Axis of History, Iran, 2003

This Trip Report was originally written for the Fodor's Travel Forum.

Note: We went to Iran in the summer of 2003, just after the  Iraq war began. There were almost no tourists and we met no other Americans. We also stopped in Vienna   and  Armenia before Iran. In Armenia we spent three nights at the Tufenkian in Yerevan, one night at their sister hotel on Lake Sevan and a night at a homestay in Diljian. We flew on a frequent flyer ticket on Lufthansa San Francisco-Vienna-Yerevan  and Yerevan-SFO. It was a great deal because United classified Armenia as Europe!
From Yerevan to Tehran we flew Caspian Airways - a cash only operation.

Iran is the most fascinating place and we had a wonderful time, there is so much to see and do that it should be packed with history, architecture and culture buffs. Despite everything they LOVE Americans and make a strong distinction between the people and the government. Because my husband and I are a Brit and an American we had to be on a tour to get our visas.

I didn't fancy a group tour and the trips from the US are very expensive, so we decided to organize the whole thing directly with an Iranian travel agent ( Astonishingly a customized private tour was cheaper than booking a group tour with an American agent.  They arranged a 14 night  itinerary just for the two of us, Tehran, Isfahan, two nights in a nomadic camp, Shiraz, Kerman and Yazd. Isfahan was certainly a highlight, we loved the bridges, mosques, the quality of the stunning tilework and age of the buildings, many 500-300 year old. 

The Chehel Sotun palace was gorgeous, with a classical Persian garden outside and incredibly beautiful painted mural inside including court scenes, musicians and dancing girls fortunately not painted over after the revolution! The carpet shops were wonderful and we even found one who took a credit card charged through Dubai. The Iranians are so friendly and trusting that the carpet shops will let you put down 25% in cash and then you send the rest when you get home. People were so friendly and this makes Iran one of the most culturally accessible countries we have ever visited. Obviously there are very few foriegners there these wanted to take our photos and everyone loves to talk and particularly to complain about the government! 

 After Isfahan we drove through the Zagros mountains, encountered a nomadic wedding on the way where we saw traditional music and dancing...unbelievable and then on for two days camping next to a nomadic group. The tour company had organized all of this for us and when we arrived, in the car with our guide the owner of the tour company, Mr. Ghajar had come out from Shiraz to meet us and had already set up our tents with another young man.I have never encountered such service, throughout the trip he called us daily to ensure we were happy and even had us to dinner at his house! We were interested in hiking and he organized an interesting hike with a guide and arranged to drive us back from the hike with a visit to a fascinating US educated local geologist who also happened to be the leader of the local nomadic communities...we couldn't believe how much trouble they went to. 

The nomads were fascinating, they move in the spring and autumn and live in black tents. They work all the time and the women spin wool even when sitting and chatting. The keep goats and sheep and supplement their subsistence by selling carpets and kilims which they weave themselves. They were so warm and hospitable and it was a look into an entirely different world. Shiraz was very interesting most particularly because of Persepolis, a UNESCO world heritage site 100km from the city. Much like a Greek ruin although in its own architectural style Persepolis is the ruins of a ceremonial center, almost a city which was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330BC. Nearby the necropolis has the impressive carved graves designed in the rockface of Darius and others dating from 5th century BC. 

From Shiraz, where we also saw lots of other stuff including a beautiful bath complex converted into a restaurant with live traditioinal music, we headed south to kerman. Close the the Afghan border we visited Bam a deserted Silk Road mud city with undefined origins. It seemed like the largest sand castle in the world and at about 110 degrees it was baking! In the desert city of Yazd we were captivated by the traditional wind towers used to cool the mus houses. We were equally fascinated by the Zorastrian Fire temple and the Towers of Silence where the Zorastrians used to place the bodies of the dead to be eaten by the birds so the didn't pollute the earth. 

 Iran really an extraordinary place to visit we never felt threatened and people were constantly inviting us to visit them or even to stay! We sat in the park and chatted to women, met young university students at dinner and found everyone friendly and open. With the guide we felt free to talk to anyone because he did a wonderful job translating. At the Shia religious shrines I had to borrow a chador to cover myself and entered through the women's entrance. The decorative mirror works were unlike anything I have seen and at a shrine in Tehran they were so happy to see foriegners that they gave us a gift of lavish datebooks for 2004! 

The museums in Tehran were incredible particularly the Jewellery Museum in a bank vault and the Raza Abbasi Museum which has a wonderful collection of ancient gold peices (1000 + years old) and great Persian minatures. Throughout the trip I had to wear the hejab to cover my hair, which was hot but one got used to it. I wore loose long linen shirts but was happy to find out I could wear ankle length pants and open toed shoes without socks. 

We love the Persian food our Iranian American friend cooks but in Iran the difficulty was avoiding what D. described as "kebab fever". Kebabs are the thing that Iranians tend to order when they go out... so after the first couple of days we had the guide scouting any restaurant that sold a  variety beyond the kebab  He worked  hard to ensure we tried lots of local varieties including fresh juices, cookies,sweets, different types of Koresh and Dizzi.  

We ate at a couple of restaurants with Kerman and Shiraz at converted bath houses. The Vakil baths in Shiraz were wonderful and the music was great. We also heard traditional music at a couple of other places including a restaurant in Yadz and a fashionable place in northern Tehran...which apparently has been closed down a couple of times because people dared to sway to heavily to the music and it was interpreted as dancing which is not allowed!   The truth is that the best food in Iran is served in the homes rather than in restaurants and we were luck that the travel agent invited us for dinner in his home when we arrived in Shiraz..

As to the roads...generally they were fine, even out in the  rural areas. However, the traffic in Tehran is terrible, really horrendous and to be frank the airport which was fine on the way in was chaos on the way out...however some terminals are better than others 

 We bought carpets in Isfahan,tribal carpets rather than the traditional Persian designs which are less to our taste. We even met tourists from Turkey who were buying carpets in Iran because they we so much cheaper...thoug an Iranian friend told us she thought they were now very expensive! 

 Our situation was a little different from the's an involved story but the summary is that a friend of a friend visited Iran about 6 months before us with a charity group...he was reading a book while he was there which had a picture of an Isfahani carpet seller and when he bought his carpets in Isfahan the man saw the book and wanted a copy because it had his piture in it...anyway a long story short we brought a copy of the book for him (he was on a pilgrimage to Mecca) but his son was very grateful and so we got a great price on the carpets...we spent $800 US for three fabulous (approx 3ft+/5ft+ )rugs. Yes we did need to haggle quite a bit but I spent alot of my childhood in Africa so it's second nature...I also think it helps to buy more! The rugs are fabulous but the prices varied enormously based on the quaility and tightness. Rugs from Turkmenistan with deep red and black designs were very much cheaper. I'm very pleased with what we bought and I was surprised by how easy they were to transport because they were so finely woven that they folded up into fairly small packages. I've never been particularly fond of silk rugs until we saw a semi antique silk rug in pale was enormous and magnificent and very expensive...something around $10,000US but they have them in every size and I'm sure the smaller/newer ones are far cheaper. The rug company we used was called Chetzias...sound like "Cheats-us" (!) they have two locations one in the shopping mall opposite the Abbassi hotel, upstairs on the right...and one in the main bazaar not very far in on the right. Abass the guide who works for Gashttour will know the place or just ask someone. 

We really enjoyed the rug shopping because rather than focusing solely on the price we just kept looking at a wide range of rugs and felt we really learnt alot. We also visited another shop where we also saw some lovely older rugs but the clincher for us was that we could us a credit card at the first place. For us this was far better because we had brought a limited amount of cash with us. The main thing was that in all of the rug shops we visited in Isfahan the people were very freindly and not at all pushy (which would have turned me off the whole thing)...we looked at rugs in Yerevan but they were very much more expensive and we didn't find the atmosphere as relaxed or as informative. 

We really loved the trip and were very lucky to visit Bam before the devastation earthquake. I cannot recommend the tour company ( highly enough. The guide was in his late 50's a really history buff with a great sense of humour. He had been a fighter pilot and spent several years training in the US in the 1970's. He ensured we had a wonderful time and even took us up to the roof of one tomb and paid someone so we could climb to the top of a minaret! 

If you are considering a trip to Iran I really recommend organizing something directly with an Iranian agent. The trip cost less than half the price of a US tour, which would have been with a group of perhaps 12-15 strangers, and our holiday was  customized to our interests. I know Iran isn't an average destination and our families and friends thought we were crazy but it really was an incredible trip.

Here was the itinerary:

Day 1 (July 17) : Tehran- Afternoon Arrive Tehran Airport after meet and great by Gashttour representative transfer to hotel, in the evening Visit of Tehran parks O/N Hotel Ferdowsi

Day 2 (July 18)
Tehran- Esfahan Morning, after breakfast, we go a city tour and visit the Archaeological & Islamic Art Museums the finest museum in Iran, which exhibits the artifacts collected from the major archaeological sites in Iran from 7 thousands years ago. Carpet museum or contemporary art museum. Transfer to the airport for evening flight to Esfahan, meet and greet in Esfahan airport. O/N Esfahan Mallal Hotel
Day 3 (July 19): Full day city tour Imam Square, a jewel of Persian architecture which includes the Alighapou Palace, Imam& Sheikh Lutfullah Mosques, handicraft factories and Esfahan bazaar with its traditional arcades. In the evening visit the most beautiful and famous Esfahan bridges along the Zayandeh Rud River and acquaintance with ordinary people of Esfahan O/N Esfahan Mallal Hotel
Day 4: (July 20): EsfahanVisit of Shaking Minarets. Jamee Mosque, Madresah Chahar Bagh, Chehel sooton Palace and Vank Cherche. Afternoon or possible day at leisure. O/N Esfahan Mallal Hotel
Day 5: (July 21): Esfahan -Shahr -e-Kurd
Morning fly to Shari –e-Kurd (nearly one hours) by 4 wheel modern vehicle with AC to meet and acquaintance with Bakhtiyari Nomads (one hour out of Shahr Kurd toward Gohrang) visit nomads in their tents, then return and stay in  Hotel Azadi
Day 6 (July 22): Shahr –e- Kurd -Yasuj
Morning toward Yasuj, This is a very nice Mountainous road ( About 6 hours ) en route you can visit Boyer Ahmad nomads, O/N camp with nomads.
Day 7(July 23) Yasuj -Shiraz -Black tents
Morning toward Shiraz for staying one night in camp beside black tents and camp in cool area of Sapidan & yasuj province O/N camp with nomads.

Day 8 (July 24): Shiraz
After breakfast drive to Shiraz transfer to hotel then half day city tour taking in Erma and Narenjestan Garden, Nasir -ol - Molk Mosque, Khan Theological School, Hafez and Saadi Tomb, and Vakil Bazaar. Night dinner and live music in Vail restaurant (The famous vakil Bath). O/N Shiraz Aryo hotel

Day 9 (July 25):  Shiraz-Persepolis-Naghshrostam
After breakfast towards the huge Archaeological these sites belong to two thousand five hundred years ago the manifest of glorified Achaemenid Empire the sole palace in that time which was build by free workmen and artist not by slaves. Night dinner in Nomadic restaurant. O/N Shiraz Aryo hotel

Day 10 (July 26) Day trip to Bishpur Sasanid palace complex. At night visit an Iranian family home, acquaintance with Iranian home tradition O/N Shiraz Aryo hotel

Day 11(July 27) : Shiraz - Kerman
Early morning, drive toward Kerman by modern 4Wheel vehicle with AC en route visit several small towns and village ,fig fields (nearly 8 hours) afternoon half day city tour , visit of  Ganj - Ali Khan complex including the bath, teahouse , jalyyeh Dome, O/N Kerman
Hezar Hotel

Day 12 (July 28): Kerman Bam - Mahan - Kerman
Full day Excursion to visit the terrific citadel of Bam as well as the magnificent Mausoleum of Shah Nematollah - e - Valli and the lovely Shahzadeh (Prince) Garden in Mahan return to Kerman, O/N Kerman Hezar Hotel

Day 13 (July29) : Kerman –Yazd Morning visit of Kerman Bazaar then move toward Yazd nearly 4 hours after a little rest in hotel then visit Yazd Bazar, teahouse ordinary people (possible afternoon at leisure) O/N Yazd Azadi Hotel

Day 14 (July30) : Yazd Visit of historical monuments with unique architecture for this typical desert city with high wind towers (bed- girs), the great & beautiful Jame Mosque & Mir Chakhmaq Mosques & Dowlat Abad Garden, Zorostarian Fire temple. O/N Yazd Azadi Hotel

Day 15 (July31) Yazd –Tehran
Morning flight to Tehran. Visit of Golestan Palace, Museum of Archeology (from 7 thousands years ago), Carpets museum, and evening transfer for your international flight