`Actually, we're quite a normal country'

After many years of isolation, Iran is opening its borders. And despite its fearsome reputation, the people are friendly and there are startling sights for the intrepid tourist. By Jeremy Atiyah
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The Independent Travel
"Iran is not only about religion," a relaxed, urbane attache from the Iranian embassy in London had told me. "You will see for yourself. Actually we are quite a normal country. And please stop worrying about your visa."

I had been itching to enter Iran for the last 15 years, ever since trying to join the hippy overland trail to India and finding my way barred by Iran's Islamic revolution. And now I was being told for the eleventh time in 11 weeks not to worry about it.

But the attache had been on the right lines. Even if visas can take 12 weeks to materialise, Iran is indeed re-opening its door to independent tourists - a door which I finally entered one month later, at Turkey's eastern border under Mount Ararat.

In a cold wind, I stepped out on to sunny Iranian steppe land, and into the arms of taxi drivers. Hoping to make a killing from a naive foreigner? If $15 (pounds 9.50) for a 300km taxi-ride to Tabriz represented a killing for the driver, I was a happy passenger. We were soon speeding across a huge desert to catch the early-evening train to Tehran.

This was where all my pre-conceptions about Iran could begin to be tested. Tehran? The ugly sprawling capital of an extremely religious country? True, the air was thick with dust when I arrived, and buildings were identical for mile after mile. But overlooked from the north by the snow-capped Elburz mountains, there were also sunny, tree-lined streets, gushing road- side ditches and leisurely ambling pedestrians. At night there was even a dash of neon.

My first day-time outing was to the main archeological museum where, at the entrance, was a large party of school-girls in head-scarves. Mindful of Islamic propriety, I hung back, waiting for the girls to pass. As soon as they noticed the foreigner however, they surged towards me and suddenly I was jammed in a melee of tittering school-girls. "Hello!" the naughty ones were calling out, in English. "We like you!" came a shout. "We love you!" came another. Later, inside the museum, some of them cornered me beside a bust of Xerxes. "We only want to practise our English," they explained, calmly. Tehrani women are certainly in chadour but they are not invisible.

After Tehran, my plan was to breeze a lightning circuit of the rest of country by bus, taking in a few of the major tourist centres en route. Recklessly skipping Isfahan - despite its reputation as the cultural centre of Iran - I sped southwards to Shiraz, on the Fars uplands, the heartland of ancient Persia.

On the road, two English speakers graduated towards my part of the bus - one an optimistic, charming soldier, the other a pessimistic, depressing student. When we stopped over in the mullahs' city of Qom the pessimist showed his true colours by stopping me as I was about to drink from a tap. "The water of Qom is salty," he explained, blackly. "This is why the people who live here are all mad." It turned out that he had dodged military service and thought that Iran was hell on earth.

It is fascinating how many non-Islamic ideas and relics persist in Iran, despite official disapproval. In Shiraz, my ambition was to see the remains of Persepolis, the fabulous city-palace from where Darius and his successors ruled most of the known world in the fifth century BC. Today the ruins lie under a hillside outside the city, commanding a fertile plain.

In the hot desiccating wind that sweeps through the ruined city, a self- appointed guide with a stubbly chin stalked me and then began defending his country against the depredations of that villain from the West, Alexander the Great.

"We ruled everybody in the world," he rumbled, "including you Europeans. But then Alexander came and broke everything up." He pointed gloomily to the broken columns and smashed friezes, the results of Alexander's destructive work in 331 BC. On impulse, I asked his name. It turned out to be Darius.

If Shiraz was a surviving bastion of Persian imperialism, Yazd - my next port of call - was the seat of the ancient fire-worshipping religion of Zoroastrianism. Following the pattern, I was approached within minutes of boarding the bus by an English-speaking youth called Ali. "You will stay in my humble family home," he announced. "And I will show you Yazd."

Yazd is built on desert. Arriving after dark, we hitched-hiked on a tractor into a labyrinthine maze of narrow mud alleys. Staying in a house of mud was pleasing enough but I was dumbfounded when we stepped through a low door into a courtyard with divan-style portals, moonlit marble terraces, pomegranate and jasmin trees overlooked by wind-towers. This was Ali's family home.

Later Ali introduced me to his uncle, Reza, who was sitting on a carpet in pyjamas like a pasha, in front of a bronze brazier. It turned out he was smoking opium from a pipe that looked like a musical instrument.

"I bought the pipe in the market here," he explained, merrily. "The craftsman who makes it doesn't know what it is. Opium in Iran? Very, very problem. But don't worry!" He enunciated his English with exaggerated clarity and descended into stammers after inhaling. "Why do people say opium is very, very bad?" he asked, with genuine puzzlement. "I think it is very, very good."

That afternoon, having sampled the hedonistic side of Yazd, I now wanted to visit its most important Zoroastrian temple. The Iranian authorities are officially tolerant of religious diversity, though this temple looked a trifle down-at-heel when I arrived: a small building in an untidy garden, with an old attendant dozing in an armchair. Inside the temple, a live fire has been kept burning, uninterrupted, for 15 centuries. I approached the attendant, nervously wondering if he was one of the believers.

"You, er, worship fire?"

"We are not fire-worshippers," he growled, in flawless English. "We believe in the purity of the elements." This Zoroastrian did not seem inclined to discuss the matter further.

No matter. I had seen by now that Iran was not exclusively about Islam. Before leaving though, I still hoped to catch a glimpse of the religious fervour for which the country is known and for this I needed one more overnight bus journey through the desert: to Mashhad, in the north-east of the country, the orthodox stronghold of the entire Shi'a muslim world.

It would be sacrilegious to describe the shrine of Iman Reza and surrounding buildings at the centre of Mashhad as a tourist attraction. It is quite simply the holiest place for Shi'a Islam, and one of the architectural marvels of all Islam. However hard it is to comprehend the significance of Imam Reza himself (who died in 817 BC, allegedly poisoned by the ruling caliph) the fact is that the shrine area has since been built up into a huge sacred complex dominating the heart of the city, visited by thousands of pilgrims every day.

Creeping humbly about Mashhad, I entered a smooth-stone square overlooked by the 500-year-old Mosque of Gohar Shad and its 50-metre-high blue tiled dome and cavernous golden portal. It was only when a friendly pilgrim beckoned me that I had any thought of entering the mausoleum itself. Leaving my shoes at the door, I followed the man shuffling inside.

I didn't spend long in there. The ceilings above my head shimmered and glittered so brightly that I dared not look up. Huge swirling crowds of bearded mullahs, men in robes, turbanned Afghans and other chanting pilgrims pushed and heaved around me, all hands straining to touch the silver latticed cage surrounding the tomb itself. This was no place for touristic gawping. Anxious at having entered so holy a place, forbidden to non-Muslims, I shook hands with my guide and hurriedly withdrew. True, I told myself, religion was not the only thing in Iran. But in Mashhad at least, it still felt like a mighty powerful force.

FACT FILE

Visas

From the Iranian Consulate, 50 Kensington Court, Kensington High Street, London W8 5DB (tel: 0171 795 4901). Allow at least two months for processing and note that women should provide passport photos with hair covered. Anyone with Israeli stamps in their passport will be rejected. Some other applicants may be also rejected without reason. Seven-day transit visas (for crossing between Turkey and Pakistan) are faster and easier to obtain.

Access

By air, Iran Air (tel: 0171 409 0971) flies to and from Tehran three times a week and can offer good deals. Iran can also be reached by train or bus through Europe and Turkey; an InterRail ticket or InterRail 26+, will carry travellers as far as Erzurum from where it is a few hours by bus to the Iranian border.

Travelling around the country

There is an extensive, comfortable and cheap bus network that runs throughout the country; as well as a limited rail network. Buying tickets is easy as locals will rush to help you. Sample fares: Tabriz to Tehran first- class rail sleeper about pounds 3; Tehran to Shiraz, luxury bus about pounds 2. Internal flights are also cheap, but often booked up.

Reading

The out-of-date Lonely Planet Guide to Iran is still the most thorough available, though for the most recent account see the relevant chapter of their Middle-East on a Shoestring (pounds 11.95).

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