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Hotels in Iran

Encountering soaring architecture and warm hospitality in a country where Americans were not welcome for 20 years


Sunday, June 28, 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 days of the rebirth of Iranian tourism, nothing is simple. You may come for the soaring architecture and painstaking tile work, but odds are that 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 that 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 encouraging 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 President 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-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 firm 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 ordeal of the hostages who were taken in the revolution's early days.

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). And on June 17, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that "it is time to test the possibilities of bridging the gap" with Iran.

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. Really on the ground.

Between May 9 and June 1, 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--will cross 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, mid-tour, 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. In 1997, the shrine's visitor register book shows, it drew just 129 Americans.

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 seven 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."

Iran's top tourist spots have been overlooked by Westerners for so long that these days, some of them sound more like desert hallucinations than stops on an actual itinerary: The 2,500-year-old ruins at Persepolis. The mud-walled citadel of Bam. The Zoroastrian towers of silence in Yazd. The bridges of Esfahan and the delicate geometry of Imam Mosque. The National Jewels Museum of Tehran, a staggering collection of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and gem-encrusted furniture that leaves many visitors scoffing at the Crown Jewels of England.

To be sure, it's a pricey trip. Costs can easily run $5,000 per person for a tour of 15 to 20 days, once air fare is included. As tour operators are quick to warn, the quality of accommodations seldom exceeds American Holiday Inn levels. The images of 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.

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.

Every traveler is documenting the experience ferociously. George Gordon, ever the fact-assembler, gathers mailing addresses and scribbles notes to himself in a tiny notebook marked IRAN NOTES 1998. Ron Berger, a doctor from Baltimore, snaps 100 or 200 photographs a day, traces the bus's progress in red ink on a detailed map and drags his reconstructed knee through mosque after mosque, determined not to miss anything. Rene Girerd, a retired pathologist from Morris County, N.J., logs mileage and reaches for his video camera to roll tape on roadside pistachio trees, rare stamps in the bazaar and overturned tomato trucks.

The tour group's ages range from 50 to 78, and everyone's passport is full of stamps from international travel. In fact, rarely, outside of a John Ford movie, has such a wide swath of American society been concentrated in such a small group. Among seven travelers we have Democrats, Republicans, a gun collector, gourmets, Harley-Davidson riders, Jews and one African American. Each acts as de facto ambassador.

They are 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 counter-weight scale.

The most common refrain, from town to town, is: Never mind your government and my government. Welcome. But cultural confusion does happen.

"Heil Hitler!" hollers a gravedigger one day as we tour a burial ground for casualties of the war against Iraq. He has apparently mistaken us for Germans. Aprin hurries over to correct the gravedigger.

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. The village's practice, cultivated through years of desert-dwelling, is to provide food, drink and lodging to any visitor, asking nothing in return.

All these warm welcomes notwithstanding, a tourist never stops wondering about the Iranian leadership's fluctuating view of the U.S. 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 now 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 BC, and this site is a visual encyclopedia of that time. Even latter-day graffiti at the entrance is absorbing: In 1870, a year before he found Dr. David Livingstone in Africa, globe-trotting reporter Henry Stanley showed up here and scratched his name into an old stone entryway.

Contemporary Iran, meanwhile, is seldom so 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. Actually, it could be many generations, I would say, if you take care of it."

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. 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 river is crossed by several elegant bridges, which teem by night with pedestrians out to enjoy the cool of the evening, perhaps a dollop of ice cream or puff of tobacco on the water pipe.

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.

Imam Square was built in the 17th century as a polo ground by the ruler Shah Abbas I, and the souvenir shops that line the arcade are full of miniature paintings of 17th century polo matches. We begin with the Imam Mosque (completed in 1638) and Sheik Lutfollah Mosque (1619), which threaten to ruin us for all subsequent mosques. The round domes spring seamlessly from rectangular foundations, the geometric designs muddle the mind. The Imam Mosque is enormous, the tile work patterns doubled by its reflecting pools. The Sheik Lutfollah Mosque is intimate, its dome even more delicately wrought. Rene Girerd rolls tape, then sneaks back into the shadows to buy a piece of stray tile work for $10 from a mosque laborer.

When a chance for a midafternoon siesta arrives on Day 19, most of the travelers collapse into their rooms at the Abbasi Hotel, a former caravan stop and courtyard that was transformed in 1958 into the grandest hotel in the country. But Ron and June Berger instead enlist the guides' help and make a quiet visit, half a mile from the hotel. Their destination: the only active synagogue in Esfahan.

The rabbi and his family, whose home adjoins the synagogue, are startled at the arrival of these American Jews (and their translators), and then happily tearful. On a good week, the rabbi tells the Bergers, 500 or 600 Iranian Jews gather in the synagogue, women upstairs, men downstairs, as orthodoxy requires.

The Bergers made a similar synagogue visit when they were in Damascus a few years ago, and reason that paying respects at such places is far more valuable than staying away.

Before another family trip several years ago, June Berger recalls, many Jewish friends asked, "How can you go to Germany?" Berger's answer then and now: "If you stopped visiting countries that are discriminatory, you couldn't go anywhere. And I couldn't live in the United States."

Last stop, Tehran. Over dinner, Ann Wise decides that the mountains in the northwest, at the beginning of the trip, were her favorite territory. Ron Berger is partial to Persepolis. George Gordon flashes back to an afternoon in Esfahan.

As the Americans browse on the terrace of Shah Abbas I's Ali Qapu Palace, gazing out at Imam Square, Iranian students approach to try out their English. More than a dozen of them encircle the former CIA man (though he doesn't volunteer this), firing questions, trying to discover what he has learned of their country. They laugh easily and often. It's unclear whether these students fully appreciate the weirdness of this moment, since some of them probably weren't born when another generation of Tehran students released the American hostages in 1981. But Gordon, fully aware of the ironies, has entered a sort of traveler's euphoria.

The students hanging on his every word, Gordon announces his admiration for the architecture and people of Esfahan, praises the beauty of the women in Tabriz and doesn't say a word about politics. He closes by suggesting that since he wears a beard like so many Iranian men, a lot of people had probably been mistaking him for an Iranian. Now there are gales of laughter and the students burst into applause.

Should he bow? Take down all their addresses? The protocol is unclear. Gordon slips away down a stairwell. In the strange new Iran of the American tourist, there are some quandaries for which no State Department advisory can prepare you.

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