Travel: Shock and awe
It isn't top of the holiday hot-list, but get beyond the terror headlines and you will be stunned by the warm welcome and architectural treasures Iran has to offer
IRAN is not an obvious holiday destination. Alcohol is banned and the opportunities to sunbathe or strike up a romance are slim, to say the least. Tell people you are going and reactions will be somewhere along the lines of "You're going where? Why? Isn't it dangerous?"
But travellers prepared to get behind the 'axis of evil' terrorist headlines and confront preconceptions of religious extremism are rewarded with an unforgettable trip that will be full of surprises. There are ancient cultural wonders, splendid architecture, wonderful bazaars, fascinating landscapes and even great skiing.
But first there is the friendliness and hospitality offered by local people. Spend some time in Iran and you will soon realise that Iranians are much more tolerant and open-minded than you may have garnered from the news pages. And far from being dangerous, Iran – notwithstanding the chaotic traffic situation – is a remarkably safe and welcoming place.
I backpacked around Iran for a month, taking the three-day journey from Istanbul on the Trans-Asia Express. With a smattering of mildly eccentric foreigners on board (Iran seems to attract such people), the journey was straight out an Agatha Christie novel – minus the murder.
I disembarked before Tehran in order to explore the seldom-visited north-west of the country, heading first to the charming, cloud-draped mountain village of Masuleh near the Caspian Sea. Reached via a beautiful drive past tea plantations and rice paddies, the journey takes the traveller up through a deeply forested verdant valley. I spent a few days there relaxing on the rooftop verandas of the tea shops, drinking glass after glass of black tea, smoking lemon-and-mint hubble-bubbles and enjoying wonderful dishes of garlic aubergine.
From Masuleh I headed in a general anti-clockwise loop around the country. Getting around Iran is fast, easy and very cheap. An internal plane ticket can be had for around 15 to 30, and a 12-hour bus or train journey typically costs around 3. As soon as people are seated, they will take out their refreshments – nuts, fruits, biscuits, tea, fruit juices – and share them with people sitting nearby.
In a country where foreigners are still a rarity, Iranians will take a lot of polite interest in you. They are not shy and, by British standards, get personal very quickly (enquiring whether you are married and, if not, why not, are among the first questions they ask). They will also want to know what you think of the country and why you chose to visit, often remarking with a wry smile: "But you think we are all terrorists, no?" It is not unusual to receive invitations to people's homes for tea, a meal or even to sleep. Invitations for food should not be turned down lightly. Meals in Iran are big family affairs and the food is excellent.
My first stop was one of Iran's eight Unesco World Heritage Sites – the 3,250-year-old temple of Choqa Zanbil, on the border with Iraq. The best surviving example of Elamite architecture in the world, it was 'rediscovered' in 1935 by oil prospectors for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became BP.
The next stage of my journey took me to Esfahan, about 200 miles south of Tehran, an important architectural centre of the Islamic world. One of the city's main attractions is the 17th-century Imam Square, best seen at dusk when families come out to picnic and the lights show the dazzling Imam Mosque and the apricot and turquoise-domed Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque at their best.
From Esfahan I travelled south across the Zagros Mountains to Shiraz, the city that gave the world the famous variety of grapes – as well as roses and poetry. Most people use Shiraz as a staging post to visit the nearby ancient sites of Pasargadae, Naqsh-e Rostam and Persepolis. Pasargadae was once the capital of Persia's first ruler, Cyrus the Great, and you can visit his lonely tomb and the remains of his palace. But it was eclipsed by the palace complex of Persepolis, built by another great ruler, Darius I. Constructed as the masterpiece of the once-mighty Persian empire, the ancient remains are still awe-inspiring, even though Alexander the Great tried to raze it in 330BC. The soaring columns, immense archways and magnificent statues were built to impress and they still do.
Back in Tehran, the only thing heavier than the traffic was the make-up worn by some of the women – the same women whose headscarves barely clung on above quaffed and highlighted hair and who had ditched the shapeless chador for close-fitting black outfits. Tehran is big, bustling, with an estimated 14 million people, and not that pretty, but can be lots of fun.
One of my favourite sites in the capital was the old US embassy, where slogans were painted on the walls outside, including: "We will make America face a great defeat." I also saw on the side of a block of flats a giant mural of an American flag with skulls for the stars and bombs raining down the stripes with the slogan: "Down with the USA."
But, like many people's memories of the revolution, these murals have faded. The majority of Iran's population have no memory of it at all – 60% are under 35, and many I met want to emigrate to the USA.
Historically, Iran has been a tolerant and outward-looking society. Today, it is deeply misunderstood by many westerners. So look beyond the headlines and discover a fascinating country where your deepest impressions are likely to be of the heart-warming hospitality. It was a shock when I returned home and had to pay 30 for a two-hour bus journey – and everybody ignored me.
Fact file: Iran
For trains to Iran, see www.seat61.com/Turkey.htm. The Trans-Asia Express runs from Istanbul Haydarpasa station every Wednesday night, arriving in Tehran at 6.45pm on Saturday evening. Tickets cost 37.
Visas can be obtained from the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran at 16 Prince's Gate, London (open Monday to Friday, 12.30pm to 4pm). Tourist visas are valid for 30 days and cost 73 for British citizens. Call the embassy on 020 7225 3000 for details. The process takes about three weeks.
Alternatively, several agencies – such as Magic Carpet Travel (01344 622 832, www.magic-carpet-travel.com), which also organises tours – can apply for a visa for you.
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