The only thing that shrouds Iran more than its mysteries are its myths. The word ‘sanction’ has sat heavily not only upon the country but also upon the perception of most people.
And yet small but vocal groups have said otherwise – claiming the country to be overwhelmingly hospitable and stunningly beautiful. There’s only one way to find out: go there myself. After plenty of research, here is my journey around Tehran, Shiraz, and Yazd.
Tehran – The Perfect Blend of Old and New
The taxi ride into Tehran took about an hour, and what greeted me wasn’t desert and sand, but an urban city filled with historical monuments and palatial buildings. And yes, there’s even a subway.
After a good night’s rest at Persian Hostel, I met my friend from Instagram, Sardar, who brought me to Tajrish Bazaar. This bustling market was made all the more busy as Nowruz – the Persian New Year – was just around the corner. I got my hands on my first Iranian meal here. Dizi, an oven-hot stone urn of lamb stew with tomatoes, chickpeas and potatoes. Served with a set of pincers, a mallet and some flatbread.
Sardar taught me to grab the urn with the pincers and pour out the broth into a bowl. Sop that up with your bread. Mash the meat away with the mallet and scoop it onto your flatbread. Usually, the locals complete the meal with some doogh (Iranian yoghurt drink).
My next destination was Tajrish, located in the north part of Tehran. I made a point to drop by Darband, an exciting enclave of restaurants overlooking a mountain river leading up Mount Tochal.
The first sight of Darband was all about modern cafes but becomes really charming as the path winds up. I enjoyed the cool, crisp air while chancing upon makeshift stalls selling anything from snacks, juices, to fortune-telling!
However, nothing could distract me from the relaxed scenes of shisha (water pipe) beds by the river, as waiters served up local Iranian food to the diners between puffs.
Tip: Iranian currency can get tricky. Officially it’s the Rial, but vendors almost always quote Toman. 1 Toman equals 10 Rials, and locals tend to drop the ‘thousand’. So when you ask for the price of a Coke, and the person says ‘two’, he really means two thousand tomans, which is 20 thousand rials (SGD$0.70).
Tip 2: Credit, debit and ATM cards don’t work in Iran due to the economic sanctions, so bring enough cash! Plenty of money changers at the airport and Ferdowsi Square accept USD and Euros.
Taking the Fadak to Shiraz
The next day, I took the luxury Fadak train to Shiraz. Navigating through the signs and lines can be very confusing, so I was glad for Sardar’s help.
We arrived in Shiraz the next morning after a 12-hour ride. I bid my farewells to the Iranian gentleman sitting across me, hailed a cab and headed to Taha Traditional House.
The Grace and Poetry of Shiraz
There is sensual femininity about Shiraz. You can find some of the most beautiful artwork and architecture, flowers, fruits and curlicues along the streets.
Taha Traditional House was no different. Situated a bit further from the famous Niayesh, this family-run business gets it right on all fronts. From the exquisite tile-work on the 200-year-old house to the endless flow of tea and warm service from Hamid and his family, it made me feel right at home.
Tip: Finding accommodation in Iran online is insanely difficult. Head to forums for names, then contact them directly through their website. Most of them are pretty old-school: email or phone bookings. No payment or deposit needed because, hey, that’s Iranian trust for you.
Shiraz has some amazing sights, mostly all within walking distance, but the proverbial cherry on top has to be Shah Cheragh. That is – if the cherry is a trillion-faceted wonderland of mirrors.
Both a mosque and funerary monument, Shah Cheragh means ‘King of the Light’. The name came after a grave of two warrior brothers was discovered – thanks to a light that hovered over their graves from a distance.
Security checks are tight across the different entrance points. If you are a tourist or non-Muslim, you will have a free guide when exploring the premises.
It was difficult to pry my eyes away from the universe of mirrors around me, like some reflective aurora borealis. Absolutely breathtaking!
History buffs, especially of the Persian empire, will drool at Persepolis. Sprawling over 125,000 sqm, the influence of this ceremonial capital is still strong until today.
My friends and I got lost in the Council Hall, Treasury, and even tombs dating back to 515 BC. Walking through the Gate of All Nations also took a different meaning, now that these are tourists instead of ambassadors. The Achaemenid architecture of Persepolis remains one of the most impressive, earning the title of UNESCO World Heritage site.
We then headed to nearby Necropolis, or Naqsh-e Rustam, where the tombs of 4 great kings dominate the landscape — not to mention some fantastic rock relief depictions. You can head to Pasargadae to see the actual tomb of Cyrus the Great, but I opted out to enjoy more of Shiraz.
Nasir Al Mulk
Possibly the most Instagrammed site in Iran thanks to its unusual shade of pink dominating the mosque. Millions have flocked through its doors to capture the kaleidoscope of lights pouring through its colourful windows. Nasir Al Mulk, or more famously the Pink Mosque, is a romantic reminder of the Qajar dynasty.
It’s best to visit the mosque just when the mosque is open to avoid the crowd. The limited light (due to the cloudy sky) turned the space from sparkling dancer to a demure mistress. The effect was incredibly calming and peaceful as I sat in the eaves
Catching Wind and Sand at Yazd
Making a slight detour, I took a coach to Yazd, otherwise known as the City of Windcatchers. This desert city surprised me with the discovery of crafted goods and hip cafes, hidden in its maze of ochre alleys.
Tower of Silence
The ancient Zoroastrians from the Yazd province didn’t bury their dead. They would transport them up to a hill and deposit the bodies into a ceremonial hole in the ground to be later devoured by vultures. This air burial method is best seen at the two grand Towers of Silence. Choose either one of the towers to walk up and enjoy a panoramic view from the top.
Yazd Atash Behram
To better understand the paganistic Zoroastrians, we headed to the Zoroastrian Fire Temple to see their sacred flame. There are nine ‘Victorious Fire’ in the world, and one of them is in Iran. Although we didn’t manage to see the fire vessel because of the crowds, we still enjoyed walking around and reading up on the traditional practices.
Sitting right in the centre of the town is the Jame Mosque. Not only it is an iconic structure to guide your explorations in the streets of Yazd, but it also houses some of the best souvenir shops.
The best thing about Yazd is really the hidden surprises tucked away at every turn. Head through any cafe entrances, and you just might come out on the roof for some great coffee and scenic idling. No wonder the entire city is a UNESCO site!
Airport Guide When Landing at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran
Singaporeans can enjoy Visa-on-Arrival. Head straight to the administration office upon touching down at the airport. Get a valid insurance (€14) and pay the Visa fee (€75).
While some say you can put a fake accommodation address on the form, I would advise to book your first night’s stay and use real contacts. The authorities often call and check.
I also recommend getting your data sim card from Irancell at the airport. The staff will activate it for you immediately, while those in town may not.