Iran, like Alaska and India, was one of the “destinations” I’d planned to visit on my journey, one of the dots connected by lines. Six weeks is all I had, hardly adequate for this huge and diverse land, but a fair sample for my first visit nonetheless. I covered a few corners of the country, passing through Mashhad, Gorgan, Gonbad-e-Kavus, Karaj, Rasht, Ardebil, Astara, Esfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Chak Chak, Kharanaq, Tabriz, Kandovan, and of course Tehran, in which I ended up spending close to two weeks, using it as a base for travel, and feeling right at home by the end.
One of several entrances to the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashahd, the most important Shi'ah Muslim pilgrimage site in Iran. Imam Reza, the Eighth Imam, is buried in a mausoleum within the complex.
A full discussion of my stay in Iran should delve deeply into topics such as politics and religion (and the combination of the two), but this is not the forum for that. I’d like to visit Iran again some day, reason enough to practice a little discretion in what is written, or rather what is not written.
Kang, a stepped village outside of Mashhad. The roof of each home is the terrace of the one above it
My first stop could not have been in a more appropriate place. Mashhad is Iran’s second largest and most holy city, a sprawling metropolis centered around the shrine complex built for Shi’ah Islam’s Eighth Imam, Imam Reza. The only one of the Twelve Imams buried in Iran (the Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to the Prophet Mohammad, according to Shi’ah Islam), Imam Reza was buried in what is today Mashhad after being poisoned to death by the Abbasids, a rival sect of Muslims, in the ninth century. Apparently looking Iranian enough (the beard goes a long way), I managed to enter the mausoleum itself (normally reserved for Muslims), where the faithful mourn for the death of the Imam, some people being brought to tears as if he passed away yesterday. It was absolutely electrifying; the feelings were contagious, and I found myself with the chills.
Climbing up the steps in Kang
After visiting the shrine, I took a day trip with a group of Czechs to the stepped village of Kang, about 40 minutes outside of Mashhad. There weren’t many travelers with which to hook up while in Iran, but this was hardly a problem. One is never alone in Iran, as there is no shortage of totally genuine people wanting nothing more than to exhibit a little bit of the hospitality for which Iranians are so famous. Asking for directions on the street inevitably ends in something so much more, whether it’s being led by the hand to the destination in question, or getting an invitation for tea or lunch, sometimes an exchange of numbers to meet up on a later date, or even just a friendly conversation, it seemed like any and all interactions resulted in a new friendship of sorts.
School girls in Kang
Besides a trip to Kang, I joined a couple of newly minted Iranian friends for an excursion outside of Mashhad and into the Binaloud Mountains to climb its highest peak, Mt. Binaloud (3210 m). We hitched a ride in a rickety old truck, and were lucky enough to find it filled with members of the Iranian Mountaineering Federation with plans to head up the same mountain as us. As we didn’t have a guide for the hike, teaming up with them was a blessing. They even offered us a lift home once we’d descended back to the trail head the following day.
We hitched a ride to the trail-head in a rickety old truck
Mohammad Reza and Vali during the bumpy ride up
We stayed the night in a shelter before our early morning climb
Summit of Mount Binaloud (3210m), the highest peak in Khorasan Province of Iran
With Mahdi on the summit
From Mashhad I traveled West, stopping in Gorgan. I managed a trip to nearby Gonbad-e-Kavus, a largely ethnically Turkmen city, as well as home to an impressive 72 meter tower built 1000 years ago, and still in perfect condition. Iran boasts several different ethnic groups – besides the majority Persians (they are NOT Arabs), the country has sizable minority populations of Azeris (known in Iran as Turks for their Turkish descent, not to mention language and culture), Turkmens, many of whom escaped to Iran following the Soviet occupation of their native land in what is today Turkmenistan, Baluchis, Arabs, and others.
Gonbad-e-Kavus, a 1000 year old tower in the Caspian region of NE Iran, a majority ethnically Turkmen area of the country
From Gorgan I caught a bus to Tehran, Iran’s sprawling capital, packed full with an estimated 15 million people in the metropolitan area. I arrived early in the morning, just in time to take the metro during peak rush hour. After not finding the room to squeeze into the first subway car, I caught on that this had to be no different than the L train in Brooklyn on a Monday, and that I simply had to put my head down and charge, like I used to do every morning. Sure enough, my 24 kg bag and I had no problem forcing the right of way onto the next train, and I proceeded on to North Tehran to my Couchsurfing host.
Faniz, one of many new Tehrani friends, in her apartment
Tehran is hardly a tourist hub, not because there isn’t much to see (there’s enough to keep busy for weeks), but rather because it can become overwhelming with the constant chaos of everyday life, not to mention the suffocating pollution. But, like in Delhi during my travels in India, it was the friends I made in Tehran that made it such an attractive place to spend so much time, and the chaos actually turned endearing.
I spent the weekend in Karaj, an hour outside of Tehran, staying at a friend's place. You see, not all women in Iran wear black outside the home. However, hips and hair and any other curves must be covered.
I was quite a nomad in Tehran, shifting between Couchsurfing hosts, and later moving into the flat of my good friend, Amir Ali, with whom I studied in NYC. Currently living in Dubai, Amir Ali dropped into Tehran for a few days while I was there. It was great catching up with an old friend, and we even managed to put together a road trip to the Caspian coast, being joined by a couple of other friends. Amir Ali, Ali Reza, Micky, Francois (the same Francois as in Uzbekistan – our hare-brained plan to maybe meet up in Tehran materialized, and even led to another month of shared travels) and I filled up the Nissan Patrol that would take us to Rasht, Masuleh, Astara and Ardebil over an intense 48 hrs.
That's no giant fruit roll-up - it's a blazing hot coil of steel weighing over 20 tons. We stopped into a steel plant on our way to Masuleh
After a bright and early start from Tehran, with Micky at the wheel, we reached the area around Rasht, eventually getting to Masuleh, a picturesque stepped village and a popular destination among local tourists. Some people imagine Iran to be a vast desert land, but pay a visit to the Caspian coast, and Iran’s dense forest side shows itself, where it rains more often than not. Indeed two huge deserts do cover a majority of the eastern end of the country (Dasht-e-Kavir and Kavir-e-Lut), but the mountains (Zagros and Albroz ranges) and forested lands add an entirely different element to the country’s geography.
Micky and the Nissan Patrol, our ride for the road trip
After a communal stop at the barber’s, with nearly all of us getting at least a beard trim (getting one’s hair cut on the road is so much more exciting – one never knows exactly what end result to expect), we powered on until Astara, on the border between Iran and Azerbaijan. The next day we braved the cold of the Caspian Sea and went for a morning swim. The Caspian is not known for being the cleanest body of water – between the Volga River, and all that’s pumped into it, flowing in from up north, to the countless oil and natural gas related pollutants seeping out of the energy infrastructure, it hardly makes the grade. However, Iran does have the cleanest water of the Caspian’s littoral states, complete with waves and sandy beaches, so it was definitely worth our visit.
Masuleh, a stepped village outside of Rasht, shrouded in a mist common in the Caspian region, the wettest in Iran
The next day included a magnificent drive through the mountains and up to Ardebil, first for a pilgrimage to the Ali Daei Stadium, as Ardebil is home town of the football legend of the same name (more on that later), and later a pilgrimage of another sort to the Sheikh Safi al-Din Khānegāh and Shrine Ensemble, where lies the great Sufi mystic of the same name. After getting our fill of both of Iran’s principle religions, Islam and football, we continued on for a disappointing stop in Sareyn, apparently known for its hot springs, and finally a marathon drive all the way back to Tehran, with Micky at the wheel the entire time. We each passed out one-by-one in the truck, but Micky powered on.
Amir Ali in Masuleh
Chris, Ali Reza, Amir Ali, Francois and Micky in Masuleh
We went for a swim in the Caspian Sea near the Azerbaijan border at Astara. The water was cold, the wind was strong as hell, and we loved it.
We visited Ardebil, home town of football legend Ali Daei, and it's brand new stadium. Amir Ali going up for a header.
Mausoleum for Sheikh Safi-od-Din, a renowned Sufi mystic, in Ardebil.
Following a day of recovery in Tehran, Amir Ali gathered nearly the same group for one of the biggest football matches of the year, the Tehran derby, or Derby Sorkhabi
. The match up is between the two most popular teams in Iran (both hailing from the capital), Persepolis (pronounced Pers’polis
) FC and Esteghlal FC, and easily fills the country’s biggest stadium, at the Azadi Sports Complex, which can hold over 120,000 fans, splitting it down the middle into a sea of red (Persepolis supporters) and blue (Esteghlal).
Our custom jerseys for the Persepolis-Esteghlal match - the Tehran derby - a match up between Iran's two most popular teams.
The match is especially important for Amir Ali, as the head coach of Persepolis (the most popular football team in Asia) is his old friend, football legend Ali Daei, former captain of the Iranian National Football team and the world’s leading goalscorer in international matches, ahead of Pelé and Maradonna and any other name you can think of. Probably Ali Daei’s biggest fan, Amir Ali custom ordered some jersey’s for us to wear, with “Soltan Ali Daei” (King Ali Daei
) printed on the front, and our names on the back. We arrived to the stadium hours before kickoff, so as to reserve some good seats. We sat in suspense throughout the match, hesitantly accepting the nil-nil draw as the clock entered extra time, only to be utterly shocked when Esteghlal striker F. Majidi launched the ball into the net a minute into extra time, shattering the mood of some 60,000 people in the stadium, and millions of others watching on television. It was a deep blow.
Our jerseys for the derby. Soltan Ali Daei, or King Ali Daei, printed on the front on a Persepolis red
Azadi Sports Complex stadium with a full house of over 120,000 supporters for the Persepolis-Esteghlal match. Only a row of policemen divides the seas of red and blue.
Francois really getting into it, much to the delight of his neighbors
That night, Amir Ali and I were invited to the birthday celebration of Ali Daei’s wife, Mona, which everyone hoped would double as a victory celebration over Esteghlal, especially considering that Persepolis had emerged victorious at the previous derby. A solemn mood prevailed at the party.
With Amir Ali heading back home to Dubai the following day, Francois and I put together a rough schedule for exploring some of Central Iran, namely visiting Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd.
Meidun-e Imam Khomeini in Esfahan - the world's second largest square, after Tiananmen in Beijing, only this one was built in the 16th century.
Imam Mosque, formerly called the Shah Mosque, in Esfahan
Esfahan is probably the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Add to this the fact that it is still very much full of life, with vibrant bazaars in the center, working mosques and medrassahs, and a most spectacular square, the Meidan-e Naqsh-e Jahan, and it really does not disappoint. The Persians called this old capital Nesf-e-Jahan
(half the world), meaning that to see it was to see half the world, and also referring to it as a point where many cultures and nationalities met and mingled, being a true cosmopolitan city.
Western woman wearing a chador in the mosque. It hardly suits her.
Interior of the dome of Imam Mosque - a photo cannot do it justice
Woman in chador at Imam Mosque
The exterior ivan of the Imam Mosque
Panorama of the square as seen from Ali Ghapu Palace
Siosepol bridge straddles the Zayendeh River in Esfahan
Old school door with distinct door knockers for men and women. Which door knocker is used signals to the woman inside whether she needs to be in hejab (cover herself) when opening the door
From Esfahan, we headed further south to another old Persian capital, Shiraz. Besides making a pilgrimage to the mausoleum of maybe the most-loved Persian poet, Hafez
, we planned to use Shiraz as a jump-off point for visiting the old ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis
. Built by a series of big-named emperors, including Darius, Xerxes and Ataxerxes, Persepolis was once the wealthiest city on the planet, used as a place to receive tribute from vassal states of the empire.
Overlooking the ruins of the once great city Persepolis outside of Shiraz
Francois and I decided beforehand to spend the night near the city ruins, so as to see it at a relaxed pace over two days (and to visit nearby sites at Naqsh-e Rustam and Pasargad), packing a tent and sleeping bags for some parking lot camping, a well accepted practice in Iran. The details of the countless reliefs that cover the walls, stairs, and columns of Persepolis are a testament to the greatness and sophistication of Persia and its people in the sixth century, when most structures were completed. At the time of the city’s construction, Europe, with the notable exception of the Greeks, was little more than a disorganized band of tribes running around naked and washing once a lifetime. Proud Persians will happily remind you of this fact.
200 year-old graffiti near the entrance to Persepolis
Cuneiform writing on the wall
Pictures of kings from far-away lands bringing tribute to Darius adorn the walls of Persepolis
The southern steps leading up to the Apadana, or Audience Hall
After visiting the ruins, Francois and I sat down for a quick tea, after which we planned to find a nice piece of asphalt on which to pitch our tent. Within minutes of sitting down, however, we were approached by two men, one speaking just a few words of English, asking to join us at our table. Sure enough, moments later, we were invited to their home, all squeezing onto one motorbike for the bumpy 2 km ride. We shared a very memorable evening, staying up well into the night.
The Appadana in Persepolis
With some difficulty, we got up the next morning to continue our Ancient Persia tour, hitching our way to Naqsh-e Rustam and Pasargad. Naqsh-e Rustam, about 12 km from Persepolis, is the resting place of most of the Achaemenid Emperors. It also features several impressive reliefs highlighting the glory of Ancient Persia, including one which depicts the Sassanid King Shahpur I triumphing over two Roman emperors, Valerian and Philip the Arab, both of whom fatally failed the further expansion of the Roman Empire onto the Iranian plateau, instead dying at the hands of the Persians. I’m somewhat disappointed that neither of these stories ever made it into my elementary school textbook.
Relief depicting Shahpur I's victories over two Roman emperors, Valerian and Philip the Arab - one was taken prisoner, the other killed in battle
From there we journeyed on to Pasargad, some 80 km away, with a retired Brazilian gentleman and his tour guide. Pasargad was the capital built by Cyrus the Great, responsible for turning the Achaemenid Kingdom into an empire. Not nearly as impressive as the ruins at Persepolis, having a tour guide to question incessantly about the history of the empire, as well as paying homage to Cyrus the Great at his tomb, made the trip well worth it.
The tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargad
After a night back in Shiraz, Francois and I headed northwest to the desert oasis city of Yazd
, perhaps best known as the center for Zoroastrian culture in Iran, as well as a major stop on the Silk Road. We unexpectedly stayed a full week in Yazd, having a most amazing host, taking day trips from the city, and even making it into the desert mountains for a night under the stars.
Arabic calligraphy at Masjed Jome in Yazd
Inside Masjed Jome in Yazd
We visited a confectionery factory in Yazd, a city famous throughout Iran for its sweets
Zoroastrian Tower of Silence outside of Yazd. Believing both fire and earth to be sacred, Zoroastrians would neither cremate nor bury their dead, instead leaving them in these towers to be picked apart by vultures.
Farvahar, a Zoroastrian symbol, on the walls of the temple at Chak-Chak, one of the most important Zoroastrian pilgrimage sites
Francois overlooking the near deserted village of Kharanaq
Francois and I found a rocky patch of mountain outside Kharanaq to spend the night. The full moon really lit up the night
We woke up with quite a view
A lazy morning outside of Kharanaq
From Yazd, we planned to stop in Kashan, about 3 hrs south of Tehran, on our way back to the capital. We missed the turnoff, too deeply tuned into our MP3 players, and instead got off at Qom, the center of Shi’ah Muslim learning, from where emerged most of the religious leaders of the current Islamic Republic of Iran. We searched for a place to stay, only to discover that the city did not have a single room available, on account of the fact that Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hoseyni Khāmene’i, was in town for the weekend, and pilgrims from all around had come to see him speak at Friday prayers. Improvising a little, we decided to pitch our tent in a paved section of the center of town where once a river flowed, taking a queue from the other pilgrims already sleeping there.
Our ride back to Yazd
My last week in Iran was spent catching up with now old friends in Tehran. I got into a steady rhythm, finding it difficult to leave, but eventually heading northwest to Tabriz, the capital of the Turkish region of Iran, Azerbaijan
, which borders the country the Republic of Azerbaijan. I spent a couple of days exploring the city, and even took a day trip out to Kandovan, a picturesque village an hour outside of Tabriz, nick-named the Cappadoccia of Iran, famous for its troglodyte dwellings.
Our campsite in Qom - there were no more hotel rooms available on account of the Ayatollah Khameini coming to town, so we improvised
I’m now in Armenia (Yerevan), having already passed through Azerbaijan and Georgia. I’ll be back in Georgia soon, from where I’ll cross to Turkey and the terminus, Istanbul.