|Welcome to Iran
Iran is not a place I would choose to go on a pure sightseeing holiday, however since we have good friends living in Tehran at the moment, I thought I'd take this opportunity to see some of the sights during my visit. Getting a visa is not the easiest, particular if you are an independent traveller. You have to go through a travel agent or know someone who can sponsor you (in my case my friends). It takes about a month all up, by the time you fill in the paperwork that your sponsor will lodge with the appropriate government department in Tehran, in order to get an authorisation code. Then the authorisation code will be sent to the relevant Iranian embassy in your country of residence, where you then have to submit your application form and hope for the best.
My first impression of Tehran was the lack of colour - everything is grey, dirty and sooty looking. I must admit visiting Tehran in February when there are no leaves on the tress, the sky is grey and the temperature is hovering around 0 - 5 degrees, the city is certainly not at its best. However something tells me there wouldn't be a whole lot more colour even during the summer months. After the Iraq - Iran war cheap Soviet style apartments multiplied throughout the city without any planning, giving the city a definite Soviet feel.
The large sprawling city sits at the foot of Alborz mountains. This certainly offers locals and perhaps tourists (I didn't see one other tourist on my entire trip in Iran) good skiing opportunities and walking trails. When the weather is good and pollution is not too severe, the views back across the city are excellent and give you a perspective of how large the city really is.
The view over Tehran from Darakeh on a cold snowy February morning
You have to look hard and use your imagination to find the positives about Tehran. The city certainly has potential, but unfortunately under the current regime it has been left to deteriorate. You can see that prior to the Islamic Revolution (the revolution that transformed Iran from a monarchy to an Islamic republic) the city was a vibrant, bustling, colourful city. Locals say it was much like the "old" Beruit, where the woman were free from the headscarf, people could enjoy themselves with music and parties - a much more equal society all around. However now, woman have to cover their heads with a scarf and wear a loose fitting overshirt to just below the knee. Public hangings still take place. Parties and loud music are of course banned and people generally look depressed.
The city has an immense network of highways, again now deteriorating with the lack of maintainence. The driving is pretty mad and quite aggressive and the traffic is bedlam. Allow plenty of time to get to places.
A typical looking street in Tehran - pretty drab The locals enjoying some ice cream
There are a few sights to see in Tehran, they are nothing to write home about, but again some have a lot of potential and could be so much better than what is on offer now. I sort of felt they were half hearted efforts, so you really need to let your imagination kick-in to really appreciate them.
Darakeh is an area located north of the city that offers good walking / hiking trails. The morning we decided to take a walk it decided to snow. From the car park it takes about 20 mins to walk to the base of the trail, (or you can catch a bus). Along the way there are quite good views back over the city. Once you get to the base there are a variety of tea houses, plus a few very tacky attractions in the form of sideshows - something you would see at a fete / festival / carnival. You can then walk up to several stations where you can catch a cable car back down. The top station is where you can go skiing. On the Friday morning that we visited Darakeh, there were drove of locals out just walking up the mountain - apparently that's what everyone does, as they is nothing much else to do. Since it was blizzard conditions we decided to go for a "tea" at the basic tea houses on offer at the base of the mountain, filled with plastic chairs and metal tables, comfortable - NOT! The car park was an absolute nightmare to get out of - one road in and one road out.
Your typical Iranian tea house Fancy a walk with the masses on a Friday morning
Sa'dabad Palace was built by the Pahlavi dynasty and was first inhabited by the Qajar monarchs and royal family in the 19th century. After the Islamic Revolution the complex became a museum.
You can wander around the gardens of the complex and visit the various palaces within. The White and Green Palaces are by far the best. The Green Palace is completely over the top with some rooms cover from top to bottom in tiny gaudy mirror - bling!
Again the palaces could offer so much more. There are no descriptions in either Persian or English about the rooms in each of the palaces or what they were used for. You don't even get a map when you enter to help find your way around. The grounds are huge, so you just have to rely some fairly dodgy signs (which you hope are pointing in the right direction) and a bit of luck to find the right palaces. There are a lot of military guys walking around with machine guns, so I imagine the present government still uses it for foreign guests and gatherings.
Other places of interest in Tehran include; Golestand Palace, National Museum of Iran, The Carpet Museum of Iran (if you like carpets!), Niavaran Palace and Tehran's Grand Bazaar - be prepared for loads of people!
The Green Palace Put your sunnies on - the over the top mirrored walls and ceiling
Security is high in Sa'dabad Palace The local miliary boys on duty!
If you are visiting Iran, but sure not to miss Shiraz and Esfahan. Unfortunately I didn't get to Esfahan. Shiraz is located in the southwest of Iran. It is known as the city of poets, wine (back in the day) and flowers.
The people in Shiraz are certainly more friendly than in Tehran. We would quite often get big "hello's" and "good morning's" walking down street. In restaurants, locals were very friendly quite often offering us chocolates, followed by "where we you from". However I soon realised the friendliness was just a lead in, as soon as they found out we were Australian, all conversations would inevitably end up with questions about getting a visa for Australia. For some, it would be the fourth or fifth questions, some would hit you up after the second question, but without a doubt all wanted to go to Australia - or perhaps anywhere really, anywhere apart from Iran was the impresssion I got.
The more popular attractions of Shiraz include the tombs Hafiz, Saadi and Khaju e Kermani (all famous Persian poets). These are all worth a quick visit. Eram Gardens are also suppose to be worthwhile, however we ran out of time.
Hafiz's tomb - the famous Persian poet Kermani's tomb
Vakil Bazaar is the main bazaar in Shiraz and is located in the historical centre of the city. The bazaar has some beautiful courtyards, quaint tea houses and old shops that are deemed among the best places in Shiraz to buy carpets, spices, cooper, antiques, jewellery and handicrafts in general. When we visited the bazaar is wasn't very busy which made for a very pleasant experience - I think we were lucky!. The shop keepers don't hassled you and pull and tug you to enter their shops, like in other Middle Eastern bazaars or souks I have visited. When it came bargaining, go your hardest, generally I found prices very reasonable.
Vakil Bazaar in the historic centre of Shiraz
A huge array of spices One of the many courtyards within the bazaar
The pot man in his pot shop....banging away
Ancient Ruins - A Must See:
The spectacular ancient ruins of Persepolis are an absolutely must and a definite highlight of the trip. Persepolis is located about 55km from Shiraz (the distances depend of what you read, but is took about 45 mins to get there from Shiraz). Persepolis dates back to around 530 BC and was an ancient city built by Darius the Great made up of terraces and several palaces. The largest and most complex building at Persepolis was the Audience Hall consisting of 72 grand columns. For more details about Persepolis click HERE.
An aerial view of the ancient city of Persepolis dating back to 530BC
Kathy and Nicki at Persepolis The magnificent Persepolis
The once grnad entrance of the ancient city of Persepolis
Pasargadae began under Cyrus the Great in 546BC. The city of Pasargadae was preceded by Darius I magnificent Persepolis. For more details click HERE.
Nicki on top of the mountain in the ancient city of Pasargadae
The fire tower at Pasargadae Kathy and Nicki at Pasargadae
Nagsh e Rostum:
Nagsh e Rostum consist of four enormous tombs belonging to the Achaemenid kings (Darius I, Artaxerxes I, Xerxer I, Darius II) which are carved out of the rock face at a considerable height above the ground. They are quite spectacular. For more details click HERE.
We organised a driver and tour guide for the day (most hotels can arrange this for you). We set off at 9am and when straight to Pasargadae (the furtherest site from Shiraz), then onto Nagsh e Rostum, which contains the four tombs of the kings, which is spectacular site, then across the road is Naqsh e Rajab carvings, and finally onto Persepolis, where we spent the final two and a half hours of the trip and watched the sun go down.
I highly recommend all four sites and don't be told that you can't do them all in one day, as some tour operators may suggest. It's a long day, and lots of walking, but by no means was it rushed. A definite highlight of the trip and makes a visit to Iran all worthwhile.
The tombs of Darius I, Artaxerxes I, Xerxer I, Darius II
The stunning carvings on the tombs The four tombs of the great kings
Where to stay in Shiraz:
We stayed at the Pars International Hotel. It's in the centre of town on Zand Avenue. It is a 30 minute taxi ride from the airport. The hotel is clean and perfectly fine for a couple of nights. The hotels is classified as a four star, which is about right (www.pars-international-hotel.com)
Getting to and from Shiraz:
We took an Iran Air flight from Tehran's domestic airport. It take about 1 hour and 15 mins. A return flight costs about $US50. It is too far to drive from Tehran, particularly when flight are so cheap. Iran Air was perfectly fine and both our flights were on time.
Food in general:
The menu consists of rice and kebabs and more rice and kebabs. I ate chicken and lamb kebabs for the entire week in Iran. Occasionally you'll get a chicken schnitzel (or chicken shenitsel as it was quite often spelt). The food is extremely bland and absolutely no variety.
All in all I'm glad I had the opportunity to visit Iran. Would I go back - probably not, I feel I have seen the best parts. Would I recommend it to others - only if you have visited all the other major tourist cities in the Middle East and really crave more. If you are travelling for business or visiting friends - then certainly make the most of your trip and make sure Persepolis is on your itinerary.
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