After nearly three weeks in the country, I felt fully immersed in its culture and more than ready to venture out alone. The following six weeks took me to traditional and conservative villages, deserts, mountains, incredible cities, family wedding parties and everything in between. After reading this final articles, I hope that having Iran as my very favourite country in the world is understandable...
Kerman and Yazd – Understanding the world of females in slightly more conservative cities
My solo adventure in Iran started in Kerman, a city in the South East, well known for its bazaar and carpet-making traditions. It is pretty much as near to the Baluchistan province I could get to in safety, and even though it is far enough, not many travellers venture out there.
The city was large and seemed vastly different than Tehran and Shiraz – the two big cities I had visited before my arrival. I was indeed a lot more traditional, and the atmosphere was overall very different. It had fascinating sites to be visited, such as the Shah Nematollah Vali Shrine - a mausoleum of an ancient Sufi Dervish -, several gardens and the very attractive and nearby cities of Majan and Bam.
The few travellers that venture out there often prioritise visiting the Kaloots – a desert area 130 KM away from Kerman, that Iranians like to call "the hottest place on earth," even though it is not quite the case. A very particular area and rather different than other desertic areas I had seen before, for its unique "sand castle" formations. How they formed is not known, but it's said to be due to wind erosion.
There were several salt lakes in the area as well, which was mostly dry by this time of the year. Climbing to some of the castles and watching stunning views of the desert was a big highlight, especially as nobody else was around.
But as nice as all of these attractions were, Kerman's biggest draw for me was having the opportunity of spending a fair bit of time with other females, slightly older than me. They taught me a lot about the lives they led, with a fair bit of anger, as their freedom is very compromised, and they have a little independence. Exchanging experiences about our lives expectations, dreams, past and present was a precious insight for me, particularly since it differed a lot from what I had been observing in other parts of the country. I was thrilled to have made new friends so fast, which motivated me to keep on going.
My experience in Yazd was somewhat similar, interestingly enough. Yazd is a much more touristic city, also located in the South East of the country, but not as isolated. Famous for its wind towers found everywhere around the old town. It is a city of traditional hotels and labyrinth of lanes.
A pretty ancient city, Yazd is believed to be on of the oldest settlements in the world. Some of its highlights are the Friday Mosque (every town has one, it is usually the most prominent mosque in a city), an old Zoroastrian Fire Temple, the fascinating Water Museum, and the many historic houses. Much to my luck, I had been given the phone number of two girls in my age group that studied in Yazd, and most of the time I spent visiting such sites was being accompanied by them.
Their life stories were also thrilling, and quite a bit different than the ones I came to know in the female world of Kerman. Like most young Iranians, they were studying hard to immigrate to North America or Europe and were anxious to live in a place without so many impositions when it comes to being a female. I treasured the opportunity to spend time with them, and they gave me contact numbers of friends of theirs in the following city I was about to visit: Esfahan.
Esfahan – "half of the world" indeed
Esfahan is considered by many travellers to be the highlight of their trip to Iran. It is most certainly one of the greatest cities I have ever visited, and indeed a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. The saying "Esfahan nesf-e Jahan" (Esfahan is half of the world) exists since the 16th century, when the French poet Renier, a French poet, fell in love with the city. I spent six days in Esfahan, but could easily have spent six weeks.
After a few days I wasn't up to sightseeing anymore (there's quite a bit to visit there), but the city's incredible atmosphere! The many old mosques, authentic craft-making shops, giant square and the building bridges over the Zayandeh River are just some of the features that make Esfahan so incredibly unique.
Naqsh-E Jahan (nowadays called Iman Square), the city's central square, is one of the biggest squares in the world, and indeed the most beautiful I have ever seen. Beautiful architecture, countless fountains, lively bazaars and well-kept gardens keep the square alive night and day. I spent time there every single day and was consistently impressed. The Khaju and Si-o-seh bridges were also a sight to be appreciated, any time of the day – truly magnificent.
Esfahan was truly unique and is rather close to Tehran; travellers should not miss it!
Going up north: Kelardash, Masuleh, Rasht and the Caspian Sea
Driving with my Tehranian family up to Kelardasht was another chance to observe landscapes I never imagined I would find in Iran!
My friends had a chalet up in the mountains, and it did resemble Switzerland. Iranians call Kelardasht the Iranian Alps, and it is common for middle-class Tehranians to escape the heat spending their weekend there. Nature was stunning, and the air, the freshest of the region!
The trip got yet more interesting once we drove towards Rasht, by the Caspian Sea: I was now driving through a rainforest! In Iran! When would I ever have imagined this? The lush green scenery found in Rasht was breathtaking, and continued until we reached the sea itself!
After some time relaxing at some of the many "shisha cafes" on the beach, we drove to the ancient village of Masuleh – also considered by many as one of the most beautiful little villages in Iran.The village is over 1000 years old, and somehow, life there seemed to have changed little. Many houses are built on top of another house's rooftop, and all are on top of a mountain - one house's roof served as a patio to the house above. Very distinct and extraordinary.
Tabriz, Kurdistan and Gorgan – It's all so diverse!
I kept on getting surprised about just how diverse the different regions of Iran seemed to be. Tabriz, a vast city in the North, is very influenced by Turkey – even the language spoken there resembles Turkish more than it resembles Farsi. A few days spent there felt like an entirely different country, and visiting the nearby old city of Kandovan was a highlight for me, with its old stone houses that reminded me of the cave era cartoon, the Flintstones.
Moving to the Northeast, I was in an area mostly inhabited by Turkmen – people residing for ages in Iran but in fact from the country now called Turkmenistan – an entirely different culture, yet again, with a much drier and mountainous scenery than the rest of the country.
And then there was Kurdistan – a province in the east of Iran mostly inhabited by Kurds – the "people with no country" that occupy a significant portion of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. I ventured out there once again with my friend Abbas, and aside from spending time in the capital Sanandaj, we visited precious mountain villages that were so remote and so outside from the tourist trail, that I swear I met people that had never seen a foreigner before. The town of Palangang is located in one of the most beautiful mountain areas I had ever seen, with rivers cutting through the village, children running around and old women making crafts on the street. Truly idyllic and inspiring!
But the best of my experience in the area came in the capital, Sanandaj. After visiting some of the attractions displaying authentic Kurdish cultures (so different than Farsi culture, in food, clothing, garments, language, you name it!) like the Kurdish House Museum and the Bazaar, I was fortunate enough to walk by a house that was hosting a large wedding.
As I tried to take a peek of what seemed to be a massive party, with live music and much dancing going on (very abnormal in Iran these days), somebody saw me and quickly came to get me, inviting me to be a part of the party. Soon after, I was jumping and dancing with the friendly Kurds in their beautiful dance moves. All without speaking a word of their language. But the language of love and hospitality was prevailing. I could not have asked for a better experience before returning to Tehran, to wrap up two months of backpacking around Iran.
Explosions? Kidnappings? The reasons why travellers should visit Iran
Leaving Iran was a hard task. I wanted to stay longer, but couldn't renew my visa past two months without exiting the country. I felt at home, but in a place that was just so much more exciting than what I was used to, but yet, so familiar. I left at Tehran's International Airport by my Tehranian friends, and it was an emotional goodbye.
After I was left alone, I keep on thinking about just how wrong of an idea the outside world held in this country and these people ... I remembered the many warnings, recommending me to be careful with possible explosions, possible kidnappings... Indeed, there were many explosions. Explosions of love, friendliness and hospitality – such generosity that made them kidnapped me into their homes, to host me, feed me, and ensure I was happy and safe.
There is nothing I will ever be able to write that will do justice to just how precious Iran and Iranians are... I just hope that travellers do give it a chance, for Iran is the world's best-kept secret!