I had an amazing vacation this year! For 3 weeks I travelled to Iran where I got to visit several historic cities, meet my wife’s extended family, and participate in my sister-in-law’s amazing wedding. This was followed by one more fantastic week in Mexico for my brother’s destination wedding, which deserves its own post later.
One thing several friends have asked is: how difficult is to get to Iran in the first place? The answer for us was, pretty easy, it was just a lot of paperwork. (Caveat: this is only our answer from the perspective of a non-Iranian married to an Iranian, not just a visiting friend.) Here’s what it was like for us:
- We registered our marriage with a “daftar” in Toronto, which took about an hour during the week we got married last summer.
- We registered our marriage with Iran’s offices in Washington, DC. This is a long form that requires copies of everything from step 1, our Canadian marriage documents, as well as a police record check, passport copies, signatures from her dad, passport photos… and I sent a blood test for AIDS and drugs too though I no longer see that requirement listed.
- Sara’s parents sent a visa invitation letter to Tehran.
- Once that was approved, I got a visa application number and sent in my visa application paperwork to Washington along with my passport. I got the passport back in a few days.
We booked our flight somewhere in the middle of the process since there was a good sale, but luckily all of the steps went without a problem. We sent in the Step 2 documents in February and Sara’s parents did Step 3 in March (be careful that the government stops everything for 2 weeks in late March for the Persian new year).
Our trip actually started by visiting Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, just for the sake of seeing something new. There, we made a Canadian pilgrimage to several Tim Hortons locations. They had freshly squeezed orange juice, faux bacon breakfast sandwiches, and delicious hot brown water, needless to say. We also went in the UAE coast of the Persian Gulf, had a nice IHOP breakfast opposite the world’s tallest building, visited the spice/gold bazaars, did some shopping at the gigantic Dubai Mall, and went on a short boat tour. We walked a LOT which was pretty challenging because it was super hot and humid.
After that short visit we took our next flight, bringing us to Tehran. It is the capital city of Iran, where Sara grew up. Tehran is only about 250 years old (pretty young by Persian standards) and it is a massive city. Its population is over 8 million, approximately equal to New York City, and it also has about the same size. The first couple of days there were spent exploring her neighborhood and seeing some of her family. Her dad offered to buy me some ice cream from the nearby Bastani Madar, so I took him up on his offer and got bastani ob havich, which is a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in a cold glass of carrot juice. Sounds weird, I know, but anyone who’s had it can attest to its deliciousness. We managed to check out some sights at Jamshidiyeh Park and Niyavaran Palace before moving on to our next stop.
We took an overnight train with Sara’s mom to Isfahan. This city, a former capital of Persia, is known for its art and its architecture — even the train station had lovely arches rising up to the ceiling. On the right you can see a picture of the big “bazaar bozorg” with several notable features. First, more beautiful ceilings with geometric cutouts leaving lighted spots on the floor. Second, a car headed in my direction, which was typical traffic, pretty amazing given how narrow and twisted the pathways were.
Esfahan had a lot of different sights to see. There is a huge rectangular public square called naqsh-e-jahan; at its center are gardens and pools, around the sides are vendors (part of the bazaar), and it is flanked by 4 main features, one on each side: a big mosque, another even bigger mosque, a palace, and the bazaar’s main entrance. The city’s wide boulevards bring you from this area through several parks, palaces, and si-o-se pol, a beautiful old bridge. Out of town, we visited an ancient zoroastrian fire temple (ateshkadeh).
One of the most memorable parts of our visit to Esfahan is actually the hotel we stayed at, Hotel Abbasi, which had not only a kickin’ breakfast buffet, but also a central tea garden where we refreshed ourselves in the evenings with tea, sweets, soup (ash-e-reshteh) and ice cream.
Our next destination was Shiraz, yet another former capital city. We started with one of Iran’s most famous historical sites, Persepolis, located an hour’s drive outside of the city. This is where the Persian empire was centered during the Achaemenid days of Cyrus the Great, Darius, and Xerxes. It was burnt down by the army of Alexander the Great in 330 BC — reputedly in revenge for Xerxes’ burning of the Acropolis in Athens 150 years earlier.
Persepolis was a large series of palaces, the size of a village, with foundations and pillars made out of stone. From a historical perspective it is pretty amazing that it’s survived 2500 years because that period includes several conquests of Persia by caliphates and mongols that tended to destroy all cultural artifacts they could get their hands on. The reason that it survived is that it was buried by dirt and sand not long after it was burned to the ground, and only in the mid-1800s did archaeologists re-discover and start to excavate the site.
Visiting Persepolis brought me face to face with a lot of ancient Persian history: the cuneiform script in which Old Persian was written, Zoroastrian history, and the Farvahar symbol. But a lot of the most interesting parts of the story are still visible. On the Apadana Staircase you can see an inscription showing the annual tribute festival where distinctive people and gifts are depicted from each of Persia’s 28 provinces at the time (spanning the globe from India to Ethiopia). This was definitely an important place to hire a guide since he was able to explain this history, make us aware of the symbolism, and bring life to the ancient ruins.
Here are a couple more cultural highlights from Persepolis thanks to our guide:
The main entry stairs to Persepolis were constructed with an especially short height because it was important that world leaders, walking up these stairs together in their flowing robes, could talk without fear of tripping.
- The logo of Iran Air is based on the two-headed cat statues of Persepolis (see right).
- Those cats had interchangeable ears depending on the occasion (like Mr. Potato Head).
- If a Persian grabs you by two fingers, they are just bringing you to a party: every delegation pictured on the Apadana staircase was led by a Persian guide doing this. Make sure to bring presents.
- Unlike the great pyramids, Persepolis was not built by slavery. Archaeologists have found records of payments to builders, and health insurance.
Shiraz is also home to relatively newer attractions. We went to an amazing kebab place that evening and had salad shirazi (diced salad of tomatoes, cucumber, onion and lime juice). A surprising source of culinary inspiration was the tomb of Hafez, the most famous Persian poet. It was one of several places that we had faloodeh, the famous rosewater sorbet with vermicelli noodles served with lime juice.
The teahouse also had masghati, a.k.a Turkish delight. I remember eating this once in Turkey but it was just kind of weird. The one at Hafeziye was pliable, fragrant, and delicious! In explaining it later to my friends I have described it a big spherical gummy bear with nuts inside of it, and this seemed to help more people try it 🙂
We visited a few other things in Shiraz including a lively public park (a nice break from the tourist attractions), an old citadel, a beautiful palace called Naranjestan (literally, land of the oranges) and the Nasir al-Molk mosque due to its famous stained glass windows.
Just as we were leaving Shiraz, some random people on the street offered us some free beverages. The cab driver explained that this is common on holidays so we grabbed a few and it turned out to be an extremely delicious lime cordial, simply made from water, sugar, and juice from local shirazi limes. Merci, Shiraz!
Once back in Tehran, several members of Sara’s family had dinner gatherings which were awesome. Her aunts and cousins were great to meet and hang out with, and extremely gracious in letting me practice my Farsi. They cooked so much food for us! I may have arrived in Iran with a little bit of a Persian tongue, but I left with a fully Persian belly.
A few days later, Vida and Navid’s wedding took place in the outskirts of Tehran. It was completely awesome. Sara and I commissioned a sofreyeh aghd for our own Persian-Canadian wedding last year, so I had some general idea of what to expect. But, the location of their wedding was not only beautiful and elegant, but huge! It was an outdoors setting with gardens, streams, ponds, musicians, tea, but more importantly, a ton of food and lots of dancing. The area with traditional instruments included a daf (like a large tambourine) and tombak (another drum) where, as I hope the wedding footage will attest, we got some of Navid and Vida’s aunts and uncles on the dance floor. I want to thank both of them heartily for including us in their wedding party on their special day.
We had one night in Tehran to relax by ourselves. Thanks to the suggestion of Sara’s cousin Azita, we went to visit Darband, and it made for one of the best nights in the whole trip. Darband is a path up in the mountains to the north of Tehran, nestled in a long crevasse populated by kebab stands, dried fruit merchants and cafes. The path continues up to hiking though we didn’t make it that far, getting distracted by kebab barg and shishlik for dinner, followed by shisha, tea and Persian dates on a traditional platform (takht). The next time I come back, it will definitely be an area ripe for further investigations.
Following this, we made the trip up to Mazandaran province where Sara’s parents are originally from, partied with even more of her family, and got to put our toes in the Caspian Sea thanks to her niece Negar.
If you are planning to visit Iran, two other practical things are useful.
- A practical thing that I strongly recommend is getting a data SIM card for your phone. We got one in an Isfahani mall; it was very cheap though it required some paperwork that Sara’s mom filled out. We went with Irancell (MTN), which seemed like the most popular national carrier, and bought a data plan for it later on (we bought prepay-refills from corner stores and then bought “plans” using text messages).
- I brought a Lonely Planet travel guide and it was invaluable, especially because we were visiting so many cities (and because several of those visits were before I had the data SIM). Though not all of the recommendations were totally accurate (the Shahrazade restaurant in Isfahan was pretty mediocre) I have to say that there was a ton of great food (Shater Abbas in Shiraz!) and zero food poisoning, plus we wouldn’t have known about most of the tourist sites otherwise. If you want to borrow it let me know!
- There’s a surprisingly large number of tourists in Shiraz and Isfahan; most of the ones we saw were from France, Germany, and northern Europe. Everything was safe and the locals everywhere were friendly, though you will of course be able to navigate things more easily if you travel with someone who is fluent in Persian.
If you do go, safar khoob daashte boshi — have a good trip!
Filed under: iran, photos, travel | 3 Comments