I had so many amazing travel experiences backpacking in Iran, my original plan was attempt some proper travel writing, you know, coherent stories and all that. But several months of terrible wifi (too slow to upload any pictures or sometimes even log into my blog) has left me a long way behind in my blog, so for this post, I’m just going to recap my personal highlights of Iran so I can then hurry up and start writing about Sri Lanka.
I’m not normally one for tours, I prefer to explore things for myself. But sometimes things just make sense - 60 euro for a 2-day/1-night trip out into the Zagros Mountains, accommodation and meals included, with the kicker being that we’d stay overnight in a village unreachable by public transport (access only via 4WD).
We met our tour guide Hossein (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Adrien Brody’s character in The Grand Budapest Hotel). We all got on amazingly right from the start; from this point on, he ceased to be our tour guide and became our best friend over the coming days, a guy just sharing one of his favourite parts of Iran. We loaded our gear into his 4WD and hit the road. After around 2 hours of driving, we reached the end of the paved road. From this point on, I could see why public transport doesn’t venture out this far. The roads were unsealed and in bad condition, but the views were amazing. Rocky hills and mountains punctuated by grand valleys, streams, and the occasional farm.
After an hour in 4WD mode, we rounded a bend and the most stunning village came into view. Saraghaseyed comprises a few hundred adobe houses built on a hillside, home to around 2800. Largely an agricultural village, the Bakhtiari locals still maintain their centuries-old tradition of migrating south during winter, leaving behind a few hardy souls to tend to the village in the bitter cold of an Iranian winter. Luckily we were there in autumn and the village was abuzz with activity – adults tending to crops and animals, children laughing and playing, not a smartphone in sight. They don’t see many visitors as there are no official guesthouses (we were to sleep on mats on the living room floor of the village head) so we found ourselves the centre of attention, particularly with the children who all wanted us to play with them and pose for photos.
An interesting feature of the village and a source of income for the locals were the salt springs, found a short 20-minute hike up the surrounding hill. Streams travel through salt-rich rocks, and the water that emerges is trapped in pools – once the water evaporates, the resulting salt is then gathered to be sold in local markets.
Dinner was cooked over coals, and was comprised solely of locally produced items. Chicken stew, fresh flatbread and local vegetables were the order of the day and we ate as the sky dimmed at the end of a long day.
The next morning, we packed up, said our goodbyes and set off back the way we came. After around 30 minutes, we pulled off the side of the road, headed up and over a steep scree slope, and followed a foot-numbing stream along a narrow canyon until we round a bend and there it is – a glacier. Yeah, that’s right, a glacier in Iran! We are around 3000 metres above sea level, so brutally cold winters and cool nights the remainder of the year result in several glaciers existing year-round. The face of the glacier revealed a small cave, however Hossein warned us against exploring – tourists have been crushed beneath falling blocks of ice as it warms over summer. Satisfied with merely viewing, we then headed back up the stream and our awaiting 4WD.
Dasht-e Kavir Desert
I’d been planning on visiting the desert at some point but I hadn’t considered how. On the road back to Isfahan from the Zagros trip, Hossein had a proposal for us – he’d amend his usual overnight desert trip to drop us in Yazd at the end of the second day instead of returning to Isfahan. Given this was where we were all planning on heading anyway, and would mean we could catch a few interesting sights on the way to Yazd without a separate day trip, it seemed a no-brainer.After leaving Isfahan, the landscape quickly became more barren. A short stop at a traditional village (and not the sort where rows of stalls with local handicrafts awaited) where we wandered deserted alleys and learnt how the water was stored during the winter to last through a sweltering summer. Next we headed further into the desert until we arrived at a salt lake. While no way comparable with the salt flats of Bolivia, it still made for an interesting experience to walk with crunchy salt underfoot.
Finally we reached our overnight stop – the dunes of Dasht-e Kavir Desert. The dunes are clumped in bunches with flat desert between, more in common with the deserts of India rather than Sahara Africa. While Hossein set up camp, we clambered up a nearby sand dune. Killing time until sunset, we took turns riding a battered old snowboard down the dunes.
When sunset came, it was quick but stunning, with the dunes changing various shades of orange until darkness came.We enjoyed dinner cooked over an open fire (char-grilled eggplant being the highlight). As the hours passed, the temperature dropped and we huddled round the fire, drinking tea, sharing stories from our homelands - I even introduced the group to the wonder that is marshmallows cooked over a flame. Overnighting in the desert had another major benefit - being far from civilisation, there was little light pollution and the sky came alive, the Milky Way painting a broad stripe across the heavens. We then headed for our tents and wrapped up in sleeping bags and blankets to ward off potential hypothermia. We rose before dawn, headed back up our sand dune and watched sunrise cast its warm rays across the desert (and our shivering bodies). As if to remind us how cold it had been, back at the campsite we found leftover tea frozen solid in a plastic cup. We set off for Yazd and made a series of interesting stops. First was a traditional well, where a bull is harnessed to a wooden contraption that lift leather buckets of water from a well each time the bull clambered up a slope. We also visited the sacred spring of Chak Chak and the imposing Narin Castle in Meybod, although I think it was safe to say our highlight was the almost abandoned town of Kharanagh. Kharanagh was thriving until around 40 years ago – a combination of water shortages and urban drift saw its population drop to no more than a few hundred. Those who still call Kharanagh home are found on the outskirts of the village, meaning the centre remains deserted for your exploration pleasure. Mudbrick houses, a mosque and shops are all abandoned, providing a unique opportunity to explore from all angles. Upper levels serve up a scenic vista of the farms, houses and mosques of the surrounding hills.
Iran had been at the top of my travel list for a while. And Isfahan was at the top of my Iran list. So needless, to say, I was pretty excited to finally visit the city referred to in an old Persian saying as “Isfahan nesf-e jahan” (Isfahan is half the world).
Naqsh-e-Jahan is one the world’s great squares. Better known as Imam Ali Square, it measures an impressive 512m x 163m. Bordering the square were four of Isfahan’s drawcards - Masjed e Shah Mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, the Ali Qupu Palace and the Bazaar-e-Bozorg (one of the oldest in Iran, some parts are over one thousand years old). In my five days in Isfahan, I made the short trip here no less than four times, each time still in awe of what was surrounding me.
I first became aware of Isfahan reading Peter Moore’s “The Wrong Way Home” (alongside William Dalrymple as my favourite travel writer, he writes in an entertaining and humorous style but without the nerdiness of Bill Bryson) and knew immediately that I too needed to drink tea by its famous bridges. One of the main landmarks of Isfahan is the Zayandeh River, although calling it a river is kind as the river is dry almost year round. Due to diversion of water for irrigation, city water supplies, local factories and to supply Yazd, most of the water disappears before it reaches Isfahan – evaporation in the baking summer takes care of the rest. What you’ll find, however, are a number of historic and visually spectacular bridges. One of these, the Khaju Bridge, is also known as the “singing bridge” as locals gather under its arches each evening to sing traditional songs, an aurally stunning experience. There was silence when we arrived but soon we heard songs from further down the bridge so we wandered down to join them. Between songs conversation was struck – as with every interaction in Iran they were as curious to hear from us as we were from them. Eoin then returned the favour with his rendition of an old Irish folk song. Si-o Seh Pol is another equally attractive bridge, with its stone archways charmingly linking the north and south banks of the (dry) river.
Other parts of Isfahan worth checking out are the Armenian Quarter, centred around the Kelisa-ye Vank cathedral (that’s right, a cathedral in Iran – you’d be surprised how tolerant Iran is towards most other religions; there are even Jewish communities in most of the major cities) and the pigeon tower in the south, still numerous in small towns but a rarity in the cities.
Alas, you won’t find any of their namesake wine these days. But what you will find is an historic city, filled with beautiful mosques, a fascinating bazaar, the tombs of two of Iran’s most beloved poets and several outstanding gardens.
The most popular attraction for most tourists is Masjed-e Nasir el Molk, known to all as the Pink Mosque. Definitely not the most impressive mosque in the city, what attracts people is a series of outstanding stained-glass windows -from around 9am until 11am, light streams through these windows to cast an amazing array of colours over the walls, carpets and all who stand in their glow for the perfect Instagram shot (guilty!).
One morning I set off exploring with Isa and Benedikt from my hostel. After a short stop at the tomb of the famous poet Hafez, we reached Ali ibn Hamze Mosque. We wandered into the courtyard and were soon approached by a mosque official, who quickly ushered us into a room adjoining the main mosque. We were first offered tea and cookies, before heading into the main area of the mosque for an informative tour. We were then returned to the annexe for more tea, a short wait and we were then joined by the rouhani (the religious head of the mosque). Speaking perfect English, he quizzed us on our countries and travel plans; in return he answered all our queries about the mosque and Islam in general. And then to our surprise, given where we were and the serious nature of the discussion up to that point, he then asked if we could swap Facebook details! Experiences such as this and my visit to Shiraz’s Sayyed Alaeddin Hossein Mosque (for more about this, checkout my previous blog) not only increased my knowledge of Iran’s Islamic community, it also gave fascinating interactions with local who were as keen to learn from me as I was from them.
Less than an hour’s drive from Shiraz you’ll find one of the true highlights of Iran – the ruins of ancient Persepolis. Burned to the ground by Alexander the Great, the columns, statues and walls that remain hint at the grandeur of this former royal capital. As I’d visited Persepolis as part of a tour organised by my hostel, our guide explained much of the history of what still stands – a particular highlight were the relief carvings depicting the many nationalities of visitors to Persepolis and the gifts they brought to honour the kings. An hour of free exploration of the site flew by - as with many major sites in Iran, multilingual info boards helped guide me around the site.
Nearby Persepolis are found the famous Rock tombs of Naqsh-e Rostam, housing the burial places of four of Persia’s great leaders – Darius, Darius II, Xerxes and Ataxerxes. These structures are hewn into the rocky walls of a cliff, with relief carvings below the tombs depicting exploits of these ancient kings. Given the height of the tombs above ground level it is not possible to enter, although graverobbers over the centuries mean that there would not be much to see anyway.
There are so many other places worth mentioning in Iran - Kashan and the nearby village of Abyaneh, Yazd and its historic wind towers, the fascinating bazaar of Tabriz, the palaces and parks of Tehran – but I don’t want to bore my readers with something the length of a doctoral thesis. You’ll just have to go to Iran and discover the delights of these places by yourself.