The charismatic and very genuine Mohammad Jaleli started fishing overland cyclists off the highway when he was 19, offering them a (somewhat cracked) roof to sleep under in the tiny desert community of Toudeshk Cho. Over eight years, his reputation has grown, and he has now given over a thousand travellers the opportunity to have a real Iranian desert experience. Mohammad founded Silk Road NGO, a charity aiming to preserve the traditional aspects of village life. Despite not being a museum girl, I found Mohammad's tour of the village fascinating - from safe water storage and land irrigation to keeping camels in and cats out, everything to sustain the village has been carefully thought of, and the same systems have existed for generations. An evening trip to the 'moving sands' - wind blasted dunes was stunningly beautiful, and eating with his family in an oasis at the bottom of a mountain we had just scrambled up hugely exciting as it involved spaghetti, rather than the Iranian staple of kebab! Despite being one of so many visitors, I was welcomed by everyone I met as if I was the first foreigner to venture into the village, which I was enormously touched by.
The village is conveniently located on the main highway between touristy Esfahan and Yazd in central Iran - it's very easy to reach, just hop off any bus on that road.
Mohammad charges a phenomenally reasonable $15 USD per night including food, and an extra $15 for the trip to moving sands, 65Km from Toudeshk. Catering largely, but not exclusively, for the backpacker community, he bases his rates on their budget travel, but will quietly accept donations towards his NGO retaining heritage in Toudeshk. He can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or phoning +98 913 9165 752 or +98 913 3654 420. You should secure a visa before making firm travel plans, which is harder for British and American nationals, and read your country’s Foreign Office travel advice.
Google map: bit.ly/i7m9se
There are many places to sample Iran's fine cuisine and even cheap kebab stalls are a huge step up from the greasy late-night kebab take-outs found in the west. Nayeb of Vozara is one of Tehran's most celebrated restaurants, famed for its chelo kebab but offering far more. It isn't cheap by Iranian standards at around 50,000 tomans for a meal for two (about £40) and you may have to wait for a seat but for quality Iranian cuisine in some of the capital's most opulent surroundings, this is the place to come.
On the Eastern side of Park-e-Saee, on Vozara St at 11th Avenue. A second branch on Val-e-Asr avenue does not share its prestigious reputation, but is still good.
Perhaps Iran's most famous export is its celebrated Persian carpets and no trip to Tehran would be complete without a visit to this veritable temple to the art of carpetry. Hundreds of beautiful, intricately designed carpets hang in an airy, spacious and well laid out museum, including some incredibly large and ancient examples. Even if Persian Carpets aren't to your taste, the range and detail is both staggering and fascinating.
In Park-e-Laleh, near the Fatemi St entrance.
Tehran. Ugly, sprawling and polluted. But to miss out Tehran from an Iranian itinerary would be to miss out a window into the living, breathing, and vibrant world of modern Iran. Take a taxi north into the foothills of the magestic Alborz mountains. The air is cooler and far cleaner here, and even through the smoggy haze, the views are spectacular. Beside this, the Alborz foothills are home to two of Tehran's highlights: Darband, and the Palaces of Niavaran.
A narrow valley cut deep into the sides of the Alborz mountains, with a single road leading up beside a noisy brook overhung with trees, Darband is barely even a village. This pretty scattering of buildings among nature is a completely different world from the megalopolis that lies just minutes away, and walks in the surrounding area offer fresh air, great scenery and a chance to get away from the bustle. If you don't feel so physically inclined head for one of Darband's teahouses - one is spectacularly perched like a beautifully clichéd image of the middle east. Deliciously sugary pastries and wonderful teas in luxuriant surroundings are still cheap for the western tourist.
The get a taste of how the Shahs used to live in the Niavaran Palaces. Beautiful buildings drawing on Persian and western architectural traditions are scattered through lush parkland with the city's best panoramas.
In the foothills of the Alborz mountains to the north of Tehran, taxi drivers can take you there from all over the city. Buses run up Val-e-Asr avenue from downtown to the leafy northern suburb of Tajrish, from where taxis are cheaper or a walk is perhaps contemplatable.
Dibai House is a beautiful hotel based on a restored safavid house in the centre of the city.
It was so interesting to stay in a different accommodation that mixes the comfort of a modern hotel with ancient Persian architecture.
1 Masjed Ali Alley, Haroonieh, Isfahan.
Isfahan is the most beautiful city I have seen on this earth. The architecture, especially the bridges across the wide river, the Hotel Abassi, and the Iman Square, which is unique, based on the old Persian style, but at the same time seemingly very modern. The city is very green and full of flowers, even in August, it's amazing. Everybody should wish to visit this great city at least once in their lifetime!
There are lots of places to buy things in Isfahan. Try the bazaar at Imam Square - a huge square where Shah Abbas watched polo games and parades from his palace, and where you can find some of the most famous mosques in Iran. In this bazaar there are people taking good care of old handicraft skills; you can see them working with textile printing, metal work, carpets, wood. There is no limit to what you can buy in this place.
The river has green and beautifully arranged parks alongside it, with big trees all the way, which you can walk under to enjoy the shade (necessary in summer). There is a lot of water in the river, surprisingly, since the city is situated in the desert. It was once a stop on the silk way to China and some of the bridges are from the 16th and 17th century. Their architecture is outstanding.
Staying at the Abbasi Hotel is really worth the price. It is an old caravanserai that has expanded and been very carefully and beautifully restored. The garden is unique, and the river is nearby.
P.O Box: 61465/191 Isfahan, Iran;
tel: (+9831) 226 01 0;
fax: (+9831) 226 00 8;
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