Road Tripping across from the Azerbaijain Boarder

I started off the week travelling further North to a place called Jolfa.  I had read that the scenery in this part of Iran was not to be missed. This place is really interesting as it boarders Azerbaijan.  It rarely sees tourists and because of the boarder there is no public transport and I was warned about hitch hiking and taking photos as the area is known to be quite dangerous. I took a quick detour to visit a monastery up in the mountains. I spent longer than expected up here partly because it was seriously stunning but secondly because we found a wild mulberry tree so we stocked up on the most delicious fruit.

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San Stefanos Church, Jolfa
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The UNESCO World Heritage Site; San Stefano
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Scenery en route to Jolfa

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The drive from Jolfa to Kalybar passes through the Aras River and is a sight for sore eyes. Simply stunning. Myself and Hussain (my driver) immediately hit it off which was lucky as I spent 8 hours with him. We took regular pit stops during the day for ice cream, kebabs and some more mulberry picking.

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On the other side of the river is Azerbaijan. We could see it for the entire 6 hour journey from Jolfa to Kalybar
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My driver insisted on making chai during this windy cliff side drive. Really Safe
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The drive is so diverse we even saw  rice fields
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This couple invited use in to eat some Mulberries from their garden
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The mulberry picking gang
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She told me she was too self conscious to get her photo taken. I think she is gorgeous
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Who needs teeth anyway
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Hussain, my kind driver

The 6 hour drive featured insane scenery from start to finish.  We eventually made our end destination to Kalybar a small little village perched in the mountains. I got collected by Babak my couch surfing host who lived in the most idyllic house on the side of a mountain.  They too had walnut, mulberry, cherry and apricot trees. They made alcohol out of drying mulberries in the sun which is a v common custom over here. His family owned a bakery and ice cream shop so I questioned would I ever be able to leave this quaint little village. The main attraction in Kalybar is a trek to the top of the mountain to view the famous Babak Castle.

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En route to Babak Castle
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My couch surfing host Babak on the way to the castle
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There is still one  man living at Babak Castle and he uses this Donkey as his means of transport to get food from the village
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Climbing to the top of Babak Castle in Kalybar

On my first evening I was invited for dinner with Babak’s family. I was instantly greeted with kisses and hugs and pure joy from his mother. Again despite the language barrier we immediately hit it off and I was treated to the most stunning array of  Iranian food. That night I opted to sleep outside on the garden terrace in due to its perfect climate. Despite the frogs and ants it was idyllic.

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Kofta Tabriz eaten with Lavish and all the Iranian trimmings in Kalybar
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Up there with one of my favourite spots in Iran

After Kalybar, I wanted to check out the Caspian sea craving a swim. I ended up doing couch surfing with the intense Mohammad. As a rule I have only been couch surfing with girls or families but on this occasion his reviews were excellent so I gave him a chance. I arrived into steaming Ramsar in the middle of the night and Mohammad kindly collected me in a taxi

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Saying goodbye to cool Kalybar and hello to hot Ramsar
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Freshly baked barbary bread in Ramsar
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This bread is made daily and it the best when eaten hot out of the oven

The next day we went swimming in the Caspian sea which is surrounded by the jungle a little bit similar to Tyrona in Colombia. It is such a shame it has such potential to be beautiful but in reality is was very dirty. It was a sad sight seeing all the men swimming in the sea and the women just watching from the shore. I inquired was I allowed to swim and was told yes but that I must go in all of my clothes. I didn’t even have to consider this and was in like a light bulb (this shocked Mohammad). After a while there was a guard screaming at me frantically I was worried as I had lost my hijab in the sea and was afraid there could be some problems. In fact he was warning us that swimming in this area is really dangerous due to water holes and that sadly three people died there only last week. We made a quick and lucky exit. It was only then I figured Mohammad was a funny fish (to be fair to Iran there haven’t been many compared to SA). He really wanted to brush my hair, massage my fingers and take my photo so I knew I wouldn’t be hanging out with his chap too long…..

I made an escape and decided to go camping in a cool village in the mountains called Javardeh. The weather up here was cool, cloudy and all in all pretty perfect. I instantly befriended a family who fed me with fresh chicken kebabs. It is a really authentic village experience with lots of families venturing up the mountain to escape the heat. But, there is absolutely nothing to do up here except eat and I was a little skeptical about camping as I would have been completely alone. I opted to hitch hike off the mountain with a kind couple and make my way to the big city of Qasvin.

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It’s all about the people! This family invited me to have lunch with them
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A family affair of making chicken kebabs (love how they use flatbread as heat protection)
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The gang mid munch (look how cute the older woman is)
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The shopping scene at Javaredeh

Back in Ramsar I bonded with a few men over some Islamic beer and sesame seeds. We eventually shared a taxi to Qazvin. This city is generally used as a good base to go explore the Allamut Valley. At this stage I was looking disheveled, rough and dirty and my couchsurfing hosts happened to be living in a luxury apartment in Qazvin so I definitely was not their typical clientele.

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Proud as punch of her freshly baked barbary done on the side of the street (Javardeh)
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The competitor in the Iranian bread market= Lavash. This is a lot thinner and used mainly for kebabs as it soaks up all of the meat juices perfectly

I was greeted by the gorgeous couple Maryam and Peyman who treated me like  a queen. The next day after an incredible breakie spread I went exploring and shopping with the glamorous Maryam.  A large majority of the day was spent browsing for diamonds and teapots (anyone looking for real diamonds come to Iran they are ridiculously cheap!!!). We tasted the local sweet delicacy of baklava flavoured with pistachio and saffron a divine combination. This is excellent with a coffee.

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Baclava Qazvin style; this stuff is sooo good
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Shopping here= Amazing

In the afternoon we cooled down with some saffron ice cream, this is the best I’ve tasted so far which had frozen chunks of cream mixed through it. I even got to crash a movie at an Iranian cinema. Interestingly, in Iran they are only allowed to display Iranian movies in the cinema, Western ones are strictly forbidden. I was also treated to the  famous  dish of Qazvin;  Gheymeh Nesar. It contains rice with meat, saffron, barberries, orange zest with almonds and pistachios. I forgot to take a picture it was that delish.

Next on the agenda was a 3 day trek to the Allamut Valley for my birthday with a French couple I met in Tabriz. Maryam equipped me with some home made saffron juice, and lots of delish snacks so I was good to go. As expected  the Frenchies were an hour late  but I’ve learned not to sweat the big stuff and I was just so delira to eventually find  some travel buddies for the up coming adventure (generally speaking tourists have been non-existent here)

 

My Favourite Place in Iran; Tabriz

Next on the agenda was the glorious city of Shiraz. Another night bus was unfortunately on the cards, desperate to save on time. I am overwhelmed with Iran and what it has to offer. 1 month is simply not enough. My couchsuring in Shiraz lived near the ancient city of Persepolis so I was told to get off in a random town (I didn’t read the fine print when they said they lived 60 km outside of the city centre). Getting off early on a bus always causes extreme confusion and generally results in the entire bus getting involved. They  love the drama.

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The ancient city of Persepolis

Out of the blue I was thrown out on a motor way in the middle of the night so not great. There wasn’t a sinner in sight except one small Iranian man looking equally confused, but he had a car which was hopeful. I needed to travel a further 12 km to make it to the house and there wasn’t a sniff of a taxi. I managed to figure out that he was waiting on a bag of flour (?) and once it arrived he would happily bring me to my destination.  We exchanged some stale food with one another and he seemed more than content with the gesture. Eventually the human sized bags of flour arrived and we were en route. To my dismay after only 5 minutes I found myself once again dumped on the side of the street.  The pits….

Not  a taxi in sight so I starting hitch hiking. I am really conscious that hitchhiking isn’t exactly the done thing over here. It is also further complicated when you put out your finger. The standard hitchhiking finger in Iran actually means ‘fuck off’ so not ideal (I only found this out afterwards, hindsight is a wonderful thing). Every day I am learning new rules in this country.  Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long  until a lovely chap bundled me into his car and away we went.  I paid him with fresh dates. Google maps dropped me off at a random house and after a few wrong knock on the doors and several invitations for chai I eventually found Najme and her family home. I collapsed onto the floor and the pair of us slept for 3 blissful hours.

I was treated to a divine breakfast spread of  flat breads, cream, sesame seed puree (AMAZING),  honey and cheese. Najme’s mother and father hadn’t a word of English but I instantly liked them, sometimes you can just tell. They couldn’t have done enough for me.  Once again, I know I must sound like a broken record but the we could all learn a thing or two about Iranian hospitality. Difficult to describe the kindness of these people who are living in a county with extremely difficult circumstances. They happily welcome privileged foreign strangers into their homes.

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Cream, honey and hot flatbread= heavenly

Naijme explained that her family were extremely traditional and that their biggest hobby was eating so I was warned. This is a common theme in Iran. I am a massive foodie and can put away a serious amount of grub but even I cannot keep up with the Iranians.  The minute breakie is finished lunch prep is in full swing and they are constantly worried you are hungry.

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Rice for one

First on the itinerary was a trip to the historical place of Persepolis. The ruins are now a World Heritage Site. At one of the tombs we met a bunch of giddy Iranian men who were celebrating the first day of their holiday. They were extremely merry and I soon found out why. They were nursing a bottle of Arak. Arak is a horribly strong liquor made of aniseed and grape. It was almost at boiling point from the sun. Obviously intrigued by it and also the fact all alcohol is illegal in Iran I happily sampled the stuff. They informed me of how they sneak the drink in especially to historic sites they pretend it’s water easy! Lots of Iranians make their own alcohol it’s far cheaper than buying it on the black market.

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Stunning tombs at Perspolis
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Boozing in Perspolis; definitely wasn’t expecting this
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Pretending we were freezing in Persepolis; in fact I think this is the hottest I have ever been in my life. It was almost 50 degrees!!!!!!!

After the trip we came back to Najme’s family home for more shut eye and one of my best Iranian feeds to date. Her mother is constantly cooking with some of the dishes taking up to 5 hours to make. We were treated to the sensational salad shiraz (typical to this area), Kalam Pollo (saffron infused chicken).

Preparations were in full swing for Mai hak’s 2nd birthday (Naijme’s adorable niece). The family invited myself and another Ukrainian couch surfer, Basil to the party  which was in their holiday home near the mountains . Because bars, discos and clubs are all illegal in Iran there is a massive emphasis on family gatherings and celebrations in their homes it is one of their cultural practices that I love. This was no exception and they pulled out all of the stops.

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Cutest overload with this beautiful little girl

A hilarious Iranian tradition is where before cutting the cake the family dance Persian with the knife and the knife is passed on for ages until eventually it is cut. This hilarious ritual could go on for ages before anyone gets a sniff of cake.

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Persian Party Style
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Another legendary Iranian Family
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The benefits of only drinking chai? Non existant hangovers!

That night myself and most of the family decided to sleep outside. Their garden was also full of apricot, peach, walnut, apple, cherry and pomegranate trees.The following morning the Granny was in the height of preparing a breakfast spread on par with the dinner productions. She was adement we stay for lunch but not able to budge I declined the tempting offer and myself, Basil and Najme made our way back to Shiraz city to check it out.

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Hafed’s Tomb in Shiraz. Exploring by night to avoid the blistering heat.

The next day we camped out in Naijme’s mates house eating sugary confections and copious amounts  of tea.  During my time in Shiraz I visited the in famous Pink Mosque (Masjed-e-Nasir-al-Molk). It is one of Iran’s most iconic Mosques. It was constructed in a way that when the sun rises the entire room reflects pink through the stain glass. Unfortunately the light is at its strongest during Winter and Spring so I didn’t see it at its full potential.  It was stunning nonetheless (until the hoards of Chinese erupted with their selfie sticks).

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Catching a peaceful moment before the tours arrive
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The stunning Pink Mosque in one of the most famous in Iran
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Morning light through the stain glass
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There is a constant pink hue to the room caused by the stain glass

Next on the agenda was a much-needed cup of coffee. I be friended a Dutch tourist (generally speaking I haven’t seen any tourists). I was adopted by his couch surfer host who showed the pair of us around for the day. It’s a stunning city with an equally stunning bazaar.

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Don’t even know the name of this place but loved it
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The courtyard at the Pink Mosque
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Court yards in Shiraz
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Somewhere beautiful in Shiraz

I cooled off in the afternoon with some faloodeh shirazi. This is a much try dish while in Shiraz where it originates. I was v disappointed as it’s actually rotten but the Iranians are obsessed with it. Its noodles frozen in a sugar syrup served with lemon juice. I gave it to a homeless man.

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Morning light at the Pink Mosque
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Iranian Rooftop tiles

That evening for sunset myself and Naijme went to visit lake Maharloo. This is a Pink Salt Lake. Strangely depending on when you visit it isn’t always pink but we were in luck. We practically had it to ourselves. The intensity of pink is strongest at sunrise and sunset (it’s not too dissimilar to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia except it’s pink and empty!!).

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The amazing pink salt lake
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The stunning Naijme rocking her hijab and hairy eyes!
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This place didn’t feel real
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Lake Maharloo is only half an hour from Shiraz and well worth the detour
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Soaking up the last of the sun before heading to the airport

Naijme had enough time to get to know me and insisted on escorting me to the airport foreseeing some difficulties. She wasn’t wrong.  I ended up loosing my boarding pass in the toilet. Luckily I was the only tourist in the airport so it was quickly retraced back to me. As a tourist it’s impossible to to buy things online in Iran so my amazing CS hosts from a flight to Tehran bought for me.  I eventually negotiated my way onto the correct flight and I befriend a cute old woman on the plane. She held me hand for the entire journey it was v romantic.

I then took a night bus to Tabriz. I rocked up to Tabriz feeling relatively fresh considering the hellish journey. I instantly fell in love with the city and at last it wasn’t HOT (maybe that’s why I loved it so much).  It is also famous for having some of the countries friendliest people and I instantly knew why.

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This woman looked terrifying at first and when I asked to take her picture she just started giggling

I started my day off in one of its famous cafes for dairy. All this café serves is raw milk, cream, cheese and fresh honey comb served with barbary (a freshly baked Iranian flatbread). It was crammed with locals and I  instantly loved it. Seriously good stuff (I went 3 days in a row). Tabriz is particularly renowned for its amazing food especially dairy products.

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The only place to have breakfast in Tabriz
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Hand churned butter, honey straight from the honey comb served with warm barbary
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This gent used to sell me my walnuts

The Bazaar in Tabriz is one of the most famous in the world and is the oldest in the middle east and the largest covered bazaar in the world.  It was declared a UNESCO Heritage site. It stretches for more than 7 km. I spent the day talking to randomers (one of my favourite hobbies). Randomer one of the day was Ali who like pretty much every business man in Iran sells carpets. We sipped on chai and talked nonsense for an hour and then of course this followed with a tour of the bizarre finishing in his carpet shop for  more chai. They don’t get pissed off when you don’t buy it’s so refreshing. They are so pleasant, not pushy and generally just proud of what they do.

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Ali; drinking tea like the locals from a saucer
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This cutie almost had me convinced me to buy a Persian Rug
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Standard chill time on the rugs in Tabriz
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This lad insisted on me photographing the un known chap in the pic

Once I said  my good byes to Ali I met randomer number 2; Mohammad who invited for chai and chocolate. This was the gist of the day. I even lost my phone for a few hours I left it in a teapot shop! The kind Iranians ensured it was returned to me. V lucky.

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Dying material to make carpets.
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Typical scenes in Tabriz’s Bazaar

That evening I took the metro to go visit Park Elgoli, just on the out skirts of the city. Whilst chilling having some rose water ice cream I was almost attacked by an excited group of Iranians. Turns out they were all doing a phd in Maths and were at a conference. After our photo shoot they kidnapped me and insisted on treating me for dinner and chai.

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Getting hijacked by the friendliest Iranians
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This man insisted on having his own private photoshoot

The next day was spent negotiating the price of Iran’s tea scene. I think the bazaar in Tabriz is like nothing I have ever seen. I could have easily spent a week here and the pictures don’t even justify this place. Later in the day I got picked up by an 18 year old eager to improve his English  so we went for coffee together. He explained that his Grandfather is 80 years old and has been selling carpets all of his life and still hasn’t discovered all of the bazaar. There are over 5,500 stalls here with parts of the bizaar dedicated to certain products such as cigarettes, shisa, spices, tea the list goes on and on. It’s beautifully overwhelming.  One man in the market even presented me with a rose and a typed up letter welcoming me to Iran and his contact information in case I needed any help. Way too ott but a ridiculously nice gesture all the same. The rest of the day was spent getting free food and drink samples from every corner of the market.

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Dreamy combinations of cheese, honey and rose
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The only way to eat honey; fresh from the comb
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Dates coming out of your ears. The Iranians regularly eat these with chai

I took a day trip to  Kandovan from Tabriz. It is the most enchanting place and often compared to Cappdoccia in Turkey.  It is a tiny village with man made cliff dwellings in the shape of cones which are made out of volcanic material. This place looks like a movie set.  The only difference is the inhabitants still live here and it is not touristy.  There are still around 600 people living here. It is surrounded by gorgeous mountains. We explored and spoke to the locals living there. The conditions here in Winter are vicious.

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600 people still live in the small cliff side village
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Every house is constructed into the cliff side
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Exploring the surrounding mountains in Kandovan
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The cutest little Iranian Family
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I love the pride in his face. He specifically asked me to include his rings in the photograph
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Local child selling his families crafts

I wish I had more time in Tabriz. An FYI there are direct flights from Hamburg to Tabriz and it only takes 5 hours. Don’t hesitate just book that flight to the dreamiest place in Iran.

 

Yazd; The Most Ancient Settlement on Earth

My experience in Iran to date has been a series of kidnappings from the kindest Iranians. Hospitality like I have never experienced. Randomers are constantly coming up to you on the street simply thanking you for coming to their country, there have been endless invitations for chai and families are constantly asking to host me. Next up was Mostafa, a kind stranger who helped me in a bus station as I was trying (very badly) to try and buy an Iranian sim card. This is some ordeal. Nothing really is straightforward in Iran but that is part of its charm and challenge. I figured it would be a buy over the counter job but no…..  Mostafa took me in a taxi and brought me to an official office. They requested my passport, signatures, finger prints and a witness. After a lot of hula balu I managed to get one, you would swear I was applying for Iranian citizenship! Turns out the sim card didn’t even work so all in all a good days work!

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The media has portrayed Iran as being extremely dangerous. Yet day after day I am welcomed by the the kindest people you could possibly imagine
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This family were really dangerous!!!

That night, I was booked onto the night bus to Yazd so I had one more day to explore the famous Mosque’s in Esfahan. They are completely out of this world and difficult to comprehend how they were built  over 400 hundred years ago. Myself and Mostafa decided to hit the sites together. First up was the empty Majed Jameh Mosque which I fell in love with.

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Majed Jameh Mosque, Esfahan
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Majed Jameh Mosque, Esfahan

We then sampled the signature dish of Esfahan; byriani which is flat bread stuffed with minced mutton and offal served with the typical chunks of onion, fresh herbs and of course  duk (this salty milk drink in definitely growing on me and Motsafa proclaimed it was the best he has ever tasted!).

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Byriani; the most iconic dish of Esfahan

The bazaar surrounds Naqsh-e Jahan Square and was named a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. I could easily spend days browsing in bazaars. You are constantly getting invited into bakeries, carpet and craft shops. The people aren’t pushy at all and are genuinely intrigued by you and so excited to see tourists in Iran. Shopping is therefore so pleasant. One act of genuine trust that amazed me was when Mostafa handed the taxi driver his credit card and gave him his pin number and asked him to go to the atm and with draw the taxi fare! Just crazy how trust worthy everyone is here.

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It’s no Phibsborough shopping centre but I suppose it will do the job. Esfahan’s Unesco Heritage Bazaar
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Strolling through Esfshan’s stunning Bazaar
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Artists at work in Esfahan
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The bazaar has an entire section dedicated to copper
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The home of stunning Persian rugs

The bazaar was empty as it was siesta time. We almost had the place to ourselves. Esfahan is famous for its copper, artwork, carpets and delicious gaz; a nougat stuffed with pistachio nuts and flavored with honey and rose water. The Iranians are sugar obsessed and it wouldn’t be untypical for them to consume 4 to 5 sugar cubes per cup of tea. Tea consumption here is on a next level with some of them having up to 20 cups per day. Luckily in Esfahan I managed to track down a much needed cup of coffee which is no easy task in tea obsessed Iran.

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Esfahan’s Mosque
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Still utterly blown away by this archway I had to include it again!

I camped out at the bus station waiting  from my night bus to Yazd. It is impossible to be alone in Iran there is constantly  droves of people wanting to speak, stare or photograph you.  Once again the kindness of Iranian strangers featured where a young boy in the hotel treated me to 5 cups of tea (in the loo all night!!), cucumbers, apricots and an empanada!!!(in Iran!!) an unusual but very welcomed combination. For a split second it brought me back to Argentina.

I didn’t sleep a wink on the night bus despite the buses being quite comfy there is the compulsory blaring of Iranian music at 4 am and the odd fuzzy film playing in the background. I arrived at 5 am, and as per usual felt rough.  A random skinny man with no teeth appeared out of the blue and grabbed my backpack and started to run away with it so naturally I followed him. He threw it into the boot of his car and said he was a taxi man, with no energy to argue we agreed 150,000 rial to take me to my couchsurfing host. Seconds later skinny man starts screaming at me in Farsi or Arabic (or both) because we were  lost, neither of us had an iota where we were except that we were on a long and tedious motor way. I eventually managed to get google maps up and we obtained relative peace until 5 seconds later he was screaming again. I was then thrown a phone and someone with some broken English was also screaming down the phone at me. The journey was subsequently upped to 600,000 rial.  The flood-works were inevitable  and at this stage out he freaked out and through me out of the car (without my backpack!). Seconds later skinny crazy man was back and ushering me into the car once again. After pure and utter chaos we eventually made it to the house….. We left on okay terms (relatively speaking). An aggressive start to the morning but I was glad to have made it to Yazd.

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Yazd, the most ancient settlement on earth

Aryan my new couchsurfer gave me a room in his Mam’s house  as he was working. So after some  quick shut eye I ventured into the amazing city of Yazd. I  have never seen anything like this place. The old city is one of the most ancient settlements on earth.  It features windy lanes and all of the buildings in the historic town are made entirely from mud and straw. The city is wedged between two deserts and like everywhere else in Iran at the moment it is piping hot. So regular pit stops were required for saffron ice cream and rose water tea (an Iranian delicacy that is out of this world).

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My pit stop for breakfast was at the glorious Art’s centre
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Breakfast with a view in Yazd
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Art works in Yazd

I think Yazd was definitely the hottest of the cities to date. The hijab was literally glued to my head as I pottered around drenched in sweat for the day. The only benefit to the heat was no one else was brave enough to venture out so I practically had the city to myself.  Yazd is the perfect place to get lost in. The mud brick alleys are stunning and so enchanting. It is also famous for Baklava and other sweet confectionery. I got a few free samples which I obviously inhaled but they are sickly sweet and not my gig. The city consists of mostly rooftop cafes and restaurants with some serious views of the ancient city.

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Some sturdy mud infrastructure
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Getting lost
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Standards doors in Yazd

Mid way through the day I was about to collapse from the heat so I opted to give the museums a miss and head back to the apartment to take a siesta pre dinner. What I failed to remember was the address of the house. After another confused taxi ride I rocked up to what I thought was the house and after banging the door down I got the fright of my life when a Muleh answered the door. These are the scary priests who are ruling Iran at the moment. I immediately knew this wasn’t the right gaf. I tried to asked the Muleh did he know Aryan  but then realised this was risky business as couch surfing is illegal in Iran (along with an extremely long list of other things). Anyway the Muleh just looked pissed off and shut the door in my face. I knocked on a few other random houses and no one knew who Aryon was (of course they didn’t…. I was on the wrong street!!). Anyway after lot of hula balu some random man on the street lead me down a lane and ushered me into a house which happened to be Aryan’s. I almost kissed the man as I was v close to fainting from the heat (It was almost 50 degrees). Luckily I didn’t as I had a sneaky feeling Muleh was on the lookout. Anyway a minor blip in the day that ended well. I took 3 cold showers, ate some ice and felt some what human again.

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I fell in love with the ancient alleys in Yazd
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Every corner of the city features intrinsic pieces of art
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These walls are entirely made out of mud

The next day I was booked into Ecolodge Nartitee in a random little village located outside Yazd called Taft. The lodge was paradise personified. It is a historic building made out of mud just like everything else in the area. The place was filled with cool people, mulberry, almond, walnut, apricot, apple and loads of pomegranate trees. I was fed and watered with the freshest organic and homemade food for  2 days.

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Breakfast for one…
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Baby pomegranate and its flower
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The house is decorated with dried pomegranates. They are really famous in this area
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Afternoon activities in the Ecolodge
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Traditional way of drinking water

On my second day, I got up at the craic of dawn to go explore the area on bicycle trying to escape the vicious heat.

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8am in Taft

Later in the day I chilled with the Grannies of the house where we spent the afternoon picking apricots and singing in Farsi.  Anyone visiting Yazd you need to check out this place. It is good for the soul and gave the batteries a much needed re-charge.

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Sleeping outside on the roof in Nartitee Ecolodge, Taft
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Delbar picking her apricots in Taft
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This was the owners mother who spent the whole day singing and smiling. A beautiful Woman
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The amazing memory wall in Naritee Ecolodge (you can spot the Irish flag hiding!)

 

 

 

An Epic Train Journey in Iran

The train from Andimesk to Dorud is rated by different travel bloggers as one of the most scenic journeys in the world.  Lots of Iranians don’t even know it exists (or tourists) for that reason it still costs 50c and is not easy to get to. I grabbed a bus from Kermanshah and in the middle of the night was dropped off in random Andimesk.

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Apparently one of these lads was the train driver! Doesn’t instil much confidence…

This place would rarely see a tourist pass through so when I arrived at the train station I stood out like a sore thumb. The reason this train is so fascinating is that it passes through valleys, peaks and dozens of tunnels while winding through the Zagros mountains. When the train staff saw me they immediately invited me for breakfast of flat breads, chai and rice pudding. It prepped me nicely for the stunning journey ahead. I was absolutely beefed following the sleepless night bus but after a while the tiredness faded as I was glued to the window completely in awe of the scenery.

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Sunrise as the train sets to leave Andimesk station

Most people take this 6-7 hour journey at night and I had read it gets pretty chaotic with locals having to stand for the entire journey. It was reported to be like an endurance test I was obviously oblivious to this in my carriage. Naturally I was intrigued by this ‘endurance test’ so I went to exploring and saw people sleeping in storage containers  and on the floor etc. Before I knew it I was whisked away by an Iranian bearded man with no English. All I gathered was he was pleading with me to go visit his mother. So naturally I obliged. I met his mother and the whole family who looked stunned to be witnessing such a sight (me in a hijab!!!!). Anyway seconds later the train conductor was down and escorted me back telling me it was too dangerous to be down there. Back to the throne for some more chai and biscuits feeling somewhat guilty and sad for the division and the reasons why I wasn’t allowed mingle with the locals.

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Typical scenes on the train journey
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There was killings with me and an Iranian Man as I had the windows open for the whole journey. The locals didn’t seem bothered by the view and he grumpily kept repeating he was cold! (it was over 40 degrees…….)

I cannot recommend the train experience enough. It is a pain in the arse to get to it but well worth the effort and so far a definite Iranian highlight. You will have all to your self and be fully immersed in the genuine amazing Iranian hospitality.

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A football pitch with a view!

Once I got off the train I was treated to some blistering heat so I decided to camp out for a while to try and figure out my options. Dorud’s main appeal is the train and the surrounding mountains and not wanting to waste time I opted to make my way towards Esfahan that night (or try!). Within 5 minutes the obsessed Iranian family were back over pleading with me to go to their house (well that’s what I think, it was in Farsi). I tried to explain I wanted to go to Esfahan, 7 hours away. I grasped that they wanted the honor to feed me and then they would bring me to the bus station afterwards.  I figured the old man and women made the creepy man seem a little bit more legit. I was aware that the train staff told me they were dangerous so I insisted on saying no at the beginning. With very little will power, little other options and no energy to brave the heat I took them up on their tempting offer. I know most people would cleverly run a mile but on this occasion my gut feeling was telling me they were decent people and to give them a chance. Before I knew it I was bundled into a taxi and away we went for a mysterious lunch. They were a family of 8 all of the men were called Mohammad except one who was called Homid v easy to remember. In Iran, if they are not called Mohammaed a safe bet is always Ali.

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No time wasting and all the stops were brought out including their pride and joy; Shisa

The language barrier is killing me and reminds  me of my early South American days except it’s worse here because there is absolutely no one else to help you even google is pretty useless as they don’t use our alphabet.

Their home was one big room where they all ate and slept. The old woman got straight to work wishing for me to experience a traditional kebab. She started violently tearing up a chicken carcass so I knew it was the real deal.  This particular family said they only have kebabs for special occasions so I was extremely privileged.  I was in two minds about Hamid the main organizer of the kidnapping.  He started to pray while we were all eating which made me a little un easy.  His family on the other-hand had completely  won me over and were fab.  They also wanted me to take a traditional Turkish bath ( a step too far even for me).

The lunch was an experience in itself and typical to most Iranian houses was eaten off the floor with. I love the whole culture of eating off the floor it is extremely sociable and most families I’ve stayed with don’t even own a table. I have realised I have an extremely sharp and protruding bum bone which is actually causing serious issues when trying to eat. It’s a pain in the arse (if you will pardon the pun!). Tables are a thing of the past so I better get used to it.

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The hair dryer working it’s magic!

The mother made her own yogurt and flat breads. The chicken kebab with rice was a sensation. They also have a thing about feeding you up and are so enthusiastic they don’t want you to stop eating.  I was constantly getting mounds of food thrown onto my plate with beaming smiles staring at me as I inhaled the feast. At one point they started taking food from their own plates to add to my pile. So excessive but they genuinely get offended if you don’t finish your plate.

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The crew from the train

After the grub I was keen to make my getaway eager to make it to Esfahan that night but Homid and his brother  had other plans. They were adement in taking me to a random location ‘to take photos of nature’. One thing about Iranians they don’t involve you in the decision making and bundle you into car and away you go (their intentions are usually good). 40 degree heat meant photos of nature were v low on my list of priorities. Dorud is a bit of a ghost town so with no taxis I relayed on the lift. Before I knew it I was in ‘nature’ and not a bus station in sight. It is cute how proud they are of their country and how they all want you to have the best memory of it but I was still a little wary of the brothers. Mohammad starting speaking about blood thirsty Arabs, ISIS and religion in the car and I absolutely knew this was my que to leave.

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‘Loving’ my nature photo shoot!

Luckily after our nature photos we made it to the bus station but not so lucky was the lack of transport. There were no more buses or taxis to Esfahan that night….. Mohammad and co immediately offered to drive me to Esfahan a mere 7 hours in one direction. With the ridiculous offer I naturally declined but again he just starting driving towards Esfahan!!! I insisted on getting out of the car  and mid driving I just opened the door (generally speaking I’m delighted with the easy option of a lift but on this occasion I definitely didn’t want to spend another 7 hours with the pair).

I made the executive decision that hitch hiking would be far more desirable and safer option. They reluctantly pulled over and the three of us hitch hiked. In fairness to the pair they explained to drivers that I needed to go to Esfahan. Having their Farsi was useful as Iranian’s wouldn’t be that accustomed to hitchhikers but because they are such kind people most of them stopped to make sure I was okay anyway.

I was lucky enough after only 5 minutes a gorgeous family who were headed in the direction of Esfahan kindly stopped. Needless to say not a word of English was spoken but I immediately hit it off with them as the Dad danced some Persian while simultaneously speeding down the motorway. Not dangerous at all. Things escalated quickly and before I knew it I was being bundled into their house and was being pampered by a about 20 giddy Iranians. I agreed to stay the night as I hadn’t a clue where I was but knew I was in good hands. The children insisted on fanning me, it was way too much but deep down I was loving it.  They genuinely treated me like royalty.  Iranian’s are feeders to put it mildy and I was presented with dish after dish as they kept taking photos of me while I was eating. An extremely uncomfortable yet amusing situation.

The night consisted of photo shoots with each individual family member. About 10 of them crushed into one room so that I would have my own private room. Kindness beyond words. I wasn’t even allowed to carry my backpack, they got offended if I did. I even got a tutorial on how to correctly wear the hijab there is an art to this that I have yet to master.

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These moments where you wonder how the hell did I end up here?

The next morning after a delish breakfast of flatbreads, cream, sour grape jam, eggs and cheese I was once again bundled into a car en route to an unknown destination. If you go to Iran you need to be completely happy with going with the flow. It’s the only way you will survive.

The destination is probably the randomist to date….Before I knew it I was in an Iranian hospital visiting one of the family members who was just out of surgery. This was a ludicrous situation where I was in a room full of women getting nose jobs done They all wanted their photo taken with me. I eventually managed to escape the ridiculous hospital situation and managed to go explore beautiful Esfahan with the Dad and their gorgeous 14 year old daughter. Like I said before nose jobs are ridiculously common over here I have never seen anything like it.

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Shah Mosque’s entrance, Esfahan
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The most stunning archway in Esfahan; Shah Mosque

In the afternoon we said our goodbyes and I made my way to my couch surfing family. That night after a traditional Iranian feast of ghorme Sabzi we drove into the city to visit Som e Pol which is really popular with the locals at night to have chai and chill.

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Som-e-Pol; One of Esfahan’s famous bridges where the locals gather in their droves the enjoy the sunset
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Really nice memories of this gorgeous couple who welcomed me into their home in Esfahan

Camping near the Iraqi Boarder

The tomato farm where I was camping was at the height of activity during the night. Sleep was difficult with the sound of hundreds of frogs serenading me. I got the fright of my life when I saw the inside of my tent move and to my delight I was joined by three frogs. One inside the tent and two underneath! SICK but a preferable alternative to a stifling hot room of smelly snoring men. I’ll take the frogs any day of the week. Afraid of crushing the frogs I bundled myself into a corner for a rough nights sleep. It also wouldn’t be camping unless you were joined by  a creature of some description.

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View from the tomato farm in Kermanshah

During our time on  the farm we were invited to an authentic Persian birthday party. A bizarre first experience of the division between men and women. Before the party all the women gathered together in a room to dance Persian. The men were not allowed in and had their own separate room. We re-grouped later and mingled over a fire with once again more chai. In more religious  towns it wouldn’t be allowed to have a social gathering with men and women late at night. The rules were a little more lax here because we were on the farm. Things quickly escalated after the first cup of chai and everyone was up on the floor dancing to traditional Persian music. It was an incredible scene and not too dissimilar to a early morning sing song after a heavy night in Dublin. Difference here? Not a dribble of alcohol but lots of happy heads nevertheless. It was amazing. There has to be something magial in chai?

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Golden hour couldn’t have been more golden
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The glam Iranians
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Suns sets in Kermanshah

Breakfast was the real deal of flat breads eaten off the floor with yogurt, cheese (similar to feta), cucumber and of course tomatoes served with chai. Myself, Sarah and Ali went to visit Bisotun which is a famous area for its inscriptions on these caves. Just my luck they were covered in scaffolding but the entire place is pretty incredible all the same. Because it was a public holiday the place was mobbed with Iranians. An experience in itself. With heat over 40 degrees my self and Hijab were having some vocal disagreements. For me it’s been the hardest part about travelling here. June and July are painfully hot months to visit Iran, that’s why no one comes here then except for me of course. You can’t even benefit from the sun because your covered within an inch of your life (not that I’m partial to tanning but you never know). 

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Raging!! The women weren’t allowed swim here.
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Absolutely baked at Bisotun

We made some pit stops to a nearby hotel for some much needed non-alcoholic Islamic beer it’s yum.  This hotel was a joke it had the most insane views of the towering mountains and most importantly aircon!!!! It costs 30 dollars a night to stay here.We had a traditional lunch in the hotel of khal a delicious dish of lamb, in a fragrant tomato sauce with almonds served with saffron rice. For me, I miss the heat of Mexican food and feel a little picante would take it to the next level and not forgetting the magic of salsas. Not that I needed anymore  picante in my life as I ended up getting sunstroke that evening. Overall though, the food is excellent here. Back at the farm I spent the afternoon eating ice cubes and watermelon in an attempt to cool down.

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Hotel with a view!

That evening, we went into the city of Kermanshah to check out the beautiful Islamic Shrine. Our main reason for hitting the city was to go shopping. Sarah is quite the fashionista and wanted to give my wardrobe a little re vamp. My bum has been making the odd sneaky appearance and it’s strictly forbidden. The cheap shirts I bought in H/M aren’t making the cut. So just want I needed to help with my sun stroke was a long jacket to cover my boobs and bum. We settled on a yellow and blue number and mosied around the bizarre sampling some free deserts. Raging I had to forego the red wine and shisa that night, I retired to my tent to try and nurse my pounding headache.

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Islamic Shrine in Kermanshah
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Glam Sarah in Kermanshah nailing the pose!
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Insider tips from Ali and Sarah: Mosque’s have the best WC’s so we are all big fans

I have been nick named WC by Sarah and Ali because they are amazed at how many times I need the loo. I’m bad on a normal day but this is next level stuff I should be taking out shares in Iranian ‘toilets’ or holes in the ground as I seem to spend most of my time in them. Unfortunately peeing on the side of roads/ in bushes in not the done thing which would usually be my venue of choice. I’m  perfectly ok with the drop toilets the only issue with them is loosing things inside. My hairy eyes sunglasses were the first casualty . Don’t worry they were salvaged and given a deep clean and are as good as new.

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One shrine better than the next

Thankfully the 8 litres of water from the day before sorted out the head and I was like a new woman so myself Sarah, Ali and Ali (farm owner) set off for a road trip to Kuridstan towards the small cliff side town of Palangan. Unfortunately we didn’t make it as far as there as with the Iranian holiday in full swing families were out in their droves with their chai, tents and bbq’s so the traffic was horrendous. It was a stunning drive as we viewed lots of different hill side towns.

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Sarah!
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Beautiful stacked villages in Paveh. Located in a region called Hawraman.
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Paveh, the largest hillside village in Iran

We made a pit stop en route home to taste some homemade kebabs. I was given an introduction on how to make them. They are usually served with the typical flat breads, roasted tomato, barbequed meat, yogurt (if requested) and quarters of raw onion. Drinks generally include either Duk or Islamic beer. Duk is rotten stuff but the Iranian’s go wild for it. It is natural yogurt mixed with water and salt. Not my gig.

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This little cutie teaching me the Iranian art of Kebab making
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Traditional lamb kebab eaten off a Persian rug (on plastic 😦  ) with  flat breads, homemade yogurt , roasted tomato and chunks of onion. To be eaten only with your hands. Divine

That afternoon we went to a cave mobbed with Iranian families so again not my gig but an experience in itself screaming children and families trying to get selfies with me in  a narrow cave wasn’t exactly my ideal but the Iranian’s are so charming you can’t but smile and go along with the charade. They continually thank you for coming to their country. Since day one the photograph requests have been coming in their droves. Even on sunstroke day they insisted I was beautiful!

We had such a laugh and Sarah and Ali introduced to me to the world of Iranian music (love It). My Farsi is also slowly coming along.  Our sing song was rudely interrupted with the random appearances of a police. This resulted  in a frantic dash to throw on the hijab and act ‘normal’.  We had time before my night bus to sample some rose water ice cream (it’s divine) and a shisa accompanied with some chai.

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Local Iranian breads

The night bus was almost missed because of the shisa but dangerous Iranian driving and a delayed bus ensured I made it. My random bus partner  offered to share her blanket with me and insisted on buying me food and drink for the bus. This girl was en route home having just gotten a nose job done. Nose jobs are ridiculously common here in Iran. I have never seen anything like it. Every second person seems to have one done. They will set you back a mere $100 if anyone is interested?

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The view from my tent just after the sun had risen. Idyllic camping location.

 

 

From Tallaght to Tehran

From the minute I got home from South America my feet were itchier than ever (and it wasn’t because of the athletes foot). I knew I needed another trip but Iran had never been on my radar. My mind had been obsessed with all things Pakistan and my original plan was to travel the country for 3 months.  One of my patient’s in T Town was Pakistani and kindly organised a letter of invitation into the country (mates with the chancellor!) a slight diversion from the childhood obesity problem.  This is essential to get the visa. So with visa in check I was good to go all that was missing was the flight. Needless to say I fecked this up big time and booked it for the wrong month!!!  It was going to cost me a mere €900 to change so it looked like I had a month to kill but the question was where to go…? Not a bad complaint to have I know. Trips within Europe were working out crazy expensive so I set my sights on Iran and found ridiculously cheap flights from Amsterdam.

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A farewell before the escapades!

Myself, Una and Dom managed the squeeze in a few days in Amsterdam before the big trip. We had a rocky start with the aggressive Amsterdam biking scene but we all survived and had a ball. We even made an embarrassing/awkward appearance at Nils’s low-key  soccer game. We were the only supporters……

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This pair! High on nothing more than life
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I couldn’t help myself the Diva himself; AmsterDOM

En route to Iran things were off to a flying start when I befriended a chap called Ali on the plane. He was a professional basketball player in the Netherlands for 15 years. He had just retired and was coming home for good to live in Iran. He gave me loads of tips and got me seriously excited for what was ahead. My first stop was Tehran, the capital of Iran and I had organized couch surfing with a couple; Sarah and Ali. The Iranians are known for their hospitality and this couple took it to the next level. I was given keys to the apartment as they were working for the day and Sarah had prepared the most stunning Persian breakfast. Couch surfing is massive over here despite it being illegal everyone manages to bypass this. I was offered accommodation, advice and help by 400 different Iranians when I posted onto the CS site. Absolutely incredible albeit it slightly overwhelming hospitality.

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Sarah and Ali; Tehran’s biggest legends

Day 1, I decided to go explore a little beefed from the flight I kept it local. For some reason I was wearing Ali, the man’s shoes and managed to lock myself out of their apartment. I’ve never had a great track record with keys. I had to wait awkwardly outside their apartment until they got home from work for him to see a stranger wearing his shoes. Anyway  after a couple of glasses of vino that night Ali soon realized what he was dealing with and all was forgiven. Yes I said vino was forbidden, all alcohol is illegal in Iran. It is not sold or served anywhere. I had totally psyched myself up for a month off the booze. Instead Iranian’s drink buckets of chai (tea) which is nice but not exactly the same gig (at least they avoid the vicious hangovers). There was no fear of a detox happening because Ali and Sarah have come up with an easy solution to the problem they make their own wine and its bleeding gorgeous.

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When tea looks this pretty its no wonder that’s all they drink

I was introduced to the wonderful world of Iranian cuisine which completely exceeded my expectations. First up was fesenjan , a delicious sauce made out of only walnuts and pomegranates mixed with lamb. Pomegranate is the most symbolic fruit of Iran. Unfortunately, it is not the season yet. Sarah served this with Iranian flat bread called Barbari, crisp and salted and covered in seasame seeds. Iranians are rice obsessed and mountains are served with basically every meal .The best touch is the golden saffron oil drizzled on top. Saffron is found absolutely everywhere here and like everything else is dirt cheap. Next on the list was ghormeh sabzi; a concoction of lamb, beans in a herby/citrus sauce with buckets of spices that’s cooked for hours. Sarah is a genius in the kitchen and all of the guidebooks tell you to experience the best of Iranian cuisine you need to eat with a family. Restaurant’s foods are not comparable.

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Ghormeh sabzi served with salad shiraz, saffron rice, mixed leaves friend rice.

From the get go I was having awful trouble with the hijab. Before coming I didn’t know what to expect and was pleasantly surprised when Sarah told me they only wear the hijab outside (this completely depends on the house your in). I was freaking out on the plane and had my head covered from the minute I left Amsterdam (I know overkill but I was adement I wasn’t going to have any disasters this time). This is another one of Iran’s strict rules; the hijab must be worn by women at all times outdoors, your bum and chest must be covered and you must dress modestly (even when you’re in the car, the police will check!). In 30 plus degrees this is a toture!

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Day 1 and already having some hijab hiccups

I successfully negotiated an Iranian metro and arrived at stop one the Golestan Palace. This place couldn’t have  been more excessive and was the best introduction into the insane talents of Iranian artwork.

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The front building of the Golestan Palace.
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One of the many intricate walls of the Golestan Palace.
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Wall of mirrors, Golestan Palace.
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Standard sitting room inside the palace

Afterwards I tackled the famous grand bizarre. Bizarre’s are a big affair in Iran and are crammed with tiles, carpets, spices, copper and jewelry. Tourism has definitely not kicked off in Iran yet and I was faced with lots of looks of confusion, intrigue but mainly smiles. A man from a carpet shop escorted me around the market for the day v ideal the as the place runs for km’s and its v easy to get lost. Previously tourism had been a lot better in the country but since conflicts it has significantly declined. Iranians are clearly trying so hard to change the perception of Iran and are constantly thanking you for visiting and and are just so curious as to why Iran?

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Fresh rose petals are found everywhere. Used for tea, drinks and desserts

I spent the afternoon in an artsy park that displayed Iranian arts and crafts. The coffee shop wouldn’t let me pay for my chai and instead stuffed my pockets with some juicy dates. The shopkeeper even gave me a Farsi (Iranian lesson) this is next level difficult but kinda of essential when travelling alone as not many of them speak English. They have their own writing/ numerical system and write in the opposite direction to us.

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Standard street tiles in Tehran

Iran is probably the biggest culture shock I have had to date. Sites like Couch surfing, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are all illegal. You need special software on your phone if you want to use them. There are so mainly seemingly ridiculous rules that the Mullahs enforce in this country. Whether or not these rules are enforced in households depends on the families religious faith. It also didn’t help that I was visiting during Ramadan. It is absolutely forbidden to eat/drink during daylight and virtually everywhere was closed. Obviously not everyone complies but if caught in public there is a risk of being arrested.

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Beautiful looking street food; these are filled with honey and nuts and then fired.

Another thing making travelling here even more challenging is you cannot use your debit card. The only way to get Iranian money is by doing cash exchange. The currency here is either rial or tomen (I have no idea of the differences despite numerous explanations) and nothing will prepare you for this. You are dealing with the millions.  I was told not to change my money in the airport because of the low dollar rate that day (it changes daily).  This is a massive issue for Iranians at the moment but as a westerner visiting everything appears to be v cheap. Day 1 I got totally ripped off doing this exchange as per usual I trusted the cute old man. I fall for it every time. It wouldn’t be travelling if you didn’t get ripped off at least once or in my case multiple times. You win some you loose many.

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Imam Khomeini Mosque, Tehran
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Obsessed with the stunning hand painted tiles

I happened to be in Iran for a national holiday where they were celebrating the anniversary of the death of the King. This could only mean one thing an Iranian road trip to the west of Iran, yet to be touched by tourism.  Sarah and Ali kindly invited me to tag along on their trip so I jumped on the bandwagon. We set off for a place called  Kermanshah very close the Iraq border (a 7 hour drive from Tehran).

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Road tripping with these legends

The Iranians’ are absolute lunatics on the roads so this was an exhilarating  journey. This place suffered brutally during the Iraq-Iran war. We all went couch surfing together to an eco-tomato farm. When we arrived we met another group of Iranians also couch surfing (some were volunteering with the tomatoes). We immediately hit it off despite my lack of Farsi. Back to square one with the hand communication, pain in the arse but it gets the job done. Instead of sleeping in the room with 8 Iranian men I opted to pitch my tent beside the tomatoes with a stunning view of the nearby rocky mountains. Ta Dom for the deadly treat of a brand new tent let’s hope it has more success than the previous one.

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Pretending I can speak Farsi

The farm was stunning and also grew walnuts and rose plants. It had bee hives and also farmed chickens are quail. The rose plant is extremely popular in Iran found mostly in deserts and drinks. Home for the next few days was looking pretty idyllic.

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Locals outside the Tomato Farm in Kermanshah

Hard to believe only a few days ago I was cycling around Amsterdam and now I’m wearing a hijab and speaking Farsi!

A final fact that I still can’t get my head around Iranians’s weekend is thursday and Friday so Saturday marks the start of the working week. Mind blowing stuff!