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Published: November 21st 2009
For more of my blogs about Iran, please visit The Real Iran
and Fundamentalist Iran
Believe it or not, there is a well-trod tourist trail across the vast country of Iran. Travelers generally enter by air at Tehran or, following the hippy trail from Europe to India, enter overland from Turkey and on to Pakistan. Nowadays on the road you meet loads of these adventurous overlanders, many of them tackling the route on motorcycle or bicycle.
Iran is a rare country where high snowy mountains, deserts, and coastal beaches lie practically side by side, but unfortunately I was a little too early for ski season.
The city of Esfahan is the pinnacle of any sightseeing tour of Iran. It is regarded by many as the most beautiful Muslim city in the world. At the core of Esfahan is the grand Imam Square, one of the largest public squares in the world. The southern end of the square is dominated by the enormous Imam Mosque, which stands off-center from the square so that it can face Mecca, conforming to Islamic custom. The same is the case with the smaller Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, on the eastern side of the square. This particular
mosque was my favorite of all, with it’s meticulously ornate interior dome and changing rays of light coming in from the windows in the dome.
To the west of the square sit the ancient palaces of Esfahan, and to the north a vast network of covered stalls which make up the Bazar-e Bozorg and lead to Jameh Mosque, the largest in the nation. The finishing touch on Esfahan is Zayandeh River to the south (unfortunately dried up while I was there), with it’s ancient bridges below which people traditionally gathered, relaxed, and socialized over qalyan
(sheesha) and chay. However, (and this may surprise you), in the land where sheesha originated, it is now being banned in several states, including the Esfahan region, due to it’s addictive and cancer causing properties. At the time that I visited Esfahan, the last of the famous bridge tea shops, once an absolute must-do of any visit to Iran, had officially been shut down.
South of Esfahan I stopped in to take a peek at ultra-conservative Qom, from where the Islamic Revolution was based. Hazrat-e Masumeh, the enormous complex of spectacular mosques at it’s core, is officially closed to non-Muslims. I did manage
to sneak my way in, but was banned from taking any pictures to prove it. I found the vibes in Qom a little too serious and unwelcoming, and quickly moved on.
In the capital Tehran, a city of 15 million with some of the worst air pollution in the world, I saw few of the sites since I was invited to stay with a family living in a quaint suburb of the city for most of my stay. North of Tehran I visited Masuleh, a tiny traditional village perched dramatically on the side of mountain so steeply that the roofs of houses form the sidewalks above. I enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere and the local specialties such as dried fruit sheets in sour syrup, olives in pomegranate and grated walnut paste, honey halva
(a sugary desert made from crushed sesame), and mirza ghasemi
, a local dish made from pureed eggplant, tomato, garlic and egg (a vegetarian delight in a nation where the kebab reigns supreme).
South of Esfahan I made for the desert, in the company of new friends from England, New Zealand, Poland, and Switzerland. Our destination was Garmeh, a miniature desert oasis in the middle of nowhere,
with traditional mud brick homes and very few people. Staying at the excellent Ateshoni’s Hotel was perhaps the highlight of my Iranian experience. Run by an Iranian musician/artist/hippy of sorts, the hotel served traditional communal meals on carpets and there were nightly performances of Sufi (Islamic mystical) inspired drumming and traditional music. Our room was situated on the mud and grass roof, overlooking a pen of camels, goats and one lone turtle.
Exploring the palm filled village, I located the source of the oasis in a small cave at the base of an adjacent cliff. I put my feet in and hundreds of small fish nibbled the dead skin off my feet. In parts of Asia you have to pay a lot of money to experience this! On my way back to the hotel, a man descended from a palm tree, strapped to it with rope, and handed me an enormous handful of delicious fresh dates. I picked a few pomegranates to complete my meal.
Moving on and we visited Yazd, a larger desert city famous for it’s networks of labyrinthine alleyways, made entirely of traditional mud and straw walls. My travel companions and I passed the quiet,
alcohol-deprived nights smoking sheesha and watching movies on my laptop. We celebrated my travel-mates birthday by splurging on a bottle of non-alcoholic wine at an open-air sheesha bar while the local youth giggled and stared.
Our final stop in Iran was Shiraz; but alas, I am sad to report that there is no Shiraz wine to be found in the city that inspired it’s name. On my final day in the country, we visited Iran’s showpiece ancient site: the 2500-year-old Persian ruins of Persepolis. The highlight for me was the intricate and well-preserved reliefs, defaced in some places with 200-year-old “I was here” type graffiti. Nearby we also visited the magnificent cross-shaped tombs of the ancient Persian rulers, carved into the cliff walls above.
From there I flew on to Dubai, where I was able to enjoy beer, facebook (banned in Iran), fast internet connections, and spicy Indian food! For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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