Follow along with MIR Corporation Tour Specialist Meaghan Samuels as she explores beautiful and enigmatic Iran on MIR’s Ancient Persia, Modern Iran small group tour.
Arrival in Tehran
April 6, 2008
After an early morning arrival into the Tehran airport, I have a fairly simple experience passing through customs and passport control in Iran. I am finger printed while they check my passport, then sent on my way to the baggage claim.
We have an easy morning to catch up on sleep and relax before gathering for half day touring of Tehran. We meet tour manager and national guide in the hotel lobby. Our touring today includes the National Museum and the Glass and Ceramics Museum. In the afternoon, outside the Glass and Ceramics Museum, several of us women are beginning to heat up in our heavy overcoats under the Persian sun. I have come to Iran overdressed, with the intention to purchase clothing upon arrival.
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That evening we depart for a clothing store to purchase something contemporary that Iranian women are wearing in Tehran. As we first enter the store, we feel the eyes of both patrons and store clerks on us, which causes some trepidation on our part. We begin to pick through the racks, assuming the attention is owing to being foreigners and hoping it isn’t that we are obviously American.
It doesn’t take long for the young store clerks to approach us, and smiling they indicate with gestures that they are available to assist where we need help. We make friends with them fast, and with giggles and many hand gestures they assist us each in selecting our new Iranian garments, and even manage to communicate that one of the garments should be hemmed. I find an over garment that resembles a long blouse not much different than what I might wear to work at home. It covers down to the knee, but breathes so that I don’t feel so overwhelmed under my scarf and under the sun. They can’t take our American credit cards, but can accept US dollars. We pay for our items, and schedule a time for the next day to return for the hemmed pants.
We depart by taxi back to the hotel; I simply show the driver the hotel business card and he takes us directly there, no problem. He charges us a reasonable fare for the ride, and we feel satisfied with how the shopping excursion went altogether.
April 7, 2008
I notice during our full day touring in Tehran that many of the girls are dressed in lighter clothing than I had anticipated. Mostly these are constituents of the large youthful population, who seem to be testing the limits of clothing regulations.
Young people in Tehran are extremely modern and fashionable, wearing styles manageable under the attire laws, but derivatives of the latest European fashions. The girls wear their hair in a bouffant fashion under their scarves, which come in all varieties of colors and materials. Many of the young people (including the women) wear punk hairdos, some of the boys have the sides of their hair shaved and spike the top out with a blast of hair spray, resembling a rocker mullet. The girls are of course slightly more limited in what they can show to the public in terms of hair style, but still manage to express themselves with wild bangs that shoot up and out over the forehead. Make-up is also widely used, as this is one of the ways in which variety and diversity can be further expressed. Thick dark eyelashes blink under spiked bangs, and many wear bandages signifying recent plastic surgery. All of this is still managed with style and elegance.
Today we travel to northern Tehran to visit Sa’ad Abad Museum Complex. The road north is a wide tree lined boulevard with the foothills of the Alborz Mountain range looming nearby. The north of Tehran is a wealthier region of the city, and the landscape is quite different than that of the southern portion. Everything is lush and well kept, you are much harder pressed to find any junk cars, and the houses are much larger and spread out.
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At White Palace we run into school kids, who are very shy with us. They seem to want to engage, but the teachers are not permitting. We ask to take pictures, but the teachers do not agree to it. Instead our group exchanges smiles with them and reluctantly puts their cameras away.
Our group is mostly comprised of experienced travelers. Some have joined this tour simply because it is a place they have not yet ventured. Others were attracted by the ancient history, and a few simply because Iran often inspires shock and awe in other Americans.
We finish our touring today with the Central Bank. While the treasures inside were gorgeous and not to be missed, we were all ready to return to the hotel afterwards for rest before dinner.
There is Internet at Ferdowsi Hotel; for 50,000 rials you can purchase a card with an hour Internet time.
Tehran, Bandar-e Anzali, Masuleh Village
April 8-9, 2008
We rise early and depart for Bandar-e-Anzali and Masuleh Village today. The landscape changes vastly as we move along, from arid and dusty to lush and wet. Instead of sand, we begin to see pistachio fields and even rice plantations. As we approach the Caspian Sea, the weather begins to change. We move under rain clouds, and the temperature drops slightly.
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The bus pulls into Masuleh Village in low evening light and fog. The village has a unique structure; houses and shops are built into the Talesh mountainside and on top of one another. As you walk the pathways that wind upward, you are actually passing over the roofs of the homes on the path below.
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We walk upward and into the village, stopping along the way in shops nestled into the mountainside and between residential homes.
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Our guide encourages us to stop for a rest in a local teahouse, where we have the opportunity to sip hot tea and try some of the local flavored tobacco with a waterpipe. We try several different tobacco flavors, selecting apple and strawberry from a longer list including cherry, chocolate, peach, and more. The teashop has a gorgeous view of the mountains and village below. Since the village is built in this tiered form, there is a view at all times from almost anywhere in the village. We are protected under the awning of the shop, while rain continues lightly, enriching the deep red mud colored buildings and greenery. The creek in the ravine below gathers momentum as we reluctantly depart.
In the morning before we depart our hotel in Bandar-e Anzali, I take a walk along the beach on the Caspian Sea. Looking out I think of all the other countries that border this very same body of water, Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and imagine that I can see them from my perspective on this Iranian strip of beach.
We depart from the hotel and cruise alongside the sea until we find Chalus road. This road is an alternative route from the highway we drove in on. Chalus road heads into the Alborz mountains for a scenic drive which at times reminds me of being in the Yosemite Valley in terms of scope and majesty. We arrive in Tehran in the evening, in time for dinner and an early bedtime.
April 10, 2008
This morning we have one last stop in Tehran before departing for Yazd: the Carpet Museum. Many of the travelers in our group are carpet lovers and for them this stop seems the heart of carpet tourism. We are all overwhelmed at the grand size of the exhibited carpets, and we are dwarfed against them as we lean in to look close at the finely woven threads.
Our extensive tour includes a lecture on Persian symbolism in carpet art; we learn that the cypress tree is commonly featured as an icon of eternal life. Many are designed with the typical paisley pattern, while many others are uniquely created as family trees. The colors are exceptional and we happily spend a few hours wandering the museum, picking our favorites and studying the details.
After the museum we have lunch in a nearby restaurant where I have an opportunity to chat with an Iranian woman in the restaurant. We discuss many topics; among them we talk about the high rate of unemployment among young Iranians and the contributing factors. Some 70 percent of the population of Iran is under 30 years of age. She points out that there are more girls in the universities than there are boys, which creates a problematic dichotomy since men are still expected to head families and be breadwinners. Woman are obtaining degrees she explains, but not using them. Additionally, if a young man does not pass the entrance exam for higher education right away, then he is required to complete mandatory military duty for 2 years.
We also discuss the way in which the youth push the envelope when it comes to dress code under Islamic law. She tells me that every spring foreigners come to Iran, and they see scarves slipping lower and lower, and couples holding hands in public, and that they assume things are changing in Iran. This is however not the case, she explains that there is always an inevitable push back by the local law enforcement. Then the scarves come back up and people become careful again. She is extremely knowledgeable and friendly, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to speak with her.
This afternoon we fly to Yazd for two overnights.
April 11, 2008
More than 200 miles away from the very modern and metropolitan city of Tehran, Yazd is noticeably more rustic. Yazd is one of the main centers of Zoroastrianism, so naturally our first stop is at the Zoroastrian Temple. Oddly, we picked a day to visit when the wishing well was being cleaned out. Hundreds of thousands of coins sparkle in piles out in front of the temple.
Next we stop to see wind towers, called badgir in Persian, which were built for the purposes of ventilating the structure below. The towers catch the wind, and circulate air into the building. Some are as old as 500 years, and are still used today.
We walk through the Old Town; this small bit of exercise gives us a chance to stretch our legs and have more interaction with the local residents. We learn that many of the Iranians we meet here are also visiting tourists.
After wandering the ancient roads of the Old Town, we stop for lunch in what was once a bathhouse. Under the beautifully painted tiles that remain from when the bathhouse was operational, a wonderful meal is served. The first dish is a delicious cold cucumber soup, which we all found refreshing after being out under the sun. For the main course we have chicken in pomegranate sauce and saffron rice.
After lunch we visit the lovely Dowlat-Abad Garden, which also has a wind tower. We then see the magnificent Towers of Silence. Several of our group climbed most of the way to the top of the southern tower, and enjoyed the unique vantage point from that height.
April 12-13, 2008
The next morning we begin our long drive to Kerman. Along the way we make several stops, including a roadside pistachio stand. Here we find huge bins full of pistachios in a variety of colors and sizes. Many of them are flavored with saffron or just salt. There are red, green, yellow, plain roasted, heavy salt, light salt, jumbo and smaller varieties. Most of us re-board the bus with large bags of pistachio loot.
Upon arrival to Kerman we take some time to rest before making an evening appearance at the local bazaar. We wait to do the bazaar in the evening so that we will arrive during the liveliest hour, when the locals all come to do their shopping. As promised, the bazaar is bustling, and after wandering the corridors between the shops for some time, we stop in a local teahouse for tea and musical entertainment.
The next morning we embark upon an excursion to the very small village of Rayen, to explore the Arg-e-Rayen Citadel. Though the citadel has been basically reconstructed from ruins, it gives us the sense that we are exploring the original structure.
We then drive to Mahan to see the Shahzadeh Gardens. Here we encounter swarms of schoolgirls, who unlike at the White Palace are running around freely, and every single one of them wants to take their picture with us. Many of them ask us for our name and address, they are very friendly outgoing girls, who are not shy about taking the women in our group by the hand asking for pictures with them. In fact they take more pictures of us, than we take of them!
Kerman, Shiraz, Persepolis
April 14-15, 2008
Today we head further west to Shiraz, with a stop en route at the Sassanian ruins in Sarvistan. At dusk, as we approach Shiraz, we pass by large salt flats which are almost impossible to discern from the appearance of snow in the low blue light. The road into Shiraz is lined with homes and shops that are inlaid with cut mirrors, which shimmer as we pass them in the moonlight. Tonight we enjoy dinner on the outdoor patio at the hotel, along with live music in the warm night air.
The next day we depart for one of the most anticipated sites on the itinerary: Persepolis. The scope of the site is immense, and we run into the most diverse crowd seen on our Iran journey thus far. Languages from all over the map can be heard: English, German, French, Chinese, Japanese and so on. As I stand between monolithic columns it seems we are at the gateway of Persian history.
The Sassanid rock reliefs at Naghsh-e Rostam are magnificent. Here we also see tombs of four Achaemenid kings, like giant stamped impressions in the cliff side in the shape of a cross. From our view of the crosses, we can see that in the center of each there are small entranceways to the tombs, leading into the cliff. Legend purports that the face of the tombs were built high up so that thieves could not get inside easily.
We have lunch outdoors at the lovely Peacock’s Nest before returning to Shiraz. Upon our arrival back into the city, we stop at the Nasir-ol-Mosque and the beautiful garden Narenjestan. Here at the garden we make more young friends. They are learning English in school and tell us they would like to practice with us. The conversation soon becomes a picture exchange as we talk about their school and compare family lives. Young people in Iran seem very interested in American culture, and soak up any and all information they are given.
Shiraz, Firuzabad, Yasuj
April 16-17, 2008
We have an excursion to Firuzabad planned for today, where the remains of Ardishir Palace lie. Along the way we are able to see small enclaves of Qashqai nomads, with their distinctive tents set up at the foothills along the road. The Qashqai are nomadic pastoralists, mostly of a Turkic origin. We are also able to see many nomad groups traveling roadside with sheep and bundles and satchels fastened to donkeys. They are dressed in colorful patchwork clothing. Our bus slows to a stop so that we may scramble out for a closer look. The small groups move surprisingly quickly, and our glimpse is fleeting.
Ardeshir Palace is closed when we arrive, scheduled to reopen after the lunch hour. We return after our own lunch, and find we have picked a school field trip day to make our visit. Once again, the children are so friendly that they almost wouldn’t let us leave. They want to take our pictures as though we are a feature of the palace!
Upon our return to Shiraz, we pay our respects to one of the greatest Persian poets of all time and make a stop at the Tomb of Hafez. Our guide reads a piece from one of Hafez’s legendary poems, “New Nightingale, New Rose.”
The next morning we depart for Yasuj for a quick overnight before continuing on to Isfahan. On the road to Yasuj we explore the Circular City in Shapur and the rock reliefs on the bank of the river. We enjoy a picnic under shady trees by the river before continuing to Yasuj.
After dinner, most of us head to the outdoor smoke café behind the hotel. We each rent a waterpipe and purchase a small amount of flavored tobacco and head out to the traditional platform seats, which are set up with pillows. It is acceptable for us to sit with strangers, and so some of our group joined locals and struck up a conversation. Many other Iranians (men and women) came over to talk and share the waterpipe with us. Each person has their own mouthpiece, so that germs are not a concern. We try many different flavors as we chat with the new people we meet. Everyone is very welcoming and friendly.
April 18, 2008
Today is a halfday drive to Isfahan. At a roadside market, we check out local goods. I purchase some unique snacks, including saffron-flavored cotton candy, and sohan, which is like a brittle with bits of pistachio.
After check-in we all walk to a carpet shop several blocks from the hotel. The onset of evening cools the air, and the walk is refreshing after the long drive. The carpet shop gives us nothing short of a show, with all the fanfare you might expect at a magic show. They inform us of how to look for silk versus wool, and how to tell what the knot count is. They explain that some carpets actually gain value from floor usage over time. Then they begin to pull the carpets out one after the other, each more beautiful than the one before. We are invited to touch the carpets and even to walk on them, making our experience not only visually stimulating, but also palpable and interactive.
Some stay to view more carpets and consider a purchase, while several others of us walk a few more blocks to Maidan Square. As we enter the square from the southwestern corridor, the lit inner perimeter of the square opens to us. It is like walking into a hidden garden, as the lights and businesses cannot be seen from the street. Many Iranians are picnicking on the long wide green lawn that surrounds the center pool. Many dark silhouettes of women’s hajebs can be seen lounging on blankets, interspersed between colorful flowerbeds. Shops line the square, and we are overwhelmed with the busyness.
I depart from the group to begin some last minute shopping. As I begin with the shops closest to me, I am approached by several curious Iranians about my age. “Hello, where are you from?” I tell them I am from the US, and wide grins spread on all of their faces. They have many questions for me – where in the US am I from, and what brought me to Isfahan. They want to know how long I am here, and are disappointed to hear that I leave in the morning. “You should stay longer,” they tell me, “we can show you around.” I earnestly tell them that I too wish I could stay longer, as Isfahan is quickly becoming my favorite city on the itinerary.
I reluctantly leave them and return to the hotel for a final dinner. Tonight we feast on a hearty meal. I start with a creamy mushroom soup, for the main course pan-seared fish, and for desert – saffron ice cream!
April 19, 2008
The Abassi Hotel in Isfahan is gorgeous. The lobby is incredibly and ornately decorated with small pieces of cut mirror. As you move into the hotel, the entire lobby sparkles. The chandeliers are equally as beautiful, made of hundreds of glass pieces. The open garden square inside the hotel is quite large, and there are many places to sit and sip tea and enjoy the surroundings.
Today we continue touring Isfahan, including a return to the square to explore the many architectural wonders, including Imam Mosque. Imam Mosque is interesting not only for its beauty, but also for its unique architectural design, as it is positioned at a 45 degree angle off the southern border of the square. Some say the mosque was built at an angle for purposes of spiritual worship, while others claim it is simply built at angle as an interesting aesthetic counterpoint to the portal of the Bazar-e Bozorgh at the northern and opposite end of the square.
We continue to the Chehel Sotoun pavilion, where we view wonder works of Persian and meet more friendly Iranians.
After we finish touring the square, I wander in to a shop to purchase scarves. The vendor in the shop speaks English very well and we begin talking. He tells me that he likes Americans very much, and that he would like me to go back to the States and tell everyone to come to Iran. He explains that the Americans have a false assumption of ambivalence by the general Iranian public, and that in fact he feels no ill will towards the people of our country. The governments have differences, he says, that has nothing to do with you and me. We chat for a while longer, and as I leave the store he calls once again, “Tell your friends to come to Iran!”