Two weeks in Iran

With travel restrictions easing, Iran's sites and valleys are opening up to visitors. We glimpse a country that may be on the verge of change

6 mins
The fortune-teller mused for a moment – before fluttering its lime green wings and lowering its beak towards the pieces of paper crammed into the tiny box. A lilac-coloured slip scrawled with Farsi was eventually selected, and retrieved by the bushy-haired man clutching the all-knowing bird. The clairvoyant budgie had spoken. “You are bold and you are wise but you are lost,” the missive read. “Travel and prayer will guide the way.”

Stood in the middle of Shiraz under a twilight sky, watching young and old clamber to touch the tomb of the great 14th-century poet Hafez, I felt that my prayers had already been answered.

Iran is a place of great beauty and immense history; indeed, during the days of Cyrus the Great, around 500 BC, the Persian Empire ruled a vast chunk of the globe. However, more latterly dogged by troublesome neighbours, war, sanctions, a questionable nuclear programme and plenty of negative propaganda, Iran has long been out of bounds.

Golestan Palace, Tehran (Shutterstock)
Golestan Palace, Tehran (Shutterstock)

Some would have you believe it’s little more than a land of terrorists, atomic bombs and fanatics who storm embassies; that it’s a country left out in the cold for good reason. But with perceptions changing, a new nuclear agreement on the cards and the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office easing travel restrictions, change is afoot. Iran is on the cusp of becoming the world’s hottest destination.

“Iran is badly represented,” said my guide Majid Maddah as we negotiated the sea of women in Tehran’s sprawling central bazaar. Each had their heads covered, as all women must in Iran. Older ladies clutched their billowing chadors (full-length gowns) while some of the younger ones had bandages on their noses (Tehran is the nose job capital of the world).

Image is everything, particularly in a country as misconstrued as Iran. “I understand why people are scared to come,” said Majid, “but the reality is quite different.”

Roads of remembrance

I would see for myself. I was making a two-week loop, beginning and ending in Tehran, heading south as far as the fabled city of Shiraz. As we sped from the capital through tiny towns, sombre photos of young men lined the roads: some of the one million or so who lost their lives in the eight-year Iran/Iraq conflict in the early 1980s, when Saddam Hussein invaded. More than 3,000 villages were blown to pieces.

I distracted myself from such uneasy thoughts by reading a sign on the bus window instructing passengers to text a number if the driver committed any number of offences: text 1 for not wearing a seatbelt; 3 for driving erratically; 6 for failing to stop at prayer times.

Nain, Iran (Shutterstock)
Nain, Iran (Shutterstock)

An unexpected downpour in the quiet town of Nain meant our picnic lunch was enjoyed within the old stone walls of the local mosque – the second-oldest in Iran. At around 1,000 years old, it had an understated elegance, its bare brick walls etched with ornate carvings and Arabic scriptures scrawled across the crumbling archways.

Tourist-free zone

The cosmopolitan town of Yazd lies 500km south-east of Tehran. On its outskirts stand two hilltop monuments: the Towers of Silence. In days gone by, Zoroastrians would leave the remains of their dearly departed in these towers to be eaten by vultures.

That image was food for thought as a sandstorm swept in, gathering force with gusty gales that sprinted down Yazd’s streets. Outside the Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar sweet shop, where treats like qotab and sohan ardi filled the shelves, the air swirled with dust and the smell of almonds and rosewater.

Amir Chakhmaq Complex (Shutterstock)
Amir Chakhmaq Complex (Shutterstock)

I opted out of visiting the dull-sounding Water Museum and instead stole a few quiet moments outside the Amir Chakhmaq Complex, which contains a mosque, caravanserai and bathhouse and is famed for its twin minarets and rows of sunken alcoves across three floors. The solitude didn’t last long. A young man wandered over and fired off questions like an Iranian Jeremy Paxman. “Hello Mister, you tourist? You have time to talk to me? What you think of Iran – is it like you see on the news?”

“Yes, yes and absolutely not,” were my replies. A smile of pride and relief spread across his face.

Tourists are a novelty in these parts. A stroll through any given bazaar, mosque or Persian palace will result in curious glances, warm smiles, requests for photos and spontaneous conversations. Invitations to take tea or even a home-cooked meal are not uncommon. Certainly not the welcome I expected from this ‘land of terrorists and extremists’ that makes the headlines.

Such generosity also belies how tough things are in Iran. Sanctions over its controversial nuclear programme brought sky-high inflation. The cost of 4g of saffron (Iran is the world’s leading producer of the crimson-coloured spice) soared from 1,000 rials (21p) to 300,000 (£6.60) in the space of a month. “It hit people hard,” said Majid. “But most agree that the need to defend ourselves is more important.”

Spice seller, Tehran (Shutterstock)
Spice seller, Tehran (Shutterstock)

The valley of nomads

As we continued south, the city of Shiraz beckoned, but the wild Bavanat Valley, peppered with infinite pistachio trees, presented a tempting detour. Our host here for the night was Abbas. The proprietor of a homestay and ‘tourist village’, his life was considerably different just 15 years ago. “I wasn’t happy and God wasn’t good to me,” he said, almost ashamedly. “I had no money, no cows, nothing. Now, I have a magical business, a car and a garden. Even donkeys.”

He owes it all to a serendipitous encounter with two Germans. They’d broken down, and Abbas offered them a room for the night, sparking a Dragon’s Den moment. Thanks to a grant from then-president Ahmadinejad, his empire has since grown from just one room to 33, some traditionally built from adobe and filled with handwoven rugs.

In the square opposite, families pitched tents, set up picnics and crowded around selfie-sticks. But deep in the mountainous valleys beyond, some miles away, other families were hard at work, packing up and preparing for a journey cross-country. Hesmat, in whose tent we had tea, would soon be one of them.

Her family is among the 14,000 nomads that continue to live for part of the year in the Bavanat Valley – summers are spent here, winters beside the balmy Persian Gulf. Their ancestors completed the journey on horseback over the course of a month; these days Toyotas do the hard work in as little as five hours.

“The most challenging part of our lifestyle are thunderstorms,” said Hesmat, her young daughters engrossed in intense game of yeghol dohol, which involved throwing small stones. “A storm hit once when all the men were out in the mountains. The tent collapsed and it was too heavy to lift because it was so wet.”

It seemed a simple, even primitive, existence but it was clear why these families weren’t keen to swap it for the bright lights of Tehran despite incentives from the government. An hour’s walk took us along gently flowing streams and past fields of drooping sunflowers. We chanced upon another nomadic family and their collection of tipi-style tents.

Cue more tea in little glasses, this time courtesy of Mr Abedi, a man with 300 goats, seven children and two wives. But which gives him the most trouble, I asked. Erupting into a fit of giggles, he soon composed himself. “Never my wives,” he laughed, casting a nervous sidewards glance to the two Mrs Abedis wrapped up against the chill in neon-pink cardigans. “We are leaving this place soon. Winter is coming and my girls need to get to school.”

After a breakfast of walnuts, cheese and homemade barberry jam, it was time to bid Abbas and his family goodbye. They stood in line, with one of his daughters holding a silver tray laden with various trinkets including a copy of the Quran. One by one, we crouched down and passed beneath it – a traditional ritual designed to bless our forthcoming journey.

Persepolis, Iran (Shutterstock)
Persepolis, Iran (Shutterstock)

A blessing soon materialised in the form of Persepolis: crumbling columns and sculptures built on the slopes of Mount Rahmat that were once the ceremonial capital of the far-reaching Persian Empire. It’s a miracle any of it remains at all. More than 150 years in the making, its foundations were laid by Darius I in the sixth century BC and developed by his successors; it was destroyed almost overnight by a drunken Alexander the Great.

For centuries the ruins that survived his wrath sat submerged under the sand, forgotten and unknown until 1620. It was almost another 300 years before excavations began in earnest.

Gate of All Nations, Persepolis (Shutterstock)
Gate of All Nations, Persepolis (Shutterstock)

The Apadana Palace is the most impressive of Persepolis’s sites, particularly the staircase depicting a procession of 23 gift-bearing nations, among them Arabians, Egyptians, Indians and Ethiopians, the latter presenting a baby giraffe to the Shah.

Love, love, love

Next, it was onwards to Shiraz, passing fields where the eponymous wine was once cultivated. Of course there’s no chance of a glass these days – Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution of 1979 saw to that.

We arrived at the city’s 18th century Arg of Karim Khan. On one corner stood the Leaning Tower of Shiraz, lopsided due to water damage from the hammam inside and lending the citadel a rather comical appearance. Above the main entrance were mosaics depicting Rostham, the Iranian hero who fought cruel kings and killed demons. “Even to this day, many people name their sons Rostham,” said Majid.

Beyond the walls sat sunken gardens of orange trees and old reception rooms that were decorated with 20kg of gold and stained glass windows, which scattered orange, pink and blue sunlight onto the stone floor.

Across Shahrdari Square, the sound of hammering on copper and revving of motorbike engines bounced off the arched walkways. The smell of frankincense lingered around carpet stalls with signs quoting the great poet Hafez, who wrote so eloquently of wine and desires of the heart:

‘This sky where we live is no place to lose your wings / So love, love, love.’

Tucked away in the depths of the bazaar was the Saray-e-Mehr Teahouse. Persian rugs hung beside tables where hungry locals were hard at work pounding piping-hot small clay pots with metal mashers. Dizi was the dish of the day. A stew-like delicacy of slow-cooked mutton, potatoes and chick peas in a tomato broth, it’s eaten with strips of sangak ‘bubblewrap’ bread baked with a distinctive dimpled appearance. It made a welcome change from kebabs and saffron rice.

We walked off the heavy lunch through the Persian Gardens, strolling beneath shady Aleppo pines where friendly families and shy couples lounged. More picnics. More selfie-sticks. “With no bars or nightlife, there’s not a lot else to do,” said Majid.

While arranged marriages are a thing of the past in Iran, the controversial practice of ‘temporary marriages’ continues to exist. “They can last anything from a couple of hours to several years,” explained Majid. These ‘marriages’ are essentially designed to allow deeply religious men to be able to indulge in certain acts without officially committing a sin. A small ‘dowry’ is exchanged. There’s a rather different name for that sort of thing in the West.

Politics and pomegranates

The long and winding road to Isfahan was a special one: high passes with large dune-like hills and jagged peaks carpeted in a moss-like fuzz of trees. In the Dena Mountains, where the peaks tickle the clouds at heights of more than 3,000m, a pair of newlyweds invited me to join their picnic.

We sat cross-legged, sipping tea, smoking shisha (a waterpipe with fruit-flavoured tobacco) and nibbling on sticky pomegranates. We talked of life in modern Iran. “I don’t wear my headscarf when I travel to other countries,” said the wife. “We love the West but they have the wrong idea about us,” added her husband.

Politics is never far away here: ‘Down with Israel’ posters stand outside the most majestic of mosques and the odd anti-America sentiment can be seen on roadsides. The topic of diplomatic relations is often high on the agenda. “Of course we have an atomic bomb,” said a taxi driver in Tehran. “We could destroy Israel in an hour if we wanted to but we don’t.”

I wondered whether Majid thought Iran would benefit from being a little more liberal – allowing, for example, women the option of choosing whether to cover their heads. “Iran needs that change but at a time when the majority of society will accept it. Otherwise the country will descend into chaos.”

Into Isfahan

An important city of commerce since Parthian times (247 BC to AD 224) and former capital of Persia, Isfahan was likened to Florence by French traders. Its main focal point is Meidan Emam (Imam Square), allegedly only second in size to Beijing’s Tiananmen.

Originally a field for polo and wrestling matches watched over by Shah Abbas the Great in the early 17th century, it’s an impressive space, with grand mosques and medressas (religious schools). But it doesn’t have quite the same immediate impact as the public squares in, say, Moscow or Marrakech.

Neon signs illuminated the two-storey arcades, fountains sprayed high and horse carts laden with squealing families raced each other like Roman chariots. Beneath the gleaming turquoise dome of the Shah Mosque, a man took a break from renovating the mosaics, cleared his throat and sang the call to prayer; his mellifluous notes echoed around the chamber and down walls decorated with half a million tiles.

An oversized national flag announced our arrival back in Tehran, a flash of red, white and green that fluttered against the snowy backdrop of 5,610m Mount Damavand, Iran’s tallest mountain.

A man sped past on a motorbike with a sheep on his lap. He waved and blew a kiss. The warmth of the people is indisputable but the future for Iran, and its place in the wider world, is less certain. I wondered what the fortune-telling budgerigar of Shiraz would have to say.

Make it happen 

The author travelled with Wild Frontiers. Its guided 15-day Iran Unveiled trip costs visits a number of places including Tehran, Yazd, Shiraz, Isfahan, Persepolis and the Bavanat Valley.

Main image: Nasir Al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz (Shutterstock)

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