A Travel Diary: We Go Iran
Iran has scaled back its nuclear programme, reversing decades of socio-economic isolation. We set off to explore the country before everyone else does. In true Iranian style, not all went as planned: we spontaneously skied the Alborz mountains and squeezed in an impromptu visit to the Caspian Sea.
13 July, 2016
We'd dreamed about visiting Iran for ages; it's a fertile ground for cultural heritage and brilliant landscapes. Earlier this year, the Middle Eastern nation scaled back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of UN sanctions. With decades of social and economic isolation reversed, we wanted to explore the country before it is overrun by tourists.
Iran suffers harsh climates in winter and summer, so spring seemed an ideal time to go, particularly as it coincided with Norooz (Persian New Year), Iranians' most important and beautiful annual celebration. Our must-see list included cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd, Shiraz and Kashan alongside ancient villages and the unmatchable Persepolis. Yet, in true Iranian style, not all went as planned: we spontaneously skied the Alborz mountains and squeezed in an impromptu visit to the Caspian Sea.
On our descent to Khomeini International Airport, Tehran appears a patchwork of earthy colours. Women aboard our flight drape bright scarves loosely over their hair. Here, it seems, Sharia laws are merely rules to be bent. Indeed the whole country is a paradox. Ancient traditions and new customs collide. Democracy and theocracy rule in tandem. Everything requires a second glance. During an hour-long journey into the city centre, our taxi driver plays his favourite Iranian and Turkish songs. In the distance, the majestic Alborz mountains are capped with the last of the winter snow.
There is so much to see in Tehran: museums housing ancient treasures, galleries with cutting-edge political art, royal palaces and parks of bygone eras. We begin early at the stunning Golestan Palace before getting hopelessly lost in the nearby Grand Bazaar where we eat a tahchin - cakes of chicken and saffron rice - and sip Iranian tea under clouds of shisha. A taxi takes us downtown to Seyhoun Art Gallery, the perfect starting point for an afternoon of contemporary gallery-hopping. Come dinner time, we head north for fresh air and food at cafes around Tajrish Square, the beating heart of the city at night.
Kashan is all about history. Former homes of wealthy families today serve as museums, restaurants and hotels. Setting off early to avoid traffic, the journey from Tehran takes just three hours by taxi. With fascinating domes and rooftop views, Kashan's Bazaar is a must-see, especially if you want to stock up on nuts and spices. We later visit the 2,000 year old Abyaneh village where traditionally dressed women stew ash (a fermented noodle and vegetable soup) amid red-hued mud houses.
Isfahan is beautiful. From the splendid Ali Qapu palace, we overlook Naqsh-e Jahan square and the country's premier mosques. After exploring the local bazaar, we visit Chehel Sotoun, a 20-columned Safavid palace. The Jolfa quarter reflects centuries of cosmopolitanism from its colourful Vank Cathedral to decent cup of coffee. We walk the Zayandeh river, catching sunset from the Khaju and Si-o-seh Pol bridges, surrounded by picnicking families and street performers. Dizzy from all we have seen, we wind down with doogh, a refreshingly minty yoghurt drink.
From the architecturally beautiful desert city of Yazd, a driver takes us up through silhouetted mountains to Chak Chak, where pilgrims flock to the Zoroastrian fire temple. Later we visit two other villages: Meybod and the 4,000 year old Kharanaq. We arrive back in the city just in time to catch a ceremonial workout session at a famous zurkhaneh gym. In a daze, we glide back to our lodgings and devour more tahchin.
Next stop: Shiraz. It's Iran's most westernised city. Streets buzz with young adults. Clothing is more liberal. Globally, the area is best known for its resident poets (including Saadi and Hafez) and its wine, though alcohol has been prohibited in the country since the late seventies. Owing to Norooz, the crowds around Persepolis are massive. We find a spot on the hills and soak up the magnificent Achaemenid city. Despite wear, tear and ransacking, it's fascinating. We watch sunset from Eram Garden before grabbing a kebab from one of the city's most loved street-food stands.
We're up at 4AM to breakfast on kale pache, a traditional sheep's head stew. It's intensely meaty and so calorific it keeps us going all day. Later, a short drive takes us to the ancient mountain village of Ghalat where we stroll through the lush Shirazi vineyards, lemon groves and fig trees. The architecture here is spectacular; flat-roofed mud-brick houses perch on impossibly steep slopes. As the sun sets, we catch a late flight back to Tehran.
A spontaneous decision to visit the Alborz mountains means we have to borrow some retro ski gear, all rainbow-hued, seventies-style and skin tight. We arrive at Dizin - 3,500 metres above sea level and Iran's largest ski resort - before the crowds. The terrain is clear of trees, so we freestyle down to the large basin below. Cramped in the throwback bubble lifts, we chat to locals who invite us to an evening barbecue where we get our dancing shoes on, drink magical sweet teas and feast on local delicacies while playing darts and pool in a cool basement room.
Skiing day two. Not ones to be put off by bad weather, we have to pay the lift attendants a little sweetener before ascending. We have the slopes to ourselves; even the restaurants are closed. As the fog thickens, we head back early and pack before a four-hour, 4,000 metre descent to the Caspian Sea. Our driver chain-smokes Bahman cigarettes as we brace ourselves against his heavy-handed driving. The customary roadside breaks are very welcome.
After a much-needed rest at our friend's sea-view villa in Babolsar, we head to the local early-morning fish market, an orgy of smells, crowds and haggling. At an out-of-town caviar farm, beluga sturgeon glide around tanks. Come evening, it's party time. With our glammed-up hosts we enter a smart gated community amid queues of flashy cars blaring Iranian hip-hop. Inside, we could be partying anywhere in the world; there's fast food, foolish dancing and lots of flirting.
With throbbing headaches and heavy hearts, we leave for Tehran to catch our flight home. All the way to the airport we eulogise our beautiful encounters, unforgettable impressions and amazing adventures.This ancient land welcomed us with open arms. Far from feeling intimidated or unsafe, we were greeted by friendly, open-minded Iranians keen to share their history, food and culture.
- Bring cash; you can't withdraw money with foreign cards.
- You must carry your passport at all times.
- Many Iranians don't speak English, so travel guides and a Persian phrasebook will come in handy.
- The usual travel essentials apply: camera, sun protection, etc. If you have a penchant for toilet paper, best bring your own; it's scarce in Iranian bathrooms. The same goes for tampons which are not often available local shops.
- While women don't need to wear a hijab, they should carry scarves to cover their hair, wear tops with long or mid-length sleeves and keep their legs covered. Trousers and jeans are fine.
- Winters are cold and summers super hot, so bear this in mind when packing.
How to get there
You can travel to Iran with direct flights from some but not all cities in Europe or via Istanbul, Dubai or Qatar - and The Republic of Azerbaijan. It takes a bit more than two hours from Istanbul, while from Europe it's around five hours. Take a taxi from the airport and have your destination written in Farsi or call your host and let them negotiate. Speak about old Iranian music and football if you want to homie up with the cab driver.