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Adventures in Iran

"Have you ever had apple water?" the immigration official at Tehran Airport asked me at the start of my adventure tour of Iran. I had not, I told him, before I realized that the word for water and juice in Farsi are the same. He handed me my passport along with a bottle of Minute Maid apple juice. "It is really good!", he exclaimed. "Welcome to Iran!" When you first arrive at Tehran Airport you may be excused for feeling a little apprehensive - the images of Iran we have in our minds are those of the occupations of the US embassy almost 40 years ago, of flag burning mobs, of veiled women armed to the teeth. As so often, the reality on the ground is starkly different - while no democracy, the country feels very safe and is a pleasure to travel around - hospitality abounds and everywhere you go you are warmly greeted by friendly people who seem genuinely pleased you are visiting their country. After a short flight to Shiraz we started our adventure tour of Iran with a visit of Persepolis, a collection of palaces and temples burnt down by Alexander the Great (he is not considered all that great in Iran). Wandering around the ancient ruins you cannot help but be awestruck by the size of the pillars, the detail of the carvings, still visible after all these centuries, and the sheer size of the place. At Persepolis and nearby Naqsh-e Rostam, the burial place of Darius the Great, history gazes down upon you, making you feel but a small part of the long march of time. In Shiraz itself, we enjoyed the peaceful Bagh-e Eram gardens, the beautiful shrine of the poet Hafez and the colourful play of lights at the Nasir-ol-Molk mosque. And we spent a few hours wandering around the souq, hunting for suitable presents for a family we were about to visit. High in the mountains north of Shiraz lies a small village of mud-brick homes and small apple farms. My stay in the village, the name of which I never discovered, was a highlight of my adventure tour of Iran. We were welcomed in the home of Anna (meaning "mother" in Farsi) and her adult son. We enjoyed a traditional Iranian dinner, seated on the floor in the guestroom and had a wonderful evening filled with dance, tea and a traditional qalyan (water pipe), before we all retired to sleep on the floor. The next morning I squeezed out for a walk through the village. A car stopped and the elderly driver explained he had once lived in the US. He remembered some of his English and we chatted about life in North America and in Iran, then said our goodbyes. Not long after, a truck stopped and, for lack of much of a common language, we used hand and feet to exchange pleasantries and greetings to our extended families. "Welcome!" the truckers yelled when they drove off. Further down the track an old shepherd was guiding his flock to pasture. After breakfast and an exchange of presents, we drove off along steep mountain roads, past apple orchards heavy with the fruits of autumn, along babbling brooks and through dusty towns where kids were running and playing on their way to school. We spent a few days driving through the pretty countryside - wide open vistas lined by high mountains, interspersed by fields of rice, wheat and vegetables- all the while exploring lesser known sights like an ancient ice house, mosques, mansions and shrines. After a splendid drive through the desert we arrived at our next stop of significance, Caravanserai Zein-o-din. Built in the 16th century as part of a huge network providing shelter for travellers on the Silk Road, this caravanserai has now been converted to a beautiful hotel. One might be excused for feeling like a Silk Road merchant as you bed down for the night in a room with mats, separated from the circular corridor by nothing more than a thick curtain. A beautiful sunset augmented the feeling of serenity and peace that pervades this place. We travelled onwards to Yazd, an ancient trading town on the Silk Road even Marco Polo claims to have visited. The town has many old wind towers, used to cool houses, along with some spectacular mosques. Yazd is also the centre of the Zoroastrian religion, a monotheistic faith predating Christianity and Islam. The town is renowned for its Towers of Silence, massive structures where Zoroastrians used to leave their dead in sky burials. From Yazd we did a day trip into the surrounding desert to the village of Kharanaq, a collection of partially restored mud-brick homes and the Zoroastrian Fire Temple at Chak-Chak. The desert road between these two locations led through some of the most spectacular scenery I have seen anywhere in the world. Next on the itinerary was Isfahan, the city famous for its Persian–Islamic architecture, with many beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques, and minarets. This abundance of beautiful buildings gave rise to the Persian proverb "Esfahān nesf-e-jahān" (Isfahan is half the world). Imam Square in the centre of town is particularly breathtaking - as the sun makes it way around the square, the light on the collonades changes constantly. Especially at dusk and early evening, the sight of lights lighting up the buildings is nothing short of spectacular. We had two more stops before the end of our trip. First up was the quiet village of Abyaneh, nestled high up in hills below Mount Karkus. The hotel, like so many on our trip, was a lovely place to hang out. As the sun rose over the hills, a lovely morning's hike led us out through the village past ancient irrigation channels to a viewpoint overlooking town and the surrounding mountains. Our final overnight was in Kashan, a settlement with a 6000 year history. The town has some marvelous mansions - some of the brickwork here, as elsewhere in Iran, was absolutely mesmerizing. Kashan is also home to the beautiful Fin Gardens, a UNESCO protected traditional Persian garden and a true haven of peace, where green space and architecture blend seamlessly. Our final evening outside of Tehran was spent at a family home where we enjoyed dinner in the company of an Iranian family. Fabulous food and the hospitality Iranians are so well-known for were but some of the highlights of the evening. Soon it was time to return to Tehran, where some last minute sightseeing saw the trip to an end. I truly felt this was a life-changing trip. A trip where I felt safe in the care of the warm and welcoming Iranian people, where I sensed that the vast majority of people anywhere in the world wish to get on with life, regardless of the politics of the day.

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