Road trips are fundamental to Iranian culture and holidays – much more nature-based and exploratory than what I've been used to.
Cave exploring, motorbike-borrowing, goat farms, and night trains are parts of how everyone experiences the old Persian empire.
Going through such a tumultuous time of late, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the sanctions imposed on Iran have dented the hospitality of Persians towards their visitors.
Far from it – Iran is the most hospitable nation I've ever encountered, whether in their own country or their respective adopted lands.
I've been taken in by people at service stations on their way to Tehran, by a farming family in the middle of nowhere, and by countless CouchSurfing hosts who are the most eager to have you share their food, their homes, and their lives with you.
There's a humbling feeling you repeatedly encounter that you are treated as being a part of their family for the time you're with them.
Any visit to a home has the hosts bringing fruit, vegetables, biscuits, sweets, tea, and more as a matter of natural hospitality. You shan't go hungry in Iran.
The ancient empire, Persepolis, has its remains less than a couple of hours from the nearest modern city, Shiraz.
Two thousand five hundred years old, the mind boggles at what it must have been.
Only a tiny fraction of the structure remains, along with the extinct language adorning some of the walls.
You can organize tours from Shiraz or get a taxi to take you. Due to current exchange rates, you won't spend much on a day trip, and boy, is it worth it.
There are massive, towering pillars; views from the mountain that gave the habitants a heads-up on any potential invaders; and tombs cut into the rock. They are such a sight to behold.
The enthusiasm with which my hosts spoke when they took me to Persepolis was nothing less than whole-hearted.
This was combined with a very prideful sense of happiness that it was they who first showed me this monument to their country's history.
I'd learn to quickly appreciate this very Persian trait in my travels and how to reciprocate my gratitude.
The easiest way to make those trips to the smaller towns and villages of Iran is by car.
In the multitude of people I befriended, I had a few friends who owned cars.
This led to invitations to travel to the capital city, Tehran, and the surrounding areas, as well as places as far as Esfahan for Persian New Year (Nowruz, the Equinox). Never turn these invitations down!
Indeed, if there's anything I took from Iran in my four months there, it's always to say yes.
This attitude has taken me to places I never knew existed – who knew Iran is home to some of the most beautiful snow-capped mountains and rolling green-hilled villages where the clouds pass through you?
Aga, a Polish friend I made back in England, came to visit me in Tehran with her fiancé Quentin.
We soon started planning where to go and found a place among the mountains to the east of Tehran.
Our friend Atefe had a car and suggested we go and camp there for the night.
Be aware, though, as, with homes, an unmarried couple isn't legally allowed to stay together under the same roof. Be cautious.
I never felt unsafe or at risk of anything, but it's always worth remembering in more populated areas.
We soon found ourselves heading east to a small village called Simin Dasht.
The road took us between clay-colored mountains, a railroad running alongside us as we delved further in.
Gradually the route we were taking degraded into red dirt until we felt we couldn't proceed further.
A small farmhouse adjacent to the railroad drew us in just as the road ended. We set up camp just in front of the farm with two tents between us.
The tent my landlord had so willingly lent me popped up in two seconds flat, four rocks I gathered, keeping it pinned down – an essential future investment!
Being in such a serene area was a welcome break from the bustling streets of Tehran.
This came with the freedom to wander in any direction as if I'd been allowed to breathe again.
The odd animal wanders around with no care, impressive mountainous scenery in every direction, and a river in the middle of the valley provides irrigation for all farms.
The night creeps in, and the old card games are remembered under a suspended torch in the tent.
Atefe and I took the night to delve into the railroad tunnel carved into the mountain, a slightly risky idea, I thought!
Her protestation that there are only two passenger trains a night was accurate; however, there are far more cargo trains that would pass by our tent every hour.
Thankfully none of them came as we walked through the narrow tunnel.
Because of the clear skies, Iran offers photo opportunities at every turn and at dusk. I snapped a couple before retiring to bed.
I awoke to find Quentin, but neither of the girls. Ten minutes of confusion, and we find that they have befriended the farm owner and his family.
They invited us for breakfast and laid out a spread of tea, cheese, bread, fruit, and assorted delicious condiments.
After we were suitably stuffed and shared photos of family and friends, an impromptu tour was suggested (nay, insisted).
I and the farm owner, Shahazadeh, exchanged Atefe's car for his motorbike, albeit temporarily.
Visiting his family and friends along the way, stopping off at their goat farm, we were then being taken up a hill in the middle of the valley; the views we were treated to were nothing short of spectacular.
Shahazadeh and the four of us continued to find his friend, Omid, in another tiny village.
They took us an hour down the road, up into the mountains a little, and to the steepest hill I've ever tried to climb.
Omid rode the small motorbike straight up the hill with no fear of anything with no care in the world. This peaked and descended into a cave hidden from view of the road.
Stalactites and crystals adorned the ceiling of the pitch-black cave as bats screeched around us. I could only ponder how chance had brought us all there.
We finished the day off with Omid treating us to some of his very best motorbike wheelies before we had to set off back to Tehran.
Editor's Note: If you're interested in traveling to Iran, consider the travel services offered by Exotigo, a trusted Iranian online travel agency with a central office in Singapore. Through their web platform, you can find a large variety of Iran hotels, domestic flights, tour packages and experiences, car rentals, and Iran visas and travel insurance. They accept all major debit/credit cards and PayPal.
Traveling North of Tehran
My second time in Iran focused on living in Tehran rather than backpacking around.
When you live in a big city, you have to escape and venture out so you don't get cabin fever.
The one place I hadn't been to previously was north of the Caspian Sea.
The name alone holds something of a magical feeling for me. Surrounded by five countries, it's the largest lake (despite the name) in the world.
Atefe and I took ourselves through the mountains, finding the driving to be more than a little hair-raising at times.
Sheer drops on the left side, solid rock to the right of us; the Iranian driving style was something I thought I was used to.
It was pretty sedate for the most part until the rapid mountain turns started.
People will overtake at any time, whether it's a straight road or going around blind, mountainous corners.
They will attempt anything and everything to pass a car, so you have to be alert.
I swerved out of the way just in time to save us the possibility of a trip-ending accident and an encounter with the authorities that I'd rather not go through as a khareji (foreigner).
Further up into the mountains brought with it the crisp, fresh air. It became cooler and cooler until clouds prevented anything more than ten miles per hour.
Driving up for a couple of hours, you ponder the effort it took to create these roads and put a mosque on top so many years ago.
Descending toward the sea, the world opened up to swallow us as the landscape changed from winter to spring.
However, our main destination lay ahead: Javaherdeh. We drove along the coast, taking a left turn that ascended steeply into the mountains.
A road similar to the one in Simin Dasht took us up, then no further: the road ended.
Taking this as a signal that this was our destination and we should probably eat, we settled at one of the few kebab restaurants along the street.
The owner greeted us with a beaming smile and one of the best chelo & jujeh kebabs (lamb and chicken) I've ever had.
We told him we were looking for a place to set up camp. He said not to worry, and he knew just the place.
After finishing dinner, he walked us through cobbled streets that could have been anywhere in Southern Europe, up a hill, and through the trees to the summit.
Waking up to Javaherdeh (which means jewel) is beautiful. The clouds silently passed through us and layered the landscape in a way I'd never seen before.
This region is also famous for the jars of olives, fruits, and pickled foodstuffs you'd struggle to find anywhere else.
$2 for a huge jar of olives, less for stewed berries, and much to choose from.
As with all of my travels, long and short, there's a sense of contentment as you head home.
All the richer for having discovered something full of history and life, with people happy to show you their part of the world.
Keep your eyes peeled for one of the many ice cream and juice bars so well-renowned in Iran. The saffron ice-cream (safran bastani in Farsi) is not to be missed!
Dipped his feet in 2008 and couldn't stop. From Cagliari to Phnom Penh, Tehran to New York, Adam has now settled in Medellín, Colombia, using teaching as a method of indefinite travel.
Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:
- G Adventures for small group tours.
- World Nomads for travel insurance.
- Hostelworld for booking hostels.
- Rail Europe for train passes.
Wednesday 7th of May 2014
Excellent account! I am half Iranian and have a passport but have only been once. I'm planning 4/5 months of travelling in a couple of years time (including 3 weeks in Iran) and blogs like this one excite me! One thing, Persepolis is actually 2500 years old rather than 1500 years old.
Great detailed account and ace photos, thanks again!
Thursday 8th of May 2014
Do you have a lot of family there still?
Ah yes, thanks! I've just updated it.
Thursday 17th of April 2014
Wow...I would love to travel inside Iran. The closest I've come is the Turkish/Iranian border, where I milked sheep with some Kurds...fun times.!
Monday 7th of April 2014
You'll find Iran to be the friendliest country you've ever visited - no word of a lie! As a solo woman traveler, I can only comment on people I've spoken to (since I'm neither 55 nor a woman) who did the same as you - they found it no different to my experience. If anything, you'll get a little more attention and you'll be able to see things that I simply am not allowed to!
I would recommend trying to learn the script before you go (if you only have a couple of weeks vacation) as it'll open a lot more up to you as you work out what's around you.
If you do fancy the skiing, then November-time onwards is your best bet - between then and February gives you the best days (if it snows a lot, of course!). Even if you don't stay there (I always whole-heartedly recommend CouchSurfing in Iran), Mr Mousavi at Firouzeh Hotel in central Tehran is always an amazing help in organising transport, accommodation and the like for skiing trips to Dizin (or wherever you prefer). Definitely go and see him!
Any particular questions you have, please post them!
Sunday 6th of April 2014
Wow, Iran looks amazing. Great photos!
Marie @ Budgeting for Travel
Friday 4th of April 2014
Nice photos! I never expected Iran was so beautiful as is. Thanks for sharing this. I am including Iran now in my destination list when I had the chance.