire tomb was placed in the male section, with only the short side facing into the wall for the women to touch. But they obviously weren’t prepared for the six-foot-four Swedish Godzilla to roam freely in there since I could see over the wall to the women side as well!
Me and Pär went to the innermost section where people were sleeping and chanting verses from the Koran. One man brought the attention of a guard, pointed at us and said something about not being Muslims, but fortunately the guard didn’t kick us out.
In the evening we took a minibus to Daryache ye Namak, a salt lake outside of Shiraz. It was possible to walk quite far into the lake, which made my shoes look like they’ve been through a rough winter in Gothenburg.
The evening ended at a food place in town, where two students showed me their math books and wanted to copy music from our mp3 players.
Finally time to visit Persepolis, one of the great places of the ancient world! It was once the ceremonial hub of the Achaemenid Empire with large temples. But since Xerxes sacked Athens in 480 BC after defeating 300 Spartans (and more) earlier at Thermopylae, it was probably inevitable that Alexander the Great had to burn Persepolis to the ground in retaliation 150 years later. Traces of fire are still visible on the columns of Xerxes’ Palace.
I especially enjoyed the Apadana staircase with several well-preserved reliefs. Unfortunately a lot of the items has been brought to the British Museum in London. But the imposing stone columns gave a hint of the former magnitude of this place. Graffiti from visitors such as Stanley were seen carved into the stone here and there.
From the adjacent hilltop we had a great view of the entire palace area. These hills also holds the tombs of several kings, but even more imposing tombs were located at nearby Naqsh-e Rustam, where they have been cut into the mountain side. As I stood in front the tomb of Xerxes, I couldn’t help feeling that this is what happens when you mess with 300 Spartans.
We managed to get a car to Pasargadae, the old capital city of Cyrus the Great. He was perhaps the greatest leader of ancient Persia, praised in the Bible for his humanitarian rule. His large tomb is quite impressive, but unfortunately it had already been plundered when Alexander the Great visited the site 200 years after the death of Cyrus.
We explored the surrounding sites and felt like Indiana Jones when we found writings carved in columns in three different languages. The fortress of Toll-e Takht at a hilltop offered nice views of the area.
Time to leave the civilization and go south. After a few hours we entered the town of Firuz Abad where we found the ruins of an 1800-year old palace. Among the deserted ruins were red papavers (opium poppy), a welcome splash of color in the otherwise barren site. Palace and city were built by Ardashir Babakan, the founder of the Sasanian empire.
For several hours we rolled across steep hill roads which made the engine roar with displeasure. The temperature was rising and we rarely saw any people or settlements.
We finally stopped at a Kashgai nomad camp shortly before dying of the heat. The family was very friendly and we had tea sitting on a carpet they had woven themselves.
We tagged along as they were milking goats, picked berries from trees, farmed vegetables in the fields and made yogurt by shaking a skin bag.
After nightfall I went on a walk alone and marveled at the impressive starry sky, completely free from light pollution.
I woke up freezing on a Persian rug with aching back. Behind a corner I saw the damned rooster that kept me awake during many hours, but luckily for him I was to tired to go hunting.
The nomad family baked very nice bread for breakfast and we thanked them for the short but very interesting stay, it really gave me some perspective on our lifestyle back home.
The engine was not at all happy as it struggled once more across the hill roads. It was a very long journey but we finally arrived in Esfahan late in the evening.
We immediately walked to the Si-o-Seh bridge with its 33 arches beautifully lit across the Zayandeh river. It seemed like a popular place for young people to hang out.
Me and Pär managed to find our way to Imam Square, which is said to be the second-largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. There were lots of families having picnics in the grass and we got lots of attention since we were probably the only non-Iranians in the entire area.
It sure feels good to be back in civilization! We found a great coffee place in Jolfa, the Armenian Quarter. They actually made me an Espresso Macchiato which was more than adequate. This area felt more relaxed and we were surprised to even see some nudity in ceiling paintings at the Vank Cathedral.
After a full day of walking across town and exploring the old Jameh Mosque, it was time for a real taste of Iran. I had to try the Iranian national dish Fesenjun, with its special taste from walnut and pomegranate sauce.
I also had to try ice cream, which was composed of saffron and rose water, quite interesting even though my friends said it tasted like “old fridge”. Topping it off with Gaz, the Iranian sweet made in Esfahan which consists of nougat mixed with chopped pistachios.
Back to Imam Square, which felt totally different in sunlight.
After enjoying a nice view from the palace we managed to find our way to Azadegan Tea house, well hidden in a small alley, where we had tea and admired the enormous amount of junk placed everywhere in the tiny place.
Other highlights of the day included a bowl of Dizi stew, beautiful mosques and getting stare-downed by an entire school class.
Then we got half lost in the bazaar area, until we found some sort of religious school with large Khomeini paintings on the wall. Deep in the basement we found the worst public toilet ever (a record that would last for only a few days until we reached Jowsam). That was our cue and we walked back to the waterfront for an sunset walk along Zayandeh River.
Just as we reached the beautifully lit Khaju Bridge we got invited to share a picnic with a family in the grassy slopes.
The day started with a long walk that included a solemn martyr cemetery, sweet pastry on a sun-washed bridge and smalltalk with tourists from Iraq.
From a rotating restaurant at 11th floor, Pär the eagle-eye spotted a cool mountain at the horizon. We immediately went there and climbed up. At the top we found the old fire temple Ateshkadeh-ye Esfahan, where we sat down in the crumbling mud brick arches and had a fantastic view of the surroundings. This was a place of worshiping for the Zoroastrians, and a few days later we would see other impressive Zoroastrian temples as well.
Back down on the ground we went looking for pigeon towers, once used to hold thousands of pigeons for a supply of guano used as fertilizer for the city’s famous fields of watermelons. More than 700 of the once 3000 towers remains, and naturally Pär had to climb into several of them. The most interesting part was the way there that lead us through a pitch black tunnel filled with animal skeletons.
Afterwards we managed to find a cab which took us on a crazy ride. The driver said a lot of things but we didn’t understand a word. The only thing we understood was that he was driving the wrong way.
Finally we jumped off at Imam Square and joined the picnic families while waiting for the sun to set over the glimmering turquoise mosque domes.
As always we drew more attention than an ice cream vendor in Sahara. Some girls started to talk to us and guessed that I was 26. Nice try. And for the record, non-alcoholic pomegranate beer is just as weird as it sounds.
We managed to sneak into the Imam Mosque at dusk and sat below the minarets as they echoed with loud prayers while men poured into the big chambers, praying on big rugs on the floor.
I really liked Esfahan but now it was time for a completely different experience. We found our way to the bus station, where we entered an old bus mostly held together by duct tape. After a sauna ride through the desert we finally arrived at the city of Yazd.
Yazd is located in the middle of the desert, so the minarets are quite tall since they functioned as landmarks for the ancient camel caravans. The city used to be a travel hub along the Silk Road. Marco Polo passed through in the 13th century and described it as “very fine and splendid”, and I must agree with the old man.
The first thing I noticed was the labyrinth alleys of the old town. It was very easy to get lost in the mud brick alleys, navigating on random while surrounded by staring old men, pointing their crooked fingers at the Godzilla Viking in surprise. It felt like walking around in Mos Eisley.
We went up on the roof of a mosque and admired the roof tops. The roofscape of Yazd is covered by “badgirs”, ingenious constructions acting as medieval air conditioning systems.
The trickiest part was to find our way home, since the mud brick alleys all looked the same.
- Related blog post: Getting lost in Yazd
Saw an interesting exhibition about the old qanars, underground irrigation channels that provided the desert city with water from the mountains. The workers were dressed in white when they dug the tunnels, so they could be buried in their clothing if they died during the dangerous work.
Found a nice place where we had Muslim beer sitting in couches on a rooftop, while watching the sun set over the nearby Amir Chaghmagh mosque.
The evening ended at a weird place. Saheb A Zaman Club Zurkhaneh was an old water reservoir built in 1580 but these days it is used as a dojo for practitioners of Zurkhaneh, a thousand-years old mix of religion and martial arts. A referee recited poetry of Hafez and hit a drum like crazy to provide a sonic backdrop for the performers whirling around in the center pit.
We drove for hours into the desert before arriving at a mountain. Far up on the slopes we saw Chak Chak, the old fire temple which is the most sacred pilgrimage shrine of the Zoroastrians. Ascending the slope was quite tough in the desert heat, but we finally reached the shimmering bronze gate. An old man unlocked the gate and we entered the shrine barefoot.
To my surprise the floor tiles were cold and wet, and next to the eternal flame was a small drip of water next to a very old and gnarled tree. A most unexpected sight in the middle of a desert!
Later in the day we visited Meybod, another old trade center along the Silk Road. From the top of the Narein castle we had a great view of the mud brick city which felt really ancient.
Passed through a caravansedai, which used to be sort of a camel motel, before we got to Yakh Dan, a mud brick house built to store ice during the summer. I climbed down into the egg-shaped pit, it was actually quite cold and the chamber gave a nice echo.
In the early morning we climbed to the top of a Tower of Silence, a place where the Zoroastrians placed their dead so vultures could pick their bones clean. The remains were then stored in small alcoves.
We then said our goodbye to the charming city Yazd and continued on our journey south. Endless hours along deserted roads through the barren stone desert. Had a brief stop in Jowsam where I found the Worst Public Toilet Ever. Unfortunately I didn’t bring any ceremonial plaque for the occasion.
Stopped for gas in Shak-n-Babah, a chaotic trucker stop where the drivers fought for access to the pumps. Several American Mack trucks among them, but they were old so I guess they were imported during the Shah era.
We finally arrived at cave village Meymand in the evening. It felt a bit like the Flintstones when we entered the cozy cave that would be our home for the next few days.
Went for a walk in the small village, passing the school building with Khomeini painted on the wall. There are only four children in the village so I guess they have plenty of space. I bought some peanuts from a toothless old woman and had tea in a cave sitting on a tree log.
It felt really great to be far far away from the fast-paced urban life of macchiatos, wifi and shopping malls.
Despite the hard surface I was surprisingly alert in the morning. Splashed some cold water in the face, donned the packing and went off trekking in the surrounding hillside. Our local guide was a young man named Ali, smiling all the time as he climbed the slopes with the energy of a mountain goat.
Along the way we came across farmers who gave us almonds, and later we stumbled upon a family picnic where we were instantly invited to share their abundance of tea, dates and bread.
A black dog followed us anywhere we went, but always at a respectable distance. After a few hours of walking we were invited to a small hut where we had omelet with dates, and of course more tea.
Later in the day we came across a goatherder, who turned out to be Ali’s old teacher. The evening ended with storytelling by an open fire on top of a hill.
We said our goodbyes to the cozy cave and left the village. As we got closer to civilization I got a text message saying something about an ash cloud over Europe, originating from a volcano in Iceland. It sounded like a bad joke but it turned out to be true, and got us thinking about how it would affect our flight home.
After these refreshing days in a cave it felt like a shock to arrive in Kerman, a busy town where where the traffic was really crazy. After leaving the bags at a dirty hotel we walked through the bazaar, where we found a very nice tea house located in an old hamam (bathing house). I tried the local cookie Kolompeh while two men played music in a corner and several visitors leisurely smoked on water pipes.
We were later invited to a really nice family where we had good things to eat. I am constantly amazed at the hospitality of the Iranian people.
The nearby city of Bam once had a beautiful citadel, but it was destroyed in the 2003 earthquake so we went to the town of Rayen instead. It also had an old mud brick citadel which is nearly as impressive, with a nice backdrop view of snowclad mountains. We explored the small walkways and filmed a Matt Harding tribute dance on the roof, which was not appreciated by the citadel guards. But fun.
Next stop Mahan, where we visited the mausoleum of sufi leader Shah Ne’emat Ollah-e-Vali. Pär got one of his usual bright ideas and soon we were climbing up one of the twin minarets! It was quite narrow but worth the hassle since it gave a great view of the turquoise tiled dome and rest of the city. I think it was the first time I’ve ever been at the top of a minaret, so I had a curious look at the big loudspeakers placed up there. Fortunately they were silent when we were there.
Apart from a red snake in the toilet, nothing more seemed to keep us here so we were off into the Dasht-e Lut. The Lut desert is the place where they once measured the highest temperature ever at +70 degrees Celsius. It is also famous for the kaluts, big sand castles which reminded me of Monument Valley in North America.
After a fuming hot drive for hours, it was finally time to discover what really lurked beyond the endless desert horizon, so we left the vehicle and started to ascend the mighty slopes of the kaluts. We sat down on a ridge and enjoyed the sunset over the kalut horizon.
Time to put on the backpack once again and head for the train station. The station of Kerman turned out to be a center of chaos. Apart from the different entrances for men and women, which we were gotten used to by now, we also encountered x-ray machines, passport control (since we were westerners) and a very long queue. Even more frustrating was the fact that the queue was mostly made up of people waving goodbyes to departing friends, so we had to literally push our way through the spectators to get to our train.
But as soon as we saddled in our wagon, things got better. We were offered tea by the train steward and there were even some strange cookies. The barren landscape passed outside the window but at least there were pretty mountains and even the occasional wild dromedary!
At nine in the evening, the train stopped for fifteen minutes so passengers could visit prayer halls where the train had stopped. We were likely the only people left in the train.
We had an ongoing feud with the cabin next door about the wagon temperature. The chador-clad women thought that the desert heat was too cold and insisted on increasing the temperature. I woke up at 3 AM, being more warm than I’ve ever been before. I was actually close to fainting from the heat before I managed to crawl to the window and push it open for cold air like a fish on dry land.
Our night train arrived in Mashhad early in the morning. This is a pilgrim city close to Afghanistan which holds the shrine of Imam Reza, the eight Imam. The other eleven are buried in Iraq and other places, so this is Iran’s holiest site.
As non-Muslims we were not allowed to enter the innermost sanctum, but we watched from a distance as large crowds gathered to pray. The shrine is like a city within the city, filled with domes, fountains and courtyards. The area is so large that there is even a freeway intersection below it!
What to do next? Explored the bazaar area, had great kebab and got free cookies, yay!
In the morning we went back to the train station of Mashhad, which was fortunately less chaotic than Kerman. The westbound train ride went pretty smooth and I saw beautiful mountains in the countryside.
Had a Delster apple “beer” and saw the Fuji-shaped mountain Damavand in the distance as we got closer to Tehran.
Finally back in Tehran! The train station was pretty busy, but we got into a cab that took us north through insane traffic. It felt like having a movie car chase in a roller coaster. I loved it and my grin was still off the charts even as we reached the hotel.
Walked north along Ferdosi Street until we decided to try the bus system. Naturally there were different entrances for men and women, but there were even a metal fence to separate the sections inside the bus! It was also unbelievable congested so I was really glad to get out when the bus stopped. Visited a lot of book shops around Engelab Square, it’s not every day you get to browse a C# book in Farsi language!
The evening plans were a no-brainer since we wanted to try the infamous sheep brain delicacy. We found a nice place where the staredowns implied that not many westerners had seen the inside of the walls. First we got a bowl of the water that the sheep head had been boiled in. Next was a plate with tongue, followed by a plate with eyes and chin.
The final plate was the brain. I felt like a zombie as I let loose on the pieces, which were really unlike anything I’d ever eaten before. A too sweet pomegranate beer provided a nice contrast to the salted meat.
Woke to the sound of prayer chants at 5 AM. We’re not in Kansas anymore… Today it was time to explore the northern part of the capital. The entire city is built on the slopes below snowclad Alborz mountains and for half an hour we travelled constantly uphill. The mountains in the north were a great help for orientation since they were visible from most places in the city.
We found our way to the Sa’d Abad Museum, the luxury complex where the shah used to live. Only the legs remained of the statue of Reza Shah in front of the White Palace. Had a look inside the various palaces and weapon museums to learn more of this turbulent era.
All kinds of museums tend to reward the visitors with sore feet, so it was a great relief to find a coffee place a few blocks down the street. With renewed strength we continued south towards the center. Unfortunately the Lonely Planet map was somewhat sparsely detailed, so we had to walk for an eternity (and then some) before we found the metro stop Gheytarieh.
Tehran is the largest city in the Middle East and today it really lived up to the name as we passed lots of blocks and it just never seemed to end. The National Museum turned out to be a disappointment though. Only a few of the items were from Persepolis, the rest had unfortunately been shipped to British Museum in London.
Continued south until we ended the evening at Azari teahouse quite near the train station. Of course we were the only foreigners and got some attention. Had kebab and tea while we enjoyed a performer on stage who was very skilled with a hand drum.
Today was “Revenge of the sheep brain”, since I was sick from food poisoning and had to stay in bed the entire day. Raah.
Got up at 03 AM, had a painkiller with two chocolate bars for breakfast and was soon on my way to Imam Khomeini Airport. The queue was unbelievable and it took almost three hours for us to reach the gate.
Five hours later we arrived at Arlanda airport in Stockholm. Rushed past Terminal 5 where the new Starbucks is located, unfortunately most of the airport shops were closed due to the ash cloud from Iceland which had stopped all flights for a week.
In conclusion I can really recommend a visit to Iran. Some parts of it will force you to leave your comfort zone and it can sometimes be quite tough for female travellers, but the people are very friendly and the sights are nothing short of spectacular.
/ Reine the Godzilla Viking, 2010