15.10.2014 - 06.11.2014 20 °C
I took the train from Ankara towards Tehran (price around 42€). The train sounded like a nice way to get into Iran and also cheap. The train left on wednesday from Ankara train station (a small yet nice station). The 4 berth sleeping compartments were nice enough and I ended up sharing a compartment with an iranian family (that didn't speak any english but were always eager to share their food with me). I spent most of my time with the foreigners, of course, and by the end of the 1st day we already knew every tourist on the train (around half where german or austrian).
The train ride is very nice and scenic, but we had the 'misfortune' of having some landslides into the tracks, thus delaying the ride by 9 hours. So I spent an extra night and arrived at Tehran on early morning on saturday.
Tehran is a chaotic city - traffic goes from everywhere, anywhere and anytime and the noise gets into your head quickly. That plus the fact that is a huge city and around 10 million people live there (plus maybe 7 million who arrive from outside during daytime) makes it hard to like. That being said, after one day there, I started appreciating the good aspects of the city.
You can buy anything there, as there are shops selling everything from cellphones to brand plastic bags. The collection of museums is very big and to suit every taste (arts, history, jewellery, etc) and they are usually cheap to visit. And, as you go north, the traffic decreases (the prices increase) and you start seeing some nice parks and of course, the Alborz, which offer great hiking options (for instance, from Tajrish metro station you can reach Darband and hike all the way up to the top of a 4000+ metres mountain).
I stayed 3 nights in Tehran and then took a night bus to Mashhad, Iran's second city and the home to the holliest place in Iran, the shrine of Emam Reza (a must visit destination if you go to Mashhad). The city is also close to Turkmenistan, so worth considering if you plan to go through land across the border. In Mashhad I stayed at Lonely Planet's recommendation (Vali's Guesthouse). Vali is a carpet salesman/tourist guide that speaks many languages and a great host. His wife also cooks great food, so although not the cheapest option, you may consider it.
Mashhad itself wasn't that nice in my opinion, but the shrine is gorgeous (unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos there - only with a cellphone).
Another bus, this time to Yazd - a recommended destination by many fellow travelers. (By the way, busses in Iran are one of the best travel options, as they are reliable, comfortable and very cheap)
Yazd is a city stuck in between two deserts. Very, very hot. So hot, that in the afternoon locals follow the 'siesta' tradition (you'll find many shops closed in afternoon that open again at dusk).
Arriving there, I met a german guy that said "man, this is the place to relax". He was certainly right and I ended up staying some extra days there. I met many cool people at the Silk Road hotel (probably the most famous accomodation option in town), which is both cheap and central. The Ashura was on the way, so Yazd's streets were being prepared for the event, with flags, tea stands (it is common to give tea to people) and the feeling of a big celebration. The Ashura is the mourning period for Emam Hossein, who died by the hands of an implacable enemy.
In Yazd the most famous sites are the old city's tiny streets with typical desert architecture. It is a place where you can find zaroastrian influence. The fire temple and the towers of silence (a short cab ride from the center) are the best examples.
I spent some time walking around the city with some german and japanese guys I've met and we were always being called out by the locals, that took any chance they had to practice their english and show the hospitality towards us. I also met iraqui and afghan people who welcomed me as a friend and invited me to eat or drink with them. Yazd was certainly the city where I felt the iranian hospitality at its best.
After having postponed my departure for a couple days, I knew it was time to leave, as I still wanted to visit 2 of Iran's most popular cities: Shiraz and Esfahan. So, from Yazd, I took a VIP bus (if you haven't taken such a bus you should as is surely a comfortable way to travel, though tipically 50% more expensive) to Shiraz.
In Shiraz I was lucky enough to meet a portuguese girl (the only other portuguese I saw in Iran), who, along with her boyfriend, invited me to visit Persepolis with them, which I did. I must say I was desapointed by this historical site. After Efes and Hierapolis, the ruins of Persepolis seem to be not that impressive and neglected. Adding to this is the fact that it is a place hard to reach by public transport.
But Shiraz is also known for it's gardens. Again, I was lucky to be with the portuguese girl since she met an iranian girl who kindly took us on the trip to Eram Botanic Garden, one of typical iranian leisure spots. Well worth the visit, here is the place to have a nice time with your loved ones or simply enjoy all the different flora it has to offer.
I left Shiraz, traveling to Esfahan, almost unanimously refered to as the most beautiful of Iranian cities. Once, the capital of Persian kingdom and a garden in the middle of this country. In my opinion, the most 'european' city in Iran. Very touristy, which means that you find souvenir shops in excess and all the entrance fees to museums and such are twice as much that in elsewhere in Iran. The main square (Naqsh-e Jahan Square) is the place to go. There you have two beautiful mosques, as well as a palace. I found scaffolding and restorations in some of the places, which makes me happy, for I know that the monuments are being taken care of.
Also, being in Esfahan, you should take a look at the bridges. The river no longer exists (also a controvers subject here, as the river was diverted in order to bring water to other Iranian cities), having left many beautiful old bridges without its main purpose. The up side though, is that you walk on the now dried river bed and admire the still glamorous bridges.
Being on some sort of schedule, I packed and left for Tabriz, with plans to cross the border to Armenia. After a night train to Tehran (in the company of a nice french couple) and a bus ride, I arrived to a snowy Tabriz, where everything was closed and the streets almost deserted due to the Ashura. I found myself a nice hotel in the center and after asking a local, I realized that the main attraction (the bazaar) would be closed for 2 days. So I managed to rest, and enjoyed the kindness of the muslim people, as they were giving food and drinks to everyone.
On the third day I headed up to the still half-closed bazaar, which reminded me of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Although big and nice enough, it wasn't by any means as espectacular as I had expected. I did some shopping and took a shared taxi to Jolfa, the stop before the border crossing. It is curious, as the city looks more turk/azeri than iranian.
The shops sell mostly turkish products and there is an abundant offer of exchange offices. I stayed one night in Jolfa (the attraction being the border into Azerbaijan - just across the street) and next day I visited St. Stephanos monastery before going to the Armenian border. The monastery is very nice, but what is really incredible is the drive along the Aras' valley. The river surrounded by beautiful mountains is simply breathtaking. In the border to Armenia there is just one shop and bored border police, as not many people cross it (mainly truck drivers) A little tip for you is to exchange your rials and the complex, as the outside people will charge you a heavier comission.
I got my exit stamp, after a questionary that included all the questions which the officer could think of and 'did you like Iran?' question. And this finished my trip to Iran.