Category Archives: Iran

A love letter to Iran

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I have been wanting to go Iran for some time now. And when I told people that I was going, mostly the reaction is bewilderment, often followed by “Is it safe?” or “Isn’t it dangerous?” If only I had a dollar for each time I get this response!

Iran. A country whose history intersected with some of the most ancient and glorious civilisations. The birthplace of one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. Today it is an educated nation where youth literacy rate is 98%, with boys and girls both equally literate. A peaceful country today. A place for Persian architecture and history lovers – Isfahan‘s city centre drips with beauty and atmosphere at every corner. A country with four seasons. The landscape ranging from dry deserts to snow-capped mountains. There are still many places to see in Iran and one can easily travel for 6-8 weeks there – if only I have the time! Put aside the political rhetorics, go explore for yourself.

For me, the greatest experience of this trip is the warmth and friendliness of its people.

So is it safe? Is it dangerous? My posts are self-explanatory.

On our last day, we had a long conversation in the park. He was old enough to remember the days before the Revolution. His parting words to us were “God willing, you will come to Iran again.”

I sure hope to.

Late spring in Tehran

Never thought we’d enjoyed Tehran this much. When we first arrived nearly two weeks ago, the city was enveloped in smog. Now, we return to the city before we catch our flight home and the temperatures are low to mid twenties with clear blue skies!

Due to a change of plans, we had a couple of days in Tehran. The nearby Alborz mountains beckoned enticingly! Caught the metro to Tajrish in the upmarket part of Tehran, and made our way to the foot of Tochal. After a walk to the Telecabin, up we went on the 7.5km gondola ride to the 7th station. At 3900+m high, this is where the world’s fourth highest ski fields lie. This place is popular with ski enthusiasts, although a ski instructor that I met on the metro earlier says Tochal is too easy for her; according to her the best nearest to Tehran is Shemshak, with black slopes, in case you’re interested. Apart from skiers, there were hikers who started their 5-6 hour climb from Darband all the way to Tochal.




Why on earth did we think it was a good idea to come up here when neither of us were going to ski nor were we dressed warm enough?! At first the snow-covered mountain was pleasant with generous sunlight. Then mist came and the rumbles of thunder soon translated into sleets and some snow. After almost freezing ourselves to death we finally descended.

And while the weather was turning bad at the top of Tochal, the rest of Tehran was enjoying better weather than before we ascended. So glad to come back down to earth to blue skies. Tucked into comforting warm bowls of ash-e-reshte near the Telecabin. Lingered at the hilltops to enjoy the rare clear view of Tehran and chatting with new friends.


Tehran, on a clear day


Tehran, as far as the eye can see. 10 times the population of Kuala Lumpur.

Spent the rest of the day wandering in the bazaars and gorging on cherries, grapes and plums. Stocking up on more dates.


And as night fell, we went to Gandhi Avenue to soak up modern yuppie Tehran life.

Not much time in Tehran to do anything else except visit a couple of museums and Golestan Palace, the symbol of opulence from the Qajar era. Frankly the latter is just too gaudy for my liking. Sun only sets after 8 so it’s perfect to just hang out in the parks and chat with friendly locals. Despite the chaos of Tehran and its 15 million population, there’re just so many parks and greenery, with people out to enjoy the good weather.

We left Tehran at a comfortable 19 degrees c. Heading back via Dubai. The weather forecast says it will be 39 degrees there!


Nobody I know back home will believe me when I say this. But I just discovered a city that rivals Paris in its blend of history, importance in its country, culture, sophistication, architectural wonders and night time beauty. It is unfair to compare, but that’s the feeling that Isfahan has stirred in me. Sure, there’s no alcohol. But here one would be overwhelmed by the warmth and spontaneity of its wonderful people!

I am pleasantly surprised by Isfahan. Prior to this visit, there has been much hype about it so I was expecting throngs of tourists. But most tourists we met were mostly Iranian and sprinklings of middle easterners and Asians. Westerners are rare and rarer still are those who travel around like us without a guide.

Another pleasant surprise is the climate. Summer is late so we got to enjoy spring at its most glorious. Decided to give Tabriz a miss and stay here for a longer time.

The first evening (and a few other evenings) was spent at Naghsh-e Jahan square: family picnics scattered across the world’s second largest square (the largest is Tiananmen which has a whole lot less communal purpose and probably no picnics allowed there). I love large communal spaces in a city because that’s what large spaces should be for – a venue for the general population to relax and bond! Arrived at around dusk, my favourite time of the day, as the setting sun splashes out in persimmon across the crisp blue sky, changing hues at every minute. By night fall, the entire courtyard is beautifully lit up with Imam Mosque anchoring the majestic scene beyond the fountain. Again, like most days in urban Iran, the evening was spent chatting, ayxe (which is Farsi for photo-taking) with new friends, whether they are English-speaking or Farsi-speaking only. Picnicking with local Esfahanis, eating delicious homemade dolmehs, sipping tea while chatting away into the sunset – what a way to spend the evening!_SAM0217 _SAM0195 _SAM0199

Many have been enamoured with Isfahan. After a visit by Malaysia’s then PM Mahathir Mohammad, Kuala Lumpur became a sister city. Some of Putrajaya‘s buildings were designed by Persian architects or partially inspired by Esfahani/Safavid-era architecture. But the atmosphere here is wholly different. From our guesthouse (and what a lovely guesthouse it is, parts of it from Safavid times, parts it from the Qajar era) in the old part of the city, we slipped into the myriad of bazaars, sampling food, chatting with friendly locals, emerging from mazes of alleys to find historical gems. My favourite would have to be Jameh Mosque that was built and added upon  throughout the Seljuk and Safavid dynasties. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but the interior is very complex. Oh what an enjoyable morning it was to wander from iwan to iwan, sanctuary to sanctuary, bedazzled by a swirl of geometry and intricate patterns in every nook and cranny.



Encrypted are words in Persian. Do you know what it says?


Jameh Mosque, Isfahan

On Naghsh-e Jahan square is the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque the interior of which is simply resplendent. The photos just don’t do the richness and splendour justice. One could easily spend two hours just inside the small dome, taking in the intricacy of the patterns which doesn’t remain static with the changing light seeping in.

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Strolled the cobbled stone streets of the old Armenian quarter in Jolfa to visit a few churches. In one, we escaped the afternoon heat, sat alone with the guard as choral music played, surrounded by biblical frescoes in the cavernous cathedral. Nearby are litters of cafes and restaurants with a more modern, yuppie social atmosphere.

Walked along the Zayendah river from Siosepol to Khaju bridge in treelined parks, where locals hang out for tea, picnic and some chess, enjoying the beautiful weather. Did I already say I love communal spaces where people can interact and bond? It was a most enjoyable walk. Straddled by historic bridges, the river flanked by green parks is an elegant diversion from the traffic.

Siosepol, or Siose bridge, meaning 33 arches bridge

Siosepol, or Siose bridge, meaning 33 arches bridge


Now, imagine you live here. You can make an appointment with the line “Let’s meet on Khaju bridge at dusk”. That evening would be extra magical.

We visited many other historical sites but I have just listed my favourite ones.

Isfahan is not just the jewel of central Iran, but the world. I genuinely believe so. For now, it will just remain as the gem that is off the global radar.

Ruins of the Achaemenid empire

Before I go on to my favourite part of this trip, just a quick mention of Naqsh-e Rostam, Takht-e Jamshid (Persepolis) and Pasargadae. These ruins are some of the largest remnants of ancient Persia. Joined a tour from Shiraz as that was one of the easiest ways to go.

Naqsh-e Rostam – basically rock tombs. Said to be the tombs of old Achaemenid kings Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I and Xerxes I. I am usually not a fan of monumental tombs – what a waste of resources and for very little public purpose (equally, mausoleums of modern dictators such as HCM and the Kims come to mind). But it is quite a sight as one drives up the road to these cliffs.



“Kneel before me!”
Reliefs on one of the tombs.

Takht-e Jamshid, also known as Persepolis. It was the ceremonial capital of the ancient Achaemenid empire. Walking around this vast compound of broken columns, colossal gate ways and detailed bas reliefs, I was trying very hard to imagine where those high ceilings used to be, somehow wishing they were still there, especially under the hot sun. But the reality of life is that all great empires come to an end. Fallen, to be excavated some day. In the case of the Achaemenid empire, it fell and was looted by Alexander the Great and his army. I also imagined a time when noblemen gathered here, with visitors from all over descending upon this once glorious empire; the entrance has a very grand name – “Gate of All Nations”. I also want a a Gate of All Nations in my imaginary empire.



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Bas reliefs at Persepolis. Was pleasantly surprised to see lotus motifs!

Pasargadae – the main sight is the tomb of Cyrus the Great, which stands somewhat forlornly by itself as strong winds swept through the surrounding pretty fields.



Lavender field in Pasargadae


For two nights in a row, Yazd was engulfed in preludes to a dust storm. Crazy winds. The streets were so clouded with dust that it was difficult to walk back to the guest house. When we finally got back by taxi, the winds just got worse. The giant canvas over the courtyard of the guest house flapped madly like there was no tomorrow.


But by day break, the dust settled. The weather and skies were the most beautiful we had experienced thus far while in Iran. Alas, we were to set off for Isfahan.

A picnic in Chak Chak

Picked up a watermelon in the morning.


In the afternoon, went by car into the greener fringes of the arid deserts.



Attempted to drive on these empty roads. But couldn’t keep to the right side of the road for the life of me. When will I ever be proficient enough to do a driving holiday on continental roads?


Reached Chak Chak. Climbed up the hill to visit the Zoroastrian temple. Thereafter, we dug into the watermelon, Yazd biscuits and tea while enjoying this view.


Ice house

The ice house is an interesting concept. And useful for the hot desert. Water is channelled here via qanats to freeze in winter for use in summer. Made of adobe, the icehouse is like the predecessor of the modern day water cooler found in most places we went to Iran. Just much larger with no electricity required. This icehouse in Meybod is said to be from the Safavid era.

Needless to say, it was very cool inside here. I didn’t want to leave.


Inside the ice house


What the ice house looks like from outside