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Phespirit goes to Iran
tour     March/April 2010

AROUND IRAN

Map of Iran

1 Tehran

The modern capital of Iran has no stunning ancient monuments of the kind found throughout the rest of the country. Even so, there's enough to pass a day at the start and end of Phespirit' tour:

  1. Golestan Palace
  2. The National Museum
  3. The Carpet Museum
  4. Sarkis Cathedral (Armenian)
  5. U.S. Den of Espionage (ex-Embassy)
  6. The National Jewels Museum
  7. Imam Khomeni Mosque
  8. Tehran Bazaar
  9. Darband mountain region

Most outstanding was the National Jewels Museum. Never before had Phespirit seen such an extraordinary, extensive, extravagent, dazzling collection of finely set gemstones. The Crown Jewels in London are pitiful in comparision, and even the Hapsburg treasury in Vienna has nothing to compete with it.

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2 Soltaniyeh

Phespirit's first stop outside of Tehran was at Soltaniyeh - 240km to the northewest - on the road to Zanjan.

Its one great tourist attraction is the Mausoleum of Il-khan Öljeitü, otherwise known Muhammad Khodabandeh. The mausoleum was built between 1302 and 1312, has the oldest double-shell dome in the world, is the largest brick dome in the world, and third largest overall after the Duomo in Florence and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

The blue-glazed bricks of the dome are a fine sight in the sunlight. Inside is a mess of scaffolding, but there is access to all areas so Phespirit joined the holidaying crowds in exploring every nook and cranny.

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3 Zanjan

Zanjan was one of several medium-sized towns in which Phespirit lodged for the night, not for the town itself but as a handy place to pause between more interesting locations. These mid-towns were pleasant enough to walk around; interesting sights were a bonus.

In the case of Zanjan, Phespirit took a room at the Park Hotel. Its interesting sights included a number of mosques, the bazaar, and Rakhatshor-Khaneh - once the public laundry, now a museum.

Evening dining was at the Karavansara Sangi restaurant, a superb old converted caravansarai. Three days into his tour Phespirit was eating well but without variety: chicken kebabs with rice for lunch, chicken kebabs with rice for dinner. He was not sure he could last a whole fortnight on this diet, however pleasant the setting.

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4 Dandi

A fairly large mining town. Phespirit stopped on the outskirts for a mug of tea and to stretch his legs. In the vicinity were a wide river crossed by road bridge lined with flags, and a small park with play equipment for kids.

Tea drunk, toilets used, back on the bus and away.

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5 Qal'eh Jug

The mountains between Zanjan and Takht-e Soleiman are strewn mineral mines, and the little villages that are home to the workers and their families. Qal'eh Jug is one such village.

Phespirit visited Qal'eh Jug on an idyllic warm sunny day, passing between flower-filled meadows on the narrow road that leads down to the obscure valley in which the village nestles.

The beauty of the moment masked the certain hardship of living in tiny isolated mudbrick dwellings when the snow falls or when wind and rain are lashing the mountains.

This was one of the more eye-opening places Phespirit visited.

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6 Takht-e Soleiman

Takht-e Soleiman, together with neighbouring Zendan-e-Soleiman, was Phespirit's favourite location in Iran. Here is its description on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list:

The archaeological site of Takht-e Soleiman, in north-western Iran, is situated in a valley set in a volcanic mountain region. The site includes the principal Zoroastrian sanctuary partly rebuilt in the Ilkhanid (Mongol) period (13th century) as well as a temple of the Sasanian period (6th/7th centuries) dedicated to Anahita. The site has important symbolic significance. The designs of the fire temple, the palace and the general layout have strongly influenced Islamic architectural development.

At its heart is a volcanic crater ring that brims with a mesmerising brilliant-blue spring-fed lake. Phespirit could have sat by it forever.

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7 Takab

Phespirit had expected Takab to be a remote one horse town, but it turned out to be fairly large and pleasant to walk around. It's just that it's a one hotel town with no great allure of tourists.

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8 Halab

On the tedious eight-hour roadtrip from Takab to Tehran, Phespirit stopped for a mid-morning tea and toilet break in Halab.

The minibus parked on the kerbside of a muddy, snowy, potholed main road through the centre of town. The stop lasted just twenty minutes - plenty enough time.

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9 Shiraz

Shiraz was probably Phespirit's favourite city in Iran. He stayed at the Arg Hotel for three nights and two days, which amply enabled him to explore the city and to venture beyond into Persepolis.

In particular, Phespirit enjoyed wandering around the vast network of bazaars. The centrepiece, albeit rather tourist-orientated, is the Serai Mushir caravanserai. It maintains a bustling warmth both in searing sunshine and the bulb-lit blackness of night.

Elsewhere, the tomb of the celebrated poet Hafez, the mirror-lined tomb of Emir Ali, the citadel of Karim Khan, the rich Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque, the old Jameh-ye Atigh Mosque, and the living, working, Shah-e-Cheragh Mosque - to name a few - all provided interesting distractions.

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10 Persepolis

Phespirit passed an unhurried three and a half hours exploring the site of ancient Persepolis. It was still the Norouz new year holiday when he visited, so the place was absolutely rammed with Iranian tourists. Phespirit and his fellow travellers may have been the only foreign visitors there, and thus attracted almost as much attention as the great ruins themselves: everyone wanted to say hello, ask "where are you from?" and "what do you think of Iran?", have their photos taken with the westerners, shake hands, etc.

The great buildings of Persepolis have long since been destroyed, but a grand entrance, a few pillars and some stone doorways still stand. Most magnificent of the remains are without doubt the fine and extensive bas-reliefs.

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11 Pasargadae

Before Darius had founded Persepolis, and Cambyses II relocated to Susa, the capital of the Persians was established by Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae.

Founded around 543BC, 43km east from where Persepolis would subsequently be built, Pasargadae has fared worse over the years than its celebrated neighbour. All that remains are four clusters of blocks, barely recognisable as the palaces they once would have been; fragments of a fortress wall set around a rocky promontory; and the simple yet powerful tomb of Cyrus himself.

Phespirit walked around all these things beneath a blazing sun.

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12 Abarqu

At Abarqu, Phespirit visited an ice house - a large conical building over a pit that was once used for storing ice in the desert. He then sat on a low, crumbling wall next to a 4,000 year-old cypress tree to write a postcard; he drank some hot tea; and he photographed a distant mosque before returning to the road to Yazd.

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13 Yazd

The highlight of Phespirit's time in the hot desert city of Yazd was climbing to the top of a Tower of Silence, where Zoroastrians used to leave their dead to be eaten by vultures as recently as 1960.

Also in Yazd, Phespirit ate the best chicken and rice anywhere in Iran at the Malek-o-Tojjar - a two hundred year-old traditional hotel and restaurant.

On an unpleasant note, he saw the first and only signs of hardline authoritarianism here. After a look around the Jameh Mosque, the tour guide was picked on by the mosque's management allegedly because they felt women in the previous group he had led had not been covered up sufficiently. They even got the police involved but the police didn't want to know, saying: "he hasn't done anything."

No action was taken but who knows what petty-minded trouble he will face on his next visit?

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14 Meybod

There are different types of highlight on a tour: those places where dangerously high expectations are met (Persepolis); those places where expectations are uncertain but that are a pleasant surprise (Shiraz); those places about which little is known but that prove a revelation (Takht-e Soleiman); and those places that are unknown until the day they are visited but are uncovered as little gems.

Meybod was of this last category.

At the heart of town stands Narin Castle, a five thousand year-old elliptical mudbrick complex with five levels covering approximately four hectares. Elsewhere, Meybod has its own colossal ice house (see Abarqu), across the road from which is the impressive Saddi Abasi caravansarai and post station.

All in all a highly rewarding place to visit.

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15 Na'in

Like Meybod, Na'in has a mudbrick citadel but whereas Meybod's is a magnificent showpiece, the one at Na'in has been reduced to a sorry state of collapse. Still intriguing to explore, though.

Before the citadel Phespirit visited the Jameh Mosque. The space beneath the mosque is the most novel feature here, illuminated by sunlight passing through thin alabaster tiles in the ceiling.

Small town - just passing through - but interesting.

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16 Isfahan

Isfahan is the most glamorous of Iran's cities. Phespirit stayed for three nights at the Ali Qapu Hotel on Chahar Bagh Avenue, which felt more like a western shopping boulevard than any other part of the country (not a commendation, merely an observation).

The huge space that is Imam Square, with its palace and bazaars and mosques and archways, is the glory of the city. The majestic Zayandeh river with its beautiful bridges is equally alluring.

So all good stuff, but maybe just a tad too big for total comfort.

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17 Tarq

The first leg of Phespirit's journey from Isfahan to Tehran took him as far north as Kashan, with three stops along the way.

The first of his three stops was in Tarq, for no other reason than to photograph a ruined fortress on the far side of a lake by the road.

This was the twelfth day of his tour and the first day that Phespirit had noticed children in a school - his first indication, perhaps, that the Norouz new year holiday had finally ended.

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18 Natanz

For his second stop on the road from Isfahan to Tehran, Phespirit took tea in a park on a hill overlooking the town of Natanz.

On spotting a deserted children's playground closeby - and having nothing better to do - he sneakily slid down the slide .....

..... an uncomfortable experience that he won't be repeating.

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19 Abyaneh

Abyaneh is considered to be one of Iran's most attractive villages. It enjoys a picturesque mountain location, made more pleasant in spring by the blossoming trees in the valley below. Every building in the village is of a red clay hue. It is overlooked by the perimeter wall of long-deserted fortress on the opposite side of the valley.

Phespirit had a thorough look around before withdrawing to a hotel restaurant for his umpteenth meal of chicken kebabs and rice.

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20 Kashan

Ever since leaving Isfahan, the whole tour had a homeward-bound feel to it, so Kashan was always going to struggle to be anything more than a quick look around and a bed for the night at the Amir Kabir Hotel.

The quick look around included Khan-e Tabatabei, an ornate town house from the 19th century, and the Fin Garden, with high walls, water features and a bath house from the 16th/17th century.

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  1. Tehran
  2. Soltaniyeh
  3. Zanjan
  4. Dandi
  5. Qal'eh Jug
  6. Takht-e Soleiman
  7. Takab
  8. Halab
  9. Shiraz
  10. Persepolis
  11. Pasargadae
  12. Abarqu
  13. Yazd
  14. Meybod
  15. Na'in
  16. Isfahan
  17. Tarq
  18. Natanz
  19. Abyaneh
  20. Kashan
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Tehran Soltaniyeh Zanjan Dandi Qal'eh Jug Takht-e Soleiman Takab Halab Shiraz Persepolis Pasargadae Abarqu Yazd Meybod Na'in Isfahan Tarq Natanz Abyaneh Kashan