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Trip Report Americans in Iran - an amazing 1-month trip

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A belated brief trip report on an amazing 1-month trip my wife and I had to Iran in October 2014. A country with an incredible history and impact on the world (including the very first world empire), architecture and tradition of hospitality. Much misunderstood in the West, although my fingers are crossed that this may change for the better (in both directions). And it’s one of the few places in today’s globalized tourist trail where you can still see absolutely world-class sites and a proud, authentic culture with few or no tourists, especially off the standard route.

Our trip outline (we did a private tour with a local guide at all times - a guide is required for all Americans):
Tehran - Tabriz - Kandovan - Jolfa/Armenian&Azeri border/Ardabil- Masuleh - Ramsar -Tehran - Qom/Kashan - Abyaneh - Natanz&Isfahan - Na’in/Meybod/Zein-od-din caravanserai/Saryazd - Yazd/Karanaq/Chak Chak - Kerman/Mahan/Rayen - Shiraz/Persepolis/Pasargad

Highs:
- Iran is the country from which we have experienced the warmest hospitality and graciousness of any we’ve visited, and to our surpise, when you tell them you are American, they are even MORE enthusiastic. 
- Rich artistic traditions that permeate all areas of life - music, architecture, visual arts, poetry, etc...  Iran is visually stunning and a feast for the senses.
- The sweeping history and pre-history, beginning from 5000 BCE, is spine-tingling. As in Rome, you can visit the actual archeological sites, which are often right in town.  Unlike Rome, the protection for what has been found is minimal, which means that, for better or worse, you can get up close.
- Discovering the contribution of Iran to science, art, literature, and trade as well as awesome administrative and engineering feats: qanats (like Roman aqueducts, carrying water over dozens of miles - but underground to prevent evaporation), underground cities, ice houses, wind towers, early mail couriers, the caravanserai system, to name some of the more obvious ones.
- The exchange rate made it possible for us to live like royalty - hard to spend $10 per person at the fanciest restaurant in town.

Lows:
- Iranian cooking is wonderful - but it’s hard to find the good stuff consistently in restaurants.  We had a few memorable dishes and meals, but we could predict the menu in most places.  If you’re a kebab freak, you’re in heaven. But lack of veggies was hard for us (and we’re not vegetarian), and the meals are very starchy.
- The mandatory hijab and conservative clothing (not a chador) were often too hot for comfort for my wife, despite optimal weather most of the time.  In the summer, it must be awful.  
- The lack of access to Iranian homes for Americans, and the official paranoia about US motives is inhibiting (as a result your guide is supposed to be with you at all times outside your hotel if you are an American visitor).
- The urban traffic made even crossing the major streets in Tehran and some of the other cities feel like Russian roulette.


More details:
It’s easy to know that the must-sees include the magnificent sights in Isfahan, Persepolis/Shiraz, Yazd and the museums in Tehran. So I’ll just mention some other tips:
- The villages of Kandovan, Masuleh and Abyaneh are worth staying at for a night, rather than just day-tripping there: it’s a whole different atmosphere when the day trippers are gone
- Qom is worth stopping even for a couple of hours en route from Tehran to Kashan; the religiosity there is the Iran that people see on their TV screens in the West (and quite different from most of the rest of Iran). We were lucky that the guards allowed us to enter the Fatima Masumeh shrine complex - the female guards had fun swaddling my wife in a chador (just a hijab will not do there). It was also breathtaking - and moving - to see the religious ecstasy of the pilgrims (a bit akin to the temples in India), even if you are from a different (or no) religion
- If you’re there during the month of Muharram (as we were), ask your guide to take you (conservatively dressed) to a local mosque to observe the Muharram chanting and mourning: again, a powerful experience
- In Yazd, make sure to attend an evening session at the zurkhaneh - calisthenics set to wonderfully evocative live music
- In addition to the Islamic history in Iran, take some time to read about Zoroastrian and pre-Islamic history and culture in Iran; you can see a fair bit of it in the Yazd area. Also, reading about the interaction between Persian culture and Islamic influence will give you a lot of insight about the makeup of Iranian culture today
- Near Yazd, don’t miss stopping in Meybod for the vernacular architecture (pigeon house, ice house, old postal courier building, fortress) and if possible the fortress at Saryazd
- Kashan is also worth staying at rather than just making a stop en route to Tehran from Isfahan. In addition to the standard sights of the merchant houses, hamam and Bagh-e-Fin, there are lovely mosques, the fascinating underground city in nearby Nooshabad (Ouyi) as well as the archaeological site of Tepe Sialk dating from 8000 years ago
- If you have time to go to the northwest, in addition to standard sights in Tabriz, Jolfa area (St. Stephanos church) and Ardabil, there’s an epic drive along the Azeri and Armenian border with jawdropping scenery and villages that rarely see tourists. To give justice to this, I’d suggest starting off in Jolfa in the morning, and then travel via Hadishahr along the Aras river border till you finally turn south - you can spend the night in Kaleybar rather than pushing on to Ardabil which will avoid you being on a foggy mountain pass after dark
- If you’re staying at the Tabriz El-Goli hotel, do not miss the evening (especially weekend) promenade around the El-Goli park - families and flirting teenagers give you a “small world” glow
- We thought Gilan province (along the Caspian Sea) in general was overrated - Iranians love it for the wet weather and green nature, so different from the rest of the country, and tend to oversell it as a result (as a compensation, the food in Gilan is very good though)
- If you go to Kerman in the south-east, do not miss taking a day trip to Rayen (the “mini-Bam”); the garden and Vali’s tomb at Mahan are also worth a stop en route to Rayen. Best if you reach Rayen when the sun is lower, for more evocative lighting.

Our favorite restaurants:
Northwest: Roohi in Astara; Moharam in Rasht
Kashan: Manoucheri House
Yazd: the buffet dinner (yes, really) at Moshir Gardens Hotel; also the restaurant at Hotel Dad
Shiraz: Soofi 2
If you’re staying at the Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan, the ash-e reshte soup (practically a meal by itself) and tamarind tea at the hotel Teahouse are excellent

And above all, the incredible kindness and hospitality of casual Iranians we came into contact with. We went into a mosque and it turned out there was a kind of memorial service - but the family insisted on us staying for tea and sweets (others reported the same thing when they chanced upon a wedding). An impromptu meal shared with new acquaintances, and they would not hear of us paying for our own meal. And when we were asked (as we so often were), “Where are you from” and we replied America, a big smile would break out on their faces and they would say “You are very welcome to our country”, before eagerly quizzing us on how we liked it there.

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