For most Americans, visiting Iran doesn’t make it onto their vacation radar. Yet, for me and my wife Harriet, experiencing the wonders of ancient Persia has topped our bucket list for quite some time. In 2014, we decided to go. And while the travel challenges remain similar today, Iran remains a wonderous destination for the most adventurous travellers.
What surprised us most during our 25-day journey was how wonderfully welcoming the Iranian people were and the universally warm reception we received everywhere we went. American tourists are a rarity in Iran and when discovered by locals, we were the subject of much curiosity and delight.
We planned for our contrarian journey after thoughtful research and consultation with Iranian friends and feedback from those who had just returned. Despite a State Department travel advisory cautioning U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel there, we decided to go.
Above: Writer Michael Solender, above right, got a warm welcome everywhere he visited in Iran on a 2014 visit.
We were drawn to Iran by the opportunity to experience more than 2,500 years of ancient Persian tradition, architecture and culture. We wanted to visit several UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Persepolis and Esfahan’s Friday Mosque. Calling us was the vast influence the Persian culture and civilization has imparted on contemporary Iran, the Middle East and beyond.
We weren’t quite prepared for the positive attention we garnered from Iranians anxious to meet Americans.
One morning at a park in Shiraz, Harriet was approached by an older gentleman. Her blond hair and aqua-coloured tunic gave her away as a foreigner.
“Where is your home?” he asked, painstakingly summoning up all his English language skills. When Harriet responded, “America,” the man’s faced beamed. He explained his son was in Ohio, teaching at a university in Cleveland and his daughter was studying at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“Welcome here, welcome to Iran,” he exalted us in a refrain we heard often.
Often we were the first Americans people had ever met. Iranians stopped on the streets daily, curious about our impressions of Iran.
University students mobbed us in Esfahan at Imam Khomeini Square when they heard us speaking English. Anxious to try their language skills on native speakers, several young women giggled nervously as they asked us about our country and our home city.
Above: Historic treasures where everywhere Michael and his wife visited in Iran, but Persepolis impressed most.
While Charlotte didn’t quite register, they acknowledged my geography lesson that it was halfway between Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. Picture postcards I brought were a big hit and always gained a “beautiful city” response when I showed off Charlotte’s skyline.
Selfies with the strange Americans were frequently requested and we eagerly obliged.
During our trip we logged more than more than 4,800kms travelling by bus with a small group of Americans and a national guide. Harriet and I added several days on our own in Tehran before joining the group.
Our itinerary included Iran’s capital, several remote Caspian Sea villages, Masouleh, an ancient hillside town that has had continuous occupation for more than 1,000 years, Firuzabad, Yazd, Kerman and the cultural capital of Iran, Esfahan.
With 12 million plus inhabitants, the capital city of Tehran is the centre of contemporary life in Iran. Smoggy and resting atop an inverted dish that abuts the Alborz Mountains, the city is a series of somewhat unconnected districts and neighbourhoods, lacking an urban core, distinctive character or a defining personality.
Traffic is ferocious at all hours of the day and crossing the street was the biggest danger we faced in Iran.
What Tehran lacks in charm, however, is more than made up for in cultural touchstones and historic significance.
Above: Michael and his wife quickly discovered Iranian food, made from ancient Persian recipes, were very good.
Gulestan Palace and the Sa’ad Abad complex dazzled us with intricate tile mosaics, colourful vast throne rooms and imposing receiving halls. Tehran’s magnificent bazaar is a maze of exotic chatter, fine Persian carpets, cardamom and cinnamon perfumed air and some of the finest people watching anywhere. Our city tour included visits to the former Shah’s palace, the National Museum, the iconic Azadi Freedom Tower, Laleh Park, Tehran’s Jameh Mosque and the world famous Iranian Crown Jewels.
Beyond Tehran, Persepolis awed us with remarkably preserved archeological sights and mountainside reliefs revealing the stories of Darius, Xerxes and Zoroastrian rulers of centuries ago.
Yazd, unfamiliar to me before our visit, became a favourite as I was enthralled by the stunning Dowlat Abad, a classic walled Persian Garden rimmed with pomegranate and persimmon trees, and the hilltop Towers of Silence, ancient traditional Zoroastrian sanctuaries for the dead.
The tiny village of Masouleh near the Caspian region introduced us to a variety of textile handicrafts and treats such as kalouche, a pastry-like cookie with a spicy/sugary filling of walnuts and butter.
Esfahan overwhelmed us with its beauty and charm. The magnificent Imam Khomeini Square, one of the largest in the world, is a place where we marvelled at the famed Ali-Qapu Palace and the towering Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Dozens of horse-drawn carriages roamed the square with bells announcing their presence. We travelled across bridges built centuries ago and easily imagined what life must have been like in ancient times.
Dining in Iran is a carnivore’s paradise. Just don’t look for pork — all things pig are forbidden under Islamic law. Kebobs (chicken, lamb and beef) are popular and almost always served with saffron rice. Stews are delicious with lamb shank a popular choice for braising. Grilled tomatoes and sour, pickled onions and garlic accompany many dishes as does a ubiquitous yogurt and shallot sauce, that most use for dipping, with freshly baked flatbread.
Above: A local wrestling match, a street musicians, and ancient mosaic art all were highlights of our writer's 2014 trip.
Ice cream is a real treat in Iran with the most popular kind flavoured with saffron, rosewater, honey and pistachios.
Touring in Iran is not without challenges. The infrastructure was just beginning to develop when we visited, and in many areas it is practically non-existent. Gleaming hotel lobbies belie shabby guest rooms with small, well-worn beds. Plumbing is often problematic. Service is frequently indifferent and internet connections are hit or miss. Outside the hotel, toilets are of the squat variety, without paper and often unclean.
Women need be aware that Islamic law decrees that headscarves (hijabs)must be worn at all times in public. Long sleeves and ankle covering pants or dresses are also a must; no skin beyond the face and hands must show. Many of the holy sites we visited had separate entrances for men and women and in addition to headscarves, women were required to wear chadors, long over-garments covering their entire body.
Certainly inconvenient and different from Western culture, these requirements are necessary as part of the price paid for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
With all the wonderful and historic sites we visited, it was the people that left the greatest impact upon us. One exchange with our bus driver, Ahmad, was emblematic of the genuine affection shown to us throughout our trip.
Ahmad is as skilled as they come, daily navigating treacherous, winding mountain roads while spending his nights sleeping in a cramped special compartment on the bus. Yet he was always smiling, helpful and very prideful at the opportunity to share his homeland with us.
The group insisted he come to our farewell dinner where we gave him a standing ovation and special recognition.
Tearing up, Ahmad said simply he loved Americans and thanked us for visiting. As we left, he asked us to be ambassadors for Iran upon our return home.
Mark Twain perhaps captured the sentiment best when he said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness.”
I couldn’t agree more.