I had been looking forward to this trip since 2007 when my interest in traveling to Iran started. I had just traveled to Turkey earlier that year, and after finding it to be one of my best travel experiences, I vowed to see more of the Middle East next time. However, it did not materialize until four years later – I had constantly been putting it off in favor of nearer destinations. But this year, with all the uncertainty and the revival of the nuclear programme issue in recent months, I decided it was now or never. It had been pending in my travel list for far too long.
With only a limited number of days in Iran, I decided to depart from the usual practice that most travelers have of arriving and departing through Tehran. Fortunately, Qatar Airways started flying to Shiraz recently, which was the southernmost city in our trip so we could just make our way northwards and skip a potentially hazardous domestic flight. The actual flight to Shiraz from Doha turned out to be more like a short hop over the Persian Gulf, and before I knew it, I was in the waiting area of the airport terminal negotiating for the fare with the cab drivers. Despite all the horror stories I heard with the immigration procedures, I got my visa in a few minutes after presenting my reference code. Then, I was off to Shiraz!
the arg-e-karim-khan in shiraz
I couldn’t believe it – I was finally in Iran! (this was a line I would repeat for the next 9 days) And there was no better way to start my journey than in Shiraz – the city of wine and poetry. People may recognize the city name more for the type of wine, which was said to originate from this region in Iran. Today, however, the city is as dry as a bone. Liquor has been banned in the Islamic Republic since 1979 which is a shame, and their current assortment of non-alcoholic beers says nothing about the city’s recent past. Despite this, Shiraz looks like any modern, bustling city filled mostly with concrete. I arrived at my chosen hotel – Sasan Hotel – at about 6AM and showed by the kind innkeeper to my modest but spotless room (US$35 including breakfast). I practically just threw my huge backpack on the floor before going out. Stepping out of the hotel, this was when all the stares and “hellos” started. I suppose they don’t get to see East Asians that much over in these parts, although in theory, I was still in the same Asian continent.
I went to the Arg-e-Karim-Khan just as the sun was rising. Shiraz is quite an interesting place – not just because of the exotic sounding name – but also due to this medieval looking structure located right smack in the modern city center. The citadel was built in the 18th century and served as the living quarters of the former rulers of Persia when Shiraz served as its capital. Today, this castle and some of the sites nearby are the last remnants of the era. A short walk from the Arg is the trademark Iranian maze-like bazaar which Shiraz is not exempt from having. But that was not where we were headed that morning. We were making our way to Nasir ol Molk or the Rose Mosque, famous for the stained-glass windows. It is best visited early in the morning to witness the sunlight shining through the multi-hued windows. It’s a photographer’s delight inside.
Shiraz is also famous for its gardens, and within the span of a day we visited three. These were the Naranjestan, Eram and Jahan-Nama Gardens. Out of these, I found Eram Gardens to be the most impressive. Out of the three, it is also only this particular one which UNESCO designated (along with about 9 other gardens in other cities) as among the World Heritage Sites. There were a lot of fashionable women around Eram, despite the mandatory headscarf. Actually, I found Iranians to be quite trendy in general, which surprised me at first. There seemed to be a national obsession with looking good, and many people in their 20’s have done at least a nosejob. I think this country can easily rival Brazil and South Korea in that department.
the imposing vakil mosque
For lunch, we stopped at this fast-food joint. And when I say fast-food in Iran, I mean kebabs! The owner was a very friendly chap and this was where I got my first taste of Iranian hospitality. In the end, he gave us a substantial discount for the meal – which was a befitting first meal in Iran. We ended up paying only about $4 per person for a chicken kebab, beef kebab, two orders of salad and drinks. What a steal.
even in iran, steve jobs is well known!
For the rest of the afternoon, we covered a few sights in the northeastern part of the city. This included the Ali Ebne Hamze shrine which had a bulbous dome and impressive sparkling glass panels inside. It’s not one of the most well-known attractions in the city, but I personally deem it as one of the highlights. We also made the obligatory stop at Hafez Mausoleum, a well-known Persian poet, and one whose works evoke a strong passion among Iranians. It is said that the people in this country would have at least two books – the first is the Koran while the second is a book of Hafez’s poetry. The place was quite atmospheric, with a loudspeaker blaring Hafez’s poems in Farsi. The actual mausoleum is in a small pavilion in the center of the grounds, with the trademark gardens surrounding it. We found sunset to be a great time to visit – this time due to the crowds. It was fascinating to see how many of the locals were entranced by this poet’s work, in a level which most people living in highly urbanized societies probably would never comprehend.
ceiling of hafez’s tomb
Had a late dinner at Sharzeh Restaurant just off the bazaar, which turned out to be our most expensive dinner of the trip. The joint was touristy – after going to 7 sites earlier that day, this was the first place where I saw foreigners apart from us – but the food was quite good and had a live show. It was a fitting ending to our first day in Iran. Most travelers, when looking back at their Iran trip, prefer Esfahan or Yazd over Shiraz. But after seeing what Shiraz had to offer and already being impressed by it, I began to hold higher expectations for the other cities that followed.
Tip: Only a day to spend in Shiraz? These are sights you should not miss:
- Nasir ol Molk Mosque – come at 8AM when it opens!
- Eram Gardens – if you only have time for one garden in Iran, this should be it
- Shrine of Ali Ibne Hamze
- Vakil Mosque
- Arg of Karim Khan
vakil mosque facade