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Exploring the real Iran, with social media as your guide | Travel

Being completely disconnected on holiday isn’t as romantic as some purist travellers may suggest. It might be fine if you plan to stay on a beach or spend your days snorkelling with dolphins, but if you have to navigate your way around a country, travelling without access to GPS-assisted maps, currency converters and email seems a silly restriction. Especially when travelling in a country like . Here, the private and public spheres are two completely different worlds and access to social media can make the difference between merely learning about heritage through visits to historical sites and experiencing the everyday lives of modern Iranians.

It was how I came to be at a party in Tehran among a crowd of good-looking, fashionable millennials: men, women, gay, straight. The obligatory hijabs were left at the door. On the kitchen table, there were unmarked bottles of aragh saghi – literally, dog alcohol – a moonshine made from raisins. People were dancing, drinking, and discussing whether it was time to call a drug dealer.

Coffee bar in Tehran.



Coffee bar in Tehran

Before I embarked on my month-long trip to Iran, Iranian friends suggested I use social media to guide my travels through the Islamic Republic. Even during the first two weeks, which I spent on an organised tour, writing a feature for another publication, I was able to fill a few holes in the standard group itinerary with meaningful interactions outside the comfortable but limiting tourist bubble. It started in the city of Isfahan when I accepted an offer from Alireza, a 24-year-old auto parts dealer who had contacted me through couchsurfing.org, a social media platform for hospitality exchange. He invited me to dinner with his family.

When I arrived at his home, I was welcomed with a generous meal and curious questions from family and friends gathered around a fire in the leafy courtyard. In particular, they wanted to know about the image of Iran abroad. This had been the recurring theme from people who had approached us in the street, often stopping simply to express their gratitude to us for visiting Iran.

I had grown used to Iranians going out of their way to point out that any anti-western propaganda we encountered was an embarrassment to them. On a walk around downtown Tehran on the day of my arrival, I had paused to photograph a large sign on the side of a 10-storey building. It depicted Barack Obama on par with Shemr, the seventh-century villain who killed the beloved Imam Husayn, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. “Please, nobody takes these things seriously,” said two passersby. This apologetic attitude continued on Instagram after I posted the photo, and applied the hashtags #seeyouiniran and #tehranlive. In the comments, Iranians ridiculed the sign and assured me that “only a tiny minority of idiots” thought this way. Along with their messages came invitations to show me around in Tehran.

Cafe Kooche in the Gheytarieh neighbourhood, Tehran



Cafe Kooche in the Gheytarieh neighbourhood, Tehran.

After we finally cleared our plates, Afshin called friends who arrived in a car to drive us all to a mountain park, where we watched the shimmering city lights, talked politics and religion, and smoked weed. It was my first glimpse of a different side of Iran: the everyday reality hidden behind news reports and history pages. It was generous, warm, fun and defiant.

In the following weeks, I travelled independently, relying on the advice and generosity of ordinary Iranians through Facebook, Instagram, and the hugely popular instant messaging app Telegram Messenger, which many believe is better secured against government monitoring than WhatsApp. Of course, not all encounters were limited to instant messages and emails. Through Couchsurfing, people invited me to stay at their homes and show me around.

In Shiraz, I stayed with a poet and human rights activist who demonstrated how he, as with many others in the city that was once renowned for its wineries, secretly produced his own wine at home. “You crush grapes, leave them to ferment, stir every three days, and after 40 days, you’ve got wine,” he explained, pointing at a large glass container in the corner of his kitchen.

Tajrish bazaar, Tehran



Tajrish bazaar, Tehran

While he was at work, his friends took me to their favourite sites in Shiraz: the Nasir ol Molk mosque (also known as the pink mosque), where stained-glass windows cast kaleidoscopic patterns on the Persian-carpeted floors in the early morning; and the palatial Narenjestan-e Qavam, a 19th-century merchant’s house overlooking a lush garden with fountains and towering date palms. But they also showed me their favourite shopping malls, design boutiques, and Brentin, a busy restaurant inside an old, atmospheric villa. Before the mountainous chelow kebab arrived, I had already helped myself to a salad of pomegranate and lentils, a bowl of yoghurt with little rolls of fried courgette, vegetable samosas and bread with a dip of fried aubergine, onion, walnut and mint.

Stained-glass windows cast kaleidoscopic patterns on the floor of Nasir ol Molk mosque, or the Pink Mosque, in Shiraz.



Stained-glass windows cast kaleidoscopic patterns on the floor of Nasir ol Molk mosque, or the Pink Mosque, in Shiraz

In Tehran, I was shown around the city’s cinema museum by a local photographer. Afterwards, we enjoyed a lunch of tagliatelle at the posh museum cafe, where a famous actress was interviewed under the cool gaze of a crowd with fashionable hairdos, who sipped expensive teas flavoured with saffroned rock sugar. This was followed by a quick walk though past the stalls of the old Tajrish bazaar, selling everything from framed carpets to Kalashnikov-shaped hookahs, after which we moved to the intimate Cafe Kooche in the Gheytarieh neighbourhood. Here, I was introduced to a blogger who would later take me on a tour to Etemad, one of the leading art galleries in Tehran.

Poetry event in Tehran organised by a local Couchsurfing member



Poetry event in Tehran organised by a local Couchsurfing member

The gardens of Mahan.



The gardens of Mahan

While I was trying to resolve the practical matter of staying online in a country where the internet was throttled and censored, it took less than half an hour to receive the necessary information about where to purchase a local sim card for data, and which app was used to circumvent the Iranian firewall. One of the Facebook group members even gave me her password to a paid VPN service.

Initially, this seemed an online extension of Iranian hospitality, which was the only form of “extremism” I encountered during my stay. But there is another, more political reason: a strong desire to battle cultural misunderstandings and what the group’s founder, Navid Yousefian, refers to as “Iranophobia”.

Clearly, Iran’s poor image abroad is an endless source of frustration to many Iranians. “I was surprised and saddened to hear that some well-travelled people think they can’t visit Iran,” wrote Yousefian, a expatriate PhD student living in California, in the Facebook group’s introduction. He called for Iranians in and outside the country to join the group to help visitors.

Etemad art gallery in Tehran.



Etemad art gallery in Tehran

Today, See You in Iran has close to 45,000 Facebook members and has branched out to Tumblr, Instagram and Telegram Messenger. “What makes it different from the usual guidebooks is that all the input is directly from Iranians and former travellers,” says Sogand Fotovat, an American-Iranian repatriate studying Iranian history in Tehran, who is one of five active administrators of the group. “Because of our on-the-ground organising and networking efforts, See You in Iran is grassroots. We don’t dictate or control any of the content.”

Following this success, Yousefian is developing a dedicated See You in Iran app. “It will have two features,” says Yousefian. “Localiser, which will help travellers find locals to show them around and, if they want, stay with them for the night. And Travel Mater, which helps people find travel buddies while in Iran.”

One surprising aspect of Iranian internet censorship is that it seems oddly permissive in unexpected places. Facebook is blocked but Instagram, owned by Facebook, isn’t. Here, the Rich Kids of Tehran, an obnoxious yet fascinating band of spoiled brats, emulate the popular Rich Kids Of Instagram feed. Aside from the inane displays of wealth and excessive rhinoplasty, their posts are often provocative and pro-western.

Young people are sidestepping censorship to connect with friends and visitors online.



Young people are sidestepping censorship to connect with friends and visitors online

While the popular dating app Tinder is, perhaps predictably, blocked, Grindr, a similar app for gay men, isn’t. Indeed, in a country where sharia law prescribes death to sodomites, the app hosts a thriving community whose members don’t seem concerned about persecution. Tellingly, even in Mashhad, a deeply religious city towards the Afghan border that rose to infamy a decade ago for the hanging of two gay teenagers, the men I spoke to were remarkably unafraid to show their faces on their profile photos. “As long as you’re not having sex in public, they’ll leave you alone,” one of them said. “The police have better things to do than to case us.”

Tinder is still used, of course, as people know how to circumvent the Iranian firewall. Through both dating apps, I received invites to underground parties in private homes and desert valleys.

This is how I ended up being offered dog alcohol at the home of someone who named her kitten “Coca”. I had not imagined taking such a risk – and it was a risk, considering Iran’s strict laws and customs governing music, dress codes, and alcohol consumption – but after a few weeks among young, modern Iranians, it was a risk I had grown used to. Even though sharia law prescribes 80 lashings for those caught drinking, partygoers remain defiant. “The risk of a raid makes it more exciting,” the friend who had invited me to the house party said. “In 95% of the cases the police just want a bribe. But, yes, there’s always that 5%.”

Iran holiday guide: from Tehran to Isfahan and beyond | Travel

My beloved British friends! It has been 25 years since I threw that goodbye party in Brixton, complete with saffron-laden rice dishes, to bid you farewell before I returned to Iran. You were the cast of my life from the day I arrived as a homesick 12-year-old. From schoolgirl, to undergraduate, to Londoner, you were at my side.

Yet, in a quarter-century, none of you has accepted my offer of coming to visit me here. The image of Iran is so calcified by its politics that not even one of your own could persuade you to come and explore for yourself. This is my last-ditch invitation: maybe you’ll get over that psychological hurdle and catch the six-hour flight to Tehran.

You will need to organise a visa and travel through a tour operator though, since Britons can’t get a visa at the door, unlike many other nationalities. But that is easily done, so many Britons and Americans are visiting these days – and from Monday British Airways has daily flights to Tehran from London.

Iranian women walk past a mural outside the former US embassy in Tehran.



A mural outside the former US embassy in Tehran. Photograph: Alamy

The capital. This is where you’ll get a chance to see, first-hand, the Iran you know from news bulletins. The wall murals often seen in stock media images are a great way to step into the recent history of the place. They lionise revolutionary leaders and, more poignantly, memorialise martyrs of the eight-year war with Iraq. Almost every street is named after someone lost in that war. The murals provide an insight into the country’s priorities: from the zeal of early revolution and war to the contemporary penchant for the decorative. The walls of the US embassy, now officially referred to as “the nest of spies”, will provide selfie backdrops to shake your Instagram feed.

Having explored the political veneer of the city, we’ll head to Golestan Palace in the heart of old Tehran. Here, Nassereddin Shah, the 19th-century Qajar king, introduced photography to Iran and practised his hobby taking pictures of the moustachioed women of his harem. The palace has an impressive archive of Iranian photography, thanks to him.

You have to go … Golestan Palace, Tehran. Image shows intricate carvings and marble table.



Golestan Palace, Tehran. Photograph: Alamy

By now you’ll be hungry, so we’ll take a short walk to the entrance of the Grand Bazaar, the bustling hub of commercial activity. You can find almost anything here, but we are stopping for the famous lunch at “>Moslem restaurant. We’ll queue to get into this congested delight, but it’s worth it: it serves the best tah-chin in town. Portions of saffron and yogurt rice, served with chicken and barberries, easily feed two Iranians – and we know how to eat!

Moving on, we will go find Tehran’s buzzing art scene, where the young and the hip spend Friday afternoons gallery-hopping. New galleries around town are helping regenerate the old centre of Tehran: these include Aaran Gallery (12 Dey Street) which showcases work by young Iranian artists. As we head north, we’ll pop into Ag Gallery (3 Peysan Street) for photography, via Dastan’s Basement (6 Bidar Street) a bijou gallery where the art is still affordable.

Perhaps we’ll grab a Persian herbal infusion in one of the many new coffee shops, as the après art scene requires – you won’t see a Starbucks or McDonald’s while you’re here. Now, there’s an incentive.

Kashan

Manouchehri House, a boutique hotel in Kashan, Iran



Manouchehri House, a boutique hotel in Kashan

Many Iranians like to go north to take in the Caspian Sea’s lush vegetation and humid climate. But most foreign visitors go south to see the historic cities of Isfahan, Shiraz and Yazd. We’ll start in Kashan, the gateway city to the central desert region and will stay at Manouchehri House (doubles from £70), a 19th-century property, now a boutique hotel, renovated even as the country was experiencing the worst of the sanctions.

When many people were thinking of leaving, the owner raised this house from a heap of dust and rubble. We all thought she was crazy but, these days, booking in advance is necessary to enjoy a night in what is now an admired example of architectural renovation. Tehranis, tired of the crowds and the villas that have mushroomed in the Caspian region, now run to the desert to buy and rebuild abandoned homes.

Fin Garden, Kashan, Iran.



Fin Garden. Photograph: Alamy

In Kashan we’ll also visit the Agha Bozorgi seminary, the only mosque in Iran with a sunken garden. Before we turn away from the city, we’ll visit Fin Garden too, which had the dubious honour of housing Amir Kabir, one of Iran’s modernising prime ministers in exile. He was killed in the bath house. To lighten the mood, we’ll grab a kebab, sitting on beds alfresco, at Gholam’s Kebab House before hitting the motorway towards Yazd.

On the way to Yazd

Aghda old town, Iran



Aghda old town. Photograph: Haleh Anvari

There can be stops at any town that takes your fancy as we travel along the edge of Dasht-e Kavir, one of Iran’s two central deserts. There are significant historical sites in Natanz, Naeen and Ardestan, the latter home to a mosque built on the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple dating from 1158. There’s also the Moon Qanat, an ancient double-tier aqueduct. The underground irrigation system associated with it dates from 1,000BC, and is an early technological wonder that brought water to Persia’s many arid cities, employing a system of underground wells and canals.

It’s a long journey, so we’ll stop for the night at Aghda, famous for its pomegranates, where the old town has been abandoned in favour of modern housing. The mainly uninhabited neighbourhood makes for an evocative stroll. One of the larger houses has been restored as the cosy Khaloo Mirza hotel (doubles from £25). Here, we’ll sleep on floor mats in shared rooms, traditional Iranian style. Food is provided by the hotelier’s aunt from a large kitchen, and it will no doubt include Aghda’s superb pomegranate paste.

Camping in Dashte E Kavir

Kavir-e Lut Desert

Kavir-e Lut desert. Photograph: Brian A Vikander/Getty Images

Before getting to Yazd, we’ll make a detour to join an off-road group to camp amid the desert dunes, where the landscape is spectacular and the unexpected flora otherworldly. This vast landscape is not a place to go on your own, so we’ll join Hamid Boreiri, who has been leading groups on desert excursions for 19 years (zistnc.com).

Everyone brings their own 4WD vehicle (spare seats are shared around). We’ll help dig the car out of soft sand as we traverse the dunes, and pitch camp ourselves – it’s tents and sleeping bags here. Travellers report that they feel a surge of energy under the desert skies. Walking barefoot in the sand exfoliates your feet but it also cleanses the soul. You certainly come out of the desert feeling lighter. Maybe it’s to do with the salt in the sand; these deserts were once seas. Maybe the feminine curves of the dunes suggest a softer place. That said, all that screaming as vehicles crest the dunes is cathartic!

Yazd

Takyeh Amir Chakhmagh in Yazd

Amir Chakhmagh. Photograph: Getty Images

To Yazd, the city of wind towers, which suck the hot desert air down on to a shallow pool of water and cool the house. One of these has been recreated in a wonderland mall in Dubai but here, in Dowlatabad Garden, we can see the tallest functioning wind tower in the world. No other city in Iran has been preserved so meticulously by its residents, who have resisted the lure of building the classical pastiche high-rises so beloved of the nouveau riche in Tehran.

The city has strong associations with Iran’s pre-Islamic religion. Zoroastrians gather annually at Chak Chak, a mountainside temple closed to Muslims. But we can visit a functioning fire temple in town and make the hike to the Towers of Silence where, until 70 years ago, bodies of dead Zoroastrians were left to be consumed by carrion birds. Follow me to the Khalifa pastry shop and order its famed Yazdi delicacies of baghlava and sweetmeats to take back home.

Amir Chakhmagh, a three-storey structure known as a hosseinieh – for commemoration ceremonies – will bring us back to Iran’s present Shia rituals. This is a place where the martyrdom of Imam Hossein is marked each year. The large wooden nakhl, representing a palm that carried his body, is dressed in black decorative cloth and used as the centrepiece for the mourning processions of Ashura every year.

Rest will come at Khan restaurant, once a typical Iranian hammam, before we go to sample broad bean and dill rice with lamb at Talar Yazd restaurant. We’ll stay in Moshirolmamalek hotel (doubles from £115 B&B) with its own Persian garden on the edge of the city.

Shiraz

A boy runs between pillars at the Vakil mosque in Shiraz, Iran.



A boy runs between pillars at the Vakil mosque in Shiraz. Photograph: Pascal Mannaerts/Barcroft Images

How can we not visit Shiraz, the garden of Iran and the heart of its poetic soul? Venerated poets Sa’di and Hafez are buried here. Iranians use Hafez’s mystic poetry for divinations, and visit his grave as if on a secular pilgrimage. Although we will have to dash to see all that is on offer here, dashing is not the Shirazi way. Whereas Isfahanis are famous for their quick wit and love of money, Shirazis are known for their appreciation of a gentler lifestyle centred on the city’s many private and public gardens. The city has a fine selection of accessible Persian gardens, including Eram, Jahan-nama, and Delgosha, and the newly reopened Shapouri Pavilion Garden includes a new restaurant where we can take the weight off our feet.

Vakil bazaar in Shiraz.

Vakil bazaar. Photograph: Emad Aljumah/Getty Images

The city’s sublime air, laced with the scent of orange blossom wafting from the many citrus orchards, is legendary. The Shirazi aromatic lime is indispensable to our cooking, and is served liberally with faloodeh, the local frozen noodle dessert. The Vakil bazaar is one of the most colourful in the country. The proximity of Shiraz to the homelands of nomadic tribes means the place is full of the bright, glittery fabrics favoured for traditional clothes.

Not far from the bazaar is the Shahcheragh mausoleum, a Shia shrine with mirror-work decorations that have inspired contemporary artists including Monir Farmanfarmaian. Here, you do have to wear a chador – they are provided at the door and are not black. After a long day, perhaps we’ll stay at the new Shiraz Grand Hotel (doubles from £130 B&B) by Qur’an Gate, an example of the new modern architecture that is popping up around Shiraz.

Persepolis

Xerxes’ Gateway, also known as the Gate of All Nations, at Persepolis, near Shiraz, Iran.



Xerxes’ Gateway, also known as the Gate of All Nations, at Persepolis. Photograph: Alamy

An hour’s drive north-east of Shiraz is our portal to the ancient past. Persepolis, the ceremonial palace built by the Achaemenid king Darius in 518BC, was a significant site in the Persian empire. Our ancient history is sometimes lost in the noise of contemporary politics, but images and words from this era abound in our daily life, serving as the glue that binds the nation. The Achaemenids were expansionists and ruled more than 40% of the then known world, but the fact that the palace was built by hired hands and not slaves marks the Achaemenids as progressive for their time.

As we will see, the surprisingly well-preserved bas-reliefs show guests from the many nations of the empire arriving at the palace bearing gifts. Among imposing statues of mythical animals are the well-known winged bulls, guardians of the palace. Sadly they didn’t deter Alexander the Macedonian (who does not go by the title of “Great” in this country) from burning the place down.

Next morning, on our way to Isfahan, we’ll stop at Pasargad, the Tomb of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire and the first king of Iranians. His sarcophagus stands without pomp on a windswept plain. In 1971, Mohammad Reza Shah held a huge ceremony to mark 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran. His famous words – “Cyrus sleep easy for we are awake” – became the words of the last Iranian king to its first. The revolution followed eight years later.

Isfahan

Mosque in Imam Square, Isfahan Iran.



Mosque in Imam Square, Isfahan Iran. Photograph: Alamy

Isfahan should always be the last city on any travel itinerary in Iran. OK, I’m biased (it is my home town) but this truly is the jewel in the crown. Most of what we’ll see was built by Shah Abbas in the 17th century, when his capital was established here. The magnificent Naghshe Jahan Square, with its turquoise domes, and palace of Alighapou, positioned around an old polo field, are wondrous and you’ll want to see them again and again.

This is a living and working neighbourhood: Isfahanis still come to procure spices and jewellery in the old Gheisariyeh bazaar, and the surrounding passageways bustle with artisans making handicrafts. My favourite is the coppersmiths’ passage, where the cacophony of beating hammers is a centuries-old sound. Another joy is the ceiling of the Lotfollah mosque. Here, the design of the tiles creates the same sensation as watching a starry night, drawing you upwards as if falling into the sky. Not far away is the Jameh mosque, one of the oldest in the country, rebuilt in the 11th century. No colourful tiles here: the wonder is in the patterns and craftsmanship of the brickworks.

Fine dining … the restaurant at the Abbasi hotel, Isfahan, Iran.



Fine dining … the restaurant at the Abbasi hotel. Photograph: Abassi Hotel

Finally, a major feature of Isfahan is the river, along the banks of which Isfahanis go to take the air. There are a number of old bridges here, from the plain-brick Si-o-se pol with its 33 arches, to the Khaju bridge with its decorative motifs and tiles, where the king would sit to enjoy the sound of water falling over specially designed steps. Nowadays, the river runs dry most of the year, but that hasn’t stopped Isfahanis continuing to use its banks in their leisure time.

Staying in the Abbasi hotel (doubles from £130 B&B) is a must. The old caravanserai has been converted into possibly the most beautiful hotel Iran has to offer. The quince-laden trees and the dome of the Chaharbagh seminary visible in the garden make this a magical end to your stay.

But only if you come!

Sound advice

Showing musical instruments being played is still banned on Iranian television but concerts are held regularly in Tehran. Visit Iran Music for details and catch a live gig.

State of the art

Housed in two renovated old houses in Tehran are Gallery O and Ab-anabar, both of which showcase cutting-edge art in what were once Tehran’s modern houses.