Visiting Iran: Ancient Cities and Natural Wonders

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

[Editor’s note: Max Hartshorne was part of an historic delegation of 130 US tourism professionals who visited Iran in November, 2008, to meet with both the public and private sectors of Iran’s tourism industry.

Here are some of the people I was supposed to be afraid of when I departed for my trip to Iran. Photos by Max Hartshorne
Here are some of the people I was supposed to be afraid of when I departed for my trip to Iran. Photos by Max Hartshorne

Special diplomatic visas were issued to the group, and they met with Iran’s VicePresident Esfandyar Rahim Mashaee, who stated in the strongest terms his country’s opposition to terrorism.

Max was amazed at the warm welcome he received from the people of Iran, and says he expects many more travelers will visit this remarkable country. These are his blog entries from his trip. See also his story A Day of Freedom in the Desert.]

I’m In Iran, Visa in Hand, Ready to Report

It was a long, long night, as I arrived at Tehran’s Khomeini airport at about 3 am and spent a few hours wrestling with various levels of authority to try and finish the visa business that I started last week.

In the end, after fumbling with a fingerprint machine, the friendly cop released our passports and inside, voila! was the aforementioned and hard to get visa. And the guy I with me never paid a dime, but mine cost $125 mailed earlier to their embassy.

Warms welcomes from the Iranian people made our trip a pleasure.
Warms welcome from the Iranian people made our trip a pleasure.

We drove the empty highway, hurtling along straddling two lanes, and reached this big hotel, where I would bed down for a mere three hours.

Now I’m up, it’s time to go to the big tourism event, and I am surrounded by tour operators and men from Europe in suits. I find one journalist, Paul Rogers, who knows old Kentski. At last a familiar face, another journalist.

Before I left I reread Rick Steve’s and Tony Wheeler’s takes on this misunderstood land. They both agreed that no place they’ve been is more welcoming and more full of people who want to say hello, and talk, and learn about America.

Listen to Max talk about Iran on the radio

Steves also prepared me for the lack of men’s urinals, (squat only, or cabin) and that the rial trades for about 10,000 per dollar. So with my mere $60 exchanged, I’m ready for any little expenses.

The mosque in Esfahan
The mosque in Esfahan

Well, gotta run catch the big coach for a flight to Kish Island.

You Are American? Ohh, That’s Great. Welcome!!

Where to begin? The most important thing about Iran. It is this daily encounter, repeated endlessly. You meet someone’s eyes. They look at you, at your nametag. “You are American?”

Yes, you say. “Great, great, welcome, welcome to Iran!” This steadfast enthusiasm for the American people is what makes this country so wonderful, and this has made our trip so far a pleasure.

Yes, said one guy in the bus, the outside of the former US embassy is emblazoned with signs saying “Death To America” and there are other hateful signs you read in Tehran. But whoever wrote them didn’t represent these people, who smile so warmly and embrace you with welcome.

I was trying to figure out what my plan was since my trip goes a few days longer than the formal itin. No worries, of course, I have a legion of concerned Iranians, working hard to find me a tour, to find me a hotel, to take care of me in every way. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in all of these years of overseas travel. A sparkling fun exuberance to meet me.

I am rushing to write this in Shiraz, where we just left the tomb of Hafez, Iran’s legendary and greatest poet. It is hushed there, despite the traffic, and pools line the grounds and the tomb is beneath a gorgeous blue tiled dome.

A guide recited a poem of his, a lyrical symphony of images formed by the right words. He raised his hand in the air, and even that small snippet, about how the earth, the mountains and the oceans don’t want to be responsible for man, so the poet says he will, is strikingly beautiful.

Earlier we saw Persepolis, among the greatest ancient treasures in existence, spread out over a vast open spot, and saw incredibly detailed carvings that depicted the dozens of different lands that were brought to the nation by Darius the Great. It’s so much more than I can describe, but to anyone who said I should be afraid, or anyone who ever thought they wouldn’t want to come here, you are missing a lot.

Elham and his sister at their cafe
Elham and his sister at their cafe

In Esfahan, Gorgeous Bridges Are the Main Attraction

I woke up very early this morning, hours before my early wake-up call, and walked through a garden behind our hotel in Shiraz. I wanted to see the street, and meet some people before our massive convoy of 130 travel agents and tourism officials left for the airport. I walked down the deserted side street until I rounded a corner.

A man waited on the street, like many I’ve seen, he was hoping to hail down one of the thousands of renegade taxis run by people with day jobs looking for some extra cash.

Then I continued down the street to find a line of men, many of whom were holding pots in their hands. I have decided that the Paul Shoul method of being very friendly and asking people’s ok to shoot is how to get better photos, so I dove right in, asking then shooting them as they stood in line.

They were waiting for a few scoops from a five-foot-wide steaming cauldron of what looked like gelatinous chicken-flavored rice. Each man waited in line for his scoop, then they proceeded next door for a helping of very well boiled chicken on top.

They laughed as I shot their photos, and then two men held up a big stack of pita bread, beckoning me to come over and sample what they were offering for breakfast. I scooped a few dollops and shot some more photos. This is the traditional breakfast.

Flying to Esfahan

We flew to Esfahan, the second-largest city in Iran, and the most beautiful. The city starts with a 10-kilometer park by the river, where we saw people picnicking and enjoying the sunny day. Outside on the highway, we passed what looked like small round castles with two layers in the fields, which were bordered by brick enclosures. “Pigeon houses,” explained our guide, “they collect the droppings to fertilize their fields.”

Esfahan also has the most beautiful bridges I’ve ever seen. One has 33 arches, another built in the 17th century once had a palace at the middle. Both no longer allow cars to pass over them, so they’re wonderfully full of dawdling pedestrians and couples out to get some sun.

We visited an Armenian church and gasp, saw many images of Christ on the walls, and across the street met a family that runs a coffee shop. They were impressed that I too am a cafe owner, and refused to charge me for my latte.

This afternoon we’ll see the famous mosques of this city and more of the sites that make this Iran’s largest tourist draw. As we toured one of the bridges, we were approached by some young women, they told one of us that they too aren’t wild about their president. We were happy to assure them that they’re not the only ones, but things are changing fast.

At the Arashk Cafe, My Rials Are No Good

Another view of the mosque in Esfahan
Another view of the mosque in Esfahan

When I heard there was a place that sold lattes right down the street from the Armenian church in Esfahan, I hightailed it right over. And when Elham and his sister heard that I owned a cafe in the US, well that made it a day to celebrate!

They refused my 20,000 rials for the latte and instead put me on the phone with his wife, who excitedly told me to send this photo to them.

The Farsi word for coffee is arashk, which is the name of their little cafe here. They are just a few of the many wonderfully friendly Iranians we’ve met here who are so eager to share their tastes, sounds, smells, and lattes with any visiting Americans.

I laugh when I read the well-intentioned emails I got saying, ‘stay safe’ and ‘be careful.’ I think I’m safer here than in many US cities since Iranians only want to take care of you and know more about you…and maybe sell you a few carpets too!

Glimmering Palaces and Giant Squares of Esfahan

Today I saw the most glorious manmade buildings I’ve ever laid eyes on. The city of Esfahan is famous for gorgeous mosques, miles of parks, ornate bridges, grand palaces and the most impressive is Naghsh-e-Jahan Square the world’s second-largest to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It’s the heart of the city and a popular picnicking and strolling area.

The top of every shop has a teardrop shape, and at one end there is this immense double minareted mosque with a blue dome, and then on the other a smaller and even lovelier mosque with a similar blue dome. You go inside and look up close. Two inches of tile turns out to be made up of 14 separate tiny pieces of colored tile. Then think that this thing is 30 or 40 meters high and this tilework is over the entire wall and ceiling. Mind-blowing!

We stood inside the giant Imam’s mosque and as you spoke your voice bounced off the double-layered tiled high ceiling and was easily audible outside 100 yards away. This is how the imams of the olden days were able to speak to huge crowds without any microphones.

More friendly faces. Young Iranian women like to push the barrier by letting their hair show, in defiance of the country's ubiquitous morality police.
More friendly faces. Young Iranian women like to push the barrier by letting their hair show, in defiance of the country’s ubiquitous morality police.

Then we visited the Chehel Sotun, or forty columns palace, built in 1608, which was once the place where the royalty entertained guests with wine women, and song. Paintings depicted in realistic detail the life of the royalty and the many visitors they entertained.

This is similar to the lavish history we hear when we visit Italian cathedrals, but the names are all different. The names have eluded us, like Darius and Cyrus, who ruled Persia and conquered other lands.

Alexander the Great spent a lot of time here too, and the ones the people here fought with the most were the Turks and the Uzbeks.

Driving down a major boulevard and it’s all a leafy center strip with no cars. While the traffic is still insane, the gardens are everywhere, right now in the back of my hotel I am looking out into a courtyard with those same teardrop openings in a square court, surrounding a lovely garden with pools and walkways.

A Bazaar, a Rabbit Warren

At the Naghsh Square, there is a bazaar, a rabbit warren of shops selling carpets, candy and knickknacks and mounds of spices. I bought some dates, and some small packets of saffron, for shockingly low prices. I barely spent the rest of the $60 I had changed, things were just that cheap. Even better, we were with an Iranian man who haggled with all of the vendors in that ‘sweet accent’ of the Esfahanis to get us even lower prices.

I barely spent the rest of the $60 I had changed, things were just that cheap. Even better, we were with an Iranian man who haggled with all of the vendors in that ‘sweet accent’ of the Esfahanis to get us even lower prices.

At one point two writers became friends with two young Iranians, and as they passed one of the ubiquitous photos of Khomeini, which line every public wall, she said “he is bad, I don’t like him.” Heresy in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but like the headscarves that fall down low and the form-fitting mid-length jacket (instead of the loose black robe) that about half the woman wear, it shows that things are loosening up, despite the protests of the mullahs.

The Faces of Iran: No, I’m Not at All Afraid

The mosque at Aran-va-Bidgol in Esfahan.
The mosque at Aran-va-Bidgol in Esfahan.

Here are some of the people I was supposed to be afraid of when I departed for my trip to Iran. Again and again, these earnest, fun, and sincere people asked me what I thought about the reality of being here versus the myths and propaganda that is published day after day about this country.

“People think we ride camels, and that we live in a desert–like Saudi Arabia,” said one of these wonderful young women, who work for an Iranian tour company.

Despite my optimistic attitude and constant comments about their friendliness and the safety here, it’s an uphill climb to promote tourism from the US. I had an interview with the President of the Iranian Tour Operators Association, Ebrahim Pourfaraj, who told me that only 500 Americans visited Iran last year.

That’s a staggeringly small number, considering how big this land is and how much there is to see. Another gentleman approached me at the meeting with a warm smile. He was Saeed, the owner of Iran Doostal Tours, who I met in Malaysia two years ago and told that I wanted to come here. ‘See, I told you I’d get you here,” he said with a laugh.

He confirmed that this trip has been a miracle because of the way Iran’s government handled the visas. Being able to get a visa in the airport on arrival is unheard of, especially for Americans. You can’t really blame them considering that many Iranians I met said they had to travel to Dubai or Turkey as many as two times just to get an interview to try for a visa to come to the US.

I really hope that with our new president, we can put this silliness behind us, and allow free travel between our two countries. After all, in “Tehrangeles” there are nearly two million Iranians, but with the hassle, few make the trip back to their homeland. I will try my best to be an advocate to change these policies, because the world and especially Americans, would love it here if they only came.

Every Country is Different, That’s What Makes it Fun

Tehran traffic
Tehran’s famous traffic.

I love the little differences between countries, that’s what makes each one special. A few things here that are funny are that the soda cans have those pop-off tops we used to collect and string together when we were little kids.

Inexplicably, some sodas and the fake beer that they offer here have the normal can openers, but most sodas force you to throw away that little piece of aluminum every time.

There are never men’s urinals here. So you go to a men’s room and there are 10 doors. You have to wait until one opens. Often there is no paper, merely a feeble little dryer that barely washes your hands.

On the first day of the conference, I went to a men’s room that was full of men in furious scrubbing mode…washing their feet, their faces, and their necks. It was time to pray, and nobody here wants to pray dirty. There is also a hose with hot and cold inside each of the men’s room stalls so you can use it instead of toilet paper.

It was time to pray, and nobody here wants to pray dirty. There is also a hose with hot and cold inside each of the men’s room stalls so you can use it instead of toilet paper.

We flew every day so far, hopping to Kish Island, Shiraz, Esfahan, and back to Tehran. Security is relaxed after you throw the bags onto the x-ray before you enter the airport, after that it is totally lax. Nobody worries about what’s in your carry-on or tries to take away your bottle of water.

The coffee here….nearly always Nescafe, except in that great little coffee shop in Esfahan. The bus drivers have little teacup holders and sugar cube dispensers right up near the dashboard. We drank cups and cups of the tea, which is served with roughly shaped balls of sugar.

Tehran’s Raucous Thursday Night Drive Time

After our final dinner, complete with rollicking Iranian musicians, my tablemates and I decided to walk back to the hotel. It was a group who had bonded over conversation; three Portuguese tour operators and a smart Brit who handled PR for Jordan and Korean Air.

Loaded down with more gifts from our effusive hosts (this time a 16″ long tray of nuts and fruits), we set out up the big busy North Tehran boulevard toward home. First, we found a cafe with espresso, to satisfy my European friends.

A room at the Saad Abad
A room at the Saad Abad

Our conversation in the cafe ran the gamut, from women to divorce and living situations, to how terribly the US immigration treats them when they come to the US. And these are upstanding businessmen, so I can’t do any more beefing about the rigamarole of getting my Iranian visa.

It flowed and once again I reveled in my element…new friends, interesting conversation, a cool setting somewhere a little exotic.

The Tehran traffic, of course, was bumper to bumper, but there was raucous, frenetic energy. It was Thursday night here, (their Saturday), and packed Paycans and Peugeots drove merrily down the street, music blasting, young Iranians packed in yelling and carrying on.

We’d pass them on the sidewalk and they’d yell “THANK YOU!!” or “HELLO!!” throwing the few English words they knew at us. I counted nose job bandage number eight and saw a car that was packed with seven young women, including a woman driver, which surprised me. But this is north Tehran, where these youth are the future, and they push the border of their strict rules to the limit.

Young men careened down the sidewalk on motorbikes, weaving in and out of traffic, yelling and joking, and we saw three different scenes of men examining each other’s cars after fender benders amidst the exuberant and slow flow of traffic.

Iranian rap music joyously blasted from a dozen different stereos. The cars inched ahead, families, as well as young people, were streaming into a park…it was 12:15 am. Subsidized gas and no dancing, clubs or booze mean a whole lotta driving if you can call this inching forward driving.

At one point a large crowd of men gathered beneath an underpass, waving wildly at my camera, and gesturing to come over. One of us, an intrepid young Portuguese agent named Tiago came to shoot their photo. They were all gathered around a little stove brewing water for tea.

A bread merchant in Darakeh
A bread merchant in Darakeh

After our hour-long walk, I’ve got a few hours here to sleep before I meet my guides at 5 am for my trip to the desert. I will be tired, but I’ll bring a pillow for the three-hour ride.

Tehran’s Saad Abad and the Crown Jewels

Tehran has a population estimated at between 8 and 12 million, and sprawls out from the north, butted up against Damovan mountain with lots of snow and a cablecar to the top, spreading and growing every year far, far out.

I was told that North Tehran, where the shah once lived, is the richest area, and as you get lower and lower it gets poorer and poorer. The air also gets worse down in South Tehran, and the traffic inches along except for the motorcycles who zip between sometimes against traffic.

We visited the Saad Abad, the complex that once was where the shah and his many relations lived in 18 buildings and palaces before the revolution in 1979 that began with Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return from France.

Proud parents take photos in Tehran.
Proud parents take photos in Tehran.

Sycamore trees line the grounds, providing a leafy canopy and a river runs down the sloped area. It surprised me that so much of this wasn’t destroyed by the angry revolutionaries, but intact is the Princess phone used by the princesses and the shah’s desk and even a billiard room to entertain the many people who used to wait to meet with the King.

Finding Bread Bakers

We then set out through the crowded streets to a neighborhood of winding streets, cafes bakeries, kabob stands and vegetable sellers called Darakeh.

Here we watched bakers knead the dough and then throw it against the wall of a roaring fire inside a clay oven, bake it for a minute or so, then fish it out with a stick and toss it out for sale. The loaves were quickly picked up by passing customers, each one cost about 70 cents.

The Crown Jewels are another big attraction here in Tehran. We had to clear our pockets of cameras cellphones and anything else, before entering a vault to view the most spectacular collection of bejeweled crowns, a throne, a bed, a globe and various jewelry.

The crown that Farah Shah used to wear alone had a thousand diamonds and emeralds as big as acorns. An alarm frequently sounded when the throngs of black-clad schoolgirls would push too close to the gem cases.

After the National Museum, where we saw some of the best carvings from Persepolis we visited a former army barracks that is now an arts center, complete with vegetarian cafe and exhibits from local artists. After a fill up on felafel, we were fortified for an hour-long session in traffic making our way back up to the north to our hotel.

An Easy Day in Tehran, Jumping in a Gypsy Cab

Smiling for the cameras
Smiling for the cameras

I woke up uncharacteristically late, it is a Sunday after all, and I finally have absolutely nothing I need to do. On trips like these, that’s a rare thing indeed, so I leisurely read the Tehran Times (lots of photos of Mr. President grinning and accepting awards) and ate my feta cheese, kidney beans, and fried eggs.

I returned to my room and knocked out a story about my day in the desert. It flowed so easily, faster than anything I’ve written in a long time. That’s usually the mark of inspired writing…don’t think, just write. It was like telling the story to a group of friends at a party, easy fun and quick.

I walked for miles down the busy main boulevard of North Tehran, and ended up going in a gigantic circle, trying to find the place where there are many cafes and shops but ending up in residential and office areas. So I doubled back and returned to a rotisserie chicken joint I had passed on my way down.

Afghans do the Heavy Lifting

A little Afghan girl of about six came into the shop and tried to sell little booklets. Everyone turned her down, but I gave her some bread which she accepted, head down, wordlessly.

I was told that Afghans do the heavy lifting here in Iran, and I saw a tent by a sidewalk reconstruction project. I was told that they sleep there, on the job, so they can send every rial back to their families.

Heading home
Flying across Iran’s vast empty desert.

I took my time devouring the chicken with lemon and basil, reading Tony Wheeler’s wonderful account of his trip to Iran in 2006, and writing.

On the way back, I did what Tehranians do, I hailed a gypsy cab and jumped in. These are regular cars with no signs that pull over when you’re standing by the side of the road. I jumped into one, drove a few miles, then he ran out of gas so I left him to find another.

All over the road policemen stood holding ticket pads. I think they were ticketing motorists who broke the new rules about odd/even license plate driving on alternate days.

I’ve been compiling how much things cost here. It’s remarkably cheap. The cab I took cost about 60 cents. I bought a Cuban cigar in a swanky Habana shop in the hotel for $4. Dinner for two (without wine of course) sets you back $15. A big wide loaf of pita bread is 70 cents. Chai, which is what people everywhere but the US call tea costs $1.50 for a pot. A good hotel is $150 a night, and you can fly from Esfahan to Tehran for about $40.

A big wide loaf of pita bread is 70 cents. Chai, which is what people everywhere but the US call tea costs $1.50 for a pot. A good hotel is $150 a night, and you can fly from Esfahan to Tehran for about $40.

WOW! Plenty of good reasons to consider Iran for your next inexpensive family vacation!

Dinner for One at the Esteghal Hotel, Tehran

My final day here in Tehran, another day without real responsibilities, just waiting for my 5 am flight. It’s funny being someone who is so busy and who usually on trips is following a very set itinerary, bags in the lobby at 7, city tour at 9, dinner at 8 etc. But for the past four days, I’ve been set loose in this sprawling city, and only had my little laptop to report to.

I did the Steve Martin ‘dinner for one’ routine last night, dining at the Italian joint here in the hotel. I brought a book and read a chapter from Tony Wheeler’s book Bad Lands where he goes to Saudi Arabia.

Contrasting the way women are treated there to here in Iran makes this country look enlightened… 60 percent of university students and faculty are women, women drive and vote and run for office, and besides making them wear headscarves and manteaus, they are equals with rights here in Iran.

I can’t believe I ever thought I wanted to visit Saudi Arabia….between the public mutilations and beheadings, the people who refuse to be photographed, the religious police who wack you with a stick if you’re showing hair, and the obtuse bureaucracy and layabout locals, it sounds horrible. Wheeler really let them have it, declaring that if the country were divided into blacks and whites rather than women and men, there would be international trade sanctions and worldwide outrage.

The one thing I am sad about as I make plans to depart tomorrow morning is that I never got to visit an Iranian home. Everyone says that when you close the curtains the headscarves come off, the miniskirts come out and the party begins. Sad to say, I never experienced Iranian home life, but maybe next time I will. I’d most definitely like to return!

The Sounds of Tehran and Sites Unseen

On my last day in Iran, I listened to the sounds emanating up from the street. The wail over loudspeakers of the call to prayer, a man singing in Farsi about Mohammed and about Allah. Even though the mosque where the speakers are is far way and I’m way up on the seventh floor, it comes through as a gentle reminder of where I am in the world.

The other sound that mixes with CNN on the television is the sound of the police yelling at motorists over their car loudspeakers. I am not sure what they are saying but you hear again the crack of that speaker as if they are admonishing someone for not moving along or some other infraction.

I was a little nervous about who was coming to get me but was assured after I called my friend Cyrus, a robust 68-year-old who runs a tour company called Caravan Sahra in Tehran. He climbs up mountains, skis and was proud to show us around his four-story office building in central Tehran. He counts many Italians, Brits and even some Americans as his clients. He goes to World Travel Market in London and ITB, the biggest travel show in the world in Berlin, where he serves tea and talks about Iran as a great destination.

I’ve really only scratched the surface here… there are incredible places like the Citadel at Bam, the ancient city with amazing buildings at Yazd and the natural wonders of far-flung places like Kashan with its Fin Garden. This is a vast country and needs far more exploration by the writers of GoNOMAD, and I’m sure we will be back soon.

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3 thoughts on “Visiting Iran: Ancient Cities and Natural Wonders

  1. Hi, when is the best time to travel to Iran? is there any website for booking travel services in Iran in English?

    1. Hi Miranda, I traveled to Iran in April, the weather was great and nature was really beautiful. there are lots of English websites which provides travel services in Iran, I booked my services from I can suggest it.

      1. Thanks for your review Bruno, Thanks for supporting us, Wish you had a great time in Iran.

        1stQuest Support Team

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