APRIL 3RD 2000 - THE NORTH SHORE NEWS
IRAN WELCOMES TOURISM UNDER NEW POLICY!!
Iran Air Flight 472 trundled down the runway leaving Tehran and the snow capped mountains behind. My fellow passenger, a nervous chap, had been noisily ejected from his seat of choice for the third time to be resettled reluctantly at my side. He took a deep breath and let out some loud utterances. I braced myself. The whole plane responded in unison. I mumbled with relief. It was a prayer for a safe journey and was repeated as thanks on touchdown in Kerman
.A Visa Application form finally popped out of the fax machine after a week of entreaties to the Iran Embassy in response to their website instructions. Three weeks later, a once tough to obtain Tourist Visa, arrived by courier just days from my departure.
Despite an anti-Western perception hardly eased by giant billboards in Tehran proclaiming “Down with the great Satan, The USA”, US Dollars are the hard currency of tourism and mandatory for most hotel bills. Everyone wants to visit their cousin in LA or Uncle in Toronto. Newly trained tour guides await the hordes that President Khatami’s more open policy would like to attract. The attention I received was almost overwhelming.
I spread a map over the kitchen table in the generous suite at the boutique Hotel Omid, a favorite in Tehran of Western business people (reduced to US$30 by the Chador clad receptionist who unexpectedly pronounced me to be a handsome man). The enormity of the task of cherry picking this huge diverse country in 3 weeks became clear. My decision was to fly south then zigzag by bus back to Tehran, a city of mad traffic, awful smog and great museums. Each place of interest turned out to be a convenient, cheap (never over $1) and comfortable 5 to 8 hour bus trip apart. There is also an extensive airport infrastructure.
The 1000 Km flight by Airbus to Kerman, my most southerly point, cost a ridiculous US$20. I arranged a car and frenetic driver to take me the 200kms to Bam, an echoing walled desert city, once occupied by 13,000 people until a final bloody attack emptied the place in the 1800’s. 12 hours later with 600 kms on the clock, including sidetrips, my driver was content with the prearranged US$14.
Shiraz is famed for wide, treed avenues, poets Hafez and Sadi, teahouses, gardens and fine mosques. The ancient ruins of Persepolis lie just beyond fertile plains once known for the Shiraz grape before the Islamic State banned alcohol. Yes, a tragedy for tipplers like myself.
UNESCO has it that the desert town of Yazd is the oldest in the world. From behind high adobe walls in the old quarter, ornate wind towers protrude the sky attracting the slightest breezes through baffles to cool the living rooms below. Water was accessed through “Ghanats”, man made tunnels tapped into wells 40 kilometers away. Some are still in use. Pot makers, wool dyers, carpet weavers, flatbread bakers, all are part of this friendly living museum.
Esfahan, once the sophisticated capital of Shah Abbas, still thrives. Here, the Chador is often used as a fashion statement, silk trimmed to match platform shoes, a purse or perfect makeup. Built in the 1600’s ornate bridges cross the park lined Zayande River where Esfahanis stroll or meet at a teahouse. Khomeini Square, is one of the world’s largest. Presided over by the monolithic and exquisitely tiled Masjed Imam Mosque and Ali Ghapu’s Palace, the Square marks the beginning of the lengthy Royal Bazaar.The goal posts from polo playing days still remain. Esfahan is a haven for lovers of fine Persian architecture. The sobering Martyrs Graveyard displays photos of some of the million young victims of the Iran/Iraq war.
Eating is a bargain in Iran. At the finest establishments $1- $3 buys a pile of sizzling kebabs or other entree. The water is drinkable so the bottled stuff is hard to find. Hotels are dual priced for Westerners but the reasonable rates include breakfast. Forget nightlife, bring some thick books.
It is the people who indelibly leave the imprint on a fine travel experience. The sharing of food on buses. The instant help to an ever lost tourist. The myriad of people out to practice English and learn about your Country. Iranians are kindly, smiling people struggling to break into the 20th Century. Enshallah, or God willing, I will return.
IF YOU GO
VISAS: More sensibly obtained through a Travel Agency. Allow at least 14 working days.
SAFETY: I felt totally safe at all times. Women travelers I met who adopted the chador were equally well treated. This is not a country in which to make feminist statements.
USEFUL GUIDE: Lonely Planet which now encompasses a variety of travel modes from back packing to up market.
IRAN EMBASSY WEBSITE FOR INTERESTING INFO: www.salamiran.org
HOTEL OMID/TEHRAN: Ph/Fa (9821) 6414564 e-mail email@example.com