Iranians LOVE Americans. We never knew that until our trip to Iran in 2004. We were convinced to go by fellow travelers who raved about Isfahan and Persopolis and Bam. Vivid descriptions of such amazing cities made us wonder if the hype could be true and we wanted to experience it first hand. Once we settled on an itinerary, we booked our custom made tour with a local agent and were off. True, the sights in Iran are spectacular. True, the cuisine is to die for. But the highlight of our trip was our interaction with the locals. Schoolgirls swore up and down that Robby was a famous actor and we found ourselves on the receiving end of schoolgirl smitten paparazzi…picture hundreds of young girls eagerly snapping photographs of us and running away, squealing with laughter. Our conversations with locals at the neighborhood tea-houses were a delight, with the younger generation proclaiming their deep admiration for the US. Iran was a wonderful surprise and we hope more Americans look past government policies and political stances and discover the true Iran for themselves.
In February 2004, we had our sights set on visiting Iran. Our custom built itinerary originally included such highlights as Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, Persepolis, Kerman, Yazd, Bam and Kashan. However, in December 2003, tragedy struck the oasis mud city of Bam and a powerful earthquake completely demolished the entire city as well as 40,000 inhabitants. Undeterred, we decided to extend our stay in Tehran in lieu of visiting Bam, link up with the Red Crescent to donate much-needed clothes/shoes to the earthquake victims and make the most of the trip.
We flew from Stuttgart to Tehran and arrived at 3 am. Despite our early arrival, we were met by our very punctual guide, Amin Badakhshan, who immediately swept us past the security control (he had contacts) to our awaiting ride. Amin had resided in the US for a few years (where he traveled extensively, funding his trip through various bar-tending jobs). Needless to say, his English was excellent and we immediately felt comfortable around him. Perhaps it was too early in the morning for us to catch on but we soon found out that Amin possessed a zany sense of humor and had deep affection for America (as well as Americans…his favorite clientele). We never had to worry about losing Amin in the bustling streets of Tehran because he stood out like a sore thumb with his professional football sweatshirts (Go Packers!), blue jeans and sneakers. We ended up referring to Amin as our “Americanized Iranian” since he acted like an American in every sense of the word (loud, rambunctious, happy-go-lucky) and dressed the part to boot. Amin dutifully briefed us on our upcoming itinerary before ushering us to our Tehran hotel for a few hours of rest.
The next day in Tehran started off as a sunny (but surprisingly chilly) day. We visited the Sa’d Abad museum complex and the Niyavaran Palace. At the Sa’d Abad complex, we entered the White Palace (Palace of the Nation) which once functioned as the Shah’s palace with a whopping 54 rooms! Noteworthy items included an amazing 143 square meter carpet and a pair of bronze boots immediately outside the White Palace. After wandering around the palace complex, we decided to have lunch in the foothills of Darband where we enjoyed freshly roasted lamb and chicken kebabs. Afterwards, we were dropped off at our hotel to catch up on some badly needed sleep and prepare for tomorrow’s extended itinerary.
Today we checked out the archaeological museum (National museum of Iran) where we spent a few hours getting a detailed lecture from Amin. We quickly found out that most of Amin’s clientele were extremely educated professors, historians and the like, as he went into extensive and minute detail covering centuries of Iran’s history. His lecture was excellent and covered all of the sites and cities that we were to visit over the upcoming week. However, it was a bit too detailed for our attention-deficit and over-swamped brains and we found ourselves making conspiring eye contact with the numerous school group children that were ogling us from every corner of the museum. The children were super friendly and curious, and we ended up getting them in trouble by encouraging them to pose for our photos. Little did we realize that our cameras were the only incentive they needed to wantonly disregard the stern warnings from their teachers and break out into spontaneous, overeager and rapid conversation with us! Amin quickly learned to herd us off into opposite corners of the museums from the school children if we were ever going to get through his lecture.
Weary eyed and hours of sensory overload later, we stumbled off to recuperate with lunch at the Park Shahr where we ate at the tastefully decorated Sofre Khane Sonnati Sangalag teahouse. Amin convinced us to try abgusht (a soup stew combo which caused Becky severe angst several hours later!) Immediately after lunch, we visited the glassware and carpet museums (really amazing carpets…definitely inspired us to purchase yet another Iranian carpet!).
After all the museums, we decided to check out the Freedom Monument, a 45-meter tall monument that was built in 1971 to commemorate the 2500 year anniversary of the Persian Empire. Later that afternoon, we made our way to the airport where we caught a flight to Shiraz. Internal air travel in Iran is such a great way to go and a bargain to boot! The 90-minute flight was only $20 and sure beat driving the distance. We arrived in Shiraz around 2230 and were greeted by Mansour (our happy go lucky driver) who presented us with red roses and a warm welcome. Robby seemed determine to “conveniently” lose his rose but it kept resurfacing, much to his chagrin. We think Mansour had a stockpile of red roses that he liberally re-supplied throughout our journey.
Today we visited Persopolis, an ancient city that turned out to be the highlight of our trip. Persopolis is Persia’s best-preserved ruined city, lost to the world for centuries until it was rediscovered in the 1930s. In Persopolis’ hey day, the city was spread out over 125,000 square meters and people from throughout the Persian Empire gathered there to pay homage to the Archaemenid Kings. However, Alexander the Great burned Persopolis to the ground, so the remnants you see today are but a shadow of its former glory. The Apadana staircase was absolutely phenomenal and should not be missed, depicting delegations bringing gifts to the kings.
We spent hours marveling the ruined city before having lunch at the nearby Takhte Tawood Restaurant. After lunch, we stopped at Naqsh-e Rostam and Naqsh-e Rajab, two rock tomb complexes that are marvelous. Stone reliefs have been carved into cliff faces and the amount of detail on them is amazing. The reliefs depict scenes from imperial conquests and royal ceremonies. After baking in the sun all day, we headed back to our home base of Shiraz to visit Hafez Tomb. Hafez is a celebrated poet and we found dozens of school children here embracing their books of poems and reading them aloud while touching Hafez’s tomb. It was a really neat experience to relax in the peaceful surroundings and observe this ritual unnoticed. However, once the school children were aware of our presence, we were mobbed by hundreds of girls who wanted to take pictures with us and were force-feeding us potato chips. We happily obliged them all before retreating to the teahouse for a puff on the water pipes.
After Hafez’s tomb, we stopped by the Mausoleum of Sayyed Mir Mohammad where we befriended an Isfahan family who was on vacation in Shiraz. They were thrilled to meet us and we happily snapped up photos of each other to send to them later on. The family gave us a thoughtful gift of 500 Rial, which was a good luck charm to ensure that we would have a safe journey throughout the duration of our tour. That evening, we had dinner at the Soofie Traditional restaurant where the fish dishes were out of this world.
Today we piled into the car and watched as Mansour dodged in and out of traffic to get us to Kerman in record time. What was supposed to take 6 hours was pared down to just over 3 hours. Since we arrived earlier than expected, we had time to visit the Ganjali Khan bath and the Bazar-e Vakil. The Ganjali bath was a pretty neat museum, decorated with frescoes and tile work. Inside the “museum”, wax figures depicted what a traditional bathhouse would have looked like hundreds of years ago. After that, we visited the Chaykhaneh-ye Vakil, touted as the best subterranean teahouse in Kerman. The atmosphere was really nice and we spent hours smoking double apple tobacco through our water pipes. The local Iranian boys were really nice and even though they didn’t speak much English and we spoke no Farsi, we still were able to communicate with body language and our digital camera.
Hours later, we stumbled through the Bazar with Amin keeping a hawk’s eye out on us. He had regaled us with tales of kidnapping and opium smuggling and was paranoid to let us out of his sight. Duly guarded, we made our way back to our hotel and celebrated our second anniversary together with Amin and Mansour. For the first time on the trip, they witnessed Becky without her head covered and in regular jeans and t-shirt (inside the hotel room, the dress code is less restrictive).
We originally had planned on visiting Bam, but due to the earthquake, decided to forego the mud city and spend an extra day in Isfahan instead. However, we stopped at Mahan enroute to Yazd and witnessed many smaller “mud” cities along the way. The houses are literally constructed out of mud and resemble beehives. Seeing villages constructed out of mud transported us back hundreds of years and it was really easy to envision what life used to be like. In Mahan, we visited the Shah Nematollah Mausoleum. The mausoleum dates from the early 15th century and the prayer room was especially beautiful. Inside on the walls, there were hand painted Quranic verses. We climbed the stairs to the roof for a nice view over the Qajar minarets and the Safavid cupola.
Today was Election Day and in the grounds of the mausoleum, we watched as volunteers tried to coax the local population to vote. Robby and I were even offered the chance to vote (jokingly) but we think if we had accepted the offer, they would have allowed us. As it was, the voting booths were empty as the majority of Iranians had decided to boycott the vote (claiming it was rigged since all the reformists were banned from participating). Imagine our surprise when we watched TV that night and found out that 50% of the population had supposedly “voted”…where those 50% came from is beyond us since we didn’t see hide nor tail of anyone participating in the election! While in Mahan, we also stopped at Shazdeh garden, which is a beautiful garden nestled at the foothills of a palace. The grounds contain a series of split-level fountains and makes for a picturesque photo.
While we were there, we watched a crowd of young teenaged boys frolicking through the gardens. Despite the sunny day, the weather was a bit chilly and the water was freezing. One of the boys pushed his friend into the fountain and then, the chase was on. We looked on in disbelief as this soaking wet and hopping mad kid took off running at full sprint to kick his friend’s ass. The whole group erupted in laughter but we felt bad for the soaked kid as we were sure he would be miserably cold once his adrenaline died down.
After Mahan, we were on our way to Yazd where we visited the silence tower, fire temples and Friday Mosque. The Friday (Jameh) mosque dominated the old city. It has an amazingly high portal, flanked on either side by two enormous minarets and adorned with a 15th century inscription. The towers of silence and fire temple are Zoroastrian sites and we learned a lot about Zoroastrian beliefs (purity of the earth, therefore dead bodies cannot be buried but must be left uncovered so that vultures can pick the bones clean) Amazingly, this was widely practiced up until only 40 years ago!
We were up early to get to Isfahan, also known as the Jewel of Persia. On the way there, we stopped in Naein to visit the Jome mosque. There we met a really nice Iranian lady and told her that we were on our way to Isfahan. She told us that it would be our favorite city in Iran and boy was she right! We arrived to Isfahan and checked into our hotel and then immediately went to the Chehel Sotoun (40 column) palace. The palace is decorated with ornate frescoes, miniatures and ceramics. The amazing works of art were spared destruction from the Islamic revolutionaries because of the courageous actions of the palace caretakers, who stood guard in front of the art and refused to allow the fundamentalists to desecrate the frescos. After the palace, we wandered over to the Emam Khomeini Square, where we gazed in amazement at the most beautiful square in the world! Engulfed by Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Emam Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace and the bazaar, the square truly is a magical place to visit. Amin teased us with our first glimpse of the square and promised that we would be back tomorrow to explore each of the buildings in depth. We were reluctantly dragged off to visit the historical bridges of Khadjou and Sio Se Pol (33 arches) where we smoked a water pipe and enjoyed the ambiance of the bridges. That night, Amin set us free and we immediately wandered back to Khomeini Square to take in the shopping and check out the amazing Iranian carpets.
Today we explored Imam Square to our heart’s content, visiting Imam and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosques and Aliqapu Palace. The Emam Mosque was undergoing construction but was still incredible. It has the reputation of being the most beautiful mosque in the world and the reputation is well deserved. The blue tiled mosaic designs strewn throughout the complex were breathtakingly beautiful and we could have spent hours here admiring the amazing architecture. However, we were off to visit Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque where we met a super friendly American-Iranian lady who was an artist living in Tehran. She was thrilled to meet “intrepid” Americans willing to overcome the stereotype of Iran and urged us to visit her in Tehran. We wished we had more time as we would have loved to meet her family and spend a bit more time with her. However, Amin was anxious for us to see all the major highlights of Isfahan so after talking to her for a while, he ushered us over to the Ali Qapu Palace, which is an unusual six-storied palace.
From the elevated terrace, we had a king’s view of the square and could imagine the polo games being performed in the square for the entertainment of the king. While we were admiring the phenomenal view from atop the terrace, a demonstration occurred below us on the main square. Hundreds of people were marching protesting the banking regulations and demanding their money back…it was interesting to be able to view everything from the palace!
We ended our Isfahan tour in a local teahouse where we sipped on hot tea and smoked banana tobacco. Unfortunately, we witnessed a scene that caused us bewilderment until Amin explained what had happened. At the teahouse, there were three Japanese tourists who were chit chatting with a young teenaged group of boys and girls (mingled together at the same table and sitting on the same benches) One of the Japanese tourists asked his tour leader to take his snapshot with the group and the teahouse owner came rushing out enraged and telling off the Japanese tour leader. An ugly scene ensued and the Japanese tourists were kicked out of the teahouse and the Iranian teenagers given a verbal lashing. What we failed to realize was it was illegal for the teenaged group to be co-mingling like that in public. In fact, it was only permissible for the girls to hang out together separate from the boys. Because the Japanese tourists had captured the image of the mixed group together on his camera, the owner feared that the religious police would shut down his teahouse again (apparently this was THE popular teenager hangout and the teahouse had been repeatedly shut down due to similar violations).
We felt bad that Iran’s youth were subject to such incomprehensible and strict laws when we felt that they were just enjoying some innocent fun…of course we were looking at the situation from our perspective! We had loads of free time so we spent it wandering through different carpet stores, before settling on an old tribal pattern from a super friendly and accommodating merchant. He even delivered the carpet to our hotel so that we wouldn’t have to lug it back there ourselves! We ate dinner at the ritzy Restaurant Shahrzad off of Abbas Aabat Street. The food was scrumptious and absolutely mouth watering…a real treat to have such wonderful food spread out before us.
Our last morning, we visited Vank Cathedral (located in the Armenian quarter, the Vank Cathedral was built in 1606-1655). The images on the inside of the cathedral were amazing and after that, we spent some time exploring the museum and educating ourselves about the Armenian genocide that occurred in 1915 by the Turks. After bidding Isfahan a sad goodbye, we settled in our car for a long drive back to Tehran. Enroute, we stopped by Kashan to visit the Agha Bozorg Madrassa and Mosque and Khan-e Tabatabei (a circa 1834 era mansion built by a wealthy carpet merchant).
After Kashan, we begged Amin and Mansour for a “slight” detour to Abyaneh, which is claimed to be one of the most fascinating villages in all of Iran. Recognized by UNESCO, the village is a perfectly preserved quaint and serene location to wander about aimlessly. Unfortunately for us, the wind was howling unmercifully and we scurried about the town with a bit more haste than we would have liked.
Abyaneh was our last stop on our incredible tour, which was rapidly drawing to a close. We arrived back into Tehran where we caught a few hours of sleep before returning to snowy Stuttgart only a few hours later. Amin and Mansour will never be forgotten as they showed us the absolute best time in Iran. If anyone is considering a vacation there, contact Amin and he can put together a package deal for you…he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a hoot to travel with and you will definitely enjoy yourself with him.