Iran Diary #6: Shiraz

Shiraz is my favorite place in Iran for three reasons. One, the hotel, Niayesh, is easily the biggest and fanciest place I’ve stayed in during the whole trip. I booked a single room, but I was put in a huge room with a king-sized bed, and, get this, separate bathroom and toilet. If you’ve seen how tiny the bathrooms in Iranian hostels are, then you’ll appreciate the sheer joy of not having to put away the toilet paper every time you shower (to keep it from getting wet).

The hotel also has several restaurants, and it was here that I got to try dizi – a stew of mutton, beans, chickpeas, potatoes, and tomatoes. I wanted to try it not just because it’s traditional, but also because it’s so fun to eat. First, you pour the tomato sauce from the stew into your bowl and eat that with the flatbread. Then you mash up the stew itself and scoop it up with the rest of the bread. It’s good and very filling!

Two, I spent the longest time in Shiraz, so I actually got to know the city. Actually, I had just as long in Tehran, but in Shiraz, I wasn’t so exhausted that I couldn’t remember anything. Also, the sights in Shiraz are well incorporated into the “everyday” part of the city, so it feels harmonious and graceful.

I arrived in Shiraz late in the evening after my Persepolis tour, so I decided to take it easy. The next morning, I headed out early to beat the crowd to what is easily the second most famous attraction in Iran, after Persepolis – the Nasir-al-Mulk Mosque, aka the Pink Mosque, so named because of the pink roses on the tiles used to decorate it.


The exterior of the mosque

It’s best to visit the mosque from 8 to 11 AM, when the sun shines through its stained glass windows, so I was there at 7:30. Turned out I made the right decision – a Chinese couple was there before me, and another couple arrived just after me. Still, I managed to grab a couple of photos before the place filled up. It would’ve been nice to just sit there and watch the windows lit up, but alas, that’s the way it goes with popular destinations.

After a delicious breakfast at the hotel, I went to a couple of historical houses nearby – Naranjestan Qavam and Zinat-al-Mulk. They’re not as big as the ones in Kashan but better preserved, and surrounded by beautiful gardens. There are also museums attached to them, so you can learn more about the history of Shiraz.

Details of the mirror work at Zinat-al-Molk House

You can also rent traditional clothes for photoshoots at Naranjestan Qavam

Later, I headed to Vakil Bazaar, the main bazaar of Shiraz. However, thanks to my genius sense of direction, I ended up lost. That’s when I got to experience the third reason I fell in love with Shiraz – the kindness of its people. As I was wandering up and down the main street looking for the bazaar’s entrance, I ran into an elderly gentleman who spoke English. I asked him for direction, and he not only showed me to the bazaar but also spent the rest of the afternoon taking me to other sights in Shiraz – the Ali Ibn Hamzeh Holy Shrine (which is not as famous as Shah Cheragh, but it allows photos while Shah Cheragh doesn’t), Hafez’s tomb, and the Citadel.


A cool alley outside the bazaar, and colorful cloths being sold inside the bazaar

The Citadel with its “leaning tower”

The exterior of Ali Ibn Hamzeh shrine


And of course, you know the inside


It is still a working shrine, so at the gate, women are handed chador (a long cloak that covers your whole body) to wear


Tomb of Hafez, Iran’s most famous poet

Oh, and he insisted on treating me to lunch as well. Having read about taroof, a complex form of Iranian etiquette in which people may offer to pay for you (but it’s just their way of being polite), I tried to refuse, but he kept insisting, so in the end, I accepted. At least he let me pay for tea and snacks afterward!

A Shiraz specialty – cabbage rice with lamb meatballs


Fried dough with pomegranate juice, and ice cream with carrot juice (sounds weird, but it tastes really good!)

As we walked around the city, we talked about his family (he and his wife were both teachers, now retired), about Vietnam and Iran, and the culture and history of Shiraz. It was the best time I had in Iran. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an email address or any kind of social media, so I don’t know how to stay in touch with him, but I’ll never forget him.

Sorry for the wonky photo. My phone and I are not used to selfies

And that makes for the perfect ending for my trip, because that’s what Iran is all about. The sights may be marvelous, but what’s more wonderful is the kindness of its people. From little things like the family sitting next to me in a restaurant in Kashan who reminded the waiter to take my order and the old lady sharing her trail mix with me on the bus on Yazd, to the grand gestures like this gentleman I met in Shiraz, it is what stays with me and what will bring me back to Iran.

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Iran Diary #5: Yazd & Persepolis

I took the bus from Isfahan to Yazd (170.000 rials for a 4-hour ride; the staff at Ragrug Hostel booked the ticket for me.) The view along the way was unremarkable as usual, and I dozed off a little, until I was woken by a drop in the temperature and realized we were driving through snow-covered mountains.

The joke was on me. I’d planned my North-South route to get away from the cold, yet so far Tehran had been the warmest. But a bigger joke was waiting in Yazd. See, Yazd is a desert town. It being winter, I didn’t expect scorching heat or anything like that, but what I definitely didn’t expect was a flood. That’s right, this desert city was flooded!

Thankfully, the old town was not flooded, but the rain was relentless and my mood was dampened considerably. So instead of staying a full day and leaving for Shiraz by bus the next afternoon like I had planned, I decided to take another transfer tour from Yazd to Shiraz via Persepolis the very next morning. I was going to Persepolis anyway, and as it lies between Yazd and Shiraz, this would save me a long bus ride (the transfer tour was 40 euros including a guide). My hostel, Tarooneh (a very nice, family-run place), organized the driver/guide for me, and since I had to leave quite early, the owner even brought breakfast to my room. So considerate!

That gave me just an evening in Yazd, and it was raining cats and dogs. No matter. I headed out anyway. Yazd’s old town is a bit like Kashan’s – all winding alleys and mud walls – but larger. And it was quiet, which was a nice change after the hubbub of Isfahan.

The alleys of Yazd

The wind catchers outside my hostel

Of course, I couldn’t resist a cat photo

I went to all the usual sights – the Amir Chaghmaq square, the Jameh mosque, and the Atash Behram fire temple. I don’t know if it was the rain or not, but they didn’t leave much of an impression on me; mostly they were just shelters from the rain. It was pretty awe-inspiring to visit the fire temple, though, considering the fact that its sacred fire has been burning for over 1500 years.

The square

The fire temple

The Faravahar symbol of Zoroastrianism


The sacred fire

The Jameh Mosque

Funnily enough, my fondest memory of Yazd is a little thing. As I trudged back to the hostel in the rain, I suddenly came upon the best smell in the world – bread baking. It was from a small bakery where a group of locals were waiting to buy the freshly made bread, and when I indicated with my camera, they all invited me inside to take photos and watched the bakers at work. How nice of them!

The baker was working so fast his hands were a blur in all the photos

The next morning, I got picked up at 7 and driven through an imposing mountain range, all covered in the fluffiest, most pristine snow I’ve ever seen – it was gorgeous.

If it wasn’t for the blue dome of the mosque…

… you’d think this is the Rockies.

The tour includes three stops – Pasagardae, the Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis, and Persepolis. Pasagardae, frankly, can be skipped – it’s just a tomb and some ruins, nothing to write home about except it works as a built-up to Persepolis.

The tomb of Cyrus the Great

Naqsh-e Rustam is much more impressive – four tombs cut high into a rock cliff, believed to belong to ancient Persian kings, Darius I, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II. It blew my mind to think how long it must’ve taken to finish them.


Look just how tiny the person is compared to the tomb

Finally, after a quick lunch, we arrived at the climactic conclusion of the tour – Persepolis. From the entrance, you walk up to the terrace and climb the stairs to the Gate of All Nations, just as the delegates of ancient times would when they arrived in Persepolis to see the King (Persepolis, which existed from around 500 BC to 300 BC before it was destroyed by Alexander the Great, was more of an administrative/ceremonial complex rather than an actual city for people to live in.)

Panorama of the front entrance

The Gate of All-Nations

A griffin capital, used to hold up the rafts on the ceiling

The place is absolutely huge, and a guide is highly recommended so you know where to go and understand the story behind the ruins. For me, the most remarkable thing about Persepolis is the patience and the precision it took to complete all those buildings (my guide, the aptly named Darius, said that people today lack patience to make such art, which I think is absolutely true). To touch the carvings really feels like you’re touching history.

Even the graffiti are historical

The tomb of either Artaxerxes II or III (I forgot which) tucked into the hill behind Persepolis

This carving is high up, which is why it’s so pristine

Another thing is that all the buildings used to be painted brightly back in the day. It may look dignified now with the weathered stone, but what I wouldn’t give to see it in all of its original, colorful glory.


Iran Diary #4: Isfahan & Varzaneh Desert

After my transfer tour from Kashan, I arrived in Isfahan (or Esfahan) early in the afternoon. Despite being a big tourist destination, the city has no affordable hotel/hostel within walking distance of the center. However, the hostel I stayed at, Ragrug, offers free transport to the center, so it’s perfect.

As usual, after checking in, I immediately headed out to see the sights. My destination was the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, one of the biggest squares in the world, and its surrounding buildings – the Shah Mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar (there is also the Ali Qapu Palace, which I didn’t check out.) The scales and the details of the mosques are just stupendous – I must’ve developed a crick in my neck because I couldn’t stop gawping up at their domes. It was like looking up at heaven.

The square

Courtyard of the Shah Mosque


The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, outside and in

Dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

The bazaar was good for souvenir shopping – I was especially impressed by the silver and copper shops!

A “spice mountain” in the bazaar


A silversmith at work and a fruit/snack stand in the bazaar

Unfortunately, I arrived just a day before a big national holiday, so everywhere was insanely crowded. I wanted to stay until nightfall to see the square lit up, but the crowd became too much for me, so I pushed on to the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge, one of the 11 historical bridges in Isfahan. The walk took me through a pedestrian street lined with shops and hipster food and coffee trucks parked in the middle – I had dinner on the go from one of these trucks. The crowd was pretty thick here, too, but at least I could keep moving and people-watch.

Eventually, I emerged into a square thronged with traffic overlooking the Zayanderud River. Somehow, I managed to reach the bridge, which was super crowded as well. Though the bridge was lit up beautifully and I was happy to see water in the river – most of the recent photos of the bridge showed the river dried up – the crowd was stressing me out. So after snapping a few photos, I went back to the hostel and called it a night.


Under the bridge

The next day, per the suggestion of the hostel staff, I avoided returning to the city center because a) it was going to be even more crowded, and b) everything was closed anyway. I briefly considered going to the Armenian Quarter to see the Vank Cathedral (Iran isn’t all about the mosques, you know), but after Tehran and Kashan, I was feeling a bit burned out on architecture, so I decided to have a “nature” day instead.

In the morning, I went for a walk on Sofeh, a mountain about 10 km outside the city (I wouldn’t call it hiking, because the paths up the mountain are paved). Although it was drizzling, it was great to get out of the city and away from the crowd.

View of the city from the mountain

Then, in the afternoon, I went on a desert tour organized by the hostel (15 euros/person). The sky was clear when we headed out, but as we approached the town of Varzaneh, it started pouring. Ironic, isn’t it? Here we were, hoping to see a scorching desert, and it rained!

We decided to press on anyway, and it turned out to be a really nice outing. We had some interesting discussion with our guide about life in Iran, about their frustrations in the present and their hopes for the future. It was a great way to get to know the country better.

And the scenery was pretty awesome too. First, we went to a salt lake – it must be really striking in the summer with all the salt crystals coming up, but even in the rain, it still looked impressive, in an alien kind of way.

You can still see the salt crystals

Our tour guide and the two guards working at the salt mine (they offered us tea!)

After that, we headed to the sand dunes. The vastness and emptiness of the landscape is astounding and really makes you feel insignificant (in a good way).

Looks like a set for Mad Max: Fury Road, doesn’t it?

On the way back, we stopped to see a “cow well”, which is a well where the water is drawn up by, you guess it, a cow (actually, it’s a bull), to irrigate the nearby fields. The really fun thing is that the trainer sings to the cow to get it to move – how sweet is that?

Our last stop was a roadside restaurant where we enjoyed some fresh fish – and I mean super fresh, as we watched the cook catch them from the pond where the fish were raised.

Best fish I’ve ever tasted!

And that wrapped up a really fun day and also my time in Isfahan. There are still a lot of places I didn’t get to see in the city – it’s not called “half the world” for nothing! – but I hope to return one day.


Iran Diary #3: Kashan & Abyaneh

I traveled from Tehran to Kashan on a VIP bus from the South Bus Terminal. There are buses leaving for Kashan every hour, so don’t worry about getting there on time. You just have to get your ticket (the ticket office is upstairs in the main building of the terminal; my ticket cost 200.000 rials, which included a light snack) and keep your ears out for people shouting out your destination.

The trip took 3 hours through the most depressing landscape I’ve ever seen – an endless stretch of brown wasteland, dotted here and there with soot-colored hills. It rained, too, which didn’t help. Thankfully, the rain stopped by the time we arrived; the sun came out, and things started looking up.

Here in Kashan, I’ve found the character that Tehran sorely lacks. Its Old Town is a maze of mud walls (my hostel, Sana Historical House, is located right in the middle of it) that threatens to swallow me up, but thanks to maps.me, I didn’t get lost – well, not too badly.

Agha Bozorg Mosque, an 18th-century mosque located right next to my hostel

Most of the Old Town is concentrated around a handful of historical houses – 19th century mansions of wealthy merchants, now converted into museums. I bought a combined ticket for three main places, Tabatabaei House, Abbasi House, and the Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse (350.000 rials).

The ticket even included a greeting in Vietnamese. So nice!

The historical houses are just empty shells to showcase their architecture. I was slightly disappointed, for I’d hoped to see furnished rooms and learn how people used to live back then. Still, the architecture is gorgeous (and very symmetrical, which appeals to me), and it was oddly touching to walk around those empty houses with their faded grandeur.

The bathhouse

The bathhouse’s rooftop

After an early dinner at Abbasi (there is a restaurant attached to the house), I walked back to the hostel in the twilight and listened to the call to prayer echoing through the streets as a crescent moon appeared in the sky. This was more like it.

The next day, I took a “transfer tour” to Isfahan, with stops at Fin Garden, Abyaneh and Natanz (40 euros for the whole car; here was a disadvantage of traveling alone in the low season – there was no other tourist to share your rides!) Fin Garden and Natanz can be skipped – Fin Garden is nice in the sense that you get to see some green trees after days in the desert, but it’s not worth the admission price of 200.000 rials. The mosque at Natanz is at least free.

Fin Garden

The highlight of the tour, of course, is Abyaneh. The view (if you can call it that) along the way is largely the same at first – brown desert flanked by menacing mountains – but when the car started driving toward those mountains and climbing up, I could see that they have a kind of terrible beauty about them. They’re scary, but you can’t look away.

Abyaneh is nestled among these silent giants, a stepped village of distinctive red clay houses. It was deserted, though – aside from a few tourists, the only locals I saw were some old women (in their trademark floral scarves) selling souvenirs. I only encountered one family with children on the outskirt of the village. It was as if the entire place was frozen in the past.


Traditional doors – note the “male” and “female” knockers

I spent nearly two hours wandering up and down the alleys without seeing a soul, until the weather turned nasty – it was actually hailing – so I had to return to the car.

Look closely and you can see pieces of hail in the photo

It was nice visiting Abyaneh, but I wouldn’t want to live there. And I got the feeling that not many young people would, either.


Iran Diary #2: Tehran

My plane landed in Tehran at the ungodly hour of 3 AM. I got picked up by a taxi and taken to my hostel, Seven Hostel (I also pre-booked the taxi with them). It’s a tiny building on an unassuming street, surrounded by shops selling auto parts, but it is within walking distance of most of the attractions in Tehran, which is why I picked it.

Tehran is usually the first destination for travelers and it is the biggest city in Iran in Iran, yet most of them never stay for longer than two days. I soon found out why: it has no character. The attractions are nice, but I can’t tell you what Tehran is like as a whole. It has no clear “downtown” or central area; the architecture is a depressing concrete jungle, and the traffic is, frankly, menacing. Thankfully, I’m used to the wild traffic of Vietnam so it wasn’t so bad for me, but still, it was a bit of a challenge crossing the road for the first time.

An empty street – a rare sight in Tehran

After a nap and a quick breakfast, I headed out to Golestan Palace. In a way, it reflects Tehran – each building is gorgeous, but the grounds are rather uninspired, just a square park surrounded by 1970’s-style office buildings. Not the setting I imagined for an 18th-century royal complex.

There are many buildings, and you have to buy individual tickets for each, on top of a general admission ticket, which I think is bullshit, but that’s how it is. Following the receptionist’s suggestion, I bought tickets to three buildings – the Reception Hall, the Marble Throne, and the Hall of Brilliance.

My irritation with the admission prices was forgotten as soon as I stepped inside. Here are the finest examples of Persian craftsmanship, rooms after rooms of the most exquisite mirror tiles and colorful porcelain mosaics. The lack of tourists (I only saw one Chinese tour group and a handful of Iranians) was nice too.

This beats Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors by miles

Another plus: there are many stray cats around and they’re all very friendly!

This little guy refuses to let me go. “Stop! I demand attention!”

Afterward, I wandered to the Grand Bazaar. This being Friday, it was closed, but there were still shops opened on the street, so I bought some lunch and went to a nearby park to escape the crowd of shoppers. In the afternoon, I went to the National Museum, but at this point, I was deranged from lack of sleep (I hadn’t had any proper sleep in about 20 hours). All I remember is dragging myself back to the hostel and collapsing into bed. Tehran would have to wait.

I returned for one more day at the end of my trip, and this time, with the sun shining and the sky cleared, Tehran was decidedly improved. Not nicer, exactly, but brighter and neater.

My first order of business was to go to the Grand Bazaar for some shopping. Unfortunately, the Persian New Year is coming up, so it seemed everybody was out shopping. It was so crowded that I couldn’t really take photos.

I ended up doing my shopping at a street market near my hostel (it is right next to the Imam Khomeini metro station), which was much cheaper. The market also has food trucks and ice cream stands, making it a great place to hang out.

Next, I went to see some sights outside the city – Azadi Tower and Tabiat Bridge. These have two things to recommend them – one, they’re free, and two, they’re quiet. Also, you have to take the subway, which is an experience in itself. It’s very cheap (only 10.000 rials/ticket) and easy (the signs are both in Farsi and English), and there is the fun of watching hawkers selling all sorts of things from socks and scarves to make-ups and phone accessories on the train. There’s no other subway like it in the world, I guarantee it!

A hawker selling scarves on the “women only” section on the train

Azadi Tower is impressive, but it doesn’t require a lot of time. Tabiat Bridge, on the other hand, is a really nice outing. After getting out of the Shahid Haghani subway station, you walk through the Museum of Revolution and Holy Defense with its display of tanks and planes, up a tree-filled park, and end up at a lovely bridge overlooking the city and the snowy peaks in the distance. If I didn’t have packing to do, I would’ve stayed until sunset.

View from the Museum

Tabiat Bridge

View from the bridge

In the end, Tehran wasn’t a total bust like I’d originally thought. It may not have been my favorite place in Iran, but it has its beauty if you know where to look.


South Korea Diary #2: Seoraksan

Part 1 can be found here.


After 2 days in Seoul, our South Korea tour took us to Seoraksan, a mountain in the east of the country. Most of the tour packages I’ve found only take you to the usual places like Seoul, Busan, and Jeju Island, but as this is a “fall foliage” tour, it’s natural that we got to visit one of the places with the best and earliest fall colors in South Korea – they reach their peak in mid-October, just in time for our visit.

Our first destination is the Seoraksan National Park, with its entrance in a beautiful valley surrounded by brilliantly red and yellow forests, made all the more vivid by the craggy rocks and dark green pines scattered amongst the peaks. The valley also houses a Buddhist temple, Sinheungsa, and a large bronze statue of the Buddha.

Entrance to the National Park

Sinheungsa Temple

Next, we took the cable car up the slopes of Seoraksan. My fear of heights didn’t let me enjoy the views as much as I would like, but despite that, I could still see how gorgeous it was. From the cable car station, it is a 15-minute climb to the mountain peak, but in truth, it took me nearly an hour because I was stopping so often to take photos of all the foliage. I’ve had my share of fall colors when I lived in LA, but that was just little pockets here and there. I’ve never seen such a concentration of fall colors before, and it was truly too spectacular for words. It was difficult to pick which photos to feature in this post, because they all look good!

My scarf matches the background perfectly

Fall is also the season for cosmos flowers in Korea, and on the way back to the hotel, I managed to snap some photos of a blooming field. More gorgeousness!

Before heading to the airport, our last stop is Ojukheon (House of the Black Bamboo), a historical site and museum. It was the house of Shin Saimdang, a 16th-century Korean artist and poet, and her son, Yi I, a Confucian scholar (their images are on the 50,000 and 5,000 won notes, respectively, which show you how prominent they were.) The museum and the house are just okay (though the display of Shin Saimdang’s paintings and calligraphy is quite nice), but the main appeal – for me at least – is the surrounding garden, full of persimmon trees ladden with fruits and golden ginkgo trees.

And that concludes my trip to South Korea. Despite the time constraints of a tour, it has given me a good taste of the country. Hopefully some day I can come back and explore it at my own pace!


South Korea Diary #1: Seoul & Nami Island

Last month, I just went on a 4-day trip to South Korea with my aunt. It was an organized tour, which is my least favorite form of travel, but my aunt asked me to accompany her, and I never turn down the chance to travel to a new country, so of course, I accepted.

We started out in Seoul, with a tour of the Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Blue House, the presidential residence. The Blue House we only got a glimpse from afar, but the Palace is beautiful, with traditional buildings surrounding spacious grounds, dotted here and there with trees full of fall foliage or stately evergreens. We also got a short visit to the National Folk Museum, which is located within the premises, and learned about the traditions of Korea.

The Blue House


Entrance to Gyeongbokgung and a corridor inside the Palace

A pavillion on the grounds

Another fun thing about the Palace is that you can see a lot of people wearing hanbok (traditional Korean dress), both tourists and locals. You don’t have to worry about cultural appropriation here – apparently, you can visit the palace for free if you wear a hanbok! (The tour also included a package for hanbok rental, though I didn’t wear one; I much prefer taking pictures of others.)

The maine square of the Palace


Traditional meets modern

Later in the day, we went to Everland theme park, South Korea’s version of Disneyland. You need at least an entire day here, and besides, I’m too much of a wuss for some of the rides (it has the fourth steepest roller coaster in the world. Just hearing the screams was traumatic enough). I ended up wandering around the flower gardens of the European Village with my aunts and other elderly ladies of our tour group (I guess I’m an old lady at heart!) and enjoying the Halloween decorations.

Main street of Everland

The Cottage Garden of the European Village

Everland at night

The next day, we got to see more of Seoul in the form of the Dongdaemun shopping district. Shopping is actually a huge part of the tour – most of the women in the tour group came back ladden with Korean beauty products – but I’m not much of a shopper, so I used that time to wander the nearby streets and people-watch. Later, we headed to the Namsan Tower, where you can have some magnificent views of the city.

The National Assembly Building

Seoul City Hall

A temple on the street of Seoul

Dongdaemun Design Plaza, where you can see a lot of street style photo shoots


The road to Namsan Tower, and the Tower itself

The famous “love locks” of Namsan Tower

Panoramic view of Seoul from Namsan Tower

Finally, to round out our Seoul trip, we went to Nami Island. It is not an actual island but just a river islet about an hour from Seoul, which gained popularity for being the filming location of “Winter Sonata”, a famous K-drama. I don’t watch K-dramas, but the island itself is very beautiful, with tree-lined walks and glimpses of the river through the branches. It was full of tourists, of course, but if you venture down to the river bank, you can find a lot of quiet pockets to relax in, after the hubbub of Seoul.


A little rice paddy by the river and the famous ginkgo-lined avenue of Nami Island

The squirrels and chipmunks of the island are so used to people that I could go right up to this guy and he even posed for me!

My only complaint is that we went there a tad early, so the leaves haven’t changed colors yet. But that would soon be rectified, because our next stop would be a national park in the mountains. Stay tuned!