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TravelTatler Travels: 4 More Takes on Iran

Tatler Travels: 4 More Takes on Iran

Tatler Travels: 4 More Takes on Iran
By Jakki Phillips
April 06, 2016

Four of Hong Kong’s most intrepid jetsetters on our 500 List talk about their incredible experiences while journeying through this much misunderstood country


Nancy Lee

Nancy Lee is the chairman of the Friends of the Hong Kong Museum of Art 

What surprised you most about your trip to Iran? Iran surprised me entirely because the Western press has painted a rather negative image—of a country under sanction, with a strict theocratic government. I expected to see a harsh and sober place with little room for culture and the arts, but in fact the people were open, courteous, civilised and clearly eager to be part of the larger world.

There were many delightful instances of this, such as spontaneous expressions of love and reverence for their ancient poets. People flock to the tombs of poets such as Saadi and Hafez, which are set in gorgeous gardens, and serenade them in verse and song, while all children learn to recite their poetry in school. There are artists who still paint in the tradition of Persian miniatures, and beautiful carpets woven in regional or tribal patterns bear the very personal flourishes of the weavers.

"I expected to see a harsh and sober place with little room for culture and the arts, but in fact the people were open, courteous, civilised and clearly eager to be part of the larger world." –Nancy Lee

Although women cover their heads with a shawl or scarf, it is obvious that many would prefer to do without, as they have striking features and thick tresses that would look better without any cover. There is a sense of a country of great antiquity and culture with a joie de vivre straining at the restrictions of Islam. And yet there are undoubtedly conservative forces in the country that pull it in the opposite direction.

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Nancy Lee

Nancy in Shiraz

Did you have any preconceived ideas about the country, the culture and its people that were proved wrong? We have a mistaken sense of the Middle East as a monolithic entity and consider everyone there as Arabic, but the facts are far more interesting and complex. Countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon were all part of the cradle of human civilisation: the ancient cultures of Persia, Babylon, Assyria, Phoenicia and so on. They spoke languages that predate the Arab conquest in the 7th century.

The Bedouin tribes were nomads from the Arabian Peninsula who conquered the Middle East and imposed the Islamic religion as well as the written language. The Persians, precursors of the Iranians, resisted this assimilation for 200 years before converting from Zoroastrianism to Islam. Zoroastrianism is still practised by a minority in Iran as well as India, where many Persians fled after the conquest.

During our trip, I learned a great deal about the origin of conflicts in the Middle East that occurred at the end of the First World War with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, Britain and France divided the Middle East into separate countries under colonial rule, often without regard for tribal differences.

But the greatest divide is that between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam; the former make up 90 per cent of Muslims worldwide, the latter the remaining 10 per cent.

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Nancy Lee

Nancy's daughter Alison at Naqsh-e-Rostam—the burial site of kings from the Achaemenid Empire. Photo by Nancy Lee 

What would be your top tips for anyone planning to travel to Iran? Take lots of moisturiser and lip balm, as the weather is dry. Also take some sweets or treats for the children, as it’s a nice way to meet families and have a chat. Take cash, too, as most shops do not accept credit cards. Iran is extremely safe.

Top five must-see sights? Persepolis, the mosques and gardens of Isfahan, the desert architecture in central Iran, and the museums and palaces of the former Shah in Tehran.

Best local dishes? The food is healthy and well cooked throughout Iran, but there is no great variety. It tends to consist of salads and kebabs of all types. However, there is a pigeon restaurant called Shahrzad Restaurant in Isfahan that would rival the ones in Hong Kong.

What to buy? Carpets are superb in quality and variety, but it’s best to do some research beforehand. There are other lovely artefacts such as Persian miniatures, silver, agate of many colours and turquoise. Also, the caviar.

What to wear? Take long-sleeved shirts, long trousers and headscarves—although they do not need to be austere, as women have a way of turning out very chic despite the restrictions.

When should you go to Iran? The winter months are best: October, November, December.

Where did you go? Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan and Tehran.

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Ming Ho-Tang 

Ming Ho-Tang is a consultant for Li & Fung

What surprised you most about your trip to Iran? I went in April 2014—I believe most people in Hong Kong were not very familiar with Iran at that time. I have friends who left Iran many years ago and still have not visited since. Most people in Hong Kong thought it was not safe to travel there.

However, I was surprised by how open and friendly the Iranians were. We were approached by women, kids and teenagers; they wanted to take photos with us and converse with us in English. They were eager to understand why we decided to visit Iran.

 Did you have any preconceived ideas about the country, the culture and its people that were proved wrong? Before my trip, I didn’t know Iran’s culture and history were so interesting and complex. I learned a lot more about the history, conflicts and culture during my trip.

Also, we were told the women are a lot more conservative—but actually, some women were wearing bright colours, make-up and tight dresses. We also saw couples being affectionate in public.

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Ming Ho-Tang

Photo by Ming Ho-Tang

What would be your top tips for anyone planning to travel to Iran? Definitely take long-sleeved tops, long trousers and comfortable walking shoes. Lightweight scarves for wrapping the head and neck (your hair and neck need to be covered) and also socks, because in some mosques, visitors need to take off their shoes. Sunblock, hats and moisturisers, too, because it’s very dry and sunny.

Top five must-see sites/attractions? Persepolis, the museums in Tehran and the mosques in Isfahan. Also, the Tower of Silence and the Fire Temple in Yazd if you travel there. 

What and where to eat/drink? The food is not that great and there is no variety—mainly salad and kebabs—though they did prepare very nice lamb dishes. Haft Khan in Shiraz has a good buffet; they have an oven making fresh flatbread.

What to buy? Definitely carpets and Persian miniatures. We were really happy with these purchases. However, we could not find good-quality caviar.

What to wear? Long-sleeved tops with long trousers and scarves—any colour is fine.

When did you go? April 2014.

Where did you go? Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz.

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Amy Chow

Amy at the bazaar in Isfahan

Amy Chow is a ceramicist and an avid collector of jade, sculptures, antiques and antiquities

What surprised you most about your trip to Iran? The first thing that comes to mind is the friendliness of the Iranians. Many of them would go out of their way to help. I went last-minute shopping in Isfahan after dinner, asked for directions from a shopkeeper and he walked me to the shop—three blocks away. He also offered to wait and walk me back to my hotel, but I declined his offer as the hotel was nearby, and the streets were well lit and bustling.

In Abyaneh, a village in the north famous for roses, I came across some really nice people. I saw two men picking grapes on their terrace and asked if I could take their photo. They said yes and made a sign telling me to wait. Then one of them came down, opened the gate to their compound and invited me in. He went back up to the balcony, picked some grapes, brought them down, washed them and gave them to me. I offered to pay but they said they were a gift. They were the best grapes I have ever had—fresh, sweet and a generous, unexpected token of hospitality.

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Amy Chow

One of the many shops selling nuts in Tehran's Grand Bazaar. Photo by Amy Chow

Did you have any preconceived ideas about the country, the culture and its people that were proved wrong? I knew Persia has a long history and rich culture, and was so impressed with glimpses of its past glory and grandeur—the gardens of paradise, poets, magnificent mosques, grand citadels, architecture, public squares, bazaars and much more. There are 19 Unesco World Heritage sites in Iran and many more on the tentative list. 

Persepolis did not disappoint; its grandeur and scale is breathtaking. Unlike many top tourist attractions in the world, it was not crowded. Despite being open to the elements, the carvings are still crisp and intact.

The Grand Bazaar in Tehran is huge—an endless maze of vendors and a photographer’s delight. The array of goods, colours and people are a feast for the senses. I had a very good lunch there. However, it is crowded and chaotic, so only for the more adventurous.

I was pleasantly surprised with the Treasury of National Jewels—what a treasure trove of gems! The quality and quantity is amazing. It houses the largest pink diamond in the world.

Poetry is an integral part of Persian culture. It was a pleasure to visit the mausoleums of some of their renowned poets. Their expressions of love, devotion, aspirations, insights, beauty and words of wisdom are timeless—they really make me want to find time to read more of their great works.

There are also some high-end neighbourhoods with beautiful houses, shopping malls and upscale restaurants.

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Amy Chow

The Tower of Silence in Yazd 

What would be your top tips for anyone planning to travel to Iran? My advice is to go soon. The roads are good but the drives are long, so be prepared. Take anything to make yourself more comfortable for the long drives.

Must-see sites/attractions? Persepolis, all the Unesco sites, the Treasury of National Jewels, the Reza Abbasi Museum, and the National Museum for its exquisite blue-and-white ceramics from the Yuan and Ming dynasties.

What and where to eat/drink? Beluga caviar, pomegranate juice, the Haft Khan restaurant in Shiraz (try the mutton tripe), the Divan restaurant in Tehran (chic decor with great food), and the Agassi Hotel in Isfahan (have a meal in the garden of this classic establishment).

What to buy? Fresh pistachios if they are in season, caviar, carpets, turquoise, dried fruits, miniatures and illuminated manuscripts.

What to wear? Headscarves, long sleeves, long skirts or trousers, sunscreen and sunglasses.

What to pack? Sunscreen, an iPod, reading material and headscarves.

When did you go to Iran? September 2015.

Where did you go? Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan and Tehran.

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Reina Chau 

Reina (right) in Isfahan with Mimi Brown of Spring Workshop

 

Reina Chau is a partner in fashion company Ni-Chi

What surprised you most about your trip to Iran? Iran is a country of extremes. Deserts next to mountain expanses, cities positioned as a welcome oasis, old next to new, revolutionary and religious next to artistic and commercial. Iranians are friendly, polite and extremely hospitable. The glorious architecture and details. Gallerists opened their homes; people from shops walked us back to the hotel; snacks and refreshments always waiting on the table. Safety was never in question; the only concern was not dressing respectfully and wearing a headscarf in public. One can smell the history. Markets are colourful, exotic and exciting. I would return.

Must-see sites? The most beautiful experience was listening to a call to prayer in the Imam or Blue Mosque in Isfahan. Also, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran. There are some amazing independent galleries in Tehran too.

What and where to eat/drink? Food can be challenging but not if you like kebabs.

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Reina Chau

Reina with her friend Mina Park in Iran

What to buy? Dried fruits, spices, caviar, handicrafts such as inlaid wooden and stone boxes, silver, carpets, contemporary art.

What to wear? ‎Bring long-sleeved and longer line shirts; duster coats are also an option‎. Long pants or skirts. Trousers can be tight but the shirt needs to be long enough to cover the hips. Never show the arms or legs! Always have a scarf to put loosely over the hair, with clips to secure it in place as they tend to slide off. Any colour, bright or dark, is okay for dress and scarf.

What to pack? Wet wipes galore, sun hat, sunglasses, camera.

Where did you go? Tehran, Isfahan and Kashan.

When did you go? The end of September. Best weather—balmy and warm during the day, slightly cooler in the evening.


 

Hong Kong Tatler’s editor, Jakki Phillips, shared her experience of travelling through Iran in the March 2016 issue of the magazine. You can now read the full story here

Tags

TraveltravelAmy ChowReina ChauNancy Leeming ho-tangshirazIranPersiaYazdIsfahanTehranPersepolisCountry Holidays

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