As your flight descends into the dark heart of the Evil Axis, rumours of 50c heat, a presumed threat of kidnap and the danger of a terrorist free-for-all weigh heavily upon the mind. However, Iran’s terrifying reputation and wildly inaccurate stereotypes mask what must be one of the friendliest and safest hidden gems in all of Asia. From magnificent mosques to bustling bazaars, the Islamic Republic is home to a sophisticated culture and rich history, all showcased with a famously heartfelt level of hospitality. And as for the intense desert heat – long-suffering Hong Kongers may actually find the lack of humidity strangely tolerable.
The lightly beaten tourist trail begins in the ‘City of Love’, Shiraz. No longer a wine producer, this small city is centred around the elaborate Vakil Bazaar. The colourful marketplace comes to life at night and shoppers exploring the endless maze will find locals offering to pay for things (or even dinner!) as shopkeepers chase them down dark alleys merely to return their change.
Shiraz’s ubiquitous ice-cream parlours and burger joints are popular hangouts for young students, always eager to grill foreigners. Discussions usually begin with “what is your idea of Iran?” – indicative of a nation just as conscious of (and exasperated by) their leader’s antics on the world stage as the rest of us. Visitors may be surprised to learn how openly many will talk politics, and – thanks to illegal satellite TV – the population are remarkably well-informed. And whilst cynical old Asia hands may brace for the inevitable sales pitch during such chats, it rarely materialises – instead, it quickly becomes clear that both sides harbour a few misconceptions. Far from the ‘Death to America’ types seen at choreographed rallies on TV, Persians are a friendly, unjaded and highly curious bunch.
With nightclubs, live gigs and alcohol outlawed, Shirazis have become hardcore picnickers. As the day’s heat subsides, hundreds gather to socialise at the tomb of Hafez, a 14th-century poet and widely-loved hero. It is said that every Iranian household has a copy of his poetry and the Qu’ran.
Despite this, as one wanders the dusty streets and countless parks, it is surprising how nonchalant most folks seem about religion in Iran.Few of the younger generation are serious about Islam (and due to a temporary ban on birth control, they make up the vast majority of the population). Whilst in Egypt, entire communities hit the floor, sidewalks and even freeways for daily prayer, Shi’a Iranians are rarely spotted publicly bowing to Mecca.
Before moving on from scholarly Shiraz, it is worth sharing a taxi to the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis. 70km northeast of the city, this impressive World Heritage site dates back to 515 BC. Typically, fellow Iranian tourists will fight one another for the honour of being your free tour guide.
A bumpy bus ride east through a landscape resembling that of a Roadrunner cartoon leads us to the more conservative desert town of Yazd. It is here that men may begin to lament the Sharia ban on shorts and women their compulsory headscarves, but the country shuts down between lunchtime and teatime allowing most to escape the worst of the sweltering sun. For masochists wishing to work up more of a sweat, the city’s traditional Zoorkhaneh gym (‘House of Strength’) is a must-see. This ancient form of folk wrestling is set in a 1-metre deep octagonal pit where Iranian gents competitively exhibit various feats of strength, flexibility and ritual involving wooden clubs. Guests may also try to wow spectators with their muscular vigour, albeit for a fee.
As the capital of the world’s oldest monotheistic religion – Yazd’s Zoroastrian sites are unmissable. The Ateshkadeh Eternal Flame has been burning for centuries and can be seen on the way to the ominous Towers of Silence. Until the 1970s, the bodies of recently deceased Zoroastrians were placed on top of these raised, circular ‘Dakhma’ and exposed to the sun and vultures. The eerie structures are still enough to cause a full-on existential crisis, especially upon sight of some of the remaining human bones. Nowadays, followers are buried in a nearby cemetery with graves lined with wood to prevent contact with the earth.
These sites, along with mesmerising Kharanaq – an ancient desert village – are accessible only by taxi. With fuel heavily subsidised, official and unofficial private cabs are the best way to navigate congested cities. But before thumbing a lift, it may be wise to bear in mind that the highly offensive ‘thumbs up’ gesture is the equivalent of the middle finger in Iran. What with the language barrier, it’s tough not to over-compensate with body language – one may end up with ‘thumbs up Tourettes’, concluding each conversation and thanking kind locals with a big smiley ‘f*ck you! (though, most Persians would understand and forgive such faux-pas).
Further north lies the unforgettable and beautifully grand garden city of Esfahan. Described as ‘Half the World’, the outstanding mosques which line the huge Imam Square – second only to Tiananmen in size – are a veritable Magic Eye image of detail, intricacy and splendour. Their abstract designs, colours, symmetry and Arabic script – devoid of any identifiable pictures – are just as exquisite as the splendid frescos in the Armenian Quarter’s Vank Cathedral.
Some of the centuries-old UNESCO-protected mosques took decades to complete and are mathematically perfect bar some small, deliberate symmetry errors inserted to show the artist’s humbleness before God. Entire days can be spent relaxing near Esfahan’s old arched bridges, surveying the photogenic architecture in different lighting or people-watching from one of the busy shisha cafes. And should one bore of the palaces, minarets and charming boulevards, a quirkier afternoon may be spent at the somewhat outdated Natural History Museum (which is full of unconvincing dinosaur models, jarred foetuses and very poor taxidermy!).
Though securing a visa involves a sizeable donation to furry-faced Armadinajad and a Sisyphusian battle with Iranian bureaucracy, the rewards are well worth your time. Whilst most will be put off by fears of starring in Al-Qaeda’s next ‘foreign infidel beheading special’, it is criminal that so few tourists do their research and take the plunge. Yet for those who do make it, a trip to this ancient, undiscovered land feels like being let in on a closely guarded secret.