Our next stop was Shiraz, Iran after a delayed flight with Iran Air in an old and rickety aircraft. In Iran, we took a private tour with both a driver and an English speaking guide - very necessary as few people speak English and all signs are written in Farsi script which was indecipherable to us.
The antiquity of the country is astonishing with many buildings being more than 2000 years old. On the first day we visited Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia, and the necropolis of Darius and Xerxes, major kings from about 500BC . The bas reliefs at Persepolis made the trip worthwhile on their own - they are extraordinarily delicate and beautiful. We were also surprised with the beautiful Persian gardens in Shiraz and the mausoleum of Sayeed mir Ahmad which has dazzling mirror tiling on the ceiling of its dome (accessible only by men).
From Shiraz we drove to Yazd, the oldest continuously inhabited city in Iran (more than 2000 years). The twisting lanes and mud brick houses of the old city were fascinating.
The water museum in Yazd gave us an explanation of how the city received its water via qanats (or underground canals) over 40 kilometres long from the nearby mountains - a feat in precision engineering.
We continued on to Isfahan, the cultural capital of Iran - a bustling city and home to the blue mosque which is one of the largest in the world. Aside from its sheer size (36 metres to the top of the dome) the mosaics and carvings along with the regularity of the patterns are truly superb.
The city is set on a river with 11 bridges (including one with 33 arches)
and beautiful parks and gardens along its length. People in Iran love to picnic and public spaces are very well used especially on Fridays which is the Islamic holiday. We saw people having picnic breakfast, playing cards and drinking tea. They were still picnicking at dusk. Iranians love their tea and there are many tea houses. People also carry hot pots with them everywhere to make tea. Iranians also like camping and we saw tents set up in many places just by the sides of the road.
The bazaar in Isfahan has a reputation for being large, busy and the traders persistent. We spent a little time there and managed to buy a gift for Ann’s niece Chloe’s 21st birthday. The bazaar was large but quiet and the traders did not pester us at all.
We were intrigued with a visit to a traditional teahouse at the back of the bazaar. The house was located in a back alley and was impossible to find without guidance. The place was filled with all sorts of bric a brac including many lanterns, Saracen’s battle axes, shields and swords and numerous pictures. The room was segregated (a men only section) and about half the customers (including women) were smoking the sheesha (or hubbly bubbly pipe) as well as partaking of tea.
The last major stop in Iran was Tehran - a bustling, chaotic city of 17 million set beneath the beautiful snow capped Alberz Mountains. The second thing that you notice about Tehran is the horrendous traffic - cars and motorbikes occupying every available inch of the road and heading in all directions. But the real gem was literally the jewellery museum - words can't describe it adequately and photos were not allowed. They have several fantastic crowns and the fabulous globe with the countries in rubies, the sea in emeralds and Iran in diamonds. There were more precious gems than we could believe - a real jawsome (jaw dropping and awesome) experience.
To finish in Tehran we had an adventure withoput our guide on the metro system to the palace of the former Shah. Set in the foothills it was a world away from the rest of the country - fabulous carpets, beautifully decorated and furnished rooms and furniture and tranquil gardens.
The final part of our trip here also confirmed how friendly and helpful the Iranian people are. Every time that we were uncertain someone came along and helped us. All of them wanted a brief but pleasant conversation about what we though of Iranian people and their country.
Our guide Ata was a real gem an experienced and highly trained guide and a true enthusiast, full of information about the architecture and the history of this ancient land and a very generous and kind person even if he is a death metal musician. Our driver Ramin is a sweet young man who speaks little English and took some time to overcome his shyness but he is a great driver and managed the mad traffic conditions and mountainous roads very well.
Our hotels were been variable from a good 3* level in Isfahan, 2* in Shiraz, a mediocre 1* in Yazd and perhaps a half * in Kashan. Food is good quality generally although meat is limited to lamb, chicken or goat. After a week we had fully worked our way through the entire repertoire of dishes on most menus. Breakfast is rather different to what we eat at home. It almost always consists of orange cordial, flat bread, boiled eggs, fetta cheese, dates, yoghurt, butter, jam and black tea. In fact yoghurt features at every meal and is usually eaten first with a spoon and usually has dried mint in it. It may also be used as salad dressing. In most hotels we also had sliced cucumber and tomato and very occasionally fruit such as watermelon for breakfast. Only once we encountered breakfast cereal and then it was rather pallid cornflakes. Breakfast in Tehran was the worst - flatbread, packaged cheese, butter and carrot jam with black tea only.
Lunch and dinner were much the same with either kebabs of the above mentioned meats or stews of meat and vegetables often with rice and always with flat bread. Iranians love sweets and ice-cream and jelly and Neil enjoyed the variety of treats available. Ann rather liked the bottled yoghurt drink which Iranians have everywhere. It too is often mint flavoured. There is absolutely no alcohol on sale anywhere and Neil had to make do with what Ata called “fake beer” which is brewed drink often with fruit flavouring.
Women are quite repressed in Iran and most wear the full chador - a long black cloak over the clothes and head (although this is not essential in law). All women (including tourists) must be covered from head to toe including arms. Ann became very fed up with this.
There are also gender segregated public buses. But the people are incredibly friendly and generous and many wave or say “hello” in the street. There are still very few tourists here.
The traffic in the cities is absolutely crazy. No one obeys road rules. You cross the street - even at pedestrian crossings at your peril. Motorbikes (riders minus helmet) are everywhere, including on foot paths. They often have 3 people on them - three young men or man, wife (usually in chador) and a small child.
The main roads are good. We drove about 1500 kms mostly on divided highways but there are huge numbers of trucks and again the drivers are unpredictable. The car fleet is also interesting. Because petrol is rationed, most of the cars are small and many have dual fuel (also using CNG) as Iran produces a lot of gas. There is a reasonable number of modern cars - perhaps 50% of the fleet. The largest numbers are Peugeots which are made in Iran under licence but there are quite a lot of older cars including some that resemble Hillman Hunters from the ‘70’s.
The handcrafts are absolutely gorgeous - carpets (of course) enamelware, fabrics, beaten copper, gemstone jewellery, glass and ceramics as well as beautiful artworks. We were sorry that we were only at the beginning of our trip as we could have bought lots of stuff but can’t really be dragging it around with us for the next 7 months.
The terrain in Iran is a bit dull and colourless but not boring. There are wide expanses of camel coloured country with not much vegetation. These plains are interspersed by very rugged mountain ranges with some snow capped peaks - really quite dramatic. Then there are some wide river valleys which have fields of wheat and rice as well as orchards of pomegranates, almonds and other fruit trees. It was interesting to drive through the desert and every now and then see small pockets of wheat growing in apparently nothing. These pockets are serviced by the qanats (or underground canals) which have been built across the country - about 350,000 kms of them.
Iran was most enjoyable with highlights of the superb decorations and reliefs at Persepolis and the fantastic jewellery collection in Tehran. But most of all the people who were unfailingly polite and helpful. Then there was Ata our guide - a death metal freak - what more can one say.