Trip to Iran in First day of Spring

For a very long time I dreamed of going on a trip to Iran. I do not know exactly why. Iran has a mixture of ancient history with the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great, the Silk Road and also a taste of forbidden. At random, I do a search to Tehran and divine surprise, there is a return flight with stopover in Dubai in our budget and with good schedules.

No sooner said, I validate that it is possible to obtain a visa on arrival and tickets are reserved. Now some questions! How to move on the spot? What to do and where to go in such a short time? Where to stay?

As every time we travel abroad, we like to be independent in our travels, which goes through the rental car. After some research on the web, it turns out that it is not available for foreign tourists. The traffic would be chaotic and it would be almost impossible to rent a car agency because of the impossibility of using international bank cards.

In short, it is not won. In terms of local traffic, we will accommodate. In Albania, it was also inadvisable to drive according to tour guides and finally it is quite manageable. For the rental, I find a car at acceptable price. This set point, we can tackle the route of our road trip. With 6 full days effective on the spot, there is no question of going around Iran.

One of the wonders of Iran is the city of Isfahan, ancient capital of the Persian empire. It is located 450 km south of Tehran and is connected to the capital by a highway. So it will be the most distant destination from our mini road trip. According to the tour guides, the city of Tehran is interesting but not unavoidable in terms of sites and monuments to visit. So we decide to just cross it because I have another idea behind the head.

I have known for a long time that there are ski resorts near Tehran. In the 60s and 70s, the Shah of Iran as part of its project of Westernization and modernization of the country initiated the creation of the Dizin station. I must have a snobbish side (I admit!), as skiing in Iran is one of the objectives of the trip.

Dizin, 50 km north of Tehran and Isfahan, 450 km south. The 2 ends of the route were defined, missing only one step between the 2. After a few hours spent between maps, forum and guides, the choice was on Kashan, small town at the door of the desert, step on the road silk, famous for its bazaar and its old merchant villas.

To go to Iran we take off in the night to Dubai and Tehran. Next morning, after an uneventful trip, we land at Tehran's new Imam Khomeini International Airport. We are not worried about obtaining the visa however we wonder how long it will take us. You have to stand in line to pay, then queue up again to file your visa application and finally wait for the visa to be edited and pasted on the passport.

In total it takes 2 good hours but in a relaxed and rather friendly atmosphere. We then take possession of our superb car and Dizin management taking care to bypass the center of Tehran, city known for its almost permanent traffic jams.

On the road to Dizin

Once out of the suburbs of Tehran, we head north along the Chalus Road, a road that crosses the Elborz Massif to reach the Caspian Sea. The road is in very good condition, overlooked by snow-capped peaks. After tea and cakes in one of the many cafés and restaurants along this tourist route, we arrive at the end of the afternoon in the station of Dizin located at 2600m.

We recover our room with views of the slopes, the hotel and the buildings of the resort are not fresh any more but the light of late afternoon offers a magical view.

We take advantage of the last rays of the sun to go on foot reconnaissance and look for rental equipment. Having planned to ski for only one day, we did not take any equipment with us. At the foot of the slopes, we meet a group of Austrians who bring their equipment to a small stall installed in a log cabin that groceries and ski hire. Skiers seem satisfied with the material, we decide not to look any further. After a few tries, we ended up finding the right shoes for our size and skis in good condition. Before returning to our hotel with our equipment, we ask if it is necessary to leave a deposit, a piece of identity or if it is necessary to pay the rent in advance.

None of that, leave with the equipment and pay when you're done skiing! Obviously, here, we do not think that foreign tourists can be dishonest! The next morning, we have an appointment with Iranian friends.

In Dizin, it was not possible but the next day in Tehran, we were invited for the night by a snowboarder who also gave us some practical tips to prepare our day skiing. The area is not huge compared to the big alpine resorts but the elevation is important with more than 1000m. The lifts are very old and suddenly very slow but the pleasure is not in the cumulative drop in the day. From the top the panorama is breathtaking with as far as the eye can see the summits and stops at more than 4000m and in the distance Mount Damavand culminating at 5610m.

We had a bright sun but it had not snowed in a few days, so it was the typical spring snow, very hard in the morning and transformed in the day. The ski season is very long (from the end of November to the beginning of May). Thanks to the altitude, the temperature variations are important and the snow changes very quickly. Throughout the season, we spend a few days from powder to spring snow. The ski area deserves one to two days of skiing depending on the conditions but for those who would also like the ski tour, the potential is almost infinite nearby.

Spring wallpaper

Back to Tehran

After this day in a magical landscape, we go back down to Tehran. At first everything is fine. We arrive in Tehran at the end of the afternoon. We decide to take a break and walk in a shopping area near the Milad Tower.

After leaving, we go only a few meters before falling into a traffic jam. It will take us more than 2 hours to finish the few kilometers separating us from our host.

For dinner, we finally arrive late in the evening. We think we risk going to bed without eating but not at all, we leave on the heights of the city, guests at the restaurant. We have the chance to taste a multitude of dishes that are unknown to us all. The card is only printed in Farsi (the language of Iran) in an unknown alphabet. We have no choice but to let our hosts choose for us. After this very long day, we only dream of a shower and sleep.

Around 8am, we are ready to leave, the program of the day is dense but enticing. The morning crossing of Tehran finally goes pretty well, after less than an hour drive we leave the huge agglomeration. Few people know that, but the Tehran agglomeration has more than 15 million inhabitants, almost as much as the Los Angeles metropolis (18 million).

Highway No. 7 that connects Tehran to Isfahan (450km south) and soon Shiraz and in perfect condition. It is paying but our move to the 1st toll station will be a good surprise. We decipher the billboard but when we release our banknotes, we still have a doubt. The amount indicated seems so low that we ask ourselves if it is displayed in Rial or Toman, or even if we read well. The sum represents a few tens of cents, and it was good Rial!

On the way to Kashan

Arrived at the level of the city of Kashan, we extend slightly to the south to go to the Jardin de Fin. It is actually one of the residences of the Sha (King) built in the 16th century built around a garden irrigated by a source and multiple fountains. It is reputed to be the perfect example of Persian garden art.

We continue our afternoon in Kashan visiting the house of Boroujerdi, house or rather palace built by a wealthy merchant in the 19th century. It must be known that Kashan was for a very long time a prosperous trading town established on the Silk Road.

We finish the afternoon passing through the famous bazaar of the city to buy from a local tailor a comfortable and decent outfit. It's time to join our host of the day. I'm very proud of his surprise when we ring directly at his door after parking our car in front of his house. It regularly welcomes foreign travelers and this is the first time it has visitors traveling by car without driver and who, moreover, arrive directly to his home, thanks to GPS maps without which I will not do anything.

Once again, we suffer the Persian hospitality. The early evening meal was only considered as a snack in fact. So we quickly went back to the mosque Aran o Bidgol located a few kilometers north. It is a gigantic mosque built in the 20th century around the tomb of Hilal ibn Ali, son of Ali, himself a son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, in short a sacred personality for the Shiites.

The style is loaded to see "kitch", but the size and scale of the building make it an impressive and magical place at night. To conclude this long day, we end with the magnificent Agha Bozorg mosque, dating from the 18th century, much more sober.

Road to the Maranjab Desert

We leave Kashan the next morning towards the Maranjab desert. Having no all-terrain vehicle, we limit ourselves to a few kilometers of track, the sand is very colorful, from pale yellow to an orange turning ocher. The landscape is magical with on one side of the dunes as far as the eye can see and on the other, in the distance, the first peaks of the chain of the Zagros Mountains that can be distinguished snow-covered.

Direction the village of Abyaneh

We then cross the desert plain to go up a valley to the village of Abyaneh. This village is in all the tourist guides but as it is slightly eccentric compared to the main roads, one can not say that one is embarrassed by the crowd.

All the buildings are plastered or built of red earth whose color blends with that of the surrounding mountains. Spring is just beginning (we are more than 2200m above sea level), which allows us to enjoy the flowering of fruit trees that do not have their leaves yet. Everything is mineral with the exception of innumerable small white flowers.

Following our route of the day to Isfahan is mainly from the highway, we take our time to stroll. Random streets, we come across a tea stand, not really a coffee because open air, where a gentleman with the look "baba cool" offers cakes, fruit and tea in the middle of a bric-a-brac various handicrafts, a place and a character that one does not expect to meet here.

Side unusual meetings, on the parking of the restaurant where we take our meal, we see 2 motorcycles registered in Australia. We quickly identify these table neighbors to their unusual attire here, even for tourists. This is a couple of Australians who came mainly by road via Indonesia, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Like us, they loved Iran and traveled the country for a month.

In the late afternoon, we leave for Isfahan. The light makes the colors even more beautiful. The highway is almost deserted and we have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.

Visit to Isfahan

We arrive near Isfahan at dusk. After the bad experience of giant traffic jams in Tehran we are a little worried but finally it is quite acceptable. Thanks to the GPS application of our smartphone, we reach the foot of the building of our guests. We are surprised to be addressed in the street via the intercom, so we are well expected.

We are offered to go to another part of the city to join a birthday party. We obviously accept, as we wanted to discover Iran through the Iranians beyond the clichés.

On the road, we make our first visit to Isfahan, the Si-o-se Pol bridge, bridge with thirty-three arches. It is one of the two most famous bridges of the city, place of walk frequented day and night. Its illumination being very successful, the atmosphere is magical and peaceful. They seemed to us that it is forbidden or at least frowned upon for couples to hold hands in public. Here at least it is not appropriate.

We arrive at the house of the friends of our guests, who have already become our friends. Once again we are captivated by the warmth of the welcome. We have the impression of being guests of note without distance, with spontaneity.

The evening is spent talking around the meal and then in front of the TV and the computer, watching clips of Iranian music, via the internet connection or the satellite. Nobody looks at the Iranian channels considered boring and uninteresting. In the late evening, everyone finds themselves dancing on the living room carpet!

The next day is Friday. Our hosts have reserved their day for us. So we will have once again local guides to make us discover their city!

The morning crossing of Isfahan is finally calm. It is the first time that we circulate in a big city without being in the traffic jams. We park directly in the city center to perform all day tours on foot. We start with the Chehel Sotoun Palace, 17th century palace built in a large garden and surrounded by ponds.

We continue for a few minutes to reach the Sha Square (or Naghsh-e Jahan Square), one of the largest (almost 9ha) and the most beautiful in the world. This place and the buildings that surround it are one of the musts of our trip, after having seen many times in photo or video, I am impatient and then moved to be there. This square and the monuments that surround it alone deserve the trip.

It is bordered by the Sha mosque, the Ali Qapu palace, the Sheikh Lotfallah mosque and one of the doors of the Grand Bazaar. We visited all these monuments, all are exceptional but the smallest mosque of Sheikh Lotf Allah is our favorite with its extremely fine decoration and relaxing atmosphere. It is on a human scale, almost intimate unlike the mosque of Sha which can accommodate several thousand faithful during the Friday prayer.

The Grand Bazaar of Isfahan is not exceptional architectural but it is nonetheless unavoidable. Unlike Istanbul, it is mainly used by locals and not by tourists. There are among other things very beautiful local and regional crafts, obviously Persian rugs but also objects in marquetry and fabrics as well as many merchants of herbs and spices.

No, there are not only mosques in Iran, there are also Christian and even Jewish places of worship. The Cathedral Vank and Saint-Sauveur Cathedral of Isfahan is the center of the Armenian quarter of Jolfa. It dates from the 17th century. From the outside, apart from the cross, it looks like a sober mosque but the interior is incredible with a wealth of ornaments unheard of.

Before heading back to Tehran Airport, we pass by the Khaju Bridge, another wonder of the city. And it's an opportunity to live a magical moment when we walk under the arches. A singer comes to enjoy the perfect acoustics to offer walkers a few minutes of singing.

We leave Isfahan in the afternoon to reach a hotel in the immediate vicinity of Tehran airport to take off the next morning via Dubai. This time there is no question of falling back into traffic jams and for that we prefer to sleep on the spot. If your budget allows, it is a good option for a morning departure without stress.

This lightning trip was obviously too short but it is better a trip too short than no trip! In a week, we have seen a multitude of surprising and beautiful things and ecu remarkable encounters. We will always remember this morning of skiing in Dizin, our amazing evening at Kashan, our visit of Isfahan.

Iran is as much beautiful landscapes and monuments as human encounters rich and spontaneous. This country is paradoxical with a very present modernity and a very strong conservatism, limited public liberties but a great freedom of the individuals in the private environment.

In the end we were shocked by what we saw and lived in this country and we will definitely come back for longer stays in the future.
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