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Phespirit goes to Iran
tour     March/April 2010

Barely twenty minutes from when he left the road below, Phespirit was sitting on the lip of a perfectly conical extinct volcano. Scores of locals were out enjoying their new year holidays and had taken the same wind-blasted hike to the top. Swifts wheeled around overhead. The next day, Phespirit was in a minibus driving through a snow blizzard. The day after that he was among hundreds of people strolling around one of ancient history's true legendary cities. In the days that followed he visited the tombs of great kings and great poets, he lay at the summit of a Zoroastrian sky-burial tower, he waded across a mighty river that vanishes into a desert. And he did all these things and more amidst the most hospitable population he's ever encountered. It all happened in Iran.

Phespirit's arrival during the small hours of morning; his passage through Tehran International Airport; his rendezvous with his guide and eight fellow travellers; his check-in at Enghelab Hotel, all passed smoothly with no undue or unpleasant brushes with officialdom. Such tensions had already been played out in full during the convoluted visa application process back at the Iranian embassy in London. Once in Iran itself everything ran like clockwork. The only wild card was that his two-week visit coincided with the two-week new year national celebration of Norouz. This meant that every tourist location was rammed with Iranians on holiday. It also meant that the roads around the capital were practically deserted.

The first leg of his tour covered the region northwest of Tehran. This included a visit to the impressive blue-tiled brick-domed mausoleum at Soltaniyeh, with overnight stays in Zanjan and Takab, and a detour to a hidden jewel in the mountains: the tiny mudbrick village of Qal'eh Jug. Most exhilarating for Phespirit, however, was the ruined Zoroastrian complex of Tahkt-e Soleiman and its neighbouring extinct volcano of Zendan-e Soleiman. There is a zigzagging path up the face of the volcano, which is quite steep and requires some clambering in places. With scores of Iranian families also keen to peer inside, it became uncomfortably crowded at the front of the crater's edge, beyond which was a sheer vertical drop to a rocky floor below. Eventually Phespirit found more breathing space on a broad ledge to the left of the main viewing area. This was the first time he had ever sat on the lip of a volcano and gazed within.

The next day's long drive back to Tehran passed through a white-clad landscape scoured by blizzards. Phespirit reflected that had rain or snow fallen before or during his visit to Tahkt-e Soleiman it would have been a disaster. From Tehran's second airport he flew 680km south to Shiraz. This would be his base for visiting Persepolis: at one time the greatest city on the face of the Earth. After Shiraz he would stick to the roads, heading northeast through the desert to Yazd, and then northwest to another of the world's great cites: Isfahan.

Although Isfahan is famed for the exquisite architecture of Imam Square, and for its beautiful bridges on the Zayandeh river, Phespirit will remember it for two very slippy moments. The first came while ascending to, and desending from, the Ateshgah; a Sassanid-era (224-651AD) fire-temple on a rocky hill rising 210m from the city below. The slopes of the hill are steep, offering little purchase for shoes, and are made frictionless by a powdery sand that covers all its surfaces. Phespirit had to inch down with painstaking care and in great fear for his safety as the slightest imbalance would inevitably propel him dramatically down the rock face onto unforgiving ground below.

The second slippy moment came when he thought it would be fun to join in with locals who were wading across the Zayandeh river in the shadow of its 298m-long Si-o-Seh bridge. He hadn't realised quite how fast and forcefully water flows between its thirty-three arches, or that the flat smooth stones on the downstream side were covered with a thin layer of slime. With very tiny baby-steps it took Phespirit a ridiculously long time to get across, and he had a couple of dodgy moments on the way, but he made it, and was well satisfied.

From Isfahan, Phespirit continued north to Kashan and north again all the way into Tehran. By this time Norouz was over, which meant the streets were once more heaving with cars. Iranian traffic, like that in Azerbaijan, is hideously reckless. At road crossings with green flashing 'walk' signs, cars drive slowly enough to allow pedestrians to walk briskly out of their way but sufficiently fast that they would be unable to brake in time should anyone not be brisk enough. Nonetheless, Phespirit survived the traffic, just as he had survived the rest of his fortnight in Iran: a country with a ludicrously one-dimensional reputation for hostility towards all things western. More than survive, he had been warmed by the genuine friendliness of everyone he met, and he took pleasure from every day he spent in this complex and cultured country.

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