Why you’re wrong about Iran, things I learned cycling around the world

cycling-in-Iran

Don’t believe what people tell you about Iran

Iran was undoubtedly the most surprising country for positive experiences. After months of being told that I would be killed there, and the media reporting that it’s a country full of terrorists, I was humbled to enter a country of incredibly intelligent, thoughtful and kind people. I shared many nights in the houses of strangers and wouldn’t be allowed to leave in the morning without having my bags filled with food and gifts. They have many problems of their own in Iran, and are also aware of how the Western media portrays then, yet they still took it upon themselves to help me as best they could.

The beauty of travel by bike is how slow it is, and how it offers intimate view of the lives of strangers. I cycled between 60 and 80 miles a day, occasionally much more, sometimes much less due to weather, altitude or people I would meet on the way. It’s been hard, but the experiences it has given me sure beats working in an office. My freedom and lack of deadlines or destinations led to aimless wandering, mainly guided by the avoidance of bad weather systems and fitting around the seasons. All I really knew was that I wanted to circumnavigate the world and that I was doing that in an easterly direction.

Whenever I struggled to motivate myself to continue, it was the strangers I met on the road that helped me carry on. I’ve lost count of the favors I’ve been granted and the times I’ve been offered assistance. Wherever I went, human goodness shone through.

Holy mystery of Isfahan | city of ancient culture

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Reaching Nisf Jahan with limited time and unlimited wishes, setting aside all worries of this or that world, fully living in those moments

Treasure remains hidden in distant lands. I can’t exactly describe how and when the idea got stuck in my imagination. I feel a curious combination of mysteriousness and sacredness associated with the wordtreasure. Things like vessels, gold pots, jars, stones, carpets and never-deciphered writings do not come to my mind when I think of the word treasure. Instead, whenever I come to imagine some distant land, a vague yet strongly moving idea of ‘holy mystery’ weighs in on me.

Isfahan-Iran-tourism

 

Isfahan epitomised that distant land for me. So when a few years back, I sat in the bus destined to Isfahan from Tehran, I was under the spell of the idea of a treasure that was going to be uncovered in the next few hours. I looked through the window and wondered at Isfahan Nisf Jahan (half the world) and the half-hidden sun.

I dropped the curtain abruptly. Secrets should not be revealed so fast.

It took us almost six hours to reach Isfahan, a city of 17th century Safavids, capital of Persia in the 16th and 17th centuries, city of Hasht Bahisht, Maidan e Naqsh-e-Jahan, Imam Mosque, Chehel Satoon, Chahar Bagh Boulevard, mosques, bridges and of Zinda Rood (Zayanderood).

In Isfahan, one strongly notices Iranians’ unwavering love for their ancient culture. They have preserved, maintained and promoted old texts, monuments and even rituals.

As I was about to reach Isfahan, I tried to unpack the meaning of Nisf Jahan. People have put this single city against the rest of the world because of its sheer splendid beauty. I too had read and listened about the unmatched beauty, the splendour of its gardens, palaces, mosques, historical buildings, bazaars etc. Suddenly, an idea flashed into my mind: this mundane and the world hereafter both makeJahan-e Mukkamal (the whole world). This particular Islamic interpretation seemed more valid. Muslim Kings have been in pursuit of emulating and creating the Heavenly Paradise as it has been described in the Holy Scripture. Isfahan might have been a copy of Bahisht, the other yet complementing half of the Jahan.

As I got out of the bus, I felt tired, as were the seniors accompanying me. Contrary to my expectations, first impression of Isfahan was more of an ordinary city. The first people who ‘warmly’ welcomed us in the ‘paradise’ were not Hoors or Ghilman but taxi drivers, not speaking Arabic or our mother tongue but Persian. They were looking for good fortune among foreign people while we too were in search of a treasure in a foreign land. A clash of interest was apparent.

Imam Mosque.

Imam Mosque.

Airports, railway stations and bus stands of all major cities of the world offer a unique opportunity to understand how two strands of worldliness (on the part of taxi drivers) and disinterestedness (on the part of travellers) collide as well as cooperate. Anyhow, we did hire a taxi and arrived at a hotel. It is a long story how we shopped for hotels, bargaining and finally succeeding in getting a room in a comparatively low-rent hotel.

After having a cup of black tea, we left the hotel. I must admit how much I loved the ‘black tea’ in Iran. I couldn’t enjoy Doogh-e-Goshfil and Burgers. Chulo Kababs were delicious but, unfortunately, weren’t for me since I am allergic to rice.

We had limited time — we had to leave for Tehran the next evening — but wishes unlimited. We decided to see all what we could on foot. We started our journey from the main tree-lined boulevard that wasn’t not too far from our hotel. I was reminded of Agar Firdos Bar Roo e Zameen Ast/ Hameen Ast o Hameen Ast Hameen Ast.

It was May which is not hot in Isfahan. It was as mildly cold as Lahore is in February. Cool shadows of breezy trees standing in a symmetrical order along both sides of the wide metallic main road were soothing. Chirping of birds deluded us into a world that is discoloured by globalisation. There were shops on both sides of the boulevard but the bustle of big cities was absent.

 

Si-o-Seh Pul.

Si-o-Seh Pul.

The markets on both sides of the road made it seem like a western city. Most people wore western clothes, except perhaps the headscarf which has been made compulsory after Inqilab for women in Iran. Iranian women seem to have carved a way to assert their freedom by putting on tight jeans and shirts and with an unflinching love for cosmetics.

In Isfahan, one strongly notices Iranians’ unwavering love for their ancient culture. They have preserved, maintained and promoted old texts, monuments and even rituals. They have also incorporated ancient cultural values and ‘world-view’ in their ‘new’ architecture. This we observed while visiting Hasht Bahisht, Maidan e Naqsh-e-Jahan, its adjacent bazaars, Imam Masjid, Chehel Satoon, bridges of Zinda Rood and reliquaries.

Converting to Islam has not made them skeptical, disdainful or disrespectful to their earlier history and its texts and heroes. We in Pakistan need to learn from Iran in this regard.

The most exciting experience was visiting the three red bridges — Pol-e-Khaju, Si-o-Seh Pul, Pol-e-Chobi — built in 17th century by the Safavids on Zinda Rood. They seem to redefine the meaning and purpose of bridging the brinks. If you really want to connect the two shores, you will have to create a kind of ambience that could make the act of crossing a true, deep experience of bridging two different worlds and diverse perspectives.

Crossing Si-o-Seh Pul (bridge having 30 arches) was a marvellous experience. We literally stopped at every step, praising the wonders of architecture.

In the evening, we spent an hour at a café built under a bridge. I could never forget the moments while sipping black tea, listening to the whispering of slow waters of Rood mixed with the twitter of evening birds and radiant faces of Iranian people. In those moments, I was able to set aside all kinds of worries of this or that world, fully living in those moments. I felt fortunate to have finally grasped the ‘holy mystery’ of Isfahan.

 

Amazing Places in Tehran You Didn’t Know Existed

The must-see places of Tehran no visitors should miss!

Si-e Tir Street

Unbeknownst to even many locals, a synagogue, church, and Zoroastrian fire temple sit together harmoniously on the cobblestone Si-e Tir street. Haim Synagogue hosted Polish Jewish refugees during the Second World War, and as this number increased, a second Ashkenazi synagogue was built adjacent to it. Holy Mary Church is across the street from Adrian Fire Temple whose flame was brought from the temple in Yazd. Be careful as you walk in this area as it gets more crowded the farther north you walk, and motorcycles are merciless, often creeping up behind you on the sidewalk!

Si-e Tir Street

Jomeh Bazaar

Every weekend, Parvaneh Mall’s multi-storey parking garage converts to a Friday bazaar and should be experienced even if you aren’t in the market for buying anything. The first few floors are a treasure trove of antiques with everything from home décor to vintage photos, records, and gramophones. As you ascend, you’ll find unique handmade products by local artists and art gallery paintings being sold at a fraction of the retail price. Go early to avoid the crowds and to have the most choice.

Jomhuri Avenue between Ferdowsi Ave. and Shirvani Alley

Deh Vanak

The peaceful Vanak Village sits just north of bustling Vanak Square. One of Tehran’s oldest neighbourhoods, this area was once known for its grand gardens, but the charm nowadays lies in its narrow alleys (some just 90 cm wide), wooden doors, and sun-dried walls. The Iranian Garden is modelled after the typical Persian gardens and is especially picturesque when it’s drowning in colourful tulips. Vanak Zurkhaneh, a gym of traditional Persian martial arts inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, and Saint Minas Armenian Apostolic Church are other sites to visit in this area.

azadi

ranian Garden, Saberi St., Tehran

Negarestan Garden

In the chaos of downtown Tehran, you may be surprised to find this oasis of serenity. Built as a summer retreat during the Qajar era, Negarestan Palace was later converted to Iran’s first modern university where the famed lexicographer Dehkhoda wrote the comprehensive Persian dictionary. This palace currently acts as a museum, housing some of painter Kamal ol-Molk’s masterpieces. The outdoor cafe in this lovely setting has, needless to say, become extremely popular with locals, and if you’re lucky, you may even get the table under the Hafezieh, a structure modelled after Hafez’s mausoleum in Shiraz.

Negarestan Garden

Negarestan Garden, Tehran

Masoudieh Palace

One of the most beautiful historical buildings of the Qajar dynasty is Masoudieh Palace. Aside from its historical significance dating back to 1879, this palace allows visitors to fully experience its culture and history in the cosy cafe, with its traditional architecture and stained-glass windows and whose servers are local theatre actors. A walk around the gardens and fountains will complete the outing to this unforgettable palace.

Masoudieh Palace

Masoudieh Palace, Mellat St., Tehran

Zahir od-Dowleh Cemetery

North of Tajrish Square off Darband Street is the quiet Zahir od-Dowleh Cemetery where Iran’s most prominent artists and cultural figures have been laid to rest. Known as the cemetery of poets and musicians, among the most famous names here are musician Gholamhossein Darvish Khan, 19th century poet Iraj Mirza, and the 20th century poet best known for her feminist point of view, Forough Farrokhzad. The sound of chirping birds under the canopy of trees provide a serene setting where Iranians still come to pay their respects.

Zahir od-Dowleh Cemetery, Darband, Tehran

Moghadam Museum

This majestic house once belonged to the artist son of Tehran’s mayor during the Qajar dynasty. Along with a private and public wing, it has some the most exquisite tiles throughout the house. The museum displays some of Moghadam’s art and other objects he acquired during his travels. Enough can’t be said about the surrounding gardens as they completely remove visitors from the hubbub of the city centre and offer a tranquil respite.

Moghadam Museum

Moghadam Museum, Emam Khomeyni St., Tehran

ASP Towers

Completed in the mid-70s, these residential towers once housed some well-known Iranian figures. Though the towers aren’t particular noteworthy themselves these days, the ground floor is littered with trendy cafes and restaurants and is therefore a popular hangout with the young Tehrani crowd. Homemade Iranian cooking at the cozy Mahtab Cafe and delicious Asian noodles and sushi at Wasabi are just some of the eateries all nestled within these towers. A stop at Aknoon Gallery is a must to check out the modern-meets-traditional Persian art, fashion, and jewellery.

ASP Towers, Tehran

Naser Khosrow Street

The oldest street in Tehran, Naser Khosrow has some of the most iconic landmarks. Delve into the past by first passing Darolfonoon School, Iran’s first modern school founded by Amir Kabir, a prime minister of Iran, in 1851. Further along, the gothic architecture of Saraye Roshan, one of the first commercial centres, is sure to stand out as unusual in Iran. The twin towers of Shams-ol-Emareh peek out from behind the buildings, and right across the street is Marvi Alley Bazaar with its plentiful shops, boutiques, and delicious street food.

Naser Khosrow Street

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Why Visit Tehran in Your Tours to Iran

Tehran, the Capital City of Iran

Tehran, the Capital City of Iran

Tehran, the capital city of Iran has got plenty of interesting things to offer to culture-oriented travelers. It is highly recommended to visit Tehran at the beginning of your trip to Iran for several reasons. Everything happens in Tehran first!

Visit Tehran to See Its Modernization Process

When you take a tour to Iran, make sure you spend some time in Tehran. The very first observation of any traveler to Tehran is its size, number of cars, crowd of people, etc. A city with an area of 750 square kilometer and the population of over 8,500,000 cannot continue its traditional life. It has to shift its nature into a modern one. This transition is an interesting one. Visiting Tehran provides an opportunity for you to explore its modern aspects.

Visit Tehran’s Cultural Centers

There are lots of Culture Houses in Tehran in which various activities are performed. There are art classes, movie theaters, art exhibitions, book stores, etc.

There are several theater halls in Tehran where different plays are performed. Artists are supported by local enthusiasts who are keen fans.

Iranian movie industry has gained huge amount of global attention in post-revolution era. There are good numbers of new movies made in Iran for their fervent fans. Most of these actors and actresses are from Tehran.

There are some music concerts from time to time in Tehran where pop, classical, traditional, etc musicians play and sing for the music lovers. The frequency and size of such events in Tehran are much larger than those of other cities of Iran.

Visit Tehran’s Museums

Tehran’s Iran Bastan museum is the best of its category among the national museums of Iran. The exquisite items on display at this museum can give you a thorough insight in what you will go through during your tour to Iran.

Golestan Palace Compound in Tehran

Golestan Palace Compound in Tehran

 

Royal palaces of Qajars in Golestan palace compound are great examples of architecture at this period. Also, the items showcased at its galleries provide you with a view on Qajar kings’ lifestyle. Sa’ad Abad palace compound as well as Niavaran palace compound introduce the lifestyle of Pahlavy dynasty that ended in the revolution at 1979.

Museums of various arts like contemporary arts, Under-Glass Painting, calligraphies of Reza Abbasy, Glassware and Potteries of Abgineh, etc are the best in their genres. The unique Treasury of National Jewels leaves every visitor in great shock with nothing equally dazzling and ornate anywhere in the world.

Carpet Museum presents its visitors with an exclusive collection of the best examples of Iranians’ art in one place. The items on display at this museum cannot be found anywhere else in any carpet galleries or stores across Iran.

Parks in Tehran

There are lots of parks and green areas in Tehran and a lot being planned to be opened to public. In addition to the obvious use of fresh air and peaceful setting of parks, there are other activities going on in these places. Some parks are just for women. Some offer classes on various traditional and modern arts. Some are hangouts for certain groups who exercise on regular basis. And a lot more …

Shopping Malls

Bazaars are not the only centers of purchasing goods anymore. People need a different type of place for their shopping. Shopping malls of Tehran are not the largest ones in Iran, but the quality of the items offered there are some of the best. Entertainment areas for children, coffee shops, restaurants, etc are among the points of interest at such places. Taking a walk in one of such places in Tehran provides good comparison point when you travel to the traditional cities of Iran.

Skiing Resorts

If you happen to arrive in Tehran in skiing season, there are a couple of possibilities to go skiing around the city. The largest skiing field in the Middle East is in Dizin, close to Tehran. You may take a skiing tour to Iran in Winter as well.

Mountain Hiking

Every weekend in Iran, Thursdays and Fridays, lots of people go hiking and walking at the mountain paths located at the north of Tehran where the high mountains are. This sport activity happens during weekdays as well, but if you want to see large number of people, make sure you choose weekends.