On a trip to Iran couple of years ago, I experienced first hand the beautiful hospitality of Iran beyond its tourist attractions. Iranians are particularly thrilled to meet all races, and even Americans, as I discovered travelling the country for 3 weeks. Politics bruises the very ideals of the Iranian people, and in no way do they echo the sentiments of what has been happening in the media.
As I travelled through the country with groups of different races and religions, I asked my host “Would he host an American?” and his eyes lit up and he instantly responded “Yes, I would host them just like I would host anyone. The politics of a country does not represent the people of a nation.”
The places to visit in Iran were often overshadowed by the friendly conversations with people. Every walk in the park, a visit to the mosque, or a train ride to the other end of the city were often met with tea requests and more gifts than we could fit in our backpacks.
Looking back at my pictures, there were standout moments that made my visit to Iran special, more than just visiting Iran’s tourist attractions. For all the genuine pride the people of Iran demonstrated, there were stories of Iranians who hoped for a better future.
From a retired old man in the Armenian quarters of Tehran who longed for stability, to an engineering student who is learning German and trying to better every instance of his life and to young Iranians who have tasted a better life elsewhere in Asia, it was clear that each one of them were hopeful and helpless at the same time.
Just when they thought there was a promise of an end to years of punishing sanctions, the renewed sanctions have sent the Iranian Rial into a free fall. Here’s a photo-journey depicting the people that matter and the Persian landscapes that carries dreams and stories of the people that I met, and how a country as warm as Iran should be given a visit.
Also Read: 10 Reasons Why I Travelled to Iran
The capital of Iran, Tehran - a bustling metropolis surrounded by the Alborz range
We started our journey in bustling Tehran, not knowing what to expect in this city of 14 million people. It reminded me of the hustle and bustle of India, but as I explored the streets of Northern Tehran, I came across beautiful houses lined with Cedar trees. There were open courtyards, traditional earthy beige houses with stunning Islamic architecture (just look up to the roof of every building, bazaar and houses!)
Iranians can’t do without the pomegranates
It is safe to say that Persians love their pomegranates known as ‘Anar’. Every street, park or Iranian household that we entered into served us the pomegranates. It was often an ice breaker or a subtle act of hospitality. It is served in stews, as candies, and mixed into main dishes along with walnuts and other dry fruits. I was even told that pomegranates are even mentioned in the Koran and the Bible. Some believe the apple in the Garden of Eden was a pomegranate.
Learning the art of picnicking in Iran
As my Couchsurfing host showed me Tehran, I came across Iranians basking in the November light holding large picnic gatherings everywhere where there is a little patch of dirt. Copious amounts of tea, Barbadi (bread), jam, cheese and their endless sense of humour since to be the subject of the day. They easily choose to focus on the things that give them the most happiness, and finding joy to express their current state of mind. We visited several parks such as Abo-Atash park and the Jamishidieh Stone Garden.
Seeing where the Shah of Iran once used to live, Niavaran Historial Complex and Sa’dabad Complex
When I posted a public announcement on Couchsurfing, Niloo reached out to me quickly. She used to study in Malaysia for couple of years and was excited to reconnect with Malaysians who had come to Iran. After exchanging our contact information, Niloo gladly offered to show us the hidden gems of Tehran. She brought us to Niavaran Historial Complex where the Shah of Iran used to live before the Iranian revolution.
It was a stunning and beautiful place where we could see the rich Iranians dressed to the nines and speaking perfect English at the garden cafe. The Autumn trees and lush greenery made it hard to believe that I was in Iran. It made me feel quite at home. Who knew that besides the crazy eight-lane highways and Tehran’s polluted cities that were trees this beautiful and enchanting?
We spoke about her adventures from Malaysia to Iran and her next step in life. For a lot of Iranians, a degree is not enough, it was always what’s next after that. During my encounters, I met countless PhD holders, mathematicians who continued their ambition to achieve the highest qualifications despite the restricted job growth in the country, compounded by the international sanctions.
As we ventured further into Iran, we met more women who defied the stereotypes of the coy hijab girl
Hilarity ensued when me and my friend were walking down the streets, these girls couldn’t stop giggling for no reason but as soon as my camera came out they threw in all sorts of poses to shine their real persona and spunkiness.
Heading Towards The Silicon Valley of Iran, Pardis Technology Park
Just 20km outside of Tehran’s metropolitan area lies Pardis Technology Park, as referred to by my host Mostafa “The silicon Valley of Tehran”. A newly planned city with about 200,000 inhabitants and thousands of other engineers and IT consultants.
We were invited by Mostafa to visit his town and learn more about the outskirts of Tehran. As he had a busy shift to attend to, he outsourced his hospitable duties to his friend who had just finished the midnight shift and was ready to show us his village, Aru in the central district of Damavand county.
The next 24 hours involved trying out his local bread, climbing over a random hill in Iran and getting caught in a hailstorm continued by supermarket hunting for the best spices available in Asian cooking.
We were supposed to show a little bit of Malaysia through our mediocre cooking skills. We ended up cooking turmeric banana curry and Asian fried rice. In return, he exchanged his stories with us and his dreams to learn German and hopefully migrate to Germany where he sees his IT career kicking off.
Courtyards like these in Iran’s Old Mud Town, Yazd
I was pleasantly surprised how Iran’s old mud-town was stunning in every aspect and was unlike any other place that I have visited. Globalization may have erased traditions and skills but not in Yazd, Iran’s mud-town. People are trained to be ecological, rather than technological.
In 2017, the Global Energy Award was conferred to Yazd for its advantages in conserving and making optimum use of energy in view of its architecture. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site known to have the oldest community in Iran, the Zoroastrians.
Here’s how I found that Zoroastrianism was the main religion in Iran where you can find old scriptures, talk to Zoroastrians and understand their religious conquests. Over here, in this picture, I found a place which was a “budget hotel” called the Yazd Friendly Hotel but it had the most beautiful courtyard.
Being part of the Zoroastrian community in Nartitee’s 100-year eco-lodge
Arriving in Taft, just 30km from Yazd, I was picked up Ramtin, who took me to a quaint, beautiful mud-house at the Nartitee Ecolodge, a 100-year house which was built by the generations of Ramtin’s grandfather who was set on preserving the religion and culture of Zoroastrianism.
My conversations with Ramtin were peppered with humor, and his understanding on the factoids that make the Zoroastrian faith rich with culture, prestige and grandeur. I was told that Zoroaster, the prophet has been known for rejecting many gods of ancient Iranian people and declaring a single God and the only and ultimate creator of all things, which mean good things, the God of light.
As I walked the narrow lanes of Yazd, the oasis in the middle of the desert in central Iran on our way to Nartitee Ecolodge, the people and culture revealed the traditional and ancient life of pedestrians during the silk route era. I walked and walked with Ramtin and it felt like it was 770AD. There was a 69-step walk-down to an ancient well, an old bazaar and a 1,400-year-old Mosque, the old-town was brimming with charm and a vast maze of small roads.
Awed by the endless passages, I finally reached Nartitee’s Ecolodge and the beautiful interiors and cooling mud-walls were a treat. These cool houses back in those days used to be damp, which made it easier to climb and watch matches.
He gave me the Maidyozarem room which means “Rich Spring’ and was located in the middle-yard, known to hold a feast, a Gamhambar feast during the ancient Persian times. Certainly, there was no feast in my room, as I was presented with a charming bed, printed sheets and a rickety vintage sewing machine as its iconic showpiece in the room.
The next few days went by in a breeze, I was taken in, fed an Iranian Zoroastrian feast with dried fruits, a cheese platter, Barbadi (Iranian bread) and fruits.
In the blistering afternoon sun, I was met with surprising escapades and chatter from the locals in the surrounding Taft region with fond memories of being driven around in a motorbike at breakneck speed in the blistering afternoon heat, helmetless to explore the ruins of Yazd, Iran.
6 people on a bike in Iran's countryside is a common sight. With 4 of us, it's a waste of space! When a bright eyed, young family man gave us a lift after paying a visit to the dentist to get his wisdom tooth extracted, we were not sure if we were signing up for danger but what we thought was a quick drop off to the city, turned out to be the best afternoon spent with him and his family.
The Twisting Alleys of Abyaneh
It is a visual treat to come across an ancient village like this in Iran, called Abyaneh. Characterized by a peculiar reddish hue, the village is one of the oldest in Iran, attracting numerous native and foreign tourists year-round, especially during traditional feasts and ceremonies.
Due to its dwindling population, only 300 families live here as many of them had moved to cities due to better opportunities. But walking around here is quite a sight, you’ll notice Quranic verses on their doors, narrow alleys, the elderly selling their local jewellry and most of them donning floral hijabs and pleated skirts.
Having a quiet moment at the infamous pink mosque Nasir-al-Mulk Mosque
Shiraz, the name sounds mysterious and yet synonymous with wine. The city is famous for its poets, wine and treasure love of everything Persian. After days of meeting people and visiting mosques, the Nasir-al-Mulk mosque also known as Pink mosque blew me away by its architecture, lovely play of light and colour and intricate mosaic work. It was nice to come in early, sit and listen to the silence in the morning.
It also got me thinking about how underrated Persian architecture is. In a world where western architecture is celebrated and modernised buildings are idolised, little has been said or celebrated about the architectural wonders during the Qajar dynasty. An important period where Persian architecture took off and the continuation of these elements were seen in its streets, bridge, bathhouse and schools. Appreciating the architecture and traditional elements are one of the best things to do in Shiraz.
Visiting Iran’s Little Amsterdam, Ghalat
Over here Iranians break free from the strict religious rules and indulge some carefree activities in Ghalat (ironically, in Hindi Ghalat means ‘wrong’). I, on the other hand, decided to explore the place and found some abandoned houses, a church and met really cool people who had a lot to say about Iran and other prohibited substances. We hiked, explored ruins, and watched the Autumn leaves change colour.
Losing myself in the era of the great Persian Empire, Persepolis
If there is one more reason to visit Shiraz, it is to see Persepolis and understand how this place existed some 2,500 years ago during the Achaemenid Empire. It was built on an immense half-artificial and half-natural terrace, where the king of kings created an impressive palace complex inspired by Mesopotamian models. Walking around the ruins is like traveling back in time, through the rich history of the ancient Persian empire. The statues and wall carvings are very well preserved and as stunning as a ruin can be.
Where half the world comes together in Isfahan
The city that was once called ‘Isfahan nasf-e jahan’ which means ‘Isfahan is half the world’. It was one of the largest cities in the world and had been given the honor to be the capital of Iran twice. But here’s the place where you can find all the finest craftsmanship, cultural, arts and education in one place.
It was known to be “the place” to get fine art pieces from around the world. In fact, merchants from India, Georgia, and the Ottoman lands chose to build huge palaces with exquisite gardens in Isfahan both for its own entrepreneurial opportunities, and its position at the strategic center of caravan trade in silk and silver.
It was also the place where I met a lot of people from Poland, China, Australia, France and Switzerland. All on their own adventures curious to see what role did the beauty of Iran play in itself.
All the picturesque shrines you’ll see
One of the most interesting and beautiful things to see in Kashan was the shrine of Hilal Ibn Ali, who was the son of Ali and also the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. The mausoleum building in itself has different entrances for men and women. As a female, I got to wear the chador (an outer garment and open cloak worn by women in Iran).
I found the architecture spellbindingly beautiful. The entrances were mirror-tiled and inside it was heavily decorated with mirror-tiled ceilings, stained glass windows and chandeliers.
Hemmed on each sides by the Islamic architectural gems such as blue-tiled minarets, arched arcades, domes and halls and chambers, the mausoleum embraces intricate tilework, plasterwork, woodwork, which occupy the spaces on the interior and exterior sides.
Staying in a caravanserai and reliving 1,001 arabian nights at the Maranjab desert
Perhaps one of the best detours we did on our way to Kashan was to visit the Maranjab desert and a nearby salt lake. It was made by an order from Shah Abbas in 1603 and located along the silk road, between the Khoreasan and Isfahan provinces. The 400-year-old Caravanserai was often a stop as an ancient motel during the Silk Road era.
The sky has zero light pollution and it was the stillness of the night that made it memorable, however the 400-year-old caravanserai were often filled to the brim with families during the weekend, making the stay not a great experience. But amidst the barren starlit sky, I found company by meeting a French elderly couple - they talked about the general looks of disapproval when they told their friends back home that they were visiting Iran, as it is often the case with almost everyone I meet.
Random invitations at the Soffeh Mount Park
This was a nice lush park that we found at Soffeh Mount Park while casually strolling through the streets in Isfahan. Every other time I would see Iranians lounging in the park, catching up on family affairs, jamming to Iranian folk music or simply shisha-ing up in the parks. I thought merry Asians had it down with our tartan rugs but you ain’t seen nothing until you have seen an Iranian picnic.
Being a Tea-totaller at Azadegan Teahouse
In a country where alcohol is banned, many coffee and tea shops have sprung up in Iran, where coffee and tea is now seen as the beverage of choice. For many Iranians, drinking coffee or tea in a cafe is a sweet escape from the shackles of society and a choice of elevating their Western palette. The cafe often serves as an important place for the young and the political to connect and share conversations and stories.
A notable cafe is Azadegan Teahouse where it is a wonderland with knick-knacks hanging everywhere. Every inch of the walls and ceiling is covered in pictures, paintings, lamps and other intriguing finds - almost looks like it has been hacked to looked artistically presentable. Athough it is a venue for tea-drinkers, desserts along with shisha are frequently served to locals and tourists all whilst puffing away and regaling their stories of Persia.
Stunning Armenian Church at the Vank Cathedral
Iran has always been a religious country and all the cities across Iran you will find numerous places of worship depending on the religion of the residents. However, in Isfahan, while the majority may be muslims, you’ll still find minority groups who have devoted themselves to the religion of Messiah; thus the construction of the Vank Cathedral.
I found the history of this place particularly intriguing. The Vank Cathedral was founded in 1606, devoted to thousands of Armenians who were deported from their homes and resettled with the help of Shah Abbas I after the Ottoman War during 1603-1618. The architecture of the Vank Cathedral comprised of a domed sanctuary, resembling a typical Iranian mosque with just subtle differences of European churches.
The ceiling was awashed in golden splendour and had marvelously intricate floral motifs in Persian miniature style depicting what happened to Jesus during his lifetime and just below it illustrating Armenian martyrs and their emotions.
The Border Town of Iran
Of modern-day Iran, Tarbiz holds the largest city in the northwest of Iran and is the center of the country’s Azeri community. After my three-week trip in Iran, I hitchhiked to the border town of Tabriz where we spent the afternoon and evening walking the European-styled streets and exploring the network of galleries at Tabriz’s Bazaar complex which earned its UNESCO heritage status in 2010 because of its historical importance as a cultural and commercial hub and its majestic, one-of-a-kind structure.
Ending the trip with Iranian Hospitality, Ta’arof
Travelling mirrors what I know to be true: our differences are what make us beautiful and special. Sameness doesn’t exist. Everything changes, and everything has a season but in Iran, I truly found the most kindest people who went out of their way to really connect with us - not because of our origins, because they just simply wanted to have a conversation and break the perception of what people have to say about Iranians.
Vahid and his wife from Tabriz were two people that we accidentally met in one of the Iranian shoplots when we were looking for a printing shop to send some postcards back home. He gladly helped us deliver the postcards, and allowed us to use his printing shop facilities to print the photos and his WiFi without taking a single cent from us. We felt truly humbled, and felt terrible for not being able to pay for this, and to top it all he even took us to a fancy bathhouse converted into a teahouse.
Times like this, I rediscover how people matter to places and inspires me of the goodness that surrounds us. If not for the conflict that continues to plague this region, I hope opening the doors to tourism might ease the hardships affecting the extraordinarily gracious people who welcomed us with such open arms.
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