In autumn 2016 we traveled through most of Iran. We started and finished in Tehran, in between moving north first, to Ardabil and Tabriz, then south along the Iraqi border through the Kurdish provinces into Khuzestan, before we got to the touristic heartland of Isfahan, Shiraz and Yazd. From here we continued, through the desert, to Kerman and Bam, the furthest east we got, before heading back to Kashan, Hamadan and Bijar – where we experienced the mourning period of Moharram, a cultural highlight of the trip.We returned via Zanjan and Qazvin for a last day in Tehran. Great trip, through a great country, populated by great people.
01. the Iran plan: Many years ago we identified Iran as one of these exotic yet largely unknown places that we would have to visit, one day. But by the time we became serious about the idea, Iran was in quite some disagreement with most of the rest of the world, especially the West of the world – where we come from, too. Not that that would normally stop us from a journey, but with the disagreement being about the development of nuclear capacity, we decided to postpone our visit: you just don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and to travel around Iran when, for instance, the Israelis decide to pre-emptively strike a nuclear reactor there.
Things have turned for the better now. Read more
02. the itinerary: As always, we have a plan. We have not arranged anything, except for our tickets to and from Teheran, but we have a plan. Using a variety of busses, trains and taxis – and whatever other means of transport we find – we will, after a few days Tehran, first travel north, to Tabriz, and then back south along the Kurdish area bordering Iraq. We are talking old Christian churches, mosques, bazaars, but also picturesque villages, almost dried-up salt lakes, high mountains and scenic train rides here.
03. the kidnapping: We arrived all right in Tehran, but were immediately arrested! Introductiion to Iranian hospitality.
In order to get to Iran, most people will need a visa, so we headed for the Iranian Embassy in The Hague some time ago. Visa rules change continuously, of course, but all internet resources I had checked are adamant that 30 days is the absolute maximum – and extending the visa inside Iran can be a hassle. Without even asking for it – I only put our planned entry and exit day on the visa form -, we got 60 days. Good start! Next, we booked a ticket, and eh… read a few books and a travel guide, looked at some websites and fellow traveller blogs, which all together led to the Plan. And then we were ready to go, off to Tehran, off to two months of freedom, with a rough itinerary.
Well, not so quick! Read more
04. Tehran: Modern Tehran is not particularly pretty, but there are hidden gems, and the people make up the rest, to provide for a friendly and relaxed atmosphere – if you forget about the traffic.
Any notion we may have in the west that Tehran is a somewhat backward place, is wrong. Modern express ways, linked by complex fly-overs, lead into the city. A slick metro system connects the suburbs, and provides rapid transport from one neighbourhood to another. The shop windows, as well as in apartments, have the latest and the biggest flatscreen TVs. Everybody has his or her smartphone ready (I haven’t seen any Pokemons, though…); a 16-year old kid teaches me with a couple of expert swipes, how to bypass the Google Playstore, before setting me up for mobile internet. 4G, no less.
05. Tehran (2): Tehran does have its tourist sites, from bazaars to palaces and museums, although not all are equally fascinating.
Despite Tehran not being very beautiful, there are a couple of sights to visit. The starting point, as so often, is the bazaar, a network of connected alleys, corridors and little squares, sometimes including basements and second floors. The corridors are covered, either by tall, vaulted stone structures, by corrugated iron, or by transparent yellow hard-plastic sheets. Part of the vaulted bazaar looks genuinely old, but is poorly maintained; other sections have been restored, and look relatively new, decorated with shiny new tiles. The corrugated iron and the plastic sheeting looks possitively shaky, as if it could collapse anytime, but nobody seems to be bothered.
06. Rasht & Masuleh: Where provincial capital Rasht was unexpectedly nice, the famous authentic mountain village of Masuleh lacked, well, authenticity.
We weren’t going to go to Rasht. There is nothing of touristic value, except the statue of Kuchuk Khan – a man on a horse, much less than a 100 years old. But we had miscalculated the length of the bus trip, which in any case took longer because of a flat tire and a funeral, which blocked the road in one of the towns we passed – the two were unrelated, fortunately, but both slowed down our progress quite a bit. So we stopped in Rasht, not expecting much.
07. Ardabil: The small town of Ardabil is mostly of interest for its mausoleum of the founder of the Safavid dynasty, and for some restored bridges from that era, but as everywhere in Iran holds some nice people surprises, too.
We are still coming to terms with the internal travel issues in Iran. Going from Rasht to Ardabil, apparently there are no busses; only the direct bus from Tehran to Ardabil passes through the outskirts of Rasht, where they need to stop for a police check. Perhaps we can get on then, if there is space. What time? Hmm, maybe 10 o’clock, maybe 11. The alternative would be to take a savari, a shared taxi, to Astrara on the Caspian Sea, and from there another savari to Ardabil.
08. the road to Tabriz: We keep on learning about Iran’s public transport system, and how to use the taxis and the busses.
We still need to get used to traveling, in this country. From Ardabil to Tabriz there are busses. So we take a taxi to the bus terminal. When we tell the driver that we want to go to Tabriz, he goes the other direction, away from the terminal. He is not going to bring us all the way to Tabriz, now, is he? We insist on the terminal, and reluctantly, he turns, and drives us to the rather shoddy bus station. Where we arrive at 10 am; there turns out to be a bus at 10.30, so all OK. We split, one looks after the luggage, the other goes foraging, after all, we still have half an hour. At 10.15 the Tabriz bus departs, without notice. Without us. Oeps.
09. Tabriz: A wonderful city, with wonderful people: Tabriz has it all, from historical buildings and a world-famous bazaar to fresh fruit juice parlours and the best pastry shops.
Tabriz, the second-biggest city in Iran, has a history of its own. Garden-of-Eden myths apart, it has been the capital of an independent entity, first shortly after Tamerlane had ravaged the place, and once again very briefly as autonomous South Azerbijian after the Soviets withdrew at the end of WWII – only to be dealt by the Shah in 1946. But for most of its history Tabriz, and the ethnic Azeri people that make up some 25% of Iran’s population, has been an integral part of Iran.
10. the Aras River Valley: The northeastern border of Iran is defined by the Aras River, where old fortifications contrast with the current military infrastructure.
We are rapidly adding to our World Heritage ‘been there, seen it’ list – Iran has quite a few UNESCO World Heritage sites, and a trip to the Aras River, which forms the border between Iran and Azerbijan, bags us two more before lunch. Not that we are really collecting, of course, we would anyhow have come to the Armenian Saint Stephanos Church…
11. Kandovan: Trogdolyte village Kandovan is a delight, and so was the way getting there and back.
There are quite a few ‘special’ villages in Iran, with or without extensive tourist infrastructure. Kandovan, just outside Tabriz, is one of them, and where Masuleh and Ushtebin disappointed somewhat, Kandovan is very special, indeed. The relatively soft volcanic rock that has been eroded in the form of steep conical shapes against the mountain slope provides excellent material to build your house in, which is what the present village clan has been doing, apparently, for the last 700 years – although the place may have been inhabited for much longer, like, by Adam and Eve; no lack of myths, in Iran.
12. the road to Sanandaj: An overnight stop in Bonab makes for an interesting experience: a fabulous mosque in a rather rigid town.
It is time to leave the pleasant, relatively cool north of Iran, and start exploring other areas, beginning with the Kurdish region around Sanandaj, a nine our bus ride from Tabriz. Because nine hours is quite long, and because we were held up on the day we planned to leave, we only made it to Bonab, a small town with two attractions, a old mosque and a hotel with a health spa.
13. Sanandaj: Sanandaj proves to be a surprisingly nice city, not just the base for exploring the cute Kurdish village of Palangan.
Another day in Iran, another ‘special village’. They are an Iranian thing, I suppose, there are quite a lot of them. Sanandaj is the capital of the province of Kordestan, which forms a significat part of the Kurdish area in Iran. This is a good base from where to embark on a trip to Palangan, a Kurdish village high on the list of touristic villages here.
14. the Howraman Valley: West of Sanandaj, the forbidding mountains and steep valleys form a dramatic border zone with Iraq, home to stacked villages, and territory of smugglers and military.
Sanandaj may be the Kurdish capital in Iran, the heart of Kurdish life is in the valleys between Sanandaj and the Iraqi border. Here is a forbidding moutain landscape, by now – mid September – throroughly scorched from the sun; whatever grass is left, is yellow. It is hard to imagine that in spring this area is quite green; it is easier to see that in winter all of this will be solidly white.
15. Paveh: The Kurdish town of Paveh, a regional centre of activity, doesn’t see many tourists, and yet the curiosity of the local people is charming rather than annoying.
Small town Paveh has next to no tourists attractions. There is a cave, a little outside town, with all the paraphernalia of a tourist site, but we are not so into caves, neither waterfalls, so the only reason to come to Paveh was to overnight here. And it helps that there is exactly one hotel in town.
16. Kermanshah: Kermanshah is not the most attractive town, but our stay was enlightened by a few wonderful experiences, and a bas relief or two.
Just when we had made up our mind about Kermanshah, not a very friendly crowd here, very few ‘hello, welcom’s’, pushy people who have little with foreigners (one even managed a ‘fuck you’ in passable English), just when we had made up our mind, we met Behdad and Saba.
17. Shushtar: The small town of Shushtar has some remarkable sights, but traces of relatively recent dilapidation abound; perhaps it is the heat.
And now for something completely different. We have left the mountains of Kordistan, and entered the flat, low-lying land of Khuzestan, further south. The journey by bus is long, but exceedingly comfortable – VIP busses, properly airconditioned, reclining business class seats, no intermediate stops except for lunch. The last 45 minute taxi ride is very uncomfortable. Many of our Iranian aquaintences on the way had warned us that is would be too hot, now, in Khuzestan. We ignored their advice. They were right. We arrive in Shushtar at 6 pm. Late afternoon. And it is still 45o C.
18. the ziggurat: Outside Shushtar are some of the oldest structures in Iran, and one of them, the ziggurat of Choqa Zanbil, is pretty impresssive!
Choqa Zanbil is a ziggurat (or ziqqurat). I didn’t know what a ziggurat was. I had notions of something big, but could not actually imagine what it would look like. (And I am loath to look up photos with Google: that would kill any possible surprise.)
Now I know. Read more
19. the Andimeshk to Dorud railway: What we thought was going to be a rough train ride, turned out to be one of the most comfortable journeys ever, through fabulous mountain scenery in between the tunnels.
I love train rides, and one of the best train rides in Iran is the one from Andimeskh to Dorud, through the imposing Zagros Mountains. According to the guidebook I have, this is a ‘super-scenic’ railway, but it takes some sacrifices. For starters, ‘the train leaves at 5.30 am from Andimeshk’; it is ‘often overcrowded to the point of sheer mayhem’, and is both a ‘cultural experience’ and a ‘test of endurance’. Right. We are prepared!
20. Isfahan: Brilliant, tree-shaded and clean Isfahan has all the fabulous monuments you can wish for, but outside its evening Eman Square it lacks a bit of atmosphere.
The history of Isfahan (or Esfahan, same thing) is strongly associated with the Third Persian Empire, that of the Savafid Dynasty. Not that Isfahan hadn’t been an important city before; there are traces of Sassanid (3rd to 7th Century) construction, and halfway the 11th Century the Seljuks, a Turkic tribe, conquered Persia and made Isfahan their capital, with subseqent architectural contributions. But the Mongol invasion effectively ended this by decimating the city – only in the large Mashed-e Jameh, the Friday mosque, some of the brilliant Seljuk vaulted structures have been preserved.
21. the glacier: An unexpected phenomenon in the Zagros Mountains above Esfehan makes for an interesting day trip, featuring nomads and cold feet.
After a couple of days in Esfahan, after an overdose of turquoise tiles and tree-lined avenues, it is time for some variation again. Through the travel section of the BBC website we knew about a rather unexpected phenomenon in the Zagros Mountains nearby, a real glacier. And a contact number, which worked.
22. Shiraz: Shiraz is very much the product of 18th Century Karim Khan Zand, who is resposible for most of the present-day sight; nice, but somehow, I didn’t connect to the town, as in other places in Iran.
Many Iranians love Shiraz, the city associated with education, refinement, poetry. Shirazis are considered the most distinguished, most cultured, in a country full of cultured and distinguished people. This is where Iran’s most reverred poets are buried. And this is where the famous Shiraz grapes were turrned into wine – admittedly, less of an issue with the admiration of Iranians nowadays, but certainly a grateful topic in much of the ancient poetry.
23. the shrines: There are several shrines in Shiraz; the ones we visited were, at least for us, the uninitiated, a rather underwhelming experience.
In the long history of Shiraz quite a few people have died here. Some of the more famous ones have been buried in elaborate tombs, that attract both religious and secular pilgrimage.
24. Persepolis: The traces and tombs of the Acheamenid Dynasty of the First Persian Empire can be found at Pasargadae, at the impressive site of Persepolis, and at Naqsh-e Rostam, all just north of Shiraz.
I have deliberately keept much of the Persian history out of this travelogue; with well over 3000 years it is obviously long, and quite complex. However, one cannot escape some of the basics, for the context, and that counts especially for the area north of Shiraz.
The First Persian Empire was that of Cyrus the Great, who between 559 BC and his death, at the battle field, in 530 BC, established the Achaemenid Dynasty. Cyrus was, of course, a war monger, otherwise you never get yourself an empire…
25. Yazd: A wonderful old town, a maze of alleys and arches, with several mildly interesting sights, but mostly of interest because of its badgirs and qanats.
In Yazd we got lost. Which is no surprise, because the old city is a maze of alleys so narrow, that it is difficult to get your bearings. Few alleys run straight, many branch off in different directions. Quite a few are part-covered. Everything looks the same, every house is mud-bricks covered with a mixture of straw and mud, all the same colour. There are almost no shops. In fact, for most of the day the old town is deserted. Except for us.
26. outside Yazd: To the north of Yazd, within easy driving distance, are the collapsed mud village of Kharanaq, the mud-brich fort of Meybod, and the Zoroastrian temple Chak Chak.
A half-day trip north of Yazd can be arranged by your hotel. They did that for us, and for a number of other tourists, resulting in a convoy of vehicles departing at 8 am, all circling the same way around. So that you meet the same people at each and every stop along the route.
27. Kerman: Not the most attractive town, not the friendliest either, and on top of that, almost everything of mild interest was closed.
Perhaps the first signs of fatigue start appearing. We have selected Kerman as the base from where to undertake several excursions – not that there is much choice -, but Kerman itself is actually not so interesting. The bazaar is nice, is even claimed to be the longest covered bazaar in the world, but we have seen more bazaars, and nicer ones, busier ones.
28. Meymand: The trogdolyte village of Meymand is yet another example of an Iranian village popular with tourists despite it being far from any big town.
No matter where you are in Iran, there is always a historical village to visit, often accompanied by flocks of tourists and the associated infrastructure of shops and teahouses. But Meymand, at least three hours drive from the nearest sizable town – which is Kerman -, Meymand would be the one village not flooded by tourists. It is simply too far away.
Wrong! Read more
29. Rayen and Mahan: Two more places to visit from Kerman are Rayen and Mahan, with a well-maintained fort and a beautifully laid out garden, respectively.
Rayen has a nice adobe fort, similar to the famous one in Bam, the one that got badly damaged in an earthquake in 2003. The fort in Rayen is much smaller, but – for obvous reasons – in better condition. The castles in this area, built as trading posts probably dating from the Sassanid era some 1500 years ago, were residential castles: Rayen fort has a walled outer area which contains the remains of many commoner houses, as well as a second fortified structure, inside, which was where the aristocracy lived.
30. the Kaluts: Spectacular wind-eroded desert landscape and intricate water systems, from natural underground rivers to man-made underground channels and reservoirs
Apart from a few short trips out of Yazd and Kerman, we haven’t really explored the Iranian desert yet. A trip to the Kaluts changed that. Mustafa and Sakina run their own little tourist business, out of the hamlet of Shafi Abbad. Mustafa runs the car, with which he picks up tourists and drives them around, Sakina runs the small guesthouse where we arrived one late afternoon, for a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep on matrasses on the floor.
31. Bam: The ancient citadel of Bam is nothing like what it used to be, before th 2003 earthquake, but there are many other unknown, yet interesting things to do in the desert around this lovely town
For the first time in five weeks we had made a hotel reservation. We had called ahead to the guesthouse of Mr Akbar, in Bam, just to make sure we had a place to sleep. Bam doesn’t have many hotel options. But when we got to the guesthouse, the place was abandoned. Well, the door was open, there was a kettle on the stove, boiling water, but there was absolutekly nobody around. Hmmm. Bam doesn’t have many hotel options, as I said. But a little patience paid off. We used the boiling water to make ourselves a cup of tea, and waited. Fifteen minutes later, Mr Akbar turned up.
32. Kashan: Touristic Kashan has a whole range of new attractions, like 150 year old merchant houses, and stairs to the roof of the bazaar, for an alternative view across town.
Although I complained a few days ago that we had seen it all, by now, I had not reckoned with Kashan. A smallish town in between Esfahan and Tehran, Kashan hasn’t got any mosques to write home about, neither castles. But Kashan has its historical houses, which refers to the mid-late 19th Century houses built by wealthy merchants, and the occasional governor.
33. Abyaneh: Abyaneh is a rather ordinary, uninspiring village that, thanks to its easy access from Kashan, has been discovered by the tourists, with all its unfortunate side effects
Iran has an endless supply of historical villages – we have seen quite a few already -, and Abyaneh is one of them. An hour’s drive outside Kashan, we expected the next tourist trap, and we were not disappointed, not in the least because we, once again, managed to time our own visit on a Friday.
34. Hamadan: Provincial Hamadan has more to offer than we expected, both in terms of ancient excavations and in atmosphere
Hamadan is not a place where you would normally go to, on a trip through Iran. But it is located on the way to Bijar, our next destination, and we had time on our hands, so a stop-over was quickly introduced into the program. And we didn’t regret it.
35. the mourning: A brief introduction to the Shia mourning period of Moharram, and how it looks in the run up to Ashura.
The schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims is almost as old as Islam itself, and revolves around the succession of the Prophet Mohammed. In Shia eyes, Ali, the son-in-law, should have rightfully inherited the Muslim leadership – and he did, for a short period of time, after initially having been passed over. The real issue, however, came with Ali’s second son, Hossein, who equally claimed the leadership role as his birth right, but was murdered by his competitor to the job, Yazid, the caliph of Damascus, in a battle near Karbala, in present-day Iraq, in 680 AD.
36. Bijar: We witnessed the processions for Moharram, and for the final day, Ashura, in Bijar, which was a unique and deeply moving experience.
Every city, town and village in Iran will commemorate the slaying of Iman Hossein in 680 AD, with a ten day mourning period called Moharram, culminating in the one-but-last day, Tasu’a, and especially the last day, Ashura. In almost all these places, people express their sorrow by thumping their chests, or self-flagelating their shoulders and their backs with short chains. (In the past, they would even cut their heads, so that blood was steraming down their tunics.) Just in a few places in Iran, they do even more, they cover themselves with mud. Bijar is one such place. Which is why we went to Bijar for Ashura.
37. Bijar (2): this is a continuation of the previous entry
The next morning, Ashura, the procession starts early, around nine, but people have been preparing already for a while (and so has the municipality: the streets are clean again, rubbish has beeen collected, the blood has been washed away). In addition to the days before, in front of some of the mosques trucks have been mobilised with dry clay and water, which is being mixed into mud. Men, and also some women, this time, come forward to have their heads covered with the stuff, and sometimes also their cloths. Others go around with buckets, and invite people to help themselves, something many mourners indeed do. By the handsful.
38. Zanjan: Several historical monuments in the vicinity of Zanjan are well worth visiting, like the Takht-e Soleyman and the Oljeitu Mausoleum; so is the beautiful mountain scenery.
When we drove from Hamadan to Bijar, we drove for two hours through absolutely deserted landscape, with only very occasionally a very small village in sight, until we reached Bijar. When we left Bijar again, we soon returned to the middle of nowhere: nothingness all around. But in its nothingness, the countryside was actually very attarctive, something that has been somewhat lacking in Iran, during our travels.
39. Qazvin: Qazvin is another Iranan town, with another Iranian bazaar, but also with the Castle of the Assessins within reach.
We are heading back to Tehran, the journey coming to an end in a few days time. But not before stopping off in Qazvin on the way. Qazvin is one of the many old capitals of Iran, and several buildings remind one of this, but by and large, there is not much to do that cannot be done elsewhere. The bazaar is lively, especially in the evening, with the many fruit and vegetable shops doing a brisk trade. Further on, the bird market, in its widest sense, which means from small song birds and other colourful exotics to chicken and turkey (and rabbits and cats), is quiet with people, but noisy from the birds.
40. Tehran (3): Last days in Tehran, for some entertainment in Darband, and reflection at the Behest-e Zahra, Tehran’s cemetery
From Qazvin it is a two hour bus trip to Tehran, where we would spend the last few days, exploring some bits further out of town we had not yet had the chance to visit, and do some shopping – Iranian biscuits, saffron, pistachios, and more dates from Bam.
41. the end: It is time to look back at eight weeks traveling in Iran. The highlights, the lowlights and did it meet expectations.
It is fair to say that most people we told in advance that we would go to Iran, looked at us in unbelief. Were we really going to jeopardize our lives so irresponsibly, traveling to a country populated by flag-burning religious fanatics and bearded black-robed ayatollahs and mullahs insisting on women being veiled, adulterers being stoned and criminals being executed? Not that we planned adultery or any heinous crimes, but still, such a place cannot possibly be safe.
On the contrary. Read more