November 2006: I visited Iran in 2006 not long after I visited North Korea. Iran was labeled one of the Axis of Evil nations by President, George Bush and was demonized by the western media. I was determined to base my own opinions about Iran on my own firsthand experiences instead of on what the media and politicians tell me, so I traveled to Iran and spent a week traveling the country.

 

 

About Iran

My route in Iran

Iran or as it was called during ancient times, Persia has a history that dates back thousands of years, and its culture and civilization has had a heavy influence of Western Civilization. The totality of its history is too much to explain here but, in a nutshell, before the arrival of Islam, Persia was home to one of the oldest monotheistic religions of the world-Zoroastrianism. In the early times, Persian armies were constantly battling Roman until the formation of the greatest empire Iran has ever seen, Achaemenid Empire, under Darius and Cyrus the Great. This empire eventually fell to the Western armies of Alexandar the Great. Iran would then later be invaded by the Arab armies that would bring it Islam, then by the Mongols and countless other armies. It would eventually become one of the first middle eastern countries discovered to contain oil. The Islamic Revolution in the late 70s would come into fruition as a result of corrupt and ruthless monarchies that were artificially propped up by the British and American governments. The Shiite Islamic clerics or Mullahs have ruled Iran ever since and have been in various stages of hostility with the USA, Israel and the West ever since.

 

How to Get to Iran

I am American and the visa process for Americans is fickle, and your odds fluctuate greatly with the political tides. Prior to my trip, Iran was not issuing visas to Americans and even during my trip relations were very poor and constant verbal barbs were being exchanged in media headlines between President Bush and Iran President, Ahmadinejad, and Ahmadinejad was fond of threatening to end the USA and Israel.

To obtain a visa, I needed to send my passport to the Pakistan Embassy, where Iran maintained a diplomatic station and would issue a visa. I also needed to have visa support from an Iranian government approved travel agency and an approved itinerary with an assigned guide during the duration of my stay. This whole process took a few months, and the outcome was never certain.  In all the visas I applied for, Iran was one of the only where an employment verification call was made to my supervisor.  I traveled to Tehran, Iran via Moscow on Aeroflot Airlines. I expected a difficult reception from Iranian immigration in Tehran but surprisingly the process went smoothly and there were no questions asked.  I met my assigned guide at the airport and began my weeklong trip in Iran.

 

Warm reception despite Government Attempt at Anti-Americanism 

Despite what the media displays, mass death to America demonstrations with angry Iranians frothing at the mouth in anger towards the USA, I encountered nothing but the exact polar opposite. Everyone I met embraced me and welcomed me wholeheartedly to Iran and when I mentioned I was American they were quick to tell me that they loved Americans. I was given free food by strangers at markets, invited into shops, homes and in one case when I went through an airport security metal detector and the detector alarmed, I stopped and expected a pat down. Instead, the security officer smiled, extended his hand to shake mine and welcomed me to Iran. I was never patted down. I was even given attention from the beautiful Iranian women, who smiled and waved to me. Some girls even spoke to me and gave me their phone number if I needed help. I had heard how kind the Iranian people were, but I didn’t expect to be treated like a rock start on tour.

But with this said, the revolutionary government tries its best to keep a lid on the pro-western sentiments of its people in order to maintain its grip on power and its version of Shiite Islam in place. To do this propaganda, state-controlled media and internet is the name of the game. Giant murals of anti-USA slogans were posted on various buildings in Tehran, some promoting destruction of the USA with missiles falling. Television channels promoted anti west and anti-Bush propaganda. In Tehran I asked to visit the US Embassy building that was under siege during the revolution in the 70’s until it was eventually captured by students of the revolution and dozens of embassy workers held captive in the building for well over a year before escaping via the assistance of the CIA. The building is now a station for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the most radical military group of the government. To avoid getting detained, we could only drive slowly down the street, and I was not allowed to get out and take photos. The buildings were mostly out of view, but the attraction was mainly the anti-American slogans painted on the walls in front of the old American embassy, especially the one famous one of a skeleton Statue of Liberty.

Strict Islamic laws are enforced by Islamic religious police in public, although I never saw them or at least if I did, I didn’t recognize them. Women are required to wear veils and loose clothing. Music is anot allowed to be played with a woman’s voice in it. There is also segregation of women and men but not as bad as in places like Saudi Arabia. I did observe women driving in Iran, which is not allowed in some other Islamic countries. In the big cities, women are more liberal, and their veils barely covered their heads, while in the smaller towns and interior of the country, which is more conservative, women wore full black abayas, and their faces were barely visible. Iran is a country of varying extremes and even though people were very well receiving towards me and kind, I do realize there are some anti-foreigner sentiments that exist among some members of the population too.

 

Anti-American Slogans

Walls Outside of American Embassy Now a Iranian Revolutionary Guard Station

Mural of the Leader of Iran-Supreme leader Ayotallah Khomeini, the original Ayotallah and one of the founders of the revolution 

Television program proganda mocking George Bush and Tony Blair

Tehran

Day 1: With my vehicle and driver/guide I was free to decide where I wanted to go during the day I was in Tehran. I had met some Russians engineers on the plane from Moscow coming to work in Tehran. While in Moscow, the flight was delayed on the tarmac and we were forced to sit in the plane for an hour during blizzard like conditions and the two Russians I sat next to where properly prepared with vodka and sausage, which they shared with me. When we landed in Tehran, we exchanged information, and I ended up meeting at a restaurant for lunch and then attempting to go skiing in the snowcapped mountains outside of Tehran. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the ski lift, the resort informed us there would be no more skiing for the day for some mysterious reason, so we never were able to go. I parted ways with the Russians, and explored Tehran before departing on a night flight to Shiraz via a domestic airline via old Boeing planes that had suffered tremendously during the sanctions and because replacement plane parts were hard if not impossible to get, all domestic airlines in Iran had a terrible safety record.

 

Narenjestan garden

Shiraz

Day 2: In Shiraz, I met my guide, Mr. Abbas, who I would spend the majority of the week with.  Of all the guides I have had in my travels, he was one of my favorites. He was a man in his 60’s, a wealth of historical knowledge about Iran, a retired airline pilot of an Iranian airliner, ex-Iranian fighter jet pilot, who fought in the Iraq war, and who was once trained in my city, San Diego in the 70’s during the time of the Shah by the American Navy. My guide had nothing but good things to say about San Diego and he even loved Sea World.  He like many other Iranians I met was highly critical of the current regime and wanted change in the government. I loved listening to my guides stories, and the long drives in the desert were made shorter by his long diatribes. There was never a moment of silence with him, but he was so interesting that I was ok with it. Sadly, I would find out that he would pass away from heart attack some time not too long after my trip with him.

Camping with the Nomads

Day 3/4: Shiraz was an interesting city but probably the least interesting architecturally of all cities I visited in Iran. I did like its relaxing vibe, and the tomb of the famous Persian Poet, Hafez.

After visiting Shiraz, we drove 5 hours south of the city to find a nomad camp. I expressed interest in staying with nomads, and the Iranian travel agency had never organized such a trip so they weren’t sure it was possible but within a few weeks prior to my departure I received confirmation that we had obtained permission and could stay overnight with nomads of the Lur Tribe. The nomads migrate between summer and winter pastures. Some of them live in black tents permanently while others live in small houses for part of the year and in tents for the remainder of the year. We visited nomads living in small rock houses and in black tents. The nomads raise sheep and are famous for sewing Persian carpets by hand.  I stayed in my tent outside of the home of a family of nomads. The nomads prepared meals for me, and I spent the next few days just observing them and how they live their lives. Despite the isolated existence of the nomads, they have contributed to their country just as much as anyone. I had been accustomed to seeing endless murals along highways of martyrs, usually young men that had died in the bloody Iran/Iraq war that had seen millions perish. In the home of the nomads, it was no different. There were at least 10 portraits of martyrs from the family that had fought and died in the war.  It was a surreal experience staying with the nomads and I was thrilled that it was an experience that I had created through my inquiry and that the Iranian travel agency would be adding this experience as an option for tourists in the future because of me.  

Nomad boy sheperd with sheep

Countrside of the nomads

Small nomad village

Nomad houses

Nomad families are large. This was a family Itook with the family during dinner

patriarch with nomad family

Women making bread

Sewing carpets 

All nomad families have a gun for protection from wolves. I am holding thisfamilies gunn in this photo

The carpet with the tiger sewn into it in the photo below was very appealing to me so I asked the nomad woman if I could buy it. She agreed and we settled on a price. Later on, in the evening hours later, during the drive back to Shiraz, my guide received a call from the nomads asking for the carpet back. Evidently, the nomads were so determined to get the carpet back that they traveled hours to the nearest phone from their camp-no cell phones were around back then-and they called to request it back. This was extremely unlike nomads, who typically consider reneging on an agreement to be dishonorable. But I agreed because there may have been more to the story. maybe the carpet had an important family significance to it and the woman wasn’t authorized to sell it. We didn’t drive all the way back, instead my guide promised to drop it off next time he was in the area. 

A carpet I bought from a family

Nomad tent

Nomad man with traditional hat

Men smoking shisha

Smiling young nomad man

Traditional clothes of nomad woman

King Shapur’s Cave

This was probably my favorite place in Iran. In a remote mountain range, we parked our car, started hiking a few hours up a non-descript trail to a cave opening a thousand feet up on top of a mountain, where a 30′ tall statue of an ancient 1,500-year-old king, who had bravely and against all odds fought off an invasion from Roman armies. His statue was built by an artist during his time of limestone and now stands guarding the cave entrance. It fell in an earthquake in the 70s and was resurrected to where it stands now. The cave continued on beyond the cave entrance and we explored the tunnels that led to another entrance on the other side of the mountain. The most amazing part of the cave like all places in Iran, was that we had it to ourselves and there was no ticket booth or guards. We were free to run amuck. 

cave entrance

View from hike to cave

Looking out from the inside of the cave to a view of King Shapurs statue and my guide standing next to it

Ancient carvings in the cave

My guide and I on King Shapur’s Statue

Margoon Waterfalls

Day 5: We visited the Margoon waterfalls named after a snake because of its snake like shape. The waterfalls were located on an awful road 100 miles from Shiraz in the opposite direction.

 

Margoon falls

Margoon Falls

City of Cyrus the Great-Persepolis 

From margoon Falls, we visited Persepolis, Naqsh- e–Rostam-Tomb of King Cyrus of the Persian Empire and then continued driving to Yazd-desert oasis city and stopping along the way to various villages and abandoned silk road caravanserais and deserts. Persepolis is all that remains of a great ceremonial complex built during the Achaemenid Empire of Darius and Cyrus the Great in 500B.C. The complex would eventually be sacked by the army of Alexandar the Great. Walking among its ancient ruins alone and in silence leaves you overwhelmed with the ancient history of Iran. Cyrus the Great, it is said was one of the first rulers who honored human rights. He was tolerant to other religions and allowed the Jews to live in peace in the Empire. 

 

Me in front of the Persian Lions at the Gates of Persepolis 

Tomb of Darius 

Persian Lions at the Gates of Persepolis 

Carvings at Persepolis 

Ancient City of Persepolis and Tombs of Kings in Background 

Caravanserais 

Along the way to Yazd, we encountered abandoned caravanserais-meeting places along the Silk Road to China from Europe where traders once sought shelter from the elements and bandits. These structures sometimes formed into small cities that still exist today, but most are just forgotten and abandoned in the Iranian desert wasting away in the desert sands. I absolutely loved stopping to explore these ruins.

 

Scenery on way to Yazd

Caravaseria Ruin

Caravaseria Ruin

Friendly family that invited me in for tea

Caravaseria Ruin

Caravaseria Ruin

Yazd

Day 6: I stayed one night in the desert oasis city of Yazd. I loved this city, exploring the maze of mud brick alleyways and climbing to the top of the Zoroastrian funeral towers, at the top of remote mountains where bodies until recently were left for vultures to consume and seeing the eternal flame of their temples. But my favorite part of Yazd was the ornate restaurants with lush fountains, pools and gardens in the center that had open rooftops allowing sunlight into the center gardens during the day and patrons to gaze at the starry skies at night. The food, music and ambiance were second to none.

 

Old city Yazd

Mudbrick alleysways Yazd

Mudbrick alleysways Yazd

Old Men Congregating in Mudbrick alleysways Yazd

Shop in Yazd

Mudbrick alleysways Yazd

Mudbrick alleysways Yazd

 Yazd

Restaraunt in Yazd

Zoroastrian Funeral Tower

Zoroastrian Temple

Esfahan

Day 7/8: Esfahan with the Imam Square, one of the largest squares in the world sorrounded by ornate mosques built hundreds of years ago, and its beautifully tiled bridges is one of the most magical place not just in Iran but the world. I eagerly explored as much as I could in a day but there was too much to see and I will need to return someday to see all that this city has to offer. 

Also, while in Esfahan I needed to visit the Russian consulate to obtain a transit visa for my change in airport terminals in Moscow for my flight to Belarus. Traveling the world requires incessant research and only because I felt something in my gut that there was something wrong, I discovered that Russia considers flights to Belarus-another country-to be domestic and not international. As a result, even though I am transiting inside the Moscow airport to Belarus, I needed to obtain a Russian transit visa. I previously attempted to get one on my way to Iran via my short stop in Moscow through immigration officers in the Moscow airport and one official told me to stop by and visit him on my return flight and he hinted that with a little money it would be possible. I didn’t want my Belarus trip to come down to this however, and I decided to get the visa in Iran. Luckily the Russian consulate was very approachable, the consulate officials very bored and inviting. he moment I showed up, I was invited in for tea. Statues of Lenin were still present inside the consulate building. it was like entering a Soviet time warp. The Russian officials made tea for me, and we sat together discussing politics, and sports. They were very shocked that an American tourist would visit Iran. They quickly issued my visa, and I was on my way.

 

Imam Square

Ornate Tiles Inside a Mosque Dome

Female worshippers

Bazaar

Friendly Imam

Iranian female tourists 

Isfehan Bridges

Isfehan Bridges

My hotel was near the 1000-year-old bridges over the  Zayanderud River, and I explored the area by myself at night without my guide. I walked for miles exploring on my own observing young couples on romantic rendezvous trying to evade authorities that would arrest them for meeting with the opposite sex before marriage. I walked so far, and I foolishly didn’t bring a hotel card with the address and phone number. Now I couldn’t find it and it was getting late. Secondly, no one spoke English, so I was really in a bind. But a few kind policeman sensing my frustration offered to help me and drove me around looking for my hotel until I eventually spotted it. I returned to the hotel to a nervous guide who was waiting up for me.

Isfehan Bridges

Isfehan Bridges

Probably the only time on the trip I felt like I was treated poorly because I was a foreigner was when I climbed to a Zoroastrian ruined temple. I don’t really count the experience because the perpetrators were just teenage kids and were probably just excited more than anything, but they seemed to mock me and try and antagonize me and even threw some rocks at me. I stayed friendly with them and even managed to get a photo of them. In all likelihood they were just the bullying type and are like this was others too, so I didn’t think too much of the experience. 

Ancient Zorahstrian Temple in Isfehan  

Rowdy kids I met

At the end of my trip, I said goodbye to my good friend Mr. Abbas, which for both him and I was strangely difficult. We really bonded during our week together and I am very sad to have heard that he passed away sometime after my trip. From Esfahan, I flew to Tehran, onwards to Moscow and then Minsk, Belarus, where I spent a few days. 

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