Friday, June 1, 2012

Our journey through amazing Iran

Iranian lady looking at the city of Esfahan from the Sofeh mountains.
Ever since ever I've always wanted to visit Iran - A country that is so connected with our own culture for so long deserved to be explored. And so we packed our bags and landed at the Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran to get our passports stamped for visa-on-arrival. (Yes one of the few countries to provide that privilege to Indian tourists.)

We had no idea where we were headed but we knew that we had to maximize our two weeks and see as much as we can. We obviously expected the myths that the media generates against Iran to be dispelled during our stay there but boy, we didn't know we'd be in for such a wonderful and pleasant surprise.

Our travel style was simple - explore through the day, travel by bus at night, speak to locals and if possible stay with them and eat local food. Little did we know that this will turn out to be such a life altering trip and leave us yearning for more.

The team of explorers at Naqsh E Rostam from L to R - Ifte, Shaheera, Chris, Suman and Danish.
Our journey began from Tehran, which we found to be a modern mature metropolis with all the facilities and amenities of any big town. The weather in April was beautiful - just a Darjeeling-in-summers kind of chill in the air. Our host was an electrical engineer with the government who loved to interact with travelers  from across the globe. We spoke about a lot of things since he was the first Iranian we chatted with and therefore we wanted to get a complete lowdown on what the country was all about. One of the things he said struck a deep chord with us, he said, "Governments of of all countries love America while their people don't care too much for it, but Iranian people love America while our government hates it." 
It may not be entirely true but it reinforces that people are the same everywhere. They just want to lead a good life with their families, friends and cronies. 

We took an overnight bus to arrive in Esfahan - what later became our favorite city of Iran. There is an old saying that 'Esfahan nest-e-jahan ast' which translates to Esfahan is half the world. And you will truly believe that if you happened to be at one of the largest constructed squares in the world called 'Naqsh E Jahan' recognized as one of the many UNESCO heritage sites of Iran. When Shah Abbas wanted to shift his capital to Esfahan in 1598 he wanted to be the most powerful Persian king - a very tall order considering the greats that Persia has seen in its long history - and this he did by building the Naqsh E Jahan square. He built the Shah Mosque on one side to harness the power of the mollahs, the Buzurg Bazar on the other side to rope in trade and commerce and built his Ali Qapu palace in the middle to lord over it all.  

An absolute must buy from Esfahan's bazaars is the mina kari plates.
There's loads to do in Esfahan but for brevity's sake I will list the 3 must do's:
  1. Hang out with the locals and sing songs on the centuries old bridges of Si Oh She, Khaju or Shahrestan. 
  2. Check out the super-cool Armenian quarter of Julpha - where many Armenians in India came from - including our very own Arathoon Stephen of the Grand Hotel fame. 
  3. Climb up to the Soffeh mountains to check out how Iranians love their outdoors. And you may indulge in one of their national passions besides tea - the qeyloon or hookah.  
Locals enjoy a day out near Masjed E Shah at the Naqsh E Jahan Square
Our next stop was a city that my Parsi friends would kill to be at - Yazd. We stayed in a wonderful restored old mud-brick house now aptly named The Silk Road Hotel. They were so happy to receive us, people of the Hind, that they gave us free cokes, yogurts, cheeses et al. 

Our walking tour took us through this amazing old city standing the test of time with it superb use of mud brick and plaster, wind-catchers to ventilate homes and qanuts or water channels crisscrossing the city's belly and we ended with some mouthwatering baghlavas, the traditional sweets of Yazd. 

The next day took us to one of the holiest mountain shrines of Zoroastrians today - Pir E Sabz or Chak Chak. Located on the top on a mountain in the middle of the desert this was a picturesque climb to the fire and that legend says was ignited by Zoroaster himself. Legend says that Nikbano, daughter of one of the last few Zoroastrian rulers of Iran was protected in this mountain by her God - Ahura Mazda and that attaches all the more importance to this holy spot. Chak Chak, by the way, is Farsi for drip drip and seeing the atrocity being committed on Nikbano the mountain is supposed to have shed tears. The spring runs till this day. 

Faravahar at Chak Chak - The most popular and well known symbol of the ancient Zoroastrians. 
Day 8 took us to Shiraz, one of the most famous and important cities of Iran, which impressed Tagore too when he came visiting in 1932 on an invitation from the Shah. 

We spent our lives' most historically fascinating day exploring the ruins of Persepolis, Takht E Soleyman, Naqsh E Rostam, Tomb of Cyrus The Great, ancient Kaaba of the Zoroastrians and the list goes on. Amazing history and well preserved too. One thing was clear not only are the Iranians aware of their past but they also make ample efforts to preserve it. It was vey heartwarming to see all their heritage sites in great shape and open to study by various travelers and interpreters. 

We wrapped up with a visit to the tomb of Hafez, a place that inspired Tagore. We obviously got ourselves a copy of Diwan E Hafez or The Complete Poems of Hafez - a book that is used throughout Iran to look for answers by running a blade through it whenever one is faced with a Hamletesque 'To be or not to be'.

Before we departed from Iran we saw old towns like Mayboud and Abyaneh which date back to pre-Islamic Iran and continue to live today albeit the women have to adhere to the Islamic dress code.
Jam E Mosque of Kashan.
Some things we learned about Iranians:
  1. They love Bollywood and therefore everyone that comes from Hind is a friend. 
  2. We may say, 'Atithi Devo Bhava', they practice it every day. 
  3. It's difficult to praise any object in Iran without it being offered as a gift. 
  4. In Chelo Kabab, their national dish, chelo actually means rice.
  5. Everyone from drivers to bellboys in hotels know their history and are mighty proud of it. 
  6. Their unofficial national sport is 'picnic'. All Iranians love their outdoors.
  7. Chai or tea must be had endlessly through the day with endless cubes of sugar.
  8. Contrary to popular perception, women are more liberated here than most other places we've seen in the world.
  9. All Iranians seem to be well educated and well trained in their respective fields.
  10. Some youngsters we met were rebellious in their own way. They loved America and despised their own government. I guess the more man changes the more he remains the same across the world. 
Tomb of Cyrus The Great in Pasargadae - A Unesco Heritage Site. 

Just like all great trips, we learnt and saw so much that we realized how little we know of the world and how much there is to explore. Reminding us of Prophet Mohammad's famous quote:

“Don’t tell me how educated you are, 
tell me how much you have travelled.” 

Our Itinerary:
13th April - Day 1 - Arrive in Tehran via Dubai.
14th April - Day 2 - Breakfast + Azadi Square + Milad Tower + Board bus to Esfahan.
15th April - Day 3 - Esfahan + Javad's Homestay + Naqsh E Jahan Square + Chelo Murg.
16th April - Day 4 - Azam Biryani + Julpha + Sophe mountain + Dizzi for dinner.
17th April - Day 5 - Ateshgah + Shaking minarets + Khaju bridge + namaz + Mehti + pizza at Julpha.
18th April - Day 6 - Yazd by bus + Silk Road Hotel + Walking Tour + Haji sweets.
19th April - Day 7 - Full Day tour of Chak Chak, Mayboud, Caravanserai and Ice House.
20th April - Day 8 - Arrive Shiraz + Hafez Hotel + Sajjad's City Tour + Saadi + dinner at Sharze with Sama.
21st April - Day 9 - Full day of Pasargad, Persepolis, Takht e jamsheyd + ka'aba of Zarushti's etc.
22nd April - Day 10 - Taxi booking from Pars Travel Agency + Hafez tomb + drive all night.
23rd April - Day 11 - Abyaneh + Kashan - Ehsan hotel + historical houses walk with Ali + meet Neda
24th April - Day 12 - Lunch with girls + drive to Tehran + Vahid at Milad Tower + dinner with Mehboobe and Mohsen.
25th April - Day 13 - Shopping at Tajirish + dinner at mall + sarzameen e ajayeb bowling
26th April - Day 14 - Dubai - arrive to Elizabeth's House - Mall Of The Emirates + Student Biryani
27th April - Day 15 - Elizabeth drive to Deyra + Desert Safari +
28th April - Day 16 - Ibn Batuta Mall + Bobby and family + Shopping at Deyra + dinner at pics with Elizabeth
29th Apirl - Day 17 - Return to Calcutta.

For more pictures check out our Facebook Album : The Beautiful Land Of Persia.
The Telegraph on 28th July '12 published a version of this travelogue : From Tehran To Shiraz


  1. Ifte,

    It was good to hear from u after a long time.

    Such a long trip demands more photos & matching description. In case u find time to post more materials on your Iran-visit, pl do share the feature on Persepolis with me.

    Best wishes.

    Shyamal Chatterji

  2. Hello Shyamal Da,

    Nice to hear from you.
    I have provided a link of the Facebook album which has many more photos.
    Will surely let you know if I intend to write a bit more.

    Thanks and warmest regards,