Thursday, 16 October 2014

Glories of Persia (a traveller's perspective - and a woman's perspective)

Tim and Cynthia recently travelled on our Glories of Persia Iran archaeology tour. A prospective traveller, Gill, asked me for the contact details of a previous traveller, with whom she could communicate about travel to Iran, ideally with a woman's perspective. I asked Tim and Cynthia for their permission and below is the letter Cynthia and Tim sent to Gill. I thought it might be useful for any others considering visiting Iran. 

Part 1

Hi Gill,

We are more than happy to give you some feedback on our recent trip to Iran with David and his company Travel the Unknown.

We have been quite desperate to visit Iran for many years and always there has been some glitch that has come up to make us feel the time was not right. Rouhani's appointment seemed to indicate a sea change and we felt we would 'go for it' little realising the weeks leading up to our departure would see the whole ISIS and Syria situation free fall towards disaster.

The Foreign Office of course for years have only advised only business/essential travel and so the process is a little complex, with visa applications through Ireland (however all dealt with by Travel the Unknown so not difficult on a personal level). We were careful when asked the question which three countries have you recently visited not to mention Syria, Libya or Lebanon but owned up to Italy, Germany and Albania instead! We got our health insurance through Danish BUPA.

I think our family and friends were very twitchy about things as our departure date neared and I don't think Tim's mum slept a wink in our absence. As usual the travellers themselves went on in blissful ignorance as media coverage was limited and biased and best ignored in Iran. However we enjoyed the Tehran Times tales of the Scottish Referendum and widespread riots(?) in Glasgow which Iran volunteered to monitor! One of our group was a Scot and was able to reassure us that Civil War was not about to break out...

On the ground we found the Iranians absolutely delightful, they were so very warm and welcoming and thank goodness Facebook is blocked or there would have been hundreds of pictures of sweaty McVey's and their new best friends!

Of course a woman's perspective was very different as we were coated and veiled (a little daunting in temperatures that one day reached 44 degrees) but in fact we had little problem with it. Two of our group had been to Iran in 2010 and they said things had relaxed and changed so much. I only had one negative experience and the poor man lived to rue the day he tutted at me:
In my best Chairman of the Bench voice I said 'excuse me, did you just tut at me, I believe I am appropriately dressed?' Well, he had not expected to be called on it and looked very sheepish and claimed to have been thinking of something else - so I said 'Good, thats alright then' and sailed out! In retrospect probably not a wise thing to do but he caught me at a bad moment, hot and dehydrated.....

Most people could not have been nicer, we had a Pomegranate disaster where the whole of one bag got soaked in red molasses, the maids on our hotel floor took it all away and insited on cleaning it and by the end of the day the bag was as good as new, the clothes laundered and pressed and even the postcards washed! They were just so wonderful.

The trip itself was fascinating. The first week was 'the road less travelled' and we visited the really ancient sites and there was hardly another tourist in sight and certainly no British. Therefore we had an especially warm welcome where ever we went.

Our guide was a lovely and very knowledgeable man (Mehrdad), he was clever in organising the days that looked so awful on paper (10hrs in the bus) into bite size pieces with a surprise at every turn. He was also good at making sure we arrived everywhere before the masses, in the best light and would get the very best photo opportunities. The second week was on the more regular tourist route of Shiraz, Yadz and Isfahan and brought you out in goosebumps it was all so wonderfully beautiful - I felt I might just swoon from Stendhal syndrome!

We did feel safe. I think we were more in danger from the totally maniac drivers and complete absence of lane discipline than from waring nations. Our driver was a lovely careful and sensible fellow but he was a lone prince amongst the usual lunatic motorists of Iran. My recommendation is a) never look out the front window, its out of your control b) Wear your seat belt at all times. We had two taxi rides which are best forgotten, the only good thing to say about them is they were cheap!

We did some independent site seeing, often just walking around the town from the hotel in the evening and never felt any anxieties at all, once away from the immediate area of the hotel we often didn't see another tourist. People are very honest indeed, in fact at one time I left my bag behind and on returning it sat in the same place undisturbed. Prices were fair but you need to get a grasp on the two level monetary system or you can come a cropper easily.

We were unaware of any surveillance other than the regular police post stops to enforce the speed limit (like a manual Tachometer) when the Police would occasionally check we were wearing seat belts and the ladies were appropriately covered. Quote for the day from David on one of these occasions "Clothes on ladies, please!"

Totalitarian countries are surprisingly safe` we have done our share in Albania back in the day (30 years ago and again last year), Burma likewise historically, but more recently Libya under Gaddafi and Syria under Assad. The people are so hemmed in and monitored they do not step out of place - and your safety is of great personal and political importance. Iran is trying to open up and they want the tourist dollar.

Politically of course they hate ISIS - they are Sunni and Iranians are Shi'ite so they will have no truck with them at all. Isis has enough on its plate at present and are not going to take on Iran.

We really had a great time and I really would recommend the trip. We made a couple of great friends to the point one is due to come visit us soon. I personally love that Russian Roulette, you never know who you might travel with, even the co founder of the company!

As far as the International situation is concerned one just has to keep an eye on it but I suspect Travel Unknown would make the decision for you if things were really bleak. Personally we felt very safe in Iran ironically the biggest danger is probably crossing the road!

To give this some context we are aged 57 and 59 and a GP and Research Nurse living in Mid Wales. We met doing VSO in Papua New Guinea 33 years ago and still just love to travel!

Best wishes
Cynthia & Tim McVey

Part 2

Dear Gill,

So glad to have been to help, of course when Tim came home he did note that I had made him a year older than he is (birthday in less than 5 weeks!) and I hadn't mentioned matters medical, which was just a tad remiss of me.

In fact we were all quite lucky with our health. There were a couple of folk on the trip with pre existing conditions which caused them a few problems but in general everyone remained fit. As always someone made a slight mis-step and wrenched an ankle which was just bad luck and soon remedied with Ibuprofen, walking shoes and a walking pole. We very much enjoyed eating the street food; falafels, kebabs and samosas and no gippy tummy at all. The loos are of the squat variety when you are on the road and mixed cleanliness. I was so glad I chose to drop my prescription glasses down the really spotless one at the Persepolis hotel! (safety retrieved and scrubbed within an inch of their existence by more wonderful hotel ladies) I feel strongly that the universal provision of running water and liquid soap in even the dodgiest loo was vital in helping us stay well.

As usual keeping hydrated is vital, especially with the exceptionally high temperatures but the company kept the freezer on the bus well stocked with water (free). I now feature that great favourite of Iranian ladies 'The Nose and Toe Tan'! Even with so little exposed a high factor cream is a good thing to pack.

Do hope your trip comes off and you and your travelling pals have fun, it is a wonderful place; 4,000 years of history, stunning tiled mosques, mirrored shrines, restful gardens, rock tombs and the glory of Persepolis - it takes some beating.

In case David hasn't furnished you with the link to our Facebook pictures it can be found here.

Best wishes
Cynthia & Tim McVey

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Shiraz – Nasir Ol Molk, Naranjestan House, Ali Ebn e-Hamze Shrine & Vakil Bazaar

On Saturday morning, we had a semi-lie in, and woke up in the relative cool of Shiraz at 1500m above sea level. We headed out to visit one of my favourite mosques in the world, the stunning Nasir Ol Molk mosque. Locally known as the “Pink Mosque” for its extensive use of the colour in its tiles; it is quite distinctive and was built by Nasir Ol Molk, a rich governor of Shiraz in the late 19th Century, as his personal mosque.
Its main attraction are the lovely stain glassed windows and the pattern they throw across the walls and floors of the winter palace. From there we moved onto Narangestan Museum and Orange Gardens. This beautiful old house has some stunningly symmetrical gardens with seven types of Orange trees, and the house itself is ornately decorated with mirrors, hand-painted tiles and inlay work. Locals come here to dress up in period costumes and have their photos taken.  It can make for some good, if slightly tacky photos.

Next on our itinerary was the Ali Ebn e-Hamze Shrine. The Shrine was built in the 19th Century on the site of older shrines. Ladies have to wear Chadors here but these are provided, and the ladies all posed for a photo orchestrated by Mehrdad. It was funny, but I think you had to be there.
The Shrine boasts a huge bulbous Shirazi style dome; the real treat though, is inside, where the mirror-work is quite extraordinary - tiny mirrors over all walls, and with quite a lot of light let in from outside, reflections bouncing around the interior from mirror to mirror. After about five minutes my eyes started to water with the effect of such dazzling reflections. It does make for some funky, Picasso-esque selfies if you are so inclined! We headed back to the hotel for a rest and something to eat.

We met again at five and Mehrdad brought us deep into bazaar territory to Vakil Bazaar, the main bazaar in Shiraz. This is a great place for people watching, taking photographs and there is even a small tourist section where you can buy crafts and gifts. The bazaar is chock full (though not as uncomfortable as Tehran’s bazaar) with people – locals out window-shopping, nomads in to buy material for clothes, Iranians from the Persian Gulf and from all over South Tehran.
It is a living ethnographic museum, as Mehrdad described it. There were even a few tourists! I met an Iranian lady who lives in Newcastle and who asked to have her photo taken with me. Not being much of a shopper, I enjoyed the time by myself on the main strip, waking up and down, taking photos of locals buying and selling - I could happily do that for hours.

For those who neither wanted to shop nor take photos there was a small teahouse where they could relax and read or just sit and watch people go by. As it was my last day with the group, we went out for dinner in a small restaurant which had live music. The music is often a little maudlin at these kind of places, but the food was good and it was nice to be able to spend a relaxing evening with everyone before having to say goodbye. It was a really nice group and I was sorry I could not continue along the rest of route with them though I have been along this part of the route before – tomorrow they go to Firuzabad, then onto Persepolis. The days after on to Pasargadae and Yazd and later, Isfahan and Kashan before finally returning to Tehran.  They all seemed happy with the trip though and with Mehrdad as a guide, so was I.

It had been a great experience for me and I had learned a lot about Iranian history and the various cultures, dynasties and peoples that have held sway over this ancient land, and as always, to experience the warmth and welcome of the Iranian people, which no matter how many times I come here still continues to amaze me with its depth and sincerity.

Bon voyage Mehrdad and my fellow travellers!

-  David

Bishapour & the road to Shiraz

Friday was to be our longest day, so we started very early, leaving the hotel at 7.15, and driving through the oil fields of Khuzestan, where many fires burned wastefully from natural gas so they could get to the oil below. Mehrdad, as always, gave us some local information about the province we were in, answering all our questions, and one of his gems of information was the Iranian expression: “if you see two cats fighting, one of them is British!”.
Iranians were all very aware of the Scottish referendum, which seemed to have caught their imagination, and was being covered in depth by Iranian news channels in English and Farsi.

We arrived into Bishapour around lunchtime and got out to explore the various sites here. First was Tang-e-Chogan, a series of sublime stone carvings showing Shapour’s victory over the Romans, including the capture of their Emperor Valerian, and the surrender of Philip the Arab, as well as subsequent investitures with the usual accompaniments of Azura Mazda, Anahita and Mithra.
As the carvings were made in limestone and a water channel was later created, there is a line across them where the water has eroded part of the carvings, though fortunately this was later diverted so the majority of the carvings were preserved and intact.

Across the river is the main city of Bishapour (the City of Shapour), also built by the captured Roman soldiers. The city walls were 6m high and the Central Palace was a blend of Persian and Roman styles. Some of the original stucco, with even a little colour can still be seen. The second hall was where numerous mosaics were found. In the middle of the site is the Anahita Temple, underneath the rest of the city it is a square building which would have contained water in tribute to Anahita.
The square is surrounded by corridors and aqueducts. There is also a 14th Century Mosque which was built not long before the devastating earthquake which destroyed the city, and said city was abandoned as people moved to the nearby town of Kasarum. We drove on from Bishapour to Shiraz and arrived tired but satisfied and happy to be spending the next few nights in the same spot.

-  David

Susa, Daniel’s Tomb, Chogha Zanbil & Shushtar Water Mills

Thursday morning after breakfast, we stopped off again at Dezful Bridge before driving out of town towards Susa, the ancient Elamite capital (today the modern town that was once Susa is called “Shush”). We arrived at the ancient site of Susa after just under an hour of driving. The temperature was really quite high, so we congregated in the shade while Mehrdad explained the history of the site. Founded in around 4000-5000 BC it - alongside some other cities such as Damascus - claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.
Founded by the Elamites as their capital, it retained its importance through the Sumerian, Babylonian and Arcadian periods. Much of what remains today is from Darius’ reign (though there is much pottery that dates from up to 7000BC). The clear remains of the Darius Apadana Palace can be seen with its 72 pillars, one for each chapter of the Ghath Ha, the Zoroastrian equivalent of the bible. There was also a large room where he kept his lions to which traitors to his rule were fed. Darius was not a man to be crossed.
The materials used to construct this palace and its contemporaneous buildings came from far and wide – stone from the Zagros Mountains 200km away and Cedar wood for the roof from Lebanon. This marked a monumental advance in logistics for its time. Much of the stone from Susa was later plundered by the British in order to build a railway to serve the Abadan refinery during World War I, though Reza Shah did what he could to bring them back, they lie largely in a since forgotten pile.

We walked on to Daniel’s Tomb, which today is an important place of pilgrimage for Jews and Muslims alike. Mehrdad gave us some free time to wander around the town, where we attracted plenty of curious stares and friendly greetings. A few of us stopped for one of Shush’s famous felafels, washed down with some healthy carrot juice while chatting to a friendly stall keeper who was also an English teacher and very keen for us to meet his class; alas we had no time.
Our next short stop was Haft Tepe (meaning “Seven Hills”) where we saw one of the oldest existing Elamite arches and a tomb where 21 bodies were excavated. We also visited the small museum on site which had scale models of both Haft Tepe but also our next stop Chogha Zanbil. Given that it was particularly hot, it was good to get some of the information about Chogha Zanbil in advance, in the comfort of the air-conditioned museum.

We drove on through the desert landscape to Chogha Zanbil, one of few remaining ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia and it is certainly the best preserved. It was a stunning site, a UNESCO world heritage site built in 1250BC and something quite breath-taking.
The vast structure, with four separate entrances allowing differing levels of access according to status, lead up to what would have been five levels, with the highest levels only accessible to royalty and the highest levelled priests. Elamite cuneiform inscriptions decorated much of the brickwork and a sacrificial platform can be clearly made out, where they would have sacrificed bulls and goats.

Our last stop were the lovely water mills of Shushtar, a Sassanid era irrigation system with a series of dams, canals and mills, one of which is still in use. The mills were used to grind barley and wheat. Aziz, the local keeper, and a bit of a character, showed us around.
This was another site built primarily by Roman soldiers captured by Shapour I. Whatever you may say about Shapour he certainly knew how to get value for his slave labour!
We drove on towards Ahvaz, stopping to buy some watermelon and pomegranate from a roadside vendor, and once we reached Ahvaz, Mehrdad pointed us to some local restaurants, made some suggestions from the hotel’s menu (the fish stew is good in Ahvaz!) and we were left to do our own thing for the evening.

-  David

Tagh-e-Bostan & Falik ol Aflak Castle

We started Wednesday morning off after breakfast, travelling to the nearby site of Tagh-e-Bostan.   Here we found some exquisite carvings dating back to the early Sassanid era. It shows the investiture of various Sassanid kings, the main carvings showing Khusrow I receiving the ring of promise (thus making him leader) from Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian top dog and from Anahita, the Goddess of Water, as the area was on the banks of a large lake at the time, though today there is just a smaller man-made lake.
Below he is also depicted on his favourite horse, Shabdiz. The story says that when Shabdiz died, Shapour’s love for the horse was so strong and his famous temper so terrible that no one was willing to deliver the news, therefore some musicians delivered it to him through song and no lives was lost. Other carvings show the investiture of later Sassanid kings, Shapour II & III and Bahran. In this final one, flanked by Mithra the Sun God, as well as Azura Mazda, and standing on Ahriman, is Azura Mazda’s evil twin. The hill behind also has some Partian era temples. From there we drove South into the Loristan province, famous for its bronze work pieces which can be seen in the Louvre, the Metropolitan museum in New York and in the National Museum in Tehran.

We stopped to buy some delicious fruit (peaches, figs, apricots, grapes) and have some lunch in Khorrambad before visiting the 3rd Century AD Falik ol Aflak castle. Built by Shapour I of Tagh-e-Bostan, fame the castle was built originally as protection for a caravanserai, around which the town grew up. The castle allegedly held up the Mongol invasion for seven years. Inside was a small ethnographic museum with various photos and cultural artefacts of the Lori people. As we left, Mehrdad broke out some delicious date pastries which we shared around as we drove on to Dezful.  After checking in, a few of us took a short walk down to the old bridge for which Dezful is famous and is lit up at night. Then it was time to retire.

-  David

Ecbatana, Alavyan Dome, Ganjnameh, Anahita Temple & Bisotun

Tuesday morning we visited some more sites in Hamadan, starting with the ancient Median capital of Ecbatana, founded in 612BC. It was built along a grid system with a main avenue, wide enough for two chariots to pass and a sewage system. The city walls were allegedly composed of seven layers, enclosing two walls lined with gold and silver in the centre.
Houses boasted wind badgirs similar to those in Yazd today as well as clay ovens. The museum on site was also worth the short visit we made. Our next stop was the domeless Alavyan Dome, whose dome has long since been destroyed. The stucco stories on the wall inside tell the fable of thirty birds who go through the seven stages of Sufism. These are based on a poem by the Iranian poet Atar. Our final stop in Hamadan was at the Ganjnameh inscriptions, a set of trilingual rock carvings in cuneiform engraved on the mountain by Darius I and his son, Xerxes.
They were once believed to hold the key to hidden Median treasure.  They were however, instrumental in the decoding of these ancient scripts (which later lead to the decoding of Sumerian as well) thanks to work by the English army officer, Henry Rawlinson. Although, they do not describe any hidden Median treasure but instead, show Darius and Xerxes blowing their own trumpets while ostensibly thanking the Zoroastrian creator Ahura Mazda.

After a quick lunch nearby, off we went again, heading West and a little South towards Kermanshah. Our next stop on the road was the Anahita Temple in Kangavar. Anahita was a Goddess of water and fertility, who was important in but pre-dated Zoroastrianism. The site unearthed large pottery pieces from the Parthian era, believed to be pieces of coffins; you can also still see the columns, stairs and a platform where bulls would have been sacrificed. Not long before Kermanshah, we stopped in Bisotun, a World Heritage site with some important reliefs and carvings. The most important relief can only presently be seen from a distance, but it depicts the story of Darius’ ascension to the Achmaenid throne (as per his version of events) and all of the rebel leaders he captured in the process. There is also a carving of Hercules with a Greek inscription that dates back to 148 BC. Finally we drove on to Kermanshah where we stopped at a roadside restaurant and had a delicious dinner of kebabs, soup, olives, yoghurt, aubergine, and of course bread and rice. Then on to the hotel for overnight.

-  David


It is Monday now, and after breakfast we headed West towards Hamadan. Mehrdad distributed a few books from his mobile library for people to read on the bus and we drove off through the barren landscapes in the East of Tehran. After a few hours we arrived into Hamadan, we were given some free time to explore and have some lunch. A few of us found a local kebab house, had lunch there and explored the Baba Taher monument, celebrating the famous Iranian poet. Iranian poets are to Iranians what rock stars are anywhere else; the works of the most famous are known by all and frequently recited and alluded to.

In the early evening we headed out to see the Jewish shrine of Esther & Mortakai, the 10th Century Friday mosque (at least parts of it were from that period) and then took a walk through the bazar, where we attracted plenty of friendly attention. The final visit was to the famous 3rd Century BC stone lion, built by Alexander the Great to commemorate the loss of one of his generals and friends. We then drove across the town, through the posh districts and the university area, to a nice rooftop restaurant where we had dinner – chicken and lamb kebabs, lamb shanks, rice, peppers, onions, roasted tomatoes and yoghurt. It was delicious, and at 2000m, about 200m above Hamadan itself, it was very pleasantly cool with a lovely breeze. It will get hotter from here though...

-   David