Iran – the name itself conjures images of oppression, extremism and a “closed” community unwelcoming of outsiders. However, these assumptions can’t be further from the truth. Travelling to central Iran over fifteen days in 2014, my journey has been an awe-inspiring glimpse into one of the world’s oldest civilisations, a cohesive people that celebrate life over food, poetry and music. Read on for four of my favourite things about Iran.
Iran is a meat-lovers paradise. Think kebabs of fish, lamb or chicken, served with barberry (a fruit similar to cranberry) flavoured rice and fresh olives. The portions are substantial and meant to be enjoyed slowly, affirming Iranian tradition of long conversations over shared meals. Fresh ingredients such as cheese, bread, jam and fruit are also abundant at every meal. Be sure to try fesenjan, which is a pomegranate and walnut flavoured meat stew with a distinct taste unlike any other. Wash it down with a glass of refreshing doogh (similar to lassi) served with mint leaves.
To say that the people of Iran are warm is an understatement. True, we often meet friendly locals at every destination – but the Iranians are a class apart. Walk down any street and you will be greeted by an influx of enthusiastic “hello” and “how are you”, schoolchildren shyly reaching out to shake your hand before bursting into fits of giggles; and sweet old ladies pressing local sweets into your hand. Upon finding out you are Indian or Hind, charming taxi drivers break out into a perfect rendition of “jeena yahaan marna yaahan” – nailing Raj Kapoor complete with slanted beret and checked handkerchief!
The architecture in Iran is one of the most stunning you will encounter. Visit the Lotfallah Mosque in Esfahan and be regaled by the intricate tilework in vibrant hues of blue, green and yellow. Travellers to the desert town of Yazd will be greeted with peculiar structures known as badgirs or wind tunnels, a form of primitive air-conditioning which channels wind down to the warmer parts of a house. Another unique feature are ice-houses; inconspicuous dome shaped sandstone structures that were used to “refrigerate” produce in the past during Iran’s blistering summer months.
For the practical traveller who is thinking of the language barrier, rest assured that Hindi and Farsi share several common words (such as bagh, musafir, jawaan, zindagi etc.) and therefore make it relatively easy to manoeuvre around the streets. For native English speakers, many tourist sites, restaurants and hotels have staff able to converse in simple English. If all else fails, Iranians are adept at whipping out a pen and paper to draw fairly detailed direction maps using just a couple of arrows and straight lines!