Tehran, Esfahan – Iran
Mention to anyone back home that you are venturing into Iran and you will receive negative responses. “Why would you go there? It’s dangerous,” or “Iran is full of bad people,” were some of the comments I received from others when I decided to visit Iran. Iran is a nation of many things, but bad people and dangers are not among them. Traveling to Iran has been a dream of mine for many years. Now, finally, I had received my visa in Istanbul and crossed Turkey to the Iranian border, in Dogubayazit, to visit the nation so many people in the west fear.
Getting to Iran
So there I was, packing my bags in a dusty Turkish border town getting ready to enter Iran. To be honest, I was a little nervous. Iran isn’t held in the most positive views by western nations. After saying our farewells to Dogubayazit, I found the nearest Dolmus (Turkish minivan) calling out their destination: Iran.
The drive was visually stunning. There were tall, white mountain peaks and golden fields of grass swaying in the eastern breeze. Mighty Mt Ararat was looming in the distance, glowing orange in the soft morning light. After thirty minutes, the Turkish/Iranian border became visible. It consisted of tall, barbed-wire fences, soldiers bearing machine-guns and Kebab shacks. The next scene was incredibly fast paced and is somewhat of a blurry memory. I walked across the Turkish border, straight into the forbidden land of Persia. There were cloaked figures with their hands in the air, men flashing what looked like millions of Rials and Tomans*, and boxes upon boxes of smuggled contraband being pushed through security by people who looked like security personnel themselves.
*Rials and Tomans – Officially, Iran has only one currency, the Rial, but Iranians like to think otherwise. They think in Tomans, but sometimes Rials, but mostly Tomans. So it is accepted that foreigners have no idea what Iranians are talking about when it comes to money. In a rough explanation 1 Toman equals 10 000 Rial.
Immigration was tough. Many questions are asked and you are interrogated about why you decided to come here without a tour. After you are stamped in, you enter the bank room. Here you are told you must change money, as there will be no money available ahead. This information is incorrect, however. You see, in Iran, there are two ways to obtain local currency; the first being the Iranian banks. The banks will give you a very undesirable rate that will leave you broke in no time. The other option is to change money on the black market. The black market might not sound like the safest way, but trust me, you can find almost triple the banks’ rates at times. Head outside the bank zone, past the pushy, bank-employed touts and you will find the black market amongst the taxi folk.
It hit me: I was in Iran. After all of the troubles I encountered getting visa and the countless people who told me “Don’t go there, you will die,” I was finally here. After having this amazing thought, I crammed myself into a taxi with a man who, for some reason, believed I spoke Farsi. We whisked like a speeding bullet down the mountain side. We changed taxis. A few hours passed and after a few more taxi changes, I arrived to the bus station in Maku. Next step was to get onto the 4PM bus to Tabriz.
The bus ride was six hours long to Tabriz. It was another pristine, beautiful drive through lush green valleys and towering mountain peaks. Upon arriving, the hunt began for a hotel. It was late in the day already and walking around a new city at night is a daunting experience. Tabriz has a friendly atmosphere, but the people still glance towards you. They are not used to foreigners being there.
After finally finding a hotel, I decided to venture into streets of Tabriz. It was exciting; my first night in Iran. The streets were buzzing with people and excitement. Every corner and available space on the buildings was lit with fluorescent lights, displaying the beautiful Persian language, creating a dazzling spectacle. Walking through the streets, I was greeted with smiles and curiosity. There is not much to see in Tabriz itself, but the surrounding area is beautiful and the nearby mountains loom in the distance, tempting travelers to hike the remote valleys of the north. After indulging in the standard Persian Kebab and yellow rice, I returned to the hotel.
Tehran, the Heart of Iran
The next day, I took the long bus ride to Tehran, the capital city of Iran. Tehran has a very rustic, smoggy exterior, but delve deeper into this city and you will find its charm. The streets are clogged with traffic and pollution, motor bikes ride on the sidewalks, and breathing can become difficult from the smoggy air. This is Iran’s beating heart. Everything that happens in Iran begins here. My bus arrived late at night once again. To save money, I took the subway down town. Riding the subways was my first introduction to Iranian culture. There are carriages for men and carriages for women. They are kept separate from each other.
Arriving at the ubiquitously named Mashad Hotel, Mamoud invited me in to smoke shisha with him and talk about his nation’s politics. He also wanted to know about western perspectives. Mamoud was an interesting man. He was a second degree black belt in karate, animal shelter owner, and had an obsession with the west. Mamoud provided great insight into what Iranians were actually like. Iranians always get stereotyped as being religious radicals and anti-western. Mamoud was neither of these. He was, in fact, just like any one from my own country. Mamoud was not alone. He introduced me to his group of friends, who were all, in fact, just interesting and fantastic people.
Tehran is a crazy city. The next day I climbed aboard a motor bike taxi that took me on a white-knuckled, heart-pulsating ride through the crazy Tehran traffic. The traffic there was crazy! Horns blared. No traffic rules applied. This city’s traffic resembled one of India’s big cities, but, in many ways, it was worse.
US Den of Espionage and Tehran Bazaar
First stop was the US Den of Espionage. This is the name, of course, given by local students to the American Embassy, where hostages were held for weeks. Now, the Embassy has transformed into something of an art gallery for anti-western artists. One of the “masterpieces” on display was the Statue of Liberty, with the face of a skull, bombing small children. If you don’t fancy that, check out Uncle Sam executing political prisoners.
This is an example of the rivalry between modern day Iran and the United States of America. There is change in the air, however. Most Iranians are no longer concerning themselves with America and are focusing on building their own country through education and a higher standard of living. Iran breaks all the stereotypes. Only those who visit here are rewarded with the true view of this nation.
Leaving the artsy embassy behind, I wandered the narrow streets of the Tehran Bazaar. This Bazaar is a great example of old Iran. The shops are filled with carpets, spices, and other exotic goods. Outside the bazaar, the blue minarets towered above, filling the air with its beautiful call to prayer. The air smells of kebabs and spices and the busy bazaar streets bustle with both traditionally and modernly dressed locals, all haggling for their goods.
The Soul of Iran, Esfahan
Tehran was incredible, but what lay ahead was the reason why I came to Iran. The next day I took the local bus to Esfahan. Esfahan is a jewel in the Persian desert. The clean streets, lined with beautiful foliage, all lead to Esfahan’s main square: Naqsh-e Jahan. Nash-e Jahan is outstanding. Horse drawn carriages rattle over the cobblestone walkways, past mosques with hand painted-to-perfection domes that dominate the skyline with beauty. This city is said to be the pride and joy of Iran, and I could see why. Walking the square, you can only ponder this city’s royal past.
At the end of the square is the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah. After walking its empty halls, filled with walls that are painted to absolute perfection, I found a good shisha café on the square that provided a good view to witness the mosque’s dome change from turquoise blue to the golden reflection of the orange, setting sun. As the sun set, the smoke from the chimneys of wood burning households loomed over the traditional city, taking you back to a time long ago. When the moon rises, the square lights up and all the locals come to relax, smoke shisha and sip a cup of tea. Esfahan is a traveler’s dream. Be sure to check out the Masjed-e Shah in the square; an architectural masterpiece that will impress anyone.
That evening, I was introduced to Ali. Ali was an Esfahan- born local carpet shop owner who loved to practice his English. Ali showed me around more of the city and told me of the market in town that I had to visit. Ali also showed me his carpets, which were renowned for their skill and craft.
Carpets, Spices, and Beautiful Mosques
Esfahan’s market rivaled Tehran’s. Its walkways are made of the original mudbrick and the shops are carved into the mud walls. It sells mush more traditional products, usually hand made. It’s also famous for its artisans; hand painted plates and handmade carpets being some of the more specialty items. Head deeper and you will find a bird market. Persians love their avian friends. They take pride in owning and caring for exotic, expensive species from around Asia. In fact, the type of bird you own can indicate an Iranian’s wealth.
The market is hard to navigate and getting lost is common. I did just this. Lost and confused, I ended up far away, finding myself in a traditional mudbrick suburb. That’s when the lights of a police car flashed. I was horrified. I had heard stories of travelers being accused of being spies and getting arrested. I pretended not to notice them, but the police pulled up beside me and grabbed my arm from the car.
“Where are you going, foreigner?” they demanded, while glaring into my eyes.
I stared back at them, horrified, and exclaimed that I was lost and I was looking for the Masjed-e Jameh.
“Get in the car foreigner, you’re coming with us,” the police said, while ushering me into the back seat.
We set off like a speeding bullet, zig-zagging in between traffic and people. The police officer in the passenger’s seat turned back to me and said “Welcome to Iran. We are the police, and we will take you to Masjed-e Jameh, and after we can go to Zayandeh, where there are Esfahan’s most beautiful bridges.” Shocked, I asked why they were doing this and they replied with one simple word: “Hospitality.” My police tour ended up being a fantastic experience. They gladly left me at the bridges and gave me directions on how to walk back to the main square from there. Even the police were great people.
I had now spent a week in Iran and had not come across one radical or bad person. Iran is a nation of hospitality and beauty. I spent more days than I had thought I would in Esfahan. The city had a certain allure to it that made it hard to leave. The problem was my visa. It only allowed for another three weeks in Iran. So, it was south to Shiraz, my next destination, in one of the most amazing countries yet!
Location: Capital of Iran, Tehran. Esfahan, Iran
Costs: Bus ticket Tehran – Esfahan, 15 US Dollar. Mashad Hotel in Tehran – 8 US Dollar. Average taxi ride in the city – 4 US Dollar.
Currency: Rial, 1 US$ – 30200 Iranian Rial
Visa: Check out www.iranianvisa.com, They are a great on-line website that can help arrange visa’s and those nationalities who need to have a tour.
Tips: Do not take photos of the Anti-American propaganda as I did, you can be arrested for this. Take motorcycle taxi’s, they are cheaper. Food is hard to find in Tehran, look by the Bazaar for decent restaurants. Hitch-hiking is possible as Iranian hospitality is amazing.
Transport: Buses between cities are frequent and very comfortable. In the city best to take taxi, they are cheap and plentiful.
Recommended Guide Book: Lonely Planet Iran, Lonely Planet Farsi Phrasebook.
Recommended Tour Companies: G adventures actually does do tours to Iran. Tours are not for everybody, but if your alone or your country requires a tour to visit then check out G adventures! Highly Recommended!