Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Iran: A Unique Three-Week Adventure

Not many Americans have been to Iran lately, and those who do go are usually restricted to group tours or have to hire a government-sanctioned guide.  Those rules didn’t apply to us for our March 2016 visit. We were sponsored for a family visit by our new son-in-law’s brother. That meant that we didn’t have to have an itinerary, we didn’t have to pay for guides, and that our experiences in Iran would be vastly different from our usual tourist-trail trips. This was much more than a sight-seeing trip ... we met lots of wonderful people, we experienced every-day life in Iran, and we made many new friends.
Katy and Jane, on a Tehran
sidewalk in the required
headscarves and
shapeless coats. 
        First, though, we had to obtain visas.  The brother in Tehran went to the Foreign Ministry office and obtained visa authorization codes for Jane, me and daughter Katy. (Son-in-law Ali, an Iranian national, didn’t need a visa.) We had filled out applications giving the purpose of our visit (our bridal couple’s marriage celebration), our father’s names, our professions, etc.  When we got the visa authorization number (one number for all three of us), we went to the Iranian interests section of the Pakistan embassy in Washington, where it took five or six hours to be seen, pay the $90 fee for each visa, and get them pasted into our passports. (Last year, we had to leave our passports for more than a week at the Tanzanian consulate to get visas for Tanzania, so Iran isn’t too bad on this front.)
      We flew to Tehran on March 10 from Washington Dulles on Austrian Air via Vienna.  Arriving in Tehran late on March 11, all the women put on headscarves before leaving the plane. I had the impression that the scarf-free flight crew didn’t even disembark in Tehran. We were met by Katy’s new brother-in-law and his family. They had flowers for Katy. We also were met by Afshar (I doubt the spelling is right), who would be our personal driver for our first week in the country. His car, a battered Peugeot-made yellow taxi, would eventually take us all the way to Shiraz, about a thousand kilometers south of Tehran.  
    Afshar took us to our hotel, the Aramis (click HERE for website), where we stayed three nights. We arrived in the days prior to Nowruz, the Persian new year celebration. The Persian year begins at the precise minute of the spring equinox, and in 2016 that was on March 21. Iranians take about two weeks to celebrate this holiday with street and home decorations, family visits, gifts and lots of food. To us it seemed like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and the Fourth of July rolled into one.  During our first days in Tehran, the city was packed. Every street seemed like New York’s Canal Street during the evening rush. Every sidewalk seemed like Times Square or Rockefeller Center at Christmas.  When we came back to Tehran at the end of our visit, the city was almost deserted, with little traffic, nearly empty sidewalks and many shops and restaurants closed. Why? Because the population was still away visiting relatives in other cities.  Even with most people and cars gone, the city’s air still seemed quite polluted.
A mannequin sits on one of several types of thrones displayed at Tehran's Golestan Palace.
Mirrored mosaics decorated walls in several buildings in this complex that dates to the 16th 
century. The last shah, the one deposed in 1979, had his coronation ceremony here in 1941.

The Tabiat or Nature Bridge crosses a major highway to connect two parks, one a super-modern sculpture park
and the other a pleasant woodlands with winding paths and, interestingly, a distant view
of something called the Holy Defense Museum, complete with a missile seemingly
ready to be launched.
Jane, Ali, Katy and me on the Nature Bridge.  The skyline
of northern Tehran and the Alborz Mountains can be seen
in the distance despite Tehran's near-constant smog.
The Aramis, though in a very busy part of this city, wasn’t near the bazaar or any other attractions that we wanted to see. Fortunately, Afshar was there to drive us to the bazaar, which was so crowded that the four of us had trouble staying together. We left the bazaar with a few purchases and found breathing space in the courtyard of a mosque.  Nearby was the Golestan Palace, a park-like complex of palaces and other royal buildings dating back to the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736). Its uncrowded grounds and buildings were a great respite after the bazaar. Lots of beautiful mosaics and stonework, along with the Persian love of mirrors and excessive decoration.
         The next day we visited the Tabiat (Nature) Bridge, a 2,000-ton three-level pedestrian bridge crossing a major highway to connect two city parks, Ab-o-Atash and Taleghani. The bridge offers amazing views of the city and the Alborz Mountains from its winding, interlocking walkways. It has a coffee shop, a restaurant and beautiful little gardens. It was designed by Leila Araghian, an award-winning Iranian architect.
       We started the longest leg of our Iran road trip on Monday, March 14, heading south/southeast to the desert oasis Mesr.  Unfortunately, none of us had looked at a map to see just how long a trip this would be.  It turned out to be almost 12 hours crammed into the little yellow taxi driving through featureless desert, with time out for a truck-stop snack during which one member of our little party fainted, possibly, it was ventured, as a result of fumes in the car.
Midnight at the oasis: The courtyard at Barandaz Lodge as seen from a roof terrace.
A couple of young men from Germany are in the lounging and dining alcove.
Our room at Barandaz Lodge. Sleeping on the floor
isn't so bad. 
 When fairly late in the evening we reached our destination, the mud-brick Barandaz Lodge (click HERE), dinner (tasty camel stew) and our rooms were waiting for us. During dinner the innkeeper told us that a government cleric would be visiting but that we shouldn’t be afraid. When the cleric arrived, he went to great lengths to tell us we were all welcome in Iran and that he hoped we enjoyed our visit. We saw him the next morning in a small pickup truck heading out perhaps to check on the action at some other inn.
We ate and slept on the floor, not at all unusual anywhere in Iran, and enjoyed the clean desert air. The next day we all rode camels over the sand dunes and had lunch, where we met a couple from Esfahan, which happened to be our next destination.
Here we are riding camels, accompanied
by two very young camels. It's much
appreciated that camels kneel to make
it easy for riders to get on. 
       Only four hours away, the man who was driving his own Peugeot 206 told us. We were on the road for maybe 20 minutes when he passed us. Four hours for him, maybe.  It would have been probably six hours for us had the throttle cable not broken, causing us to wait two hours or so on the side of the road before someone from a nearby town could come with a new cable and install it. At least we didn’t have to be towed.
         We arrived in Esfahan, often as not referred to as Isfahan (even highway signs are inconsistent on the spelling), around nine.  Here again not having a map posed a problem. Afshar’s approach was to constantly ask pedestrians and other drivers how to reach our hotel.  Unfortunately, few people know where everything is in their own towns, and our hotel, Hasht Behesht (click HERE), apparently isn’t well known despite being rated No. 1 on TripAdvisor. We could walk to everything we wanted to see from our hotel. Esfahan is the prettiest and most pleasant city we visited. It has the world’s second-largest public square, beautiful arched bridges and a busy but not-too-crowded bazaar. It also has at least one excellent restaurant, Shahrzad (click HERE), which was recommended by the Esfahan residents we met out in the desert, and a great breakfast/hookah place near the bazaar, Azadega Café (click HERE), which looks like the world’s funkiest junk shop. We had breakfast there twice, seated well away from the old men smoking hookahs. If you've clicked on the links, you know we relied on TripAdvisor in Iran. We also used the 2012 Lonely Planet guidebook.
Horse-drawn carriages offer rides around Esfahan's Naqsh-e Jahan ("Image of the World") square, also known
as Imam Square, which is the second-largest public square in the world. (Tiananmen in Bejing is the largest.)
The square, which dates to 1602 when Esfahan was the capital of Persia, is totally surrounded by uniform
 buildings with covered walkways and arches. The mosque that you see is Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah,
which was used only by the women of the shah's harem. The interior is basically one rather small
 room, covered floor to ceiling in dazzling tiles, with the niche for the prayer leader
especially beautiful. It was the only mosque we entered in Iran. 
        After two nights in Esfahan, we put our faith in Afshar once more and headed for Shiraz, the city where wine is thought to have originated. Of course, the Islamic Republic of Iran makes sure that wine is no longer available. Our arrival in Esfahan prepared us for our arrival in Shiraz, once again driving in circles and asking directions. Ali later would amuse us by mimicking the way Afshar shouted his questions at innocent pedestrians and drivers. Eventually we found our hotel, the Zandiyeh (click HERE), a new and quite posh hotel. When we realized that our window looked into an air shaft, my wife called the desk to ask if another room was available. The woman at the desk asked her to put “your husband” on the phone. She explained that the front desk could just as well speak with her but was unsuccessful in getting another room – the hotel was full. Judging by the busy lobby, most of the other guests were Iranians, many with children in tow.  The large breakfast buffet was much better than that at the Aramis in Tehran.  We ate one dinner and one late lunch in a wonderful little café near the hotel called Qavam (click HERE).  Ali knew and the rest of us came to know that this was truly Iranian home cooking. Another dinner was in a basement restaurant, Kateh Mas (click HERE), just outside the bazaar, complete with live (and loud) music and a salad bar.  Before going to Kateh Mas, we were seated at the restaurant Shapouri Garden (click HERE), which is in a beautiful old villa surrounded by wonderful gardens. People pay just to visit the gardens. However, after seeing the menu, mostly fast-food kebabs, we left. Shapouri, highly rated in TripAdvisor, is a warning not to take those ratings too seriously.
The remains of Apadana Palace at Persepolis. Bas-reliefs depict delegations coming to
meet the king, Xerxes I, dressed in elaborate robes and bearing gifts. Xerxes I (519-465 B.C.)
built the palace. Some think that Alexander the Great burned Persepolis in revenge
for the burning of Athens by Xerxes I, who is known as Ahasuerus in the biblical
Book of Esther.

The Hall of 100 Columns, with the Apadana Palace
in the background. Note how tiny the people appear
among these gigantic columns.

The reason for going all the way to Shiraz was to visit Persepolis, the captivating ruins of the capital of the ancient Persian empire.  It’s about an hour outside the city, surrounded by mountains and desert. The ruins, covered by sand for centuries until being excavated in the 1930s, are in amazingly good shape. The city, built by the dynastic successors of Cyrus the Great (580 to 529 B.C.), was destroyed in 330 B.C. by Alexander the Great, who, had he not conquered Persia, might be known simply as Alexander. The buildings were made of stone but the roofs were made of wood. Alexander’s forces set a fire that consumed the roofs and destabilized the columns, pillars and walls, many of which collapsed.  As is seen in much of modern Iran, there was an emphasis on decorating every surface. Standing figures bearing arms were carved into door posts, rows of soldiers are seen following a king on walls, and camels, lions and other animals are beside you on stairways. Signage around the site is in Farsi and English, making Persepolis understandable even if you knew little about it before arriving.  Some foreigners, and this was the only place in Iran where we saw many other international tourists, had hired English-speaking guides, but they seemed to merely recite what was on the signs.
The Gate of All Nations, almost as impressive today as it must have been in the fourth century B.C.

        One of the site’s many highlights comes as you enter through the “Gate of All Nations,” which apparently was built as a series of grand arches, one of which still stands almost intact. The “All Nations” refers to Persia’s 32 or so conquered countries, which stretched from Ethiopia and Egypt to the Indus River at the height of its power.  The symbol of Cyrus (known as Kourosh in Farsi), a king with the wings of an eagle, can be seen all over Iran in inexpensive as well as fine jewelry, in china decoration and here at Persepolis. The symbol along with what is thought to be Cyrus’s guiding principal (“Good thoughts, good words, good deeds”) is reproduced in various languages on everything from high-quality silver tea trays to T-shirts. Cyrus, by the way, is often credited as a pioneer in recognizing human rights thanks to the way in which he administered his vast empire: I am Cyrus. King of the world. When I entered Babylon... I did not allow anyone to terrorize the land... I kept in view the needs of people and all its sanctuaries to promote their well-being... I put an end to their misfortune. The Great God has delivered all the lands into my hand; the lands that I have made to dwell in a peaceful habitation….”  Persepolis, by the way, was not built by slave labor. One part of the site revealed 38,000 or so clay tablets bearing the names, jobs and wages of workers.
        The next day was the last with our taxi driver, Afshar.   He first took us to the Garden of Paradise (Barh-e Eram), a Unesco-listed botanical park surrounding a Qajar-era (1795-1925) villa. Most signage was in English as well as Farsi. This being during the run-up to Nowruz, the park was packed with Iranian holiday-makers, many outfitted with selfie sticks.
The villa at the heart of Bahr-e Eram, a
Unesco-recognized botanical garden in Shiraz.
After the park, we were off to Shiraz’s very modern airport for our flight back to Tehran. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed. And delayed again.  After waiting a few hours, our son-in-law was able to get us on another plane to Tehran. While we were waiting, I got up to walk around and a woman asked Jane if she could sit by her in the seat I had vacated. Jane nodded “no” and the woman instead sat nearby.  Later the woman came by with two small boxes for Jane and Katy, who wasn’t there at the moment. Each box held a ring, apparently from a shop at the airport. She wanted to welcome us to Iran and for us to think well of Iran.  I’m willing to bet that nothing like that happens at any airport in the U.S.
       Upon arrival at Tehran’s domestic airport, we were again met by Ali’s extremely helpful brother. He drove us all to Qa'emshahr in Mazandaran province, where the four of us stayed very comfortably in a furnished and modern two-bedroom apartment loaned to us by one of our son-in-law’s sisters and her husband.  They were there to greet us when we arrived well after midnight.  The house was stocked with fresh fruit, candies and cookies, all for us. Iranian hospitality is a wondrous thing. The traditional Nowruz items – a miniature Koran, goldfish swimming in a bowl, a grassy planter, nuts and fruits – were set out on a table.
   We spent the next 11 or 12 days here getting know Katy’s new in-laws, a large and very friendly family. Ali’s parents and a couple of his uncles live in Vaskas, a nearby farming village. We spent almost every evening at his parents’ comfortable, marble-tiled house, especially the five nights of dancing that preceded the wedding. The actual farming is outside the village. His father grows navel oranges, sour oranges, sweet lemons (a lemon with a mild sweet taste that can be eaten like an orange), kiwi fruit, sugar cane (he makes a wonderful molasses-like paste that’s used in sweets), and rice.  Katy’s new mother-in-law seemed to cook nonstop, assisted by her three daughters, other relatives and a very nice neighbor from across the street.  She must have served dinner to a hundred people the evening before the wedding, organizing it like a field marshal with her grandsons and others forming human chains to get trays of food to all the guests.
Family portrait. Katy holds two of her four new nieces. Ali's father is
at far right. Ali's mother is at far right in back row; beside her is
her other son, Ali's brother and now our friend, with his wife and
his 12-year-old daughter. Just right of Ali is the oldest of
his three sisters. This is on the front porch of Ali's parents'
very comfortable house in Vaskas. 
        Most meals were eaten on the floor in one of two large and comfortable sitting rooms.  Lunch is the main meal: saffron-drizzled rice, crusts of rice from the bottom of the pan (Iranians cook rice halfway with water, then pour it off and finish it dry, with the rice on the bottom of the pan sticking, browning and becoming even more delicious), soup, yogurt with spinach, fresh salads, and multiple main dishes that might include chicken fesenjoon (chicken cooked with a pomegranate and ground walnut paste). Or duck prepared the same way. Or braised beef.  Or lamb or chicken or chopped-beef kebabs. A favorite of mine was abgoosht, a stew made with lamb or beef. The broth is drained from the stew and served as a soup. The remaining meat and veggies are then mashed into a thick paste that is eaten as a separate dish. Individual servings of this are called dizi in restaurants.  We had it a couple of times in restaurants, but the best was at home in Vaskas.
A fireworks walk was part of the wedding
celebration for Katy and Ali. As they walked
along this path, fireworks were set off in sync
with their steps. The wedding, which was at a
wedding salon (which in the U.S. would be
called a banquet hall) was preceded by five
nights of dance parties at Ali's parents' home.
        We left the Qa'emshahr/Vaskas area only once during our time there, and that was for a quick trip with one of Ali’s cousins to see the Caspian Sea at Babolsar, a seaside resort complete with high-rise condo buildings and fast-food restaurants. It was a cool and overcast day, not ideal for hitting the beach, but the litter strewn everywhere along the seaside would have kept us out no matter the weather. We did, however, see some fully-clothed people in the water. Women can’t wear bathing suits unless they’re at a women-only private pool.  We also stopped in at a small museum in nearby Sari, the capital of Mazandaran province, and drove deep into the countryside to visit a huge dam.  On the drive we sang along to a CD the cousin had compiled for the ride: Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and others.
This meal with Ali's  many cousins, aunts and uncles was our last dinner in Vaskas.
 It was at the home of one of Ali's uncles and was yet another splendid example of Iranian
hospitality. You may notice that almost everyone has a small plastic bowl of greens.
These were at every dinner: undressed fresh arugula and other herbs that are eaten
by the handful or added to other dishes.  Katy took this photo. 

          We finally left Qa'emshahr on Wednesday, March 30, for Tehran, where Jane and I spent the night at the Mashad Hotel (click HERE) while Katy and Ali stayed at his brother’s apartment.  The hotel is around the corner from the old American embassy where more than 60 U.S. workers were taken hostage on Nov. 4, 1979.  They were released Jan. 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. (Reagan, of course, went on to befriend the radical Iranian government when he violated U.S. laws to sell it weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.)  The fence surrounding the embassy complex still has anti-American murals from those days. Tehran residents today seem ashamed of the hostage-taking and want reminders of it erased.
        We spent our last day in Iran touring the city with one of Ali’s friends and his wife. We had hoped to visit the famous Jewels Museum, which contains the Peacock Throne of the shahs, but it was closed.  Instead we went to the Niyavaran Palace Museum, home of the Pahlavi shahs, in a large park-like setting in northern Tehran in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains. They lived regally but not quite on the scale of Louis XIV. After a final goodbye dinner at Katy’s new brother-in-law’s apartment, we left for the airport and our 3:50 a.m. flight to Vienna.  We were at Washington Dulles by early afternoon Friday. Katy and Ali flew on to San Diego, and we were home on Tilghman Island in time for dinner.