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  • Day44

    Tehran had one final gift for us in the form of an unwelcome and unwarranted 7 hour wait in its international airport because of a flight time mix up due to two different times being listed for our flight to Yerevan. We went with the earlier flight time (getting up at 3:30am), and subsequently paid the price. However, with seven hours to kill it has given me ample time to reflect on my time in Iran.

    It hasn't been the easiest time for me in Iran for a number of reasons, but despite that it will always have a special place in my heart, and it's definitely somewhere I'd love to come back to explore further, as 10 days just wasn't enough. It has been an eye opening, beautiful, humbling and myth busting experience, providing lessons that are much needed in a world so full of fear and mistrust.

    It has made me think a lot about these emotions. Why are those who enjoy unprecedented freedom and wealth the most selfish and close minded, while those living in some of the most oppressive regimes in the world so open, welcoming, warmhearted and generous? I can't help but feel that it's down to the well established economic and psychological rule that humans fear of loss is so much greater than the pleasure of gain. We have so much to lose in the west that this rule is only amplified - fear of loss of identity, fear of others beliefs, fear of loss of social and economic status, fear of differences and fear that we just may not be as superior as our version of history suggests. Yet, Iran has shown me once again the humbling perversity that it is those with the least to lose that are generally the most honest, generous and open. It is the same for all the most oppressed and downtrodden societies I have been too, and Iran ranks right up there with Myanmar in being the exemplar of this rule.

    Every Iranian we have met, has without exception been curious, interested, open minded, warm and welcoming, which only made the embarrassment and cringe factor that much worse on hearing them exclaim with delight about how great a country Australia is and how lucky we are. The demonising and unpleasantness extended to these people by our country is a national embarrassment and anyone who thinks differently needs to come here and do it whilst having food and tea thrust upon you in the most unlikely locations and situations and being so openly welcomed into their hearts and homes.

    Ultimately of course it all comes back to fear. Fear leads to conservatism, conservatism leads to prejudice and prejudice leads to racism. Yet the fear of loss is in itself an admission that you do not deserve or justify what you have, which is admittedly true. Why do I deserve to have it all, while a person in zanjan struggles to complete a master of pharmacology while working 7 nights a week as a hotel night watchman, with little and fast diminishing hope of achieving his dream of emigrating to a better life at the end of his efforts. We are not a product of our own wit and guile, we are products of our genes and our environment. I won the lottery, being born as a white male in Australia at the end of the 20th century, I am lazy, affluent and untouched and unburdened by prejudice. For this I am blessed and extremely lucky, but it does not make me superior.

    Yet it could all come to an end tomorrow. The experience of Iranian women following the downfall of the Shah is an important lesson in how tenuous and precious my current status in life is. I haven't been able to shake the similarities between that experience and the Handsmaids Tale. To have all your freedoms, your job, your identity and your position in society taken from you overnight is something that is both utterly incomprehensible and yet utterly real. To speak to so many people who privately reject the rules, regulations and oppression forced upon them by the state for the past 40 years, yet unable to do anything about it is truely shocking to someone brought up in a free and fair society.

    This disconnect between the Iranian people and the leadership may also go someway to explaining why the common person in Iran appears to have a far better grasp of the difference between politics and the personal than those of us in the west. Without exception, they have all been able to seperate us from our countries politics and demonisation of Iran and Iranians, despite the extreme and overt propaganda on open display. Yet in the west we fail to do the same, despite our 'free' media and open access to information. The reactions both Han and I got from people at home and, for me, overseas to our plans to visit Iran were enlightening. Both of us were surprised by the number and vehemence of the objections, surprise and genuine fear for our safety. Perhaps we have our own form of propaganda in the west and it would appear to be far more effective than that in Iran. Yet in truth I have seldom felt safer and more cared for while travelling.

    We didn't pry, but a surprising number of people were open about politics and their views. Admittedly we were talking to people who spoke english, so we can assume they have more education than average, but without exception the views expressed were that how the society treats women is wrong, a strong nostalgia for the days before the overthrow of the shah, a strong desire for greater freedom and a genuine feeling that things were improving and tentative hope for the future. The one topic of politics that we felt ok talking about and sharing views on was, of course, Trump. A man trying so hard to divide, yet providing the one safe topic of political conversation with Iranians that wouldn't put us or the locals in any trouble with the authorities.

    In truth, Iran broke down a lot of stereotypes for me. I would like to think that I hadn't bought into the propaganda we are fed, but Iran has been far more liberal, more educated, less religious and less militant than I would ever have imagined. I have been comparing it a lot to eastern Turkey, and would have to say that on all counts its far more progressive. Where in eastern Turkey I could not find a person speaking english, here it's common; where in Turkey there were countless mosques where I was viewed with suspicion, here there are few and we were made welcome; where in Turkey Burqa's were common, here they are rare; where in Turkey the military and police were a constant sight and there were numerous roadblocks and ID checks, here you are far more likely to be called over by a group of young soldiers off duty relaxing in a park wanting you to sit with them, share tea or shisha and joke around; where in Turkey I could not access foreign media, here it is widely available including the BBC on every TV. Until our last 24 hours in Tehran I didn't once feel like anyone was trying to rip us off, or have anything but a genuine concern that we feel welcome, safe and supported.

    I have also been reflecting on the irony that as the west increasingly looks to close its borders to trade and people, Iranians are desperate for the direct opposite. I marvel at the perversity that the people most gung-ho about punishing Iranians with trade sanctions are the very same people calling for greater trade barriers and protectionism at home. Anyone wanting to voluntarily impose sanctions on themselves in such a way needs to simply move to Iran, where they can live in their utopian vision of a self sufficiency, subsidies fuel and a booming domestic manufacturing sector. Where they can buy an overpriced shitbox SABA or JAC or, most impressive, Paycan to drive home to their home built with substandard locally produced materials and to a terrible standard all while getting paid an abysmal wage working in unhealthy and unsafe factories churning out every conceivable luxury a 1970's household could want. Actually, I'd go one step further and offer a one for one swap, for every trade protectionist sent to Iran in return we'll take a young educated pharmacologist who worked 24 hours a day doing 3 jobs with the hope of emigrating to a better life.
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  • Day2

    This morning we went out to Kandovan, marketed as Iran's Cappadocia. Our hostel organised a lovely driver who made random stops to show us apricots drying in the sun, a thousand year old tree that onced housed a man, a ghost village next door to Kandovan that had the hill fall in on it 200 years ago and to meet his friend who offered tea, samples of his wares and much appreciation that we were from Australia.
    But I really should start from the beginning...

    Being a Friday, the morning was very quiet with everyone at mosque. We started the day getting a small glimpse of our street for the next couple of days. It's not far from the Bazaar which we'll explore tomorrow as well as the Blue Mosque and museums.
    Our driver arrived pretty quickly and despite claiming poor English, immediately proved himself wrong! He told us little tit bits along the way and made stops for photos he thought we'd be interested in. The first was a quick u-turn on the highway when he noticed some men putting apricots out to dry. It was a spectacular sight, this orange gold fruit glowing along the sides of a quiet alley. Tom was given a handful of the fresh fruit which we munched on in the car afterwards... they go down as the best apricots either of us has ever tasted. Subtly sweet and almost fragrant but not pungent. I couldn't resist taking a shot of the rapturous look on Tom's face as he bit into one. Our driver pointed out the orchards along the road which in true European style (well in my experience) were without fences.

    Our next stop, involved our driver stopping in the middle of the road (Persian roads and driving deserve their very own blog post!) at the foot of a tree which he proceeded to inform us was a thousand years old. There was a statue at the base of a man who lived in the hollow trunk for 50 years and when he died, the villagers sealed it shut. He then gave us a handful of green plums that were tart and delicious.

    The next stop we could easily have missed if he hadn't stopped for us. Just before Kandovan is a smaller village built into the rock in the same way. But 200 years ago, the hill collapsed on it so it is now abandoned but we were able to go exploring the remaining open caves which helped make sense of what we later saw in Kandovan. The cave homes still had all the benches, nooks and shelves carved out so you could easily see how they'd have been lived in once upon a time. They were very low, even I had to dip my head to enter and walk around.

    When I emerged from the last cave home I explored, I was going to catch up to Tom who had climbed up to a more in tact part but I got distracted by a herd a goats that were being moved through by their shepherds who were putting some in the caves, I assume to shelter from the heat. By the time I went to head up the hill, our driver was saying it was time to move on so I'll let Tom's photos and stories fill you in on that!

    Which really brings us to Kandovan - the troglodyte village of manmade cliff dwellings which are still lived in. The village is hard to describe, covering a rocky hillside, crawling with tourists and with no straight lines, it is like no other place I've been. I'll let the photos below do it for me. It's a small village, apparently at the last census there were less than 700 people belonging to around 150 families. The place is now set up for tourism with many of them offering a 'free entry to cliff home', but when you walk in, you find they've turned their main living area into a shop selling tat. Though no real pressure or active spruiking which seems to be an Iranian thing.
    The highlight for me was when our driver introduced us to his friend who ran a shop down near the riverbed - he sat us down, talked to Tom wanting to know where we were from, how we were liking Iran, etc. He brought out tea and started giving us samples, the area is famous for honey and he calmly assured us that a teaspoon a day at breakfast would mean we were never sick! The sour preserved red damson plums were tangy and lovely but the yellow were too sour for me. The almonds and walnuts were juicy, straight out of their shells. Tom bought some pistachios in the end - twice the size of any I've seen before.

    In the dry riverbed at the base of the hill, people had set up picnics - Iranians seem to take picnicking seriously, there are burners and shades and rugs. And by the time we left, it was clear many more were going to set up as there was a steady stream of cars heading out there.
    For the afternoon, I took a siesta while Tom headed off to hunt lunch and find a haircut/shave. I'll let him tell you about mourning his beard and put the photos from the afternoon up in a new post.
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  • Day1

    There is a lake , ovan 89 km outside of qazvin
    There is a beautiful winding road to there and villages among the mountains created stunning and amazing views nice weather and little bit cold in summer with perfect level of
    Humidity just get there and enjoy ur capm!

  • Day37

    My guest blogger is doing such a good job there's nothing much to add, other than the famed Iranian hospitality is 100 per cent genuine and real. From calling out 'hello, welcome to Iran', offers of assistance with negotiating and translating with taxi drivers to continual offers of tea and food from random people on busses, in shops and while wandering through the bazaar, it's incredibly humbling and beautiful. They have also continually forgiven my seeming inability to stop giving a thumbs up, which is considered incredibly rude, but for some reason the more I think about not doing it the more keep doing it. Luckily they seem to get more amusement from my immediate embarrassment and exaggerated apologies, which I think is the only thing saving me. Having said that one such time was when I went to the barber for a beard trim, which after flashing a thumbs up turned into a close shave in more ways than one..

    Oh, and the fruit and nuts! Praise be to Allah, we are here in the middle of apricot season, which are unbelievable, a complete revelation and like none I have ever eaten, and at around $1/kg cheap enough to continually munch on all day. The nuts are in a similar bucket, pistachios twice the size and far tastier than those in Australia, and walnuts and almonds that make me actually actively seek them out. These two food stuffs are making up for the disappointment of the restaurant food, which is lacking the variety and excitement I was expecting, there aren't that many restaurants and most of those are either fast food, kebabs (which are tasty) or very overpriced tourist restaurants. There just isn't the street food or restaurant scene as other countries in the Middle East. Here's hoping the hospitality will at some point extend to an invitation to dinner at home.

    Fingers crossed.
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  • Day10

    We've come to the end of our time in Iran as we did at the airport ready to fly to Yerevan for our Lada adventure through Armenia and Georgia.

    Yesterday was really just made up of making our way back to Tehran where we went out to Darband Mountain which is a mountain at the end of the metro trainline. There are long taxi cues to take you to the top in ridiculous traffic. Once up there, it's about 1-2km of mountain side that is terraced and covered in teahouses and restaurants along a stream. It has potential to be spectacular but instead the workmanship is shoddy, rubbish is building up in the stream and the stalls are selling cheap imported tat. Despite this, there is a wonderful variety of people drawn here - the walking/mountaineering group who have their retractable poles, ropes, helmets and the earnest hiker look; hipsters making their way to the open areas at the top for shisha; trendoids wanting to be seen, taking selfies in the middle of the stream; and domestic tourists at the end of their sightseeing days.

    I was pleased to have an experience true to today's Iran to finish, especially as it was relaxed and gave time for some reflection. I'm very glad we reduced our time in Tehran, it's an entirely charmless city rivalled only by Jakarta in my experience. The traffic is solid and once it gets moving would rival any South East Asian city for chaos and disregard for others. It's the first place in Iran we negotiated with taxi drivers, were overcharged or felt like targets (is walking wallets), unlike what we experienced in the North, there's a sense of competition at the expense of others. Not uncommon in large cities and to be expected but was an uncomfortable transition from the relative ease we had experienced elsewhere.

    [warning: the next bit is overly verbose, long winded and really just random thoughts rather than anything thought through... in other words, feel free to skip if entirely!]

    I've been reflecting a lot on Iran, what we've seen and trying to put together some coherent thoughts. In no particular order:
    - cars and vehicles are great indicators of relative wealth and this was very true across the four towns/cities we spent time in. In most areas and particularly outside Tehran, Paykan rules the roads. The Iranian made vehicles are clearly what happens when your country is embargoed and you quickly need to start producing your own. Personally, I quite like the look of them and if I had the skills to modify engines and gearboxes, would happily take a body home. Most are in terrible condition. From there you have the knock offs - Saba (Saab), Peuge (Peugeot), Jac (Jag) and BWM (BMW). We saw some of these in Tabriz but there were even more in Qazvin as we got closer to Tehran. And then there are the 'brand names' - Kia, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota, etc. These were most common in Tehran. We didn't see many luxury vehicles even in Tehran - and largely these were BMW.
    - there's a shoddiness to a lot of the craftsmanship across the country. Whether it was traditional crafts such as silk weaving, knife grinding or carpentry, or modern construction/manufacturing. Everything was just poorly constructed, a lack of care or attention to detail. One of the reasons I loved the caravanserai in Qazvin was the proliferation of local modern designers who were evidence of people putting time, effort and skill into creating objects of beauty. The need for beauty is a human thing but in a culture that reveres poetry and the arts, it feels sad to be buying manufactured crap that will fall apart immediately.
    - from what I've read and heard, Iran has a long history of progressiveness and liberal thinking, and it would appear some of this is filtering back into the culture. There was a Guardian article published while we were here about women removing the hijab in cars in Tehran, but we also saw it here. Hijabs are loose and in some cases cursory, ankles/wrists are on show even in more conservative rural areas. No one blinked an eye when in answer to their question about our religion we said 'no religion'. And there is a respect and aspiration for learning and education. English was spoken widely with many speaking 3 or more languages and people studying for higher degrees, or speaking of friends studying abroad
    - there is a warm and seemingly genuine love for australia, I've never been gladder for my citizenship. So many we spoke to wistfully expressed a desire to come to Australia anda few were already making plans. It is at once humbling abc at times embarrassing given our politics and position in the world
    - while I've always felt travel highlights the difference between citizenry and government, it was stronger and starker here than I've experienced. It meant the local Iranian people we spent time with would not only distance themselves from government policy but they also pass this on to others. There is a deeply ingrained understanding that these are separate points of view and aren't to be confused (understandable given their history).
    - picnicking is the national sport and every Iranian appears to be an elite athlete at it. Carpets, shade cloth, kebab grills, butane, etc. are all lugged up hills and into parks for long lunches. The only other place I've been that comes close is South Korea but even they pale in comparison!
    - as a gross generalisation, Iranian women are the most elegant on earth. The attention to detail (matching shoes/trainers to scarves or details in their chameez, scarf tying/folding, mixing of patterns etc) and the pride in appearance leave me shamed

    Finally, it's no surprise that gender has been on my mind since being here. I've always found Muslim countries are more visibly male - on the street, on transport, etc. you see more men than women. But this is further confounded due to the dress laws. I've whinged about the scarf and made jokes about it, but in reality it goes deeper than that (of course). While the dress rules are grounded in modesty, the experience of having to follow these rules and wearing the hijab was, for me, constantly distracting and an overt reminder of needing correction.

    By constant distraction, I don't mean the irritation of a fly buzzing around and distracting you lightly. I mean the girl in the nightclub in a dress that is too tight and riding up so she's constantly pulling and tugging and playing with her clothes. It's a constant stream of thought that is policing the placement of the fabric - how it is wound around your bag handle, if it's stuck on the chair back, has it dropped off completely, is it choking, etc. Now, I'm the first to admit that some of this would become second nature with longer term use but it's never something women are unaware of. So few carry bags and their hands are often hovering either actively fiddling or ready to catch it if it falls. For me, I've felt this hampered the way I processed where we've been and what we've done. In both my photos and my memories there's a distance, I haven't quite been there. For my photos I've fought this hard to try and really focus and grab opportunities but I'm really feeling it in my memories which feel removed rather than fully lived.

    On the other hand, the dress (along with cultural behaviour) have made me more aware of the overt differentiation of being female. That sense that in being female there is something 'not quite right' at best and downright immoral/incorrect/disliked at worst. The dress and behaviours compound as overt symbols and reminders of this 'lesser-ness'. I see it in the women here as well, they are friendly, generous and gracious but shyer, engaging less readily than the men. The men when they approach us speak to Tom directly, glancing at me. In some ways it suits me because it puts me more in the role of observer which is where I'm comfortable... but it also is muting. And it's there in micro-interactions as well. Where western men will often make space for women, here it's men nudging women aside or standing in a way that pushes me into a corner or out of the way. I don't have an answer in terms of which is 'better', there are issues with both - any system that is based on constituted differences rather than mutual respect feels destined for problematic power dynamics to me. But the change from one system (covert) to another (overt) has made me more conscious (for now) of my gender and what that signifies to others.

    Finally, it's not that the men we've spoken to have left me out or shown me disrespect - I'd never want that to be misunderstood. In fact most, especially Sharrom and Hosein, went out of their way to open conversations with me or draw me in to what they were talking about with Tom. These observations are based more on the accumulation of things - rather than one off examples.
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  • Day5

    So when I last left you, we were in Tabriz. Yesterday we jumped on a bus to Zanjan (using the time to publish the last post). We arrived here in the earlier afternoon to discover the two hotels we had in mind had substantially higher prices than reported in the LP. In fact, we are pretty sure whoever wrote the LP entry ended up confusing Tomen and Rials because the quoted pricing makes little sense.
    As we were searching for another mentioned in the guide we were rescued by two lovely men asking if we were looking for a hotel and assuring us there was one much nicer than where we were heading. Iranian warmth and hospitality winning out again because we were brought to a great little hotel, run by a young, enterprising Iranian with a reasonable level of English who has done everything to make our stay comfortable - arranging a car for our day trip, exchanging money, etc.
    After dumping our things, I plotted out a taster of downtown Zanjan - very loose but all within a km or two of the hotel. We started by walking through the bazaar looking for a restaurant known for its Dizi Sangi (or dizzy sandwich), a rich lamb stew with various accoutrements and a ritual for how you eat it. We thought we stumbled across it but instead found something even better.
    After seeing a sign with an image of the stew pointing down an alley off the bazaar, we walked into a tiny stand which was effectively a kitchen with two narrow benches. The rear one was taken up by some men already so we slipped into the one on the side wall. We asked for Dizi and after some confusion found out it had run out (or he doesn't make it or... well, whatever it was, it wasn't available). In the meantime I'd eyed off what he'd made for one of the other men - some shakshuka (or, omelette, as he called it). So we greedily pointed at it and asked for what he was having.
    We settled in with some chai as tomatoes, mushrooms and shallots all got chopped and fried in front of us. It was served with a huge plate of wager thin bread which you form into little bite size parcels with some of the eggy tomatoey mixture. It was hands down the best meal we've had in Iran (so good, in fact, we went back today!). We quickly became the star attraction with people heartily welcoming us to Iran, wanting to know if we had babies (no), had been to (no), if we had Skype or whatsapp working (no) and if we'd be in selfies with them (yes)!

    I have no idea what made the shakshuka so much better than any I've tried before - might be just the quality of the produce because I tried to watch what he was doing and there was nothing exotic about it. We washed it down with chai from the large samovar and dogh (like Turkish Ayran - salted yoghurt drink with mint in it).
    At the end we were taarof-ed for the first time, being told not to pay and having to heartily insist we would be paying. It was a crazily low $2.50 for the whole meal... especially crazy considering how much better it was than anything else we've had.
    After lunch we wandered around the bazaar some more and made our way to the Rakhtshoot Khaneh - a stone laundry and washouse that a local businessman built over a spring for the women of Zanjan to use for free. You'll have to excuse the lack of photos for the afternoon as I only had my big camera with me and I can't do anything with those images until I get home. Don't worry, your usual channel will surely supply a good variety.
    We ended the day back at a teahouse in the bazaar where we sat drank tea and finally found some Dizi Sangi. The stew comes in clay pots, you pour the broth into a bowl leaving the meat and veg to cool down. The broth was beyond delicious, so rich and beautifully cooked. You tear up bits of the flat bread to hearten the broth while you drink it. The meat and veg then get mashed with a special mashing stick you're given and the subsequent paste is smeared on to pieces of the thin bread. It was lovely but the other table (and other descriptions I've read say it comes with herbs and leaves to flavour it but we couldn't seem to get ours)!

    On our way back to the hotel we stopped by the mosque, which was lovely. The evening call to prayer was going out and families sat in the forecourt while men went through ablutions. Tom made yet more friends while I wandered around with the camera!
    Today we had organised to go out to Takht-e Soleiman and Soltaniyeh by car - it ended up being a big driving day, leaving at 8amand getting back at 4pm. We had been going to head to Qazvin a day early but after so many hours in a car neither of us felt like sitting on a bus right away. Also the shakshuka was calling us again!
    The morning drive out to Takht-e Soleiman was spectacular. It's a UNESCO World Herotage site up in the top of the mountains. We passed quarries and lorries abdcable cars of rocks on the way with mountains on every direction. It was hard to grab good images of it from the taxi though.
    Takht-e Soleiman was originally one of the most important temples for the Zoroastrians - so we're talking old, we're talking 5th Century BC old. And before that there's archeological evidence of other human activity as well. The centre of the site is a turquoise artesian lake pouring forth about 50L/second. It has steep sides with the edges being around 40-50m deep and Tom said over 100m deep at the centre. It's on a slight rise within a huge basin at the top of the mountains. It became known as Solomon's Throne when the Arab Conquest threatened the site - the locals claiming Solomon had spent time there (and denying its Zoroastrian significance).
    It was stunning, though the light was brutally bright making photos hard. Especially as these are jpgs so I can't process them more subtly. You'll just have to wait (and hope) that I got some that can be salvaged!
    From there we headed back to Zanjan and out the other side to see Soltaniyeh - a reasonably well preserved blue domed mosque. Though we didn't know it was full of scaffolding inside so couldn't explore it fully.
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  • Day7

    We travelled down to Qazvin by bus, the network here is so efficient and there are so many of them that we haven't needed to book in advance, merely show up and find our way on to a bus. Similar to the buses I caught when I was in Myanmar - the VIP buses have large seats like a business class domestic flight and more legroom than I know what to do with!
    Yet again, the drive took us through spectacular landscapes and scenery. I can see why Iran makes a good location for filming.
    After sorting our hotel and dropping our bags, we went for a wander into the bazaar for lunch, finding a great version of the local cuisine qimeh naser - a beautiful lamb stew, served inside a mound of rice covered in sliced pistachios, orange rind and barberries. Insanely tasty and jewel-like to look at.
    Walking through the bazaar later, we were leapt upon by a carpet dealer who was making his way home for lunch. We were soon gathered up by his energy, as he proudly proclaimed us as his third son and third daughter (having two of each already). Sharrom was lovely, very sharp having taught himself English and is enamoured with foreigners. At one point he called his eldest son who is a doctor in Hong Kong and put us on the phone with him. His son sounded bemused but not surprised saying his father had been inciting foreigners home at every opportunity. "He is very friendly" was the understated description. We passed a pleasant afternoon in Sharrom's apartment being plied with yet more food, tea, fruit and being shown his carpets (the most expensive of which were hidden under cheaper versions on the floor.
    We showed him pictures of Mum and Pete who he then claimed as his brother and sister. And when he returned to his shop, we walked back with him and discovered the restored caravanserais. There is a distinct jump in wealth here, is noticed the proliferation of Western brand name cars, cleaner/shinier apartment buildings, fewer black shrouded women and more trendy/hipster outfits. It was no surprise when we were told this is a retreat area for wealthy Tehran-ites to get away for the weekend. I mention this because the caravanserais demonstrated this beautifully, sensitively restored with gorgeous shops showcasing local designers and makers. It restored my faith in local handicrafts which I thought might have disappeared given the cheap Chinese, Taiwanese, Pakistani, etc products in the bazaars.

    Today we'd organised with a local guide to go out to Alamut Valley to see the Assassins Castles. The landscape was monumental, the valley is in the Albers Mountains which are dry and rock encrusted with deeply green spring fed valleys. We visited two castles, the first was a relatively easy 10min walk while the second involved climbing the side of a hill on rock stairs that kept winding their way up. The Castles were part of a network of roughly 50 that were built in the valley in the 12th Century for the Ismaili followers of Hasan-e Sabbah. The sect he lead and the castles have formed the basis of many myths over the centuries and movies/video games today (Creed of Assassins and Prince of Persia).

    Stories of Hasan-e Sabbah's time here and the mercenary organisation he ran are numerous, some more sumpathetic than others. At best, he headed an Ismaili sect that championed a free thinking, pro-science Islamic tradition. At worst, he used hashish to bolster his mercenaries courage and foster visions of secret gardens full of maidens that would await them for following orders to murder or kidnap political and religious leaders of the day. The use of hashish gave the mercenaries the popular name of 'hashish-yun' which is the origin of the term assassin.

    Despite heavy fortifications, elaborate cistern systems and food reserves which meant the castles could survive years-long sieges (17 years being the longest recorded), the Mongols managed to capture them using 'diplomatic trickery'. To avoid future difficulty, the Mongols went on to destroy much of the castles and their cistern systems leaving only bits of rubble, foundations and ruined walls today.

    Standing in the ruins of each of the castles, you could easily imagine the strategic advantages of their lines of sight. The landscape necessitates a single entry/exit point focussing all defence manoeuvres. And the height of each within the valley means they could see for miles.

    Like other parts of Northern Iran, domestic tourism seems to account for the bulk of visitors. Being closer to Tehran, we have seen a few more Western/European tourists but it's only a handful even here. Some may not feel the bits of ruins justify the effort to get here but I hope in an effort to drive tourism they don't succumb to creating reenactment versions or easily reachable car parks. I don't think we'd have understood the reality of these fortresses without walking the route ourselves... no matter how intensive it can be, especially in full heat. Mind you, I say that well aware that we had a warm but crisp day so the shade provided proper relief from the sun. In full heat, our guide said it the climb to the top is 'hell'.

    Please excuse some of these photos - the intensity of the light meant metering and exposure were topping out and I was reliant on the histogram to check exposure as the camera metering was struggling. I'll get better control once I can process the images from the Nikon...
    And photo spamming starts now
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  • Day8

    We decided to spend an extra day in Alamut when it turned out the incredible guide we'd hired for the Castles also organised what he called a Lost in Paradise experience - time in a village and a homestay at the other end of the valley.
    Unfortunately Tom was sick but I got to enjoy a couple hour hike in the mountains around the village - walking up from the nut and fruit trees at the bottom of the valley to the arid areas at the top. It was beautiful walking through the orchards and we were lucky enough to bump into some people who were picking apricots so we're invited to join in, then enjoy the haul under the trees.
    Old landslides were evident along the route, at best this meant paths that skimmed the top of what was essentially a cliff edge, at worst there were homes you could still peer into, though morbid seeing bones in there that haven't been retrieved.
    It was a quiet day, nothing big or notable happened but I really enjoyed it, again I was struck by the generosity and hospitality of the Iranian culture. Each village we walked through came with offers to come and sit for chai, women wanting to show me their handicrafts and men wanting to welcome me to Iran.
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  • Day4

    Yesterday afternoon after Tom's beard massacre and my recharge, we headed to a park in town that Tom's new Tabrizi friend from our flight had told him about. Tom will tell you more of that I'm sure, I was so jet lagged on the Tehran > Tabriz flight I only half paid attention and nodded politely every now and then.
    As with the other parks we've seen it's well utilised, full of picnics and lounging. Though unlike the City Park in Tehran there was no sad zoo in the centre. This one had lots of fountains and a hill. The park had a pond in which you could peddle large plastic swans about or take a short joyride in a speed boat - it was really very odd!

    After we'd wandered round a bit, Tom had the bright idea to walk up a nearby hill to a lookout. In the heat it really made me hate the multiple layers I'm having to wear. I told Tom to push ahead because I just couldn't keep up - in Iran to meet the dress code I'm in jeans, long sleeved top, tunic and head scarf. Even though it's cotton and breathing and roomy enough for air movement... it's hot. The scarf traps the hot air against my head and face, the jeans would be fine in heat with a tshirt but everything else it does feel suffocating. It makes sense of the slower walking pace I've noticed amongst the women!
    The views were pretty spectacular once I got to the top... so I will grudgingly say it was worth it!
    After that it was a quiet night grabbing some dinner and gratefully falling into bed.

    Today was spent on a walking tour round Tabriz. We started by trying to see the cartoon museum which our first attempt lead us to the strangest little museum in the rear basement of the same building. It had been set up for a man who had created over a thousand models of Iranian food - it was seriously weird. For anyone who has seen the Instagram account @thriftstoreart - it was the type of stuff that would belong there.

    Unfortunately the cartoon museum was closed, they were having an annual caricature competition which Tom was hoping would include some choice Trump depictions but it was not to be.

    We walked from there to the Constitutional Museum which commemorate the revolution in 1906 (when Tabriz was the capital of Iran). The museum is housed in the mansion where the revolution was plotted. It was fascinating to me the way the revolution which introduced the first democratic elections and limited the royal influence was still very heartily celebrated. I realise with the current regime there's a common enemy in the Shah, but it still felt at odds. This contradiction is something I keep noticing in Iran - the historical and cultural openness to ideas and expression against the stories we hear from the outside, particularly the ostensibly white Western political sphere.
    From there we wandered the streets to the bazaar, it's the largest covered Bazaar in the world and it was easy to see how you could get lost in there. One thing that struck me was the lack of pressure to buy. There were no screaming spruikers and we were often ignored even the few times we were interested in buying something.

    After the Bazaar, we made our way to the Poet's Tomb. Trust Iran to generate their poets the way others do prime ministers or religious figures! And from there it was a short walk to Blue Mosque which lost its blue tiling in an earthquake.
    And then it was the Azerbaijan museum. This area of Iran proudly calls itself East Azerbaijan, yet there's also a heavy Turkish influence, with many growing up speaking turkish. Overlay this against the already rich cultural tapestry of East meets West, it feels like I'm in Europe, Nepal, India, Turkey and the Middle East all at once.

    The last stop of the day was at the University's Architecture Department building in an old Tabrizi mansion - its in reasonable disrepair so I'm assuming (hoping) it is being used as a live project!
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You might also know this place by the following names:

Islamic Republic of Iran, Iran (Islamische Republik), Iran, ኢራን, Irán, إيران, ܐܝܪܐܢ, İran, Іран, Ісламская Рэспубліка, Иран, Iraŋ, ইরান, ཨི་རཱན།, Írán, Den Islamiske Republik Iran, ཨི་རཱན, Iran nutome, Ιράν, Ισλαμική Δημοκρατία του, Persujo, Iraan, ایران, Éran, An Iaráin, ઈરાન, איראן, ईरान, Islamska Republika, Իրան, Íran, イラン・イスラム共和国, iran, ირანი, Uajemi, អ៊ីរ៉ង់, ಇರಾನ್, 이란, ئێران, Persia, Yiraani, Irâ, ອີລ່ານ, Iranas, Ira, Irāna, Īrāna, ഇറാൻ, ईराण, အီရန်, इरान, Iran (Islamitische Republiek), ଇରାନ୍, ايران, República Islâmica do Irã, Irã, Irani, Iran (Republica islamică), Iräan, ඉරානය, Iiraan, ஈரான், ఇరాన్, Эрон, อิหร่าน, ʻIulaani, ئىران, Ісламська Республіка, Eron, Lirän, Orílẹ́ède Irani, 伊朗伊斯兰共和国, i-Iran

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