Most trips overseas for the intrepid traveler involve overland travel. There’s sometimes unavoidable on small islands in the Philippines and the desert expanses of the Middle East. The road offers adventure, perspective to a new place and experiencing the local color.
Some of us have quickly found that schedules in most places do not go as planned. I think back to my early travel years and the incredibly long ride from Ephesus to Istanbul. The bus ended up including a surprise ferry ride, arrived 4 hours lake, dropped me off way in the suburbs at 23:00 back in 2005.
Local buses usually run on the drivers schedule, make pit stops where they get kick backs and usually end with you saying you are never taking the bus again. I have yet managed followed through with that promise. As one fellow passenger said on a very bumpy road in India, “It feels like we are in God’s hands and he’s shaking our bus in them”. I have taken plenty of bus rides since , survived them all and will continue to ride (if there’s no other option).
Many claim that taking an airplane is much safer than ground transport but where’s the adventure in that. Airplanes don’t look like these colorful options and not nearly as fun.
What does a typical day on a guided tour in Iran look like?
Curious on what actually goes down when you are an American on a mandatory guided tour in Iran? It’s not as bad as it sounds and there’s no choice in the matter since we are Americans. My husband and I, like many travelers, usually prefer to go at my own speed when we take a trip. We get typically get by with help from good pre-trip research, a guidebook with a good map, on site pointers from other travelers we meet along the way and the occasional internet search at the local internet cafe/hostel.
Many who are considering a trip to Iran wonder simply what a day is like when you need to be escorted around by a local guide. I found plenty of videos; pictures; blog posts about traveling in Iran but little information about how a typical day went down. I understand it may not be very exciting material but I hope it gives others a little more insight on how things roll along during a typical day. I travel independently so tours aren’t usually a part of my travels except for the occasional organized day trip to a protected area which requires a guide.
My typical day:
7am: Get up and wait for our guide to do the same. The first few days the time was more like 3am but it worked its way eventually to 7am. I like early starts even if it means chilling out for a couple of hours waiting for our fixer.
9am: Meet our sleepy-eyed guide for breakfast which hopefully includes eggs, fresh bread, cheese, butter, jam (hopefully not of the carrot variety) and of course cups and cups of tea. I’m excited when things like hot soup, real coffee and pastries are there as well. This happened a couple of times.
10am ish: Or somewhere around that time…Check out the sites until it gets really hot which usually coincides with lunch hour at high noon.
12pm – 1pm: Many things that require an entrance fee close at this time anyways. It’s a good time to have lunch when everyone else does. Lunch usually is the biggest meal of the day and the choices are very much like dinner. The vegetarian menu typically has been limited to rice, bread, yogurt/Doogh and the usual plate of Kookoo Zabzi – sometimes the cook has other choices but usually it means meat dishes where the meat is literally picked out of the plate. I decided I had enough Kookoo Zabzi and alternated with kebab.
12pm-late afternoon: Our guide goes to the gym and lets us have some time to ourselves. This is when I have a few minutes out of the sun and let my hijab down. It was hot that day but no complaints. The hijab kept my head safe from the suns rays.
3-4pm: We take off again to see sites in the best light and before evening prayer time.
Around Sundown: We have dinner and check out what goes on after the sun sets. This is when I hope to find something sweet like Saffron Ice cream and get some good night shots. The evenings are when most cities typically come alive.
Here’s more pictures of the interior of the Arg of Karim Khan. I asked what this hole was for and my guide just said “It’s just a hole” and strudged his shoulders. Doh…Sometimes you have to ask those dumb questions. It was probably just for air since it gets pretty steamy in this area of the world.
The fortress known as Karim Khani Citadel today shows signs of age. There’s a tilting tower, missing columns and a Qu’ran missing. It’s almost 300 years old so all of this isn’t unexpected. The structure was the main residential palace of Karim Khan-e-Zand and his dynasty and later in the mid 20th century home to prisoners beginning in 1936. It closed in 1971 and is slowly getting much needed repairs after centuries of misuse and vandalism.
The Citadel was looks like a medieval castle complete with a dry mount surrounding the tall thick outer walls. The outside is simple but the inside contains traditional Persian gardens and rooms enclosed with colorful red, blue, yellow and green pained windows. Karim Khan-e-Zand made Persia’s capital Shiraz and built this complex for himself and his militia in 1766-7 AD. The humble leader decided to loose the title of king and decided to be known as a regent or Vakil in Farsi. He hired the best designers and builders to make his fortress and they used the highest quality materials.
When the Qajars gained power over the weaken Zand dynasty the capital and most of it’s Notice the columns made of wood that support one end of the inside pavilion. The originals were made of marble and were stolen. They were at least replaced with the simple wooden ones that remain here today.
The elephant in the room of this castle is the noticeable leaning in the tower at the far southeastern corner. The Khan constructed an underground septic system and his bathhouse resided inside this 14 meters tall tower.
The water table has lowered substantially over the decades and hopefully something will be done about the obvious separation of it and the supporting walls attached to it. It will probably just take a minor earthquake to release the tower from the rest of the fortress. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen before it’s given a proper patch job. Right now, it looks as if someone just took a bit of gum and filled in the open wedge.
Inside the Arg of Karim Khan is simple because much of its treasures were stolen or removed after the Zand Dynasty was conquered by the Qajar. The marble pillars were removed by the Qajar conquers and brought to Tehran where they made the new capital of Persia.
The floor of the inner courtyard is made of large stones brought in from the surrounding mountains of Shiraz. The workers were paid for the amount of stone they laid down. The way that they kept track of which stones the individual brought in was by a symbol that was carved into the top of the stone. These can still be seen today if you look at the stones on the near right corner of the main entrance. This information can’t be confirmed online and is something our guide pointed out to us when we entered the courtyard. I was too much in awe of the interior that I forgot to get a picture of it. I guess you’ll have to see for yourselves.
It was the third day into my trip to Iran and my husband and I were ready to take out on our own. The jet lag had finally faded and the streets of Shiraz were becoming more familiar. We were on a “tour” but it was getting a little stifling and we needed to get some air so to speak. The visit to the Valik Mosque the previous day made a big impression on us and we wanted to go and see it again. This time, it wouldn’t be in the middle of the day and without someone patiently waiting for us to move on to the next site on the day’s itinerary.
The Valik Mosque is very colorful and the tile work of its walls is full of flowers, birds and geometric patterns characteristic to the city of Shiraz. When I think back to my visit to Shiraz it’s the one site I felt summed up the beautiful city. It’s best to visit late in the afternoon and sometimes this may coincide with evening prayer. It’s not a working mosque, as mentioned before, but many locals still visit for prayer. The small admission visitors from out-of-town pay goes toward the continuous maintenance of the grounds so don’t feel like you are intruding but be aware of late day worshippers when you are looking around in awe and taking a million pictures. This is when it gets tricky keeping the hijab from slipping off my head and getting pictures of the tall walls at the same time.
The first visit to the Valik Mosque located or attached to the Valik Bazaar. The mosque, built between 1751 and 1773, is the best example of architecture constructed during the Zand Dynasty when Shiraz was the capital of Persia. It has withstood many earthquakes and invasions. The mosque is now a registered historical site and is no longer a working mosque. Many worshipers still come and pray here despite this and who can blame them. It’s one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in Shiraz and it shouldn’t be missed when visiting.
Naqsh-e Rostam doesn’t look like more than a few holes in the side of a hill of limestone. This hill is where four great leaders of Persia once laid to rest – Darius the Great, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I and Darius II. These men lived at a time where brother killed brother in order to gain the power they thought they rightfully deserved. It was survival of the strongest or the greediest perhaps. Murdering to gain position became a common practice in the Achaemenid household.
These cross-shaped tombs look as if they were constructed at the same time since they are all built to almost the same specifications. The first Darius the Great – said to be completed around 493 BC and the last was built for Darius II – great-great-grandson to Cyrus the Great – around 400 B.C. when he passed. So, these were all built in a span of 90 years – give or take a few years.
Tomb of Darius the Great (son-in-law of Cyrus the Great 522-486 BC)
A few scrappy puppies stand guard at the tombs of Naqsh-e Rustam. They couldn’t be bothered on this hot September day in southern Iran. This impressive but little visited site is a 20 minute drive from its more popular stepbrother Persepolis. Darius the Great – son-in-law of Cyrus the Great was the first occupant of this Necropolis. The cliff side cemetery was his idea. His tomb’s was built during his reign and was completed seven years before his death in 486 BC. He had many wives but the most important one was Astossa who is the daughter of Cyrus the Great and mother of Xerxes I was king after Darius. Darius became king after Cyrus’ son Cambyses II died of a leg wound that was either self-inflicted or happened during battle. Bardiya, younger brother to Cambyses II, succeeded him but later murdered by a group of seven nobles who then made Darius their king. Darius the Great was best known for completing many of the construction projects started by his father in law Cyrus the Great.
Tomb of Xerxes I (son of Darius the Great 486-465 BC)
Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes I, grave is found next to his father’s. Xerxes I wasn’t Darius’ eldest son, but the only one “born in the Purple” or of royal blood. Xerxes fought many battles and is best known for building the largest structures at Persepolis, the Gate of all Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns. He also completed the Apadana, the Palace of Darius and the Treasury all started by Darius. He added on his own palace which was twice the size of his father’s. Xerxes I and is young son Darius were both murdered by his royal guard Artabanus the Hyrcanian.
Tomb of Artaxerxes I (son of Xerxes I 465-424 BC)
Artaxerxes I came into power after the assassinations of his father Xerxes I and his young brother Darius. Artaxerxes I lived until he was 54 and all that is known about his death is that it happened sometime in between December 424 B.C. and March 423 BC. He is known as Artaxerxes Longimanus. He had the nickname Longimanus because his right hand was longer than his left. He fought battles against the Greeks. He continued to support the rebuilding of the Jewish community in Jerusalem which had begun under Cyrus the Great. He died by natural causes unlike most of the rulers of the Achaemenid Period.
Tomb of Darius II (son of Artaxerxes 423-404 BC)
Vahuka, letter becoming Darius II when king, came to power after the death of two of his elder brothers. Xerxes II was the only one “born in the purple”. He was the crown prince and son of the Queen. His other two half brothers, Vahuka – later known as Darius II – and Sogdianus were born out of the royal line. Xerxes II was next in line and was given the throne. His brother Sogdianus murdered him 45 days later. Sogdianus lasted only six months until he was also murdered by the commander of the cavalry who didn’t recognize his rule. Historians can’t agree about what really happened. It doesn’t help that Sogdianus married his half-sister and both murdered sons Xerxes II and Sogdianus declared themselves king before their father’s body was cold.
In the end, the next brother, Vahuka or Darius of Ochus became king. He was the son of Artaxerxes and a Babylonian concubine, hence the nickname of Nothos which means the child of unmarried parents. He had a lot of help from his wife and half-sister. He is said to have taken care of things and got rid of the rest of his relatives in secure his seat. Artaxerxes I had 18 children. There are very few details of Darius II life. He fought and survived many battles and held on to power much longer than Xerxes II and Sogdianus. Unlike the two, he does have a place at Naqsr-e Rustam and one must assume he was a great leader.
Is it a Zorastrian fire temple? Not a fire temple but an ancient flood light that eliminated the tombs at night? A royal tomb that was never occupied? What this building was except an uncanny Doppelganger to one found at Cyrus the Great’s Tomb at Pasargadae. Whether it was a depository for objects of dynastic or religious importance or tomb is a mystery that may be solved someday. Much of the area of the site still remains buried and there are many objects, carvings and perhaps larger segment waiting to be discovered. I’m looking forward to returning back – especially when it’s not over 100 degrees F.
side note: The sources I used to get information in this post was found from various places ranging from my guide Mahmoud to online sources to old-fashioned textbooks in the library. I have found the history about Naqshr-e Rustam or Naqshr-e Rostam has many versions. Please let me know if I have made any mistakes with the facts I have gathered. Many of the facts are ones consolidated by larger accounts found in Wikipedia.
The ride to the hotel is pretty much a blur. We learned that a light rail line would be completed sometime. Construction started in 2001 and it’s still not completed. I can relate since I spent most of my childhood waiting for the completion of the “Big Dig” in Boston. Mahmoud also informed us his sister was getting married soon and he’s been busy planning and paying for the event. We were not sure if this would delay travel but at this point whatever.
We reached the hotel before just loosing my mind and doing a total travelers freak out. I’m not my pleasant self after 30+ hours without sleep and decent coffee. At least the sun hadn’t risen yet so it seemed like we were just getting in from the occasional night out on the town back home.
I slept well for a few hours but hunger drove me out of bed. The spread was amazing. We feasted on fresh lavash, fruit, cheese, soup and a liters of water and tea. I even managed to one more good cup of coffee before I switched to widely available tea. We wait around the courtyard hoping our man Mahmoud would come back. I sort of remember that he did mention returning around noon. We’re stuck inside without him – or so we thought. We were unsure if walking into the unfamiliar and beyond was wise at this point. We ended up testing the waters and took a short walk about. It was kind of like staying just playing in the yard and close to the house as kids. There was very little to see and so we ended up going back to bed for a few hours. I caved.
I woke up and it was still Saturday. I almost forget where I was. I was in Shiraz – Iran. My jet lag had worn off a bit and I was ready to see and do whatever was possible in what remained of the day. At least if it wasn’t possible then the hotel courtyard would have sufficed. It seemed our hotel is a Shiraz hotspot for locals. The hotel has a tea shop/shisha lounge which attracts young couples looking for a good date spot and mingle with out-of-towners like ourselves. I can’t imagine what this place would be like if alcohol was available.
The young guys here all sport gelled hair and have it styled the Rooster fashion – illegal I may add. They have nabbed one of the best jobs in town. They get paid to hang with friends, play Persian pop tunes until the early morning hours, smoke tons of Shesha, talk on their cell phones and occasionally get food and drink orders to guests. I and other guest at the hotel get served. It’s not all bad since we get the opportunity to mingle with the locals or in some cases be stared at by the locals.
After another meal, our guide Mahmoud showed up. I was off to shop for some acceptable local gear. The mall was typical except it had some moral police hanging out in the entrance way and only noticed them when we left. There was a little light left in the day so checked out some sites before the sun set. Shiraz street life on a Saturday night is something worth checking out. All the shops are in full swing as families are spending the last hours of the weekend together. It was the perfect introduction to Iran.
The club or hotel courtyard was in full swing. The benches were all occupied with groups getting intoxicated on hot tea and Shisha pipe hits, the speakers were busting out Persian Pop remixes and foil covered hot coals were being spun around for the next smoker. My head was spinning due to fatigue and over stimulation. It’s time to call it a day. All I need is a good pair of ear plugs and a somewhat comfy bed.
We arrived in Shiraz in the early hours and there’s nothing like be greeted with a smile and have a car waiting at 4am.
The tour was going to take us through the center of Iran – starting in Shiraz and ending in Tehran. We decided to go overland the whole way for a few reasons:
There’s no better way to see the most of a country then by taking the road. We were hoping to use public transport but our itinerary didn’t give us many opportunities to do so.
Iranian planes not only lack the necessary spare parts due to the US embargo but they have more than their share of flight incidents. It’s enough to keep me grounded.
It was nice to have the ability to say that we wanted to stay longer or leave earlier. The flexibility made it easier to make it seem more like our usual trips where we just travel vicariously – or at least feel a little less on a schedule.
Take the time to research and find a good guide
We were either lucky to get a great guide. Mahmoud was not only a nice guy with a great sense of humor but a guide who loved history and his country. We start at a reasonable hour of 10am, take a lunch around mid day, start-up again in the afternoon and finish the day with dinner. He showed us Iran as we made our way through its historical sites. He guided us through his home town of Shiraz and later to Persepolis, the remains of Bishapur and museums of Tehran – to name a few. He never got annoyed by our questions and rushed us through places he has been to thousands of times.
Do your homework before going
There’s only so much you can pack into a guide-book like Lonely Planet. A tour guide more than likely will contradict some of its facts. It is a well-known fact that history is usually recorded by the victors. Iran once known as Persia has a long recorded history and it’s people have had amazing military and cultural triumphs as well as suffered near catastrophic defeats. Modern Iran is still obsessed with its past and wonder why they are no longer the superpower they were thousands of years ago. The only thing he did do is make me feel guilty that I hadn’t done pre-trip studying of Persian history and culture before setting out on the trip. The boundaries of Persia changed like the tides as they conquered and fell victim to foreign sieges. Iran doesn’t disappoint especially when it comes to ancient history.
Be ready to meet people
We found that we could not go anywhere without being asked how we liked Iran, why we were visiting, and where do we come from. It’s hard not to feel welcome in Iran despite what our leaders say and do to each other. It’s easy making connections with people on the street even though we had our fixer with us most of the time – we did manage to lose him a few times and managed not to make the headlines.