It all began with a headline. British Airways to resume direct flights from Heathrow to Tehran. Such magic, mobilizing words. Eight months later, we were on the flight.
I blame my professors. Both the Editor and I had studied History and International Relations. That Iran had re-opened to tourism meant we could finally see the monuments and antiquities of those great empires and civilizations while observing contemporary life in one of the Middle East’s most important political actors. Once the idea was planted, we had to go. But how?
You can’t just pick up a rental car at Tehran airport and drive around the country. For starters, your itinerary has to be pre-approved by the authorities in order to acquire a visa, a ‘not fun’ process filled with complexity. Also, driving in Iran is best left to the locals. In short, for this trip, we needed support.
We knew that Steppes Travel, a tour operator in the UK with British Museum antecedents, was offering small group travel to Iran. We liked their offering. Surprisingly, the price difference between going with a group and travelling solo with our own guide and driver was not hugely prohibitive so we chose to be on our own. Of course, we weren’t. We were almost 24/7 with our guide and driver. Here is where our calculation that Steppes would have good relationships in Iran paid off.
Steppes local provider, Pasagard Tours, was flawless in its delivery, especially in providing our brilliant guide, Navid Ghods, and our excellent driver, Houman. Navid’s passion for his country’s history and culture, his attention to detail, his concern for our comfort and wellbeing made our trip truly exceptional. Anyone who has seen me incompetently crossing busy roads in London would appreciate the death-defying efforts Navid had to exert to get me safely across the streets of Iran. No matter how I try, I cannot imagine a more perfect leader, teacher, protector and friend.
And finally, a word on dress. I worried a lot about this topic before travelling but in the end, it was no big deal. Yes, women have to keep their heads and the curvy parts of their bodies covered but you can buy good looking scarves (cotton is best, they don’t slide around) and tunic-like tops to wear over your regular trousers. They don’t have to be black. Most importantly, your efforts to be respectful are appreciated and it certainly adds an element of the exotic to your visit.
With 10 days to spend in the country, we travelled the classic tourist route of Tehran, Kashan, Abyaneh, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Na’in and back to Tehran. Sound like a lot of driving? It was - almost 2,000 kilometers to be exact. For anyone planning a trip, there is a case for flying back to Tehran from the south and skipping the long road trip back. But, I don’t know. I never learned anything about a country from an airplane.
So what were some of the highlights of the itinerary? So many, too many, the whole trip was a highlight but here goes:
Tehran is a modern megalopolis, chaotic, congested and exhilarating. We didn’t fall in love with the place but it’s a great place to start with wonderful museums and palaces, especially the Golestan Palace complex.
The Fin Garden (Bagh-e Fin) in Kashan, was lovely and filled with Iranians enjoying themselves in the splendid surroundings. Some believe that it was from Kashan that the three wise men from the east followed the star to Bethlehem. I like to think that’s true and in any event, it shows the importance of this city in ancient times.
· Abyaneh, a 2,500-year-old mountain village with its own culture and customs where we saw our first Zoroastrian fire temple. We took a wild ride through the countryside in a recalcitrant Land Rover that took half the village to start. We loved it.
· Elegant Esfahan, we loved it too, perhaps because with a major river (alas, completely dry at the time of our visit), tree-lined boulevards, magnificent mosques and palaces, a grand old showplace hotel, the Abassi, All Saviours Cathedral in the Armenian quarter and much more, it felt a bit like Europe from a bygone era. Here we had an interesting conversation with a mullah and spent an evening at a mountain top restaurant with a group of madcap, partying ladies. I now know some serious Iranian dance moves.
· In Shiraz we visited gardens and the shrines of poets. You have to love a society that reveres its writers. Persepolis was a grand experience enhanced by an older gentleman who passed us muttering something akin to, “that son of a bitch, Alexander” who burnt the place to the ground in 331 BC. The staff at the excellent Homa Hotel was particularly accommodating.
· In Yazd, a desert city with winding streets and alleyways, we fell in love with wind catchers (badgirs), ingenious towers that capture and funnel cooling breezes throughout buildings. Sunset at the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence where, until the 1970s, the bodies of the dead were picked clean by vultures, was unforgettable. The Moshir Garden Hotel was totally brilliant with unique Persian décor, a romantic courtyard, parrots and a midget in livery working reception.
· In Na’in, there is an older gentleman tucked away in a back room of the very interesting Pirnia House and Ethnographic Museum who weaves kilim rugs and coats and hats out of camel hair. His work is amazing and the prices reasonable so if you are heading for Na’in, save room in your suitcase and budget for an authentic piece of Iranian craftsmanship.
And then we were almost done. As Houman drove us back to Tehran – sure, a long slog but better than Interstate 95 - I thought about Iran, the last 8 months of planning, the effort involved in getting the visa and the nervousness we sometimes felt about the whole thing - after all, a British-Iranian mother had recently been jailed for 5 years on undisclosed charges – and then I thought about what we had encountered here, the richness of every single day’s experience, the warm reception we received everywhere, the splendor, the contradictions and the sheer pleasure of it all. Was it one of the most rewarding trips we have ever taken? Yes it was.
There is a travel quote from Jawaharial Nehru that I like a lot that seems fitting for the end of this post.
“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”
That was my Iran.