Some articles on travelling to Iran:

Travel: glories of Persia flower in its gardens Pauline Jackson

07/02/1999
The Times of London
News International
1DX
Page 8
(Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 1999)

It's in the heat of summer that Iran manages to give up its treasures for the traveller. Pauline Jackson reports

Some might say you would be mad to travel to Iran in summer. "Go in spring for the festival of now ruz (new year), when everything is fresh and the climate ideal," they urge. "Or in the autumn, when the weather is also temperate and the landscape aglow with autumnal colour. Or even the winter to enjoy mountains brilliant with snow and some of the best, and cheapest, skiing in the world. But summer? No! It's too hot!"

But to avoid Iran in the summer is to miss some of the potent magic of old Persia. It is against the backdrop of the fierce heat and light that the shady recesses of the Persian palaces and gardens that form the setting for so many Qajar paintings are most powerfully entrancing.

Step from the desert sun into a walled Persian garden, with its tinkling fountain and water paths, or into the vaulted chambers of an ancient mosque or caravanserai and the word shade takes on new meaning. It becomes a thing that you can smell and taste and feel embraced by.

The word "paradise" comes from the ancient Sassanian for a walled garden. The classical Persian garden, with its tall, elegant cypresses and ordered symmetry of water channels, has inspired many Western gardeners, among them Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, who created the gardens at Sissinghurst in Kent. Unfortunately, there are few historic gardens open to the public in Iran today. You will have to trek to the central city of Kashan to see the best example, the 17th-century Bagh-e Fin, four miles southwest of the city.

However, the Fars capital of Shiraz, "city of roses and nightingales", which is on most tour itineraries for, notably, its proximity to the Archaemenian ruins of Pasargadae and Persepolis, has several gardens worth a visit.

There is the old Bagh-e Eram, no longer classical but an attractive botanical garden, the Bagh-e Afif Abad and the Bagh-e Delgosha, as well as the Bagh-e Khalili and the gardens at the tombs of the poets Saadi and Hafez.

Although the classical Persian garden is vanishing, its main elements - trees and water - remain as central to Persian culture as ever and can be enjoyed in delicious snatches in palace grounds, embassy compounds, restaurant courtyards and modern civic parks. At Sarband, north of Tehran, you can lounge on a carpeted platform set in the stream itself and touch the essence of Persian summer.

There is another kind of shade that delights the senses in midsummer - the shade found in ancient buildings and monuments. Many centuries before the refrigerator or air-conditioning, the Persians stored ice in the summer in underground chambers shaded by huge walls. They cooled the air in houses by drawing the hot wind down through windtowers and passing it over basement water reservoirs.

Persian midsummer also heightens the contrast between the bareness of the central landscape and the richness and intricacy of Persian art. The impression created by the tilework and calligraphy of the Masjed-e Imam mosque in Isfahan is particularly powerful if you have travelled overland. Even if you arrive by plane and take a taxi from an air-conditioned hotel, this mosque is one of the world's most exciting buildings -one of a dozen jewels in a city of gardens and palaces created by the Safavids in the 16th and 17th centuries. Among them are the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, the Chehel Sotun, the Ali Qapu Palace, and the Hasht Behesht Palace.

In the ornate decoration of these mosques and palaces can be found the cultural antecedents of the works of the Qajar artists now on exhibit in London. Although the medium is quite different, there is the same passion for intricacy of detail.

For mid-summer travellers there is another reason for visiting Isfahan: it will be the best place in the world to view the solar eclipse on August 11.

Some richly embroidered costumes of the Qajar period can be seen in several of Tehran's many museums, such as the Archaeological Museum and the Decorative Arts Museum. The same elaborateness of design in yet another art form can be found in the Muze-ye Farsh(Carpet Museum) in Tehran.

Carpets were the portable gardens of nomadic Iranian tribes, creating an interior world of richness and colour and detail in contrast with the barrenness and massiveness of the landscape outside. Later the Persian carpet became not only a work of fine art, but also a financial instrument that could be used as collateral for a loan at a special carpet bank in Tehran.

Caption: Imposing: the eagle statue at Fars province. Its capital Shiraz is the "city of roses and nightingales". Photograph by MICHAEL NICHOLSON|Shiraz: memorial to the poet Saadi|Nahan: Shazdeh garden, near Kernan|Splendour: The Masjed-e-Sheikh mosque at Isfahan. Photograph by MICHAEL NICHOLSON


IRAN-
Feast of the East
Margaret Shaida

07/02/1999
The Times of London
News International
1DX
Page 12
(Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 1999)

Margaret Shaida reports on the delights of the ancient Persian table, parts of which have been adopted by many cultures worldwide The array of dishes dazzled the eye and ravished the senses

If you notice a small group of Iranians gathered in a London street - in Kensington, Finchley or Notting Hill - on any summer Sunday, you can be sure that they are waiting for friends and relatives to join them. They are meeting up for the weekly family lunch at the local Iranian restaurant. It is a tradition, with minor changes, that goes back many centuries.

Of course, in Iran the weekly meal would have been prepared in the home of the family patriarch, the gatherings would have been larger and the food would have been infinitely more sumptuous. The array of dishes would have dazzled the eye, and the grilled and roast meats, the variety of sauces and stews, salads and dips would have ravished the senses.

For the cookery of Iran is one of the great hautes cuisines of the world. Although the least known, it is one of the oldest and perhaps the most influential. It dates back thousands of years, and its influence has extended, via ancient traders and conquerors, to the Far East and the Indian subcontinent, to Europe, North Africa and even South America. Its origins can be traced through ancient texts and merchants' tales. Spinach, aubergine, orange, lemon, julep, punch, kebab, kofteh, risotto, nan and many other culinary terms come directly from the Persian language, brought to the West by the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans and, finally, Indian restaurants in Britain.

Persian cuisine is more than the mere juxtaposition of ingredients. It is a host of traditions, rooted in the ancient land of Iran , in its people, its customs and its culture. It is as intricate and delicate as the other great arts of Persia - its poetry, carpet-weaving and painting.

Today, despite the rapid international blending and mixing of old and new recipes from all over the world, Persian cuisine remains unique. Of course, many of its dishes are found throughout the Middle East - stuffed vegetables, yoghurt dips, kebabs, savoury and honeyed pastries, and sweetmeats all still exist in Iran .

But the singularity of Persian cuisine comes from its rice dishes and the accompanying sauce or stews. The stews, to be served with plain white rice, combine an exotic blend of meats with fruits and nuts, such as duck with pomegranates and walnuts, lamb with plums and spinach or chicken with apricots and almonds.

Herbs are also used in profusion: lamb with parsley, coriander, chives and fenugreek; or lamb with rhubarb, parsley and mint. Aubergine is fried with lamb and tomatoes, and celery with lamb and parsley. The combinations are flavoured, depending on the season, with limes, verjuice, lemon juice or sour orange juice.

All these sauces are served with chellow, plain white rice. Though to describe Persian chellow thus is a great understatement.

The rice, subtly flavoured with saffron and butter, flows freely, each grain separate and light as a feather. It raises the humble grain of rice to a peak of culinary delight.

Sometimes the rice is mixed with other ingredients, when it becomes polow (a Persian word that is the origin of pilaf, pilau and so on). The variety of polow dishes in Iran is stunning and original, from the simple blend of saffron rice with barberries and chicken, to the more complex mixture of rice and fresh herbs. Other polows are made with lentils and dried fruit, topped with saffron and crisply fried onions, or with browned noodles and slivers of orange peel, garnished with saffron and almonds.

Great care is taken in the preparation of the ingredients, which must always be fresh. Young broad beans are skinned and dill finely chopped before being added to the parboiled rice to prepare bean polow, while sour cherries are stoned and poached before being mixed with the rice. All these dishes are embellished with butter and saffron.

The finest polow of all, jewelled rice, is traditionally served at Iranian weddings. Made with fine julienne of carrots and orange peel, slivers of almonds and pistachios, sultanas, currants and barberries, infused with syrup and saffron, and served with grilled chicken, the completed dish gleams like a great jewel at the centre of the wedding spread. On very splendid occasions it is served on a bed of spun sugar.

When I first went to Iran in the Fifties I was completely captivated by the banquet tables laden with two or three huge multicoloured rice dishes, bowls of stews, grilled meats, yoghurt dips, herbs and cheese, breads and soups, all displayed before my ration-restricted eyes. It should come as no surprise if you find me among the eager groups of Iranians looking forward to Sunday lunch.

Caption: A host of traditions: Persian cuisine is as intricate and delicate as the other great arts of Persia - poetry, carpets and painting|Fresh is best: ingredients are always prepared with great care


LIFE
Iran : Back on the map for American visitors?
Gene Sloan

01/30/1998
USA Today
FINAL
Page 04D
(Copyright 1998)

For the first time in a long time, the leaders in Iran seem to have deep-sixed the old "Great Satan" rhetoric about America for a more welcoming approach.

In fact, a conciliatory Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, earlier this month on CNN, called for "the exchange of professors, writers, scholars, artists, journalists and tourists."

Did he say tourists?

He did indeed. And it's not the first signal that the country that made "Death to America" a household phrase has decided to reopen its considerable treasures to Americans.

Over the past 18 months, the Islamic nation that once held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days quietly has eased visa restrictions for U.S. travelers who want to visit on more peaceful terms.

"When people think of Iran , they think of terrorism and danger. But that's not the case" anymore, says Janet Moore, owner of tour operator Distant Horizons in Long Beach, Calif.

Since May, Distant Horizons and another U.S. tour company, Geographic Expeditions, have taken advantage of the changing tide in Tehran to begin offering the first organized tours to the country since the 1979 Islamic revolution (in 1993, Geographic, then known as InnerAsia, announced plans for Iran that fell apart after visa problems).

And they've been met with open arms. "Everybody from the local people to the officials seemed genuinely glad that we were there," says Ann Aylwin of Geographic, which took its first group in September.

Don't be surprised, Aylwin says. Iranians have long made it clear their beef is with the U.S. government and its policies more than with its people.

"Government to government, there's still tension," she says. "But people to people, the Iranians are very welcoming."

The prospect of tourism to Iran has industry veterans excited. Before the revolution, it was "one of the world's most popular destinations," says Nigel Osborne, president of Insight International, a major tour company based in Boston that offers trips to 50 countries.

Known in ancient times as Persia, Iran is home to one of the world's first great cultures and is filled with ruins that rival those of Greece in scope and beauty. The colorful, tiled 17th century mosques of Isfahan are considered among the world's most alluring.

"It's as fascinating a part of the world as you're going to find," says Lane Nevares of New York-based tour operator Absolute Asia.

Nevares, who just returned from a scouting trip in Iran , says the country's spectacular ancient ruins are almost unvisited. "Imagine going to the Acropolis in Athens and basically having it to yourself," he says. "It's that sparse."

Absolute Asia plans to offer its first Iran trips in April. In the wake of Khatami's words, others are expected to follow soon. Industry veterans say there's strong pent-up demand for what many see as one of the last great cultures that has been closed to outsiders.

"I've never seen such interest in anyplace else," says Aylwin of Geographic, where several 16-person tours for spring are already sold out.

Not everyone is taking Khatami's words at face value, however. While President Clinton said Thursday that he hoped the United States and Iran would soon be able to enjoy "good relations," the U.S. State Department hasn't budged from its 20-year position that Iran isn't safe to visit.

A State spokesman wouldn't comment on the record about Khatami's recent overture but refers to a sternly worded State Department advisory issued in July. It warns "all U.S. citizens against travel to Iran , which remains dangerous because of the generally anti-American atmosphere."

The advisory also notes that "U.S. citizens traveling to Iran have been detained without charge, arrested and harassed by Iranian authorities."

Moore and others who've been to Iran recently say that the warning is too strong and that the State Department, which hasn't maintained an embassy in Iran since the revolution, may be out of touch with the changing situation.

Moore notes major hotels recently took down the brass "Death to America" signs once common in lobbies. And customs officials at the Tehran airport now hardly pause when they see an American passport.

"It's a safe destination," Nevares says. "We don't have any qualms about sending Americans there."

Still, the State Department's concerns have kept many of the larger tour companies from jumping back into Iran . Robin Tauck, co-president of upscale Tauck Tours, says she considers it "far too volatile."

Osborne of Insight says he's "taking a wait-and-see attitude" while the detente between the two countries plays out.

He says he doesn't feel comfortable sending tours to Iran until the two countries re-establish diplomatic ties. He also needs to be convinced that Iran has adequate security.

Still, tourism could build quickly in the next few years if diplomatic relations warm. Osborne notes that it took about 18 months after the Berlin Wall came down for tourism to the former Eastern bloc countries to take off. Now it's growing at double-digit levels.

"There's always a lag," he says. "People are watching what's going on, what (Khatami) is saying. As soon as the starting pistol goes off . . ."

One reason tourism could grow quickly is that, unlike many off-the-beaten-path destinations, Iran actually has pretty good accommodations and facilities for vacationers.

Well-known companies like Hyatt, Hilton and Sheraton all built properties in the country during the shah's reign in the '70s, and, despite name changes, they're recently renovated and in good shape, Aylwin says.

"It's always a pleasant surprise for folks when they get there," she says, noting that the country has modern roads and good restaurants with great food.

The hotels, she adds, are "a whole lot better than the guest houses and barracks that we stay in in Tibet or along the Silk Road of China."

Nevares says that Tehran, much like a city preparing for the Olympics, got a major spruce-up for the Islamic Conference in December. "It's cleaner than New York."

GRAPHIC, B/W, Grant Jerding, USA TODAY (Map); PHOTOS, B/W, Absolute Asia (2)


TRAVEL
Behind the veil The mystique of ancient Persia lingers in the dawn of a modern Iran
By Martin Regg Cohn Toronto Star

01/24/1998
The Toronto Star Page G1
Copyright (c) 1998 The Toronto Star

Forget the televised images of angry mobs chanting, "Death to America." Never mind the revolutionary rhetoric from Ayatollahs wielding assault rifles.

Here in the heart of Persia, you are entering another world, a place that seems both post-revolutionary and pre- tourism .

Blessed by its splendid political isolation, Iran is spared the tourist throngs that overrun other countries. Boycotted by American multinationals, the Islamic Republic also shields you from the intrusions of Coca-Cola ads and McDonald's arches.

At Tehran's domestic airport terminal, arriving passengers are greeted by a billboard informing them, "In future, Islam will destroy the satanic sovereignty of the West."

Politics aside, Iran is cocooned in its own rich Islamic culture and Persian pride. Visitors can discover the bazaars of modern Tehran, travel back in time to the ancient wonders of Persepolis, and contemplate the Islamic legacy of Isfahan.

Iran may be off the beaten track, but visitors to Isfahan, 340 kilometres south of Tehran, will feel as if they're in the centre of another universe. Or at least the core of the Persian empire.

"Isfahan is half the world," goes the famous saying about the former capital of the Safavid dynasty, dating back 400 years. To get the feel of historic Persia, and the flavour of modern Iran , a visit to Isfahan is the best way to begin.

Strolling downtown, visitors are dwarfed by the dimensions of the sprawling Royal Square, and drawn to its magnificent mosques.

Turquoise tiles, trimmed with vivid yellows, grace the gleaming domes and soaring minarets of the Imam Mosque (formerly the King's Mosque). Women draped in black chadors, tent-like garments that conceal all body curves and exposed skin, glide along the vast courtyard, contributing to its oriental mystique.

With its arabesque designs and ornamental facades, the mosque is a masterpiece. But it shouldn't overshadow the Royal Square's other sights: the darkly spiritual Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah, and the commanding Ali Qapu Palace. Tucked away, around the corner from the palace, is the old copper bazaar, where old men still work up a sweat pounding out tables and trays in the open.

Opposite the Imam Mosque lies Isfahan's main bazaar, where antique, carpet and jewelry shops snake along covered alleys for several kilometres. Here, the best counsel for foreign shoppers is, bargainer beware.

Offer far less than any merchant asks, and don't deceive yourself into thinking you've outsmarted the seller. Still, compared to North American prices, it's hard to go wrong here.

Beyond the bazaar stands the Friday Mosque, where few tourists venture.

Founded in 771, the mosque is memorable for its understated elegance, and a deceptively complex design that has stood the test of time: the structure survived a Scud missile attack during the Iran -Iraq War in the 1980s. The seemingly endless array of vaulted brick ceilings are an architectural standout. Ask an attendant to unlock the chamber of Sultan Uljaitu Khodabendeh, with its intricately carved mehrab wall, and the low-ceilinged winter mosque.

Finish off a trip to Isfahan with a visit to the 350-year-old covered Khaju bridge, whose 24 arches are built atop a sluice gate.

From the bridge, it's a short walk back to the famous Abassi Hotel, with its sumptuously decorated lobby and thick carpets. Here, weary travellers can take tea while lounging among the floor cushions in an alcove .

For all its charm and seeming tranquillity, Isfahan is a conservative city. Last month, bearded Islamic fundamentalists converged on local cinemas where a previously banned movie, about an Iranian trying to emigrate to America, was playing. They tore down posters, and assaulted moviegoers.

Violent clashes also erupted recently between reformists and conservatives on Tehran university campuses, and in the holy city of Qom, midway between Isfahan and the capital. Since the election of moderate President Mohammed Khatami last summer, the country has been in ferment.

Foreigners are considered above the fray. But in some areas, tourists remain such a rarity that they're likely to be accosted by Iranians. Brace yourself for Iranian hospitality, not hostility. Curious citizens and earnest language students will try to practise their rudimentary English or French.

And despite billboards proclaiming Iranian emnity toward the "Great Satan," Americans are still treated as guests.

For Canadians, the welcome is especially warm. Canada has become a favourite destination - or dream - for Iranians seeking a respite from revolutionary hardship. Expect a host of questions about how to immigrate to Canada.

But the talk only goes so far. After years of revolutionary disdain for English, Farsi-speaking Iran remains a remarkably unilingual country. Taxi drivers and even many hotel clerks, have trouble communicating with foreigners.

A notable exception is the country's carpet merchants, who have kept close ties with outsiders, and remain masters at bilingual wheeling and dealing. If you don't find them first, they will find you. In Tehran's bazaar, they scout for foreigners and lure them to their shops, where superb Persian rugs range in price from $300 to at least 10 times as much.

Also not to be missed in the capital is the row of antique shops lining Manuchehri St., near the German embassy.

Tehran is a modern city, plagued by traffic jams and severe pollution. Its international hotels have been renamed from pre-revolutionary times, so that the ex-Hilton is now known as the Esteghlal, and the Homa has taken over from the former Sheraton, where renovations consist of a tile mural proclaiming, "Down with the U.S.A."

Tourists can see the famous Peacock Throne in a huge vault at the national Bank Melli. The collection contains diamonds the size of walnuts, plus rubies, emeralds, sapphires and pearls.

For a more spiritual experience, consider a quick trip to Mashhad, Iran 's holiest city. An estimated 14 million Muslims make the pilgrimmage to the vast shrine of the Imam Reza, the eighth Imam in the tradition of Shi'a Islam. Inside the Holy Precinct, it is possible to witness first-hand the depth of devotion of ordinary Iranians to their faith.

Old men hobble toward the Imam's tomb, tearful women strain to touch the protective bars, and fathers hoist their children forward for a historic encounter. Non-Muslims are not permitted to approach the tomb directly, but can view from a respectful distance. It is a powerful experience.

At Mashhad Airport, the vestiges of revolutionary Iran once again intrude. A Farsi signwarns of the perils of "foreign espionage services."

Indeed, paranoia often lurks below the surface of Iranian hospitality. Visiting the tomb of the Persian poet Hafez, my Iranian friend and I were stopped on our way out by the site manager.

The official questioned the Iranian guide closely, cautioned him about the dangers of collaborating with spies and reminded him that two foreign agents had been arrested in the vicinity the week before.

For travellers who find such outbursts more amusing than alarming, Iran is well worth the trip, says Canadian tourist Mitra Lohrask, 28. The Vancouver educator, who left Tehran at the age of 8, said she had been apprehensive about her first trip back in 20 years, but found her fears groundless.

WRONG IMPRESSION
"People at home have the wrong impression," she said when I met her in Shiraz, 675 kilometres south of Tehran.

"If people from other places came and saw it, they wouldn't think it was such a backward, troubled and politically dangerous place. It's not. There's so much beauty here."

Lohrask had just come from a visit to nearby Persepolis, site of 2,500-year-old ruins from the Achaemenian empire.

With its vast terraces and richly carved monumental staircases, it is among the most spectacular archeological sites in the Middle East. The adjoining cliffs of Naqsh-e Rostam, where tombs are carved into rock faces, are stunningly beautiful.

One of its many attractions is that so few visitors obscure your view. Guards at the site say that Persepolis, 120 kilometres from Shiraz, attracts only a trickle of tourists, perhaps 50 a day.

About 650,000 foreigners visited Iran during the last year, and Iranian officials say they hope to reach the 1 million mark within two years.

Anxious as they are for the hard currency that foreigners bring, the Iranian government has made it clear that tourists can only come on Iran 's terms. That means women wearing the hijab (headscarf and modest dress) in public at all times. There are plenty of reminders. At the Homa hotel where Lohrask was staying, a lobby sign laid out the rules:

"In the name of God, respectful ladies are asked to observe the Islamic hijab and not to use the cosmetics in public. Please use a scarf to cover your hair and neck. A long loose dress and dark stockings (or trousers). We wish you a nice trip."

The hijab warning shouldn't come as a surprise to visitors. To obtain a tourist visa from the Iranian embassy in Ottawa, Canadian women must first submit two photographs showing them wearing a headscarf. And they must be wearing it when the plane touches down in Tehran.

Guideposts

Independent travel to Iran is still very much in its infancy. Most tourists go as part of a package tour. One Canadian agency offering Iranian trips, from seven to 22 days in duration, is Silk Road Tours of Vancouver. Prices range from about $1,450 to nearly $4,000. (Silk Road Tours, 300 - 1497 Marine Dr., West Vancouver, B.C. V7T 1B8, phone 604/925-3831, fax 925-6269, E-mail silkroad @ smartt.com).

The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Ottawa (613/233-4726) can advise on visas. To apply for a tourist visa your passport should be valid for at least six months. The visa application, including two photographs - wearing a headscarf, if you're a woman - should be with the embassy at least four weeks prior to travel. In public women must wear the hijab - i.e. headscarf and modest dress such as loose trousers, long skirts, dresses with sleeves.

Preferred currencies in Iran are U.S. dollars and German marks. Import of alcohol, firearms and what the embassy calls ''obscene" publications is strictly prohibited. Leaving, you can take Persian carpets and rugs, up to a total of 12 square metres, but export of all antiques (items more than 50 years old) is prohibited.

Martin Regg Cohn is chief of The Star's Middle East bureau.

4 Star Colour Photos (MARTIN REGG COHN): MODERN TOUCH: Family on a motorcycle, above, passes in front of Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah in Isfahan. Left, woman smokes a water pipe at tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini outside Tehran.; CARVED IN STONE: Cliff tombs are carved into rock faces at Naqshe-e Rostam in southern Iran , outside Shiraz.; RUIN AT PERSEPOLIS: The remains of the 2,500-year-old Achaemenian empire is among the most spectacular archeological sites in the Middle East.;(PG G24) Star Colour Photo (Martin Regg Cohn): ISLAMIC TRADITION: Women draped in chadors go about their business, seemingly oblivious to the political billboards going up around them.; (PG G24) Map: Iran


INTERNATIONAL For 'Trip of a Lifetime,' Americans Try Sunny . . . Iran ?
Scott Peterson, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

06/29/1998
Christian Science Monitor
ALL
Page 6
(Copyright 1998)

All his friends back home in Reno, Nevada, thought he was crazy. But since Trygve Inda was determined to travel to Iran , they asked him to bring back "Down with USA" postcards and pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran 's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

His arrival at Iran 's border was somewhat "awe-inspiring," he recalls. "We don't call Iran the 'Great Satan,' but the common perception in America is that Iran is a place of darkness where Americans don't want to be." But instead of stern looks and trouble at the border, the guards giggled and laughed with amusement when they saw his US passport. They waved him through with welcoming smiles.

Also a surprise: "I've seen a few 'Down with USA' signs, but you really have to look," he says during an interview in the capital, Tehran. "They aren't on every street corner."

Iran may not be at the top of the list for most American tourists, and the collective memory is seared with images of the US Embassy takeover of 1979. But the intrepid few who have come so far rave about the warm reception and their constant surprise that the popular perception of Iran in the West barely resembles anything they experience here.

"This has been the trip of a lifetime," writes one American woman in a tour guide questionnaire. She and several other American women booked their trip through the largest travel agency in Tehran that handles US groups, Caravan Sahra. "Thanks for being so fun and cheerful and taking such good care of us," she wrote.

Cyrus Etemadi, a director of Caravan Sahra, says that the first handful of Americans tourists since the 1979 revolution visited in 1994, but then visas dried up. Then last year, after the election of moderate-reformist President Mohamad Khatami, tourist visas were issued again.

And as news spreads, Mr. Etemadi says, more and more Americans are making the trip. His agency has in the past year hosted more than 300 Americans, most of whom wanted to see first hand the centuries-old Persian history.

"People receive so much negative propaganda about Iran ," he says. "But when they come here they see that the opposite is true. People invite them into their houses for tea, or to their table to eat."

INDA can confirm this hospitality, though his trip - several weeks all around Iran by land, solo - is one of the most ambitious. When he first arrived in one remote outpost, he wanted to let his father know that he was "safely" in Iran . Asking to send a fax to the US "raised eyebrows," he recalls, but nothing more.

"I never felt threatened or unsafe from people," Inda says. "It's one of the safest countries in the world, more than anywhere in the West."

Iranian tourism officials are reportedly producing 3 million English-language maps, and are working to streamline visa procedures. Still, travel in Iran is not exactly like a weekend in the Bahamas. A new regulation means that Inda had to have a guide with him at all times - this helped get through periodic military checkpoints, but was tough on his budget.

Driving on Iran 's highways was sometimes a hair-raising experience, too, in part because his car didn't have seatbelts. "At home I don't drive across a parking lot without my seatbelt," he says. "But I guess if you got hit, the way some people drive, it wouldn't matter if you had a seatbelt or not."

And for women, there is the requirement of the head scarf and Islamic robe called the chador. Western women often don't care to wear it, though most respect that it is local custom in the Islamic Republic. A Swiss charter arrived last year with everyone wrapped head to toe in black.

"That's too much," says Fereshteh Ghasemi of Caravan Sahra. "Mostly, a long blouse and scarf is enough."


TRAVEL
Iran : beneath the veil
AFTER NEARLY TWO DECADES, AMERICAN TOURISTS ARE BEGINING TO VENTURE BACK, AND THEY'RE FINDING A LAND TICH IN HISTORY - AND HOSPITALITY
GAIL BENSINGER

07/05/1998
San Francisco Examiner
FIFTH
Page T-1
(Copyright 1998)

SHIRAZ, Iran - The great 14th century lyric poet Hafez, who has touched the emotions of ordinary people for 600 years, never strayed far from his home in this "city of roses and nightingales." His petal-strewn tomb sits in the middle of a park filled with flowers and hordes of schoolchildren, all of them eager to practice their English on foreign visitors: "Hello. How are you?" "What is your name?" "Where are you from?"

The answer to that last question provokes astonishment.

"America," we tell them.

"Amrika." The Farsi word whips around each clump of laughing girls, clad like flocks of crows in miniature black chadors, and rambunctious boys in plaid shirts and sneakers. Eyes widen, giggles increase, queries quickly outstrip the limited English these kids have learned so far.

For two weeks this spring, I joined a group of Bay Area residents on a journey that few Americans have experienced in the last two decades of problematic U.S.- Iran relations. By the end of the trip, we agreed that we have rarely, if ever, been made to feel so welcome as Americans anywhere in the world.

Iran and the United States have not had formal ties since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led a successful revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed shah and installed the Middle East's first Islamic government. Nonetheless, last year's election of President Mohammad Khatami, considered a moderate by Iranian standards, has brought the suggestion of a thaw in relations.

In a televised CNN interview early this year, Khatami welcomed exchanges by Iranian and U.S. scholars and tourists. Before last month's U.S.- Iran World Cup soccer match, Iranian players presented their American opponents with bouquets of flowers and President Clinton taped a message to the Iranian people that was broadcast during the game. When the Iranian team won, the fundamentalist religious establishment proclaimed a victory over the "great Satan," while Khatami more calmly congratulated the winners. AH: Visas hard to come by

The U.S. government imposes no travel restrictions for Americans going to Iran , although the required visas are difficult to come by except through travel agencies whose arrangements have been authorized by Iran 's tourism ministry.

To date, the number of American tourists has barely reached the trickle level. Yet everywhere we went in this huge and fascinating country, we were approached by Iranians eager to meet foreigners. Although their English ranged from minimal to fluent, all were happy to communicate with foreigners and astonishingly frank in their range of conversation.

A teenager in Isfahan asked whether it was true boys and girls in America go to the beach together. A Shiraz college student described her computer studies, complaining that her university's equipment was far from state-of-the-art. A 25-year-old in the picturesque village of Abyaneh told us he performed in an unsanctioned rock band, playing an electric guitar he had bought on the black market "You can get anything in Tehran," he reported.

The wife of a dentist asked that we send her husband medical journals he cannot get at home. A soldier in mufti, waiting outside a restaurant in Kerman for a chance to meet tourists, said he had gotten into trouble before for speaking with foreigners, but refused to be deterred. A one-time Peninsula bus driver who returned to Yazd to help his ailing father run a spice stall in the bazaar said he longed to return to California: "Would you rather live in heaven or hell?"

If our new-found conversational partners were a self-selecting group - speaking at least some English, willing to talk to foreigners - we still were grateful for opportunities to meet ordinary Iranians and impressed by the openness they displayed despite the strict rules of behavior in this theocratic state.

Even at military checkpoints, the soldiers examining the tour bus papers or making a cursory check for contraband ended their inspections by saying, "Welcome to our country." There still is plenty of evidence that, not very long ago, Americans were anything but welcome. In Tehran and other cities, anti-American graffiti - much of it fading with age - is evident everywhere, even if Iranians seem to ignore it as they go about their business. The former U.S. embassy compound, where American hostages were held captive for more than a year, is now a school for the Revolutionary Guards.

We were taken by the embassy compound for a look, but warned not to take pictures - of this or any other military sites or personnel. All we could see from the bus window was a wall, still covered with incendiary English-language slogans. Nothing else suggests this was the site of the worst crisis of U.S.-Iranian relations, one that still sours the prospects of improved ties between the two countries.

One major hotel chain, owned by Iran Airlines, has placed "Down With U.S.A." in foot-high gilt letters over the entranceways to its hotels. The manager of one branch told our Iranian guide that they know it offends tourists, but removing it is politically risky.

Still, Iran has a long history of welcoming foreigners. One look at the map suggests why: For millenia, it has served as the crossroads for the forces of history. The Greeks and Romans came from the west, Silk Road merchants trekked from China and India to the markets of the Near East and Europe. The marauding hordes of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane conquered ancient Persia, and got civilized in the process. The Ottoman Turks, the Arabs and the Russians took up residence.

It wasn't all one-sided, either. In the sixth century B.C., Cyrus the Great founded the first great Persian kingdom, the Achaemenian Empire, which expanded into what is modern-day India, Libya and Egypt. The Sassanians brought Persia glory in the pre-Islamic era, as did the Safavids in the 16th and 17th centuries. If all this makes for confusing history, it makes for terrific sightseeing.

Persepolis, near Shiraz, is the formidable stone heart of the empire that prospered under Cyrus and his two brilliant descendants, Darius and Xerxes. Designed to awe the peoples absorbed into the Achaemenian kingdom, it continues to awe today.

A town-sized stone platform, set in the midst of a plain far from the source of the building materials, is approached by a huge stairway. The remnants of towering columns as big around as redwoods and astonishing animal statuary of birds and beasts are still in place, despite the depredations of time, of Alexander the Great, who set his conquered enemy's capital on fire in 331 B.C., and even of the zealots of the Islamic revolution who tried to knock down these glorious behemoths with tractors.

It is hard to pick out the most magnificent sight here, but perhaps it is the Parade of Nations, the 300-foot bas relief of life-sized subjects from each corner of the empire marching up the stairs while offering tributes to the king. These figures are carved so distinctively that even today their characteristics - not to mention the wealth in farm crops, animals, textiles, jewels and other gifts they bear - throb with humanity across 2,500 years.

An hour-long bus ride away is the site of Pasargadae, Cyrus' first capital, now just a scattering of stone building foundations and the remains of statuary. My favorite was the bottom half of a figure with one human leg and one fish tail.

A giant sand castle

Near the textile-producing city of Kerman, Bam is like a giant medieval sand castle come to life. The basic building material, as it still is through much of Iran , was sun-baked brick covered with mud, giving Bam the appearance of arising from the desert landscape that surrounds it.

A one-time UNESCO site, Bam is now under restoration by Iranian archaeologists. Just inside the gate, a set of steep stairs ends at a look-out point that reveals the labyrinthine paths through the houses and bazaars, mosques and schools and stables, all leading upward to the garrison that housed soldiers who protected the citizenry from bandits and invaders from the nearby mountains.

A few buildings date to the 12th century, but Bam's heyday was the 16th and 17th centuries, when 13,000 people lived within the city walls in the shadow of the citadel and the ruler's palace.

Much of Iran is ringed with mountain ranges, but the interior is chiefly desert. Some is destined to be barren forever, but much would be fertile if only there were water. That geographic coincidence - mountain ranges with underground water supplies and potentially productive but waterless plains - gives rise to the ingenious water system known as qanats, underground canals that date from the Stone Age and still supply 60 percent of Iran 's water.

Above ground, the pathways of these water systems are evident from the giant donuts of dirt that surround each cleaning shaft, as silt is excavated to keep the water channels clear. We stopped to take a look, scrambling over the waist-high mound of dirt to look down a hole maybe 15 or 20 feet deep, at the bottom of which was a moving stream of clear water.

Across the landscape, these rows of donuts lead to the point where the water finally surfaces. There, a patchwork of fields lies on the earth like side-by-side green Persian carpets, or a village arises from the flat terrain.

Lackluster Tehran

Tehran, surprisingly, is one of the least interesting tourist destinations. The capital is a bustling, crowded, polluted, ugly city located at the edge of a spectacular mountain range. Few remnants of the old elegance have survived in the overcrowded capital, and most architecture is undistinguished at best. The major government buildings date back to Shah Reza's flirtation with Nazi Germany, and exude a Third Reich air. Solidly built apartment blocks are scattered haphazardly across the skyline.

Parks dot the city, though, and at least some of the traffic-clogged streets are lined with trees. It is safe and clean, and you could count the numbers of beggars and street people on one hand. English signs adorn many of the stores, in the capital and elsewhere - shops advertise not only "shoes" and "women's apparel," but such things as "dry cleaners" and "front-end alignment."

Unappealing though it is, Tehran is home to a number of wonderful museums. Most informative is the Archaeological Museum, containing an astonishing assortment of artifacts. Starting with the 5th millennium B.C., when the Middle East was not yet even the Cradle of Civilization, the displays are arranged chronologically. Items on view range from the tiny to the giant, and are presented so elegantly that they charm even the visitor without benefit of a guide who knows his prehistory.

The Carpet Museum contains both magnificent hand-made rugs and "cartoons" of patterns for the weavers that are charming works of art in their own right. The Reza Abbasi Museum has wonderful Persian miniatures. The Glass and Ceramics Museum is housed in a restored 19th century merchant's mansion where the pieces are on display in imaginative plexiglass cases.

The crown jewels - the underpinnings of the national currency - are housed below the Bank Melli in a high-security vault that makes evident the conviction of successive royal rulers that "more is more."

Where caravans rested

Shiraz, the loveliest city on our itinerary, has a refreshing municipal garden with formal beds and paths winding through the welcome shade offered by mature trees. It also had one of my favorite mosques, the domeless Friday mosque, topped with a wide band of elegant tilework calligraphy. There, would-be pilgrims practice the required rituals for the hajj, the trip to Mecca that every good Muslim is supposed to make at least once.

Shiraz's main bazaar meanders beneath impressive brick arches that gave rare attention to interior ventilation and ended up at a rebat, or caravanserai , where merchants plying ancient trade routes found respite for themselves and their pack animals and safe storage for their goods.

The most pleasing caravanserai we visited was Rebat-E Sharaf, near the holy city of Mashhad, not far from the Afghanistan border. We needed special permission, since it's in a military zone. This partially restored 12th century way station along the Silk Road eventually got remodeled as a royal palace. Enough remains of the structure to make out the sleeping and storage rooms, the stables, the mosque, the baths and kitchens, all constructed by master masons who competed - out of rivalry or boredom - to come up with ingenious patterns of brickwork.

The structure, which we had to ourselves save for three caretakers intent on making sure we missed nothing, was approached by descending a hill covered with bright red poppies and tiny blue iris, while lightning flashed and thunder rumbled across the looming mountains. Magic.

Isfahan, a city in the throes of modernization, is located astride the Zayande, one of Iran 's few rivers, which is crisscrossed by a series of graceful bridges. The city offers at its heart an agglomeration of Islamic monuments dotted around the Royal Square, an elegant polo-field-sized lawn where horse-drawn buggies vie for the tourist trade. A number of distinct mosques, which offer a range from the grand to the intimate, ring the plaza.

Elsewhere in Isfahan, set in an airy park, is the Palace of the Forty Columns, 20 in the portico, and 20 more reflected in the pool it faces. Inside, grand frescoes of battle scenes compete for attention with smaller paintings depicting enticing scenes of dalliance and self-indulgence, like king-size versions of Persian miniatures.

Stately pleasure palaces

Pleasure palaces - elegant retreats set in the midst of formal gardens, with pools of water and ingenious waterworks, can be found throughout the country. The Bagh-E Tarikhi Gardens, near Kerman, was once a potentate's summer home and now is a restaurant. At the Fin Gardens in Kashan, near Tehran, elaborate pools descend under stately trees. In the tearoom at Hafez's tome in Shiraz, low tables are set under cypress and orange trees for tea-drinkers, while languorous young men smoke hubble-bubbles in alcoves around the garden's walls.

This tranquility shows one face of Iran , but there are others. Although we never were confronted by the religious police who roam the streets looking for violators of Koranic law, we were stopped at numerous police and military checkpoints. The confining dress required by all women, even visiting ones, was not only uncomfortable, it was a reminder of how women's freedom is proscribed in this clergy-dominated nation.

The underlying reasons for tension between the U.S. and Iran - America's concerns about terrorism and the export of nuclear technology, Iranian concerns about U.S. sanctions and its frozen assets, differences over Israel and human rights issues, among others - continue unabated. Yet signs of a warming trend are everywhere. Just last month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, in a major policy speech on Iran , "We are ready to explore further ways to build mutual confidence and avoid misunderstanding."

Certainly, confidence-building and the enhancement of understanding grows with contact. The gracious welcome we received in a troublesome part of the world perhaps offers the most hope. If Iranians can put policy aside in favor of people, can we? Gail Bensinger has previously reported for The Examiner from eastern Europe and South Africa.

COLOR PHOTO 1-3; Credit: PHOTOS BY SCOTT STEWART; Caption: Iranian schoolgirls in Lashan, above, pepper foreign tourists with questions about America. At top, a giant statue of a horse looms over the remains of Persepolis, the center of a 2,500-year-old persian empire. At right, the citadel dominates the skyline at Bam, a now-deserted walled city undergoing restoration.; COLOR PHOTO 4; Caption: A chador-clad woman walks past a water cistern in Yazd. The tall wind towers atound the structure collect desert breezes to keep the warer aerated.; PHOTO 5; Credit: - Jonathan Bloom; Caption: The Iman Square in Isfahan, where impressive tiled mosques look down on a giant park that was once a royal polo field.; PHOTO 6; Credit: - Jonathan Bloom; Caption: The remains of giant columns at Persepolis, the impressive remains of the 2,500-year-old Achaemenian empire; PHOTO 7; Credit: - Scott Stewart; Caption: Anti-American graffiti still adorns the wall of the former U.S. embassy compound in Tehran, which is now used as a training site for the Revolutionary Guards; MAP; Credit: KNIGHT-RIDDER TRIBUNE CPL ( IRAN )


Travel Reaches Out To Iran

08/31/1998
Travel Agent
Page 66
COPYRIGHT 1998 Universal Media Inc. Copyright 1998 Information Access Company. All rights reserved.

As Iran liberalizes, its borders begin to open to visitors from around the world - including the U.S.

James Ruggia

In April, new Iranian President Mohammed Khatami said that Iran has learned to distinguish between the people of the U.S, and their government, which Iran considers an enemy. This, in the ever-shifting world of diplomacy, constitutes an opening for your most adventurous clients. At least five operators - Absolute Asia, Asian Pacific Adventures, Geographic Expeditions, Universal Travel Systems and Distant Horizons - feel there are enough Americans willing to make a similar distinction between Iranians and their government to offer tours of the country.

Opening Doors. As always in the Middle East, this is as much a travel story as it is a political one. On April 9, after Khatami made his distinction between Americans and their government, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright guardedly encouraged American travel to Iran . Shortly thereafter, on April 2, the language of the travel advisory softened. The current consular sheet leads off with an acknowledgment of Iran 's reaching out to America for a 'dialogue of civilizations.' This is a significant change from last July's opening sentence, which characterized travel there as 'dangerous because of the generally anti-American atmosphere.'

If we are to put faith into tour operators selling Iran now, the official anti-American feelings are more show than reality. Says Ann Aylwin, Geographic Expeditions' regional director: 'Our clients have been unanimous in their feelings of hospitality from the Iranians,' adding that most passengers jokingly pose for photos in front of a prominent government banner in Tehran proclaiming 'Death to America.' Obviously, this is not an experience for every client.

Says Hima Singh, the manager of Asia Pacific Adventures: 'We've been selling central Asia for years, and our results were so-so in terms of sales, but once we put Iran into [the tour packages], it began selling extremely well. It's much like when Vietnam opened up - the same kinds of travelers are interested in Iran . These are extremely sophisticated travelers. When I looked at the passports, they'd been everywhere.'

According to Aylwin, Jewish passengers on her tours to Iran have had no problems. As for women, for whom regulations stipulate that only hands and faces may be exposed in public, Aylwin says they 'wear raincoats and scarves It's really not a big deal. If you're going to go to a place like Iran , you've got to make some compromises, but it's well worth it.

'Some people don't like the idea of traveling to Iran , just as some people don't believe we should be [planning itineraries] to Tibet, but it's communication between people and that's positive,' she says, adding, 'It's a great example of citizen diplomacy.' In other words, it's a case of American travelers being able to distinguish between the people of Iran and its government.

Iran reappeared on the tourism scene when the World Tourism Organization held its second annual Silk Road Forum in Tehran last summer. Iron joined the other countries along the old caravan routes connecting Xian, China, to the Mediterranean ports. That meeting led to some liberalizing of border difficulties, the latest being on the Iran / Turkmenistan border. It also hopes to provide central Asia with an identity separate from the 'Far' and 'Middle' easts.

The hotels in Iran are of better quality than one might expect. Tehran properties that were once Hiltons, Inter-Continentals and Hyatts are now operated under new owners, and although they're not as well kept, they were spruced up for an Islamic conference last fall.

As for tours, New York-based Absolute Asia (800-736-8187 or 212-627-1950) is offering three programs with departures through November. The 14-night 'Persian Route,' from $3,125 per person double, goes from Tehran to Kernmansha over the route of the Silk Road caravans, with stops at Bam, Shiraz, Persepolis, Isfahan and Mashad.

Absolute Asia's other tours combine Iran with two other Silk Road countries, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (18 nights from $3,995) and Pakistan (18 nights from $3,150). The prices include visa fees and services, first-class hotels (or best available), air and land transport, most meals, sightseeing, transfers, taxes and porterage. International air transport is not included; these fares generally run about $300.

Gateway to the Exotic. Los Angeles-based Asian Pacific Adventures (800-825-1680 or 213-935-3156) is combining Iran with central Asia in an 18-night package titled 'Central Asia to Iran (Persia).' The tour begins in the exotic Uzbeki gateway of Tashkent and visits Samarkand, Khiva, Urgentch and Ashqabad before heading into the Iranian towns of Mashad, Nishapur (the poet Omar Khayam's hometown), Persepolis, Isfahan, Shiraz and, finally Tehran, where the group will visit the former mansions of the shah at the Pahlavi Palace.

Priced from $3,210, land only, the company features monthly departures through November. The price includes first-class properties (or best available), breakfast daily, porterage, local English-speaking guides, airport transfers and sightseeing. Internal air fares are not included in the rate.

San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions (800-777-8183) has the longest history with Iran , having included the country in its tours since 1993, when it first became legal for Americans to travel there. The 23-night 'Legends of Persia,' departing Sept. 5 and Oct. 3, is probably the most comprehensive exploration of Iran available on the market today. The trip begins in Tehran, heads to Hamadan; Sanandaj; Maragheh; Tabriz; Bandar Anzali; Sari, on the Caspian Riviera; Mashad; Kerman; Mahan; Barn; Kerman Yazd; Shiraz; and Isfahan.

Priced from $3,960, land only, the package includes deluxe accommodations, meals, sightseeing, in-country land transport (not flights) and the services of an English-speaking guide. Lufthansa is the operator's carrier; the price from New York to Tehran - through Frankfurt - is a little more than $1,900.

Those looking to save a few dollars in the air can fly Iran Air out of many European hubs. Passengers flying Martinair to Amsterdam from New York and switching to Iran Air can fly for as low as $949 roundtrip after Aug. 21. TA


Travel
The most common refrain, from town to town, is: Never mind your government and my government. Welcome to... IRAN Americans are a tour de force
Christopher Reynolds Los Angeles Times

10/11/1998
Denver Post
Rockies
Page T-01
(Copyright 1998)

MASHHAD, Iran - Welcome to the Homa Hotel, the most comfortable lodging in perhaps Iran 's holiest city. Come on in and relax.

Or, to quote hotel management's greeting more precisely, "DOWN WITH USA." So say the foot-high polished brass letters (in English) above the lobby entrance. But here in the first months of the rebirth of Iranian tourism , nothing is simple. You may come for the soaring architecture and painstaking tile work, but odds are the people will steal the show.

You may despise the politics, but you might find yourself dwelling on the culture. You may fear accusations of CIA ties (and they might be true), but it's more likely you'll be enveloped by unstinting hospitality.

Before you can formulate a response to the message over the door, a bellman rushes up, takes your bag and grins broadly. "Good afternoon, sir," he says in English. "Please, this way." At the reception desk, beneath a glowering portrait of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a clerk says, "Welcome, sir, please." When you hand over your U.S. passport, he offers another smile.

And then, when you return downstairs for dinner an hour later, you find two dozen tourists with two sets of tour guides and drivers, the whole gang 25 paces beyond the "DOWN WITH USA" sign. These two tour groups, merrily spooning yogurt and gnawing flat bread, are the only customers in the restaurant. And they're all Americans. "My friends all asked me why," sighs June Berger of Baltimore, who is among those at the table. "Sometimes, I just want to say, 'If you have to ask why, then you'll never understand.'"

So don't ask. Instead, ride a few thousand miles in her tour bus.

Last year, shortly before the election landslide that gave Iran 's presidency to moderate Mohammad Khatami, his economically strapped government began issuing tourist visas to American groups. Now Khatami does battle with anti-American conservatives still in the government, speaks of cultural exchanges, and has nudged foreign tourist visitation up to an estimated 50,000 yearly.

Half a dozen U.S.-based tour companies have stepped up to seize the moment. Two of the most active, Long Beach, Calif.-based Distant Horizons and San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions, sold spaces on their tours so rapidly this year that they added extra departures. Soudabeh Hassani, marketing director for Pasargad, the Iranian tour company that works with major U.S. companies bringing travelers to Iran so far, reports that from May 1997 to May 1998, her company brought in 582 Americans.

It's long been legal for Americans to vacation in Iran . It just hasn't been particularly popular during these last 19 years, since the fall of the shah, the sacking of the U.S. Embassy, the rise of a fundamentalist Islamic state and the 444-day hostage ordeal. For the last few years, the U.S. State Department's advice has been to avoid Iran because of "generally anti-American atmosphere." Earlier this year, the State Department labeled Iran the planet's leading government sponsor of terrorism, blaming the Iranian leadership for 13 assassinations worldwide last year. Then in April, the State Department slightly softened its warning to tourists (though they're still urged to stay away).

Most American tour groups plot out two-week itineraries and, confronting a country more than twice the size of Texas, use internal flights for most city-to-city travel. But the Geographic Expeditions itinerary that June Berger and her husband, Ron, chose included 22 days on the ground in Iran .

The seven travelers on this Geographic tour, joined by one U.S.- based tour leader, one full-time Iranian guide, a driver - and, for the last half of the trip, me - crossed 4,000 miles of Iran by bus, covering most of it in a 38-seat air-conditioned Volvo. In the beginning, this plan looked truly daunting. That muggy first night at the Laleh Hotel in Tehran, where the air-conditioning was out and the towels still said Inter-Continental even though that hotel company had cleared out during the Carter administration, Ann Wise was so desperate to cool down that she napped on the tiled floor of her bathroom.

A few days later near Tabriz, the Americans attracted so many onlookers that police cleared a marketplace area to avoid pedestrian gridlock.

But now, midtour, things have smoothed out. The Americans are reconciled to the absence of alcohol, the ubiquity of kebab, the requirement that foreign and Iranian women alike keep themselves covered with loose garments required by Islamic law. In the bazaar, the Americans pay cash (the merchants prefer dollars over Iranian rials) because U.S. economic sanctions against Iran make American- issued credit cards useless and U.S. travelers' checks impractical.

In transit, they behold broad swaths of desert, here and there a jutting mountain, a palm oasis or a patch of orchard fed by an ancient irrigation ditch carrying mountain runoff. Today in Mashhad, the top attraction is the Shrine of Imam Reza, a mosque-and-museum complex that attracts millions of Iranian pilgrims every year. As at Mecca, photographs inside the shrine are forbidden, but the scene is easily enough remembered. The shrine's minarets rise more than 120 feet next to a blue-green dome. There are 7 tons of gold in the complex. Maintenance is handled by a staff of 15,000, and the detail work is deeply daunting.

George Gordon, a 74-year-old retired defense analyst from Falls Church, Va., who confides that he spent several years in the 1970s with the CIA, analyzing the Cold War military buildup, stares at the mosaic tile work for a long, quiet moment. Now, he says, "I think I can understand how the Iranian students were able to paste together all those shredded documents from the U.S. Embassy. A lot of patience." About midway between Mashhad and Kerman, in the middle of all that dry open space, the bus rumbles to a stop amid walnut and mulberry trees. Under a sky the color of yogurt, the Americans scramble up a brush-covered hill to inspect an old Zoroastrian fire temple that dates back to the 4th century. Tour leader Hooman Aprin, who was born in Iran in 1950 and moved to the United States in 1966, recruits a boy from the neighboring village, and they climb to the top of the fire temple. Soon other village children and their parents are on the scene. June Berger places an orange poppy in the hair of a little girl, and a spell of cross-cultural nodding and smiling is cast.

Inside the bus, two-thirds of the seats are empty. Iranian escort Ali Oveissi works the aisle every couple of hours, offering water, tea and regional sweets. Bob Wedum, a graphic designer from Colorado, questions Aprin on the changes wrought by the Islamic revolution.

The diverse American tour group is surrounded by children in mosques, beseeched by teenagers for autographs and for opinions on the film "Titanic." In public parks, strangers stop them to practice their English and proclaim their affection for the American people. In traffic-choked Tehran, an affluent grandmother approaches me to reminisce about the years she spent in California, long before the revolution, and to pass along a common nickname for the estimated 55,000 people of Iranian descent who live in Los Angeles County: "Tehrangeles."

In the canyon hamlet of Abyaneh, outside Tehran, a tender, round old woman named Gohar Mohseni will call down from an upstairs window to invite the whole bunch into her two-room clay home. From a gleaming silver samovar, she pours everyone a cup of tea, then invites the group onto her roof to sell us some dried fruit. As her great-grandmother probably did, she measures the kilograms on a battered old counterweight scale.

The most common refrain, from town to town, is: Never mind your government and my government. Welcome.

Now Mashhad is far behind us, and the bus stops again, this time by the gates of a religious school. Within minutes, the Americans are surrounded by shy villagers bearing tea trays, children skittering at their feet.

All these warm welcomes notwithstanding, a tourist never stops wondering about the Iranian leadership's fluctuating view of the United States. In the southern desert town of Tabas, Aprin notes, the government no longer displays the U.S. helicopter wreckage from President Carter's doomed hostage-rescue mission, which ended nearby. In Tehran, we roll past the former U.S. Embassy, now a government-run military college, but when someone suggests stopping for photos, the bus keeps rolling.

Personal connections between Americans and Iranians, the travelers agree, have been the most memorable part of the trip. But every once in a while, we confront a landscape from another time. The red clay of Bam is one of those moments.

"Oh, man," says Ann Wise, stopping in her tracks atop a stairway.

"Wow," says Rene Girerd, for once forgetting to roll tape.

"This," intones fellow traveler Rogers Wise, remembering to roll tape, "is the citadel."

It's as if the builders of New Mexico's Taos Pueblo had been commissioned to craft a medieval castle. In a 200,000-square-yard complex, a school, mosque, baths, Jewish quarter, military barracks, a royal residence and more, all surrounded by tall, crenelated walls and overseen by 28 watchtowers. All clay. Founded around the time of Christ, the citadel was occupied until the 19th century, and is under restoration as an outdoor museum. The Americans have just a handful of other visitors to share it with. In the foothills outside Shiraz comes another monumental encounter: the sprawling ruins of Persepolis. Here, marching along the walls in spectacularly detailed bas-relief are Ethiopians, Libyans, Arabs and Armenians, bulls, rams, lions and camels. On the etched stone, eyebrows arch, sheep's wool curls, skirts hang in folds, and every strand of the women's hair and the lions' manes is distinct. Persepolis was the Persian empire's seat of power for 150 years until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., and this site is a visual encyclopedia of that time.

But contemporary Iran is seldom easily read. One day at the bazaar in Shiraz, Rogers Wise, retired anesthesiologist from Cheyenne, Wyo., dickers over a knapsack with a merchant.

"Sir," says the merchant, stepping out from behind a stack of baubles and bangles, "you have to consider that these are handicrafts. ... Also, the straps are adjustable. You're going to enjoy this for many years, I assure you ... .

In the end, Wise pays something under $25 and walks away happy to have joined in an ancient and exotic rite of commerce. What he doesn't learn until later is that the silver-tongued merchant, whose name is Farzad Dadras, earned his master's degree in agricultural engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Until his return to Iran five years ago, Dadras tells me, he lived in Mission Viejo, Calif.

On Day 17, the tour reaches Esfahan, the grand capital of Iranian tourism , and turns a psychological corner. The Iran of spontaneous roadside discoveries is largely over. Now, in a mile-high metropolis at the foot of the Zagros Mountains, with the Zayandeh River rushing through the middle of town, we get spectacle and shopping.

The city's hub, and perhaps the most impressive collection of architecture in all Iran , is Imam Square. An epic rectangle bordered by two mosques, one 17th century palace and a lively bazaar, the open area is twice the size of Red Square in Moscow.

IF YOU GO TO IRAN
It's a pricey trip. Costs can easily run $5,000 per person for a tour of 15 to 20 days, once airfare is included. As tour operators are quick to warn, the quality of accommodations seldom exceeds American Holiday Inn levels. The images of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seem to look down from every third or fourth building. And in the open spaces south and east of Tehran, there is a lot of desert to cross.

Getting there: Alitalia (via Rome), British Airways (via London), KLM (via Amsterdam) and Lufthansa (via Frankfurt) offer connecting service to Tehran, with round-trip restricted coach fares beginning at $2,431.

Tour operators with experience in Iran : Distant Horizons, 350 Elm Ave., Long Beach, Calif. 90802, 800-333-1240, fax 562-983-8833. Tours are 18 days (which means 16 nights in Iran ), along with a tour leader and a Persian scholar. The 1998 price is $4,940 per person, double occupancy, excluding airfare to and from New York.

Geographic Expeditions, 2627 Lombard St., San Francisco, Calif. 94123, 800-777-8183, fax 415-346-5535. It offers 24-day itineraries, with a tour leader and local Iranian guides. The 1998 price is $4,090 per person, double occupancy, excluding flights to and from Tehran, but the figure drops by $400 if 10 travelers sign on. The 1999 base price is expected to be $4,790.

Travcoa World Tours, 2350 S.E. Bristol St., Newport Beach, Calif. 92660, 800-992-2003, fax 949-476-2538. Tour combines Iran , Syria, Lebanon and Turkey on a 20-day itinerary, with half that time spent in Iran . Tours are joined by a U.S.-based tour manager and local guides. This year's brochure price is $7,595 per person, double occupancy, excluding trans-Atlantic airfare.

Cyrus Travel, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite M-20, Beverly Hills, Calif. 90212, 310-888-8810, fax 310-888-8812. It typically offers 16- day itineraries, with bilingual locally based guides. This year's brochure prices are $2,850 to $3,050 per person, double occupancy, excluding airfare to and from Tehran.

Other companies with Iran trips in the works include Alpine Ascents International, 121 Mercer St., Seattle, Wash. 98109, 206-378- 1927, fax 206-378-1937 ; Silk Road Tours, 300-1497 Marine Drive, West Vancouver, B.C. V7T 1B8, Canada, 604-925-3831, fax 604-925-6269.

Beginning in November, the 56-passenger Monet will offer 22 seven- night cruises in the Persian Gulf from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, with 11 including a call at Bandar Abbas in Iran . Other ports of call include Muscat, Oman; Manama, Bahrain; and Abu Dhabi and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Call a travel agent or Sea Air Holidays, 800-732-6247.

U.S. policy: There are ongoing government concerns about the safety of Americans traveling in the Middle East.

Caption: PHOTOS: Los Angeles Times/Christopher Reynolds American visitors are greeted under a Carter-era hotel sign.One of Iran 's greatest treasures is the 17th-century Imam Mosque in Esfahan, above. At left, the citadel of Bam, built 2,000 years ago, was occupied until the 19th century. At an Esfahan teahouse, visitors are offered samovars, water pipes and friendly conversation. Visitors tour Esfahan's vast Imam Square, a former polo ground, in hand-painted coaches.


LIFE
Iran 's idyllic Isfahan romances Western tourists
Barbara Slavin

03/19/1999
USA Today
FINAL
Page 05D
(Copyright 1999)

ISFAHAN, Iran -- Young couples huddle in the arches of the bridges of Isfahan, quietly defying their government's moral edicts and recalling the days when this 400-year-old city was said to be made expressly for love.

On weekends, families hold picnics along the Zayandeh River, which in Persian means "giver of life." They sip tea in the many teahouses along the embankment and enjoy a puff on traditional water pipes.

A city of only a few million inhabitants (Tehran, the congested Iranian capital, teems with 10 million), Isfahan lives up to its reputation for splendid architectural monuments and an atmosphere that manages to be both politically charged and socially relaxed.

There is a saying here that Tehran is the brain of Iran . The city of Qom, with its Islamic seminaries, is Iran 's soul, and Isfahan is its heart.

Since the 1979 revolution, foreign visitors have been able to enjoy Isfahan's sites in almost solitary splendor. But that may not remain the case for long. In the past few years, Americans have been trickling back, enticed by historic sites that rival Greece, China and Egypt; low prices; and the thrill that comes from feeling like a pioneer.

Although the United States and Iran still lack formal diplomatic relations and Iran 's legal system lacks U.S. guarantees, tourists were encouraged when Iran 's president, Mohammed Khatami, called last year for more people-to-people ties. A handful of U.S. tour companies now are actively promoting the attractions of the 2,500-year-old Persian civilization.

Tourism in this city has a long history. Seventeenth century French traveler Jean Chardin was so taken with Isfahan's graceful architecture and lush gardens that he wrote that the city "was expressly made for the delights of love."

The Persian capital for more than 100 years, Isfahan was the creation of Shah Abbas the Great, who rid Iran of Mongol and Turkish invaders and ruled from 1587 until 1629.

Under his patronage, Islamic architects created a low-rise city of sand-colored bricks, dozens of inns, known as caravanserai, a tree-lined main street called Four Gardens and a central square that in its day was said to be the largest in the world.

For that reason, Iranians used to call Isfahan "Nisf-e-Jahan" or "half the world," and so it must have seemed to those entering the square for the first time. Now called "Imam Square" after the late revolutionary leader or Imam of Iran , Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, this open place measures 500 by 160 yards -- large but of more human proportions than Moscow's Red Square or Beijing's Tiananmen.

On a Friday afternoon, horse cabs dash around the square. Young men lounge on the grass or play soccer where once the Shah's retainers played polo, a Persian invention.

To the north of the square lies the old marketplace or bazaar, where merchants known for their tough bargaining skills sell handcrafted enamelware, tablecloths and painted boxes. To the south is one of the world's most beautiful religious buildings, called the Shah mosque before the Islamic revolution and now renamed for Imam Khomeini.

To walk beneath its portals is like entering a living Persian carpet. Each surface is covered with tiles of brilliant turquoise, navy and yellow. Water burbles quietly in the central fountain, and a soft light radiates from the mosaic swirls.

Not far away lies a magnificent 17th century pavilion known as the "Forty Pillars," built by Shah Abbas as a reception hall for foreign dignitaries. In fact, it has only 20 pillars, which are doubled in their reflection in a long rectangular pool. A coffered, painted ceiling leads to an arched entrance studded with stalactites made of pieces of mirror that seem to reflect the many facets of yesterday's -- and today's -- Iran .

Known as a political weathervane as well as for its monuments, Isfahan was among the most fervent supporters of the 1979 Islamic revolution but now backs Iran 's relatively less doctrinaire president.

Some here also favor a religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, who was supposed to succeed Khomeini but was cast aside just before Khomeini's death in 1989. Montazeri remains confined to his home in Qom.

In January, hard-line toughs allegedly sent by Khatami opponents broke up a prayer session addressed by the local prayer leader, Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri, who had expressed support for Montazeri.

Government officials were nervous about letting an American reporter visit the mosque recently during noon prayers on a Friday, the Muslim Sabbath.

But the services on the day of the visit were uneventful, and the reception anything but hostile.

A trio of young Isfahani sisters, who said they came to the square on weekends just to pass the time, seemed thrilled to meet their first American. Noting that their president had called for a "dialogue of civilizations" among nations, they bombarded the visitor with questions about everything from whether violent U.S. movies reflect American reality to what kind of eyeliner the woman reporter was wearing.

"They never tell us about the good things, about how advanced your technology is and how well the students study," said one sister, Zohreh Nazemi, 20, wearing a green head covering and a long black coat in accordance with Iran 's Islamic dress code. "We approve of our president starting this conversation. We have a saying: 'The hearts have roads to each other.' "

The maitre d' in the restaurant at Isfahan's faded but still gorgeous Abbasi hotel, built on the site of a 400-year-old inn, says 1977 was Iran 's best year for tourism , but last year was the best since then.

The era of the big package tour has not yet returned. Perhaps because of that, Iran 's allure is growing for a select group of Americans who have been to all the other great ancient civilizations and who are not dissuaded by Iran 's Islamic regulations that forbid the possession of alcohol and require women to cover their hair and bodies. At least three U.S. tour operators offer a wide variety of itineraries and departure dates this year:

* Geographic Expeditions ran the first U.S. tour in post-revolutionary Iran in 1993 and returned in force in 1997. Its three-week Treasures of Persia tour, leaving April 3, May 8, Sept. 4 and Oct. 2, costs $3,890 per person, double occupancy, for a group of 10 to 16 (not including airfare to Iran , which can run $1,400 to $1,900). The same price applies to an 18-day Riding the Magic Carpet tour that begins in the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan. Departure dates are April 8, June 17, Sept. 23 and Oct. 14. The company also offers customized tours and a 10-day tour, leaving Aug. 4, to view the millennium's last solar eclipse. " Iran will be the best place to view (it)," says the firm's Ann Aylwin. "It has the longest period in which the sun is eclipsed." Information: 415-922-0448.

* Absolute Asia also offers customized tours with local Iranian guides. A single traveler can spend 15 nights in Iran for $4,555, not including international airfare. Group tours are limited to 18 and start at $2,625 per person, double occupancy. The company's 15-day, 11-stop Persian Trail tour departs April 18, May 16, Sept. 26 and Oct. 24. Information: 212-627-1950.

* Distant Horizons charges $4,990 per person, double occupancy, for an 18-day tour that includes air travel from the East Coast on Lufthansa and a U.S. scholar of ancient Persia as an escort. Departure dates include May 5, May 12, Oct. 7 and Oct. 9. The only trouble the company has experienced is when someone brought in some small airplane-sized bottles of alcohol, which required several hours of negotiation at Tehran airport before the culprit was let go. Other than that incident, "it's such an easy country to operate in compared to other places we go, like Yemen or Mongolia," says Janet Moore, the company's president. "It's not five-star, but the infrastructure is strong and the sites speak for themselves. It's a warm country and pro-American sentiment is strong." Information: 800-333-1240.

GRAPHIC, B/W, Gary Visgaitis, USA TODAY (MAP); PHOTOS, B/W, Barbara Slavin, USA TODAY (3); Caption: Calmer waters: Khaju Bridge, built over the Zayandeh River in 1650, serves as a meeting place for Isfahan's residents. Tourists have been returning slowly in the wake of the Islamic revolution. Forty pillars: The 17th centur y pavilion actually has 20 pillars, but the reflecting pool doubles the number. In Isfahan: The entryway to the 'Forty Pillars' pavilion boasts mirrored 'stalactites.' Shah Abbas built the hall to receive foreign dignitaries.


Travel: The real Iran : clean, safe and welcoming
Forget images of flag-burning extremists. Iranians are a gentle, hospitable people eager to learn about the freedoms of the West, finds James Robinson
JAMES ROBINSON

04/18/1999
The Sunday Telegraph (United Kingdom)
Page 25
Copyright (C) 1999 The Sunday Telegraph; Source: World Reporter (TM)

"MR JAMES," said my driver, "no good." He looked accusingly at me, and then down at the pothole he had failed to negotiate in his antiquated taxi. "Mr James, this bad street. Bad, bad street. Why you come here?"

I looked past him at the landscape of northern Iran . The road wound through range after range of hills, great scoops of coffee- and caramel-coloured earth at whose base lay cherry orchards and beehives. In the distance rose our destination, the stump of rock that had been the stronghold of the sect known as the Assassins.

"Because," I said, turning back to Razul, "it's not like London."

"Ah," he said knowingly, "London. Cocaine. Champagne. Disco." He pointed to the hills and traced their curves in the air.

"And these? You have these?"

"Yes," I said, understanding his meaning, "in London we have girls, too."

Travel in Iran is, like Razul's idea of life in London, not quite as you expect. For me, part of the surprise was discovering that amid the seemingly puritanical practices introduced since the Islamic revolution some of the old Persian ways survive still - the rose gardens, the tea houses, the abiding interest in the opposite sex .

But what I found even more unexpected, and equally alluring, was that despite their reputation for cutting themselves off from the present, Iran 's inhabitants are keenly interested in the outside world. To be a foreigner here is to be in demand.

To be a foreigner in Iran is also to feel extremely safe - even if, like me, you travel there on your own. Despite the omnipresent images of Ayatollah Khomeini and the signs in Tehran's airport ("The Islamic Revolution will destroy the satanic sovereignty of the West"), there is no menace in the air.

In fact, there is far less overt police activity directed at travellers than in, say, Syria, and while there are political demonstrations, these are generally orchestrated rather than spontaneous. The truth is that the images we see of fist-waving, flag-burning mobs are no more representative of life in Iran than are the images they see of Britain, of a land swarming with football hooligans.

No, the real threat to the stranger in Iran is the traffic. The country has the highest rate of motor accidents in the world; travel for an hour and you will see the aftermath of a fatal crash. Everyone drives as fast as they can, without any lights, even in the dark.

It is not uncommon to see five cars jostling for position across only three lanes, while a motorcycle laden with two passengers and a chicken coop zips between them, travelling the other way. Pedestrians saunter across the road as if out for a stroll, advancing lane by lane and weaving between the cars. The sight of a blind man tapping his way across Tehran's main ring-road froze me to the marrow.

But aside from the pulse-raising traffic, Iran has much to offer the adventurous traveller. Its romantic associations include Omar Khayyam and the Shah's fabled Peacock Throne, while among the remains of its ancient civilisations are the classical columns and friezes of Persepolis, whose great halls were sacked by Alexander the Great in 331 bc. At Kerman and Isfahan there are mosques sumptuously tiled in a dozen shades of blue, their giant portals reflected in long, cool pools, while at Shiraz the medieval poets Hafez and Sa'adi lie entombed in gardens heavy with the scent of jasmine.

Iran is also extremely cheap, relatively clean, easy to travel around and, best of all, has hardly any tourists. At Bam, near the border with Pakistan, I spent an entire day exploring the vast, abandoned fortress-city. As I wandered among its once bustling bazaars, mosques and citadel, all constructed from dried mud and straw (local postcards hail Bam as "The great muddy building of the world") I saw only one other traveller, a Japanese biker.

Most pleasurable of all, though, was the unceasing hospitality, the cheerful interest shown in me wherever I went. On every bus, parents would send small children up the aisle to proffer pistachios or carefully peeled segments of apple. Taxi-drivers would pull up at the next rank to introduce me to their friends and make me repeat my few words of Farsi as a party piece. Everybody wanted to talk about Michael Owen, the footballer.

There were other topics besides football that cropped up in every conversation. Yazd is one of the oldest cities in the world, a desert oasis whose inhabitants seek refuge from the sun in subterranean houses cooled by breeze-trapping funnels. The town was once the centre of the Zoroastrian religion, whose adherents were not buried after death but left for the vultures atop so-called Towers of Silence. Near the remains of one, on the outskirts of Yazd, I hitched a lift on a motorcycle ridden by Majit, a pizza-delivery boy.

Speeding through the traffic, narrowly avoiding a clutch of black-turbaned clerics crossing the road, Majit told me about his time as a teenager on the front line in the 10-year war against Iraq. Iran lost more than a million men, among them Majit's brother. The only comparison is to imagine that Britain spent the whole of the 1980s engaged in the First World War. Almost every home I visited bore scars of the fighting, photographs of dead uncles, brothers, husbands.

"Things have been very bad since the Shah-en-shah has gone," said Majit, a sentiment that seems to be shared by many young Iranians. For now Majit's generation abides by the regulations imposed by the theocrats who rule Iran . But none of my conversations suggested they will still do so when they come to power in turn.

"Tell me," said Majit, "is it true that in England boys and girls go to school together?"

"Yes," I replied, "but here I've seen that girls have their own entrances to schools. In Iran it's like this," I went on, making two distinct, separate blocks with my fists.

"No," he said wistfully, "it's boys here, and girls over there." He pointed to the horizon. I only wished he hadn't taken his hands off the handlebars to do so.

I had many other conversations with Iranian men about girls. It was much harder, in a country where even public transport is segregated, to talk to women. In the rose garden of the Eram Palace in Shiraz I was cornered by a group of glossy-haired schoolgirls who asked me if I was married and then fled, giggling, pulling up their chadors to tease the gardener by showing as much denim-clad leg as they dared.

Then in the Lotfollah mosque in Isfahan, beneath a dome painted to resemble a peacock's tail, I was approached by two trainee teachers, Leili and Anna. As we walked through the city's vast central square, once Shah Abbas's polo ground, then past the shops of the copper beaters and the miniature painters, they talked of their passion for John Donne and the Spice Girls.

Perched in a teahouse on one of the piers of the Khaju bridge, we shared a pot of tea the colour of rose-water and talked about the future. "You have been to Greece?" asked Anna disbelievingly. "You've actually seen the Acropolis?"

"Here women are not free," she said. "But one day, maybe in 20 years, I too will see the Acropolis. You see, in Iran , we must believe that God exists."

Essentials

Getting there - James Robinson travelled with Cox & Kings (0171 873 5000), which also offers a nine-day fully escorted tour of Iran from pounds 1,295. Visitors are advised to avoid the Iran -Afghanistan and Iran -Iraq border areas.

Visas - Tour operators to Iran can arrange a visa for you, but it is often cheaper to get a travel agency there to act as your sponsor. One reliable company is Sogol Tour: contact Mr Vaziri (0098 21 884 9083) or sogol@neda.net They will deal with the Ministry of Tourism and tell you when you can collect your visa from the embassy in London (0171 937 5225). Allow two weeks.Tourist visas are issued for two or four weeks. The embassy charges pounds 30 to stamp a visa, and a travel agency should ask for an arrangement fee of about pounds 50.

Money - Take only dollars (traveller's cheques and credit cards are useless), and change cash at exchange offices - which give the preferential street rate, rather than the official bank rate.

Dress - Foreign women need not wear the chador prescribed by Islamic law, but they will need to wear a headscarf, trousers and a coat that reaches below the knee, buttons at the neck and disguises the shape of the body. Men should wear long sleeves and trousers.

Transport - Do not hire a car; driving is too dangerous. Travel between towns by bus, which costs less than a pound for several hundred miles. The Foreign Office advises visitors to use only registered taxis ordered through a legitimate agency. Iran Air operates cheap, safe flights between cities for pounds 16-20. Public transport is segregated by sex.

Accommodation - You can find a reasonable room in most towns for pounds 8- pounds 12 a night. The only hotel worth breaking the bank for is the magnificent Abbasi in Isfahan ( pounds 60 for a double: 0098 31 226009).


Iran counts on its cultural heritage to change image
by Sonia Wolf

06/03/1999
Agence France-Presse
(Copyright 1999)

ESFAHAN, Iran , June 3 (AFP) - Dorothea, a 69-year-old German, stands mesmerized before the blue dome of the "King's mosque" in Esfahan.

Ten years after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, Iran is counting on Dorothea Aschever and thousands like her to change the country's image abroad.

Dorothea and her husband Kurt, 72, said they were "bowled over" by the beauty of Esfahan and its fascinating mosques covered with arabesques, vivid porcelain tiles, stuccos and frescos, its minarets pointing up to heaven, and its noisy bazaar.

"I was a little bit nervous about it before coming, but we have not had any problems during our stay," said Dorothea.

"Foreigners have a false picture of Iran and worry that they won't be safe. We hope tourists will act as ambassadors to change this bad impression," Nasrollah Mostofi, who is in charge of tourism at the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, told AFP.

Figures so far available show that Iran had around 200,000 European visitors and 255,000 Asians -- mainly Japanese -- in 1998, plus 3,400 tourists from North and South America, and 1,800 Australians.

The typical tourist is retired, interested in culture and eager for new horizons -- and not too demanding as far as comfort goes.

"In 1998, we earned 450 million dollars from tourism , and we hope to bring it to five billion by 2004," said Mostofi.

In order to achieve this ambitious target, which would be a substantial shot in the arm for the drained Iranian economy, the authoritihs8say they are ready to make a number of concessions -- but only within the limits of Islamic rules.

"The law demands that women cover their heads, and wear a coat, but the rules are not as strict for non-Moslems," said Mostofi, optimistically adding that visitors "like to respect the culture of the country."

Most women tourists do indeed dispense with the long coat, preferring instead to wear a long loose shift, and a light headscarf.

But foreign visitors still face many other rules which cannot be stretched.

Drinking alcohol remains strictly prohibited, and men and women cannot go swimming together either in the sea or in a swimming pool.

Azar, 45, an Iranian guide accompanying a group of Italian tourists, understands that being forced to wear a headscarf and comply with the dress code significantly restricts visits to spring and autumn and to older tourists.

"Younger people want to have some fun. They want to go swimming or dancing," she said.

Hugh and Louise Mathias, an Australian couple in their 60s, are not overly bothered by the restrictions. But they are put off by the lack of good hotels, and rudimentary service.

"If we want to be successful, we have to improve the comfort of our hotels and the quality of the service we offer," said Mostofi.

Training courses for hotel personnel in administration, service and catering began 18 months ago, he said.

Thanks to the election of moderate President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, the country's image has started to improve, after two decades of revolutionary rhetoric and and execrable reputation.

As Iran loosens up, it has already become easier for groups to obtain visas, and procedures are now to be simplified for individual travellers.

"In our new vocabulary, solo travel is a right," said Mostofi.

" Iran , whose cultural heritage puts it among the top 10 countries of the world, went through a long phase of reconstruction after the 1980-1988 Iran -Iraq war, which did nothing to encourage tourism .

"But today we hope we can make our cultural riches famous throughout the world," he said.


TRAVEL
Iran welcoming North Americans Treasures of Islamic culture well worth restrictions on tourists, visitors find
By Scheherezade Faramarzi ASSOCIATED PRESS

12/19/1998
The Toronto Star
SA2
Page J19
Copyright (c) 1998 The Toronto Star

TEHRAN, Iran - Inside the Islamic Museum in Tehran, Mimi McLaughlan of Chicago was studiously taking notes, a tuft of gray hair protruding beneath the scarf she wore to comply with Islamic laws.

The low hum of conversation in the darkened hall of Islamic art treasures mingled with camera clicks. In a corner, Katherine O'Hara of New York was taking snapshots of a 17th-century book cover with signs of the zodiac.

The two women moved on with their group of American tourists, led by guide Peter Morgan of Britain who stopped to extol a section of an early 12th-century mud wall engraved with brown cursive writing in a stylized form of Islamic calligraphy called Kufic.

"I love Islamic art," says McLaughlan, 62, leaning on her cane.

Overcoming nearly two decades of Iran -U.S. hostility, people such as McLaughlan and O'Hara are trickling back, drawn by the cultural and historical grandeur of an ancient land that many Americans have long associated with Islamic fanaticism.

They are coming despite a U.S. State Department warning against travelling to Iran , where militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Amid the bad blood that flowed afterward, America became the "Great Satan," and the slogan "Death to America" was a virtual anthem for many Iranians.

But time is healing mistrust on both sides, and a potent balm has been applied by President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric. After his election in May 1997, Khatami proposed cultural exchanges between Iranians and Americans.

"Americans are missing out so much on an incredible country and incredible people," says co-ordinator Meghen Fife.

According to Iran 's Tourism Organization, just over 2,000 Americans came to Iran in the past year, only about 0.1 percent of the total tourist arrivals. In contrast, 130,000 Western Europeans, 182,000 South Asians and 312,000 people from the Caucasus visited.

Despite more relaxed social mores under Khatami, Iran does not exempt Westerners from the Islamic dress code of modesty, requiring women to cover every part of their body except the face.

"I found it strange the first couple of days, bothersome the following couple of days and then got used to it - until it gets too hot," says O'Hara, a thick black scarf pinned under her chin and a long skirt and shirt draping her tall body.

"That's the one thing I don't like. It's inconvenient," says McLaughlan, a self-declared "Asia freak" and a retired social worker whose obsession with the continent started with a visit to Japan 30 years ago. From Japan she began wending her way west during vacations, but the revolution preceded her to Iran .

For now, McLaughlan and her friends, back in Tehran after a 10-city tour, were too delighted by the friendliness of Iranians and the sights to bother much about having to wear head coverings.

"People have been nice to us. Their faces light up when they find out we are Americans. They said 'America is good,' " McLaughlan says.

The only hostility the Americans encountered was a "Death to America" sign at their Homa Hotel in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad.

"We were not offended because we were overwhelmed by people's friendliness. I haven't seen this kind of friendliness anywhere else. The hotel staff apologized profusely for the sign," said O'Hara, a 40-year-old lawyer.

The few grouses she had were typical of tourists everywhere.

"It's not an easy country to travel," O'Hara said. "Hotels are in need of upgrading, renovating. There's a lack of western bathrooms. All signs are in Persian."

One big gripe was that she couldn't take any Persian rugs home with her because of a U.S. trade embargo against Iran . Still, there were enough memories and pictures to take back.

Iran 's tourist sites are a smorgasbord of Islamic mosques, Persian palaces, houses where exquisite rugs are woven and bazaars on the crossroads of ancient trade routes still abuzz with commerce.

The group arrived in Iran Oct. 12 on an 18-day tour organized by Distant Horizons, one of the three U.S. companies to offer group or individual trips of up to 24 days.

Their itinerary included Mashhad and Isfahan.

Mashhad is the burial site of Imam Reza, a Shiite Muslim saint whose tomb is a magnificent complex of gold domes, blue mosaics, mirrored walls and bubbling fountains.

In the central city of Isfahan, they spent three nights, soaking in the beauty of the Imam Mosque whose peaked arches and intricately cut mosaics have enthralled visitors since the 17th century.

Isfahan scored highest on their favourite city list.

"I could spend the whole day at the Royal Mosque and absorb the harmony of proportions, almost like it floats," said O'Hara.

Guidepost

North American visitors to Iran can reach Tehran by air via almost every European capital and major cities - from London by British Airways, Frankfurt by Lufthansa, Rome by Alitalia, Amsterdam by KLM, Vienna by Austrian Airlines, Geneva and Zurich by Swiss Air, Bucharest by Romanian Airlines and Sophia by Balkans. Iran Air also flies in from all these cities. The flights are at least oncea week.

There are also bus services to Iran from neighbouring Turkey or ferry boats from the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf to Bandar Abbas and other Iranian Gulf ports.

Taxi rides are negotiable if taken in the streets but fixed rates are usually applicable with private taxi offices. Rates from the airport to downtown Tehran would cost just over $3 (all prices in U.S. dollars) but could go higher during rush hours.

Rates in five-star hotels, including those that once were part of international chains such as Hilton, Sheraton, Intercontinental and Hyatt, are between $100 and $120 a night for a twin or double room. Less luxurious hotels charge between $40 and $50 a night.

The best time to visit is September-November and March-June. In those months, temperatures average between 20C and 26C during the day and about 10C to 15Cat night.

For more information on visa requirements and travel to Iran , contact the Iranian embassy in Ottawa at (613) 233-4726.

AP PHOTO: COVERED UP: Katherine O'Hara, a lawyer from New York, complies with Islamic dress code for women as she visits museum in Tehran. She said the surprising friendliness of Iranians more than made up for the discomfort


Travel
Downhill in the land of ayatollahs
COLIN BARRACLOUGH

11/28/1998
The Globe and Mail
Metro
Page F11
All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.

Hey babe, watch this," yelled Behzod as he slowed to a halt with a neat parallel turn, spraying snow over a crowd of sun-tanned youngsters in fluorescent jackets and wraparound sports shades. Behzod slicked back his hair, snapped off his skis, and gave his friends a high-five. "Pretty impressive, huh?"

Aspen? Chamonix? No, this is Shemshak, in the Islamic Republic of Iran . Just 90 minutes' drive from Tehran, Shemshak lies in the cool, clean air of the Alborz Mountains.

Tabrizi trees, stripped of leaves in winter, cover the white-powdered mountain sides. A cluster of imported all-terrain vehicles stands by the chair lift, surrounded by groups of elegantly dressed Iranians guzzling Coke. It is far away from the pollution and Islamic strictures of Tehran.

With its fearsomely steep slopes, interlaced with black runs -- the term for the steepest and most demanding parts of the slope -- some serious moguls, the resort is a challenge for even high-grade skiers. For the novice, it's murderous.

It may be a surprise, but Iran boasts some of the world's most exciting ski slopes. The peaks of the Alborz Mountains are as high as the Alps; the powder as good as anything found in British Columbia or Colorado.

Half a dozen resorts nestle in the mountains just a couple of hours' drive from Tehran. With a day's ski pass costing close to $6 -- rental of skis and boots is about another $15 -- it's not surprising that skiing has become one of the most popular sports in Iran .

Before the 1978-79 Islamic revolution, Shemshak and Dizin, a larger resort an hour to the north, were the centre of Iran 's winter sports season. Italian and Swiss firms constructed chair lifts up to 4,000 metres and built chalets in the Alpine style.

Celebrities from Europe came to ski; many stayed at the stone-built Shemshak Hotel, where guests would enter a basement trapdoor and descend into the darkness and noise of a nightclub known as Hell. There is little apres-ski in Shemshak today; most skiers slip back to Tehran for the evening's entertainment.

"It was much better in the old days," confided Farshad, a ski instructor on the slope. "We'd have a great time on the mountain and then party all night. You should have seen the people then."

Even so, Shemshak is more liberal these days than Dizin, where Revolutionary Guards ensure that men and women ski on separate slopes, and enforce Islamic hijab (covering) for women, even on the downhill. "They have guys reading the Koran on the slopes at Dizin," said Kami, a fashion-conscious teenager from Tehran. "What do they think we'll do -- stop and listen while we're skiing? These people just don't understand."

Obliged to observe Islamic restrictions on clothing, many Iranian women in the cities sport a chador, a voluminous black cloak that covers the body. But modesty has its price: the chador must be gripped in one hand and even held in place in a breeze with a firm bite -- hardly an option for the serious skier.

Luckily, the authorities at Shemshak are less strict in enforcing these rules. Ski pants or jeans suffice, along with a baggy sweater to conceal the shape of the body. Hair is tucked into a baseball cap, a woolly hat or covered discreetly by a head scarf, usually from a top-line European fashion house. Few serious skiers forget to wear the name-brand mirrored shades.

To a visitor accustomed to the more sober attractions of Iran , Shemshak is indeed a revolution. With only one main piste, there is no space to segregate the sexes. Young Iranian women, stylishly made-up, push back their headscarves with abandon. Men and women defy Islamic law by shaking hands in public. Everywhere, people are smiling.

The resort is reportedly also popular with Western diplomats, who bring their families on weekends and tussle for space in the long chair-lift lines. (This being Iran , women and children have priority.) Blond German and Swiss children gurgle with pleasure as they ski down the beginners' slopes for the first time.

Many local villagers work in the skiing industry, instructing novices or hawking pizza and steamy meat stews to visiting skiers. Some still work as craftsmen or shepherds for half the year, etching delicate metalwork or tending their flocks by summer and heading onto the slopes in winter, taking advantage of the free ski passes that are traditionally theirs.

According to local rumour, the komiteh, a plain-clothes security force charged with enforcing Islamic social codes, tried to reassert Islamic order in Shemshak about nine years ago, but the local people, whose livelihood depends on the skiing industry, beat them up. Since then, an uneasy stalemate with the authorities has prevailed.

Which is good news for the children of the nouveaux riches of Tehran, whose chalets and weekend villas are scattered around the resorts of the Alborz. Most have learned to co-exist with the inflexible rules of Islamic Iran . They socialize in private, entertaining discreetly, largely free from the komiteh's watchful eye. So long as they steer clear of politics, it seems, the authorities leave them alone.

But politics is a long way from the minds of the youngsters on the slopes at Shemshak. They are too busy devoting themselves to the slalom and the downhill and concentrating on building up a really lasting tan.

Colin Barraclough is a freelance writer based in London.


Esfahan seeks to woo back foreign tourists
Tanya Willmer

12/02/1998
Agence France-Presse
(Copyright 1998)

ESFAHAN, Iran , Dec 2 (AFP) - This ancient city on the edge of the Iranian desert is sprucing up its majestic blue-tiled mosques, vast open square and centuries-old bazaar to woo back wary tourists after 20 years of isolation.

"Our country gets about half a million tourists a year and we could do with 10 million," said Hossain Payghambary, a carpet trader whose tiny shop on the huge Maidan-e-Imam square has become a de facto tourist office for the handful of adventurous travellers who pass through the city.

Esfahan governor Mohammad Javadi unveiled plans this month to pump almost half of the municipality's budget or around 185 billion rials (around 62 million dollars at the official exchange rate) on scores of tourism projects in the city long known in Farsi as Nefse-Jahan or "half the world."

The number of foreign tourists to Esfahan has tripled this year from 1997 levels, Javadi said, without giving specific figures, while calling on foreign entrepreneurs to invest in hotels and tourist attractions in the city.

In total some 600,000 tourists and Islamic pilgrims, mainly from Central Asia, visited the Islamic republic in 1996, bringing in just 300 million dollars in hard currency for the cash-strapped government, according to the latest official statistics.

"Of course we want tourists back, but we don't want hamburger joints here, there should be respect for our Islamic traditions," said Payghambary, nevertheless mulling ideas for such revolutionary trinkets as Ayatollah Khomeini watches and T-shirts.

Esfahan dates back around 2,500 years but its "golden age" as Iran 's capital was in the late 16th and 17th centuries when Shah Abbas oversaw the building of much of the city's Islamic architecture, including several vast mosques and arched bridges spanning the river Zayandeh-Rood.

It remains a bustling trade and handicrafts centre, with carpets, ceramics, enamelwork and printed cloth among the specialties of the region.

One passageway in the 1,300 year-old bazaar still reverberates to the sound of craftsmen beating away at vast copper pots, in another an elderly man handprints woven cotton cloths while in a nearby teahouse the city's menfolk gather to smoke the "ghalyan" or water pipe.

Roger Stevens, British ambassador to Iran in the 1950s, predicted in his 1962 book "The Land of the Great Sophy" on the former Persia that Esfahan would soon be an obligatory stop on a "world tour of Monumental Cities."

But less than 20 years later Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolutionaries had seized power from the Shah, Iran had turned its back on the outside world, and the number of tourists dried up to a trickle.

"Before I came people said I was crazy to go to Iran . We have lots of ideas about this country, that it's dangerous and repressive, so I was really surprised at the real thing," said Wendy Butler, a 28-year-old graphic designer from London.

President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist elected in May 1997, has expressed dismay over the sluggish tourism industry and called for an improvement of transport and hotel services as well as the easing of cumbersome customs and visa regulations.

"Unfortunately, our revenue from tourism is very low despite the fact that Iran is among the top 10 richest countries in terms of archeological sites," he said at a tourism seminar earlier this month.

The government decided in 1990 to revive the industry and attract more tourists, but has had little success -- mainly due to strict Islamic rules, including a ban on the consumption of alcohol and dress codes for women.

"Yes, I object to being told to cover up," said Briton Dee Elrick, who was leading an overland tour across the Middle East to Nepal.

"But somehow wearing a chador means I can better experience what life is all about here, particularly as a women, rather than just looking on as a tourist in shorts and T-shirt. That's what makes Iran so unusual," she said.


Foreign Desk
American Tourists Get Warm Welcome in Iran Travel: Generation after hostage crisis, visitors from U.S. are impressed by sights and, especially, the people.
ROBIN WRIGHT

06/07/1998
Los Angeles Times
Home Edition
Page A-14
Copyright 1998 / The Times Mirror Company

TEHRAN -- For Nancy Dockry of Beverly Hills, the most beautiful sight in Iran was Bam's 9th century sandcastle. The most touching encounter was with her tour guide, a war hero who took her to the battlefield where he was maimed fighting Iraq. And the lightest moment was at the Mashad shrine, where she was shooed from a men's area by guards armed with feather dusters because they're not allowed to touch women.

But for Dockry, an intrepid traveler to more than 100 countries, the warmth of the Iranian people made the deepest impression.

"For a change, it was wonderful to be in a country where they actually like Americans," she said.

A generation after the U.S. Embassy was stormed and 52 citizens were held for 444 days, Americans are back in Iran . And so far, no one seems to mind. Far from it.

"I just love those American accents," cooed Massoud Dayyani, assistant manager of the Laleh Hotel, host to a number of U.S. tour groups. Formerly the Intercontinental, the Laleh was renamed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Like all the big hotels here, it until last year had a huge "Down with the USA" sign across its lobby walls.

Now, the rhetoric and hostility from an angry revolution are rapidly disappearing.

Abbas Abdi was one of the student leaders who plotted the U.S. Embassy takeover. Today, a graying Abdi says he would not object to the former hostages' return.

"If they come as private citizens, I have no problem," he said with a shrug. "They are welcome."

The return of tourists is part of a broader comeback for American culture. Leonardo DiCaprio is the current teen heartthrob here, just as pirated copies of "Titanic" top the black market for video rentals. T-shirts from the Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers are wardrobe staples among Iranian boys who keep up with NBA scores now reported in Iran's press.

U.S. news is a mainstay in the media. Reports on President Clinton's problems with Monica S. Lewinsky, Paula Corbin Jones and Gennifer Flowers led Iran 's parliament to introduce legislation to limit publication of certain kinds of female pictures.

Since President Mohammad Khatami in January called for people-to-people exchanges with the United States to "break the wall of mistrust," Tehran's press has fiercely competed for interviews with U.S. officials, which are splashed across front pages.

Golam Reza Shirazian, a conservative member of parliament, went one step further by suggesting visits to Iran by members of Congress.

"Why not? They are representatives of the American people," he said in an interview.

But for a regime that once warned about the dangers of "Westoxication," the most striking change is the influx of Western tourists, especially Americans.

"We had just a few Americans come before President Khatami's election. But now anyone is welcome," said Mansour Khoddami, the ebullient new head of tourism.

"With any small green light, we'd have a lot more Americans coming to visit," Khoddami said. "We're already working on 3 million maps of Iran in English. And we're working toward making tourist visas available in two or three days."

In the past, it often took weeks--or, for journalists, even months--to secure a visa.

The process is much like the opening up of China after decades of cutting off the outside world--although with a few distinctly Iranian twists.

Female visitors must conform to the modest Islamic dress code, including head cover. Dorothy Gibbons of San Francisco, who came to Iran because it has been on her travel list for 40 years, said she did not mind.

"I was a little self-conscious at first, but I got used to it. It covers a couple of my little bald spots, and I don't have to worry about a bad hair day," said Gibbons, 78, who works at the Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation.

Some American adaptations of hejab--loose-fitting clothes that are supposed to cover curves--make female visitors look like bag people rather than well-traveled tourists. But other visitors--wearing floppy hats rather than scarves and long shirts rather than coats--are actually setting precedents about what is acceptable in the Islamic republic.

Tour guides offer special instructions for conduct: Unrelated men and women must not shake hands, embrace or otherwise touch in public, for example.

"Basically, we tell them, 'When in Tehran, do as the Tehranis,' " said Steve Rynecki of Distant Horizons, a Long Beach travel agency that specializes in exotic tours.

"With some trepidation," Distant Horizons planned to take two groups to Iran last year, but the trips went so well and the demand was so high that the agency ended up taking seven, agent Ruth Kennison said. At least 10 groups will take the eight-city tour this year.

Iran has spectacular sights--the 2,500-year-old ruins of Persepolis and the perfectly preserved medieval city of Bam crafted from the nearby desert's red clay.

Yet interviews with Americans in Iran this spring indicated that the main attraction was interaction with Iranians.

Arlene Wolff's money and passport were stolen in a Shiraz taxi, but she still came away impressed, especially by the police.

"Until this trip I thought the Irish were the warmest people on Earth. But now I think Iranians are more hospitable," she said.

Tourism reflects the scope of Iran 's recent social relaxation.

In the revolution's early years, foreigners daring to bring playing cards would have them ripped up one by one during airport searches. Chessboards were confiscated because of the royal pieces. Getting through immigration could take hours.

This year, an Iranian team is competing in an international chess tournament. At customs, the main scrutiny now is for pornography and drugs. Tehran's Mehrabad Airport can be as fast--or slow--as New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Not everything has changed. A Tehran tour is not complete without a stop at the old U.S. Embassy, where the corner shop for years sold volumes of classified cables captured in the so-called Den of Spies. Now it peddles religious tracts.

But the tall brick wall surrounding the compound still has one of the many slogans painted in Farsi and English after the seizure. "We will make America face a severe defeat," it says in chipping paint.

And while most of the old anti-American propaganda on billboards and buildings is gone, one of the most offensive is still plastered on the side of an eight-story building. The stars are replaced by skulls and the red stripes become missiles raining down on Iran . After almost fading away, it was repainted after reports that the Pentagon had drawn up plans to retaliate against Iran if it were involved in the 1996 bombing of a U.S. compound in Saudi Arabia.

Not everyone in government is pleased with the rising American profile. Conservatives in Iran 's parliament have grumbled loudly recently about "this to-ing and fro-ing by U.S. agents."

The foreign minister has been summoned by parliament to explain recent visits by various American "political and security agents," including various noted U.S. Mideast officials, former officials and the Australian American media magnate Rupert Murdoch, whose secret visit to Iran last month was confirmed by the government.

But the new tourism also reflects a growing realism in Iran , where budget worries now often supersede ideological purity. With oil revenue expected to drop this year to $10 billion, from $16 billion in 1996, tourism is a budding alternative source of income. Before the revolution, it was a top money-maker.

"Tourism worldwide produced $488 billion in 1997--without counting [transit] tickets. The number of foreign tourists around the world is about 650 million," Khoddami said. "From a historical point of view, we are one of the world's top five attractions--along with Egypt, Italy, Greece and India. So we want our share of this market."

There is, however, an exception to the new thaw: Later this month, Iran and the United States will have one of their biggest face-offs since the embassy seizure. The battlefield this time is a soccer stadium in Lyons, France, where national teams will confront each other in the first round of the World Cup.

"It seems everyone wants the two countries to meet--even in sport," Abdi said with a sigh.

For some Iranians, the stakes are far more important today than in 1979. Soccer is such a passion--now far more inflammatory than politics--that the mere act of qualifying for the World Cup last winter sparked street demonstrations, all-night revelry and an outpouring to greet the victorious team's return from Australia that included 5,000 women gate-crashing a stadium from which they are usually excluded.

"I think it would be better for both countries if there is a tie," Abdi said. "If Iran loses, people will again be angry at the Americans, but this time it won't last 20 years. It'll only last a week."


Features
Persia: how women viewed each other
Shireen Mahdavi

07/02/1999
The Times of London
News International
1DX
Page 14
(Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 1999)

As East met West, myths met reality... Shireen Mahdavi tells the story Persian women were fascinated by foreign women

SOME say pre-Islamic Sassanians thought of the veil to hide the beauty of their women, but Muslims have used it in more recent times to suit aspects of family law where control and protection of the female is paramount. Both Shia and Sunni jurisprudence agree that fitna, or chaos, takes over a society where women vaunt their beauty and risk their personal honour - cornerstones of social and family transactions.

But how have women reacted to being covered head to toe in an unwieldy garment? Is it a practical and "equalising" uniform that can hide unattractive physiques or social backgrounds, and is it really still used for anonymity? Modern Iranian women would say no. They have transformed the veil into a contemporary fashion statement that bows to modesty and yet allows freedom of movement and scope for inventiveness.

Fabrics are used imaginatively to drape the body, albeit voluminously; headcover has become turban-like, framing the face to advantage. If Western designers are shedding and reducing clothes in an effort to come up with ways to innovate, they might glance eastwards, where less has not always been more. It was only in the 19th century that Persian and European women became aware of each other's differing circumstances through greater contact between Persia and the West. Trade began to increase, Western military advisers were hired, and Persian students were sent to be educated abroad.

At the same time, merchants and ordinary people from Persia started travelling to the West. Through these travellers and the foreign women who were in Persia either in their own right or as wives, Persian women became acquainted with Western women and their ways.

According to the rules of Shia Islam - the official religion of Iran - Persian women were veiled and secluded in their homes. Private houses had to ensure the seclusion and protection of women. All houses were surrounded by high walls with no windows looking on to the streets. Access to the house was through a door that was closed at all times. The house itself was divided into two sections: a biruni for the exclusive use of the master of the house, his visitors and male servants, and an andarun for the use of the female members of the household, children and religiously permitted males.

From the doorway a narrow corridor was entered, inside which a gatekeeper was stationed for the express purpose of opening the door. The narrow corridor led into a hexagonal room from which two doors facing each other led to the biruni and andarun.

In the second half of the 19th century there were some 500 European families living in Tehran. Even though Persian women did not associate with them socially, accounts of the Westerners' lifestyle inevitably spread to the Persians via servants, shopkeepers and others.

Female European travellers were not only seen passing through towns on horseback but were entertained to dinner by Persian members of the aristocracy and the elite, whose own wives were in the andarun and would hear accounts of the dinner party from their servants.

The Persian women were themselves able to see some European women, either shopping in the bazaar, or visiting various andaruns, or riding sidesaddle through the countryside wearing a habit and a hat.

What did these women think of each other? Persians had an idealised picture of Europeans, while Europeans held a disparaging view of Persians.

Lady Sheil, who came to Persia in the middle of the 19th century in the company of her husband, a diplomat, has left one of the earliest accounts of the impressions of a European woman. According to her: "A Persian woman of the upper class leads a life of idleness and luxury, though rather monotonous according to our ideas of existence." From her assumed position of superiority she observed: "I do not think a Persian woman ever feels the same affection for her husband as some Europeans do."

Carla Serena, a traveller, was invited to spend the day at the andarun of one of the Shah's daughters: "Entering the andarun from the biruni there was a picture so delectable, so indescribable, under the radiant rays of the sun in the golden sky, of the princess surrounded by 100 women, which dazzled and amazed me." She did not perceive that the whole event was organised as a form of entertainment for her, and that normal daily life might have been different.

Persian women were fascinated by foreign women in general and especially by their clothes - with their open necklines, corsets producing unnaturally narrow waists, bell-shaped skirts and endless trimmed lace. The Western women must have seemed to them like prisoners in their outfits which contrasted with the Persian costume of a short, tight jacket fitting snugly around the waist, worn over a thin, embroidered shirt reaching to the midriff and either a gathered ankle-length skirt or voluminous flaring trousers.

On their legs, the women wore white or black cotton stockings and, on their feet, satin slippers. On their heads they wore squares of white muslin, often starched, which concealed the ears and fell down to their shoulders, showing only the oval of the face. The court costume changed after Nasir-al Din Shah's trip to Europe. Fascinated by the ballerinas he had seen, he ordered the women to wear short skirts and ankle socks.In spite of their seclusion, some Persian women were powerful, courageous and educated. A particularly powerful woman behind the scenes of Qajar Persia was Anis al-Dawla, Nasir al- Din Shah's favourite wife. She was able to organise opposition to government policies with which she disagreed and individuals whom she disliked. She dared to express her opinions to the Shah frankly, on one occasion telling the moneyloving ruler - who was in the habit of selling official positions: "With your love of money you will give anything to anyone. You would even give me away if they paid you enough for it."

Malika-yi Iran , a Constitutionalist and a daughter of Nasir al-Din Shah, showed great bravery in the absence of her husband by rescuing her family and the women of the household from a Cossack attack on her house.

Taj al-Saltana, another daughter of Nasir al-Din Shah, educated by a private tutor in European literature, was concerned for the situation of Persian women. She said: "The women of Iran have been separated from the human race, placed in an enclosure with animals and beasts. From morning to night they lead a wretched, hopeless existence in prison cells. This group either watches from afar or reads in newspapers how European women are defending their rights and fighting for them. They have been demanding the right to vote, to enter Parliament, and to have a voice in political affairs, and they are succeeding."

Men's "ideal type" of woman under the Qajars was a submissive being, described anonymously in a treatise thus: "The satisfaction of the husband is the satisfaction of God... A woman who provokes her husband to anger... on the Day of Judgment, her tongue will be pulled out from the back of her head and beaten by chains of fire."

Bibi Khanum, an educated woman from a traditional non-wealthy background, disagreed with the treatise's author, calling him "an ignoramus".

"Does he not know that in the West they look after women like bouquets of flowers? They sit at the table with unfamiliar men, and when dancing, they hold hands and dance together."

It is true that women were clamouring for their rights in Europe but their position was neither the romantic one depicted by Bibi Khanum nor the powerful one exemplified by Taj al-Saltana. They did not obtain full rights until well into the next century.

The reality of the situation of women in the 19th century is that women in both Persia and the West were oppressed but to varying degrees and in different ways.

For example, while Western women could not own property, Muslim women could and had control of it. If Persian women were secluded, so were Western women in the Victorian era. Working-class women were better off in Persia as they did not have to earn a living. But as the forms of oppression and subjection differed, so did the rebellions against them.

Strangely, it was the romantic vision Persian women had of European women as "bouquets of flowers", dining with men, dancing at balls and obtaining their legal rights, which fired their imagination and inspired them to strive for similar status.

Shireen Mahdavi's book For God, Mammon and Country is published this summer by West View Press (01865 865466) at Pounds 37.95.

Caption: Ballet style: a harem woman, dressed as Nasir-al Din Shah preferred From the collection of F. Diba|Woman Holding a Rose from the exhibition of Royal Persian Paintings (see pages 2 and 3): She wears the court dress of the early 19th century, a long-sleeved jacket with jewelled armbands worn over a transparent shirt slit open to the navel, full trousers, jewelled headdress and pearls|Bustle style: Victorian women's dress looked bizarre to the Persians. Photograph by BRITISH MUSEUM


Ride through 2,000 years
Jill Crawshaw

07/02/1999
The Times of London
News International
1DX
Page 8
(Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 1999)

Pure-bred horses that delighted Alexander the Great carry Jill Crawshaw over a rugged and enchanted landscape

If it was not quite Ascot, the village of Ghara Tappeh Sheikh in the remote eastern corner of Iran was very much en fete. The racecourse for the Big Day, the Turkmen Steppes, rolled endlessly towards toothy peaks on the horizon. As honoured Western guests, we are welcomed among the village elders who hotly debate the merits of horseflesh and horsemen.

But then they have inherited more than 2,000 years of expertise. The Turkmen Steppes are believed to be the cradle of the thoroughbred horse, and the system of raising livestock has barely changed over that time.

Very much in charge both of the somewhat chaotic melee and her magnificent stallion, Louise Firouz, honorary Turkmen male and remarkable Virginian horsewoman, has made her life in Iran for the past 43 years. She is a renowned expert on the oriental horse and its history, breeding the Turkmen horses that she believes are among the world's purest on her stud farm on the outskirts of the village.

With her daughter, Roshan, and grandson, Alex, Louise has recently set up a series of riding holidays, on which - for a few precious days at least - visitors can explore a glorious, utterly untouched landscape and share the traditions of the remote rural community. Experts can ride the slim, swift but more spirited Turkmen horses; for less experienced riders, there are sturdy, reliable Mazandarani horses. The only sop to Westerners are the English-type saddles rather than the bone-jarring local wooden contraptions - a merciful relief when you spend six to eight hours a day in them.

On one day, you'll ride almost to the border with Turkmenistan through an eerie moonscape to a valley of mysterious phallic tombstones. On another, you'll follow the remnants of Alexander the Great's Wall; he built it to keep out warring nomadic tribes - in vain - but he did recognise one good thing when he saw the Turkmen breed of horse, taking thousands of them back to Greece.

This is not a holiday for riders who need their creature comforts - living standards on the steppes are Spartan. You'll either be camping or staying in village houses, while back at the farm you sleep on carpets in round felt tents, with ablutions little more than a rudimentary hut and a hole in the ground.

While horses and riding are top priority on this holiday, the village also gets in on the act. The visitors are a rich source of entertainment for the elders, who even allow the women in our group to feast with them one night, sitting cross-legged on the carpet and dipping into the communal bowls of lamb and rice, yoghurt and vegetables.

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Then, as the wood smoke drifts towards the stars, we're challenged to games of Truth and Lies with a piece of bone hidden in the fist. By staring into our eyes and then watching the veins throbbing in our necks, Headman Haji Avaz Safari (three wives, 36 children) gets it right every time. It's not surprising - it's a game the Turkmen people have been playing one way or the other for 2,000 years.

Jill Crawshaw was a guest of Magic Carpet Travel (see below). HOW TO GET THERE

TRAVELLING TO IRAN : British Airways (0345 222111) and Iran Air (0171-409 0971) fly from Heathrow to Tehran. Organised or tailor-made tour companies include Magic Carpet Travel (0171 385 9975), Distant Horizons (0171 813 3133), Caravanserai Tours (0181-855 6373) and Jasmin Tours (0181-675 8886). Visas: Consular Department of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran (0171-795 4922; calls taken between 2pm and 4pm). Women travellers must ensure that all parts of the body, except for the hands, feet and face, must be covered in public, and outer clothing should be loose fitting.

Caption: Hospitality: a band of tribesman entertain their Western guests in a traditional felt tent|Holiday centre: Louise Fironz at her Turkmen stud farm. Right: local children riding donkeys


Trip of Discoveries, Some Unhappy, in Iran
By ELAINE SCIOLINO

New York Times -Travel Section
Sunday Feb. 28, 1999

Members of an American group chafe at limits on their freedom even as they admire the magnificent ruins of Persepolis

The group of female American tourists danced a crowd-stopping dance of the veil. Outside the vast shrine in the center of Mashad, Iran, the women struggled with their chadors, shroudlike garments that cover all but the face and must be secured with one hand held under the chin. There are no hooks or zippers to make the job easier.

It wasn't enough that we were already wearing scarves on our heads and loose garments that hid the shape of our torsos. This was the holiest pilgrimage site in Iran, the place where Imam Reza, the eighth of the 12 imams, or religious leaders, in Shiite Islam, died in the ninth century and is buried. And even though the shrine itself was off limits to non-Muslims, we were allowed to walk through the outer courtyard, watch an informational film at a foreign reception center and tour the museums on the vast compound. But only if we disguised ourselves in the veils that our guide handed out as we emerged from our bus.

Iranian schoolchildren giggled at the sight. A grizzled Iranian man asked to have his picture taken with us. One of the men in our group threw his sportcoat over his head and jumped into the picture.

"It's the equivalent of feet-binding in China, anything to keep women off-balance!" complained Isabel Jacobs, a retired history teacher from Riverdale, in the Bronx.

"Before I came here, I believed in women's liberation," said Dorothy Wright, a retired teacher of English literature from Middletown, N.J. "Now I believe in women's domination!"

Even I, who have been going to Iran as a journalist for 20 years, have never gotten used to this unwieldy garment, which lets me take notes only if I hold it together in my teeth.

In the early years of Iran's 1979 revolution, tourists -- particularly American tourists -- were considered dangerous invaders bent on sullying Islamic purity with Western culture. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's revolution, liked to rant about "the Western sickness among us," stating plainly that "there is no fun in Islam." Indeed, I never went to Iran for the night life.

These days, American tourists are no longer considered as ugly as they once were. Iran's regime is beginning to smile back, luring them with its treasures: the monumental ruins of ancient Persia, the intricately patterned mosques of Islam, the glittering palaces of the shahs, the landscapes of snowcapped mountains and rice paddies and palm-studded deserts. For about two years, intrepid Americans have ventured in, most of them on group tours organized by American and Canadian companies, but some on customized private visits.

The pace of the visits quickened after January 1998, when Iran's smiling President, Mohammed Khatami, used an interview with CNN to initiate a "cultural exchange" of intellectuals, artists and tourists to break down what he called "the wall of mistrust" between the United States and Iran. The steep drop in oil prices in the past year has contributed to Iran's eagerness to attract dollar-carrying Americans.

The family and friends of my 18 traveling companions thought they were crazy to come. We were, after all, in a country that the Clinton Administration considers the world's most active fomenter of terrorism, that once held American diplomats hostage and that has no official relations with the United States. Consular matters are handled by the Swiss, whose country represents American interests.

Indeed, in late November, just days after our return home, a bus carrying 17 American business executives returning to their hotel from the airport was attacked by a small band of angry young men wielding clubs and bats who smashed the bus windows and chanted in Farsi, "God is great! Death to America!"

The driver sped off across town to another hotel, where the group sought refuge until they could make it safely back to their own. The Americans remained under the protection of the Swiss. The Swiss Ambassador escorted the group to the airport for its departure the next night.

Shortly before the attack, a hard-line newspaper had announced that the group included spies disguised as tourists. And afterward, the organization claiming responsibility issued a communiqué stating, "Your children performed their first operation against American spies." It added, "Iran is no place for American Yankees and our next operation will be the performance of our slogan 'Death to America.' "

No one was injured; Iranian officials loudly condemned the attack and American visitors have been left unharmed since then. But the incident was a chilling reminder that Iran is not a benign place, even to visit. And it just as easily could have been our group, which included a retired Navy captain and a retired Foreign Service officer.

But our small band was intrepid, well traveled and well prepared. Members talked knowingly of the volcanic sands of Guatemala, the cashews of Mozambique, the barracudas of Belize. They carried medical kits that included sutures and hypodermic needles. They knew how to check the tires of domestic airplanes. They could find the 24-hour supermarket in Teheran to buy caviar and the synagogues in Isfahan on their own.

Our 14-day journey took us through Teheran, Mashad, Kermanshah, Hamadan, Kerman, Bam, Yazd, Shiraz, Persepolis, Isfahan, Kashan and Qum. We were free to go wherever we wanted and, except for military installations, airports, mosque interiors and some museums, took photographs as we wished.

The Americans came for various reasons. Lois Clark, a retired teacher, and her husband, Daniel, a retired radiologist, from Iowa, were struggling to understand the culture that shaped their Iranian-born son-in-law. Martha Habermann, who runs a nursing home in upstate New York, called it "the frisson of doing something adventurous." Ronald Endeman, a lawyer from San Diego, counted Iran as the 235th country he has visited so far (but then, he counted places like Sicily and Hawaii as countries, too).

Our guide was Hossein Shams-ol-mali, a retired teacher who couldn't quite support himself and his wife on his small pension. No matter that his English was flawed and his explanations opaque. Mr. Shams, as we called him, was a gentleman, ever patient with our endless questions. (Why are there no dogs on the street? Do Jews serve in the Army? Do dervishes really whirl?) He also played bellman and waiter when necessary.

Our tour was run by Bestway Tours and Safaris, of Vancouver, British Columbia, although several of us who had booked through Absolute Asia, a New York-based company, didn't know that until we arrived. We also discovered that Bestway had charged tour members only $2,790 for their trip, excluding air fare; we had paid Absolute Asia $3,125. Absolute Asia explained in a letter that the additional cost covered "personalized itinerary planning" as well as visa processing. (In fact I had arranged my own visa.)

Iran's tourist infrastructure functions surprisingly well, considering how few high-paying tourists have ventured in over the last two decades. The hotels built during the oil boom of the 1970's have seen better days, but have been renovated and function fairly well. Domestic air travel is cheap, remarkably safe and on time. Pharmacies are well stocked. Persian cuisine is a delight (when one can get away from the ubiquitous kabobs); fresh fruits and vegetables are grown throughout the country, and in Teheran the tap water is considered better than the bottled variety.

But our tour bus was in need of repair and cleaning. The air-conditioning blew hard through the holes where overhead lights should have been. There were no seat belts and no toilet. The choking air pollution from leaded gasoline fumes can be troubling for people with respiratory problems, particularly in the big cities such as Teheran and Isfahan.

Except at the mosques, the women in our group took risks with their dress almost from the start. Our guide made the mistake of telling us at our first orientation that we did not have to wear the poorly sewn, ankle-length polyester coats handed out at the beginning of the tour. So some women donned their husbands' shirts over pants and exchanged their scarves for hats. It was unseasonably hot, so we even dared to go bareheaded on the bus, which elicited wide-eyed stares (but no arrests).

Still, there were uncomfortable incidents when perfect strangers told us we were misbehaving. For instance, when one female tour member posed for a photograph with a group of giggling Iranian women in their chadors in Mashad, a man barked at the women not to allow their faces to be photographed.

Bending the rules did not extend to alcohol. When security guards at Teheran's Mehrabad Airport discovered several tiny bottles of liquor in the suitcase of one tour member, there were threats to confiscate our luggage, hold up our departure and even try the alleged culprit in an Iranian court. Eventually, the security guard and airport police were paid off; we made our flight.

There were times when political reality and the official animosity toward the United States intruded. Some of my fellow travelers were offended by a neon sign at Teheran's airport announcing in English that, "In future, Islam will destroy Satanic sovereignty of the West."

"With one hand they're telling us we're demons," said Ms. Wright. "With the other hand, they're taking our money."

We happened to be in Isfahan on the 19th anniversary of the seizure of the United States Embassy in Teheran, which began the 444-day nightmare of American diplomats held hostage and led to the rupture of diplomatic relations with Iran. Banners hanging throughout the city proclaimed "Death to America" in Farsi and "Down With U.S.A." in English. We were kept far away from the city's demonstration -- largely of schoolchildren bused in for the event -- at a sports stadium.

The lead story on the television news that night showed footage from demonstrations in more than a dozen cities around the country. The only problem was that some of the footage obviously came from the archives. Still, members of our group were not amused. "I've been smiling at people up to now," said Fritz Wright, a retired engineer. "At this point I don't know whether to smile at them or not."

Our tour did not include a drive-by of the confiscated American Embassy compound in Teheran, for years a school for training revolutionary guards. But I took two of the members of our group for a firsthand look on our last day. Its walls had been freshly painted with anti-American images, including a giant head of a skeleton as the Statue of Liberty.

throughout the trip, the official animosity towards the United States Government contrasted sharply with the shock and sheer joy of ordinary Iranians in encountering Americans who liked Iran well enough to come touring. "In China, people come up to you and talk, but they don't kiss you and say they love you like they do here," said Ms. Habermann. When I told a porter in the hotel in Hamadan, which is off the foreign tourist track, where I was from, he looked bewildered. "Who let you in?" he asked.

What makes it especially difficult to penetrate the country is that Iranians operate in two worlds. Behavior is much more relaxed in the privacy of one's home, where even the most devout Muslim women remove their head coverings. And in secular families, one may even be offered a shot of bootleg vodka or a glass of homemade wine. For the most part, our group operated in a parallel universe, seeing the externals.

But there were moments of discovery, many of them disheartening. Katharine Loring, an emergency room nurse and bicyclist, said that Iran would be a great place to take a bike trek, but then learned that men and women must ride bikes on segregated tracks. Mr. Endeman, the lawyer, gave a young Iranian woman friend of mine a good-bye hug in front of our hotel in Shiraz, and she recoiled in fear: Men and women who are not close relatives are not even supposed to shake hands.

Inside the shrine of the brother of Imam Reza in Shiraz, where women wept and moaned as they begged God for favors, Ms. Loring cuddled the baby of a mother of two. "Take my baby to America," the mother said matter-of-factly. "She is better off growing up there." When Ms. Loring balked, the woman said she could take her 7-year-old daughter instead, much to the horror of the girl, who clutched her mother's leg.

The American women were incensed that Iranian women have to ride in the back of the bus. And then there was the incident of the restaurant toilets in in Shiraz. The men's was a familiar Western, chairlike model; the women's was, as in most places, a porcelain hole in the ground that required squatting. The women simply barged past the male attendant into the men's room.

And it was those restrictions, those arbitrary limits on freedom, that irritated Mel Jiganti, a retired judge from Chicago who came carrying a paperback copy of the Koran. "The only other place I've ever felt like this was in the Army, when I had a sergeant who had arbitrary power over me," he said.

Then the magic of Iran took over.

We sought refuge from the stares and smog on the footpaths of the enormous Bagh-e Eram in Shiraz, a sprawling public garden filled with 200-year-old cypress, pomegranate, salt cedar and sour cherry trees, musk roses, coxcomb and honeysuckle.

We soaked in the view of palm groves in the desert from the top of the medieval mud-walled citadel and town at Bam, then sipped mango juice at a charming teahouse there run by an Iranian woman who beckoned with the words, "We are waiting for you."

We left the world of Shiite Islam far behind in Hamadan at a mausoleum with a basket of yarmulkes at the entrance and a wall engraved with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. There, according to legend, Esther and Mordecai are buried.

We discovered a wedding reception at our hotel one evening in Shiraz and ventured in for a peek. The sister of the bride introduced us around to the other women, dressed in fancy cocktail dresses, their hair lacquered, their faces beautifully made up. They danced in a conga line led by the bride. The men, meanwhile, were banished to a separate room, just as at an Orthodox Jewish wedding.

But it was Persepolis, the seat of Persia's ancient kings and Iran's most important archeological treasure, that awed the Americans. Walking through the vast remains of the palace started in the sixth century B.C. by Darius the Great reduced our garrulous group to few words.

So should Americans who have been everywhere else go to Iran? "If you wait until it gets more efficient, all the spontaneity and surprise will be lost," said Cynthia Katz, a part-time travel agent from Nyack, N.Y., as we walked through the vast, perfectly proportioned 17th-century square in the center of Isfahan. "When this place starts looking like the Sistine Chapel with wall-to-wall people, it's not going to be fun anymore."

But Thomas H. Miner, the chairman of the Chicago-based Mid-America Committee, who had led the tour of the Americans who were attacked, admitted in an interview that he might have gone to Iran too soon. "I don't think Iranians are ready for Americans -- even tourists," he said. "I don't think there is anyone in that country who can protect you."

Arranging a trip

Logistics

It's hard to go it alone as a tourist in Iran. Technically, tourists must be invited by the Iranian Government. A number of American companies provide organized tours and can facilitate the visa application process. In the absence of diplomatic relations, it is probably safer traveling with a tour operator known to Iranian authorities. Inventive travelers can add on their own personalized itineraries. On our tour one woman in her 60's spent several days before our arrival traveling with a female guide to the ancient ruins in Susa, and several days afterward at the Caspian Sea. She said this part of the trip went better than our tour.

Traveling with a prepaid tour also allows one to avoid taking a large amount of cash. The embargo theoretically precludes Iranians from cashing traveler's checks drawn on American banks or accepting American credit cards. However, on this trip I used a Mastercard from Chase Manhattan at hotels in Teheran and Isfahan. The staff could not explain how it circumvented the embargo.

Tour Companies

I bought my tour through Absolute Asia in New York, (800) 736-8187; it was operated by Bestway Tours and Safaris (see below). Tour members who booked through Bestway paid less than the $3,125 a person that Absolute Asia charged. Ken Fish, president of Absolute Asia, said the company was now dealing directly with an Iranian company and had 15-night tours for $2,625 and $2,895 a person.

Other companies selling tours to Iran include the following:

Bestway Tours and Safaris, Vancouver, British Columbia, (800) 663-0844.

Cyrus Travel in San Jose, Calif., (800) 332-9787. Distant Horizons in Long Beach, Calif., (800) 333-1240.

Geographic Expeditions in San Francisco, (800) 777-8183.

It is possible to put together an itinerary directly with an Iranian company such as Iran Ziggurat Tour and Travel Agency, (9821) 643-9539, fax (9821) 643-9538.

A number of Western airlines fly to Iran, and tickets can be booked through tour operators. I use V.T.S. Travel, (703) 790-9779, a small agency in Vienna, Va., owned by Vajihe Tahbaz, a charming Iranian woman.

Hotels

Many of the better hotels were once part of American hotel chains and have been renovated. Most hotel personnel speak English.

Of the eight hotels where we stayed during our tour, only one, the Akhavan Hotel in Kerman, was inadequate. Guests complained of leaky toilets, dirty carpets and insects.

Here are some hotels of note; tax of 18 percent is added to all rates.

ISFAHAN Grand Abbasi Hotel, (98-31) 22-6011, fax (98-31) 22-6008. This 218-room hotel built around the skeleton of a caravanserai is by far the best place to stay in Iran, with dazzling carpets, tile work and carvings. Ask for a room in the original part of the hotel. Doubles start at $95.

SHIRAZ Homa Hotel, (98-71) 28-001, fax (98-71) 48-021, has been renovated and provides good service.It is where wealthy local people hold their weddings. Doubles from $95.

TEHERAN Karoon Hotel, (98-21) 890-1848, fax (98-21) 890-1962, is a small, simple inexpensive hotel in the center of Teheran with a welcoming manager, worn carpets and temperamental plumbing and phones. Doubles from $40.

Laleh Hotel, (98-21) 65-5021, fax (98-21) 65-5517, has towels and glasses still bearing the Inter-Continental logo. Most of the staff is friendly and eager to please. Doubles from $99.

Homa Hotel, the former Sheraton, (98-21) 877-3021, fax (98-21) 879-7179, is newer than the Laleh, but the staff is not as nice. Doubles from $120.

Food

Many of Iran's best restaurants (and all its fine wine cellars) closed with the coming of the revolution 20 years ago. Our group ate mainly in hotels, where the food was plentiful and reliable but not special. The best way to dine in Iran is to get invited to a private home, difficult but not impossible even for first-time visitors because Iranians are so hospitable.

One of my favorite restaurants is Ali Qapoo in Teheran, (98-21) 878-4120, less because of the food than the lively atmosphere and the musicians (only male) who play traditional music. Dinner, about $33 for two.

There are many different kinds of khoresh, slowly simmering stews served with rice. The best is khoresh fesenjoon, a duck stew cooked in walnut and pomegranate sauce.

Caviar is expensive in restaurants, when it is available; better to go to the 24-hour Refah supermarket chain in Teheran. Good hotels have refrigerators in the rooms.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Letters to the Editor
Travel to Iran

04/04/99
The New York Times
Page 5, Column 3
c. 1999 New York Times Company

To the Editor: The outrage and indignation expressed by Elaine Sciolino's ''intrepid, well traveled and well prepared'' little band during their visit to Iran suggests either considerable naivete or downright arrogance on their part.

When I traveled to Iran with a group from Distant Horizons in October 1997, we had been well informed on customs and dress and were prepared to behave as guests in the country. We were wholeheartedly welcomed wherever we went and impressed with the warmth of the people we met and their interest in America.

Scarves and chadors are cumbersome and hot to wear, squat toilets are hard on the knees and several weeks without liquor could be a burden, but a trip like this is not intended to be one's own culture dressed up in different clothes.

The question may not be whether Iran is ready for Americans but whether Americans are ready for Iran .

ANDREE L. MALONE
Bridgewater, N.J.

-------------------------------------------------- Letters to the Editor
Travel to Iran

04/04/99 The New York Times

To the Editor: It actually is easy to travel alone to Iran . In June 1998, I went to Iran alone on a trip that I booked for myself directly with Caravan Sahra, a tour company in Teheran. I had gotten the name and fax number of this company from a 1997 article in the Travel section.

Caravan Sahra provided me with a woman tour escort, Tannaz Bagheri, who spoke perfect English, having lived in California for several years. It was like traveling with a friend.

In addition to the escort, who was with me the entire time, I had local guides and drivers in all cities. Everyone was very friendly and there were no problems.

The only problem occurred with getting my Iranian visa here in the U.S. The Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington was very slow at issuing visas.

SUZANNE FRYE, M.D.
New York, N.Y.

------------------------------------------------------------------ Letters to the Editor
Travel to Iran

04/04/99 The New York Times

To the Editor: It is very hard to know how Iranians view Americans traveling in their country. Last April, a group of us touring through the Oriental Institute in Chicago had mixed experiences.

In Hamadan, we asked our bus to stop so we could watch a group of men buying sheep for the feast of Abraham. When I got off the bus, I was immediately surrounded by a group of men, making it impossible to move. One asked, in American-accented English, ''Where are you from?'' I answered ''America,'' and he said incredulously, ''How did you get a visa?'' ''No problem,'' I answered. He said, ''You should say you are British. It would be better for you.'' At that moment, it seemed better to get back on the bus. And yet he wasn't threatening me. He was warning me that others might object to Americans.

At a teahouse in Isfahan, a man said in American English, ''Welcome to my country. I hope you enjoy it.'' A group member said, ''Oh, yes. You have a beautiful country.'' We could see the tears form as he said with emotion, ''Your country is also beautiful. I studied at the University of California in Berkeley. I liked it very much. Maybe this means our two countries can be more friendly.''

But on our last tour through Teheran before our departure, I asked our Iranian guide how many of the large billboard signs, that we couldn't read, were anti- American. ''Many,'' she said.

SANDRA SCHLACHTMEYER
Alexandria, Va.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Letters to the Editor
Travel to Iran

04/04/99 The New York Times

To the Editor: We were disappointed by the article on Iran . Although Ms. Sciolino is an experienced journalist who has reported from Iran , she traveled within the bubble of a tour group. I would not normally describe group tourists as ''intrepid,'' as the author does, but the adjective applies in an unintended way to tourists who try to smuggle liquor, attempt to hug Iranian women in public and barge into restrooms of the opposite sex in order to use ''Western'' toilets.

We (both U.S. citizens) went to Iran last August. We were not on a tour or a ''customized private visit.'' We received visas the old-fashioned way, by applying directly to the Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. We traveled independently, making travel and hotel arrangements ourselves. We know of others who have done the same.

We found a sophisticated, civil society with a deep, ancient and distinctive culture; a country with good infrastructure and clean streets, and an astonishing degree of genuine friendliness and hospitality.

JEAN SHEDD
PULAK DUTTA
Evanston, Ill.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------- Letters to the Editor
Travel to Iran

04/04/99 The New York Times

To the Editor: We enjoyed reading Elaine Sciolino's recent article on Iran (Feb. 28).

While we were not part of a tour group but were scouting film locations for a television series, we visited some of the same sites. We, too, found ourselves inhaling exhaust fumes in the old vehicles. One of them broke down, leaving us stranded in the desert three hours from the city of Bam. However, a friendly farmer with a pick-up truck was headed that way and agreed to take one of our party, then helped to round up a taxi for the rest of us.

There is a new hotel about six miles from Bam that is worth noting. The Arg-E Jadid, (98-3) 46346 2671, fax 46346 2670, has clean, luxurious air-conditioned rooms (many with Western toilets), telephones, and a restaurant. Double rooms cost around $90 a night.

The Karoon Hotel in Teheran, mentioned by Ms. Sciolino, did turn out to be very welcoming and economical. The breakfast in the garden with fresh-baked bread, yogurt and honey helped make up for the lack of any coffee except Nescafe. Coffee-drinking visitors to Iran should bring their own.

ROB AND CHAR GARDNER
Baltimore


Travel: Iran - Get that Friday feeling Iran is once again opening up to visitors - including Philippa Goodrich , who spends the Islamic day of leisure finding a cyber-cafe amid the carpets, and Marion Bull, who searches for signs of the poet Omar Khayyam Philippa Goodrich

04/24/1999 The Independent - London

I had been in Tehran for more than a week before I went out on my own. When I did, within minutes I was surrounded by a huge crowd of men and I found myself fielding questions that ranged from the standard "What do you think of the position of women in Iran ?", to the unanswerable (by me, at least) "How do you think we should improve our economy?" and finally, "What do you think of Michael Owen?".

I walked away feeling relieved that I had actually watched the England- Argentina match and seen that goal, when another man came running up behind me. "Tell me," he said, "was Princess Diana murdered or was it an accident?" By then I had been in the country long enough to know that it is best to answer all but the most innocuous questions as neutrally as possible. Iran under President Khatami is beginning to open up again, but it is still wise not to be too free with your opinions in public.

Despite a certain wariness, Iranians are extremely hospitable people and are anxious to see that you have a good time in their country. We had an interesting rather than a wild time in Tehran. I was hoping for a city full of the mysteries of the East, but one look at the hideous Azadi (Freedom) Monument, the first landmark you see after coming out of the airport, put paid to any such notions. In fact, Tehran is a modern, sprawling place which, as we soon discovered, divides physically and socially into the yuppie north and the poorer, more conservative, south.

Most of the city's street trade goes on in the south, and a lot of that happens in the bazaar. I was determined not to go home without a Persian carpet, and we weren't disappointed. It was definitely one of the noisiest and liveliest parts of this sober city: a maze of covered, crowded alleyways where you can buy a range of goods including pistachio nuts, pans and carpets.

Our driver had promised to take us to his friend's shop, so we hurried through most of the carpet bazaar until we reached Mr Keshavarz's emporium, tucked beneath the main thoroughfare. His stock was heaped against all four walls; it had come from the deserts of Baluchistan in the east, and from the mountains around Tabriz in the north west of the country. I was just about to launch into a haggling session for a small Bokhara rug when Mr Keshavarz announced grandly that his prices were fixed; the economy is in the doldrums and carpets are an important source of foreign currency.

Northern Tehran lies in the shadow of the Alborz mountains, although you can see their high, bare ridges only on a clear day. Social codes in this part of town aren't quite as strictly observed as they once were, and pizzerias and cafes where boys and girls can meet each other are beginning to spring up.

We spent a good deal of time in Tehran's first cyber-cafe, which opened a few months ago. The Internet connection was quick, the proprietor, the English- speaking Mr Chizre, was friendly, and the cappuccinos made a welcome change from the sweet, weak black tea that we were offered everywhere else.

The main road leads easily out of northern Tehran to the mountains and the Caspian Sea that lies beyond. We made our expedition on a Friday, and as we drove through the outskirts and into the countryside, the roadsides were crowded with families out for the day eating picnics, their flasks of tea steaming amid the remains of a late snowfall. Having got the impression that this was a country where enjoying yourself is frowned upon, it was a relief to see the children running around and chucking snowballs at each other.

Surprisingly, although Iran is a clerical society, it doesn't seem to be full of people bursting with religious fervour. Our driver reckoned that among the 12 million people in Tehran, only one in six was a regular Friday mosque-goer. The much more appealing alternative for Tehran's younger, well-off crowd is the ski slopes. When we arrived at the resort of Shemshak after a 90- minute drive, that's where they all were. But even here, the mullahs' word is law: there are two queues for the ski- lift, with boys to the right and girls to the left, and strictly no fraternisation - not on the lower slopes, at least.

If the city life of Tehran becomes oppressive, it is easy to take a plane to somewhere else in the country. We chose Isfahan because, as Iranians are fond of saying, "Isfahan nesf-e jahan"; "Isfahan is half the world". Once you are there, you can imagine how in its 17th- century heyday it must have felt exactly like that. The city's most famous architectural sight, the beautiful, blue-tiled mosque of Masjed e Shah, reflects the confidence in his city of its founder, Shah Abbas I.

The mosque is open every day, except on Friday mornings when the area is best avoided, as there has been some factional fighting at Friday prayers in the past few months. It stands in an impressive setting, on one of the largest squares in the world, Nagsh-e Jahan, also known as Emam Khomeini Square. There's a lot to see around the square and it's lined with souvenir shops, though not many of them seemed to sell anything worth spending our money on.

The other great attraction of Isfahan lies in the famous old bridges over the river Zayande. They've been a feature of the city for hundreds of years, and these days seem to be the place for Isfahanis to meet and talk and enjoy Friday, their day of leisure.

On the walkway under the Khaju bridge, young men were singing traditional songs, the notes rolling from arch to arch along the length of the bridge. Meanwhile, the clientele in the tea-house at the end of the terrace was indulging in another favourite pastime - smoking the hookah.

The sound of the water bubbling furiously in the bottom of the pipe, with each pull on the sweet apple tobacco, rose even above the clash of pots and pans and chatter. We were given the best seats in the house, with a fantastic view right across the river, and we settled down with our hookah to order some tea and sugary biscuits.

Isfahan is a good place for relaxing. The questions asked here are easier, too. One student we met managed to slip in a quick, "Why does Britain always support dictators?" But, apart from this, the most taxing query came from Mehrdad, the owner of the Shahrzad restaurant where we stopped for lunch. Would we like lamb cooked in the traditional way, or would we like the dish of the day, chicken? Fact File

Getting there:

Philippa Goodrich paid pounds 455 for a return flight from London to Tehran with British Airways (0345 222111). BA flies on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from Heathrow to Tehran; Iran Air (0171-409 0971) flies the route on the same days, plus Saturdays. Marion Bull paid pounds 380 for a return flight with Iran Air, which at present offers a free side trip (eg to Mashhad).

Organised tours: Caravanserai Tours 0181-691 2523 and Jasmin Tours (0181- 675 8886) are among the few companies that offer arrangements in Iran .

Red tape: Procuring a visa for independent travel is tricky. First, contact the Visa Section of the Consular Department of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran , at 50 Kensington Court, London W8 5DD (0171-795 4922; calls taken between 2pm and 4pm). On an organised tour, visa requirements will be taken care of by the operator.

Accommodation: Philippa Goodrich paid pounds 53 per night for a suite, including a kitchen, in the Ramtin Hotel in Tehran, and pounds 75 per night for a room at the Laleh International, one of the city's five-star hotels. In Isfahan a room in the Abbasi Hotel, an old caravanserai, costs pounds 75 per night.

Women travellers: Female visitors to Iran are expected to adhere strictly to Iranian cultural norms of dress and behaviour. All parts of the body, except for the hands, feet and face, must be covered when in public, and outer clothing should be loose fitting.


Hotels: Isfahan (area code 31)

Abbasi, Charbagh Avenue.

Isfahan, Motahary Avenue (city centre), PO Box 16 (tel: 35-491, 60- 586).

Hotels: Shiraz (area code 71)

Homa, Sadri Avenue (city centre), PO Box 528 (tel: 28-000/12).

Hotels: Tehran (area code 21)

Asia, 40 Mellat Avenue, Serahe Ekbatan (tel: 318-551).

Atlantic, Taleqani Avenue (tel: 890-286/8).

Azadi Grand, Chamran Expressway, Evin Crossing (tel: 297-021/31; fax: 299-018).

Boulevard, 278 opposite Zhaleh Arcade, Keshavarz Boulevard (tel: 650- 459).

Bozorg-e-Tehran (Grand Hotel), close to Motaharri Avenue, Vali-e-Asr Avenue (tel: 624-383).

Buloor (Belair), Sepahbod Qarani Avenue (tel: 829-881/2).

Caspian, 428 Ayatullah Taleqani Avenue (tel: 834-066/9).

Commodore, Taleghani Avenue (tel: 642-703).

Crystal, Lalezar Now Avenue (tel: 393-796).

Diamond, Seventh-Tir Square, Dr Mufatteh Avenue (tel: 822-907).

Ekbatan, Taleqani Junction, Vali-e-Asr Avenue (tel: 301-664).

Esteqlal, after Jam-e-Jam, Vali-e-Asr Avenue (tel: 290-011/5).

Evin, Evin Avenue (tel: 291-030).

Ferdowsi, Ferdowsi Square (tel: 824-559).

Gilan, Southern Ferdowsi Avenue (tel: 302-282).

Gilan Now, Ferdowsi Avenue (tel: 316-206).

Hafez, Bank Alley, Ferdowsi Avenue (tel: 679-063).

Homa (formerly Sheraton), 50 Bizhan Street, Vali-e-Asr, PO Box 11-1961 (tel: 683-021/8).

Independence (formerly Hilton) (tel: 290-031/9).

Keshavarz, 42 Keshavarz Boulevard (tel: 899-939).

Kian, Zardosht Street, Vali-e-Asr Avenue (tel: 650-235).

Laleh (Inter-Continental), Dr Fatemi Avenue (tel: 656-021/9).

Lalezar, Lalezar Now Avenue (tel: 316-542).

Marmar, Sepahbod Qarani Avenue (tel: 830-083/7).

Miamei, Vali-e-Asr Avenue (tel: 620-200).

Mina, Dr Mufateh Avenue (tel: 823-255).

Naderi, Jamhourie-Islami Avenue (tel: 678-610).

New Naderi, Goharshad Alley, Naderi Avenue (tel: 671-356).

Pamchal S, Dr Mufateh (Mobarezan) Avenue (tel: 820-825).

Parastoo, Shahrokh Alley, Jamhourie Islami Avenue (tel: 672-422).

Park, Vahdate Islami Avenue (Hafez) (tel: 672-020/9).

Pars, 40 Sepand Street, Nejatollahi Avenue.

Parsian, Dr Beheshti Avenue (tel: 622-708).

Pirooz S, Vali-e-Asr Avenue (tel: 533-584).

Quds, Taleqani Avenue (tel: 640-9310).

Sanjar, Dr Ali Shariati Avenue (tel: 751-445/7).

Shiraz, opposite Cinema Odeon, N Sa'adi Avenue (tel: 301-018).

Tehran, Mosadeq Avenue, Valiasr Square (tel: 898-3171).

Chamber of commerce Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries & Mines, PO Box 15875-4671, 254 Taleghani Avenue, Tehran 15814 (tel: 884-6031/9; fax: 882-5111). Banking

Bank Markazi Iran (Central Bank of Iran ), Ave Ferdowsi, Tehran (tel: 311- 0100/9; fax: 311-7916).

Bank Maskan (Construction Bank), Ave Ferdowsi, Tehran (tel: 675-021/9; fax: 673- 262, 673-667).

Bank Mellat, Ave Vali-Asr, Dameshgh St No 4, Tehran 14167 (tel: 891- 021/9, 890- 667; fax: 892-868).

Bank Melli Iran , Ave Ferdowsi, Tehran (tel: 3231, 323-230; fax: 311- 0365).

Bank Refah Kargaran, Ave Dr Mofatteh, opposite former US Embassy, Tehran (tel: 882-5001/9).

Bank Saderat Iran , Ave Somayyeh, opposite Ave Mofatteh, Tehran (tel: 882-9469; fax: 882-9469, 836-095).

Bank Sanaat Va Madan, Ave Hafez, No 593, Tehran (tel: 893-271/9; fax: 895-052).

Bank Sepah, Eman Khomeini Square, Tehran (tel: 311-2138, 311-4922, 311- 1091.9; fax: 311-2138, 311-9471).

Bank Tejarat, Ave Taleghani, No 184, Tehran (tel: 892-071/9; fax: 882- 8215).

Bank Tosee Keshavarzi, Jalal Al Ahmad Expressway, opposite Gisha, At Patris Lomomba Street, Tehran (tel: 982-155; fax: 973-625).

Export Development Bank of Iran , Ave Khaled Eslamboli No 129, Tehran (tel: 626- 916/7; fax: 626-979).

AIRLINES

Iran Air (Homa), Iran Air Building, Mehrabad Airport, Tehran 13185 (tel: 600- 9111; fax: 600-3248). Ministry of Culture, Baharestan Square, Avenue Kamalolmolk, Tehran (tel: 303-581/5; fax: 311-7535, 311-0840).

Tourism Office (tel: 892-212/215); information office, Mehrabad airport (tel: 667-785); tourist information office, railway station (tel: 555- 067). Other useful addresses

Export Promotion Centre of Iran , PO Box 11-48, Tajrish, Tehran (tel: 821-911).

International Institute for Commercial Relations Development of Continents, No 7 Third Floor, Bazar Abbassi, Ferdowsi Square, PO Box 11, 365-3963, Tehran (tel: 820-697).

Iran International Fair and Exhibition Corporation, PO Box 98, 22 Tadjrish, Tehran.

Iran Water and Power Resources Development Company (IWPC), Building No 1, Sixth Floor, No 212 Nejatollahi Street, Tehran (tel: 880-1038/9; fax: 897-635).

Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Baharestam Square, Kamalolmolk Avenue, Tehran (tel: 303-581/5; fax: 311-7535, 311-0840).

Planning and Budget Organisation (Sazman-e-Barnameh va Budje), Meidan-e Baharestan, Tehran.

Statistical Centre of Iran , Dr Fatemi Ave, Tehran 14144 (tel: 655- 061/9).

Tehran Stock Exchange, Building No 9 of Bank Markazi, Hafez Avenue, Tehran 11389 (tel: 670-309/219).

Time: GMT +3.5 hrs. Climate: Largely desert, with mountainous regions in the north-western province of Azerbaijan. Tehran temperatures range from over 38 degrees C to-14 degrees C, with a mean in Jan of 3 degrees C and Jul of 29 degrees C. The Persian Gulf and Caspian areas can be extremely hot and humid. Short rainy season in early winter and spring. Entry requirements: Travel regulations should be checked before travelling. No travel restrictions between Iran and Tajikistan since August 1992. Passport: Required by all except certain seamen. Visa: Required by most nationals, and must be obtained in advance from Consulate General. Visa extensions can be obtained at the Bureau of Aliens in Tehran, or in provincial capitals such as Tabriz. Allow at least two months for processing and note that women should provide passport photos with hair covered. Anyone with Israeli stamps in their passport will be rejected. Seven- day transit visas (for crossing between Turkey and Pakistan) are faster and easier to obtain. Prohibited entry: Nationals of Israel are prohibited entry. There are extensive regulations regarding nationality, transit visas, etc. Currency: No currency restrictions on entering, but a limit of USD10,000 on leaving unless declared on arrival. Credit and charge cards are not accepted. Advisable to take cash. The dollar, sterling and the D-Mark are the most easily traded. Be prepared to be given large quantities of low-denomination notes from money changers. N.B. Travellers should declare all foreign currency taken into the country on a customs form or at the Tehran (Mehrabad) airport branch of the Bank Melli. Those who fail to do this could have their cash confiscated when they leave. Health precautions: ,/b>Details of health requirements should be checked before travelling. Mandatory: Cholera and yellow-fever certificates likely to be required if travelling from infected area.

Air access

National airline: Iran Air (Homa).

Other airlines: Aero

flot, Air India, Alitalia, Austrian, British Airways, Emirates, Gulf Air, Lufthansa, MAS, PIA, Swissair, Syrian Arab, TK Turkish. Air France announced on 1 September 1997 that it would suspend flights between Paris and Tehran from 14 September 1997, due to high operating costs.

Airport tax: Foreign nationals leaving the country have to pay IR1,500 (Jan 1997).

International airports: Mehrabad (Code: THR), 12 km west of Tehran, with duty- free shop, buffet, restaurant, bank, post office, shops; Shiraz (Code: SYZ), 15 km from city, with buffet, currency exchange, post office, shops, Bandar Abbass (Code: BND). Almas International, near a free-trade zone at the north-eastern town of Sarakhs, on the border with Turkmenistan, opened end-June 1996.

Surface access: There are roads from Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan, though the routes are not always passable. There are rail lines from Turkey and Turkmenistan.

Main ports: Bandar Shahid Rajai, Bandar Imam Khomeini (containers), Bandar Bushehr, Bandar Abbas (containers), Bandar Anzelli, Bandar Chah Bahar and Bandar Nowshahr. Khorramshahr, the main port, and Kharg Island (both oil terminals and most berths) are undergoing reconstruction following the war with Iraq.

Road: A 192-metre road bridge over the Araks river, linking Armenia with Iran , was opened in Armenia in January 1996. The cost totalled USD2.46m, of which Iran contributed about USD1m. Rail: A railway was opened in May 1996 between Iran and Turkmenistan. It runs nearly 300 km from the Iranian Silk Road city of Mashhad, crosses the Turkmen border at Sarakhs and joins the Soviet-era Turksib railway at Tedzhen.

Hotels: The situation and status of hotels should be carefully checked. The use of the name of an international management chain does not imply a current connection with the chain, but may indicate only a previous link or the usual name by which the hotel is known.

Car hire: International driving licence (along with two photographs) required.

City transport

Taxis: Taxis are not metered and frequently shared. Those hired by telephone or by hotels are more expensive. Tipping is not expected.

National transport

Air: Iran Air runs frequent services between most cities and Tehran. Internal flights are cheap. Seats can be difficult to acquire without booking well in advance.

Road: Surfaced roads serve main centres, and total network comprises 140,000 km, of which 500 km are motorways (1986). Condition of secondary roads may vary.

Buses: There is an extensive, comfortable and cheap bus network that runs throughout the country. Scheduled long-distance coach services may vary, but have included Tehran-Anzali, Tehran-Isfahan, Tehran-Shiraz, Tehran-Yazd, Tehran- Hamadan, Tehran-Mashhad, Khorramshahr-Bandar Imam Khomeini, and Tehran-Zahedan and all other main cities and towns. Tehran to Shiraz, luxury bus, about USD3 (March 1997).

Rail: Limited rail service on 4,000-5,500 km network may vary, but three classes of service have operated in the past, with sleeping accommodation, air- conditioning and restaurant service available. USD216m rail link opened May 1996 re-establishing severed transport ties stretching from the Gulf to the Russian hinterland and on to south- east Asia, reviving the traditions of the old Silk Road. Tabriz-Tehran first-class sleeper about USD5 (March 1997).

Public holidays

Fixed dates: 11 Feb (Victory of Islamic Revolution), 19 Mar (Nationalisation of the Iranian Oil Industry), 21-24 March (Nowruz, the Iranian New Year), 1 Apr (Islamic Republic Day), 2 Apr (Public Outing Day), 4 Jun (Anniversary of Immam Khomeni's Demise), 5 Jun (Revolution Day).

Variable dates: 1998 Martyrdom of Imam Ali (Jan 21), Eid-ul Fitr (Jan 30), Martyrdom of Imam Ja'far (Feb 23), Birthday of Imam Reza (Mar 11), Eid Ghorban (Apr 9), Eid Ghadir Khom (Apr 17), Tasu'a (May 7), Ashura (May 8), Arba'een (June 17), Passing away of Prphet Muhammad (June 25), Birthday of Prophet Muhammad (July 14), Birthday of Imam Ali (Nov 5), Divine Ordainment of Prophet Muhammad (Nov 19), Birthday of Imam Mahdi (Dec 6).

Working hours

Business: 0900 - 1900 (closed Fri).

Government: 0700/0800 - 1500/1600 (closed Thu and Fri).

Banking: 0800 - 1600; (Thu) 0800 - 1130 (closed Fri).

Social customs: Muslim law is strictly adhered to. Always refer to the stretch of water south of Iran as the Persian Gulf - never the Arabian Gulf. Avoid contentious subjects such as Iraq and Israel. It is useful for the visitor to be aware of the differences between the different communities comprising Iran . Arms should be covered in public. Women must be fully covered, with a scarf over the hair. Men must never offer to shake hands with a woman.

Telecommunications

Telephone and telefax: Dialling code for Iran , IDD access code + 98 followed by area code (631 for Abadan, 31 for Isfahan, 21 for Tehran, 51 for Mashhad, 71 for Shiraz).

Banking: Banking is being progressively brought under Islamic law. Many foreign banks were nationalised in 1979. During 1991/92 steps were taken in reforming the financial sector and new monetary policies were implemented. In June 1994 privately owned banks were allowed to open for the first time since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Central bank: Bank Markazi Jomhouri Islami Iran .

Main centre: Tehran.

Head offices: Agricultural Bank of Iran , Bank of Industry and Mines, Bank Markazi Jomhouri Islami Iran , Bank Mellat, Bank Melli Iran , Bank Saderat Iran , Bank Sepah, Bank Tejarat (Commercial Bank of Iran ), Export Development Bank of Iran , Bank Refah.

Branches: Algemene Bank Nederland, Banca Commerciale Italiana, Banque Nationale de Paris, Dresdner Bank, Grindlays Bank, Lloyds Bank, Kredietbank, Societe Generale, Bank of Tokyo.

Trade fairs: Tehran International Trade Fair, held annually in Sep. Details from Iran International Fair and Exhibition Corporation.

Electricity supply: 220 V AC, 50 cycles.

Weights and measures: Metric system.

(SOURCE: Middle East Review World of Information, 06/01/98)


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