By Roger ALLNUTT
After many years in the wilderness as an international destination Iran is having a boom in tourism which is only likely to increase.
I recently joined an Intrepid tour and found the people friendly and eager to welcome our group and it is one of the safest countries I have visited They also wanted to learn about Australia (many have relatives here) and lots of selfies were taken.
Iran is a large country with most first time travellers focussing on the area from the capital Tehran south to Shiraz. The northern part of the country around the Caspian Sea is less visited
Tehran is frenetic, loaded with traffic, masses of tiny shops and narrow alleyways. Women all wear a headscarf and usually, although dress is becoming more relaxed, many still dress entirely in black.. Despite the heat men do not wear shorts. Segregation is common eg on local buses in Tehran the men sit in the front half of the bus and the women in the back.
Key sights in the city include the huge Grand Bazaar where the alleys are crammed with shops selling everything you could possibly need. The bags of spices,nuts and dates were particularly tempting but I restricted myself to buying some sachets of saffron which is very expensive in Australia. Many shops sell carpets for which Persia is famous. A must see is the National Jewellery Treasury, one of the most glittering collections in the world. The World Heritage-listed Golestan Palace dating from the Qajar era in the late 18th century is well worth a look too.
Snow covered mountains form a backdrop to Tehran and it worth making the trip up to Darband (easily reached by an inexpensive taxi) to escape the heat and dust of the city. The road up leads past the compound where the last Shah lived until overthrown in 1979. Locals escape there to indulge in walking trails and dine at one of the many restaurants.
Our trip then flew to Shiraz, once the capital of Iran. It is known for its culture and gardens although the well regarded Eram Gardens were looking rather tired. The outside of the walled Citadel is reminiscent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa with one huge corner turret leaning at about a 10 degree angle. The Holy Shrine is another must as is the Pink mosque especially in the early morning when the rays of the sun slant though coloured glass windows creating marvellous patterns.
The Vakil Traditional Restaurant in Shiraz was my introduction to Iranian food and the buffet offered numerous choices – wonderful dips featuring yoghurt, tasty vegetarian dishes (eggplant is widely used) and local breads. Breads of different types are being baked in clay ovens wherever you go in Iran and each time we watched the skilled bakers at work they turned on a great performance. At a local fast food place Seyhoon I had the best pepperoni pizza I have ever tasted.
Shiraz is mainly used as a base to visit Persepolis. Dating from about 515BC and built up during the reign of Darius 1 the large complex was ransacked by various armies over the centuries. A number of structures still remain including the ruins of the gate, with its striking carved-horse reliefs, and the “Apadana” building, where emperors greeted foreign visitors, that features intricately carved staircases. The view from the hillside above the complex is stunning.
About 12km away is Naqsh-e Rustam or Necropolis, the rock-cut tombs of Persian kings Darius 1 and 11, Xerxes 1 and Artaxerxes 1. It was rather like visiting Petra in Jordan.
On the way to Yazd our tour veered off the main highway over rugged hills to Kahkaran, a small village of the Qashqai tribe where we stayed with a local family. A garden full of apple, pistachio, walnut and other fruit trees provided shelter in the late afternoon sun.
The father of our local guide had been a teacher in this remote village and yet had sent his son and six daughters to university. The mother provided a lovely dinner with roast chicken cooked with dried fruits. The locals came out to meet us, all with mobile phones, and lots of selfies were taken. At breakfast bread was made in the fireplace.
Much of this part of Iran is dusty and rocky plain with ranges on the horizon, and with patches of greenery in the valleys. Nomads follow well established ‘trails’ moving small herds of sheep and goats in time honoured fashion. These days many have back up vans but it still appears a hard and often lonely life.
The small town of Abarkuh is noted for a wonderfully preserved example of the unique (throughout Iran) ice houses where the unusual circular domed mud construction has been used for centuries to make ice for ‘refrigeration’. Nearby is perhaps the oldest cedar tree in the world dated at over 4500 years. Another clever invention from centuries ago is wind towers designed to keep buildings cool and airy during the sweltering summer heat.
Caravanserai were a feature of movement in Iran and along the Silk Road over the centuries and near Yazd our group spent a night in the Zein-o din caravanserai which dates from the 16th century. It has been modernised to meet the needs of modern travellers. Although still fairly basic it is a great experience, especially sitting up on the parapet of the unusual circular design watching the sunset and the sparkling stars in the night.
Australian passport holders require a visa to visit Iran which can be obtained from the embassy in Canberra. Allow plenty of time as the process can be slow.
Currently Iran is a cash society for foreigners although it is rumoured that sanctions imposed on use of credit cards will be lifted soon. USD are recommended to change at numerous exchange places but I found that most also changed AUD. A positive is that unused money can be changed back at virtually the same rate.
I joined an Intrepid Travel and the hotels used were generally basic but quite OK. Wifi was available and free in hotels.
I flew Qatar Airways from Sydney via Doha and I would recommend the airline.