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When you announce to friends, family and colleagues that you've just booked a holiday in Iran (an 'Axis of Evil Tour' as they might see it), their responses tend to be fairly predictable. They range from the geographically mistaken 'but isn't there a war there?'(nope, that's Iraq) or 'aren't they fighting with Israel?' (nope, that's Lebanon) to the most predictable of all responses - a look of bemusement and the question "What on earth would you want to do that for?'
So I say to you put aside the thoughts of mad mullahs and the bellicose but oddly attractive (in a Jose Mourinho despotic sort of way) prime minister Ahmedinajad. Try instead to think Persia - the world's first great empire and the land of carpets and fluffy kitties with squashed up faces.
As there's so much I could say about this fabulous country I'm going to enforce some much needed discipline on my thoughts and restrict myself to an A to Z format. It's still going to be long but without it I'd be rambling for days. I'm going to try to give you a taster of the good and bad of a tour round Iran.
~A is for Ayatollah Khomeini~ The old fella's been dead since 1989 but his scowling face still leers down on you wherever you go. He's best known as the 'architect' of the Iranian Revolution and as the man who pronounced a fatwa on Salman Rushdie and reduced the age of marriage for girls to just 9 years. To many Iranians, he's still seen as a national hero and his shrine just outside Tehran is set to be the biggest mosque in the world if the builders ever finish it. It's a project on a par with Wembley Stadium and a building with all the attractiveness of a cattle market crossed with a 1970's Arndale Centre.
~B is for Bread~ A few site members may know that I have a professional interest in bread and baking and am a bit of a bread bore. Nowhere in the world have I ever tasted bread as bad as made in Iran. It would seem that local bakers have cracked the art of producing a product that comes out of the oven pre-staled.
~ C is for Crafts ~ Shopping for local goodies should be a highlight of any holiday but it can be a bit of a challenge in Iran. The carpets are world-class but very expensive and are highly valued by local people, perhaps more so than by tourists. Miniature painting is very popular and can be found on both camel bone (didn't see a camel the entire trip but plenty of bone) and paper. The quality is excellent. Tiles and ceramics also make nice presents and there's plenty of jewellery and high grade gold if that's what you like. However, the smaller towns and cities see very few tourists and the shops are more likely to be selling plastic buckets and rice and to have very limited appeal. With so few tourists there are very few touts and pushy sales people and those who don't want to shop, won't have to. We met only one pushy seller in two weeks - a guy trying to flog Iran T-shirts for a dollar who clearly hoped we wouldn't notice that the embroidered flags were in the wrong colours.
~ D is for Driving ~ With petrol heavily subsidised the car is king. We heard different prices quoted with a dollar buying you between 10 and 30 litres of petrol depending on whom you believe. The cars are mostly out of date models flogged by European car companies, many before the revolution. The Paycan is the national car and is based on the Hillman Hunter but production has now ceased and Peugeot 206s are very popular. Many of the cars are kept together by prayer and filler. We strongly suspect that getting a driving licence in Iran is like getting a TV licence in the UK.
~ E is for Esfehan ~ One of the most beautiful cities on earth. Visitors will be exposed frequently to the famous quote 'Esfahan is half the world' - not that anyone seems too sure what that's supposed to mean but the best guess seems to be that half of everything worth seeing in the world is in Esfahan. It's home to the Imam Square - the world's second largest square (after Tianamen) which is ten times bigger than St Mark's in Venice and so pretty it makes your eyes water. Add to this some stunning palaces and museums, some mosques that have withstood 800 years of all that earthquakes and Scud missiles could
Pictures of General: Iran
That happy smiling face
throw at them and you've got a place you'll want to stay in forever - or until you've spent all your money.
~ F is for Food ~ At the airport we saw a book called 'The Art of Persian Cooking'. It was quite a slim volume but even so I suspect the type must have been big. If you don't eat meet the food is a disaster. If you do it's just plain boring. You may think you like kebabs but could you eat them twice a day with stale bread and garlic yoghurt? I suffered - I really did. And three days being off my food after a colossal vomiting session was actually quite a relief. Iranian food is bland and repetitive. Sorry - some will disagree with me but it's my review and my opinion. Oh, and I HATE saffron - there's nothing that can escape this evil spice including the ice-cream.
~ G is for George Bush ~ "Do you all hate us or is it just the Americans?" The question was asked in curiosity rather than anger and we resisted the temptation to say "The Israelis and Iraqis hate you too, but we wouldn't be here if we didn't like you". The point is that at the moment one of the biggest concerns that most would-be tourists have is that Dubya's going to pop over and bomb the country back to the stone age and put a real damper on their holiday. Face facts - at the moment he's got his hands full in Afghanistan and Iraq and things look fairly rosy. You may meet locals - particularly young ones - who will tell you they pray for GWB to invade and get rid of the government. I can't suggest they are drunk - on the 0.0% beer substitute - but they may well be crazy. Be careful what you wish for guys.
~ H is for Hijab~ Hijab - the word sends a shudder down the spines of most women - those who know what it means anyway. It's the 'Islamic Dress Code' but it doesn't have to be a nightmare if you prepare well. Chadors are not compulsory in Iran but you may have to wrap up in a sheet to get into some shrines - the local ladies will be happy to giggle and help you. Most of the time the requirement is a headscarf or other head covering (I got by with a Buff tube hat because I just couldn't do the scarf routine) and a 'manteau' - a knee length shirt or coat. In general the style is 'The Queen walking the corgis at Balmoral' without the wellington boots. In the big cities the manteaux are getting shorter and more tailored and some of the interpretations of the code are bordering on risque but out in the sticks, black is very definitely 'the new black'.
~ I is for Iran-Iraq War - or the so-called 'Imposed' War ~ For ten years Iran and Iraq had a big dust up on the border. It cost millions of lives - estimates vary between one and three million - cost the Iranians a trillion dollars (that's a million millions), and at the end of the day the borders were almost exactly where they started. Those who died are considered to be martyrs and you will see photographs and murals of the local martyrs on the roundabouts of every city. There's even a TV channel which we dubbed 'Martyr TV' which shows photos and honours the dead all day long. The martyrs cemetery in Tehran is a moving monument to the futility of this conflict.
~ J is for Journeys ~ Flights in Iran are amazingly cheap - you can fly from Esfahan to Tehran for less than £20. Coach or bus travel is also really cheap - bear in mind the fuel costs are silly. There are a lot of police road blocks and your driver will sometimes have to negotiate eight lanes of traffic to get to the policeman, thus ensuring his passengers dig deep at the end of the tour in respect for his bravery. Most of the roads are in good condition although some of the mountain passes are a bit pukey.
~ K is for Kebabs ~ Chicken, minced lamb kebab, whole piece lamb kebab. That's your standard menu - take it or leave it. You might think you like kebabs - after 28 of them in two weeks you may be ready to change your mind.
~ L is for language ~ Iranians speak Farsi - it uses an Arabic script but sounds softer and has less throat clearing. Thank you is - conveniently - Merci. It's pronounced as if pleading for mercy rather than doing a French accent. And hello is Salaam. But don't worry - all tourists are assumed to speak English so you'll hear 'Hello' 'Welcome to my country' wherever you go. Iranians do 7 years of English in school and all the street signs are in Farsi and English.
~ M is for Mountains ~ Iran's a very mountainous place - in fact the highest peak between Kilimanjaro and the Himalayas is mount Damovand, just outside Tehran. It's 5671m to the summit and it's a very pretty cone volcano shape - a bit like Mount Fuji. Many of the cities popular with tourists are set on high altitude planes with stunning mountains as their backdrop. In Tehran you can spend your free time skiing in the mountains right up against the city limits.
~ N is for Nuclear Power ~ One of the most controversial issues of the moment - should Iran be 'allowed' to develop nuclear power and would it lead inevitably to weapons development? Why does a land with 8% of the world's oil reserves need nuclear power? Should we be worried or should we assume that a country that thought the Hillman Hunter was state of the art until a few years ago shouldn't be too much of a threat? It's a tough issue not least because their bitterest enemy Israel already has the bomb (not that they'll ever openly admit to it). You know what - I'm not going to say any more on this topic.
~ O is for Ordinary People ~ I doubt you'll get a warmer welcome anywhere in the world than you'll receive as a tourist in Iran. Estimates vary but it's thought that the number of European or 'western' tourists is running at about 3000 per year - not enough to make any impact on the economy at all. As a tourist you can't help but stand out and people will stare but not in an unpleasant way. Most of the locals did a bit of English in school and total strangers will say 'hello' or 'welcome' or ask you where you come from without any intention to sell you something or engage you in a long conversation. They are curious and enormously welcoming. Even those who don't speak any English at all will offer you sweets, dates, cakes or nuts and share what they have with you. In one small town a local man heard there were tourists in town and sat in the lobby of our flea-pit hotel for two hours waiting for the chance to practice his English.
~ P is for Persepolis ~ In the middle of the first millenium BC, Darius the Great and his successor Xerxes set out to conquer the world and build the first 'world empire' stretching from Greece and North Africa, through the Middle East, and way into Asia. They built Persepolis as a grand city where they could celebrate the new year (the spring equinox) and invite the people of the empire to come and pay tribute to the great empire (by tribute, read taxes!). Persepolis today is the sort of archaeological wonder that would be knee-deep in bus loads of tourists if it were anywhere but Iran. It's a Unesco world heritage site but on the day of our visit, there can't have been more than a couple of hundred visitors spread across the city.
~ Q is for Qajars ~ These were one of the dynasties that I can't remember too much about but at least I got a Q. Wikipedia tells me that they were around from 1781 to 1925 and that reminds me that these were the family who built up the amazingly rich collection of Crown Jewels that are now held in the basement vaults of a bank in Tehran. The excesses of the family were incredible - even their horses had jewelled ornaments to keep the flies out of their eyes and to decorate their tails.
~ R is for Religion ~ Iran is a majority Shia Moslem country - I think it's the only one in the world. They aren't popular with their Sunni neighbours and I won't attempt an explanation of the philosophical difference other than to say it goes back a long way to the issue of who got to take over as boss when Mohammed died. In addition to Shia's there are pockets of Zoroastrianism - the majority religion of the pre-Islamic days and there are tiny numbers of Jews and Christians, the latter mostly Armenians. We visited a small Jewish shrine and a few churches. The religion that's most persecuted in Iran is the Baha'I faith - officially they don't exist.
~ S is for Shiraz ~ 'Shiraz, hmm,' you may be thinking, 'as in the wine? Surely not'. Shiraz is the city of poets and a grape growing area that gave its name to the red wine - not that there's any wine making going on today, more's the pity. The city is also the closest to two significant ancient cities - Pasargad, the city of Cyrus the Great, and Persepolis, the city of Darius and Xerxes.
~ T is for Temporary Marriage ~ The rule is no sex outside marriage - and in Iran that's a rule you don't break or the penalties are severe; as a minimum it's a good flogging and then you are marched off and forced to marry or if it's adultery then the penalty is death. But people have 'needs' or so we are told and there's a weird little loophole that's allegedly been around since the time of Mohammed - it's called 'temporary marriage' and it utterly does my head in. Our local guide told us that a TM can last for a minimum of a year and gives the woman some kind of legal protection. He claimed it was 'better than prostitution or having a mistress' but I couldn't quite figure out the logic behind that if no man will want a woman who's not a virgin. You can apparently renew your temporary marriage three times and after that you have to go ahead and do a proper one. I think there's also some facility for having more than one wife but by that stage of the conversation he'd lost me.
~ U is for Underpasses ~ There don't seem to be any and this leads to the widespread art or sport of playing chicken on busy roads. Maybe all those paintings of martyrs on the roundabouts were actually for those killed trying to cross the road? I don't know but being a pedestrian in Iran is a dangerous business
~ V is for Visas ~ Whatever you do, don't go over your allotted time limit. The authorities don't have a sense of humour about such matters and you may get a free extension to your visit - in a jail cell. Allegedly if you expect to have problems the best place to apply for a visa extension is 'anywhere by Tehran' where the tourist police will make you sweat. Esfahan is recommended.
~ W is for Water ~ It's probably more precious than oil - they've got plenty of the latter. Over the millennia they've devised clever ways to store water and maximise the effectiveness of its collection. Amazingly though as a tourist you don't have to drink bottled - they are very proud that the water straight from the tap is completely safe.
~ X is for Xerxes ~ One of the great Persian emperors who got his arse well and truly whooped by the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae and subsequently failed to take Athens.
~ Y is for Yazd ~ The desert city of Yazd is a tourist attraction with fabulous mosques, spooky Zoroastrian 'Towers of Silence' and Fire Temples and clever cooling systems using wind towers called badgirs.
~ Z is for Zoroastrianism ~ Inevitably it's snuck in a couple of times already but Zoroastrianism practised by followers of Zarathustra (cue the music from 2001, a Space Odyssey) is thought to have been the first monotheistic religion and the god was called Ahura Mazda. Some of the basics of the religion were sacred elements (fire, air, earth and water), an ongoing battle between light and dark and good and bad. The religion is perhaps best known for its tradition of leaving dead bodies out in the 'Towers of Silence' to be eaten by vultures so that the bodies didn't defile the earth or fire. It's a fascinating religion that believes the hedgehogs are excellent little beasts that gobble up slugs and spiders and 'other manifestations of the shadow'. How could you fail to like a religion that rates the little spiny critters so highly?
Finally a quick explanation of the photos at the end.
A is for Ayatollah - a rug in a transport café has been lovingly crafted with the old guy's face B is for Bread - artisan bakers producing their characteristically inedible fare E is for Esfahan - a shot of the mosque on Imam square H is for Hijab - local girls only too happy to have their photos taken with a strange Englishman (and me). Note the scarf and manteau variations. O is for ordinarly people - this group of nomad ladies gave us apples then joined us for tea and photos. Nobody understood a word the other were saying. Nobody cared. P is for Persepolis - or in this case Pooh at Persepolis on one of the famous staircases carved with figures of 'The Invincibles' - the crack troops of the Persian army Z is for Zoroastrianism - myself and an Australian lady in the pit at the top of a 'Tower of Silence' waiting for the vultures to come and eat us.