A year ago I finally arrived in Iran after three months of travelling across China and Central Asia! As I crossed the border from Turkmenistan I was a jumble of emotions. I couldn’t quite believe I’d made it so far completely overland, I was excited to be back in the Middle East and I was especially excited to be finally in Iran!
But to be honest I was also a little bit nervous thanks to over-blown media reports in the West which imply Iran is full of terrorists, nuclear weapons and oppressed women.
I was also nervous as I was travelling in Iran as a solo woman. People from home have always been concerned when I’ve previously travelled in the Middle East and this only increased when they found I planned to travel to Iran on my own. And during my travels through Central Asia I was often asked by other travellers if it was even possible for a western woman to travel solo in Iran!
It was, and it is!!
After crossing the border into Iran from Turkmenistan the most logical first stop was Mashhad. Mashhad is in the far north east of Iran and is Iran’s holiest and second largest city. Home to the Haram-e Razavi, a huge shrine complex commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Reza, Shia Islam’s eighth imam.
The shrine was clearly the first thing I wanted to see and I headed there with a fellow traveller. To enter the shrine I had to wear a chador, a huge black traditional garment, kind of sheet like, that envelopes you from head to toe. At the entrance of the shrine I unfolded the huge piece of dark cloth and attempted to wrap myself within it’s confines. All the while trying to make sure my headscarf stayed in place and no stray strands of hair escaped!
I found it difficult to manage and whilst in the shrine, and later throughout my travels in Iran, I was constantly amazed at the ease the local women managed this garment.
Within the shrine there were staff with bright rainbow coloured feather duster style things which they would gently tap you with if your hair started to show too much. I was subject to these gentle urgings on a couple of occasions struggling within the confines of the large cloth.
My travel companion and I wandered around the huge complex on our own for quite a while in awe of the large open courtyards surrounded by the intricately detailed shrine buildings.
The shrine was huge and really crowded. There were funerals and people praying, and we saw prayer mats and rugs being laid out on a large scale over the open courtyards in preparations for the next salat, the five daily prayer times Muslims practice.
It was fascinating! But to be honest I also felt like an intruder, a bystander watching people putting into practice their beliefs. I was reluctant to take photos.
As we stood on the edges of the courtyard observing the many people we were discovered by a guide. Apparently tourists ought to really be escorted around the shrine and the guide was insistent he did this. After some time we managed to leave the shrine and guide without the requisite tour.
I stayed in Mashhad only two nights, just enough time to explore the shrine complex, before making the journey to my next destination, Yazd.
To travel to Yazd I opted for the overnight train rather than the overnight bus. While waiting to board the train at Mashhad station a local woman sitting next to me started to offer me a non-stop procession of food. From slices of apples, sunflower seed and hot chocolate it was constant and kindly insistent. It was my first experience of the incredible generous hospitality of the Iranian people.
The kindness of the Iranian people continued as I boarded the train. I was naturally allocated a women’s only compartment and I shared a cabin with three Iranian women, one of whom was younger and could speak a smattering of English. The three women were so friendly and welcoming. The younger woman even offered to drive me to my hotel in Yazd when we arrived!
These friendly encounters were lovely and reassuring, and I couldn’t wait to explore more of Iran!
Whilst in Mashhad I stayed at Vali’s Homestay. An unusual little set-up run by the eccentric and effervescent Vali! Feasts of delicious Iranian food cooked by his wife are not uncommon whilst you are regaled by tale after tale by Vali. Vali also helped me organise my train ticket to Yazd which was extremely helpful.