After getting well acquainted with Tehran, it was time to hit the road and do my best to see as much of Iran as possible. I was mesmerised to notice jut how diverse this country was as I made my way from north to south and back north again, noticing the difference in landscape, customs and language while always being showered with the same hospitality everywhere I went...
Road tripping from Tehran to Shiraz
I did spend a lot of time researching and exchanging messages in travel forums prior to travelling to Iran, aiming to gather as much information as possible as well as to make a few acquaintances. Much to my fortune, I came across my now friend Abbas, an Iranian traveller who was doing his very best travelling to every single part of his country while struggling to get visas to travel abroad.
After exchanging messages for months, we met in Tehran, and he had organised a road trip with his friend Nasser, to travel from Tehran back to his hometown of Shiraz, passing through very interesting places on the way. I couldn't have asked for a better experience, travelling with two fellow travellers that, while local, shared the same enthusiasm for visiting their own country as me, had the know-how of how to go about doing things, and of course, could communicate perfectly.
The holy city of Qom
An unusual stop, even for Iranians
I had to insist a lot on stopping in Qom on our way to Kashan. It was on the way and it offered interesting insights to my view of Iran. Iranians hate Qom, and it's not at all difficult to understand why. It is an extremely conservative city, the centre for studies for Shia Islam and, according to my dear host:
"The cause of all the problems we have in Iran."
As a tourist, the idea of visiting such a conservative city fascinated me. I figured it would be the closest thing to say, Mecca, I would ever visit. It wasn't on the plan at all, but as we would pass by it, I managed to convince my dear trip mates to have a brief stop there. They gave me one hour.
Abbas agreed to enter the holy city with me, and promptly picked up a "chador" (traditional conservative clothes that women must wear to enter holy sites in Iran – basically it was a big piece of fabric that I used to cover myself fully).
The city was fascinating to look at, and the shrines themselves, very beautiful. What makes it very special and different for me is the atmosphere of conservative Muslim scholars all around, surrounded by fully "chador" clad women and these sort of things.
After observing and learning lots about the religious revolution that was born in that place, I could understand why no sane Iranian would care to spend time there.
Lots of propaganda posters were around, including some in the English language. It was interesting to observe the other side of the coin, but after an hour I felt that I had put my friends through enough, and happily returned to the car and thanked them for sacrificing that hour in a place where they didn't care to spend a single minute of their lives.
Once again, for a foreigner interested in history, it is a fascinating place to visit, to a certain extent.
My next stop
Kashan and its old traditional houses
As soon as we drove out of Qom I could see the excitement of travelling back in my companions' eyes. Our next stop promised us a lot: settlements dating back to the 4th millennium and incredibly beautiful old mansions.
Kashan stroke me as a much more conservative city than Tehran, but still, nothing compared to Qom. Our first stop was at Kashan's traditional Old Bazaar, followed by a walk along the Old City Walls, which were indeed very ancient. The well-restored traditional houses were quite a sight to visit, and the number one attraction in Kashan.
The architecture was beautiful, and the houses had intricate panels of stained glass and wind towers. Gardens and courtyards were all around, making the visit truly enjoyable.
Possibly Iran's most beautiful village
Just about an hour away from Kashan, was the quaint little village of Abyaneh, "the white one". I should mention that the roads and highways were impressively good, making travelling by car extremely easy.
This is a small village set in the mountains, where residents still seem to have a rather simple and austere lifestyle, even though it's touristic for Iranian standards. It was literally a breath of fresh air. Many of the residents were still dressed very traditionally over there, and locals were friendly when it came to having their pictures taken. As soon as I got out of the car I could smell flowers galore. I'm so happy for having come to Iran in the spring – the entire place smelled like jasmine flowers!
Hiking to the top of a nearby mountain for getting a good view of the village was very pleasant, as we crossed through farms, flower fields and very kind people.
Visiting Abyanneh gave me a good glimpse of what rural Iran must have been like before the late 1970s – extremely peaceful and joyful.
Persepolis and Parsagadae
Incredible remains of the Ancient Persian Empire
Our following day was an intense one, filled by visiting incredible ruins and driving through the beautiful landscape. We started in Parsagadae, followed by Naqsh-e-Rostam, then finally Persepolis – all extremely well-preserved ruins from Royal Palaces, Tombs, Old Citadels from the Achaemenid Empire, dating way back to around 500 years BC.
The history was beyond magnificent, and visiting the ruins gives the visitor a good indication of just how amazing the Persian empire must have been, back in the day.
Another interesting aspect of visiting ancient sites in Iran, is that for most of the time I was virtually alone, with nearly no other tourist in sight, which is bittersweet, as in one hand, it saddens me to see that such amazing archaeological sites are barely being visited by foreigners (the few visitors around are Iranians) for Iran's lack of popularity as a tourist destination.
In the other hand, the lucky few that do visit it, have the amazing opportunity of finding themselves free to explore the site without all the hassle that would potentially come with it. It cannot be compared with visiting other great ruins such as the ones in Egypt, Jordan, Greece or Italy... The experience is very unique!
Spending time with mountain nomads
The following day was a really special one. I thought nothing could top the previous day's experience in Persepolis, but I was wrong. I convinced my friends to drive to the small city of Firuz Abad. Not for the city itself but for its surroundings, I was on the hunt for the Iranian Nomadic people. I had read that at this time of year it might be possible to find them in the mountains between Shiraz and Firuz Abad, as they travel from the lowlands to the highlands in search of a more suitable climate. Fortunately, there they were indeed.
I wasn't sure how they would react to being approached by us, but they were welcoming and friendly, as my friend explained to them that I was interested in learning about their way of life and if possible, spend some time with them.
They were four families, living together, with their livestock, and moving around in search of more suitable life conditions, constantly. I was offered tea, and shown their "compound" area. They were all kind and happy to see us. I got to ask them lots of questions which gave me a good insight into the Nomadic lifestyle. But unlike me, they weren't at a somewhat nomadic state by choice, for the freedom of travelling. They had no other choice. This was their life and fight for survival. They spoke a different language, but could communicate well with my friend, and subsequently, with me. They had little but insisted on sharing it, and having tea with them was truly a highlight for me.
After tea, we drove to a nearby village and purchased some cookies and nuts for them, which they gladly accepted. It was the very least we could do, before saying goodbye and thanking them for such a special day.
No wine there, but many gardens, poets and Persian culture
Shiraz is famous in Iran as a land of poets, and most of the well-known poets in the country come from there, such as Hafez, Saadi and Ferdowsi.
The historical centre was beautiful, and I had the chance of visiting it along with a Korean traveller I had come across. Together we also visited the Karim Khan Castle, the Bazaar and the Shohada Square. The architecture of the old houses and mosques was incredible. But the most impressive thing about Shiraz was its many gardens, all filled with young people reading poetry and drawing art. It had such a relaxed atmosphere!
My next and last site to visit was Hafez's tomb – a beautiful garden area containing the famous poet's tomb, where many Iranians of all ages visited carrying his poetry books, and reciting them everywhere. At that moment, I felt that even though I didn't understand Farsi, I could understand their longing, their love and the poetry being recited everywhere.
Time well spent – but it's time to continue on my own
I couldn't believe that nearly two weeks had passed! I had already been on the road for that long, and although I did not know any of the people with whom I had been spending all of my time, I had felt that I had been surrounded by dear friends all of the time I had been travelling...
But now, it was finally time to say goodbye and venture out solo, exploring Iran on my own. By now, I was confident I would continue to meet amazing people throughout my travels, and although walking away from my new-found sense of familiarity was hard, I was ready and excited for the challenge! Six weeks of solo travelling in a country that I had grown to love dearly were ahead.