Clare Max travels off the beaten track on her first visit to Iran… When I told my Mum my plans to backpack around Iran on my own, she took a deep breath and said “Promise me two things – please keep your big mouth shut, and if you fall in love with an Iranian, bring him back to New Zealand to live”. What prompted this normally polite woman to say such a thing? Well she thought her occasionally feisty daughter might be tempted to enlighten the males of this strict Islamic state about equality for women, and secondly, she knows I have a weakness for dark-eyed long-lashed men from the Middle East. As it turns out, keeping these promises turned out to be harder than expected…
My adventure began in Tehran, which due to its crazy traffic and pollution, wasn’t my favourite place so I soon decided that two nights was enough, though not before visiting the fantastic Jewellery Museum which housed the most incredible collection of jewels that I’ve seen in one place. Escaping to a tiny town called Kashan three hours south was more my cup of tea. I enjoyed visiting the old traditional houses and hammans which have been restored and opened to the public. Kashan is close to Qom which is one of Iran’s holiest cities, and therefore is a conservative town with many a black ‘chador’ running around. Chador literally translates to ‘tent’ and is what many Muslim women wear over the top of their clothes.
Wanting to venture off the beaten track, I headed west. Unfortunately taxi drivers never bring out the best in me so when I hired a taxi from Esfahan to Shahr-e-Kord communication difficulties meant the fare agreed on at the start was in dispute at the time of paying. It got pretty nasty with us both threatening to “call the polis, the polis!”. A dozen locals joined in the footpath debate and in the end I got away with being spat at, before being rescued by a young local woman called Elli.
And so began my introduction to the incredible Iranian hospitality I’d heard so much about. I went for “a quick cup of tea” and ended up staying for three days with Elli’s welcoming family. It really was one of the highlights of my trip. Tiny Shahr-e-Kord rarely receives tourists, so on my first night there I was taken around like a show pony to meet many relatives, including their extremely good-looking (and incredibly vain) Uncle (from then on secretly nicknamed ‘Sexy Uncle’).
I was fortunate to get invited to an engagement party during my stay. The couple celebrating were Muslim, so men and women were segregated over two floors. The scene was set with Iranian music blaring from large speakers, fizzy drink and fruit as entrees to the ubiquitous kebab with rice, and rows of slightly bored looking women sussing out who wore the best dress. Heavily applied blue eyeshadow coupled with dresses reminiscent of ’80s American prom queens were hugely popular. There was a surprising amount of flesh on display, that is until the future groom and his father walked in to join his fiancée on the ‘throne chairs’; there followed an unholy rush to don chadors and hijabs (scarves worn to cover hair) at the sight of males in the room.
After several days of excellent hospitality, exchanging stories and photos about our families and lives, I reluctantly tore myself away. Not before our last breakfast together however, where the matriarch of the family, dramatically wailing and distraught at my departure, suggested I marry her brother and stay living in Iran. Trying to avoid Sexy Uncle’s gaze (he’d correctly assumed I fancied him) I turned scarlet and fled the table to grab my backpack. The four hour taxi ride south through the Zagros Mountains proved a worthwhile experience scenery-wise with lush green countryside dotted with tiny villages of mud brick houses.
Next stop was Shiraz which is a wonderful city, full of beautiful mosques and pretty gardens. An hour’s bus ride from Shiraz are the ruins of an ancient city – Persepolis – which is a ‘must see’ according to both local and foreign tourists. The rain put a slight dampener on my enthusiasm for the ruins but they’re certainly up there with my favourites of Palmyra in Syria and Ephesus in Turkey. I had a great night in a nearby restaurant with a really friendly atmosphere where locals and tourists mixed easily. Local music was provided by an old Iranian crooner and his three-piece band; it was a fantastic night of singing, clapping and dancing (this translates as discrete seated shoulder wiggling for me and some ‘unique’ dancing by the Iranian men who twirled napkins in their hands).
From Shiraz I took a bus heading east to Yadz, a desert town apparently inhabited for over 7,000 years and famous for its ‘badgirs’ (wind towers) which dot the mud brick buildings in the old town (basically an ancient form of air conditioner). In Yadz I stayed at the Silk Road Hotel – it was a fantastic place to meet travellers and the closest thing to a hostel in Iran. There was an incredibly diverse and interesting group of fellow travellers there, from a Dutch couple who drove their combi-van from The Netherlands to Iran, to a Japanese girl who was cycling her way around the country (very brave given the outrageous driving I witnessed). One night we treated ourselves to dessert at a high end hotel with a traditional inner courtyard – lounging back on cushions with the smell of the apple flavoured qalyan (water pipe) gently wafting over us, a rectangular pool with floating flowers and candles, a beautiful garden, an elaborate high tent covering the open space and many pretty frescoes on the walls – it was a charming environment.
My final destination was Esfahan, a stunning spot where I spent many enjoyable days. Imman Square is the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square; at one end is the most incredible complex of mosques and buildings covered in stunning tiles, at the other is the old bazaar. Either side are shops galore filled with crafts, and more mosques and palaces. Imagine it at night, all lit up, with a huge fountain spraying over the long rectangular pool, domes shining in the background, and hundreds of families making use of the grass areas to have picnics. Magical stuff.
The Iranians are truly brilliant at picnics; they come fully prepared with many baskets of food, gas burners for cooking the kebabs, and blankets. Someone told me that for Muslims eating outside means you are close to God. Another more cynical Iranian said “well there’s not much else to do in the evening is there?!”. Parks in the daytime make for great people watching, especially as here the tender and sly art of flirting is carried out by dating Iranians. Some are more daring and hold hands or sit relatively close to each other, while others sit on separate ends of the park bench, talking to each other while staring straight ahead, in case anyone is watching.
So, what does it feel like on a day-to-day basis travelling in Iran? It definitely feels like you are in a society dominated by ‘rules’, the faces of the Grand Supreme Leaders frowning down on you from huge posters which appear everywhere, their heavy eyebrows making them looking fierce. Verses from the Koran are on billboards stuck to park fences (kindly translated into English for tourists), and the word ‘obedience’ appears regularly in day to day conversations. As a woman travelling mostly on my own it was not easy at times, and having to be fully covered up (including hijab) was occasionally hot and uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the people themselves are great: warm, friendly and curious (if rather intense!). They are keen to chat and tell you about their lives and always want to know how the world views their country. A number of young, educated and independent Iranians told me they are desperate to leave (and strangely enough, given diplomatic relations, their number one preferred is the USA). Overall, the people, coupled with the history, the sights, the stunning mosques, and interesting fellow travellers I met on the road, made this an incredibly memorable and rewarding country to visit. Clare Max